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Posts Tagged ‘Britten Sinfonia’

Opera / Classical Music

My second Nash Ensemble War’s Embers concert at LSO St. Luke’s featured beautiful pieces from Bax and Butterworth with others by Rebecca Clarke and Patrick Hadley, neither of whom I’d ever heard of. I do enjoy these lunchtime treats.

BBC SO’s Total Immersion In Remembrance: World War I at the Barbican combined an excellent film about poet / composer Ivor Gurney, a concert by hugely talented GSMD students of pieces from composers who died during / because of the war, the first revival of Mark Anthony Turnage’s brilliant opera The Silver Tassie, David Lang’s choral work Memorial Ground performed in the foyer (the wrong location!) with a couple of talks and even a Virtual Reality experience, culminating in a BBC Singers concert featuring new choral works by Bob Chilcott and Roderick Williams, the former conventional but beautiful and the latter stunningly re-inventing recitative with a new form of prose setting. Given the reason for this mini-festival, it was a melancholic experience, but a musically thrilling one nonetheless.

The Royal Academy of Music’s production of Handel’s Semele will be one of my operatic highlights of the year. A production that looked great, a chorus and orchestra that sounded great and a star was born – Lithuanian soprano Lina Dambrauskaite. Gorgeous.

The BBC SO pairing of Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto and Ethyl Smyth’s Mass in D at the Barbican Hall seemed odd, apparently put together because the former said some nice, if patronising, things about the latter. As it turned out, though, both were treats, the first because young pianist Pavel Kolesnikov was sensational and the latter, which I’ve been wanting to see for some time, because the chorus and orchestra sang and played terrifically.

Back at the Royal Academy of Music, their Symphony Orchestra thrilled again under visiting American conductor Robert Trevino with a superbly played Bruckner’s 4th Symphony. I can’t think of a better way to spend a lunchtime.

I was attracted to a French song recital by Sarah Connolly & James Newby at Wigmore Hall as it featured two favourite composers, Ravel and Debussy, but their songs, which I didn’t really know, did not live up to their orchestral, chamber or operatic works, so despite the artistry I was a bit disappointed.

Back at Wigmore Hall, Mark Padmore & the Britten Sinfonia paired a Vaughn Williams song cycle with a premiere by Luke Styles and sadly the former overshadowed the other. The new piece was too challenging for me!

ENO staged Britten’s War Requiem, as it has done with other choral works before. I’m not sure the staging adds much, though there was some beautiful imagery, and the orchestral sound lost something in the pit, but the three soloists and chorus sounded terrific.

Dance

Layla & Majnun at Sadler’s Wells is the first Mark Morris show to disappoint me. Based on a Middle-Eastern / Central Asian Romeo & Juliet, with Azerbaijani music by the Silkroad Ensemble, it had little of his creative flair and the designs by favourite artist, now deceased, Howard Hodgkin disappointed. I liked the music initially, but it did wear me down long before the 75 minutes were up.

GoteborgsOperans dance company made their first visit to Sadler’s Wells with two of the most thrilling dances I’ve ever seen, both choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and designed by Anthony Gormley. Icon started with Gormley re-cycling some of the clay people in his 25-year-old work Field before tons of soft clay, thirteen dancers and five musicians playing mostly Japanese music became one mesmerising whole. In Noetic, nineteen dancers with a singer & percussionist and pliable metal strips which created a globe before your eyes were spellbinding too. Let’s hope they become regulars here.

Film

A catch-up month starting with A Star Is Born, which I enjoyed. Bradley Cooper and Lady Ga Ga were impressive, the former also as director in his debut.

Widows was a superbly unpredictable film, beautifully shot by Steve McQueen with musical theatre’s Cynthia Erivo proving she’s no one-trick pony.

First Man took a while to take off, but once it did I was captivated by the blend of personal story and actual history, which was gripping even though we all know the outcome!

I wasn’t a big fan of Queen, and I didn’t think they got Freddie Mercury right (teeth too pronounced and too camp), but I was surprised by how much Bohemian Rhapsody moved me and was very glad I went to see it.

Despite superb performances from Glenn Close & Jonathan Pryce, The Wife disappointed, largely because the emphasis on the endgame meant they brushed over the meat of the deceit.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald was technically accomplished and well-acted but I didn’t really engage with the story, though it was good to see Hogwarts again, and to meet the young Dumbledore.

Art

Faux Pas of the year was visiting Ribera: Art of Violence at the Dulwich Picture Gallery thinking it was (Diego) Rivera! I’m afraid Ribera’s pictures of torture, and his particular penchant for flaying, were not to my taste! Fortunately, as a member it’s free, oh, and the brunch was great!

Modern Couples at the Barbican Art Gallery is a fascinating idea well executed, work by artist in relationships shown together, with biographical information about the relationship. It’s a huge affair featuring some 45 couples, some well-known and others unknown (to me), but had much to like in it.

The Hayward Gallery’s Space Shifters was a bit gimmicky, but again worth a visit, though I didn’t bother to queue for the highlight, Richard Wilson’s 20/50, as I’ve seen it quite a few times since its first outing at the tiny Matt’s Gallery 31 years ago.

At the Barbican’s Curve Gallery, Kiwi artist Francis Upritchard has created a ‘museum’, called Wetwang Slack, of item’s she’s made, from quirky models of people to hats, jewellery, urns and much more. It made me smile.

I think it’s extraordinary that a 20th Century weaver can get a huge retrospective at a major public gallery, but that’s what the late Anni Albers has at Tate Modern. In yet another connection with my Bauhaus trip, she trained with them. It was interesting, but probably more for real lovers of textiles and weaving than a generalist like me.

The Edward Burne-Jones retrospective at Tate Britain was brilliant – well, at least to this lover of the Pre-Raphaelites. I normally find studies and drawings exhibition fillers, but here they demonstrate his craftsmanship. The finished pictures and tapestries were stunning, though the stained glass less so for some reason. Upstairs the Turner Prize exhibition was all films, which I skimmed as life is too short to waste several hours on some pretentious shit masquerading as art.

Oceania at the Royal Academy is probably the best showcase of a culture and peoples I’ve ever seen. Art and objects from some of the 10,000 islands that make up the vast area of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia between them conveyed the real essence of this part of the world. Absolutely fascinating. Upstairs in the Sackler Galleries I was surprised at how much I liked Klimt / Schiele drawings from the Albertine Museum in Vienna. The outstanding skills of these two artists really came over in what were mostly portraits and nudes. Beautiful.

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Opera

Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Britten Theatre at the Royal College of Music was an absolute gem with wonderful singing and playing, a superb design, and stunning staging by Liam Steel. Any opera house in the world would be proud to have a production this good in its repertoire.

The Royal Academy of Music inaugurated their lovely new theatre with a brilliant revival of Jonathan Dove’s opera Flight. I’d forgotten how good it was, and here it was superbly played and sung and, like the RCM last week, in a fine production that any opera house would be proud of.

The English Concert have become the go-to company for Handel operas in concert and their take on Rinaldo in the Barbican Hall, his first Italian opera specifically for London, was superb, faultlessly cast and beautifully played (though I could have done without the attempts at semi-staging which seems a bit naff). Handel wrote himself a harpsichord solo for this opera and here the harpsichordist almost stole the show with his thrilling rendition.

Classical Music

The Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra under Sir Mark Elder gave a blistering Shostakovich 8th Symphony at another of their Friday lunchtime recitals, with Elder again giving an insightful introduction to the piece. The talent on stage is awe-inspiring and the nurturing by a world class conductor heart-warming.

Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons Reimagined combined baroque music with a contemporary twist and puppetry to provide a spellbinding 80 minutes by candlelight in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Another lovely evening in a space that seems to suit absolutely everything!

Britten Sinfonia Voices gave an inspired Easter programme at GSMD’s Milton Court Concert Hall, with choral music spanning more than 400 years, with a few brass pieces as a bonus. The idea of fitting two Stravinsky pieces between movements in a Mozart Mass was particularly inspired.

Dance

Ballet Black’s contrasting double-bill at the Barbican Theatre was a real treat. The Suit was mesmerising, moving and ultimately tragic and A Dream within a Midsummer Night’s Dream was cheeky and playful. I need to ensure this company are on my radar permanently.

Film

You Were Never Really Here is a dark and disturbing but original and brilliant film with a stunning performance from Joaquin Phoenix, and refreshingly short at 90 minutes!

The Square was 2.5 hours of my life I’ll never get back. Lured by 5* reviews, it was overlong, slow and a bit of a mess, the satire largely lost or overcooked.

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Opera

It wasn’t long into Semiramide at Covent Garden that I realised that I don’t really like Rossini’s brand of plinky-plonk music with frilly bits! I was lured by favourite mezzo Joyce DiDonato, but even her presence, and other fine singing and playing, couldn’t lure me back after the interval to this misguided production and more plinky-plonk music! 1h50m was enough, another 1h30m was beyond me.

Classical Music

Mezzo Cecilia Bartoli & Cellist Sol Gabetta, accompanied by the latter’s brother’s wonderful 18-piece ensemble, gave a recital at the Barbican Hall to promote their new CD. Though I admired the artistry, and thought the pairing worked well most of the time, I wasn’t that keen on the content or order of the programme, I’m afraid.

Britten Sinfonia put together two excellent but rarely performed choral pieces with a world premiere for orchestra to make a lovely evening at the Barbican Hall. Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms links it to his centenary and it seemed almost new here. Vaughn Williams Dona nobis pacem showed off the talents of the Choir of King’s College even more, with two wonderful soloists, Ailish Tynan and Neal Davies. I like seeing world premieres and Emma-Ruth Richards’ Sciamachy was an interesting new piece that deserves further hearing.

The LSO & LSC let their hair down in style at the Barbican with a concert version of Bernstein’s musical Wonderful Town under Simon Rattle no less. You rarely hear a musical score played and sung so well, but they has fun with it too, taking the Act I conga finale through the audience, and again as an encore, this time collecting people along the way. I don’t always like opera singers doing musicals, but those here largely avoided the operatic frills. It was paired with Bernstein’s very different 2nd symphony, an inspired idea which worked brilliantly.

Film

My initial instinct not to see Murder on the Orient Express was proved correct as I found it slow and rather dull and unengaging, despite the nice tongue-in-cheek style and idiosyncratic camera angles.

The Florida Project was slow to grab me, but grab me it did, with its documentary-like examination of the US underclass, and it has some of the best child acting I’ve ever seen.

I enjoyed Star Wars: The Last Jedi more than the previous instalment, partly because I didn’t see it in 3D and partly because it was more balanced between story and spectacle, working at an emotional level too.

Art

A disappointing afternoon at Tate Britain started with Impressionists in London which should really be titled 19th Century French artists in exile in London, because a lot weren’t impressionists (the term no doubt chosen to sell the show) and a lot weren’t of London. Not very well curated, I forgave it for a room of eight Monet London pictures brought together from eight different collections. Upstairs, Rachel Whiteread proved to be a one trick pony – a giant room of casts in concrete or resin. More is less….a lot less. We went on to the new V&A galleries for Opera: Passion, Power & Politics which redeemed the afternoon, an opera-lovers treat accompanied by gorgeous music which changed as you walked through. Lovely.

A wonderful morning at NPG followed the disappointing afternoon, with the revelatory Cezanne Portraits, from the man who I didn’t know did portraits, and the ever wonderful Taylor Wessing Photography Prize exhibition, better every year. After lunch, on to Every Thing at Once, a big exhibition of modern art installations and sculptures on three floors of an office block they are taking forever to renovate at 180 Strand. There was the usual tosh, but pieces by the likes of Anish Kapoor and Ai Wei Wei and the bonus of four other full room installations, two of which were terrific, made it a worthwhile visit.

Tove Jansson was a Finnish painter-turned-illustrator, most famous for creating the Moomins, and her retrospective exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery was fascinating. I could have done with more paintings, but she didn’t paint many after she turned illustrator!

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I don’t normally blog classical music, except in my monthly round-ups, but I feel compelled to abandon this policy to tell as many people as possible about this extraordinary event. I only found out about it c.10 days before; despite being a Barbican member, it had somehow passed me by. 60 performances, from 15 to 105 minutes long, by 450 performers in seven venues, plus foyers and lakeside, over two days. You exchanged your day or weekend ticket for a wristband and created your own event by seeing whatever took your fancy. 

Saturday started brilliantly with the BBC Symphony Orchestra giving an excellent Firebird Suite, in front of a specially commissioned film synchronised live on stage by the director. This is one of my favourite pieces of music, so I was on a high as I walked over to the lovely St Giles Cripplegate for a recital by favourite countertenor Iestyn Davies and Lutenist Thomas Dunford, but by the time this beautiful concert, mostly Dowland, was over I was in heaven. Next stop was the Conservatory where you picked up earphones and waited for the four character mini-Carmen to begin their short promenade performance, ending with a strangulation under the greenery, almost at my feet. In The Curve the BBC Singers gave a lovely selection of unaccompanied choral pieces in atmospheric lighting. Moving half-way through was a pointless distraction, though. Back in the Hall, I fell in love with the voice and personality of the beautifully named American soprano Angel Joy Blue whose eclectic set was, well, a joy. In the foyer and at the lakeside I encountered Street Orchestra London, a cross between buskers, pop-up and flash-mob. They were a delight and their sense of fun was infectious. Then there was a short walk up the road to the lovely LSO St Luke’s where the Guildhall School post-graduate wind students thrilled with Richard Strauss rarely heard symphony for winds. I has planned to return home at this point. The final Britten Sinfonia concert featured someone called Chilly Gonzales, whose talents apparently included rap, something I’m not fond of, to put it mildly. I had second thoughts as there was by now a buzz about it, so I thought I’d give it a go, sitting on the end of a row in case I decided not to see out the ninety minutes. 1h 45m later I was leading the standing ovation! He deconstructed the Oasis’ song Champagne Supernova as Britten had a Purcell theme and gave us The Young-ish Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. I have never laughed so much in a concert, though it was as musically brilliant as it was funny. From Chilly virgin to Chilly fan in an evening, going home on another high.

Sunday started just as well, with the LSO playing a selection of the John Williams film music they originally recorded. It sounded thrilling with almost 100 players on stage and the video interview clips with Williams between pieces, putting them in context, was a great idea. I discovered the second LSO Williams concert was not a repeat (as the BBC SO’s had been the day before), so I was tempted to return, but decided to stay with my plan to support a new work by Sven Helbig with the BBC Singers, Helbig’s electronics and an atmospheric accompanying film. I liked it, though it was dark in the hall and the sound soporific, so I struggled to remain conscious! In between these two events there was a quirky visit to The Curve Gallery where the music came from helium filled balloons as they exhaled and descended. ‘Horn Hangout’, an entertaining Q&A with the LSO horn section was followed by a horn flash-mob at the lakeside as they were joined by members of the Coldstream Guards and amateur players. Great fun. Back in The Curve, you walked through a sound installation in darkness whilst people in black made further sounds and illumination waving what seemed to be pliant light sabres! On to the Hall, where The Academy of Ancient Music played a selection from Handel’s Water Music preceded by a lovely trio of Handel arias from countertenor Tim Mead. Up to the Conservatory again, this time for a percussion sextet playing a one-hour piece called Timber on planks of wood. I didn’t think I’d see it through, but it hypnotised me – like Glass, but wood! The final concert in the Hall was another inspired idea, featuring brass and winds with pieces by Bernstein, Miles Davies after Rodrigo (featuring trumpet player Alison Balsom) and Gershwin. A big, brash, loud statement to close the weekend.

It’s intention was to be accessible, informal and friendly and it certainly achieved that. The performers dressed casually, there was illuminating commentary from the stage, live video for close-ups, free seating and sessions in the foyers and at the lakeside. There was quality music from premiere league orchestras, choirs and soloists, plus GSMD students and I particularly liked the fact it featured works for winds, brass and percussion that get less airtime. The quirky additions were great fun. My personal selection was 14 events in 6 venues and another 4 in the foyers / outside. I enjoyed every single one of them.  Something like ten hours of music; an absolute feast. I can’t wait for the next one, when I intend to take a gang with me.

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Contemporary Music

I wasn’t sure I wanted to see Rufus Wainwright again after being disappointed by his last outing promoting the over-produced Out of the Game, but solo and at The Royal Hospital Chelsea? Oh, go on then. There wasn’t much atmosphere in the hall-full space (when will promoters learn that there is a limit to the prices people will pay, however much of a fan they are) and the lovely weather turned 30 mins before he came on stage, but the rain stopped after 10 mins. Rufus’ concerts are inconsistent and uneven because he has a tendency to attempt under-rehearsed and / or overly-ambitious things, resulting in stops & starts and forgotten chords & words, covered up with clumsy humour, but when he’s good he’s stunning, and there were enough stunning moments to make this one very worthwhile. There were bonuses too – a duet with Neil Tennant on Poses, and support from The Villagers, who sounded lovely in the open air, in the sun.

John Hiatt‘s welcome return to Under the Bridge saw a fairly predictable, populist 2-hour set, but it was sung and played very well, and there were two new numbers. The usual final encore of Riding With the King was movingly dedicated to the recently departed B B King. You have to admire the bravery (or foolishness?!) of support act Josh Savage who walked into the club crowd to play an acoustic number with audience participation, but he just about got away with it.

Opera

A Henze double-bill was a also brave choice for the June GSMD opera production & it got a small but largely appreciative audience – an odd choice too, as it only enabled them to showcase nine singers. Ein Landarzt was a short absurdist Kafka monologue set to music, a very early work. Phaedra was his last work and got a really striking production. I had to pinch myself when Chinese counter-tenor Meili Li switched to baritone!

Musically, ENO‘s Queen of Spades was one of the best things they’ve ever done. The orchestra under Edward Gardner were on fire and all of the soloists, especially Peter Hoare as Hermann, were outstanding….. but the staging made little sense. Such is the arrogance of opera directors.

I enjoyed the double bill of Harrison Birtwistle operas in Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio TheatreThe Corridor and The Cure are both based on Greek myth, both two-handers, written five years apart but fitting together perfectly. Mark Padmore and Elizabeth Atherton were extraordinary and the London Sinfonietta (costumed in the first) sounded great.

Classical Music

The world premiere of Nico Muhly’s song cycle Sentences, inspired by Alan Turing, at the Barbican was superb. It was beautifully sung by countertenor Iestyn Davies (who also sampled and sung with himself!) with the Britten Sinfonia and Muhly conducting from the piano. The rest of the programme was well chosen, with a Dowland song and a Britten piece for viola (Lawrence Power) inspired by it and Vivaldi’s Sabat Mater for solo voice (Davies on top form again) and ensemble. A lovely evening.

Film

The second spy spoof of the year, cleverly called Spy, is even better than the first, Kingsman: the Secret Service, and Melissa McCarthy is wonderful, with the bonus of Miranda also cast as a CIA operative. I laughed a lot.

The film of London Road is as ground-breaking as the stage show, but not as good. I’m not sure they did NT Live when it was first on stage, but I think that would be a better experience (and judging by the tiny audience in the cinema, more commercial sense too).

Art

The latest at the Saatchi Gallery – art from Africa and Latin America – is their best for ages, with some great paintings and only a few of those installations that can often be pretentious and dull.

The Ravilious exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery was a real treat. His wistful, very British paintings range from landscapes to port scenes to war art but they all have a very distinctive style which I love. The best exhibition I’ve seen in a long while.

The Alexander McQueen exhibition at the V&A, Savage Beauty, also blew me away. I’m no fan of fashion, but I do love creativity and ingenuity and McQueen clearly had an imagination the size of a planet. In a brilliantly theatrical presentation, you learn a lot about the man and his influences – a lot more than the 100 minute play I saw the Saturday before, in fact – whilst looking at his beautifully crafted clothes.

I was less fond of David Hockney’s Painting & Photography exhibition at Annely Juda than I was his earlier landscape collection, though I liked the way it played with both art forms, and played with your head by having paintings in photographs and the same people turning up all over the place in both forms.

It was good to go back to the Estorick Collection of modern Italian art, though the Modigliani Drawings exhibition which took me there was much of a muchness – too small, really. Re-viewing the one-room permanent collection and three rooms of a current selection made it worthwhile though.

The latest double-dip at Tate Modern yielded an unexpected treat and something dull from two 20th century female artists. Sonia Delaunay‘s colourful work spanned portraits, abstracts, textile patterns and clothes   – diverse but uniformly cheerful. Agnes Martin was Rothkoesqe pretension – all dots, lines and hardly discernible colour.

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Contemporary Music

Billy Bragg is the antidote to people who don’t give a shit and his value-for-money (£22, half price for the over 60’s!) 2.5 hours set was passionate, covering his whole career but majoring on the excellent new album Tooth & Nail. The new band sounded great and there was a mini-set of solo stuff too. There are few singers or bands left with this much integrity and respect for their audience and we repaid it in quiet engagement and warm response. Kim Churchill, a barefoot man from SE Australia with hair that looked like a straw hat, played an excellent set in support. He told us that he’s been busking around the world for four years when he got a gig at a festival in Canada and needed a lift for the 45-min drive from the hotel to the venue. Billy came to the rescue and there he was nervous but elated on the RFH stage. Dreams come true, it seems.

The Albion Band‘s Christmas concert at Kings Place was a bit of a punt that turned out to be a delight. A combination of songs, carols and readings, with an egg dance thrown in for good measure, it was a charming combination made into an occasion by the presentation of the English Folk Song & Dance Society’s Gold Badge to band founder Ashley Hutchings.

Seeing The Bootleg Beatles in Nottingham was a surprise until an hour or so before and it was a huge treat. They split the show into two halves, each with two sections, so we got the moptops, film period, psychedelia and the endgame. The resemblances and mannerisms were uncanny, but it was the brilliantly played songs that sweep you away, roll back the years and get you singing along, with the occasional dad dance (well, uncle dance in my case). Brilliant.

Opera

How the Whale Became at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio is an opera for children, particularly those whose parents prefer to take theirs to the politically correct rather than to the panto. With music by Julian Phillips and a libretto by Edward Kemp, it’s based on Ted Hughes stories about the creation of animals by god. It’s not the easiest musical ride (particularly for children) but the production is very inventive and the performers (and musicians) very engaging. A worthy attempt rather than a full-on hit, I think.

Classical Music

The Britten Sinfonia with the Choir of Kings College Cambridge provided my penultimate Britten Centenary event at the Barbican. The timely Ceremony of Carols, just boy’s choir and harp, sounded lovely and Saint Nicholas provided a more rousing second half. As much as I approve of audience participation, I have to confess I didn’t really appreciate the audience drowning out the beautiful choirs during the two hymns for audience participation! I’d never heard Arvo Part’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten and it proved to be the perfect opener, with John Tavener’s The Lamb also a timely opening to part two and a taster for my Tavener weekend in January.

I’d never heard Britten’s three Cello Suites so it was nice to end my centenary with something new to me. They are more to be admired for their virtuosity than aural beauty and they were played with extraordinary skill by Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelwey, who gave each one in an informative, charming and entertaining illustrated introduction.

Art

A few hours on the South Bank delivered a bumper crop of exhibitions. First up was Go Away Closer, Dayanita Singh’s B&W photos of India presented in books and museum panels. I loved both the material and the presentation. Downstairs at the Hayward Gallery, Ana Mendieta’s Traces was harder to swallow until her obsession with making ‘art’ using her own body gave way to using the environment instead / as well; a bit too conceptual for me. In the project space, a small exhibition of protest art was nostalgically enthralling – all those anti-war posters and copies of IT. Finally, in the RFH, the annual exhibition of art by offenders, secure patients and detainees (the tile gets longer every year) called The Strength & Vulnerability Bunker was as awe-inspiring as ever; it was the last day, so most of those for sale had gone otherwise there were a number I would have happily bought and hung on my walls.

I adored both Australia and Daumier (1808-79): Visions of Paris at the Royal Academy. The former was a 13-room, 200-year review of the art of a whole country, and I only knew one of the artists! From aboriginal art through colonial landscapes to wonderful Australian impressionists to the present day, this was a real feast. The latter was pretty revelatory too, containing his trademark caricatures but also very high quality paintings and sketches. The two together constituted one of the most enjoyable visits to the RA in a while.

At The Photographers’ Gallery, Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood & Identity wasn’t the easiest exhibition to view, but given that it sets out to challenge the sentimental view of motherhood, that’s not a surprise. The quality of the photography, rather than the subject matter, is what I enjoyed most. At the same gallery, the 1920’s B&W photos of French amateur photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue were charmingly homespun but technically accomplished. I have to confess I enjoyed it more.

The latest Curve installation at the Barbican, Intervals by Ayse Erkman, is a series of theatrical backdrops which you have to navigate as you walk through the gallery whilst they rise and fall. Even though it only takes 10 minutes to get through, the fact you are occasionally trapped means it irritates (well, impatient me, anyway). It is a very original idea, though and another great use of this space.

A Sunday afternoon in Trafalgar Square was a feast of art, starting with Facing the Modern: the Portrait in Vienna 1900 at the National Gallery, a great taster for my Christmas trip to that very city. Wonderful works by Schiele and Klimt plus lots of artists new to me. I went to the NPG for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition, as wonderful as ever, and Elizabeth I & her People, which was a whole lot more interesting than I was expecting, but there were rich pickings in the displays too. Passable portrait sketches by Bob Dylan, Benjamin Britten’s life in photos, William Morris’ wife and Pre-Raphaelite muse Janey, Michael Peto photos of famous people of the late 20th century, Vivien Leigh photos and film posters, terrific Jonathan Yeo paintings and the imaginary portraits of Derek Bashir!!! Room 31 (post-war Brits) may be my favourite room in any gallery anywhere and the NPG my favourite gallery!

It’s extraordinary how quickly erotica can become dull. The 17th-20th century Japanese pictures in Shunga at the British Museum are technically accomplished and often beautifully coloured, but ever so samey. I’m afraid I became bored ever so quickly. Fortunately, the gold and ceramic pieces from ancient Colombia in Beyond Eldorado at the same venue made up for it. This was a beautifully curated exhibition packed full of fascinating items which told a stories of ancient civilizations.

A couple of hours between kids opera and kids theatre enabled me to catch London Transport Museum’s celebration of 150 years of tube posters and it was a real treat, with lots I’d never seen before. The range of reasons for and themes of posters was extraordinary. The space was too cramped but thankfully there weren’t many people. Just as cramped as the space in Somerset House that I then ventured to in order to see Stanley Spencer’s Heaven in a Hell of War, on a short tour from Sandham Chapel during restoration. They are wonderful and I now can’t wait to see them back in the chapel with the three they couldn’t remove without damaging them.

Film

The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug was a lot better than the first installment, visually stunning with terrific 3D, but it’s a still just a journey drawn out to three films – albeit an exciting journey (mostly).

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Opera

Verdi’s Les Vepres Siciliennes is rarely performed and after almost four hours standing at the back of the Royal Opera House’s stalls circle it was easy to see why. There’s not a lot of story for four hours and Verdi’s music is nowhere near his usual standard. The singing wasn’t particularly distinguished, but I liked the production (which most don’t seem to!).

The GSMD excelled itself again with an unlikely double-bill of Debussy’s earnest but beautiful L’enfant prodigue and Donizetti’s comic one-acter Francesca di Foix. The Donizetti, in particular, was a little gem and an absolute hoot, given an inspired staging in modern settings (a smart clothing shop and a tennis court) but with period clothes. Beautifully played and sung, Anna Gillingham in the title role and Joshua Owen Mills (Welsh!) as the Duke were terrific.

In the BBC SO‘s semi-staged Albert Herring at the Barbican, this comic opera proved to be a minor masterpiece. Britten’s friend Steuart Bedford led a wonderful small ensemble and a first class cast, led by Andrew Staples as Albert, without a weak link in it. You could hear every nuance of every instrument and every sung word. A real highlight of the centenary.

The Early Opera Company’s concert performance of Handel’s Acis & Galatea at Wigmore Hall was a delight. The 13-piece ensemble under Christain Curnyn played the score beautifully and there were fine performances from Robert Murray and Sophie Bevan in the title roles. Matthew Rose was a stand-in as the giant Polyphemus but his powerful baritone nearly blew the roof off. Minor Handel maybe, but gorgeous nonetheless.

Dance

I’m not very fond of full-length ballets that are excuses for showcasing ‘turns’ by dancers in various combinations rather than telling the story (think The Nutcracker) and I haven’t enjoyed previous productions of Don Quixote that much, but I rather liked Carlos Acosta’s for the Royal Ballet. With handsome designs by Tim Hatley and fresh choreography, it often sparkled. The leading lady was injured during Act One and Marinela Nunez (who originated the role with Acosta as partner) took over and this somehow added even more sparkle. Sadly, Acosta didn’t come on as sub in Act Two or Three!

Another dance contribution to the Britten centenary from the Richard Alston Dance Company at the Barbican, with four short pieces (including two world premieres), each set to a chamber piece, three of them vocal. In Phaedra, the soloist interacted with the dancers, which I loved (and which reminded me of Seven Deadly Sins at Covent Garden a few years back), but Illuminations was the most uplifting. Poor time management meant interval overuns so it took 130 minutes to stage 65 minutes of dance!

Choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui takes a really fresh look at tango with m!longa at Sadler’s Wells and it comes out as a sexy display of virtuosity, relationships silently played out by intricate movements. The five couples – four kosher tango ones and one contemporary dance duo – were all terrific, and the five-piece band were sensational.

The Stuttgart Ballet‘s Taming of the Shrew to a mash-up of Scarlatti at Sadler’s Wells was a bit of a punt that turned into a major treat. Though over 40 years old, apart from the sets, it felt fresh. I’m not sure I’ve seen a comic ballet before and I have to say, the form was perfect for Shakespeare’s comedy, the dancing was terrific and we laughed aloud a lot. There were beautiful romantic moments too and it all added up to a thoroughly enjoyable surprise.

It’s a while since I had a fix of favourite choreographer Mark Morris, so I went to both programmes at Sadler’s Wells on consecutive nights for a feast of seven works. With one exception, they were accompanied by live music – a small ensemble and three singers – which is key to Morris’ success. The best of the first programme was Socrates, set to music by Erik Satie for tenor and piano, which looked like Greek statues come to life. In the second programme, Festival Dance, to a wonderful piano trio by Hummel (who?!) led by stunning piano from Colin Fowler, was thrilling, and as close to Morris’ undoubted masterpiece Handel’s L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato as he’s got since. The one piece to recorded music was In A Wooden Tree. Only Morris would use the songs of Ivor Cutler and it was a delight; quirky even by Morris standards.

Classical Music

The rarely performed song cycle Our Hunting Fathers, sung by Ian Bostridge, was the centerpiece of The Britten Sinfonia‘s namesake’s centenary concert at the Barbican, but it wasn’t the highlight. It’s possibly the quirkiest song cycle I’ve ever heard, but the orchestration is brilliant. The real treats were the orchestral pieces played by a chamber orchestra that seems to me to be absolutely at the top of its game.

The Royal Albert Hall is the perfect venue for Britten’s War Requiem and Remembrance Sunday the perfect day to hear it in this centenary year. The BBC SO under Semyon Bychkov did it full justice, with the boys choir sounding beautiful up in the gallery and the male soloists, Roderick Williams & Allan Clayton, on fine form. The ‘amen’ was extraordinarily moving, hopeful and uplifting; I felt like my body was rising in my seat.

St Cecilia’s day (the patron saint of music). The 100th birthday of my favourite composer. My favourite music venue. The Sixteen‘s recital of Britten choral works – mostly unaccompanied – at Union Chapel was an absolute joy. The acoustic was perfect, the selection eclectic and the voices beyond wonderful. As you can gather, I liked it!

Film

The big film catch-up continued with One Chance, the story of Britain’s Got Talent winner Paul Potts. Apart from some puzzling accents (parents Welsh, Potts West Country) and a touch of resentment that Welsh characters weren’t played by Welsh actors, I rather enjoyed it. Undemanding, feel-good stuff – a touch too sentimental, but very heart-warming and funny.

The Selfish Giant is one of those gritty British films I thought we’d forgotten how to make; even the master, Ken Loach, seemed to have gone a bit soft. It’s not an easy ride watching hopelessness, but its a superb piece of film-making full of stunning performances from people you usually see on TV in things like Shameless, and the two leading boys are simply extraordinary.

I can’t begin to put into words how good a film Philomena is. I’m glad I hadn’t read the book as it surprised and confounded me. Judi Dench is sensational and Steve Coogan a revelation in a straight role. Perfect in every respect, but tissues necessary. The things that have been done in the name of god!

Gravity reminded me of Duncan Jones’ Moon, though it’s (virtually) two people in space rather than one. The 3D is (mostly) brilliant, for once very realistic, and the story is gripping, but I’m not sure it quite lives up to the hype – I’m glad I went, though. 

Art

My second visit to the George Watts Gallery near Guildford was to see the Frank Holl exhibition. It was a bit small and a bit sad and may not be worth the trip on its own, but with another chance to see Watts’ own pictures and combined with opera in Woking and lunch at the retro Withies Inn in Compton it proved worthwhile!

Daniel Silver’s DIG seems to be an archaeological site in a building site where statues have been uncovered and laid out in various states of restoration for you to view (but most oddly pristine white). I’m not sure what point he’s making, but it was quirkily intriguing.

Masterpieces from China at the V&A had some stunning paintings covering 1200 years. The Tang Dynasty seemed underrepresented and it was a struggle to absorb it all with the necessarily low lighting and difficulty getting up close, so I might well have to go again.

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