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Contemporary Music

There was always a risk that Richard Thompson’s 70th birthday concert at the Royal Albert Hall was going to have so many guests that the birthday boy became an extra at his own celebration, but as it turned out he was on stage virtually throughout, whether singing his own songs or duetting with or backing his guests, and an impressive lot they were too. From The Stranglers Hugh Cornwall who was, somewhat surprisingly to most present, in a school band with him aged 14, through Fairport colleagues Dave Mattacks, Dave Pegg, Ashley Hutchings and Simon Nicol, the omnipresent Danny Thompson, Loudon Wainwright III, Martin & Eliza Carthy, Maddy Prior, Kate Rusby, Olivia Cheney, the whole Thompson clan and Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour! I could have done without one of the two Stranglers tracks and the Spinal Tap joke fell a bit flat, but there were way more highs than lows in tribute to a genuine legend who has entertained me for fifty of his seventy years.

Opera

Grimeborn continued its hugely successful roll into September with a superb and rare revival of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Monteccchi. The singing was of an extraordinarily high standard and, at close quarters in in Studio Two, very loud! Later that week, Don Jo was a spin on Mozart’s Don Giovani which was loud in another sense altogether. I’m all up for modern take’s and I was expecting some gender changes, but I wasn’t expecting the recorded music (not much of it Mozart), the fact only two of them could really sing, the long scene breaks and the tackiness of it all. It was such a contrast to the three Grimeborn high’s which had preceded it.

Classical Music

My third and final Prom, another Sunday morning one, was short in time but huge in numbers, with eight choirs totalling 600-700 singers placed in four sections of the auditorium for John Luther Adams’ In the Name of the Earth, a choral homage to the planet with percussion effects and movement from the choirs. It was hugely atmospheric and the sound just wrapped around you and filled the Royal Albert Hall. A big bold experimental success.

The opening concert of the Wigmore Hall season was a Britten feast, with four of his song cycles sung by four young British soloists – one soprano, one mezzo, a tenor and a baritone – and all of them sang beautifully. A real treat for a Britten fan.

The LSO season opening weekend at the Barbican included a rare outing (sighting!) of Messiaen’s final work Eclairs sur l’Au-dela. Famous for orchestrating birdsong and hearing colours, Messiaen’s final 70 minute work peeps into the afterlife and requires 126 players. It showed off the virtuosity of the LSO individually and collectively and Simon Rattle’s love of the work was infectious.

I don’t think I’ve ever known the sedate Wigmore Hall erupt like it did after laBarocca’s concert of the first (Italian) version of Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polierno. I don’t think I’ve seen so many, twenty, on that tiny stage either. The soprano, Roberta Mameli, blew me away and the bass sang lower than I’ve ever heard before, but I wasn’t keen on the tone of the contralto’s very deep voice. A treat nonetheless.

Film
Despite two lovely performances, I found Mrs. Lowry & Son a bit dull. It’s more BBC4 bio drama than cinema release.

More lovely performances and beautiful filming, but The Sacrifice was too art house for me, slow and ponderous.

I know it’s just posh soap opera, but I did love Downton Abbey. The strands of the story came together expertly, it’s a who’s who of fine British acting (with Imelda Staunton joining the regulars from the TV series) and it looks gorgeous.

The Last Tree was a beautifully made film which could so easily have been judgemental but was in fact hopeful. Superb performances too.

I wasn’t expecting a film about Chinese Americans returning to their homeland to say goodbye to their dying mother / grandmother to be funny, but The Farewell was, and the real life revelation at the end a delightful surprise. Charming film.

Art

Urban Impulses 1959-2016 at the Photographer’s Gallery is almost 50 years of Latin American photography, mostly in black & white and it contained some terrific images. One of the best exhibitions at this venue in a long time. Upstairs was the inaugural New Talent exhibition which contained some impressive work but was a bit skewed to the taste of its single selector / curator. I think they need a panel to ensure a diversity of work.

The William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain was very big, with the amount of detail sometimes overwhelming, and too much religious imagery for my taste, but it was a very comprehensive review of his work and life, particularly good at the biographical aspects.

I was beginning to wonder if Anthony Gormley was a one-trick pony, as all we seem to see are his cast iron men. Well, they make a spectacular appearance in one room of his Royal Academy show, but there’s so much more in the other twelve, half of it new, including two whole room works which you walk through – though he did pinch the idea of his reflective room from Richard Wilson’s 20/50!

I wasn’t sure what to expect at Tim Walker’s Wonderful Things at the V&A. I didn’t know much about the work of this photographer, probably because it’s mostly fashion, but the first room familiarises you with his posed, highly stylised, stage-manged work. From there, ten spaces each record, on ‘stage sets’ a photoshoot inspired by something in the V&A, which accompanies them – snuff boxes, Aubrey Beardsley prints, stained glass and so on. It was unique, surreal and rather extraordinary.

For Mark Leckey’s O’ Magic Power of Bleakness, Tate Britain have built a replica of the space under a motorway where he played as a child. Inside the space, there are three video works, but as we were given a leaflet just before we entered the darkness, we didn’t really understand them until we left! That said, it was strangely hypnotic, though whether it was worth all that effort and a £15 entrance fee is another matter.

Drawing Attention, an exhibition of digital architectural drawings at the Roca Gallery, was a bit specialist for me, though there were some nice images, but I was there to see Zaha Hadid’s extraordinary building anyway; a beautiful space to display up-market bathroom fittings!

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Contemporary Music

In recent years, the Proms have been embracing non-classical musical genres, and this year it was the turn of folk music, with five folk acts joining the BBC Concert Orchestra in what was a largely successful crossover. The highlights were favourites The Unthanks and Julie Fowlis, but it was good to be introduced to Welsh group ALAW and to sample the music of Jarlath Henderson and Sam Lee.

You rarely hear a musical score played as well as the John Wilson Orchestra played West Side Story at the Proms; you could hear every nuance, every note, every instrument. It moved you and thrilled you in equal measure. Add to that a fine set of young soloists, a chorus drawn from two drama schools specialising in musical theatre and a rapt full house and you have a very special evening indeed. So good, I even forgave them the ticket & programme price hikes, the unnecessary interval and the failure to televise it!

My second and last Cadogan Hall Chamber Prom combined some rare Bernstein works with pieces by his friends and contemporaries, plus a new commission, and it was a funny, quirky delight with a fine performances by American mezzo Wallis Giunta. It included songs set to recipes, one a world premiere, a UK premiere of an early ballet which contained the seeds of West Side Story and six pieces new to the Proms.

Opera

Grimeborn gave us more treats with an inventive adaptation of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman – A Fantastic Bohemian – which moved between three locations in the building. The quality of singing and playing was stunning, and at such close quarters there’s no hiding place. It was hard to follow, particularly on the same day, and as much I enjoyed my first outing of Donizetti’s Rita and renewing my acquaintance with Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole, they struggled to live up to the afternoon. Same day double-dips do have their downside, as we found with this and in Chichester two days before, on both occasions the highlight coming first. Six days later it ended (for me) with a revival of Mark Anthony Turnage’s Greek. It’s hard to believe it was premiered thirty years ago; it’s still original, visceral and edgy and in this production was very well sung, with the Kantanti Ensemble on fire. This has been a great Grimeborn, now fully established as an annual event in my diary.

The live cinema relay of Glyndebourne’s production of Vanessa, Samuel Barber’s 60-year-old opera getting its fully-staged UK premiere, was simply extraordinary. The design was superb, the singing stunning and the London Phil sounded sensational. It has the feel of a Hitchcock film, very mysterious and suspenseful. Wonderful stuff, probably better than being there with non-opera lovers and a 90-min interval to destroy the dramatic flow!

Classical Music

My first Cadogan Hall Chamber Prom saw Dame Sarah Connolly give a recital of English song which included four world premieres, including two by Benjamin Britten written 70 years ago! It was lovely, though somewhat melancholic, which made me feel it might be more of an evening programme.

I appear to be picking well this year, as my next Prom was a sometimes challenging, but fascinating and rewarding 20th century Anglo-American programme with the BBC Philharmonic playing Barber, Britten, Copeland and Walton. Two of the five pieces were new to me, and indeed to the Proms, including two arias from Barber’s opera of Anthony & Cleopatra which made me want to see a production.

Film

Apostasy is a quiet but defiant rage against fundamentalism in all its guises, in this case Jehovah’s Witnesses. Siobahn Finneran is stunning, but above all it’s a hugely impressive debut from writer / director Dan Kokotajlo, an ex-witness himself. Harrowing but brilliant.

Art

James Cook; The Voyages at the British Library was one of the best exhibitions of its type I’ve ever visited. Superbly curated and thoroughly objective, it contained journals, specimens, paintings & drawings and testimonials from experts and indigenous peoples. Illuminating.

London 1938: Defending ‘Degenerate’ German Art at the Weiner Gallery was a huge disappointment, consisting as it does of glass cases showing letters, flyers, catalogues and photos, plus copies of pictures. Only one actual painting and a couple of drawings!

Collier Schorr is a new photographer to me, but her exhibition at Modern Art did nothing for me, I’m afraid. All a bit too pretentious in my book.

A theatrical visit to Chichester was extended to visit the lovely Palant House Gallery which had three exhibitions. Virginia Woolf: an exhibition inspired by her writings had some great 20th century works, particularly those by Vanessa Bell and Laura Knight, but though I liked the idea of including contemporary works, there were too many, and the quality was very variable. It was another of those exhibition whose raison d’etre was a bit dubious. Dance: Movement & Modernism was a one room curate’s egg, but again it had some nice works. However, I loved Sussex Days: Photographs by Dorothy Bohm, a little known Lithuanian British photographer who captured people in the county in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s brilliantly.

It was worth the detour to Tate Britain for Lisa Brice’s one-room exhibition of mostly blue paintings of women. Very striking and very original.

At Proud Central, the photos of the Observer’s late photographer Jane Bown were like a review of people in my lifetime; stunning B&W pictures, some now iconic. Downstairs a multi-photographer selection focused on pop and rock stars; this too was outstanding.

The Frieze Art Fair consisted of thirty or so sculptures placed in a corner of Regent’s Park. It was more miss than hit, but made for a pleasant wander en route to the Open Air Theatre in the same park.

Great British Seaside at the National Maritime Museum brought together the work of four photographers using the seaside as their subject over the last fifty years. I identify the seaside with my youth, so there was something very nostalgic about it, and some terrific pictures too!

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Opera

My second visit to Grimeborn 2017 at the Arcola Theatre was for Lully’s 17th Century opera Armide. It was the first night, so it was a touch ragged at the edges, the production was a bit static (lots of posing) and it was hard to follow the story, but there was much to enjoy in the singing and playing.

Classical Music

Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt, in its full three part version, got a terrific first performance at the Proms by the Orchestra & Choir of the Age of Enlightenment under William Christie. I love the way it builds, I love the fact that 27 of the 39 parts are choruses and I loved the fact that the soloists came out of the choir.

An English music Prom featuring the National Orchestra & Chorus of Wales proved to be an eclectic delight. Two pieces I’d never heard by favourite composers – Britten & Purcell – with the most delicate and uplifting rendition of Elgar’s Enigma Variations and the world premiere of Brian Elias’ Cello Concerto, with the composer in attendance. Brilliant.

A new innovation at the Proms this year was ‘Beyond the Score‘, where the first half was a profile of the composer and background to the work, with actors, visuals and musical extracts, followed by the complete symphony, in this case Dvorak’s 9th, From the New World. Though I thought the first half was a bit long, it was insightful and I very much enjoyed the experience and felt I heard more in the piece as a result. Mark Elder and the Halle were on fine form.

The 120-year-old Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra made their belated Proms debut with a programme of Bernstein, Copeland and Tchaikovsky. I thought they were more at home with the American repertoire that the Russian, which they proved conclusively with a stunning encore of Bernstein’s Candide Overture, better than I’ve ever heard it played before. The Proms audience made them very welcome indeed.

Contemporary Music

The late night  Stax Prom, celebrating 50 years of the label, exceeded expectations big-time. I wasn’t a huge fan in the day, but came to Stax later and visited the studios in Memphis in 2004. Two of the original house band and three of the original singers were supplemented by some of the best British soul voices, led by Sir Tom Jones. Jools Holland’s R&B Orchestra were great (though the sound could have been a bit better) and it was full of highlights, with a terrific atmosphere in the Royal Albert Hall.

Film

I was introduced to the folk art of Maud Lewis when I went to the Art Gallery in Halifax Nova Scotia last September, so the bio-pic Maudie perhaps meant more to me as a result. True to her life story and beautifully filmed, I adored it, and Sally Hawkins was sensational as Maud.

Atomic Blonde was thrilling but too violent for me, with much of it improbably prolonged violence. Gold stars to the stunt men and women, though.

I was bored very early on in the over-hyped A Ghost Story, and presenting the ghosts as people covered in sheets with slits for eyes just seemed preposterous.

Thankfully, The Big Sick exceeded its hype and caught me by surprise as to how moving it was. Unlike the typical laddish Judd Apatow film; very grown up.

I’m very fond of independent British films, and God’s Own Country is one of the best in recent years, beautifully filmed and it really shows off Yorkshire!

Art

I’m not a fashion man, but you have to admire the classic design and extraordinary craftsmanship of Balenciaga at the V&A. Up the road at the Serpentine GalleryGrayson Perry’s exhibition was just the right size to give the pieces room to breathe and to avoid overwhelming the viewer, and the gallery managed the flow of punters brilliantly. The art, of course, was as fascinating as he always is.

A wonderful day of art started at St. James’s Piccadilly with the sculptures of Emily Young in the gardens. All heads, but different types and different stone, they were lovely. At the Royal Academy, I managed to get us into the Friends preview of Matisse in the Studio which was a little gem, showcasing pictures with the items from his studio in them. They have been loaned from so many different places it really is a once-in-a-lifetime show. Downstairs in the RA the one-room wonder that was Second Nature: The Art of Charles Tunnicliffe, some of the most gorgeous illustrations I’ve ever seen. After lunch a return to Picasso: Minotaurs & Matadors at the Gagosian which was well worth a second viewing, then off to Tate Modern for Giacometti, which was way more diverse and way more fascinating than I was expecting. Now that’s what I call an art feast!

+ / – Human was this year’s Roundhouse summer installation, seven round white drones which moved above your head, coming teasingly close but rarely close enough to touch, with at atmospheric soundtrack. Fascinating and fun.

The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains at the V&A was interesting and well put together (apart from the fact it was a bit crowded and you sometimes lost the automated audio guide as you moved) but I gave up on them too soon, as they became somewhat overblown and pompous, so I’m not enough of a fan to rave about it.

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Here we are again, for the 30-something year. This time we started with food & wine at Scotland’s Restaurant of the Year, http://www.timberyard.co, where the food was lovely, the wine list too much of a tome and the staff doing cool a touch too much aloof. Still, it’s the food that matters most and here it excelled. On to the first cultural highlight with the Philhamonia and the wonderful Edinburgh Festival Chorus under Peter Pan conductor Andrew Davies for a rare outing of Elgar’s oratorio King Olaf. Unfathomable narrative, but musically exhilarating, with three good soloists to boot. The Usher Hall crowd were a bit too restrained; they should think themselves very lucky indeed.

Our fringe started with a little gem called Jess & Joe at TraverseTwo, a growing up story with a difference, told by the characters acting out what has already happened to them. Lovely writing, beautiful performances and unpredictable. I left welled up, with a warm glow. The first art was Beyond Caravaggio at the Scottish National Gallery which I missed, intentionally because of their dreadful gallery space, at the NG in London. Here in a proper gallery, the handful of Caravaggios are wonderful, but served to show up the rest, those he influenced. On to the Book Fest for a Q&A with Dominic Dromgoole, responsible for two of the most inspirational theatrical events of my lifetime, both in the last five years – Globe to Globe, every Shakespeare play in a different language, and the Hamlet World Tour to every country in the world. Insightful, with some great anecdotes and excellent audience engagement. I queued up to get my book signed and he was just as friendly and engaging one-to-one. More art with True to Life, realistic art from the twenties and thirties, including usual suspects like Stanley Spencer and Winifred Knights, but lots new to me. Worth the schlep out to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, a place Lothian Transport seems determined to wipe off the map. Then our first comedy, Ed Byrne at Assembly George Square Theatre, who I’ve been drawn to since his recent TV travel programmes with Dara O’Briain but have never seen. Very funny, very engaging, a bit of a lag in the middle, but a treat nonetheless. Late night supper at the delightfully named http://www.angelswithbagpipes.co.uk. where excellent food combined with friendly service to great effect. A lovely first full day.

Sunday started early with something more appropriate for a late night slot, Wild Bore at TraverseOne, which the critics seem to have taken against, unsurprisingly given that they loom large. It’s three women talking out of their, well, arses, mostly quoting vitriolic reviews of their shows and others, but it evolves and changes rather a lot, and I loved the combination of subversiveness, surprise, anarchy and humour. The next show over at Stand Six couldn’t be more of a contrast – that’s the fringe for you – with poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy reading her work, and multi-brass-and woodwind-instrumentalist John Sampson chipping in. A sombre start with First World War poems, the tone lightened and it became funny and cheeky; a rarger charming hour. I rested before the day’s main event, back at the Usher Hall. Edward Gardner brought his new band, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, along with a cast of soloists to die for led by Stuart Skelton, and they took us all hostage with an extraordinary interpretation of Britten’s operatic masterpiece Peter Grimes. The usually reserved Usher Hall crowd justifiably erupted. I doubt I’ll ever hear it that good again; a highlight in a lifetime of concert-going. Emotionally drained, I needed a drink before I joined the others at http://www.mumbaimansionedinburgh.co.uk where the food was a delicious new spin on Indian cuisine, but the staff rushed and harassed us too much.

With such an extraordinary start, things had to take a bit of a dip and so it was in (full) Day Three. It started well at that Edinburgh institution, the International Photographic Exhibition, though there were a few too many contrived, overly posed shots for my taste. The day’s first theatre saw the normally reliable Paines Plough deliver a mediocre and rather pointless piece called Black Mountain in their mobile Roundabout theatre at Summerhall, about a couple seeking to rescue their relationship when his ex turns up, or does she? A mildly thrilling atmospheric thriller with cardboard performances. As my companion said, it would have been better on the radio. From here, stand-up Dominic Holland at the Voodoo Rooms lifted things significantly with the brilliantly observational, autobiographical humour of a 50–year-old who’s career has been eclipsed by his 21-year-old son. Then back to Summerhall for Graeae’s Cosmic Scallies, a somewhat slight piece about renewing an old friendship, and Skelmersdale!, which never rose to the giddy heights of their Solid Life of Sugar Water in 2015. We ended on a high with another terrific meal at http://www.lovagerestaurant.co.uk Food & wine eclipsed culture on Day Three, but there are three more full days to go……..

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March was a ‘lull before the storm’ work-wise, so it was action packed otherwise! In addition to 12 theatre outings…….

MUSIC

Performing your classic album live in its entirety has become fashionable with old rockers, so it was no surprise when John Cale decided to do it with Paris 1919, accompanied by an orchestra. It didn’t really take off until the third song, not every song worked well and given that it’s little over 30 minutes that doesn’t make for an entirely satisfying experience on its own. Fortunately, he followed this with four cracking numbers with his terrific three-piece band and another two with the orchestra – and a brilliant encore (which we had to earn!), so the evening (though still not much more than 80 minutes) was redeemed.

There’s a straight line from The Kinks through Squeeze, Madness and Blur to Lily Allen representing a modern soundtrack of London. ‘Songs in the Key of London’ was another one of those compilation shows which sort-of tried to do this (and included songs from all but the latter), put together by Squeeze’ Chris Difford. Unfortunately, it didn’t succeed as well as other shows of its kind, largely because it was under-rehearsed and the sound was inexcusably bad. Other former Squeezers Jools Holland & Glen Tilbrook and Chas and Suggs from Madness took part, together with an eclectic selection of the less well known. It had its moments and the surprise appearance of Elvis Costello at the end to sing Hoover Factory and My Brilliant Parade was a treat, if only to see him on home soil again.

Cara Dillon’s St. Patrick’s Day concert in Canary Wharf was lovely, if a little short and in a somewhat incongruous venue. A guest appearance from Seth Lakeman was a real bonus and whetted my appetite for a long awaited opportunity to see a full set from him (now booked for the Open Air Theatre in September!).

Whilst most young musicians seem to spend their lives repeating the formula that made them successful, a 60-year old called Peter Gabriel who has spent his life reinventing and innovating is still at it! His concert at the O2 showcased the new album of ‘covers’ (re-interpretations, I’d say) with a full orchestra and no band; it worked surprisingly well live in such a big space. The second half was an unpredictable selection of old songs re-arranged for orchestra including great versions of San Jacinto and Solisbury Hill. Old men showing the way; who’d have thought it!

I hadn’t clocked that it was Mothers Day when I booked an afternoon concert of Rogers & Hammerstein songs at the Barbican with two of my favourite musical performers – Maria Friedman and Daniel Evans – so it was a bit cheesy & populist for my taste. Though it was great to hear these songs played by a full orchestra and the singing was good, the song choice was a bit predictable and safe and the amplification (for the second time this week at the Barbican!) was poor.

Showstopper! is an improvised musical put together on the spot, partly from audience suggestion. In fact, it’s the same formula as Impropera (which I saw in December), the Scat Pack’s improv movies and others. They are as good as the inspiration at the time and this wasn’t a classic, but it was worth the trip. We ended up with Blood on the Heather – the story of the Glencoe massacre where the McDonalds and the Campbells fought each other – with songs in the style of Cabaret, Annie, Rent, Abba and Sondheim!

More classically, I went to another mezzo soprano recital of English song at Wigmore Hall, this time Sarah Connelly with a lunchtime programme of Purcell, Howells, Gurney, Warlock, Bridge, Britten and songs by her accompanist Eugene Asti. It was a lovely selection and she sang beautifully.

Purcell’s Dioclesian is a rarely performed ‘semi-opera’ about the Roman emperor of the same name (who I got rather interested when I went to Split in Croatia where the city centre is built within the ruins of his retirement home!). The Royal College of Music paired with an ‘early dance’ group turned it into a delightful evening. It’s not up there with his classics like The Fairy Queen, but it was good to catch it. The amount of musical talent on show in their Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir (most of whom also took the solos) was breathtaking. 

Britten’s War Requiem is one of my favourite choral pieces and it got a wonderful outing at the Barbican on the 50th anniversary of the London Concert Choir. The soloists – Janice Watson, Adrian Thompson and Roderick Williams – were fantastic and the Southbank Sinfonia made a terrific sound. It’s the greatest anti-war music ever written and still relevant and moving.

OPERA

Its 17 years since I was last in Wandsworth Prison (!), for Pimlico Opera’s Guys & Dolls. This month I returned for the same company’s Carmen. It worked well almost halved to under 90 minutes (it makes you wonder how many operas would benefit from similar editing!) losing none of the story and none of the best music. The cast of 11 professionals (including four excellent principals) and 13 prisoners gave it their all and though it’s a sad story, it was an uplifting experience. When you look at the faces of the performing prisoners at the curtain call, they tell you everything about the importance of this experience for them; if it changes only one of them forever, it will have been worthwhile…..and as you start the long walk out, the funny comments shouted from the cells remind you how many other lost souls weren’t performing. On this occasion, I was struck by the fact that half of the prisoner cast were recent immigrants to the UK and I’m still puzzled as to why…

The Guildhall School have been on a roll of late, so perhaps it was inevitable that there’d be a blip, and Cherubin doesn’t really live up to recent form. Massenet’s opera picks up where Mozart left off in The Marriage of Figaro and follows the exploits of Cherubin as he enlists. It’s a much neglected piece – it took 89 years to get a UK premiere in 1994, and that was its last outing here! The chorus is very good, but there were fewer outstanding leads (except the gorgeous soprano Elena Sancho-Pereg again!) and the set was rather ugly.

The London Handel Festival puts on a fully stage opera every year (and there are c.45 to choose from!) and this year was the best I’ve seen, in fact one of the best Handel operas I’ve ever seen.  Il Pastor Fido is a ‘pastoral’ (you know…..gods and shepherds, everyone loving someone who doesn’t love them, but it all ends happily!) with a dance-opera prologue and dances to end each act. What made this stand out was the most faultless and beautiful playing and singing, aided by the Britten Theatre’s terrific acoustic. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen eight pitch perfect and perfectly matched performances; it was 190 minutes of gloriously uplifting music and it flew by.

Hungarian composer Peter Eotvos has created an opera from Tony Kushner’s extraordinary epic play Angels in America and very good it is too. It was given a semi-staged performance at the Barbican with the BBCSO and an excellent, mostly American, cast. He’s managed to distil it from over 6 hours to just over two without losing the essence of the play. I really hope it gets a staging here soon, as it has in France, Germany, The Netherlands and the US.

Katya Kabanova at ENO was a musical treat with superb singing and playing. The minimalist set (you know chipboard, no colour, jagged angles and shadows) somehow heightened the drama, but I’m afraid I didn’t engage with it emotionally. Still, it sounded gorgeous.

DANCE

Sutra is an extraordinary multi-cultural collaboration between choreographer Sidi Larbe Cherkaoui, sculptor Anthony Gormley, musician Szymon Brozoska and the Shaolin Monks from China! Its contemporary dance meets martial arts, though less athletic than I was expecting. The use of 21 coffin-like boxes is brilliant and I liked the score, played live by a 5-piece ensemble including the composer. In the end though, I’m not sure it’s the classic the critics have hailed it, though I was glad to have caught it. We smiled at the incongruity of a large group of the monks getting on the bus back to the tube after the show!

FILM

I can’t put my finger on why I’m indifferent about Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. The 3D as quite good, but nothing like Avatar at the IMAX, and there are some lovely characterisations in both acting (Helena Bonham-Carter in particular) and voice (Alan Rickman stands out). It just wasn’t magical and other-worldly enough!

I loved Crazy Heart, a film about a burned out alcoholic Country star for which Jeff Bridges won a well-deserved Oscar. For an American film on a subject like this, it was surprisingly unsentimental and all the better for it. T Bone Burnett’s music was excellent.

I’m not keen on war films – relentlessly depressing – but I felt I should catch The Hurt Locker given all those awards, and was very glad I did. It’s an extremely well-made film which manages to drive home the point that these wars are pointless and impossible to win than any news or documentary I’ve seen. Still relentlessly depressing though!

ART

Though I’m glad I went to see it, the Paul Nash retrospective at Dulwich Gallery doesn’t really satisfy. There are eight great pictures amongst a selection of work which seems to me to show a restless man who kept changing, not in an inventive way, but in an ongoing search for his own style.

You think you’ve never heard of Paul Sandby until you set eyes on the iconic 18th Century watercolours, sketches and maps at his exhibition in the Royal Academy and realise you’ve seen many as prints. It’s a very comprehensive collection and you get a real feel for how a man like this made his living more than 200 years ago. I was particularly taken with a picture of Cardiff with the original west gate and wall; I never knew Cardiff had a wall and it’s 10 miles from where I spent the first 18 years of my life!

Irving Penn’s Portraits is one of two fine exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery. The originality of his B&W images rests on a complete lack of distracting décor and the fact that he often places his subjects into restricted spaces or limits the portrait to less than the whole of his subject. I liked them a lot more than I thought I’d like Vogue photos! In contrast, the second exhibition of Indian Portraits spans 300 years from the mid-16th century to the mid-18th century and it’s rich with colour and detail and includes fascinating scenes of life.

There’s a really quirky installation at the Barbican’s Curve gallery from eccentric Frenchman Celeste Boursier-Mougenot . After walking through a dark space on decking with projections of guitarists playing but a soundtrack of birdsong, you get to a bright space with islands of sand containing guitars and cymbals being ‘played’ by zebra finches landing on them as they fly around the space. Just when you thought you’d seen it all…..

Until now, the work I’ve seen by Chris Ofili has left with a ‘so what’ feeling. I felt the same at the beginning of his retrospective at Tate Britain – his obsession with elephant dung, afro hairstyles and black women all seem rather childish, though I did like the colours and the titles ( including ‘7 bitches tossing their pussies before the divine dung’, ‘7 brides for 7 bros’ and ‘Albinos and bros with fros’!) made me smile. An extraordinary amount of money has been spent on a housing for his 13-painting series The Upper Room which I’m not sure it deserves. There’s a fun room of rather different series pictures, some a clear homage to Japanese woodcuts, a less successful room of obscure dark blue paintings and a final room of very different new work. In the end, it rather grew on me and walking back through it a couple of times, I stopped thinking and just enjoyed the colourfulness and playfulness of it all.

Tate Modern’s poster for its Arshile Gorky exhibition totally misrepresents it and drags people in under false pretences; if I’d paid, I’d be demanding my money back! The lovely poster picture is one of a handful in one room out of eleven rooms; the rest is shit (and if you change the ‘i’ to ‘o’ in his first name that would seem appropriate!). Their other current exhibition is a bit more interesting (only a bit mind), covering the impact in the 1920’s of magazine / movement De Stijl led by Theo van Doesburg. Painting wise it’s a lot of Mondrianesque red, black, white, blue and yellow boxes; I found the impact on design and graphics more interesting.

Visiting the Ron Arad exhibition at the Barbican was less of a must and more of filler; I was in the building with time to kill! Maybe that’s why I was so bowled over by it. I knew him as a man who designed interesting chairs, which he does, but he’s so much more – a designer-artist-sculptor-architect. The architecture was astonishing and completely new to me, and there were other objects like bookcases, vases and lamps. I loved Lolita the chandelier – you could text a message to her and it appeared as a scroll on Lolita! The exhibition design was terrific (he designed it himself) adding much to the pleasure of the experience.

Finally (anyone still there?) the Horace Walpole / Strawberry Hill exhibition at the V&A was interesting, though rather dull in presentation. A fascinating man with a great eye for art, design and style who ‘collected’ much more than the gothic he is best known for.

Phew; time to go on holiday for a rest……

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