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Posts Tagged ‘Cadogan Hall’

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

Handel’s Radamisto at GSMD had some lovely singing and playing, I liked the design and also the idea of framing it with an audience of leaders in conflict as a nod to its premiere before a royal squabble, but it was played too much for laughs, particularly the comic book King.

A summer visit to WNO at the WMC in Cardiff for Strauss R’s Der Rosenkavalier and Strauss J’s Die Fledermaus proved a treat. I love the former and it was the best production of it I’ve seen, with the orchestra under its new MD sounding great and a full house of terrific performances. I’m not really an operetta man, but it was hard to resist the fun of the latter, again well played and sung, with the cameo non-singing role of the gaoler brilliantly played by Welsh actor, Stella’s Steve Spiers.

There was some lovely singing in Charlie Parker’s Yardbird at Hackney Empire, but the subject didn’t really suit the opera form. Though it’s a story full of tragedy and emotion, the opera had none; I think a jazz musical would have served it better. Good to see work like this, a visit by Philadelphia Opera, on at Hackney though.

Contemporary Music

Smiles of a Summer Night was an evening of Sondheim songs from eight soloists, a twelve strong chorus and full orchestra at Cadogan Hall and the musical standards were sky high. It wouldn’t have been my selection of songs, but that might be a good thing as there are rarely heard items as well as well worn ones. Alex Parker, the musical director, has given us a superb concert version of A Little Night Music and a terrific production of compilation show Putting it Together, and this is yet another fine achievement.

Art

Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction at the Barbican Centre is a very broad selection of paintings & drawings, story-boards, props & models, games, films, books, comics & magazines in three locations and the foyers. It has even taken over the Pit Theatre for three months with a giant installation. Fascinating, but too dense for just one visit.

I loved Chris Ofili’s new tapestry at the National Gallery, placed onto B&W walls decorated by him, in an exhibition called Weaving Magic that included preparatory sketches and drawings. Lovely.

I’m used to bright, colourful, uplifting paintings from Per Kirkby, so the exhibition of older 80’s dull and dark work at the Michael Werner Gallery was a big disappointment, I’m afraid. Shame.

Fahrelnissa Zeid was another artist unknown to me, and her retrospective at Tate Modern showed both her art and her life were fascinating, going from portraits to two different forms of abstraction and back to portraits, with a side-trip to sculpture along the way, and from Turkey & Iraq to Germany, France & Britain and finally Jordan. Intriguing.

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Contemporary Music

Richard Thompson’s solo acoustic concert at Cadogan Hall was a real treat – one guitar, no time-wasting and a selection of songs from his entire career. He responded to an audience request for Fergus Lang, his song about Trump’s (mis)adventures in Scotland before he put himself forward as a candidate and updated it, though as he said it needs updating daily! There was excellent support from Emily Barker; one to watch.

This was the first time I’d attended the Transatlantic Sessions at the Royal Festival Hall, the ultimate folk & roots supergroup with a core of players and guest singers, but it won’t be the last. The sound wasn’t great (sixteen players / singers in the mix) though it got better and from half-way through the first half it took off with lots of real highs.

Classical Music

Jonas Kaufmann‘s recital at the Barbican Hall was my first live experience of this much lauded tenor and he didn’t disappoint. I thought it was a well selected programme of Schumann, Duparc and Britten sung in German, French & Italian. Gorgeous.

Opera

Royal Academy Opera’s Orpheus & Enefers at Hackney Empire was enormous fun, but also of the highest quality, with the stage and pit bursting with talent, brilliant design and a conductor who was visibly having the time of his life in the perfect venue. Welsh soprano Alys Roberts as Eurydice is a real find; a future star if ever I saw one.

Adriana Lecouvreur was the best thing I’ve seen at the Royal Opera for some time. It’s astonishing that this was only the 15th performance of this underrated Pucciniesque 115-year-old opera. The design was sumptuous and handsome and in period and the four leading roles were stunningly sung. American tenor Brian Jagde was new to me and he was sensational. Angela Georgiou was excellent, but I do wish she didn’t milk her bows so much!

My February visit to WNO in Cardiff was a Puccini sandwich with Vin Herbe filling. First up was a revival of their lovely La Boheme which was even better second time round, largely because of faultless casting. This was followed by Le Vin Herbe, the UK stage premiere of Swiss Frank Martin’s take on Tristan & Isolde. He wrote it to reclaim the folk tale from the Nazi hijacking of Wagner’s opera. It was sung storytelling with the chorus centre stage, an unusual piece but it captivated me. The second Puccini was their 39-year-old production of Madam Butterfly. The design might look a bit dated, but everything else was fresh, with beautiful singing and playing. A terrific trio.

Film

I loved 20th Century Women, a quirky, very un-Hollywood film set in a Bohemian home in California. Annette Benning and her screen son were superb.

Hidden Figures had the usual dose of American sentimentality, but it seems timely to be reminded that segregation in the US was still there just fifty years ago, and the film does it very well indeed.

Fences was the least cinematic film I’ve seen in ages, feeling much like watching one of those NT Live screenings, but the direction and performances were stunning and August Wilson’s story was as intense and gripping as it was on stage.

Moonlight was my 7th Oscar Best Picture nominee. A beautifully crafted film; a compelling watch. Of course, like the other five, I didn’t think for one minute that it would beat La La Land, so the following morning I was both surprised and delighted that it did.

Art

The Paul Nash exhibition at Tate Britain was thoroughly comprehensive and mostly gorgeous. He lost me a bit with the still life’s and early ventures into surrealism, but on the whole a real treat.

Sculptor Richard Wilson is a real favourite. His Annely Juda exhibition was taxing on the brain, but worth the trip, with more David Hockney prints of his iPad drawings downstairs a real bonus.

The Gavin Turk retrospective at his chum Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery had its moments but you end up concluding he’s more of a minor than major contemporary British artist. I thought the ‘homages’ to Warhol and Pollock were lazy art and the final room of rubbish, well rubbish.

The late Zaha Hadid‘s exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery was a very pleasant surprise. A very beautiful selection of art meets architecture digital works which are technically accomplished but also very pleasing on the eye.

Anselm Kiefer‘s Walhalla exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey was vast, extraordinary and on the last weekend so popular you had to queue for a few minutes (I’ve never seen so many people in a private gallery). Mixed media and immersive art at its best; he shot up in my estimation.

The small Frank Brangwyn exhibition at the William Morris Gallery explored his Japanese influences and his relationship with a Japanese artist who made gorgeous woodcuts from some of his works. It really whetted my appetite for my visit to Brangwyn Hall in Swansea later in the same week.

Small too was the Australian Impressionists exhibition at the National Gallery, with only 41 pictures by 4 artists, some of which I’d seen the year before last in Melbourne and Sydney, but the quality more than made up for the quantity. Gorgeous.

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The Rest of 2016

I spent a third of the last third of the year out of the country, so my monthly round-up’s for this period have merged into one mega-round-up of the two-thirds of the four months I was here!

Opera

Opera Rara’s concert performance of Rossini’s rare Semiramide, the last Bel Canto opera, at the Proms was a real highlight. It’s a long work, four hours with interval, in truth too long, but it contains some of Rossini’s best music (and I’m not even a fan!). The OAE, Opera Rara Chorus and a world class set of soloists under Sir Mark Elder gave it their all, with ovations during let alone at the end. Brilliant.

I was out of the country when I would have made my usual trip to Cardiff for WNO’s autumn season, so I went to Southampton to catch their UK premiere of Andre Tchaikowsky’s The Merchant of Venice when I got home and I was very glad I did. It’s a fine adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, with a particularly dramatic court scene, and it was beautifully sung and played, with a terrific performance by American Lester Lynch as Shylock.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been to something that sounded so beautiful but looked so ugly. Handel’s Oreste, a pasticcio opera (a compilation of tunes from elsewhere, in Handel’s case his own works) which the Royal Opera staged at Wilton’s Music Hall. The singing and playing of the Jette Parker Young Artists and Southbank Sinfonia were stunning, but the production was awful. One of those occasions when it’s best to shut your eyes.

Classical Music

Another delightful lunchtime Prom at Cadogan Hall, this time counter-tenor Iestyn Davies and soprano Carolyn Sampson, both of whom are terrific soloists, but together make a heavenly sound. I was less keen on the six Mendelssohn songs than the six Quilter’s and even more so the glorious six Purcell pieces. It was a joyful, uplifting hour.

Juditha triumphans is a rare opera / oratorio by Vivaldi that was brilliantly performed at the Barbican by the Venice Baroque Orchestra and a superb quintet of female singers including Magdalena Kozena as Juditha. It took a while to take off, but it then soared, and the second half was simply stunning.

Visiting the LSO Steve Reich at 80 concert at the Barbican was a bit of a punt which really paid off. The three pieces added up to a feast of modernist choral / orchestral fusions. The composer was present and received an extraordinary ovation from a surprisingly full house.

Berlioz Requiem is on a huge scale, so the Royal Albert Hall was the perfect venue, and it was Remembrance Sunday, so the perfect day too. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, with ten timpanists and an enormous brass section of 50 or 60, occasionally drowned out all three choirs (!) but it was otherwise a thrilling ride.

Joyce DiDonato‘s latest recital with the wonderful baroque ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro was a bit if a disappointment. It had some extraordinary musical high spots, but the selection could have been better and she didn’t really need the production (lights, projections, haze, costumes, face painting and a dancer!). It didn’t help that the stage lights sometimes shone into the eyes of large chunks of the audience, including me, blinding them and sending me home with a headache.

At the Royal Academy of Music their Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Sir Mark Elder in a lunchtime concert of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony and it was thrilling. Sir Mark did another of his fascinating introductory talks, this time illustrated with musical extracts.

The BBC Singers gave a lovely curtain-raising concert of unaccompanied seasonal music by British composers at St Giles Cripplegate, half from the 20th century and half from the 21st, before the BBC SO‘s equally seasonal pairing of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve Suite and Neil Brand’s A Christmas Carol for orchestra, choir and actors in the Barbican Hall. This was a big populist treat.

I’ve heard a lot of new classical music since I last heard John Adams‘ epic oratorio El Nino, so it was good to renew my acquaintance and discover how much I still admire it. 270 performers on the Barbican stage provide a very powerful experience – the LSO, LSC, a youth choir and six excellent American soloists who all know the work. Thrilling.

Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley, accompanied by Sir Antonio Pappano on piano no less, gave a superb but sparsely attended recital at the Barbican Hall. It was an eclectic, multi-lingual and highly original selection, beautifully sung. More fool those who stayed away from this absolute treat.

The standards of amateur choirs in the UK are extraordinary, and the London Welsh Chorale are no exception. Their lovely Christmas concert at St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate included extracts from Handel’s Messiah, Vivaldi’s Gloria plus songs and carols. The soprano and mezzo soloists were superb too.

Dance

Rambert’s ballet set to Haydn’s oratorio The Creation at Sadler’s Wells was one of the best dance evenings of recent years. If you shut your eyes, this would be a world class concert with three fine soloists, the BBC Singers and the Rambert Orchestra. With a gothic cathedral backdrop, the dance added a visual dimension which wasn’t literal but was beautifully impressionistic and complimentary.

English National Ballet had the inspired idea to ask Akram Khan to breathe new life into Giselle and at Sadler’s Wells boy did he do that. It’s an extraordinarily powerful, mesmerising and thrilling combination of music, design and movement. From set, costumes and lighting to an exciting adapted score and the most stunning choreography, this is one of the best dance shows I’ve ever seen.

Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake the following week, also at Sadler’s Wells, wasn’t such a success, and steered even further away from its inspiration. It revolved around a 36-year old single man whose mother was desperate to marry off, but there were lots of references to depression and madness. I’m afraid I didn’t find the narrative very clear, its relationship to the ballet is a mystery to me and it’s more physical theatre than dance. It had its moments, but it was not for me I’m afraid.

Back at Sadler’s Wells again for The National Ballet of China‘s Peony Pavilion, a real east-meets-west affair. Ancient Chinese tale, classical ballet with elements of Chinese dance, classical music with added Chinese opera. Lovely imagery and movement. I loved it.

New Adventures’ Red Shoes at Sadler’s Wells might be the best thing they’ve done since the male Swan Lake. With a lush Bernard Herman mash-up score, great production values and Matthew Bourne’s superb choreography, it’s a great big populist treat.

Contemporary Music

Camille O’Sullivan brought an edginess to the songs of Jacques Brel which I wasn’t comfortable with at first but then she alternated them with beautifully sung ballads and I became captivated. She inhabited the songs, creating characters for each one. Her encore tributes to Bowie & Cohen were inspired.

There were a few niggles with Nick Lowe‘s Christmas concert at the Adelphi Theatre – it started early (!), the sound mix wasn’t great and he gave over 30 minutes of his set to his backing band Los Straightjackets (who perform in suits, ties & Mexican wrestler masks!) but (What’s so funny ’bout) Peace Love & Understanding has never sounded more timely and the closing acoustic Alison was simply beautiful. He’s still growing old gracefully.

Film

I loved Ron Howard’s recreation of the Beatles touring years in Eight Days a Week, plus the remastered Shea Stadium concert which followed. What was astonishing about this was that they were completely in tune with all that crowd noise and no monitors or earphones!

Bridget Jones Baby was my sort of escapist film – warm, fluffy and funny – and it was good to see Rene Zellweger and Colin Frith on fine form as the now much older characters.

I, Daniel Blake made me angry and made me cry. Thank goodness we’ve got Ken Loach to show up our shameful treatment of the disabled. Fine campaigning cinema.

I loved Nocturnal Beasts, a thriller that’s as close to the master, Hitchcock, as I’ve ever seen. I was gripped for the whole two hours.

Fantastic Beasts lived up to its hype. Though it is obviously related to Harry Potter, it’s its own thing which I suspect will have quite a series of its own. Starting in NYC, I reckon it will be a world tour of locations for future productions.

Kiwi film The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a very funny, heart-warming affair with a stunning performance by a young teenager, Julian Dennison, matched by a fine one from Sam Neill.

I loved A United Kingdom, based on the true story of Botswana’s Seretse Khama, leader from mid-60s independence to 1980. It’s the true story of a country that has been a beacon of democracy in a continent of corruption.

The Pass must be one of the most successful stage-to-screen transfers ever. I was in the front row at the Royal Court upstairs, but it seemed even tenser on screen. Good that three of the four actors made the transfer too.

One of my occasional Sunday afternoon double-bills saw Arrival back-to-back with Sully. The former was my sort of SciFi, with the emphasis on the Sci, and it gripped me throughout. I’m also fond of true stories & the latter delivered that very well.

I liked (Star Wars) Rogue One, but it was a bit slow and dark (light-wise) to start with, then maybe too action-packed from then. I’m not sure I will do 3D again too; it’s beginning to feel too low definition and overly blurry for a man who wears glasses.

Art

Sally Troughton‘s installations in the Pump House Gallery at Battersea Park didn’t really do much for me, but Samara Scott‘s installations in the Mirror Pools of its Pleasure Garden Fountains certainly did. A combination of dyed water and submerged fabrics created lovely reflective effects.

There was so much to see in the V&A’s You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970. It was an astonishing five years and the exhibition covers music, art, design, fashion, politics, literature…..you name it. I shall have to go again to take it all in.

Wifredo Lam is a Cuban artist I’ve never heard of, getting a full-blown retrospective at Tate Modern. There was too much of his late, very derivative abstract paintings, but it was still overall a surprising and worthwhile show.

South Africa: the art of a nation was a small but excellent exhibition covering thousands of years from early rock art to contemporary paintings and other works. Most of the old stuff was from the British Museum’s own collection, so in that sense it was one of those ‘excuses for a paying exhibition’ but the way they were put together and curated and the addition of modern art made it worthwhile.

The Picasso Portraits exhibition at the NPG was a lot better than I was expecting, largely because of the number of early works, which I prefer to the more abstract late Picasso. Seeing these does make you wonder why he departed from realism, for which he had so much talent.

Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy was also better than expected, largely because of the range of work and the inclusion of artists I didn’t really know. I do struggle with people like Pollock and Rothko though, and can’t help thinking they may be taking the piss!

The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition, back at the NPG, seemed smaller than usual, but just as high quality. I do love these collections of diverse subjects and styles.

Back at the Royal Academy, Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans was a very interesting exhibition of the work of an underrated Belgian master (with an obsession with masks and skeletons!) curated by a contemporary Belgian artist. I’ve seen samples of his work in my travels, but it was good to see it all together, and I liked the curatorial idea too.

At Tate Modern, a double-bill starting with a Rauschenberg retrospective. I’ve been underwhelmed by bits of his work I’ve come across in my travels, but this comprehensive and eclectic show was fascinating (though I’m still not entirely sold on his work!). The second part was Radical Eye, a selection from Elton John’s collection of modernist photography (with more Man Ray’s that have probably ever been shown together). It’s an extraordinary collection and it was a privilege to see it.

Star Wars Identities at the O2 exceeded my expectations, largely because of the idea of discovering your own Star Wars identity by choosing a character and mentor and answering questions on behaviour and values and making choices at eight ‘stations’ en route which were recorded on your wristband, in addition to film clips, models, costumes etc. The behavioural, career and values stuff was well researched and the whole experience oozed quality.

I didn’t think many of the exhibits in Vulgar: Fashion Redefined at the Barbican were vulgar at all! It was an exhibition made up entirely of costumes, so it was never going to be my thing, but it passed a pre-concert hour interestingly enough.

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Contemporary Music

There was a lot to love about Weimar Cabaret at Cadogan Hall.  The period and the place produced an extraordinarily eclectic collection of original music which gathered together has an eccentric, manic quality. The Australian Chamber Orchestra played brilliantly, in dark suits and trilbies, and Barry Humphries provided insightful and funny commentaries, and sang a song or two with cabaret star Meow Meow, who sang a lot on her own and with a lady violinist from the orchestra. I will never forget her Serenata Erotica! A unique evening.

John Wilson has a large, loyal and attentive following and last year’s brilliant Bernstein Prom propelled us to book for this year’s Gershwin Prom. I was expecting some, if not all of it, to be from Broadway, but it was all Hollywood, and a third of the songs were Ira Gershwin’s lyrics without the then late George Gershwin’s music. The first half disappointed; with little light and shade it was relentlessly showbiz and the sound mix wasn’t great, with strings buried beneath brass. It picked up significantly in the second half though, with better sound, some slower numbers and the ballet from An American in Paris as a closer. Overall, though, a bit too Friday Night is Music Night for me, and a rather expensive one too.

Opera

I’ve never seen anything in the Arcola‘s annual Grimeborn opera festival before but after their brilliant Tosca, very powerful at close quarters, I won’t make that mistake again. In fact, I’ve already booked for another two! The singing was superb and the whole score heroically played on one grand piano, and all for the price of a cinema ticket. Eat your heart out, ENO & RO.

My journey to and from the Arcola Theatre for my second Grimeborn production was more than twice as long as Rimsky-Korsakov’s rarely staged 40-minute opera Mozart and Salieri. Composed eighty years before Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus on the same subject, also derived from Pushkin’s play. It was a bit slight for me, though it was well staged and performed. I’ve only seen a few of his fifteen operas and this was more of a collector’s item than anything else.

Grimeborn reached its pinnacle with Opera Alegria’s Mozart Double – an opera he wrote when he was twelve, Bastien & Bastienne (not his first!), which may or may not have been performed at the time, and one from his late career when he was thirty, a satire on opera itself The Impresario. You can hear clearly how he matured, though both operas are good. As they both have dialogue they are technically operettas or singspiel and the settings in this production are contemporary, the libretto updated. The performances were brilliant and it was the most fun I’ve had in 35 years of opera-going.

Cape Town Opera‘s Mandela Trilogy at the Royal Festival Hall was a hit-and-miss affair. It told Madeba’s story in three parts – youth to University, the politicised years centred in Sophiatown and his trial & imprisonment through to his freedom speech on release. I liked the prologue and Parts 1 & 3 by Peter Louis van Dijjk, but though I liked the idea of the Part 2 jazz musical by Mike Campbell, I wasn’t convinced by the contrast its inclusion created. It was semi-staged but from our top price front stalls seats we couldn’t see the singers, which rather marred the experience.

Classical Music

The off-site Prom at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was an absolute treat and a triumph. Eleven piece ensemble Arcangelo led by Jonathan Cohen played Shakespeare-inspired music from the late 17th century by candlelight with three brilliant soloists, Katherine Watson, Samuel Bowden & Callum Thorpe, who animated the arias by interacting and moving around the space. Wonderful.

A gorgeous lunchtime Prom at Cadogan Hall paired viol ensemble Fretwork with vocal ensemble Stile Antico for a programme of 17th century Shakespeare settings (plus a few others) with two brilliant contemporary ones by Huw Watkins and Nico Muhly. A real tonic.

The third Shakespeare themed Prom showcased music for stage and screen, with the first half music by Walton, Finzi, Sullivan and Joby Talbot written for screen and ballet versions of Richard III, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Tempest, As You Like It and The Winter’s Tale and the second half music for the stage – Bernstein’s West Side Story based on Romeo and Juliet, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate based on The Taming of the Shrew and The Boys from Syracuse, a version of The Comedy of Errors by Rogers, Hart and Abbott. I really liked it, more than the Gershwin Prom (with better sound), and conductor Keith Lockhart engaged with the audience unlike most conductors.

European cities usually have a cultural black hole in August, but I managed to find a performance of the rare Cherubini Requiem in C Minor at the Liege Opera House during a short overnight visit. Though I’d never heard it before, it seemed a bit lacklustre – WNO on an off night (we don’t know how lucky we are) – but it was good to hear it, and the theatre was lovely.

Film

Matt Damon didn’t have many lines to learn for Jason Bourne which was all action, exhaustingly so, with an extraordinary car chase at the end that I honestly don’t know how they pulled off. Great fun.

I eventually caught up with the female Ghostbusters remake, which was good fun and technically accomplished, though hardly ground-breaking.

Art

The Liverpool Biennial Festival of Contemporary Art was absolute shite. It was devoid of any beauty, lacking in ingenuity and it all seemed derivative and dated. Fortunately, Tate Liverpool had three good exhibitions – Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms, Maria Lassnig & Ella Kruglyanskya, the latter two artists completely new to me. These, together with the permanent collections at Tate and the Walker and the Peter Blake designed Mersey Ferry, Everybody Razzle Dazzle, redeemed the weekend. I won’t get fooled again!

Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson‘s ‘exhibition’ at the Barbican was about as off-the-wall as it gets. The only live part was ten troubadours lounging, strumming and singing – for the whole 8 opening hours! There were records of previous projects, mostly on video, including a 9-screen installation recording a 1-hour concert where each player was in a different room of a house (including the bath!), brass players cruising whilst they played in Venice for six hours every day for six months, a crooner singing the same three words for 30 minutes, band The National singing their song A Lot of Sorrow continuously for six hours, 144 paintings of the same subject in the same place where they both spent six months and four 5-yearly videos of his mother spitting in his face. I rather liked it all!

I managed to catch the exhibition of Francis Townes‘ late 18th century watercolours of Italy on its last day at the British Museum. They were beautiful, though a touch faded and mostly behind glass. He was apparently never accepted by the art establishment, despite his undoubted talent.

The Travel Photographer of the Year exhibition has moved south-east and indoors to Greenwich University and, despite the journey, is better for it. It was the usual high standard but it made me feel less inadequate as, since last year, I’ve done a short photography course, had some coaching and went on some photographic safaris, so next year I think I might enter!

The Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at Tate Modern exceeded its expectations bigtime. A hugely comprehensive retrospective which also allowed you to learn about her life through photographs and room descriptions. I’ve always loved her work, now I’m virtually obsessed. I’ll be back!

The exhibition I went to the Photographers’ Gallery to see, as instructed by Time Out (!) – Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity – disappointed, but upstairs there were two floors of Terence Donovan’s wonderful, iconic, mostly black and white 60’s and 70’s photographs in Speed of Light. An unexpected treat.

Colour & Vision at the Natural History Museum sought to explain the evolution of vision in the animal world. It started well, with fascinating fossils in particular, but then threw in the kitchen sink and became overpowering and confusing. Shame.

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Contemporary Music

In Laura Muvla‘s late night Prom she performed the whole of her one and only album, Sing to the Moon, with an orchestra and choir. Some of the arrangements were a bit overcooked, smothering the lovely songs a bit, but overall it was a success as the writing and singing shone through. The sound was great and the audience even more quiet and attentive than most classical Proms. Now we need a new album, Laura.

Anything Goes at Cadogan Hall was anything but another one of those song compilation shows. First it was Cole Porter and the 50th anniversary of his passing. Second, it was musical theatre royalty with Maria Friedman, Clive Rowe, Jenna Russell & Graham Bickley all at the top of their game, with obvious chemistry, mutual respect and friendship. It was great to see the Royal Academy of Music MTC Chorus given a chance to work with such musical theatre icons and with a band as good as the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra under Richard Balcome. You rarely hear musical theatre songs played this well, and the winds and brass were positively glorious.

Opera

A return to Opera Holland Park after a few years to see an early 20th century  relative rarity by Francesco Cilea, Adriana Lecouvreur. My enjoyment of the first half was badly hampered by a full-on view of the conductor and not a lot else – a relatively expensive restricted view front row seat that wasn’t sold as restricted view! The highlight of the evening was the fantastic orchestra under said conductor, Manlio Benzi. There was some good (rather than great) singing and the updated production just about pulled it off. Sadly, OHP seems to be turning into a London version of those country house operas – rising prices, conspicuous corporate hospitality, dressing up…..if they introduce long picnic intervals, the transformation will be complete!

Classical Music

I don’t often go to piano recitals, then when I do I ask myself why?! A visit to Oxfordshire included one by John Lill at Christ Church Cathedral and I thoroughly enjoyed it. In a great programme of Mozart, Schumann, Brahms and Beethoven, the Schumann and Beethoven shone and the venue was a real bonus.

My first proper Prom of 2014 was an all-English affair, with three works from Vaughan Williams and a real rarity from someone I’ve never heard of – William Alwyn. Alwyn’s 1st Symphony isn’t brilliant, but it’s good enough and not worthy of such neglect (like the rest of his work). By contrast, The Lark Ascending is by all accounts the most popular classical work and here it was beautifully played by Janine Jansen. The gung-ho Wasps Overture and rarer Job ballet suite made up an excellent programme conducted by the BBC SO’s new chief conductor Sakari Oramo, whose enthusiasm and joy were infectious.

The next Prom was named Lest We Forget and it was a melancholy but very beautiful affair, featuring four composers, one German, who fought in the First World War, three never coming back. Two were completely new to me (the German, Rudi Stephan, was getting his Proms debut and Australian Brit Frederick Kelly is rarely performed). George Butterworth‘s song cycle A Shropshire Lad was sung beautifully by Roderick Williams and the BBC Scottish SO under Andrew Manze played all four pieces wonderfully. Vaughan Williams Pastoral Symphony (with tenor Allan Clayton, instead of the more usual soprano) has never sounded better. The loss of three talented composers was very sad, but it was a lovely tribute.

My final Prom for 2014 saw Andrew Davies back where he belongs and he chose a terrific programme of Strauss (R), Elgar & Berlioz to show off his great new band, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, who got a great welcome from the Proms audience. Music by German  British & French composers spanning 89 years, an Australian orchestra & a Norwegian cellist & a British conductor and an audience of real music lovers – that’s what I like about the Proms.

Cabaret

Celia Imrie’s show Laughing Matters at St James Studio was a quirky and sometimes surreal affair. Songs accompanied by a pianist and drummer (I wish I knew who wrote them), monologues and anecdotes and two male assistants! It ended with a panto-style sing-along complete with song sheet, with the cast dressed as sailors and the audience in sailor hats emblazoned with ‘R.M.S. Celia’! She can’t really sing, the show had a certain amateurishness about it, but her charm won you over and made you smile – a lot.

Film

I was lured to The Inbetweeners 2 by rave reviews (4* in The Times!) and even though it was fun, it was like watching a triple episode of the TV series with big screen technicolour projectile vomiting. A peculiarly British take on gross-out teen comedy.

Positive reviews also lured me to Guardians of the Galaxy (another 4* in The Times), but it was no time at all before I was bored with the banal story and just watched the 3D effects, but they became relentlessly repetitive too. There were some nice tongue-in-cheek touches, but I’m now wondering why I stayed.

I refused to pay Sonia Freidman’s obscene prices for Skylight in the West End but I eventually succumbed to the ‘encore’ of the live cinema transmission. Carey Mulligan proves to be an exceptional stage actor and Bill Nighy has lost none of his charisma. The 19-year-old play seemed bang up-to-date and the interval interview with Hare was a bonus. I’d have loved to see Bob Crowley’s brilliant set live, but hey it came over as a great production and I thoroughly enjoyed my first NT Live experience, even though it wasn’t the NT and it wasn’t live!

Art

I think I’m going to have to stop going to the Saatchi Gallery as, yet again, only a small fraction of what was on show appealed. This time it was Abstract America Today upstairs and Pangaea: New Art from Africa & Latin America downstairs. When the best room has walls covered with giant insects, you know you’re in trouble.

I’m not a fan of fashion and if I’d had to pay I probably wouldn’t have gone, but The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier at the Barbican was great fun and extremely well curated with a nice tongue-in-cheek touch (some of the dummies had holographic talking heads!). Whatever you think of his clothes, you have to accept that he has a colossal imagination.

No less than three exhibitions for an afternoon at the Royal Academy. The Summer Exhibition never changes but it’s an important institution and it’s always worth a visit. The highlights this year were the model of Thomas Hetherwick’s garden bridge (I can’t wait to see it built) and a couple of hilarious Glenn Baxter cartoons. Upstairs, Radical Geometry is an exhibition of 20th Century South American art which you’d never know was South American if it wasn’t billed as such. It’s well executed but they are very derivative abstract, geometric works. Interesting, but…..Round the back, Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album is a very personal record of six years in the sixties which would never be seen if the photographer wasn’t a famous film actor / director. Interesting, but…..

In just six years the Travel Photography Awards exhibition at the Royal Geographic Society has become so popular that my usual amble through it has become a scrum, partly because I left it until the final day I suspect. It was hard to get close enough to what seemed like a less impressive collection this year. Down the road at the V &A Disobedient Objects is an original, fascinating and wide-ranging look at items associated with protest, including banners, posters and even vehicles. Well done, V&A!

The British Library Comics Unmasked exhibition was a frustrating affair – low lighting combined with small print labels, but above all lots of nerds stooped over the exhibits reading every word of every cartoon and monopolising them. Again I was probably hampered by catching it on its last day, but it could have been curated so much better. The Enduring War exhibition, part of the WWI commemorations, was a lovely unexpected bonus which I enjoyed more!

The Photographers Gallery continues to be an essential regular visit and this time it was a fascinating exhibition tracing colour in Russian photography over 120 years. It proved to be a social and political history as well as a photographic history. At the entrance, they currently have a video wall which shows how a couple of Germans mined Facebook for images then put them on a spoof dating site with categorisations based on the images. It includes the victims comments, TV coverage and the legal threats they received. Clever, fascinating but spooky! I shall brush over the other exhibition – still life photos (and installations including them) of decaying fruit from Ridley Road market!

The first few rooms of the Malecvich exhibition at Tate Modern are spectacular – bright, colourful, original paintings of people and landscapes with a geometric spin. Then he goes all dull and abstract before returning to his earlier style. Frankly, it would be a better exhibition if it was ‘The early and late works of…’ and reduced from 12 rooms to 6!

There was some great stuff to see around town this month; two WWI tributes – the moving sea of poppies at the Tower of London, spectra – the lights illuminating the sky from Victoria Embankment Gardens – and this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, like a spaceship which has landed. Up in Gateshead, Daniel Buren created glorious colourful spaces in Baltic by covering the windows and skylights with coloured panels and placing large mirrors on the gallery floor. A real regional treat.

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Contemporary Music

Joe Jackson is someone who is forever reinventing himself and his latest project is a tribute to Duke Ellington. Given he was with ‘the bigger band’, a six piece, I was expecting his Cadogan Hall concert to be the album plus some other jazz in the same vein, but he mixed in rearrangements of his back-catalogue and it was terrific. The Latin jazz material from Night & Day fared best and the final three songs – Is She Really Going Out With Him rearranged for accordion, tuba and banjo, the timeless Sunday Papers and A Slow Song (with added tears) provided a perfect ending. A treat.

I’m afraid Rufus Wainwright’s concert proved a bit of a disappointment, as was his latest album, and to some extent for the same reason. In seeking a more commercial sound, Mark Ronson’s CD production and the somewhat one-tone live sound design are both in danger of propelling him towards blandness. You can’t take anything away from the fact he writes great songs and has an extraordinary voice, but neither of these were shown off at their best here. The band, featuring solo favourites of mine Teddy Tompson and Krystle Warren, was excellent. Both Teddy (Richard & Linda’s son) and Leonard Cohen’s son Adam provided good opening sets, though the latter wasted 10 of his 35 minutes on anecdotes and arsing around. Talking of arsing around, I sighed as it became clear we were going to get another of Rufus’ pantos as an encore (we haven’t had one of those for some time) – and the most OTT one too, presided over by cupid in loincloth and wings. Rufus entered the auditorium dressed as Apollo, walked through the audience, took people on stage and massacred a couple of songs. Though I did go with the flow and laugh along eventually (when it became so surreal there was room for nothing else) I couldn’t help thinking we could have got 5 or 6 songs in the 20 minutes it took to do all this. Looking at Teddy Thompson and Krystle Warren’s expressions made me think I was not alone!

Opera

The Guildhall School of Music & Drama excelled itself again with a fascinating and hugely entertaining triple bill. La Navarraise is a tragedy by Massenet set in the Basque country, which lent itself perfectly to an updating. The singing from the second cast was superb, in particular Roisin Walsh as Anita, Adam Smith as Araquil, Ben McAteer as his dad and James Platt as Garrido, and the choruses were outstanding. Le Portrait de Manon by the same composer was a gentle romance where Des Grieux (from his opera Manon) has to tackle the young love of his ward; I saw Manon in April and there was something satisfying about seeing Des Grieux turn up in another opera! The final piece, Comedy on the Bridge by Martinu, was more challenging musically but very clever and very funny. The characters find themselves in a no-man’s-land on a bridge between borders, as they give up their passes to one border guard and have nothing to give the other. For opera, very original, and a delightful 40 minutes. 

Four years ago, commemorating 50 years since the death of Vaughan Williams, the late great Richard Hickox & The Philharmonia gave a stunning semi-staged performance of The Pilgrim’s Progress whilst Covent Garden ignored the anniversary and ENO’s contribution was a minor work. Well, ENO now give it it’s first full staging since the 1951 premiere and it proves to be something for which staging doesn’t really add much! It’s beautifully played by the ENO Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins and Roland Wood is an excellent Pilgrim / Bunyan, but the staging and design added little I’m afraid.

Art

I enjoyed the British Museum’s Shakespeare: Staging the World, though I did think the connection of some of the material and items was a bit nebulous. There was however much to fascinate and enjoy and it was an excellent choice of subject for the London 2012 Festival.

The Michael Werner Gallery is actually two rooms on the first floor of a posh building in Hedge Fund City (Mayfair) but it was the location for 10 new paintings by Peter Doig so a visit was mandatory. They are excellent works, but 10 paintings doesn’t really constitute an exhibition in my book!

I don’t really do queuing, but the 60 minutes wait for Random International’s Rain Room at the Barbican Centre was well worth it. You walk through a tropical downpour, but as you do the rain stops wherever you are. It’s brilliantly lit, so you get changing visual images and shadows as you move through the installation. Huge fun!

Art of Change at the Hayward Gallery showcased nine Chinese installation artists and contained some very original work. I was convinced one piece was a sculpture a la Ron Muek, then they closed the space to change performer and I was gob-smacked; how he maintained the position is beyond me.

I did a fascinating backstage tour of Shakespeare’s Globe – from heaven (the attic) to hell (understage) and followed it by viewing the photographic record of the Globe to Globe season at the entrance to its exhibition space. It brought back many fond memories of a unique experience and of course I had to buy the book!

At the Southbank Centre, the annual exhibition of art by offenders didn’t seem as good as last year, but they’ve extended the range of work on show and started selling some. It remains an annual must-see anyway.

The Photographers Gallery has a fascinating little exhibition called Shoot! Existential Photography which is about something I’d never heard of – shooting galleries where you aim for a target whilst a photo is taken of you. It’s extraordinary how similar people’s expressions and poses are and there’s one series of a Dutch woman who had one taken almost every year from 1936 to 2008, so you see her age in minutes.

The pairing of photographers William Klein & Daido Moriyama at Tate Modern is inspired. They’re very different photographers yet somehow the contrast adds value. Klein is in-your-face, dramatic and challenging while Moriyama is more subtle and mysterious. I loved them both, but Klein most of all. By contrast, A Bigger Splash at the same venue is for me a bigger disappointment. It seeks to explore the connection between painting and performance. The first half was mostly film and photos of people throwing paint over themselves and the second half a bunch one-room installations, most of which left me cold. Yawn.

The NPG is a lovely place to pop into when you have a spare few minutes and this time it was a lot of minutes, two exhibitions and a handful of displays. The Portrait Photo Award Exhibition is terrific this year and includes a handful of the known (unflattering Victoria Pendleton but flattering Mo Farrah) amongst the unknown. The Lost Prince commemorates the 400th anniversary of the death of the prince who would have been Henry IX had he lived (and given that Charles I got the job, may have changed British history). Though it was interesting, had I not been a member and paid the £13 admission, I’d have felt somewhat cheated – another one of those excuses for a paying exhibition?

Bronze is one of the best exhibitions the Royal Academy has ever mounted. With pieces spanning 3500 years and organised thematically rather than chronologically, it was simply captivating. Somewhat surprisingly, the oldest were north European finds and the greatest revelation was the wealth of extraordinary pieces from West Africa. Unmissable.

Film

Skyfall was the first film I’ve seen in the cinema for over six months so that could be part of the reason why I enjoyed it so much. There are fewer locations and maybe less action, but focusing on London and bringing the character of M to the fore was no bad thing. Ben Wishaw is a great new Q and there were some excellent cameos, notably from Albert Finney as an old Scottish retainer. I did think Javier Bardem’s baddie was a bit too much of a caricature though.

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