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Posts Tagged ‘Chris Beetles’

Opera / Dance

The summer pairing at WNO was amongst the best since they moved to the WMC. Christopher Alden’s production of Turandot is 17 years old, but you’d never know it. It was inventive and fresh with three excellent leads in Gwyn Hughes Jones, Rebecca Evans and Anna Shafajinskaia. Musical Director Luther Koenigs had apparently never conducted it before, but the sound he got from the orchestra and chorus was rich, lush and positively gorgeous – a shivers-up-your-spine job. Cosi Fan Tutte isn’t my favourite Mozart – overlong for the silly story  – but this new British seaside staging complete with prom, mini fairground, Punch & Judy show and Café was delightful and the singing of all six leads – Neal Davies, Robin Tritschler, Gary Griffiths, Camilla Roberts, Helen Lepalaan & Claire Ormshaw – was excellent. Yet again, Britain’s most accessible opera company provided quality and value.

The ENO’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is musically beautiful, but the production is so contemptuous and disrespectful of its dead composer, Benjamin Britten, who can’t answer back. This isn’t Britten’s opera, its director Christopher Alden’s.  If he wanted to steer so far from the composer’s intentions, he should have written his own opera. This is the worst example of director arrogance I have ever seen – and from someone whose work I have so far admired (including the revival of his WNO Turandot above). This is the second occasion this year where the ENO have allowed a director’s vision to overwhelm and overpower a composer’s work. If they were alive they couldn’t / wouldn’t do it, which makes it completely unacceptable. It’s particularly galling that they’ve ditched a lovely production for this travesty. Oh, I wish I’d kept my eyes closed.

Cocteau Voices is an inspired double-bill at the ROH’s Linbury Studio. It pairs Poulenc’s one woman opera based on a Cocteau playlet with another two-character Cocteau playlet, written for Edith Piaf and her lover, adapted as a wordless dance drama with an electronic score from Scott Walker. In the latter, three dancers play each character and it was a mesmerizing athletic visual feast. Italian singer Nuccia Focile isn’t as good an actress as Joan Rogers in the only other production of this piece I have seen (by Opera North) and I found it difficult to believe in her as a dumped lover. After a while, I tuned out the libretto (in English) and just allowed the music to wash over me. One of the better ROH2 experiments.

L’amico Fritz is a rare opera from the man who provided half of Cav & Pag (if he knew, I wonder what Mascagni would think of the fact only one of his 15 operas is now regularly performed – and that as part of a double-bill; I’d certainly be interested in hearing some of the others). Young soprano Anna Leese is the reason for seeing this; she is simply delightful. David Stephenson is also good as, well, David, but I’m afraid Eric Margiore was no match for either of them – and he completely fell apart on the third act. I thought the modern-ish settings took away the opera’s charm, clever though they were, but the orchestra sounded particularly lush. It’s a minor opera, but one I’m glad I caught up with. As much as I have loved OHP over the years, I’m afraid it’s starting to become country house opera in the city, with the associated prices, dress and non opera-loving audience; I fear the worst…..

Contemporary Music

I’ve never been that keen on Ron Sexsmith, who I’ve always found depressing, but my nephew gave me his new album and a compilation to convert me and it worked. It’s the production of the new stuff that lifts it for me, though I have to say the older material worked well in concert. He was supported by Anna Calvi, who was original but a bit intense for me. As it was part of Ray Davies’ Meltdown, he both introduced her and sang a song with Sexsmith. A nice evening.

I wasn’t as enthused by the programming of Ray Davies’ Meltdown as I was Richard Thompson’s last year, even though he is as much of a hero. However, his final concert with his band, the LPO and the Crouch End Festival Chorus was another highlight in a lifetime of concert going. The first half saw the whole of the highly under-rated 1968 album Village Green Preservation Society (it was released on the same day as The Beatles white album!) played for the first time and the second half a set of 13 Kinks & solo classics, the pinnacle of which was Days, with the addition of two thousand audience members singing too. When the orchestra and chorus left the stage, he came back saying ‘we can’t finish yet, it’s not even 10 o’clock’ and the band delivered a three song mini-set which had us all dancing. Terrific!

I couldn’t resist going to Glee Live as the TV show has become such a guilty pleasure. There was much to enjoy, and it was extremely well staged at the O2, but the fan worship and tendency to both over-sing and over-amplify marred what could have been a real fun evening – albeit a short and expensive 80 minute one that came in at over £1 a minute!

Art

I was hugely disappointed by the Joan Miro retrospective at Tate Modern, particularly as the first room was stunning. After these gorgeous early paintings, he moved to Paris and got in with bad company (Picasso and Masson) and it’s poor surrealism, abstraction and downhill from there! I actually preferred Taryn Simon’s exhibition, showing her somewhat obsessive and indescribable collection of genealogical photographic groups. Each group represents people associated with an event or location and there are (explained) gaps where the sets are incomplete. As I said, indescribable!

Chris Beetles indispensable gallery / shop had probably the most comprehensive exhibition of Heath Robinson ever mounted. It was stunning, though it was closely packed and too much to take in. In addition to his quirky stuff, there were less well-known fairy tales and cricket drawings, amongst others. Against this, the fascinating Hoffnung exhibition also there couldn’t compare.

The weather marred our annual visit to the Taste of London restaurant showcase in Regent’s Park, though there also appeared to be a lot less restaurants, less interesting food and a broader less foodie remit. I think it may be time to drop this particular modern tradition.

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Contemporary Music

The Decemberists’ concert at Hammersmith Apollo built on their last at the Coronet and buried the memory of their first RFH disaster; this was mostly due to excellent song selection and ordering. They now have a fine body of material and they’ve learnt how to deliver it live and still have fun without compromising quality. I will forgive them the self-indulgent whale song encore because of the 90 minutes before and the gorgeous final encore.

Within minutes of arriving at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, I was regretting it. The traffic was awful and I’d missed most of the intriguing support act, the chatter from people at the back was cacophonous and the sound painfully heavy on base. Then, during his second number, they all shut up, the sound improved and John Grant’s weaved the same magic he did when I first heard his album The Queen of Denmark. He writes very personal songs, sings them with a rich baritone voice and plays piano competently. There’s a second keyboard most of the time and a string quartet some of the time, but no guitars or drums. It’s a rather refreshing sound and live his personality makes for a refreshingly intimate experience. I’d have preferred a venue like the Barbican or Royal Festival Hall, but it was a delight all the same.

Opera

A bumper month!

The latest Guildhall School opera offering is Poulenc’s lovely Dialogues des Carmelites, possibly the most tuneful opera written in the late 20th century! I’ve long been fond of this opera about the martyrdom of nuns during the French revolution and musically the GSMD did it proud. There were some excellent young voices – including a gorgeous Blanche from Anna Patalong, fine turns as the Marquis and his son from Koji Terada and Charlie Mellor and a beautiful Mere Marie from Sylvie Bedouelle. It was great to have a GSMD opera that showed off the fine chorus too. I’m afraid I didn’t like David Farley’s design, where everything was framed by a hole through broken glass, a reference to the opening image of a carriage being attacked by revolutionaries. It was particularly irritating when it framed an opening or closing scene image that about a third of the audience could see.

Back in Cardiff for the WNO late winter pairing of Il Travatore and Die Fledermaus. The former has so much wonderful music that you have to forgive its convoluted and somewhat preposterous plot, and in this production some static staging from Peter Watson and a dark and rather depressing (if clever) series of settings from Tim Hatley. There are so many long scene changes and when the curtain goes up after each of them, you just groan because its just a different configuration of the same giant walls! Welsh boys David Kempster and Gwyn Hughes Jones were both excellent as the Duke and Manrico respectively. Veronica Simeoni sang Azucena brilliantly but couldn’t act for toffee. Katie Pellegrino was technically good as Leonora but it wasn’t always an entirely pleasing sound. The chorus was of course terrific. A bit dull to look at, but a treat to listen to.

Despite the fact I’m not really an operetta man, and certainly not a fan of the somewhat twee Johann Strauss, I rather enjoyed Die Fledermaus, which says much about both the production and the performances. Again, superbly well cast, with some fine singing and acing from Mark Stone, Paul Charles Clarke, Joanne Boag and Nuccia Focile and a delightful cameos as prisoner governor from Alan Opie and actor Desmond Barritt in the non-singing role of the prison warden. It probably benefitted from the affection the ‘old school’ production team have for it – director John Copley, designer Tim Reed and Deirdre Clancy made it fizz with considerable charm and much humour (even though you had heard all the jokes before!).

Rodelinda is this year’s staged offering from the London Handel Festival. It’s one of Handel’s best and musically it shines, with lovely singing from Kitty Whately, Christopher Lowrey, Anthony Gregory and Edward Grint. Susanna Hurrell in the title role was occasionally too loud and harsh and Jake Arditti’s voice was a bit small for Unulfo, but an excellent young ensemble just the same. The orchestral playing, under Laurence Cummings, was outstanding. The modern military setting occasionally jarred, with a particularly tacky ending where royal prince Flavio holds up a flag and gun.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies & David Pountney’s new opera Kommilitonen! is both a coup and a triumph for the Royal Academy of Music. Max had given up on opera because he was fed up of writing operas based in places like lighthouses to find them staged in a toilet (the best put down of director-led opera ever!). Fortunately, he relented and wrote this highly original opera linking student protests in the US deep south, Mao’s China and Nazi Germany appropriately staged by students in a college. It’s dramatically and musically thrilling and the student talent on show is extraordinary.

Peter Brook’s edited minimalist A Magic Flute was a bit of a damp squib. Even though it ran for around half the normal time, it seemed a very long 95 minutes. There were some nice humourous touches, some clever staging and some nice voices, but overall it underwhelmed. In short, no magic!

Film

Submarine is a charming film, and a hugely impressive debut from actor-come-director Richard Ayoade. There were some gorgeous performances and the picture of school life in Wales oozed authenticity. I loved it.

Route Irish is a lot to stomach; it’s a very well made Ken Loach film but it’s very depressing. I don’t know how true this tale of private security firms in war zones is, but if it’s only a fraction true, it’s shameful. I admired it, but I can’t say I enjoyed it – and it made me angry; but I suppose it was meant to, so ‘job done’.

Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a peek into French caves first discovered just 15 years ago. The 32,000 year-old cave paintings are extraordinary, shown off perfectly in 3D, but there’s a lot of padding and much of the narration is pompous. Now it’s tourism in 3D at your local cinema; whatever next!

The best was left to last this month, with the wonderfully uplifting and deeply moving Benda Bilili!, a film about a bunch of disabled homeless musicians in Congo. The film allowed the musicians own words and their music to speak for themselves – no narration – which is one of its great strengths. Though completely different, it had the same impact as Buena Vista Social Club. Now, to find the CD….

Art

A bumper Art month too; which tells you how much work I did in March!

Cory Arcangel’s installation at the Barbican projects 14 bowling video games created over 24 years. It’s a fascinating examination of how technology evolves, but it isn’t art!

Eve Arnold’s photos at Chris Beetles’ lovely new gallery were terrific. There are a large number taken during filming of The Misfits and I’d have loved to have bought one of Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, but £12,500-£17.500 they were way beyond my price range!

I went to the wrong branch of Hauser & Wirth where there was a video installation of Chernobyl by Diana Thater, which did little for me – worthy though it was. When I got to the right branch, Martin Creed’s paintings also did little for me – until I came across his giant revolving neon ‘Mothers’, which I loved.

The NPG has a terrific exhibition by an early 20th century photographer called Emil Otto Hoppe. His B&W prints of famous political and artistic figures of the time have so much depth; you seem to be peering into their souls. They are shown with some wonderful London street scenes from the same period, with a documentary style that seems to me to be way ahead of their time.

I was a bit sceptical about Watercolour at Tate Britain; I thought it might be one of those ‘excuses for an exhibition’ in order to make money in this new museum / gallery free entry world. It turns out to be an excellent review of c.500 years of the art form with an exploration of the techniques and a diverse range of pictures, including some simply stunning ones. In truth, it does fizzle out in the last quarter (modern stuff, including the usual suspects like the talentless Tracey Emin), but that doesn’t deter from the astonishing highs. In the same gallery, Susan Hiller’s exhibition is fascinating & intriguing, showing off her inventiveness & technical skills – but as art it left me completely cold; admiration but not pleasure.

I keep going to contemporary art exhibitions and come out disappointed and British Art Show 7 at the Hayward is no exception. There were some nice pictures from Alasdair Gray and a clever 24-hour film collage of time references synchronised with the actual time from Christian Marclay (I only sat in for the 5.30pm section!), but it was Roger Hiorns again who was the most creative. When I walked into a film booth (I really do have a problem with film in galleries and tend to stay in each for only a short while) it was just a metal park / station bench. When I came out there was a real naked man sitting on the back of the bench looking at a real fire burning on the seat next to him. Terrific.

Back at the NPG, they’re showing another fascinating photographer I’ve never heard of! This time it’s the 50’s / 60’s B&W portraits of artists, writers and musicians by Ida Kar. They are both fascinating subjects and fascinating pictures.

At the Museum of London, they have a lovely exhibition of London Street Photos spanning 150 years to the present day. They perfectly capture the personality of my adopted city over the years and contain many by even more photographers new to me! By contrast, the Barbican Centre Gallery nearby is showcasing the work of the 70’s New York avant-garde and in particular polymaths Trisha Brown, Laurie Anderson and Gordon Matta-Clark, the latter the only one new to me. Though much of the background work like preparatory drawings left me cold, I was quite taken with Anderson’s interactive pieces (a pillow that plays to you as you rest your head and a desk from which the sound travels through your arms to your ears as you place your elbows on it and cover your ears!) and the two Brown performances I caught – five dancers walking the walls and two weaving in and out of clothes on top of a rope and steel climbing frame. The Barbican is challenging the Hayward in off-the-wall things like this; they sometimes (often?) fail, but you have to admire their nerve in putting on such niche stuff.

I knew nothing about Gabriel Orozco before I went to his exhibition at Tate Modern. It was a very diverse selection of pictures, ‘sculptures’, installations and project descriptions, some of which were interesting and some of which were just dull. The biggest room was almost entirely filled with photographs that he took of a yellow motorcycle he bought and rode in search of identical ones, taking a photo of each pairing as he did. Why? Hardly worthy of a major retrospective, in my view.

I’m not overly fond of Dulwich Picture Gallery’s permanent collection, but they are indispensible when it comes to special exhibitions, particularly by illustrators. Norman Rockwell may be sentimental, twee and sweet Americana, but he’s technically accomplished as this exhibition of c.30 original paintings, c.10 studies, 4 posters and c.300 Saturday Picture Post front covers shows; he’s particularly good at faces and children. It was particularly fascinating to see how the SPP covers evolved over almost 50 years.

Back at Chris Beetles’ new photo gallery they’d swapped the Eve Arnold I started the month with for a terrific set of B&W pictures of actors, models and musicians by Terry O’Neill. I would have so liked to buy a copy of Macca playing piano at Ringo’s 1981 wedding, a picture that comes alive as you look at it, but didn’t have £2000 on me!

I’d avoided the Royal Academy’s Modern British Sculpture exhibition because the reviews were so bad but as I was passing with time to kill and as it’s free for Friends, I gave it a quick look and it was nowhere near as bad as I was led to expect. It was worth a visit for an amazing Adam by Jacob Epstein alone, but there were others to admire, though they did make up less that half of the exhibition. How you can mount a survey of modern British sculpture without three recent titans – Anthony Gormley, Richard Wilson & Anish Kapoor – is however beyond me. We got a less important example from Damien Hirst but were fortunate to be spared a Tracey Emin. Upstairs, it was hard to get excited about Watteau’s drawings, accomplished though they are. There are an awful lot of studies of heads and hands and few finished works.

Phew, did I really do all that on top of 20 plays, musicals and ballets?!

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Contemporary Music

Richard Thompson recorded his latest album, Dream Attic, live in concert and it was even better live in concert! The whole of the first half of his new show was taken from the album, then in the second half he gave us a superb selection of songs from his back catalogue that particularly suited this band’s inclusion of sax and violin. The selection really showcased his stunning rock guitar playing; the rockiest Thompson show for ages and a real treat – and including all the Meltdown shows, the 6th time I’ve seen him in 8 months!

Classical Music

I’ve waited a long time to see Gustavo Dudamel conduct, having had to sell my ticket for a concert with his Venezuelan youth orchestra as I was working abroad. Of his two programmes with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, I fancied the Adams / Bernstein / Beethoven combination. The Adams was new to be but I enjoyed it very much, mostly because the orchestra made a glorious sound. I loved the first two movements of Bernstein’s 1st, but found the final vocal movement somewhat lacking. Judging by the polite applause at the end of this half, the rest of the audience seemed underwhelmed, but they went bezerk for the Beethoven 7th. Though I enjoyed it, the standing ovation seemed a bit OTT – I’ve seen a lot more thrilling concerts by the LSO at the same venue. Maybe I should have chosen the Mahler?

As if to prove this point, just three days later the LSO provided such a treat, and rare opportunity to hear Elgar’s oratorio The Kingdom, with a favourite conductor, Mark Elder, at the helm. Why oh why is a great piece like this rarely sung when oratorios by Handel, Bach etc. are two a penny? It’s a lovely piece and was beautifully played and sung. Soloists Iain Patterson, Sarah Connelly and Susan Gritton (a late substitute) were excellent, though Stuart Skelton’s performance was marred by illness. The LSO Chorus was on fine form yet again. LAP 1 – LSO 2.

The month ended at St Peter’s church inside the Tower of London for a concert of Handel, Purcell and Dowland songs and arias with organ, cello and recorder accompaniment. Young sopranos Alison Hill and Sophie Jones alternated the Handel German arias with the English songs and both sang well, Sophie really shining at times. It’s a lovely church (with amazing views of Tower Bridge from outside) with a lovely atmosphere and good acoustics.

Film

I adored The King’s Speech. Colin Firth is terrific, but the spotlight on him means an awful lot of other superb performances get overlooked It’s a great story told with such sensitivity and much humour, beautifully designed and filmed. This was the last production funded by the UK Film Council before its sad demise – will we see such a high quality British film ever again?

NEDS got off to a slow start but eventually the story of a Glasgow boy’s decline from talented teenager to virtual psychopath became compelling. Minutes before it ended I was expecting to leave the cinema depressed, but a surprising surreal and somewhat hopeful ended prevented that. I’m normally good at understanding accents, but a good percentage of the thick Glaswegian was impenetrable and made Trainspotting seem like BBC best!

I found Black Swan a bit confusing; I didn’t always understand what was happening in her head and what was for real. I also found it a bit disturbing; I’ve seen more violent films, but I had to close my eyes more than usual (and I was awake!). Still, the film-making was superb; I found myself admiring it more than enjoying it.

Art

The second part of the Saatchi Gallery’s Newspeak collection of contemporary British art was better than the first, though it’s again very hit-and-miss. Still, it’s free and makes for an interesting hour or so.

The Art of the Album – a promising exhibition of original album art at gallery@oxo proved a bit of a disappointment – more about selling pricey limited addition prints than the quality of the artwork.

Over at White Cube, though I’ve liked some of his earlier work, Gregory Crewdson’s B&W photos of a dilapidated Italian film lot did absolutely nothing for me I’m afraid. The trip was made worthwhile by popping in to Chris Beetles nearby for their annual Illustrators exhibition, which this year packed in more than usual (too many?) into their two floors of a pair of terrace buildings. It’s an eclectic selection from Lucy Atwell to Quentin Blake with quite a few treats to hunt out.

Another few hours to kill between work and fun became an underwhelming visit to three small exhibitions. Bridget Riley at the National Gallery was a one-room 12-picture disappointment, more because of the uninspiring later coloured work than the size of the exhibition. The Robert Mapplethorpe photos at Alison Jaques were just as disappointing, this time because it’s an odd collection which doesn’t hang together particularly well – it was curated by The Scissor Sisters because they’ve used his photos on their album(s)! Neither could prepare me, though, for the cynical money grab of Gilbert & George’s new work at White Cube – 155 sets of 13 mounted postcards and phone-box adverts. This is business not art!

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