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Posts Tagged ‘Classical Music’

MUSIC

Eccentric American rock singer / composer / producer Todd Rundgren has re-invented himself many times. At his London concert he gave us two incarnations – the first was as support act (supporting himself !) with a set of extremely well played but otherwise undistinguished Robert Johnson blues songs from his latest project, Todd Rundgren’s Johnson (get the double entendre there? – made more explicit towards the end of the set when he said ‘you’ve taken most of my Johnson, just a few inches left’).  The main event was his 1973 ‘concept’ album ‘A Wizard, A True Star’. I’m more of a fringe fan, so the significance and thrill of this was a little lost on me (I don’t even get the concept!). The staging involved more costume changes than Kylie, with (unintentional?) 37-year old production values to match the album’s period. It had it’s ‘Spinal Tap’ moments, but the music worked much better live and seemed a lot less off-the-wall. A quirky but somehow charming evening.

My reason for going to see John Hiatt & Lyle Lovett is that I’m a fan of the former. The stage looked set for an interview rather than a concert, and indeed they did question each other a bit at first; but seemed to become inhibited after a shout of ‘get on with it boys’! They took turns to sing songs and occasionally contributed vocals or guitar to the others’. The alternation of songs from a familiar friend (Hiatt) with introductions to a new one (Lovett) proved rather compelling, the quality of musicianship was exceptional and the evening had a cozy charm about it. They were joined by Joe Ely, someone I know of more than Lovett but less than Hiatt, who sang a couple of songs and contributed to a harmonious trio for a Woody Guthrie number and a ‘Texan folk song’.

I’d never heard Alice Coote live before and her powerful Mezzo voice impressed me; it was particularly powerful in the Elgar songs in this English Song recital, but it was the Argento settings of extracts from Virginia Woolf’s diary that blew me away. How can you not like a song with the line ‘…..one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down’!

Composer / singer Helen Chadwick interviewed her neighbours and turned their stories into an acapella song cycle called Dalston Songs, which in its current incarnation has ended up in Covent Garden’s studio theatre. They’ve created a composite street / café / shop setting and it’s well staged & choreographed. It was sometimes moving, occasionally funny, always charming and highly original.

Such is the respect and esteem in which he’s held, when the National Theatre invited Stephen Sondheim to discuss his work in his 80th year, the Olivier Theatre sold out within hours. He looks great for a man a few weeks short of his 80th, comes over completely devoid of ego and, responding to Jeremy Sams questions, he provided much insight to his writing and his work. Without question the greatest writer of musicals ever, it was an honour to be in the audience of the great man himself.

OPERA

Another visit to the UK’s most accessible opera company in Cardiff for a well matched pair – Mozart’s The Abduction of the Seraglio and Puccini’s Tosca. The Mozart is really a songspiel, with too much dialogue in German for my liking. This production relocates it to the Pasha’s suite on the Orient Express, which worked surprisingly well. It was well staged and sung and proved to be a rather charming evening (‘charm’ is turning out to be the word of the month!). The latter was an 18-year old traditional production which scrubbed up well. The Portuguese Tosca was a bit old-school-screechy for my taste, but the other leads were good enough and the orchestra was on spectacular form, so Puccini’s lush score still managed to weave its magic spell.

Jonathan Miller is the master at successfully moving the time and location of operas (Rigoletto to 30’s gangster Chicago, Tosca to 40’s fascist Italy, Carmen to 30’s civil war Spain, Mikado to 20’s Britain…..) and the latest – The Elixir of Love – is a delight from start to finish. It’s 50’s mid-west US (think diner-garage-Marilyn Monroe- James Dean) with a sparklingly funny libretto, great set & costumes and four excellent leads – Sarah Tynan, John Tessier, David Kempster and Andrew Shore with another of his comic gems. One of the best things the ENO have ever done.

The only other time I saw Prokofiev’s The Gambler was almost 19 years ago at ENO. The reason I remember this was that it was the day of the Poll Tax riots and I had to take a detour through the side streets around Trafalgar Square and knock on the door of the Colliseum to be let in; it was still scary when I left and I pranged the car in a moment of panic! All of the cast and orchestra made it but only about half of the audience; I guess you’d appreciate anything in those circumstances. This first Covent Garden production is well played and well sung, but somehow falls as flat as a pancake. Unusually for producer Richard Jones, it’s just dull! The star turn is John Tomlinson’s General but I’m not sure that alone was worth the ticket price.

FILM

How can you resist a film with Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Tom Wilkinson, Ian McShane, Steven Dillane and cameos from Stephen Berkoff and Edna Dore? Unfortunately, the material they were given in 44 Inch Chest didn’t really utilise their talents – the story of a cuckolded man’s revenge didn’t really go anywhere.

Precious is harrowing and disturbing but somehow ends up hopeful. Her story of horrendous abuse is told with compassion but without sentimentality and with lots of original and clever touches including fantasy sequences. I think it’s an extraordinary piece of film-making and I’m (pleasantly) astonished that it’s getting the distribution and awards nods it is rather than languishing in art houses.

A Single Man looks gorgeous, a reminder of 60’s style, and Colin Firth’s performance is simply terrific, but it’s a very slow journey and in the end a case of style over substance.

I had to wait almost six weeks to get seats to see Avatar in IMAX 3D. It is an extraordinary technical achievement, shown off to stunning effect at the IMAX, but it has a weak and very predictable story and is about 30 minutes too long.

ART

Van Goch & His Letters at the RA is clearly their biggest block-buster since Monet zonks ago; it’s very crowded. The idea of the illustrated letters alongside the works didn’t work too well for me – too many people and I don’t read Dutch or much French! – but there are so many staggeringly beautiful paintings, that its absolutely unmissable.

Identity at the Wellcome Collection is an exhibition that looks at its subject from all sorts of angles, with rooms about Phrenology, DNA, transexuality, twins, diarists and diaries and much more. Though some of the exhibits were fascinating, it didn’t really hang together as an exhibition for me. I did find out a lot about the name James though – the highest concentration out side the UK is Buller on the south island of New Zealand; I wish I’d known that during my surreal visit there in 1999 (in the travel archive on the blog)!

The Saatchi Gallery’s fourth exhibition of contemporary art from other countries continues with India. Again, it’s a hit-and-miss affair, with much of the work derivative of established European / American artists, but it’s fascinating to review what’s going on in other countries and there are a few gems to make the trip worthwhile. I was there for a ‘conversation’ with my favourite sculptor Richard Wilson (www.richardwilsonsculptor.com) , whose 23-year old piece 20/50 (which floods the gallery with perfectly reflective oil) has it’s fourth London incarnation here. I saw the original in a small East London gallery 23 years ago (you had to ring a bell and someone let you in!), a later one at Saatchi County Hall and now this and it’s extraordinary how it changes in character with each space. The ‘conversation’ was a bit disappointing, largely because of the interviewers questions, the short private conversation I had with him a few years back on his Slice of Reality sculpture (a section of a ship!) in Greenwich was as illuminating.

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MUSIC

A musical feast this month! The contemporary concerts started with Martha Wainwright, who had spent the last two months at her premature baby’s hospital bedside before taking time out for a couple of intimate gigs at the Jazz Café, presumably because she was a bit stir crazy and needed to remind herself what she does when not breast feeding! I’d only seen her once before – at the outset of her solo career (with the now huge James Morrison playing solo as support!) so I wasn’t prepared for the extent to which she has developed her highly original and spellbinding vocal style; it was thrilling stuff. Just a few days later her mum, Kate McGarrigle died; her music with sister Anna made me smile so much; her death made me very sad.

‘Way to Blue’ was a homage to Nick Drake who died 35 years ago leaving only three albums. His songs were interpreted by Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside, The Soft Boys’ Robyn Hitchcock, Vashti Bunyan, Lisa Hannigan and the sons of Richard Thompson, Paul Simon and Ewan McColl & Peggy Seeger. Names new to me were Scott Matthews, Kirsty Almeida and Krystle Warren. The terrific band was led by Kate St John and included Danny Thompson, who played on all three Drake albums. Not everything worked, but there was much to enjoy. Lisa Hannigan stole the show with a stunning re-invention of a song, Black Eyed Dog, from a fourth album released posthumously many years later.

The Beggars Opera Reborn was an ‘impulsive buy’ which turned out to be a real treat. Charles Hazelwood put together three baroque musicians with folkies The Unthanks, the guitarist from Portishead, the bassist from Goldfrapp, a saxophonist, a drummer and a singer to re-interpret songs from John Gay’s 18th century ballad opera. Often the soprano, cello and lute played the songs as intended followed immediately by a re-interpretation. A wholly original and fascinating experience.

Imagined Village is a ‘project’ originated by Simon Emmerson and involving folkies Martin & Eliza Carthy and Chris Wood to take English folk songs and give them a world music spin. This second incarnation adds Indian instrumentation and electronica to great effect and it comes over better live than on record. An encore of Slade’s Cum On Feel the Noize re-invented as an old folk song was inspired.

The idea of a concert from both the London Adventist Chorale and the Swingle Singers in the final of the 1st London A Cappella Festival really appealed to me and it turned out to be another treat. The Chorale stuck to spirituals, sung delicately rather than shouted. The Swingles moved from Corelli to The Beatles via Bach and Mozart; they’ve added pop and rock to the classical-jazz cocktail and I found the eclectic set a very satisfying combination. Both groups paired for a couple of numbers which, though enjoyable, weren’t as good as either achieved on their own.

I was lucky enough to get a ticket for a recital by Russian soprano sensation Anna Netrebko & Russian baritone Dmitry Hvorostovsky, part of my plan to see a bunch of world class singers this year that have passed me by now that I no longer go to Covent Garden. I felt a bit cheated; including the encores, we got 5 arias each and 2 duets with quite a bit of orchestral fillers (for those in the top seats, it came to over £8 per song!). Still, they both sang wonderfully (though the audience – containing a lot of Russians! – were a bit uncritical and over-reverential).

I seem to be on a mission to hear every English song in the classical repertoire, so I had to go to see tenor James Gilcrest’s programme of English songs by Bliss Gurney, and Vaughan Williams with the Fitzwilliam Quartet. He isn’t a great tenor but he is a good interpreter of these songs and a string quartet backing made a refreshing change from the usual solo piano.

Friends have been raving about American mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato so her recital at Wigmore Hall beckoned. I wasn’t enamoured with the programme of Italian love songs, but her voice is beautiful (as is she) and she engages with the audience with a charm rarely seen in recitals. Just before she began Desdemona’s final aria from Rossini’s Otello a mobile phone rang in the audience. Quick as a flash, she said ‘It’s Otello; tell him I didn’t do it’. Priceless!

OPERA

I was so taken with La Boheme at the Cock Tavern that I gave them an immediate blog entry the day after I saw the show on 10th January! A couple of days later it was another LSO opera in concert; this time Richard Strauss’ Elektra. It wasn’t up to the earlier ones steered by Sir Colin Davies, but it was still worth a visit. The main problem was that such a dramatic opera doesn’t lend itself to a concert reading as well as other operas. Add to this a huge orchestra (not hiding in a pit, like a staged production) with a ‘loud’ conductor like Gergiev and you have a tendency to drown out vocals. American Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet made up for the lack of staging by acting her angst as Elektra and Angela Denoke sang beautifully as her sister.

FILM

At first, I found the non-linear nature of Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, a biographical film about Ian Dury, difficult to get into. It hops around rather a lot and blends bio drama with flashbacks, fantasy sequences and live performance. By the end though, it proved to be a very satisfying telling of an intriguing life.

I enjoyed Up in the Air, the style and look of which reminded me very much of Catch Me If You Can. George Clooney is a very believable outplacement consultant (who, in the US it seems, fire you as well as help you!) in love with the nomadic lifestyle and obsessed with airline, hotel and car hire loyalty programmes. Often funny, but moving and thought provoking too.

No Distance to Run starts as a record of Blur’s 2009 reunion, but becomes a much more interesting and surprisingly frank reflection on the band’s history. They each movingly give their different perspectives on the turbulence that beset the band, which makes the reunion and reconciliation all the more uplifting. The live footage proves they were the best band to emerge in the 90’s.

ART

Howard Hodgkin’s exhibition at Gagosian proved to be just seven small new pictures, but he’s a very special artist and four of them were lovely. At Chris Beetles small gallery (two floors of each of two small terraced houses) he’d packed in three exhibitions, all of which would be worth a visit on their own. British Photographers included Parkinson, Brandt, Beaton, Snowdon and O’Neill with the famous picture of Olivier as Archie Rice no less. Quentin Blake’s book illustrations were fun, as were a collection of other British Illustrators including Heath Robinson, Bateman and many more modern.

Maharaja at the V&A was a brilliantly curated review from powerful pre-colonial Indian kings through to powerless post-colonial Western-obsessed playboys. There were gorgeous paintings, furniture, ornaments and jewellery on show – more bling than at any other exhibition I’ve seen! Also at the V&A, a fascinating exhibition of new interactive digital art called Decode enabled you to change images by speaking, ‘paint’ with your body and have your photographic image projected and changed in slow motion following your movements; a great playground for boys who like toys, so my iPhone and I interacted appropriately.

Filled a gap between work and concert with a couple of small exhibitions at the NPG. Twiggy: A Life in Photographs was lovely – she’s so photogenic and has aged so gracefully; who’d have thought? The Observer’s Jane Brown, who I first saw at Kings Place a couple of months ago, also has a small exhibition of B&W photo portraits which were just as good as the more extensive Kings Place selection.

At the newly restored Whitechapel Gallery there is an exhibition of photographs from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh over 150 years called Where Three Dreams Cross which is far more interesting than it sounds. It features images from the Maharajas and colonial times with some striking contemporary pieces. Also at the Whitechapel are selections from the British Council collection, including a piece from my favourite sculptor Richard Wilson – this one a cross-section cut from a table football table!

COMEDY

I wasn’t sure how to categorise Barbershopera II, but I finally decided its comedy. It’s a rambling comic story sung through unaccompanied by three actor singers with minimal props and costumes. It had its moments and I have much admiration for the performers, but at 80 minutes, I’m afraid it was an overlong sketch.

OTHER

A visit with the Royal Academy Friends to Dr. Johnson’s House proved more interesting in learning about the man than the building. In a four-story town house, hidden behind Fleet Street and now surrounded by modern buildings, he compiled the first English dictionary c.250 years ago. I loved the second definition of Politician – ‘a man of artifice; one of deep contrivance’. Nothing changes.

What a busy month!

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MUSIC

I think it’s the fifth time I’ve seen Paul McCartney and this was amongst the best. It was a gloriously nostalgic 2 hour 50 minute set of 38 songs, including 22 Beatles songs (many which were never played live by them as they stopped touring so soon) with 23,000 people singing along. The atmosphere was electric. He made a few misjudgements (Mull of Kintyre with pipe band and Ob-la-di Ob-la-da!) but they are easily forgiven in a set that started with Magical Mystery Tour and included Drive my car, Got to get you into my life, Long and winding road, Blackbird, And I love her, Eleanor Rigby, Something, Back in the USSR, I’ve got a feeling, Paperback writer, A day in the life, Let it be, Hey Jude, Day tripper, Lady Madonna, Get back, Yesterday, Helter Skelter, ending with the Sergeant Pepper reprise / The End. There is no-one on the planet who can select a set that good. He delivers it with huge energy and warmth with just a 5-piece rock band – no dancers and no gimmicks – at 67 years of age that makes you a hero in my book.

The LSO’s concert versions of opera have become legendary, and those under Sir Colin Davies especially so. This Otello doesn’t quite match an earlier one, but it was a treat nonetheless. Though the soloists were good, it was the orchestra and chorus that were the stars.

 I’ve never been entirely comfortable listening to counter-tenors – it all seems so unnatural and you keep wanting to check you’ve still got your full equipment! – but it was a programme of mostly English songs that drew be to a recital by Bejun Mehta. Well, despite the fact that I didn’t really like the more strident Haydn and Beethoven pieces, he converted me. The two encores in particular (one hilarious and one sublime) were worth the ticket price alone.

COMEDY

Impropera is the operatic equivalent of comedy improvisation. As all improv, it’s hit and miss and depends entirely on that night’s ration of inspiration. It wasn’t a classic but there was much to enjoy.

Much of the very surreal Pyjama Men seemed improvised and again when it works it’s brilliant, but even when it isn’t, you have to admire the skill of these two American comedy actors. I’m not sure all of my party of six shared my enthusiasm though!

FILM

I was really disappointed in the Coen Brothers latest, A Serious Man, which seems to me to be somewhat impenetrable to a non-Jewish audience and struggles to keep your attention – I just wasn’t that interested in the main character or his story. I’m clearly out of synch with the critics who loved this and No Country for Old Men but disliked Burn After Reading; I loved the latter but found the former’s violence hard to stomach.

Nine was another big disappointment; so much talent wasted on an adaptation of a stage musical which just doesn’t work on screen. Daniel Day Lewis and Jennifer Lopez are terrific and there are fine cameos from Judi Dench and Sophia Loren, but they can’t really save what is a very dull two hours – all style, no substance.

Nowhere Boy, however, is one of the very best films of 2009 – and a debut for artist Sam Taylor-Wood too. I don’t know how speculative its exploration of John Lennon’s relationships with his mother and aunt (and the early days of his relationship with Paul McCartney) is, but it has much psychological depth and made a lot of sense to me. Anne-Marie Duff and Kirsten-Scott Thomas are both superb and Aaron Johnson makes a charismatic and passionate young Lennon. As much as I admired his performance, I think the casting of Thomas Sangster is a bit of a cheap trick to heighten the coolness of John – the films one flaw.

ART

Stood up by a client stranded with train problems, I caught up with the current exhibitions at Tate Modern. The Turbine Hall installation by Miroslaw Balka is a giant two-story high container which you walk into up a ramp. You lose the light and seem to be walking into nothingness, but if you turn around you can clearly see where you’ve come from; extraordinary. Pop Life tells the tale of pop art from Warhol onwards. Looking back at the early stuff, it all seems rather cheap and tacky and one wonders what all the fuss was about. The highlight was the final room of recent highly detailed Japanese kitsch by Takashi Murakami. I was surprised by how much John Baldessari grew on me as I moved through the exhibition; I think it was the sense of almost obsessive experimentation which appealed – how he keeps moving on after exhausting his interest in producing different versions of the latest thing.

The National Gallery has an installation called The Hoerengracht by American artists Ed and Nancy Kienholz which is a recreation of the Amsterdam red light district; I’m afraid it all seemed very old hat to me. At the Royal Academy’s outpost at Burlington Gardens, an exhibition called Earth presents work by 35 contemporary artists as a response to climate change. It’s the usual hit-and-miss affair, but there is enough fascinating work to make it well worth the visit. In the same building, an exhibition of work made from abandoned / found objects by Stuart Haygarth is a wacky treat – chandeliers made from the arms of spectacles, table lamps from china cats, and a globe from car wing mirrors – great fun.

Turner & the Masters is a brilliantly curated exhibition which explores the influences of Turner and the paintings executed in homage to them. If an artist worked like that today, they’d be accused of plagiarism, but 200 years ago it was a very different thing. After being told it’s the best for years, The Turner Prize shortlist exhibition, also at Tate Britain, disappointed – probably because it doesn’t do justice to some of the artists – particularly Roger Hiorns, whose Seizure, a flat filled with copper sulphate solution then drained to leave a deep blue crystal interior, was one of my artistic highlights of last year.

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MUSIC

Bryn Terfel showcased his new album ‘Bad Boys’ at the RFH. Part of me would have liked more opera arias and less numbers from musicals, and more of Bryn with less orchestral pieces, but in the end I was won over by the accessibility and populism he aims at and achieves and his rapport and warmth by interacting with the audience rather than standing mute and stiffly like most recitalists.

At King’s Place, two short concerts on the same evening were devoted to six of Britten’s rarer song cycles by six great young singers and pianist Martin Martineau and it proved to be one of those unexpected treats. Sadly, fewer than 200 people turned up, but it’s their loss.

I came late to Steve Earle but this is the fourth time I’ve seen him in as many years. Coinciding with his album in homage to Townes van Sandt, it was mostly Townes songs linked by some stories and anecdotes. It was a highly personal account of their relationship and I found it captivating; without question the best concert of the four.

I decided to give US retro folk-rockers The Decemberists a second chance after a disappointing concert a couple of years back and I was glad I did. The first half was their excellent new ‘concept’ album (wow, man, remember them?) Hazards of Love in its entirety and it worked brilliantly on stage. The second was a lighter collection of earlier material which sat well alongside the more earnest and serious first half.

OPERA & DANCE

L’assedio di Calais was another fine night at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, a rare Donizetti which creaks a bit, but has enough good music to make a revival worthwhile. This time it wasn’t the soloists that shone, but the fine chorus.

I’m only an occasional visitor to contemporary dance and was attracted to the Michael Clark Company’s programme by its music – Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and mostly Bowie – but I’m afraid until the last few pieces it left me rather cold. The sequence with Jean Genie and Aladdin sane, though, was terrific.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Cyrano de Bergerac was more dance drama than ballet, with a score by the prolific Carl Davies. It was rather ruined by a late start following evacuation of the theatre when the alarms went off; a cock-up on the diary front meant I had another commitment (too) soon after this, so I had to depart before the last act, leaving Amanda on her lonesome. I sort of enjoyed what I saw, but being incomplete it’s hardy satisfying.

I thought the ENO’s pairing of Bartok’s one-act opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle with Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring was inspired and both got a complete makeover. I didn’t think Bluebeard quite matched the intensity of their classic former production with Gwynne Howells (who Jeff spotted in the audience) and Sally Burgess and I didn’t entirely understand the interpretation of Rite (nothing new there then), but it was musically thrilling and visually fascinating.

FILM

An Education proved to be a delight. It’s got a nostalgic 60’s feel and a simple but satisfying story of how a young girl’s life changes when she’s swept away by an older man. It’s an auspicious debut from young Carey Mulligan and Rosamund Pike’s portrayal of the friend’s girlfriend is a real treat.

I was disappointed by the quirky satirical comedy The Men Who Stare at Goats. It was a great idea and there were some terrific performances (including another comic cameo gem from Kevin Spacey), but somehow it just didn’t work – I think because they didn’t push the absurd & surreal far enough.

ART

Beatles to Bowie at the NPG is a terrific review of the evolution of pop photography of the 60’s from old hands turning to pop photography to a new breed of pop photographers (many of whom went on the become mainstream themselves). It’s my decade, so suffice to say I was in my element. At the same venue, the Photographic Portrait Prize has such a high standard that I’m glad I didn’t have to choose the winners; inspirational stuff.

I was disappointed by the Ed Ruscha retrospective at the Hayward; I’m afraid I don’t really ‘get’ his paintings of words and it all seemed much ado about nothing and certainly not worthy of a major gallery show.

Bunker is an extraordinary painstaking recreation of a WWII bunker by a Polish artist in the curve space at the Barbican; the attention to detail is such that you soon feel you are exploring as historical space rather than an art installation.

Anish Kapoor’s major exhibition at the RA really has caught the public imagination and it was great to see so many kids and young people there. The mirror sculpture room is great fun. In another, large capsules of what looks like red play dough get fired from a cannon at the wall. A giant block of the same material which is around 10 ft high, 6 ft wide and 40 ft deep moves slowly on rails through five galleries, fitting the doorways between them perfectly; you can’t take your eyes off it. It really is a sculpture fest at the RA with another exhibition called Wild Thing bringing together Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska; I’d never heard of the latter, had seen a fair bit of Epstein, but it was Gill’s almost art deco work that was the real revelation for me.

A photographer I’d never heard of called Jane Brown had an exhibition of B&W portraits of the famous (mostly from the arts) at the King’s Place concert venue and it proved an excellent pre-concert and interval diversion. Taken mostly in the 60’s and 70’s, B&W suited both the period and the subjects.

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OPERA

Another successful visit to Britain’s most accessible and best value opera company, Welsh National Opera,  in Cardiff. Wozzeck was given a great production and was brilliantly sung, but the depressing tale and inaccessible music meant it didn’t really light my fire. La Traviata, however, was one of those evenings at the opera when it all comes together. You might be able to hear better individual singing, but the combination of staging, design, acting and singing made this a deeply satisfying experience, amongst the best in 30 years of opera going. Madam Butterfly was marred by the sickness of Amanda Roocroft though, despite wooden acting, her substitute Anne Williams-King’s singing was impressive in what appeared to be her first (and hastily rehearsed) role debut. Conductor Carlo Rizzi worked wonders keeping it all together, at one point slowing down the orchestra whilst she got back on track in her aria! A wonderful comic moment was provided by the child actor who proceeded to set light to a small cherry blossom branch. Suzuki extinguished the flame but thereafter every time he picked up another piece, she grabbed it off him!

Sometimes ify reviews lower your expectations and you come out pleasantly surprised……and so it was with the ENO’s Turandot. Rupert Goold’s ‘big idea’ is to set it in the Imperial Palace Chinese Restaurant where there appears to be a fancy dress party taking place. There is an extra (mute) character called ‘The Writer’ which appears to be Puccini himself (he is killed at the point where Puccini himself died whilst writing the opera). He steals his own ideas from his own recent production of Six Characters in Search of an Author; at times the characters seem to be telling him they don’t like the part they have been written. The critics found it gimmicky, but I found it intriguing (and the interval conversations interesting). No-one seems to have focused on the fact that the musical standards are exceptional – the orchestra and chorus make a terrific noise and the leads are very well cast.

MUSIC

At the Barbican, the City of London Sinfonia and the LSO Chorus put on a deeply moving tribute to the life and work of conductor and champion of British music Richard Hickox who died just under a year ago. Britten’s Sea Interludes have never sounded better and the chorus excelled in Holst’ Hymn of Jesus. Pieces by Elgar and Vaughan Williams made up a gorgeous programme.

ART

Moctezuma is the fourth exhibition of the lives of great rulers in the reading room at the British Museum, following China’s First Emperor, Hadrian and Persia’s Shah Abbas, and it is as fascinating as the others. This is such a good space and again it’s curated very well.

FILM

I thought District 9 was going to be pure SciFi , but it turned out to be Dr. Who meets Terminator and far too gory for me, I’m afraid.  500 days of Summer was a clever film but the story and characters didn’t interest or engage me enough to hold my attention.

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COMEDY

Three nights after the Last Night of the Proms, the Last Night of the Poms was a huge disappointment – which surprised me as I had so enjoyed its first outing 27 years ago! After all too brief introductions, both Sir Les Patterson and Dame Edna Everage launch into musical pieces – in the former’s case it’s an Aussie Peter & The Wolf and in Dame Edna’s case it’s a cantata for Australia. Seriously unfunny, I’m afraid.

I thought I’d booked to see two different shows from campaigning comedian Mark Thomas this month – ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid’ where he interviews bankers and politicians about the credit crunch and ‘Manifesto’ where he asks the audience in advance for manifesto points and then proceeds to discuss them on stage. As it happens, it was the Manifesto show twice in different theatres! Even though parts are the same, such as sharing with you manifesto points from previous shows together will some recent satirical stunts (like kidnapping a swindling MP’s potted Bay Tree, sending her a terrorist video and ‘assassinating’ it live on the Trafalgar Square plinth!), each audience comes up with different points so each show is different and I didn’t regret my double-booking. You end by voting on the manifesto point that your show puts forward. A hoot!

I was working in Cambridge and managed to get the last seat to see Rob Brydon. His 90 minute show is mostly made up of conversations with people at the front, a little like Dame Edna. Enjoyable enough, but in truth it’s a bit of an easy option from a man who is a character comic actor rather than a stand-up.

MUSIC

The Prom’s Messiah paired the Northern Sinfonia with four first class soloists and seven (yes, seven!) youth choirs. A couple of the soloists – tenor John Mark Ainsley and mezzo Patricia Bardon – had shaky starts but recovered in Parts II and III. The real star of the evening though was the chorus of c.300 who sounded so fresh and enthusiastic. My fourth and final Prom was a lunchtime one of Purcell pieces (plus Blow’s tribute on his death). The harpsichord-only pieces seemed lost in Cadogan Hall, but the vocal pieces were lovely.

The South Bank’s Bernstein project launch concert was short but huge fun – members of three orchestras, 240 piece choir, the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, Folk Big Band Bellowhead, six soloists and two pipers! The Mass extracts were beautiful, the fanfares startlingly original and the whole lot doing Ode to Joy was a wonderful noise!

Another of those lovely song recitals at the Wigmore Hall, this time young tenor Andrew Kennedy and a programme of Purcell, Britten, Warlock, Barber and the world premiere of four songs set to Shakespeare sonnets by someone called Ned Rorem. They were really good and it was a shame he wasn’t there, but he is 86!

Topic records is the world’s oldest independent label and as part of their 70th birthday celebrations June Tabor gave a lovely concert of songs of the sea and sailors perfectly accompanied by piano, accordion, double bass and violin. No-one does melancholy as well as June; sad but gorgeous.

OPERA

British Youth Opera put on a Rossini double-bill of rare but fun one-acters which made me wonder why opera houses continually revive the same old Rossini operas when they could try ones like these. Elena Sancho, who wowed me at the Guildhall earlier in the year, put in another fine performance and this time a young Welsh soprano called Natalya Romaniw (well, it says she’s from Morriston in the programme!) wowed me even more. You heard it here first!

Ligeti’s opera Le Grande Macabre at the ENO is an extraordinary surreal absurd fantasy, but the music is so inaccessible that’s all it is, I’m afraid. There’s little point in reading the synopsis or following the surtitles (it’s in English but even more unintelligible than usual), just gawp at the design (a woman’s body occupies and revolves on the vast stage with people coming out of every orifice and video projections onto its surface!) and try to guess which of a vast selection of percussion each sound is made by.

ART

The problem with the Museum of Brands, Advertising  & Packaging is that it’s crammed with over 10,000 items in such a way that more is less. This makes it harder not easier to show the evolution of such things and after it became clear I couldn’t possible absorb it all, I just mooched through.

The Omega workshops were an early 20th century movement way ahead of its time. The exhibition of their work at the Courtauld Gallery was more of a display than an exhibition, but it was good to see their excellent permanent collection of impressionists and post-impressionists again.

OTHER FUN

My friend Jan invited me to a terrific evening at the British Library to hear three generations of theatre producers interviewed for their new theatre archive project. It was a fascinating insight into the producer’s role with lots of great luvvie anecdotes.

We went to five buildings at Open House this year – two re-built but still grand livery company halls (the Clothworkers and the Butchers), a learned society (Royal Astronomical Society) whose librarian banged on a lot, an extraordinary  pre-fabricated 3-story 2-bed wooden private home called Ed’s-Shed and the Olympic Park to see what they’d done since we were there a year ago. I’d been to the Clothworkers before with the Royal Academy Friends but had forgotten! The progress at the Olympic site is staggering – the stadium is at full height, you can see the shape of the Velodrome and the Aqua Centre roof is taking shape. Three years to go and I have to confess I’m excited.

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FRIDAY

Well, it was a surreal start to the festival. I turned up at the appointed time at the Mercure Hotel for a ‘show’ by a Belgian company who had wowed last year. There were 4 others. We stood in a row, then a screen rose to reveal five others who proceeded to change places until they each chose one of us to lead away to a cubicle. Here we were asked personal questions and engaged in what can best be described as ‘speed dating’. After 10 or 15 minutes, we were led to a circle of chairs where the five ‘actors’ proceeded to share aspects of these private conversations in what seemed like group therapy. The fact that three of my fellow audience members were known to me (though we didn’t know each other) – a London fringe theatre director (who was so opinionated pre-show that I took an instant dislike to her), the theatre-director-of-the-moment and his literary collaborator – was a bit disconcerting. At the time, my view of Internal was ‘so what?’ but I have to admit that I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. The day continued to amaze with a production of Faust in a vast shed performed by 100 Romanians. This was the main festival like it was in its hey day, putting on things only festivals can. After over an hour of stunning visual spectacle we left our seats and joined Faust in hell where there was fire, ladies copulating with pigs, dead babies being eaten, fireworks and all manner of hellishness. Back in our seats and the story concluded with Faust’s salvation. Thrilling stuff.

SATURDAY was a day of one-person shows that started with Carol Anne Duffy’s poems The World’s Wife about the women behind men of history / mythology / fiction like Eurydice, Mrs Medusa, Queen Kong (!) and Mrs Darwin  (plus a reversal in the Cray Sisters and an infamous women in Myra Hindley). They were performed superbly by Linda Marlowe and were often very funny and always entertaining. Even an unscheduled 30-minute stop for a sick audience member to be taken away by ambulance didn’t put her off (though it raised questions about the lack of first aiders in a 6-space venue!). In Morcambe, Bob Golding gives an extraordinary performance telling Eric’s life story (with Ernie played by a ventriloquist’s dummy). It was nostalgic, funny and at times deeply moving and I adored it. Eccentric Welsh comic storyteller Hugh Hughes’ show 360 wasn’t as good as his previous shows Floating (about the day when Anglesey floated off into the Atlantic!) and the Story of a Rabbit, but he’s still a one-off. The success of each show depends on the audience and ours had a few too many puzzled souls who probably thought they were going to see a stand-up and couldn’t really ‘go with the flow’.

I opted out of the audio play in headphones whilst walking through the Botanic Garden on SUNDAY morning as it was raining; instead I went to a fascinating exhibition – Spain – that combined Spanish masters like Zubaran, Murillo, El Greco and Goya with British artist ‘visitor’ impressions of Spain. There was a stunning homage to Velasquez by Millais, the only David Robert’s non-Middle East paintings I’ve ever seen, a chilling Spanish Civil War painting from Wyndham Lewis and the best El Greco’s ever! At Home With Holly was a great idea that turned out to be a big mistake. A ‘comedienne’ entertaining you in her flat, except she wasn’t at all funny and covered this up with faux eccentricity which was rather embarrassing. If I could have found a way of sneaking out (one audience member feigned illness!) I would have. There were two stunts (I think) involving an audience member texting and a visit from Health & Safely but I’m afraid they didn’t save the day. Sunday ended with a stunning recital by the world’s greatest baritone, Bryn Terfel. In a largely British programme the Schumann songs seemed out of place, but the Vaughan Williams and Finzi songs were wonderful and the closing Celtic section was a populist move that worked well. He also told a couple of great jokes!

MONDAY at noon saw us in the Barony Bar with a G&T watching Charles Bukowski’s bar room tales unfold in Grid Iron’s Barflies. The small cast were terrific, the live piano accompaniment did much to create the right atmosphere and the close proximity (within drink spilling distance!) fully engaged you with the characters. They moved from funny to sad (watching people get drunk can be so depressing) and in the end you felt you had peeped into the souls of these people and experienced a combination of empathy and revulsion. The Creole Choir from Cuba had a shaky start but it didn’t take long before their African rhythms to take you hostage. They tried to tell the story of the journey from Africa to Haiti and on to Cuba and you certainly heard the music acquire Latin rhythms as the show went on. In the end their infectious enthusiasm and charm enveloped you and you left smiling. Tondal’s Vision is a combination of (mostly medieval) polyphonic music put together by a small Croatian group of female singers to tell the tale of the brief period between life and death of the knight Tondal. It sounded beautiful but the monotony wore you down to the point where you couldn’t wait for it to end. What could have been a 20-30 minute gem became an 80-minute sentence.

TUESDAY started with our first proper Traverse play (The Traverse is one of Britain’s best theatres – on a par with the Almeida and Donmar in London), Orphans. The story of a brother and sister orphaned when their parents died in a fire and the effect of this on their lives, it had a dark brooding atmosphere and lots of twists, playwright Dennis Kelly’s trademarks. Beautifully performed and staged, I found it captivating. The Comedian’s Company was set up a few years back to stage plays largely cast from stand-ups. They had hits with Twelve Angry Men, One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest and Killer Joe but this year’s offering, The School for Scandal – a restoration comedy – was poorly received. I think the critics rather missed the point. It was in effect a panto, which took a lot of licence with Sheriden’s play, ad-libbing and over-acting and generally larking about. I thought it was good fun. It was worth the ticket price for a turn by Lionel Blair and black comedian Stephen K Amos in a frock coat and a powdered wig. Comedian Phil Nichol tried something different this year with an alter ego poet / singer in white suit accompanied by a pianist and double bass player. His fans seemed to find this hard to swallow, but despite it’s overly manic pace and delivery I thought it was intriguing, very rude and often very funny. The day ended with an extraordinary light and sound journey called Power Plant through the greenhouses of the Royal Botanic Garden. Some 22 artists each created pieces, from windpipes with flame jets to illuminated lily ponds to bright kaleidoscopic discs with whirring sounds. Gorgeous.

A late start on WEDNESDAY with Al Murray re-creating his alter ego The Pub Landlord’s 1996 Perrier Award winning show. I love his populist Saturday night ITV show and this had all the features of audience engagement, faux xenophobia and pub character parody. It was very funny indeed. This was followed by The Hotel, created by comedian Mark Watson, where a large New Town house has been turned into a hotel with restaurant, wellness centre, cabaret bar, business centre etc. It was bit hit-and-miss; I loved assessing job applicants in the Board Room (well, I would, wouldn’t I) and thought the Wellness Centre, Chill Out Room (with live guru!) and Cabaret Bar (with Ronnie Golden, no less) worked well, but the Processing Centre, TV Lounge and other parts worked less well and I couldn’t get into the restaurant (only after I left did I think no-one might have got into the restaurant and this was part of the joke?). I was convinced Holly from Sunday afternoon was the masseuse (she gave me a funny look) but maybe I’m being paranoid! Monteverdi’s opera Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria was performed by seven singers, seven instrumentalists and five puppeteers (Handspring, the company behind War Horse at the National). As much as I admired it, it didn’t really engage me – though it’s fair to say the uncomfortable seats, heat and noisy neighbour didn’t help  – and didn’t seem to tell the story particularly well. It divided the group – Jeff thought it was the highlight of the festival! The day ended back at the Traverse for a highly original show called Accidental Nostalgia which started as a Neuroscience lecture and went on to become one woman’s journey through her past to find the truth about her father’s death. At first I thought it was going to be one of those pretentious avante garde NYC pieces like the Wooster Group but it actually turned out to be enthralling. It had the most wonderful country-rock score sung and played live by a terrific four-piece band and the most innovative projections and other visuals tricks.

THURSDAY, our last day, started brilliantly back at the Traverse. Midsummer, a play with songs, is a real departure for playwright David Greig – a feelgood romantic comedy. It tells the story of a mad weekend, but what makes it a cut above the rest is clever structure, weaving back and forth and in and out with lots of clever tricks; a real treat. We followed it with a Traverse production for the main festival, The Last Witch, about – guess what? – the last witch burned in Scotland. The first half was really slow, but it picked up in the second. I think the lack of rehearsal and previews has resulted in a play that frankly isn’t ready; shame. We ended with Welsh comedian Rhod Gilbert whose first 20 minutes were brilliant, but the rest of the hour was a bit patchy. He said burning smells behind the stage distracted him, but we couldn’t smell them from the third row!

Well, that’s another year – apart from Art, an above-average festival, with more variety than usual and lots of quirky one-off things, mostly successful. I’m now chilling out on the Isle of Mull off Scotland’s west coast. It’s chilly and cloudy with a lot of showers, but the seafood’s great! Until 2010 (accommodation already booked!)…..

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Opera

L’Amour de loin is a strange concoction by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho; a 12th century love story played out at a distance between France and Lybia. The music is hypnotic in a Debussy-like way and the staging by a Swiss Italian better known for circus spectacles by Cirque Eloize and Cirque du Soleil includes a lot of colour, light, and flying! I found the first half soporific and the second half slow. The staging is highly inventive, it looks gorgeous and I found the music soothing; but it’s not an entirely satisfying whole. Roderick Williams is superb, Faith Sherman makes an auspicious UK debut, but Joan Rogers was disappointing.

Art

The month started with a frustrating morning in the office, so I sneaked off to catch a handful of small gallery exhibitions. Bill Brandt’s photos were a mixed bunch – I liked the gritty street life but not the surreal nudes. Tracey Emin’s show of drawings (which, in truth, I only really popped into as it was on the way to the next gallery!) was a complete yawn. Howard Hodgkin’s giant colourful prints (£20k to £70k, if you’ve got some spare cash!) were lovely and I was surprised how well they compared with his paintings. David Hockney continues his Yorkshire landscape project with a series of lovely colourful digital prints that have as much impact as the paintings and the portraits they are shown with work well in the same medium.

A very nostalgic exhibition at the Cartoon Museum features cartoons of Margaret Thatcher by the usual suspects. It reminds you how much she divided people and invited vitriolic responses. Gerald Scarfe’s contributions are the best, but there’s a real range here and 15 or so years on it makes a fascinating show.

Bassline is a very atmospheric slide, sound and light installation in the Barbican Car Park 5, but whether it’s worth the lost revenue from an awful lot of parking spaces, I’m not sure. But it passed an interesting 20 minutes between a film and a play!

The Saatchi Gallery’s tour of the contemporary art world continues with Abstract America. This wasn’t as good as the earlier Chinese and Middle East exhibitions and the 10 rooms were rather overshadowed by 1 room of Korean contemporaries and an exhibition of photos by musician Bryan Adams. The Serpentine Gallery has a blockbuster on its hands with Jeff Koon’s Popeye Pictures. The busyness seems to have led the staff to turn into a Gestapo, reciting rules before you could enter. When inside, I found it talentless tacky tosh! It was much better outside, where the Summer Pavilion is a lovely structure by Japanese architects.

The annual Press Photographers exhibition in the NT foyer is great as usual. Covering everything from news to people at play, it has the capacity to bring a smile to your face and a tear to your eye.

Contemporary Music

Marianne Faithfull’s concert at The Royal Festival Hall was a success, as much because of the song selection, arrangements and wonderful band under MD Kate St John. She hasn’t been particularly prolific but she’s survived and it’s this that comes over most. She can’t really sing for toffee but her song interpretations are unique.

Rachel Unthank & The Bairns’ concert at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio was an absolute gem. The song selection hadn’t changed much since I last saw them around a year ago, but the venue, audience and significance of the evening (the lovely Steph’s last major concert with them) somehow combined to make it very special indeed.

Lucinda Williams’ concert was a strange affair. After a shaky start she threw a wobble three songs in, citing incessant photo taking as the reason, followed by the barrier in front of the stage and later nervousness (with an attempt to flatter us? by telling us this only happens in LA, NYC and London). A long period of ‘going through the motions’ with no audience engagement (not even a smile crossed her face) meant that she took too long to recover from this, effectively sabotaging her own concert. Her band (who had their own instrumental set as support) is terrific and she’s got some great songs, so the whole thing was such a shame. A whole concert turns on a small wobble!

Classical Music

My three-visits-in-five-days to the Proms started with a celebration of Cambridge University’s 800th anniversary. Once you’d ignored the rather obnoxious audience, it turned out to be a lovely programme including a world premiere and choral pieces by two other living composers. Simon Keenlyside was wonderful singing Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs and it was great to see conductor Andrew Davies (now mostly based in the US) again. The second was a fascinating East-meets-West programme of mostly Japanese and French 20th century music. In the final part, Debussy’s La Mer sat very comfortably alongside Hosokawa’s Cloud & Light even though there were 100 years and 6000 miles between them. The third was a programme of British 20th century music by three composers who dies within 4 months of each other 75 years ago this year. It included a rare outing for Holst’s Choral Symphony which sets Keats poems (and the first at the proms against the 90th for Elgar’s Enigma Variations!). I thought it was absolutely fascinating and cannot for the life of me understand why it is so neglected whilst his Planets is so over-exposed.

Film

Bruno was even more outrageous than I was expecting and there were many laughs and a lot of open mouth moments. I think it’s as good as Borat, but whether he’ll be able to come up with a third, I’m not so sure – I think the formula may have run its course. I decided to see the new Harry Potter at the IMAX in (partly) 3D as I’d so enjoyed Superman, Spiderman and an earlier Potter in the same way. It’s a terrific experience, but HP6 is a darker, sadder affair without the excitement of its predecessors. All the teenage stuff was funny though.

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This is only the second MIF. The first, two years ago (it’s biennial), had one big coup – Damon Albarn / Jamie Hewlett’s ‘opera’ Monkey. This one has lots!

My visit started with It Felt Like A Kiss, a site specific installation / film / journey from Punchdrunk. This is the fourth of their shows I’ve seen – The Firebird Ball was their take on Romeo & Juliet in a disused factory in Kennington, their version of Faust was in a warehouse in Docklands and The Mask of the Red Death, based on Poe stories, took over the entire Battersea Arts Centre building. This show covers six floors of an empty office block and starts with a walk through lots of rooms, initially 50s/60s Americana (the American Dream?) later becoming more mysterious (broken dream?). These take you to an extraordinary 35-minute film montage, which seems to show the American Dream unravelling, before you enter a more sinister phase where you are ‘processed’ in groups you are instructed to stay in but are prevented from doing so. I ended up being chased from the building by a man with a chainsaw! It has a great soundtrack of contemporary music plus an original score by Damon Albarn. I found it just as inventive but more accessible than their earlier work, largely because it was linear. A surreal 2 hours I suspect I will never forget.

I love the Royal Exchange Theatre; it’s like sitting in a spaceship which has landed inside a historic building. I haven’t been there for ages but have fond memories of Alan Price’s musical Lucky Man, an adaptation of Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker and an all-day Count of Monte Cristo. Neil Bartlett’s Everybody Loves A Winner is a play about bingo and people who play bingo. They’ve turned the theatre into a seedy bingo hall and obtained a license so that the audience can play during the play (for a £200 jackpot!). It’s a great idea which at first seems just populist fun, but it also has a lot to say about the motivation of the players and their exploitation, without in any way patronising them. It was both entertaining and thought provoking – but I didn’t win the £200!

The Manchester City Art Gallery has put on a cracking festival exhibition called What Are You Like? based on the Victorian practice of drawing / painting your likes and dislikes. They’ve asked public figures to produce their own and, with no other rules, the variety is amazing. People like Andrew Marr and Anna Ford prove to be talented artists and there are hilarious contributions from cartoonists Glen Baxter & Peter Brookes. I’d never been to this gallery before so it was an opportunity to see their permanent collection, which majors on the Victorian period with a superb collection of Pre-Raphaelites and some good impressionists (including a wonderful one new to me, Adolphe Valette, who taught in Manchester and whose pupils included Lowry).

Rufus Wainwright is one of my favourite singers; he has an extraordinary voice and writes wonderful songs. His debut opera, Prima Donna, is a real coup for MIF and they’ve easily sold out the six performances. In many ways it’s an old fashioned opera, more like Puccini than anything else, which suits it’s subject matter – a Prima Donna who can no longer perform – as does its performance in French. There is much lush music and lovely tunes and the story (of why she can no longer perform) unfolds well. His lack of operatic experience shows as he writes beyond the range of his singers (though probably not beyond his own!) as does the lack of experience of director Daniel Kramer who sometimes gives the singers too much to do whilst they are trying to sing! It’s certainly not the finished article, but it is a most auspicious debut and suggests there is at least one masterpiece further down the line.

Architect Zaha Hadid has created a temporary chamber concert venue on the 2nd floor of the City Art Gallery specifically for the performance of solo pieces by Bach. On the evening I went it was four cello suites performed by young French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras. In truth, 80 minutes of Bach solo cello meant it outstayed its welcome, but it was nevertheless a great experience.

This festival’s mission of only mounting commissions or other new work successfully differentiates it from others and based on this year’s programme, I shall certainly be back.

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OPERA

At the Guildhall School of Music & Drama there was a pairing of Martinu and  Rossini one-act comic operas. I love these Guildhall opera evenings – always value and often a treat. I wasn’t mad keen on the music of the Martinu though I liked the production and performances (particularly Nicky Spence). The Rossini, an inspired setting in a lap dancing club, was a hoot, with Spanish soprano Elena Sancho-Pereg giving a sensational vocal performance. Who needs Covent Garden when you can have as much fun as this for a sixth of the price.

Roberto Devereaux at Opera Holland Park made for a nice summer evening. There’s something formulaic about Donizetti’s operas, his obsession with setting British history is intriguing, and the result – assorted queens, dukes and duchesses emoting histrionically in Italian – is somewhat incongruous. Having said that, this is the perfect opera for OHP’s backdrop and it looks both attractive & authentic, it was played and sung beautifully and a good time was had by all. OHP is a summer must and this rare outing of this opera was very welcome.

James MacMillan’s opera Parthenogenesis (fatherless conception) is based on a 2nd World War tale about a woman whose conception is triggered by a bomb blast. It’s an intriguing story but it makes for a slight 50-minute opera, which I’m not sure is worthy of the huge resources the ROH have heaped upon it. It has some lovely atmospheric music and passionate performances, but designing in restricted views for those at the side (well, certainly on the left) is unnecessary, inconsiderate and unforgivable.

I’d been so looking forward to Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Royal College of Music. As soon as I saw there was no designer credit in the programme, I groaned…..and so it was; an opera set in a forest without a tree, bush, branch or even leaf in sight. It’s not easy to enjoy Britten’s magical music in such an unmagical setting. It didn’t help that the Britten Theatre, with the most uncomfortable seats, was hot, stuffy and airless.

 CLASSICAL MUSIC

Another concert in Julius Drake’s English song series at the Wigmore Hall; this time with soprano, mezzo, clarinet and piano! The programme combined rarer pieces and curiosities with the usual suspects (which is probably why it was so empty) so it was different but complimented the earlier concerts in the series. I’ve really enjoyed these.

The programme for the City of London Choir’s concert of rarely performed English choral music was inspired – two works by Vaughan Williams & Holst bookending pieces by Britten, Parry & Foulds – with the symmetry of a secular first half with piano and harp accompaniment and a scared unaccompanied second half. Despite my love of British music, all bar VW’s Mass in G was new to me and it was an absolute treat.

I love work which breaks out of the theatre or concert hall, and this year Spitalfields Festival invited five extraordinary musicians and four composers from the Royal Academy of Music to create music in the old Huguenot houses of Spitalfields. We visited five houses in 100 minutes and were given solo Baroque Cello, Tuba, Flute, Clarinet and Violin (with electronic soundscape). In addition to four new pieces (all for violin) they included a whole range of composers from Bach to Turnage and I though the whole experience was enthralling, with a walk around the much gentrified Spitalfields a real bonus.

My only visit to this year’s City of London Festival was for a chamber programme by the Hebrides Ensemble at the wonderful Stationers’ Hall. The programme of this year’s festival is 60º North, linking music from Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, St. Petersburg and the Scottish isles. Tonight’s programme had Sibelius, Shostakovich and Stravinsky plus three living Scots (or adopted Scots) Peter Maxwell Davies, James MacMillan and Judith Weir and a bonus from Iceland. It was inspired programming – challenging but thrilling – and the venue was terrific. I loved the way the organisers mingled with the punters over a (free) glass of wine in the interval. Bravo!

ART

The one-room exhibition of Picasso prints at the NG complements the main exhibition, but it was a mixed bag. Next door at the NPG there was a small but brilliant exhibition of photos of Bob Dylan’s famous 1966 tour. I never saw the tour, but it still felt nostalgic. Richard Long is an eccentric Bristolian who travels the world carrying out obsessive walks, creating art from nature. The trouble is, photos and word descriptions don’t do this justice and in this huge Tate Britain exhibition the one room of stone sculptures just isn’t enough to capture your imagination. Also at Tate Britain, BP Connections is a slim contemporary art exhibition but it does deliver one coup – a room of (seemingly) ethnic sculptures collected from around the world by the Chapman family. They turn out to be modern creations with hidden references to a hamburger chain, its character for kids and hamburgers themselves! The exhibition of actor Anthony Sher’s paintings at the NT is wonderful; he’s as good an artist as he is an actor. The portraits in this exhibition include his family, but it is largely made up of fellow actors. At the same venue, the 30th anniversary of Greenwich Printmakers is celebrated by a lovely exhibition which shows just how under-rated printmaking is. The exhibition is made up of a very eclectic selection, but its more hit than miss. I ventured into another unexplored part of fast up-and-coming arty E1 / E2 for an exhibition of 60’s photos by ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins, an extraordinary man who founded International Times and set up the UFO club. The pictures, which ranged from street kids to The Beatles via demos and drugs, were terrific. Futurism at Tate Modern proved much more extensive and exciting than I was expecting; an amazing range of work that is mind-blowing today, so imagine seeing this for the first time 100 years ago. At the same venue, a major retrospective of Danish artist Per Kirkeby (who I’d never heard of) started with a yawn, but rather grew on me. The sculptures were awful but the big canvases splashed with colour were lovely – very Hodkinesque!

FILM

Two of Britain’s greatest film directors have tried lighter fare with their latest outings. Whereas Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky failed to impress me, Ken Loach’s Looking for Eric proved to be a real treat – utterly charming and ultimately hopeful. I have little interest in football, no interest in Man United and to me Eric Cantona is some idiosyncratic Frenchman who uttered quirky statements at press conferences, but even I was captivated by what is clearly a bizarre cult. Nick Moran’s Telstar was a good play with a sensational leading performance by Con O’Neil. The story of 60’s record producer Joe Meek, it makes a good film but somehow I think it could have been a great one if he’d handed it over to another director able to bring objectivity and a new perspective. Con O’Neill reprises his role (less sensationally on screen) and is accompanied by a superb collection of young actors and a surprisingly good retired army major from Kevin Spacey!

OTHER

The prospect of a concert version of Kurt Weil’s first Broadway musical, after his exile from Nazi Germany, was a tempting one. It’s a First World War tale called Johnny Johnson which, for the 30’s, made very brave statements about young men as cannon fodder. In reality it’s a musical play, not a musical, and by including all of the dialogue it outstayed its welcome at over 3 hours. A curiosity, but not particularly entertaining.

I’ve got mixed views about classical ballet – I can’t stand the dancer hierarchies, the overly mannered performances, the sickly unnatural bows & curtain calls and the audience! – but when it’s good it takes your breath away as Jewels, a triple bill of Balanchine ballets to music by Faure, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, did at Covent Garden. The costumes and sets were gorgeous, the three ballets were complimentary and much of the dancing – particularly from Carlos Acosta, Alexandra Ansanelli and Rupert Pennefather – really did take your breath away.

Taste of London in Regent’s Park has now become an annual must. It features 36 restaurants, each presenting 3-4 signature dishes for you to sample in small portions for between £3 and £6. It has grown to include cooking master classes, lectures, wine & other drinks, cooking shops etc. We found a nice place in the VIP enclosure and took it in turns to wander around and sample 10 dishes each. It has got very popular (it is now replicated around the world) and may become overstretched, but for now it’s still a fun afternoon.

Having heard about the completion of their renovations and added galleries etc., I couldn’t resist a trip to Northampton to see one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s last commissions – 78 Derngate. It’s a small terraced house which is fascinating because it shows how he was evolving towards Art Deco – more geometric (triangles and straight lines) and stronger colouring (black combined with yellow, purple and turquoise). They have taken over two adjoining houses so that they can add galleries and the customary shop and restaurant. I particularly like the fact that they’ve given over galleries to modern designers for selling exhibitions.

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