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Posts Tagged ‘Classical Music’

OPERA & CLASSICAL MUSIC

Handel’s Giustino, one of his 42 operas!, was given a very rare performance by Trinity College of Music in Wren’s wonderful Royal Naval College Chapel in Greenwich. The staging was a bit hit-and-miss but the singing was terrific. The venue has great acoustics and a wonderful atmosphere, but the pews proved a challenge for a bum-numbing 3 hours 10 mins. Welsh National Opera’s Queen of Spades is another feather in their cap. I found it a bit imbalanced, with a first act that dragged and the next three speeding along, but you couldn’t fault the innovative staging and fine performances and Tchaikovsky’s music is gorgeous. Peter Grimes is, in my view, the greatest opera of the 20th century and this spring at the ENO, it got the production it deserved. The orchestra and chorus under Edward Gardner were electrifying and have never sounded better. In a terrific British cast, John Daszak was a fine Peter with particularly stunning support from Felicity Palmer’s Mrs Sedley, Matthew Best’s Swallow, Gerald Finley’s Balstrode and Amanda Roocroft’s Ellen. This is one of the best things the ENO have ever done and it’s great to see this recently troubled company on such a roll.

I paid my first visit to London’s newest concert venue – Kings Place – for an OAE (Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment) concert of Handel concerti, arias and a short cantata and it was a treat. I’d never heard soprano Julia Doyle before but I can’t wait to see her again; she has a lovely voice. The OAE chamber group played beautifully and the venue really is terrific – two small halls of c.200 and c.400 seats with two galleries, restaurant and café and a canal-side setting. At St John’s Smith Square, the Lufthansa Baroque Festival opened with Handel’s oratorio Athalia. The German chorus & orchestra were exceptional as were the soloists, particularly Sarah Fox; though soprano Simone Kermes rather overdid her acting histrionics. A few days later, Handel’s opera Arianna in Creta, in concert at the Barbican, disappointed largely because in all truth the music is second rate Handel and its far too long. I was taken to a home concert in Kensington to hear South Africa’s entry to the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, baritone Dawid Kimberg, give a run through of his repertoire. He sang far too loudly for a drawing room, so that there was no light and shade and no subtlety and his choice of programme was a bit idiosyncratic – eclectic, but not the best of any of the composers chosen. Delius’ Mass of Life isn’t really a mass at all, but an oratorio based on Neitshe’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. I love Delius but I’d never heard this and it proved to be a complex and demanding piece, particularly for baritone Alan Opie who rose to the occasion magnificently. The Bach Choir and the Philharmonia were also lucky to have Susan Bullock, Susan Bickley and Nigel Robson as well as Alan Opie and it was a great performance. It has to be stopped at one point because an alarm had gone off in some lady’s bag; she bizarrely tried to sit it out until she realised the show would not go on. I’ve never seen so many dirty looks and I was amazed she had the nerve to stay.

 CONTEMPORARY MUSIC

Nick Lowe defines growing old gracefully and on his current tour he’s happy, charming and on great form. The selection was skewed to the 90’s but executed with perfection. I’ve never really taken to support Ron Sexsmith, but on this occasion I began to get the point – maybe he’s matured, or maybe I haven’t given him a fair crack of the whip until now. Anthony Hegarty is a bit of a one-off – when you hear him sing his hypnotic songs with his extraordinary voice you find it hard to believe it’s coming out of this tall, stocky, transgender, British-Canadian. I’d seen two earlier shows – one a collaboration with an artist and one with the LSO, but this was my first ‘bog standard’ Anthony & The Johnsons concert. Apart from a long ramble about climate change which continued into the song Hope Mountain thereby spoiling it, he sat at the piano in a half-light hardly engaging with the audience – but the sound that emanated from his mouth with piano / acoustic guitar / string accompaniment was heavenly. Malian singer / guitarist Rokia Traore has been a favourite since an impulsive visit to see her in Cambridge on a free evening during a short work assignment a few years ago. I think she’s moving too much away from traditional instrumentation, but when she’s rolling she’s simply terrific. She has one of the best rhythm sections I’ve ever heard and the whole Barbican audience was on its feet dancing – it was just impossible to sit still.

ART

I love the V&A’s comprehensive reviews of periods / styles which have in the past included Art Deco, Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, Modernism and Gothic. Baroque is just as comprehensive and if it’s less enjoyable that’s more to do with this OTT style than the exhibition. It really made the point that the style permeated everything and travelled far. I enjoyed the National Gallery’s Picasso:Challenging the Past much more than I thought I would. It’s a clever curatorial idea – how he paid homage to artists before him – that captures your imagination. At the NPG there is a stunning ‘installation’ of c.300 paintings of St. Fabiola by Francis Alys, based on an original now lost, discovered in places like flea markets and crammed onto 8 walls in 2 rooms. All but c.5 of them face left and all but c.15 are the same colour and it takes your breath away was soon as you enter the first room. I love Diane Arbus’ quirky 60’s portraits of real people but the exhibition at the Timothy Taylor Galleries was disappointing because of the overlap with her big V&A exhibition a few years back.

CINEMA

The British comedy Is Anyone There? featuring Michael Caine disappointed me – it was charming but it all seemed so contrived with a stunning British cast somewhat wasted. For some reason, I could hardy stay awake in Star Trek but what I did see seemed rather good, so I left the cinema deeply frustrated. I can’t say I understood Synecdoche New York but I was captivated by the surreal weirdness of it all. It made Kauffman’s earlier films – Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – seem positively straightforward.

OTHER

I was lucky to be invites to the London International Wine Fair, the major trade event. It was a bit of a maze and as a LIWF virgin I’m not sure I got the best out of it, but it was an excellent experience all the same.

I’ve wanted to see La Clique in Edinburgh but it’s normally at 1am and I’m not convinced anything can keep me awake at that hour in a darkened room. It’s been so well received in London that I was surprised to find myself underwhelmed. I was expecting edgy but got mainly mainstream and rather tame. Maybe it’s running out of stream after a long run.

The month ended at Bale de Rua, a colourful high energy Brazilian street dance show and the last in the Barbican’s BITE season. It started a bit over-slick and conventional but soon took off; another show picked up from the Edinburgh fringe.

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MUSIC & OPERA

Only two operas and an oratorio in a musically lean two months! Dr Atomic at ENO would have been a much better opera if he’d cut it by 30 mins (especially in the more static first half). I liked the design and staging, the music is accessible and there are some very good performances (though Gerald Finley’s understudy didn’t really cut it and looked too young) but it’s a case of more is less. I saw the premiere of The King Goes Forth to France at Covent Garden in the 80’s, but enjoyed this revival at the wonderful Guildhall School so much more (or maybe I’ve grown into modern opera). This production seemed to lighten the fantasy and bring out the humour and the staging and performances were yet again exceptional for a conservatoire. Another conservatoire put on the hugely ambitious Britten War Requiem with considerable success. The venue was tiny so the singers and musicians outnumbered the audience but this gave this anti-war piece so much more power.

Maria Friedman’s Sondheim concert was the fourth I’ve seen by her in the last year. Her interpretations of Sondheim are as goods as any others and the selection was as inspired as the choice of cello and piano accompaniment.

CINEMA

I was put off Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino because I thought it was a classic revenge movie; I’m glad I gave in as it’s a lot more than that – and it may well be the last chance to see him act.

The Boat That Rocked was overlong and would have benefited from an independent director’s scrutiny. However, it was nowhere near as bad as the reviews and is worth the ticket price for the soundtrack alone.

ART & EXHIBITIONS

Another dire month for ‘art’ though better for ‘other’ exhibitions. The only art exhibitions I enjoyed were Rodchenko / Popova at Tate Modern (way-ahead-of-its-time iconic design – the posters, pamphlets and other graphic designs were as captivating as the paintings), the Japanese painter /  illustrator Kyunoshi’s stunning range of work at the Royal Academy and the wonderful original artwork for London Travel Posters  at the London Transport Museum.

All of the contemporary stuff was disappointing – the middle eastern contemporaries at the Saatchi were patchy though there were a few crackers, the Annette Messager installations at the Hayward seemed to me to be the product of a disturbed mind and I found it impossible to like, and worst of all was Tate Britain’s dreadful After Modern; like walking through the cast-off’s in an art school after they’ve taken the good stuff out for an exhibition.

I’m afraid the oldies didn’t fare much better – Tate Britain’s Van Dyck exhibition was only for those who are prepared to view room after room of lifeless nobles in their finery in preposterous over-staged poses and Constable’s portraits at the NPG were even less interesting than his biscuit-tin landscapes.

Gerard Richter’s photo-paintings at the NPG didn’t do a lot for me either, I’m afraid, though the DeutscheBank Photo Prize finalists at the new Photographer’s Gallery as the best short-list in a while.

Of the two architecture exhibitions, I preferred Le Corbusier at The Barbican to Paladio at the RA, though there were too many drawings which may be fascinating to an architect but rather dull to a layman.

The Russian Linesman collection at the Hayward seemed to me to be another of those excuses-for-an-exhibition that the Hayward (and others) are rather too fond of.

I caught up with the British Museum’s Babylon just before it closed and even though it falls into the excuse-for-an-exhibition category, like the Queen if Sheba before it at the same museum, there were enough good exhibits to excuse it on this occasion. By the time I saw it the Shah Abbas exhibition had moved into the converted Reading Room and proved to be as good as The First Emperor and Hadrian before it with some terrific exhibits, but above all telling the story of a great leader very well.

The Natural History Museum’s Darwin exhibition was a huge disappointment – very static; you’d learn more and have more fun reading a book. The V&A’s contribution was an exhibition about Hats which I went to ‘passing through’ the museum but I’m afraid left me cold – it was crowded though, so its clearly up a lot of other people’s streets. I was there to see the new performance galleries and they proved to be a real treat – a superb collection of costumes, memorabilia, video clips really well curated in just four galleries (though rather hidden somewhere on the 3rd floor). We went to the new British Music Experience at the O2 in its first week. It’s a terrific interactive tribute to 50 years of popular music. You can learn to play instruments, watch and hear video and sound clips and view memorabilia and store what you like onto a web space you can then access at your leisure. I’m not sure I’ll access my attempts at drumming and keyboard playing much, but I did love the experience and could have stayed all day. Of course, you tend to concentrate on your favourite period – in my case 60’s and 70’s – and provided the visitor age range is as wide as it was the day we went that means the visitor numbers are managed well.

DANCE

Eonnagata is a collaboration between a favourite dancer (Sylvie Guillem), a favourite theatre director (Robert Lepage) and a favourite choreographer (Russell Maliphant). I’m not sure the idea of staging a story of a transvestite 17th century French nobleman works, but the craftsmanship is unquestionable and the visual imagery stunning; I was spellbound for all 90  minutes.

OTHER

Frank Skinner’s Credit Crunch Cabaret was a great idea – a variety show thrown together on the day for a tenner. It was a hit-and-miss affair but enough of a hit to make it a decent birthday treat. My other (surprise) birthday (and Christmas) treat was a visit to Simon Drake’s House of Magicwww.houseofmagic.co.uk – I think Lynne & Graham were as pleased that the surprise remained a surprise and that they’d found something in London I’d never heard of as they were that I enjoyed it so much – it’s a very original night out.

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OPERA & MUSIC

 Well it was a busy month for opera, with three each from Opera North in London and WNO in Cardiff plus one each at the ENO and Covent Garden.

I suppose none of the Opera North offerings were really opera. Skin Deep was a modern operetta about cosmetic surgery – a great idea with a sparkling libretto and some good music, but it was a good two-act / two-hour piece hiding inside an overlong three-act / three-hour piece. It shouldn’t have been three hours, but Sadler’s Wells seem to find it difficult to prevent a 20-min interval becoming 40. The Gershwin pair – Of Thee I Sing and Let Them Eat Cake – are satirical musicals about democracy set in the US in the 50’s. Though not great musicals, they proved fascinating pieces with a bite way ahead of their time and a surprising resonance to recent events.

I’ve begun to look forward to my trips to Cardiff to see WNO on their home ground. It’s a very customer-friendly experience (free talks before every opera and good pre-performance foyer music) that outshines ENO (twice the price) or the Royal Opera (four times the price) whilst still providing world class opera, with an outstanding orchestra and chorus. Next seasons singers include Bryn Terfel, Amanda Roocroft and Simon Keenlyside; this is no second best. On this trip, the highlight was Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love, a frothy concoction given a fresh production with four superb leads, including the British debut of a young Greek American singer called Dimitri Pittas with a gorgeous tenor tone. Salome was very good but would have been a classic if it were not for two issues – the person who fainted in the row behind us (resulting in 30 mins of faffing around to get her out of the theatre!) and Matthew Best’s decision to sing when he wasn’t really up to it (the terrific stand in from 2 days earlier should have stayed). Still, it was another UK debut, a Swedish American soprano called Erika Sunnegardh, who we’ll be hearing a lot more of. I’ve always thought The Marriage of Figaro was too long – a classic case of more is less – and I haven’t changed my mind. The singing was uniformly excellent but it takes so long to tell the story and the stylish elegance of the design seems at odds with what is after all a farce.

Jonathan Miller’s La Boheme at ENO was a good enough production, but in the first half the orchestra drowned out the soloists, which rather defeats the point of singing it in English. It picked up in the second half, but that just isn’t good enough when you’ve paid £80. At The Linbury Studio in Covent Garden a new opera by George Benjamin was paired with a short Harrison Birtwhistle piece and it turned out to be a treat; both operas being high on tension much suited to the modern musical setting.

I made an impulsive visit to the Temple Church to see the Tiffin Boy’s Choir (often seen at operas and oratorios as they are one of the best boy’s choirs) fund-raising for a tour to New Zealand. It was a terrific programme and the acoustics of the church suited it. Sitting in the pews sipping champagne, it was a real delight.

I saw Maria Friedman’s last show twice and loved it. This one, at a very empty Shaw Theatre, was a largely new selection – The British Songbook – which went from Purcell through Gilbert & Sullivan, music hall and wartime songs to The Beatles and it was wonderful. She really knows how to interpret a song and the accompanying quartet suited them in the same way that the bigger band suited the last selection.

The Fleet Foxes disappointed largely because it was just ‘the-album-live’, not really adding anything. They have a lot more material than they gave in a short 60-min set (more like 45-50 mins if you take out the faffing around) and the rock style venue (The Roundhouse) didn’t really suit the gentle harmonies. If anything, support band Vetever fared better.

CINEMA

Anvil, a Canadian documentary about an aging heavy metal band which never really sustained its early success, is a wonderful feelgood film. It’s ‘Spinal Tap’ for real and I found myself moving from laughter to tears, completely captivated by the life story of the two men at the centre of it.

Doubt was one of three disappointments alongside Revolutionary Road and Vicky Christina Barcelona. I suppose I didn’t like the ambiguity of Doubt, though that is probably the point, and I didn’t really find Meryl Streep’s nun particularly believable. Revolutionary Road was a lot of talent wasted on a story that wasn’t worth it, though again the period setting was great. The best thing about Vicky was Penelope Cruz who did a great turn as a neurotic Spanish woman (though very Almodovar); otherwise it seemed a mediocre movie which didn’t look anything like as good as all of the others.

Benjamin Button was a great piece of film making, but it they’d cut the first half by 30% it would have been so much better. Brad Pitt gave another impressive performance (following hot on the heels of Burn After Reading) and I’m beginning to rate him having thought him over-rated in the past.

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ART & EXHIBITIONS

What a disappointing month! I can’t really see the point of Rothko and found his Tate Modern exhibition dull. The Miereles installations and Gonzales-Foerster in the turbine hall at the same venue were only slightly more interesting. The Royal Academy’s GSK Modern was another dull affair; if this lot are the best of British contemporary art, god help us. The best of Indian contemporary art at the Serpentine was better, but still not up to the outstanding selection of Chinese contemporary’s at the Saatchi, which was the highlight of these two months. This was my first visit to the new Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea and what a great space it is too.

 The Warhol exhibition at the Hayward was all video and films so you’d need to spend a few days there to see it all. I dipped in for a couple of hours, but can’t say I got much out of it.

Photography fared better with a very good Capra / Taro exhibition at The Barbican. These were mostly black & white war photographs, many from the Spanish Civil War, and provided a stunning photographic documentary on these events. At the NPG, the Annie Leibovitz exhibition had its moments, but I didn’t really like the idea of the personal story interwoven with the work; it somehow seemed rather self-indulgent and vain.

CINEMA

In the run-up to all those awards, cinemas are awash with good films; then you spend 10 months looking for something worth seeing. Well, this year was no exception.

I have to agree with all the accolades given to Slumdog Millionaire. It somehow managed to portray the contradictions of India – all that poverty but all that contentment and hope – without the usual tourist glamorisation. I can’t agree with the ‘feelgood’ label, but it’s certainly hopeful and uplifting.

I’m glad I didn’t have to choose the best actor awards because it would be impossible to select from Micky Rourke in The Wrestler, Sean Penn in Milk and Frank Langella in Frost / Nixon. The problem with the Wrestler was that as much as I admired the performance, I didn’t really have empathy with the subject matter. Penn was a revelation and the film captured the period and the significance of the events brilliantly. The expressions on Langella’s face told much more than words and it’s a shame that he missed out on recognition. The film gripped you just as much as the play but those close ups added much.

Though a rather sad and depressing film, The Reader was craftsmanship of the highest order. Kate Winslett was terrific and deserved her accolades, but the boy was great too and somehow got ignored in the awards round. Though the story of The Changeling was fascinating and the period setting excellent (but why so much lipstick!) I somehow found it an old fashioned film So now I suppose it’ll be lean film times for another 10 months!

A lean month for OPERA and MUSIC with just one visit to the Wigmore Hall’s where the exploration of English songs continued with another lovely programme of the usual suspects – RVW et al.

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At the Wigmore Hall, a delightful concert of songs by Vaughan Williams and Ivor Gurney with tenor Allan Clayton, the Navarra Quartet and pianist Julius Drake proved to be the best of the three in the series commemorating 50 years since the death of Vaughan Williams. Gurney is so neglected and I’d only just realised how much he owed VW for supporting him throughout his long mental illness.

I’ve tired of Josh Rouse’s recorded work of late, as it is all sounding the same. I decided to go to his concert though as the Union Chapel is such a good venue. He now has a body of work from which he can pick a killer set and so he did. The atmosphere was reverential but warm, the acoustics brilliants for acoustic guitar and / or piano and one / two voices. Lovely.

Coldplay surprised me by the way they turned the vast O2 Arena into a space that can be both spectacular and intimate. With excellent sound and visuals, they proved to be a better live band than they are a recorded one which I wasn’t frankly expecting. This was my second visit to the O2 and I’ve already decided that it’s the only large scale venue I’m prepared to visit, albeit only if smaller venue options are not possible.

The first family of folk, led by son Teddy Thompson, put on a Christmas concert in aid of Amnesty International which turned out to be a real treat. Guests included folk godfathers Bob Davenport and Bert Jansch, Gareth’s current faves Rachel Unthank & the Winterset, Kathryn Williams with Neil McColl (son of UK/US folk marriage of Ewan McColl & Peggy Seeger), newcomer Brendan Campbell, Jenni Muldaur (yes, Maria’s daughter!), Ed Harcourt and non-folkies Chris Difford (Squeeze) and Justin Bond. The highlight was seeing three generations of Thompson’s sing together for the very first time. Richard flew over especially for the concert and shared the stage with his ex Linda, daughter Kami (who was on my Cajun Music tour in 2004 with her step-mum), son Teddy and grandson Zak. Teddy’s delight was infectious.

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A lot of dance this month, starting with Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Stravinsky triple bill. Petrushka was a bit of a museum piece and in The Firebird they allowed the spectacle to overtake the ballet (but the music’s always lovely), so it was the newer production, Le Baiser de la feu which we enjoyed most; the critics, of course, thought the opposite! I’d been looking forward to Mark Morris’ Romeo-and-Juliet-with-a-happy-ending for a long time. This is apparently the lost first version of Prokofiev’s wonderful score, recently uncovered and restored. It’s not Morris’ best work but there was much to enjoy and the critical panning was totally unjustified. Being a lover of Howard Goodall’s music, I had to go to Rambert to see the premiere of their new ballet set to his especially composed requiem Eternal Light. The music was gorgeous but I found the dance uninspiring and the design tacky. The final dance piece was Independent’s Ballet Wales’ Under Milk Wood, which proved to be a delightful and charming chamber piece which didn’t dispense with the verse but illustrated it.

 

An opera-rich month too, starting with a new Michael Berkley chamber opera called For You. It was well staged and sung but the music isn’t particularly accessible so it left me a bit cold. At the Guildhall School, a wonderful rare Gluck opera, Le Recontre Imprevue, proved to be a delight in a highly inventive and very funny production. Three outings to ENO this month, the first to Partenope, yet another lovely Handel (there seem to be so many of them and I wonder if I’ll ever get to see them all). Later in the month, a disappointing Boris Gudunov which was rather static – come on, sing, go off, someone else comes on and sings, goes off – so even though it was musically good it didn’t really inspire. The third was Vaughan Williams short opera The Riders to the Sea. I’d seen a concert version in Brighton in May and this was musically as good and was well staged – but I felt cheated. They added a short Sibelius piece and a musical link which I thought was pointless. Instead, they should have paired it with another British one-acter and given us a full evening rather than a slight 55 minute morsel.

 

The Vaughan Williams 50th anniversary also produced two concerts of symphonies and shorter pieces at the Royal Festival Hall, both of which were real treats. The Philharmonia and Richard Hickox have done the anniversary proud – unlike the opera companies and other orchestras who should bow their heads is shame. Les Arts Florissants’ concert version of a rare Rameau opera at the Barbican was well performed but I wondered if the work was worth it. The musical month ended with the Bach Choir at the RFH in a combination of Howells and Vaughan Williams with an eccentric Maxwell Davies world premiere thrown in.

 

After the Philharmonia concerts but before the Bach Choir and Riders, the news of Richard Hickox death at the untimely age of 60 came as a real shock. Richard was the undisputed champion of British music and being a lover of Britten, Vaughan Williams and Elgar I was at his concerts regularly; four times in his last 6 months. His semi-stage Pilgrim’s Progress may well prove to be a career high, though there were so many. I became a friend of his Endellion Festival this year so that I could add a visit to my musical life. His death is a sad sad loss.

 

I also went to my first live Opera in HD at the cinema and loved it. It was Robert Lepage’s stunning production of Berlioz’ The Damnation of Faust live from the Met in New York. The sound and pictures were great and I liked the backstage stuff before and during the interval. I could have done without the preposterous audience members who dressed up, quaffed champagne and applauded as if it was the real thing. The only other cinema outing was to see the new Bond movie; after an exhausting month and in a hot cinema I’m afraid I dozed for the first part so if anyone would like to update me on the story….it was nice to see Bolivia as a film location anyway!

 

Art-wise, Byzantium at the Royal Academy was well worth the visit but I think I’d have preferred it to be chronological. The small exhibition of Miro, Braque, Calder & Giacometti was much better than I was expecting (given that I don’t really like any of them that much!).

 

A staged evening of the last two Scott Walker albums with guest stars like Jarvis Cocker and Damon Albarn seemed like a good idea at the time but turned out to be rather pretentious and dull. At the lovely Bush Hall the Carolina Chocolate Drops were the sensation my American friends said they would be. The atmosphere was wonderful and this trio performed a range of bluegrass, blues, country….you name it, which had you clapping, tapping and smiling. Finally, a rare visit by the legendary Todd Rundgren to promote his new heavy rock album. Though good, he made the mistake of following 30 minutes of oldies with an unbroken 70 minutes of the entire new album in sequence. Not all the tracks work well live and they would have been better interspersed with the old stuff. By the time he got to two great encores, much of the buzz had gone.

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The month’s highlights were almost all musical, and they were all crammed into the last week. Scottish folkie Julie Fowlis sings entirely in Gaelic. Accompanied by her excellent small band, her Union Chapel concert was an absolute delight.

 

The free New Orleans Festival at O2 was a hit-and-miss affair – ambitious but badly organised – but we still managed to take in excellent sets from two people recommended by the friends we met at the real NO Festival in 2004 – jazz pianist Marcia Ball and blues guitarist John Mooney.

 

Over at the Barbican, the LSO accompanied two musicians on successive nights. Their pairing with Mali Kora player Toumani Diabate was the less successful as the orchestra didn’t really add anything; his solo show at St Luke’s in May was better. The evening was redeemed by short solo and band sets. The following night they fitted the sound of Anthony & The Johnsons like a glove and the combined sound was heavenly.

 

The musical month ended with a retro evening with 80’s diva Mari Wilson who seems to be having a renaissance with two very good recent albums. The audience at the Shaw Theatre was embarrassingly small but after a shaky start, the concert evolved into a party with chums in your front room, her humour and personality matched the music and we had a ball.

 

Classical music fared less well, though ENO had a splendid Cav & Pag with the latter moved to Blackpool with the lead reinvented as an old school comic. An LSO Prokofiev concert and a Simon Keenlyside recital though both seemed below par.

 

It was a disappointing month for art. Francis Bacon was an exhibition which proves that more can be less. So many pictures all at the same time just watered down the impact. Also at the Tate, The Turner Prize shortlist was without doubt the worst for ages – absolutely nothing of merit and a huge disappointment.

 

At the Design Museum, Design Cities was a good idea which didn’t really come off, but at the V&A Cold War Modern proved to be a superb run through post-war design and a surprise treat. It’s as good as their other thematic design exhibitions – Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Modernism, Arts & Crafts etc. I killed some time at the Fashion / Sport and Supremes exhibitions; the first completely pointless and the second surprisingly good.

 

The sole cinematic outing was the Coen Brothers Burn After Reading and I loved it; much better than the reviews with Brad Pitt providing a fine comic treat.

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I took the opportunity of a slow start to business post holiday season to catch a lot more culture than just theatre this month and here’s a summary.

The Art highlight was Seizure. Artist Roger Hiorns sealed up a disused ground floor flat, drilled a hole in the ceiling, filled it with a copper sulphate solution and left it for 3 weeks. When it was drained, if left behind a blue crystal grotto which you can now enter; quite extraordinary. Wierd Inventions in the IP centre at the at the British Library is a handful of cases displaying some of the most bizzarre things ever patented and it made me laugh out loud, as did the Beano & Dandy 70th Birthday Exhibition at the Cartoon Museum; fond memories. There were some great rock photos in the Keith Morris photo exhibition; I’d never heard of him and was amazed to see some iconic photos for LP covers, such as Elvis Costello’s ‘My Aim Is True’. The Ilumini exhibition in the crypt of a church at St Pancras was a bit hit-and-miss and didn’t really come together under the theme of light & art, but the antiqueTravel Posters at Sotherans were great.

Catching up with recent cinema releases I was captivated by Somers Town, a heart-warming tale of the friendship between the son of a Polish immigrant and a runaway from the Midlands. The Wackness was just that- a charming whacky coming of age tale set in NYC with a terrifically funny turn from Ben Kingsly as a dope-smoking analyst who refuses to grow up. At the Ritzy, it was shown in digital HD and the quality was sensational. I loved The Duchess; one of the best costume dramas for years which is beautifully designed and directed and has an excellent performance from Keira Knightly who up to now I hadn’t really rated. Finally, I caught up with the new Indiana Jones film and thought it was much more fun that the reviews suggested; there were some great tongue-in-cheek moments.

During a trip ‘Up North’ to check up on the Hawkins-Watsons, we went to Leeds Town Hall for their 150th birthday concert. It’s a gorgeous building and the entirely British programme contained items of significance in terms of previous performances there. In the same trip we saw Northern Ballet Theatre’s latest dance drama Two Cities, based on the Dickens novel. Though I love their style, it was a rather over-ambitious story to tell in dance, as was their Hamlet which I saw earlier this year at Sadler’s Wells.

My final Prom was a surreal experience; they had programmed a Vaughan Williams symphony and Holst’s Planets with a Xenakis 45-min percussion piece, so it was bound to end in tears! During the Xenakis, the conservatives in the seats behaved like ageing delinquents – talking, booing, and walking out. I’m afraid I had to reprimand the 70-something in H37 as I was not prepared to let his disrespect for the rest of the audience go unpunished! As it happens, I didn’t really like the Xenakis myself, but that’s not the point. At the Wigmore Hall, a recital of English song was a bit hit-and-miss; Christopher Maltman getting more hits and Joan Rogers more misses. Finzi outshone Vaugham Williams & Howells on this occasion.

Another successful opera weekend in Cardiff where quality and value continue to reign at WNO. I loved everything about their new production of Verdi’s Otello – the design (more gold and red broccade that you’ll see in your lifetime; and that was just Act 3!), the staging, the terrific chorus and orchestra and an on-form team of Dennis O’Neill, Amanda Roocroft and David Kempster (I think this is his first Iago, in which case it’s a triumph) in the lead roles. The Barber of Seville was a delightful Commedia del Arte production which didn’t look its (20+ years) age and came over sparking and fresh. Back at the Lindbury Studio at Covent Garden, an opera for children called Varjak Jaw had a lot to recommend it but as you got under half of the words it seemed to me to be rather inaccessible to its target audience. They clearly know this as they were thrusting a free synopsis into your hand before you entered the auditorium. Better vocal composition, better diction and surtitles might have helped more.

It was a good year for London Open House. Our tour of the Beefeater Distillery in Kennington (the only London Gin still distilled in London, so I’ve switched brands as a result!) was the highlight. A trip to eco-homes at BedZed in Wallington was very interesting. The tour of the 2012 Olympic site made you gasp at the scale of it all. Will Alsop’s Palestra building was a bit of a disappointment (to be honest, we didn’t feel that welcome and they didn’t try very hard). A couple more livery companies to add to my collection – The Painter Stainers and the Barber Surgeons – completed the weekend.

In the same action-packed weekend, we were lucky enought to catch a try-out of comedian Mark Thomas’ new show – mostly new material (and some old stuff he delivers so well it bears a lot of repeating) based on his new book on Coca Cola which I can’t wait to read.

I was invited to the press launch of the transfer from Australia of the stage musical of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. They’d flown over the Aussie cast during a gap in their tour and we were treated to some extracts, as a result of which I headed straight to the box office! ‘Costumes’? – I’m not sure the word does it justice!

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This has been an action-packed month, and I’ve done a lot in the 19 days I wasn’t in Edinburgh & Orkney!

The exhibition highlight was Hadrian at the British Museum; the second use of the magnificent Reading Room space. Though it was a bit crowded (even first thing on a Monday), I rather liked the way it told the story of his life, loves and adventures.

Street Art was a recurring theme as I caught up with Cans, an anarchic selection in a tunnel near Waterloo where even the street art had graffitti on top, and Tate’s Street Art on the building’s outer walls and elsewhere around Southwark (though I only found two-thirds of it, even with a gallery map!). Inside Tate Modern, both Cy Twombly‘s paintings and the photographs in Street & Studio were disappointing – the annual Press Photographers exhibition at the RNT was far more satisfying.

Architect Richard Rogers exhibition at the Design Museum was a great retrospective and it was particularly interesting to see the unbuilt designs; it must be very disheartening to spend ages on a design which is rejected. The Serpentine’s pavilion this year was designed by architectural genius Frank Gehry (Guggenheim Bilbao and many more) and proved a bit of a disappointment, as did the Richard Prince exhibition inside the gallery.

August is musical theatre compilation month. The Cole Porter one at Cadogan Hall was good but not up to last year’s Sondheim collection. Though I enjoyed the smaller scale Kander & Ebb compilation at Jermyn Street Theatre, not knowing which shows some of them were from was rather frustrating. A freebie in the RFH foyer saw X-Factor’s Brenda Edwards give a gorgeous 45 mins of songs connected in some way to The Wizard of Oz. I didn’t see the show, but I really enjoyed this.

The new Batman movie, the Dark Knight, is a great piece of film-maikng but boy is it dark. I missed the tongue-in-cheek campness that was an integral part of the brand. The 12A rating is completely wrong.

Confession time! I went to see Kylie at the O2 and even though after a while the music becomes techno-mush, the staging was spectacular and probably the most visually stunning pop concert in 40 years of concert-going….and she’s an honorary national treasure!

Our annual outing to Holland Park was disappointing this year; La Giaconda with some ropey singing. This was compensated for by a terrific one-act Puccini opera Il Tabarro at the proms (in an odd pairing with Rachmaninov’s 1st symphony). The month ended at the Proms for Verdi’s Requium, back where it had it’s world premiere well over 100 years ago. This piece is more reliant on good soloists than most choral works, and we were lucky with our quartet from Italy, Malta, Lithuania and the US. The Royal Albert Hall is made for pieces on this scale – 250 voices + 150 players – and this was a great performance and a terrific end to a culture-packed month.

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Well, here I am for the Nth time (I’ve lost count) in the August cultural capital trying to work out which of the c.2000 shows I should take in. The more you come the easier it gets, as you learn to discriminate between the best home for new writing in the UK (The Traverse) and the new all female musical comedy version of Hamlet performed in a tree by a cast of 3…..

We started well with Let’s See What Happens by The Scat Pack, which is a bunch of talented (and brave) performers who create a new play each day before your very eyes, with a guest director and audience suggestion. With the fringe increasingly hijacked by ‘corporate comedy’ this is a breath of fresh air and embodies its true spirit……and we weren’t biased because Clive & Julia’s son Henry was in it! The Icelandic contingent was particularly taken with it.

Our visit to see a small Georgian male voice choir became more significant as events had unfolded in their homeland. Greyfriars was the perfect venue for a very varied selection of extraordinary songs – religious, folk, work songs & drinking songs amongst them. The very warm welcome was more than appreciation for a lovely show; it was also Edinburgh showing solidarity with their plight.

A rare bummer at the previously feted Traverse – Fall by Zinnie Harris – a play about war crimes which started at a snails pace and by the time it picked up became preposterous. I’m afraid we left at the interval as (Edinburgh) life’s too short for duds like this.

Arthur Smith’s one-off contemporary art lecture (to accompany his spoof exhibition) was a lovely slice of great British eccentricity and again the true spirit of the fringe. With three guest slots (including a late arriving Simon Munnery who had nipped out the back for a fag!), a couple in an on-stage wendy house throughout and someone called Rupert showing us his diamond prince albert piercing (!) there was never a dull moment. When I eventually caught up with the exhibition, Rupert was on the door, but I think I managed to look like I’d never seen (any of him) before. ‘Head of Security’ Ray Spinks, in his uniform and spectacular false moustache, remembered me from last year, which may be some indication of the exhibition’s popularity (though it did win an IF comedy award). It was even better this year but I still can’t find the words to describe it.

Margaret Edge had recommended Meli Melo, four talented Frenchmen who spoof everything from ballet to competition gymnastics to ice dancing to flamenco, and it turned out to be a real treat. We laughed our socks off and almost wet ourselves (too much information?). This is the sort of show which the French equivalent of the arts council subsidise (as well as opera, ballet etc.)  – can we have their arts council please!

Shakespeare for Breakfast wasn’t up to its usual standard – this year with Macbeth and his lady, Romeo & Juliet, Malvolio and Prospero flitting in and out of The Weakest Link and The Apprentice. It amazes me how many people turn up at 10am for this, but maybe the free coffee and croissant have something to do with it. After 17 years, though, I think it may have outstayed its welcome.

 

Aluminium is a spectacle on the theme of…..go on, guess….which is highly inventive, pretty spectacular but otherwise a bit cold and pointless. It is a great idea well executed though, so I can’t say it was a waste of time or money. We decided it was for younger folk who have less need for things like narrative, story, plot or depth!

 

One of the absolute highlights followed (and I’m proud to say it was produced by Sherman Cymru, a good use of Welsh arts council funding if ever I saw any), with a verbatim play about the Deep Cut barracks case. You’re now thinking ‘heavy’ but it wasn’t. It was more objective and less preachy than most in this genre – and beautifully acted. When you live in a world of spin and cover up, you need theatre like this.

 

The next show also fell into the Verbatim theatre category; this time about the plight of those still homeless after the July 2007 flooding. Their stories were told at close quarters inside a caravan for an audience of less than 10. The proximity made it all the more real and when the actors made eye contact, I found myself nodding and grunting in true ‘active listening’ mode. Another treat.

 

At 75, Joan Rivers could easily be getting skin cancer in the sun in Palm Springs or standing on stage telling autobiographical stories and smutty jokes. Instead, she creates a play based on a episode of her life when she was fired and steps in and out of it to talk to the audience in the first person as if we were her therapist. It doesn’t entirely work but you can’t help admiring her balls (!) and there are some very funny lines. I felt a bit out of place in a reverential audience of fans, but didn’t regret going.

 

High culture followed with Honneger’s oratorio Le Roi David, which for 20th century music is surprisingly tuneful! I got a bit lost in the biblical story (despite the libretto) and after a while didn’t really care who begat whom but it was beautifully sung and played and Jeff’s snoring wasn’t too loud.

 

Tina C is a country singer who’s decide to run for president and practice her campaign rally here in Edinburgh….well, actually she’s the creation of Christopher Green from south London, but you just might believe it. I’ve seen her / him a few times before (without the presidential campaign context) and this wasn’t the best for two reasons – the live guitar accompaniment has been given over to pre-recorded tracks and there were a bunch of drunks in the audience whose loud talking was clearly making it hard for him / her to concentrate (and we eventually conspired to slow handclap them out of the venue). Still worth the effort though and I’m looking forward to another of his creations – housewife Ida Bar – at the Barbican at Christmas.

 

The badly titled Pornography (it’s not got a lot to do with it) is a brave attempt to weave together stories of fictional Londoner’s (and a fictional bomber) at the time of the 07/07 bombings. I thought it was beautifully written, acted and staged and regret that it couldn’t find a home where it belongs in London. Simon Stephens is a favourite playwright of mine, though I didn’t like his last play – Harper Regan – at the National, so this is a return to form.

 

At the same venue, the aforementioned Traverse, Architecting was the low spot of the entire festival. This is the sort of pretentious avante guarde tosh NYC’s Wooster Group churned out in the 80’s and I can’t fathom why the otherwise spot-on National Theatre of Scotland decided to involve themselves with it. Maybe it was a jolly to the US for the assistant director…..If I was Scottish, I’d be picketing the parliament.

 

Old folkie John Redbourn is certainly a guitar virtuoso (though he can’t sing for toffee!) and though a bit under-rehearsed he managed to deliver enough to send you home happy. Unfortunately we followed him with a more virtuosic and on-form Latin jazz guitarist Antonio Forcione and the comparison didn’t help. Forcione and his percussionist were completely original and simply wonderful.

 

It’s not often you see something completely different, but Slick was just that. I can only describe it as puppets with human faces and arms which look something like cabbage patch dolls. The result was like a crude surreal black comedy cartoon – it was a touch overlong, but I still loved it.

 

After a spectacular lunch at Restaurant Martin Wishart, any play was going to be a challenge and so it proved with New Electric Ballroom. I think it was another of Enda Walsh’s gothic Irish stories of unfulfilled lives, but you might have to ask Jeff or Ruth who appeared to be more awake than me.

 

Every year I go to a stand-up and then wonder why I don’t go to more, and so it was with Michael McIntyre. The reason why I’m put off is that you can always see them on TV or back in London, so why waste precious Edinburgh time? The reason why I enjoyed this so much might be because it was a great laugh to end the day – no gimmicks; just a normal bloke who is exceptionally funny.

 

Our final day started at the Traverse (again!) for Terminus; three interwoven monologues. Though I admired them and they were beautifully told on a stunningly lit set, they were (like all monologues) not really theatre. This sparked a fascinating debate, as the most literary amongst us (Jeff) liked them most and the most visual (me) least. Different people are clearly stimulated by different things and see the same show from a different perspective. To satisfy my intuition, I need characters to interact and changing visual images to accompany them.

 

Stephen Berkoff’s interpretation of the 50’s (?) Brando film On The Waterfront gave us another highlight. It took a while to take off, but once you were immersed in the highly stylised movement it was captivating, and the terrific ensemble provided some of the best acting of the week.

 

We’d started with the spirit of the fringe and we ended with the spirit of the international (main) festival – a 70’s English play (Nigel Williams’ Class Enemy) re-interpreted for a 21st century post-civil war Bosnia. Its anger was a bit relentless, but it probably meant more to me just a month after my visit. Whatever you think of it though, it’s what festivals are for and it brought back many memories of better main festival days – Macbeth in Japanese at cherry blossom time in the Shogun period and Greek tragedies in Romanian in a disused corn exchange!

 

Art has been well represented in recent years, but this year was a disappointment. Though it included some nice paintings, Impressionism & Scotland was really an excuse for an exhibition and only Janet Cardiff & Charles Miller’s six (mostly aural and sometimes moving) installations enthralled (well, me and Clive bu t not Jeff & Ruth!).

 

Not a vintage Edinburgh, but it’s always a fascinating cocktail. I’m now in the Orkney’s looking at the morning sun over the glass-like Kirkwall harbour from my hotel room and it seems like a million miles away……..

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