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Posts Tagged ‘Contemporary Music’

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 & 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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CINEMA

I really enjoyed The Damned United, a film about Brian Clough’s short time at Leeds United with another stunning portrayal of a real person by Michael Sheen. I found it more sympathetic to Clough than the backlash suggested.

In The Loop, Armando Ianucci’s big screen version of his BBC profile of spin doctors benefits from the transatlantic storyline and is often laugh-out-loud funny, but the ending lets it down a bit.

Shifty is a small independent British film made for £100k which proves there is no relationship between money and quality. It features one of my favourite young actors, Daniel Mays, and has a terrific twist. I loved it.

State of Play was a superb TV series written by Paul Abbott with David Morrissey and John Simm. When I saw the appallingly over-rated Russell Crowe starred in the movie I groaned, but despite him it has successfully made the transition in part because it has been given a contemporary relevance with a post-Iraq war context.

ART

Performance artist Bobby Baker’s evocative drawings / paintings documenting her 11 year mental health experiences at the Wellcome Collection makes for a stunning highly original thought provoking exhibition; I can’t recommend it enough.

The expanded Whitechapel Gallery has opened with four exhibitions, the best of which are a stunning one-room collection of pieces bought (for peanuts) by the British Council to tour the world (including Bridget Riley, Petter Doig and Lucien Freud) and a fascinating room devoted to The Whitechapel Boys; early 20th century Jewish east end artists with a distinctive and striking style. It also has the tapestry of Picasso’s Guernica on temporary load from the UN.

MUSIC

Elvis Costello renewed his 15-year old collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet for a short tour which I caught at the Barbican.  It was a lot more than a re-run of their Juliet Letters album with EC songs revisited, some covers and one new song. It was good to see Elvis again and I enjoyed it a lot.

In my occasional role of rent-an-audience I went to a ‘reading’ of a new musical called The Piper. The Boston Strangler is an odd choice for a musical, but there was some nice music; I doubt it’ll make a staged production though.

I’ve wrongly ignored many of the Lost Musicals concert season at Sadler’s Wells, but I did go to The New Yorkers, a 30’s satire, and loved it. Like the Opera North full productions of Let Them Eat Cake and Of Thee I Sing in February, they seemed way ahead of their time.

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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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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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Another Sondheim compilation show, but one we haven’t seen on these shores before.

Culled largely from Merrily, Follies and rarities from the movie Dick Tracy with a smattering of Night Music, Sunday, Frogs, Forum, Company and others; this is a good selection.

Any professional company would be proud of this amateur production where the musical standards are exceptional.

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Trafalgar Studio I doesn’t have the intimacy of the Menier Chocolate Factory (where this was first seen) and the steep rake makes it particularly challenging for this type of show, but when you’ve got the greatest interpreter of songs from musicals and a magnificnet

11-piece band, you can overcome anything.

 

I preferred this (shorter) selection to the one at the Menier (more Sondheim for a start!) and it had many high spots, mostly Sondheim!

 

Despite the venue, Maria’s warm personality pervades and it’s a lovely 90 minutes.

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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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