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Posts Tagged ‘Damon Albarn’

Contemporary Music

Rufus Wainwright returned to form with an eclectic concert as part of the new Festival of Voice at the WMC in Cardiff. In addition to a fine selection of his own songs, we had an aria from his opera, a sonnet from his recent collection and a whole host of show tunes from his Judy Garland tribute, with stunning accompaniment from a cabaret pianist. His own vocals and piano playing were faultless and the sound and audience silence were a rare treat. Support Ala.Ni sang beautifully, with just guitar accompaniment, though I was less enamoured with her retro songs, which were a bit samey. She charmed the audience, though, with her infectious enthusiasm and excitement and complimented Rufus.

I very much like Elbow and booked for three concerts in Guy Garvey’s Meltdown, though one was cancelled when Robert Plant had to hot foot it to LA to defend Stairway to Heaven against copyright infringement some forty years on! Mr Garvey himself was a bit low on solo material so his own concert was short but sweet and very good-natured and warm-hearted. There was excellent support from the delightfully melancholic Jesca Hoop. Laura Marling, the second Meltdown concert at the Royal Festival Hall, was a bit of a disappointment. It was so slick, clinical and soulless, a bit monotonous and lacking in any excitement or emotion. At 75 mins with no encore for £40, I also felt more than a bit cheated – 50p per minute! Another good support act in Marika Hardwick, though.

The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, many refugees, were invited to Europe by Damon Albarn and world music champions Africa Express. At their Royal Festival Hall concert, they played Syrian music with guests from five African countries, the US and the UK, including Albarn and Paul Weller. It was welcoming, uplifting, positive, inspirational and heart-warming – the day after the referendum result!

Opera

Welsh National Opera’s 70th Birthday pairing of their first ever staged opera, the classic verismo double-bill Cav & Pag, and a brand new one, In Parenthesis, at WMC in Cardiff was inspired. I have never seen a better Cav or Pag, a great production that were beautifully played and sung. Iain Bell’s new opera followed the National Theatre Wales in commemorating the Battle of Mametz Wood (part of the Battle of the Somme) where many Welsh soldiers met their end; it was an impressive new work. Both showcased WNO’s not-so-secret ingredient – its superb orchestra and chorus – as well as featuring some fine soloists.

Opera Holland Park provided a rare opportunity to see Iris, a full evening opera by the man best known for the Cav half of Cav & Pag. It’s an odd story set in Japan, before Puccini wrote Madam Butterfly, made odder by a third act that seems to be bolted on for dubious reasons, but it’s lush romantic music with particularly good choruses and here it was played and sung beautifully.

Classical Music

At the Royal Academy of Music, the hugely talented Symphony Orchestra gave a lunchtime concert featuring unlikely Scandinavian bedfellows Sibelius & Neilson which proved to be a real treat. Melancholy + Thrills under the encouraging baton of Sir Mark Elder, who continues to defy convention and provide informative introductions. Lovely.

The Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra gave a short but beautiful early evening concert of English Orchestral masterworks by Vaughan Williams, Gurney & Britten. I am in awe of the talent of these college players. Even the conductor of the VW piece was a student.

Art

Newport Street Gallery, Damien Hirst’s new initiative, opens with a Jeff Koons show. I’m not mad keen on the mounted hoovers or his porno pictures, but the more playful stuff such as giant steel balloon animals and piles of play doe make me smile. It’s a lovely bright airy space and free and I’m looking forward to returning regularly.

Performing for the Camera at Tate Modern was interesting in telling the story of how photography is used to record performance, but as an art exhibition it was rather dull. It was very hard work looking at walls and walls of mostly B&W, mostly small framed photographs.

Dulwich Picture Gallery provided another opportunity to discover an unknown artist (well, to me) Winifred Knights. Though there were only c.20 paintings, and c.5 major mature works (and a lot of studies for…) what was on show was a significant quantity of her limited output and all very beautiful.

A members preview of the Tate Modern extension turned into an art feast, but not because of what was in the extension (largely dull, the space for collections is c.30% of the total space, but the building’s nice!). Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar’s retrospective was wonderful – quirky, original and colourful – and I surprised myself by loving about a dozen of Mona Hatoum’s large sculptural / installation pieces. It was also good to see Ai Wei Wei’s tree in situ on the bridge, though I was puzzled by two mounted police riding around it!

Sunken Cities: Egypt’s lost worlds at the British Museum was as good as an archaeological exhibition can get. In addition to the items recovered from the Med, there were terrific pieces from the museums in Alexandria and Cairo. Wonderful.

Painting with Light at Tate Britain showed the impact of the invention of photography on art and was rather fascinating, with some particularly good pre-Raphaelites on show. Upstairs Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979 just proved it was a movement better forgotten! Meanwhile in the Duveen Galleries Pablo Bronstein has built replicas of both Tate Britain facades and painted geometric patterns on the floor where dancers perform period works in contemporary clothes. Outside in, old and new. Very clever.

The Deutsche Borse Photography Foundation Prize shortlist exhibition at The Photographers Gallery was the best for a long while, and for once they got the winner right! The four projects covered the Arab Spring uprising, European immigration, space & surveillance and car restoration!

Ethics of Dust is an extraordinary installation in Parliament’s Westminster Hall. The artist cleaned the east wall during the hall’s renovations by capturing hundreds of years of dust in a thin latex cast which has now been hung in the hall. Extraordinary.

Film

Nice Guys was a fun caper movie, but it was way too violent for the genre and my taste and overall a bit beyond preposterous.

I very much liked Money Monster, a real thrilling ride with some great performances, a snipe at financial sector ethics but a bit of a depressing ending.

Love & Friendship was an odd affair. I liked it, but again not as much as the hype. A tongue-in-cheek interpretation of a surprisingly racy Jane Austin novella!

Much of the sentiment in Michael Moore’s documentary Where to Invade Next could be applied to the UK as well as the US. As we’ve blindly followed their model, we have lost our way. I thought it made some good points very well.

I loved Adult Life Skills, a lovely independent British film that was again way better than its critical reception with another extraordinary child performance.

I don’t know how much of Elvis & Nixon is true (it’s based on a photo!) but it made for a quirky and funny film which I enjoyed more than I thought I would.

Other!

The Greenwich & Docklands International Festival specialises in outdoor events and everything is free if you stand, and very cheap to sit. My first visit this year was to the Queens House at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich for a spectacular called The House that included dance, projections and fireworks – and the wonderful Sharon D Clarke. I’m not sure I quite got the narrative, but I certainly enjoyed the spectacle! Six days later in Bethnal Green, Polish theatre company Theatr Biuro Podrozy performed Silence which I think was about refugees, but the narrative was even less clear than The House. Still, it kept my attention, though it was beyond melancholic so I ended the evening feeling rather sad. I first saw this company in Edinburgh 23 years ago and it was one of those shows that you’re still talking about, well, 23 years later.

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At the core of this piece is an inspired idea. An Alice for the internet generation. Apparently substantially rewritten since its Manchester International Festival debut it still isn’t finished though. 

Aly’s parents have split. She lives with her mum and baby brother and misses her dad. School is shit. She’s got cyber-bullies on her back. Then she discovers a virtual reality world in wonder.land and with her new avatar she enters it and meets her alter ego Alice and the rest of Lewis Carroll’s cast. Until, that is, school headmistress Ms Manxome confiscates her smart phone, steals her avatar and plays a darker game in wonder.land.

The music is OK, but not great, as if Damon Albarn hasn’t really found his musical theatre voice (his last two music theatre works were billed as operas). There’s a ‘look’ but its a bit obvious – shades of grey in the real world, with a multi-coloured wonder.land. There’s also no cohesive style to the staging; it’s a bit all over the place. The projections are good, though. 

Anna Francolini makes a good baddie, but it’s a panto villain nonetheless. Carley Bawden is uncannily her double as Alice. Lois Chimimba is a sweet Aly and Enyi Okoronkwo cute as her friend Luke. Hal Fowler is a larger than life presence as the MC (Cheshire Cat / Caterpillar). Above all, I liked Paul Hilton’s dad, though his role in the tea party scene suggests he may not get through the run without breaking a bone or two.

It’s still in preview, but I saw the 6th of 7 previews, so it’s hard to see how they can improve it enough by the press night to get a better reception than V.1 got in Manchester. I have a soft spot for polymath Damon Albarn, but I enjoyed this a lot less than Monkey or Dr. Dee, I’m afraid.

 

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Contemporary Music

West End Recast was an impulsive last-minute punt which proved a treat. The idea is that musical theatre performers sing songs they would never normally get to sing, because they’re the wrong sex, colour, age etc. It was slow to take off, until Nathan Amzi gave us Cassie’s Music & the Mirror from A Chorus Line! This was followed by a stunning Being Alive from Company by Cynthia Erivo (quite possible the best it’s ever been sung), then a brilliant Rose’s Turn (Gypsy) from Nick Holder to end the first half. The second didn’t reach these heights, but there was much to enjoy.

I’ve always thought Damon Albarn was the best (pop) thing to come out of the 90’s and has become someone, like Elvis Costello and David Byrne, who continually reinvents himself and is always open to collaboration and experimentation. Though his Royal Albert Hall show was built around his excellent new solo album, it dipped into other incarnations and included guest appearances from Blur’s Graham Coxon, musicians from Mali, US hip-hop outfit De La Soul, rapper Kano and virtual recluse Brian Eno! Albarn is clearly in a very happy place and this was a very happy concert.

As her brother heads for the middle of the road, Martha Wainwright continues to do concerts that combine eccentricity, fun and beauty, showcasing her extraordinary voice and ability to inhabit her (and others) songs. This Queen Elizabeth Hall concert was good as the Union Chapel outing last August, though this time her son on stage outstayed his welcome. As one of my companions said, it’s hard to concentrate on a song about a man dying of cancer when you’re petrified a 5-year old might be about to electrocute himself!

I was hugely disappointed by John Grant at the Roundhouse earlier in the year, but had hoped that with an orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall he would be a lot better. Well the sound engineer was having none of that. With bass levels at painful vomit-inducing levels and the orchestra often buried in the mush of the mix, this was another disappointment. There were snatches of greatness (when the man at the back with the machines wasn’t producing his electro shit) but on the whole it was great musicianship ruined by a seemingly deaf arsehole.

Opera

My first (of two) concerts in the short Mariinsky Opera residency at the Barbican Hall was the original version of Boris Gudunov. It was good but lacked the sparkle of Gergiev’s work with the LSO. They seemed to be wheeling out a Mariinsky staple for the Nth time and going through the motions.

The contrast provided by the following night’s OAE / Opera Rara concert version of Donizetti’s Les Martyrs at the Royal Festival Hall couldn’t have been bigger. An orchestra, chorus and six soloists under Sir Mark Elder, all at the the top of their game, polishing a rarely heard opera and producing a musical jewel that shone brighter than Donizetti’s more popular operas. A spontaneous standing ovation is rare at such events, but not for this. Wonderful.

You can always rely on GSMD to give us a rare opera, but you don’t think of Dvorak as rare – productions of his operas are, though. We only ever see one of the eleven he wrote (Rusalka) so it was good to catch his comedy, The Cunning Peasant, in an English translation relocating it to Hardy’s Wessex. It’s a bit derivative of Mozart’s comedies and the first half didn’t grab me, but the second half was great. As always at GSMD, the production values and the performances were excellent.

The ever inventive Les Arts Florissants’ latest project is two short rarely performed Rameau opera-ballets, Daphnis et Egle & La naissance d’Osiris. The seven dancers, six singers and chorus of ten, all costumed, shared the bare Barbican Hall stage in front of the period ensemble, staging them as they would have been staged when they were first performed for the French Court in the eighteenth century. The stories are slight but it sounded gorgeous and this type of performance fascinating.

Glare at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio Theatre was a SciFi opera which I saw less than an hour after the SciFi film Interstellar (below) and it was less than half its length. I admired it more than I enjoyed it, but as modern opera goes, it’s better than most. All four singers trained at GSMD and one, Sky Ingram, blew me away here as she had there.

Dance

It’s been a privilege following the final chapter of Sylvie Guillem‘s career, as she transitioned from classical ballet to contemporary dance and this fourth show (for me) with Akram Khan, Sacred Monsters, at Sadler’s Wells had a biographical twist. The dialogue was a surprise and the shows playfulness was both surprising and delightful. The music was great and the dancing of both mesmerising. In almost exactly six months it’s the farewell show as she retires, wisely, at 50. Real class.

Classical Music

A second outing to the Mariinsky Opera Chorus, but this time on their own, unaccompanied, at GSMD’s new Milton Court Concert Hall for a programme of secular music and folk songs. The acoustic was a bit harsh when they were at full throttle, but the singing was gorgeous and the standard of solos exceptional. If only they smiled more.

The following day, at a lunchtime concert at St. John’s Smith Square, a small group of 10 singers, also unaccompanied, all young enough to be the children of the Mariinsky Chorus (!) made an equally gorgeous sound with music from both ends of a 500-year range. The Erebus Ensemble are an exciting new early music group who also tackle 20th century equivalents like Tavener and Part. Lovely.

Looking at a couple of hundred late teens / early twenties performing Britten’s War Requiem at the Royal Festival Hall on Remembrance Sunday was deeply moving. 100 years ago, many of them would have been heading to the trenches and likely death. This added a poignancy to a beautifully sung and played requiem. The standards of the RAM orchestras and the National Youth Choir were astonishing and the three young soloists – a British tenor, a German Baritone & a Moldovan (former USSR) soprano, as Britten intended – were terrific. Not forgetting the excellent children’s choir assembled especially for the occasion. Conductor Marin Alsop’s command of it all was extraordinary.

The Chapel in the Royal Hospital Chelsea is a lovely venue for a choral concert and Rutter’s Mass of the Children and Britten’s St. Nicholas was a great pairing. Interval drinks in Wren’s beautiful refectory and Chelsea Pensioners in their bright red uniforms greeting all adds to the occasion.

A visit to Handel House with the LSO Friends included a short recital in the room where Handel himself held them, with his composition room just next door. The soprano and harpsichordist sounded lovely and it was great to hear music in this historic room.

The fourth and last of the Composers in Love series at St. John’s Concert Hall was Nocturne, a portrait of Chopin. Given the lack of letters left by him and his family, it was biographically sketchier than the others, but musically it was extraordinary and Lucy Parham converted me to Chopin, who hasn’t really been on my musical radar up until now. The readers this time were Alex Jennings and Harriet Walter (subbing for Juliet Stevenson). What a lovely series this has been.

Cabaret

I didn’t quite know what to expect from national treasure Anne Reid in cabaret (with Stefan Bednarczyk) at St. James Studio and I was delighted when it turned out to be the music of unsung musical theatre heroes Comden & Green, interspersed with the story of, and anecdotes from, their lives. Delightful & charming.

Film

Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner has the most incredible cast, a who’s who of British acting minus the ‘stars’ which would be guaranteed to win BAFTA’s Best Ensemble award (if there was one). Turner’s story is a fascinating one and Leigh’s attention to detail is extraordinary. A towering achievement.

I liked Set Fire to the Stars, about Dylan Thomas’ first US tour, when its American organiser had his work cut out to keep him under control. The US in the 50’s looked great in B&W and the performances, particularly Celyn Jones as Dylan, were very good, but I thought the focus was too much on the US organiser and not enough on Thomas, no doubt because of the star casting of Ethan Hawke.

The Imitation Game is an even better film than I thought it would be. It moves between Alan Turing’s childhood, wartime work and tragic final days and really does illuminate his story. In a terrific cast, Benedict Cumberbatch is extraordinary.

Even though I go to plays more than three hours long, films of similar length rarely hold my attention and I don’t really know why. Interstellar comes in just under three hours but I was captivated throughout. So so much better than last year’s Galaxy, maybe a touch too sentimental but an absolute must see.

Art

I’ve seen Anselm Keifer works in galleries all over the world, but seeing them all together in the Royal Academy’s retrospective exhibition was a bit overwhelming as they are virtually all dark and depressing with his brown-to-black palette. Many (but not all) are great as individual works, but together it’s a different experience. His books were a revelation, but displayed in cases open at one page seemed like a lost curatorial opportunity to me.

Waled Besthty’s installation at the Barbican’s Curve Gallery is more impressive for its execution than its visual appeal. It’s a whole year’s worth of images created using the cyanotype printing process covering the whole curved wall. You have to take in the overall impact rather than the detail (unless you’ve got a day or two to spare). It’s not the best the Curve has offered, but this space is still indispensable for innovative big scale works.

I’m afraid Mirror City at the Hayward Gallery went right over my head. Apparently, the artists are seeking ‘to address the challenges, conditions and consequences of living in one of the world’s busiest cities in the digital age’. Yeh…..back in the real world next door in the RFH, the annual World Press Photo Exhibition shows us what it’s really like living in cities, countries, the world; a reminder of last year’s events, mostly sad ones this year.

The Late Turner exhibition at Tate Britain is a riot of gorgeous colour and a great companion for Mike Leigh’s film (above). It’s a brilliant example of how a man in his 60’s and 70’s can be bursting with creativity and originality. Upstairs in the Turner Prize exhibition there isn’t a painting in sight – it’s all film, slides & photos – I wonder what Turner would think. I hated it. In the Turner Galleries themselves, one room has been given over to Olafur Eliasson’s colour experiments where he tries to create the late Turner palette. The room contains giant circles each with their own colour range. Interesting.

Catching Dreams was the title of this year’s Koestler Trust exhibition of art by offenders, secure patients and detainees at the Royal Festival Hall and it was as intriguing and inspirational as ever. This must be excellent therapy and great that their work is seen and sold in this way.

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Contemporary Music

Todd Rundgren’s concert at the Jazz Café was a real treat. Small venue – ‘greatest hits’ set – terrific band; and Todd on fine and funny form prancing around like a man half his age. I’m not as familiar with this material as most in the audience, but loved it nonetheless.

Steve Earle couldn’t be accused of offering poor value for money. His sets at the Royal Festival Hall totalled 160 minutes. Sometimes, though, more is less and with poor sound contributing, I’m afraid that’s what it was here. The band was great, the set list eclectic and Earle on brittle and funny form with his chat, but it outstayed its welcome and became a bit of a rushed affair in the end.

Honest John’s Chop Up turned out to be an impulsive treat. Damon Albarn’s label showcased a Ghanaian rapper, Malian singer, US brass ensemble and three people from South Africa who defy description but were huge fun. It was like a party with turns, not all of which were good but some of which were great and I loved it.

Opera

Our autumn opera pairing at WNO, the UK’s most accessible opera company, was a brilliantly cast Don Giovanni and a musically thrilling Katya Kabanova, dedicated to Charles Mackerras (with his wife and daughter present). David Kempster isn’t the best DG I’ve ever heard but his acting was exceptional. There was superb support from a home-grown cast which made you wonder why people make such a fuss about casting international stars. David Soar was a terrific Leporello, Robin Tritshler and Camilla Roberts in fine voice as Don Ottavio and Donna Anna and Gary Griffiths an excellent Masetto. Music Director Lothar Koenigs brought out the best of the WNO Orchestra whose playing of the Katya score in particular was stunning. Amanda Roocroft was an outstanding Katya, with an excellent supporting cast including a fine Boris from Peter Wedd and a suitably malevolent Kabanicha from Leah-Marian Jones.

The Passenger at ENO was a somewhat harrowing experience, but an opera I’m very glad I did experience. It moves between an ocean liner in the 60’s, whose passengers include a former Auschwitz guard and one of her victims, and Auschwitz itself back in the 40’s. It’s a very dramatic but very accessible score and David Pountney’s production is masterly, partly thanks to Johan Engels extraordinary design, with the ship’s deck towering over the rail tracks and desolation of the concentration camp. Richard Armstrong’s conducting was also masterly and the orchestra sounded sensational. Amongst a fine ensemble, Giselle Allen as Marta and Michelle Breedt as Liese were wonderful.

Classical Music

The Cardinall’s Music under Andrew Cawood gave a brilliant recital of William Byrd’s unaccompanied church music at Wigmore Hall. They included selections from five of his contemporaries which by-and-large made Byrd shine (Tallis the exception) and I liked the fact that Cawood breaks with convention to introduce and explain his selections.

I’ve had a passing interest in the music of John Taverner but haven’t really heard that much, so a whole evening of small-scale works at Wigmore Hall seemed like a good place to start. Six choral pieces, three song cycles and solo pieces for cello and piano certainly made it a musical feast. The highlight for me was the choral work, sung with great beauty by a ‘scratch’ choir of young singers put together for the evening under the name Caeli Chorum. Patricia Rozario’s vocal fireworks were extraordinary but the works more challenging, as were the solo instrumental pieces, but it was a fascinating immersive experience nonetheless.

Dance

Clod Ensemble took over Sadler’s Wells but only sold 15% of the seats. Starting at the back of the upper circle, the show took us down each level for a new segment until we were at the back of the stage watching the curtain come down on them with the stalls as the backdrop. I can’t say I understood the concept, and it was more movement than dance, but it was a captivating experience.

Film

I liked The Debt, a film about the botched Mossad abduction of a Nazi war criminal It surprised me and gripped me, not least because of an excellent performance from Helen Mirren.

What I liked most about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was the fact that it didn’t patronise you; you had to work to keep up with it! The other thing I liked about it was the collection of stunning performances, including Gary Oldman as Smiley, John Hurt, Kathy Burke, Toby Jones, Colin Frith, Cairan Hinds, Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch.

We Need to Talk About Kevin was a harrowing experience, but a brilliant piece of film-making. Tilda Swinton really is one of the very best actors working today and yet again she inhabits a role. Wonderful, but if I was a parent it would scare me senseless!

Unless I’ve been avoiding this type of film too long (quite possible!), with The Adventures of Tin Tin – The Secret of the Unicorn, Stephen Spielberg seems to has invented something that is neither animation nor live action but, for a story like this, is better than both. The almost-but-not-quite lifelike characters can look more realistic doing stuff actors or animation can’t. It’s also the best 3D I’ve ever seen. Great fun.

Art

I went to Treasures of Heaven at the British Museum fired up after my recent Caucasus trip. Interesting though it was, there’s a limit to how many religious relics an unbeliever can take – the least interesting of the BM’s big Reading Room shows.

Locked Room Scenario was another of Artangel’s extraordinary installations. When you enter the warehouse where it takes place and ask a girl which way to go, you get a surly response. You’re at an exhibition of the Blue Conceptual art movement, but the entrance to their exhibition is locked so you end up walking round, peeping in where you can, picking up leaflets and looking at the fictitious movement’s timeline. When I was walking away, a young man handed me a page from a book he said I’d dropped. I read it and became convinced this was all part of the experience; the rest of my walk was rather surreal and disorientating.

I’d never heard of Pipilotti Risi before I went to her show at the Hayward Gallery. I love the playfulness of her videos, on translucent screens or hidden in handbags, conch shells and all sorts of other objects. It was like revisiting psychedelia, but with technology which enables artists to do so much more. Huge fun.

The Barbican Gallery continues its unique position amongst London’s major spaces with an exhibition from / about architectural practice OMA (whoever they are!) curated by Rotor (whoever they are too!). It’s a very original presentation of drawings, models, materials etc. though I think you have to be an architect or designer to get the most out of it. An interesting and intriguing one hour wander nonetheless.

The second Koestler Trust Art For Offenders exhibition at the RFH was simply extraordinary. This year it included video, music and spoken word as well as paintings and sculpture. Many of these items would hold their own in any contemporary art selling exhibition. Though the art was uplifting and enthralling, one was left with the feeling of hopelessness that so much talent is locked up.

A visit with the V&A Friends to then newly refurbished Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel was terrific. The highlight is the 5-story stairwell with ceramic tiles on the ground floor, wrought iron and wood banisters, stencilled walls and an extraordinary painted ceiling. They’ve done a wonderful job of restoring all of this and it was a treat being able to see it without having to take out a mortgage to book a room!

In Oxford for lunch, I had enough time to pop into the lovely Ashmolean Museum again (now one of the UK’s very best museums) which included a small but fascinating display of iconic Chinese Cultural Revolution art that showed you how it is possible for paintings to influence people; you could see how they fell for Mao with all these idealised images.

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Contemporary Music

Todd Rundgren’s concert at the Jazz Café was a real treat. Small venue – ‘greatest hits’ set – terrific band; and Todd on fine and funny form prancing around like a man half his age. I’m not as familiar with this material as most in the audience, but loved it nonetheless.

Steve Earle couldn’t be accused of offering poor value for money. His sets at the Royal Festival Hall totalled 160 minutes. Sometimes, though, more is less and with poor sound contributing, I’m afraid that’s what it was here. The band was great, the set list eclectic and Earle on brittle and funny form with his chat, but it outstayed its welcome and became a bit of a rushed affair in the end.

Honest John’s Chop Up turned out to be an impulsive treat. Damon Albarn’s label showcased a Ghanaian rapper, Malian singer, US brass ensemble and three people from South Africa who defy description but were huge fun. It was like a party with turns, not all of which were good but some of which were great and I loved it.

Opera

Our autumn opera pairing at WNO, the UK’s most accessible opera company, was a brilliantly cast Don Giovanni and a musically thrilling Katya Kabanova, dedicated to Charles Mackerras (with his wife and daughter present). David Kempster isn’t the best DG I’ve ever heard but his acting was exceptional. There was superb support from a home-grown cast which made you wonder why people make such a fuss about casting international stars. David Soar was a terrific Leporello, Robin Tritshler and Camilla Roberts in fine voice as Don Ottavio and Donna Anna and Gary Griffiths an excellent Masetto. Music Director Lothar Koenigs brought out the best of the WNO Orchestra whose playing of the Katya score in particular was stunning. Amanda Roocroft was an outstanding Katya, with an excellent supporting cast including a fine Boris from Peter Wedd and a suitably malevolent Kabanicha from Leah-Marian Jones.

The Passenger at ENO was a somewhat harrowing experience, but an opera I’m very glad I did experience. It moves between an ocean liner in the 60’s, whose passengers include a former Auschwitz guard and one of her victims, and Auschwitz itself back in the 40’s. It’s a very dramatic but very accessible score and David Pountney’s production is masterly, partly thanks to Johan Engels extraordinary design, with the ship’s deck towering over the rail tracks and desolation of the concentration camp. Richard Armstrong’s conducting was also masterly and the orchestra sounded sensational. Amongst a fine ensemble, Giselle Allen as Marta and Michelle Breedt as Liese were wonderful.

Classical Music

The Cardinall’s Music under Andrew Cawood gave a brilliant recital of William Byrd’s unaccompanied church music at Wigmore Hall. They included selections from five of his contemporaries which by-and-large made Byrd shine (Tallis the exception) and I liked the fact that Cawood breaks with convention to introduce and explain his selections.

I’ve had a passing interest in the music of John Taverner but haven’t really heard that much, so a whole evening of small-scale works at Wigmore Hall seemed like a good place to start. Six choral pieces, three song cycles and solo pieces for cello and piano certainly made it a musical feast. The highlight for me was the choral work, sung with great beauty by a ‘scratch’ choir of young singers put together for the evening under the name Caeli Chorum. Patricia Rozario’s vocal fireworks were extraordinary but the works more challenging, as were the solo instrumental pieces, but it was a fascinating immersive experience nonetheless.

Dance

Clod Ensemble took over Sadler’s Wells but only sold 15% of the seats. Starting at the back of the upper circle, the show took us down each level for a new segment until we were at the back of the stage watching the curtain come down on them with the stalls as the backdrop. I can’t say I understood the concept, and it was more movement than dance, but it was a captivating experience.

Film

I liked The Debt, a film about the botched Mossad abduction of a Nazi war criminal It surprised me and gripped me, not least because of an excellent performance from Helen Mirren.

What I liked most about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was the fact that it didn’t patronise you; you had to work to keep up with it! The other thing I liked about it was the collection of stunning performances, including Gary Oldman as Smiley, John Hurt, Kathy Burke, Toby Jones, Colin Frith, Cairan Hinds, Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch.

We Need to Talk About Kevin was a harrowing experience, but a brilliant piece of film-making. Tilda Swinton really is one of the very best actors working today and yet again she inhabits a role. Wonderful, but if I was a parent it would scare me senseless!

Unless I’ve been avoiding this type of film too long (quite possible!), with The Adventures of Tin Tin – The Secret of the Unicorn, Stephen Spielberg seems to has invented something that is neither animation nor live action but, for a story like this, is better than both. The almost-but-not-quite lifelike characters can look more realistic doing stuff actors or animation can’t. It’s also the best 3D I’ve ever seen. Great fun.

Art

I went to Treasures of Heaven at the British Museum fired up after my recent Caucasus trip. Interesting though it was, there’s a limit to how many religious relics an unbeliever can take – the least interesting of the BM’s big Reading Room shows.

Locked Room Scenario was another of Artangel’s extraordinary installations. When you enter the warehouse where it takes place and ask a girl which way to go, you get a surly response. You’re at an exhibition of the Blue Conceptual art movement, but the entrance to their exhibition is locked so you end up walking round, peeping in where you can, picking up leaflets and looking at the fictitious movement’s timeline. When I was walking away, a young man handed me a page from a book he said I’d dropped. I read it and became convinced this was all part of the experience; the rest of my walk was rather surreal and disorientating.

I’d never heard of Pipilotti Risi before I went to her show at the Hayward Gallery. I love the playfulness of her videos, on translucent screens or hidden in handbags, conch shells and all sorts of other objects. It was like revisiting psychedelia, but with technology which enables artists to do so much more. Huge fun.

The Barbican Gallery continues its unique position amongst London’s major spaces with an exhibition from / about architectural practice OMA (whoever they are!) curated by Rotor (whoever they are too!). It’s a very original presentation of drawings, models, materials etc. though I think you have to be an architect or designer to get the most out of it. An interesting and intriguing one hour wander nonetheless.

The second Koestler Trust Art For Offenders exhibition at the RFH was simply extraordinary. This year it included video, music and spoken word as well as paintings and sculpture. Many of these items would hold their own in any contemporary art selling exhibition. Though the art was uplifting and enthralling, one was left with the feeling of hopelessness that so much talent is locked up.

A visit with the V&A Friends to then newly refurbished Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel was terrific. The highlight is the 5-story stairwell with ceramic tiles on the ground floor, wrought iron and wood banisters, stencilled walls and an extraordinary painted ceiling. They’ve done a wonderful job of restoring all of this and it was a treat being able to see it without having to take out a mortgage to book a room!

In Oxford for lunch, I had enough time to pop into the lovely Ashmolean Museum again (now one of the UK’s very best museums) which included a small but fascinating display of iconic Chinese Cultural Revolution art that showed you how it is possible for paintings to influence people; you could see how they fell for Mao with all these idealised images.

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Though marred a little this time by late information and mis-information, my second visit to MIF confirms it as a permanent new fixture for anyone interested in the arts. It’s USP is that everything is a world premiere, so what it loses in quantity it make up for in originality. This year I got to four things…..

Whilst Manchester’s own Gallagher brothers are nowhere to be seen, their former adversary, Londoner Damon Albarn, returns with his second ‘opera’. I wish they wouldn’t call it that, because it sets it up for all sorts of unfair comparisons. It’s the story of the now obscure Elizabethan renaissance man Dr. Dee, brought alive in staged scenes and songs. It is an extraordinary story, and though they’ve got the essence of the man, it’s more of an impression than a story as there isn’t enough narrative for that. Albarn’s music is a lovely combination of early music, folk, world music and Philip Glass and Rufus Norris’ staging is wonderfully inventive. There’s a 10-piece band in a giant container which rises high above the action, with Albarn perched precariously on a platform jutting out, and there’s an orchestra in the pit. As the show starts, a raven flies from the auditorium onto the top of the container and then off stage right. Characters walk onto the container roof from stage left and fall backward onto the stage (well, presumably a mattress otherwise there’d be a lot of broken backs). The scenes onstage unfold below this, each accompanied by songs – some sung by Albarn and some by onstage characters with operatic voices. I found the whole thing captivating if indescribable!

National treasure Victoria Wood has written a musical before (Acorn Antiques) and a play with music (Talent) and her new show That Day We Sang is billed as a play with songs. It has a true local story and with community involvement it has a Billy Elliott feel. It’s starting point is the re-union, for a Granada ‘documentary’, of four adults who as kids participated in a famous recording by a children’s choir. As it unfolds, it becomes a touching story of the unfulfilled lives and love of Tubby and Enid, two of these children. The other two child singers, now grown up, act as social catalysts which eventually leads us to our happy ending. We move back and forth between the 1929 auditions, rehearsal and concert and the filming and subsequent events of 1969. There’s a specially assembled children’s choir of 44 and the Halle Youth Orchestra are in the pit. It still needs a bit of work, but it’s already a charming, heart-warming and funny show. There are two show-stoppers – when the wonderful Jenna Russell as Enid sings about what it means to be called Enid (where scalectrix and swarfega get rhymed, as only VW would) and a quartet in a Berni Inn singing about the delights of dining at Berni’s, complete with four dancing waiters & waitresses – and Black Forest Gateaux! In a show packed with her usual nostalgic references, we also get to visit The Golden Egg and Wimpy’s and there are many nods to iconic products of the day. Vincent Franklin is brilliant as Tubby, who uses humour to cover his sadness and vulnerability. Gerald Horan and Lorraine Bruce are also excellent, doubling up as former child singers Frank and Dorothy (now obsessed with the niceties of entertaining at home; cue doilies and matchmakers) and Enid’s boss and colleague Mr Stanley and Pauline. Young Raif Clarke was absolutely adorable as young Jimmy (Tubby). I can’t believe such a good idea and such a good show won’t live beyond these 13 performances.

Well, if Dr Dee was hard to describe, The Life & Death of Marina Abramovic is impossible to describe. She’s the godmother of performance art and amongst her career highlights we have 700 hours sat silently in NYC’s MoMA being visited and observed by people, many of whom queued all night, and a walk half the length of the Great Wall to meet her partner, who walked the other half, in order to say goodbye as they split up. Well, I suppose if you’re a performance artist, you don’t write your biography, you, well, perform it – and that’s just what you get here. Eleven scenes from her life bookended by her imagined funeral. It’s narrated by Willem Dafoe no less, looking and behaving manically as a cross between the MC in Cabaret and the Joker in Batman. The music is by Anthony (as in Anthony and The Johnsons), William Basinski and Svetlana Spajic and its staged by avant guard director Robert Wilson. It was often surreal, sometimes absurd and occasionally wince-inducing with stunning visual imagery and beautiful music (and three dogs stalking the playing area during the ‘funeral’!). Somehow you just couldn’t take your eyes off the stage. It was much later that I realised how much I’d learnt about her – which I guess is what a biography is for. Extraordinary.

The fourth piece was 30 minutes at Piccadilly Station with a soundscape called Audio Obscura by Lavinia Greenlaw provided through headphones. There were no directions, but you were encouraged to explore the space. If there was a narrative, I didn’t get it. Somehow, though, you did get lost in some other world and became only semiconscious of your surroundings. I’ve had similar experiences which were better, but I don’t regret this particular ride.

The original plan included Punchdrunk’s immersive Dr. Who show, but they withheld the information that unaccompanied adults would not be admitted until after I’d booked the other three shows and only decided to allow unaccompanied adults for a few evening shows much later, by which time I couldn’t fit them in. Mis-information about the first day’s opening hours of Eleven Rooms at Manchester Art Gallery also meant I missed that, and I managed to find John Gerard’s outdoor film Infinite Freedom Exercise despite confusing direction in the publicity material. MIF needs to improve the timeliness and accuracy of its information as this is the sort of thing that screws up a carefully planned trip (and visitors from afar – well, London – do need to plan) and can easily piss of the punters!

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