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Posts Tagged ‘Edward Gardner’

The Rest of November

Contemporary Music

I saw her several times with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, but her concert at the Anvil Basingstoke was the first time I saw Rhiannon Giddens without them, but with Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi. It was an eclectic selection, consummate musicianship and great sound / acoustics. She also engages with her audience, so it becomes an evening with her.

Opera

The rarely staged Haydn opera La Fedelta Premiata was given a brilliant production at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. It was a touch long but it was an absolute hoot, and the standard of singing and playing, and the production values, were sky high. As good as anything I’ve seen in an opera house recently, and better than most.

Having fallen out of love with ENO I didn’t go to see Akhenaten, so I went to the Met Live relay of the same production, which was brilliant. I ‘got’ the music better than when I first saw it decades ago, when I didn’t even realise there were no violins in the orchestra! The juggling synchronised with the music was inspired and the costumes were extraordinary, though I did find two long intervals (with Joyce DiDonato’s overly sycophantic interviews) spoilt the dramatic flow, but producer Phelim McDermott is a magician nonetheless.

Like the proverbial bus, two Haydn operas came along this month at two different ‘conservatoires’, with the second one – Il Mondo Della Luna – at the Royal College of Music was another absolute hoot. Brilliantly designed and choreographed, they got every ounce of comedy out of it, and more, and both the singing and playing was glorious; perhaps the best I’ve heard from the RCM Orchestra

The best staged performance of Britten’s Peter Grimes I’ve seen was on the beach in Aldeburgh during his centenary year, but the best musically was the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under Edward Gardner, with Stuart Skelton as  Grimes, at the Edinburgh Festival in 2017, so I pounced when I heard they were going to reprise it at the Royal Festival Hall and it was just as wonderful. The orchestra, four choruses and another eleven fine soloists delivered musical perfection and the RFH audience erupted as the Usher Hall one had.

Classical Music

Another fine lunchtime concert with the Royal Academy SO under Robert Trevino. I enjoyed Igor Stravinsky’s fascinating dance music Agon, which was new to me, but it was a stunning performance of the much heard Elgar’s Enigma Variations that blew me away. The talent is extraordinary and Trevino is clearly very nurturing.

The Philharmonia Orchestra played William Walton’s complete score for Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film of Henry V synchronised with a screening of a restored print at the Royal Festival Hall, helped by Crouch End Festival Chorus, and it was brilliant. Its ages since I saw a film with live music and I’d forgotten how good it can be.

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas chose Berlioz monumental Romeo & Juliet choral symphony for the 50th anniversary of his first concert with them and the LSO and LSC rose to the occasion, filling the Barbican Hall with a glorious sound.

Tilson Thomas’ celebrations continued at the Barbican with one of the LSO’s ‘Half Six Fix’ series, one hour early evening concerts with digital programmes and illustrated introductions by the conductor. This was insightful, and Prokofiev’s 5th was thrillingly played.

A revisit to Beloved Clara, one of Lucy Parham’s ‘composer portraits’, at Milton Court proved very rewarding. The fifteen piano pieces are interspersed with readings from the letters of Robert & Clara Schumann and their friend Johannes Brahms, by Dame Harriet Walter and Simon Russell Beale no less. Civilised entertainment, and ultimately very moving.

I love single composer evenings and it was great to hear the very animated Doric String Quartet give all three of Britten’s quartets together. The third references his opera Death in Venice which I will be seeing next month (and visiting the city for Christmas and seeing the play in April!). These are challenging works, but their musicianship was extraordinary and the usually reserved Wigmore Hall audience cheered. One of the best chamber recitals I’ve ever been to.

Back at the Royal Academy of Music, where my classical month stared, Mark Elder conducted their Symphony Orchestra in a Berlioz programme which included two rarities. They sounded great, as ever, and it was good to see personal favourite Elder again after two concerts he was too unwell to conduct.

Film

Ken Loach brought shame on our benefits system so effectively in I, Daniel Blake, and now he does the same to the gig economy in Sorry We Missed You, more specifically parcel delivery and care in the home. These are hard films to watch, but they have to be seen. Campaigning film-making at its best.

I enjoyed The Good Liar, though with all its twists and turns it oddly left me wishing I’d read the book. In many ways it’s an old-fashioned film, but there’s nothing wrong with that and it does have two national treasures, though Ian McKellen playing a man pretending to be someone else resulted in something a bit odd.

Art

I became an instant fan of Lisa Brice when I saw her small exhibition at Tate Britain last year, and this was confirmed by her selling exhibition at Stephen Friedman Gallery. Again, it’s mostly semi-clad women smoking (!) but the work is extraordinarily original and mesmerising. Up the road at Sadie Coles HQ, I was less enamoured with Dutch artist Co Westerik’s body and landscape. It was clearly technically accomplished, but I found a lot of it a bit disturbing.

Though there were some lovely pictures and objects, the British Museum’s Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art was one of those exhibitions where they took a chunk of their collection, added a few loan items, and made it into something you pay to see. In the print gallery upstairs there was a better (free) show of drawings by 20th century German artist Kathe Kollwitz, who I’d never heard of but whose work in Portrait of the artist bowled me over.

I was a bit surprised that The House of Illustration was five years old as I’d never heard of it, but Made in Cuba: Cold War Graphic Art is an excellent exhibition that puts it on the map for me. They also had a lovely small display of Quentin Blake work-in-progress to add a lighter touch.

One of my gallery wanders brought rich rewards, starting with Peter Doig, back on form at Michael Werner after a disappointing selection at the same gallery a while back, continuing with Grayson Perry’s brilliant new work on a theme of inequality at Victoria Miro, on to the Photographer’s Gallery for the excellent Shot in Soho and the quirky Feast for the Eyes – The Story of Food in Photography and ending with three stunning light, video and sound installations Other Places at 180 The Strand. I am so lucky to live in this city. All of this cost £2.50!

At the Guildhall Art Gallery, they’d assembled an eclectic selection of paintings of London spanning 500 or more years for Architecture of London. From Canaletto to contemporary works, from cityscapes to back gardens, I loved it.

I didn’t think the Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize exhibition at the NPG was as good this year, the selection seeming more pointed and quirky. While I was there, though, I caught the rest of Elizabeth Peyton’s portraits that they’d hung with the Tudors, Stuarts, Elizabethans and Victorians, which was a brilliant idea, and another twenty excellent works to see by this great new find (for me).

The Barbican Art Gallery’s exhibitions are not always as good as Into the Night: Cabarets & Clubs in Modern Art. It featured cabarets & clubs spanning eighty years in twelve cities in Europe, Latin America, Africa, USA and the Middle East and included four recreations as well as pictures, photographs and objects. I thought it was absolutely fascinating. In the Curve Gallery downstairs, Trevor Paglen has covered the walls with 30,000 photographs drawn from the ImageNet database of many millions by word searching, often resulting in surprising images. It’s called From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ and I thought it was also fascinating.

The National Gallery was also at its best with the Gaugin Portraits exhibition, really well curated and lit with an excellent accompanying film. The interpretation of ‘Portraits’ was sometimes a bit loose, but justified. A real one-off.

Revisiting the Sir John Soane Museum reminded me how wonderous it is, though I was there specifically to see Hogarth: Place & Progress which brings all of his series paintings and engravings together for the first time. I loved it, though after I’d left I realised that, in the maze that the building is, I missed two rooms, so I’ll have to go back!

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Here we are again, for the 30-something year. This time we started with food & wine at Scotland’s Restaurant of the Year, http://www.timberyard.co, where the food was lovely, the wine list too much of a tome and the staff doing cool a touch too much aloof. Still, it’s the food that matters most and here it excelled. On to the first cultural highlight with the Philhamonia and the wonderful Edinburgh Festival Chorus under Peter Pan conductor Andrew Davies for a rare outing of Elgar’s oratorio King Olaf. Unfathomable narrative, but musically exhilarating, with three good soloists to boot. The Usher Hall crowd were a bit too restrained; they should think themselves very lucky indeed.

Our fringe started with a little gem called Jess & Joe at TraverseTwo, a growing up story with a difference, told by the characters acting out what has already happened to them. Lovely writing, beautiful performances and unpredictable. I left welled up, with a warm glow. The first art was Beyond Caravaggio at the Scottish National Gallery which I missed, intentionally because of their dreadful gallery space, at the NG in London. Here in a proper gallery, the handful of Caravaggios are wonderful, but served to show up the rest, those he influenced. On to the Book Fest for a Q&A with Dominic Dromgoole, responsible for two of the most inspirational theatrical events of my lifetime, both in the last five years – Globe to Globe, every Shakespeare play in a different language, and the Hamlet World Tour to every country in the world. Insightful, with some great anecdotes and excellent audience engagement. I queued up to get my book signed and he was just as friendly and engaging one-to-one. More art with True to Life, realistic art from the twenties and thirties, including usual suspects like Stanley Spencer and Winifred Knights, but lots new to me. Worth the schlep out to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, a place Lothian Transport seems determined to wipe off the map. Then our first comedy, Ed Byrne at Assembly George Square Theatre, who I’ve been drawn to since his recent TV travel programmes with Dara O’Briain but have never seen. Very funny, very engaging, a bit of a lag in the middle, but a treat nonetheless. Late night supper at the delightfully named http://www.angelswithbagpipes.co.uk. where excellent food combined with friendly service to great effect. A lovely first full day.

Sunday started early with something more appropriate for a late night slot, Wild Bore at TraverseOne, which the critics seem to have taken against, unsurprisingly given that they loom large. It’s three women talking out of their, well, arses, mostly quoting vitriolic reviews of their shows and others, but it evolves and changes rather a lot, and I loved the combination of subversiveness, surprise, anarchy and humour. The next show over at Stand Six couldn’t be more of a contrast – that’s the fringe for you – with poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy reading her work, and multi-brass-and woodwind-instrumentalist John Sampson chipping in. A sombre start with First World War poems, the tone lightened and it became funny and cheeky; a rarger charming hour. I rested before the day’s main event, back at the Usher Hall. Edward Gardner brought his new band, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, along with a cast of soloists to die for led by Stuart Skelton, and they took us all hostage with an extraordinary interpretation of Britten’s operatic masterpiece Peter Grimes. The usually reserved Usher Hall crowd justifiably erupted. I doubt I’ll ever hear it that good again; a highlight in a lifetime of concert-going. Emotionally drained, I needed a drink before I joined the others at http://www.mumbaimansionedinburgh.co.uk where the food was a delicious new spin on Indian cuisine, but the staff rushed and harassed us too much.

With such an extraordinary start, things had to take a bit of a dip and so it was in (full) Day Three. It started well at that Edinburgh institution, the International Photographic Exhibition, though there were a few too many contrived, overly posed shots for my taste. The day’s first theatre saw the normally reliable Paines Plough deliver a mediocre and rather pointless piece called Black Mountain in their mobile Roundabout theatre at Summerhall, about a couple seeking to rescue their relationship when his ex turns up, or does she? A mildly thrilling atmospheric thriller with cardboard performances. As my companion said, it would have been better on the radio. From here, stand-up Dominic Holland at the Voodoo Rooms lifted things significantly with the brilliantly observational, autobiographical humour of a 50–year-old who’s career has been eclipsed by his 21-year-old son. Then back to Summerhall for Graeae’s Cosmic Scallies, a somewhat slight piece about renewing an old friendship, and Skelmersdale!, which never rose to the giddy heights of their Solid Life of Sugar Water in 2015. We ended on a high with another terrific meal at http://www.lovagerestaurant.co.uk Food & wine eclipsed culture on Day Three, but there are three more full days to go……..

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Contemporary Music

I wasn’t sure I wanted to see Rufus Wainwright again after being disappointed by his last outing promoting the over-produced Out of the Game, but solo and at The Royal Hospital Chelsea? Oh, go on then. There wasn’t much atmosphere in the hall-full space (when will promoters learn that there is a limit to the prices people will pay, however much of a fan they are) and the lovely weather turned 30 mins before he came on stage, but the rain stopped after 10 mins. Rufus’ concerts are inconsistent and uneven because he has a tendency to attempt under-rehearsed and / or overly-ambitious things, resulting in stops & starts and forgotten chords & words, covered up with clumsy humour, but when he’s good he’s stunning, and there were enough stunning moments to make this one very worthwhile. There were bonuses too – a duet with Neil Tennant on Poses, and support from The Villagers, who sounded lovely in the open air, in the sun.

John Hiatt‘s welcome return to Under the Bridge saw a fairly predictable, populist 2-hour set, but it was sung and played very well, and there were two new numbers. The usual final encore of Riding With the King was movingly dedicated to the recently departed B B King. You have to admire the bravery (or foolishness?!) of support act Josh Savage who walked into the club crowd to play an acoustic number with audience participation, but he just about got away with it.

Opera

A Henze double-bill was a also brave choice for the June GSMD opera production & it got a small but largely appreciative audience – an odd choice too, as it only enabled them to showcase nine singers. Ein Landarzt was a short absurdist Kafka monologue set to music, a very early work. Phaedra was his last work and got a really striking production. I had to pinch myself when Chinese counter-tenor Meili Li switched to baritone!

Musically, ENO‘s Queen of Spades was one of the best things they’ve ever done. The orchestra under Edward Gardner were on fire and all of the soloists, especially Peter Hoare as Hermann, were outstanding….. but the staging made little sense. Such is the arrogance of opera directors.

I enjoyed the double bill of Harrison Birtwistle operas in Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio TheatreThe Corridor and The Cure are both based on Greek myth, both two-handers, written five years apart but fitting together perfectly. Mark Padmore and Elizabeth Atherton were extraordinary and the London Sinfonietta (costumed in the first) sounded great.

Classical Music

The world premiere of Nico Muhly’s song cycle Sentences, inspired by Alan Turing, at the Barbican was superb. It was beautifully sung by countertenor Iestyn Davies (who also sampled and sung with himself!) with the Britten Sinfonia and Muhly conducting from the piano. The rest of the programme was well chosen, with a Dowland song and a Britten piece for viola (Lawrence Power) inspired by it and Vivaldi’s Sabat Mater for solo voice (Davies on top form again) and ensemble. A lovely evening.

Film

The second spy spoof of the year, cleverly called Spy, is even better than the first, Kingsman: the Secret Service, and Melissa McCarthy is wonderful, with the bonus of Miranda also cast as a CIA operative. I laughed a lot.

The film of London Road is as ground-breaking as the stage show, but not as good. I’m not sure they did NT Live when it was first on stage, but I think that would be a better experience (and judging by the tiny audience in the cinema, more commercial sense too).

Art

The latest at the Saatchi Gallery – art from Africa and Latin America – is their best for ages, with some great paintings and only a few of those installations that can often be pretentious and dull.

The Ravilious exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery was a real treat. His wistful, very British paintings range from landscapes to port scenes to war art but they all have a very distinctive style which I love. The best exhibition I’ve seen in a long while.

The Alexander McQueen exhibition at the V&A, Savage Beauty, also blew me away. I’m no fan of fashion, but I do love creativity and ingenuity and McQueen clearly had an imagination the size of a planet. In a brilliantly theatrical presentation, you learn a lot about the man and his influences – a lot more than the 100 minute play I saw the Saturday before, in fact – whilst looking at his beautifully crafted clothes.

I was less fond of David Hockney’s Painting & Photography exhibition at Annely Juda than I was his earlier landscape collection, though I liked the way it played with both art forms, and played with your head by having paintings in photographs and the same people turning up all over the place in both forms.

It was good to go back to the Estorick Collection of modern Italian art, though the Modigliani Drawings exhibition which took me there was much of a muchness – too small, really. Re-viewing the one-room permanent collection and three rooms of a current selection made it worthwhile though.

The latest double-dip at Tate Modern yielded an unexpected treat and something dull from two 20th century female artists. Sonia Delaunay‘s colourful work spanned portraits, abstracts, textile patterns and clothes   – diverse but uniformly cheerful. Agnes Martin was Rothkoesqe pretension – all dots, lines and hardly discernible colour.

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Classical Music

I was perhaps a little too excited about the Berlin Phil / Rattle Sibelius cycle at the Barbican. I enjoyed it very much, but it wasn’t the life-changing event the eye-watering prices and the hype might make you expect. It dipped a bit in the second concert with the particularly dark and difficult 4th, but it was great to hear them all together again, one of the best sets of symphonies ever written.

Another free lunchtime concert at the Royal Academy of Music proved to be a real treat. It’s wonderful to see world class conductors like Sir Mark Elder give up their time to helm and nurture the Academy Symphony Orchestra and his introductions are informative and welcoming. The newly orchestrated Six Songs from a Shropshire Lad (Butterworth / Houseman) were beautifully sung by Henry Neill and this was followed by a thrilling interpretation of Shostakovich’s 6th. Lovely.

Any qualms I had about the Sibelius cycle were wiped away by the same team’s concert at the Royal Festival Hall of Mahler’s 2nd symphony. Joined by the LSC, CBSO Chorus and two soloists, this was unquestionably the best I’ve heard this work. The chorus sung without scores and there was some interesting offstage positioning of musicians. The power of 250 performers is extraordinary.

Back at the Royal Academy of Music, this time for Rachmaninov’s 2nd symphony conducted by Edward Gardner. I’d never heard it before but is was accessible on first hearing and packed full of lovely melodies. The talent on stage was extraordinary; if you’d paid full whack at a major concert hall, you’d go home happy. This was a lunchtime freebie!

Opera

I’ve seen opera in the cinema before, but Der Fliegende Hollander was my first ROH Live experience. Favourite baritone Bryn Terfel as the Dutchman wasn’t the only great thing about it – the Senta, Adrianne Pieczonka, was new to me and I thought she was wonderful and the orchestra and chorus sounded great. With top price seats in the opera house at £190 (four times as much as seeing Terfel in the same opera in Cardiff, albeit not as good a production) I felt my £13 cinema experience was terrific value.

I’d seen the production at ENO of Mastersingers of Nuremberg when WNO premièred it in Cardiff (again with Bryn Terfel, but in German and at a third of the price!) but decided I’d like to see it again. I enjoyed it just as much from my more expensive less comfortable seat further away! The cast was faultless and the orchestra and chorus soared. There’s a lot of flab in this opera, but when it shines it takes your breath away.

Film

What a wonderful film Trash is. Stephen Daldry has given us a thriller with a heart set in Rio and performed mostly in Portuguese, which would have been a BAFTA and Oscar Best Film nominee if it hadn’t! The child actors are extraordinary. Unmissable.

I admired Inherent Vice but it lost me after 30 mins or so and never fully recovered. Joaquin Phoenix is terrific and the depiction of the 70’s is great, but it’s overlong and a bit too convoluted.

Shaun the Sheep is another delightful family film, this time from trusty Ardman. I was surprised but pleased to find it had no dialogue and the visual humour was wonderful, some reserved for the adults like all good family entertainment. Brilliant.

Love is Strange was an impulsive punt based on Time Out’s review. It’s a beautifully understated and unsentimental love story which is also achingly sad. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are so believable as the couple whose lives are turned upside down in the 40th year of their relationship.

Selma is an excellent film, though the events depicted made me very angry and I was astonished when I realised this was only 50 years ago. The failure to nominate David Oyelowo for either the BAFTA’s or Oscars is a disgrace; Eddie Redmayne’s achievement is probably greater, but this is still a superb performance.

I’m a sucker for British romantic comedies and The Second Best Marigold Hotel was a treat. It might be safe and predictable, as the critics suggest, but it’s warm-hearted, charming and entertaining, with a cast of our best thespians having a ball.

Art

A richly rewarding morning in Oxford provided one major exhibition and three smaller ones at the lovely Ashmolean. As major exhibitions go, the William Blake one is small, but beautifully formed. It provides insight into his life and embraces the full range of his talent, as engraver, poet, painter and drawer. Chicago artist Ed Paschke is new to me and I liked his colourful, vibrant, stylised and a touch surreal pictures. The Tokaido Road print series by Japanese master engraver Hiroshige provided a brilliant contrast and a diverse selection of paintings by contemporary Chinese artist Fang Zhaoling completed the visit. A treat.

A less rewarding visit to Tate Modern started with Conflict, Time, Photography. It’s a very good idea – photographs of war zones taken at various times after a conflict – but it’s vast, daunting and relentlessly dark and depressing. It covers conflicts over a 150-year period, but it concentrates on the last 65. It comes to life occasionally, but its a case of more is less I’m afraid. In the Turbine Hall, Richard Tuttle’s installation is probably the most uninspiring they’ve ever had, but the visit picked up seeing South African Marlene Dumas’ The Image as Burden, a highly original portraitist whose images are somewhat spooky but high in atmosphere. Fascinating.

 

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Opera

The Met Live Rigoletto was wonderful, though two long intervals did mar the dramatic flow somewhat. The staging in 60’s Las Vegas (brilliant design) worked as well as the ENO’s gangster Chicago one many years ago and the lead performances were simply stunning – Zeljko Lucic as Rigoletto, Diane Damrau as Gilda and Piotr Beczala (who I saw there in Manon on my US trip in 2012) as The Duke and there was brilliant support from Stefan Kocan as assassin Sparafucile. The production team were new to opera; in fact they were responsible for Spring Awakening, one of my favourite musicals of recent years (and one of my biggest theatre investment losses!).

My latest visit to WNO showed them off at their best and gave us a flavour of new Director David Poultney’s vision, with a pairing of his new production of Lulu and a revival of his 32-year-old production of The Cunning Little Vixen. They are far from my favourite operas, but I doubt either could get better productions. Lulu was a terrific visual spectacle on Johan Engels giant double-circle steel frame (with wings!), and the orchestra and singers, led by Marie Arnet’s wonderful Lulu, were sensational. Sadly, I find it hard to enjoy Berg’s music and the absurdist surrealist story doesn’t really engage me! Vixen fared better as the music is more accessible and the story, though somewhat slight, is more understandable. The late Maria Bjornson’s superb design, with people and animals popping up all over the place, doesn’t look in the slightest bit dated. Again the standard of singing and playing was exceptional (MD Lothar Koenigs again with the baton – boy, was he a good find for WNO!) with Sophie Bevan a delightful Vixen.

Classical Music

One would never have expected a free lunchtime concert at a music conservatoire to produce anything as beautiful and thrilling as Elgar’s 1st Symphony by the Academy Concert Orchestra at the Royal Academy of Music; it was as good as I’ve ever heard it. I’m sure having the great Edward Gardner to conduct helped, but nevertheless the musicianship seemed extraordinary.

Joyce DiDonato’s ‘Drama Queens’ concert (accompanied by the brilliant Il Complesso Barocco) had a slow start but when it got going, boy did it get going. In a stunning flame red Vivienne Westwood gown which transformed as the evening progressed, she sang eleven baroque arias, some by well-known composers like Handel and Monteverdi but a significant number of rarities. The fillers (breathers) by the ensemble were much more than that, most notably Vivaldi’s Concerto for Violin & Strings with a stunning solo from Dmitry Sinkovsky. Her personality always shines through and it felt like an evening with a very talented friend (and the best thing ever to come out of Kansas!).

Well the Britten centenary got off to a good start with a rare opportunity to hear all three string quartets in chronological order at the Royal Academy of Music. Three young quartets formed within the last six years – Leporello, Wilhelm & Jubilee! – did a great job. Two of them were all-girl quartets and the third had one girl; I’m not sure what to read into that! 17+ more centenary events to come!

Art

The NPG’s Man Ray exhibition only includes his photographic portraits but it’s terrific. Most of them are 20th century artists and other members of the avant-garde. Even though they are between 40 and 80 years old, they seem astonishingly contemporary; that’s style for you.

I had to abandon a visit to the cinema because they’d sold out a Saturday afternoon performance of a film that had been running for three weeks! Can’t we be impulsive any more? Well, we can because this gave me the impulse for a Mayfair gallery wander. Bruce Nauman’s neon works at Hauser & Wirth were great, though the narrow entrance to one (of only four) excluded the larger of us! I was impressed by the use of colour in Fiona Rae’s new paintings at Timothy Taylor, but couldn’t fathom why she’d spoilt them by including little Teddy’s peeping out all over the place. Fred Sandback has become a favourite and his works at David Zwimer were brilliant. It’s amazing what you can do with a bit of string, some white space and an imagination! Their other (group) exhibition would have been better if you’d known which artist was which. The final visit was entirely on spec (Time Out pointed out the others); an Azeri artist called Niyaz Najafov who’s red and black grotesques at Gazelli Art House were interesting but not particularly nice to look at. That’s art for you…..

The Wellcome Collection’s exhibition Death: A Self Portrait was recommended but the prospect of seeing it didn’t exactly capture my imagination. Finding myself nearby with spare time, I ventured forth to find it quite fascinating. It’s the personal collection of one man and the range – of sources, periods and themes – is extraordinary. More skeletons than you’ll see in a normal lifetime!

A trio of Royal Academy exhibitions in one day delivered fascinating and unexpected results. The Manet exhibition focuses just on portraits, so it does become a bit monotonous. There are some terrific pictures and I liked the way photos of the subjects were also displayed, but it’s patchy. It’s also padded out as four rooms are closed, two have no pictures and one has just one! In the member’s rooms, it was hard to get close enough to the many engravings that made up most of the British Landscapes show so it proved a bit frustrating. I liked the Turner and Sandby contributions a lot more than the Constable and Reynolds ones, but that’s the same as I feel about their paintings generally. The really pleasant surprise was the Mariko Mori exhibition in the new galleries. Her sculptures and installations feature light, stones and even water. It’s very different, all very cosmic and new age, and I loved it – a more soothing and relaxing experience than the other two.

Film

Hyde Park on Hudson was an enjoyable if slight insight into the relationship between King George VI and President Roosevelt (and Rooseveldt and his mistress) just before the Second World War. Bill Murray is very good as FDR as is Laura Linney as his mistress, but in all the publicity, the superb performances of Samuel West and Olivia Coleman as the King and Queen seem to have been ignored!

Beasts of the Southern Wild was another of my catch-ups and the third to reap big rewards. Sometimes the hand-held camera’s shakiness irritates, but the overall effect is extraordinary. This is a slice of poor America you rarely see, as shocking as much of what you see in the third world and the central performance by young Quvenzhane Wallis is simply extraordinary.

Despite a stunning performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, I’m afraid I found Lincoln pompous, overlong and rather dull. It focuses on only one aspect of the period – the vote to abolish slavery – but took forever to cover it. As always with Spielberg, he overdoes the sentimentality and loses cynical me by doing so.

Hitchcock is so much better than the critics would have you believe. It focuses just on the making of Psycho and both Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren are superb. It’s very funny and it seemed to me to be a particularly British humour, which may be why it hasn’t gone down so well in the US.

Zero Dark Thirty would be a much better film if they cut the first 90 minutes, before they establish the target, in half. The final hour as they mount the raid and assassinate Bin Laden, is terrific.

I’m puzzled again by the mediocrity of the reviews of I’ll Give it a Year, which I thought was a complete hoot. Rafe Spall and Stephen Marchant are the masters of foot-in-mouth clumsy behaviour, so this is a double whammy. A RomCom that’s as rom but a whole lot more com than the norm, populated with a fine cast of the best of British. Listen to me, not them!

Other

I’d been to Vintners Hall for a wine tasting (somewhat appropriately) but my second visit was a more thorough tour of the public areas. It’s one of the best livery halls in London and, with entertaining anecdotes from their GM, was a fascinating visit. It’s great that an ancient tradition like Swan Upping, part of this company’s heritage, continues today.

A sneaky afternoon off found us at the London Studios watching the recording of new sitcom Vicious with Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as a pair of old queens and Frances de la Tour and Iwan Rheon as their neighbours. It’s by a Will & Grace writer and it was great fun watching it being made (3 hours to make 25 minutes!). It’s on ITV in April (you’ll hear me laughing in Episode Three!). There was a lovely aside from Jacobi as he showed us the photo that was part of the set – a real one of him & McKellen at university in 1958!

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Contemporary Music

It’s hard to write about the Paul McCartney concert at the O2 without downloading a complete thesaurus of superlatives. It was the sixth time I’d seen him in the 21 years he’s been performing live with Wings or solo, and the third in as many years. It was at least as good as all the others – amazing visuals, brilliant sound, 2.75 unbroken hours containing 41 songs (including 27 Beatles songs, two getting their UK live premiere 46 years after their recording!). I sang, swayed, danced and cried. Absolute magic.

Opera, Dance & Classical Music

The ENO’s Castor & Pollux sounded as good as it looked dreadful. Rameau’s music is different to his contemporaries – just as crisp and clean, but with less frilly stuff! Sadly, the white box-modern dress-piles of earth-running around-inexplicable nudity production meant it was a lot better with your eyes closed. The singing of Allan Clayton, Roderick Williams, Sophie Bevan and Laura Tatulescu was lovely though – and the orchestra under Christian Curnyn sounded gorgeous.

Undance at Sadler’s Wells was an intriguing prospect – a double-bill of opera and dance as a collaboration between composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, artist Mark Wallinger and choreographer Wayne McGregor. The opera, Twice Through the Heart, was in fact a monodrama / song cycle about an abused woman who murders her husband. Favourite Sarah Connolly sang beautifully ‘inside’ 3D projections (we were given glasses on the way in!). It was a bit inaccessible on first hearing, but interesting and well executed nonetheless. Undance itself was based on the 19th century ‘motion photography’ of Eadweard Muybridge with projections behind the dancers, one mirroring the other. It was clever and intriguing, but felt like it should be a third of a triple bill rather than a pairing with a mini-opera. I didn’t dislike the evening, but somehow it felt like a couple of snacks rather than a full meal.

The Bizet Double-Bill at The Royal College of Music was a fascinating affair. Djamileh, an ‘opera comique’ had few laughs and inexplicably lost its happy ending to a murder, but the sound was unquestionably Bizet. Chinese tenor Lei Xu and British soprano Katherine Crompton sounded beautiful, as did the orchestra under Michael Rosewell. Le Docteur Miracle was certainly played for laughs, but also ended with a death Bizet didn’t (I think) write. In a veritable United Nations of casting, the singing of the girls – South African Filipa van Eck and Anastasia Prokofieva (guess where she’s from!)  – was great and the acting of Israeli  Pnini Grubner and homegrown Oliver Clarke equally good. A delightful evening.

Offenbach operettas are hardly subtle, but Scottish Opera’s touring production at the Young Vic removed any subtlety Orpheus in the Underworld did have. Everyone was trying so hard, particularly Rory Bremner’s libretto, squeezing in as many contemporary satirical references as he could think of, and the performers exaggerating every move and expression until it seems Am Dram. There was some good singing and the solitary pianist played the score well, but I felt like they were relentlessly beating me on the head with a newspaper (as one character did actually do to another at one point). Having said that, I admire them for touring small-scale opera to 33 venues in Scotland and Northern Ireland including artistic black holes like Stornoway and Lerwick, but why come to London with this? It made me yearn for a revival of ENO’s production with Gerald Scarfe’s extraordinary designs.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s concert at the Barbican was terrific. They combined Walton’s cantata Belshazzar’s Feast with Sibelius’ suite from the music of a play on the same subject and added in some Sibelius songs and Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem. Edward Gardner is now in the conducting premiere league and his interpretations here were thrilling. The chorus sounded great in the Walton and soloist Gerald Finlay great in both the Walton and the Sibelius sons. For once, the audience didn’t hold back the cheers; a cracker.

The LSO is an orchestra at the height of its powers. The Monteverdi Choir is one of the world’s best. Sir John Elliott Gardiner is in the premiere league of conducting. Even so, their concert of Beethoven’s 1st and 9th Symphonies was even more of a treat than I was expecting. The soloists don’t get to do much in the 9th, but they did it well. The chorus soared and the orchestra thrilled. Possibly the best in a lifetime of 9th’s

Back at Wigmore Hall there was a lovely concert pairing the 16th century songs of John Dowland with those of the 20th century composers he influenced – Peter Warlock and Ivor Gurney – with singers Ian Bostridge, Sophie Daneman and Mark Stone accompanied by lute, piano, flute, cor anglais & string quartet in various combinations. I could have done without the cheesy German Christmas encore with children’s pageant that followed a rather lovely evening of English song.

Magical Night at the Linbury Studio was the British premiere of a Kurt Weil ‘kinderpantomime’ choreographed by Aletta Collins, who has created a simple story of toys that come alive in the kid’s bedroom at night (heard that before?!). It was the Weill that was the attraction for me and it was interesting but hardly thrilling. The dance was OK, but the whole show was a bit of a disappointment overall.

Art

I was drawn to Painting Canada at Dulwich Gallery by its poster, as I often am by poster images. Sometimes the poster doesn’t properly represent the content of the exhibition (take note, Tate!) but on this occasion it does. It’s a beautiful exhibition of 122 paintings and oil sketches by the ‘Group of Seven’ Canadian artists from the early 20th Century. I’m not sure I’ve ever been to such a cohesive and consistently good exhibition of paintings. They’re virtually all landscapes, the colours are vivid and they show off (probably flatter) Canada brilliantly. Gorgeous.

Glass-maker Dale Chihuly is best known in the UK for the enormous ‘chandelier’ which dominates the V&A entrance. We were lucky to have a major exhibition of his work at Kew Gardens some years ago, but that’s about my only exposure to his work. Halcyon Gallery now has a brilliant selling exhibition which is surprisingly large and has a long 3-month run. The 57 works are well exhibited and beautifully lit. The only downside was the prices – from £11.5k to £700k; just a little beyond my art budget!

The annual Landscape Photography exhibition in the NT Lyttleton circle foyer is as good as ever; though guarantee to make mere mortal photographers like me feel totally inadequate! There are so many lovely photos here, I had to go round twice to take them all in.

I was initially disappointed by the V&A Friends visit to William Morris’ former home – Kelmscott House in Hammersmith – when I discovered we were only going to see the small basement museum (the rest is now a family home again). However, the curator brought out a lot of fascinating items, like original artwork for wallpaper and fabrics, and added some interesting historical facts to make it worthwhile in the end.

Down in Surrey, a feast of the work of another Arts & Crafts couple – George & Mary Watts – was to be had at the Watts Gallery and nearby chapel. He’s an underrated player in this movement’s game and it was great to see so many of his paintings in one place. The beautifully decorated round chapel (inside and out) by his wife on a nearby hill was an unexpected bonus despite the fading light.

It has taken me 21 months to get round to seeing WildWorks ‘Enchanted Palace’, which is occupying 15 rooms of Kensington Palace during their renovations. There were only 4 days to go, so off I went and boy was I glad I did. They tell the story of seven of the princesses who lived there by installations, light, sound, story books and cards and actors. it’s sometimes mysterious, sometimes playful, often beautiful and always captivating. I now can’t wait for their Babel in Battersea Park in 2012. 

Film

I adored My Week With Marilyn. It was funny and moving, littered with a who’s who of great British actors. Kenneth Branagh does a terrific turn as Laurence Olivier and Michelle Williams is uncanny as Marilyn, but for me it was Eddie Redmayne’s movie – he’s as mesmerizing on film as he is on stage, proven yet again by his Richard II less than 2 weeks later.

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I’ve been critical of ENO’s recruitment of film directors. These opera virgins – the late Anthony Minghella, Sally Potter, Mike Figgis and now Terry Gilliam – have had limited success, but it seems to me the real point of recruiting them is not what they bring to the art form but to generate a hype which sells seats. The best part of Figgis’ Lucrezia Borgia was in fact the films slotted into the action. The hype for Gilliam’s effort has been relentless; at one point the opera was billed as ‘Terry Gilliam’s The Damnation of Faust’, demoting Berlioz to a bit part in his own creation.

It’s an unusual opera – is it an opera? – with surprisingly little singing, but it does have some lovely music and the Faust legend is of course made for opera – Gounod, Busoni and Boito also had a go. Gilliam’s concept is to ‘follow the trajectory of German art and history from the late nineteenth century to the mid twentieth century’ and it’s a perfectly valid concept. The opening Caspar David Friedrich image is spellbinding. Then his imagination runs riot and he downloads so many ideas it’s difficult to keep up. It does slow down in the second half, which allows the story to breathe, but it is an extraordinary flight of the imagination. The trouble is, this swamps the story and overpowers Berlioz’ music, so it really is ‘Terry Gilliam’s The Damnation of Faust’.

The more experienced design team of Hildegard Bechtler, Katrina Lindsay and Peter Mumford do extraordinary work converting these ideas into stunning visual imagery, assisted by Finn Ross’ giant projections. Things aren’t so good in the music department, despite the fact that Edward Gardner is at the helm. The chorus was often ragged, Peter Hoare started well as Faust but in the second half was no match for Christine Rice’s gorgeous Marguerite and Christopher Purves continued his long journey from Harvey & The Wallbangers to give us a respectable Mephistopheles. Musically it wasn’t a patch on the LSO under Sir Colin Davies in concert or even Met Live at the cinema.

If you want to see Terry Gilliam’s The Damnation of Faust, you’ll be rewarded with a spectacle as spectacular as anything you’ve seen before in an opera house. If you want to see Berlioz’ The Damnation of Faust, you might be better giving it a miss.

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