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Posts Tagged ‘Elvis Costello’

Contemporary Music

It was obvious from the second number that Elvis Costello had a problem with his vocal chords, but he didn’t acknowledge it until two-thirds of the way through the main set. It’s a pity because the set for this London Palladium concert was new stuff and less obvious things from the back catalogue (only four or five crowd pleasers) which for me at least was very welcome. He was upstaged I’m afraid by two sisters from Atlanta going by the name of Larkin Poe who’s 30 min set as support was terrific. The evening partially redeemed itself by another 30 min set of Costello with the girls and a couple of crowd-pleasing solo encores, but in truth he should have postponed. There’s nothing sadder than seeing a hero die on stage.

Opera

How can you resist an opera set in a gay club with the toilet attendant played by Lesley Garrett?! As it turned out, Mark Simpson’s 70min 4-hander Pleasure at the Lyric Hammersmith proved rather good, and a hugely impressive operatic debut for this prodigious 28-year-old. The music suited a very dramatic story and the tension built well.

Many years ago I went to a shed in East London to see a bunch of mad Catalans perform a show in which they raced around wheeling supermarket trollies full of dead babies, throwing real liver around. That same company, La Fura Del Baus, are now at Covent Garden staging the UK premiere of Romanian composer Enescu’s only opera Oedipe, one of three 20th century operas based on the Oedipus myth and the most epic, telling the whole story from birth to death. Such is the world of opera in the 21st century. As it turns out, it’s a stunning production of a superb opera which was played and sung brilliantly. Why on earth has it taken 80 years to get here?!

Dance

I loved everything about the Royal Ballet’s Frankenstein. Liam Scarlett’s staging and choreography is excellent, there’s a great dramatic score from Lowell Lieberman and John Macfarlane’s designs and costumes are terrific. Pity the critics were so down on it. Why?

Film

Midnight Special is one of the best SciFi films of recent years. I was gripped throughout. The young actor playing the eight-year-old boy was extraordinary.

Eye in the Sky was another cinematic treat which I almost missed by reading the crits. Its edge of the seat stuff, but very objective in its examination of the ethics around drone attacks. One of Alan Rickman’s last roles, and he was great.

I have fond memories of Peter Quilter’s play Glorious, where Maureen Lipman played Florence Foster Jenkins, now played brilliantly by Meryl Streep in a film that is more poignant though also at times hilarious. A lovely film where even Corrie’s Mavis gets a bit part as a New York socialite!

The Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light was a good rather than great film, but it was well worth catching. Tom Hiddleston is excellent and I understand he does the singing himself, which makes it an even bigger achievement, as the segments when he’s onstage at the Grand Ole Oprey are particularly good.

Our Kind of Traitor is another good rather than great film, different from the normal spy movie, let down by an ending that was a bit too low key.

I went to see Everybody Wants Some!! on the strength of the director’s last film Boyhood and rave reviews for this. I’m afraid I was underwhelmed. It wasn’t exactly Porky’s 8, but it wasn’t far enough away from it.

Though its ending is somewhat implausible, Sing Street is a delightful Irish coming of age story, real feel-good stuff, with terrific performances from its young cast.

Art

Sicily: Culture & Conquests at the British Museum is a lovely presentation of the history of an island almost everyone visited, but most particularly the Greeks and Normans. It made me want to go back to Syracuse post haste.

I didn’t know much about the work of American photographer Paul Strand until the Strange & Familiar exhibition at the Barbican. In his retrospective at the V&A I loved his B&W portraits and films but the abstracts and B&W flora & fauna did nothing for me. Lots to like, though. Across the road at the Science Museum they look at the birth of photography with an exhibition featuring William Fox Talbot, who just about invented it. The thing that grabs you most is how much the art / science moved forward in its first decade; the difference between the 1834 pictures and the 1845 ones is extraordinary.

Other Worlds at the Natural History Museum was a spectacular exhibition of photographs of the planets taken from satellites and spacecraft then touched up in a real meeting of science and art. Across the road at the V&A again there was a hugely clever exhibition called Botticelli Reimagined which showed the influence of this 15th century artist on 20th & 21st century design, then on late 19th / early 20th century artists like the Pre-Raphaelites before leading you into the biggest collection of Botticelli ever seen in the UK. In this last section, I overdosed on Madonna’s and other religious subjects, but it was a highly original exhibition nonetheless.

Other

Trespass is the latest in the series of passionate, funny, campaigning shows from one-man opposition Mark Thomas. This one, visiting the Tricycle Theatre, looks at the erosion of our rights to roam this green and pleasant land. He was his own support, with different material. Great stuff. If only the real opposition could pack such a punch, as entertaining as they are!

 

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Contemporary Music

A friend suggested going to see Welsh harpist Catrin Finch & Senegalese cora player Seckou Keita at Union Chapel and what a brilliant suggestion it was. Their instruments blend beautifully and create an uplifting sound. It was the perfect venue, with a quiet respectful audience. Gorgeous.

I really don’t know what to make of Elvis Costello‘s concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Part of BluesFest (what?!). He brings Steve Nieve & they play 8 songs together, some in radical new arrangements. His song selections are eclectic and perhaps a bit quirky. He’s often uncharacteristically flat or off key. He talks a lot. It contained sublime moments, but not enough of them. It was certainly no crowd-pleaser and the audience reaction was distinctly underwhelming. Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames, supporting, were great (though he talked a lot too). They played two songs together, one in each others’ set. I’ve seen almost every EC London outing in 30+ years and this was probably the least satisfying. Most odd.

Opera

The autumn Rossini pairing at WNO was amongst their best ever. Neither William Tell nor Moses in Egypt are typical Rossini (which may be why I liked them so much!); the latter more identifiably Rossini. Tell was the more satisfying all round – Moses was also a musical feast but the production wasn’t so good. Former MD Carlo Rizzi brought the best out of the orchestra and chorus (yet again) and there was no weakness in the soloists – just various levels of good to great.

The English Concert’s performance of Handel’s opera Alcina at the Barbican was a huge treat. A faultless cast was led by Joyce DiDonato & Alice Coote and the orchestra made a beautiful sound. I’d thought it might be a star vehicle for Joyce, but she was superbly matched by the rest and the audience showed their appreciation for them all.

I’ve seen a handful of Philip Glass operas, but until The Trial they’ve all been on a huge scale. What this chamber piece proves is how much more suited his music is to this smaller scale. It’s an absurdist, impenetrable story but it was superbly staged and performed by Music Theatre Wales in Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio.

Dance

Lord of the Flies is a big departure for New Adventures at Sadler’s Wells. With two-thirds of the large cast amateurs selected from workshops and open additions, there’s a freshness and energy thoroughly in keeping with William Golding’s story and contemporary dance is a suitable form to tell the tale. It was dark, but I loved it.

I don’t normally like mixed ballet programmes but Birmingham Royal Ballet‘s Shadows of War at Sadler’s Wells caught my imagination, largely because of the music. The first piece, to a Ravel piano concerto, was a bit frivolous for me, but the second was a fascinating re-staging of a Robert Helpmann work set in wartime Glasgow with music by Arthur Bliss and the third a lovely piece set to Malcolm Arnold and Benjamin Britten – and all at a half to a third of prices at the other Royal Ballet.

Cassandra is a rare modern dance piece from the Royal Ballet at the Linbury Studio. It was a nice combination of dance, music and film and it held me for 70 minutes, but in the end it was just OK. I think it was the lack of effective narrative drive / story that was its weakness.

Classical Music

I persuaded a friend who has recently taken up choral singing to go for one of those ‘scratch’ performances put together in one day. The choice of Elijah was ambitious, but they pulled it off. The soloists were terrific, particularly baritone Neal Davies, who gave it his all as if was at the Royal Albert Hall, and the orchestra of a handful of Philharmonia section principals with music students sounded great. It would have been good to see a much bigger audience – where were all the friends and families of the orchestra and chorus?

The third of the Composer Portrait series at St John’s Smith Square was the best so far. Reverie was about Debussy whose writings were spoken by Simon Russell Beale no less. Pianist Lucy Parham played his gorgeous music beautifully and it was a captivating couple of hours.

Film

As much as I loved Pride, the casting of so many English and Irish actors as Welsh characters did irritate me – though I suppose you need Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton to sell films like this. I was surprised I never knew the true story behind it, but maybe it didn’t get much news coverage at the time. It’s certainly the most heart-warming, feel-good film for a long long time.

Dylan Thomas centenary

I found out about the Dylan Thomas in Fitzrovia festival very late on, by which time the diary was choc a block with other stuff, but I did manage to fit in some. A Warring Absence was readings of writings by him and his wife about one another by Daniel Evans & Sian Thomas with accompaniment by the Bernard Kane Players as a Platform performance in The Olivier Theatre and it was original and fascinating.  I’d never heard the Stan Tracy Jazz Under Milk Wood before – read excerpts accompanied by jazz which somehow works brilliantly; again original and fascinating. The final Gala Concert I had known about and this proved a real treat. An eclectic selection of Welsh music played by Camerata Wales (including world premieres) with readings of letters and poems by Sian Phillips, Tom Hollander, Griff Rhys Jones, Robert Bathurst, Lesley Manville, Jonathan Pryce and Owen Teale and songs from Welsh tenor John Owen-Jones and old folkie Ralph McTell. Two of the pieces combined Thomas’ works with music very successfully. For an Englishman, Tom Hollander’s reading of Fern Hill was almost as good as Dylan’s own!

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Contemporary Music

Elvis Costello brought his Spectacular Spinning Songbook tour to the Royal Albert Hall. This is the development of an idea he first used in a residency at the then Royalty Theatre (now Peacock Theatre) ages ago. Audience members come up and spin the wheel which determines the next song, though he does add in other songs, and remain on stage for a drink, or a cage dance(!). The sound took a short while to adjust to this huge space, but when it got going it was a great set of mostly oldies but goodies. His brother’s Irish folk band (new one on me) joined him for a moving tribute to his recently deceased dad. Other guests later included Brinsley Schwartz guitarist Martin Belmont and Squeeze’s Chris Difford, but the real surprise was the arrival of Russell Crowe for a song by the other Elvis and another by Johnny Cash. With a veritable army onstage for the final encore, and Steve Naïve on the RAH organ, (What’s so funny ‘bout) peace love and understanding was a fitting end to a great night.

Opera

South African company Isango, who opened the Globe to Globe festival, moved on to Hackney Empire where their residency included an extraordinary La Boheme. It worked well in a 70’s township, but it was the quality of singing and acting which took your breath away. The ‘orchestra’ was composed of wooden marimbas and steel drums. The overture was partly sung (hummed) which in itself was so moving it brought a tear to my eye. This was as good as their Carmen and Magic Flute and amongst the most emotional productions of this favourite opera I’ve ever seen. I had to see it, even though I’ve had a WNO La Boheme next Sunday booked for over a year!

Our Town (based on Thornton Wilder’s play) was a real coup for the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. They dramatically re-configured the Silk Street Theatre ‘in the round’ with the orchestra in a pit in front of one of three sets of seating. Twelve members of the chorus occupied two rows on the fourth side and it was played out on a central platform and elsewhere. I’m not sure I like the story that much, but the music is lovely and it was acted and sung to perfection. Stuart Laing was excellent in the part of the Stage Manager (a sort of narrator) and despite an infection, Sky Ingram again impressed as Emily. It was particularly good to see the GSMD putting on a 21st Century opera.

Classical music

The LSO Stravinsky mini-season got off to a wonderful start with three brilliant pieces. His mass for voices and wind is a great spin on the usual; his violin concerto in D major, played brilliantly by Leonidas Kavakos, a thrilling revelation and the full Firebird ballet set the Barbican alight. When the LSO & Gergiev are on form, they’re unbeatable and here they were absolutely on form. The second concert was a more low-key affair, with Renard, a piece for four male soloists and small orchestra and a narrated version of The Soldiers Tale. They were fascinating pieces, though not thrilling. The thrills returned at the third concert with a brilliant interpretation of the opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex. The chorus were on fine form, though I wish the singers hadn’t been buried at the back. Simon Callow again narrated and the Russian soloists were all good. The Rite of Spring, which preceded it, is a less accessible work than The Firebird and though I enjoyed it, again it didn’t thrill. The final concert was a real treat; a selection of seven jazz influenced chamber works. I really liked the ‘running commentary’ from conductor Timothy Redmond – very insightful and fascinating. The Octet for Wind Instruments was the highlight for me, though I enjoyed it all. I love ‘immersing’ myself in a single composer and this mini-festival provided an excellent opportunity to do so with a much underrated 20th Century one.

Dance

Ballet Revolucion was Cuban ballet dancers having a go at contemporary dance, but it was a bit of a hit-and-miss affair. The first half was rather samey and didn’t really inspire, but the second half had more great moments. More light and shade and more variety of musical style and accompanying choreography would show off this young talented company so much better.

Art

I was glad I caught David Shrigley’s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery on its last day as it made me smile the whole while I was there. He’s rather eclectic (animation, sculpture, drawings, paintings…..) and very quirky and funny.

The Yayoi Kusama retrospective at Tate Modern showed an artist who never seemed to sit still; the variety of her work was extraordinary and she’s continued working in the 35 years she has lived in a hospital. I didn’t like all of it, but it was fascinating and worth going for the final room alone – an infinity mirror space with changing coloured lights. I want one!

Back at Tate Modern for the Alighiero Boetti exhibition; another artist I’ve never heard of and another eclectic retrospective. There were rooms that captivated amongst others very dull, but overall an interesting review of one artist’s work rather than an aesthetically pleasing whole.

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CONTEMPORARY MUSIC

I booked to see Elvis Costello in Oxford before his London Meltdown date was announced, so off to Oxford I went 3 days after his appearance here. His choices for this solo show were unpredictable and refreshing and he seemed very relaxed and confident. There was something that prevented it being a classic, but I can’t put my finger on what (though it might have been the man sitting next to me who sang along – albeit quietly – for most of the show!). Still, it was great to see him again, great to see him solo again and just great really!

CLASSICAL MUSIC

The Spitalfields Festival’s concert of Handel’s beautiful oratorio Saul in Christ Church was glorious. You will find more experienced, and no doubt better, singers and players than those of the Royal Academy of Music, but I doubt you’d get a more spirited and thrilling performance. Laurence Cummings conducted with brio and the soloists – Laurence Meikle, Clare Lloyd, Aoife Miskelly, Stuart Jackson and Roderick Morris – all sang with passion. The orchestra & chorus were so uplifting in the lovely Church acoustic.

OPERA

Albert Herring was Britten’s’ only comic opera and, as far as I know, the only British comic opera to enter the international repertoire. I’ve seen it before and liked it but it took the Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s production for me to realise how much of a masterpiece it really is. It’s a simple story of village life, where a May king is crowned as there aren’t any worthy queens, but he too ultimately upsets the moralistic conservative village elders. It’s the way the music (orchestral playing as well as singing) conveys the humour that is so clever. The musical standards were as good as always at GSMD and the production values better than ever. Lucina-Mirikata Deacon turned Lady Billows into a brilliant (and appropriate) Mary Whitehouse clone and her busy bee housekeeper was excellently played and sung by Amy J Payne. The quartet of local worthies – Leonel Pinheiro’s mayor, Matthew Stiff’s policeman, Eva Ganizate’s teacher and Gary Griffiths’ vicar – was all superb. It was a great idea for butcher’s apprentice Sid (a terrific Matthew Sprange) and baker’s assistant Nancy (equally terrific Maire Flavin) to be played as punks! It was hard to believe Sylvie Bedouelle was a student, so believable was she as Albert’s mum. The children were played with gusto by Sophie Junker, Lucy Hall and Ciara O’Connor and Thomas Herford was a perfectly naïve Albert. My only negative would be that a dialect coach should have been employed to help the non-native English speakers – well, if you do it with Italian and German, you should do it with English! Another wonderful night at the Guildhall.

Mozart never finished his early opera Zaide (why?) so Ian Page decided to do so 230 years later (why?)! Instead of writing new music, he requisitioned other Mozart pieces, but with new English sung text from poet Michael Symmons Roberts and spoken text (of which there is too much) from dramaturge Ben Power and director Melly Still. What results in a cohesive finished product which somehow doesn’t come alive. The singing and playing is good rather than great, the acting is significantly better than opera’s norm and the staging is exceptional. A worthy effort, but one has to question whether it was worth all the trouble.

ART

Another catch-up month and a veritable art fe(a)st!

Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto has taken over the upper galleries and all three outdoor rooftop sculpture courts of the Hayward Gallery for a playful installation which includes a ‘nylon’ labyrinth (which you can walk in and behind and view from above) and an outdoor swimming pool you can take a dip in. It was fun (and would be particularly good for kids) but as it’s made of thin fabric and plywood, I’m glad I was there on the first day as I’m not convinced it will survive 11 weeks! On the ground floor, The New Décor is a bizarre interior design exhibition where everyday items are subverted in terms of both appearance and display. I can’t really describe it, can’t say it caught my imagination but wouldn’t say ‘don’t go’. I think that might mean indifference.

The Saatchi Gallery’s new exhibition of contemporary British art isn’t going to make the impact previous ones like Sensation have – I’m not sure there are any Damien Hirst’s or Tracy Emin’s here (that could be interpreted as a relief!). Somehow it all seems a bit tame and derivative.

My friend Amanda’s twin brother Paul Rennie has an exhibition of 20th century posters at Black Dog Gallery to coincide with the publication of his new book. I’ve seen so many 20th century posters (Shell, London Transport, British Rail….) that I was pleasantly surprised to find much that was new to me. Small – just 60 or so prints – but perfectly formed.

The Beauty of Maps exhibition at the British Library is terrific. I loved the way it was curated, grouping by the locations they would have been first seen in – audience rooms, galleries, bedrooms etc. – and there are some wonderful items on view. I am going to have to go back as there’s just so much to see.

A day trip to Oxford provided an unexpected bonus as Modern Art Oxford had a Howard Hodgkin exhibition; he’s one of my favourites, but most of his work is in private collections. It’s a great space that the 25 pictures didn’t really fill, but there were a handful of gorgeous ones I’d never seem before.

Tate Modern has been a bit hit-and-miss of late, but their current pairing provides for an intriguing visit. I’d only seen one work by Belgian artist Francis Alys before (a room full of paintings of the same subject, St. Fabiola, which he picked up in flea markets and junk shops!). This comprehensive retrospective, A Story of Deception,  includes a lot more work, including footage of his walk through Jerusalem with a dripping can of green paint to recreate the 1948 Green Line (through checkpoints without being stopped!) and the re-creation of a gunman walking through Mexico City (until the police arrested him, but after an unnervingly long time!). The other exhibition, Exposed, links photographs from more than 100 years which are voyeuristic, clandestine or surveillance. It sounds tacky, but it wasn’t really (well, most of it!) and the older photos were fascinating – photos of people are much more interesting when they don’t know they’re being taken.

For a lover of the surreal, I was rather underwhelmed by The Surreal House at the Barbican. They’ve gone to a lot of trouble (and expense) to find connections and links to make it hang together as an exhibition that they rather bury some terrific pictures from Dali, Magritte et al…..but I loved the grand piano hanging upside down from the roof which explodes every two minutes and then implodes two minutes later!

I remember coming to London 30 years ago and going to see an exhibition of American artist Andrew Wyeth’s paintings at the Royal Academy. I was compelled to visit it after seeing a couple of images in a newspaper or magazine. It was sensational. I’ve been hunting Wyeth’s ever since, but most are in private collections. I was amazed to find none in public collections in New York, then thrilled when I discovered a gallery devoted to him in Pennsylvania where I also visited his studio and was introduced to the work of his father NC and son Jamie. So, imagine how excited I was when a Wyeth Family exhibition turned up on my doorstep at Dulwich Picture Gallery! Only 10 of the 55 completed pictures are Andrew’s but they are lovely and include a handful from his 80’s, the last decade of his life. There are some terrific pictures by dad NC who illustrated many iconic books including Treasure Island and Rip van Winkle but Jamie’s are not as good as the ones I saw in Brandywine. We’re also introduced to Andrew’s sister Henriette with four nice pictures. I’d have loved more of Andrew’s but there’s more in Dulwich than New York, so it’s hard to complain!

FOOD & WINE

When we arrived at Taste London this year it was obvious that the numbers had gone up and the show had gone down market. There seemed to be fewer Restaurants (which is the point of the show) and more bars and exhibitors. In the end, I did enjoy it but I suspect it’s another of those things you go to regularly and enjoy – until the world finds out, when you leave them to it.

OTHER

Only Connect is a theatre group who work with prisoners, ex-offenders and those at risk of offending and I’ve admired and supported their work for a couple of years, as a result of which I was invited to a workshop of scenes from the first act of a new musical called The Realness at their atmospheric Kings Cross base, a former chapel. The performances were astonishingly good, including a terrific one by male lead Mensah Bedlako, who took over at just 5 days notice! The show itself is very promising and I can’t wait to see the finished work. Support them on www.oclondon.org

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Meltdown is an annual 10-day music festival at London’s Southbank Centre with a guest artistic director and no rules. Previous AD’s have included Elvis Costello, Patti Smith and David Bowie. This year’s is godfather of folk-rock Richard Thompson

It got off to a disappointing start with Thompson’s 80 minute ‘folkatorio’ Cabaret of Souls. It’s a great idea and there is some very good music, but hearing it for the first time and not being able to hear all the words and therefore engage with the concept, it seemed like a lost opportunity. There were lots of linking pieces making a total of c.30 sections and the applause between almost every one became irritating. I’d love to hear a recording a few times then go see an uninterrupted 80 minutes – I suspect it could be something special in those circumstances.

You’d never use the word ‘disappointed’ in connection with A Celebration of Kate McGarrigle. It was so hyped up (‘sold out in 11 minutes’ etc.) and I was seriously over-excited, but it exceeded my wildest dreams and more. The first Kate & Anna McGarrigle album is part of the soundtrack of my life and this show consisted entirely of songs she wrote or co-wrote. There were five Thompsons and at least seven from the Wainwright-McGarrigle-Lanken families, including a third sister Jane who I never knew existed. Kate’s good friend Emmylou Harris & Jenni Muldaur came over (producer Joe Boyd explained that Jenni’s mum Maria introduced him to the McGarrigles music); Emmy sang with Anna like she was another sister. Seemingly incongruous guests Nick Cave and Neil Tennent made surprisingly welcome contributions. Newcomers Lisa Hannigan and Krystle Warren both brought the house down. There was even a reading from author Michael Ondaatje. Richard & Linda Thompson re-united for a devastatingly beautiful Go Leave and ended with an embrace. Teddy Thompson and Rufus & Martha Wainwright all sang extraordinarily beautiful interpretations of Kate’s songs. Rufus, Martha and Anna all broke down which set off a lot of us in the audience too! It was sad, but ultimately uplifting and exhilarating and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Apart from her contribution the day before, I’d only seen Krystle Warren once, at a Nick Drake tribute show, and she impressed me then too. However, nothing could prepare me for the extraordinary concert she put on at the Purcell Room. She writes terrific original songs and has a unique voice, but above all it’s her ability to inhabit them that is so compelling. Teddy Thompson joined her for a couple of numbers and they sounded great together (future collaboration?). If she isn’t in the Rufus Wainwright league fairly soon, I’ll be very surprised. Support Jim Moray gave a lovely set of folk tunes with clever use of pedals and loops – I want to see more of him.

If the Kate McGarrigle tribute was the hottest ticket, An Evening of Political Songs was probably the ‘coldest’ judging by the empty seats. The title hardly excites, does it! Like all things political, it was somewhat long-winded, but it was an intriguing and eclectic collection which had its moments. The highlight was without question Norma Waterson who brought the house down, and brought tears to my eyes, with an unaccompanied song about the miners strike. Tom Robinson, instead of relying on his own 70’s politics (though he did do Glad to be Gay in the second half) gave us an excellent version of John Walker Blues by Steve Earle (who should really have been there as he’s about the only political songwriter left) and a brave crack (for a recently 60-year-old!) at angry hip-hop. Canadian Chaim Tennenbaum took the self-satisfied nationalism out of God Bless America, Emily Smith sang beautifully and RT himself turned up unannounced for a couple of excellent songs including a bitter one from the perspective of a soldier in Iraq. Then there was Neil Hannon, Martin & Eliza Carthy, Jez Lowe, Boris Grebenshikov, Camille O’Sullivan and poetic contributions from Lemn Sissay and Caribel Alegria. MC Harry Shearer did a good job, as well as a vicious but appropriate up-to-date satirical song about paedophile priests, and MD Kate St John yet again held one of these complex compilations together undeniably well (and for once got flowers and a hug from a grateful RT).

The two-for-the-price-of-one pairing of Richard Thompson & Loudon Wainwright provided 65 minute sets by each plus 30 minutes together. Thompson’s song writing and guitar playing outshine Wainwright’s, but the latter is a great communicator and it’s his humour and connection with the audience which impresses. Separately they are contrasting but together they are complimentary – the voices work well in harmony and Thompson’s intricate guitar work sounds even better on top of Wainwright’s strumming. I could have done with a lot more than the six songs they sang together, but it was still a feast of music by two greats of folk-rock.

This was the best Meltdown since Elvis Costello’s in 1995 and a real vindication of the idea that one person can put together a varied and eclectic programme which hangs together because it’s an expression of their taste & ideas and above all presents high quality music in an age of manufactured recycled mediocrity.

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March was a ‘lull before the storm’ work-wise, so it was action packed otherwise! In addition to 12 theatre outings…….

MUSIC

Performing your classic album live in its entirety has become fashionable with old rockers, so it was no surprise when John Cale decided to do it with Paris 1919, accompanied by an orchestra. It didn’t really take off until the third song, not every song worked well and given that it’s little over 30 minutes that doesn’t make for an entirely satisfying experience on its own. Fortunately, he followed this with four cracking numbers with his terrific three-piece band and another two with the orchestra – and a brilliant encore (which we had to earn!), so the evening (though still not much more than 80 minutes) was redeemed.

There’s a straight line from The Kinks through Squeeze, Madness and Blur to Lily Allen representing a modern soundtrack of London. ‘Songs in the Key of London’ was another one of those compilation shows which sort-of tried to do this (and included songs from all but the latter), put together by Squeeze’ Chris Difford. Unfortunately, it didn’t succeed as well as other shows of its kind, largely because it was under-rehearsed and the sound was inexcusably bad. Other former Squeezers Jools Holland & Glen Tilbrook and Chas and Suggs from Madness took part, together with an eclectic selection of the less well known. It had its moments and the surprise appearance of Elvis Costello at the end to sing Hoover Factory and My Brilliant Parade was a treat, if only to see him on home soil again.

Cara Dillon’s St. Patrick’s Day concert in Canary Wharf was lovely, if a little short and in a somewhat incongruous venue. A guest appearance from Seth Lakeman was a real bonus and whetted my appetite for a long awaited opportunity to see a full set from him (now booked for the Open Air Theatre in September!).

Whilst most young musicians seem to spend their lives repeating the formula that made them successful, a 60-year old called Peter Gabriel who has spent his life reinventing and innovating is still at it! His concert at the O2 showcased the new album of ‘covers’ (re-interpretations, I’d say) with a full orchestra and no band; it worked surprisingly well live in such a big space. The second half was an unpredictable selection of old songs re-arranged for orchestra including great versions of San Jacinto and Solisbury Hill. Old men showing the way; who’d have thought it!

I hadn’t clocked that it was Mothers Day when I booked an afternoon concert of Rogers & Hammerstein songs at the Barbican with two of my favourite musical performers – Maria Friedman and Daniel Evans – so it was a bit cheesy & populist for my taste. Though it was great to hear these songs played by a full orchestra and the singing was good, the song choice was a bit predictable and safe and the amplification (for the second time this week at the Barbican!) was poor.

Showstopper! is an improvised musical put together on the spot, partly from audience suggestion. In fact, it’s the same formula as Impropera (which I saw in December), the Scat Pack’s improv movies and others. They are as good as the inspiration at the time and this wasn’t a classic, but it was worth the trip. We ended up with Blood on the Heather – the story of the Glencoe massacre where the McDonalds and the Campbells fought each other – with songs in the style of Cabaret, Annie, Rent, Abba and Sondheim!

More classically, I went to another mezzo soprano recital of English song at Wigmore Hall, this time Sarah Connelly with a lunchtime programme of Purcell, Howells, Gurney, Warlock, Bridge, Britten and songs by her accompanist Eugene Asti. It was a lovely selection and she sang beautifully.

Purcell’s Dioclesian is a rarely performed ‘semi-opera’ about the Roman emperor of the same name (who I got rather interested when I went to Split in Croatia where the city centre is built within the ruins of his retirement home!). The Royal College of Music paired with an ‘early dance’ group turned it into a delightful evening. It’s not up there with his classics like The Fairy Queen, but it was good to catch it. The amount of musical talent on show in their Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir (most of whom also took the solos) was breathtaking. 

Britten’s War Requiem is one of my favourite choral pieces and it got a wonderful outing at the Barbican on the 50th anniversary of the London Concert Choir. The soloists – Janice Watson, Adrian Thompson and Roderick Williams – were fantastic and the Southbank Sinfonia made a terrific sound. It’s the greatest anti-war music ever written and still relevant and moving.

OPERA

Its 17 years since I was last in Wandsworth Prison (!), for Pimlico Opera’s Guys & Dolls. This month I returned for the same company’s Carmen. It worked well almost halved to under 90 minutes (it makes you wonder how many operas would benefit from similar editing!) losing none of the story and none of the best music. The cast of 11 professionals (including four excellent principals) and 13 prisoners gave it their all and though it’s a sad story, it was an uplifting experience. When you look at the faces of the performing prisoners at the curtain call, they tell you everything about the importance of this experience for them; if it changes only one of them forever, it will have been worthwhile…..and as you start the long walk out, the funny comments shouted from the cells remind you how many other lost souls weren’t performing. On this occasion, I was struck by the fact that half of the prisoner cast were recent immigrants to the UK and I’m still puzzled as to why…

The Guildhall School have been on a roll of late, so perhaps it was inevitable that there’d be a blip, and Cherubin doesn’t really live up to recent form. Massenet’s opera picks up where Mozart left off in The Marriage of Figaro and follows the exploits of Cherubin as he enlists. It’s a much neglected piece – it took 89 years to get a UK premiere in 1994, and that was its last outing here! The chorus is very good, but there were fewer outstanding leads (except the gorgeous soprano Elena Sancho-Pereg again!) and the set was rather ugly.

The London Handel Festival puts on a fully stage opera every year (and there are c.45 to choose from!) and this year was the best I’ve seen, in fact one of the best Handel operas I’ve ever seen.  Il Pastor Fido is a ‘pastoral’ (you know…..gods and shepherds, everyone loving someone who doesn’t love them, but it all ends happily!) with a dance-opera prologue and dances to end each act. What made this stand out was the most faultless and beautiful playing and singing, aided by the Britten Theatre’s terrific acoustic. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen eight pitch perfect and perfectly matched performances; it was 190 minutes of gloriously uplifting music and it flew by.

Hungarian composer Peter Eotvos has created an opera from Tony Kushner’s extraordinary epic play Angels in America and very good it is too. It was given a semi-staged performance at the Barbican with the BBCSO and an excellent, mostly American, cast. He’s managed to distil it from over 6 hours to just over two without losing the essence of the play. I really hope it gets a staging here soon, as it has in France, Germany, The Netherlands and the US.

Katya Kabanova at ENO was a musical treat with superb singing and playing. The minimalist set (you know chipboard, no colour, jagged angles and shadows) somehow heightened the drama, but I’m afraid I didn’t engage with it emotionally. Still, it sounded gorgeous.

DANCE

Sutra is an extraordinary multi-cultural collaboration between choreographer Sidi Larbe Cherkaoui, sculptor Anthony Gormley, musician Szymon Brozoska and the Shaolin Monks from China! Its contemporary dance meets martial arts, though less athletic than I was expecting. The use of 21 coffin-like boxes is brilliant and I liked the score, played live by a 5-piece ensemble including the composer. In the end though, I’m not sure it’s the classic the critics have hailed it, though I was glad to have caught it. We smiled at the incongruity of a large group of the monks getting on the bus back to the tube after the show!

FILM

I can’t put my finger on why I’m indifferent about Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. The 3D as quite good, but nothing like Avatar at the IMAX, and there are some lovely characterisations in both acting (Helena Bonham-Carter in particular) and voice (Alan Rickman stands out). It just wasn’t magical and other-worldly enough!

I loved Crazy Heart, a film about a burned out alcoholic Country star for which Jeff Bridges won a well-deserved Oscar. For an American film on a subject like this, it was surprisingly unsentimental and all the better for it. T Bone Burnett’s music was excellent.

I’m not keen on war films – relentlessly depressing – but I felt I should catch The Hurt Locker given all those awards, and was very glad I did. It’s an extremely well-made film which manages to drive home the point that these wars are pointless and impossible to win than any news or documentary I’ve seen. Still relentlessly depressing though!

ART

Though I’m glad I went to see it, the Paul Nash retrospective at Dulwich Gallery doesn’t really satisfy. There are eight great pictures amongst a selection of work which seems to me to show a restless man who kept changing, not in an inventive way, but in an ongoing search for his own style.

You think you’ve never heard of Paul Sandby until you set eyes on the iconic 18th Century watercolours, sketches and maps at his exhibition in the Royal Academy and realise you’ve seen many as prints. It’s a very comprehensive collection and you get a real feel for how a man like this made his living more than 200 years ago. I was particularly taken with a picture of Cardiff with the original west gate and wall; I never knew Cardiff had a wall and it’s 10 miles from where I spent the first 18 years of my life!

Irving Penn’s Portraits is one of two fine exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery. The originality of his B&W images rests on a complete lack of distracting décor and the fact that he often places his subjects into restricted spaces or limits the portrait to less than the whole of his subject. I liked them a lot more than I thought I’d like Vogue photos! In contrast, the second exhibition of Indian Portraits spans 300 years from the mid-16th century to the mid-18th century and it’s rich with colour and detail and includes fascinating scenes of life.

There’s a really quirky installation at the Barbican’s Curve gallery from eccentric Frenchman Celeste Boursier-Mougenot . After walking through a dark space on decking with projections of guitarists playing but a soundtrack of birdsong, you get to a bright space with islands of sand containing guitars and cymbals being ‘played’ by zebra finches landing on them as they fly around the space. Just when you thought you’d seen it all…..

Until now, the work I’ve seen by Chris Ofili has left with a ‘so what’ feeling. I felt the same at the beginning of his retrospective at Tate Britain – his obsession with elephant dung, afro hairstyles and black women all seem rather childish, though I did like the colours and the titles ( including ‘7 bitches tossing their pussies before the divine dung’, ‘7 brides for 7 bros’ and ‘Albinos and bros with fros’!) made me smile. An extraordinary amount of money has been spent on a housing for his 13-painting series The Upper Room which I’m not sure it deserves. There’s a fun room of rather different series pictures, some a clear homage to Japanese woodcuts, a less successful room of obscure dark blue paintings and a final room of very different new work. In the end, it rather grew on me and walking back through it a couple of times, I stopped thinking and just enjoyed the colourfulness and playfulness of it all.

Tate Modern’s poster for its Arshile Gorky exhibition totally misrepresents it and drags people in under false pretences; if I’d paid, I’d be demanding my money back! The lovely poster picture is one of a handful in one room out of eleven rooms; the rest is shit (and if you change the ‘i’ to ‘o’ in his first name that would seem appropriate!). Their other current exhibition is a bit more interesting (only a bit mind), covering the impact in the 1920’s of magazine / movement De Stijl led by Theo van Doesburg. Painting wise it’s a lot of Mondrianesque red, black, white, blue and yellow boxes; I found the impact on design and graphics more interesting.

Visiting the Ron Arad exhibition at the Barbican was less of a must and more of filler; I was in the building with time to kill! Maybe that’s why I was so bowled over by it. I knew him as a man who designed interesting chairs, which he does, but he’s so much more – a designer-artist-sculptor-architect. The architecture was astonishing and completely new to me, and there were other objects like bookcases, vases and lamps. I loved Lolita the chandelier – you could text a message to her and it appeared as a scroll on Lolita! The exhibition design was terrific (he designed it himself) adding much to the pleasure of the experience.

Finally (anyone still there?) the Horace Walpole / Strawberry Hill exhibition at the V&A was interesting, though rather dull in presentation. A fascinating man with a great eye for art, design and style who ‘collected’ much more than the gothic he is best known for.

Phew; time to go on holiday for a rest……

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