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Contemporary Music

Quercus is an occasional folk-jazz fusion project by singer June Tabor, pianist Huw Warren and saxophonist Ian Bellamy and their concert at King’s Place was an eclectic if melancholic treat. We even had a beautiful rendition of George Butterworth’s setting of one of E. A .Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad poems, which I’ve only ever heard in a classical song setting.

Opera

I have a higher tolerance of modern opera than anyone I know and I’ve seen a Gerald Barry opera before (which I admired rather than loved) but I’m afraid the revival of his 30-year-old debut The Intelligence Park at Covent Gardens’s Linbury Studio bored the pants off me and you’d have had to pay me a lot to return after the interval. The convoluted story was deeply uninteresting and the music relentlessly tuneless. Modern operas rarely get a second outing; I’m puzzled as to why this one did.

The October pairing by WNO at the WMC in Cardiff was terrific – a revival of outgoing AD David Poutney’s 40-year-old production of the now 100-year-old The Cunning Little Vixen, as fresh as its first outing with the late Maria Bjornson’s designs proving timeless, and a brand new beautifully sung and played production of Carmen with a very edgy contemporary aesthetic which may well last as long. Another weekend treat in Cardiff.

A freebie at ENO took me to Emma Rice’s Orpheus in the Underworld. In truth, I’m not a fan of Offenbach’s operetta, or operetta in general come to that, but it was fresh and funny and featured a cast of old timers including Willard White, Anne-Marie Owens, Judith Howarth and Alan Oke, all of whom it was good to see again. There were lots of youngsters in the audience who seemed to find it fun, so maybe a good introduction for them. Glad I saw it, but also glad I didn’t pay £125 for my stalls seat!

I was at first in two minds about Glyndebourne Touring Opera’s production of Handel’s Rinaldo, a very radical staging where the crusades it depicts become a schoolboy dream, but it proved to be great fun and the singing and playing were beautiful, so I succumbed.

Classical Music

I enjoyed Elgar’s oratorio The Kingdom in Edinburgh a couple of months ago, but I enjoyed its companion piece The Apostles even more at the RFH. I think it’s a better work, but the combination of the London Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus with the BBC Symphony Chorus, nine students from the RCM and six brilliant British soloists produced something extraordinarily beautiful, with moments of sheer elation.

Dance

I struggled with the first part of South African choreographer Dada Masilo’s Giselle at Sadler’s Wells, but found the second half mesmerising. Sadly, the former was twice as long as the latter, so the evening wasn’t really satisfying enough.

Film

I very much liked Judy, partly because it was almost entirely about her time in London at the end of her career. Renee Zellweger was superb.

There’s a really meaty satire to be made about hapless terrorists and incompetent security agencies but The Day Will Come was too weak and thin to be it. Has Chris Morris gone off the boil?

Official Secrets is a superb investigative film in the mould of All the Presidents Men and Spotlight and the cast is a Who’s Who of the finest British actors. I loved it.

I also loved the latest Shaun the Sheep film Farmageddon. I have more fun at these, and the Paddington films, than any film for grown-ups!

Art

I was surprised at how much I liked Lucien Freud’s Self-portraits at the Royal Academy. I think it was the diversity of styles over more than sixty years as much as the technical quality and aesthetic appeal.

Two treats at the NPG, the biggest of which was Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, an exhibition featuring a dozen female artists, models, relatives and muses who worked with the likes of Millais, Rosetti, Burne-Jones et al. A great idea very well executed. In the galleries next door I was introduced to Elizabeth Peyton and her lovely, original contemporary portraits. A real find.

The annual Koestler Arts exhibition of art by those in the criminal justice system at the Southbank Centre showcased some extraordinarily talented artists this year. I was tempted by quite a few pictures, but I remembered my lack of wall space in time!

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Opera

The Royal College of Music put on a cracking opera double-bill of Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement and Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti. The stories of British toffs’ post-war ‘poverty’ and unhappy 50’s American suburbia somehow worked well together and they were both staged and performed brilliantly.

It was good to catch Britten’s rarely produced children’s opera, Noye’s Fludde, in a co-production between ENO and Stratford East, involving two schools, young musicians from two local boroughs, a community choir and students of the Royal College of Music. It was a very charming and heart-warming experience.

Cilea’s L’arlesiana is one of Opera Holland Park’s best rediscoveries. It’s a ‘small’ opera for such a big space, but the surprisingly lush and romantic score was beautifully sung and played. Lovely.

My first opera in the Arcola Theatre’s Grimeborn season was one I’m not really keen on – Die Fledermaus – but a friend wanted to go and it turned out to be a hoot. It was shortened to 50 minutes, updated to the present day and played and sung brilliantly by Baseless Fabric Theatre.

I could hardly believe my ears at our second visit to Grimeborn for Wagner’s Das Rheingold; the 100 minute adaptation by Graham Vick & John Dove, The singing was astonishingly good, the orchestra brilliant and the simple staging highly effective. I never thought you could pull off Wagner with these resources in a small space, but it was more thrilling than any production I’ve seen in an opera house.

Classical Music

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s The Planets at the Royal Albert Hall was an afterthought brought on by some friends coming to London to see it. It was accompanied by extraordinary NASA footage on a big screen. It peaked in the first movement when the power of Mars was accompanied by NASA‘s best images. As we went into less well known movements and more distant planets, it was less thrilling, but still worth a visit. The first half included superb renditions of Also Sprach Zarathustra and John Williams’ Star Wars suite. Populist stuff, but high quality populist stuff.

I’ve seen the London Welsh Chorale a few times, but their concert of rarely performed and new pieces by Welsh composers was on another level altogether, both in scale – orchestra, children’s choir, three soloists, organ and narrator – and quality. They sounded gorgeous in St. Giles Cripplegate.

My first Prom this year was a Sunday morning one with the National Youth Orchestra of the USA under Antonio Pappano and the incomparable mezzo Joyce DiDonato in a programme that included Berlioz’ Les nuits d’ete song cycle, which sounded heavenly, and Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, which was thrilling. It opened with the European premiere of an excellent short work by a 19-year-old orchestra member! Joyce, of course, forever stylish, colour-coded her frock with the orchestra’s bold red and black outfits. When they encored with Elgar I felt I was in an internationalist haven far away from the nationalism of everyday life these days. These young people were clearly from a diverse range of backgrounds playing music by French, German, British and American composers. A wave of emotion overcame me as the music was saying more about a special relationship than any politician ever could, and the warmth of their reception at the Royal Albert Hall was uplifting.

Back at the Royal Albert Hall for my one and only evening Prom this year, for Handel’s oratorio Jephtha, which was very well played and sung by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra & Chorus under Richard Egarr, with a fine set of soloists. The cuts were a bit controversial, but they didn’t bother me and it was a bit of a novelty to be at a concert which came in at 30 minutes less than the published time.

Dance

At Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, contemporary dance piece 10,000 Gestures delivered what it said, not that I was counting, as the dancers were, out loud, some of the time. The pace was mostly frenetic, Mozart’s Requiem was background rather than choreographed and it got a bit edgy when the 21 dancers moved into the audience, some members of which moved onto the playing area. Boris Charmatz’ work was strangely compelling and somewhat exhausting.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Hobson’s Choice may be thirty years old, but it’s as fresh as they come, and a comic delight. Ballet can often be very earnest, and this is the antidote. An excellent score, period set & costumes and sprightly choreography with terrific characterisations come together to make a lovely full evening show at Sadler’s Wells.

I’ve seen and enjoyed everything Matthew Bourne has done, but what was special about Romeo & Juliet at Sadler’s Wells was his use of young dancers and artistic associates. It was inspired, mesmerising, exhilarating, thrilling……and exhausting! The musical adaptation, the design and the choreography all combined to produce something so fresh and exciting, but also very moving, and the performances were uniformly stunning. I can’t wait to see it again.

Film

I liked Late Night, a film with more depth than it seemed at first, and I was hugely impressed by Emma Thomson, an actress I don’t always take to, for the second time in less than twelve months.

I like Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis films, Rom Coms and British feel-good movies. Add the soundtrack of my teens and I was in heaven seeing Yesterday.

Blinded by the Light is Gurinder Chadha’s best film since Bend It Like Beckham 17 years ago, another heart-warming and hopeful British Asian story, this time based on a real one.

I’m not a Quentin Tarantino fan because of his glorification of violence but I was led to believe Once Upon A Time in Hollywood was different. Well, it was for the first 2h20m and I loved the late 60s retro aesthetic and accompanying soundtrack, though it was a bit slow, sometimes dull and overlong, but then he grossed out for the last 20m and I had to look away.

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Contemporary Music

I’ve seen Paul McCartney six or seven times in the last 20 years or so, but his Christmas concert at the O2 Arena topped them all. He played 40 songs spanning 60 years in a three hour set. The visuals were up to their usual standard, the band are as tight as any, the atmosphere was euphoric and Ringo came on the play Get Back! For someone like me, for whom this music is the most important part of the soundtrack of my life, it was pure joy.

Opera / Classical Music

ENO’s La Boheme was lovely, with a superb set of singers – even our Rodolfo sub. was new favourite David Butt Philip. I was surprised I hadn’t seen Jonathan Miller’s production, with a superb design by Isabella Bywater, before. For once, I thought an English translation actually added something, as it brought out humour that’s not usually there.

The LSO kicked off the Bernstein centenary at the Barbican almost exactly one year ago with a wonderful concert version of his musical Wonderful Town under Simon Rattle and ended it this month with Candide which had the same sense of fun and was thrillingly played and sung under Marin Alsop. I’m not sure I would have included dialogue, narration and attempts at staging, but I’ll forgive anything for the glory of the music, played better than I’ve ever heard it.

The LSO’s Half Six Fix at the Barbican is a superb initiative. An hour of music from the next day’s concert with onstage introductions and synchronised programme notes in an app, and this month’s Jazz Roots saw Simon Rattle with Katie & Marielle Labeque give a thrilling programme of works by Stravinsky, Golijov and Bernstein. It’s great to see the brass and woodwind sections centre stage and I absolutely loved it.

Art

When you walk into the first room of the Elmgreen & Dragset exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery you gasp, as you appear to have walked into a disused public swimming pool. This new installation is the centrepiece and is followed by a retrospective of earlier works, mostly subversive sculptures, in a fascinating show.

The British Museum’s poorly titled exhibition I Am Ashurbanipal – King of the world, King of Assyria is absolutely stunning. Though it is mostly made up of items from the museum’s own collection, they are extraordinary, seeing them together is special and the storytelling curation is terrific. It was shamefully empty (I suspect the title doesn’t help) whereas Ian Hislop’s search for dissent in I Object, a personal selection from the museum’s collection, although fitfully interesting but way less significant, is packing them in in the same building.

A disappointing visit to the National Portrait Gallery for Gainsborough Family Album and the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize. The former isn’t really my thing; I admire the skill but tire of 18th century posed portraits, and the latter didn’t seem to live up to previous years, though there were a handful of gems.

The third historical exhibition gem in two weeks was the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War. I learnt so much in two hours, I thought my brain was going to explode. Mostly books and manuscripts, but with a smattering of objects, it brought alive 300 years of English history. How lucky are we to have the Royal Academy, British Museum and British Library making history, geography and culture so thrilling in this way.

One of my mini-tours of private galleries proved very frustrating with Timothy Taylor and Edel Assanti closed during published hours, without any notification of their websites. Thankfully, Blain/Southern had not one, but two terrific exhibitions – Me Somewhere Else, installations and sculpture by Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota, many involving thread resembling spiders webs, and extraordinary, almost gothic drawings by German artist Jonas Burgert.

My mini-tour of East End private galleries was more successful in that they were open when they said they would be, but neither lived up to the 5* Time Out reviews that sent me there. In Carlos / Ishikawa, there was a three-screen film installation by Korakrit Arunanondchai with, for some unknown reason, lasers coming out of an artificial garden to take a 90 degree journey above the screens. At Modern Art, Bojan Sarcevic placed six commercial freezers which were ‘breeding’ frost because of the gallery’s temperature. Um. Somewhat ironically, the Lothar Hempel exhibition upstairs which I didn’t know about was the best of the three!

Film

I don’t usually go to documentaries in the cinema, but made an exception for Three Identical Strangers, which proved to be fascinating and riveting, unfolding like a thriller.

Mary Poppins Returns was a 90-minute film in a 130-minute package which had some great moments, but too many dull ones. The acting was superb, though.

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Opera / Classical Music

My second Nash Ensemble War’s Embers concert at LSO St. Luke’s featured beautiful pieces from Bax and Butterworth with others by Rebecca Clarke and Patrick Hadley, neither of whom I’d ever heard of. I do enjoy these lunchtime treats.

BBC SO’s Total Immersion In Remembrance: World War I at the Barbican combined an excellent film about poet / composer Ivor Gurney, a concert by hugely talented GSMD students of pieces from composers who died during / because of the war, the first revival of Mark Anthony Turnage’s brilliant opera The Silver Tassie, David Lang’s choral work Memorial Ground performed in the foyer (the wrong location!) with a couple of talks and even a Virtual Reality experience, culminating in a BBC Singers concert featuring new choral works by Bob Chilcott and Roderick Williams, the former conventional but beautiful and the latter stunningly re-inventing recitative with a new form of prose setting. Given the reason for this mini-festival, it was a melancholic experience, but a musically thrilling one nonetheless.

The Royal Academy of Music’s production of Handel’s Semele will be one of my operatic highlights of the year. A production that looked great, a chorus and orchestra that sounded great and a star was born – Lithuanian soprano Lina Dambrauskaite. Gorgeous.

The BBC SO pairing of Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto and Ethyl Smyth’s Mass in D at the Barbican Hall seemed odd, apparently put together because the former said some nice, if patronising, things about the latter. As it turned out, though, both were treats, the first because young pianist Pavel Kolesnikov was sensational and the latter, which I’ve been wanting to see for some time, because the chorus and orchestra sang and played terrifically.

Back at the Royal Academy of Music, their Symphony Orchestra thrilled again under visiting American conductor Robert Trevino with a superbly played Bruckner’s 4th Symphony. I can’t think of a better way to spend a lunchtime.

I was attracted to a French song recital by Sarah Connolly & James Newby at Wigmore Hall as it featured two favourite composers, Ravel and Debussy, but their songs, which I didn’t really know, did not live up to their orchestral, chamber or operatic works, so despite the artistry I was a bit disappointed.

Back at Wigmore Hall, Mark Padmore & the Britten Sinfonia paired a Vaughn Williams song cycle with a premiere by Luke Styles and sadly the former overshadowed the other. The new piece was too challenging for me!

ENO staged Britten’s War Requiem, as it has done with other choral works before. I’m not sure the staging adds much, though there was some beautiful imagery, and the orchestral sound lost something in the pit, but the three soloists and chorus sounded terrific.

Dance

Layla & Majnun at Sadler’s Wells is the first Mark Morris show to disappoint me. Based on a Middle-Eastern / Central Asian Romeo & Juliet, with Azerbaijani music by the Silkroad Ensemble, it had little of his creative flair and the designs by favourite artist, now deceased, Howard Hodgkin disappointed. I liked the music initially, but it did wear me down long before the 75 minutes were up.

GoteborgsOperans dance company made their first visit to Sadler’s Wells with two of the most thrilling dances I’ve ever seen, both choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and designed by Anthony Gormley. Icon started with Gormley re-cycling some of the clay people in his 25-year-old work Field before tons of soft clay, thirteen dancers and five musicians playing mostly Japanese music became one mesmerising whole. In Noetic, nineteen dancers with a singer & percussionist and pliable metal strips which created a globe before your eyes were spellbinding too. Let’s hope they become regulars here.

Film

A catch-up month starting with A Star Is Born, which I enjoyed. Bradley Cooper and Lady Ga Ga were impressive, the former also as director in his debut.

Widows was a superbly unpredictable film, beautifully shot by Steve McQueen with musical theatre’s Cynthia Erivo proving she’s no one-trick pony.

First Man took a while to take off, but once it did I was captivated by the blend of personal story and actual history, which was gripping even though we all know the outcome!

I wasn’t a big fan of Queen, and I didn’t think they got Freddie Mercury right (teeth too pronounced and too camp), but I was surprised by how much Bohemian Rhapsody moved me and was very glad I went to see it.

Despite superb performances from Glenn Close & Jonathan Pryce, The Wife disappointed, largely because the emphasis on the endgame meant they brushed over the meat of the deceit.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald was technically accomplished and well-acted but I didn’t really engage with the story, though it was good to see Hogwarts again, and to meet the young Dumbledore.

Art

Faux Pas of the year was visiting Ribera: Art of Violence at the Dulwich Picture Gallery thinking it was (Diego) Rivera! I’m afraid Ribera’s pictures of torture, and his particular penchant for flaying, were not to my taste! Fortunately, as a member it’s free, oh, and the brunch was great!

Modern Couples at the Barbican Art Gallery is a fascinating idea well executed, work by artist in relationships shown together, with biographical information about the relationship. It’s a huge affair featuring some 45 couples, some well-known and others unknown (to me), but had much to like in it.

The Hayward Gallery’s Space Shifters was a bit gimmicky, but again worth a visit, though I didn’t bother to queue for the highlight, Richard Wilson’s 20/50, as I’ve seen it quite a few times since its first outing at the tiny Matt’s Gallery 31 years ago.

At the Barbican’s Curve Gallery, Kiwi artist Francis Upritchard has created a ‘museum’, called Wetwang Slack, of item’s she’s made, from quirky models of people to hats, jewellery, urns and much more. It made me smile.

I think it’s extraordinary that a 20th Century weaver can get a huge retrospective at a major public gallery, but that’s what the late Anni Albers has at Tate Modern. In yet another connection with my Bauhaus trip, she trained with them. It was interesting, but probably more for real lovers of textiles and weaving than a generalist like me.

The Edward Burne-Jones retrospective at Tate Britain was brilliant – well, at least to this lover of the Pre-Raphaelites. I normally find studies and drawings exhibition fillers, but here they demonstrate his craftsmanship. The finished pictures and tapestries were stunning, though the stained glass less so for some reason. Upstairs the Turner Prize exhibition was all films, which I skimmed as life is too short to waste several hours on some pretentious shit masquerading as art.

Oceania at the Royal Academy is probably the best showcase of a culture and peoples I’ve ever seen. Art and objects from some of the 10,000 islands that make up the vast area of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia between them conveyed the real essence of this part of the world. Absolutely fascinating. Upstairs in the Sackler Galleries I was surprised at how much I liked Klimt / Schiele drawings from the Albertine Museum in Vienna. The outstanding skills of these two artists really came over in what were mostly portraits and nudes. Beautiful.

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Opera

ENO took Britten’s folk opera / operetta Paul Bunyan to Wilton’s Music Hall, where it somehow fitted like a glove. It’s an odd mythical concoction about the American Dream, but its real strength is its lyrical score, which showed off the young singers and chorus brilliantly. It seemed darker than the previous two occasions I’ve seen it, which seemed appropriate given recent events.

My 2018 Proms ended on a high the night before the Last Night with a lovely performance of Handel’s Theodora by Arcangelo and five excellent soloists. Despite being a chamber ensemble and small choir, they filled the RAH. The countdown to Proms 20-19 begins!

My only visit to WNO at the WMC in Cardiff this autumn was for Prokofiev’s epic War & Peace. It’s a flawed opera, with the first half a series of scenes lacking cohesion, and I thought their decision to translate it into English was a mistake as it came over as clunky, but the soloists were terrific and above all the second half showed off both the chorus and orchestra to thrilling effect.

Classical Music

For some reason, I was disappointed in the Berlioz Prom. It wasn’t the musicianship, which was extraordinary, but maybe it was a programme of lesser Berlioz. I just didn’t think it did The Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, John Elliott Gardiner, favourite Joyce DiDonato and viola player Antoine Tamestit justice. The rest of the audience and the critics appeared to disagree, so maybe it was just an off night for me.

A double-dip of two Proms in one evening proved very rewarding indeed, starting with a superb performance of Britten’s War Requiem from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra & Chorus, probably my favourite choral work, and continuing with 60 mins of 850 years of late night polyphony from the ever wonderful Tallis Scholars; it’s amazing how those 30 or so voices fill the Royal Albert Hall.

The Parry centenary concert at Wigmore Hall was a delightful way to spend an hour on a Sunday afternoon. Songs by him and his friends and contemporaries were beautifully sung by Louise Alder & Nicky Spence accompanied by William Vann and it was all very uplifting. Back in the same venue the following lunchtime, soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Joseph Middleton gave another lovely recital of English song from Purcell to Ireland, Walton and Michael Head, an early 20th century composer new to me. The folk song encores proved to be the highlight.

Art

As if to compensate for the hugely disappointing exhibition at the Weiner Gallery, Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919-33 at Tate Modern was a real treat, with artists new to me as well as those like Otto Dix I’ve seen vast amounts of this summer. Across the Bridge, Artist Rooms: Jenny Holzer was worth popping into, though much of it goes over my head.

A visit to Cornwall meant a second visit to Tate St. Ives, which had a hit-and-miss exhibition of Patrick Heron. I loved some of the colourful abstractions, but much of it left me cold.

Renzo Piano: The Art of Making Buildings at the Royal Academy covered his illustrious career from before the Pompidou Centre to The Shard by focusing on sixteen projects, built and unbuilt (yet). The trouble was it was all very static – each project a table on which there were notes, drawings and models with more drawings and photos on the walls around. The most interesting project was one I’m unlikely to ever see, in New Caledonia, in the Pacific Ocean! For architects and architectural students only, I’d say.

Film

BlacKkKlansman wasn’t an easy watch, but its humour and its chilling ending were enough to make it well worth seeing.

I enjoyed The Children Act, the second film of the summer featuring the consequences of Jehovah’s Witnesses fundamentalism, especially for Emma Thompson’s deeply touching performance.

Crazy Rich Asians was a great advert for the Singapore Tourist Authority, but I rather overdosed on rich Asians, crazy or otherwise. It had its funny moments, but there weren’t enough of them to warrant the reviews that sent me to see it.

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Opera

Trojan Women by the National Changgeuk Company of Korea in the newly refurbished (but you’d hardly notice!) Queen Elizabeth Hall is a pop-opera adaptation of Greek tragedy. It looked good and I liked the choruses, but I struggled with some of the strangulated solo vocals and, at two unbroken hours, it was too long. I always think visiting companies should be warmly received regardless, given they’ve travelled half-way across the world, and thankfully so it was at the QEH.

Mamzer Bastard sees the Royal Opera on walkabout again, this time to Hackney Empire, but probably with the wrong opera, if part of the plan was to engage the local community. There were things to enjoy – beautiful Jewish cantor for the first time in opera, expertly sung, and a cinematic production which made great use of live video – but it’s cultural and musical specificity and inaccessibility robbed it of universal appeal, and the film noir monochrome monotony drained me of energy, I’m afraid.

Rhondda Rips It Up! is WNO’s tribute to Lady Rhondda, an extraordinary woman and suffragette in this centenary year, also visiting Hackney Empire. A mash-up of opera, operetta, music hall and cabaret and great fun, with singalongs and flags to wave. Madeleine Shaw was terrific as Lady R and I even liked Lesley Garrett as the MC!

Britten’s Turn of the Screw saw ENO at the Open Air Theatre, the first ever opera there, on a lovely evening. I thought it worked very well, particularly as the natural light lowered, creating a spooky atmosphere. It was by necessity amplified, but the lovely singing and playing, though not as natural as unamplified, still shone through. There were the usual audience behaviour challenges, this time amplified by the bonkers decision to dish out unnecessary librettos so they could be rustled in unison!

Dance

Xenos at Sadler’s Wells Theatre is a one-man dance piece by Akram Khan inspired by the 1.5 million forgotten Indian soldiers lost in the 1st World War. I struggled to understand all of it, but was mesmerised regardless. The design was stunning, the east-meets-west music hypnotic and the movement extraordinary. A privilege to be at Kahn’s last full evening piece as a performer.

Film

I much admired Rupert Everett’s The Happy Prince, about the last days of Oscar Wilde. It avoided lightening and beautifying what was a very dark period in his life and told it as it was.

Art

The Edward Bawden exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery featured an extraordinarily diverse range of works including paintings, posters, linocuts, menu cards, drawings and book illustrations & covers with subjects including animals, people, buildings, landscapes and fantasies. A really underrated 20th century illustrator and a huge treat.

The BP Portrait Award Exhibition at the NPG seemed smaller this year, but the quality remained astonishingly high. Next door at the NG, I loved British-American 19th Century artist Thomas Cole’s paintings, though they only made up 40% of the exhibition, padded out with studies & drawings and paintings by those who influenced him and those he influenced (from the NG permanent collection!), which is more than a bit cheeky.

During a short visit to Exeter I went to their superb Royal Albert Museum to catch Pop Art in Print, an excellent V&A touring exhibition which we don’t appear to be getting in London. A fascinating, diverse range of items, very well curated and presented, probably helped by being the only visitor at the time!

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Opera

At the Royal College of Music, five mini-operas on the theme of Frankenstein – The Modern Prometheus saw five composition students produce very diverse responses, including misuse of digital data, genetic modification of babies and time travel. They were all staged professionally and beautifully performed and played by the students. It made me realise opera is a live art form and in these hands very much alive.

George Benjamin’s opera Lessons in Love and Violence at the ROH, about Edward II, lived up to the hype, and more. A brilliant piece of storytelling with great psychological depth, thrillingly dramatic music and some wonderful singing by a faultless cast. One of the best modern operas I’ve ever seen, proving how much you can achieve in 90 minutes without padding.

Classical Music

The BBC Singers continue to shine, this time at Milton Court accompanied by St James Baroque in an all Handel programme. I’d have preferred an all Handel choral programme; as much as I admired the organ concerto, it didn’t really belong. The choral pieces were lovely.

A lunchtime at LSO St. Luke’s saw the Academy of Ancient Music perform two of Handel’s Chandos Anthems in a sandwich with a Trio Sonata, and a lovely diversion it was too. All the works were new to this Handel fan, which was a bonus.

The UK premiere of Howard Goodall’s new oratorio, Invictus: A Passion, at St John’s Smith Square was a real treat. His classical works, like his musicals, are full of gorgeous melodies and this was no exception, beautifully sung by The Choir of Christ Church Oxford, with two soloists from The Sixteen and a small instrumental ensemble. It’s rare that Handel proves to be an anti-climax, but the Foundling Hospital Anthem which followed was; though it was another Handel piece that was new to me.

Contemporary Music

I tend not to go to cabaret, particularly ones made up of musical theatre numbers, as I’ve convinced myself I don’t much like them out of context, but every time I do go I enjoy it and say I should go more often! The first May bank holiday weekend gave me a double-dip, starting with one of my favourite performers, Clive Rowe, at the Orange Tree Theatre. His selection was mostly American standards and his piano and double bass accompaniment was first class, but it was the extraordinary warmth of the welcome and the absolute joy of the performance that made it for me. It was hard for the Stephen Sondheim Society’s monthly cabaret at Phoenix Artist Club to live up to it, but it was a jolly good night, thanks to MD Aaron Clingham and fine vocals and comic input from Sarah-Louise Young, Sooz Kempner and Tim McArthur. The bonus was vising a lovely new venue and feeling I’d brought the average age down, a rare occurrence these days.

I very much enjoyed the first collaboration between Welsh harpist Catrin Finch & Senegalese Cora player Seckou Keita five years ago, but the chemistry between them is now much developed as they proved back at Union Chapel with a new album to play, inspired by the migration of ospreys between their two countries. The big bonus was support from Gwyneth Glyn, a lovely Welsh singer with a great backing group, who was new to me.

I went to see folk ‘supergroup’ Imar at King’s Place on the strength of one number performed at the BBC Folk Awards on TV and a good decision it was too. Though lots of dance tunes can sometimes seem relentless, and leave you breathless, there were some slower numbers to bring some light and shade and I was anyway mesmerised by the musicianship. The camaraderie and banter added a warmth to the evening.

Effigies of Wickedness, a collaboration between ENO and the Gate Theatre, gets its title from a pre-war Nazi exhibition of ‘degenerate’ music, including pieces by Weill, Eisler & Brecht and Schoenberg. Sub-titled ‘Songs Banned by the Nazis’, it’s a cabaret made up of some of this music, but much more, with staging and design that is wild, colourful, loud and in-your-face and hugely committed performances and consummate musicianship from opera, theatre and cabaret professionals. It was often hilarious, but often chilling. Extraordinary.

Dance

Hofesh Shechter’s Show at the Lyric Hammersmith had his trademark earthiness and pounding, but it was also macabre and had some humour and a lightness that set it apart from the other works of his I’ve seen. It was rather mesmerising, with more false endings / curtain calls that you may ever have seen before.

Film

I haven’t looked away from the screen as much as I did in South African film The Wound, about a tribal manhood ritual, which was so authentic it felt like a documentary. Gripping stuff.

Tully was a film that lulled you into thinking one thing before it surprised you by being something else and I really enjoyed it. Charlize Theron was terrific in her frank look at motherhood.

I didn’t go and see The Greatest Showman when it came out because I’d just seen a revival of the musical Barnum, about the same man, covering the same ground, and the reviews were a bit ify. Word of mouth made me change my mind and I thought it was terrific, despite the schmaltz, and definitely worth seeing on a big screen. When the lights went up, I discovered I’d seen it alone!

Art

The Wildlife Photography Exhibition at the Natural History Museum seems to start as soon as the previous one ends; sometimes I think I’ve seen the current one but I haven’t, one day I’ll unintentionally go twice. It was great again, and blissfully quiet. I’ll never make a wildlife photographer – I don’t have enough patience, or a good enough kit.

Known Unknown at the Saatchi Gallery was the usual curate’s egg – good pieces hanging alongside dross. Still, the space is great, and it’s free!

London Nights at the Museum of London exhibits photographs taken over more than a hundred years of the city at night. It went off at a few tangents, such as fashion, but there was much to enjoy, including a stunning snap taken by Tim Peake from the ISS. Along the High Walk in the Barbican Music Library, there was a small display of photos and equipment Inside Abbey Road Studios but not enough from its iconic period in the 60’s for me. Jill Furmanovsky’s photos were great, but they were the wrong subjects for my timeline!

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