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Contemporary Music

There was always a risk that Richard Thompson’s 70th birthday concert at the Royal Albert Hall was going to have so many guests that the birthday boy became an extra at his own celebration, but as it turned out he was on stage virtually throughout, whether singing his own songs or duetting with or backing his guests, and an impressive lot they were too. From The Stranglers Hugh Cornwall who was, somewhat surprisingly to most present, in a school band with him aged 14, through Fairport colleagues Dave Mattacks, Dave Pegg, Ashley Hutchings and Simon Nicol, the omnipresent Danny Thompson, Loudon Wainwright III, Martin & Eliza Carthy, Maddy Prior, Kate Rusby, Olivia Cheney, the whole Thompson clan and Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour! I could have done without one of the two Stranglers tracks and the Spinal Tap joke fell a bit flat, but there were way more highs than lows in tribute to a genuine legend who has entertained me for fifty of his seventy years.

Opera

Grimeborn continued its hugely successful roll into September with a superb and rare revival of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Monteccchi. The singing was of an extraordinarily high standard and, at close quarters in in Studio Two, very loud! Later that week, Don Jo was a spin on Mozart’s Don Giovani which was loud in another sense altogether. I’m all up for modern take’s and I was expecting some gender changes, but I wasn’t expecting the recorded music (not much of it Mozart), the fact only two of them could really sing, the long scene breaks and the tackiness of it all. It was such a contrast to the three Grimeborn high’s which had preceded it.

Classical Music

My third and final Prom, another Sunday morning one, was short in time but huge in numbers, with eight choirs totalling 600-700 singers placed in four sections of the auditorium for John Luther Adams’ In the Name of the Earth, a choral homage to the planet with percussion effects and movement from the choirs. It was hugely atmospheric and the sound just wrapped around you and filled the Royal Albert Hall. A big bold experimental success.

The opening concert of the Wigmore Hall season was a Britten feast, with four of his song cycles sung by four young British soloists – one soprano, one mezzo, a tenor and a baritone – and all of them sang beautifully. A real treat for a Britten fan.

The LSO season opening weekend at the Barbican included a rare outing (sighting!) of Messiaen’s final work Eclairs sur l’Au-dela. Famous for orchestrating birdsong and hearing colours, Messiaen’s final 70 minute work peeps into the afterlife and requires 126 players. It showed off the virtuosity of the LSO individually and collectively and Simon Rattle’s love of the work was infectious.

I don’t think I’ve ever known the sedate Wigmore Hall erupt like it did after laBarocca’s concert of the first (Italian) version of Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polierno. I don’t think I’ve seen so many, twenty, on that tiny stage either. The soprano, Roberta Mameli, blew me away and the bass sang lower than I’ve ever heard before, but I wasn’t keen on the tone of the contralto’s very deep voice. A treat nonetheless.

Film
Despite two lovely performances, I found Mrs. Lowry & Son a bit dull. It’s more BBC4 bio drama than cinema release.

More lovely performances and beautiful filming, but The Sacrifice was too art house for me, slow and ponderous.

I know it’s just posh soap opera, but I did love Downton Abbey. The strands of the story came together expertly, it’s a who’s who of fine British acting (with Imelda Staunton joining the regulars from the TV series) and it looks gorgeous.

The Last Tree was a beautifully made film which could so easily have been judgemental but was in fact hopeful. Superb performances too.

I wasn’t expecting a film about Chinese Americans returning to their homeland to say goodbye to their dying mother / grandmother to be funny, but The Farewell was, and the real life revelation at the end a delightful surprise. Charming film.

Art

Urban Impulses 1959-2016 at the Photographer’s Gallery is almost 50 years of Latin American photography, mostly in black & white and it contained some terrific images. One of the best exhibitions at this venue in a long time. Upstairs was the inaugural New Talent exhibition which contained some impressive work but was a bit skewed to the taste of its single selector / curator. I think they need a panel to ensure a diversity of work.

The William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain was very big, with the amount of detail sometimes overwhelming, and too much religious imagery for my taste, but it was a very comprehensive review of his work and life, particularly good at the biographical aspects.

I was beginning to wonder if Anthony Gormley was a one-trick pony, as all we seem to see are his cast iron men. Well, they make a spectacular appearance in one room of his Royal Academy show, but there’s so much more in the other twelve, half of it new, including two whole room works which you walk through – though he did pinch the idea of his reflective room from Richard Wilson’s 20/50!

I wasn’t sure what to expect at Tim Walker’s Wonderful Things at the V&A. I didn’t know much about the work of this photographer, probably because it’s mostly fashion, but the first room familiarises you with his posed, highly stylised, stage-manged work. From there, ten spaces each record, on ‘stage sets’ a photoshoot inspired by something in the V&A, which accompanies them – snuff boxes, Aubrey Beardsley prints, stained glass and so on. It was unique, surreal and rather extraordinary.

For Mark Leckey’s O’ Magic Power of Bleakness, Tate Britain have built a replica of the space under a motorway where he played as a child. Inside the space, there are three video works, but as we were given a leaflet just before we entered the darkness, we didn’t really understand them until we left! That said, it was strangely hypnotic, though whether it was worth all that effort and a £15 entrance fee is another matter.

Drawing Attention, an exhibition of digital architectural drawings at the Roca Gallery, was a bit specialist for me, though there were some nice images, but I was there to see Zaha Hadid’s extraordinary building anyway; a beautiful space to display up-market bathroom fittings!

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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

In recent years, the Proms have been embracing non-classical musical genres, and this year it was the turn of folk music, with five folk acts joining the BBC Concert Orchestra in what was a largely successful crossover. The highlights were favourites The Unthanks and Julie Fowlis, but it was good to be introduced to Welsh group ALAW and to sample the music of Jarlath Henderson and Sam Lee.

You rarely hear a musical score played as well as the John Wilson Orchestra played West Side Story at the Proms; you could hear every nuance, every note, every instrument. It moved you and thrilled you in equal measure. Add to that a fine set of young soloists, a chorus drawn from two drama schools specialising in musical theatre and a rapt full house and you have a very special evening indeed. So good, I even forgave them the ticket & programme price hikes, the unnecessary interval and the failure to televise it!

My second and last Cadogan Hall Chamber Prom combined some rare Bernstein works with pieces by his friends and contemporaries, plus a new commission, and it was a funny, quirky delight with a fine performances by American mezzo Wallis Giunta. It included songs set to recipes, one a world premiere, a UK premiere of an early ballet which contained the seeds of West Side Story and six pieces new to the Proms.

Opera

Grimeborn gave us more treats with an inventive adaptation of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman – A Fantastic Bohemian – which moved between three locations in the building. The quality of singing and playing was stunning, and at such close quarters there’s no hiding place. It was hard to follow, particularly on the same day, and as much I enjoyed my first outing of Donizetti’s Rita and renewing my acquaintance with Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole, they struggled to live up to the afternoon. Same day double-dips do have their downside, as we found with this and in Chichester two days before, on both occasions the highlight coming first. Six days later it ended (for me) with a revival of Mark Anthony Turnage’s Greek. It’s hard to believe it was premiered thirty years ago; it’s still original, visceral and edgy and in this production was very well sung, with the Kantanti Ensemble on fire. This has been a great Grimeborn, now fully established as an annual event in my diary.

The live cinema relay of Glyndebourne’s production of Vanessa, Samuel Barber’s 60-year-old opera getting its fully-staged UK premiere, was simply extraordinary. The design was superb, the singing stunning and the London Phil sounded sensational. It has the feel of a Hitchcock film, very mysterious and suspenseful. Wonderful stuff, probably better than being there with non-opera lovers and a 90-min interval to destroy the dramatic flow!

Classical Music

My first Cadogan Hall Chamber Prom saw Dame Sarah Connolly give a recital of English song which included four world premieres, including two by Benjamin Britten written 70 years ago! It was lovely, though somewhat melancholic, which made me feel it might be more of an evening programme.

I appear to be picking well this year, as my next Prom was a sometimes challenging, but fascinating and rewarding 20th century Anglo-American programme with the BBC Philharmonic playing Barber, Britten, Copeland and Walton. Two of the five pieces were new to me, and indeed to the Proms, including two arias from Barber’s opera of Anthony & Cleopatra which made me want to see a production.

Film

Apostasy is a quiet but defiant rage against fundamentalism in all its guises, in this case Jehovah’s Witnesses. Siobahn Finneran is stunning, but above all it’s a hugely impressive debut from writer / director Dan Kokotajlo, an ex-witness himself. Harrowing but brilliant.

Art

James Cook; The Voyages at the British Library was one of the best exhibitions of its type I’ve ever visited. Superbly curated and thoroughly objective, it contained journals, specimens, paintings & drawings and testimonials from experts and indigenous peoples. Illuminating.

London 1938: Defending ‘Degenerate’ German Art at the Weiner Gallery was a huge disappointment, consisting as it does of glass cases showing letters, flyers, catalogues and photos, plus copies of pictures. Only one actual painting and a couple of drawings!

Collier Schorr is a new photographer to me, but her exhibition at Modern Art did nothing for me, I’m afraid. All a bit too pretentious in my book.

A theatrical visit to Chichester was extended to visit the lovely Palant House Gallery which had three exhibitions. Virginia Woolf: an exhibition inspired by her writings had some great 20th century works, particularly those by Vanessa Bell and Laura Knight, but though I liked the idea of including contemporary works, there were too many, and the quality was very variable. It was another of those exhibition whose raison d’etre was a bit dubious. Dance: Movement & Modernism was a one room curate’s egg, but again it had some nice works. However, I loved Sussex Days: Photographs by Dorothy Bohm, a little known Lithuanian British photographer who captured people in the county in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s brilliantly.

It was worth the detour to Tate Britain for Lisa Brice’s one-room exhibition of mostly blue paintings of women. Very striking and very original.

At Proud Central, the photos of the Observer’s late photographer Jane Bown were like a review of people in my lifetime; stunning B&W pictures, some now iconic. Downstairs a multi-photographer selection focused on pop and rock stars; this too was outstanding.

The Frieze Art Fair consisted of thirty or so sculptures placed in a corner of Regent’s Park. It was more miss than hit, but made for a pleasant wander en route to the Open Air Theatre in the same park.

Great British Seaside at the National Maritime Museum brought together the work of four photographers using the seaside as their subject over the last fifty years. I identify the seaside with my youth, so there was something very nostalgic about it, and some terrific pictures too!

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The Rest of July

Contemporary Music

My respect for Tom Jones has grown significantly in recent years, largely due to his terrific blues and gospel albums, at a point in his career when he could so easily be banking money from Las Vegas shows, and his open-air concert at Englefield House in Berkshire didn’t disappoint. A lovely evening, brilliantly diverse set list, a great band and excellent audience engagement combined to produce a very satisfying evening indeed.

Opera

The Royal College of Music put together an excellent double-bill of Huw Watkins’ In the Locked Room and Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Lighthouse. The former was interesting but the story too obtuse for me, but the latter was terrific, beautifully sung and played and thrillingly dramatic.

GSMD showcased three short operas by students on their composition course in their Milton Court Studio Theatre, performed by first year students on the opera programme. The first was an incomprehensible fantasy, the last a bit of a puzzle, but the middle a good slice of SciFi. Whatever you think of the material, all were superbly performed, though I’m not sure I liked the idea of including four scenes from three classic operas which spoilt the flow of the new for me.

I don’t go to the Royal Opera much these days, but I was drawn to Falstaff by the casting of Bryn Terfel and it turned out to be a real treat – relocated to the 50’s, brilliantly designed, with a faultless cast, though with their obscene top price of almost £200 I was only prepared to pay for a restricted view seat.

My first Prom was an opera, and it proved a bit of a disappointment. Pelleas & Melisande doesn’t really lend itself to a concert, even semi-staged, so however good Glyndebourne Opera’s singers and orchestra (the LPO) the other-worldliness it needed was something the RAH couldn’t provide, so it was devoid of atmosphere and engagement. In some ways, it might have been better in concert rather than clumsy semi-staging. It reminded me of the days when I avoided opera outside the theatre altogether.

At Opera Holland Park, the UK premiere of a century old Mascagni opera, Isabeau, inspired by the Lady Godiva legend (no, she didn’t!), was a real treat. Great choruses, lush orchestrations and two wonderful young leads.

Opera Rara have dug up some gems over the years, most notably Donizetti’s Les martyrs. L’ange de Nisida isn’t the best, but it’s the world premiere of another Donizetti, ‘lost’ for 180 years, newly reconstructed, and sung and played brilliantly by the Royal Opera chorus and orchestra under Mark Elder, with five fine soloists, at Covent Garden. A treat.

The Arcola’s annual Grimeborn Opera Festival got off to a cracking start with an intimate, intense production of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia which was so well sung and played, any opera house would be proud to have it. Our five opera ‘passport’ means we see them for £11 each, the best opera bargain ever!

Our second Grimeborn treat was Spectra Ensemble‘s production of the very underrated suffragette Ethyl Smyth’s early 20th Century comic opera The Boatswain’s Mate which was a delight. Great singing, but also great musicianship from a powerhouse trio of piano, violin and cello. Again, the intimacy of the even smaller studio served it well.

Classical Music

Mahler’s 8th, the ‘symphony of a thousand’, belongs in the Royal Albert Hall and the 2018 Proms saw the BBC National Orchestra & Chorus of Wales plus five other choirs and eight soloists succeeded in filling it with joy. From where we sat, the acoustics weren’t the best, and there seemed to be more subtlety in the second half, but thrilling stuff nonetheless.

My third visit to the Proms was a lovely evening of English music from the beginning of the 20th Century, indeed the beginning of modern English classical music, with five works by three people who knew one another – Vaughn Williams, the very underrated Parry and Holst – three of them I’d never heard before. The BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales were again on top form.

My fourth Prom was another treat, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra pairing two London symphonies 120 years apart – Haydn and Vaughan Williams. The Haydn, in particular, sounded better than any other symphony of his I’ve heard. Great to see a full house for something without ‘stars’.

Film

It was good to see Yellow Submarine again after 50 years in a superbly restored version. The artwork is astonishing, though the story is rather naff!

Mamma Mia: Here we go again was way better than the reviews would have you believe, better than its predecessor in fact. The antidote to the hate that now pervades our lives on a regular basis.

Art

Another of those bumper catch-up months for art.

Aftermath at Tate Britain, an exhibition of post-WWI art from Germany, France & the UK, was more historically fascinating than aesthetically appealing, though there were some great pictures. As if seeing 300 Otto Dix pictures in Chemnitz last month wasn’t enough, there were 18 more here!

I don’t normally like staged and posed photos, but I loved Alex Prager: Silver Lake Drive at the Photographers Gallery, a very cinematic show which included two captivating films.

Howard Hodgkin, who died last year, became a favourite artist of mine after an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery many years ago, so his final paintings at the Gagosian Gallery was essential viewing. It was more of the same, but the same is simplicity and colour.

I caught up with the Royal Academy of Art’s reconfiguration and renovations in a lovely morning feast of art that started with the excellent Grayson Perry curated Summer Exhibition, which can now breathe, with the Sackler Galleries added for the prints. Then there was The Great Spectacle, a terrific exhibition covering the 250 years of the Summer Exhibition which linked the existing John Madejski Fine Rooms with the Weston Rooms in the main space. Then through a newly opened tunnel to the Burlington Gardens building for the Summer Exhibition’s great (free) fun room, after which It ended on a bit of a low with Tacita Dean Landscape, which did marginally more for me than her companion exhibition at the NPG.

Shape of Light at Tate Modern examines the relationship between photography and abstract art over 100 years. Though fascinating, the photos were largely aesthetically unappealing and it all seemed a bit nerdy. Thankfully, the art was great, with the recently visited Bauhaus featuring.

South Korean artist Lee Bul’s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery was full of quirky things, many involving reflections. Some individual works were excellent, but it was the impact of the whole lot that made it worthwhile, a very original riot of brightness. In the project space, Yuan Goang-Ming’s video work was intriguing.

A theatrical day trip enabled me to pay a visit to the Southampton City Art Gallery. In addition to a small but impressive collection of masters, there was the terrific room showcasing the 10-picture The Perseus Story by pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne Jones, exhibitions by living artists George Shaw and Kelly Richardson and Coast, photos of the nearby coastline and seaside by the local Photographic Society. In the University’s new John Hansard Gallery, a Gerard Richter exhibition proved fascinating, though I’m not his biggest fan. It’s a lovely new space.

At the Guildhall Art Gallery, the William de Morgan ceramics exhibition was a delight. It tried to focus on his use of mathematics, but I couldn’t get past the beauty of the pots, plates and tiles! A short walk away, it was the turn of the Barbican Art Gallery to wow with a double-bill of photographic exhibitions – American documentary photographer Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing, with photos taken in the Great Depression and of Japanese internment and migration, and British photographer Vanessa Winship: And Time Folds, an extraordinarily diverse range of work in which her travels in the Balkans and countries around the Black Sea captivated me most.

At Newport Street Gallery, True Colours brought together the work of Helen Breard, Sadie Laska and Boo Saville. I loved Beard’s bright and colourful style, but it was rather sex obsessed, all bar one featuring explicit sexual acts. The other two did nothing for me. I’m glad it as a pop-in-while-passing visit!

At the Serpentine Galleries there was one treat and one pointless exhibition. The treat was Tomma Abts’ geometric pictures in the Sackler Gallery, which surprised me by their beauty. In the main gallery, there was an exhibition showcasing the historical outdoor work using barrels of Christo & Jeanne-Claude through drawings and models, mostly of the giant Mastaba they created for the UAE. They created a smaller one for the Serpentine Lake from 1500 barrels which seemed like much ado about nothing to me. Fortunately, this year’s Pavilion is lovely – from the inside. It doesn’t look great until you enter and see that it’s made of roof tiles with a reflective roof and water on part of the floor providing lovely images.

I would never have gone to Michael Jackson On the Wall at the NPG if I wasn’t a member; £18! I certainly wouldn’t call myself a fan, though I liked some of his music, and the messianic behaviour of his late career didn’t sit at all comfortably with me. This exhibition of artworks of and inspired by him was however fascinating, so I was glad I did go!

At the Design Museum, a fascinating exhibition called Hope to Nope: Graphics & Politics 2008-18 about the impact of graphics on politics and protest in the last ten years, including the use of social media and movements like Occupy and #MeToo. A great idea, well executed.

Julie Becker: I must create a Master Piece to pay the Rent at the ICA is one of the worst exhibitions of recent years, and the ICA seems to be in a right old state. I blame you, Time Out. Again.

One of my wanders around Mayfair’s private galleries brought rich pickings. At Hauser & Wirth, August Sander: Men Without Masks showcased the German photographer’s obsessive but brilliant B&W portraits of people of the 20th Century. In their gallery next door, Spiegelgasse (Mirror Alley) was a mixed show of Swiss artists since the 1930’s with some striking individual works by people I’d never heard of. Down the road at LAZinc, Banksy comes in from the streets for Greatest Hits 2002-2008, paintings and sculpture which do prove his worth. Next stop was Spruth Magers where 13 Cindy Sherman staged and posed character self-portraits, some multiples, each in an edition of just six, were valued at over $24m! They were good, but not that good!

Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up at the V&A had some lovely paintings, a selection of her clothes that showed her unique style and fascinating biographical material, but it was too overcrowded, claustrophobic and poorly curated to really enjoy. We fared better in the more spacious, less crowded and cooler The Future Starts Here which was a fascinating peep into the future through current projects and initiatives.

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Opera

My second visit to Grimeborn 2017 at the Arcola Theatre was for Lully’s 17th Century opera Armide. It was the first night, so it was a touch ragged at the edges, the production was a bit static (lots of posing) and it was hard to follow the story, but there was much to enjoy in the singing and playing.

Classical Music

Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt, in its full three part version, got a terrific first performance at the Proms by the Orchestra & Choir of the Age of Enlightenment under William Christie. I love the way it builds, I love the fact that 27 of the 39 parts are choruses and I loved the fact that the soloists came out of the choir.

An English music Prom featuring the National Orchestra & Chorus of Wales proved to be an eclectic delight. Two pieces I’d never heard by favourite composers – Britten & Purcell – with the most delicate and uplifting rendition of Elgar’s Enigma Variations and the world premiere of Brian Elias’ Cello Concerto, with the composer in attendance. Brilliant.

A new innovation at the Proms this year was ‘Beyond the Score‘, where the first half was a profile of the composer and background to the work, with actors, visuals and musical extracts, followed by the complete symphony, in this case Dvorak’s 9th, From the New World. Though I thought the first half was a bit long, it was insightful and I very much enjoyed the experience and felt I heard more in the piece as a result. Mark Elder and the Halle were on fine form.

The 120-year-old Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra made their belated Proms debut with a programme of Bernstein, Copeland and Tchaikovsky. I thought they were more at home with the American repertoire that the Russian, which they proved conclusively with a stunning encore of Bernstein’s Candide Overture, better than I’ve ever heard it played before. The Proms audience made them very welcome indeed.

Contemporary Music

The late night  Stax Prom, celebrating 50 years of the label, exceeded expectations big-time. I wasn’t a huge fan in the day, but came to Stax later and visited the studios in Memphis in 2004. Two of the original house band and three of the original singers were supplemented by some of the best British soul voices, led by Sir Tom Jones. Jools Holland’s R&B Orchestra were great (though the sound could have been a bit better) and it was full of highlights, with a terrific atmosphere in the Royal Albert Hall.

Film

I was introduced to the folk art of Maud Lewis when I went to the Art Gallery in Halifax Nova Scotia last September, so the bio-pic Maudie perhaps meant more to me as a result. True to her life story and beautifully filmed, I adored it, and Sally Hawkins was sensational as Maud.

Atomic Blonde was thrilling but too violent for me, with much of it improbably prolonged violence. Gold stars to the stunt men and women, though.

I was bored very early on in the over-hyped A Ghost Story, and presenting the ghosts as people covered in sheets with slits for eyes just seemed preposterous.

Thankfully, The Big Sick exceeded its hype and caught me by surprise as to how moving it was. Unlike the typical laddish Judd Apatow film; very grown up.

I’m very fond of independent British films, and God’s Own Country is one of the best in recent years, beautifully filmed and it really shows off Yorkshire!

Art

I’m not a fashion man, but you have to admire the classic design and extraordinary craftsmanship of Balenciaga at the V&A. Up the road at the Serpentine GalleryGrayson Perry’s exhibition was just the right size to give the pieces room to breathe and to avoid overwhelming the viewer, and the gallery managed the flow of punters brilliantly. The art, of course, was as fascinating as he always is.

A wonderful day of art started at St. James’s Piccadilly with the sculptures of Emily Young in the gardens. All heads, but different types and different stone, they were lovely. At the Royal Academy, I managed to get us into the Friends preview of Matisse in the Studio which was a little gem, showcasing pictures with the items from his studio in them. They have been loaned from so many different places it really is a once-in-a-lifetime show. Downstairs in the RA the one-room wonder that was Second Nature: The Art of Charles Tunnicliffe, some of the most gorgeous illustrations I’ve ever seen. After lunch a return to Picasso: Minotaurs & Matadors at the Gagosian which was well worth a second viewing, then off to Tate Modern for Giacometti, which was way more diverse and way more fascinating than I was expecting. Now that’s what I call an art feast!

+ / – Human was this year’s Roundhouse summer installation, seven round white drones which moved above your head, coming teasingly close but rarely close enough to touch, with at atmospheric soundtrack. Fascinating and fun.

The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains at the V&A was interesting and well put together (apart from the fact it was a bit crowded and you sometimes lost the automated audio guide as you moved) but I gave up on them too soon, as they became somewhat overblown and pompous, so I’m not enough of a fan to rave about it.

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Opera

La Voix Humaine is a rarely staged 50-minute one-woman opera by Poulenc, one of only three he wrote, and Opera Up Close are to be congratulated on an accessible, high quality production at Kings Place starring Sarah Minns with the score played on piano by Richard Black. Captivating.

A French double-bill at the Royal College of Music proved to be a delight. Chabrier’s Une Education Manquee, about a couple who didn’t know what to do on their wedding night, and Poulenc’s rather surreal cross-dressing boob-expanding Les Mamelles de Tiresias worked brilliantly together and the singing and playing was divine.

I saw the rarely performed Leoncavallo opera Zaza in concert a couple of years ago, so I was looking forward to seeing it staged. Sadly, the staging and design were so incompetent and inconsiderate (sightlines and audibility) that I wished I was hearing it in concert again! The final straw was a downpour soon after the second half started, where the noise of the rain on the canvas roof virtually drowned out the singers – but that wasn’t Opera Holland Park’s fault.

The Arcola‘s enterprising Grimeborn (geddit?) opera festival staged a musical-opera hybrid called The Marriage of Kim K which was a great idea, very ambitious and had its moments, but didn’t entirely work. It alternated between the story of Kim Kardashian’s short marriage to Kris Humphries, Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro and a British couple (him composer, her lawyer) on a couch fighting over the remote and switching between the two. It was this middle section which let it down by being rather dull and underperformed (and often out of tune). Gold star for trying, though, and hopefully we’ll see it again re-worked and improved.

Classical Music

I don’t think I’ve ever reacted so differently to two halves of the same concert as I did at Simon Keenlyside’s recital at Wigmore Hall. I adored the first half of Vaughn Williams, Finzi and Sibelius, but didn’t care for the more frivolous selections of Poulenc and Mahler in the second half, despite the obvious skills of the performers. A matter of taste, I guess.

The BBC Singers / Eric Whitacre concert at GSMD’s Milton Court was an absolute gem. An eclectic programme of ten pieces by living composers from five countries, including four world premieres and one UK premiere, with all composers present, with Whitacre’s first and latest compositions included. To cap it all, an encore of favourite Laura Mvula’s own arrangement of her song Sing to the Moon. Wonderful stuff.

Andrew Norman’s children’s opera A Trip to the Moon, based on the 1902 French silent movie of the same title, was paired with Sibelius 2nd Symphony in a terrific LSO Discovery concert in the Barbican Hall that saw the former involve local communities and both involve GSMD students, under Simon Rattle. Watching the white-shirted post-grad students sitting alongside the black-shirted LSO players provided a great sense of current musicians nurturing the next generation, which really moved me – and they sounded bloody great together too.

Soprano Sophie Bevan & tenor Allan Clayton gave a lovely recital of 28 Shakespeare songs by 20 different composers at Wigmore Hall, a very diverse and sometimes unpredictable selection. The acoustic was unkind to the soprano as it was to Simon Keenlyside’s baritone last week, which is a bit odd.

Contemporary Music

My first Prom this year was a late night celebration of Scott Walker‘s late 60’s solo albums, songs that have never been played live by anyone let alone Jarvis Cocker, John Grant, Suzanne Sundfor & Richard Hawley, with small choir and big orchestra! I didn’t think Cocker’s voice suited Walker’s songs, but the other three were terrific. I’m not a huge fan, but it was well worth the punt.

Film

Seeing Baby Driver broke a two-month film famine. It wasn’t the sort of film I usually go to – glorifying violence in a Tarantinoesque way – but it was exciting and brilliantly made, though let down by the implausibility of the ending.

Dunkirk is an extraordinary film about an extraordinary event. It was tense for the whole 100 minutes, but deeply moving too. Unmissable.

Dance

The Barbican gave over their Art Gallery for four weeks of performance art, well dance really, created by Trajal Harrall. There were lots of short works in different places, so I planned my visit to see as many as possible. Sadly, they weren’t as organised as me so I ended up having to go with the flow a bit, but that proved to be fun. I managed to sample about twelve pieces over a couple of hours and left feeling rather pleased with myself.

Art

A lot to catch up on…..

The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition was great this year, though I missed all those architectural models I’m so fond of. Still, the biggest selling exhibition of them all had a lot I would have bought if I bought art!

If I wasn’t a Friend, I probably wouldn’t have gone to the Sargent watercolours exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, which would have left a gaping hole in my life because I loved it! Portraits, city scenes and landscapes, they were all wonderful.

A visit to Whitechapel Gallery en route to a concert proved disappointing as Benedict Drew’s The Trickle-Down Syndrome was slight, A Handful of Dust was a bit pointless and the ISelf Collection underwhelming!

White Cube Bermondsey is such a big gallery that trying to fill it with women surrealists was bound to lead to variable quality, but fortunately there was enough good stuff to make Dreamers Awake worthwhile.

You don’t expect to see Picasso in a private gallery, let alone 111 paintings, drawings, sculptures, tapestries & ceramics of Minotaurs and Matadors, all bar one from private collections! It wasn’t a selling exhibition and entrance was free, so I’m not sure how the Gagosian funds it, but I’m glad they do.

Gregory Crewdson‘s heavily staged and artificially lit photos are like stills from an indie movie or paintings by Edward Hopper, which appear to tell a story but tantalisingly don’t, quite. His Cathedral of the Pines exhibition at the Photographers Gallery puts nudes in white clapperboard houses in snowy landscapes. Weird but a little bit wonderful.

A lovely double-dip at the NPG en route to the theatre, starting with the excellent class of 2017 at the BP Portrait Award, followed by The Encounter, featuring drawings from the 15th to 17th centuries, mostly culled from private collections including fifteen, a third of them, from the Queen! Another treat.

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at Tate Modern took me by surprise. Covering just 20 years of Black American art from the outset of the 1960’s civil rights movement, it contained some powerful, bold political statements alongside some terrific abstract pictures.

Though low lighting and overcrowding made Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave at the British Museum a bit of a challenge, it was great to see his complete range of gorgeous, finely detailed work. I shall now pour through the catalogue to see them properly!

The month ended on a real art high with Alma-Tadema at Leighton House, an artist I’d never heard of whose very comprehensive retrospective was absolutely fabulous.

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The original NT production of Peter Shaffer’s most famous play was before my time in London, but I did see Peter Hall’s 1998 revival (with David Suchet and Michael Sheen), and a subsequent production at Wilton’s Music Hall ten years ago (with Matthew Kelly and Jonathan Broadbent). What makes this Michael Longhurst revival stand out for me is the additional impact of live music by 20 members of Southbank Sinfonia and 6 opera singers. 

Most scholars believe the central premise – that Salieri’s jealousy of Mozart’s talent led him to spike his career, and ultimately poison him – is untrue, and indeed Shaffer never suggested his play was anything other than fiction. It seems to have the Rimsky-Korsakov opera Mozart & Salieri as it’s origin, which the Arcola gave us an opportunity to see this year as part of Grimeborn. This is Shaffer’s rewrite, which begins and ends more than thirty years after Mozart’s death, with Saleiri riddled with guilt and regret. We them flash back to see how their respective careers unfold chronologically. Salieri does his utmost to place obstacles before Mozart whilst posing as his friend and advocate. He is particularly baffled and annoyed that his god has bestowed such talent on someone so uncouth. Two Counts at the court of Joseph II do some of Salieri’s bidding, such as insisting on the removal of the marriage dance from The Marriage of Figaro lest it break Joseph’s rule of no ballets in opera. Mozart becomes increasingly unbalanced as he battles against such restraint and dies writing his Requiem. 

The orchestra aren’t in a pit, but move with the action, as do the singers, playing as they stand and even whilst they move. The two narrators, the Venticelli, become part of them, carrying instruments when they aren’t narrating the story. It’s a brilliant idea, which adds so much to the shape and flow of the piece. Lucien Msamati is magnificent as Salieri, managing to convey his admiration and jealousy, the torture of and triumph over his victim and his guilt and ultimately remorse. I was less convinced by Adam Gillen’s Mozart, which I felt could have been a touch more restrained. The show was still in preview when I saw it and I felt the first half needed tightening, but the second half was terrific.

Great to see it once more on a big stage like the Olivier, with so much added by the integration of live music. 

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