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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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Contemporary Music

There was a lot to love about Weimar Cabaret at Cadogan Hall.  The period and the place produced an extraordinarily eclectic collection of original music which gathered together has an eccentric, manic quality. The Australian Chamber Orchestra played brilliantly, in dark suits and trilbies, and Barry Humphries provided insightful and funny commentaries, and sang a song or two with cabaret star Meow Meow, who sang a lot on her own and with a lady violinist from the orchestra. I will never forget her Serenata Erotica! A unique evening.

John Wilson has a large, loyal and attentive following and last year’s brilliant Bernstein Prom propelled us to book for this year’s Gershwin Prom. I was expecting some, if not all of it, to be from Broadway, but it was all Hollywood, and a third of the songs were Ira Gershwin’s lyrics without the then late George Gershwin’s music. The first half disappointed; with little light and shade it was relentlessly showbiz and the sound mix wasn’t great, with strings buried beneath brass. It picked up significantly in the second half though, with better sound, some slower numbers and the ballet from An American in Paris as a closer. Overall, though, a bit too Friday Night is Music Night for me, and a rather expensive one too.

Opera

I’ve never seen anything in the Arcola‘s annual Grimeborn opera festival before but after their brilliant Tosca, very powerful at close quarters, I won’t make that mistake again. In fact, I’ve already booked for another two! The singing was superb and the whole score heroically played on one grand piano, and all for the price of a cinema ticket. Eat your heart out, ENO & RO.

My journey to and from the Arcola Theatre for my second Grimeborn production was more than twice as long as Rimsky-Korsakov’s rarely staged 40-minute opera Mozart and Salieri. Composed eighty years before Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus on the same subject, also derived from Pushkin’s play. It was a bit slight for me, though it was well staged and performed. I’ve only seen a few of his fifteen operas and this was more of a collector’s item than anything else.

Grimeborn reached its pinnacle with Opera Alegria’s Mozart Double – an opera he wrote when he was twelve, Bastien & Bastienne (not his first!), which may or may not have been performed at the time, and one from his late career when he was thirty, a satire on opera itself The Impresario. You can hear clearly how he matured, though both operas are good. As they both have dialogue they are technically operettas or singspiel and the settings in this production are contemporary, the libretto updated. The performances were brilliant and it was the most fun I’ve had in 35 years of opera-going.

Cape Town Opera‘s Mandela Trilogy at the Royal Festival Hall was a hit-and-miss affair. It told Madeba’s story in three parts – youth to University, the politicised years centred in Sophiatown and his trial & imprisonment through to his freedom speech on release. I liked the prologue and Parts 1 & 3 by Peter Louis van Dijjk, but though I liked the idea of the Part 2 jazz musical by Mike Campbell, I wasn’t convinced by the contrast its inclusion created. It was semi-staged but from our top price front stalls seats we couldn’t see the singers, which rather marred the experience.

Classical Music

The off-site Prom at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was an absolute treat and a triumph. Eleven piece ensemble Arcangelo led by Jonathan Cohen played Shakespeare-inspired music from the late 17th century by candlelight with three brilliant soloists, Katherine Watson, Samuel Bowden & Callum Thorpe, who animated the arias by interacting and moving around the space. Wonderful.

A gorgeous lunchtime Prom at Cadogan Hall paired viol ensemble Fretwork with vocal ensemble Stile Antico for a programme of 17th century Shakespeare settings (plus a few others) with two brilliant contemporary ones by Huw Watkins and Nico Muhly. A real tonic.

The third Shakespeare themed Prom showcased music for stage and screen, with the first half music by Walton, Finzi, Sullivan and Joby Talbot written for screen and ballet versions of Richard III, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Tempest, As You Like It and The Winter’s Tale and the second half music for the stage – Bernstein’s West Side Story based on Romeo and Juliet, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate based on The Taming of the Shrew and The Boys from Syracuse, a version of The Comedy of Errors by Rogers, Hart and Abbott. I really liked it, more than the Gershwin Prom (with better sound), and conductor Keith Lockhart engaged with the audience unlike most conductors.

European cities usually have a cultural black hole in August, but I managed to find a performance of the rare Cherubini Requiem in C Minor at the Liege Opera House during a short overnight visit. Though I’d never heard it before, it seemed a bit lacklustre – WNO on an off night (we don’t know how lucky we are) – but it was good to hear it, and the theatre was lovely.

Film

Matt Damon didn’t have many lines to learn for Jason Bourne which was all action, exhaustingly so, with an extraordinary car chase at the end that I honestly don’t know how they pulled off. Great fun.

I eventually caught up with the female Ghostbusters remake, which was good fun and technically accomplished, though hardly ground-breaking.

Art

The Liverpool Biennial Festival of Contemporary Art was absolute shite. It was devoid of any beauty, lacking in ingenuity and it all seemed derivative and dated. Fortunately, Tate Liverpool had three good exhibitions – Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms, Maria Lassnig & Ella Kruglyanskya, the latter two artists completely new to me. These, together with the permanent collections at Tate and the Walker and the Peter Blake designed Mersey Ferry, Everybody Razzle Dazzle, redeemed the weekend. I won’t get fooled again!

Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson‘s ‘exhibition’ at the Barbican was about as off-the-wall as it gets. The only live part was ten troubadours lounging, strumming and singing – for the whole 8 opening hours! There were records of previous projects, mostly on video, including a 9-screen installation recording a 1-hour concert where each player was in a different room of a house (including the bath!), brass players cruising whilst they played in Venice for six hours every day for six months, a crooner singing the same three words for 30 minutes, band The National singing their song A Lot of Sorrow continuously for six hours, 144 paintings of the same subject in the same place where they both spent six months and four 5-yearly videos of his mother spitting in his face. I rather liked it all!

I managed to catch the exhibition of Francis Townes‘ late 18th century watercolours of Italy on its last day at the British Museum. They were beautiful, though a touch faded and mostly behind glass. He was apparently never accepted by the art establishment, despite his undoubted talent.

The Travel Photographer of the Year exhibition has moved south-east and indoors to Greenwich University and, despite the journey, is better for it. It was the usual high standard but it made me feel less inadequate as, since last year, I’ve done a short photography course, had some coaching and went on some photographic safaris, so next year I think I might enter!

The Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at Tate Modern exceeded its expectations bigtime. A hugely comprehensive retrospective which also allowed you to learn about her life through photographs and room descriptions. I’ve always loved her work, now I’m virtually obsessed. I’ll be back!

The exhibition I went to the Photographers’ Gallery to see, as instructed by Time Out (!) – Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity – disappointed, but upstairs there were two floors of Terence Donovan’s wonderful, iconic, mostly black and white 60’s and 70’s photographs in Speed of Light. An unexpected treat.

Colour & Vision at the Natural History Museum sought to explain the evolution of vision in the animal world. It started well, with fascinating fossils in particular, but then threw in the kitchen sink and became overpowering and confusing. Shame.

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