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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

Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Britten Theatre at the Royal College of Music was an absolute gem with wonderful singing and playing, a superb design, and stunning staging by Liam Steel. Any opera house in the world would be proud to have a production this good in its repertoire.

The Royal Academy of Music inaugurated their lovely new theatre with a brilliant revival of Jonathan Dove’s opera Flight. I’d forgotten how good it was, and here it was superbly played and sung and, like the RCM last week, in a fine production that any opera house would be proud of.

The English Concert have become the go-to company for Handel operas in concert and their take on Rinaldo in the Barbican Hall, his first Italian opera specifically for London, was superb, faultlessly cast and beautifully played (though I could have done without the attempts at semi-staging which seems a bit naff). Handel wrote himself a harpsichord solo for this opera and here the harpsichordist almost stole the show with his thrilling rendition.

Classical Music

The Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra under Sir Mark Elder gave a blistering Shostakovich 8th Symphony at another of their Friday lunchtime recitals, with Elder again giving an insightful introduction to the piece. The talent on stage is awe-inspiring and the nurturing by a world class conductor heart-warming.

Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons Reimagined combined baroque music with a contemporary twist and puppetry to provide a spellbinding 80 minutes by candlelight in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Another lovely evening in a space that seems to suit absolutely everything!

Britten Sinfonia Voices gave an inspired Easter programme at GSMD’s Milton Court Concert Hall, with choral music spanning more than 400 years, with a few brass pieces as a bonus. The idea of fitting two Stravinsky pieces between movements in a Mozart Mass was particularly inspired.

Dance

Ballet Black’s contrasting double-bill at the Barbican Theatre was a real treat. The Suit was mesmerising, moving and ultimately tragic and A Dream within a Midsummer Night’s Dream was cheeky and playful. I need to ensure this company are on my radar permanently.

Film

You Were Never Really Here is a dark and disturbing but original and brilliant film with a stunning performance from Joaquin Phoenix, and refreshingly short at 90 minutes!

The Square was 2.5 hours of my life I’ll never get back. Lured by 5* reviews, it was overlong, slow and a bit of a mess, the satire largely lost or overcooked.

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Opera

Italian-American composer Gian Carlo Menotti wrote 28 operas, but we hardly ever see them here, so GSMD’s The Consul was a great opportunity to see an opera I’ve only seen once, zonks ago in Stockholm, and a great job they made of it too (though I wish they’d lost the final scene!). The only Menotti I’ve seen in the UK was a double-bill of short works in a tiny room at the Edinburgh fringe, also ages ago. The audience was small, but one of them stood to take a bow; Menotti was now living in Scotland!

I’m very partial to Handel operas, and Rodelinda’s a good one. ENO assembled a superb cast, in which Rebecca Evans, Tim Mead and Neal Davies positively shone. Though I liked the relocation to fascist Italy, I thought some of the black comedy in Richard Jones’ production jarred, with laughter sometimes drowning out the beautiful singing. Still, musically exceptional.

Classical Music

The LSO’s celebration of Bernstein’s centenary at the Barbican started two months early with his first and third (last) symphonies. I don’t normally like narration but the latter had acting royalty Clare Bloom which helped. It was well paired with Bernstein’s flute concerto Halil and the adagio from Mahler’s (unfinished) 10th but in the second concert Mahler’s twice-as-long 1st, as much as I loved it, hijacked Bernstein’s bash by swamping his 1st.

Dance

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Aladdin at Sadler’s Wells looked gorgeous and I loved the score, but the choreography seemed somewhat uninventive and I didn’t really engage with the story, I’m afraid.

Film

Call Me By Your Name is a quintessentially ‘continental’ film that’s (mostly) in English and I thought it was delightful, living up to its 5* reviews for once, and a brilliant advert for visiting Italy.

Paddington 2 is as charming as it gets, a delightfully funny film with a British who’s-who cast.

I loved Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool and was surprised, at the end, to find it was based on a true story. That’s what happens when you don’t read the blurb and the reviews!

Beach Rats was a bit slow, inconsequential and overrated, I’m afraid. Another case of reviews leading me astray.

I can’t recall the real events depicted in Battle of the Sexes, but they made for a very good film, with Emma Stone impressive as Billie Jean King.

Art

I surprised myself by how captivated I was at Basquiat: Boom for Real at the Barbican Art Gallery. An untrained Haitian-American who started as a graffiti artist, this year one picture sold for £80m! Given he only lived 28 years, his influence is extraordinary. In the Barbican’s Curve Gallery, there was a climate change installation by John Akomfrah featuring a one-hour six screen film, two triptych’s and hanging containers, all of which I found rather powerful in making its point.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic at the British Library was an excellent 20th anniversary celebration of the phenomenon, illustrating J K Rowling’s take on magic with real historical writings and objects, with handwritten drafts of the stories and book illustrations thrown in as a bonus, including very good ones by the author herself. Well worth a visit for potterheads!

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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

Handel’s Radamisto at GSMD had some lovely singing and playing, I liked the design and also the idea of framing it with an audience of leaders in conflict as a nod to its premiere before a royal squabble, but it was played too much for laughs, particularly the comic book King.

A summer visit to WNO at the WMC in Cardiff for Strauss R’s Der Rosenkavalier and Strauss J’s Die Fledermaus proved a treat. I love the former and it was the best production of it I’ve seen, with the orchestra under its new MD sounding great and a full house of terrific performances. I’m not really an operetta man, but it was hard to resist the fun of the latter, again well played and sung, with the cameo non-singing role of the gaoler brilliantly played by Welsh actor, Stella’s Steve Spiers.

There was some lovely singing in Charlie Parker’s Yardbird at Hackney Empire, but the subject didn’t really suit the opera form. Though it’s a story full of tragedy and emotion, the opera had none; I think a jazz musical would have served it better. Good to see work like this, a visit by Philadelphia Opera, on at Hackney though.

Contemporary Music

Smiles of a Summer Night was an evening of Sondheim songs from eight soloists, a twelve strong chorus and full orchestra at Cadogan Hall and the musical standards were sky high. It wouldn’t have been my selection of songs, but that might be a good thing as there are rarely heard items as well as well worn ones. Alex Parker, the musical director, has given us a superb concert version of A Little Night Music and a terrific production of compilation show Putting it Together, and this is yet another fine achievement.

Art

Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction at the Barbican Centre is a very broad selection of paintings & drawings, story-boards, props & models, games, films, books, comics & magazines in three locations and the foyers. It has even taken over the Pit Theatre for three months with a giant installation. Fascinating, but too dense for just one visit.

I loved Chris Ofili’s new tapestry at the National Gallery, placed onto B&W walls decorated by him, in an exhibition called Weaving Magic that included preparatory sketches and drawings. Lovely.

I’m used to bright, colourful, uplifting paintings from Per Kirkby, so the exhibition of older 80’s dull and dark work at the Michael Werner Gallery was a big disappointment, I’m afraid. Shame.

Fahrelnissa Zeid was another artist unknown to me, and her retrospective at Tate Modern showed both her art and her life were fascinating, going from portraits to two different forms of abstraction and back to portraits, with a side-trip to sculpture along the way, and from Turkey & Iraq to Germany, France & Britain and finally Jordan. Intriguing.

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The Rest of 2016

I spent a third of the last third of the year out of the country, so my monthly round-up’s for this period have merged into one mega-round-up of the two-thirds of the four months I was here!

Opera

Opera Rara’s concert performance of Rossini’s rare Semiramide, the last Bel Canto opera, at the Proms was a real highlight. It’s a long work, four hours with interval, in truth too long, but it contains some of Rossini’s best music (and I’m not even a fan!). The OAE, Opera Rara Chorus and a world class set of soloists under Sir Mark Elder gave it their all, with ovations during let alone at the end. Brilliant.

I was out of the country when I would have made my usual trip to Cardiff for WNO’s autumn season, so I went to Southampton to catch their UK premiere of Andre Tchaikowsky’s The Merchant of Venice when I got home and I was very glad I did. It’s a fine adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, with a particularly dramatic court scene, and it was beautifully sung and played, with a terrific performance by American Lester Lynch as Shylock.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been to something that sounded so beautiful but looked so ugly. Handel’s Oreste, a pasticcio opera (a compilation of tunes from elsewhere, in Handel’s case his own works) which the Royal Opera staged at Wilton’s Music Hall. The singing and playing of the Jette Parker Young Artists and Southbank Sinfonia were stunning, but the production was awful. One of those occasions when it’s best to shut your eyes.

Classical Music

Another delightful lunchtime Prom at Cadogan Hall, this time counter-tenor Iestyn Davies and soprano Carolyn Sampson, both of whom are terrific soloists, but together make a heavenly sound. I was less keen on the six Mendelssohn songs than the six Quilter’s and even more so the glorious six Purcell pieces. It was a joyful, uplifting hour.

Juditha triumphans is a rare opera / oratorio by Vivaldi that was brilliantly performed at the Barbican by the Venice Baroque Orchestra and a superb quintet of female singers including Magdalena Kozena as Juditha. It took a while to take off, but it then soared, and the second half was simply stunning.

Visiting the LSO Steve Reich at 80 concert at the Barbican was a bit of a punt which really paid off. The three pieces added up to a feast of modernist choral / orchestral fusions. The composer was present and received an extraordinary ovation from a surprisingly full house.

Berlioz Requiem is on a huge scale, so the Royal Albert Hall was the perfect venue, and it was Remembrance Sunday, so the perfect day too. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, with ten timpanists and an enormous brass section of 50 or 60, occasionally drowned out all three choirs (!) but it was otherwise a thrilling ride.

Joyce DiDonato‘s latest recital with the wonderful baroque ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro was a bit if a disappointment. It had some extraordinary musical high spots, but the selection could have been better and she didn’t really need the production (lights, projections, haze, costumes, face painting and a dancer!). It didn’t help that the stage lights sometimes shone into the eyes of large chunks of the audience, including me, blinding them and sending me home with a headache.

At the Royal Academy of Music their Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Sir Mark Elder in a lunchtime concert of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony and it was thrilling. Sir Mark did another of his fascinating introductory talks, this time illustrated with musical extracts.

The BBC Singers gave a lovely curtain-raising concert of unaccompanied seasonal music by British composers at St Giles Cripplegate, half from the 20th century and half from the 21st, before the BBC SO‘s equally seasonal pairing of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve Suite and Neil Brand’s A Christmas Carol for orchestra, choir and actors in the Barbican Hall. This was a big populist treat.

I’ve heard a lot of new classical music since I last heard John Adams‘ epic oratorio El Nino, so it was good to renew my acquaintance and discover how much I still admire it. 270 performers on the Barbican stage provide a very powerful experience – the LSO, LSC, a youth choir and six excellent American soloists who all know the work. Thrilling.

Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley, accompanied by Sir Antonio Pappano on piano no less, gave a superb but sparsely attended recital at the Barbican Hall. It was an eclectic, multi-lingual and highly original selection, beautifully sung. More fool those who stayed away from this absolute treat.

The standards of amateur choirs in the UK are extraordinary, and the London Welsh Chorale are no exception. Their lovely Christmas concert at St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate included extracts from Handel’s Messiah, Vivaldi’s Gloria plus songs and carols. The soprano and mezzo soloists were superb too.

Dance

Rambert’s ballet set to Haydn’s oratorio The Creation at Sadler’s Wells was one of the best dance evenings of recent years. If you shut your eyes, this would be a world class concert with three fine soloists, the BBC Singers and the Rambert Orchestra. With a gothic cathedral backdrop, the dance added a visual dimension which wasn’t literal but was beautifully impressionistic and complimentary.

English National Ballet had the inspired idea to ask Akram Khan to breathe new life into Giselle and at Sadler’s Wells boy did he do that. It’s an extraordinarily powerful, mesmerising and thrilling combination of music, design and movement. From set, costumes and lighting to an exciting adapted score and the most stunning choreography, this is one of the best dance shows I’ve ever seen.

Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake the following week, also at Sadler’s Wells, wasn’t such a success, and steered even further away from its inspiration. It revolved around a 36-year old single man whose mother was desperate to marry off, but there were lots of references to depression and madness. I’m afraid I didn’t find the narrative very clear, its relationship to the ballet is a mystery to me and it’s more physical theatre than dance. It had its moments, but it was not for me I’m afraid.

Back at Sadler’s Wells again for The National Ballet of China‘s Peony Pavilion, a real east-meets-west affair. Ancient Chinese tale, classical ballet with elements of Chinese dance, classical music with added Chinese opera. Lovely imagery and movement. I loved it.

New Adventures’ Red Shoes at Sadler’s Wells might be the best thing they’ve done since the male Swan Lake. With a lush Bernard Herman mash-up score, great production values and Matthew Bourne’s superb choreography, it’s a great big populist treat.

Contemporary Music

Camille O’Sullivan brought an edginess to the songs of Jacques Brel which I wasn’t comfortable with at first but then she alternated them with beautifully sung ballads and I became captivated. She inhabited the songs, creating characters for each one. Her encore tributes to Bowie & Cohen were inspired.

There were a few niggles with Nick Lowe‘s Christmas concert at the Adelphi Theatre – it started early (!), the sound mix wasn’t great and he gave over 30 minutes of his set to his backing band Los Straightjackets (who perform in suits, ties & Mexican wrestler masks!) but (What’s so funny ’bout) Peace Love & Understanding has never sounded more timely and the closing acoustic Alison was simply beautiful. He’s still growing old gracefully.

Film

I loved Ron Howard’s recreation of the Beatles touring years in Eight Days a Week, plus the remastered Shea Stadium concert which followed. What was astonishing about this was that they were completely in tune with all that crowd noise and no monitors or earphones!

Bridget Jones Baby was my sort of escapist film – warm, fluffy and funny – and it was good to see Rene Zellweger and Colin Frith on fine form as the now much older characters.

I, Daniel Blake made me angry and made me cry. Thank goodness we’ve got Ken Loach to show up our shameful treatment of the disabled. Fine campaigning cinema.

I loved Nocturnal Beasts, a thriller that’s as close to the master, Hitchcock, as I’ve ever seen. I was gripped for the whole two hours.

Fantastic Beasts lived up to its hype. Though it is obviously related to Harry Potter, it’s its own thing which I suspect will have quite a series of its own. Starting in NYC, I reckon it will be a world tour of locations for future productions.

Kiwi film The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a very funny, heart-warming affair with a stunning performance by a young teenager, Julian Dennison, matched by a fine one from Sam Neill.

I loved A United Kingdom, based on the true story of Botswana’s Seretse Khama, leader from mid-60s independence to 1980. It’s the true story of a country that has been a beacon of democracy in a continent of corruption.

The Pass must be one of the most successful stage-to-screen transfers ever. I was in the front row at the Royal Court upstairs, but it seemed even tenser on screen. Good that three of the four actors made the transfer too.

One of my occasional Sunday afternoon double-bills saw Arrival back-to-back with Sully. The former was my sort of SciFi, with the emphasis on the Sci, and it gripped me throughout. I’m also fond of true stories & the latter delivered that very well.

I liked (Star Wars) Rogue One, but it was a bit slow and dark (light-wise) to start with, then maybe too action-packed from then. I’m not sure I will do 3D again too; it’s beginning to feel too low definition and overly blurry for a man who wears glasses.

Art

Sally Troughton‘s installations in the Pump House Gallery at Battersea Park didn’t really do much for me, but Samara Scott‘s installations in the Mirror Pools of its Pleasure Garden Fountains certainly did. A combination of dyed water and submerged fabrics created lovely reflective effects.

There was so much to see in the V&A’s You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970. It was an astonishing five years and the exhibition covers music, art, design, fashion, politics, literature…..you name it. I shall have to go again to take it all in.

Wifredo Lam is a Cuban artist I’ve never heard of, getting a full-blown retrospective at Tate Modern. There was too much of his late, very derivative abstract paintings, but it was still overall a surprising and worthwhile show.

South Africa: the art of a nation was a small but excellent exhibition covering thousands of years from early rock art to contemporary paintings and other works. Most of the old stuff was from the British Museum’s own collection, so in that sense it was one of those ‘excuses for a paying exhibition’ but the way they were put together and curated and the addition of modern art made it worthwhile.

The Picasso Portraits exhibition at the NPG was a lot better than I was expecting, largely because of the number of early works, which I prefer to the more abstract late Picasso. Seeing these does make you wonder why he departed from realism, for which he had so much talent.

Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy was also better than expected, largely because of the range of work and the inclusion of artists I didn’t really know. I do struggle with people like Pollock and Rothko though, and can’t help thinking they may be taking the piss!

The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition, back at the NPG, seemed smaller than usual, but just as high quality. I do love these collections of diverse subjects and styles.

Back at the Royal Academy, Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans was a very interesting exhibition of the work of an underrated Belgian master (with an obsession with masks and skeletons!) curated by a contemporary Belgian artist. I’ve seen samples of his work in my travels, but it was good to see it all together, and I liked the curatorial idea too.

At Tate Modern, a double-bill starting with a Rauschenberg retrospective. I’ve been underwhelmed by bits of his work I’ve come across in my travels, but this comprehensive and eclectic show was fascinating (though I’m still not entirely sold on his work!). The second part was Radical Eye, a selection from Elton John’s collection of modernist photography (with more Man Ray’s that have probably ever been shown together). It’s an extraordinary collection and it was a privilege to see it.

Star Wars Identities at the O2 exceeded my expectations, largely because of the idea of discovering your own Star Wars identity by choosing a character and mentor and answering questions on behaviour and values and making choices at eight ‘stations’ en route which were recorded on your wristband, in addition to film clips, models, costumes etc. The behavioural, career and values stuff was well researched and the whole experience oozed quality.

I didn’t think many of the exhibits in Vulgar: Fashion Redefined at the Barbican were vulgar at all! It was an exhibition made up entirely of costumes, so it was never going to be my thing, but it passed a pre-concert hour interestingly enough.

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Opera

It’s baffling why Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera May Night is hardly ever staged, so a gold star to Royal Academy Opera for a production with musical standards that any professional opera company would be proud of. Their theatre is being rebuilt, so it took place in the former testing hall of the University of Westminster across the road, which was just as well as it would never have fitted on their own stage / in their own pit! A real treat.

The London Handel Festival’s annual opera at the Royal College of Music’s Britten Theatre was Ariodante, one of his best, and it was another operatic treat, with gorgeous playing by the London Handel Orchestra under Laurence Cummings and a set of very fine performances from RCM students. I even liked the grungy set, even though it wasn’t exactly evocative of Edinburgh, where the opera is set!

I wasn’t expecting to be as bowled over by George Benjamin’s Written on Skin at the Barbican Centre as I was. I can’t say I entirely understood the story, but I was mesmerised by the music, brilliantly played by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra under Benjamin with three stunning lead soloists – Barbara Hannigan, Christopher Purves and Tim Mead. One of the best modern operas I’ve ever heard.

Popup Opera’s I Capuleti E I Montecchi in The Vaults at Waterloo was their first foray into tragedy and it was a huge success. Stripped down to five singers, an electric piano, a few props and some strip lights, the music shone through. Flora McIntosh and Alice Privett were terrific as the star-crossed lovers (Bellini wrote Romeo as a trouser role), though I wished they hadn’t done the final death scene standing up!

The original version of Boris Godunov at the Royal Opera House was 130 unbroken minutes but it kept me in its grip throughout. Richard Jones production was as masterly and fresh as his Meistersingers and the musical standards under Antonio Pappano were sky high. Bryn Terfel can act as well as he can sing and the rest of the leads were just as good. Terrific stuff.

Dance

The revival of Akram Khan’s Kaash at Sadler’s Wells was an exhausting hour, such was the physicality of the five dancers. There’s no narrative as such, but the combination of Anish Kapoor’s hypnotic design, Nitin Sawhney’s percussive music and the organic, acrobatic choreography of Kahn was rather mesmerising.

At the Staatsoper in Hannover, I caught a ballet of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Was Ihr Wollt (the play’s subtitle, What You Will), with a mash-up of music by Prokofiev Shostakovich and Dvorak, and it was a treat, particularly good at the comedy, with some lovely performances from an international cast. I do love catching opera and ballet on my travels, especially when it’s half the cost at Covent Garden, as it was here!

Film

Sasha Baron Cohen’s Grimsby was clever and often very funny, but also often gross and in the end more gross than funny.

I’m a big Coen Brothers fan, but I was a bit underwhelmed by Hail Caesar! And I’m not sure why. It was a great idea, but it didn’t fully satisfy me.

Though Anomalisa didn’t live up to its five star reviews, it was a very original film, an animation using life-size puppets and the voice of only one actor for all parts expect the two leads, and a clever way of showing a man spiralling into depression.

High Rise was another film that didn’t live up to the hype. It’s a very odd affair that I didn’t really think went anywhere, though it held my attention and the performances were good.

Art

Nikolai Astrup is the best painter I’d never heard of, and Painting Norway at Dulwich Picture Gallery was simply gorgeous. The vibrant colours and beautiful landscapes made you want to get on a plane there and then.

I caught the Frank Auerbach exhibition at Tate Britain in its last weekend. I liked about half of the pictures and was indifferent to the rest; I’m not sure I’ve ever felt like that about an artist’s work. Whilst there, I caught the Artist & Empire exhibition, examining Britain’s Imperial past through art, which seemed to me to be one of those exhibitions created to make some money, though it was very well curated. Between the two was Susan Philipsz clever sound installation featuring samples from The Last Post played on brass and woodwind instruments damaged during the Second World War; very moving.

I was rather chuffed with my photographs of my recent safaris to South Africa, Namibia and Kenya……until I went to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum, and that was just the under-18’s! They benefit, of course, from scale and back-lighting, but it was the compositions which I envied most. Lovely. Next door at the Science Museum, I very much enjoyed the American documentary photography of Alec Soth and the stunning mid-19th century portraits of photographic pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron and the juxtaposition of the two was in itself brilliant. Another diverse afternoon immersion in photography.

Strange & Familiar at the Barbican was a social history of 20th century Britain through an extraordinary collection of photographs by those who don’t live here. There was a bias towards the 50’s and 60’s (my first two decades!), probably the birth of such documentary photography, and many of them seemed attracted to my homeland – South Wales mining communities – so it may have been particularly moving for me.

Painting the Modern Garden at the Royal Academy was one of the best exhibitions I’ve ever seen. Over one hundred paintings from the impressionist and post-impressionist period and a riot of colour. The three Monet-only rooms were a joy to behold. I’ll have to go back. Upstairs, In the Age of Giorgione was a superb collection of early sixteenth century Venetian art. Technically very accomplished, but not really my thing. The one-room collection of Ann Christopher’s ‘Lines of Time’ was a little treat on the way out.

At the Photographers Gallery, a trio of small exhibitions starting with a lovely varied retrospective of American photographer Saul Leiter, another master of documentary photography. On the floor below Rio-Montevideo was a brilliant exhibition of Uruguayan protest photographs which had been hidden during the prolonged period of military dictatorships and were now presented by a Rio photographer and projected by vintage machines picked up in flea markets and second-hand stores (a lot of which were out of order!). Finally, an exhibition commemorating the Easter Rising on its 100th anniversary, something I found it hard to engage with for some reason.

The 100th Anniversary of Vogue was celebrated at the NPG in huge style by an exhibition which took over almost the entire ground floor, containing pictures from each decade. A simply stunning collection which had me rushing to buy the catalogue (again!). Whilst there, I popped into Russia & the Arts, an exhibition of portraits of famous musicians, writers etc, but failed to get enthused after the wonders of the Vogue collection.

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