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Posts Tagged ‘Hauser & Wirth’

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

The Met Live Rigoletto was wonderful, though two long intervals did mar the dramatic flow somewhat. The staging in 60’s Las Vegas (brilliant design) worked as well as the ENO’s gangster Chicago one many years ago and the lead performances were simply stunning – Zeljko Lucic as Rigoletto, Diane Damrau as Gilda and Piotr Beczala (who I saw there in Manon on my US trip in 2012) as The Duke and there was brilliant support from Stefan Kocan as assassin Sparafucile. The production team were new to opera; in fact they were responsible for Spring Awakening, one of my favourite musicals of recent years (and one of my biggest theatre investment losses!).

My latest visit to WNO showed them off at their best and gave us a flavour of new Director David Poultney’s vision, with a pairing of his new production of Lulu and a revival of his 32-year-old production of The Cunning Little Vixen. They are far from my favourite operas, but I doubt either could get better productions. Lulu was a terrific visual spectacle on Johan Engels giant double-circle steel frame (with wings!), and the orchestra and singers, led by Marie Arnet’s wonderful Lulu, were sensational. Sadly, I find it hard to enjoy Berg’s music and the absurdist surrealist story doesn’t really engage me! Vixen fared better as the music is more accessible and the story, though somewhat slight, is more understandable. The late Maria Bjornson’s superb design, with people and animals popping up all over the place, doesn’t look in the slightest bit dated. Again the standard of singing and playing was exceptional (MD Lothar Koenigs again with the baton – boy, was he a good find for WNO!) with Sophie Bevan a delightful Vixen.

Classical Music

One would never have expected a free lunchtime concert at a music conservatoire to produce anything as beautiful and thrilling as Elgar’s 1st Symphony by the Academy Concert Orchestra at the Royal Academy of Music; it was as good as I’ve ever heard it. I’m sure having the great Edward Gardner to conduct helped, but nevertheless the musicianship seemed extraordinary.

Joyce DiDonato’s ‘Drama Queens’ concert (accompanied by the brilliant Il Complesso Barocco) had a slow start but when it got going, boy did it get going. In a stunning flame red Vivienne Westwood gown which transformed as the evening progressed, she sang eleven baroque arias, some by well-known composers like Handel and Monteverdi but a significant number of rarities. The fillers (breathers) by the ensemble were much more than that, most notably Vivaldi’s Concerto for Violin & Strings with a stunning solo from Dmitry Sinkovsky. Her personality always shines through and it felt like an evening with a very talented friend (and the best thing ever to come out of Kansas!).

Well the Britten centenary got off to a good start with a rare opportunity to hear all three string quartets in chronological order at the Royal Academy of Music. Three young quartets formed within the last six years – Leporello, Wilhelm & Jubilee! – did a great job. Two of them were all-girl quartets and the third had one girl; I’m not sure what to read into that! 17+ more centenary events to come!

Art

The NPG’s Man Ray exhibition only includes his photographic portraits but it’s terrific. Most of them are 20th century artists and other members of the avant-garde. Even though they are between 40 and 80 years old, they seem astonishingly contemporary; that’s style for you.

I had to abandon a visit to the cinema because they’d sold out a Saturday afternoon performance of a film that had been running for three weeks! Can’t we be impulsive any more? Well, we can because this gave me the impulse for a Mayfair gallery wander. Bruce Nauman’s neon works at Hauser & Wirth were great, though the narrow entrance to one (of only four) excluded the larger of us! I was impressed by the use of colour in Fiona Rae’s new paintings at Timothy Taylor, but couldn’t fathom why she’d spoilt them by including little Teddy’s peeping out all over the place. Fred Sandback has become a favourite and his works at David Zwimer were brilliant. It’s amazing what you can do with a bit of string, some white space and an imagination! Their other (group) exhibition would have been better if you’d known which artist was which. The final visit was entirely on spec (Time Out pointed out the others); an Azeri artist called Niyaz Najafov who’s red and black grotesques at Gazelli Art House were interesting but not particularly nice to look at. That’s art for you…..

The Wellcome Collection’s exhibition Death: A Self Portrait was recommended but the prospect of seeing it didn’t exactly capture my imagination. Finding myself nearby with spare time, I ventured forth to find it quite fascinating. It’s the personal collection of one man and the range – of sources, periods and themes – is extraordinary. More skeletons than you’ll see in a normal lifetime!

A trio of Royal Academy exhibitions in one day delivered fascinating and unexpected results. The Manet exhibition focuses just on portraits, so it does become a bit monotonous. There are some terrific pictures and I liked the way photos of the subjects were also displayed, but it’s patchy. It’s also padded out as four rooms are closed, two have no pictures and one has just one! In the member’s rooms, it was hard to get close enough to the many engravings that made up most of the British Landscapes show so it proved a bit frustrating. I liked the Turner and Sandby contributions a lot more than the Constable and Reynolds ones, but that’s the same as I feel about their paintings generally. The really pleasant surprise was the Mariko Mori exhibition in the new galleries. Her sculptures and installations feature light, stones and even water. It’s very different, all very cosmic and new age, and I loved it – a more soothing and relaxing experience than the other two.

Film

Hyde Park on Hudson was an enjoyable if slight insight into the relationship between King George VI and President Roosevelt (and Rooseveldt and his mistress) just before the Second World War. Bill Murray is very good as FDR as is Laura Linney as his mistress, but in all the publicity, the superb performances of Samuel West and Olivia Coleman as the King and Queen seem to have been ignored!

Beasts of the Southern Wild was another of my catch-ups and the third to reap big rewards. Sometimes the hand-held camera’s shakiness irritates, but the overall effect is extraordinary. This is a slice of poor America you rarely see, as shocking as much of what you see in the third world and the central performance by young Quvenzhane Wallis is simply extraordinary.

Despite a stunning performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, I’m afraid I found Lincoln pompous, overlong and rather dull. It focuses on only one aspect of the period – the vote to abolish slavery – but took forever to cover it. As always with Spielberg, he overdoes the sentimentality and loses cynical me by doing so.

Hitchcock is so much better than the critics would have you believe. It focuses just on the making of Psycho and both Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren are superb. It’s very funny and it seemed to me to be a particularly British humour, which may be why it hasn’t gone down so well in the US.

Zero Dark Thirty would be a much better film if they cut the first 90 minutes, before they establish the target, in half. The final hour as they mount the raid and assassinate Bin Laden, is terrific.

I’m puzzled again by the mediocrity of the reviews of I’ll Give it a Year, which I thought was a complete hoot. Rafe Spall and Stephen Marchant are the masters of foot-in-mouth clumsy behaviour, so this is a double whammy. A RomCom that’s as rom but a whole lot more com than the norm, populated with a fine cast of the best of British. Listen to me, not them!

Other

I’d been to Vintners Hall for a wine tasting (somewhat appropriately) but my second visit was a more thorough tour of the public areas. It’s one of the best livery halls in London and, with entertaining anecdotes from their GM, was a fascinating visit. It’s great that an ancient tradition like Swan Upping, part of this company’s heritage, continues today.

A sneaky afternoon off found us at the London Studios watching the recording of new sitcom Vicious with Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as a pair of old queens and Frances de la Tour and Iwan Rheon as their neighbours. It’s by a Will & Grace writer and it was great fun watching it being made (3 hours to make 25 minutes!). It’s on ITV in April (you’ll hear me laughing in Episode Three!). There was a lovely aside from Jacobi as he showed us the photo that was part of the set – a real one of him & McKellen at university in 1958!

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Contemporary Music

I’m not sure how to categorise the Hofesh Shechter / Anthony Gormley collaboration Survivor at the Barbican but it felt more like a staged concert than anything else, so here it is! The 30-piece string / percussion band are on three platforms high above the stage. At one stage they come down onto the stage and are supplemented by a vast ‘community’ percussion band. Six performers use the space below (and at one point the auditorium) though occasionally a screen is lowered for projections, as is the metal safety curtain which is part of the performance, as is the whole stage really. The music is largely rhythmic and there doesn’t appear to be a story. It’s all very clever and diverting but felt like they were just throwing in every idea they could think of, including a bath instead of a kitchen sink. The rest of the audience appeared to love it. I was a bit indifferent.

I’ve been following the career of Clive Rowe since I saw him in Lady Be Good at the Guildhall school many years ago. He’s one of our best musical performers and for his ‘cabaret’ at the Landor he selected an unpredictable, idiosyncratic and very personal group of songs which I really enjoyed. He gave us a potted biography between songs and a Q&A in the second half and it was like being entertained by a friend in your front room. The highlights included Putting on the Ritz and an interpretation of Sondheim’s Being Alive which brought a tear to my eye (again!).

I’m new to Laura Veirs and attending her QEH concert was a bit of an afterthought. Apart from a couple of new songs and a pair from her recent children’s album, most of the set was from her impressive back catalogue. The combination of acoustic and electric guitar with viola makes for a very pleasing sound and her lovely songs sounded even better live than they do on record. She engaged enough with the audience to convey her upbeat personality but not too much that it got in the way. A short but perfectly formed set.

Classical Music

I love choral oratorios, but as they are mostly on religious themes (and often settings of the requiem mass) they become a bit samey and one yearns for something more secular. Haydn’s The Seasons is therefore a breath of fresh air and performed by The Gabrieli Consort & Players under Paul McCreesh (who provided a new English translation) at the Barbican, it was lovely, particularly jolly old Autumn which moves from love duet to hunting songs to drinking songs. The three soloists – Christiane Karg, Allan Clayton and Christopher Purves – were all exceptional. A treat!

Art

Postmodernism: Style & Subversion is another of the V&A’s reviews of a design movement. Though not as good as some of the others, it’s still indispensable if, like me, you want to understand and absorb the history of design. It’s an eclectic collection of architecture, furniture, fashion, graphics etc and a lot to take in during one visit. Also at the V&A (if you can find it!) is a two room review of Private Eye’s first 50 years which made me smile and laugh. Made up of cartoons, comic strips and memorabilia, it brings home to you the indispensability of a satirical institution in any civilised society.

When 10 photos constitute an exhibition, you would be justified in feeling cheated – if you’d paid! This two-floor show of Jeff Wall’s work at White Cube Mason’s Yard was a big non-event for me, I’m afraid. I was just as disappointed by Annie Leibovitz ‘Pilgrimage’ at Hamiltons. Known for her extraordinary portraits, these 26 digital pigment prints of places and objects associated with famous people (like Lincoln’s hat and gloves) seemed completely pointless.

American installation artist Paul McCarthy is never dull but often hit-and-miss. This exhibition takes over two galleries and part of St James’ Square gardens. The installation that takes up the whole of Hauser & Wirth Saville Row did nothing for me – a pile of stuff that was interesting to look at, but meant nothing (to me, anyway). It was better at the Piccadilly ‘branch’ where two of the three works (there was one on each floor!) were good, particularly a revolving hydraulic cube. I never made the gardens as it was dark and they were closed.

American photographer Catherine Opie is new to me and her exhibition at the Stephen Friedman Gallery contained two very different collections. I wasn’t particularly impressed by the early B&W portraits of a punkish sub-culture but I was impressed by the seven pairs of sunset / sunrise photos taken on a container ship voyage across the Pacific Ocean; each had a different atmosphere created by the climatic conditions when they were taken.

Bloomberg New Contemporaries isn’t a regular affair for me, but this year at the ICA it was quite impressive. These students and recent graduates seem to be returning to more traditional art forms – paintings, photos and sculpture – which makes a refreshing change from endless films and installations!

I was expecting to like David Hockney at  the Royal Academy as I had enjoyed my first view of the first of his Yorkshire landscapes in a small gallery a few years back, but nothing prepared me for the overwhelming beauty of this exhibition. It’s a riot of colour and an homage to nature and one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in my entire life. Room 9 in particular was stunning – three walls of paintings showing the transition of winter to spring in the same place and a giant canvas on the fourth wall. Gorgeous.

Film

When I see a film based on a book I’ve read, I’m often disappointed when it isn’t faithful to the book and / or doesn’t match what’s in my head.  That was absolutely not the case with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo which was true to the story and just like my mind pictures. It has great pace, as it should, but doesn’t seem rushed.

The Artist isn’t the sort of film I would usually go to, but yet again the reviews and recommendations meant I succumbed. I wish I trusted my instinct more. I didn’t dislike it, but wasn’t really satisfied by it – a 30 minute TV show spun into an overlong 100 minute feature film. There was a lot to like, buy in my book it’s over-hyped.

I much admired The Iron Lady but wished they hadn’t told the story in flashback from her current dementia. I’m no Thatcherite, but it seemed somewhat disrespectful and unnecessary. Meryl Streep was simply extraordinary, but so were the actors playing her male colleagues, a veritable who’s who of British male actors of a certain age. When you see recent history recreated, you realise how much you’ve forgotten – as it was here!

The film of War Horse was a lot more sentimental than the stage show (well, it’s Spielberg after all) but I still enjoyed it very much. The story translates to the screen well and again there are a whole host of excellent performances. I was shocked at the number of under 12’s in the audience; it’s a 12A and having seen it I think that’s right. I would never allow a youngster of mine to go and see the maiming of animals and the slaughter of men – it almost traumatized me!

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Contemporary Music

The RFH concert by John Grant with Midlake as his backing band was stunning and extraordinarily beautiful. He’s a terrific songwriter and his voice is rich in tone. I was hugely impressed by the songs from his period with The Czars and I was on the web the following morning ordering a couple of their albums!

The annual 4-day Kings Place Festival is a terrific new institution, with c.100 short concerts and other events for under a fiver. Each year there are three short folk concerts on the same evening. Last year it was Chris Wood, Dave Swarbrick & Martin Carthy and Eliza Carthy. This year we went primarily to see Jim Moray, but it was Tim Edey & Bendan Power’s lovely accordion / harmonica / guitar tunes and Kris Drever & Eamonn Coyne’s guitar-based songs which delighted. Though his set was perfectly good, Moray seemed uncomfortable with the format and the hall, whereas the others seemed delighted to be there and engaged more with the audience.

Art

The Barbican’s review of animation Watch Me Move was a frustrating experience because you can only skim the surface (unless you’ve got a week or so to spare) as there are hours and hours of films to see. I admire the fact they are again using the gallery to showcase something different and the way they’ve curated it is impressive, but I’d be lying if I said I found visiting it a rewarding experience. Down in the Curve, not a lot of people will get to see Junya Ishigami’s Architecture as Air. You have to be escorted and only five people are allowed inside at any one time. When I arrived there was one visitor and five staff and I was told I’d have to wait ten minutes! I persisted (irritably!) and was rewarded by an extraordinary very long, 4 metre high, almost invisible structure made of white thread. It wasn’t until the end, when a gallery attendant dressed in black walked behind one of the vertical threads, that I could see how it was done. Clever, but art?

Time Out sent me to the V&A for a photographic exhibition ‘Photography in the wake of post-modernism’ which underwhelmed me, but while I was there I also took in the new Power of Making exhibition where design meets craft and it was a treat. Amongst the highlights was David Mach’s coat hanger gorilla, a man made of photos of himself, a dress made of needles, a sugar sculpture and a lion coffin from Ghana!

Whilst at Kings Place for the concerts above, I took a look at (most) of Sean Smith’s giant war zone colour photographs (the gallery was closed so I missed 20% of them). They are stunning, but the scenes were rather harrowing and I made a dash for the bar for a perky red. 

A visit to Beavis Marks Synagogue, centre of the Sephardic Jews in The City proved more interesting than I expected as the warden’s talk on their history was absolutely fascinating. Their 300-year old synagogue is much like a church or chapel; it was it’s history rather than the bricks and mortar that captivated.

Philida Barlow has filled all four floors of Hauser & Wirth’s former HSBC bank with immense sculptures made of bog standard concrete, metal, wood and other materials. They are completely unappealing but there’s something about the way they take over the building and you have to walk through them to navigate it that intrigued me.

I only saw one of the White Cube Jake or Dinos Chapman exhibitions. I’ve always thought they were professional shock merchants and this doesn’t change my mind. One floor is made up of c.50 small exceedingly dull painted cardboard sculptures but in the other we are in more familiar Chapman territory with c.30 uniformed ‘Nazi’ army officers looking at a smaller number of larger versions of these sculptures with birds atop some and in one case, one soldier buggering another. In a small room next door, a member of the Klu Klux Clan is looking at a defaced picture of the crucifixion with a visible erection. Yawn….

Film

I found Pedro Almadovar’s latest, The Skin I Live In, to be style over substance. The implausible story of a plastic surgeon who turns his daughter’s rapist into a woman, it just didn’t convince. For me, the obsession with how the film looked got in the way of storytelling. A disappointment.

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Opera & Classical Music

I really liked Nico Muhly & Craig Lucas’ Two Boys. It’s an original subject for opera – internet chatrooms – and it unfolds like a detective story with great pace and narrative drive. I loved the chorus with laptops representing chatroom activity, with projections adding much to the impact. The music creates an atmosphere of suspense for the story-telling and is much more accessible on first hearing than most modern operas. It’s a fine cast, with Susan Bickley shining as the detective. One of ENO’s more successful ventures into modern opera.

The Consul was the first Menotti opera I saw, years ago in Stockholm when I was there for an opera festival I didn’t know they had. A few years later, I was in the attic room of a freemasons hall in Edinburgh late at night (as one does at the fringe!) for another of his short operas and in the tiny audience was Menotti himself, now retired to a castle in Scotland. It has now been re-named The Secret Consul and presented as a site-specific opera in the derelict Limehouse Town Hall. Sadly, it only partly works. Despite the fact the audience was exactly the same size as the cast, they weren’t able to marshal us unobtrusively without confusing and / or irritating us. Apart from the first scene on the stairs, the opera takes place in different parts of the same large room, so you’re just changing direction (most seated) not promenading. The acoustic echo made it hard to understand the English libretto, though you never fully understand a libretto even when it’s in English, so it was difficult to know exactly what was going on. The leads were good, though, and the quartet – piano, cello, violin and clarinet – played the score well.

Bampton Classical Opera is an annual affair showcasing one opera in the garden of a house in Oxfordshire. It punches way above it’s weight, with very good production values and excellent young professional singers. They’ve been invited to Buxton Opera festival this year and will also perform the opera in concert in London at St John’s Smith Square. This year’s offering is a late 18th century light comedy, The Italian Girl in London, by Cimarosa, directed by Jeremy Gray. Cimarosa is best known for The Secret Marriage (he apparently wrote 70 operas, but that’s the only one now produced regularly). It’s the usual fare of this period, a romantic comedy with an implausible plot and a happy ending, with the addition on this occasion of a preposterous yarn about becoming invisible by holding a ‘bloodstone’, but well suited to the venue and occasion. Nigel Hook has managed to create a delightful small London hotel with bar and, most importantly, a food hatch, and the musical standards are very high. There is a small chamber orchestra conducted by Thomas Blunt and five well-matched soloists. Kim Sheehan is lovely in the title role and Nicholas Merryweather gives a fine comic performance as the Italian who loves her and is looking for her but can’t recognise her in disguise as a French maid! I also liked Caryl Hughes hotel proprietor who courts English Lord (Robert Winslade). I’m not sure why we need Dutchman Sumers, but Adam Tunnicliffe sings the role well. They were all almost upstaged by the non-singing policeman, an auspicious debut from local man Martin Havelock; one to watch!

Iestyn Davies’ lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall was an inspired and eclectic programme from 12 composers spanning 400 years. I’m not a huge fan of the counter-tenor voice, but his is very beautiful and this concert showed his range. There were three thematic groups – nature, night and spirit – to hang this diverse collection together. A lovely hour, encoring with Purcell’s Music For A While, which was probably the best of them all.

Dance

Sylvie Guillem’s show at Sadler’s Wells was an extraordinary display of skill; she does things with the human body you don’t think are possible – and she’s 46! There was a duet with Nicolas Le Riche choreographed by William Forsyth, a solo piece choreographed by Mats Ek and a duet from Aurelie Cayla & Kenta Kojiri choreographed by Jiri Kylian. I can’t say that any of the dances meant anything to me, but the artistry had me spellbound.

Hofesh Shechter’s Political Mother at Sadler’s Wells was more like a rock concert than contemporary dance. There’s a 20-piece band on three levels like a wall at the back of the stage and the lighting is extraordinary. The dance seems more like unchoreographed people at a rave (not that I’ve ever been to one!). I’m not sure I got the war references but it was a brilliant spectacle.

Film

Bridesmaids is another of the new breed of quirky American comedies which are often laugh-out-loud funny with a fair dose of satire and good bad taste. Being American, it had its ration of sentimentality, but it was funny enough to get away with it and it’s send-up of wedding obsession was delicious.

Horrible Bosses was another and I liked it. It won’t win any prizes and I probably won’t remember it in my dotage, but it was a good laugh, helped by an outstanding cast, with Kevin Spacey giving us another fine turn.

Beginners was a bit of a slow burn, but I eventually succumbed to its thoughtfulness and quirky structure & style. Ewan McGregor’s relationship with his father Christopher Plummer was very authentic (as it was with his girlfriend and dog!). I don’t know whether it is based on a true story, but it really felt like a true story. A complete contrast to Horrible Bosses.

Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows II was a whole lot better than Part I and quite possible the best of the series. Apart from the three main leads, yet again it’s a Who’s Who of great British actors. This one was brilliantly paced (though I was less convinced by the IMAX 3D) and I left the cinema rather sad that there would be no more. I think I shall have to work my way through the DVD’s now.

Art

Every year I say I’m impressed by the standard at the BP Portrait Award and this year is no exception. Lest you think it’s a dying art form, this years prize-winners are more than thirty years apart in age. There’s a very diverse range of styles and subjects and there was hardly a dud in this years selection.

I turned up at Whitechapel Gallery for an exhibition that had yet to open(!), so I had to make do with a small selection from the government’s art collection, some local photos from the 70’s and a re-visit to Fred Sandbach’s extraordinary string installations. The government has a huge collection of British art which moves from office to office and embassy to embassy seemingly based on the taste of the occupants. This small collection was selected by Nick Clegg, Peter Mandelson, Samantha Cameron and a few others. The most fascinating thing about it was seeing the history of one Lowry painting – everywhere it had been since it was purchased for £120, including photos of it in situ.

Whilst in Manchester for their International Festival, I went to the Art Gallery and caught a little exhibition of some terrific Grayson Perry pots with museum objects selected to sit alongside them plus a small selection of pre-Raphaelites as a preview of a bigger exhibition this autumn; but the artistic highlight was a side trip to Liverpool at see the Magritte exhibition at Tate Liverpool which is a really comprehensive collection of his work. In some ways, in terms of the impact the pictures have, more is less but it was fascinating to see such a range of work. The sculpture exhibition also on at the Tate was so-so, but a hell of a lot better than the Royal Academy one a few months back.

If Time Out hadn’t told me to go to Hauser & Wirth at 196 Piccadilly to see an art installation, and I had just popped in from the street, I really would be thinking that I was in the Piccadilly Community Centre, a space on four floors with canteen, computer room, bar, meeting rooms, charity shop, prayer room…… This was a surreal and extraordinary experience created in impeccable detail by Swiss artist Christoph Buchel! I’m still not sure if it was or it wasn’t…..

The NPG has yet another photo exhibition; this time B&W portrait photos of Hollywood stars from 1920 to 1960 called Glamour of the Gods. Some are iconic and some are quirky, but they are very compelling.

The Courtauld Gallery’s last in-depth exhibition was of one picture by Cezanne and it was a surprise treat, so I went back for a second one; this time a look at the relationship between artist Toulouse-Lautrec and dancer Jane Avril. They’ve brought together pictures and other items from 15 museums, archives & private collections in France, the US and the UK and it was another insightful treat.

The Vorticists at Tate Britain was one of those exhibitions that introduces you to a little known (well, to me anyway) art movement which seems to have had a profound influence on subsequent art and design. I’d seen the portraits of Wyndham Lewis before, but here was other work by him and his contemporaries that was new to me. It ‘s influence clearly lasted much longer than it’s 8-year life as a movement. Fascinating. Whilst there, I took the opportunity to see Mike Nelson’s Coral Reef installation – a maze of rooms with creaky doors to up the spook effect that you get lost in. I’m not entirely clear what it all means, but its huge fun!

Other

Also in Liverpool, I was privileged to get to both Lennon and McCartney’s childhood homes, now National Trust properties. I’d been to McCartney’s before but it was great to visit John’s and indeed both together, even though abandoning the audio tour at McCartney’s is in my view a mistake. You really get a sense of these young lives and to see a photo of them actually writing I Saw Her Standing There on the wall just above where they did still sent shivers up my spine. Being in John’s house is rather moving, though the signs of Ono’s control-freakery are evident. There’s a certain irony to the fact that ‘working class hero’ Lennon lived in middle class comfort whilst much maligned McCartney was squashed into a tiny council house with his mum, dad and brother. For someone for whom the Beatles are a major part of the soundtrack of my life, this was thrilling and the fact that the bus driver’s soundtrack got to Penny Lane just as we drove past it’s street sign was spooky!

A Royal Academy Friends visit to Ironmonger’s Hall (with lunch in the hall) was preceded by a short walking tour that included Paternoster Square, St Paul’s Churchyard, the rooftop views at One New Change and Postman’s Park (where unsung heroes are commemorated by ceramic plaques) and it was a treat. I do love these livery companies and even though I’ve walked this way many times before, with a City blue badge guide you always learn something new.

I visited the shell of the new Jacobean theatre at Shakespeare’s Globe’s and it inspired me as much as the Globe itself did when I first went there. It’s going to be a great indoor space for a completely different complimentary winter season. Donate now – they need £7m!

Down in Somerset visiting friends, my attempt to wrench some value from my National Trust membership took me to four properties in the south of the county – the lovely gardens at the intriguingly named Tintinhall, the even lovelier house and gardens at Lytes Cary, the rather more grand Montecute and Barrington Court for a nice lunch made from local (and mostly estate) produce. This is the first year I feel I’ve had my money’s worth!

What a busy month!

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Contemporary Music

The Decemberists’ concert at Hammersmith Apollo built on their last at the Coronet and buried the memory of their first RFH disaster; this was mostly due to excellent song selection and ordering. They now have a fine body of material and they’ve learnt how to deliver it live and still have fun without compromising quality. I will forgive them the self-indulgent whale song encore because of the 90 minutes before and the gorgeous final encore.

Within minutes of arriving at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, I was regretting it. The traffic was awful and I’d missed most of the intriguing support act, the chatter from people at the back was cacophonous and the sound painfully heavy on base. Then, during his second number, they all shut up, the sound improved and John Grant’s weaved the same magic he did when I first heard his album The Queen of Denmark. He writes very personal songs, sings them with a rich baritone voice and plays piano competently. There’s a second keyboard most of the time and a string quartet some of the time, but no guitars or drums. It’s a rather refreshing sound and live his personality makes for a refreshingly intimate experience. I’d have preferred a venue like the Barbican or Royal Festival Hall, but it was a delight all the same.

Opera

A bumper month!

The latest Guildhall School opera offering is Poulenc’s lovely Dialogues des Carmelites, possibly the most tuneful opera written in the late 20th century! I’ve long been fond of this opera about the martyrdom of nuns during the French revolution and musically the GSMD did it proud. There were some excellent young voices – including a gorgeous Blanche from Anna Patalong, fine turns as the Marquis and his son from Koji Terada and Charlie Mellor and a beautiful Mere Marie from Sylvie Bedouelle. It was great to have a GSMD opera that showed off the fine chorus too. I’m afraid I didn’t like David Farley’s design, where everything was framed by a hole through broken glass, a reference to the opening image of a carriage being attacked by revolutionaries. It was particularly irritating when it framed an opening or closing scene image that about a third of the audience could see.

Back in Cardiff for the WNO late winter pairing of Il Travatore and Die Fledermaus. The former has so much wonderful music that you have to forgive its convoluted and somewhat preposterous plot, and in this production some static staging from Peter Watson and a dark and rather depressing (if clever) series of settings from Tim Hatley. There are so many long scene changes and when the curtain goes up after each of them, you just groan because its just a different configuration of the same giant walls! Welsh boys David Kempster and Gwyn Hughes Jones were both excellent as the Duke and Manrico respectively. Veronica Simeoni sang Azucena brilliantly but couldn’t act for toffee. Katie Pellegrino was technically good as Leonora but it wasn’t always an entirely pleasing sound. The chorus was of course terrific. A bit dull to look at, but a treat to listen to.

Despite the fact I’m not really an operetta man, and certainly not a fan of the somewhat twee Johann Strauss, I rather enjoyed Die Fledermaus, which says much about both the production and the performances. Again, superbly well cast, with some fine singing and acing from Mark Stone, Paul Charles Clarke, Joanne Boag and Nuccia Focile and a delightful cameos as prisoner governor from Alan Opie and actor Desmond Barritt in the non-singing role of the prison warden. It probably benefitted from the affection the ‘old school’ production team have for it – director John Copley, designer Tim Reed and Deirdre Clancy made it fizz with considerable charm and much humour (even though you had heard all the jokes before!).

Rodelinda is this year’s staged offering from the London Handel Festival. It’s one of Handel’s best and musically it shines, with lovely singing from Kitty Whately, Christopher Lowrey, Anthony Gregory and Edward Grint. Susanna Hurrell in the title role was occasionally too loud and harsh and Jake Arditti’s voice was a bit small for Unulfo, but an excellent young ensemble just the same. The orchestral playing, under Laurence Cummings, was outstanding. The modern military setting occasionally jarred, with a particularly tacky ending where royal prince Flavio holds up a flag and gun.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies & David Pountney’s new opera Kommilitonen! is both a coup and a triumph for the Royal Academy of Music. Max had given up on opera because he was fed up of writing operas based in places like lighthouses to find them staged in a toilet (the best put down of director-led opera ever!). Fortunately, he relented and wrote this highly original opera linking student protests in the US deep south, Mao’s China and Nazi Germany appropriately staged by students in a college. It’s dramatically and musically thrilling and the student talent on show is extraordinary.

Peter Brook’s edited minimalist A Magic Flute was a bit of a damp squib. Even though it ran for around half the normal time, it seemed a very long 95 minutes. There were some nice humourous touches, some clever staging and some nice voices, but overall it underwhelmed. In short, no magic!

Film

Submarine is a charming film, and a hugely impressive debut from actor-come-director Richard Ayoade. There were some gorgeous performances and the picture of school life in Wales oozed authenticity. I loved it.

Route Irish is a lot to stomach; it’s a very well made Ken Loach film but it’s very depressing. I don’t know how true this tale of private security firms in war zones is, but if it’s only a fraction true, it’s shameful. I admired it, but I can’t say I enjoyed it – and it made me angry; but I suppose it was meant to, so ‘job done’.

Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a peek into French caves first discovered just 15 years ago. The 32,000 year-old cave paintings are extraordinary, shown off perfectly in 3D, but there’s a lot of padding and much of the narration is pompous. Now it’s tourism in 3D at your local cinema; whatever next!

The best was left to last this month, with the wonderfully uplifting and deeply moving Benda Bilili!, a film about a bunch of disabled homeless musicians in Congo. The film allowed the musicians own words and their music to speak for themselves – no narration – which is one of its great strengths. Though completely different, it had the same impact as Buena Vista Social Club. Now, to find the CD….

Art

A bumper Art month too; which tells you how much work I did in March!

Cory Arcangel’s installation at the Barbican projects 14 bowling video games created over 24 years. It’s a fascinating examination of how technology evolves, but it isn’t art!

Eve Arnold’s photos at Chris Beetles’ lovely new gallery were terrific. There are a large number taken during filming of The Misfits and I’d have loved to have bought one of Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, but £12,500-£17.500 they were way beyond my price range!

I went to the wrong branch of Hauser & Wirth where there was a video installation of Chernobyl by Diana Thater, which did little for me – worthy though it was. When I got to the right branch, Martin Creed’s paintings also did little for me – until I came across his giant revolving neon ‘Mothers’, which I loved.

The NPG has a terrific exhibition by an early 20th century photographer called Emil Otto Hoppe. His B&W prints of famous political and artistic figures of the time have so much depth; you seem to be peering into their souls. They are shown with some wonderful London street scenes from the same period, with a documentary style that seems to me to be way ahead of their time.

I was a bit sceptical about Watercolour at Tate Britain; I thought it might be one of those ‘excuses for an exhibition’ in order to make money in this new museum / gallery free entry world. It turns out to be an excellent review of c.500 years of the art form with an exploration of the techniques and a diverse range of pictures, including some simply stunning ones. In truth, it does fizzle out in the last quarter (modern stuff, including the usual suspects like the talentless Tracey Emin), but that doesn’t deter from the astonishing highs. In the same gallery, Susan Hiller’s exhibition is fascinating & intriguing, showing off her inventiveness & technical skills – but as art it left me completely cold; admiration but not pleasure.

I keep going to contemporary art exhibitions and come out disappointed and British Art Show 7 at the Hayward is no exception. There were some nice pictures from Alasdair Gray and a clever 24-hour film collage of time references synchronised with the actual time from Christian Marclay (I only sat in for the 5.30pm section!), but it was Roger Hiorns again who was the most creative. When I walked into a film booth (I really do have a problem with film in galleries and tend to stay in each for only a short while) it was just a metal park / station bench. When I came out there was a real naked man sitting on the back of the bench looking at a real fire burning on the seat next to him. Terrific.

Back at the NPG, they’re showing another fascinating photographer I’ve never heard of! This time it’s the 50’s / 60’s B&W portraits of artists, writers and musicians by Ida Kar. They are both fascinating subjects and fascinating pictures.

At the Museum of London, they have a lovely exhibition of London Street Photos spanning 150 years to the present day. They perfectly capture the personality of my adopted city over the years and contain many by even more photographers new to me! By contrast, the Barbican Centre Gallery nearby is showcasing the work of the 70’s New York avant-garde and in particular polymaths Trisha Brown, Laurie Anderson and Gordon Matta-Clark, the latter the only one new to me. Though much of the background work like preparatory drawings left me cold, I was quite taken with Anderson’s interactive pieces (a pillow that plays to you as you rest your head and a desk from which the sound travels through your arms to your ears as you place your elbows on it and cover your ears!) and the two Brown performances I caught – five dancers walking the walls and two weaving in and out of clothes on top of a rope and steel climbing frame. The Barbican is challenging the Hayward in off-the-wall things like this; they sometimes (often?) fail, but you have to admire their nerve in putting on such niche stuff.

I knew nothing about Gabriel Orozco before I went to his exhibition at Tate Modern. It was a very diverse selection of pictures, ‘sculptures’, installations and project descriptions, some of which were interesting and some of which were just dull. The biggest room was almost entirely filled with photographs that he took of a yellow motorcycle he bought and rode in search of identical ones, taking a photo of each pairing as he did. Why? Hardly worthy of a major retrospective, in my view.

I’m not overly fond of Dulwich Picture Gallery’s permanent collection, but they are indispensible when it comes to special exhibitions, particularly by illustrators. Norman Rockwell may be sentimental, twee and sweet Americana, but he’s technically accomplished as this exhibition of c.30 original paintings, c.10 studies, 4 posters and c.300 Saturday Picture Post front covers shows; he’s particularly good at faces and children. It was particularly fascinating to see how the SPP covers evolved over almost 50 years.

Back at Chris Beetles’ new photo gallery they’d swapped the Eve Arnold I started the month with for a terrific set of B&W pictures of actors, models and musicians by Terry O’Neill. I would have so liked to buy a copy of Macca playing piano at Ringo’s 1981 wedding, a picture that comes alive as you look at it, but didn’t have £2000 on me!

I’d avoided the Royal Academy’s Modern British Sculpture exhibition because the reviews were so bad but as I was passing with time to kill and as it’s free for Friends, I gave it a quick look and it was nowhere near as bad as I was led to expect. It was worth a visit for an amazing Adam by Jacob Epstein alone, but there were others to admire, though they did make up less that half of the exhibition. How you can mount a survey of modern British sculpture without three recent titans – Anthony Gormley, Richard Wilson & Anish Kapoor – is however beyond me. We got a less important example from Damien Hirst but were fortunate to be spared a Tracey Emin. Upstairs, it was hard to get excited about Watteau’s drawings, accomplished though they are. There are an awful lot of studies of heads and hands and few finished works.

Phew, did I really do all that on top of 20 plays, musicals and ballets?!

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