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Posts Tagged ‘Hayward Gallery’

Contemporary Music

I couldn’t do either of the Richard Thompson London dates, something which became even more frustrating after I’d bought his great new album. Almost by accident, just a couple of weeks in advance, I discovered he was playing St. Albans on my birthday, they had a few tickets left, it was only 20 mins from St. Pancras and nearby friends fancied it. How serendipitous is that? It had to be great, and it was. His new trio makes a superb sound, the song selection was excellent and the guitar playing beyond genius. As he was about to start the third encore, he joked that they fancied themselves as a power trio but were 50 years late, then broke into a stunning version of Cream’s White Room; it was a bit high for his voice and he stumbled on the words, but the playing was magnificent. Combined with some Roman history (theatre, mosaic and museum), the gorgeous cathedral and lovely Lebanese food, it was a proper birthday treat.

I couldn’t make the original one week run of Maria Friedman‘s Sondheim / Bernstein show at The Pheasantry, so I was delighted when she added a couple of nights, one of which I could do. A brilliant selection of songs, superb arrangements and accompaniment from Jason Carr and a quiet, respectful audience made for a sensational evening that was often moving, often funny and always captivating. Her personality really shines and no-one else can interpret a song like she does. Unmissable, and I didn’t!

Opera

I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed an opera as much as Medea at ENO. It’s not particularly great music (not a patch on Handel) but David McVicar’s production, Bunny Christie’s design, Lynne Page’s choreography, conductor Christian Curnyn’s musical direction and above all a set of fine performances made it a real treat, particularly Sarah Connolly’s superb Medea and Roderick Williams’ brilliant Orontes. The story is in some ways different to the play (which I’ve seen a lot!) but it still makes a great tragedy. A treat!

Imeneo is an unusual Handel opera as it isn’t based on some epic historical tale; it’s a simple story of whether Imeneo gets the girl he wants as a reward for freeing her and her friend from pirates  – should duty be above love. There’s just about enough story for a 2-hour opera and it suits this modern setting at a spa hotel by the sea, where fun can be had with treatments and smartphones. There’s some gorgeous music and the cast of five and small chorus of six are excellent, with Laurence Cummings & the London Handel Orchestra making a terrific sound in the pit. Hannah Sandison & Katherine Crompton were outstanding and counter-tenor Tai Oney showcased a fine distinctive voice. Lovely.

Classical Music

My second Britten centenary event was the (Royal) Academy (of Music) Song Circle at Wigmore Hall with a recital of 20 songs in five languages. Many of these are challenging pieces for any singer, let alone young singers, but Sonia Grane, Angharad Lyddon, Simon Furness and Gareth John were all superb, as were accompanists Manon Ablett and Finnigan Downie Dear. Yet again, I am in awe of the musical talent we have here in London. Two down, c.18 to go!

During a visit to Budapest, I went to the lovely State Opera House for a concert performance of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion – on Easter Saturday! – and lovely it was too. There was a raised pit for the orchestra, the soloists were on stage behind them, and the chorus were behind a gauze screen on which they projected words and images. It benefited from being sung through without an interval, though this was challenging for the more fidgety audience members.

LSO‘s pairing of the hardly known Stabat Mater by the almost unknown Szymanowski with the ever so well-known Brahms Requiem was inspired. The former turns out to be somewhat Goreckian (though it pre-dates his 3rd Symphony by c.50 years!) and I rather liked hearing it for the first time. Somehow, the Brahms lacked sparkle – certainly not due to the soloists (Sally Matthews and Christopher Maltman) and not really to the playing of the LSO or the singing of the LSC, but lacked sparkle it did. A bit of a puzzle.

Dance

BalletBoyz: The Talent 2013 shows extraordinary growth since their first work four or so years ago. This group of 10 male dancers are unique and the new pieces from Liam Scarlett and Russell Maliphant, though quite different,  both suited them perfectly. Scarlett’s Serpent flowed organically in a hypnotic way whilst Maliphant’s Fallen was edgier and animalistic; I loved them both.

I got the last ticket for Arthur Pita’s dance-theatre piece The Metamorphosis on the day of the performance and it will no doubt be in my highlights of the year when things booked six months before will be forgotten! It’s the first time I’ve seen The Linbury Studio Theatre at Covent Garden in traverse, which meant a better view from my standing position.  Kafka’s tale of a man who turns into an insect is puzzling but mesmerizing and Edward Watson is extraordinary, moving in ways I didn’t think were possible for 80 minutes (8 times in 8 days!). Never has a spontaneous standing ovation been so richly deserved.

Over in Budapest, I saw a lovely production of John Cranko’s ballet of Onegin The music is a mash-up of Tchaikovsky pieces, the design was gorgeous and the dancing beautiful. It was hard to follow the story as they’d run out of programmes (which contained the synopsis in English), so I just let it wash over me – aurally and visually – without really caring what it was all about!

 Art

 An afternoon of two contrasting exhibitions started at the gorgeous (but not very suitable) Two Temple Place for a show called Amongst Heros : the artist in working Cornwall. It’s mostly 19th / 20th century pictures of fishing and fishermen with seascapes and mining scenes and portraits of locals. The highlights were by Charles Napier Hemy (who has popped up all over the place since I first saw his work in Penzance) and Stanhope Forbes, someone new to me whose pictures are wonderful and who will hopefully now also pop up all over the place. At Tate Modern, the Roy Liechtenstein retrospective proves he’s not a one-trick pony in terms of subjects, but is in terms of technique and style. The cartoons are well-known but the landscapes, abstracts etc less so and I enjoyed seeing them, but by the 14th room you’re more than sated.

I thoroughly enjoyed Light Show at the Hayward Gallery – 25 installations that play with light in some way. In addition to the usual suspects like Turrell and Flavin, there were lots of new names (to me). The booking system meant that the numbers were well controlled; great to see a gallery not being too greedy at the expense of visitor enjoyment.

The Bride & The Bachelors at the Barbican Art Gallery brings together the work of ‘artists’ Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg & Jasper Johns with the music of John Cage and the dance of Merce Cunningham. For me, it’s well curated bollocks, particularly the work of Duchamp, the key influence on the others. Some of Johns’ work is good as is some of Cage’s, but the rest seems pointless to me.

I have to confess I’d never heard of artist Kurt Schwitters. Some of his Tate Britain exhibition was familiar, though, but I think this may be indicative of his influence rather than previous sightings. His collages date back to the 30’s and seem ahead of their time, but there were an awful lot of them and it got a bit monotonous. I rather liked Simon Starling‘s Duveen Gallery commission – a film of previous commissions (apparently re-staged) made by what looked like a flying camera, and the screen the only object in a giant atmospherically lit space.

George Bellows at the RA is a great exhibition of an artist I’ve never heard of. His late 19th / early 20th century paintings and drawings vary from boxing to cityscapes to landscapes to portraits to seascapes and they are wonderful. How is it possible someone this good can pass you by?

Back at the NPG, there’s a surprisingly good exhibition of George Catlin‘s paintings of native Americans first shown in London in 1840. The blurb accompanying a picture of the Mandan tribe suggested they intermarried with descendants of a 12th century Welsh prince called Madoc; that came as a bit of a shock!

At Somerset House, there’s an eclectic exhibition of photos called Landmark which ranges from landscapes to satellite shots to arty images, but all with the theme of planet Earth and an underlying environmental message. It was very good, but I wish they’d said where each picture was taken as I kept puzzling over locations!

Film

I thoroughly enjoyed Arbitrage, a multi-layered piece about a wealthy New York financier who embarks on both a business and personal cover up. It’s a gripping thriller which takes unexpected turns and Richard Gere is outstanding in the lead role.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to see Side Effects, but I was so glad I did. It lulls you into thinking you know what it’s about then turns a corner and takes you somewhere else. It really did keep you guessing until the end and enthralled throughout.

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Contemporary Music

Joe Jackson is someone who is forever reinventing himself and his latest project is a tribute to Duke Ellington. Given he was with ‘the bigger band’, a six piece, I was expecting his Cadogan Hall concert to be the album plus some other jazz in the same vein, but he mixed in rearrangements of his back-catalogue and it was terrific. The Latin jazz material from Night & Day fared best and the final three songs – Is She Really Going Out With Him rearranged for accordion, tuba and banjo, the timeless Sunday Papers and A Slow Song (with added tears) provided a perfect ending. A treat.

I’m afraid Rufus Wainwright’s concert proved a bit of a disappointment, as was his latest album, and to some extent for the same reason. In seeking a more commercial sound, Mark Ronson’s CD production and the somewhat one-tone live sound design are both in danger of propelling him towards blandness. You can’t take anything away from the fact he writes great songs and has an extraordinary voice, but neither of these were shown off at their best here. The band, featuring solo favourites of mine Teddy Tompson and Krystle Warren, was excellent. Both Teddy (Richard & Linda’s son) and Leonard Cohen’s son Adam provided good opening sets, though the latter wasted 10 of his 35 minutes on anecdotes and arsing around. Talking of arsing around, I sighed as it became clear we were going to get another of Rufus’ pantos as an encore (we haven’t had one of those for some time) – and the most OTT one too, presided over by cupid in loincloth and wings. Rufus entered the auditorium dressed as Apollo, walked through the audience, took people on stage and massacred a couple of songs. Though I did go with the flow and laugh along eventually (when it became so surreal there was room for nothing else) I couldn’t help thinking we could have got 5 or 6 songs in the 20 minutes it took to do all this. Looking at Teddy Thompson and Krystle Warren’s expressions made me think I was not alone!

Opera

The Guildhall School of Music & Drama excelled itself again with a fascinating and hugely entertaining triple bill. La Navarraise is a tragedy by Massenet set in the Basque country, which lent itself perfectly to an updating. The singing from the second cast was superb, in particular Roisin Walsh as Anita, Adam Smith as Araquil, Ben McAteer as his dad and James Platt as Garrido, and the choruses were outstanding. Le Portrait de Manon by the same composer was a gentle romance where Des Grieux (from his opera Manon) has to tackle the young love of his ward; I saw Manon in April and there was something satisfying about seeing Des Grieux turn up in another opera! The final piece, Comedy on the Bridge by Martinu, was more challenging musically but very clever and very funny. The characters find themselves in a no-man’s-land on a bridge between borders, as they give up their passes to one border guard and have nothing to give the other. For opera, very original, and a delightful 40 minutes. 

Four years ago, commemorating 50 years since the death of Vaughan Williams, the late great Richard Hickox & The Philharmonia gave a stunning semi-staged performance of The Pilgrim’s Progress whilst Covent Garden ignored the anniversary and ENO’s contribution was a minor work. Well, ENO now give it it’s first full staging since the 1951 premiere and it proves to be something for which staging doesn’t really add much! It’s beautifully played by the ENO Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins and Roland Wood is an excellent Pilgrim / Bunyan, but the staging and design added little I’m afraid.

Art

I enjoyed the British Museum’s Shakespeare: Staging the World, though I did think the connection of some of the material and items was a bit nebulous. There was however much to fascinate and enjoy and it was an excellent choice of subject for the London 2012 Festival.

The Michael Werner Gallery is actually two rooms on the first floor of a posh building in Hedge Fund City (Mayfair) but it was the location for 10 new paintings by Peter Doig so a visit was mandatory. They are excellent works, but 10 paintings doesn’t really constitute an exhibition in my book!

I don’t really do queuing, but the 60 minutes wait for Random International’s Rain Room at the Barbican Centre was well worth it. You walk through a tropical downpour, but as you do the rain stops wherever you are. It’s brilliantly lit, so you get changing visual images and shadows as you move through the installation. Huge fun!

Art of Change at the Hayward Gallery showcased nine Chinese installation artists and contained some very original work. I was convinced one piece was a sculpture a la Ron Muek, then they closed the space to change performer and I was gob-smacked; how he maintained the position is beyond me.

I did a fascinating backstage tour of Shakespeare’s Globe – from heaven (the attic) to hell (understage) and followed it by viewing the photographic record of the Globe to Globe season at the entrance to its exhibition space. It brought back many fond memories of a unique experience and of course I had to buy the book!

At the Southbank Centre, the annual exhibition of art by offenders didn’t seem as good as last year, but they’ve extended the range of work on show and started selling some. It remains an annual must-see anyway.

The Photographers Gallery has a fascinating little exhibition called Shoot! Existential Photography which is about something I’d never heard of – shooting galleries where you aim for a target whilst a photo is taken of you. It’s extraordinary how similar people’s expressions and poses are and there’s one series of a Dutch woman who had one taken almost every year from 1936 to 2008, so you see her age in minutes.

The pairing of photographers William Klein & Daido Moriyama at Tate Modern is inspired. They’re very different photographers yet somehow the contrast adds value. Klein is in-your-face, dramatic and challenging while Moriyama is more subtle and mysterious. I loved them both, but Klein most of all. By contrast, A Bigger Splash at the same venue is for me a bigger disappointment. It seeks to explore the connection between painting and performance. The first half was mostly film and photos of people throwing paint over themselves and the second half a bunch one-room installations, most of which left me cold. Yawn.

The NPG is a lovely place to pop into when you have a spare few minutes and this time it was a lot of minutes, two exhibitions and a handful of displays. The Portrait Photo Award Exhibition is terrific this year and includes a handful of the known (unflattering Victoria Pendleton but flattering Mo Farrah) amongst the unknown. The Lost Prince commemorates the 400th anniversary of the death of the prince who would have been Henry IX had he lived (and given that Charles I got the job, may have changed British history). Though it was interesting, had I not been a member and paid the £13 admission, I’d have felt somewhat cheated – another one of those excuses for a paying exhibition?

Bronze is one of the best exhibitions the Royal Academy has ever mounted. With pieces spanning 3500 years and organised thematically rather than chronologically, it was simply captivating. Somewhat surprisingly, the oldest were north European finds and the greatest revelation was the wealth of extraordinary pieces from West Africa. Unmissable.

Film

Skyfall was the first film I’ve seen in the cinema for over six months so that could be part of the reason why I enjoyed it so much. There are fewer locations and maybe less action, but focusing on London and bringing the character of M to the fore was no bad thing. Ben Wishaw is a great new Q and there were some excellent cameos, notably from Albert Finney as an old Scottish retainer. I did think Javier Bardem’s baddie was a bit too much of a caricature though.

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Contemporary Music

Elvis Costello brought his Spectacular Spinning Songbook tour to the Royal Albert Hall. This is the development of an idea he first used in a residency at the then Royalty Theatre (now Peacock Theatre) ages ago. Audience members come up and spin the wheel which determines the next song, though he does add in other songs, and remain on stage for a drink, or a cage dance(!). The sound took a short while to adjust to this huge space, but when it got going it was a great set of mostly oldies but goodies. His brother’s Irish folk band (new one on me) joined him for a moving tribute to his recently deceased dad. Other guests later included Brinsley Schwartz guitarist Martin Belmont and Squeeze’s Chris Difford, but the real surprise was the arrival of Russell Crowe for a song by the other Elvis and another by Johnny Cash. With a veritable army onstage for the final encore, and Steve Naïve on the RAH organ, (What’s so funny ‘bout) peace love and understanding was a fitting end to a great night.

Opera

South African company Isango, who opened the Globe to Globe festival, moved on to Hackney Empire where their residency included an extraordinary La Boheme. It worked well in a 70’s township, but it was the quality of singing and acting which took your breath away. The ‘orchestra’ was composed of wooden marimbas and steel drums. The overture was partly sung (hummed) which in itself was so moving it brought a tear to my eye. This was as good as their Carmen and Magic Flute and amongst the most emotional productions of this favourite opera I’ve ever seen. I had to see it, even though I’ve had a WNO La Boheme next Sunday booked for over a year!

Our Town (based on Thornton Wilder’s play) was a real coup for the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. They dramatically re-configured the Silk Street Theatre ‘in the round’ with the orchestra in a pit in front of one of three sets of seating. Twelve members of the chorus occupied two rows on the fourth side and it was played out on a central platform and elsewhere. I’m not sure I like the story that much, but the music is lovely and it was acted and sung to perfection. Stuart Laing was excellent in the part of the Stage Manager (a sort of narrator) and despite an infection, Sky Ingram again impressed as Emily. It was particularly good to see the GSMD putting on a 21st Century opera.

Classical music

The LSO Stravinsky mini-season got off to a wonderful start with three brilliant pieces. His mass for voices and wind is a great spin on the usual; his violin concerto in D major, played brilliantly by Leonidas Kavakos, a thrilling revelation and the full Firebird ballet set the Barbican alight. When the LSO & Gergiev are on form, they’re unbeatable and here they were absolutely on form. The second concert was a more low-key affair, with Renard, a piece for four male soloists and small orchestra and a narrated version of The Soldiers Tale. They were fascinating pieces, though not thrilling. The thrills returned at the third concert with a brilliant interpretation of the opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex. The chorus were on fine form, though I wish the singers hadn’t been buried at the back. Simon Callow again narrated and the Russian soloists were all good. The Rite of Spring, which preceded it, is a less accessible work than The Firebird and though I enjoyed it, again it didn’t thrill. The final concert was a real treat; a selection of seven jazz influenced chamber works. I really liked the ‘running commentary’ from conductor Timothy Redmond – very insightful and fascinating. The Octet for Wind Instruments was the highlight for me, though I enjoyed it all. I love ‘immersing’ myself in a single composer and this mini-festival provided an excellent opportunity to do so with a much underrated 20th Century one.

Dance

Ballet Revolucion was Cuban ballet dancers having a go at contemporary dance, but it was a bit of a hit-and-miss affair. The first half was rather samey and didn’t really inspire, but the second half had more great moments. More light and shade and more variety of musical style and accompanying choreography would show off this young talented company so much better.

Art

I was glad I caught David Shrigley’s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery on its last day as it made me smile the whole while I was there. He’s rather eclectic (animation, sculpture, drawings, paintings…..) and very quirky and funny.

The Yayoi Kusama retrospective at Tate Modern showed an artist who never seemed to sit still; the variety of her work was extraordinary and she’s continued working in the 35 years she has lived in a hospital. I didn’t like all of it, but it was fascinating and worth going for the final room alone – an infinity mirror space with changing coloured lights. I want one!

Back at Tate Modern for the Alighiero Boetti exhibition; another artist I’ve never heard of and another eclectic retrospective. There were rooms that captivated amongst others very dull, but overall an interesting review of one artist’s work rather than an aesthetically pleasing whole.

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Contemporary Music

On the eve of my birthday with a 0, I went to see a role model who is 2 years and 15 days older, growing old gracefully and still seriously cool – Nick Lowe. A nice small venue, very attentive audience and great sound contributed to what was a brilliant experience all round. His keyboard player, Geraint Watkins, who hails from my village Abertridwr and went to school with my brother, also played support. An uplifting evening.

Opera

Miss Fortune is the fourth Judith Weir opera I’ve seen, but sad to say nowhere near as good as the other three. It’s a slight tale of a girl who becomes destitute after a financial crash and seeks to make a living from sweatshop to kebab van to laundry, stalked by Fate and his posse of break dancers. For a small show it gets a BIG production which it just doesn’t deserve. There’s a lot of talent on stage and a lot of talent behind the scenes, but it left me largely indifferent – with the exception of seeing an excellent break-dance group on the Covent Garden stage (and all credit to the ROH audience; they got the biggest cheers!).

Classical Music

The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Shakespeare themed concert at the Barbican was an unusual affair as the audience was almost entirely there for the second half – the UK premiere of the orchestral versions of Rufus Wainwright’s five settings of Shakespeare sonnets, sung by him and spoken by actress Sian Phillips. The first half was a very accessible combination of Korngold’s Much Ado suite and Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet suite (plus a John Adams opener), the Prokofiev a favourite of mine. The sonnets were lush, lovely and moving – beautifully spoken, sung and played – but I enjoyed the evening as a whole because the theme of inspiration by the bard really came through.

It’s a long time since I saw Elijah; an oratorio I like very much. The Britten Sinfonia & Voices under William Carne (new to me) gave a simply brilliant performance at the Barbican, helped by four wonderful British soloists – Andrew Kennedy, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Lucy Crowe and most importantly the incomparable Simon Keenlyside as Elijah. An exhilarating end to an otherwise shitty day!

Art

I enjoyed Jeremy Deller’s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery much more than I thought I would. He’s a complete original, a real one-off, and I found the playful work, and description, videos and records of past work, absolutely enthralling.

Film

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a lot better than some of the reviews. It’s one of those feel good films (well, for people of a certain age – like me!) with a set of fine performances by wonderful actors also of a certain (but older!) age like Judi Dench and Penelope Wilton. Dev Patel rather over-egged the clumsy but lovable young Indian entrepreneur, but hey it was harmless fun.

 

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The Rest of November

Contemporary Music

Blind Malian’s Amadou & Mariam staged their concert in complete darkness. The effect was to heighten the listening experience of their uplifting music. I could have done without the life story narrative, which was a bit naff, but otherwise it was an extraordinary experience.

Roy Harper is another of those artists who are part of the soundtrack of my life and Stormcock one of my very favourite albums. I haven’t kept up with his later work and haven’t seen him for some time, but his 70th birthday concert at RFH was irresistible. It proved to be deeply moving – he appeared to be ‘signing off’ and almost cracked up a few times. The 8-piece brass and string ensemble meant he focused mostly on my personal Roy Harper period and I loved it. When Jimmy Page guested for the double-guitar fireworks (on 5th November!) of That Same Old Rock (he played on the album) it was absolutely magical and the hall erupted.

I was amazed when they decided on Hammersmith Apollo for the Gillian Welch concert. It’s a shabby, tacky and dirty place and ever so big for two acoustic musicians. Though I would have much preferred somewhere like the Barbican or the Southbank Centre, she did pull it off. I like the new album and the first set was largely taken from it. The big surprise though was how this was a mere taster for an outstanding second set which ended with superb encores of country classic Jackson and Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit . I’ve waited a long while to see her, but it was well worth the wait – next time, somewhere else though? Please…

Taking eight people to Ronnie Scott’s to see jazz vocalist Ian Shaw was always going to be a risk, but one that paid off. The musicianship shone through and the audience were suitably attentive. His band included a silver-haired bassist who played with Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker. Wow! Astonishingly, it was my first visit to RS, but now that they have shows at civilised times I shall be back!

Opera & Classical Music

The operatic adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness seems to me to be a great success. Set mostly aboard a boat in the Congo, it has great atmosphere and tension thanks to Robert Innes Hopkins superb design and Tarik O’Regan’s music. There was some excellent singing from Alan Oke, Gweneth-Ann Jeffers and Morten Lassenius Kramp with the small ensemble Chroma under Oliver Gooch providing a colourful orchestral background. Just what the Linbury Studio is for.

The Guildhall School of Music & Drama have uncovered a neglected comic gem with Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor, Nicolai(who?)’s take on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. It’s given a sparkling and fresh modern dress production by Harry Fehr with a brilliant set and costumes from Tom Rogers. For some reason Nicolai changed the names of the Ford’s and Page’s but not Falstaff or Fenton. He’s dumped Mistress Quickly, Bardolph and Shallow, but otherwise it’s true to its source. Barnaby Rea is excellent as Falstaff, Ashley Riches is very good as the second cast Fluth (Ford) and Ellie Laugharne is a sweet-voiced Anna – but its Sky Ingram’s show; her Frau Fluth (Ford) is fabulous; we’ll be hearing a lot more of her for sure.

I’ve wanted to see Vaughan Williams’ Hugh the Drover for a very long time, so Hampstead Garden Opera’s production was very welcome indeed. I have to confess though that I wasn’t expecting it to be such a good opera and for the musical standards of this ‘amateur’ production to be so outstanding. It was beautifully played by The Dionysus Ensemble, a group of music students & recent graduates, under the leadership of Oliver-John Ruthven. The leads were also students & recent graduates and they were also exceptional. David de Winter was terrific as Hugh, with Elaine Tate a lovely sweet-voiced Mary and Ed Ballard fine as baddie butcher John. This ballad opera is so so underrated, but this new chamber version will hopefully lead to more productions. A whole packet of gold stars to HGO for leading the way.

Handel’s Saul is a lovely dramatic oratorio and Harry Christophers & The Sixteen delivered an excellent interpretation at the Barbican, helped by a set of outstanding soloists including Sarah Connelly, Christopher Purves and Robert Murray. The quality of the choir is exceptional with a handful of them stepping forward to sing the smaller solo parts.

Opera North’s Ruddigore is destined to be as classic a G&S production as ENO’s The Mikado still is many years on. It’s a completely preposterous story of course, but it’s given a sparking fresh production by Jo Davies, with sepia design from Richard Hudson, and is an absolute delight. Grant Doyle is an excellent leading man, Hal Cazalet (who trained next door at GSMD) acts and sings superbly well as sailor Dauntless, Heather Shipp is as batty as Mad Margaret should be and there’s superb support from a few old favourites I seem to see too little of these days – Anne-Marie Owens, Richard Angas and Stephen Page. I sincerely hope their visits to the Barbican become regular – it would d be good to have good quality opera at decent prices here in London!

Dance

I loved the Scottish Ballet programme I saw a couple of years ago in Edinburgh, so I booked to see their new double-bill at Sadler’s Wells. The first piece – Kings 2 Ends – was playful, funny and quirky. Choreographed by Jorma Elo to music by Steve Reich and Mozart, this young company excelled. Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth to Mahler’s song cycle took a short while to settle but soon became spellbinding. More classical than the first piece, I liked the contrast, though the dancers seemed to find it more of a challenge. I liked soprano Karen Cargill but I’m afraid tenor Richard Berkeley-Steele was nowhere near as pleasing on the ear!

I’m new to Ballet Rambert and this second showing didn’t live up to the first. It was certainly a diverse triple bill. RainForest was a somewhat abstract 40-year old piece by Merce Cunningham with an electronic score, danced in Jasper Johns costumes in an Andy Warhol setting. Seven for a secret, never to be told was Mark Baldwin’s exploration of child behaviour to a Ravel score and Javier de Frutos’ Elysian Fields was a steamy and violent homage to Tennessee Williams and A Streetcar Named Desire in particular, danced to that film’s score with unnecessary and intrusive dialogue. A bit of a mixed bag – I admired the dance / movement but didn’t really find anything entirely satisfactory.

Art

The Royal Academy’s Degas & the Ballet – Picturing Movement should have been subtitled ‘A study in obsession (with a touch of pedophilia)’ It pushed the dancer theme just a bit too far for me. There were some exhibits that I felt were padding (animation and panoramas) and I think it would have been a better 5-room exhibition than it was an 8-room exhibition. That said, the penultimate room of 13 paintings was simply glorious and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Also at the RA, Building the Revolution – Soviet Art & Architecture 1915-1935 was a small but fascinating series of pictures and drawings which illustrated the iconic art deco / modernist hybrid that existed there and then. Most of these buildings are now run down (or worse) and I was struck by how many I’d seen on recent trips to the Ukraine & The Caucasus.

The most extraordinary thing about Gerhard Richter’s retrospective at Tate Modern is that it feels like a show by a bunch of artists rather than one. He completely reinvented himself on a regular basis so there is much diversity on show here. It didn’t all work for me, but as a body of work it’s certainly impressive.

Grayson Perry moved from my list of OK-but-overrated-modern-British-artists to the premier league on the strength of his brilliant exhibition at the British Museum. His own work is interspersed with items from the BM collection (few of which I’d ever seen before). It was equal parts learning, fun and beauty and I was bowled over by it.

Another pleasant surprise was the John Martin exhibition at Tate Britain. This early 19th century artist created vast canvases, mostly on dramatic religious themes like Sodom & Gomorrah. They seem to be the precursors of / influence for apocalyptic films like Independence Day and covers for 1970’s progressive rock albums by bands like Yes. In their day they toured the country with sound and light shows to accompany then, seen by millions of people, so it was terrific that they created a modern version for the Judgement Day triptych – a first for an exhibition? How can I have lived this long without ever knowing about this man?! Upstairs, sculptor Barry Flanagan’s early work seemed tame and dull, I’m afraid, but it did mean you get to climb their brilliant and bright newly painted staircase!

I was smitten by the Pipilotti Rist exhibition at the Hayward Gallery last month and almost smitten by George Condo’s Mental States, which is now sharing the venue. His portraits are like a cartoon version of Francis Bacon and his abstracts like Picasso on acid. I’d never heard of him before, so it was good to see such a comprehensive and fascinating collection. Also at the Southbank Centre, the 2011 World Press Photographer exhibition maintains the standards of this superb annual tradition. It’s often hard to look at, but the photography is always outstanding.

Visiting Two Temple Place is a double-dip treat. The former Astor home is a riot of carving, stained glass and OTT decoration and it currently houses a William Morris exhibition with a superb collection of tapestries, fabrics, wallpaper, paintings and drawings. Gorgeous.

Just as gorgeous was the Royal Manuscripts exhibition at the British Library, a stunning collection of richly decorated books from the middle ages. It’s superbly curated and, provided you go at a quiet time, it’s a real treat.

Film

Two excellent British films this month, the first of which was Weekend, about an intense gay relationship which begins and ends in, well, a weekend. Chris New and Tom Cullen were both outstanding and it was beautifully shot. The second, Resistance, is set in Wales after the failure of the D-Day landings resulting in an invasion of German troops, a small group of whom have reached a Welsh valley! It explores the reaction of the locals and their relationships with the invaders. It’s a bit of a slow burn, but eventually draws you in and becomes deeply moving without a touch of sentimentality. There are some lovely performances, most notably from Andrea Risborough.

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Contemporary Music

Todd Rundgren’s concert at the Jazz Café was a real treat. Small venue – ‘greatest hits’ set – terrific band; and Todd on fine and funny form prancing around like a man half his age. I’m not as familiar with this material as most in the audience, but loved it nonetheless.

Steve Earle couldn’t be accused of offering poor value for money. His sets at the Royal Festival Hall totalled 160 minutes. Sometimes, though, more is less and with poor sound contributing, I’m afraid that’s what it was here. The band was great, the set list eclectic and Earle on brittle and funny form with his chat, but it outstayed its welcome and became a bit of a rushed affair in the end.

Honest John’s Chop Up turned out to be an impulsive treat. Damon Albarn’s label showcased a Ghanaian rapper, Malian singer, US brass ensemble and three people from South Africa who defy description but were huge fun. It was like a party with turns, not all of which were good but some of which were great and I loved it.

Opera

Our autumn opera pairing at WNO, the UK’s most accessible opera company, was a brilliantly cast Don Giovanni and a musically thrilling Katya Kabanova, dedicated to Charles Mackerras (with his wife and daughter present). David Kempster isn’t the best DG I’ve ever heard but his acting was exceptional. There was superb support from a home-grown cast which made you wonder why people make such a fuss about casting international stars. David Soar was a terrific Leporello, Robin Tritshler and Camilla Roberts in fine voice as Don Ottavio and Donna Anna and Gary Griffiths an excellent Masetto. Music Director Lothar Koenigs brought out the best of the WNO Orchestra whose playing of the Katya score in particular was stunning. Amanda Roocroft was an outstanding Katya, with an excellent supporting cast including a fine Boris from Peter Wedd and a suitably malevolent Kabanicha from Leah-Marian Jones.

The Passenger at ENO was a somewhat harrowing experience, but an opera I’m very glad I did experience. It moves between an ocean liner in the 60’s, whose passengers include a former Auschwitz guard and one of her victims, and Auschwitz itself back in the 40’s. It’s a very dramatic but very accessible score and David Pountney’s production is masterly, partly thanks to Johan Engels extraordinary design, with the ship’s deck towering over the rail tracks and desolation of the concentration camp. Richard Armstrong’s conducting was also masterly and the orchestra sounded sensational. Amongst a fine ensemble, Giselle Allen as Marta and Michelle Breedt as Liese were wonderful.

Classical Music

The Cardinall’s Music under Andrew Cawood gave a brilliant recital of William Byrd’s unaccompanied church music at Wigmore Hall. They included selections from five of his contemporaries which by-and-large made Byrd shine (Tallis the exception) and I liked the fact that Cawood breaks with convention to introduce and explain his selections.

I’ve had a passing interest in the music of John Taverner but haven’t really heard that much, so a whole evening of small-scale works at Wigmore Hall seemed like a good place to start. Six choral pieces, three song cycles and solo pieces for cello and piano certainly made it a musical feast. The highlight for me was the choral work, sung with great beauty by a ‘scratch’ choir of young singers put together for the evening under the name Caeli Chorum. Patricia Rozario’s vocal fireworks were extraordinary but the works more challenging, as were the solo instrumental pieces, but it was a fascinating immersive experience nonetheless.

Dance

Clod Ensemble took over Sadler’s Wells but only sold 15% of the seats. Starting at the back of the upper circle, the show took us down each level for a new segment until we were at the back of the stage watching the curtain come down on them with the stalls as the backdrop. I can’t say I understood the concept, and it was more movement than dance, but it was a captivating experience.

Film

I liked The Debt, a film about the botched Mossad abduction of a Nazi war criminal It surprised me and gripped me, not least because of an excellent performance from Helen Mirren.

What I liked most about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was the fact that it didn’t patronise you; you had to work to keep up with it! The other thing I liked about it was the collection of stunning performances, including Gary Oldman as Smiley, John Hurt, Kathy Burke, Toby Jones, Colin Frith, Cairan Hinds, Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch.

We Need to Talk About Kevin was a harrowing experience, but a brilliant piece of film-making. Tilda Swinton really is one of the very best actors working today and yet again she inhabits a role. Wonderful, but if I was a parent it would scare me senseless!

Unless I’ve been avoiding this type of film too long (quite possible!), with The Adventures of Tin Tin – The Secret of the Unicorn, Stephen Spielberg seems to has invented something that is neither animation nor live action but, for a story like this, is better than both. The almost-but-not-quite lifelike characters can look more realistic doing stuff actors or animation can’t. It’s also the best 3D I’ve ever seen. Great fun.

Art

I went to Treasures of Heaven at the British Museum fired up after my recent Caucasus trip. Interesting though it was, there’s a limit to how many religious relics an unbeliever can take – the least interesting of the BM’s big Reading Room shows.

Locked Room Scenario was another of Artangel’s extraordinary installations. When you enter the warehouse where it takes place and ask a girl which way to go, you get a surly response. You’re at an exhibition of the Blue Conceptual art movement, but the entrance to their exhibition is locked so you end up walking round, peeping in where you can, picking up leaflets and looking at the fictitious movement’s timeline. When I was walking away, a young man handed me a page from a book he said I’d dropped. I read it and became convinced this was all part of the experience; the rest of my walk was rather surreal and disorientating.

I’d never heard of Pipilotti Risi before I went to her show at the Hayward Gallery. I love the playfulness of her videos, on translucent screens or hidden in handbags, conch shells and all sorts of other objects. It was like revisiting psychedelia, but with technology which enables artists to do so much more. Huge fun.

The Barbican Gallery continues its unique position amongst London’s major spaces with an exhibition from / about architectural practice OMA (whoever they are!) curated by Rotor (whoever they are too!). It’s a very original presentation of drawings, models, materials etc. though I think you have to be an architect or designer to get the most out of it. An interesting and intriguing one hour wander nonetheless.

The second Koestler Trust Art For Offenders exhibition at the RFH was simply extraordinary. This year it included video, music and spoken word as well as paintings and sculpture. Many of these items would hold their own in any contemporary art selling exhibition. Though the art was uplifting and enthralling, one was left with the feeling of hopelessness that so much talent is locked up.

A visit with the V&A Friends to then newly refurbished Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel was terrific. The highlight is the 5-story stairwell with ceramic tiles on the ground floor, wrought iron and wood banisters, stencilled walls and an extraordinary painted ceiling. They’ve done a wonderful job of restoring all of this and it was a treat being able to see it without having to take out a mortgage to book a room!

In Oxford for lunch, I had enough time to pop into the lovely Ashmolean Museum again (now one of the UK’s very best museums) which included a small but fascinating display of iconic Chinese Cultural Revolution art that showed you how it is possible for paintings to influence people; you could see how they fell for Mao with all these idealised images.

Read Full Post »

Contemporary Music

Todd Rundgren’s concert at the Jazz Café was a real treat. Small venue – ‘greatest hits’ set – terrific band; and Todd on fine and funny form prancing around like a man half his age. I’m not as familiar with this material as most in the audience, but loved it nonetheless.

Steve Earle couldn’t be accused of offering poor value for money. His sets at the Royal Festival Hall totalled 160 minutes. Sometimes, though, more is less and with poor sound contributing, I’m afraid that’s what it was here. The band was great, the set list eclectic and Earle on brittle and funny form with his chat, but it outstayed its welcome and became a bit of a rushed affair in the end.

Honest John’s Chop Up turned out to be an impulsive treat. Damon Albarn’s label showcased a Ghanaian rapper, Malian singer, US brass ensemble and three people from South Africa who defy description but were huge fun. It was like a party with turns, not all of which were good but some of which were great and I loved it.

Opera

Our autumn opera pairing at WNO, the UK’s most accessible opera company, was a brilliantly cast Don Giovanni and a musically thrilling Katya Kabanova, dedicated to Charles Mackerras (with his wife and daughter present). David Kempster isn’t the best DG I’ve ever heard but his acting was exceptional. There was superb support from a home-grown cast which made you wonder why people make such a fuss about casting international stars. David Soar was a terrific Leporello, Robin Tritshler and Camilla Roberts in fine voice as Don Ottavio and Donna Anna and Gary Griffiths an excellent Masetto. Music Director Lothar Koenigs brought out the best of the WNO Orchestra whose playing of the Katya score in particular was stunning. Amanda Roocroft was an outstanding Katya, with an excellent supporting cast including a fine Boris from Peter Wedd and a suitably malevolent Kabanicha from Leah-Marian Jones.

The Passenger at ENO was a somewhat harrowing experience, but an opera I’m very glad I did experience. It moves between an ocean liner in the 60’s, whose passengers include a former Auschwitz guard and one of her victims, and Auschwitz itself back in the 40’s. It’s a very dramatic but very accessible score and David Pountney’s production is masterly, partly thanks to Johan Engels extraordinary design, with the ship’s deck towering over the rail tracks and desolation of the concentration camp. Richard Armstrong’s conducting was also masterly and the orchestra sounded sensational. Amongst a fine ensemble, Giselle Allen as Marta and Michelle Breedt as Liese were wonderful.

Classical Music

The Cardinall’s Music under Andrew Cawood gave a brilliant recital of William Byrd’s unaccompanied church music at Wigmore Hall. They included selections from five of his contemporaries which by-and-large made Byrd shine (Tallis the exception) and I liked the fact that Cawood breaks with convention to introduce and explain his selections.

I’ve had a passing interest in the music of John Taverner but haven’t really heard that much, so a whole evening of small-scale works at Wigmore Hall seemed like a good place to start. Six choral pieces, three song cycles and solo pieces for cello and piano certainly made it a musical feast. The highlight for me was the choral work, sung with great beauty by a ‘scratch’ choir of young singers put together for the evening under the name Caeli Chorum. Patricia Rozario’s vocal fireworks were extraordinary but the works more challenging, as were the solo instrumental pieces, but it was a fascinating immersive experience nonetheless.

Dance

Clod Ensemble took over Sadler’s Wells but only sold 15% of the seats. Starting at the back of the upper circle, the show took us down each level for a new segment until we were at the back of the stage watching the curtain come down on them with the stalls as the backdrop. I can’t say I understood the concept, and it was more movement than dance, but it was a captivating experience.

Film

I liked The Debt, a film about the botched Mossad abduction of a Nazi war criminal It surprised me and gripped me, not least because of an excellent performance from Helen Mirren.

What I liked most about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was the fact that it didn’t patronise you; you had to work to keep up with it! The other thing I liked about it was the collection of stunning performances, including Gary Oldman as Smiley, John Hurt, Kathy Burke, Toby Jones, Colin Frith, Cairan Hinds, Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch.

We Need to Talk About Kevin was a harrowing experience, but a brilliant piece of film-making. Tilda Swinton really is one of the very best actors working today and yet again she inhabits a role. Wonderful, but if I was a parent it would scare me senseless!

Unless I’ve been avoiding this type of film too long (quite possible!), with The Adventures of Tin Tin – The Secret of the Unicorn, Stephen Spielberg seems to has invented something that is neither animation nor live action but, for a story like this, is better than both. The almost-but-not-quite lifelike characters can look more realistic doing stuff actors or animation can’t. It’s also the best 3D I’ve ever seen. Great fun.

Art

I went to Treasures of Heaven at the British Museum fired up after my recent Caucasus trip. Interesting though it was, there’s a limit to how many religious relics an unbeliever can take – the least interesting of the BM’s big Reading Room shows.

Locked Room Scenario was another of Artangel’s extraordinary installations. When you enter the warehouse where it takes place and ask a girl which way to go, you get a surly response. You’re at an exhibition of the Blue Conceptual art movement, but the entrance to their exhibition is locked so you end up walking round, peeping in where you can, picking up leaflets and looking at the fictitious movement’s timeline. When I was walking away, a young man handed me a page from a book he said I’d dropped. I read it and became convinced this was all part of the experience; the rest of my walk was rather surreal and disorientating.

I’d never heard of Pipilotti Risi before I went to her show at the Hayward Gallery. I love the playfulness of her videos, on translucent screens or hidden in handbags, conch shells and all sorts of other objects. It was like revisiting psychedelia, but with technology which enables artists to do so much more. Huge fun.

The Barbican Gallery continues its unique position amongst London’s major spaces with an exhibition from / about architectural practice OMA (whoever they are!) curated by Rotor (whoever they are too!). It’s a very original presentation of drawings, models, materials etc. though I think you have to be an architect or designer to get the most out of it. An interesting and intriguing one hour wander nonetheless.

The second Koestler Trust Art For Offenders exhibition at the RFH was simply extraordinary. This year it included video, music and spoken word as well as paintings and sculpture. Many of these items would hold their own in any contemporary art selling exhibition. Though the art was uplifting and enthralling, one was left with the feeling of hopelessness that so much talent is locked up.

A visit with the V&A Friends to then newly refurbished Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel was terrific. The highlight is the 5-story stairwell with ceramic tiles on the ground floor, wrought iron and wood banisters, stencilled walls and an extraordinary painted ceiling. They’ve done a wonderful job of restoring all of this and it was a treat being able to see it without having to take out a mortgage to book a room!

In Oxford for lunch, I had enough time to pop into the lovely Ashmolean Museum again (now one of the UK’s very best museums) which included a small but fascinating display of iconic Chinese Cultural Revolution art that showed you how it is possible for paintings to influence people; you could see how they fell for Mao with all these idealised images.

Read Full Post »

Contemporary Music

When she walks onto the stage, she looks like she’s just left the set of Desperate Housewives or come straight from a meeting on Wall Street, but when Laura Cantrell strums her guitar and opens her mouth, you’re in the presence of one of the greatest modern country singers. She’s not been here for 6 years and with the release of her Kitty Wells tribute album, I wasn’t expecting such a varied set – the best of her back catalogue, some covers, some new songs and a few of the Kitty Wells songs. The two guitars (one sometimes pedal steel) / mandolin line up proved perfect for every song in a brilliant selection and ninety minutes later we were on our feet in appreciation. The Union Chapel proved yet again – despite the bum- numbing pews! – that it’s the perfect venue for this sort of concert.

Staff Benda Bilili are a bunch of homeless (well they were!) street musicians from Kinshasa, DR Congo, most of whom are paraplegic. They were the subject of a documentary that went on to raves at Cannes and a cinema and DVD release, part of which included making an album and making live appearances. Their Roundhouse show was as uplifting as the film, though in 75 minutes the pace doesn’t let up and this old man found it exhausting! Young Roger, who plays a one-string instrument of his own invention and manufacture, became a bit over-excited, but who can blame him given his journey. Great stuff.

A Sunday afternoon at the Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year (plus the Stiles & Drew Best New Song Prize) – phew! what a title – proved a real pleasure. The standard was very high (I’m glad I wasn’t judging) which is what I find in my regular visits to our best drama / music colleges. Future musical theatre talent is secure, though how all of these will get work I don’t know. None of my personal top 4 made it, but I was happy with winner Taron Egerton (not just because he’s Welsh!) though less keen on the runner-up.

I don’t normally go to those benefit evening any more as they’re rarely satisfying because they cram so much in. Fortunately, Survivors UK at Cadogan Hall concentrated on a few excellent artists, including Lesley Garrett, Leanne Jones, Ian Shaw, Meow Meow and Hannah Waddingham, which made it a lovely musical evening. I was given a free ticket, which made me feel like a shit, so I made a donation higher than the cost of the ticket!

The Incredible String Band is part of the soundtrack of my life. I was surprised to see one of its founders, Mike Heron, on a bill with newbie’s Trembling Bells as part of Stewart Lee’s Austerity Binge mini-festival at the Southbank Centre, but couldn’t really resist. I certainly didn’t expect a magical hour of (mostly) early Incredibles’ songs. With help from Mike Hastings of Trembling Bells (and later the whole band), multi-instrumentalist Nick Pynn (who had opened the show with a virtuoso set) and someone called Georgia, he delivered these 35-40 year old songs so beautifully that Sleepers Awaken and A Very Cellular Song brought me to tears. Trembling Bells made the mistake of following him; however good they were, they were never going to live up to something so unexpectedly stunning.

Opera & Classical Music

Having been indifferent to James MacMillan’s last chamber opera, Parthogenesis, my expectations for Clemency weren’t high, which may be part of the reason I enjoyed it so much! It’s the story of three strangers who are befriended by Abraham and Sarah en route to reeking vengeance on twin cities full of sin. They prophesy a post-menopausal pregnancy for Sarah whilst the couple seek to persuade them to abandon their plan. I liked the triptych framing of the design and Janis Kelly and Grant Doyle were both excellent in the lead roles whilst the ‘triplets’ of Adam Green, Eamonn Mulhall & Andrew Tortise sounded great singing in unison. The music is easily accessible, though yet again a lack of surtitles means you miss a lot of the (English!) libretto.

Ariodante in concert at the Barbican was an absolute joy. I’m a bit puzzled that I haven’t seen Baroque group Il Complesso Barocca and their conductor Alan Curtis before; the musicianship was exceptional and the assembled cast first class. After a shaky start, I warmed to Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s thoroughly dramatic performance as baddie Polinenesso. Karina Gauvin sang Ginevra beautifully and sounded great when dueting with Joyce DiDonato’s stunning Ariodante. Sabina Puertolas and Nicholas Phan sang Dalinda and Lurcanio respectively with great style. When he was asked to stand in as Odorardo, RAM student Sam Furness probably couldn’t believe his luck. He acquitted himself very well in such an outstanding cast, but so good was this evening he may have to come to terms with the fact it’s all downhill from here! It was DiDonato’s evening though – after only two concerts, I’ve fallen head over heals for this American mezzo. 

John Mark Ainsley’s lunchtime recital at Wigmore Hall was a treat – Britten, Purcell & Poulenc – right up my street! We’re so lucky to have so many good tenors whose voices suit English song; just one week later I was back there for an evening recital by another – Ian Bostridge – whose programme was a very original affair, though very dark. It started with Purcell’s beautiful Music For A While and stayed light-ish in the first half with some rare Bach and Haydn pieces. After the interval, though, it was a funeral lament, bleak tales of violence pain and death of children and the American Civil War. It was all a bit challenging, but fortunately he encored with the opening Purcell to lift our gloom before we left!

Comedy

I love people who use their talent for good and top of this list is comedian Mark Thomas who combines humour and passion in equal measure so effectively. In his new ‘show’, Extreme Rambling, he tells the story of walking the wall between Israel and Palestine, the people he met and the things he learnt. It’s a rare thing to go home having learned a lot while being entertained (but not preached at) and the Tricycle Theatre is the perfect venue for this.

Film

I couldn’t believe Hanna was directed by the man who gave us Pride & Prejudice and Atonement – talk about change of direction! I loved the quirky cocktail of fantasy, action adventure and humour which was often unpredictable, never dull, but sometimes too violent (how on earth did it get a 12 rating?!). The Chemical Brothers soundtrack added much to the action sequences and the performances were all outstanding.

Attack the Block is another very good small scale British film, though I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so scary (it’s amazing how you can make giant cuddly toys terrify people!). It’s a very assured directorial debut but what distinguishes it most is a superb cast of (mostly) young actors. There was a certain frisson seeing it in Clapham, just a few miles from where it is set.

Art

A lovely afternoon of photographic exhibitions paired the RGS Travel Photography Prize with the Sony World Photography Awards at Somerset House. The former was right up my street but gave me a severe dose of wanderlust. The latter was much more extensive than I was expecting, including a retrospective of US photographer Bruce Davidson, such that it was too much to take in; but it was very varied and included some terrific stuff.

At the Whitechapel Gallery, there’s an excellent exhibition of the documentary photos, in nine series, by Paul Graham covering a journey up the A1 amongst other subjects! They also have a room with two terrific installations by Fred Sandbach made simply of string; for some reason I found then beautiful!

I suppose going to see an exhibition of someone whose work you have never liked seems perverse. Well, I wouldn’t have paid to see it, but as a Southbank Centre member, I decided to make this major retrospective at the Hayward Gallery one last chance to see if there really was anything to Tracey Emin’s soul baring autobiographical work. You will not be surprised to hear then that my conclusion is that there isn’t…..but I admire her immensely for convincing the art establishment that there is and in doing so make a shitload of money. This collection of drawings, ‘sculptures’, blankets and memorabilia may make for an interesting diary, but art it ain’t.

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Opera

ENO has given us its best work for ages away from home at The Young Vic, The Return of Ulysses. This 370- year-old opera is given a radical updating that for once works. It’s staged in and outside a modern apartment that revolves, fully transparent on all sides – a sort of mini Big Brother house. There are two shop style cameras that project close-ups and detail onto two screens at either side of the stage. At the start it’s sparkling and new, but as the opera progresses it becomes smeared and more. You completely believe Pamela Helen Stephen (terrific – never better) has been waiting 20 years for her man, as you do Tom Randle (wonderful)’s exhaustion after such a long war. There isn’t a fault in the rest of the cast (even an understudy as Eurimaco) who sing Monteverdi’s music beautifully, accompanied by a lovely sounding 14-piece ensemble situated stage left where you can hear every note. It’s a masterpiece of staging and acting when you can take a shower fully naked in a revolving glass room without showing any of your bits, as Randle managed! Despite this undoubted success, I’m still somewhat nervous that Terry Gilliam (as opposed to Berlioz!)’s The Damnation of Faust next month will take a few steps back after this huge leap forward.

Opera Shots was a double-bill of new operas at the ROH’s Linbury Studio. The first is a 30-minute mess by The Police’s Stewart Copeland in a gothic / commedia dell arte style with a ragbag of musical styles; the design is the best thing about it. The second is a 60-minute comic gem from Anne Dudley and Monty Python’s Terry Jones – tuneful, very funny and positively charming.

I’m a bit indifferent about Covent Garden’s Aida. The design has one of those big walls that revolves (yawn) and some quirky costume combinations. The singing by a UN cast (Russian, Polish, American, Korean & British) is mostly good, in that vocal-power-at-the-expense-of-beauty-and-characterisation way, but the acting is wooden. The chorus didn’t start well, but get better. One expects better from a world class opera house.

Classical Music

When the LSO decided to change its plan to screen Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible accompanied by Prokofiev’s score played live to a concert performance of the oratorio, I almost sold my ticket back. How glad I am I didn’t, as it was a fascinating evening. The 75-minute piece for orchestra, chorus, mezzo and bass has a lot of flaws but it was always interesting and showed off the power of the LSO and LSC. I could have done without the live Russian narration and wished I hadn’t followed the surtitles of the preposterous and pompous words and just listened to the glorious sound. The opener was his Violin Concerto, another piece new to me that I also enjoyed.

The first two acts of the concert performance of five-act Pelleas & Mellisandre were a little subdued, restrained and static, but things picked up in the third act and the fourth was thrilling. The Orchestre de Paris and a largely French cast clearly had an affinity with their composing compatriot, but it was Laurant Naouri as Golaud and Simon Keenlyside as Pellaes who shone. Natalie Dessay kept her head in the score and failed to animate Melisandre for me, I’m afraid. This orchestra is the first I’ve seen that credits the designs of its outfits!

Dance

Balletboyz the Talent was absolutely mesmerising and one of the best evenings of dance ever! The three pieces were very different but together made an exciting combination. It was edgy, original, thrilling and sexy and I loved it.

Art

It’s amazing what you can do in a morning at the British Museum! On this occasion, we took in the fascinating exhibition of treasures from Afghanistan, with some wonderful 2000 year old gold, accompanied by a little display showing the importance of the Afghan city of Herat in the history of Central Asian art, followed by a small but fascinating Eric Gill display showing designs for stamps, coins, books etc which I never even knew he did and finally a selection of their huge collection of drawings that included anyone and everyone. This is surely the world’s greatest museum?

Back to the Barbican Gallery to catch the other two performances as part of their New York Avant Garde ‘exhibition’ and they were both worth seeing – in one, the container divided by doors is occupied by five dancers moving fast and often confronting one another and in the other, three are climbing a wall with holes for hands and feet. Fun!

At Karsten Schubert, there’s a small but excellent exhibition of sculptures and pictures by American Fred Wilson on the theme of race politics. The most striking is a series of heads of Nefertiti that look like they are Egyptian antiquities and that go from white to black via shades of grey.

The Cult of Beauty at the V&A links together the late 19th century aestheticists – Leighton, Morris, Rosetti, Burne-Jones, Dresser et al. There are some beautiful paintings, designs and objects but as a whole it was somewhat over-powering.

Royal Family at the Hayward Gallery is a tiny exhibition about representations of its title. The only thing I liked about it was how they made an exhibit of a letter from Charles’ people declining to loan them a statue of him in heroic pose presented to him on tour by people in the Amazon!

It’s amazing how many exhibitions you can take in walking from the tube to the pub if your route takes you down Cork Street and you’ve got some time to kill! I started with William Nicholson at Browse & Darby – almost 60 pictures loaned from private collections including some absolutely stunning landscapes. Across the road at the Waddinton, I found Bill Woodrow’s sculptures / installations dated and faded, but a few doors up at Hay Hill there was a lovely exhibition of contemporary Icelandic artists; I was hugely impressed by the paintings of Tolli and the photos of Iris Thorstenindottir. On the way home, I took in the Deutsche Borse Photography Prize exhibition, which is underwhelming this year except for the political documentary work of Jim Goldberg which was deeply moving.

The art month ended back at the V&A for Figures & Fictions, a selection of contemporary South African photography and a stunning collection it was too; I’d be surprised is you could put together a better British collection. Then I popped into the Yohji Yamamoto fashion exhibit on the way out and it proved that fashion isn’t me!

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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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