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Posts Tagged ‘Ian Bostridge’

Opera

Verdi’s Les Vepres Siciliennes is rarely performed and after almost four hours standing at the back of the Royal Opera House’s stalls circle it was easy to see why. There’s not a lot of story for four hours and Verdi’s music is nowhere near his usual standard. The singing wasn’t particularly distinguished, but I liked the production (which most don’t seem to!).

The GSMD excelled itself again with an unlikely double-bill of Debussy’s earnest but beautiful L’enfant prodigue and Donizetti’s comic one-acter Francesca di Foix. The Donizetti, in particular, was a little gem and an absolute hoot, given an inspired staging in modern settings (a smart clothing shop and a tennis court) but with period clothes. Beautifully played and sung, Anna Gillingham in the title role and Joshua Owen Mills (Welsh!) as the Duke were terrific.

In the BBC SO‘s semi-staged Albert Herring at the Barbican, this comic opera proved to be a minor masterpiece. Britten’s friend Steuart Bedford led a wonderful small ensemble and a first class cast, led by Andrew Staples as Albert, without a weak link in it. You could hear every nuance of every instrument and every sung word. A real highlight of the centenary.

The Early Opera Company’s concert performance of Handel’s Acis & Galatea at Wigmore Hall was a delight. The 13-piece ensemble under Christain Curnyn played the score beautifully and there were fine performances from Robert Murray and Sophie Bevan in the title roles. Matthew Rose was a stand-in as the giant Polyphemus but his powerful baritone nearly blew the roof off. Minor Handel maybe, but gorgeous nonetheless.

Dance

I’m not very fond of full-length ballets that are excuses for showcasing ‘turns’ by dancers in various combinations rather than telling the story (think The Nutcracker) and I haven’t enjoyed previous productions of Don Quixote that much, but I rather liked Carlos Acosta’s for the Royal Ballet. With handsome designs by Tim Hatley and fresh choreography, it often sparkled. The leading lady was injured during Act One and Marinela Nunez (who originated the role with Acosta as partner) took over and this somehow added even more sparkle. Sadly, Acosta didn’t come on as sub in Act Two or Three!

Another dance contribution to the Britten centenary from the Richard Alston Dance Company at the Barbican, with four short pieces (including two world premieres), each set to a chamber piece, three of them vocal. In Phaedra, the soloist interacted with the dancers, which I loved (and which reminded me of Seven Deadly Sins at Covent Garden a few years back), but Illuminations was the most uplifting. Poor time management meant interval overuns so it took 130 minutes to stage 65 minutes of dance!

Choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui takes a really fresh look at tango with m!longa at Sadler’s Wells and it comes out as a sexy display of virtuosity, relationships silently played out by intricate movements. The five couples – four kosher tango ones and one contemporary dance duo – were all terrific, and the five-piece band were sensational.

The Stuttgart Ballet‘s Taming of the Shrew to a mash-up of Scarlatti at Sadler’s Wells was a bit of a punt that turned into a major treat. Though over 40 years old, apart from the sets, it felt fresh. I’m not sure I’ve seen a comic ballet before and I have to say, the form was perfect for Shakespeare’s comedy, the dancing was terrific and we laughed aloud a lot. There were beautiful romantic moments too and it all added up to a thoroughly enjoyable surprise.

It’s a while since I had a fix of favourite choreographer Mark Morris, so I went to both programmes at Sadler’s Wells on consecutive nights for a feast of seven works. With one exception, they were accompanied by live music – a small ensemble and three singers – which is key to Morris’ success. The best of the first programme was Socrates, set to music by Erik Satie for tenor and piano, which looked like Greek statues come to life. In the second programme, Festival Dance, to a wonderful piano trio by Hummel (who?!) led by stunning piano from Colin Fowler, was thrilling, and as close to Morris’ undoubted masterpiece Handel’s L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato as he’s got since. The one piece to recorded music was In A Wooden Tree. Only Morris would use the songs of Ivor Cutler and it was a delight; quirky even by Morris standards.

Classical Music

The rarely performed song cycle Our Hunting Fathers, sung by Ian Bostridge, was the centerpiece of The Britten Sinfonia‘s namesake’s centenary concert at the Barbican, but it wasn’t the highlight. It’s possibly the quirkiest song cycle I’ve ever heard, but the orchestration is brilliant. The real treats were the orchestral pieces played by a chamber orchestra that seems to me to be absolutely at the top of its game.

The Royal Albert Hall is the perfect venue for Britten’s War Requiem and Remembrance Sunday the perfect day to hear it in this centenary year. The BBC SO under Semyon Bychkov did it full justice, with the boys choir sounding beautiful up in the gallery and the male soloists, Roderick Williams & Allan Clayton, on fine form. The ‘amen’ was extraordinarily moving, hopeful and uplifting; I felt like my body was rising in my seat.

St Cecilia’s day (the patron saint of music). The 100th birthday of my favourite composer. My favourite music venue. The Sixteen‘s recital of Britten choral works – mostly unaccompanied – at Union Chapel was an absolute joy. The acoustic was perfect, the selection eclectic and the voices beyond wonderful. As you can gather, I liked it!

Film

The big film catch-up continued with One Chance, the story of Britain’s Got Talent winner Paul Potts. Apart from some puzzling accents (parents Welsh, Potts West Country) and a touch of resentment that Welsh characters weren’t played by Welsh actors, I rather enjoyed it. Undemanding, feel-good stuff – a touch too sentimental, but very heart-warming and funny.

The Selfish Giant is one of those gritty British films I thought we’d forgotten how to make; even the master, Ken Loach, seemed to have gone a bit soft. It’s not an easy ride watching hopelessness, but its a superb piece of film-making full of stunning performances from people you usually see on TV in things like Shameless, and the two leading boys are simply extraordinary.

I can’t begin to put into words how good a film Philomena is. I’m glad I hadn’t read the book as it surprised and confounded me. Judi Dench is sensational and Steve Coogan a revelation in a straight role. Perfect in every respect, but tissues necessary. The things that have been done in the name of god!

Gravity reminded me of Duncan Jones’ Moon, though it’s (virtually) two people in space rather than one. The 3D is (mostly) brilliant, for once very realistic, and the story is gripping, but I’m not sure it quite lives up to the hype – I’m glad I went, though. 

Art

My second visit to the George Watts Gallery near Guildford was to see the Frank Holl exhibition. It was a bit small and a bit sad and may not be worth the trip on its own, but with another chance to see Watts’ own pictures and combined with opera in Woking and lunch at the retro Withies Inn in Compton it proved worthwhile!

Daniel Silver’s DIG seems to be an archaeological site in a building site where statues have been uncovered and laid out in various states of restoration for you to view (but most oddly pristine white). I’m not sure what point he’s making, but it was quirkily intriguing.

Masterpieces from China at the V&A had some stunning paintings covering 1200 years. The Tang Dynasty seemed underrepresented and it was a struggle to absorb it all with the necessarily low lighting and difficulty getting up close, so I might well have to go again.

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Contemporary Music

Eliza Carthy & Jim Moray’s double celebration at Union Chapel could have been so good. My favourite venue, a great 13-piece band & good song selection from Carthy. Sadly, when the whole band played, the sound just wasn’t up to it. Her voice and fiddle were often buried, I couldn’t make out most of the lyrics and it was hard to pick out individual instrumentation; in short, a shit mix. They seemed surprised and upset when they had to abandon two or three songs at the end because of the Union’s curfew; something that must have been known to the promoter (Barbican Centre) & could have been easily overcome by shortening the 30 min interval. A lost opportunity.

Classical Music

I’m not sure ‘staging’ Britten’s Canticles added that much, but it was very compelling and atmospheric. Two used dance, one acted out a scene, one had a giant film on the theatre’s brick back wall and one just used light. The music was however gorgeous, with Ian Bostridge singing all five, a stunning duet with Iestyn Davies in one and a trio, adding Benedict Nelson, in another.

Opera

Ballo, Opera Up Close’s latest offering, moves Verdi’s A Masked Ball from an 18th century Swedish court to a 21st century Swedish retail outlet on the North Circular. It’s heavily edited and the whole score is played on one piano, but most of the singing is good and it works, though it tries a bit too hard to be cheeky and irreverent and gets close to sending up the opera. Fun, though.

Dance

I much admired the Royal Ballet‘s Hansel & Gretel. Set in 50’s US – think Hitchcock’s Psycho – with a superb design by Jon Bausor, atmospheric music /soundscape by Dan Jones, original choreography by Liam Scarlett, great characterisations and excellent performances by all six dancers. You wouldn’t want to take a kid to this, though, as it’s as dark as they come with themes of abduction and hints at pedophilia. My one reservation was that there wasn’t a lot of story for 100 minutes of dance-drama.

I’m very fond of David Nixon’s unique dance dramas for Northern Ballet and The Great Gatsby is one of the best. There’s a lot of story to get over without words and the programme synopsis was essential. It looks gorgeous in Jerome Kaplan’s simple but elegant design. I loved the Richard Rodney Bennett compilation which included jazz, songs and period pieces like The Charleston. It was beautifully choreographed, including party dances, romantic moments, mysterious figures and fights. Great stuff.

Film

How disappointing Pedro Almodovar’s I’m So Excited is; such a slight piece. Carry on Flying in Spanish! It had some funny moments, enough for an episode of a Sit Com, but nowhere near enough to sustain a 90 minute feature. After The Skin I Live In, this is the second disappointment in a row from him.

In contrast, the new Star Trek film turns out to be the best yet. Benedict Cumberbatch is a great baddie, Simon Pegg an excellent comic Scottie, the 3D is exceptional and the addition of humorous touches works well. The best BIG action film I’ve seen in some time.

Exactly one week after being impressed by the ballet of The Great Gatsby, I was disappointed by the film. It should have been the perfect choice for not-very-prolific Baz Luhrmann (5 films in 21 years!), but apart from the performances it was a big let-down. Achingly slow, design that looked like CGI and dreadful 3D.

Art

Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan at the Wellcome Collection was a fascinating peep into the minds of those within social facilities in Japan; untrained artists using art as therapy. From paintings to drawings to sculpture to textile work, sometimes obsessive, often original and always skilled, it’s a rich collection that should be seen – and very different from a similar exhibition I saw in Milwaukee last year.

Another good and varied selection for this year’s Deutshe Borse Photography Prize on show at the Photographer’s Gallery – B&W pictures of deprivation, images of war set to Brecht’s words, voyeuristic views of prostitutes plying their trade on roadsides and a surreal review of the aborted Zambian space mission!

It’s always a good idea to add an hour to a Chichester theatre trip as it gives you the excuse to visit the Palant House Gallery which has a fine collection of 20th century British art. The bonus last time was Frida Kahlo & Diego Riviera; this time it was a comprehensive retrospective of Ralph Kitaj, the hospital drawings of Barbara Hepworth (which reminded me of Henry Moore’s war drawings) and a room of Paul Nash drawings & memorabilia. Lovely combination in a lovely space.

Treasures of the Royal Courts at the V&A was another of those manufactured-to-get-an-admission-fee shows museums have become fond of since they went free (by government endowment!). Much of it was from their own permanent collection, which you can see free at any time,  and the Russian connection was a weak one. Boo!

I’m very fond of the documentary B&W photos of Brazilian Sebastiao Salgado and his marathon tour of the remotest parts of the world to record nature is impressive. Genesis at the Natural History Museum though was one project where he really should have used colour, as it becomes monotonous and fails to record the magic of the places he visited. That said, I’m glad I went.

Killing time at the NT, I discovered a lovely exhibition of Norman Parkinson‘s iconic photographs of fashion and famous people. Highly posed and therefore unnatural, but somehow fresh and lovely. In the same building, there was another fascinating exhibition of textile artworks by Lalla Ward called Vanishing Act; in effect, animals and insects camouflaged and hiding in the artworks!

Brighton is a long way to go for a one-hour performance, so off I went in the afternoon before for a personally selected self-guided art tour of seven installations / exhibitions. The best was Finnish artist Kaarina Kaikkonen‘s clothing sculpture at Fabrica (c.400 shirts in a deconsecrated church!) and her ‘dressing’ of the clock tower. I also liked Emma Critchley‘s video of herself swimming, shown inside a container on the seafront!  Mariele Neudeker‘s work spanned three spaces, but only some impressed (an iceberg in a Regency house!), ten c.4 min video’s of men moving was too much to do anything other than ‘sample’ and the shadow of a drone painted on Madeira Drive was just making a point.

A double treat at the British Museum. The Pompeii & Herculaneum exhibition is stuffed full of wonderfully preserved, extraordinary things; more domestic than stately. It’s beautifully curated, laid out like the homes the items were found in. The events which led to their burial and preservation were well covered and the human stories moved you. You have to suffer lots of kids obsessed with finding anything erotic, but it’s worth it! It was pensioner-rage at Ice Age Art, fighting to get a glimpse at the tiny 20,000-40,000 year-old items. When you did, you were richly rewarded but this time the curation made it harder, not easier.

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Contemporary Music

It’s hard to write about the Paul McCartney concert at the O2 without downloading a complete thesaurus of superlatives. It was the sixth time I’d seen him in the 21 years he’s been performing live with Wings or solo, and the third in as many years. It was at least as good as all the others – amazing visuals, brilliant sound, 2.75 unbroken hours containing 41 songs (including 27 Beatles songs, two getting their UK live premiere 46 years after their recording!). I sang, swayed, danced and cried. Absolute magic.

Opera, Dance & Classical Music

The ENO’s Castor & Pollux sounded as good as it looked dreadful. Rameau’s music is different to his contemporaries – just as crisp and clean, but with less frilly stuff! Sadly, the white box-modern dress-piles of earth-running around-inexplicable nudity production meant it was a lot better with your eyes closed. The singing of Allan Clayton, Roderick Williams, Sophie Bevan and Laura Tatulescu was lovely though – and the orchestra under Christian Curnyn sounded gorgeous.

Undance at Sadler’s Wells was an intriguing prospect – a double-bill of opera and dance as a collaboration between composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, artist Mark Wallinger and choreographer Wayne McGregor. The opera, Twice Through the Heart, was in fact a monodrama / song cycle about an abused woman who murders her husband. Favourite Sarah Connolly sang beautifully ‘inside’ 3D projections (we were given glasses on the way in!). It was a bit inaccessible on first hearing, but interesting and well executed nonetheless. Undance itself was based on the 19th century ‘motion photography’ of Eadweard Muybridge with projections behind the dancers, one mirroring the other. It was clever and intriguing, but felt like it should be a third of a triple bill rather than a pairing with a mini-opera. I didn’t dislike the evening, but somehow it felt like a couple of snacks rather than a full meal.

The Bizet Double-Bill at The Royal College of Music was a fascinating affair. Djamileh, an ‘opera comique’ had few laughs and inexplicably lost its happy ending to a murder, but the sound was unquestionably Bizet. Chinese tenor Lei Xu and British soprano Katherine Crompton sounded beautiful, as did the orchestra under Michael Rosewell. Le Docteur Miracle was certainly played for laughs, but also ended with a death Bizet didn’t (I think) write. In a veritable United Nations of casting, the singing of the girls – South African Filipa van Eck and Anastasia Prokofieva (guess where she’s from!)  – was great and the acting of Israeli  Pnini Grubner and homegrown Oliver Clarke equally good. A delightful evening.

Offenbach operettas are hardly subtle, but Scottish Opera’s touring production at the Young Vic removed any subtlety Orpheus in the Underworld did have. Everyone was trying so hard, particularly Rory Bremner’s libretto, squeezing in as many contemporary satirical references as he could think of, and the performers exaggerating every move and expression until it seems Am Dram. There was some good singing and the solitary pianist played the score well, but I felt like they were relentlessly beating me on the head with a newspaper (as one character did actually do to another at one point). Having said that, I admire them for touring small-scale opera to 33 venues in Scotland and Northern Ireland including artistic black holes like Stornoway and Lerwick, but why come to London with this? It made me yearn for a revival of ENO’s production with Gerald Scarfe’s extraordinary designs.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s concert at the Barbican was terrific. They combined Walton’s cantata Belshazzar’s Feast with Sibelius’ suite from the music of a play on the same subject and added in some Sibelius songs and Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem. Edward Gardner is now in the conducting premiere league and his interpretations here were thrilling. The chorus sounded great in the Walton and soloist Gerald Finlay great in both the Walton and the Sibelius sons. For once, the audience didn’t hold back the cheers; a cracker.

The LSO is an orchestra at the height of its powers. The Monteverdi Choir is one of the world’s best. Sir John Elliott Gardiner is in the premiere league of conducting. Even so, their concert of Beethoven’s 1st and 9th Symphonies was even more of a treat than I was expecting. The soloists don’t get to do much in the 9th, but they did it well. The chorus soared and the orchestra thrilled. Possibly the best in a lifetime of 9th’s

Back at Wigmore Hall there was a lovely concert pairing the 16th century songs of John Dowland with those of the 20th century composers he influenced – Peter Warlock and Ivor Gurney – with singers Ian Bostridge, Sophie Daneman and Mark Stone accompanied by lute, piano, flute, cor anglais & string quartet in various combinations. I could have done without the cheesy German Christmas encore with children’s pageant that followed a rather lovely evening of English song.

Magical Night at the Linbury Studio was the British premiere of a Kurt Weil ‘kinderpantomime’ choreographed by Aletta Collins, who has created a simple story of toys that come alive in the kid’s bedroom at night (heard that before?!). It was the Weill that was the attraction for me and it was interesting but hardly thrilling. The dance was OK, but the whole show was a bit of a disappointment overall.

Art

I was drawn to Painting Canada at Dulwich Gallery by its poster, as I often am by poster images. Sometimes the poster doesn’t properly represent the content of the exhibition (take note, Tate!) but on this occasion it does. It’s a beautiful exhibition of 122 paintings and oil sketches by the ‘Group of Seven’ Canadian artists from the early 20th Century. I’m not sure I’ve ever been to such a cohesive and consistently good exhibition of paintings. They’re virtually all landscapes, the colours are vivid and they show off (probably flatter) Canada brilliantly. Gorgeous.

Glass-maker Dale Chihuly is best known in the UK for the enormous ‘chandelier’ which dominates the V&A entrance. We were lucky to have a major exhibition of his work at Kew Gardens some years ago, but that’s about my only exposure to his work. Halcyon Gallery now has a brilliant selling exhibition which is surprisingly large and has a long 3-month run. The 57 works are well exhibited and beautifully lit. The only downside was the prices – from £11.5k to £700k; just a little beyond my art budget!

The annual Landscape Photography exhibition in the NT Lyttleton circle foyer is as good as ever; though guarantee to make mere mortal photographers like me feel totally inadequate! There are so many lovely photos here, I had to go round twice to take them all in.

I was initially disappointed by the V&A Friends visit to William Morris’ former home – Kelmscott House in Hammersmith – when I discovered we were only going to see the small basement museum (the rest is now a family home again). However, the curator brought out a lot of fascinating items, like original artwork for wallpaper and fabrics, and added some interesting historical facts to make it worthwhile in the end.

Down in Surrey, a feast of the work of another Arts & Crafts couple – George & Mary Watts – was to be had at the Watts Gallery and nearby chapel. He’s an underrated player in this movement’s game and it was great to see so many of his paintings in one place. The beautifully decorated round chapel (inside and out) by his wife on a nearby hill was an unexpected bonus despite the fading light.

It has taken me 21 months to get round to seeing WildWorks ‘Enchanted Palace’, which is occupying 15 rooms of Kensington Palace during their renovations. There were only 4 days to go, so off I went and boy was I glad I did. They tell the story of seven of the princesses who lived there by installations, light, sound, story books and cards and actors. it’s sometimes mysterious, sometimes playful, often beautiful and always captivating. I now can’t wait for their Babel in Battersea Park in 2012. 

Film

I adored My Week With Marilyn. It was funny and moving, littered with a who’s who of great British actors. Kenneth Branagh does a terrific turn as Laurence Olivier and Michelle Williams is uncanny as Marilyn, but for me it was Eddie Redmayne’s movie – he’s as mesmerizing on film as he is on stage, proven yet again by his Richard II less than 2 weeks later.

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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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Sondheim’s 80th celebrations continued with a concert performance of Merrily We Roll Along, re-uniting 80% of the Donmar’s 2000 UK premiere cast. I have fond memories of the production, and have seen two more since, but I really wasn’t expecting this to be quite so thrilling. The dream cast included Daniel Evans, Anna Francolini, Julian Ovenden and Samantha Spiro. This show contains some of his most complex songs and to achieve such perfection in a one-off concert performance 10 years after you performed it on stage is astonishing. Gareth Valentine’s band was terrific and the cheers and standing ovation were richly deserved. For years I avoided opera in concert as I couldn’t see why or how you could bring alive something that was meant to be staged – well, now I’ll have to change my mind about musicals in concert too.

Earlier in the month I attended the ceremony to confer an Honorary Doctorate on Sondheim at the Royal Academy of Music. There was a terrific brass fanfare and a procession of men in robes which included a bearded man in sports jacket, yellow shirt and chinos looking uncomfortable in his. I don’t know whether he wrote it himself, but John Suchet’s citation was wonderful and an emotional Sondheim clearly appreciated the honour. It was followed by a 30-minute performance by students and recent graduates which was an unusual selection and a little hampered by failing amplification, but the chorus numbers were fabulous. Julia Mackenzie, Trevor Nunn, Simon Callow and Lesley Garrett were also in the audience to honour the great man. It’s proving a great 80th celebration and we aren’t finished yet!

Contemporary Music

At his Cadogan Hall concert, Nils Lofgren reminded us of his first UK visit in 1973 as part of Neil Young’s band on the ‘Tonight’s the Night’ tour ‘when we played all this new stuff and pissed everyone off’. I can still hear the hissing but refuse to believe it was 37 years ago. Anyway, this concert was by far his best acoustic outing, with just one other person on keyboards / trumpet / guitar & rock tap dancing! It was mostly old stuff, but he’s a great guitar player and has a distinctive voice; add in terrific sound and a lovely atmosphere and you have a treat. 

Classical Music

The Houston Symphony Orchestra playing Holst’s Planets beneath a giant screen showing footage of the planets themselves was an intriguing prospect and proved to be a unique experience. In truth though, I was more impressed by the orchestra’s playing that the projections, possibly because the darkness and visuals heightened the aural experience where every sound was crisp and clear. I also loved the Barber and Stravinsky symphonic suits which preceded the main event.

Tenor Ian Bostridge has a Cecilia Bartoli-style project called ‘The Three Tenors’ which focuses on three early 18th century singers and the pieces that were composed for them by contemporary composers. It’s an album and tour with baroque ensemble Europa Galante and in concert it was very much one of two halves – the first a distinctly underpowered and underwhelming affair and a much better second half when a clearly unwell Bostridge rose to the exciting heights the ensemble had achieved throughout. I’m not sure the repertoire really suited this sweetest of sweet tenors, though the Handel pieces certainly did. The animated ensemble, which stands to play, were often thrilling.

There was a lovely Sunday afternoon affair at the Royal Academy of Music examining the relationship between W H Auden and Benjamin Britten & Lennox Berkley, both of whom set his poems to music. It took the form of an informative discussion / readings followed by afternoon tea (with homemade cakes!) followed by a recital / reading by college students followed by wine – and all for a tenner! Katie Bray stole the show with spirited renditions of Britten’s Cabaret Songs.

Opera

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the only thing 18th century composer Thomas Arne wrote was Rule Britannia. Apparently, the main reason we don’t know much more is that most of his manuscripts were burnt in a fire. Fortunately, most of the masque / opera Alfred survives and it was given a rare and very welcome outing by The Classical Opera Company at Kings Place. It’s similar to, and stands up well against, Handel’s work of the same type and period –a patriotic tale of invasion by and repulsion of the Danes populated by the king, queen & prince, a shepherd & shepherdess, a war widow and a spirit! The small orchestra was terrific, the young company of seven singers excellent and actor Michael Moloney’s tongue-in-cheek narration was an added bonus. Another treat!

I wish I could say the same for the first in our autumn pairing at WNO, Beethoven’s Fidelio. It’s a lovely opera, but it was given a dull, drab and inert production – clumsily staged and full of old-fashioned mannered movement. The director also designed and did the lighting, so I suspect that the lack of a creative team meant one man’s perspective and no challenge. Dennis O’Neill still has a lovely tone to his tenor voice but it was Clive Bayley’s Rocco who shone. The chorus and orchestra were again the real stars, though. It’s one of those evenings when you wished it had been one of those concert performances, or you had closed your eyes during the gorgeous overture and opened them again for the uplifting final chorus.

Fortunately, things picked up for the second opera – Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos – which had a sparkling production and twelve (yes, twelve!) first class and well matched singers, led by Sarah Connolly in the trouser role of The Composer. Though I’d seen the opera a couple of times before, I only realised this time how Wagnerian the second act is – and it also suffers from Wagner’s penchant for the overlong; if it had been 20 minutes shorter, it would have been a lot better. Another treat nonetheless.

Alexander Goehr’s Promised End is an opera based on King Lear. The libretto is entirely Shakespeare’s words and given it’s half the length of the play, it’s surprising how much of the story is told. It’s well directed and designed and the performances are uniformly good. The trouble is the music is just dull – it’s like they were about to do the play, when someone suggested they sing the lines instead of speaking them and improvised it on the spot. If the addition of music doesn’t do anything, it all seems rather pointless.

L’Isola Disabitatia is a short & silly Haydn opera with lovely music about two girls abandoned on a desert island. The musical standards of the Jette Parker Young Artists production at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio were very high with excellent singing from Elizabeth Meister, Anna Devlin, Steven Ebel & Daniel Grice and lovely playing from the Southbank Sinfonia under Volker Krafft. Unfortunately, Rodula Gaitanou’s decision to set it in a post-apocalypse world was preposterous and ugly; it detracts from your enjoyment significantly – again, it would be much better with your eyes closed. With a 75-minute running time, the interval was misguided and did nothing except increase the bar profits.

Film

I haven’t been to the cinema for five months, mostly because I just haven’t fancied anything. It took a British film covering a slice of social history like Made in Dagenham to draw me back and I loved it. They’ve taken liberties with the history, compressing it somewhat, but it’s still a great story and with hindsight a much more important one than I remembered. The who’s who of British acting included fine performances from Sally Hawkins, Daniel Mays, Geraldine James and Miranda Richardson.

I was also impressed by The Kids Are Alright, which takes very contemporary subjects – gay parenting and sperm donation – and produces a charming film which moves seamlessly from funny to thoughtful with an excellent script, sensitive direction and five fine performances. When one child reaches adulthood, she asserts her right to find the sperm donor on behalf of her younger brother and their world is turn upside down when he enters all four of their lives. Very intelligent, clever, modern and grown-up. 

Art

I’d seen a small exhibition of Art by Offenders in Edinburgh, but the one in the Royal Festival Hall is more extensive and so much better exhibited. There is an extraordinary amount of talent here; you can’t like everything, but you can admire it and cheer the good work being done in using art as therapy and rehabilitation.

The V&A has three great exhibitions at the same time. The first we saw was the Raphael cartoons with the tapestries from which they are designed. It was fascinating to see them side-by-side; in one case a threesome with a century younger tapestry copy as well. I was bowled over by how good the Diaghilev & Ballets Russes exhibition was, proving conclusively how much impact they had on art and design of the period. It included lots of costume and set drawings & models as well as actual costumes and front cloths plus much more. It was a feast for the eyes and seemed so contemporary. The best was left until last though, with Shadow Catchers, showcasing five artists who make cameraless photography – their photograms were simply gorgeous.

Nearby in Kensington Gardens, there are four pieces by Anish Kapoor and walking to and between them, watching them change and grow, was a delight. The large disc on the opposite side of the Serpentine with reflections in the disc and in the water and ducks and swans passing in front was the highlight. There were no highlights in Klara Liden’s pointless installations and videos in the Serpentine Gallery I’m afraid – dreadful! 

Gaugin is one of those ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions that lives up to the hype. You’d be forgiven for thinking he just painted semi-naked Tahitian women; well, here’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dispel that myth and see the whole range of his work. There are carvings and woodcuts as well as paintings. The oils are so soft they look like watercolours. The colours are a feast for the eyes. By the time I got to the Turbine Hall downstairs, you weren’t allowed to walk on the millions of tiny porcelain pellets that ARE the installation which makes the whole thing pointlessly expensive.

I’m not sure I got much out of Damian Ortega’s Barbican Curve installation inspired by a month of news stories, but it was original and intriguing; I think I need to go back with more time to do it justice. I’ve really got to love popping into this space before a show or concert.

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