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Posts Tagged ‘Jason Howard’

Contemporary Music

The Floating Palace at the Barbican was one of those compilation concerts that throws together a handful of artists with similar tastes, though this one was without the usual theme – tribute to…songs of… Sadly, though it had its moments (mostly from K T Tunstall & Krystle Warren), it was rather flat, somewhat rambling & under-rehearsed with a lot of irritating inaudible on-stage chat. Robyn Hitchcock was in charge and it also included Martin & Eliza Carthy and Howard Gelb. Given it’s repeated a handful of times across the UK, a cynic might think it’s a bit of a money spinner rather than like-minded people making music together?

Martin Simpson’s concert at Kings Place was a real treat. Dick Gaughan and June Tabor guested and June’s 25-minute mini-set was as close to perfection as you can get. There was superb backing from Andy Cutting on accordion and Andy Seward on double bass and the sound was gorgeous. If only Simpson wasn’t so obsessive about tuning – I think he might be the only one who notices!

Opera

I haven’t been to any of the Opera Up Close productions since their triumphant first one, La Boheme, at the Cock Tavern in Kilburn. They’re now at The Kings Head Theatre and I was drawn to Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West as I haven’t seen it for so long. It was always a pretty preposterous opera (set in the Wild West, sung in Italian!) and here it has been relocated to modern-day Soho where Minnie runs a bar frequented by East European lowlife. It’s not Puccini’s best score, by a long margin, and the new libretto seems too keen to make you laugh at the swearing and modern references that litter it. It is by and large well sung ( though operatic voices at close quarters can seen unnecessarily loud and brash) and played heroically on piano by John Gibbons and the shamefully uncredited violinist. The opera is alleged to be the source of some of Phantom of the Opera’s melodies and a second hearing confirms this suspicion. I rather liked the way they made this point when Minnie picks up a phantom mask from her dressing table at one point!

The winter pairing at WNO was superb. The first was a revival of Berlioz’ Beatrice & Benedict, a light funny operetta-like piece with some gorgeous music which Michael Hofsetter conducted delicately. All of the performances were good, with a comic masterclass from Donald Maxwell, but it was the chorus and orchestra that shone most (again!). Michael Yeargan’s 18-year old design still sparked. It was followed by a revival of La Traviata which we loved when we first saw it 18 months ago and loved just as much second time round. It’s an attractive and intensely dramatic production and the leads this time – Joyce El-Khoury, Leonardo Capalbo and Jason Howard – all excelled.

I’ve only seen Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman once before, many years ago at Covent Garden when you could afford to go, and didn’t think much of it. Operetta? Ugh! Richard Jones’ production for ENO is therefore a revelation. I now see it as an opera rather than an operetta and here it scrubs up fresh in a highly inventive production. Giles Cadle’s design is excellent and there’s some wonderful singing from Barry Banks, Clive Bayley, Christine Rice and most especially the ENO debut of American soprano Georgia Jarman playing all four female leads – a real find.

Ernani was only my second experience of The Met Live in HD. The picture and sound quality is outstanding and I like the interval interviews and visible scene changes. It was better musically than visually (a rather old-fashioned static production) but it whetted my appetite to see more next season.

Dance

Umoja was one of those punts you make when you flick through a season programme – in this case, song and dance from South Africa at Sadler’s Wells third theatre, The Peacock. This one paid off big-time as the dance was thrilling and the singing was beautiful. It sought to tell the story of the evolution of song and dance in this country, and did so well, though I’d have liked a little less narration.

Classical Music

I only got to one of the LSO’s Debussy mini-season and rather regretted that by the time the concert was over. Michael Tilson Thomas has a real affinity with this music and all three Debussy pieces, concluding with his most famous – La Mer, were superb. For some reason they added in Weill’s Seven Deady Sins, which is a piece I like but which somehow seemed out of place – the amplification of Anne Sofie Von Otter didn’t help. 

The same orchestra’s Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev & Shostakovich programme was simply thrilling. Valery Gergiev is unrivalled in the Russian repertoire and here he conducted Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony without a score! Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto was played brilliantly by another Russian, Denis Matsuev, but it was Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture that I enjoyed most. The LSO really is at the top of their game.

Art 

The German Contemporaries exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery is the same as all the others – a handful of great pieces and a lot of mediocrity. Much better was the photographic exhibition upstairs celebrating 50 years of the Sunday Times magazine and even better a film in a nearby shop made by stitching together 5000 video diaries.

Lucien Freud Portraits at the NPG is a wonderfully comprehensive review of his work and a real treat. He may only have done portraits, but boy were they good. Seeing so many together can be a bit samey, but brilliant works like this make it unmissable and seeing the evolution of his work is fascinating. Also at the NPG, the annual photographic portrait exhibition is up to the usual standard though yet again I disagreed with the five awarded!

The Barbican Curve space has another extraordinary installation, this time by Chinese artist Song Dong. It’s called Waste Not and consists of a vast quantity of household items – clothing, furniture, pots and pans, newspapers, toys….you name it, it’s here! – collected by his mother in the seven years following the death of her husband and meticulously laid out thematically along the length of the long curved gallery. Given all of this was transported from China, though, the carbon footprint is somewhat unacceptable.

Hajj exhibition. It’s a brilliantly curated examination of the history and practice of the pillar of Islam including some beautiful historical books, pictures and artifacts. Fascinating!

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Well, either this has improved immeasurably since opening or I’m easily pleased. Put off initially by the obscene ticket prices (top price £85 – 30% higher than any West End musical), then by the mediocre blogs and reviews and on arrival at the theatre by the £6 programme, things didn’t look promising…….but I absolutely loved it!

I’ve only seen the show twice before – in 1998 in the West End when Gemma Craven was a rather glib Nellie but Bertice Reading a terrific Bloody Mary and at the NT in 2001 when Philip Quast was an excellent Emile but John Napier’s designs and Matthew Bourne’s choreography were the stars. Neither was cast as well as this, where every role is well played and beautifully sung. The musical standards are particularly high with the orchestra playing the score so well both the overture and entr’acte were highlights in themselves.

Samantha Womack is a revelation – sweet-voiced and gorgeous, with an excellent American accent, riding Nellie’s emotional roller coaster superbly. Jason Howard (well, I think it was him – I refused to pay the £6 for the programme!) is excellent, with a lovely baritone voice that does full justice to the songs Rogers & Hammerstein wrote for Emile. Daniel Koek is a fine voiced, handsome Joe and Loretta Ables Sayre a darker Bloody Mary than we’re used to. Alex Fearns showed us his musical comedy credentials in the touring version of the Menier’s Little Shop of Horrors and he confirms them here with a brilliant characterisation as Billis.

In addition to its exceptional musical standards, where this production scores for me is on an emotional level. You really do engage with the characters, their novel situation and their love – it is often deeply moving. The show was way ahead of its time in the 50’s with a war setting and racism to the fore, and with such wonderful songs (and boy, what a score!) it’s easy to bury the issues in the palm trees and grass skirts. They’ve certainly not done that here and for me that’s the real success of Bartlett’s Sher’s production.

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