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Contemporary Music

West End Recast was an impulsive last-minute punt which proved a treat. The idea is that musical theatre performers sing songs they would never normally get to sing, because they’re the wrong sex, colour, age etc. It was slow to take off, until Nathan Amzi gave us Cassie’s Music & the Mirror from A Chorus Line! This was followed by a stunning Being Alive from Company by Cynthia Erivo (quite possible the best it’s ever been sung), then a brilliant Rose’s Turn (Gypsy) from Nick Holder to end the first half. The second didn’t reach these heights, but there was much to enjoy.

I’ve always thought Damon Albarn was the best (pop) thing to come out of the 90’s and has become someone, like Elvis Costello and David Byrne, who continually reinvents himself and is always open to collaboration and experimentation. Though his Royal Albert Hall show was built around his excellent new solo album, it dipped into other incarnations and included guest appearances from Blur’s Graham Coxon, musicians from Mali, US hip-hop outfit De La Soul, rapper Kano and virtual recluse Brian Eno! Albarn is clearly in a very happy place and this was a very happy concert.

As her brother heads for the middle of the road, Martha Wainwright continues to do concerts that combine eccentricity, fun and beauty, showcasing her extraordinary voice and ability to inhabit her (and others) songs. This Queen Elizabeth Hall concert was good as the Union Chapel outing last August, though this time her son on stage outstayed his welcome. As one of my companions said, it’s hard to concentrate on a song about a man dying of cancer when you’re petrified a 5-year old might be about to electrocute himself!

I was hugely disappointed by John Grant at the Roundhouse earlier in the year, but had hoped that with an orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall he would be a lot better. Well the sound engineer was having none of that. With bass levels at painful vomit-inducing levels and the orchestra often buried in the mush of the mix, this was another disappointment. There were snatches of greatness (when the man at the back with the machines wasn’t producing his electro shit) but on the whole it was great musicianship ruined by a seemingly deaf arsehole.

Opera

My first (of two) concerts in the short Mariinsky Opera residency at the Barbican Hall was the original version of Boris Gudunov. It was good but lacked the sparkle of Gergiev’s work with the LSO. They seemed to be wheeling out a Mariinsky staple for the Nth time and going through the motions.

The contrast provided by the following night’s OAE / Opera Rara concert version of Donizetti’s Les Martyrs at the Royal Festival Hall couldn’t have been bigger. An orchestra, chorus and six soloists under Sir Mark Elder, all at the the top of their game, polishing a rarely heard opera and producing a musical jewel that shone brighter than Donizetti’s more popular operas. A spontaneous standing ovation is rare at such events, but not for this. Wonderful.

You can always rely on GSMD to give us a rare opera, but you don’t think of Dvorak as rare – productions of his operas are, though. We only ever see one of the eleven he wrote (Rusalka) so it was good to catch his comedy, The Cunning Peasant, in an English translation relocating it to Hardy’s Wessex. It’s a bit derivative of Mozart’s comedies and the first half didn’t grab me, but the second half was great. As always at GSMD, the production values and the performances were excellent.

The ever inventive Les Arts Florissants’ latest project is two short rarely performed Rameau opera-ballets, Daphnis et Egle & La naissance d’Osiris. The seven dancers, six singers and chorus of ten, all costumed, shared the bare Barbican Hall stage in front of the period ensemble, staging them as they would have been staged when they were first performed for the French Court in the eighteenth century. The stories are slight but it sounded gorgeous and this type of performance fascinating.

Glare at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio Theatre was a SciFi opera which I saw less than an hour after the SciFi film Interstellar (below) and it was less than half its length. I admired it more than I enjoyed it, but as modern opera goes, it’s better than most. All four singers trained at GSMD and one, Sky Ingram, blew me away here as she had there.

Dance

It’s been a privilege following the final chapter of Sylvie Guillem‘s career, as she transitioned from classical ballet to contemporary dance and this fourth show (for me) with Akram Khan, Sacred Monsters, at Sadler’s Wells had a biographical twist. The dialogue was a surprise and the shows playfulness was both surprising and delightful. The music was great and the dancing of both mesmerising. In almost exactly six months it’s the farewell show as she retires, wisely, at 50. Real class.

Classical Music

A second outing to the Mariinsky Opera Chorus, but this time on their own, unaccompanied, at GSMD’s new Milton Court Concert Hall for a programme of secular music and folk songs. The acoustic was a bit harsh when they were at full throttle, but the singing was gorgeous and the standard of solos exceptional. If only they smiled more.

The following day, at a lunchtime concert at St. John’s Smith Square, a small group of 10 singers, also unaccompanied, all young enough to be the children of the Mariinsky Chorus (!) made an equally gorgeous sound with music from both ends of a 500-year range. The Erebus Ensemble are an exciting new early music group who also tackle 20th century equivalents like Tavener and Part. Lovely.

Looking at a couple of hundred late teens / early twenties performing Britten’s War Requiem at the Royal Festival Hall on Remembrance Sunday was deeply moving. 100 years ago, many of them would have been heading to the trenches and likely death. This added a poignancy to a beautifully sung and played requiem. The standards of the RAM orchestras and the National Youth Choir were astonishing and the three young soloists – a British tenor, a German Baritone & a Moldovan (former USSR) soprano, as Britten intended – were terrific. Not forgetting the excellent children’s choir assembled especially for the occasion. Conductor Marin Alsop’s command of it all was extraordinary.

The Chapel in the Royal Hospital Chelsea is a lovely venue for a choral concert and Rutter’s Mass of the Children and Britten’s St. Nicholas was a great pairing. Interval drinks in Wren’s beautiful refectory and Chelsea Pensioners in their bright red uniforms greeting all adds to the occasion.

A visit to Handel House with the LSO Friends included a short recital in the room where Handel himself held them, with his composition room just next door. The soprano and harpsichordist sounded lovely and it was great to hear music in this historic room.

The fourth and last of the Composers in Love series at St. John’s Concert Hall was Nocturne, a portrait of Chopin. Given the lack of letters left by him and his family, it was biographically sketchier than the others, but musically it was extraordinary and Lucy Parham converted me to Chopin, who hasn’t really been on my musical radar up until now. The readers this time were Alex Jennings and Harriet Walter (subbing for Juliet Stevenson). What a lovely series this has been.

Cabaret

I didn’t quite know what to expect from national treasure Anne Reid in cabaret (with Stefan Bednarczyk) at St. James Studio and I was delighted when it turned out to be the music of unsung musical theatre heroes Comden & Green, interspersed with the story of, and anecdotes from, their lives. Delightful & charming.

Film

Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner has the most incredible cast, a who’s who of British acting minus the ‘stars’ which would be guaranteed to win BAFTA’s Best Ensemble award (if there was one). Turner’s story is a fascinating one and Leigh’s attention to detail is extraordinary. A towering achievement.

I liked Set Fire to the Stars, about Dylan Thomas’ first US tour, when its American organiser had his work cut out to keep him under control. The US in the 50’s looked great in B&W and the performances, particularly Celyn Jones as Dylan, were very good, but I thought the focus was too much on the US organiser and not enough on Thomas, no doubt because of the star casting of Ethan Hawke.

The Imitation Game is an even better film than I thought it would be. It moves between Alan Turing’s childhood, wartime work and tragic final days and really does illuminate his story. In a terrific cast, Benedict Cumberbatch is extraordinary.

Even though I go to plays more than three hours long, films of similar length rarely hold my attention and I don’t really know why. Interstellar comes in just under three hours but I was captivated throughout. So so much better than last year’s Galaxy, maybe a touch too sentimental but an absolute must see.

Art

I’ve seen Anselm Keifer works in galleries all over the world, but seeing them all together in the Royal Academy’s retrospective exhibition was a bit overwhelming as they are virtually all dark and depressing with his brown-to-black palette. Many (but not all) are great as individual works, but together it’s a different experience. His books were a revelation, but displayed in cases open at one page seemed like a lost curatorial opportunity to me.

Waled Besthty’s installation at the Barbican’s Curve Gallery is more impressive for its execution than its visual appeal. It’s a whole year’s worth of images created using the cyanotype printing process covering the whole curved wall. You have to take in the overall impact rather than the detail (unless you’ve got a day or two to spare). It’s not the best the Curve has offered, but this space is still indispensable for innovative big scale works.

I’m afraid Mirror City at the Hayward Gallery went right over my head. Apparently, the artists are seeking ‘to address the challenges, conditions and consequences of living in one of the world’s busiest cities in the digital age’. Yeh…..back in the real world next door in the RFH, the annual World Press Photo Exhibition shows us what it’s really like living in cities, countries, the world; a reminder of last year’s events, mostly sad ones this year.

The Late Turner exhibition at Tate Britain is a riot of gorgeous colour and a great companion for Mike Leigh’s film (above). It’s a brilliant example of how a man in his 60’s and 70’s can be bursting with creativity and originality. Upstairs in the Turner Prize exhibition there isn’t a painting in sight – it’s all film, slides & photos – I wonder what Turner would think. I hated it. In the Turner Galleries themselves, one room has been given over to Olafur Eliasson’s colour experiments where he tries to create the late Turner palette. The room contains giant circles each with their own colour range. Interesting.

Catching Dreams was the title of this year’s Koestler Trust exhibition of art by offenders, secure patients and detainees at the Royal Festival Hall and it was as intriguing and inspirational as ever. This must be excellent therapy and great that their work is seen and sold in this way.

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Contemporary Music

I so wish John Grant hadn’t started dabbling in electronica, because even his older songs are now all beginning to sound the same. Without it, the songs shine and the voice soars and much of his Roundhouse concert was stunning, but some of it was annoyingly dated 80’s electromush! Icelandic support act Samaris had two Biorkesque female voices but a similar electronica background which grated on me, I’m afraid.

Classical Music

Going to see Daniel (younger brother of Henry) Purcell’s The Judgement of Paris at St. John’s Concert Hall was a bit of a punt but worth the effort. It was written for the composer X-Factor of its day with four others in contention, using the same William Congreve libretto. It’s one of the first operas written, though not a particularly good one, telling the story of Paris’ goddess beauty parade to select a wife, but the five soloists, Spiritato orchestral ensemble & Rodolfus Choir under Julian Perkins did it full justice.

I like early music and have heard Rameau works before, but didn’t know much about Les Indes Galantes. It was an extraordinary ‘opera’ with five loosely connected ‘courses’ set on an Indian Ocean island, the Peru of the Incas and with Native Americans, amongst others. Each story was told quite quickly, followed by longer musical ‘interludes’. It was a long evening at the Barbican, but it was all beautifully played and sung by six soloists, ensemble Les Talens Lyriques and the Chorus of Opera National de Bordeaux under Christophe Rousset.

A lunchtime freebie at the Royal Academy of Music turned out to be a real treat. Sir Mark Elder led their Chamber Orchestra (seemed a bit big for that title to me!) in a programme of Verdi overtures and preludes, with a bonus aria from Dennis O’Neill no less, and an informative and entertaining commentary from the conductor. The orchestra sounded so much more than conservatoire students and were often thrilling, just like they were for Edward Gardiner last year.

The second of Lucy Parham’s composer portraits at St. John’s Concert Hall, Odyssey of Love, focused on Liszt. It was a little lighter than the previous one, with Martin Jarvis and Joanna David bringing some humour to the tales of his sex life, but just as fascinating and a superb introduction to a composer I know little of. Now I can’t wait for the next two in the autumn.

Imagine a school tackling Verdi’s Requiem! Well, it was Harrow, and the soloists were professional, and they were supplemented by adults. You will hear more technically perfect performances, but may not hear a more rousing & powerful one. The bass drummer was so passionate his huge instrument came close to falling onto a horn player! The Speech Room of Harrow School was grand enough for the occasion but small enough to make you jump. Great stuff.

Opera

I’ve liked the other three Jonathan Dove operas I’ve seen, but I absolutely adored The Adventures of Pinocchio. It’s a bit of a stretch at almost three hours, but it’s hard to see where it could be cut. At GSMD, it’s given a brilliantly inventive production by director Martin Lloyd-Evans and designer Dick Bird and the musical standards achieved by Dominic Wheeler are nothing short of astonishing. The chorus was the best I’ve heard it and there were a whole load of great performances, with Marta Fontanals-Simmons a simply stunning Pinocchio. Watch out for her; she’s going to be huge.

A very welcome initiative by Aldeburgh Music, Opera North and the Royal Opera brings us a pair of new operas, The Commission / Café Kafka. I admired them, but they didn’t entertain me and it made me realize that’s what’s wrong with a lot of modern opera – it aims to impress more than to entertain and composers and writers would do well to consider that. Café Kafka succeeded more than The Commission, and both were well played, sung and staged – but not entertaining enough!

Ariodante at The Royal Academy of Music was simple, modern and elegant with fine playing under Jane Glover no less and some lovely singing. This is one of my favourite Handel operas and they did it full justice.

Art

United Visual Artists provided the Barbican Curve space with one of it’s best installations with Rain Room where it stopped as you walked under it; now they’ve done it again with Momentum, using moving light to create images and shadows on the gallery walls, floor and roof. Another hugely imaginative use of the space.

Glass maker Dale Chihuly is back with another selling show at the Halcyon Gallery only a couple of years after the last. It all seemed more organic – lots of curvy bowls within bowls – but with the trademarks of scale and colour. I discovered he’s opened a museum in his home town Seattle, where I will be later in the year, so that’s clearly going to be a must. Down the road, the Pace Gallery were showing four of James Turrell’s light works but they seemed more of the same to me. Moving on to the Royal Academy for Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined where seven international practices (none of them British!) have created giant, mostly room filling, installations. As much as I admired them, I couldn’t help thinking they didn’t really justify the energy and expense that had been invested in them. Still, it was a rare foray into architecture for the RA and to be welcomed for that.

Soon after I entered Body Language at the Saatchi Gallery, I felt like I was at an end of term school art show. It got better, as did New Order: British Art Today upstairs, and it was good to see more painting than sculpture and installation for a change, but so much of it seemed derivative. I think I might have to give up on modern art.

After the first few rooms, I didn’t think I was going to like the Richard Hamilton retrospective at Tate Modern, but it rather grew on me as the work got better. I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a show so eclectic by a single artist; is there anything he didn’t have a go at?!

I very much enjoyed Vikings : Life & Legend at the British Museum. The exhibits aren’t exactly spectacular, but the story they tell is. I was amazed how far they travelled, all by boat (Nova Scotia & Uzbekistan!), and how the simplicity of their design has continued to modern-day Scandinavia. Beautifully curated, with a recreated long boat and all the Lewis Chessmen.

Film

The Grand Budapest Hotel had a great trailer, but turns out to be just a good film, which is probably a good lesson in overselling. It is quirky and funny and Ralph Fiennes is a revelation in a larger-than-life comic role, but the trailer meant it left me a little disappointed.

As much as I admired the cinematography, I didn’t really understand Under the Skin so I didn’t get much out of it. I admired the fact that ordinary people were filmed, then asked if they minded being in it, but that wasn’t enough to make it worth seeing.

Starred Up was sometimes difficult to watch, but it’s a brilliant film exposing the damage prisons can do and the hopelessness they perpetuate. Jack O’Connell’s small screen debut in Skins was impressive; here he is simply stunning. Unmissable.

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Contemporary Music

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

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

Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film

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

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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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