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Posts Tagged ‘Joyce DiDonato’

Opera

The Royal College of Music put on a cracking opera double-bill of Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement and Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti. The stories of British toffs’ post-war ‘poverty’ and unhappy 50’s American suburbia somehow worked well together and they were both staged and performed brilliantly.

It was good to catch Britten’s rarely produced children’s opera, Noye’s Fludde, in a co-production between ENO and Stratford East, involving two schools, young musicians from two local boroughs, a community choir and students of the Royal College of Music. It was a very charming and heart-warming experience.

Cilea’s L’arlesiana is one of Opera Holland Park’s best rediscoveries. It’s a ‘small’ opera for such a big space, but the surprisingly lush and romantic score was beautifully sung and played. Lovely.

My first opera in the Arcola Theatre’s Grimeborn season was one I’m not really keen on – Die Fledermaus – but a friend wanted to go and it turned out to be a hoot. It was shortened to 50 minutes, updated to the present day and played and sung brilliantly by Baseless Fabric Theatre.

I could hardly believe my ears at our second visit to Grimeborn for Wagner’s Das Rheingold; the 100 minute adaptation by Graham Vick & John Dove, The singing was astonishingly good, the orchestra brilliant and the simple staging highly effective. I never thought you could pull off Wagner with these resources in a small space, but it was more thrilling than any production I’ve seen in an opera house.

Classical Music

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s The Planets at the Royal Albert Hall was an afterthought brought on by some friends coming to London to see it. It was accompanied by extraordinary NASA footage on a big screen. It peaked in the first movement when the power of Mars was accompanied by NASA‘s best images. As we went into less well known movements and more distant planets, it was less thrilling, but still worth a visit. The first half included superb renditions of Also Sprach Zarathustra and John Williams’ Star Wars suite. Populist stuff, but high quality populist stuff.

I’ve seen the London Welsh Chorale a few times, but their concert of rarely performed and new pieces by Welsh composers was on another level altogether, both in scale – orchestra, children’s choir, three soloists, organ and narrator – and quality. They sounded gorgeous in St. Giles Cripplegate.

My first Prom this year was a Sunday morning one with the National Youth Orchestra of the USA under Antonio Pappano and the incomparable mezzo Joyce DiDonato in a programme that included Berlioz’ Les nuits d’ete song cycle, which sounded heavenly, and Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, which was thrilling. It opened with the European premiere of an excellent short work by a 19-year-old orchestra member! Joyce, of course, forever stylish, colour-coded her frock with the orchestra’s bold red and black outfits. When they encored with Elgar I felt I was in an internationalist haven far away from the nationalism of everyday life these days. These young people were clearly from a diverse range of backgrounds playing music by French, German, British and American composers. A wave of emotion overcame me as the music was saying more about a special relationship than any politician ever could, and the warmth of their reception at the Royal Albert Hall was uplifting.

Back at the Royal Albert Hall for my one and only evening Prom this year, for Handel’s oratorio Jephtha, which was very well played and sung by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra & Chorus under Richard Egarr, with a fine set of soloists. The cuts were a bit controversial, but they didn’t bother me and it was a bit of a novelty to be at a concert which came in at 30 minutes less than the published time.

Dance

At Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, contemporary dance piece 10,000 Gestures delivered what it said, not that I was counting, as the dancers were, out loud, some of the time. The pace was mostly frenetic, Mozart’s Requiem was background rather than choreographed and it got a bit edgy when the 21 dancers moved into the audience, some members of which moved onto the playing area. Boris Charmatz’ work was strangely compelling and somewhat exhausting.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Hobson’s Choice may be thirty years old, but it’s as fresh as they come, and a comic delight. Ballet can often be very earnest, and this is the antidote. An excellent score, period set & costumes and sprightly choreography with terrific characterisations come together to make a lovely full evening show at Sadler’s Wells.

I’ve seen and enjoyed everything Matthew Bourne has done, but what was special about Romeo & Juliet at Sadler’s Wells was his use of young dancers and artistic associates. It was inspired, mesmerising, exhilarating, thrilling……and exhausting! The musical adaptation, the design and the choreography all combined to produce something so fresh and exciting, but also very moving, and the performances were uniformly stunning. I can’t wait to see it again.

Film

I liked Late Night, a film with more depth than it seemed at first, and I was hugely impressed by Emma Thomson, an actress I don’t always take to, for the second time in less than twelve months.

I like Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis films, Rom Coms and British feel-good movies. Add the soundtrack of my teens and I was in heaven seeing Yesterday.

Blinded by the Light is Gurinder Chadha’s best film since Bend It Like Beckham 17 years ago, another heart-warming and hopeful British Asian story, this time based on a real one.

I’m not a Quentin Tarantino fan because of his glorification of violence but I was led to believe Once Upon A Time in Hollywood was different. Well, it was for the first 2h20m and I loved the late 60s retro aesthetic and accompanying soundtrack, though it was a bit slow, sometimes dull and overlong, but then he grossed out for the last 20m and I had to look away.

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Contemporary Music

It was a breath of fresh air to see The Unthanks (well, three of them) stripped back to unaccompanied vocals. The purity of their singing in the gorgeous acoustic of Union Chapel made for a surprisingly varied and joyful evening. There was good support from Lau’s Aiden O’Rourke & Kit Downes with their fiddle & harmonium instrumentals inspired by a book of short stories.

Classical Music

It takes a big imagination to see a 425-year-old accapella vocal cycle as suitable for staging, but Peter Sellers has one, and I have to say it worked. Los Angeles Master Chorale, dressed in shades of grey, moving around the stage as they sang, made Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro at Barbican Hall so much more emotional and captivating, even for a non-believer!

The month ended on a real high with Il Pomo d’Oro‘s concert performance of Handel’s Agrippina at the Barbican with a cast to die for led by Joyce DiDonato. They brought out all the humour and Joyce in the titular role was every inch the manipulative Empress. For once the attempts at characterisation worked brilliantly. In a lifetime of Handel opera-going, this was a highlight.

Dance

There was some stunning visual imagery in Yang Liping – Rite of Spring at Sadler’s Wells, but it was more posing than dancing, very episodic and difficult if not impossible to follow the narrative. The best of Stravinsky’s suite was left out (the last movement) and the false endings became tiresome, as did the milking of bows!

Film

I was worried the combination of biography and fantasy wouldn’t work, but Rocketman proved me wrong. Seven or eight years ago I was impressed by Taron Egerton in the Stephen Sondheim Student Performer of the Year competition. He didn’t win, but he got my vote, and here he is as Elton John. Definitely a film I’d recommend.

Art

The Stanley Kubrick exhibition at the Design Museum is a fascinating collection of scripts, props, costumes, storyboards, cameras, posters and film clips covering his long but not particularly prolific career. Attention to detail and quality were clearly more important than quantity of output. A genius who made just ten major films but left an enduring legacy.

London is full of blockbusters at the moment and this month, as well as Kubrick, it was Leonardo da Vinci: A life in Drawings at the Queen’s Gallery. There were a lot of them – portraits, anatomical subjects, buildings, plants, some sketches and some maps; little fully finished, but they added up to paint a picture of an extraordinarily talented man.

Swinging London: A Style Revolution at the Fashion Museum trod similar ground to Mary Quant at the V&A but a bit broader, and if anything I preferred it. The Chelsea Set, let by Terence Conran and Mary Quant, certainly had an impact, but I was surprised to see painter John Minton, sculptor Edward Paolozzi and Bernard & Laura Ashley amongst them. All very nostalgic.

Two small exhibitions of modern abstract art at White Cube Bermondsey proved colourful and rather cheery, though you wouldn’t say they were that original. Sarah Morris: Machines do not make us into Machines was very geometric and loud whilst Zhou Li’s Original State of Mind was softer, more organic and impressionistic. I found them both uplifting, though.

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Opera

ENO took Britten’s folk opera / operetta Paul Bunyan to Wilton’s Music Hall, where it somehow fitted like a glove. It’s an odd mythical concoction about the American Dream, but its real strength is its lyrical score, which showed off the young singers and chorus brilliantly. It seemed darker than the previous two occasions I’ve seen it, which seemed appropriate given recent events.

My 2018 Proms ended on a high the night before the Last Night with a lovely performance of Handel’s Theodora by Arcangelo and five excellent soloists. Despite being a chamber ensemble and small choir, they filled the RAH. The countdown to Proms 20-19 begins!

My only visit to WNO at the WMC in Cardiff this autumn was for Prokofiev’s epic War & Peace. It’s a flawed opera, with the first half a series of scenes lacking cohesion, and I thought their decision to translate it into English was a mistake as it came over as clunky, but the soloists were terrific and above all the second half showed off both the chorus and orchestra to thrilling effect.

Classical Music

For some reason, I was disappointed in the Berlioz Prom. It wasn’t the musicianship, which was extraordinary, but maybe it was a programme of lesser Berlioz. I just didn’t think it did The Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, John Elliott Gardiner, favourite Joyce DiDonato and viola player Antoine Tamestit justice. The rest of the audience and the critics appeared to disagree, so maybe it was just an off night for me.

A double-dip of two Proms in one evening proved very rewarding indeed, starting with a superb performance of Britten’s War Requiem from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra & Chorus, probably my favourite choral work, and continuing with 60 mins of 850 years of late night polyphony from the ever wonderful Tallis Scholars; it’s amazing how those 30 or so voices fill the Royal Albert Hall.

The Parry centenary concert at Wigmore Hall was a delightful way to spend an hour on a Sunday afternoon. Songs by him and his friends and contemporaries were beautifully sung by Louise Alder & Nicky Spence accompanied by William Vann and it was all very uplifting. Back in the same venue the following lunchtime, soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Joseph Middleton gave another lovely recital of English song from Purcell to Ireland, Walton and Michael Head, an early 20th century composer new to me. The folk song encores proved to be the highlight.

Art

As if to compensate for the hugely disappointing exhibition at the Weiner Gallery, Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919-33 at Tate Modern was a real treat, with artists new to me as well as those like Otto Dix I’ve seen vast amounts of this summer. Across the Bridge, Artist Rooms: Jenny Holzer was worth popping into, though much of it goes over my head.

A visit to Cornwall meant a second visit to Tate St. Ives, which had a hit-and-miss exhibition of Patrick Heron. I loved some of the colourful abstractions, but much of it left me cold.

Renzo Piano: The Art of Making Buildings at the Royal Academy covered his illustrious career from before the Pompidou Centre to The Shard by focusing on sixteen projects, built and unbuilt (yet). The trouble was it was all very static – each project a table on which there were notes, drawings and models with more drawings and photos on the walls around. The most interesting project was one I’m unlikely to ever see, in New Caledonia, in the Pacific Ocean! For architects and architectural students only, I’d say.

Film

BlacKkKlansman wasn’t an easy watch, but its humour and its chilling ending were enough to make it well worth seeing.

I enjoyed The Children Act, the second film of the summer featuring the consequences of Jehovah’s Witnesses fundamentalism, especially for Emma Thompson’s deeply touching performance.

Crazy Rich Asians was a great advert for the Singapore Tourist Authority, but I rather overdosed on rich Asians, crazy or otherwise. It had its funny moments, but there weren’t enough of them to warrant the reviews that sent me to see it.

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The Rest of 2016

I spent a third of the last third of the year out of the country, so my monthly round-up’s for this period have merged into one mega-round-up of the two-thirds of the four months I was here!

Opera

Opera Rara’s concert performance of Rossini’s rare Semiramide, the last Bel Canto opera, at the Proms was a real highlight. It’s a long work, four hours with interval, in truth too long, but it contains some of Rossini’s best music (and I’m not even a fan!). The OAE, Opera Rara Chorus and a world class set of soloists under Sir Mark Elder gave it their all, with ovations during let alone at the end. Brilliant.

I was out of the country when I would have made my usual trip to Cardiff for WNO’s autumn season, so I went to Southampton to catch their UK premiere of Andre Tchaikowsky’s The Merchant of Venice when I got home and I was very glad I did. It’s a fine adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, with a particularly dramatic court scene, and it was beautifully sung and played, with a terrific performance by American Lester Lynch as Shylock.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been to something that sounded so beautiful but looked so ugly. Handel’s Oreste, a pasticcio opera (a compilation of tunes from elsewhere, in Handel’s case his own works) which the Royal Opera staged at Wilton’s Music Hall. The singing and playing of the Jette Parker Young Artists and Southbank Sinfonia were stunning, but the production was awful. One of those occasions when it’s best to shut your eyes.

Classical Music

Another delightful lunchtime Prom at Cadogan Hall, this time counter-tenor Iestyn Davies and soprano Carolyn Sampson, both of whom are terrific soloists, but together make a heavenly sound. I was less keen on the six Mendelssohn songs than the six Quilter’s and even more so the glorious six Purcell pieces. It was a joyful, uplifting hour.

Juditha triumphans is a rare opera / oratorio by Vivaldi that was brilliantly performed at the Barbican by the Venice Baroque Orchestra and a superb quintet of female singers including Magdalena Kozena as Juditha. It took a while to take off, but it then soared, and the second half was simply stunning.

Visiting the LSO Steve Reich at 80 concert at the Barbican was a bit of a punt which really paid off. The three pieces added up to a feast of modernist choral / orchestral fusions. The composer was present and received an extraordinary ovation from a surprisingly full house.

Berlioz Requiem is on a huge scale, so the Royal Albert Hall was the perfect venue, and it was Remembrance Sunday, so the perfect day too. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, with ten timpanists and an enormous brass section of 50 or 60, occasionally drowned out all three choirs (!) but it was otherwise a thrilling ride.

Joyce DiDonato‘s latest recital with the wonderful baroque ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro was a bit if a disappointment. It had some extraordinary musical high spots, but the selection could have been better and she didn’t really need the production (lights, projections, haze, costumes, face painting and a dancer!). It didn’t help that the stage lights sometimes shone into the eyes of large chunks of the audience, including me, blinding them and sending me home with a headache.

At the Royal Academy of Music their Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Sir Mark Elder in a lunchtime concert of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony and it was thrilling. Sir Mark did another of his fascinating introductory talks, this time illustrated with musical extracts.

The BBC Singers gave a lovely curtain-raising concert of unaccompanied seasonal music by British composers at St Giles Cripplegate, half from the 20th century and half from the 21st, before the BBC SO‘s equally seasonal pairing of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve Suite and Neil Brand’s A Christmas Carol for orchestra, choir and actors in the Barbican Hall. This was a big populist treat.

I’ve heard a lot of new classical music since I last heard John Adams‘ epic oratorio El Nino, so it was good to renew my acquaintance and discover how much I still admire it. 270 performers on the Barbican stage provide a very powerful experience – the LSO, LSC, a youth choir and six excellent American soloists who all know the work. Thrilling.

Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley, accompanied by Sir Antonio Pappano on piano no less, gave a superb but sparsely attended recital at the Barbican Hall. It was an eclectic, multi-lingual and highly original selection, beautifully sung. More fool those who stayed away from this absolute treat.

The standards of amateur choirs in the UK are extraordinary, and the London Welsh Chorale are no exception. Their lovely Christmas concert at St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate included extracts from Handel’s Messiah, Vivaldi’s Gloria plus songs and carols. The soprano and mezzo soloists were superb too.

Dance

Rambert’s ballet set to Haydn’s oratorio The Creation at Sadler’s Wells was one of the best dance evenings of recent years. If you shut your eyes, this would be a world class concert with three fine soloists, the BBC Singers and the Rambert Orchestra. With a gothic cathedral backdrop, the dance added a visual dimension which wasn’t literal but was beautifully impressionistic and complimentary.

English National Ballet had the inspired idea to ask Akram Khan to breathe new life into Giselle and at Sadler’s Wells boy did he do that. It’s an extraordinarily powerful, mesmerising and thrilling combination of music, design and movement. From set, costumes and lighting to an exciting adapted score and the most stunning choreography, this is one of the best dance shows I’ve ever seen.

Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake the following week, also at Sadler’s Wells, wasn’t such a success, and steered even further away from its inspiration. It revolved around a 36-year old single man whose mother was desperate to marry off, but there were lots of references to depression and madness. I’m afraid I didn’t find the narrative very clear, its relationship to the ballet is a mystery to me and it’s more physical theatre than dance. It had its moments, but it was not for me I’m afraid.

Back at Sadler’s Wells again for The National Ballet of China‘s Peony Pavilion, a real east-meets-west affair. Ancient Chinese tale, classical ballet with elements of Chinese dance, classical music with added Chinese opera. Lovely imagery and movement. I loved it.

New Adventures’ Red Shoes at Sadler’s Wells might be the best thing they’ve done since the male Swan Lake. With a lush Bernard Herman mash-up score, great production values and Matthew Bourne’s superb choreography, it’s a great big populist treat.

Contemporary Music

Camille O’Sullivan brought an edginess to the songs of Jacques Brel which I wasn’t comfortable with at first but then she alternated them with beautifully sung ballads and I became captivated. She inhabited the songs, creating characters for each one. Her encore tributes to Bowie & Cohen were inspired.

There were a few niggles with Nick Lowe‘s Christmas concert at the Adelphi Theatre – it started early (!), the sound mix wasn’t great and he gave over 30 minutes of his set to his backing band Los Straightjackets (who perform in suits, ties & Mexican wrestler masks!) but (What’s so funny ’bout) Peace Love & Understanding has never sounded more timely and the closing acoustic Alison was simply beautiful. He’s still growing old gracefully.

Film

I loved Ron Howard’s recreation of the Beatles touring years in Eight Days a Week, plus the remastered Shea Stadium concert which followed. What was astonishing about this was that they were completely in tune with all that crowd noise and no monitors or earphones!

Bridget Jones Baby was my sort of escapist film – warm, fluffy and funny – and it was good to see Rene Zellweger and Colin Frith on fine form as the now much older characters.

I, Daniel Blake made me angry and made me cry. Thank goodness we’ve got Ken Loach to show up our shameful treatment of the disabled. Fine campaigning cinema.

I loved Nocturnal Beasts, a thriller that’s as close to the master, Hitchcock, as I’ve ever seen. I was gripped for the whole two hours.

Fantastic Beasts lived up to its hype. Though it is obviously related to Harry Potter, it’s its own thing which I suspect will have quite a series of its own. Starting in NYC, I reckon it will be a world tour of locations for future productions.

Kiwi film The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a very funny, heart-warming affair with a stunning performance by a young teenager, Julian Dennison, matched by a fine one from Sam Neill.

I loved A United Kingdom, based on the true story of Botswana’s Seretse Khama, leader from mid-60s independence to 1980. It’s the true story of a country that has been a beacon of democracy in a continent of corruption.

The Pass must be one of the most successful stage-to-screen transfers ever. I was in the front row at the Royal Court upstairs, but it seemed even tenser on screen. Good that three of the four actors made the transfer too.

One of my occasional Sunday afternoon double-bills saw Arrival back-to-back with Sully. The former was my sort of SciFi, with the emphasis on the Sci, and it gripped me throughout. I’m also fond of true stories & the latter delivered that very well.

I liked (Star Wars) Rogue One, but it was a bit slow and dark (light-wise) to start with, then maybe too action-packed from then. I’m not sure I will do 3D again too; it’s beginning to feel too low definition and overly blurry for a man who wears glasses.

Art

Sally Troughton‘s installations in the Pump House Gallery at Battersea Park didn’t really do much for me, but Samara Scott‘s installations in the Mirror Pools of its Pleasure Garden Fountains certainly did. A combination of dyed water and submerged fabrics created lovely reflective effects.

There was so much to see in the V&A’s You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970. It was an astonishing five years and the exhibition covers music, art, design, fashion, politics, literature…..you name it. I shall have to go again to take it all in.

Wifredo Lam is a Cuban artist I’ve never heard of, getting a full-blown retrospective at Tate Modern. There was too much of his late, very derivative abstract paintings, but it was still overall a surprising and worthwhile show.

South Africa: the art of a nation was a small but excellent exhibition covering thousands of years from early rock art to contemporary paintings and other works. Most of the old stuff was from the British Museum’s own collection, so in that sense it was one of those ‘excuses for a paying exhibition’ but the way they were put together and curated and the addition of modern art made it worthwhile.

The Picasso Portraits exhibition at the NPG was a lot better than I was expecting, largely because of the number of early works, which I prefer to the more abstract late Picasso. Seeing these does make you wonder why he departed from realism, for which he had so much talent.

Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy was also better than expected, largely because of the range of work and the inclusion of artists I didn’t really know. I do struggle with people like Pollock and Rothko though, and can’t help thinking they may be taking the piss!

The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition, back at the NPG, seemed smaller than usual, but just as high quality. I do love these collections of diverse subjects and styles.

Back at the Royal Academy, Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans was a very interesting exhibition of the work of an underrated Belgian master (with an obsession with masks and skeletons!) curated by a contemporary Belgian artist. I’ve seen samples of his work in my travels, but it was good to see it all together, and I liked the curatorial idea too.

At Tate Modern, a double-bill starting with a Rauschenberg retrospective. I’ve been underwhelmed by bits of his work I’ve come across in my travels, but this comprehensive and eclectic show was fascinating (though I’m still not entirely sold on his work!). The second part was Radical Eye, a selection from Elton John’s collection of modernist photography (with more Man Ray’s that have probably ever been shown together). It’s an extraordinary collection and it was a privilege to see it.

Star Wars Identities at the O2 exceeded my expectations, largely because of the idea of discovering your own Star Wars identity by choosing a character and mentor and answering questions on behaviour and values and making choices at eight ‘stations’ en route which were recorded on your wristband, in addition to film clips, models, costumes etc. The behavioural, career and values stuff was well researched and the whole experience oozed quality.

I didn’t think many of the exhibits in Vulgar: Fashion Redefined at the Barbican were vulgar at all! It was an exhibition made up entirely of costumes, so it was never going to be my thing, but it passed a pre-concert hour interestingly enough.

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Contemporary Music

A friend suggested going to see Welsh harpist Catrin Finch & Senegalese cora player Seckou Keita at Union Chapel and what a brilliant suggestion it was. Their instruments blend beautifully and create an uplifting sound. It was the perfect venue, with a quiet respectful audience. Gorgeous.

I really don’t know what to make of Elvis Costello‘s concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Part of BluesFest (what?!). He brings Steve Nieve & they play 8 songs together, some in radical new arrangements. His song selections are eclectic and perhaps a bit quirky. He’s often uncharacteristically flat or off key. He talks a lot. It contained sublime moments, but not enough of them. It was certainly no crowd-pleaser and the audience reaction was distinctly underwhelming. Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames, supporting, were great (though he talked a lot too). They played two songs together, one in each others’ set. I’ve seen almost every EC London outing in 30+ years and this was probably the least satisfying. Most odd.

Opera

The autumn Rossini pairing at WNO was amongst their best ever. Neither William Tell nor Moses in Egypt are typical Rossini (which may be why I liked them so much!); the latter more identifiably Rossini. Tell was the more satisfying all round – Moses was also a musical feast but the production wasn’t so good. Former MD Carlo Rizzi brought the best out of the orchestra and chorus (yet again) and there was no weakness in the soloists – just various levels of good to great.

The English Concert’s performance of Handel’s opera Alcina at the Barbican was a huge treat. A faultless cast was led by Joyce DiDonato & Alice Coote and the orchestra made a beautiful sound. I’d thought it might be a star vehicle for Joyce, but she was superbly matched by the rest and the audience showed their appreciation for them all.

I’ve seen a handful of Philip Glass operas, but until The Trial they’ve all been on a huge scale. What this chamber piece proves is how much more suited his music is to this smaller scale. It’s an absurdist, impenetrable story but it was superbly staged and performed by Music Theatre Wales in Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio.

Dance

Lord of the Flies is a big departure for New Adventures at Sadler’s Wells. With two-thirds of the large cast amateurs selected from workshops and open additions, there’s a freshness and energy thoroughly in keeping with William Golding’s story and contemporary dance is a suitable form to tell the tale. It was dark, but I loved it.

I don’t normally like mixed ballet programmes but Birmingham Royal Ballet‘s Shadows of War at Sadler’s Wells caught my imagination, largely because of the music. The first piece, to a Ravel piano concerto, was a bit frivolous for me, but the second was a fascinating re-staging of a Robert Helpmann work set in wartime Glasgow with music by Arthur Bliss and the third a lovely piece set to Malcolm Arnold and Benjamin Britten – and all at a half to a third of prices at the other Royal Ballet.

Cassandra is a rare modern dance piece from the Royal Ballet at the Linbury Studio. It was a nice combination of dance, music and film and it held me for 70 minutes, but in the end it was just OK. I think it was the lack of effective narrative drive / story that was its weakness.

Classical Music

I persuaded a friend who has recently taken up choral singing to go for one of those ‘scratch’ performances put together in one day. The choice of Elijah was ambitious, but they pulled it off. The soloists were terrific, particularly baritone Neal Davies, who gave it his all as if was at the Royal Albert Hall, and the orchestra of a handful of Philharmonia section principals with music students sounded great. It would have been good to see a much bigger audience – where were all the friends and families of the orchestra and chorus?

The third of the Composer Portrait series at St John’s Smith Square was the best so far. Reverie was about Debussy whose writings were spoken by Simon Russell Beale no less. Pianist Lucy Parham played his gorgeous music beautifully and it was a captivating couple of hours.

Film

As much as I loved Pride, the casting of so many English and Irish actors as Welsh characters did irritate me – though I suppose you need Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton to sell films like this. I was surprised I never knew the true story behind it, but maybe it didn’t get much news coverage at the time. It’s certainly the most heart-warming, feel-good film for a long long time.

Dylan Thomas centenary

I found out about the Dylan Thomas in Fitzrovia festival very late on, by which time the diary was choc a block with other stuff, but I did manage to fit in some. A Warring Absence was readings of writings by him and his wife about one another by Daniel Evans & Sian Thomas with accompaniment by the Bernard Kane Players as a Platform performance in The Olivier Theatre and it was original and fascinating.  I’d never heard the Stan Tracy Jazz Under Milk Wood before – read excerpts accompanied by jazz which somehow works brilliantly; again original and fascinating. The final Gala Concert I had known about and this proved a real treat. An eclectic selection of Welsh music played by Camerata Wales (including world premieres) with readings of letters and poems by Sian Phillips, Tom Hollander, Griff Rhys Jones, Robert Bathurst, Lesley Manville, Jonathan Pryce and Owen Teale and songs from Welsh tenor John Owen-Jones and old folkie Ralph McTell. Two of the pieces combined Thomas’ works with music very successfully. For an Englishman, Tom Hollander’s reading of Fern Hill was almost as good as Dylan’s own!

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Contemporary Music

Within minutes of taking my Choir seat behind even the sound crew, I began to wonder what I was doing at the Pet Shop Boys Prom. I hated the electromush of the 80’s with a vengeance, though I’ve liked some of the PSB’s crossover stuff – the musical, the ballet and the film live accompaniment. As it turned out, it wasn’t bad – a musicals style overture made up of nine PSB songs, another four PSB songs arranged for Chrissie Hynde (in white tails) and orchestra and a suite (?) about the life and loves of Alan Turing. I’ve never much liked narration to orchestral music (c/f Vaughan Williams Sinfonia Antarctica) and there was way too much in this (even if it was Juliet Stevenson), though the rest didn’t seem half bad. If only…..

Opera

Gloria A Pigtale was a quirky, surreal experience, particularly because it was at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio. The music reminded me of the more manic Kurt Weill and the staging and design (with a sausage curtain!) were great fun. Even though it was only 80 mins, it didn’t really sustain its length and would have been better as part of a double-bill (but with what?). Still, you have to admire an opera with a line of puppet frogs in red tutus!

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden gave me my third Maria Stuarda in nine months, following WNO and MetLive. It was musically stunning, with Joyce DiDonato at the peak of her extraordinary powers, as she had been in MetLive, but you had to suffer some preposterous stuff in a production which had the two queens in period dress and everyone else in modern dress and Elizabeth without her wig in public carrying an executioners axe! If only it had been the Met’s production and their Elizabeth (who actually shaved her head for the role!) with everything else from Covent Garden. Never trust a French-Belgian production team with British history (even when its written by Italians based on a German play)!

Classical Music

When I booked to see Thomas Tallis at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, I was expecting a candlelit concert by The Sixteen. As it turned out, it was a series of scenes from the life of the 16th century composer interspersed with a dozen pieces of his music. In addition to Tallis as a character himself, we got Henry VIII, the young Edward VI, Elizabeth I and Dr Dee amongst others, which illustrated how Tallis’ life and work were caught up in the flip-flopping from Catholicism to Protestantism in Britain at the time. Unexpected, but both biographically illuminating and an aural pleasure.

Dance

I’m not sure what I was doing at Brazil Braziliero, or indeed why it was at Sadler’s Wells (more Peacock Theatre, I’d say). The talent, energy and quality were all there, but the show that purported to present the history of the samba somehow seemed like one of those tourist culture shows they’re often trying to entice you to when travelling. It probably wasn’t helped by the emptiest Sadler’s Wells I’ve ever sat in. There were good individual components, but it just didn’t work as a whole for me.

Film

I broke my 15-week cinema famine by seeing Boyhood, filmed over twelve years as the actors aged and an extraordinary achievement. It fully sustained its 2h45m length and it was a great one for my return!

I enjoyed Begin Again, though it took a while to take off, the time switching was a bit confusing and Mark Ruffalo was initially very irritating. It won me over though with its feel-good story and unpredictability.

Art

David Hockney’s exhibition at Annely Juda contained new charcoal drawings and colour prints from the iPad paintings shown in his RA exhibition a few years back. The colour prints were editions of 25 for sale and all had been sold. I asked the price and then worked out that they would have grossed over £8m. A few days later I photographed the Monument to the Unknown Artist at Bankside whose inscription is ‘Don’t applaud, just throw money’!

The Hayward’s exhibition The Human Factor features sculptures of people, but only a handful impressed me. There was so much modern tosh that the good pieces were in danger of being overlooked. Unimpressed.

It was difficult to enjoy Matisse Cut-Outs at Tate Modern as it was so busy. At first, though I found it vibrant and colourful, I wasn’t convinced of their artistic merit. As it progressed I did warm to it and toward the end was more convinced. I will have to go back at a quieter time, though, if such a thing exists at a blockbuster exhibition these days.

I know I say this every year, but the NPG Portrait Award exhibition seems to have trumped itself again with a terrific selection. I noticed a trend towards realism this year, which in my more conservative view is no bad thing. Also at the NPG, an exhibition about Virginia Wolf brought together photographs, paintings, books and diaries by her and her circle, which seemed like a London who’s who of the first half of the 20th century. I have to confess I had no idea she was so prolific, or had so many famous friends!

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With the month split between five countries (six if you count Wales!), it’s a bit lean…..

Contemporary Music

I wasn’t expecting Nick Lowe to come on stage at Union Chapel on his own and I was a touch disappointed when he did. That lasted just a few minutes, as the songs began to shine, stripped back to voice & guitar. Later joined by Led Zep’s John Paul Jones on bass and even later fellow Abertridwr boy & regular collaborator Geraint Watkins on keyboards, this was an absolutely delightful evening, 80 minutes packed with Lowe’s short but perfectly formed songs and just a little of his charming and modest commentary. Growing old gracefully indeed.

The Rutles were a Beatles parody band created by Eric Idle and Neil Innes for a comedy TV programme called Rutland Weekend Television way back when. What was so good about the music was that, though a parody (with references to real Beatles songs), the tunes and lyrics were in themselves excellent. George Harrison loved them and supported the making of a full length feature film. I never saw them play live, so I was glad to catch this 2014 incarnation, with two original members and three new ones, in a small venue in Didcot (because I couldn’t make the London date). It was simply superb. Innes’ voice isn’t as strong, but everything else about the show was brilliant and the smile didn’t leave my face for the duration. Lovely.

Opera

I can’t imagine a more perfect production of Rossini’s Cenerentola than the one 3 million of us experienced in cinemas worldwide as part of Met Live. The production was fresh and very funny, with a terrific surreal design, but it was the matchless cast of seven principals that shone most. Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez are both at the top of their game as Angelina (Cinderella) and Don Ramiro (The Prince), but they were matched by five others and a great chorus (no bows?) and orchestra under Fabio Luisi. I have to say I do enjoy the interval interviews and behind the curtain scene changes and they all added up to my best Met Live experience so far.

Dance

Oliver Dubois’ Tragedie at Sadler’s Wells is nine naked women and nine naked men moving to a very loud and relentless electronica soundtrack for 90 minutes. At times it was hypnotic and mesmerising, but it was overlong. The formal ‘marching’ bits didn’t work as well as the anarchic bits. You have to admire their bravery and energy, though. Coming on dressed for the curtain call however was most odd!

Scottish Ballet’s Romeo & Juliet is a pared down version with a 20th century setting. I loved the style of it, the freshness of Krzysztof Pastor’s choreography and the energy of the unfeasibly young company. Though the score has been edited, the orchestra played it beautifully. Nothing will ever probably match Kenneth MacMillan’s Royal Ballet staging, but this was a treat nonetheless.

Art

Artangel’s latest off-the-wall installation takes us to a house in Brixton where Vincent van Gogh lived as a young man in the late 19th century. In Saskia Olde Wolbers work, the dilapidated house tells you its story in sound as you walk through three floors of rooms. It’s a bit like a radio play come alive. Fascinating.

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