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Posts Tagged ‘Linbury Studio Theatre’

Contemporary Music

I booked to see Graham Parker & the Rumour again almost as soon as I left their reunion concert last October. I’m not sure they will ever match that buzz after almost 40 years, but the great thing about this second outing eight months on is that only half the set was the same and there were two new numbers, including one being played for the first time. This must be the most successful band reunion ever. An added bonus was Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook solo in support – a terrific 45 min set by a great singer – songwriter – and guitarist!

Opera

Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites at Covent Garden was a minimalist affair which I thought suited the subject matter. It was beautifully played (with Simon Rattle back at the ROH) and sung and great to hear live again. One of the most beautiful operas of the 20th century.

The WNO spring programme was themed ‘Faith’ and started with Shoenberg’s Moses und Aron, a very challenging piece which was, well, very challenging! It was made worthwhile by the playing of the enlarged orchestra and the singing of an augmented 80 strong chorus. Rainer Trost was great as Aron, Sir John Tomlinson had a strange speaking-singing part as Moses and it appeared to be inexplicably set in the Welsh Assembly next door. It was followed by a musically stunning Nabucco showcasing the WNO chorus and orchestra, with last year’s wonderful Tosca, American Mary Elizabeth Williams, wowing again. Sadly, the production was preposterous, so it was a case of eyes-closed-is-best. Can we ban German & Austrian directors and designers from WNO forthwith please? Thank you.

Another great night at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, and my first time in their new theatre which this contrasting 17th / 18th double-bill fitted like a glove. Thomas Arne’s comic opera The Cooper had nice songs but the comedy was very broad in a commedia dell’arte style. Stradella’s San Giovanni Battista was a complete contrast – very dramatic and very gory. Somehow the pairing worked and as always, the musical standards were outstanding.

Quartett is an 80 minute two-hander opera by Luca Francesconi based on Heiner Muller’s play which is itself based on Laclos’ novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but focuses only on the two main characters. It’s a visually compelling and brilliantly tense drama. The Linbury Studio proves its versatility again, this time housing a metal & concrete platform in a traverse setting, above which white roughly shaped cloths hang (onto which images are projected) and beneath which is the London Sinfonietta! (designer Soutra Gilmour; say no more). The platform contains little except car batteries which power lamps, but one has another purpose at the tragic conclusion. Like almost all modern opera, the music is challenging, but it is suspenseful, in keeping with the story. The two singers & orchestra are augmented by recorded vocals & chorus and sound effects. I rather liked it, but whoever decided on 10 performances is probably regretting this as No. 3 on a Friday was only half full. Given he’s written over 100 works, it’s surprising I’ve never heard of Francesconi!

The Royal College of Music revived a very rare Rossini comic opera and in Donald Maxwell’s production, La Gazzetta it was a hoot. Nigel Hook’s bright and colourful designs set the tone and fun was to be had at the expense of Berlusconi. The male voice choir, in red rugby shirts, was from Cwmbran (which also featured as a clock in one of those world time clock sets you get in hotels). There was some terrific singing, although occasionally ragged at the edges, but forgiven for the fun we were having. A treat.

Dance

I took a punt on something in Sadler’s Sampled, a sort of proms of dance, and was delighted with South African Dada Masilio’s riff on Swan Lake. Other composers’ music was added to Tchaikovsky (Steve Reich & Saints-Saens) and the whole thing trimmed to an hour. Only when I read the reviews afterwards did I realize I’d missed a lot of the narrative and story. Still, I enjoyed the dance for itself!

Art

Tate Britain’s British Folk Art exhibition was fascinating, but not really big enough to be fully satisfying. Lots off embroidery, ship’s figureheads, paintings and shop signs which told interesting stories of their purpose and their times, but it could have had more breadth and depth.

A lovely pair of exhibitions at The Photographers Gallery, beginning with the annual Deutsche Borse Photography Prize – perhaps the best shortlist for some time and Richard Mosse’s infrared Congo landscapes an obvious winner (for once I agree with the judges!). The other was photos (and some paintings) by John Deakin, who was one of those Soho characters who hung out with Jeffrey Barnard, Francis Bacon, Dylan Thomas et al and his pictures of Soho life are superb, really evocative of the place and the period.

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What with travelling and theatre catch-up as a consequence, April was a lean month for anything else.

Opera

My first visit to The Globe’s new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was to an opera rather than a play. It’s a gorgeous, intimate venue and it suited Cavali’s L’Ormindo perfectly. The production was lovely, with terrific costumes, a great ensemble under Christian Curnyn and some fantastic singing. Singers popped up all over the place – in a gallery or in the pit, from under the stage or descending from ‘the heavens’. I doubt I’ll have more fun at the opera this year, or for much longer than that.

Through His Teeth at the Linbury Studio was a fascinating short opera by Luke Bedford and playwright David Harrower about a woman preyed on by a conman. Short scenes of her experiences were framed by the filming of a documentary after his imprisonment. There were some first night glitches, but it was an original subject for opera and it was staged with great tension.

Pop Up Opera took Bizet’s early one-acter Le Docteur Miracle and added a Pearl Fishers prologue and a trio of pieces from Carmen as an encore to make a delightful evening. Really well sung, with just piano accompaniment, it was an absolute hoot. This particular venue was called The Department Store and was billed as a disused one, though it turned out to be a space in a block of craft studios next to a railway line in Dalston! A company to watch.

Dance

I was a touch disappointed by the Royal Ballet’s The Winter’s Tale. It looked gorgeous and the music was good, but I didn’t really take to the choreographic style and the middle act was one of those full of show dances that added little to the storytelling and broke up the dramatic flow. Two long intervals also slowed down the drama, with gaps amounting to a third of the running time.

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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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Opera

I didn’t get off to a good start with the ENO’s Peter Grimes after a twitter spat over their withdrawal of standby concessions, despite a large number of empty seats. No production will probably ever match Grimes on the Beach, but musically this is top notch, mostly due to the fact that conductor Edward Gardiner, the orchestra and the chorus were as good as it gets.

Though I’ve seen Tippet’s King Priam before, I’d forgotten how challenging it is musically. This ETO production at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio was quality fare, but I found it hard to engage with the story and even harder to penetrate the music.

Death & the Powers is a SciFi opera by the Royal Academy of Music’s visiting professor of composition Tod Machover, so we (staff, students and Friends) were privileged to participate in its global simulcast from Dallas Opera. It’s more of a technological marvel than a musical one, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, including interaction through the specially created app on my iPhone!

I enjoyed the second ETO offering, Britten’s Paul Bunyan, a lot. I’ve only seen it once before, 15 years ago, but preferred this smaller scale more homespun folk opera treatment. It’s not really an opera, more a musical drama with a mythic quality and some lovely tunes. It was a bit cramped on the Linbury Studio stage, but better seen in such an intimate space.

I ventured to Godalming for the first time to see a friend in one of the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas I’ve never seen, Princess Ida. Somehow, it seemed completely at home performed by an amateur company (of 43!) in the Borough Hall, even though they were almost falling over each other on the tiny stage! The second act is a bit long, but it’s the usual G & S fun, here with terrific costumes and a proper orchestra of 26.

The trio of operas in my latest visit to WNO in Cardiff were programmed as ‘Fallen Women‘. It started with Puccini’s early and rarely performed Manon Lescaut which had a striking modern production and was beautifully sung and played. Henze’s Boulevard Solitude takes the same source and story and gives in a mid-20th century spin with a surprisingly accessible score and a similar modern staging, again with sky high musical standards. I’d seen this La Traviata before, which is why I wanted to see it again and it didn’t disappoint. It’s elegant and moving, though two intervals and a twenty minute overrun did mar the dramatic flow this time. Three operas, two talks, a programme and a drink all for less than £70; opera at its most accessible.

Classical Music

The English Concert’s Theodora is quite possible the most perfect performance of a Handel oratorio I have ever heard. All five soloists were outstanding and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street sounded gorgeous. It’s not a particularly engaging story, but the music is consistently good and the 3h 45m flew by.

Contemporary Music

Kings Place was the perfect venue for Laura Cantrell, with just another guitarist rather than her band. It was a perfect 75 minute set culled from all of her records, plus some covers, but mostly her lovely new album. Her personality comes over so well on stage, too. Sturgill Simpson, supporting, sounded good when his singing wasn’t too nasal and I liked his songs (though too many covers for a man with an interesting new album) but I couldn’t understand a word of any of them, such was his heavily accented diction!

Dance

I wasn’t sure whether to categorise this dansical, Drunk, as a musical or dance, but the lack of a story as such made me plump for dance! Eight performers, solo, as an ensemble and in different combinations dance scenes about being the worse for wear. There’s terrific music from Grant Olding and the talent on show is extraordinary. It has bags of energy and its slick, sassy and sexy, but it’s also a bit relentless and a bit samey, without much shade to break up the light. Choreographer Drew McOnie’s ambitious and welcoming new company, though, is one to watch.

Film

My confidence in film critics took another dent when August: Osage County turned out to be way better than they led me to believe. It worked as well on film as it did on stage and there were a handful of superb performances, notably Meryl Streep as an absolute monster.

I loved Nebraska, a really heart-warming film – in black & white – with wonderful performances by a cast mostly made up of actors of a certain age. It fired me up for a road trip to that part of the US; watch this space!

Private Lives was the first play filmed live that I’ve ever seen (though not shown live in this case). The ability to see things in close-up added something (I saw the same production on stage) though you do sometimes miss the reactions of other characters and the lighting was occasionally poor. I like the fact that more people can see great productions at accessible prices, but I think I’ll stick to the live experience.

Dallas Buyers Club was a slow burn, but it eventually repaid its investment with a compelling David & Goliath story with a heart-warming ending. Unquestionably a career high for Matthew McConaughey, who must be in pole position for an Oscar.

Saving Mr Banks was a big surprise; it had much more depth than I was expecting, largely because of the switch between PL Travers childhood and her Disney experience. It was one of those occasions where staying for the titles paid off as you heard the original recordings she insisted on during the script meetings, which proved it was more than a work of fiction.

I enjoyed Her a lot more than I thought I was going to. It’s a bit overlong (and occasionally soporific!) but it feels very plausible, which makes it scary indeed. I’m going to switch off Siri before it’s too late!

Common People is an independent feature film shot entirely on Tooting Common, on my doorstep. It’s a bit slow to get going, but it builds into a charming, warm-hearted slice of life. It’s been showcased in US festivals and now gets a handful of local screenings which will hopefully lead to more because it very much deserves it.

I’m amazed that The Invisible Woman hasn’t had more BAFTA or Oscar nominations. It’s such a well-made film, full of fine performances. I don’t know how true the story of Charles Dickens personal life is, but I was captivated.

Art

The annual Landscape Photography competition exhibition at the NT continues to demoralize me as a photographer but captivate me as a viewer. Some are almost too good to be true, but hopefully the organizers have ways of ensuring there’s no funny business editing-wise!

Martin Creed‘s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, What’s the Point of it?, is huge fun. The man has an imagination the size of the planet and amongst the items on show was a giant revolving neon sign just inches above your head, a room full to the brim of white talcum-filled balloons you walk through and, on the outdoor terraces, a car which comes alive when all its doors open and wipers and radio start up and a video of a penis changing from erect to flaccid & back!

The NT‘s 50th celebrations included an exhibition of its history in cartoons, National Theatre Lampoon, but I only just discovered it before it closes; it’s both informative and funny and they should keep it longer.

I’m going to have to return to David Bailey’s Stardust exhibition at the NPG. It takes over the whole ground floor with over 250 photos and was a bit crowded on my first visit. What I did see was great, with many now iconic pictures from my lifetime.

A trip to Greenwich for a couple of exhibitions was a mixed affair. There were a lot of paintings not by Turner (23, only 5 less) for an exhibition called Turner & the Sea. I didn’t care for the early work in this exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, but it was probably worth the trip for the watercolours, sketch books and late works. Up the hill at the Royal Observatory there was a small but breathtaking exhibition of astronomical photographs. You couldn’t tell the difference in composition or quality between the main prize entries and the young person’s entries, such was the quality of the work.

Spoken Word

I got in touch with my inner Welshman with a celebration of Dylan Thomas’ centenary at Kings Place. Readings by Guy Masterson were interspersed with a potted biography by Andrew Lycett and observations by other Welsh poets Gwyneth Jones and Owen Sheers. I’d have liked more voices for the readings, but that’s a little gripe. As Owen Sheers said, what other poet could pack out a venue 60 years after he died, requiring an overspill room with a video link!

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Contemporary Music

Billy Bragg is the antidote to people who don’t give a shit and his value-for-money (£22, half price for the over 60’s!) 2.5 hours set was passionate, covering his whole career but majoring on the excellent new album Tooth & Nail. The new band sounded great and there was a mini-set of solo stuff too. There are few singers or bands left with this much integrity and respect for their audience and we repaid it in quiet engagement and warm response. Kim Churchill, a barefoot man from SE Australia with hair that looked like a straw hat, played an excellent set in support. He told us that he’s been busking around the world for four years when he got a gig at a festival in Canada and needed a lift for the 45-min drive from the hotel to the venue. Billy came to the rescue and there he was nervous but elated on the RFH stage. Dreams come true, it seems.

The Albion Band‘s Christmas concert at Kings Place was a bit of a punt that turned out to be a delight. A combination of songs, carols and readings, with an egg dance thrown in for good measure, it was a charming combination made into an occasion by the presentation of the English Folk Song & Dance Society’s Gold Badge to band founder Ashley Hutchings.

Seeing The Bootleg Beatles in Nottingham was a surprise until an hour or so before and it was a huge treat. They split the show into two halves, each with two sections, so we got the moptops, film period, psychedelia and the endgame. The resemblances and mannerisms were uncanny, but it was the brilliantly played songs that sweep you away, roll back the years and get you singing along, with the occasional dad dance (well, uncle dance in my case). Brilliant.

Opera

How the Whale Became at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio is an opera for children, particularly those whose parents prefer to take theirs to the politically correct rather than to the panto. With music by Julian Phillips and a libretto by Edward Kemp, it’s based on Ted Hughes stories about the creation of animals by god. It’s not the easiest musical ride (particularly for children) but the production is very inventive and the performers (and musicians) very engaging. A worthy attempt rather than a full-on hit, I think.

Classical Music

The Britten Sinfonia with the Choir of Kings College Cambridge provided my penultimate Britten Centenary event at the Barbican. The timely Ceremony of Carols, just boy’s choir and harp, sounded lovely and Saint Nicholas provided a more rousing second half. As much as I approve of audience participation, I have to confess I didn’t really appreciate the audience drowning out the beautiful choirs during the two hymns for audience participation! I’d never heard Arvo Part’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten and it proved to be the perfect opener, with John Tavener’s The Lamb also a timely opening to part two and a taster for my Tavener weekend in January.

I’d never heard Britten’s three Cello Suites so it was nice to end my centenary with something new to me. They are more to be admired for their virtuosity than aural beauty and they were played with extraordinary skill by Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelwey, who gave each one in an informative, charming and entertaining illustrated introduction.

Art

A few hours on the South Bank delivered a bumper crop of exhibitions. First up was Go Away Closer, Dayanita Singh’s B&W photos of India presented in books and museum panels. I loved both the material and the presentation. Downstairs at the Hayward Gallery, Ana Mendieta’s Traces was harder to swallow until her obsession with making ‘art’ using her own body gave way to using the environment instead / as well; a bit too conceptual for me. In the project space, a small exhibition of protest art was nostalgically enthralling – all those anti-war posters and copies of IT. Finally, in the RFH, the annual exhibition of art by offenders, secure patients and detainees (the tile gets longer every year) called The Strength & Vulnerability Bunker was as awe-inspiring as ever; it was the last day, so most of those for sale had gone otherwise there were a number I would have happily bought and hung on my walls.

I adored both Australia and Daumier (1808-79): Visions of Paris at the Royal Academy. The former was a 13-room, 200-year review of the art of a whole country, and I only knew one of the artists! From aboriginal art through colonial landscapes to wonderful Australian impressionists to the present day, this was a real feast. The latter was pretty revelatory too, containing his trademark caricatures but also very high quality paintings and sketches. The two together constituted one of the most enjoyable visits to the RA in a while.

At The Photographers’ Gallery, Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood & Identity wasn’t the easiest exhibition to view, but given that it sets out to challenge the sentimental view of motherhood, that’s not a surprise. The quality of the photography, rather than the subject matter, is what I enjoyed most. At the same gallery, the 1920’s B&W photos of French amateur photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue were charmingly homespun but technically accomplished. I have to confess I enjoyed it more.

The latest Curve installation at the Barbican, Intervals by Ayse Erkman, is a series of theatrical backdrops which you have to navigate as you walk through the gallery whilst they rise and fall. Even though it only takes 10 minutes to get through, the fact you are occasionally trapped means it irritates (well, impatient me, anyway). It is a very original idea, though and another great use of this space.

A Sunday afternoon in Trafalgar Square was a feast of art, starting with Facing the Modern: the Portrait in Vienna 1900 at the National Gallery, a great taster for my Christmas trip to that very city. Wonderful works by Schiele and Klimt plus lots of artists new to me. I went to the NPG for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition, as wonderful as ever, and Elizabeth I & her People, which was a whole lot more interesting than I was expecting, but there were rich pickings in the displays too. Passable portrait sketches by Bob Dylan, Benjamin Britten’s life in photos, William Morris’ wife and Pre-Raphaelite muse Janey, Michael Peto photos of famous people of the late 20th century, Vivien Leigh photos and film posters, terrific Jonathan Yeo paintings and the imaginary portraits of Derek Bashir!!! Room 31 (post-war Brits) may be my favourite room in any gallery anywhere and the NPG my favourite gallery!

It’s extraordinary how quickly erotica can become dull. The 17th-20th century Japanese pictures in Shunga at the British Museum are technically accomplished and often beautifully coloured, but ever so samey. I’m afraid I became bored ever so quickly. Fortunately, the gold and ceramic pieces from ancient Colombia in Beyond Eldorado at the same venue made up for it. This was a beautifully curated exhibition packed full of fascinating items which told a stories of ancient civilizations.

A couple of hours between kids opera and kids theatre enabled me to catch London Transport Museum’s celebration of 150 years of tube posters and it was a real treat, with lots I’d never seen before. The range of reasons for and themes of posters was extraordinary. The space was too cramped but thankfully there weren’t many people. Just as cramped as the space in Somerset House that I then ventured to in order to see Stanley Spencer’s Heaven in a Hell of War, on a short tour from Sandham Chapel during restoration. They are wonderful and I now can’t wait to see them back in the chapel with the three they couldn’t remove without damaging them.

Film

The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug was a lot better than the first installment, visually stunning with terrific 3D, but it’s a still just a journey drawn out to three films – albeit an exciting journey (mostly).

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Contemporary Music 

I couldn’t make Neil Young’s concert at the O2 and it was always going to be risky going to Birmingham instead. Sadly, nine hours of my life and c.£130 weren’t really worth it; I’d have been better off staying with my memories of all his concerts since the first one 42 years ago! The core issue was song choice. 50 minutes in, four songs later, I began to despair. The new stuff is fine, though elongated – one ending with 10 mins feedback and another with 10-mins of ‘What a fuck up’ chanting (not wrong, there, Neil) – beyond my self-indulgence tolerance limit. In the first two hours, just two classics from the 45-year back catalogue (one also subjected to the endless ending). There was apparently another hour, but I had to leave – and in truth, didn’t feel too bad about that as I’d had enough by now. I suspect this will be my last NY concert; a sad way to end my relationship with a genuine genius I have virtually worshiped.

The world of wrinklie rock redeemed itself just four days later when The Who performed their second rock opera, Quadrophenia, live at the O2. This is a much neglected work and one I’ve always loved as much as Tommy. It sounded fresh, with an enlarged band including three brass, two keyboards, two guitars, bass and drums. The film / photo montage, put together by Roger Daltrey, and the lighting were brilliant and the sound was good. Modern technology enabled deceased band members to contribute vocals and a bass solo by video; very moving. The additional 45 minutes included tracks from Who’s Next which if anything sounded even fresher. Support band Vintage Trouble, an American retro four-piece, were well worth getting there early for and their hard work paid off with a great audience reception.

Opera

June was opera month – nine! – one of which, Grimes on the Beach, I’ve already blogged.

I’m not a huge Rossini fan, but it’s impossible to resist both Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez. La Donna del Lago is a bit daft, with a Scottish setting & characters but sung in Italian, and John Fulljames production is a bit odd, starting and ending in some sort of museum, but the music is good and the singing was sensational. In addition to my two faves, Daniela Barcelona impressed hugely in the trouser role of Malcolm. It would be great if the Royal Opera found a better vehicle for these extraordinary talents, though.

The Perfect American is Philip Glass’ new opera about Walt Disney and, of the five operas of his I’ve seen, I think it’s his best. The score has more variety and less minimalist monotony and his subject matter is fascinating. What takes it from good to great though is Phelim McDermott’s astonishing production, designed by Dan Potra, Leo Warner, Joseph Pierce & Jon Clark, which is packed full of Improbable’s trademark invention, with every bit of it appropriate and effective. In an excellent cast (with such clear diction that, for once, you could hear every word – it can be done!), Christopher Purves shone as Walt. One of the best evenings at ENO and of modern opera in a long time.

The summer pairing at WNO was another Cardiff treat. A new opera by Jonathan Harvey, Wagner’s Dream, set at the moment Wager died, was paired with his Lohengrin. Wagner had apparently been contemplating a ‘Buddhist opera’ and at that moment just before death he reflects on it as we see it performed behind him. Wagner’s moments are acted in German and the opera is sung in the ancient Buddhist language of Pali. With added electronica, it was played and sung beautifully and staging and design were both effective and elegant. Lohengrin will go down as one of WNO’s finest moments. Despite needing a stand-in for the big role of Telramund (well done, Simon Thorpe!), the musical standards were exceptional, with the orchestra and chorus soaring (at one point with four additional fanfare groups at four points in the auditorium sending shivers up your spine). Apart from a noisy scene change in Act Three (while the orchestra was still playing), the staging was highly effective. I love pairings / groupings of operas and next time we have Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy – an 18th century Italian spin on 16th century British history!

Britten’s Owen Wingrave was the first opera made specifically for TV and it’s very rarely staged; gold star then to the Guildhall School for this contribution to the centenary. It’s an excellent production of his pacifist opera about a boy who defies his family’s military traditions. The setting is contemporary and the traverse staging is ‘framed’ by scenes from modern warfare showing what might have happened had he not rebelled, with projections used very effectively. Amongst the fine cast, Joseph Padfield was outstanding as military tutor Coyle and Samantha Crawford and Catherine Blackhouse both impressed as Owen’s aunt and fiancée respectively. 

I very much enjoyed the first outing of Deborah Warner’s production of Britten’s Death in Venice at ENO back in 2007, but I wasn’t prepared for how much better a revival could be. With beautiful, elegant designs from Tom Pye, it really is a masterly staging, but the chief reason that propels it to ‘Masterpiece’ is John Graham Hall as Aschenbach. Very occasionally a singer inhabits a role in such a way that they begin to own it. Simon Keenlyside IS Billy Budd and now John Graham Hall IS Aschenbach; it’s mesmerising. I’m so glad the Britten centenary (and half-price tickets!) persuaded me to see it again as it will go down as one of my great nights at the opera.

Gerald Barry’s opera of The Importance of Being Ernest in Covent Garden ‘s Linbury Studio was a quirky affair. The small orchestra was on a series of white steps surrounded by white walls. The singers entered from the audience and occupied the rest of the steps. The instrumentation includes plate-smashing. Lady Bracknell is a man in a suit with no attempt at female impersonation. The music is strident, almost spoken. It’s more semi-staged than staged. I admired the originality, I loved the way the orchestra was part of it and the performances were very good – but I can’t say I loved the opera. 

The ROH contribution to the Britten centenary (and the queen’s diamond jubilee) is his only historical opera Gloriana and it proves to be a better piece than the myths suggest (though having seen the Opera North production 19 years ago I knew this!). The problem with this new production is director Richard Jones decision to ‘frame’ it by our present queen’s visit to see it at a village hall, complete with 1953 production values and visible wings. Even during the overture we get a brief appearance from every monarch between the two Elizabeth’s in reverse chronological order with olympic style name cards and a row of schoolboys holding up cards signalling their geographic origin! This all robs the opera of its grandness, majesty and pomp. Still, musically it’s first rate with the orchestra & chorus on top form and the largely British cast including many personal favourites. Susan Bullock makes a great queen and it was wonderful to see Toby Spence again, in fine vocal form after his serious illness.

Classical Music

Another Handel oratorio for the collection – Susanna – from Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company at Christ Church Spitalfields. It’s not in Handel’s premiere league, but it was beautifully played and sung and an uplifting end to a challenging day. Emilie Renard and Tim Mead, both new to me, were excellent as Susanna and her husband, and the small chorus was so good I yearned for more than the seven items they were given. Will I ever hear them all live? I doubt it!

Dance

I returned to see The Clod Ensemble after enjoying their last show at Sadler’s Wells. That one was in four parts, with the audience moving from upper circle to dress circle to stalls to stage! Zero was staged conventionally, on stage, but I’m afraid it did nothing for me. The blues harmonica got it off to a great start but it was all downhill from then. I don’t know what it was about, I wasn’t impressed by the movement and the 80 minutes just dragged.

Britten Dances at Snape, part of the centenary Aldeburgh Festival, was a lovely varied cocktail of four pieces from three choreographers – Ashley Page, Cameron McMillan & Kim Brandstrup –  and two ballet companies; The Royal Ballet of Flanders & our own. In addition to two Britten pieces, the musical choices included his arrangement of Purcell and a piece from contemporary composer Larry Groves’ which takes Britten’s take on a Dowland piece as it’s starting point! A unique evening and a unique contribution to the centenary.

Film

Behind the Candelabra was a must-see after the trailer. Though a touch overlong, what makes it worth going to is highly impressive performances from Michael Douglas, Matt Damon & an unrecognisable Rob Lowe. Hard to believe it isn’t getting a cinema release in the US; the land of the free is still the home of the bigots.

I rather liked the new Superman film Man of Steel, the ultimate in prequels, which starts with his birth on Krypton and ends with him getting his job at the Daily Planet. It’s all a bit exhausting, and I’ve seen better 3D (I think maybe I should give up 3D), but it’s gripping and new Superman Henry Cavill is very good. Russell Crowe plays Russell Crowe again as Superman’s dad.

If you like those American gross out comedies like Superbad, you’ll like This is the End and I do /did. This one adds gore and disaster to the cocktail and the effects are excellent. It’s one of those films that’s better in the cinema than at home, because there’s a contaigon about the audience reaction which improves the experience.

Art

A lean month for art. I did pop into the NPG to see the annual BP Portrait Award exhibition, though it seemed to ack sparkle this year. Over at the lovely new giant White Cube in Bermondsey, there are four North American artists on show, the best (and most) of which is Julie Mehretu (actually, she was born in Ethiopia). Her giant B&W canvases are multi-layered and grow on you. It’s like she started with an architectural drawing, they overlaid it with another , then another….Original.

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Contemporary Music

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

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

Opera

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

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

Classical Music

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

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

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

Dance

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

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

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

 Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film

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

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

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