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Posts Tagged ‘London Open House’

CONTEMPORARY MUSIC

Using the label ‘Folk’ for Seth Lakeman stretches it somewhat. I can live with folk-rock, but the driving rhythm of his sound stretches even that. It works so much better live than on record, though he’s wise to keep his set short and snappy to prevent it becoming relentless; the bass is pushed too high and it’s close to hurting (one of my companions had to move back after the first number). The Open Air Theatre was a terrific venue and it was the most exciting folk-rock set I’ve heard for more than 25 years (it reminded me of Fairport Convention and Alan Stivell when they rocked). There was a sex imbalance in the audience the opposite of what’s usual at ‘folk’ concerts – he’s a good looking guy who has quite a following with the girls! The unannounced support of A John Smith, who’s CD I like a lot, was a bonus – his melancholy on record was lightened live, helped by a charming self-deprecation in between songs.

The Kings Place Festival is an eclectic selection of 100 concerts over 4 days, each costing no more than £4.50. We took in three 45-minute folk concerts in one evening and a contrasting collection they turned out to be. Eliza Carthy showed off her technical expertise at both fiddle playing and acapella singing; her dad Martin Carthy’s set with Dave Swarbrick was more about nostalgia, such is the decline of skill and passion with age; and the best was left to last, with a set of great warmth and charm from Chris Wood. This is turning out to be a great venue.

I have a memory of seeing Tom Jones & The Squires at Penyrheol Community Centre (one mile from my home and three from his) before he had his first hit. When you look at his chronology and mine, this seems a bit implausible but my recollection is vivid! So this is (possibly) my second Tom Jones concert – 150 miles away and 45 years later – in Islington’s Union Chapel in Sept 2010. It was a small-scale showcase for the new gospel blues album Praise & Blame (which I love) and was announced by a ticket agency on Twitter. I thought it might be fun, but wasn’t expecting something so musically perfect; the songs sounded even better live, the band was terrific and his voice simply extraordinary. The venue was so perfect – Jones in front of the pulpit beneath the backlit stained glass rose window singing gospel! A real treat.

OPERA & MUSIC THEATRE

Peri’s opera Euridice, written in 1600, may be the first ever opera. 380 years later prolific composer Stephen Oliver produced a new version with the songs and choruses intact, an English translation and new ‘accompaniment’ and this is what British Youth Opera showcased this month. It’s the classical myth of Orpheus & Eurydice – with a happy ending! – and it was simply staged with costumes but no set. Somehow the lovely early music songs & choruses and modern accompaniment work well together and both the singing and playing from the cast of 18 and tiny 8-piece ensemble (intriguing instrumentation including cowbells, handbells, banjo and tabor!) were excellent. BYO’s name conjures up images of pimply teenagers but these are the next generation of opera singers currently studying at our best music colleges so, like the GSMD operas, the standards are really high.

ENO’s Faust is a lot better than the reviews lead you to believe. It seems to me perfectly legitimate to make Faust an atomic scientist at the time of Horoshima and the production worked for me. Some of Gounod’s music really is lovely and it is particularly well sung by Toby Spence as Faust, Iain Paterson as Mephistopheles and Melody Moore as Marguerite, with excellent support from Benedict Nelson, Anna Grevelius and Pamela Helen Stephens. ENO’s MD Edward Gardner yet again gets the best out of his band, and the chorus are on fine form. Director Des McAnuff is better known for theatre (notably the excellent Tommy and Jersey Boys) but I think his second outing in an opera house tells us he may well produce even better work in this form.

I much admired Pleasures Progress, Will Tuckett’s music theatre staging of William Hogarth sketches at the ROH’s Linbury Studio, though I was exhausted and fed up, so I didn’t get as much out of the evening as I should have. Very bawdy and often gross, it was a clever cocktail of music, dance and theatre which was superbly staged, designed, performed and played.

OTHER

I was hugely impressed by my visit to Denbies Winery in Dorking. I remember buying a bottle of their wine many years ago and thinking it was ghastly! Well, now it’s the largest winery in the UK producing over 250,000 bottles (80% sold from the cellar door) and the whites and rose were very nice indeed. They’ve cleverly expanded the business to include a winery tour (by people mover!) with an excellent 360 degree film & tasting and a tour of the vineyards by ‘train’.

I had 30 minutes to kill between afternoon tea with an Icelandic friend passing through and pre-theatre drinks with visitors from Somerset (as one does!), so I popped into White Cube at Mason’s Yard. Having returned from the Faroe Islands just a month ago, imagine my surprise to fine 10,080 photos – one taken each minute for a week – from that very place. Darren Almond’s exhibition also had some terrific film footage from Siberia with a hugely atmospheric soundtrack. Such is life lived on impulse…..

I thought Open House was going to be a damp squib this year as I’d only booked for one building (the brochure arrived AFTER booking opened – so much for advance ordering! – by which time everywhere I wanted to visit that had to be booked was fully booked). So I took pot luck with non-bookable buildings expecting to find queues, give up and get fed up. Well, it actually turned out to be one of the best ever with 12 visits. I only gave up on one (the BBC’s Bush House) and only really queued once, though I was seated watching videos so it was hardly a chore at all. Saturday started with Carpenter’s Hall, which added to my ‘collection’ of livery companies. The Arts Council (the one I booked) was a clever refurbishment which produced a funky and comfortable work space with great contemporary art in an old terraced building with stunning views of Westminster Abbey, Parliament and the London Eye from the terrace. Channel 4 was a riot of glass and steel, typical Rogers, and I couldn’t understand how I hadn’t walked past it in 15 years. The Ruebens ceiling at the Banqueting Hall was terrific and the place oozed history (I can’t understand why I’ve never been there before). The Foreign Office self-guided tour was really well organised and I loved the state rooms like the Locarno Suite and the Durbar Court. They were unloading Popemobiles outside. I then had to cross the anti-Pope demo in Piccadilly to get to The Royal Society of Chemistry and The Geological Society, neighbours in Burlington House, which had both benefitted from tasteful refurbishment.

On Sunday, the visit to The Royal Ballet Upper School was much more than a walk along the extraordinary ‘Bridge of Aspiration’ (which was terrific) with performance videos while you waited and dancers rehearsing on your tour route. Parliament’s Portcullis House is hideous on the outside but a lot better on the inside, with excellent contemporary art and an exhibition of photos taken during the last election. I loved the simple elegance of the Ismaili Centre; the towers and turrets of the neighbouring South Kensington museums peeping over the walls of the gorgeous roof garden. It was rather surreal walking through Brompton Cemetery while Chelsea fans were using it as a short-cut to the game and druggies were hanging out around the graves. Finally, I visited the art nouveau / art deco former Finsbury Town Hall with wrought iron entrance canopy and stunning Great Hall. This is a once-a-year opportunity which I can safely say I exploited fully this year!

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I took the opportunity of a slow start to business post holiday season to catch a lot more culture than just theatre this month and here’s a summary.

The Art highlight was Seizure. Artist Roger Hiorns sealed up a disused ground floor flat, drilled a hole in the ceiling, filled it with a copper sulphate solution and left it for 3 weeks. When it was drained, if left behind a blue crystal grotto which you can now enter; quite extraordinary. Wierd Inventions in the IP centre at the at the British Library is a handful of cases displaying some of the most bizzarre things ever patented and it made me laugh out loud, as did the Beano & Dandy 70th Birthday Exhibition at the Cartoon Museum; fond memories. There were some great rock photos in the Keith Morris photo exhibition; I’d never heard of him and was amazed to see some iconic photos for LP covers, such as Elvis Costello’s ‘My Aim Is True’. The Ilumini exhibition in the crypt of a church at St Pancras was a bit hit-and-miss and didn’t really come together under the theme of light & art, but the antiqueTravel Posters at Sotherans were great.

Catching up with recent cinema releases I was captivated by Somers Town, a heart-warming tale of the friendship between the son of a Polish immigrant and a runaway from the Midlands. The Wackness was just that- a charming whacky coming of age tale set in NYC with a terrifically funny turn from Ben Kingsly as a dope-smoking analyst who refuses to grow up. At the Ritzy, it was shown in digital HD and the quality was sensational. I loved The Duchess; one of the best costume dramas for years which is beautifully designed and directed and has an excellent performance from Keira Knightly who up to now I hadn’t really rated. Finally, I caught up with the new Indiana Jones film and thought it was much more fun that the reviews suggested; there were some great tongue-in-cheek moments.

During a trip ‘Up North’ to check up on the Hawkins-Watsons, we went to Leeds Town Hall for their 150th birthday concert. It’s a gorgeous building and the entirely British programme contained items of significance in terms of previous performances there. In the same trip we saw Northern Ballet Theatre’s latest dance drama Two Cities, based on the Dickens novel. Though I love their style, it was a rather over-ambitious story to tell in dance, as was their Hamlet which I saw earlier this year at Sadler’s Wells.

My final Prom was a surreal experience; they had programmed a Vaughan Williams symphony and Holst’s Planets with a Xenakis 45-min percussion piece, so it was bound to end in tears! During the Xenakis, the conservatives in the seats behaved like ageing delinquents – talking, booing, and walking out. I’m afraid I had to reprimand the 70-something in H37 as I was not prepared to let his disrespect for the rest of the audience go unpunished! As it happens, I didn’t really like the Xenakis myself, but that’s not the point. At the Wigmore Hall, a recital of English song was a bit hit-and-miss; Christopher Maltman getting more hits and Joan Rogers more misses. Finzi outshone Vaugham Williams & Howells on this occasion.

Another successful opera weekend in Cardiff where quality and value continue to reign at WNO. I loved everything about their new production of Verdi’s Otello – the design (more gold and red broccade that you’ll see in your lifetime; and that was just Act 3!), the staging, the terrific chorus and orchestra and an on-form team of Dennis O’Neill, Amanda Roocroft and David Kempster (I think this is his first Iago, in which case it’s a triumph) in the lead roles. The Barber of Seville was a delightful Commedia del Arte production which didn’t look its (20+ years) age and came over sparking and fresh. Back at the Lindbury Studio at Covent Garden, an opera for children called Varjak Jaw had a lot to recommend it but as you got under half of the words it seemed to me to be rather inaccessible to its target audience. They clearly know this as they were thrusting a free synopsis into your hand before you entered the auditorium. Better vocal composition, better diction and surtitles might have helped more.

It was a good year for London Open House. Our tour of the Beefeater Distillery in Kennington (the only London Gin still distilled in London, so I’ve switched brands as a result!) was the highlight. A trip to eco-homes at BedZed in Wallington was very interesting. The tour of the 2012 Olympic site made you gasp at the scale of it all. Will Alsop’s Palestra building was a bit of a disappointment (to be honest, we didn’t feel that welcome and they didn’t try very hard). A couple more livery companies to add to my collection – The Painter Stainers and the Barber Surgeons – completed the weekend.

In the same action-packed weekend, we were lucky enought to catch a try-out of comedian Mark Thomas’ new show – mostly new material (and some old stuff he delivers so well it bears a lot of repeating) based on his new book on Coca Cola which I can’t wait to read.

I was invited to the press launch of the transfer from Australia of the stage musical of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. They’d flown over the Aussie cast during a gap in their tour and we were treated to some extracts, as a result of which I headed straight to the box office! ‘Costumes’? – I’m not sure the word does it justice!

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