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Posts Tagged ‘LSC’

Opera

Porgy & Bess was probably my best Met Live experience. It was the same production as that at ENO last year, but with a largely black American cast telling a quintessentially American story, it seemed to be where it should be. The orchestra and chorus were stunning and every soloist shone.

My visit to WNO at WMC in Cardiff was for only one opera this time, but it was a rare outing for Verdi’s underrated Les vepres siciliennes where the orchestra and chorus were brilliant yet again, a handful of international soloists from Korea, Armenia, Italy and Poland were introduced to us and David Pountney’s production fused period costumes with timeless settings. Well worth the trip.

Little did I know that Met Live was about to reach another level with a simply stunning production of Handel’s Agrippina. The acting of Joyce DiDonato, Iestyn Davies, Kate Lindsey, Brenda Rae and Matthew Rose matched their superb singing, rare in opera in my experience. David McVicar’s staging and John Macfarlane’s design were brilliant. This was a highlight in a lifetime of opera-going, which a third of a million people could see at a reasonable price, unlike the few thousand who paid ten times the price to see it in Covent Garden last year.

Classical Music

Crouch End Festival Chorus was hugely ambitious and very enterprising with their concert of Glass, Stravinsky and Ives at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. These were difficult works and you could see the concentration on their faces, and those in the London Orchestra da Camera, but they pulled it off with aplomb. A fascinating afternoon.

The LSO’s pairing of Prokofiev & Shostakovich works at the Barbican proved to be fascinating, with the orchestra’s leader given a moment to shine as a soloist in the former’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and the whole orchestra played superbly under Gianandrea Noseda in symphonies from both composers and a prelude from that other Russian, Mussorgsky.

The LSO’s Half Six Fix series at the Barbican reached its pinnacle with a thrilling Beethoven’s 9th conducted by Simon Rattle. The second movement never sounded better, the LSC were on fine form and there were four well matched soloists, but above all it was the orchestra who rose to the occasion, as they always seem to do under Rattle.

Contemporary music

The Musical Box are a Quebecois Genesis tribute band who have gone global, to the point where they get to perform at the London Palladium. I’m not really a tribute band man, but there was a buzz about this lot which I couldn’t resist, though by the interval I was wishing I had. It was post-Gabriel Genesis, instrumentally strong but vocally relatively weak and the visuals were patchy. About fifteen minutes into the second half though it took off on a wave of nostalgia. Now we were in MY Genesis period. It culminated with a spectacular encore of Supper’s Ready from Foxtrot. All 25 minutes of it. I went home happy.

Film

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is a quirky film but I rather enjoyed its other-worldliness and its message. Why Tom Hanks performance is ‘supporting’ is beyond me; the film revolves around his character.

The Gentlemen was another film I put off until the last minute unconvinced it was for me, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite the sort of violence I keep saying I don’t like. It’s very cleverly plotted and benefits from great performances against type by both Hugh Grant and Michelle Dockery.

I’m also one who avoids foreign language films because, as a slow reader who absorbs every word, I find that by reading subtitles I’m missing the visual, but I made an exception for Korean film Parasite after all the awards buzz and again I was right to do so. Highly original and completely enthralling.

Greed is a coruscating, thinly veiled, well deserved satirical swipe at the odious Philip Green, linking the exploitation of workers in the developing world with the fashion industry. It’s a bit heavy-handed, but I enjoyed it nonetheless, and it has an extraordinary cast of talented British actors.

Art

Picasso and Paper at the Royal Academy is a huge and astonishing exhibition. He is so prolific and, though I’d don’t like everything (cubism in particular), it’s littered with gems. I was overwhelmed by it all.

British Baroque: Power & Illusion, late Stuart paintings from 1660-1714, at Tate Britain wasn’t really my thing, more of academic than aesthetic interest. Also there, I caught Steve McQueen’s Year 3: a Portrait of London which was not really about looking at the 3128 classic pose class photos of 76,000 7-8-year-olds in 1504 schools, it was about engagement and citizenship and I admired it for that. The latest Spotlight one-artist room was devoted to British Zanzibar artist Lubaina Himid whose work of women with women was very striking.

Whilst in Cardiff, I visited the National Museum of Wales where there were three photographic exhibitions, the highlight of which was Martin Marr in Wales – loud, brash and colourful documentary photos. I’d seen and admired a small selection of August Sander’s portraits of 20th century Germans in a private gallery in London, but the bigger selection here didn’t really add much; it became a bit monotonous. Bernd & Hilla Becher’s Industrial Visions was what it said on the can – lots of photos of mines, water towers, factories etc. but it did contain one of the mine where my father worked all of his life, and others in South Wales, contrasting with ones in Germany and the US.

The combined running time of all the films and videos in the Steve McQueen retrospective at Tate Modern is an hour more than their opening time. Add in waiting and queuing time and you need to allow at least 1.5 days! I ‘sampled’ it, which was enough for me I’m afraid.

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Opera

Though I find the music to Wozzeck somewhat inaccessible, I was drawn to the Met Live relay by the fact it was being staged by William Kentridge. It was an extraordinary production, and I even found the music more accessible this time around.

Classical Music

The LSO gave us Beethoven’s oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives at the Barbican, which is hardly ever performed, as a result of which I was baffled as to why. It was glorious, with the LS Chorus on particularly fine form.

Comedy

Radio 4’s 40-year-old I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue is a wireless cult favourite, and even more fun on stage at the New Wimbledon Theatre with a full house, a real comic treat chaired by Jack Dee with Tim Brooke-Taylor (who has been on it since the pilot), Tony Hawkes, Miles Jupp and Richard Osman, with Colin Sell at the piano. Sadly Samantha was otherwise engaged!

Film

I wasn’t sure about Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker at first – I hadn’t really been keen on the last two – but I did like the way it concluded the series, going full circle to where it started.

I was sold JoJo Rabbit by the trailer, but on reflection I think it was somewhat mis-sold. Despite some stunning performances by the kids and some genuinely funny moments, I found some of it rather uncomfortable.

Cats wasn’t as bad as the reviews, but it was still a bit weird and surreal. I think it proves that live theatre can do things film just can’t.

1917 isn’t an easy ride, but it’s an extraordinary piece of film-making by Sam Mendes, with stunning cinematography by the great Roger Deakins, and a performance by George MacKay which is going to propel him to stardom.

I put off seeing Joker until its last week, when the awards buzz finally made me give in. I’m not keen on glorified, stylised violence, but I found this psychological thriller clever, with a surprising amount of depth, and Joachim Phoenix was simply superb.

I thought Bombshell was a very good expose of the Fox News sexual harassment scandal, presumably true as no-one has sued! Charlize Theron is superb.

Purists probably won’t like The Personal History of David Copperfield, but I thought it was original and clever, often very funny, sometimes moving, with a British cast to die for.

Art

Two Last Nights: Show Business in Georgian Britain at The Foundling Museum was a great show for a theatre buff like me. A detailed examination of theatre practices and theatre-going in the 1700’s and early 1800’s including images, objects, posters and tickets. It was good to renew my acquaintance with this lovely museum too.

I’ve always been fascinated by Anselm Kiefer’s work, though it’s usually bleak and somewhat depressing, as is his Superstrings, Runes, The Norns, Gordian Knot exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey, but these seventeen monumental textured and three-dimensional pieces were astonishing and I was so glad I saw them.

I made another visit to Pitzhanger Manor, this time to see Es Devlin’s Memory Palace, a topography, 360°because of mirrors, of places associated with her 74 most significant moments in world history, from cave paintings through the pyramids, Indian temples and Machu Picchu to the internet. Fascinating.

Troy; Myth & Reality was an excellent exhibition at the British Museum which told the story of Troy in paintings, statuary, archaeology and other objects. Very comprehensive and beautifully curated.

I’ve lived in London for 38 years but have never been to the Wallace Collection. What attracted me after all this time was a special exhibition, Forgotten Masters: Indian paining for the East India Company, an exquisite collection of paintings of people, buildings, flora & fauna and animals. I took a quick look at the permanent collection while I was there, but it’s enormous, very dense, too ornate, mostly sixteenth and seventeenth century with lots of armour, so not really to my taste.

Three treats at Tate Modern starting with the latest Turbine Hall installation, Fons Americanus by Kara Walker, an enormous sculpture modelled on the one of Victoria outside Buckingham Palace, but as a comment on colonialism. One of the best of these Turbine Hall commissions. I wasn’t convinced I was going to like Korean video artist Nam June Paik‘s retrospective, but I found it playful and fun, though a lot to take in. The highlight though was Dora Maar – photos and paintings by her and of her, most of the latter by Picasso. Her photography, the biggest part of the show, ranged from fashion through documentary to portraits and abstracts. A very rewarding showcase of a fascinating and talented woman.

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I don’t know how to categorise Otis & Eunice at the Royal College of Music. It’s a story with music and dance told in two venues in two cities with a video link enabling it to move from one to the other or both simultaneously. A collaboration between six institutions – RCM, RAM, LAMDA, RADA, BOV Theatre School and Central School of Ballet – it proved to be a very welcome innovation indeed.

Classical Music

Where has Puccini’s Messa di Gloria been all my life? Written as a graduation piece, it’s a very original setting of the mass and the LSO & LSC under Antonio Pappano at the Barbican gave it their all. A piece by his teacher Ponchielli and a rarely heard Verdi string quartet expanded for orchestra (which he knocked up while waiting for his Aida sopranos to get better!) completed a thoroughly satisfying concert.

Contemporary Music

On an impulse, at two hours’ notice, I dumped a theatre ticket to go and see Roy Harper at the London Palladium in what will probably prove to be one of his final shows. It was at times rambling and ragged, and he now struggles with his trademark high notes, but it was littered with gems which more than made up for it, three new songs that proved he hasn’t lost his song writing ability and waves of warmth and love from an audience for whom, like me, he is clearly part of the soundtrack of their lives.

Dance

The six BalletBoyz dancers were mesmerising in their double-bill Them/Us at Sadler’s Wells and I loved the music from both Keaton Henson for Us and Charlotte Harding for Them. It was particularly good to see that they choreographed Them themselves. Every BalletBoyz show brings something new and inventive and this was no exception.

For his latest work at Sadler’s Wells, the ever so eclectic Russell Maliphant takes his inspiration for The Thread from traditional Greek dance, with a score by Vangelis no less. Some have called it Greek Riverdance and though there is a grain of truth in that, it was at times thrilling and at other times beautiful, though perhaps not sustaining its 80 minute length; perhaps a shorter version paired with a contrasting work might have been more satisfying. Michael Hulls’ lighting was as gorgeous as ever, though so dark it brought its challenges! Mary Katrantzou’s costumes were lovely.

Sometimes the most anticipated shows disappoint, and so it was with Pepperland at Sadler’s Wells. Only five songs from the album it purports to celebrate (+ Penny Lane) in poor arrangements, plus uninspired choreography. It was far from the 50th anniversary celebration I’d expected and fell flat on its face. I’m a big fan, but after two duds in a row, even I’m beginning to wonder if Mark Morris has gone off the boil.

At Sadler’s Wells again, Northern Ballet Theatre’s Victoria maintains their outstanding reputation for dance drama in a great piece of storytelling, with inventive chorography, beautiful design and a glorious score played live by their orchestra. The biggest treat of the four evenings there this month.

Film

The Basis of Sex was a lot better than the reviews suggested, but then I’m a sucker for sentimental underdog stories, though this one was about someone who did more for equal opportunity than probably anyone else, in the US at lease.

Almost every film I’ve seen this year has been based on a true story, but Fighting With My Family, about a Norwich wrestling family, is probably the most unlikely. It’s also very funny and heart-warming. A proper British feel-good film.

The Kid Who Would Be King may be a kids film, but I thought it was engaging, charming and an antidote to the seemingly endless march of Marvel tosh, and the special effects were brilliant!

Art

A lean month indeed! Just the annual Wildlife Photography Award Exhibition at the Natural History Museum, its usual feast of brilliant photography, with some new and different themes to keep it fresh.

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Opera

My winter pairing at WNO at the WMC in Cardiff was Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, a hugely underrated opera, and Puccini’s regularly revived Tosca. The former was an excellent new production and the latter a 26-year-old one which has stood the test of time. Both were beautifully sung and conductor Carlo Rizzi has real feel for the Italian repertoire, so the orchestra sounded gorgeous.

Jake Heggie & Terrence McNally’s opera Dead Man Walking has taken eighteen years to make it to the UK and even then only semi-staged by the BBC SO. Why on earth haven’t ENO or the Royal Opera staged this modern masterpiece? Anyway, at the Barbican Hall it was an absolute triumph with a sensational cast led by Joyce DiDonato, Michael Mayes, Maria Zifchak and Measha Brueggergosman and students from GSMD in smaller roles. I left emotionally drained but privileged to have attended something so special.

Classical Music

The LSO and LSC gave one of the best performances of Mahler II I’ve ever heard at the Barbican Hall. It’s a big work that’s often more suited to bigger venues like the Royal Albert Hall, but here it was uplifting and thrilling.

Attending an LSO rehearsal in the Barbican Hall proved fascinating. Most movements were played right through before revisiting sections at the request of the conductor, soloist or players. Elgar’s 1st Symphony sounded so good I almost returned for the concert, and the rehearsal introduced me to new pieces by Janacek and Bartok.

Another of those delightful Royal Academy of Music lunchtime concerts saw their Symphony Orchestra virtually on fire under the baton of Jac van Steen in a beautiful Sibelius programme. I so love these lunchtime RAM treats.

The Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra’s programme of more obscure Stravinsky pieces from the first ten years of his exile was more enticing on paper than it turned out in performance, though the eight visiting singers from Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Conservatoire were excellent, and their enthusiasm infectious.

Film

Phantom Thread looked gorgeous and the performances were outstanding, but I couldn’t engage with the rather flimsy and inconsequential story at all, I’m afraid.

I adored Lady Bird, a delightful coming of age film told through the relationship of a mother and daughter. It feels like an Inde film but its nominated for BAFTA’s and Oscars.

I try and see all the Oscar and BAFTA nominated films and only one or two normally disappoint. This year, in addition to Phantom Thread, it was The Shape of Water. There was a lot to enjoy, but it seemed a bit slight and overlong. A case of too much hype, I suspect.

Finding Your Feet is my sort of film, a quintessentially British cocktail of humour & romance within a well observed account of growing old. Laughter and tears. Loved it.

I, Tonya is the most extraordinary true story made into a brilliant film which is ultimately sympathetic to its subject in the same way Molly’s Game was sympathetic to its subject. Two great contemporary true stories in one year.

Art

A disappointing afternoon of art started with Peter Doig at the Michael Werner Gallery, where so many seemed sketches or unfinished works, and much smaller than his usual giant canvases. At the Serpentine Gallery, Wade Guyon’s digital paintings did nothing for me while up the road at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, Rose Wylie’s child-like pictures did a bit more, but not a lot. On to the National Gallery, where I fared much better with Monochrome, an exhibition of black & white, grey and one colour art throughout history, ending with Olafur Eliasson’s yellow room. Fascinating.

Whilst visiting Cardiff, I popped in to the National Museum of Wales to see Swaps: Photographs from the David Hurn Collection. This Welsh photographer did just that – swapped photos with other photographers he met, including global figures like Cartier Bresson, which he has now given to the museum – a brilliant idea and a fascinating collection. Another exhibition called Bacon to Doig showed 30 items on loan from a major private collection of modern art; a real quality selection it was too. Finally, in a room containing a decorative organ they have removed the art and someone plays and sings a piece by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson called The Sky in the Room continuously – beautiful!

The Royal Academy’s exhibition Charles I: King & Collector doesn’t really contain my sort of art, but I admired much of the artistry, the significance of the collection and was hugely impressed by the extraordinary achievement of getting all of these pictures from all over the world into one exhibition.

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Contemporary Music

I’d never heard of Joe Henry until his field recordings of railroad songs with Billy Bragg last year, and I only heard that record a few days before their lovely concert at Union Chapel, which took a side-trip to include some timely protest songs, and a surreal ending when they were joined on stage by Chas & Dave!

Opera & Dance

I wasn’t keen on the music of Lygeti’s Le Grand Macabre when I saw a staged production at ENO eight years ago, but with the superior LSO, on stage, under Simon Rattle, the LSC in the auditorium aisles (flouting fire regulations!) and a fine line-up of soloists and instrumentalists popping up all over the place in the audience it was rather thrilling. I got the humour which I missed last time, though I’m not sure I got Peter Sellers’ Chernobyl staging (which the composer took against when this version was first staged in Salzburg 19 years ago). I still don’t understand it, but now I’m not sure I’m supposed to!

Les Enfants Terrible, a ballet-opera by Philip Glass, was only partly successful for me. I liked the music, played by three pianos, and the design was good (apart from an unscheduled break when a screen refused to move!) but I’m not sure Javier de Frutos’ choreography with multiple dancers for the two principal roles really worked; it was a bit too fussy.

Film

January is always a busy month in the cinema as all the Oscar contenders are released, and so it was……

Passengers was a bit far-fetched, but quality SciFi nonetheless. Worth seeing for Michael Sheen as an android barman!

A Monster Calls is a highly original and deeply moving story of a young boy coping with his mother’s death from cancer. Young Lewis MacDougall was extraordinary.

Manchester by the Sea took me by surprise. It has a very un-Hollywood authenticity and emotionality; it feels very much like a European film. Sad but beautiful.

La La Land had so much hype it was never likely to live up to it and so it was. Though I enjoyed it, the score, singing and dancing all weren’t good enough to make it an Oscar winner, though it probably will as it’s Hollywood’s love affair with Hollywood.

I adored Lion, so heart-warming and beautifully acted. Based on the true story of a lost Indian boy adopted by a Tasmanian couple, it ended beautifully and movingly with film of the meeting of the real people on which it was based.

Jackie was a big disappointment, despite a fine performance by Natalie Portman. A film about a very interesting woman and a very interesting period turned out to be ever so dull.

I’m not sure it was a good idea to make T2 Trainspotting; I found it a bit disappointing. It was a film of its time and maybe it should have been left that way.

I greatly admired Denial, the very gripping story of the defamation case brought by holocaust denier David Irving against an American academic. It unfolded like a thriller and had a superb British cast.

Art

Dulwich Picture Gallery discovered another old master, this time 17th century Dutch landscape artist Adriaen van de Velde. His pictures might be landscapes, but they have lots of people and animals in them, and there are beaches, sea and boats too. Sadly, there were only 23 finished paintings, less than half the show.

William Kentridge‘s six installations at Whitechapel Gallery were fascinating and playful. I’d seen individual works by him before, but this combination of machines, video, music and tapestry really showed off his inventiveness.

Malian photographer Malick Sidibe‘s exhibition of B&W photographs at Somerset House was a revelation, such an evocative representation of Malian society since the 60’s, and the accompanying soundtrack of Malian music was the icing on the cake.

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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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Opera

A bumper month, with no less than five operas (well, six if you count a double-bill as 2!).

First up, another excellent double-bill at GSMD, this time an unusual pairing of Donizetti’s one-act operatic farce I Pazzi per Progetto, set in a psychiatric institute (!) and a rare and underrated but less manic Malcolm Arnold comic one-acter The Dancing Master. Production and performance standards were, as always, sky high with a stunning performance from Alison Langer and great contributions from Alison Rose, Szymon Wach and Lawrence Thackeray.

Korean composer Unsuk Chin’s opera of Alice in Wonderland was a real treat. Brilliantly staged by Netia jones behind and around the BBC SO on the Barbican Hall stage, with terrific projections, including Ralph Steadman’s caricatures, and excellent costumes, the adaptation darkened and deepened the work and the music was very imaginative and surprisingly accessible (for modern opera!). Rachele Gilmore was a magnificent Alice with outstanding support from Andrew Watts, Marie Arnet and Jane Henschel amongst others.

The Indian Queen is an unfinished semi-opera by Purcell set in pre-colonial and colonial Central America which director Peter Sellers has played with by adding music, dancing and dialogue to make it a rather overlong 3.5 hours. It has its moments (mostly musical) but he pushed it too far, particularly adding five ‘Mayan creation’ dances before it even starts. They’ve programmed eight performances at ENO and judging by the empty seats on the night we went, that’s 3 or 4 too many

Handel’s ‘opera’ Giove in Argo is actually a ‘mash-up’ of stuff from other operas, called a ‘pasticcio’. I didn’t enjoy the first act of the London Handel Festival production at the RCM’s Britten Theatre because the singing seemed tentative and the production dark and dull, but it picked up considerable in the following two acts. Overlong at 3h15m, but with some lovely music and some stunning singing by Galina Averina and Timothy Nelson and a spectacularly good chorus.

The Rise & Fall of the City of Mahagonny at Covent Garden may never have been, or will ever again be, sung and played as well, but somehow Brecht & Weill’s ‘opera’ doesn’t really belong there. The whole enterprise seems at odds with their ethos. It’s a satire that for me didn’t have enough bite in this production, though it’s fair to say that the rest of the audience seemed to be lapping it up. That said, the quality of the singers, chorus and orchestra under Mark Wigglesworth blew me away.

Classical Music

An evening of French music at the Barbican introduced me to two unheard pieces by Debussy and Faure and renewed my acquaintance with Durufle’s beautiful Requiem, which I haven’t heard in ages. Stand-in conductor Dave Hill did a grand job, with the LSO and LSC on fine form.

Contemporary Music

The Unthanks at the Roundhouse was short(ish) but sweet. I liked the line-up, which included string quartet and trumpet. The songs from the new album sounded great, if a bit samey (as they do on record), and a selection of old material responded well to new arrangements. In the end though, it’s the heavenly voices of the sisters which make them so unique. Gorgeous.

Art

Magnificent Obsessions at the Barbican Art Gallery was a fascinating exhibition built around the personal collections of 14 artists. You can see how their collectibles influenced their art, some of which is also showcased. My favourites included Martin Parr’s collection of old postcards and Andy Warhol’s kitsch cookie jars. Fascinating.

I tagged the Paris Pinacotheque Vienna Secession exhibition to a business trip and it was a superb review of the movement, though a bit cramped in their space. Lots of Klimt, but others I was less familiar with. A real treat.

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