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Posts Tagged ‘LSC’

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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Classical Music

I was perhaps a little too excited about the Berlin Phil / Rattle Sibelius cycle at the Barbican. I enjoyed it very much, but it wasn’t the life-changing event the eye-watering prices and the hype might make you expect. It dipped a bit in the second concert with the particularly dark and difficult 4th, but it was great to hear them all together again, one of the best sets of symphonies ever written.

Another free lunchtime concert at the Royal Academy of Music proved to be a real treat. It’s wonderful to see world class conductors like Sir Mark Elder give up their time to helm and nurture the Academy Symphony Orchestra and his introductions are informative and welcoming. The newly orchestrated Six Songs from a Shropshire Lad (Butterworth / Houseman) were beautifully sung by Henry Neill and this was followed by a thrilling interpretation of Shostakovich’s 6th. Lovely.

Any qualms I had about the Sibelius cycle were wiped away by the same team’s concert at the Royal Festival Hall of Mahler’s 2nd symphony. Joined by the LSC, CBSO Chorus and two soloists, this was unquestionably the best I’ve heard this work. The chorus sung without scores and there was some interesting offstage positioning of musicians. The power of 250 performers is extraordinary.

Back at the Royal Academy of Music, this time for Rachmaninov’s 2nd symphony conducted by Edward Gardner. I’d never heard it before but is was accessible on first hearing and packed full of lovely melodies. The talent on stage was extraordinary; if you’d paid full whack at a major concert hall, you’d go home happy. This was a lunchtime freebie!

Opera

I’ve seen opera in the cinema before, but Der Fliegende Hollander was my first ROH Live experience. Favourite baritone Bryn Terfel as the Dutchman wasn’t the only great thing about it – the Senta, Adrianne Pieczonka, was new to me and I thought she was wonderful and the orchestra and chorus sounded great. With top price seats in the opera house at £190 (four times as much as seeing Terfel in the same opera in Cardiff, albeit not as good a production) I felt my £13 cinema experience was terrific value.

I’d seen the production at ENO of Mastersingers of Nuremberg when WNO premièred it in Cardiff (again with Bryn Terfel, but in German and at a third of the price!) but decided I’d like to see it again. I enjoyed it just as much from my more expensive less comfortable seat further away! The cast was faultless and the orchestra and chorus soared. There’s a lot of flab in this opera, but when it shines it takes your breath away.

Film

What a wonderful film Trash is. Stephen Daldry has given us a thriller with a heart set in Rio and performed mostly in Portuguese, which would have been a BAFTA and Oscar Best Film nominee if it hadn’t! The child actors are extraordinary. Unmissable.

I admired Inherent Vice but it lost me after 30 mins or so and never fully recovered. Joaquin Phoenix is terrific and the depiction of the 70’s is great, but it’s overlong and a bit too convoluted.

Shaun the Sheep is another delightful family film, this time from trusty Ardman. I was surprised but pleased to find it had no dialogue and the visual humour was wonderful, some reserved for the adults like all good family entertainment. Brilliant.

Love is Strange was an impulsive punt based on Time Out’s review. It’s a beautifully understated and unsentimental love story which is also achingly sad. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are so believable as the couple whose lives are turned upside down in the 40th year of their relationship.

Selma is an excellent film, though the events depicted made me very angry and I was astonished when I realised this was only 50 years ago. The failure to nominate David Oyelowo for either the BAFTA’s or Oscars is a disgrace; Eddie Redmayne’s achievement is probably greater, but this is still a superb performance.

I’m a sucker for British romantic comedies and The Second Best Marigold Hotel was a treat. It might be safe and predictable, as the critics suggest, but it’s warm-hearted, charming and entertaining, with a cast of our best thespians having a ball.

Art

A richly rewarding morning in Oxford provided one major exhibition and three smaller ones at the lovely Ashmolean. As major exhibitions go, the William Blake one is small, but beautifully formed. It provides insight into his life and embraces the full range of his talent, as engraver, poet, painter and drawer. Chicago artist Ed Paschke is new to me and I liked his colourful, vibrant, stylised and a touch surreal pictures. The Tokaido Road print series by Japanese master engraver Hiroshige provided a brilliant contrast and a diverse selection of paintings by contemporary Chinese artist Fang Zhaoling completed the visit. A treat.

A less rewarding visit to Tate Modern started with Conflict, Time, Photography. It’s a very good idea – photographs of war zones taken at various times after a conflict – but it’s vast, daunting and relentlessly dark and depressing. It covers conflicts over a 150-year period, but it concentrates on the last 65. It comes to life occasionally, but its a case of more is less I’m afraid. In the Turbine Hall, Richard Tuttle’s installation is probably the most uninspiring they’ve ever had, but the visit picked up seeing South African Marlene Dumas’ The Image as Burden, a highly original portraitist whose images are somewhat spooky but high in atmosphere. Fascinating.

 

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Film 

A bumper 12 movie month, as January always is, leading up to the awards season and filling the gaps in a lean theatrical period. Here’s a whistle-stop tour:

I’ve been critical of how Peter Jackson has strung out The Hobbit to three long films, but I’m a completeist so I had to see the last one and decided to go out with a bang and see The Hobbit – the Battle of the Five Armies in the IMAX. It is overlong, the 3D and CGI is often disappointing and there was something tired and earnest about the performances, so it ended with a yawn.

I adored Paddington, a lovely, charming, heart-warming tale filmed and performed to perfection. I was almost put off by ‘kids film’ branding; what a relief I succumbed.

Though there was much to enjoy in Birdman, I wasn’t as euphoric as the critics. Too much of people shouting at one another for me, and overlong to boot. Good rather than great.

I was somewhat apprehensive about seeing the film adaptation of a favourite musical by one of my heroes, but Into the Woods exceeded expectations bigtime. Brilliantly cast, superb production design and some decent singing. You have to suspend disbelief a lot in the theatre (beanstalks, giant, castle ball….) but the film opens it right up. There was even a delicious moment right at the end when Simon Russell Beale is revealed as the ghost of Baker James Corden’s dad!

It is Benedict Cumberbatch’s great misfortune that The Theory of Everything is released in the same awards year as The Imitation Game, for his superb performance is eclipsed by an even more superb one from Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking. It’s another captivating biopic of another great Briton and we are lucky to have films like this still being made here.

I enjoyed Testament of Youth, an unsentimental yet moving depiction of the First World War from the perspective of one woman, her family and friends. It was well paced, so it sustained its 130 minute length and the performance by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, who I’d never seen before, was superb.

Foxcatcher really caught me out. Reluctant to go and see a film about wrestling, it turned out to have great psychological depth and a superb performance by Steve Carrell. It’s a slow burn, but it’s worth staying with it.

Whiplash was another psychological thriller masquerading, this time as a film about jazz. This one grabs you from the off and doesn’t let go. A thrilling ride.

American Sniper is a very well made film but I found it hard to swallow the delight taken in killing, whatever the rights and wrongs of it. Exceptional performances, especially from Bradley Cooper and an unrecognisable Sienna Miller, weren’t enough to redeem it I’m afraid.

A Most Violent Year is the third great thriller this month, also covering new ground (battles between and corruption within oil distributors in 80’s New York). A slowish start but it draws you in.

Alicia Vikander turned up again in Ex Machina, an interesting if slight and slow film about AI, in a completely contrasting role; definitely someone to watch.

I ended the film-going month with the populist – Kingsman – The Secret Service – which was rather fun. It was extraordinarily violent (not something I usually like) but it was comic rather than realistic violence, so I could stomach it – most of the time.

Dance

I recall being a bit underwhelmed by the first outing of New Adventures’ Edward Scissorhands at Sadler’s Wells nine years ago, but the consensus of ‘much improved’ encouraged me to re-visit it. Sadly, I remain underwhelmed. There’s a lot of moving about but not enough dance for me – a bit like New Adventures recent Lord of the Flies, but without the strong narrative that had. It just seemed like a series of set pieces and I didn’t really engage with the main character or the story. I did like the music though, and it picked up a lot in the last few scenes.

This is the third time I’ve seen BalletBoyz (The Talent) and it’s great to watch them grow and mature. This show, Young Men, also at Sadler’s Wells, is made up of 10 themed scenes about, well, young men and war. The soundtrack by Keaton Henson is brilliant and the design beautifully atmospheric, but it’s the dance that thrills most. Mesmerising.

Classical

It was only my second time seeing the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela under Gustavo Dudamel, but they continue to impress. The first of their two RFH concerts paired Beethoven’s 5th with selections from Wagner’s Ring cycle and their interpretations of both were often thrilling. They’ve all grown up playing together in the El Sistema process and I’m sure this is why they sound so tight and cohesive.

I’d never heard Schumann’s oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri (like almost everyone else in the audience it seems!) It’s rare amongst choral pieces as it’s both secular and romantic, maybe even sickly and sentimental. It was given a thrilling outing by the LSO & LSC at the Barbican with six excellent soloists and a female quartet from GSMD under Sir Simon Rattle. If the rumours are true we might get a lot more of him in the future, which would be the best possible appointment the LSO could make!

Opera

I liked the Royal Opera / Roundhouse co-production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, one of the earliest operas ever written, but more for the music than the production. The differentiation between hell and the real world was lost in a sea of black and grey costumes and the writhing people in grey boiler suits were very distracting. Orfeo acted well, but his singing was uneven, but the rest of the cast were excellent.

Contemporary Music

A Little Night Music isn’t my favourite Sondheim musical but given the casting I couldn’t resist the 40th anniversary concert performance at the Palace Theatre and was very glad I didn’t. The large orchestra sounded lush, Sondheim’s sharp and witty lyrics shone in this setting and, despite some fluffed lines, the performances were excellent, with Laura Pit-Pulford bringing the house down with The Millers Son.

Art

I very much liked the Sigmar Polke retrospective at Tate Modern. He’s clearly an artist who has not lost his creativity as his work has evolved and the artistic journey is brilliantly presented. A second visit beckons methinks.

Its extraordinary how a little known 16th century Italian portraitist can pack them in at the Royal Academy, so much so that it hampered the experience of viewing the Moroni exhibition in its final weekend. Round the back in Pace Gallery there was a fascinating and original exhibition of large B&W photos of museum dioramas of landscapes with wildlife by Hiroshi Sugimoto that I thought at first were paintings. Next door at the other RA galleries the Allen Jones retrospective was the highlight of the afternoon. Even though he was obsessed with women’s legs, the vibrancy and pizazz of the work was terrific.

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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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