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Posts Tagged ‘LSO St. Lukes’

Opera / Classical Music

My second Nash Ensemble War’s Embers concert at LSO St. Luke’s featured beautiful pieces from Bax and Butterworth with others by Rebecca Clarke and Patrick Hadley, neither of whom I’d ever heard of. I do enjoy these lunchtime treats.

BBC SO’s Total Immersion In Remembrance: World War I at the Barbican combined an excellent film about poet / composer Ivor Gurney, a concert by hugely talented GSMD students of pieces from composers who died during / because of the war, the first revival of Mark Anthony Turnage’s brilliant opera The Silver Tassie, David Lang’s choral work Memorial Ground performed in the foyer (the wrong location!) with a couple of talks and even a Virtual Reality experience, culminating in a BBC Singers concert featuring new choral works by Bob Chilcott and Roderick Williams, the former conventional but beautiful and the latter stunningly re-inventing recitative with a new form of prose setting. Given the reason for this mini-festival, it was a melancholic experience, but a musically thrilling one nonetheless.

The Royal Academy of Music’s production of Handel’s Semele will be one of my operatic highlights of the year. A production that looked great, a chorus and orchestra that sounded great and a star was born – Lithuanian soprano Lina Dambrauskaite. Gorgeous.

The BBC SO pairing of Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto and Ethyl Smyth’s Mass in D at the Barbican Hall seemed odd, apparently put together because the former said some nice, if patronising, things about the latter. As it turned out, though, both were treats, the first because young pianist Pavel Kolesnikov was sensational and the latter, which I’ve been wanting to see for some time, because the chorus and orchestra sang and played terrifically.

Back at the Royal Academy of Music, their Symphony Orchestra thrilled again under visiting American conductor Robert Trevino with a superbly played Bruckner’s 4th Symphony. I can’t think of a better way to spend a lunchtime.

I was attracted to a French song recital by Sarah Connolly & James Newby at Wigmore Hall as it featured two favourite composers, Ravel and Debussy, but their songs, which I didn’t really know, did not live up to their orchestral, chamber or operatic works, so despite the artistry I was a bit disappointed.

Back at Wigmore Hall, Mark Padmore & the Britten Sinfonia paired a Vaughn Williams song cycle with a premiere by Luke Styles and sadly the former overshadowed the other. The new piece was too challenging for me!

ENO staged Britten’s War Requiem, as it has done with other choral works before. I’m not sure the staging adds much, though there was some beautiful imagery, and the orchestral sound lost something in the pit, but the three soloists and chorus sounded terrific.

Dance

Layla & Majnun at Sadler’s Wells is the first Mark Morris show to disappoint me. Based on a Middle-Eastern / Central Asian Romeo & Juliet, with Azerbaijani music by the Silkroad Ensemble, it had little of his creative flair and the designs by favourite artist, now deceased, Howard Hodgkin disappointed. I liked the music initially, but it did wear me down long before the 75 minutes were up.

GoteborgsOperans dance company made their first visit to Sadler’s Wells with two of the most thrilling dances I’ve ever seen, both choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and designed by Anthony Gormley. Icon started with Gormley re-cycling some of the clay people in his 25-year-old work Field before tons of soft clay, thirteen dancers and five musicians playing mostly Japanese music became one mesmerising whole. In Noetic, nineteen dancers with a singer & percussionist and pliable metal strips which created a globe before your eyes were spellbinding too. Let’s hope they become regulars here.

Film

A catch-up month starting with A Star Is Born, which I enjoyed. Bradley Cooper and Lady Ga Ga were impressive, the former also as director in his debut.

Widows was a superbly unpredictable film, beautifully shot by Steve McQueen with musical theatre’s Cynthia Erivo proving she’s no one-trick pony.

First Man took a while to take off, but once it did I was captivated by the blend of personal story and actual history, which was gripping even though we all know the outcome!

I wasn’t a big fan of Queen, and I didn’t think they got Freddie Mercury right (teeth too pronounced and too camp), but I was surprised by how much Bohemian Rhapsody moved me and was very glad I went to see it.

Despite superb performances from Glenn Close & Jonathan Pryce, The Wife disappointed, largely because the emphasis on the endgame meant they brushed over the meat of the deceit.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald was technically accomplished and well-acted but I didn’t really engage with the story, though it was good to see Hogwarts again, and to meet the young Dumbledore.

Art

Faux Pas of the year was visiting Ribera: Art of Violence at the Dulwich Picture Gallery thinking it was (Diego) Rivera! I’m afraid Ribera’s pictures of torture, and his particular penchant for flaying, were not to my taste! Fortunately, as a member it’s free, oh, and the brunch was great!

Modern Couples at the Barbican Art Gallery is a fascinating idea well executed, work by artist in relationships shown together, with biographical information about the relationship. It’s a huge affair featuring some 45 couples, some well-known and others unknown (to me), but had much to like in it.

The Hayward Gallery’s Space Shifters was a bit gimmicky, but again worth a visit, though I didn’t bother to queue for the highlight, Richard Wilson’s 20/50, as I’ve seen it quite a few times since its first outing at the tiny Matt’s Gallery 31 years ago.

At the Barbican’s Curve Gallery, Kiwi artist Francis Upritchard has created a ‘museum’, called Wetwang Slack, of item’s she’s made, from quirky models of people to hats, jewellery, urns and much more. It made me smile.

I think it’s extraordinary that a 20th Century weaver can get a huge retrospective at a major public gallery, but that’s what the late Anni Albers has at Tate Modern. In yet another connection with my Bauhaus trip, she trained with them. It was interesting, but probably more for real lovers of textiles and weaving than a generalist like me.

The Edward Burne-Jones retrospective at Tate Britain was brilliant – well, at least to this lover of the Pre-Raphaelites. I normally find studies and drawings exhibition fillers, but here they demonstrate his craftsmanship. The finished pictures and tapestries were stunning, though the stained glass less so for some reason. Upstairs the Turner Prize exhibition was all films, which I skimmed as life is too short to waste several hours on some pretentious shit masquerading as art.

Oceania at the Royal Academy is probably the best showcase of a culture and peoples I’ve ever seen. Art and objects from some of the 10,000 islands that make up the vast area of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia between them conveyed the real essence of this part of the world. Absolutely fascinating. Upstairs in the Sackler Galleries I was surprised at how much I liked Klimt / Schiele drawings from the Albertine Museum in Vienna. The outstanding skills of these two artists really came over in what were mostly portraits and nudes. Beautiful.

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A lean month as I spent three weeks of it out of the country…..

Contemporary Music

Musical theatre performers and audiences seem to love Scott Alan’s songs (though he’s never written a musical, yet), so I thought I’d give his song cycle The Distance You Have Come at the Cockpit Theatre a go. It was well sung and played but it was too generic for me, lacking variety, light, shade and colour. Preforming it in the round also affected audience engagement as a lot of the time performers were singing to others rather than you.

David Byrne’s O2 Arena concert exceeded my expectations. With a bare grey stage surrounded on three sides by a giant grey bead curtain, through which musicians entered and left, twelve people dressed in matching grey suits ‘wearing’ their instruments around their necks, no amps mics or leads in sight and just lights to add colour and shadows, it was visually stunning. The fast paced combination of old material with Utopia tracks was brilliant. A treat.

Opera

I first saw suffragette Ethyl Smyth’s opera The Wreckers in concert at the Proms 24 years ago, so it was thrilling to finally see it staged by Arcadian Opera in the Roxburgh Theatre in Stowe School. Even though the chorus were local amateurs and it was a scratch orchestra, the musical standards under retired opera singer Justin Lavender, who sang the leading role of Mark at that Proms concert, were very high.

Classical Music

The Nash Ensemble’s lunchtime recital at LSO St Luke’s featured British chamber music and song written immediately after WWI, five pieces by five composers I like, none of which I’d heard before. It was the first of three called War Embers.

Dance

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s double-bill Fire & Fury at Sadler’s Wells featured two contrasting works, one a reimagining of 14-year-old Louis XIV mid-seventeenth century dances and the other inspired by a Turner painting. Gorgeous designs, live music and fresh choreography all contributed to making it a treat.

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Opera

At the Royal College of Music, five mini-operas on the theme of Frankenstein – The Modern Prometheus saw five composition students produce very diverse responses, including misuse of digital data, genetic modification of babies and time travel. They were all staged professionally and beautifully performed and played by the students. It made me realise opera is a live art form and in these hands very much alive.

George Benjamin’s opera Lessons in Love and Violence at the ROH, about Edward II, lived up to the hype, and more. A brilliant piece of storytelling with great psychological depth, thrillingly dramatic music and some wonderful singing by a faultless cast. One of the best modern operas I’ve ever seen, proving how much you can achieve in 90 minutes without padding.

Classical Music

The BBC Singers continue to shine, this time at Milton Court accompanied by St James Baroque in an all Handel programme. I’d have preferred an all Handel choral programme; as much as I admired the organ concerto, it didn’t really belong. The choral pieces were lovely.

A lunchtime at LSO St. Luke’s saw the Academy of Ancient Music perform two of Handel’s Chandos Anthems in a sandwich with a Trio Sonata, and a lovely diversion it was too. All the works were new to this Handel fan, which was a bonus.

The UK premiere of Howard Goodall’s new oratorio, Invictus: A Passion, at St John’s Smith Square was a real treat. His classical works, like his musicals, are full of gorgeous melodies and this was no exception, beautifully sung by The Choir of Christ Church Oxford, with two soloists from The Sixteen and a small instrumental ensemble. It’s rare that Handel proves to be an anti-climax, but the Foundling Hospital Anthem which followed was; though it was another Handel piece that was new to me.

Contemporary Music

I tend not to go to cabaret, particularly ones made up of musical theatre numbers, as I’ve convinced myself I don’t much like them out of context, but every time I do go I enjoy it and say I should go more often! The first May bank holiday weekend gave me a double-dip, starting with one of my favourite performers, Clive Rowe, at the Orange Tree Theatre. His selection was mostly American standards and his piano and double bass accompaniment was first class, but it was the extraordinary warmth of the welcome and the absolute joy of the performance that made it for me. It was hard for the Stephen Sondheim Society’s monthly cabaret at Phoenix Artist Club to live up to it, but it was a jolly good night, thanks to MD Aaron Clingham and fine vocals and comic input from Sarah-Louise Young, Sooz Kempner and Tim McArthur. The bonus was vising a lovely new venue and feeling I’d brought the average age down, a rare occurrence these days.

I very much enjoyed the first collaboration between Welsh harpist Catrin Finch & Senegalese Cora player Seckou Keita five years ago, but the chemistry between them is now much developed as they proved back at Union Chapel with a new album to play, inspired by the migration of ospreys between their two countries. The big bonus was support from Gwyneth Glyn, a lovely Welsh singer with a great backing group, who was new to me.

I went to see folk ‘supergroup’ Imar at King’s Place on the strength of one number performed at the BBC Folk Awards on TV and a good decision it was too. Though lots of dance tunes can sometimes seem relentless, and leave you breathless, there were some slower numbers to bring some light and shade and I was anyway mesmerised by the musicianship. The camaraderie and banter added a warmth to the evening.

Effigies of Wickedness, a collaboration between ENO and the Gate Theatre, gets its title from a pre-war Nazi exhibition of ‘degenerate’ music, including pieces by Weill, Eisler & Brecht and Schoenberg. Sub-titled ‘Songs Banned by the Nazis’, it’s a cabaret made up of some of this music, but much more, with staging and design that is wild, colourful, loud and in-your-face and hugely committed performances and consummate musicianship from opera, theatre and cabaret professionals. It was often hilarious, but often chilling. Extraordinary.

Dance

Hofesh Shechter’s Show at the Lyric Hammersmith had his trademark earthiness and pounding, but it was also macabre and had some humour and a lightness that set it apart from the other works of his I’ve seen. It was rather mesmerising, with more false endings / curtain calls that you may ever have seen before.

Film

I haven’t looked away from the screen as much as I did in South African film The Wound, about a tribal manhood ritual, which was so authentic it felt like a documentary. Gripping stuff.

Tully was a film that lulled you into thinking one thing before it surprised you by being something else and I really enjoyed it. Charlize Theron was terrific in her frank look at motherhood.

I didn’t go and see The Greatest Showman when it came out because I’d just seen a revival of the musical Barnum, about the same man, covering the same ground, and the reviews were a bit ify. Word of mouth made me change my mind and I thought it was terrific, despite the schmaltz, and definitely worth seeing on a big screen. When the lights went up, I discovered I’d seen it alone!

Art

The Wildlife Photography Exhibition at the Natural History Museum seems to start as soon as the previous one ends; sometimes I think I’ve seen the current one but I haven’t, one day I’ll unintentionally go twice. It was great again, and blissfully quiet. I’ll never make a wildlife photographer – I don’t have enough patience, or a good enough kit.

Known Unknown at the Saatchi Gallery was the usual curate’s egg – good pieces hanging alongside dross. Still, the space is great, and it’s free!

London Nights at the Museum of London exhibits photographs taken over more than a hundred years of the city at night. It went off at a few tangents, such as fashion, but there was much to enjoy, including a stunning snap taken by Tim Peake from the ISS. Along the High Walk in the Barbican Music Library, there was a small display of photos and equipment Inside Abbey Road Studios but not enough from its iconic period in the 60’s for me. Jill Furmanovsky’s photos were great, but they were the wrong subjects for my timeline!

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Dance

Matthew Bourne’s 20-year-old production of Cinderella, revived at Sadler’s Wells again after seven years, scrubbed up as fresh as ever. The Second World War setting works even better today and the expansion of Cinderella’s family with three step-brothers continues to add much. It looks gorgeous, Prokofiev’s score is one of the best ballet scores ever and the performances are thrilling, packed with detail.

Opera

The Royal Opera went walkabout to the Roundhouse for Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses. It’s not my favourite early opera, but it was an impressive in-the-round production, with the orchestra in a central pit revolving slowly and the stage around them revolving independently in the opposite direction! I was surprised I didn’t leave feeling giddy.

Music

Christopher Purves’ recital of ten Handel arias at Milton Court was lovely, though I’m not sure the selection is the best he could have made. The bonus was accompaniment by the ensemble Arcangelo, who also played two concerto grosso’s and two opera overtures.

The Sixteen’s concert of Purcell’s music for Charles II at Wigmore Hall was an eclectic cocktail of welcome songs, theatre songs, tavern songs and instrumental numbers. The singing and playing was of such a high quality it took my breath away.

The BBC SO’s Bernstein Total Immersion day at the Barbican was a real treat. Eleven works over three concerts in three venues, covering orchestral, jazz, chamber, choral, vocal and piano, clarinet and violin works, only two of which I’d heard before. The GSMD musicians opening concert in Milton Court was the highlight for me, though the BBC Singers came close with their short but beautiful choral concert in St Giles Cripplegate. There was also a brilliant film of his 1961 concert for young people about impressionism. The following day, at LSO St. Lukes, there was a terrific selection of Bernstein stories and anecdotes from Edward Seckerson with musical theatre songs sung by favourite Sophie-Louise Dann and played by the wonderful Jason Carr.

Film

January is always a good month for film as the best are released in the run-up to awards season, and this year is no exception.

Molly’s Game isn’t subject matter I would normally be interested in (Olympic skiing and poker!) but this was a brilliantly made film which gripped me throughout.

I was also riveted by All the Money in the World, and in particular by Christopher Plummer’s last minute takeover of Kevin Spacey’s role. It won’t do J Paul Getty’s posthumous reputation much good though!

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri lived up to every bit of the hype. Watching Martin McDonough’s transition from playwright to screenplay writer to film director / writer has been deeply rewarding.

There have been a number of films along similar lines to Darkest Hour (Dunkirk and Churchill just last year) but this differs in showing the loneliness and vulnerability of its subject. See it for Gary Oldman’s extraordinary performance, and many other fine supporting ones.

The Post is extraordinarily timely, covering press freedom based on an incident before Watergate, and I very much enjoyed the old-fashioned film making, which rather suited the material.

Art

The Soutine exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery was good, but with only 21 pictures in 2 rooms, I was glad it was a while since I’d seen their permanent collection, as this made the visit more worthwhile.

I am a bit embarrassed that I’d never heard of the Scythians before the British Museum exhibition was announced. It was fascinating, particularly lots of 2000-year-old gold animal representations. With a forthcoming trip to Kazakhstan, on the edge of where they once roamed, it was also rather timely. Also at the BM, I was surprised at how interesting Living with Gods was – religious objects from just about every faith on Earth.

At Tate Modern, not one, not two, but three fascinating exhibitions! Modigliani lived up to expectations. I so love his palette of colours and the warmth of his portraits. Ilya & Emilia Kabakov are artists I’ve never heard of, so it was a treat to immerse myself in their retrospective of excellent paintings and installations. Red Star Over Russia was a fascinating visual history of Communist Russia, or should I say USSR, with lots of those rousing posters which define the period. Treatsville Bankside.

Over at White Cube Bermondsey, a ginormous Gilbert & George show called The Beard Pictures & Their Fuckosophy paired walls and walls of phrases all containing the word Fuck, with walls and walls of their giant, loud, symmetrical, in-you-face pictures. Part of me finds it all too samey and juvenile, but I keep going back for more. A gold star this time for a signed catalogue at £10!

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I don’t normally blog classical music, except in my monthly round-ups, but I feel compelled to abandon this policy to tell as many people as possible about this extraordinary event. I only found out about it c.10 days before; despite being a Barbican member, it had somehow passed me by. 60 performances, from 15 to 105 minutes long, by 450 performers in seven venues, plus foyers and lakeside, over two days. You exchanged your day or weekend ticket for a wristband and created your own event by seeing whatever took your fancy. 

Saturday started brilliantly with the BBC Symphony Orchestra giving an excellent Firebird Suite, in front of a specially commissioned film synchronised live on stage by the director. This is one of my favourite pieces of music, so I was on a high as I walked over to the lovely St Giles Cripplegate for a recital by favourite countertenor Iestyn Davies and Lutenist Thomas Dunford, but by the time this beautiful concert, mostly Dowland, was over I was in heaven. Next stop was the Conservatory where you picked up earphones and waited for the four character mini-Carmen to begin their short promenade performance, ending with a strangulation under the greenery, almost at my feet. In The Curve the BBC Singers gave a lovely selection of unaccompanied choral pieces in atmospheric lighting. Moving half-way through was a pointless distraction, though. Back in the Hall, I fell in love with the voice and personality of the beautifully named American soprano Angel Joy Blue whose eclectic set was, well, a joy. In the foyer and at the lakeside I encountered Street Orchestra London, a cross between buskers, pop-up and flash-mob. They were a delight and their sense of fun was infectious. Then there was a short walk up the road to the lovely LSO St Luke’s where the Guildhall School post-graduate wind students thrilled with Richard Strauss rarely heard symphony for winds. I has planned to return home at this point. The final Britten Sinfonia concert featured someone called Chilly Gonzales, whose talents apparently included rap, something I’m not fond of, to put it mildly. I had second thoughts as there was by now a buzz about it, so I thought I’d give it a go, sitting on the end of a row in case I decided not to see out the ninety minutes. 1h 45m later I was leading the standing ovation! He deconstructed the Oasis’ song Champagne Supernova as Britten had a Purcell theme and gave us The Young-ish Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. I have never laughed so much in a concert, though it was as musically brilliant as it was funny. From Chilly virgin to Chilly fan in an evening, going home on another high.

Sunday started just as well, with the LSO playing a selection of the John Williams film music they originally recorded. It sounded thrilling with almost 100 players on stage and the video interview clips with Williams between pieces, putting them in context, was a great idea. I discovered the second LSO Williams concert was not a repeat (as the BBC SO’s had been the day before), so I was tempted to return, but decided to stay with my plan to support a new work by Sven Helbig with the BBC Singers, Helbig’s electronics and an atmospheric accompanying film. I liked it, though it was dark in the hall and the sound soporific, so I struggled to remain conscious! In between these two events there was a quirky visit to The Curve Gallery where the music came from helium filled balloons as they exhaled and descended. ‘Horn Hangout’, an entertaining Q&A with the LSO horn section was followed by a horn flash-mob at the lakeside as they were joined by members of the Coldstream Guards and amateur players. Great fun. Back in The Curve, you walked through a sound installation in darkness whilst people in black made further sounds and illumination waving what seemed to be pliant light sabres! On to the Hall, where The Academy of Ancient Music played a selection from Handel’s Water Music preceded by a lovely trio of Handel arias from countertenor Tim Mead. Up to the Conservatory again, this time for a percussion sextet playing a one-hour piece called Timber on planks of wood. I didn’t think I’d see it through, but it hypnotised me – like Glass, but wood! The final concert in the Hall was another inspired idea, featuring brass and winds with pieces by Bernstein, Miles Davies after Rodrigo (featuring trumpet player Alison Balsom) and Gershwin. A big, brash, loud statement to close the weekend.

It’s intention was to be accessible, informal and friendly and it certainly achieved that. The performers dressed casually, there was illuminating commentary from the stage, live video for close-ups, free seating and sessions in the foyers and at the lakeside. There was quality music from premiere league orchestras, choirs and soloists, plus GSMD students and I particularly liked the fact it featured works for winds, brass and percussion that get less airtime. The quirky additions were great fun. My personal selection was 14 events in 6 venues and another 4 in the foyers / outside. I enjoyed every single one of them.  Something like ten hours of music; an absolute feast. I can’t wait for the next one, when I intend to take a gang with me.

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Classical Music

My excitement at the arrival of Simon Rattle as chief conductor of the LSO in 2017 was further fuelled by their semi-staged Pelleas & Melisandre at the Barbican. I’m not sure Peter Sellers staging added that much, but I liked the fact that it took part within the orchestra (apparently as Debussy wanted) and the unique score sounded glorious, with a fine set of soloists as well as the LSO on top form.

The first of the Shakespeare 400 concerts at LSO St. Luke’s featured counter-tenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Elizabeth Kenny with a superb selection of songs from a large selection of plays. It was delightful, but was eclipsed by the second concert featuring The BBC Singers under Dave Hill with a programme of unaccompanied settings from the 20th and 21st centuries, including lovely songs by a Finnish composer I’d never heard of (Jaakko Mantyjarvi) and a superb world premiere by Cecilia McDowall. Anyone who thinks modern classical music is tuneless should listen to Radio 3 at 1pm on 28th April when it’s broadcast

The Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela really are a phenomenon and the pairing of Stravinsky’s Petrushka and The Rite of Spring really showed off their talents in their first Royal Festival Hall concert. I was disappointed that they dropped The Firebird at the last minute, so the encore of its final movement – one of the most uplifting pieces of music ever written – was a welcome surprise. The second concert featured Messiaen’s epic Turangalia-symphonie, which I thought I liked, but after hearing it again I’m not sure! I was fascinated by it and admire the skills required to play it, but enjoy? The Ondes Martenot (a quirky primitive electronic instrument that could have been invented by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop) was too loud (well, at least from where I was sitting) but the piano was played brilliantly by a young Chinese lady in a silver glitter mini-dress and matching shoes with unfeasibly high heels!

It was good to hear Berlioz‘ epic Romeo & Juliet symphony again and good to see conductor Andrew Davies back with the BBC SO. The chorus sounded great and amongst the soloists David Soar, well, soared! If this had been the LSO the Barbican Hall would have been packed, but for the BBC SO it wasn’t – a bit of a puzzle, that.

Contemporary Music

I have to confess to knowing next to nothing about Broadway legend Audra Macdonald, but her reputation drew me to her very rare London concert at Leicester Square Theatre and I was impressed. Sometimes the classical training gets in the way of the interpretation of show songs and the sound could have been better (when she sang Summertime unaccompanied it was glorious) but impressed nonetheless. I must have been the only new fan in the house, such was the adulation.

Dance

Akram Kahn’s Until the Lions was a spellbinding 60 minute dance interpretation of a part of the epic Mahabharata. I couldn’t make head nor tail of the narrative, but that didn’t stop me being mesmerised by the venue (Roundhouse), design, lighting, music and movement in perfect unison. Thrilling.

Art

I regretted going to the National Gallery’s Goya: The Portraits almost as soon as I walked into the first room. The gallery’s Sainsbury Wing Galleries and amongst the worst in London and when you pack them to the rafters, as they did for this, it’s difficult to enjoy, even see, the pictures (which makes an exhibition rather pointless!).

No regrets about Giacometti: Pure Presence at the NPG whose portraits (rather than the sculptures we’re used to seeing) were a revelation and you could see everything!

The Amazing World of M C Esher at Dulwich Picture Gallery was a real treat. Some of those images from student flat walls were there, but so much more – including, somewhat unexpectedly, portraits and landscapes. A brilliant meeting of technical skill and an extraordinary imagination.

Peter Blake’s portraits at the Waddington Custot Gallery was a revelation. Best known for collages like the Sgt. Pepper cover, I’d realised he had portraiture skills when I saw his exhibition of Under Milk Wood characters in Cardiff. From real people like Helen Mirren to generic wrestlers and tattoo subjects, it was very impressive.

Gods Own Junkyard at Lights of Soho was an exhibition of neon art in a bar where you had to peer over drinkers to see the work – which made it rather surreal. A ‘pop in’ show.

The NPG’s annual Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Award exhibition goes from strength to strength with an eclectic collection of known subjects and strangers. It seemed smaller this year, but was still well worth visiting.

The Alexander Calder Performing Sculptures exhibition at Tate Modern went downhill from the first two rooms of wire works of people and animals, though it did pick up in Room 9 with his first mobiles. The abstract stuff doesn’t do much for me I’m afraid, and one of the problems was that the moving ones weren’t, for obvious conservation reasons, and only a few had video footage of how they would if they did.

Film

A busy month, with most of the Oscar and BAFTA nominated films being released.

The Danish Girl is a beautiful, sensitive film with outstanding performances. Eddie Redmayne follows his extraordinary characterisation of Stephen Hawking with an equally stunning one as the first man ever to change sex. Another Oscar?

I was glad I caught up with Suffragette. It was a touch earnest and perhaps a bit unfair in an ‘all men are bad’ way, but an important slice of modern history and great performances.

I was less taken with Grandma, a somewhat slight film about teenage abortion I should have waited to see on TV. Lily Tomalin was good, though.

The Big Short is informative but funny, and it makes you very angry. It’s an inventive explanation of the 2008 financial collapse and it’s must see cinema, amongst the best films I’ve seen in recent years.

Connections with Bolivia led me to Our Brand Is Crisis, a film about American political strategists employed by Bolivian presidential candidates. It turned out to be good rather than great, but worth a visit. Immediately following The Big Short may have dampened its impact.

I liked Room much more than I thought I was going to. I was expecting to be depressed, but it was a sensitive, intelligent and ultimately hopeful film, and the actor playing the 5-year old boy born in captivity was extraordinary.

The Oscar / Bafta nominated picture binge continued with Spotlight, a terrific film about the catholic church paedophile cover up, in a very conventional production that reminded me of All the President’s Men. Like The Big Short, it made me very angry. Great to see Hollywood telling true stories like these.

The Revenant is a brilliantly made film, but more than a touch implausible, way too gory (for me) and overlong at over 2.5 hours. The star is the American landscape and the baddie is a Brit, obviously.

 

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Contemporary Music

Elvis Costello brought his Spectacular Spinning Songbook tour to the Royal Albert Hall. This is the development of an idea he first used in a residency at the then Royalty Theatre (now Peacock Theatre) ages ago. Audience members come up and spin the wheel which determines the next song, though he does add in other songs, and remain on stage for a drink, or a cage dance(!). The sound took a short while to adjust to this huge space, but when it got going it was a great set of mostly oldies but goodies. His brother’s Irish folk band (new one on me) joined him for a moving tribute to his recently deceased dad. Other guests later included Brinsley Schwartz guitarist Martin Belmont and Squeeze’s Chris Difford, but the real surprise was the arrival of Russell Crowe for a song by the other Elvis and another by Johnny Cash. With a veritable army onstage for the final encore, and Steve Naïve on the RAH organ, (What’s so funny ‘bout) peace love and understanding was a fitting end to a great night.

Opera

South African company Isango, who opened the Globe to Globe festival, moved on to Hackney Empire where their residency included an extraordinary La Boheme. It worked well in a 70’s township, but it was the quality of singing and acting which took your breath away. The ‘orchestra’ was composed of wooden marimbas and steel drums. The overture was partly sung (hummed) which in itself was so moving it brought a tear to my eye. This was as good as their Carmen and Magic Flute and amongst the most emotional productions of this favourite opera I’ve ever seen. I had to see it, even though I’ve had a WNO La Boheme next Sunday booked for over a year!

Our Town (based on Thornton Wilder’s play) was a real coup for the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. They dramatically re-configured the Silk Street Theatre ‘in the round’ with the orchestra in a pit in front of one of three sets of seating. Twelve members of the chorus occupied two rows on the fourth side and it was played out on a central platform and elsewhere. I’m not sure I like the story that much, but the music is lovely and it was acted and sung to perfection. Stuart Laing was excellent in the part of the Stage Manager (a sort of narrator) and despite an infection, Sky Ingram again impressed as Emily. It was particularly good to see the GSMD putting on a 21st Century opera.

Classical music

The LSO Stravinsky mini-season got off to a wonderful start with three brilliant pieces. His mass for voices and wind is a great spin on the usual; his violin concerto in D major, played brilliantly by Leonidas Kavakos, a thrilling revelation and the full Firebird ballet set the Barbican alight. When the LSO & Gergiev are on form, they’re unbeatable and here they were absolutely on form. The second concert was a more low-key affair, with Renard, a piece for four male soloists and small orchestra and a narrated version of The Soldiers Tale. They were fascinating pieces, though not thrilling. The thrills returned at the third concert with a brilliant interpretation of the opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex. The chorus were on fine form, though I wish the singers hadn’t been buried at the back. Simon Callow again narrated and the Russian soloists were all good. The Rite of Spring, which preceded it, is a less accessible work than The Firebird and though I enjoyed it, again it didn’t thrill. The final concert was a real treat; a selection of seven jazz influenced chamber works. I really liked the ‘running commentary’ from conductor Timothy Redmond – very insightful and fascinating. The Octet for Wind Instruments was the highlight for me, though I enjoyed it all. I love ‘immersing’ myself in a single composer and this mini-festival provided an excellent opportunity to do so with a much underrated 20th Century one.

Dance

Ballet Revolucion was Cuban ballet dancers having a go at contemporary dance, but it was a bit of a hit-and-miss affair. The first half was rather samey and didn’t really inspire, but the second half had more great moments. More light and shade and more variety of musical style and accompanying choreography would show off this young talented company so much better.

Art

I was glad I caught David Shrigley’s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery on its last day as it made me smile the whole while I was there. He’s rather eclectic (animation, sculpture, drawings, paintings…..) and very quirky and funny.

The Yayoi Kusama retrospective at Tate Modern showed an artist who never seemed to sit still; the variety of her work was extraordinary and she’s continued working in the 35 years she has lived in a hospital. I didn’t like all of it, but it was fascinating and worth going for the final room alone – an infinity mirror space with changing coloured lights. I want one!

Back at Tate Modern for the Alighiero Boetti exhibition; another artist I’ve never heard of and another eclectic retrospective. There were rooms that captivated amongst others very dull, but overall an interesting review of one artist’s work rather than an aesthetically pleasing whole.

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