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Opera

La Voix Humaine is a rarely staged 50-minute one-woman opera by Poulenc, one of only three he wrote, and Opera Up Close are to be congratulated on an accessible, high quality production at Kings Place starring Sarah Minns with the score played on piano by Richard Black. Captivating.

A French double-bill at the Royal College of Music proved to be a delight. Chabrier’s Une Education Manquee, about a couple who didn’t know what to do on their wedding night, and Poulenc’s rather surreal cross-dressing boob-expanding Les Mamelles de Tiresias worked brilliantly together and the singing and playing was divine.

I saw the rarely performed Leoncavallo opera Zaza in concert a couple of years ago, so I was looking forward to seeing it staged. Sadly, the staging and design were so incompetent and inconsiderate (sightlines and audibility) that I wished I was hearing it in concert again! The final straw was a downpour soon after the second half started, where the noise of the rain on the canvas roof virtually drowned out the singers – but that wasn’t Opera Holland Park’s fault.

The Arcola‘s enterprising Grimeborn (geddit?) opera festival staged a musical-opera hybrid called The Marriage of Kim K which was a great idea, very ambitious and had its moments, but didn’t entirely work. It alternated between the story of Kim Kardashian’s short marriage to Kris Humphries, Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro and a British couple (him composer, her lawyer) on a couch fighting over the remote and switching between the two. It was this middle section which let it down by being rather dull and underperformed (and often out of tune). Gold star for trying, though, and hopefully we’ll see it again re-worked and improved.

Classical Music

I don’t think I’ve ever reacted so differently to two halves of the same concert as I did at Simon Keenlyside’s recital at Wigmore Hall. I adored the first half of Vaughn Williams, Finzi and Sibelius, but didn’t care for the more frivolous selections of Poulenc and Mahler in the second half, despite the obvious skills of the performers. A matter of taste, I guess.

The BBC Singers / Eric Whitacre concert at GSMD’s Milton Court was an absolute gem. An eclectic programme of ten pieces by living composers from five countries, including four world premieres and one UK premiere, with all composers present, with Whitacre’s first and latest compositions included. To cap it all, an encore of favourite Laura Mvula’s own arrangement of her song Sing to the Moon. Wonderful stuff.

Andrew Norman’s children’s opera A Trip to the Moon, based on the 1902 French silent movie of the same title, was paired with Sibelius 2nd Symphony in a terrific LSO Discovery concert in the Barbican Hall that saw the former involve local communities and both involve GSMD students, under Simon Rattle. Watching the white-shirted post-grad students sitting alongside the black-shirted LSO players provided a great sense of current musicians nurturing the next generation, which really moved me – and they sounded bloody great together too.

Soprano Sophie Bevan & tenor Allan Clayton gave a lovely recital of 28 Shakespeare songs by 20 different composers at Wigmore Hall, a very diverse and sometimes unpredictable selection. The acoustic was unkind to the soprano as it was to Simon Keenlyside’s baritone last week, which is a bit odd.

Contemporary Music

My first Prom this year was a late night celebration of Scott Walker‘s late 60’s solo albums, songs that have never been played live by anyone let alone Jarvis Cocker, John Grant, Suzanne Sundfor & Richard Hawley, with small choir and big orchestra! I didn’t think Cocker’s voice suited Walker’s songs, but the other three were terrific. I’m not a huge fan, but it was well worth the punt.

Film

Seeing Baby Driver broke a two-month film famine. It wasn’t the sort of film I usually go to – glorifying violence in a Tarantinoesque way – but it was exciting and brilliantly made, though let down by the implausibility of the ending.

Dunkirk is an extraordinary film about an extraordinary event. It was tense for the whole 100 minutes, but deeply moving too. Unmissable.

Dance

The Barbican gave over their Art Gallery for four weeks of performance art, well dance really, created by Trajal Harrall. There were lots of short works in different places, so I planned my visit to see as many as possible. Sadly, they weren’t as organised as me so I ended up having to go with the flow a bit, but that proved to be fun. I managed to sample about twelve pieces over a couple of hours and left feeling rather pleased with myself.

Art

A lot to catch up on…..

The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition was great this year, though I missed all those architectural models I’m so fond of. Still, the biggest selling exhibition of them all had a lot I would have bought if I bought art!

If I wasn’t a Friend, I probably wouldn’t have gone to the Sargent watercolours exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, which would have left a gaping hole in my life because I loved it! Portraits, city scenes and landscapes, they were all wonderful.

A visit to Whitechapel Gallery en route to a concert proved disappointing as Benedict Drew’s The Trickle-Down Syndrome was slight, A Handful of Dust was a bit pointless and the ISelf Collection underwhelming!

White Cube Bermondsey is such a big gallery that trying to fill it with women surrealists was bound to lead to variable quality, but fortunately there was enough good stuff to make Dreamers Awake worthwhile.

You don’t expect to see Picasso in a private gallery, let alone 111 paintings, drawings, sculptures, tapestries & ceramics of Minotaurs and Matadors, all bar one from private collections! It wasn’t a selling exhibition and entrance was free, so I’m not sure how the Gagosian funds it, but I’m glad they do.

Gregory Crewdson‘s heavily staged and artificially lit photos are like stills from an indie movie or paintings by Edward Hopper, which appear to tell a story but tantalisingly don’t, quite. His Cathedral of the Pines exhibition at the Photographers Gallery puts nudes in white clapperboard houses in snowy landscapes. Weird but a little bit wonderful.

A lovely double-dip at the NPG en route to the theatre, starting with the excellent class of 2017 at the BP Portrait Award, followed by The Encounter, featuring drawings from the 15th to 17th centuries, mostly culled from private collections including fifteen, a third of them, from the Queen! Another treat.

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at Tate Modern took me by surprise. Covering just 20 years of Black American art from the outset of the 1960’s civil rights movement, it contained some powerful, bold political statements alongside some terrific abstract pictures.

Though low lighting and overcrowding made Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave at the British Museum a bit of a challenge, it was great to see his complete range of gorgeous, finely detailed work. I shall now pour through the catalogue to see them properly!

The month ended on a real art high with Alma-Tadema at Leighton House, an artist I’d never heard of whose very comprehensive retrospective was absolutely fabulous.

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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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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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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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Opera

The Royal College of Music put on Britten in their Britten Theatre and did him proud with a delightful production of his comic masterpiece Albert Herring. It succeeded in every department – staging & design, playing & singing – and it was lovely to see Janis Kelly guesting at her old college where she’s now teaching.

Classical Music

The LSO‘s end of season concert at the Barbican was also a tantalising taster of things to come when Simon Rattle takes over in 2017. The first half was a lovely opera for children by Jonathan Dove based on the Minotaur myth with literally hundreds of community performers and the LSO and GSMD SO together. In the second half, the combined orchestras raised the roof with Walton’s 1st symphony. Exciting stuff, and wonderful to see the students side-by-side with the pros from one of the world’s great orchestras, which I sense it about to become even greater under Rattle.

The first Prom of 2015 was a cracker, with the Proms debut(!) of Vaughan Williams huge choral piece Sancta Civitas coupled with Elgar’s 1st Symphony and a bit of Debussy to kick off. Sir Mark Elder marshalled his Halle Orchestra and four choirs brilliantly. The Royal Albert Hall was packed to the rafters.

Dance

INALA, at Sadler’s Wells, the collaboration between choreographer Mark Baldwin, composer Ella Spira and South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo was simply extraordinary, a brilliant fusion of dance and music, Africa and Europe, beautiful and breath-taking. It had no narrative, yet it somehow managed to convey the essence of Africa. Gorgeous.

Film

Seeing Brian Wilson in concert in recent years has been so wonderful, a true survivor and genius returning to make the glorious music he began so long ago and the bio-drama Love + Mercy about his ‘lost years’ is an outstanding film. It’s a fascinating story of survival told beautifully and delicately. Not to be missed.

Art

The Carsten Holler ‘exhibition’ at the Hayward Gallery was a bit of a disappointment. The twin entrances – long pitch black tunnels which twisted and turned – were scary and disorientating, but very clever. From then it was really rather tame, though I didn’t take the aerial ride (which seemed very slow) or the slide down and out!

The Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust exhibition at the Royal Academy was fascinating. His box collages are eccentric and a bit obsessive but always interesting and intriguing. Downstairs was the best Summer Exhibition in years, thanks in part to the curation of Michael Craig-Martin, who’d painted three rooms (well, not personally!) in bright colours before hanging the works, and the courtyard sculpture and brightly painted stairs within.

At the NPG, the BP Portrait Award exhibition contained some brilliant pictures; the standard seems to get higher every year. An excellent institution. Elsewhere in the building, Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon added some glamour. Is there a more classically beautiful woman?

I’m not a huge fan of Barbara Hepworth‘s abstract sculptures, but I very much enjoyed her retrospective at Tate Britain, partly because it included excellent early figurative work and partly because you learned a lot about the woman herself.

The Barbican Curve Gallery was back on form with an installation where you walked on salt following a light, with a soundtrack, through the gallery! Intriguing.

A day trip to Margate for Grayson Perry’s Provincial Punk exhibition at Turner Contemporary was well worth it. He’s the most interesting living British artist and his eclectic collection of pots (more than I’ve ever seen in one place) and tapestries was fascinating. It was supplemented by early films, paintings, drawings and other items. A treat.

Soundscapes at the National Gallery was a great idea and by and large a good experience, though at £1.33 per picture, perhaps not the best value in town! The paintings chosen weren’t predictable and the music which the six composers had written for each painting were diverse and fitting, but the atmosphere was occasionally destroyed by gallery attendants talking (I had to bollock one!).

The art month ended on the top floor of the Brewer Street car park in Soho for Carsten Nicolai’s light and colour installations. The best of them, unicolour, was an extraordinary projection of infinite coloured light changing frequently and mesmerising the viewer. Brilliant.

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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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