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Posts Tagged ‘Mark Morris’

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

Classical Music

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

Contemporary Music

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

Dance

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

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

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

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

Film

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

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

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

Art

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

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Opera / 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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By the time Ivor Cutler crossed my radar in the early 70’s, he’d been performing for a couple of decades but was now reaching people half his age thanks to the late, great John Peel singing his praises. Though he amused and fascinated me, I can’t say I ever became fan, more of a curious onlooker, but he stays with me in his contribution to Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom album, his performance as the bus driver in Magical Mystery Tour and, more recently, some Mark Morris dances set to his words and music.

It’s almost impossible to describe his oeuvre. He was a poet, humorist, singer (of sorts) and musician (with his trademark harmonium). He spoke in a deadpan mild Glaswegian accent, though he lived from his 30’s to 80’s in London. This Vanishing Point / National Theatre of Scotland co-production perfectly captures the essence of his eccentric, absurd, somewhat surreal uniqueness.

They talked to Cutler’s partner as part of their research and the first meeting provides the show with its starting point, Phyllis King becoming a character. What follows is a series of biographical scenes, taking us from his childhood (he tried to kill his baby brother when he was three!) to dementia in his final years, interspersed with songs, poems and other writings. Sandy Grierson’s Cutler and Elicia Daly’s King are joined on-stage by five multi-instrumentalists who provide sounds and voices as well as music. It’s a very charming homage, as quirky as the man himself.

The show visited Brighton as part of the festival and it’s perfect festival fare, attracting a very healthy audience for a Sunday matinee, accessibly priced. It has now become England’s biggest festival covering the whole month of May, with 750 shows (though still only a third of Edinburgh in 10 days less). Work like this suggests it’s time I gave it as much attention as the other one.

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Opera

Verdi’s Les Vepres Siciliennes is rarely performed and after almost four hours standing at the back of the Royal Opera House’s stalls circle it was easy to see why. There’s not a lot of story for four hours and Verdi’s music is nowhere near his usual standard. The singing wasn’t particularly distinguished, but I liked the production (which most don’t seem to!).

The GSMD excelled itself again with an unlikely double-bill of Debussy’s earnest but beautiful L’enfant prodigue and Donizetti’s comic one-acter Francesca di Foix. The Donizetti, in particular, was a little gem and an absolute hoot, given an inspired staging in modern settings (a smart clothing shop and a tennis court) but with period clothes. Beautifully played and sung, Anna Gillingham in the title role and Joshua Owen Mills (Welsh!) as the Duke were terrific.

In the BBC SO‘s semi-staged Albert Herring at the Barbican, this comic opera proved to be a minor masterpiece. Britten’s friend Steuart Bedford led a wonderful small ensemble and a first class cast, led by Andrew Staples as Albert, without a weak link in it. You could hear every nuance of every instrument and every sung word. A real highlight of the centenary.

The Early Opera Company’s concert performance of Handel’s Acis & Galatea at Wigmore Hall was a delight. The 13-piece ensemble under Christain Curnyn played the score beautifully and there were fine performances from Robert Murray and Sophie Bevan in the title roles. Matthew Rose was a stand-in as the giant Polyphemus but his powerful baritone nearly blew the roof off. Minor Handel maybe, but gorgeous nonetheless.

Dance

I’m not very fond of full-length ballets that are excuses for showcasing ‘turns’ by dancers in various combinations rather than telling the story (think The Nutcracker) and I haven’t enjoyed previous productions of Don Quixote that much, but I rather liked Carlos Acosta’s for the Royal Ballet. With handsome designs by Tim Hatley and fresh choreography, it often sparkled. The leading lady was injured during Act One and Marinela Nunez (who originated the role with Acosta as partner) took over and this somehow added even more sparkle. Sadly, Acosta didn’t come on as sub in Act Two or Three!

Another dance contribution to the Britten centenary from the Richard Alston Dance Company at the Barbican, with four short pieces (including two world premieres), each set to a chamber piece, three of them vocal. In Phaedra, the soloist interacted with the dancers, which I loved (and which reminded me of Seven Deadly Sins at Covent Garden a few years back), but Illuminations was the most uplifting. Poor time management meant interval overuns so it took 130 minutes to stage 65 minutes of dance!

Choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui takes a really fresh look at tango with m!longa at Sadler’s Wells and it comes out as a sexy display of virtuosity, relationships silently played out by intricate movements. The five couples – four kosher tango ones and one contemporary dance duo – were all terrific, and the five-piece band were sensational.

The Stuttgart Ballet‘s Taming of the Shrew to a mash-up of Scarlatti at Sadler’s Wells was a bit of a punt that turned into a major treat. Though over 40 years old, apart from the sets, it felt fresh. I’m not sure I’ve seen a comic ballet before and I have to say, the form was perfect for Shakespeare’s comedy, the dancing was terrific and we laughed aloud a lot. There were beautiful romantic moments too and it all added up to a thoroughly enjoyable surprise.

It’s a while since I had a fix of favourite choreographer Mark Morris, so I went to both programmes at Sadler’s Wells on consecutive nights for a feast of seven works. With one exception, they were accompanied by live music – a small ensemble and three singers – which is key to Morris’ success. The best of the first programme was Socrates, set to music by Erik Satie for tenor and piano, which looked like Greek statues come to life. In the second programme, Festival Dance, to a wonderful piano trio by Hummel (who?!) led by stunning piano from Colin Fowler, was thrilling, and as close to Morris’ undoubted masterpiece Handel’s L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato as he’s got since. The one piece to recorded music was In A Wooden Tree. Only Morris would use the songs of Ivor Cutler and it was a delight; quirky even by Morris standards.

Classical Music

The rarely performed song cycle Our Hunting Fathers, sung by Ian Bostridge, was the centerpiece of The Britten Sinfonia‘s namesake’s centenary concert at the Barbican, but it wasn’t the highlight. It’s possibly the quirkiest song cycle I’ve ever heard, but the orchestration is brilliant. The real treats were the orchestral pieces played by a chamber orchestra that seems to me to be absolutely at the top of its game.

The Royal Albert Hall is the perfect venue for Britten’s War Requiem and Remembrance Sunday the perfect day to hear it in this centenary year. The BBC SO under Semyon Bychkov did it full justice, with the boys choir sounding beautiful up in the gallery and the male soloists, Roderick Williams & Allan Clayton, on fine form. The ‘amen’ was extraordinarily moving, hopeful and uplifting; I felt like my body was rising in my seat.

St Cecilia’s day (the patron saint of music). The 100th birthday of my favourite composer. My favourite music venue. The Sixteen‘s recital of Britten choral works – mostly unaccompanied – at Union Chapel was an absolute joy. The acoustic was perfect, the selection eclectic and the voices beyond wonderful. As you can gather, I liked it!

Film

The big film catch-up continued with One Chance, the story of Britain’s Got Talent winner Paul Potts. Apart from some puzzling accents (parents Welsh, Potts West Country) and a touch of resentment that Welsh characters weren’t played by Welsh actors, I rather enjoyed it. Undemanding, feel-good stuff – a touch too sentimental, but very heart-warming and funny.

The Selfish Giant is one of those gritty British films I thought we’d forgotten how to make; even the master, Ken Loach, seemed to have gone a bit soft. It’s not an easy ride watching hopelessness, but its a superb piece of film-making full of stunning performances from people you usually see on TV in things like Shameless, and the two leading boys are simply extraordinary.

I can’t begin to put into words how good a film Philomena is. I’m glad I hadn’t read the book as it surprised and confounded me. Judi Dench is sensational and Steve Coogan a revelation in a straight role. Perfect in every respect, but tissues necessary. The things that have been done in the name of god!

Gravity reminded me of Duncan Jones’ Moon, though it’s (virtually) two people in space rather than one. The 3D is (mostly) brilliant, for once very realistic, and the story is gripping, but I’m not sure it quite lives up to the hype – I’m glad I went, though. 

Art

My second visit to the George Watts Gallery near Guildford was to see the Frank Holl exhibition. It was a bit small and a bit sad and may not be worth the trip on its own, but with another chance to see Watts’ own pictures and combined with opera in Woking and lunch at the retro Withies Inn in Compton it proved worthwhile!

Daniel Silver’s DIG seems to be an archaeological site in a building site where statues have been uncovered and laid out in various states of restoration for you to view (but most oddly pristine white). I’m not sure what point he’s making, but it was quirkily intriguing.

Masterpieces from China at the V&A had some stunning paintings covering 1200 years. The Tang Dynasty seemed underrepresented and it was a struggle to absorb it all with the necessarily low lighting and difficulty getting up close, so I might well have to go again.

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With eight days at the paralympics at the beginning of the month, five days housebound at the end of the month and seven shows in-between, there wasn’t much room for ‘the rest’.

Opera

We’d seen both productions in our autumn visit to WNO in Cardiff before – Handel’s Jeptha some years back and Puccini’s La Boheme just 3 months ago. Neither were quite up to their earlier incarnation, but both were well worth re-visiting. Jeptha was never meant to be staged and it is directed by my bête noire Katie Mitchell, but despite that I like the modern war-time staging and the music is simply gorgeous. Robert Murray was excellent in the title role. The La Boheme staging is one of the best, but the new Mimi, Giselle Allen, wasn’t really believable. This was a ‘safe’ visit – the next one is Janacek and Berg and the one after Wagner and a modern one about Wagner, so they should be more challenging!

Ballet

I was persuaded to go to San Francisco Ballet by some visitors, but came out glad I was. The very diverse third mixed programme was a veritable feast. It started with a quirky and camp Mark Morris piece (not his best), then we got a more classical piece (to a lovely Prokofiev symphony), a captivating Japanese dance drama and some more modern dance with a blend of early and contemporary music. It seemed like a very young company which is probably why it all felt exuberant and fresh.

Art 

Another London at Tate Britain was both a superb idea and a brilliantly curated exhibition of B&W photos of London taken by foreign photographers. It included most of the 20th century’s iconic photographers and though it focused a bit too much on ‘grimy poor London’ it was unmissable.

At the Photographers’ Gallery, the annual Deutsche Borse Photography Prize exhibition was the best ever, in particular the images of Ghanaian scavengers and the arty Japanese selection. The new galleries have been improved since they moved in and now provide an excellent space to show these works.

The Korean Eye exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery was one of the best of their recent overseas contemporary art exhibitions with a nice combination of sculpture, installation and painting (yes, painting!). An excellent bonus during this visit was a small but hugely creative exhibition of chess sets by British artists (the usual suspects such as Hirst and Emin). How does this gallery survive without subsidy?

At the ICA, I liked Bruce Nauman’s soundwork Days – you walked through a space where speakers on both sides projected people speaking. Sadly, the rest of the soundworks ‘exhibited’ at the same time were hugely disappointing.

A brilliant trio of exhibitions at the NPG this month with the BP Portrait Prize living up to its reputation, photos of people associated with London 2012 (not just athletes) all over the building and a surprisingly interesting exhibition of pictures and photos of the queen  I’m no monarchist, so enjoyment of the latter was a bit of a shock!

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MUSIC

Rufus Wainwright’s solo show at Sadler’s Wells took place on the stage of his opera, which opened there the night before. In the first half we were asked not to applaud as he walked on, during the set and as he walked off. He entered bedecked in a cloak with a train longer than the stage, walking as if leading a funeral procession. What followed was effectively a requiem for his recently deceased mother – the whole of the new album played in near darkness against a backdrop of giant projections of his eyes covered in black make-up. The voice still extraordinary, the piano playing with the power of an orchestra, this staging was deeply moving, very sad but musically stunning. In the second half he was back to his charming knowingness playing a real ‘best of’ set chosen by fans voting on his web site. He ended with his mother’s ‘Walking Song’ but couldn’t complete it without a tear – and some of us who loved his mother’s music shared it. He forgot his words or notes rather more than was acceptable, but in the end you only remember the wonderful songs, gorgeous baritone voice and rich piano accompaniment. Surreal but sublime.

At the Royal Court, they sometimes showcase work-in-progress and I went to Ten Plague Songs (actually, I think there were 16), a song cycle about the 17th century London plague by young musicals composer Connor Mitchell and playwright Mark Ravenhill. The singers included 80’s pop star Marc Almond, modern opera favourite Omar Ebrahim and musical’s veteran Nigel Richards and it was staged by opera director Stewart Laing, but I’m afraid it did little for me. The music was rather inaccessible and the lyrics not particularly striking. The last song (before the epilogue) was terrific, but by then it was a bit late.

Paul Brady’s London concert was his first in what seems like ages. What I remember most about the last one was how he annoyed much of the audience by banging on about how Irish immigrants were treated by the UK; on this occasion he prefaced the same song, Nothing But The Same Old Story,  with a rather defensive ‘this could be any country….’! This is one of his best songs; unfortunately, it showed up almost everything else as bland MOR music, a transition to which has been going on for years but now seems complete. He’s certainly lost his edge and I suspect I won’t be seeing him again. Judging by his inability to fill that many seats at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire (they closed the second and third levels completely) I suspect I’m not on my own.

OPERA

I Saw Rufus Wainwright’s first opera, Prima Donna, at the Manchester International Festival last summer (see July 2009 archive) and thought it was an impressive debut. This new production at Sadler’s Wells improves on that staging but if anything it’s slipped back musically, particularly in the first act. The new tenor isn’t good enough for the part, and Rebecca Bottone is again sometimes shrill and sometimes inaudible over the overloud orchestra which the new conductor fails to deal with. The second act though is masterly, there’s some gorgeous music, Janis Kelly is even better than before and the ending is now terrific. For his second opera, lets see something just as romantic but also more dramatic; there’s not a lot of story here for 130 minutes playing time.

DANCE

I’ve seen Mark Morris’ masterpiece L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato three times in the last 15 years but the last was 10 years ago, so withdrawal symptoms had set it. Despite the fact that he created this 22 years ago, it’s still the most uplifting show – a gorgeous Handel oratorio, beautifully played and sung, with designs in primary colours and costumes in pastel chiffon and dancing that is flowing, funny and bright. Bring on No 5…..

Pictures from an Exhibition is a hybrid theatre / dance piece given a couple of nights at Sadler’s Wells following a longer run at the much smaller Young Vic last year. Based on and featuring Mussorgsky’s music, with the composer as a central character in what appears to be a biographical piece, it’s rather hit-and-miss. There are some great moments, but there are lots of almost silent interludes too and it just doesn’t flow. It seemed like work-in-progress to me and a rather slight 60 minutes.

 OTHER

A visit with the RA friends to Skinner’s Hall was a rare opportunity to see Frank Brangwyn’s murals. I got really interested in this Welsh artist when I went to a museum in Bruges devoted to him – he left much of his work to his adopted city rather than his home city of Swansea, which seems to me to be a shame as I’m not sure many people ever go to see it! Anyway, they were fascinating and the rest of the hall and the history of this livery company were bonuses.

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