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Posts Tagged ‘Martha Wainwright’

Contemporary Music

West End Recast was an impulsive last-minute punt which proved a treat. The idea is that musical theatre performers sing songs they would never normally get to sing, because they’re the wrong sex, colour, age etc. It was slow to take off, until Nathan Amzi gave us Cassie’s Music & the Mirror from A Chorus Line! This was followed by a stunning Being Alive from Company by Cynthia Erivo (quite possible the best it’s ever been sung), then a brilliant Rose’s Turn (Gypsy) from Nick Holder to end the first half. The second didn’t reach these heights, but there was much to enjoy.

I’ve always thought Damon Albarn was the best (pop) thing to come out of the 90’s and has become someone, like Elvis Costello and David Byrne, who continually reinvents himself and is always open to collaboration and experimentation. Though his Royal Albert Hall show was built around his excellent new solo album, it dipped into other incarnations and included guest appearances from Blur’s Graham Coxon, musicians from Mali, US hip-hop outfit De La Soul, rapper Kano and virtual recluse Brian Eno! Albarn is clearly in a very happy place and this was a very happy concert.

As her brother heads for the middle of the road, Martha Wainwright continues to do concerts that combine eccentricity, fun and beauty, showcasing her extraordinary voice and ability to inhabit her (and others) songs. This Queen Elizabeth Hall concert was good as the Union Chapel outing last August, though this time her son on stage outstayed his welcome. As one of my companions said, it’s hard to concentrate on a song about a man dying of cancer when you’re petrified a 5-year old might be about to electrocute himself!

I was hugely disappointed by John Grant at the Roundhouse earlier in the year, but had hoped that with an orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall he would be a lot better. Well the sound engineer was having none of that. With bass levels at painful vomit-inducing levels and the orchestra often buried in the mush of the mix, this was another disappointment. There were snatches of greatness (when the man at the back with the machines wasn’t producing his electro shit) but on the whole it was great musicianship ruined by a seemingly deaf arsehole.

Opera

My first (of two) concerts in the short Mariinsky Opera residency at the Barbican Hall was the original version of Boris Gudunov. It was good but lacked the sparkle of Gergiev’s work with the LSO. They seemed to be wheeling out a Mariinsky staple for the Nth time and going through the motions.

The contrast provided by the following night’s OAE / Opera Rara concert version of Donizetti’s Les Martyrs at the Royal Festival Hall couldn’t have been bigger. An orchestra, chorus and six soloists under Sir Mark Elder, all at the the top of their game, polishing a rarely heard opera and producing a musical jewel that shone brighter than Donizetti’s more popular operas. A spontaneous standing ovation is rare at such events, but not for this. Wonderful.

You can always rely on GSMD to give us a rare opera, but you don’t think of Dvorak as rare – productions of his operas are, though. We only ever see one of the eleven he wrote (Rusalka) so it was good to catch his comedy, The Cunning Peasant, in an English translation relocating it to Hardy’s Wessex. It’s a bit derivative of Mozart’s comedies and the first half didn’t grab me, but the second half was great. As always at GSMD, the production values and the performances were excellent.

The ever inventive Les Arts Florissants’ latest project is two short rarely performed Rameau opera-ballets, Daphnis et Egle & La naissance d’Osiris. The seven dancers, six singers and chorus of ten, all costumed, shared the bare Barbican Hall stage in front of the period ensemble, staging them as they would have been staged when they were first performed for the French Court in the eighteenth century. The stories are slight but it sounded gorgeous and this type of performance fascinating.

Glare at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio Theatre was a SciFi opera which I saw less than an hour after the SciFi film Interstellar (below) and it was less than half its length. I admired it more than I enjoyed it, but as modern opera goes, it’s better than most. All four singers trained at GSMD and one, Sky Ingram, blew me away here as she had there.

Dance

It’s been a privilege following the final chapter of Sylvie Guillem‘s career, as she transitioned from classical ballet to contemporary dance and this fourth show (for me) with Akram Khan, Sacred Monsters, at Sadler’s Wells had a biographical twist. The dialogue was a surprise and the shows playfulness was both surprising and delightful. The music was great and the dancing of both mesmerising. In almost exactly six months it’s the farewell show as she retires, wisely, at 50. Real class.

Classical Music

A second outing to the Mariinsky Opera Chorus, but this time on their own, unaccompanied, at GSMD’s new Milton Court Concert Hall for a programme of secular music and folk songs. The acoustic was a bit harsh when they were at full throttle, but the singing was gorgeous and the standard of solos exceptional. If only they smiled more.

The following day, at a lunchtime concert at St. John’s Smith Square, a small group of 10 singers, also unaccompanied, all young enough to be the children of the Mariinsky Chorus (!) made an equally gorgeous sound with music from both ends of a 500-year range. The Erebus Ensemble are an exciting new early music group who also tackle 20th century equivalents like Tavener and Part. Lovely.

Looking at a couple of hundred late teens / early twenties performing Britten’s War Requiem at the Royal Festival Hall on Remembrance Sunday was deeply moving. 100 years ago, many of them would have been heading to the trenches and likely death. This added a poignancy to a beautifully sung and played requiem. The standards of the RAM orchestras and the National Youth Choir were astonishing and the three young soloists – a British tenor, a German Baritone & a Moldovan (former USSR) soprano, as Britten intended – were terrific. Not forgetting the excellent children’s choir assembled especially for the occasion. Conductor Marin Alsop’s command of it all was extraordinary.

The Chapel in the Royal Hospital Chelsea is a lovely venue for a choral concert and Rutter’s Mass of the Children and Britten’s St. Nicholas was a great pairing. Interval drinks in Wren’s beautiful refectory and Chelsea Pensioners in their bright red uniforms greeting all adds to the occasion.

A visit to Handel House with the LSO Friends included a short recital in the room where Handel himself held them, with his composition room just next door. The soprano and harpsichordist sounded lovely and it was great to hear music in this historic room.

The fourth and last of the Composers in Love series at St. John’s Concert Hall was Nocturne, a portrait of Chopin. Given the lack of letters left by him and his family, it was biographically sketchier than the others, but musically it was extraordinary and Lucy Parham converted me to Chopin, who hasn’t really been on my musical radar up until now. The readers this time were Alex Jennings and Harriet Walter (subbing for Juliet Stevenson). What a lovely series this has been.

Cabaret

I didn’t quite know what to expect from national treasure Anne Reid in cabaret (with Stefan Bednarczyk) at St. James Studio and I was delighted when it turned out to be the music of unsung musical theatre heroes Comden & Green, interspersed with the story of, and anecdotes from, their lives. Delightful & charming.

Film

Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner has the most incredible cast, a who’s who of British acting minus the ‘stars’ which would be guaranteed to win BAFTA’s Best Ensemble award (if there was one). Turner’s story is a fascinating one and Leigh’s attention to detail is extraordinary. A towering achievement.

I liked Set Fire to the Stars, about Dylan Thomas’ first US tour, when its American organiser had his work cut out to keep him under control. The US in the 50’s looked great in B&W and the performances, particularly Celyn Jones as Dylan, were very good, but I thought the focus was too much on the US organiser and not enough on Thomas, no doubt because of the star casting of Ethan Hawke.

The Imitation Game is an even better film than I thought it would be. It moves between Alan Turing’s childhood, wartime work and tragic final days and really does illuminate his story. In a terrific cast, Benedict Cumberbatch is extraordinary.

Even though I go to plays more than three hours long, films of similar length rarely hold my attention and I don’t really know why. Interstellar comes in just under three hours but I was captivated throughout. So so much better than last year’s Galaxy, maybe a touch too sentimental but an absolute must see.

Art

I’ve seen Anselm Keifer works in galleries all over the world, but seeing them all together in the Royal Academy’s retrospective exhibition was a bit overwhelming as they are virtually all dark and depressing with his brown-to-black palette. Many (but not all) are great as individual works, but together it’s a different experience. His books were a revelation, but displayed in cases open at one page seemed like a lost curatorial opportunity to me.

Waled Besthty’s installation at the Barbican’s Curve Gallery is more impressive for its execution than its visual appeal. It’s a whole year’s worth of images created using the cyanotype printing process covering the whole curved wall. You have to take in the overall impact rather than the detail (unless you’ve got a day or two to spare). It’s not the best the Curve has offered, but this space is still indispensable for innovative big scale works.

I’m afraid Mirror City at the Hayward Gallery went right over my head. Apparently, the artists are seeking ‘to address the challenges, conditions and consequences of living in one of the world’s busiest cities in the digital age’. Yeh…..back in the real world next door in the RFH, the annual World Press Photo Exhibition shows us what it’s really like living in cities, countries, the world; a reminder of last year’s events, mostly sad ones this year.

The Late Turner exhibition at Tate Britain is a riot of gorgeous colour and a great companion for Mike Leigh’s film (above). It’s a brilliant example of how a man in his 60’s and 70’s can be bursting with creativity and originality. Upstairs in the Turner Prize exhibition there isn’t a painting in sight – it’s all film, slides & photos – I wonder what Turner would think. I hated it. In the Turner Galleries themselves, one room has been given over to Olafur Eliasson’s colour experiments where he tries to create the late Turner palette. The room contains giant circles each with their own colour range. Interesting.

Catching Dreams was the title of this year’s Koestler Trust exhibition of art by offenders, secure patients and detainees at the Royal Festival Hall and it was as intriguing and inspirational as ever. This must be excellent therapy and great that their work is seen and sold in this way.

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Contemporary Music

I often take a punt with the Proms and this year it was the Urban Classic Prom, attracted by new favourite Laura Mvula. I was more at home with the soul of Mvula, Maverick Sabre & Jacob Banks than the hip hop / rap of Fazer, Wretch 32 and Lady Leshurr (what names!), but the combination was compelling, the atmosphere was extraordinary and the respect of the ‘urban’ crowd for the BBC SO was wonderful to behold. I could have done without the intros, but hey that’s a small quibble. Put together by conductor /arranger Jules Buckley, this was a brave experiment that worked big-time, moving the Proms on again and finding yet another new audience.

I’ve seen Martha Wainwright a few times before, but her Union Chapel concert was at another level altogether. Her voice soared, packed full of passion and sincerity, with just acoustic guitar for accompaniment. Her sound seems even more unique than ever, but she’s also clearly very happy and for the first time her infectious eccentric charm cast a spell (with self-deprecating humour and faux bitchiness about brother Rufus). Her 3-year-old son almost stole the show when he accompanied his dad on stage; this could have been indulgent, but it came over as more charm, making you think how much fun it would be to have Sunday lunch at the Wainwrights. Great support from Luke Sital-Singh (who used to be an usher there!) and a terrific evening overall.

Classical Music

The Proms rarely disappoint, but this year my third (and last) did. In the first half, Holst’s ‘Hindu’ symphonic poem Indra was paired with the world premiere of Nishat Khan‘s sitar concerto. The former seemed slight and uninspiring and the latter just didn’t work – the sitar and orchestra appeared to be in competition rather than harmony; their styles didn’t compliment and the sitar sometimes fought to be heard. In the second half, Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony lacked sparkle, not helped by audience additions, notably a mobile phone ringing (and being answered!) just at the point where the harp is playing solo, drowning it out and destroying the atmosphere.

Film

If Alpha Papa was a feature-length episode of a TV series, I’d have been happy. I’m not sure it justifies it’s cinema release though. It’s often funny and the character of Alan Partridge has, somewhat surprisingly, evolved and endured, but it’s not really good enough for such a high profile release.

Art

A trio of exhibitions at Tate Britain, led by a major Lowry retrospective. There is a limit to the number of Lowry pictures one can take before they appear very formulaic; towards the end it began to feel like chimneys, terraces and stick people assembled in different configurations, and the people became more like caricatures. Though he is unique in portraying early 20th century British industrial life, and I admired and liked much of the paintings on show, it is a case of more-is-less. Mind you, after you’ve taken a look at the Gary Hume & Patrick Caulfield exhibitions, your admiration of Lowry shoots up! Caulfield is the better of the two, but neither excite.

The annual Travel Photography exhibition at the RGS was up to its usual standard. It comes to something when you think you take good photos but you’re in awe of the talent of a 10-year-old Indonesian boy! Across the road and in the park, the Serpentine Gallery is hosting another of those take-it-or-leave it shows (Sturtevant), but Sou Fujimoto’s 2013 Pavilion outside is lovely. A bus ride to Piccadilly and there we were in superstar architect Richard Rogers very personal Royal Academy show. Lots of those building models I so adore (especially the ones of the unbuilt) with lots of philosophical ramblings to go with them.

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The Wainwright-McGarrigle musical dynasty has been part of my life now for 40 years. The first Kate & Anna McGarrigle album is on my personal soundtrack of the 70’s. Loudon was always lingering there in the background, though I never took to his quirkiness as I did to the McGarrigles gorgeous harmonies. I came late to Rufus, when Want One bowled me over little more than 6 years ago, but have since bought every record and taken every opportunity to see him live. A year or so later I went to see Martha at the Bloomsbury Theatre out of curiosity (with a singer-songwriter called James Morrison supporting!) and from then I was hooked on her too. She provided one of the highlights of 2010 with a solo show at the Jazz Cafe, a break from nursing her premature baby, and contributed greatly to another highlight, the Kate McGarrigle tribute concert that was part of Richard Thompson’s Meltdown – another musical dynasty – which I suspect will prove to be a highlight of a lifetime of concert-going let alone last year.

When I heard Rufus was to have a one week residency at the Royal Opera House, I couldn’t decide if it was brave, arrogant or sheer chutzpah. After picking myself off the floor having seen the ticket prices, it wasn’t difficult to decide which of the concerts to go to. I’d seen his opera Prima Donna twice, so I didn’t want to see part of it in concert, and I wasn’t sure he and his dad Loudon were particularly compatible stage partners.

The first of my selected two was his concert with sister Martha. This may be Rufus’ ROH debut, but it wasn’t Martha’s as she’d been part of a brilliant production of Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins here a few years back. This concert wasn’t what I was expecting, and I suspect fans of the family liked it more than those of just Rufus, but it was still a treat. Martha, after a slow start, delivered a wonderfully eclectic hour of her own songs plus some from her mum and a couple of Piaf’s. She’s growing into as much of an original and as much of a star as her brother. I was expecting Rufus to give us his own selection, but half-way through, on came Martha, then cousin Lily (Anna’s daughter), and we got another eclectic selection which included more Kate McGarrigle songs, a Leonard Cohen song (‘my father-in-law, well, sort of’!) and the Elton John / Kiki Dee duet Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, which was huge fun. Calum, the son of Ewan MacColl (another folk dynasty!) was on guitar so we got Ewan’s lovely homage to London – Sweet Thames, Flow Softly – which was deeply moving, though not as moving as Kate’s Talk To Me of Mendocino, where there wasn’t a dry eye in my seat in the House of Rufus.

When he first did Rufus Does Judy, I couldn’t get excited about it. I wasn’t a Judy Garland fan and didn’t really see the point. Much later, I caught it on TV and then got the point, so seeing it live became a must. By the interval, I wasn’t sure but the second half (when he came on as a queen in crown and robe!) soared and my the end I was absolutely convinced. The arrangements are terrific and his extraordinary voice really suits these songs. The Britten Sinfonia, under Stephen Oremus, was a great backing band, though a shade too loud occasionally, burying the voice. Highlights included two songs with just piano – Gershwin’s A Foggy Day and Noel Coward’s If Love Were All – plus You Go To My Head, Putting on the Ritz, Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart and Chicago. Martha’s almost stole the show with a brilliant version of Stormy Weather (in tutu, tiara and some accomplished but tongue-in-cheek ballet moves!).

So, not arrogant…..yes, brave……yes, chutzpah……and two fine musical evenings I shall cherish with all the other Wainwright-McGarrigle memories.

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Meltdown is an annual 10-day music festival at London’s Southbank Centre with a guest artistic director and no rules. Previous AD’s have included Elvis Costello, Patti Smith and David Bowie. This year’s is godfather of folk-rock Richard Thompson

It got off to a disappointing start with Thompson’s 80 minute ‘folkatorio’ Cabaret of Souls. It’s a great idea and there is some very good music, but hearing it for the first time and not being able to hear all the words and therefore engage with the concept, it seemed like a lost opportunity. There were lots of linking pieces making a total of c.30 sections and the applause between almost every one became irritating. I’d love to hear a recording a few times then go see an uninterrupted 80 minutes – I suspect it could be something special in those circumstances.

You’d never use the word ‘disappointed’ in connection with A Celebration of Kate McGarrigle. It was so hyped up (‘sold out in 11 minutes’ etc.) and I was seriously over-excited, but it exceeded my wildest dreams and more. The first Kate & Anna McGarrigle album is part of the soundtrack of my life and this show consisted entirely of songs she wrote or co-wrote. There were five Thompsons and at least seven from the Wainwright-McGarrigle-Lanken families, including a third sister Jane who I never knew existed. Kate’s good friend Emmylou Harris & Jenni Muldaur came over (producer Joe Boyd explained that Jenni’s mum Maria introduced him to the McGarrigles music); Emmy sang with Anna like she was another sister. Seemingly incongruous guests Nick Cave and Neil Tennent made surprisingly welcome contributions. Newcomers Lisa Hannigan and Krystle Warren both brought the house down. There was even a reading from author Michael Ondaatje. Richard & Linda Thompson re-united for a devastatingly beautiful Go Leave and ended with an embrace. Teddy Thompson and Rufus & Martha Wainwright all sang extraordinarily beautiful interpretations of Kate’s songs. Rufus, Martha and Anna all broke down which set off a lot of us in the audience too! It was sad, but ultimately uplifting and exhilarating and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Apart from her contribution the day before, I’d only seen Krystle Warren once, at a Nick Drake tribute show, and she impressed me then too. However, nothing could prepare me for the extraordinary concert she put on at the Purcell Room. She writes terrific original songs and has a unique voice, but above all it’s her ability to inhabit them that is so compelling. Teddy Thompson joined her for a couple of numbers and they sounded great together (future collaboration?). If she isn’t in the Rufus Wainwright league fairly soon, I’ll be very surprised. Support Jim Moray gave a lovely set of folk tunes with clever use of pedals and loops – I want to see more of him.

If the Kate McGarrigle tribute was the hottest ticket, An Evening of Political Songs was probably the ‘coldest’ judging by the empty seats. The title hardly excites, does it! Like all things political, it was somewhat long-winded, but it was an intriguing and eclectic collection which had its moments. The highlight was without question Norma Waterson who brought the house down, and brought tears to my eyes, with an unaccompanied song about the miners strike. Tom Robinson, instead of relying on his own 70’s politics (though he did do Glad to be Gay in the second half) gave us an excellent version of John Walker Blues by Steve Earle (who should really have been there as he’s about the only political songwriter left) and a brave crack (for a recently 60-year-old!) at angry hip-hop. Canadian Chaim Tennenbaum took the self-satisfied nationalism out of God Bless America, Emily Smith sang beautifully and RT himself turned up unannounced for a couple of excellent songs including a bitter one from the perspective of a soldier in Iraq. Then there was Neil Hannon, Martin & Eliza Carthy, Jez Lowe, Boris Grebenshikov, Camille O’Sullivan and poetic contributions from Lemn Sissay and Caribel Alegria. MC Harry Shearer did a good job, as well as a vicious but appropriate up-to-date satirical song about paedophile priests, and MD Kate St John yet again held one of these complex compilations together undeniably well (and for once got flowers and a hug from a grateful RT).

The two-for-the-price-of-one pairing of Richard Thompson & Loudon Wainwright provided 65 minute sets by each plus 30 minutes together. Thompson’s song writing and guitar playing outshine Wainwright’s, but the latter is a great communicator and it’s his humour and connection with the audience which impresses. Separately they are contrasting but together they are complimentary – the voices work well in harmony and Thompson’s intricate guitar work sounds even better on top of Wainwright’s strumming. I could have done with a lot more than the six songs they sang together, but it was still a feast of music by two greats of folk-rock.

This was the best Meltdown since Elvis Costello’s in 1995 and a real vindication of the idea that one person can put together a varied and eclectic programme which hangs together because it’s an expression of their taste & ideas and above all presents high quality music in an age of manufactured recycled mediocrity.

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