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Posts Tagged ‘Martin Carthy’

Contemporary Music

I couldn’t resist the two seventy-something Celtic Knights as part of BluesFest. Van the Man and Jones the Voice at the O2 Arena both proved to be at the top of their vocal game. They each played great one-hour sets with their respective bands and seven songs together, three at the end of Van’s set and four at the end of Tom’s. These collaborations were under-rehearsed, rather random and disorganised affairs but they came out charming. The contrast between Tom’s extrovert showmanship and Van’s introverted cool was extraordinary. A real one-off treat we’re unlikely to see again.

Blood & Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl at the Barbican was another of those themed compilation shows which proved to be a delightful evening featuring his wife Peggy Seeger, folk royalty like the Carthy’s, Unthanks and Seth Lakeman and a whole load of MacColl’s. I have to confess I knew few of his songs, so much of it was a bit of a revelation, particularly The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face. When his son read out the names of those who’d covered this, you realised the family was probably still living off the royalties!

Billy Bragg’s concert at Union Chapel was by and large a return to the solo electric style of his early years, with much of the material coming from this period, though there was a pedal steel guitarist for part of the show. It was lovely, helped by being in my favourite concert venue and the attentive audience. He included his anti-Sun protest song which made me realise he’s about the only protest songster left!

I’m not sure what I was expecting of Lulu – Murder Ballad at the Linbury Studio, but what I got was a Tiger Lillies concert; a song cycle with superb projections and a dancer, but it didn’t add up to good storytelling and was actually rather dull, so much so that I left at the interval.

Opera

A concert performance of Handel’s opera Tamerlano at the Barbican by new (and young!) kids on the block Il Pomo d’Oro got off to a tentative start but soon found it’s form. Just twenty-five singers and musicians making a beautiful noise.

Morgen und Abend was more of a soundscape than an opera. A very impressionistic piece with an entirely off-white design and an off-the-wall sound. I’m not sure it sustained its 90 minute length and I think I’ll probably forget it fairly quickly, but is was original and something refreshingly less conservative at Covent Garden.

The first act of Opera Rara’s Zaza was a bit of a mess. There was so much going on and the comedy sat uncomfotrably with the love story. The remaining three acts were musically glorious, with a stupendous performance from Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho in the title role and terrific turns from Riccardo Massi and Stephen Gaertnern as her love interest. An impulsive outing to the Barbican which turned into a treat.

Art

The World Goes Pop at Tate Modern was rather a disappointment. It set out to show Pop Art wasn’t just a US / UK phenomenon. The trouble is, most it was second or third rate stuff and made you feel it probably was a US / UK phenomenon!

The Ai Wei Wei exhibition at the Royal Academy is one of the best contemporary art exhibitions I have ever visited. The combination of imagination, craftsmanship and the political statements being made is simply overwhelming. Wonderful.

Eddie Peake’s The Forever Loop was one of the most pointless and dull installations to grace Barbican’s Curve Gallery. Not even two naked dancers could liven it up!

Film

The transition of Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van from stage to screen is a huge success. Maggie Smith is sensational, Alex Jennings is superb as Alan Bennett and it’s great to see almost the entire History Boys cast in supporting roles.

Spectre was generic Bond, though with a return to the tongue-in-cheek humour that has been lost in the last couple. The set pieces were superb and it sustained its 2.5 hour length. It’s also a Who’s Who of great British actors, with Ralph Fiennes, Rory Kinnear and Ben Wishaw in supporting roles.

I was surprised that Steve Jobs only covered 14 years or so, but I learnt so much about what made him tick and I was captivated by it. Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet were both superb.

Brooklyn was a gorgeous piece of film-making. I loved everything about this tale of Irish emigration to New York set in the year I was born, and I blubbed!

Carol was a beautifully made film, the 50s again looking gorgeous, and the performances superb, though it was a bit slow for me, particularly in the first 30 minutes or so.

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Contemporary Music

The Floating Palace at the Barbican was one of those compilation concerts that throws together a handful of artists with similar tastes, though this one was without the usual theme – tribute to…songs of… Sadly, though it had its moments (mostly from K T Tunstall & Krystle Warren), it was rather flat, somewhat rambling & under-rehearsed with a lot of irritating inaudible on-stage chat. Robyn Hitchcock was in charge and it also included Martin & Eliza Carthy and Howard Gelb. Given it’s repeated a handful of times across the UK, a cynic might think it’s a bit of a money spinner rather than like-minded people making music together?

Martin Simpson’s concert at Kings Place was a real treat. Dick Gaughan and June Tabor guested and June’s 25-minute mini-set was as close to perfection as you can get. There was superb backing from Andy Cutting on accordion and Andy Seward on double bass and the sound was gorgeous. If only Simpson wasn’t so obsessive about tuning – I think he might be the only one who notices!

Opera

I haven’t been to any of the Opera Up Close productions since their triumphant first one, La Boheme, at the Cock Tavern in Kilburn. They’re now at The Kings Head Theatre and I was drawn to Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West as I haven’t seen it for so long. It was always a pretty preposterous opera (set in the Wild West, sung in Italian!) and here it has been relocated to modern-day Soho where Minnie runs a bar frequented by East European lowlife. It’s not Puccini’s best score, by a long margin, and the new libretto seems too keen to make you laugh at the swearing and modern references that litter it. It is by and large well sung ( though operatic voices at close quarters can seen unnecessarily loud and brash) and played heroically on piano by John Gibbons and the shamefully uncredited violinist. The opera is alleged to be the source of some of Phantom of the Opera’s melodies and a second hearing confirms this suspicion. I rather liked the way they made this point when Minnie picks up a phantom mask from her dressing table at one point!

The winter pairing at WNO was superb. The first was a revival of Berlioz’ Beatrice & Benedict, a light funny operetta-like piece with some gorgeous music which Michael Hofsetter conducted delicately. All of the performances were good, with a comic masterclass from Donald Maxwell, but it was the chorus and orchestra that shone most (again!). Michael Yeargan’s 18-year old design still sparked. It was followed by a revival of La Traviata which we loved when we first saw it 18 months ago and loved just as much second time round. It’s an attractive and intensely dramatic production and the leads this time – Joyce El-Khoury, Leonardo Capalbo and Jason Howard – all excelled.

I’ve only seen Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman once before, many years ago at Covent Garden when you could afford to go, and didn’t think much of it. Operetta? Ugh! Richard Jones’ production for ENO is therefore a revelation. I now see it as an opera rather than an operetta and here it scrubs up fresh in a highly inventive production. Giles Cadle’s design is excellent and there’s some wonderful singing from Barry Banks, Clive Bayley, Christine Rice and most especially the ENO debut of American soprano Georgia Jarman playing all four female leads – a real find.

Ernani was only my second experience of The Met Live in HD. The picture and sound quality is outstanding and I like the interval interviews and visible scene changes. It was better musically than visually (a rather old-fashioned static production) but it whetted my appetite to see more next season.

Dance

Umoja was one of those punts you make when you flick through a season programme – in this case, song and dance from South Africa at Sadler’s Wells third theatre, The Peacock. This one paid off big-time as the dance was thrilling and the singing was beautiful. It sought to tell the story of the evolution of song and dance in this country, and did so well, though I’d have liked a little less narration.

Classical Music

I only got to one of the LSO’s Debussy mini-season and rather regretted that by the time the concert was over. Michael Tilson Thomas has a real affinity with this music and all three Debussy pieces, concluding with his most famous – La Mer, were superb. For some reason they added in Weill’s Seven Deady Sins, which is a piece I like but which somehow seemed out of place – the amplification of Anne Sofie Von Otter didn’t help. 

The same orchestra’s Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev & Shostakovich programme was simply thrilling. Valery Gergiev is unrivalled in the Russian repertoire and here he conducted Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony without a score! Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto was played brilliantly by another Russian, Denis Matsuev, but it was Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture that I enjoyed most. The LSO really is at the top of their game.

Art 

The German Contemporaries exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery is the same as all the others – a handful of great pieces and a lot of mediocrity. Much better was the photographic exhibition upstairs celebrating 50 years of the Sunday Times magazine and even better a film in a nearby shop made by stitching together 5000 video diaries.

Lucien Freud Portraits at the NPG is a wonderfully comprehensive review of his work and a real treat. He may only have done portraits, but boy were they good. Seeing so many together can be a bit samey, but brilliant works like this make it unmissable and seeing the evolution of his work is fascinating. Also at the NPG, the annual photographic portrait exhibition is up to the usual standard though yet again I disagreed with the five awarded!

The Barbican Curve space has another extraordinary installation, this time by Chinese artist Song Dong. It’s called Waste Not and consists of a vast quantity of household items – clothing, furniture, pots and pans, newspapers, toys….you name it, it’s here! – collected by his mother in the seven years following the death of her husband and meticulously laid out thematically along the length of the long curved gallery. Given all of this was transported from China, though, the carbon footprint is somewhat unacceptable.

Hajj exhibition. It’s a brilliantly curated examination of the history and practice of the pillar of Islam including some beautiful historical books, pictures and artifacts. Fascinating!

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CONTEMPORARY MUSIC

Using the label ‘Folk’ for Seth Lakeman stretches it somewhat. I can live with folk-rock, but the driving rhythm of his sound stretches even that. It works so much better live than on record, though he’s wise to keep his set short and snappy to prevent it becoming relentless; the bass is pushed too high and it’s close to hurting (one of my companions had to move back after the first number). The Open Air Theatre was a terrific venue and it was the most exciting folk-rock set I’ve heard for more than 25 years (it reminded me of Fairport Convention and Alan Stivell when they rocked). There was a sex imbalance in the audience the opposite of what’s usual at ‘folk’ concerts – he’s a good looking guy who has quite a following with the girls! The unannounced support of A John Smith, who’s CD I like a lot, was a bonus – his melancholy on record was lightened live, helped by a charming self-deprecation in between songs.

The Kings Place Festival is an eclectic selection of 100 concerts over 4 days, each costing no more than £4.50. We took in three 45-minute folk concerts in one evening and a contrasting collection they turned out to be. Eliza Carthy showed off her technical expertise at both fiddle playing and acapella singing; her dad Martin Carthy’s set with Dave Swarbrick was more about nostalgia, such is the decline of skill and passion with age; and the best was left to last, with a set of great warmth and charm from Chris Wood. This is turning out to be a great venue.

I have a memory of seeing Tom Jones & The Squires at Penyrheol Community Centre (one mile from my home and three from his) before he had his first hit. When you look at his chronology and mine, this seems a bit implausible but my recollection is vivid! So this is (possibly) my second Tom Jones concert – 150 miles away and 45 years later – in Islington’s Union Chapel in Sept 2010. It was a small-scale showcase for the new gospel blues album Praise & Blame (which I love) and was announced by a ticket agency on Twitter. I thought it might be fun, but wasn’t expecting something so musically perfect; the songs sounded even better live, the band was terrific and his voice simply extraordinary. The venue was so perfect – Jones in front of the pulpit beneath the backlit stained glass rose window singing gospel! A real treat.

OPERA & MUSIC THEATRE

Peri’s opera Euridice, written in 1600, may be the first ever opera. 380 years later prolific composer Stephen Oliver produced a new version with the songs and choruses intact, an English translation and new ‘accompaniment’ and this is what British Youth Opera showcased this month. It’s the classical myth of Orpheus & Eurydice – with a happy ending! – and it was simply staged with costumes but no set. Somehow the lovely early music songs & choruses and modern accompaniment work well together and both the singing and playing from the cast of 18 and tiny 8-piece ensemble (intriguing instrumentation including cowbells, handbells, banjo and tabor!) were excellent. BYO’s name conjures up images of pimply teenagers but these are the next generation of opera singers currently studying at our best music colleges so, like the GSMD operas, the standards are really high.

ENO’s Faust is a lot better than the reviews lead you to believe. It seems to me perfectly legitimate to make Faust an atomic scientist at the time of Horoshima and the production worked for me. Some of Gounod’s music really is lovely and it is particularly well sung by Toby Spence as Faust, Iain Paterson as Mephistopheles and Melody Moore as Marguerite, with excellent support from Benedict Nelson, Anna Grevelius and Pamela Helen Stephens. ENO’s MD Edward Gardner yet again gets the best out of his band, and the chorus are on fine form. Director Des McAnuff is better known for theatre (notably the excellent Tommy and Jersey Boys) but I think his second outing in an opera house tells us he may well produce even better work in this form.

I much admired Pleasures Progress, Will Tuckett’s music theatre staging of William Hogarth sketches at the ROH’s Linbury Studio, though I was exhausted and fed up, so I didn’t get as much out of the evening as I should have. Very bawdy and often gross, it was a clever cocktail of music, dance and theatre which was superbly staged, designed, performed and played.

OTHER

I was hugely impressed by my visit to Denbies Winery in Dorking. I remember buying a bottle of their wine many years ago and thinking it was ghastly! Well, now it’s the largest winery in the UK producing over 250,000 bottles (80% sold from the cellar door) and the whites and rose were very nice indeed. They’ve cleverly expanded the business to include a winery tour (by people mover!) with an excellent 360 degree film & tasting and a tour of the vineyards by ‘train’.

I had 30 minutes to kill between afternoon tea with an Icelandic friend passing through and pre-theatre drinks with visitors from Somerset (as one does!), so I popped into White Cube at Mason’s Yard. Having returned from the Faroe Islands just a month ago, imagine my surprise to fine 10,080 photos – one taken each minute for a week – from that very place. Darren Almond’s exhibition also had some terrific film footage from Siberia with a hugely atmospheric soundtrack. Such is life lived on impulse…..

I thought Open House was going to be a damp squib this year as I’d only booked for one building (the brochure arrived AFTER booking opened – so much for advance ordering! – by which time everywhere I wanted to visit that had to be booked was fully booked). So I took pot luck with non-bookable buildings expecting to find queues, give up and get fed up. Well, it actually turned out to be one of the best ever with 12 visits. I only gave up on one (the BBC’s Bush House) and only really queued once, though I was seated watching videos so it was hardly a chore at all. Saturday started with Carpenter’s Hall, which added to my ‘collection’ of livery companies. The Arts Council (the one I booked) was a clever refurbishment which produced a funky and comfortable work space with great contemporary art in an old terraced building with stunning views of Westminster Abbey, Parliament and the London Eye from the terrace. Channel 4 was a riot of glass and steel, typical Rogers, and I couldn’t understand how I hadn’t walked past it in 15 years. The Ruebens ceiling at the Banqueting Hall was terrific and the place oozed history (I can’t understand why I’ve never been there before). The Foreign Office self-guided tour was really well organised and I loved the state rooms like the Locarno Suite and the Durbar Court. They were unloading Popemobiles outside. I then had to cross the anti-Pope demo in Piccadilly to get to The Royal Society of Chemistry and The Geological Society, neighbours in Burlington House, which had both benefitted from tasteful refurbishment.

On Sunday, the visit to The Royal Ballet Upper School was much more than a walk along the extraordinary ‘Bridge of Aspiration’ (which was terrific) with performance videos while you waited and dancers rehearsing on your tour route. Parliament’s Portcullis House is hideous on the outside but a lot better on the inside, with excellent contemporary art and an exhibition of photos taken during the last election. I loved the simple elegance of the Ismaili Centre; the towers and turrets of the neighbouring South Kensington museums peeping over the walls of the gorgeous roof garden. It was rather surreal walking through Brompton Cemetery while Chelsea fans were using it as a short-cut to the game and druggies were hanging out around the graves. Finally, I visited the art nouveau / art deco former Finsbury Town Hall with wrought iron entrance canopy and stunning Great Hall. This is a once-a-year opportunity which I can safely say I exploited fully this year!

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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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