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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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It’s clearly going to be my Year of the Greeks. We’re not even half-way through and this is my 5th, and it’s the first of 3 in the Almeida Greeks season. I’ve seen lots of Greek tragedies, but this trilogy has passed me by (apart from an adaptation of one segment recently). I never saw the iconic Peter Hall production at the NT as I’d only just moved to London, was unemployed and hadn’t really got into theatre-going anyway. Director Robert Icke’s new version is contemporary and radical, with a 3 hour playing time, and I thought it worked brilliantly.

This paragraph may be considered a spoiler (of a 2500 year old tale based on Greek mythology!) – Orestia tells the story of Agamemnon, his wife Clytemnestra and children Elektra, Orestes and Iphigenia. Agamemnon sacrifices his youngest daughter Iphigenia to the gods before leading the Greek army in the Trojan War. Whilst he’s away, his wife moves his cousin / her lover Aegisthus in and when he returns she kills him in revenge for the sacrifice of Iphigenia. Orestes, encouraged by his sister Elektra, returns from self-imposed exile to avenge the death of his father by killing his mother and her lover.

Icke appears to have added the pre-war events to Aeschylus, so we see a happy family before Iphigenia’s death, the torment Agamemnon goes through, the sacrifice itself and his departure to war. This gives the plays better context and the normality and happiness of family mealtimes heightens the subsequent tragedy. The ghosts of deceased characters occasionally return and Orestes appears throughout, even when in exile, being ‘interviewed’ about events now passed by what at first appears to be a counsellor or therapist, with a hint of false memory syndrome. This makes sense in the final ‘courtroom’ scene when everything unravels like a detective story. In this final scene, the references to the position of men and women in society feel ever so modern.

The production’s default style is cold, clinical and somewhat austere and there are many long pauses, which makes the outbursts of emotion much more dramatic, moving and occasionally terrifying. They even integrate the need for good timekeeping (it’s 3.5 hours with precisely 28 minutes of breaks!) with the breaks announced, clocks audibly ticking down and ushers issuing reminders. The use of music is terrific, with God Only Knows heard more than once and Nick Lowe’s The Beast in Me a real surprise (to a Lowe fan like me).

Angus Wright and Lia Williams are terrific as Agamemnon and Clytemnestra (Wright also plays his ghost and his cousin Aegisthus, which may be why I thought this character’s part had been reduced). Luke Thompson was hugely impressive as a very passionate Orestes. I could hardly believe it was Jessica Brown-Findlay’s stage debut as Elektra, such was her command of the role.  Young actors Eve Benioff Salama as Iphigenia and Ilan Galkoff as the young Orestes were marvellous.

When I booked this for the evening after Everyman I hadn’t thought that I was pairing two morality plays written 2000 years apart. Both have taken ancient material and made them completely relevant for a 21st century audience. Thrilling stuff.

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With the month split between five countries (six if you count Wales!), it’s a bit lean…..

Contemporary Music

I wasn’t expecting Nick Lowe to come on stage at Union Chapel on his own and I was a touch disappointed when he did. That lasted just a few minutes, as the songs began to shine, stripped back to voice & guitar. Later joined by Led Zep’s John Paul Jones on bass and even later fellow Abertridwr boy & regular collaborator Geraint Watkins on keyboards, this was an absolutely delightful evening, 80 minutes packed with Lowe’s short but perfectly formed songs and just a little of his charming and modest commentary. Growing old gracefully indeed.

The Rutles were a Beatles parody band created by Eric Idle and Neil Innes for a comedy TV programme called Rutland Weekend Television way back when. What was so good about the music was that, though a parody (with references to real Beatles songs), the tunes and lyrics were in themselves excellent. George Harrison loved them and supported the making of a full length feature film. I never saw them play live, so I was glad to catch this 2014 incarnation, with two original members and three new ones, in a small venue in Didcot (because I couldn’t make the London date). It was simply superb. Innes’ voice isn’t as strong, but everything else about the show was brilliant and the smile didn’t leave my face for the duration. Lovely.

Opera

I can’t imagine a more perfect production of Rossini’s Cenerentola than the one 3 million of us experienced in cinemas worldwide as part of Met Live. The production was fresh and very funny, with a terrific surreal design, but it was the matchless cast of seven principals that shone most. Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez are both at the top of their game as Angelina (Cinderella) and Don Ramiro (The Prince), but they were matched by five others and a great chorus (no bows?) and orchestra under Fabio Luisi. I have to say I do enjoy the interval interviews and behind the curtain scene changes and they all added up to my best Met Live experience so far.

Dance

Oliver Dubois’ Tragedie at Sadler’s Wells is nine naked women and nine naked men moving to a very loud and relentless electronica soundtrack for 90 minutes. At times it was hypnotic and mesmerising, but it was overlong. The formal ‘marching’ bits didn’t work as well as the anarchic bits. You have to admire their bravery and energy, though. Coming on dressed for the curtain call however was most odd!

Scottish Ballet’s Romeo & Juliet is a pared down version with a 20th century setting. I loved the style of it, the freshness of Krzysztof Pastor’s choreography and the energy of the unfeasibly young company. Though the score has been edited, the orchestra played it beautifully. Nothing will ever probably match Kenneth MacMillan’s Royal Ballet staging, but this was a treat nonetheless.

Art

Artangel’s latest off-the-wall installation takes us to a house in Brixton where Vincent van Gogh lived as a young man in the late 19th century. In Saskia Olde Wolbers work, the dilapidated house tells you its story in sound as you walk through three floors of rooms. It’s a bit like a radio play come alive. Fascinating.

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Contemporary Music

On the eve of my birthday with a 0, I went to see a role model who is 2 years and 15 days older, growing old gracefully and still seriously cool – Nick Lowe. A nice small venue, very attentive audience and great sound contributed to what was a brilliant experience all round. His keyboard player, Geraint Watkins, who hails from my village Abertridwr and went to school with my brother, also played support. An uplifting evening.

Opera

Miss Fortune is the fourth Judith Weir opera I’ve seen, but sad to say nowhere near as good as the other three. It’s a slight tale of a girl who becomes destitute after a financial crash and seeks to make a living from sweatshop to kebab van to laundry, stalked by Fate and his posse of break dancers. For a small show it gets a BIG production which it just doesn’t deserve. There’s a lot of talent on stage and a lot of talent behind the scenes, but it left me largely indifferent – with the exception of seeing an excellent break-dance group on the Covent Garden stage (and all credit to the ROH audience; they got the biggest cheers!).

Classical Music

The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Shakespeare themed concert at the Barbican was an unusual affair as the audience was almost entirely there for the second half – the UK premiere of the orchestral versions of Rufus Wainwright’s five settings of Shakespeare sonnets, sung by him and spoken by actress Sian Phillips. The first half was a very accessible combination of Korngold’s Much Ado suite and Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet suite (plus a John Adams opener), the Prokofiev a favourite of mine. The sonnets were lush, lovely and moving – beautifully spoken, sung and played – but I enjoyed the evening as a whole because the theme of inspiration by the bard really came through.

It’s a long time since I saw Elijah; an oratorio I like very much. The Britten Sinfonia & Voices under William Carne (new to me) gave a simply brilliant performance at the Barbican, helped by four wonderful British soloists – Andrew Kennedy, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Lucy Crowe and most importantly the incomparable Simon Keenlyside as Elijah. An exhilarating end to an otherwise shitty day!

Art

I enjoyed Jeremy Deller’s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery much more than I thought I would. He’s a complete original, a real one-off, and I found the playful work, and description, videos and records of past work, absolutely enthralling.

Film

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a lot better than some of the reviews. It’s one of those feel good films (well, for people of a certain age – like me!) with a set of fine performances by wonderful actors also of a certain (but older!) age like Judi Dench and Penelope Wilton. Dev Patel rather over-egged the clumsy but lovable young Indian entrepreneur, but hey it was harmless fun.

 

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