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Contemporary Music

I’ve seen Paul McCartney six or seven times in the last 20 years or so, but his Christmas concert at the O2 Arena topped them all. He played 40 songs spanning 60 years in a three hour set. The visuals were up to their usual standard, the band are as tight as any, the atmosphere was euphoric and Ringo came on the play Get Back! For someone like me, for whom this music is the most important part of the soundtrack of my life, it was pure joy.

Opera / Classical Music

ENO’s La Boheme was lovely, with a superb set of singers – even our Rodolfo sub. was new favourite David Butt Philip. I was surprised I hadn’t seen Jonathan Miller’s production, with a superb design by Isabella Bywater, before. For once, I thought an English translation actually added something, as it brought out humour that’s not usually there.

The LSO kicked off the Bernstein centenary at the Barbican almost exactly one year ago with a wonderful concert version of his musical Wonderful Town under Simon Rattle and ended it this month with Candide which had the same sense of fun and was thrillingly played and sung under Marin Alsop. I’m not sure I would have included dialogue, narration and attempts at staging, but I’ll forgive anything for the glory of the music, played better than I’ve ever heard it.

The LSO’s Half Six Fix at the Barbican is a superb initiative. An hour of music from the next day’s concert with onstage introductions and synchronised programme notes in an app, and this month’s Jazz Roots saw Simon Rattle with Katie & Marielle Labeque give a thrilling programme of works by Stravinsky, Golijov and Bernstein. It’s great to see the brass and woodwind sections centre stage and I absolutely loved it.

Art

When you walk into the first room of the Elmgreen & Dragset exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery you gasp, as you appear to have walked into a disused public swimming pool. This new installation is the centrepiece and is followed by a retrospective of earlier works, mostly subversive sculptures, in a fascinating show.

The British Museum’s poorly titled exhibition I Am Ashurbanipal – King of the world, King of Assyria is absolutely stunning. Though it is mostly made up of items from the museum’s own collection, they are extraordinary, seeing them together is special and the storytelling curation is terrific. It was shamefully empty (I suspect the title doesn’t help) whereas Ian Hislop’s search for dissent in I Object, a personal selection from the museum’s collection, although fitfully interesting but way less significant, is packing them in in the same building.

A disappointing visit to the National Portrait Gallery for Gainsborough Family Album and the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize. The former isn’t really my thing; I admire the skill but tire of 18th century posed portraits, and the latter didn’t seem to live up to previous years, though there were a handful of gems.

The third historical exhibition gem in two weeks was the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War. I learnt so much in two hours, I thought my brain was going to explode. Mostly books and manuscripts, but with a smattering of objects, it brought alive 300 years of English history. How lucky are we to have the Royal Academy, British Museum and British Library making history, geography and culture so thrilling in this way.

One of my mini-tours of private galleries proved very frustrating with Timothy Taylor and Edel Assanti closed during published hours, without any notification of their websites. Thankfully, Blain/Southern had not one, but two terrific exhibitions – Me Somewhere Else, installations and sculpture by Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota, many involving thread resembling spiders webs, and extraordinary, almost gothic drawings by German artist Jonas Burgert.

My mini-tour of East End private galleries was more successful in that they were open when they said they would be, but neither lived up to the 5* Time Out reviews that sent me there. In Carlos / Ishikawa, there was a three-screen film installation by Korakrit Arunanondchai with, for some unknown reason, lasers coming out of an artificial garden to take a 90 degree journey above the screens. At Modern Art, Bojan Sarcevic placed six commercial freezers which were ‘breeding’ frost because of the gallery’s temperature. Um. Somewhat ironically, the Lothar Hempel exhibition upstairs which I didn’t know about was the best of the three!

Film

I don’t usually go to documentaries in the cinema, but made an exception for Three Identical Strangers, which proved to be fascinating and riveting, unfolding like a thriller.

Mary Poppins Returns was a 90-minute film in a 130-minute package which had some great moments, but too many dull ones. The acting was superb, though.

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The Rest of July

Contemporary Music

My respect for Tom Jones has grown significantly in recent years, largely due to his terrific blues and gospel albums, at a point in his career when he could so easily be banking money from Las Vegas shows, and his open-air concert at Englefield House in Berkshire didn’t disappoint. A lovely evening, brilliantly diverse set list, a great band and excellent audience engagement combined to produce a very satisfying evening indeed.

Opera

The Royal College of Music put together an excellent double-bill of Huw Watkins’ In the Locked Room and Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Lighthouse. The former was interesting but the story too obtuse for me, but the latter was terrific, beautifully sung and played and thrillingly dramatic.

GSMD showcased three short operas by students on their composition course in their Milton Court Studio Theatre, performed by first year students on the opera programme. The first was an incomprehensible fantasy, the last a bit of a puzzle, but the middle a good slice of SciFi. Whatever you think of the material, all were superbly performed, though I’m not sure I liked the idea of including four scenes from three classic operas which spoilt the flow of the new for me.

I don’t go to the Royal Opera much these days, but I was drawn to Falstaff by the casting of Bryn Terfel and it turned out to be a real treat – relocated to the 50’s, brilliantly designed, with a faultless cast, though with their obscene top price of almost £200 I was only prepared to pay for a restricted view seat.

My first Prom was an opera, and it proved a bit of a disappointment. Pelleas & Melisande doesn’t really lend itself to a concert, even semi-staged, so however good Glyndebourne Opera’s singers and orchestra (the LPO) the other-worldliness it needed was something the RAH couldn’t provide, so it was devoid of atmosphere and engagement. In some ways, it might have been better in concert rather than clumsy semi-staging. It reminded me of the days when I avoided opera outside the theatre altogether.

At Opera Holland Park, the UK premiere of a century old Mascagni opera, Isabeau, inspired by the Lady Godiva legend (no, she didn’t!), was a real treat. Great choruses, lush orchestrations and two wonderful young leads.

Opera Rara have dug up some gems over the years, most notably Donizetti’s Les martyrs. L’ange de Nisida isn’t the best, but it’s the world premiere of another Donizetti, ‘lost’ for 180 years, newly reconstructed, and sung and played brilliantly by the Royal Opera chorus and orchestra under Mark Elder, with five fine soloists, at Covent Garden. A treat.

The Arcola’s annual Grimeborn Opera Festival got off to a cracking start with an intimate, intense production of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia which was so well sung and played, any opera house would be proud to have it. Our five opera ‘passport’ means we see them for £11 each, the best opera bargain ever!

Our second Grimeborn treat was Spectra Ensemble‘s production of the very underrated suffragette Ethyl Smyth’s early 20th Century comic opera The Boatswain’s Mate which was a delight. Great singing, but also great musicianship from a powerhouse trio of piano, violin and cello. Again, the intimacy of the even smaller studio served it well.

Classical Music

Mahler’s 8th, the ‘symphony of a thousand’, belongs in the Royal Albert Hall and the 2018 Proms saw the BBC National Orchestra & Chorus of Wales plus five other choirs and eight soloists succeeded in filling it with joy. From where we sat, the acoustics weren’t the best, and there seemed to be more subtlety in the second half, but thrilling stuff nonetheless.

My third visit to the Proms was a lovely evening of English music from the beginning of the 20th Century, indeed the beginning of modern English classical music, with five works by three people who knew one another – Vaughn Williams, the very underrated Parry and Holst – three of them I’d never heard before. The BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales were again on top form.

My fourth Prom was another treat, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra pairing two London symphonies 120 years apart – Haydn and Vaughan Williams. The Haydn, in particular, sounded better than any other symphony of his I’ve heard. Great to see a full house for something without ‘stars’.

Film

It was good to see Yellow Submarine again after 50 years in a superbly restored version. The artwork is astonishing, though the story is rather naff!

Mamma Mia: Here we go again was way better than the reviews would have you believe, better than its predecessor in fact. The antidote to the hate that now pervades our lives on a regular basis.

Art

Another of those bumper catch-up months for art.

Aftermath at Tate Britain, an exhibition of post-WWI art from Germany, France & the UK, was more historically fascinating than aesthetically appealing, though there were some great pictures. As if seeing 300 Otto Dix pictures in Chemnitz last month wasn’t enough, there were 18 more here!

I don’t normally like staged and posed photos, but I loved Alex Prager: Silver Lake Drive at the Photographers Gallery, a very cinematic show which included two captivating films.

Howard Hodgkin, who died last year, became a favourite artist of mine after an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery many years ago, so his final paintings at the Gagosian Gallery was essential viewing. It was more of the same, but the same is simplicity and colour.

I caught up with the Royal Academy of Art’s reconfiguration and renovations in a lovely morning feast of art that started with the excellent Grayson Perry curated Summer Exhibition, which can now breathe, with the Sackler Galleries added for the prints. Then there was The Great Spectacle, a terrific exhibition covering the 250 years of the Summer Exhibition which linked the existing John Madejski Fine Rooms with the Weston Rooms in the main space. Then through a newly opened tunnel to the Burlington Gardens building for the Summer Exhibition’s great (free) fun room, after which It ended on a bit of a low with Tacita Dean Landscape, which did marginally more for me than her companion exhibition at the NPG.

Shape of Light at Tate Modern examines the relationship between photography and abstract art over 100 years. Though fascinating, the photos were largely aesthetically unappealing and it all seemed a bit nerdy. Thankfully, the art was great, with the recently visited Bauhaus featuring.

South Korean artist Lee Bul’s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery was full of quirky things, many involving reflections. Some individual works were excellent, but it was the impact of the whole lot that made it worthwhile, a very original riot of brightness. In the project space, Yuan Goang-Ming’s video work was intriguing.

A theatrical day trip enabled me to pay a visit to the Southampton City Art Gallery. In addition to a small but impressive collection of masters, there was the terrific room showcasing the 10-picture The Perseus Story by pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne Jones, exhibitions by living artists George Shaw and Kelly Richardson and Coast, photos of the nearby coastline and seaside by the local Photographic Society. In the University’s new John Hansard Gallery, a Gerard Richter exhibition proved fascinating, though I’m not his biggest fan. It’s a lovely new space.

At the Guildhall Art Gallery, the William de Morgan ceramics exhibition was a delight. It tried to focus on his use of mathematics, but I couldn’t get past the beauty of the pots, plates and tiles! A short walk away, it was the turn of the Barbican Art Gallery to wow with a double-bill of photographic exhibitions – American documentary photographer Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing, with photos taken in the Great Depression and of Japanese internment and migration, and British photographer Vanessa Winship: And Time Folds, an extraordinarily diverse range of work in which her travels in the Balkans and countries around the Black Sea captivated me most.

At Newport Street Gallery, True Colours brought together the work of Helen Breard, Sadie Laska and Boo Saville. I loved Beard’s bright and colourful style, but it was rather sex obsessed, all bar one featuring explicit sexual acts. The other two did nothing for me. I’m glad it as a pop-in-while-passing visit!

At the Serpentine Galleries there was one treat and one pointless exhibition. The treat was Tomma Abts’ geometric pictures in the Sackler Gallery, which surprised me by their beauty. In the main gallery, there was an exhibition showcasing the historical outdoor work using barrels of Christo & Jeanne-Claude through drawings and models, mostly of the giant Mastaba they created for the UAE. They created a smaller one for the Serpentine Lake from 1500 barrels which seemed like much ado about nothing to me. Fortunately, this year’s Pavilion is lovely – from the inside. It doesn’t look great until you enter and see that it’s made of roof tiles with a reflective roof and water on part of the floor providing lovely images.

I would never have gone to Michael Jackson On the Wall at the NPG if I wasn’t a member; £18! I certainly wouldn’t call myself a fan, though I liked some of his music, and the messianic behaviour of his late career didn’t sit at all comfortably with me. This exhibition of artworks of and inspired by him was however fascinating, so I was glad I did go!

At the Design Museum, a fascinating exhibition called Hope to Nope: Graphics & Politics 2008-18 about the impact of graphics on politics and protest in the last ten years, including the use of social media and movements like Occupy and #MeToo. A great idea, well executed.

Julie Becker: I must create a Master Piece to pay the Rent at the ICA is one of the worst exhibitions of recent years, and the ICA seems to be in a right old state. I blame you, Time Out. Again.

One of my wanders around Mayfair’s private galleries brought rich pickings. At Hauser & Wirth, August Sander: Men Without Masks showcased the German photographer’s obsessive but brilliant B&W portraits of people of the 20th Century. In their gallery next door, Spiegelgasse (Mirror Alley) was a mixed show of Swiss artists since the 1930’s with some striking individual works by people I’d never heard of. Down the road at LAZinc, Banksy comes in from the streets for Greatest Hits 2002-2008, paintings and sculpture which do prove his worth. Next stop was Spruth Magers where 13 Cindy Sherman staged and posed character self-portraits, some multiples, each in an edition of just six, were valued at over $24m! They were good, but not that good!

Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up at the V&A had some lovely paintings, a selection of her clothes that showed her unique style and fascinating biographical material, but it was too overcrowded, claustrophobic and poorly curated to really enjoy. We fared better in the more spacious, less crowded and cooler The Future Starts Here which was a fascinating peep into the future through current projects and initiatives.

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Opera

Trojan Women by the National Changgeuk Company of Korea in the newly refurbished (but you’d hardly notice!) Queen Elizabeth Hall is a pop-opera adaptation of Greek tragedy. It looked good and I liked the choruses, but I struggled with some of the strangulated solo vocals and, at two unbroken hours, it was too long. I always think visiting companies should be warmly received regardless, given they’ve travelled half-way across the world, and thankfully so it was at the QEH.

Mamzer Bastard sees the Royal Opera on walkabout again, this time to Hackney Empire, but probably with the wrong opera, if part of the plan was to engage the local community. There were things to enjoy – beautiful Jewish cantor for the first time in opera, expertly sung, and a cinematic production which made great use of live video – but it’s cultural and musical specificity and inaccessibility robbed it of universal appeal, and the film noir monochrome monotony drained me of energy, I’m afraid.

Rhondda Rips It Up! is WNO’s tribute to Lady Rhondda, an extraordinary woman and suffragette in this centenary year, also visiting Hackney Empire. A mash-up of opera, operetta, music hall and cabaret and great fun, with singalongs and flags to wave. Madeleine Shaw was terrific as Lady R and I even liked Lesley Garrett as the MC!

Britten’s Turn of the Screw saw ENO at the Open Air Theatre, the first ever opera there, on a lovely evening. I thought it worked very well, particularly as the natural light lowered, creating a spooky atmosphere. It was by necessity amplified, but the lovely singing and playing, though not as natural as unamplified, still shone through. There were the usual audience behaviour challenges, this time amplified by the bonkers decision to dish out unnecessary librettos so they could be rustled in unison!

Dance

Xenos at Sadler’s Wells Theatre is a one-man dance piece by Akram Khan inspired by the 1.5 million forgotten Indian soldiers lost in the 1st World War. I struggled to understand all of it, but was mesmerised regardless. The design was stunning, the east-meets-west music hypnotic and the movement extraordinary. A privilege to be at Kahn’s last full evening piece as a performer.

Film

I much admired Rupert Everett’s The Happy Prince, about the last days of Oscar Wilde. It avoided lightening and beautifying what was a very dark period in his life and told it as it was.

Art

The Edward Bawden exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery featured an extraordinarily diverse range of works including paintings, posters, linocuts, menu cards, drawings and book illustrations & covers with subjects including animals, people, buildings, landscapes and fantasies. A really underrated 20th century illustrator and a huge treat.

The BP Portrait Award Exhibition at the NPG seemed smaller this year, but the quality remained astonishingly high. Next door at the NG, I loved British-American 19th Century artist Thomas Cole’s paintings, though they only made up 40% of the exhibition, padded out with studies & drawings and paintings by those who influenced him and those he influenced (from the NG permanent collection!), which is more than a bit cheeky.

During a short visit to Exeter I went to their superb Royal Albert Museum to catch Pop Art in Print, an excellent V&A touring exhibition which we don’t appear to be getting in London. A fascinating, diverse range of items, very well curated and presented, probably helped by being the only visitor at the time!

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Opera

There was much to like about Coraline, the Royal Opera at the Barbican Theatre, but I’m not sure the adaptation and production served both Neil Gaiman’s story and Mark Anthony Turnage’s music well as neither were dark enough. Good to see a family friendly opera at accessible prices though.

I didn’t go and see the Royal Opera’s 4.48 Psychosis first time round in 2016 because I didn’t like the Sarah Kane play from which it is adapted. The reviews and awards propelled me to this early revival, again at the Lyric Hammersmith, and I’m glad they did. Philip Venables work makes sense of Kane’s play, a bleak but brilliant exposition of depression and in particular the treatment journey in the eyes of the sufferer. Words are spoken and projected as well as sung and there is recorded music, muzak and sound effects. The artistry of the six singers and twelve-piece ensemble was outstanding. Not easy, but unmissable.

Classical Music

The new Bridge Theatre put on a lunchtime concert of Southbank Sinfonia playing Schumann’s 3rd Symphony, which was a delight, particularly as they unexpectedly blended in poems read by actors. I only wish I’d booked seats within the orchestra, as that would have been a rather unique experience; let’s hope they do it again.

At Wigmore Hall, a young Stockholm-based chamber ensemble called O/Modernt gave a recital spanning almost 400 years of English music from Gibbons to Taverner with an emphasis on Purcell & Britten. They were assisted by a mezzo, a theorbo and vocal ensemble The Cardinall’s Musick. There was even a quirky improvisation on a theme by Purcell. It all sounded very fresh, though there was a randomness about it.

At the Barbican, a delightful double-dip started with a concert of Elgar choral works by the BBC Singers at St Giles Cripplegate. I particularly loved the fact the Radio 3 introductions were made by members of the ensemble. Then at Barbican Hall the BBC SO & Chorus under Andrew Davies gave a wonderful WWI themed concert bookended by Elgar pieces and featuring the London Premiere of a contemporary song cycle and a lost orchestral tone-poem, the highlight of which was an Elgar piece this Elgar fan had never heard, the deeply moving but thoroughly uplifting The Spirit of England, so good I will forgive the ‘England’ that should be ‘Britain’.

Another LSO rehearsal at the Barbican, this time with their new Chief Conductor Simon Rattle, a man who knows what he wants, if ever I saw one; Mahler’s 9th and a new work. It proved to be a fascinating contrast with Mark Elder’s less directive rehearsal method. Again, I wanted to book for the concert.

London Welsh Chorale did a good job with Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus at St Giles’ Cripplegate. It’s one of the first oratorio’s I ever heard (my mother was in Caerphilly Ladies Choir!). They were accompanied by a small orchestra and had four fine young soloists.

I actually went to the LSO Tippett / Mahler Barbican concert to hear Tippet’s Rose Lake again (I was at its world premiere) and as much as I enjoyed it, it was Mahler’s unfinished 10th which blew me away. A highlight in a lifetime of concert-going.

The British Museum reopened the fabulous Reading Room for some concerts and I went to the quirkiest, obviously, for Lygeti’s Poeme Symphonique for 100 Metronomes. They were all set off at the same time, but ended individually, with the fifth from the left on the back row hanging in there the longest for its solo finale followed by a minute’s silence. Strangely mesmerising.

Dance

The Royal Ballet’s Bernstein Mixed Bill was a lovely addition to his Centenary. The first piece, danced to the Chichester Psalms, was wonderful, and the last, to the Violin Serenade, was a delight. Though I love the 2nd Symphony, which provided the music for the middle piece, it was a bit dim and distant to wow me as the others had.

The Viviana Durante Company’s short programme of early Kenneth Macmillan ballet’s, Steps Back in Time, benefitted from the intimacy of Barbican Pit, but could have done with programme synopses so that we could understand the narrative, better recorded sound for the two works that had it, and on the day I went some aircon! Lovely dancing, though.

Comedy

Mark Thomas’ latest show tells the story of running a comedy workshop in the Jenin refugee camp in Palestine, two Palestinian comedians with him on stage and four more showcased on film. In addition to a good laugh, you learn a lot about life in occupied Palestine. The post-show Q&A at Stratford East was a real bonus. Important and entertaining.

Film

Love, Simon is as wholesome and sentimental as only American films can be, but its heart was in the right place and it was often very funny.

The action was a bit relentless in Ready Player One, and the ending a touch sentimental, but it’s a technical marvel and proves Spielberg can still cut it, now with mostly British actors it seems.

Funny Cow was my sort of film – gritty, British, late 20th Century – with some fine performances and some really funny stand-up. Maxine Peak was terrific.

I enjoyed The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, though it was a bit slow to get off the ground. Particularly lovely to see Tom Courtney at the top of his game.

Art

A bumper catch-up month!

I was impressed by Andreas Gursky’s monumental photographs of the modern world (ports, factories, stock exchanges…) at the Hayward Gallery. Much has been said about the gallery’s refurbishment, but I honestly couldn’t tell the difference!

I’m not sure I understand the point of an exhibition about performance art events that have taken place, so Joan Jonas at Tate Modern was an odd affair; intriguing but not entirely satisfying. However, Picasso 1932, also at Tate Modern, was astonishing – work from just one year that most artists would be happy of in a lifetime, with an extraordinarily diverse range of media, subjects and styles. Wonderful.

I love discovering artists and Canadian David Milne at Dulwich Picture Gallery was no exception, his Modern Painting exhibition is a beautiful collection of landscapes, with one room of early city scenes, all very soft and colourful.

Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins at the Barbican Art Gallery brought together some world class, cutting edge photographers, but it was all rather depressing. The quality of photography was excellent, but all those prostitutes, addicts, homeless people…..Agadir by Yto Barrada downstairs in the Curve didn’t do much for me and the wicker seats you sat in to listen to the audio aspects of the installation were excruciatingly uncomfortable.

At the NPG, Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography consisted entirely of portraits, mostly from the mid-19th Century, by four photographers. They were surprisingly natural and technically accomplished, but I’m not sure it was the ‘art photography’ it said on the can. At the same gallery Tacita Dean: Portrait consisted mostly of short films of people with loud projector sound as accompaniment and it did nothing for me.

At the RA, a small but exquisite display of Pre-Raphaelite book illustrations by the likes of Millais, Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Holman Hunt. A little gem, but oh for a much bigger one.

Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the V&A was a brilliantly presented exhibition which conveyed the glitz and glamour but also covered the wonders of the engineering and the historical significance of the mode of travel. Unmissable.

At the Photographers Gallery the annual Deutsche Borse Photography Foundation Prize Exhibition had a real political bite this year with swipes at Monsanto, the US justice system and former Soviet and East European states. Downstairs Under Cover: A Secret History of Cross-Dressers was difficult to take in as it was a load of standard size snaps found in flea markets and car boot sales, but the accompanying display of Grayson Perry’s Photograph Album covering the early days of his alter ego Clare was fascinating.

The content of the Sony World Photography Awards Exhibition at Somerset House was better than ever and it was much better displayed, though it made me feel like a rubbish photographer again. In the courtyard, there were five geodesic domes, ‘Pollution Pods’, replicating the pollution in five world cities with live readings. New Delhi and Beijing come off particularly badly but London wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. It really made you think.

All Too Human at Tate Britain was another of those exhibitions where the premise was a bit questionable, but there were enough great paintings to forgive that. Wonderful Lucien Freud and Bacon pictures and a lot of 20th century British artists new to me. In the Duveen Hall, Anthea Hamilton has created a quirky swimming pool like space with sculptures and a performer moving around all day. Called The Squash, it was momentarily diverting.

Rodin & the art of ancient Greece places his sculptures alongside some of the British Museum’s collection of Greek pieces and it works brilliantly. Rodin apparently took inspiration from The Parthenon sculptures and was a regular visitor and lover of the BM. Wonderful.

The Travel Photographer of the Year Award exhibition moved completely outdoors and to City Hall this year, but the standard was as good as ever. The young photographer entries were particularly stunning.

I was overwhelmed by the scale and beauty of Monet & Architecture at the National Gallery. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see 78 pictures together, a quarter of which come from private collections, a third from public collections scattered all over North America, and only 10% in the UK, half in the NG’s collection. Going at 10am on a Monday was also a good idea, seeing them with a handful of people instead of the crowds there when I left. While there I took in Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell, thirty lovely works, but as always with pervy Degas all young women and girls, Murillo: The Self Portraits, which isn’t really my thing, and Tacita Dean: Still Life, which I enjoyed marginally more than her NPG show!

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Opera

It wasn’t long into Semiramide at Covent Garden that I realised that I don’t really like Rossini’s brand of plinky-plonk music with frilly bits! I was lured by favourite mezzo Joyce DiDonato, but even her presence, and other fine singing and playing, couldn’t lure me back after the interval to this misguided production and more plinky-plonk music! 1h50m was enough, another 1h30m was beyond me.

Classical Music

Mezzo Cecilia Bartoli & Cellist Sol Gabetta, accompanied by the latter’s brother’s wonderful 18-piece ensemble, gave a recital at the Barbican Hall to promote their new CD. Though I admired the artistry, and thought the pairing worked well most of the time, I wasn’t that keen on the content or order of the programme, I’m afraid.

Britten Sinfonia put together two excellent but rarely performed choral pieces with a world premiere for orchestra to make a lovely evening at the Barbican Hall. Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms links it to his centenary and it seemed almost new here. Vaughn Williams Dona nobis pacem showed off the talents of the Choir of King’s College even more, with two wonderful soloists, Ailish Tynan and Neal Davies. I like seeing world premieres and Emma-Ruth Richards’ Sciamachy was an interesting new piece that deserves further hearing.

The LSO & LSC let their hair down in style at the Barbican with a concert version of Bernstein’s musical Wonderful Town under Simon Rattle no less. You rarely hear a musical score played and sung so well, but they has fun with it too, taking the Act I conga finale through the audience, and again as an encore, this time collecting people along the way. I don’t always like opera singers doing musicals, but those here largely avoided the operatic frills. It was paired with Bernstein’s very different 2nd symphony, an inspired idea which worked brilliantly.

Film

My initial instinct not to see Murder on the Orient Express was proved correct as I found it slow and rather dull and unengaging, despite the nice tongue-in-cheek style and idiosyncratic camera angles.

The Florida Project was slow to grab me, but grab me it did, with its documentary-like examination of the US underclass, and it has some of the best child acting I’ve ever seen.

I enjoyed Star Wars: The Last Jedi more than the previous instalment, partly because I didn’t see it in 3D and partly because it was more balanced between story and spectacle, working at an emotional level too.

Art

A disappointing afternoon at Tate Britain started with Impressionists in London which should really be titled 19th Century French artists in exile in London, because a lot weren’t impressionists (the term no doubt chosen to sell the show) and a lot weren’t of London. Not very well curated, I forgave it for a room of eight Monet London pictures brought together from eight different collections. Upstairs, Rachel Whiteread proved to be a one trick pony – a giant room of casts in concrete or resin. More is less….a lot less. We went on to the new V&A galleries for Opera: Passion, Power & Politics which redeemed the afternoon, an opera-lovers treat accompanied by gorgeous music which changed as you walked through. Lovely.

A wonderful morning at NPG followed the disappointing afternoon, with the revelatory Cezanne Portraits, from the man who I didn’t know did portraits, and the ever wonderful Taylor Wessing Photography Prize exhibition, better every year. After lunch, on to Every Thing at Once, a big exhibition of modern art installations and sculptures on three floors of an office block they are taking forever to renovate at 180 Strand. There was the usual tosh, but pieces by the likes of Anish Kapoor and Ai Wei Wei and the bonus of four other full room installations, two of which were terrific, made it a worthwhile visit.

Tove Jansson was a Finnish painter-turned-illustrator, most famous for creating the Moomins, and her retrospective exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery was fascinating. I could have done with more paintings, but she didn’t paint many after she turned illustrator!

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Opera

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

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

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

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

Classical Music

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

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

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

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

Contemporary Music

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

Film

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

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

Dance

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

Art

A lot to catch up on…..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Contemporary Music

Maria Friedman’s Bernstein / Sondheim cabaret at Brasserie Zedel, with her terrific pianist Jason Carr, was lovely. In addition to a great selection of songs, there were some great anecdotes. It was a new venue for me, which might well become a regular one.

The collaboration of favourite Malian Kora player Toumani Diabate and some Flamenco group I’ve never heard of was another of those punts at the Barbican Hall that paid back in abundance. They had no way of communicating with each other, no common language, but the skill was extraordinary and the sound uplifting and joyful.

Opera

Thomas Ades’ new opera Exterminating Angel at Covent Garden was musically challenging (as most modern operas are) but I got into it after a while. The orchestration was extraordinary and the ensemble of singers absolutely premier league. It’s based on a surrealist film by Louis Bunuel and it was, well, surreal, including live sheep on stage, who had done their business before it even started!

Ravi Shankar’s unfinished opera Sukanya, based on a section of the epic tale Mahabharata, got its world premiere on a short UK tour which I caught at the Royal Festival Hall. A real east meets west affair with the London Philharmonic & opera singers and Indian musicians & dancers, I rather liked it. It was the second of three occasions in six days that I saw the projection work of 59 Productions. It was lovely to be in a minority, with a largely Asian audience you never see at opera, though some of their behaviour was challenging!

Classical Music

The English Concert’s Ariodante at the Barbican Hall had lost two of its singers before the event, including personal favourite and star turn Joyce DiDonato. Despite this, it was a treat and Alice Coote rose to the challenge of replacing DiDonato in the title role.

On a visit to Iceland, I had the opportunity to attend a concert at their spectacular new(ish) Reykjavik concert hall Harpa, in which the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra played Brahms Violin Concerto, with Alina Ibragimova, and Shostakovich 5th Symphony, and jolly good it was too. The BA fiasco at Terminal 5, however, meant I returned too late for the LSO / Haitink concert of Bruckner’s Te Deum & 9th Symphony.

I like the originality, populism, informality and showmanship of Eric Whiteacre and his concert with the RPO was another good example of this. Mostly choral, with the terrific City of London Choir, they filled the RAH with sound (though sadly not the seats).

Dance

Northern Ballet‘s Casanova packed in a bit too much story for a dance piece to handle, but it looked gorgeous and I warmed to the film-style score. You could tell it was the choreographer’s first full length ballet, and the composer’s, and the scenario writer’s…..but an original dance theatre piece nonetheless, and another enjoyable visit to Sadler’s Wells Theatre.

Film

I was in the mood for escapist fun, and I thought Mindhorn was a hoot, with a fine British cast, an original story and some great views of the Isle of Man!

Woody Harrelson’s Lost in London is the first ever ‘live’ film and it’s a rather impressive achievement, though I didn’t see it live. It’s also impressive that he was prepared to tell a 15-year-old true story that doesn’t exactly make him look good!

Art

The annual Deutshe Borse Photography Prize at the Photographers Gallery breaks new ground again with brilliant B&W portraits, a story of death in photographs and items, stunning silver gelatine B&W landscapes and a room of both film and slide shows. Downstairs, there are fantastic 50’s / 60’s street life B&W photos by Roger Mayne and a five-screen slideshow of the British at play. What a treat!

A wonderful, contrasting pair of exhibitions at the NPG. Howard Hodgkin Absent Friends was great once you stopped thinking of it as a portrait exhibition. They are abstractions based on his own feelings and memories of the subjects so they mean nothing to anyone else, but they are colourful and often beautiful. The pairing of photographs, mostly self-portraits, by contemporary artist Gillian Wearing and early 20th century French artist Claude Cahun was inspired. Though the latter’s B&W pictures were small and a strain on the eyes, the former’s were big and often spooky. Wearing’s family album and future portrait speculations were stunning.

I visited and much admired the controversial Eric Gill The Body exhibition at Ditchling Museum of Art & Craft. I’m not sure allegations of paedophilia since his death should mean we avoid the art he made in life, however distasteful his actions might have been. It was my first visit to this lovely little museum and the lovely Sussex Downs village in which it sits.

After abandoning one visit because of the weather, I eventually made it to For the Birds as part of Brighton Festival. It’s a highly original night-time walk through sound and light installations in the woods on Sussex Downs, all of which are about birds. A bit exhausting at the end of a long day, but worth the effort.

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