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Opera

I managed to catch an opera during a visit to Brno in the Czech Republic, a rarely performed Dvorak work called The Devil & Kate. They consider it a children’s show there, so it was an early start and was full of (well behaved) kids. I liked the music, but the story was a bit weak and the performers didn’t seem to have their heart in it. Still, £11 for the best seat in the house!

The Royal Academy of Music’s production of Massenet’s Cherubin was terrific, with sky high musical standards – some stunning soloists and a great chorus and orchestra. Any opera house would be proud to have a production this good in their repertoire, yet here it was at a conservatoire!.

Classical Music

The LSO invited American conductor Andre Thomas and his pianist, soprano & baritone to lead a Gospel evening which included a Mass he composed, with traditional spirituals on either side. With 450 singers, 90% of them in community choirs, overflowing into the front third of the Barbican Hall stalls, it was rousing, but it had its gentle moments too, notably a beautiful unaccompanied soprano solo of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Great to see one of the world’s top orchestras extending itself in this way.

Another lunchtime concert at RAM, this time their Chamber Orchestra conducted by Trevor Pinnock in a lovely combination of Ravel and Mozart. I so love these little gems.

Trying to rescue an afternoon after a cancelled theatre matinee, we decided on a wander along the south bank of the Thames, starting by popping in to Southwark Cathedral where we caught the last half of a delightful concert by Wake Forest University Concert Choir. Our half seemed to be the more interesting selection, five secular works. Lovely.

The LSO were on fine form at the Barbican yet again, with a pairing of Britten’s Violin Concerto, superbly played by Norwegian Vilde Frang, which I was hearing for the first time, and Vaughan Williams uncharacteristically dark 6th Symphony, which I have heard before but it felt like the first time. The curtain-raiser of VW’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis completed a superb programme brilliantly played. Antonio Pappano thanked us for coming to support them, acknowledging the many seats clearly vacant due to Coronavirus fears. This had somehow added an air of foreboding and melancholy. It turned out to be my last dose of culture, excluding art, before lockdown.

Dance

We’ve been inundated with juke box musicals, but the dancical, which followed at the beginning of this century with Contact and Moving Out, never really took off. Well, Message in a Bottle, hip hop dance to the music of Sting at the Peacock Theatre certainly did. The twenty-six songs, many re-recorded by him with the help of Hamilton’s Alex Lacamoire, sounded great. The refugee narrative worked well, thanks to playwright Lolita Chakrabarti’s dramaturgy. Kate Prince’s choreography was thrilling, often taking your breath away. Now to see the man again in six months’ time…..hopefully.

Film

I enjoyed Military Wives, even though I blubbed through a lot of it! I was however puzzled and a bit upset by the fact they wiped Gareth Malone and The Choir documentary series out of the story altogether. It felt like changing history to me.

I like and admire films that expose injustice and Dark Water was a fine one, though embarrassingly close to home for someone who once worked in the chemical industry. A lack of law suits against the film suggest its story is true, so shame on you DuPont.

Art

Masculinities: liberation through photography at the Barbican Art Gallery had some interesting photos, but I’m not sure what the point of it was. It was vast and varied, but it was one of those exhibitions you go to because it’s free for members; if you’d paid, you’d be even less satisfied.

At Borough Market, I popped in to see Picturing Britain, an exhibition of photographs about the poor and those working with them. It was a bit small and the space didn’t really do them justice, I’m afraid.

On a visit to Oxford I went to the Ashmolean Museum to see Young Rembrandt, which focused mostly on pictures from his late teens / early twenties, much of it drawings. It was a stunning body of work and a way more satisfying exhibition than the recent Rembrandt’s Light at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

On the day before the lockdown, I decided to do an art binge of exhibitions I didn’t want to miss, starting with Aubrey Beardsley at Tate Britain which was brilliant, and an astonishing body of work by a man who only lived until he was 25. It was easier to get social distance in the gallery than any shop, workplace or school so I continued by travelling on the Tate to Tate boat (at one point the only passenger) to see Andy Warhol at Tate Modern. I’ve seen a lot of his work, including visiting his museum in Pittsburgh, but there were still things new to me. Next stop was the Royal Academy of Arts to be introduced to a new artist once again, Belgian Leon Spilliaert, whose exhibition was particularly diverse and well worth catching. The final stop was a double-dip at the NPG, staring with David Hockney’s Portraits. Again, I’m glad I caught them, but there were only really three or four subjects in addition to a lot of self-portraits which made it a touch monotonous, though his diverse styles were indeed fascinating. Finally, a retro treat in Cecil Beaton’s photographs, most from the golden age of the mid-20th century, mostly black and white. I was exhausted but satisfied. It’ll be a long time before I see a fraction of what I saw on that day.

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The Rest of November

Contemporary Music

I saw her several times with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, but her concert at the Anvil Basingstoke was the first time I saw Rhiannon Giddens without them, but with Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi. It was an eclectic selection, consummate musicianship and great sound / acoustics. She also engages with her audience, so it becomes an evening with her.

Opera

The rarely staged Haydn opera La Fedelta Premiata was given a brilliant production at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. It was a touch long but it was an absolute hoot, and the standard of singing and playing, and the production values, were sky high. As good as anything I’ve seen in an opera house recently, and better than most.

Having fallen out of love with ENO I didn’t go to see Akhenaten, so I went to the Met Live relay of the same production, which was brilliant. I ‘got’ the music better than when I first saw it decades ago, when I didn’t even realise there were no violins in the orchestra! The juggling synchronised with the music was inspired and the costumes were extraordinary, though I did find two long intervals (with Joyce DiDonato’s overly sycophantic interviews) spoilt the dramatic flow, but producer Phelim McDermott is a magician nonetheless.

Like the proverbial bus, two Haydn operas came along this month at two different ‘conservatoires’, with the second one – Il Mondo Della Luna – at the Royal College of Music was another absolute hoot. Brilliantly designed and choreographed, they got every ounce of comedy out of it, and more, and both the singing and playing was glorious; perhaps the best I’ve heard from the RCM Orchestra

The best staged performance of Britten’s Peter Grimes I’ve seen was on the beach in Aldeburgh during his centenary year, but the best musically was the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under Edward Gardner, with Stuart Skelton as  Grimes, at the Edinburgh Festival in 2017, so I pounced when I heard they were going to reprise it at the Royal Festival Hall and it was just as wonderful. The orchestra, four choruses and another eleven fine soloists delivered musical perfection and the RFH audience erupted as the Usher Hall one had.

Classical Music

Another fine lunchtime concert with the Royal Academy SO under Robert Trevino. I enjoyed Igor Stravinsky’s fascinating dance music Agon, which was new to me, but it was a stunning performance of the much heard Elgar’s Enigma Variations that blew me away. The talent is extraordinary and Trevino is clearly very nurturing.

The Philharmonia Orchestra played William Walton’s complete score for Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film of Henry V synchronised with a screening of a restored print at the Royal Festival Hall, helped by Crouch End Festival Chorus, and it was brilliant. Its ages since I saw a film with live music and I’d forgotten how good it can be.

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas chose Berlioz monumental Romeo & Juliet choral symphony for the 50th anniversary of his first concert with them and the LSO and LSC rose to the occasion, filling the Barbican Hall with a glorious sound.

Tilson Thomas’ celebrations continued at the Barbican with one of the LSO’s ‘Half Six Fix’ series, one hour early evening concerts with digital programmes and illustrated introductions by the conductor. This was insightful, and Prokofiev’s 5th was thrillingly played.

A revisit to Beloved Clara, one of Lucy Parham’s ‘composer portraits’, at Milton Court proved very rewarding. The fifteen piano pieces are interspersed with readings from the letters of Robert & Clara Schumann and their friend Johannes Brahms, by Dame Harriet Walter and Simon Russell Beale no less. Civilised entertainment, and ultimately very moving.

I love single composer evenings and it was great to hear the very animated Doric String Quartet give all three of Britten’s quartets together. The third references his opera Death in Venice which I will be seeing next month (and visiting the city for Christmas and seeing the play in April!). These are challenging works, but their musicianship was extraordinary and the usually reserved Wigmore Hall audience cheered. One of the best chamber recitals I’ve ever been to.

Back at the Royal Academy of Music, where my classical month stared, Mark Elder conducted their Symphony Orchestra in a Berlioz programme which included two rarities. They sounded great, as ever, and it was good to see personal favourite Elder again after two concerts he was too unwell to conduct.

Film

Ken Loach brought shame on our benefits system so effectively in I, Daniel Blake, and now he does the same to the gig economy in Sorry We Missed You, more specifically parcel delivery and care in the home. These are hard films to watch, but they have to be seen. Campaigning film-making at its best.

I enjoyed The Good Liar, though with all its twists and turns it oddly left me wishing I’d read the book. In many ways it’s an old-fashioned film, but there’s nothing wrong with that and it does have two national treasures, though Ian McKellen playing a man pretending to be someone else resulted in something a bit odd.

Art

I became an instant fan of Lisa Brice when I saw her small exhibition at Tate Britain last year, and this was confirmed by her selling exhibition at Stephen Friedman Gallery. Again, it’s mostly semi-clad women smoking (!) but the work is extraordinarily original and mesmerising. Up the road at Sadie Coles HQ, I was less enamoured with Dutch artist Co Westerik’s body and landscape. It was clearly technically accomplished, but I found a lot of it a bit disturbing.

Though there were some lovely pictures and objects, the British Museum’s Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art was one of those exhibitions where they took a chunk of their collection, added a few loan items, and made it into something you pay to see. In the print gallery upstairs there was a better (free) show of drawings by 20th century German artist Kathe Kollwitz, who I’d never heard of but whose work in Portrait of the artist bowled me over.

I was a bit surprised that The House of Illustration was five years old as I’d never heard of it, but Made in Cuba: Cold War Graphic Art is an excellent exhibition that puts it on the map for me. They also had a lovely small display of Quentin Blake work-in-progress to add a lighter touch.

One of my gallery wanders brought rich rewards, starting with Peter Doig, back on form at Michael Werner after a disappointing selection at the same gallery a while back, continuing with Grayson Perry’s brilliant new work on a theme of inequality at Victoria Miro, on to the Photographer’s Gallery for the excellent Shot in Soho and the quirky Feast for the Eyes – The Story of Food in Photography and ending with three stunning light, video and sound installations Other Places at 180 The Strand. I am so lucky to live in this city. All of this cost £2.50!

At the Guildhall Art Gallery, they’d assembled an eclectic selection of paintings of London spanning 500 or more years for Architecture of London. From Canaletto to contemporary works, from cityscapes to back gardens, I loved it.

I didn’t think the Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize exhibition at the NPG was as good this year, the selection seeming more pointed and quirky. While I was there, though, I caught the rest of Elizabeth Peyton’s portraits that they’d hung with the Tudors, Stuarts, Elizabethans and Victorians, which was a brilliant idea, and another twenty excellent works to see by this great new find (for me).

The Barbican Art Gallery’s exhibitions are not always as good as Into the Night: Cabarets & Clubs in Modern Art. It featured cabarets & clubs spanning eighty years in twelve cities in Europe, Latin America, Africa, USA and the Middle East and included four recreations as well as pictures, photographs and objects. I thought it was absolutely fascinating. In the Curve Gallery downstairs, Trevor Paglen has covered the walls with 30,000 photographs drawn from the ImageNet database of many millions by word searching, often resulting in surprising images. It’s called From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ and I thought it was also fascinating.

The National Gallery was also at its best with the Gaugin Portraits exhibition, really well curated and lit with an excellent accompanying film. The interpretation of ‘Portraits’ was sometimes a bit loose, but justified. A real one-off.

Revisiting the Sir John Soane Museum reminded me how wonderous it is, though I was there specifically to see Hogarth: Place & Progress which brings all of his series paintings and engravings together for the first time. I loved it, though after I’d left I realised that, in the maze that the building is, I missed two rooms, so I’ll have to go back!

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Contemporary Music

Quercus is an occasional folk-jazz fusion project by singer June Tabor, pianist Huw Warren and saxophonist Ian Bellamy and their concert at King’s Place was an eclectic if melancholic treat. We even had a beautiful rendition of George Butterworth’s setting of one of E. A .Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad poems, which I’ve only ever heard in a classical song setting.

Opera

I have a higher tolerance of modern opera than anyone I know and I’ve seen a Gerald Barry opera before (which I admired rather than loved) but I’m afraid the revival of his 30-year-old debut The Intelligence Park at Covent Gardens’s Linbury Studio bored the pants off me and you’d have had to pay me a lot to return after the interval. The convoluted story was deeply uninteresting and the music relentlessly tuneless. Modern operas rarely get a second outing; I’m puzzled as to why this one did.

The October pairing by WNO at the WMC in Cardiff was terrific – a revival of outgoing AD David Poutney’s 40-year-old production of the now 100-year-old The Cunning Little Vixen, as fresh as its first outing with the late Maria Bjornson’s designs proving timeless, and a brand new beautifully sung and played production of Carmen with a very edgy contemporary aesthetic which may well last as long. Another weekend treat in Cardiff.

A freebie at ENO took me to Emma Rice’s Orpheus in the Underworld. In truth, I’m not a fan of Offenbach’s operetta, or operetta in general come to that, but it was fresh and funny and featured a cast of old timers including Willard White, Anne-Marie Owens, Judith Howarth and Alan Oke, all of whom it was good to see again. There were lots of youngsters in the audience who seemed to find it fun, so maybe a good introduction for them. Glad I saw it, but also glad I didn’t pay £125 for my stalls seat!

I was at first in two minds about Glyndebourne Touring Opera’s production of Handel’s Rinaldo, a very radical staging where the crusades it depicts become a schoolboy dream, but it proved to be great fun and the singing and playing were beautiful, so I succumbed.

Classical Music

I enjoyed Elgar’s oratorio The Kingdom in Edinburgh a couple of months ago, but I enjoyed its companion piece The Apostles even more at the RFH. I think it’s a better work, but the combination of the London Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus with the BBC Symphony Chorus, nine students from the RCM and six brilliant British soloists produced something extraordinarily beautiful, with moments of sheer elation.

Dance

I struggled with the first part of South African choreographer Dada Masilo’s Giselle at Sadler’s Wells, but found the second half mesmerising. Sadly, the former was twice as long as the latter, so the evening wasn’t really satisfying enough.

Film

I very much liked Judy, partly because it was almost entirely about her time in London at the end of her career. Renee Zellweger was superb.

There’s a really meaty satire to be made about hapless terrorists and incompetent security agencies but The Day Will Come was too weak and thin to be it. Has Chris Morris gone off the boil?

Official Secrets is a superb investigative film in the mould of All the Presidents Men and Spotlight and the cast is a Who’s Who of the finest British actors. I loved it.

I also loved the latest Shaun the Sheep film Farmageddon. I have more fun at these, and the Paddington films, than any film for grown-ups!

Art

I was surprised at how much I liked Lucien Freud’s Self-portraits at the Royal Academy. I think it was the diversity of styles over more than sixty years as much as the technical quality and aesthetic appeal.

Two treats at the NPG, the biggest of which was Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, an exhibition featuring a dozen female artists, models, relatives and muses who worked with the likes of Millais, Rosetti, Burne-Jones et al. A great idea very well executed. In the galleries next door I was introduced to Elizabeth Peyton and her lovely, original contemporary portraits. A real find.

The annual Koestler Arts exhibition of art by those in the criminal justice system at the Southbank Centre showcased some extraordinarily talented artists this year. I was tempted by quite a few pictures, but I remembered my lack of wall space in time!

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Another visit to Masterpiece London, an extraordinary art and antique fair with museum quality exhibits in a stunning temporary structure in Chelsea. This year’s art crop included Canaletto, Picasso, Chagall, Warhol and Banksy, all for sale. It’s hard to believe people come to a marquee, albeit a luxury one, to buy things like this, but they do.

I didn’t think the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition lived up to recent years, but the bonus was seeing an excellent painting of a friend, and it’s always worth a punt. Upstairs, Painter of Disquiet, an exhibition by relatively unknown late 19th century Swiss-French painter Felix Vallotton, proved a treat. An extraordinarily diverse range of subjects and styles, but all rather lovely.

I love seeing the work of artists I’ve never heard of, and after my second time at Van Gogh & Britain at Tate Britain, I took in the Frank Bowling retrospective. Not all of his experiments with paint caught my imagination, but much did, so he was a welcome find.

The Michael Rakowitz exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery was more interesting than aesthetically pleasing. The best installation linked the break-up of The Beatles with events in the Middle East at that time and included footage of them discussing playing live again, possibly in North African amphitheatres. They ended up playing on the Apple building roof, of course, and the installation included film of a recreation of that on a Jerusalem rooftop!

Two treats at the NPG starting with the queen of the selfie, Cindy Sherman, who only photographs herself, but in all sorts of guises, mostly satirising society and fashion. Sometimes spooky, but strangely compelling. I followed this with the BP Portrait Award exhibition, which is of an astonishingly high standard this year.

Lee Krasner at the Barbican Art Gallery proves she was much more than Jackson Pollock’s wife, having lived her life in his shadow. The abstracts weren’t all to my taste, but it was a comprehensive and worthwhile retrospective.

The AI: more than human exhibition at the Barbican was a bit hit-and-miss. In the first part, the background, in The Curve Gallery, there was too much in a small space with too many people, but some of the interactive stuff, like the all-around projections in The Pit, were great – and the cocktail making robots were huge fun.

Beyond the Road at the Saatchi was a very creative immersive exhibition which combined art, film, sound, light and original music to create a hugely atmospheric space to explore. Two of the Punchdrunk boys and musician James Lavelle were behind it. Whilst there I took in two small exhibitions by Chinese artist Mao Jianhua and Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi, both interesting, but neither particularly striking.

Initially I thought my first visit to the Zabludowicz Collection for Rachel Rossin’s video & VR work Stalking the Trace was going to be another of Time Out’s wild goose chases, but there was also a quirky mixed show and an artist showcase and the converted chapel proved to be an interesting space for art.

Cutting Edge: Modernist British Printmaking at Dulwich Picture Gallery was simply stunning. The work of people from the Grosvenor School of Art in the 1920s-40s, there wasn’t one item that didn’t please in some way. One of the best exhibitions of the year in what is fast becoming one of my favourite galleries.

Manga at the British Museum surprised me. Its traditions go back to the 19th century, and influences beyond that, and the BM has been collecting it for 10 years. It’s a very broad review, very informative, a real showcase for the skills of its proponents.

Kiss My Genders at the Hayward Gallery sets out to explore gender fluidity but goes off-piste quite a bit. It’s way off-the-wall and only occasionally engaging. In the Project Space at the same venue, Hicham Berrada’s Dreamscapes were rather fascinating, using scientific processes like chemical reactions to create art.

A visit to the newly, beautifully restored Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing was a double treat because of the Anish Kapoor exhibition, 10 new ‘mirror’ works, in their gallery next door to the house, which itself is a peach of classical architecture and design. To justify the long schlep West, I also visited the Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner, also a double treat with a small exhibition of Tim Lewis’ automata, Post Nature, alongside the small permanent exhibition of Heath Robinson’s work and displays about him and his family.

My companion described the V&A’s Food: Bigger than the Plate exhibition as a bit like a school project. It certainly started out like that, but there were interesting sections on recycling and sustainability, a terrific silent movie showing mass food production and a tasting bar where they made you something on the basis of the three words you chose from the fifteen available, so worth a visit, if not wholly successful.

A fascinating triple bill at Tate Modern, starting with the playful Olafur Eliasson retrospective In Real Life. Coloured shadows, a 13 metre tunnel of haze and colour, a wall of lichen and all sorts of reflective stuff. Great fun. Natalia Goncharova’s retrospective proved how diverse her paintings are, both in terms of style and subject, and how beautiful her use of colour. The ballet sets and costumes were a bonus. Takis: Sculptor of Magnetism, Light & Sound was just that, mostly metal pieces that moved or made sounds which I liked more than I thought I was going to. All three added up to a bit of a quirky art fest.

I went into town to take in two exhibitions, but as is often the case walking between galleries in Mayfair leads you into others – sometimes successfully, sometimes not. My first planned destination was Gagosian for Francis Bacon: Couplings, fourteen double-figure paintings. I felt it was just more Bacon, with the curatorial coupling idea adding nothing. The first distraction, at Halcyon, was Bob Dylan’s surprisingly good paintings of American life, painted whilst on tour. I’m sure they wouldn’t get such a showcase if he wasn’t Bob Dylan, but he is a talented painter. The less said about his gates made of recycled iron items the better, though. At Camden Arts Centre’s pop-up in Cork Street, I wandered into Time Out recommended Wong Ping: Heart Digger, which is a combination of subtitled Chinese animations and inflatables; I yawned a lot, but the youngsters seemed to enjoy bouncing on the inflatables. Art. My second planned destination was the treat of the day. Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946) is virtually unknown here, but when you see her sixty-five pictures at the Royal Academy you can’t help wondering why. Perhaps the fact her work changed and evolved meant she didn’t have one style, at a time when artists were known for and by their style. Mostly portraits, including a whole room of seventeen self-portraits spanning sixty years of both her ageing and her art, I found it captivating. Popping into Pace, a commercial gallery in the RA building, passed five minutes just by the walk through, as there was little need to stop and look at the mainly white ‘abstractions’ of At the Edge of Things: Baer, Corse, Martin, three artists I don’t think I’ve seen before and have little desire to see again.

I’d never heard of the BJP (British Journal of Photography) Award, or been to the T J Boulting Gallery in Fitzrovia, and it was Time Out again that sent me to see this year’s winning project, Jack Latham’s Parliament of Owls. It tells the story of the highly secretive Bohemian Club’s summer camp in Northern California, through photos from the outside. Its members have included nine presidents – five republican ones from the last fifty years! – and it’s a magnet for conspiracy theorists. The photos are well taken ones of dull places and subjects, but I did get caught up in the story.

At the Serpentine Galleries, the Faith Ringgold retrospective was a brilliantly uncompromising selection of paintings, quilts and embroideries which seemed to shout ‘black lives matter’, even though most were made well before that phrase came into general use. Luchita Hurtado: I Live I Die I Will Be Reborn was less fascinating, but with enough interesting pictures to make the short detour worthwhile

The annual Freize open air sculpture show in Regent’s Park was way better than last year, with quite a lot of treats amongst its 20 or so sculptures. Particularly enjoyable on a sunny afternoon in the park.

I’ve seen a lot of Dale Chihuly‘s glass works in the US (Denver, Tacoma & Seattle), at a selling exhibition in London, and once before at Kew Gardens. This time, though, it was at night walking through the gardens and in one of the greenhouses, where live music accompanied them. A lovely experience, though now I need to see them in daylight to appreciate the difference. A great way to end my summer of art in London.

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Classical Music

It’s baffling that Hubert Parry’s oratorio Judith hasn’t been performed in London for 130 years. How many Messiah’s and Passion’s Mark and John have we had since then? The London English Song Festival made a fine job of a demanding work to a sadly sparse Royal Festival Hall audience. It really ought to be at The Proms!

Handel’s Semele at the Barbican was a truly transatlantic affair, with British period chamber orchestra The English Concert, New York’s Clarion Choir and three soloists from each side of the pond, and it was terrific, a truly uplifting evening.

I’m a lover of Handel, but I didn’t even know there was such a thing as Handel’s Brockes-Passion. It’s so rarely performed, and it’s taken the Academy of Ancient Music over a year to produce a performing edition, so there was much anticipation in the audience of Handelians at the Barbican on Good Friday 300 years after it was first performed. They lived up to it, delivering a finely played and sung performance of this underrated work. Soprano Elizabeth Watts was particularly wonderful.

Contemporary Music

I was taken to see The Upbeat Beatles tribute band at Melton Theatre as a surprise. Though the production values (costumes and video projections) were a bit amateur, the musicianship was excellent and you couldn’t help being swept away by the nostalgia of listening to the best back catalogue of any band ever.

Joe Jackson’s London Palladium concert celebrated his four decades in music by focusing on five albums – one from each decade, including his first and his new one. It was good to hear hits alongside some neglected pieces and some new ones. His band still includes brilliant bassist Graham Maby – they’ve worked together for 46 years, in what must be one of the longest lasting musical partnerships ever – with a terrific new guitarist and drummer making it one of the tightest bands I’ve ever heard; positively thrilling.

I think I’m going to have to abandon my search for a thoroughly satisfying Rufus Wainwright concert. I’ve only regretted one of the last seven, but there’s always something marring them, often too much messing around. This time it was song choice. He hasn’t released a new album for seven years, so he decided the tour, visiting the Royal Albert Hall, would celebrate his 20-year career by playing his 2nd album in full. That wasn’t a bad idea, but culling most of the rest from his first album was. The last two encores made you realise how much of the rest of his back catalogue you missed. No one album is without fault and the best songs are spread over all of them, so selecting two from seven is a flawed strategy, and an unnecessary interval a mistake!

Maria Friedman’s new cabaret show From the Heart at Brasserie Zedel showcased a very unpredictable and very personal selection of songs, benefiting from the intimacy of the Crazy Coqs room. Pianist Theo Jamieson is more than a match for her regular Jason Carr and she delivered what she promised – ‘From the Heart’ – ninety minutes with friends in her front room. Lovely.

Dance

I had to be talked into English National Ballet’s She Persisted at Sadler’s Wells, a triple-bill of ballets by and about women. They were brilliant – an exciting, original one about Frida Kahlo, a short very dramatic one about Nora from Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House (with Philip Glass the perfect accompaniment), and Pina Bausch’s thrilling 1975 version of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. After so many dance evenings of little over an hour, this was a real feast.

Comedy

I couldn’t resist the prospect of Rob Brydon in conversation with (or ‘probes’, as it was billed) Barry Humphries at the London Palladium. He’s 85 years old now and his anecdotes and stories take time, but he was outrageously and refreshingly politically incorrect it had me in floods of tears on a number of occasions. Two very funny people and two of my favourites.

Film

White Crow, about Rudolph Nureyev’s defection, was a good if not great film. I particularly enjoyed the cold war setting and style.

I’ve much admired how Jessie Buckley, runner-up in the TV casting of Nancy, has managed her career, putting it on hold to go to RADA, then working on stage and in both TV and films. She’s excellent in Wild Rose, a superb film about a wannabe Glaswegian country star, which uses both her acting and singing talents fully.

Art

A mammoth catch-up month!

Van Goch in Britain at Tate Britain is a brilliant exhibition, though the curatorial conceit is a bit dubious. I was very glad we entered as it opened and left the first room for last as we avoided the crowds, the biggest I’ve ever seen at an exhibition. Mike Nelson’s installation The Asset Strippers in the vast Duveen Gallery upstairs makes you think about the demise of our manufacturing base by filling the gallery with industrial items, but it isn’t particularly aesthetically appealing!

The Renaissance Nude at The Royal Academy exceeded my expectations, including a surprising number of works by real masters, though again too much religious subject matter for my liking. Philida Barlow’s three room exhibition of new work, Cul-de-sac, also at the RA, was hardly worth visiting for free, so I pity the non-members who had to fork out £12 for tosh, albeit monumentally large tosh.

The exhibition of Edward Munch drawings Love and Angst at the British Museum was way better than I was expecting and so much more than The Scream, though mostly just as dark! It effectively forms a frieze of his life of anxiety.

Two Temple Place is one of London’s most beautiful buildings, but it isn’t a great exhibition space, and John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing suffered from this in an exhibition that wasn’t particularly well curated either. I learnt a lot about him, though (included how opinionated he was), which made the trip worthwhile.

The Hayward Gallery had two very interesting but completely different exhibitions. Diane Arbus: In the Beginning featured a stunning selection of late 50’s / early 60’s B&W photos of New York life, with brilliant titles for the works. French-Algerian Kader Attia’s somewhat angry multi-media installations The Museum of Emotions were more challenging, and I felt I was being fed anti-colonialist propaganda. Still, a fascinating pairing and worth a visit.

At Tate Modern, another artist I’d never heard of, surrealist Dorothea Tanning. It turns out she was married to Max Ernst. Though many of the early works are somewhat derivative of more famous surrealists, they are great pictures. She moved on to a more impressionistic style and eventually soft sculpture, which is where she lost me. The less said about Franz West’s work, in the same gallery, the better, so I’ll just say ‘tosh’ again.

I’m not really one for fashion, but a visit to the V&A’s very theatrical Galliano exhibition a while back wowed me, so I decided to give Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams a go as its free for members. Whether you’re interested in frocks or not, the design and display of this show is spectacular. Being the first in at 10am helped, as my iPhone & I had every room to ourselves. It was probably a mistake going to Mary Quant straight after. Even though she did more than anyone to make fashion accessible, and her story is well told in the exhibition, it’s not in the same league in terms of elegance, beauty and craftsmanship.

At the Serpentine Galleries another double-bill, beginning with Emma Kunz – Visionary Drawings, or as I’d rather call them Obsessive Pendulum-Assisted Pictures, a bit like ones made with those geometric drawing kits you used to get as a kid. Hito Steyerl: Power Plants was more interesting, video’s created by some sort of artificial intelligence. The explanation hurt my brain, but they looked pretty. There were all sorts of other things associated with the work, including walks and an app, but I focused on what was on view in the gallery.

Late 19th / early 20th century Spanish artist Sorolla is another one new to me and for once the National Gallery exhibition lived up to its title Master of Light. I was blown away by the beauty of the pictures, 55 of them, mostly from fairly obscure galleries or private collections, which made it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Gorgeous.

At the NPG, Martin Parr’s quirky, colourful, brash documentary photos made me smile. He’s good at capturing the British at the seaside in particular, though part of me feels Only Human is a bit patronising, even unfair on his subjects, as if they were in a freak show, but most of the time I just smile! By complete contrast Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard & Oliver is a collection of finely crafted Elizabethan and Jacobean portraits, though it did strain your eyes, and having to wait for a magnifying glass (there weren’t enough) then space to see them, all became too tiresome for me.

The surprising thing about the Sony World Photography Prize exhibition at Somerset House is that the amateurs outshine the professionals, who seem to be following a path of contrived, staged photos that owe more to post-photography manipulation than the creative eye of the photographer. Still it’s good to see amateur, student and young photographer works shining.

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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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