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MUSIC

A musical feast this month! The contemporary concerts started with Martha Wainwright, who had spent the last two months at her premature baby’s hospital bedside before taking time out for a couple of intimate gigs at the Jazz Café, presumably because she was a bit stir crazy and needed to remind herself what she does when not breast feeding! I’d only seen her once before – at the outset of her solo career (with the now huge James Morrison playing solo as support!) so I wasn’t prepared for the extent to which she has developed her highly original and spellbinding vocal style; it was thrilling stuff. Just a few days later her mum, Kate McGarrigle died; her music with sister Anna made me smile so much; her death made me very sad.

‘Way to Blue’ was a homage to Nick Drake who died 35 years ago leaving only three albums. His songs were interpreted by Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside, The Soft Boys’ Robyn Hitchcock, Vashti Bunyan, Lisa Hannigan and the sons of Richard Thompson, Paul Simon and Ewan McColl & Peggy Seeger. Names new to me were Scott Matthews, Kirsty Almeida and Krystle Warren. The terrific band was led by Kate St John and included Danny Thompson, who played on all three Drake albums. Not everything worked, but there was much to enjoy. Lisa Hannigan stole the show with a stunning re-invention of a song, Black Eyed Dog, from a fourth album released posthumously many years later.

The Beggars Opera Reborn was an ‘impulsive buy’ which turned out to be a real treat. Charles Hazelwood put together three baroque musicians with folkies The Unthanks, the guitarist from Portishead, the bassist from Goldfrapp, a saxophonist, a drummer and a singer to re-interpret songs from John Gay’s 18th century ballad opera. Often the soprano, cello and lute played the songs as intended followed immediately by a re-interpretation. A wholly original and fascinating experience.

Imagined Village is a ‘project’ originated by Simon Emmerson and involving folkies Martin & Eliza Carthy and Chris Wood to take English folk songs and give them a world music spin. This second incarnation adds Indian instrumentation and electronica to great effect and it comes over better live than on record. An encore of Slade’s Cum On Feel the Noize re-invented as an old folk song was inspired.

The idea of a concert from both the London Adventist Chorale and the Swingle Singers in the final of the 1st London A Cappella Festival really appealed to me and it turned out to be another treat. The Chorale stuck to spirituals, sung delicately rather than shouted. The Swingles moved from Corelli to The Beatles via Bach and Mozart; they’ve added pop and rock to the classical-jazz cocktail and I found the eclectic set a very satisfying combination. Both groups paired for a couple of numbers which, though enjoyable, weren’t as good as either achieved on their own.

I was lucky enough to get a ticket for a recital by Russian soprano sensation Anna Netrebko & Russian baritone Dmitry Hvorostovsky, part of my plan to see a bunch of world class singers this year that have passed me by now that I no longer go to Covent Garden. I felt a bit cheated; including the encores, we got 5 arias each and 2 duets with quite a bit of orchestral fillers (for those in the top seats, it came to over £8 per song!). Still, they both sang wonderfully (though the audience – containing a lot of Russians! – were a bit uncritical and over-reverential).

I seem to be on a mission to hear every English song in the classical repertoire, so I had to go to see tenor James Gilcrest’s programme of English songs by Bliss Gurney, and Vaughan Williams with the Fitzwilliam Quartet. He isn’t a great tenor but he is a good interpreter of these songs and a string quartet backing made a refreshing change from the usual solo piano.

Friends have been raving about American mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato so her recital at Wigmore Hall beckoned. I wasn’t enamoured with the programme of Italian love songs, but her voice is beautiful (as is she) and she engages with the audience with a charm rarely seen in recitals. Just before she began Desdemona’s final aria from Rossini’s Otello a mobile phone rang in the audience. Quick as a flash, she said ‘It’s Otello; tell him I didn’t do it’. Priceless!

OPERA

I was so taken with La Boheme at the Cock Tavern that I gave them an immediate blog entry the day after I saw the show on 10th January! A couple of days later it was another LSO opera in concert; this time Richard Strauss’ Elektra. It wasn’t up to the earlier ones steered by Sir Colin Davies, but it was still worth a visit. The main problem was that such a dramatic opera doesn’t lend itself to a concert reading as well as other operas. Add to this a huge orchestra (not hiding in a pit, like a staged production) with a ‘loud’ conductor like Gergiev and you have a tendency to drown out vocals. American Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet made up for the lack of staging by acting her angst as Elektra and Angela Denoke sang beautifully as her sister.

FILM

At first, I found the non-linear nature of Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, a biographical film about Ian Dury, difficult to get into. It hops around rather a lot and blends bio drama with flashbacks, fantasy sequences and live performance. By the end though, it proved to be a very satisfying telling of an intriguing life.

I enjoyed Up in the Air, the style and look of which reminded me very much of Catch Me If You Can. George Clooney is a very believable outplacement consultant (who, in the US it seems, fire you as well as help you!) in love with the nomadic lifestyle and obsessed with airline, hotel and car hire loyalty programmes. Often funny, but moving and thought provoking too.

No Distance to Run starts as a record of Blur’s 2009 reunion, but becomes a much more interesting and surprisingly frank reflection on the band’s history. They each movingly give their different perspectives on the turbulence that beset the band, which makes the reunion and reconciliation all the more uplifting. The live footage proves they were the best band to emerge in the 90’s.

ART

Howard Hodgkin’s exhibition at Gagosian proved to be just seven small new pictures, but he’s a very special artist and four of them were lovely. At Chris Beetles small gallery (two floors of each of two small terraced houses) he’d packed in three exhibitions, all of which would be worth a visit on their own. British Photographers included Parkinson, Brandt, Beaton, Snowdon and O’Neill with the famous picture of Olivier as Archie Rice no less. Quentin Blake’s book illustrations were fun, as were a collection of other British Illustrators including Heath Robinson, Bateman and many more modern.

Maharaja at the V&A was a brilliantly curated review from powerful pre-colonial Indian kings through to powerless post-colonial Western-obsessed playboys. There were gorgeous paintings, furniture, ornaments and jewellery on show – more bling than at any other exhibition I’ve seen! Also at the V&A, a fascinating exhibition of new interactive digital art called Decode enabled you to change images by speaking, ‘paint’ with your body and have your photographic image projected and changed in slow motion following your movements; a great playground for boys who like toys, so my iPhone and I interacted appropriately.

Filled a gap between work and concert with a couple of small exhibitions at the NPG. Twiggy: A Life in Photographs was lovely – she’s so photogenic and has aged so gracefully; who’d have thought? The Observer’s Jane Brown, who I first saw at Kings Place a couple of months ago, also has a small exhibition of B&W photo portraits which were just as good as the more extensive Kings Place selection.

At the newly restored Whitechapel Gallery there is an exhibition of photographs from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh over 150 years called Where Three Dreams Cross which is far more interesting than it sounds. It features images from the Maharajas and colonial times with some striking contemporary pieces. Also at the Whitechapel are selections from the British Council collection, including a piece from my favourite sculptor Richard Wilson – this one a cross-section cut from a table football table!

COMEDY

I wasn’t sure how to categorise Barbershopera II, but I finally decided its comedy. It’s a rambling comic story sung through unaccompanied by three actor singers with minimal props and costumes. It had its moments and I have much admiration for the performers, but at 80 minutes, I’m afraid it was an overlong sketch.

OTHER

A visit with the Royal Academy Friends to Dr. Johnson’s House proved more interesting in learning about the man than the building. In a four-story town house, hidden behind Fleet Street and now surrounded by modern buildings, he compiled the first English dictionary c.250 years ago. I loved the second definition of Politician – ‘a man of artifice; one of deep contrivance’. Nothing changes.

What a busy month!

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MUSIC

Bryn Terfel showcased his new album ‘Bad Boys’ at the RFH. Part of me would have liked more opera arias and less numbers from musicals, and more of Bryn with less orchestral pieces, but in the end I was won over by the accessibility and populism he aims at and achieves and his rapport and warmth by interacting with the audience rather than standing mute and stiffly like most recitalists.

At King’s Place, two short concerts on the same evening were devoted to six of Britten’s rarer song cycles by six great young singers and pianist Martin Martineau and it proved to be one of those unexpected treats. Sadly, fewer than 200 people turned up, but it’s their loss.

I came late to Steve Earle but this is the fourth time I’ve seen him in as many years. Coinciding with his album in homage to Townes van Sandt, it was mostly Townes songs linked by some stories and anecdotes. It was a highly personal account of their relationship and I found it captivating; without question the best concert of the four.

I decided to give US retro folk-rockers The Decemberists a second chance after a disappointing concert a couple of years back and I was glad I did. The first half was their excellent new ‘concept’ album (wow, man, remember them?) Hazards of Love in its entirety and it worked brilliantly on stage. The second was a lighter collection of earlier material which sat well alongside the more earnest and serious first half.

OPERA & DANCE

L’assedio di Calais was another fine night at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, a rare Donizetti which creaks a bit, but has enough good music to make a revival worthwhile. This time it wasn’t the soloists that shone, but the fine chorus.

I’m only an occasional visitor to contemporary dance and was attracted to the Michael Clark Company’s programme by its music – Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and mostly Bowie – but I’m afraid until the last few pieces it left me rather cold. The sequence with Jean Genie and Aladdin sane, though, was terrific.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Cyrano de Bergerac was more dance drama than ballet, with a score by the prolific Carl Davies. It was rather ruined by a late start following evacuation of the theatre when the alarms went off; a cock-up on the diary front meant I had another commitment (too) soon after this, so I had to depart before the last act, leaving Amanda on her lonesome. I sort of enjoyed what I saw, but being incomplete it’s hardy satisfying.

I thought the ENO’s pairing of Bartok’s one-act opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle with Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring was inspired and both got a complete makeover. I didn’t think Bluebeard quite matched the intensity of their classic former production with Gwynne Howells (who Jeff spotted in the audience) and Sally Burgess and I didn’t entirely understand the interpretation of Rite (nothing new there then), but it was musically thrilling and visually fascinating.

FILM

An Education proved to be a delight. It’s got a nostalgic 60’s feel and a simple but satisfying story of how a young girl’s life changes when she’s swept away by an older man. It’s an auspicious debut from young Carey Mulligan and Rosamund Pike’s portrayal of the friend’s girlfriend is a real treat.

I was disappointed by the quirky satirical comedy The Men Who Stare at Goats. It was a great idea and there were some terrific performances (including another comic cameo gem from Kevin Spacey), but somehow it just didn’t work – I think because they didn’t push the absurd & surreal far enough.

ART

Beatles to Bowie at the NPG is a terrific review of the evolution of pop photography of the 60’s from old hands turning to pop photography to a new breed of pop photographers (many of whom went on the become mainstream themselves). It’s my decade, so suffice to say I was in my element. At the same venue, the Photographic Portrait Prize has such a high standard that I’m glad I didn’t have to choose the winners; inspirational stuff.

I was disappointed by the Ed Ruscha retrospective at the Hayward; I’m afraid I don’t really ‘get’ his paintings of words and it all seemed much ado about nothing and certainly not worthy of a major gallery show.

Bunker is an extraordinary painstaking recreation of a WWII bunker by a Polish artist in the curve space at the Barbican; the attention to detail is such that you soon feel you are exploring as historical space rather than an art installation.

Anish Kapoor’s major exhibition at the RA really has caught the public imagination and it was great to see so many kids and young people there. The mirror sculpture room is great fun. In another, large capsules of what looks like red play dough get fired from a cannon at the wall. A giant block of the same material which is around 10 ft high, 6 ft wide and 40 ft deep moves slowly on rails through five galleries, fitting the doorways between them perfectly; you can’t take your eyes off it. It really is a sculpture fest at the RA with another exhibition called Wild Thing bringing together Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska; I’d never heard of the latter, had seen a fair bit of Epstein, but it was Gill’s almost art deco work that was the real revelation for me.

A photographer I’d never heard of called Jane Brown had an exhibition of B&W portraits of the famous (mostly from the arts) at the King’s Place concert venue and it proved an excellent pre-concert and interval diversion. Taken mostly in the 60’s and 70’s, B&W suited both the period and the subjects.

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ART

A catch-up month!

Telling Tales is a small exhibition at the V&A where contemporary designers respond to three themes – forest glades, enchanted castles and heaven & hell – with narrative art / design works. It was quirky and intriguing, but I’m not sure I got the point! Radical Nature at the Barbican is an even more off-the-wall exhibition that seeks to marry architecture, art and nature. I’m afraid a lot of it went over my head! Walking in my Mind at the Hayward Gallery is an extraordinary exhibition. Ten artists have created installations that seek to show you what’s in their mind. From a kitsch Wendy House to cardboard & tape tunnels to a pink polka dot playground, each experience is unique. I’ve thought that a lot of things at the Hayward of late were excuses for exhibitions, but this is an exception.

The BP Portrait Prize Exhibition at the NPG is always worth a visit, but the standard this year is astonishing, even if there is a stylistic uniformity (realism). At the British Museum, I was captivated by Garden & Cosmos, an exhibition of the 17th – 19th century Indian ‘Jodhpur paintings’. They were mostly 2-dimensional but the vivid colours were simply gorgeous. The Waterhouse exhibition at the Royal Academy was a revelation. Though I love the Pre-Raphaelites, I knew little of Waterhouse which may be why I found this comprehensive retrospective absolutely spellbinding. At the same venue, the annual Summer Exhibition is the usual combination of impossible-to-see floor-to-ceiling minor works with some less crowded and more impressive rooms. This year they’ve added a video room, though there are too many people to make this work. My normal favourite is the architecture room and there was a lot of great stuff this year but Will Alsop’s preposterous idea of three shelves meant you couldn’t really see most of it!

Suits, in a disused Fire Station near Baker Street, is a series of three installations of men’s clothing and associated items, like coat hangers, in miniature and set out as shop displays and a laundry room. The execution and attention to detail are impeccable, but again I’m not sure what the point is! David Byrne’s installation Playing the Building at the Roundhouse is exactly what it says. An old organ has been linked to a series of pumps, motors and strikers attached to various parts of the building and when you hit a key, you get a sound and off you go. Great fun and it looks cool too. The Rags Media Collective from Delhi have created an installation at Frith Street Gallery (which is confusing as it isn’t in Frith Street!) with 27 clocks each representing a different city (like you often see in places like hotel foyers) but with words for feelings instead of numbers. In Buenos Aires it’s just after ecstasy and in Mexico it’s quarter past fatigue!

MUSIC

David Byrne must be the coolest 57-yr old on the planet (well, apart from me, obviously) and he proved at his Barbican concert as well as his aforementioned installation that he’s still a pioneer. Though the selection (taken from his collaborations with Eno) wouldn’t be my favourite David Byrne songs, the whole thing was such a great experience. The 4-piece band, 3 singers and 3 dancers were all dressed in white. The dancers interacted with the musicians (at one point one leapfrogged Byrne), the music was infectiously movable and the whole thing just made me smile. The atmosphere was electric and at the end (s) Byrne couldn’t stop smiling. It was recorded for DVD and you got the distinct feeling it may have been a landmark concert.

FILM

Moon is an impressive film debut by David Bowie’s son, but it’s not an altogether satisfying film. It’s original and intriguing, but fails to captivate and / or entertain enough to justify two hours of your time. I’d have been happy to come across it on TV, but a paid trip to the cinema; I’m not so sure.

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Opera

L’Amour de loin is a strange concoction by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho; a 12th century love story played out at a distance between France and Lybia. The music is hypnotic in a Debussy-like way and the staging by a Swiss Italian better known for circus spectacles by Cirque Eloize and Cirque du Soleil includes a lot of colour, light, and flying! I found the first half soporific and the second half slow. The staging is highly inventive, it looks gorgeous and I found the music soothing; but it’s not an entirely satisfying whole. Roderick Williams is superb, Faith Sherman makes an auspicious UK debut, but Joan Rogers was disappointing.

Art

The month started with a frustrating morning in the office, so I sneaked off to catch a handful of small gallery exhibitions. Bill Brandt’s photos were a mixed bunch – I liked the gritty street life but not the surreal nudes. Tracey Emin’s show of drawings (which, in truth, I only really popped into as it was on the way to the next gallery!) was a complete yawn. Howard Hodgkin’s giant colourful prints (£20k to £70k, if you’ve got some spare cash!) were lovely and I was surprised how well they compared with his paintings. David Hockney continues his Yorkshire landscape project with a series of lovely colourful digital prints that have as much impact as the paintings and the portraits they are shown with work well in the same medium.

A very nostalgic exhibition at the Cartoon Museum features cartoons of Margaret Thatcher by the usual suspects. It reminds you how much she divided people and invited vitriolic responses. Gerald Scarfe’s contributions are the best, but there’s a real range here and 15 or so years on it makes a fascinating show.

Bassline is a very atmospheric slide, sound and light installation in the Barbican Car Park 5, but whether it’s worth the lost revenue from an awful lot of parking spaces, I’m not sure. But it passed an interesting 20 minutes between a film and a play!

The Saatchi Gallery’s tour of the contemporary art world continues with Abstract America. This wasn’t as good as the earlier Chinese and Middle East exhibitions and the 10 rooms were rather overshadowed by 1 room of Korean contemporaries and an exhibition of photos by musician Bryan Adams. The Serpentine Gallery has a blockbuster on its hands with Jeff Koon’s Popeye Pictures. The busyness seems to have led the staff to turn into a Gestapo, reciting rules before you could enter. When inside, I found it talentless tacky tosh! It was much better outside, where the Summer Pavilion is a lovely structure by Japanese architects.

The annual Press Photographers exhibition in the NT foyer is great as usual. Covering everything from news to people at play, it has the capacity to bring a smile to your face and a tear to your eye.

Contemporary Music

Marianne Faithfull’s concert at The Royal Festival Hall was a success, as much because of the song selection, arrangements and wonderful band under MD Kate St John. She hasn’t been particularly prolific but she’s survived and it’s this that comes over most. She can’t really sing for toffee but her song interpretations are unique.

Rachel Unthank & The Bairns’ concert at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio was an absolute gem. The song selection hadn’t changed much since I last saw them around a year ago, but the venue, audience and significance of the evening (the lovely Steph’s last major concert with them) somehow combined to make it very special indeed.

Lucinda Williams’ concert was a strange affair. After a shaky start she threw a wobble three songs in, citing incessant photo taking as the reason, followed by the barrier in front of the stage and later nervousness (with an attempt to flatter us? by telling us this only happens in LA, NYC and London). A long period of ‘going through the motions’ with no audience engagement (not even a smile crossed her face) meant that she took too long to recover from this, effectively sabotaging her own concert. Her band (who had their own instrumental set as support) is terrific and she’s got some great songs, so the whole thing was such a shame. A whole concert turns on a small wobble!

Classical Music

My three-visits-in-five-days to the Proms started with a celebration of Cambridge University’s 800th anniversary. Once you’d ignored the rather obnoxious audience, it turned out to be a lovely programme including a world premiere and choral pieces by two other living composers. Simon Keenlyside was wonderful singing Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs and it was great to see conductor Andrew Davies (now mostly based in the US) again. The second was a fascinating East-meets-West programme of mostly Japanese and French 20th century music. In the final part, Debussy’s La Mer sat very comfortably alongside Hosokawa’s Cloud & Light even though there were 100 years and 6000 miles between them. The third was a programme of British 20th century music by three composers who dies within 4 months of each other 75 years ago this year. It included a rare outing for Holst’s Choral Symphony which sets Keats poems (and the first at the proms against the 90th for Elgar’s Enigma Variations!). I thought it was absolutely fascinating and cannot for the life of me understand why it is so neglected whilst his Planets is so over-exposed.

Film

Bruno was even more outrageous than I was expecting and there were many laughs and a lot of open mouth moments. I think it’s as good as Borat, but whether he’ll be able to come up with a third, I’m not so sure – I think the formula may have run its course. I decided to see the new Harry Potter at the IMAX in (partly) 3D as I’d so enjoyed Superman, Spiderman and an earlier Potter in the same way. It’s a terrific experience, but HP6 is a darker, sadder affair without the excitement of its predecessors. All the teenage stuff was funny though.

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OPERA

At the Guildhall School of Music & Drama there was a pairing of Martinu and  Rossini one-act comic operas. I love these Guildhall opera evenings – always value and often a treat. I wasn’t mad keen on the music of the Martinu though I liked the production and performances (particularly Nicky Spence). The Rossini, an inspired setting in a lap dancing club, was a hoot, with Spanish soprano Elena Sancho-Pereg giving a sensational vocal performance. Who needs Covent Garden when you can have as much fun as this for a sixth of the price.

Roberto Devereaux at Opera Holland Park made for a nice summer evening. There’s something formulaic about Donizetti’s operas, his obsession with setting British history is intriguing, and the result – assorted queens, dukes and duchesses emoting histrionically in Italian – is somewhat incongruous. Having said that, this is the perfect opera for OHP’s backdrop and it looks both attractive & authentic, it was played and sung beautifully and a good time was had by all. OHP is a summer must and this rare outing of this opera was very welcome.

James MacMillan’s opera Parthenogenesis (fatherless conception) is based on a 2nd World War tale about a woman whose conception is triggered by a bomb blast. It’s an intriguing story but it makes for a slight 50-minute opera, which I’m not sure is worthy of the huge resources the ROH have heaped upon it. It has some lovely atmospheric music and passionate performances, but designing in restricted views for those at the side (well, certainly on the left) is unnecessary, inconsiderate and unforgivable.

I’d been so looking forward to Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Royal College of Music. As soon as I saw there was no designer credit in the programme, I groaned…..and so it was; an opera set in a forest without a tree, bush, branch or even leaf in sight. It’s not easy to enjoy Britten’s magical music in such an unmagical setting. It didn’t help that the Britten Theatre, with the most uncomfortable seats, was hot, stuffy and airless.

 CLASSICAL MUSIC

Another concert in Julius Drake’s English song series at the Wigmore Hall; this time with soprano, mezzo, clarinet and piano! The programme combined rarer pieces and curiosities with the usual suspects (which is probably why it was so empty) so it was different but complimented the earlier concerts in the series. I’ve really enjoyed these.

The programme for the City of London Choir’s concert of rarely performed English choral music was inspired – two works by Vaughan Williams & Holst bookending pieces by Britten, Parry & Foulds – with the symmetry of a secular first half with piano and harp accompaniment and a scared unaccompanied second half. Despite my love of British music, all bar VW’s Mass in G was new to me and it was an absolute treat.

I love work which breaks out of the theatre or concert hall, and this year Spitalfields Festival invited five extraordinary musicians and four composers from the Royal Academy of Music to create music in the old Huguenot houses of Spitalfields. We visited five houses in 100 minutes and were given solo Baroque Cello, Tuba, Flute, Clarinet and Violin (with electronic soundscape). In addition to four new pieces (all for violin) they included a whole range of composers from Bach to Turnage and I though the whole experience was enthralling, with a walk around the much gentrified Spitalfields a real bonus.

My only visit to this year’s City of London Festival was for a chamber programme by the Hebrides Ensemble at the wonderful Stationers’ Hall. The programme of this year’s festival is 60º North, linking music from Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, St. Petersburg and the Scottish isles. Tonight’s programme had Sibelius, Shostakovich and Stravinsky plus three living Scots (or adopted Scots) Peter Maxwell Davies, James MacMillan and Judith Weir and a bonus from Iceland. It was inspired programming – challenging but thrilling – and the venue was terrific. I loved the way the organisers mingled with the punters over a (free) glass of wine in the interval. Bravo!

ART

The one-room exhibition of Picasso prints at the NG complements the main exhibition, but it was a mixed bag. Next door at the NPG there was a small but brilliant exhibition of photos of Bob Dylan’s famous 1966 tour. I never saw the tour, but it still felt nostalgic. Richard Long is an eccentric Bristolian who travels the world carrying out obsessive walks, creating art from nature. The trouble is, photos and word descriptions don’t do this justice and in this huge Tate Britain exhibition the one room of stone sculptures just isn’t enough to capture your imagination. Also at Tate Britain, BP Connections is a slim contemporary art exhibition but it does deliver one coup – a room of (seemingly) ethnic sculptures collected from around the world by the Chapman family. They turn out to be modern creations with hidden references to a hamburger chain, its character for kids and hamburgers themselves! The exhibition of actor Anthony Sher’s paintings at the NT is wonderful; he’s as good an artist as he is an actor. The portraits in this exhibition include his family, but it is largely made up of fellow actors. At the same venue, the 30th anniversary of Greenwich Printmakers is celebrated by a lovely exhibition which shows just how under-rated printmaking is. The exhibition is made up of a very eclectic selection, but its more hit than miss. I ventured into another unexplored part of fast up-and-coming arty E1 / E2 for an exhibition of 60’s photos by ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins, an extraordinary man who founded International Times and set up the UFO club. The pictures, which ranged from street kids to The Beatles via demos and drugs, were terrific. Futurism at Tate Modern proved much more extensive and exciting than I was expecting; an amazing range of work that is mind-blowing today, so imagine seeing this for the first time 100 years ago. At the same venue, a major retrospective of Danish artist Per Kirkeby (who I’d never heard of) started with a yawn, but rather grew on me. The sculptures were awful but the big canvases splashed with colour were lovely – very Hodkinesque!

FILM

Two of Britain’s greatest film directors have tried lighter fare with their latest outings. Whereas Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky failed to impress me, Ken Loach’s Looking for Eric proved to be a real treat – utterly charming and ultimately hopeful. I have little interest in football, no interest in Man United and to me Eric Cantona is some idiosyncratic Frenchman who uttered quirky statements at press conferences, but even I was captivated by what is clearly a bizarre cult. Nick Moran’s Telstar was a good play with a sensational leading performance by Con O’Neil. The story of 60’s record producer Joe Meek, it makes a good film but somehow I think it could have been a great one if he’d handed it over to another director able to bring objectivity and a new perspective. Con O’Neill reprises his role (less sensationally on screen) and is accompanied by a superb collection of young actors and a surprisingly good retired army major from Kevin Spacey!

OTHER

The prospect of a concert version of Kurt Weil’s first Broadway musical, after his exile from Nazi Germany, was a tempting one. It’s a First World War tale called Johnny Johnson which, for the 30’s, made very brave statements about young men as cannon fodder. In reality it’s a musical play, not a musical, and by including all of the dialogue it outstayed its welcome at over 3 hours. A curiosity, but not particularly entertaining.

I’ve got mixed views about classical ballet – I can’t stand the dancer hierarchies, the overly mannered performances, the sickly unnatural bows & curtain calls and the audience! – but when it’s good it takes your breath away as Jewels, a triple bill of Balanchine ballets to music by Faure, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, did at Covent Garden. The costumes and sets were gorgeous, the three ballets were complimentary and much of the dancing – particularly from Carlos Acosta, Alexandra Ansanelli and Rupert Pennefather – really did take your breath away.

Taste of London in Regent’s Park has now become an annual must. It features 36 restaurants, each presenting 3-4 signature dishes for you to sample in small portions for between £3 and £6. It has grown to include cooking master classes, lectures, wine & other drinks, cooking shops etc. We found a nice place in the VIP enclosure and took it in turns to wander around and sample 10 dishes each. It has got very popular (it is now replicated around the world) and may become overstretched, but for now it’s still a fun afternoon.

Having heard about the completion of their renovations and added galleries etc., I couldn’t resist a trip to Northampton to see one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s last commissions – 78 Derngate. It’s a small terraced house which is fascinating because it shows how he was evolving towards Art Deco – more geometric (triangles and straight lines) and stronger colouring (black combined with yellow, purple and turquoise). They have taken over two adjoining houses so that they can add galleries and the customary shop and restaurant. I particularly like the fact that they’ve given over galleries to modern designers for selling exhibitions.

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OPERA & CLASSICAL MUSIC

Handel’s Giustino, one of his 42 operas!, was given a very rare performance by Trinity College of Music in Wren’s wonderful Royal Naval College Chapel in Greenwich. The staging was a bit hit-and-miss but the singing was terrific. The venue has great acoustics and a wonderful atmosphere, but the pews proved a challenge for a bum-numbing 3 hours 10 mins. Welsh National Opera’s Queen of Spades is another feather in their cap. I found it a bit imbalanced, with a first act that dragged and the next three speeding along, but you couldn’t fault the innovative staging and fine performances and Tchaikovsky’s music is gorgeous. Peter Grimes is, in my view, the greatest opera of the 20th century and this spring at the ENO, it got the production it deserved. The orchestra and chorus under Edward Gardner were electrifying and have never sounded better. In a terrific British cast, John Daszak was a fine Peter with particularly stunning support from Felicity Palmer’s Mrs Sedley, Matthew Best’s Swallow, Gerald Finley’s Balstrode and Amanda Roocroft’s Ellen. This is one of the best things the ENO have ever done and it’s great to see this recently troubled company on such a roll.

I paid my first visit to London’s newest concert venue – Kings Place – for an OAE (Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment) concert of Handel concerti, arias and a short cantata and it was a treat. I’d never heard soprano Julia Doyle before but I can’t wait to see her again; she has a lovely voice. The OAE chamber group played beautifully and the venue really is terrific – two small halls of c.200 and c.400 seats with two galleries, restaurant and café and a canal-side setting. At St John’s Smith Square, the Lufthansa Baroque Festival opened with Handel’s oratorio Athalia. The German chorus & orchestra were exceptional as were the soloists, particularly Sarah Fox; though soprano Simone Kermes rather overdid her acting histrionics. A few days later, Handel’s opera Arianna in Creta, in concert at the Barbican, disappointed largely because in all truth the music is second rate Handel and its far too long. I was taken to a home concert in Kensington to hear South Africa’s entry to the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, baritone Dawid Kimberg, give a run through of his repertoire. He sang far too loudly for a drawing room, so that there was no light and shade and no subtlety and his choice of programme was a bit idiosyncratic – eclectic, but not the best of any of the composers chosen. Delius’ Mass of Life isn’t really a mass at all, but an oratorio based on Neitshe’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. I love Delius but I’d never heard this and it proved to be a complex and demanding piece, particularly for baritone Alan Opie who rose to the occasion magnificently. The Bach Choir and the Philharmonia were also lucky to have Susan Bullock, Susan Bickley and Nigel Robson as well as Alan Opie and it was a great performance. It has to be stopped at one point because an alarm had gone off in some lady’s bag; she bizarrely tried to sit it out until she realised the show would not go on. I’ve never seen so many dirty looks and I was amazed she had the nerve to stay.

 CONTEMPORARY MUSIC

Nick Lowe defines growing old gracefully and on his current tour he’s happy, charming and on great form. The selection was skewed to the 90’s but executed with perfection. I’ve never really taken to support Ron Sexsmith, but on this occasion I began to get the point – maybe he’s matured, or maybe I haven’t given him a fair crack of the whip until now. Anthony Hegarty is a bit of a one-off – when you hear him sing his hypnotic songs with his extraordinary voice you find it hard to believe it’s coming out of this tall, stocky, transgender, British-Canadian. I’d seen two earlier shows – one a collaboration with an artist and one with the LSO, but this was my first ‘bog standard’ Anthony & The Johnsons concert. Apart from a long ramble about climate change which continued into the song Hope Mountain thereby spoiling it, he sat at the piano in a half-light hardly engaging with the audience – but the sound that emanated from his mouth with piano / acoustic guitar / string accompaniment was heavenly. Malian singer / guitarist Rokia Traore has been a favourite since an impulsive visit to see her in Cambridge on a free evening during a short work assignment a few years ago. I think she’s moving too much away from traditional instrumentation, but when she’s rolling she’s simply terrific. She has one of the best rhythm sections I’ve ever heard and the whole Barbican audience was on its feet dancing – it was just impossible to sit still.

ART

I love the V&A’s comprehensive reviews of periods / styles which have in the past included Art Deco, Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, Modernism and Gothic. Baroque is just as comprehensive and if it’s less enjoyable that’s more to do with this OTT style than the exhibition. It really made the point that the style permeated everything and travelled far. I enjoyed the National Gallery’s Picasso:Challenging the Past much more than I thought I would. It’s a clever curatorial idea – how he paid homage to artists before him – that captures your imagination. At the NPG there is a stunning ‘installation’ of c.300 paintings of St. Fabiola by Francis Alys, based on an original now lost, discovered in places like flea markets and crammed onto 8 walls in 2 rooms. All but c.5 of them face left and all but c.15 are the same colour and it takes your breath away was soon as you enter the first room. I love Diane Arbus’ quirky 60’s portraits of real people but the exhibition at the Timothy Taylor Galleries was disappointing because of the overlap with her big V&A exhibition a few years back.

CINEMA

The British comedy Is Anyone There? featuring Michael Caine disappointed me – it was charming but it all seemed so contrived with a stunning British cast somewhat wasted. For some reason, I could hardy stay awake in Star Trek but what I did see seemed rather good, so I left the cinema deeply frustrated. I can’t say I understood Synecdoche New York but I was captivated by the surreal weirdness of it all. It made Kauffman’s earlier films – Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – seem positively straightforward.

OTHER

I was lucky to be invites to the London International Wine Fair, the major trade event. It was a bit of a maze and as a LIWF virgin I’m not sure I got the best out of it, but it was an excellent experience all the same.

I’ve wanted to see La Clique in Edinburgh but it’s normally at 1am and I’m not convinced anything can keep me awake at that hour in a darkened room. It’s been so well received in London that I was surprised to find myself underwhelmed. I was expecting edgy but got mainly mainstream and rather tame. Maybe it’s running out of stream after a long run.

The month ended at Bale de Rua, a colourful high energy Brazilian street dance show and the last in the Barbican’s BITE season. It started a bit over-slick and conventional but soon took off; another show picked up from the Edinburgh fringe.

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ART & EXHIBITIONS

What a disappointing month! I can’t really see the point of Rothko and found his Tate Modern exhibition dull. The Miereles installations and Gonzales-Foerster in the turbine hall at the same venue were only slightly more interesting. The Royal Academy’s GSK Modern was another dull affair; if this lot are the best of British contemporary art, god help us. The best of Indian contemporary art at the Serpentine was better, but still not up to the outstanding selection of Chinese contemporary’s at the Saatchi, which was the highlight of these two months. This was my first visit to the new Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea and what a great space it is too.

 The Warhol exhibition at the Hayward was all video and films so you’d need to spend a few days there to see it all. I dipped in for a couple of hours, but can’t say I got much out of it.

Photography fared better with a very good Capra / Taro exhibition at The Barbican. These were mostly black & white war photographs, many from the Spanish Civil War, and provided a stunning photographic documentary on these events. At the NPG, the Annie Leibovitz exhibition had its moments, but I didn’t really like the idea of the personal story interwoven with the work; it somehow seemed rather self-indulgent and vain.

CINEMA

In the run-up to all those awards, cinemas are awash with good films; then you spend 10 months looking for something worth seeing. Well, this year was no exception.

I have to agree with all the accolades given to Slumdog Millionaire. It somehow managed to portray the contradictions of India – all that poverty but all that contentment and hope – without the usual tourist glamorisation. I can’t agree with the ‘feelgood’ label, but it’s certainly hopeful and uplifting.

I’m glad I didn’t have to choose the best actor awards because it would be impossible to select from Micky Rourke in The Wrestler, Sean Penn in Milk and Frank Langella in Frost / Nixon. The problem with the Wrestler was that as much as I admired the performance, I didn’t really have empathy with the subject matter. Penn was a revelation and the film captured the period and the significance of the events brilliantly. The expressions on Langella’s face told much more than words and it’s a shame that he missed out on recognition. The film gripped you just as much as the play but those close ups added much.

Though a rather sad and depressing film, The Reader was craftsmanship of the highest order. Kate Winslett was terrific and deserved her accolades, but the boy was great too and somehow got ignored in the awards round. Though the story of The Changeling was fascinating and the period setting excellent (but why so much lipstick!) I somehow found it an old fashioned film So now I suppose it’ll be lean film times for another 10 months!

A lean month for OPERA and MUSIC with just one visit to the Wigmore Hall’s where the exploration of English songs continued with another lovely programme of the usual suspects – RVW et al.

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