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Posts Tagged ‘Ralph Vaughan Williams’

Opera

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

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

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

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

Classical Music

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

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

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

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

Contemporary Music

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

Film

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

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

Dance

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

Art

A lot to catch up on…..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Opera

The Royal College of Music put on Britten in their Britten Theatre and did him proud with a delightful production of his comic masterpiece Albert Herring. It succeeded in every department – staging & design, playing & singing – and it was lovely to see Janis Kelly guesting at her old college where she’s now teaching.

Classical Music

The LSO‘s end of season concert at the Barbican was also a tantalising taster of things to come when Simon Rattle takes over in 2017. The first half was a lovely opera for children by Jonathan Dove based on the Minotaur myth with literally hundreds of community performers and the LSO and GSMD SO together. In the second half, the combined orchestras raised the roof with Walton’s 1st symphony. Exciting stuff, and wonderful to see the students side-by-side with the pros from one of the world’s great orchestras, which I sense it about to become even greater under Rattle.

The first Prom of 2015 was a cracker, with the Proms debut(!) of Vaughan Williams huge choral piece Sancta Civitas coupled with Elgar’s 1st Symphony and a bit of Debussy to kick off. Sir Mark Elder marshalled his Halle Orchestra and four choirs brilliantly. The Royal Albert Hall was packed to the rafters.

Dance

INALA, at Sadler’s Wells, the collaboration between choreographer Mark Baldwin, composer Ella Spira and South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo was simply extraordinary, a brilliant fusion of dance and music, Africa and Europe, beautiful and breath-taking. It had no narrative, yet it somehow managed to convey the essence of Africa. Gorgeous.

Film

Seeing Brian Wilson in concert in recent years has been so wonderful, a true survivor and genius returning to make the glorious music he began so long ago and the bio-drama Love + Mercy about his ‘lost years’ is an outstanding film. It’s a fascinating story of survival told beautifully and delicately. Not to be missed.

Art

The Carsten Holler ‘exhibition’ at the Hayward Gallery was a bit of a disappointment. The twin entrances – long pitch black tunnels which twisted and turned – were scary and disorientating, but very clever. From then it was really rather tame, though I didn’t take the aerial ride (which seemed very slow) or the slide down and out!

The Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust exhibition at the Royal Academy was fascinating. His box collages are eccentric and a bit obsessive but always interesting and intriguing. Downstairs was the best Summer Exhibition in years, thanks in part to the curation of Michael Craig-Martin, who’d painted three rooms (well, not personally!) in bright colours before hanging the works, and the courtyard sculpture and brightly painted stairs within.

At the NPG, the BP Portrait Award exhibition contained some brilliant pictures; the standard seems to get higher every year. An excellent institution. Elsewhere in the building, Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon added some glamour. Is there a more classically beautiful woman?

I’m not a huge fan of Barbara Hepworth‘s abstract sculptures, but I very much enjoyed her retrospective at Tate Britain, partly because it included excellent early figurative work and partly because you learned a lot about the woman herself.

The Barbican Curve Gallery was back on form with an installation where you walked on salt following a light, with a soundtrack, through the gallery! Intriguing.

A day trip to Margate for Grayson Perry’s Provincial Punk exhibition at Turner Contemporary was well worth it. He’s the most interesting living British artist and his eclectic collection of pots (more than I’ve ever seen in one place) and tapestries was fascinating. It was supplemented by early films, paintings, drawings and other items. A treat.

Soundscapes at the National Gallery was a great idea and by and large a good experience, though at £1.33 per picture, perhaps not the best value in town! The paintings chosen weren’t predictable and the music which the six composers had written for each painting were diverse and fitting, but the atmosphere was occasionally destroyed by gallery attendants talking (I had to bollock one!).

The art month ended on the top floor of the Brewer Street car park in Soho for Carsten Nicolai’s light and colour installations. The best of them, unicolour, was an extraordinary projection of infinite coloured light changing frequently and mesmerising the viewer. Brilliant.

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Contemporary Music

In Laura Muvla‘s late night Prom she performed the whole of her one and only album, Sing to the Moon, with an orchestra and choir. Some of the arrangements were a bit overcooked, smothering the lovely songs a bit, but overall it was a success as the writing and singing shone through. The sound was great and the audience even more quiet and attentive than most classical Proms. Now we need a new album, Laura.

Anything Goes at Cadogan Hall was anything but another one of those song compilation shows. First it was Cole Porter and the 50th anniversary of his passing. Second, it was musical theatre royalty with Maria Friedman, Clive Rowe, Jenna Russell & Graham Bickley all at the top of their game, with obvious chemistry, mutual respect and friendship. It was great to see the Royal Academy of Music MTC Chorus given a chance to work with such musical theatre icons and with a band as good as the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra under Richard Balcome. You rarely hear musical theatre songs played this well, and the winds and brass were positively glorious.

Opera

A return to Opera Holland Park after a few years to see an early 20th century  relative rarity by Francesco Cilea, Adriana Lecouvreur. My enjoyment of the first half was badly hampered by a full-on view of the conductor and not a lot else – a relatively expensive restricted view front row seat that wasn’t sold as restricted view! The highlight of the evening was the fantastic orchestra under said conductor, Manlio Benzi. There was some good (rather than great) singing and the updated production just about pulled it off. Sadly, OHP seems to be turning into a London version of those country house operas – rising prices, conspicuous corporate hospitality, dressing up…..if they introduce long picnic intervals, the transformation will be complete!

Classical Music

I don’t often go to piano recitals, then when I do I ask myself why?! A visit to Oxfordshire included one by John Lill at Christ Church Cathedral and I thoroughly enjoyed it. In a great programme of Mozart, Schumann, Brahms and Beethoven, the Schumann and Beethoven shone and the venue was a real bonus.

My first proper Prom of 2014 was an all-English affair, with three works from Vaughan Williams and a real rarity from someone I’ve never heard of – William Alwyn. Alwyn’s 1st Symphony isn’t brilliant, but it’s good enough and not worthy of such neglect (like the rest of his work). By contrast, The Lark Ascending is by all accounts the most popular classical work and here it was beautifully played by Janine Jansen. The gung-ho Wasps Overture and rarer Job ballet suite made up an excellent programme conducted by the BBC SO’s new chief conductor Sakari Oramo, whose enthusiasm and joy were infectious.

The next Prom was named Lest We Forget and it was a melancholy but very beautiful affair, featuring four composers, one German, who fought in the First World War, three never coming back. Two were completely new to me (the German, Rudi Stephan, was getting his Proms debut and Australian Brit Frederick Kelly is rarely performed). George Butterworth‘s song cycle A Shropshire Lad was sung beautifully by Roderick Williams and the BBC Scottish SO under Andrew Manze played all four pieces wonderfully. Vaughan Williams Pastoral Symphony (with tenor Allan Clayton, instead of the more usual soprano) has never sounded better. The loss of three talented composers was very sad, but it was a lovely tribute.

My final Prom for 2014 saw Andrew Davies back where he belongs and he chose a terrific programme of Strauss (R), Elgar & Berlioz to show off his great new band, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, who got a great welcome from the Proms audience. Music by German  British & French composers spanning 89 years, an Australian orchestra & a Norwegian cellist & a British conductor and an audience of real music lovers – that’s what I like about the Proms.

Cabaret

Celia Imrie’s show Laughing Matters at St James Studio was a quirky and sometimes surreal affair. Songs accompanied by a pianist and drummer (I wish I knew who wrote them), monologues and anecdotes and two male assistants! It ended with a panto-style sing-along complete with song sheet, with the cast dressed as sailors and the audience in sailor hats emblazoned with ‘R.M.S. Celia’! She can’t really sing, the show had a certain amateurishness about it, but her charm won you over and made you smile – a lot.

Film

I was lured to The Inbetweeners 2 by rave reviews (4* in The Times!) and even though it was fun, it was like watching a triple episode of the TV series with big screen technicolour projectile vomiting. A peculiarly British take on gross-out teen comedy.

Positive reviews also lured me to Guardians of the Galaxy (another 4* in The Times), but it was no time at all before I was bored with the banal story and just watched the 3D effects, but they became relentlessly repetitive too. There were some nice tongue-in-cheek touches, but I’m now wondering why I stayed.

I refused to pay Sonia Freidman’s obscene prices for Skylight in the West End but I eventually succumbed to the ‘encore’ of the live cinema transmission. Carey Mulligan proves to be an exceptional stage actor and Bill Nighy has lost none of his charisma. The 19-year-old play seemed bang up-to-date and the interval interview with Hare was a bonus. I’d have loved to see Bob Crowley’s brilliant set live, but hey it came over as a great production and I thoroughly enjoyed my first NT Live experience, even though it wasn’t the NT and it wasn’t live!

Art

I think I’m going to have to stop going to the Saatchi Gallery as, yet again, only a small fraction of what was on show appealed. This time it was Abstract America Today upstairs and Pangaea: New Art from Africa & Latin America downstairs. When the best room has walls covered with giant insects, you know you’re in trouble.

I’m not a fan of fashion and if I’d had to pay I probably wouldn’t have gone, but The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier at the Barbican was great fun and extremely well curated with a nice tongue-in-cheek touch (some of the dummies had holographic talking heads!). Whatever you think of his clothes, you have to accept that he has a colossal imagination.

No less than three exhibitions for an afternoon at the Royal Academy. The Summer Exhibition never changes but it’s an important institution and it’s always worth a visit. The highlights this year were the model of Thomas Hetherwick’s garden bridge (I can’t wait to see it built) and a couple of hilarious Glenn Baxter cartoons. Upstairs, Radical Geometry is an exhibition of 20th Century South American art which you’d never know was South American if it wasn’t billed as such. It’s well executed but they are very derivative abstract, geometric works. Interesting, but…..Round the back, Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album is a very personal record of six years in the sixties which would never be seen if the photographer wasn’t a famous film actor / director. Interesting, but…..

In just six years the Travel Photography Awards exhibition at the Royal Geographic Society has become so popular that my usual amble through it has become a scrum, partly because I left it until the final day I suspect. It was hard to get close enough to what seemed like a less impressive collection this year. Down the road at the V &A Disobedient Objects is an original, fascinating and wide-ranging look at items associated with protest, including banners, posters and even vehicles. Well done, V&A!

The British Library Comics Unmasked exhibition was a frustrating affair – low lighting combined with small print labels, but above all lots of nerds stooped over the exhibits reading every word of every cartoon and monopolising them. Again I was probably hampered by catching it on its last day, but it could have been curated so much better. The Enduring War exhibition, part of the WWI commemorations, was a lovely unexpected bonus which I enjoyed more!

The Photographers Gallery continues to be an essential regular visit and this time it was a fascinating exhibition tracing colour in Russian photography over 120 years. It proved to be a social and political history as well as a photographic history. At the entrance, they currently have a video wall which shows how a couple of Germans mined Facebook for images then put them on a spoof dating site with categorisations based on the images. It includes the victims comments, TV coverage and the legal threats they received. Clever, fascinating but spooky! I shall brush over the other exhibition – still life photos (and installations including them) of decaying fruit from Ridley Road market!

The first few rooms of the Malecvich exhibition at Tate Modern are spectacular – bright, colourful, original paintings of people and landscapes with a geometric spin. Then he goes all dull and abstract before returning to his earlier style. Frankly, it would be a better exhibition if it was ‘The early and late works of…’ and reduced from 12 rooms to 6!

There was some great stuff to see around town this month; two WWI tributes – the moving sea of poppies at the Tower of London, spectra – the lights illuminating the sky from Victoria Embankment Gardens – and this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, like a spaceship which has landed. Up in Gateshead, Daniel Buren created glorious colourful spaces in Baltic by covering the windows and skylights with coloured panels and placing large mirrors on the gallery floor. A real regional treat.

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Contemporary Music

I often take a punt with the Proms and this year it was the Urban Classic Prom, attracted by new favourite Laura Mvula. I was more at home with the soul of Mvula, Maverick Sabre & Jacob Banks than the hip hop / rap of Fazer, Wretch 32 and Lady Leshurr (what names!), but the combination was compelling, the atmosphere was extraordinary and the respect of the ‘urban’ crowd for the BBC SO was wonderful to behold. I could have done without the intros, but hey that’s a small quibble. Put together by conductor /arranger Jules Buckley, this was a brave experiment that worked big-time, moving the Proms on again and finding yet another new audience.

I’ve seen Martha Wainwright a few times before, but her Union Chapel concert was at another level altogether. Her voice soared, packed full of passion and sincerity, with just acoustic guitar for accompaniment. Her sound seems even more unique than ever, but she’s also clearly very happy and for the first time her infectious eccentric charm cast a spell (with self-deprecating humour and faux bitchiness about brother Rufus). Her 3-year-old son almost stole the show when he accompanied his dad on stage; this could have been indulgent, but it came over as more charm, making you think how much fun it would be to have Sunday lunch at the Wainwrights. Great support from Luke Sital-Singh (who used to be an usher there!) and a terrific evening overall.

Classical Music

The Proms rarely disappoint, but this year my third (and last) did. In the first half, Holst’s ‘Hindu’ symphonic poem Indra was paired with the world premiere of Nishat Khan‘s sitar concerto. The former seemed slight and uninspiring and the latter just didn’t work – the sitar and orchestra appeared to be in competition rather than harmony; their styles didn’t compliment and the sitar sometimes fought to be heard. In the second half, Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony lacked sparkle, not helped by audience additions, notably a mobile phone ringing (and being answered!) just at the point where the harp is playing solo, drowning it out and destroying the atmosphere.

Film

If Alpha Papa was a feature-length episode of a TV series, I’d have been happy. I’m not sure it justifies it’s cinema release though. It’s often funny and the character of Alan Partridge has, somewhat surprisingly, evolved and endured, but it’s not really good enough for such a high profile release.

Art

A trio of exhibitions at Tate Britain, led by a major Lowry retrospective. There is a limit to the number of Lowry pictures one can take before they appear very formulaic; towards the end it began to feel like chimneys, terraces and stick people assembled in different configurations, and the people became more like caricatures. Though he is unique in portraying early 20th century British industrial life, and I admired and liked much of the paintings on show, it is a case of more-is-less. Mind you, after you’ve taken a look at the Gary Hume & Patrick Caulfield exhibitions, your admiration of Lowry shoots up! Caulfield is the better of the two, but neither excite.

The annual Travel Photography exhibition at the RGS was up to its usual standard. It comes to something when you think you take good photos but you’re in awe of the talent of a 10-year-old Indonesian boy! Across the road and in the park, the Serpentine Gallery is hosting another of those take-it-or-leave it shows (Sturtevant), but Sou Fujimoto’s 2013 Pavilion outside is lovely. A bus ride to Piccadilly and there we were in superstar architect Richard Rogers very personal Royal Academy show. Lots of those building models I so adore (especially the ones of the unbuilt) with lots of philosophical ramblings to go with them.

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Contemporary Music

Nashville band The Silver Seas have been personal favourites for a while and I found it astonishing that the London showcase for their new album was a room above a pub in Islington! It could have been a touch quieter and the mix could have brought the keyboard more to the fore, but it was a tight 75 min set (with lots of songs from the new album) and the atmosphere was great.

Anthony (&the Johnsons) Hegarty has always been unconventional, a true original, but his Swanlights show at the Royal Opera House elevated him to high art indeed. A 90-min best of, with songs re-arranged for piano & orchestra (the wonderful Britten Sinfonia), it was so so beautiful. This was played within an installation lit by lasers which changed shape and colour from green to blue to white to red to pink, so it was a visual feast too, and overall way beyond expectations.

Classical Music

The First Night of the Proms was an eclectic and thrilling affair. It started with a short but intriguing choral word premiere by Julian Anderson and continued with personal favourite Britten’s Sea Interludes, ending the first half with (for me) a premiere hearing of Rachmaninov’s Paganini rhapsody paired with Lutoslawski’s Paganini variations. As if this wasn’t enough, in the second half 500 musicians and singers took the roof off with Vaughan Williams’ brilliant Sea Symphony. Better than any Last Night by a mile.

Opera

Bampton Opera is the antidote to grand country house opera – on a small scale, in a back garden, picnic yes, dressing up no. They always showcase something rare, sometimes never seen before, and this year it was 12-year old Mozart’s La Finta Semplice. It was apparently his 4th opera, so it enabled me to ask my 13- year-old godson, who came, when we were getting his first opera! It’s an astonishingly accomplished piece and the production did it full justice. Not only was it played and sung beautifully, but it had a superb Magritte inspired design….and for once, the sunny warm evening was perfect!

Art

A visit to Tate Modern proved to be an eclectic global art feast with exhibitions from Lebanese, Somalian, African-American & Beninois artists which were about as varied as it’s possible to be. African-American Ellen Gallagher‘s exhibition proved to be the most rewarding & diverse (and quirky) with paintings, collages, double-sided pictures, film, animation and sculpture, much with a playfulness that made me smile. In Somalian Ibrahim El-Salahi‘s work, abstract meets Islam to produce something very original. Lebanese Saloua Raouda Choucair‘s exhibition was smaller yet just as varied, but more hit-and-miss; I’d have loved to have seen more of her portraits and fewer sculptures. The Museum of Contemporary African Art is an extraordinary multi-room installation created by Meschac Gaba that includes a library and shop. I thought it was fascinating and fun, with hands-on, play-with and sit-in elements that engaged the visitors. Phew!

A couple of nice freebies at the NT. The River, a whole load of paintings of The Thames by Dale Inglis which were rather lovely and The Press Photographer’s Year, rich pickings this year with some great Olympic shots and some really funny ones – David Cameron in dinner suit with shirt buttons undone and Peter Capaldi taking the piss out of his Thick Of It character’s role model Alistair Campbell.

A trio of exhibitions provided an eclectic afternoon between two work commitments. At the NPG, unknown (to me) 20th artist Laura Knight‘s portraits were hugely impressive. Her subjects ranged from circus folk to gypsies to poor black Americans to people at war and her naturalistic / realistic style brought them alive. At the ICA, things were somewhat racier with a show of drawings about war, race, censorship & politics, but mostly sex (!), with the tongue-in-cheek title Keep Your Timber Limber! Though technically accomplished, they were somewhat angry. The Hayward Gallery had another of their quirky shows, this one called The Alternative Guide to the Universe, which showcases ‘self-taught artists, fringe physicists and inventors’ who re-imagine the world as painted megalopolis’, number sequences & detailed models. Obsessive, sometimes disturbing, occasionally playful, it’s an eccentric show which does provide a unique experience but left me a bit unsettled, as if I’d been peering into some troubled souls. The small accompanying exhibition, The Museum of Everything, was much lighter fare and rather fun.

The Royal Academy‘s Summer Exhibition was the usual crowded hotchpotch, lighter on architecture, more photography and as much art & sculpture as usual. This year’s highlight was Grayson Perry’s series of six finely detailed, funny tapestries a la Rakes Progress called ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’. So good, I bought the book! Mexico: A Revolution in Art 1910-40 upstairs covered a short time period but was too broad, including artists visiting as well as from Mexico plus a lot of photos taking up too much of the limited space. Mexico’s most famous artist couple – Frida Khalo & Diego Riveria – were under-represented and there were only a few ‘wow’ pictures.

Comedy

A preview of Mark Thomas‘ Edinburgh show a mile away?! I’d never even heard of the Balham Comedy Festival! The latest idea of this passionate, campaigning yet always funny comedian,  so soon after his biographical Bravo Figaro and Manifesto (based on audience suggestion)  is 100 acts of dissent over 12 months. I loved it when they turned the Apple Store into a little bit of Ireland to make the tax-dodgers feel at home and can’t wait for the rest to unfold. I have fond memories of the stunts he pulled when he had a Channel 4 programme and these, smaller scale without a TV budget, look like providing more. A really funny hour.

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The Rest of November

Contemporary Music

Blind Malian’s Amadou & Mariam staged their concert in complete darkness. The effect was to heighten the listening experience of their uplifting music. I could have done without the life story narrative, which was a bit naff, but otherwise it was an extraordinary experience.

Roy Harper is another of those artists who are part of the soundtrack of my life and Stormcock one of my very favourite albums. I haven’t kept up with his later work and haven’t seen him for some time, but his 70th birthday concert at RFH was irresistible. It proved to be deeply moving – he appeared to be ‘signing off’ and almost cracked up a few times. The 8-piece brass and string ensemble meant he focused mostly on my personal Roy Harper period and I loved it. When Jimmy Page guested for the double-guitar fireworks (on 5th November!) of That Same Old Rock (he played on the album) it was absolutely magical and the hall erupted.

I was amazed when they decided on Hammersmith Apollo for the Gillian Welch concert. It’s a shabby, tacky and dirty place and ever so big for two acoustic musicians. Though I would have much preferred somewhere like the Barbican or the Southbank Centre, she did pull it off. I like the new album and the first set was largely taken from it. The big surprise though was how this was a mere taster for an outstanding second set which ended with superb encores of country classic Jackson and Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit . I’ve waited a long while to see her, but it was well worth the wait – next time, somewhere else though? Please…

Taking eight people to Ronnie Scott’s to see jazz vocalist Ian Shaw was always going to be a risk, but one that paid off. The musicianship shone through and the audience were suitably attentive. His band included a silver-haired bassist who played with Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker. Wow! Astonishingly, it was my first visit to RS, but now that they have shows at civilised times I shall be back!

Opera & Classical Music

The operatic adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness seems to me to be a great success. Set mostly aboard a boat in the Congo, it has great atmosphere and tension thanks to Robert Innes Hopkins superb design and Tarik O’Regan’s music. There was some excellent singing from Alan Oke, Gweneth-Ann Jeffers and Morten Lassenius Kramp with the small ensemble Chroma under Oliver Gooch providing a colourful orchestral background. Just what the Linbury Studio is for.

The Guildhall School of Music & Drama have uncovered a neglected comic gem with Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor, Nicolai(who?)’s take on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. It’s given a sparkling and fresh modern dress production by Harry Fehr with a brilliant set and costumes from Tom Rogers. For some reason Nicolai changed the names of the Ford’s and Page’s but not Falstaff or Fenton. He’s dumped Mistress Quickly, Bardolph and Shallow, but otherwise it’s true to its source. Barnaby Rea is excellent as Falstaff, Ashley Riches is very good as the second cast Fluth (Ford) and Ellie Laugharne is a sweet-voiced Anna – but its Sky Ingram’s show; her Frau Fluth (Ford) is fabulous; we’ll be hearing a lot more of her for sure.

I’ve wanted to see Vaughan Williams’ Hugh the Drover for a very long time, so Hampstead Garden Opera’s production was very welcome indeed. I have to confess though that I wasn’t expecting it to be such a good opera and for the musical standards of this ‘amateur’ production to be so outstanding. It was beautifully played by The Dionysus Ensemble, a group of music students & recent graduates, under the leadership of Oliver-John Ruthven. The leads were also students & recent graduates and they were also exceptional. David de Winter was terrific as Hugh, with Elaine Tate a lovely sweet-voiced Mary and Ed Ballard fine as baddie butcher John. This ballad opera is so so underrated, but this new chamber version will hopefully lead to more productions. A whole packet of gold stars to HGO for leading the way.

Handel’s Saul is a lovely dramatic oratorio and Harry Christophers & The Sixteen delivered an excellent interpretation at the Barbican, helped by a set of outstanding soloists including Sarah Connelly, Christopher Purves and Robert Murray. The quality of the choir is exceptional with a handful of them stepping forward to sing the smaller solo parts.

Opera North’s Ruddigore is destined to be as classic a G&S production as ENO’s The Mikado still is many years on. It’s a completely preposterous story of course, but it’s given a sparking fresh production by Jo Davies, with sepia design from Richard Hudson, and is an absolute delight. Grant Doyle is an excellent leading man, Hal Cazalet (who trained next door at GSMD) acts and sings superbly well as sailor Dauntless, Heather Shipp is as batty as Mad Margaret should be and there’s superb support from a few old favourites I seem to see too little of these days – Anne-Marie Owens, Richard Angas and Stephen Page. I sincerely hope their visits to the Barbican become regular – it would d be good to have good quality opera at decent prices here in London!

Dance

I loved the Scottish Ballet programme I saw a couple of years ago in Edinburgh, so I booked to see their new double-bill at Sadler’s Wells. The first piece – Kings 2 Ends – was playful, funny and quirky. Choreographed by Jorma Elo to music by Steve Reich and Mozart, this young company excelled. Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth to Mahler’s song cycle took a short while to settle but soon became spellbinding. More classical than the first piece, I liked the contrast, though the dancers seemed to find it more of a challenge. I liked soprano Karen Cargill but I’m afraid tenor Richard Berkeley-Steele was nowhere near as pleasing on the ear!

I’m new to Ballet Rambert and this second showing didn’t live up to the first. It was certainly a diverse triple bill. RainForest was a somewhat abstract 40-year old piece by Merce Cunningham with an electronic score, danced in Jasper Johns costumes in an Andy Warhol setting. Seven for a secret, never to be told was Mark Baldwin’s exploration of child behaviour to a Ravel score and Javier de Frutos’ Elysian Fields was a steamy and violent homage to Tennessee Williams and A Streetcar Named Desire in particular, danced to that film’s score with unnecessary and intrusive dialogue. A bit of a mixed bag – I admired the dance / movement but didn’t really find anything entirely satisfactory.

Art

The Royal Academy’s Degas & the Ballet – Picturing Movement should have been subtitled ‘A study in obsession (with a touch of pedophilia)’ It pushed the dancer theme just a bit too far for me. There were some exhibits that I felt were padding (animation and panoramas) and I think it would have been a better 5-room exhibition than it was an 8-room exhibition. That said, the penultimate room of 13 paintings was simply glorious and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Also at the RA, Building the Revolution – Soviet Art & Architecture 1915-1935 was a small but fascinating series of pictures and drawings which illustrated the iconic art deco / modernist hybrid that existed there and then. Most of these buildings are now run down (or worse) and I was struck by how many I’d seen on recent trips to the Ukraine & The Caucasus.

The most extraordinary thing about Gerhard Richter’s retrospective at Tate Modern is that it feels like a show by a bunch of artists rather than one. He completely reinvented himself on a regular basis so there is much diversity on show here. It didn’t all work for me, but as a body of work it’s certainly impressive.

Grayson Perry moved from my list of OK-but-overrated-modern-British-artists to the premier league on the strength of his brilliant exhibition at the British Museum. His own work is interspersed with items from the BM collection (few of which I’d ever seen before). It was equal parts learning, fun and beauty and I was bowled over by it.

Another pleasant surprise was the John Martin exhibition at Tate Britain. This early 19th century artist created vast canvases, mostly on dramatic religious themes like Sodom & Gomorrah. They seem to be the precursors of / influence for apocalyptic films like Independence Day and covers for 1970’s progressive rock albums by bands like Yes. In their day they toured the country with sound and light shows to accompany then, seen by millions of people, so it was terrific that they created a modern version for the Judgement Day triptych – a first for an exhibition? How can I have lived this long without ever knowing about this man?! Upstairs, sculptor Barry Flanagan’s early work seemed tame and dull, I’m afraid, but it did mean you get to climb their brilliant and bright newly painted staircase!

I was smitten by the Pipilotti Rist exhibition at the Hayward Gallery last month and almost smitten by George Condo’s Mental States, which is now sharing the venue. His portraits are like a cartoon version of Francis Bacon and his abstracts like Picasso on acid. I’d never heard of him before, so it was good to see such a comprehensive and fascinating collection. Also at the Southbank Centre, the 2011 World Press Photographer exhibition maintains the standards of this superb annual tradition. It’s often hard to look at, but the photography is always outstanding.

Visiting Two Temple Place is a double-dip treat. The former Astor home is a riot of carving, stained glass and OTT decoration and it currently houses a William Morris exhibition with a superb collection of tapestries, fabrics, wallpaper, paintings and drawings. Gorgeous.

Just as gorgeous was the Royal Manuscripts exhibition at the British Library, a stunning collection of richly decorated books from the middle ages. It’s superbly curated and, provided you go at a quiet time, it’s a real treat.

Film

Two excellent British films this month, the first of which was Weekend, about an intense gay relationship which begins and ends in, well, a weekend. Chris New and Tom Cullen were both outstanding and it was beautifully shot. The second, Resistance, is set in Wales after the failure of the D-Day landings resulting in an invasion of German troops, a small group of whom have reached a Welsh valley! It explores the reaction of the locals and their relationships with the invaders. It’s a bit of a slow burn, but eventually draws you in and becomes deeply moving without a touch of sentimentality. There are some lovely performances, most notably from Andrea Risborough.

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CONTEMPORARY MUSIC

It wouldn’t be a Sondheim celebration year without a Maria Friedman concert and her selection at Cadogan Hall was better than ever. She became the Broadway Baby of the song, reprised her terrific turn as Mrs Lovett of pie fame (yet again, I was one seat from being picked on as her victim!) and gave possibly definitive versions of Losing You and Being Alive. Some compensation for missing the Sondheim Prom.

My first Puppini Sisters concert at the same venue a week later proved a little disappointing. They do specialise in 40’s Andrews Sisters-type stuff, but billing it as part of the ‘Hits from the Blitz’ mini-season rather misrepresented the content which included Blondie, Kate Bush and Beyonce! Some of it really worked but some of it left me cold, so it ends up on the ‘OK’ list I’m afraid (the seriously over-excited man in the front row certainly wouldn’t agree with that!).

CLASSICAL MUSIC

My second (and last, this year) Prom was an English selection (no surprise there then) from Elgar, Vaughan Williams and less well known, Foulds. VW’s Serenade to Music is rarely performed as it requires 16 soloists for its 11 minute length. Last time I heard it here 16 years ago it featured a stellar line-up that included three knights and a dame! This time it was given to new singers for whom it was a bit of a challenge to be honest. The other VW, The Lark Ascending, was beautifully played by young Nicola Benedetti; the Foulds piano concerto, played brilliantly by Ashley Wass, was a revelation and Elgar’s 1st Symphony has never sounded better. Great to see a full house for English music too!

ART

Wolfgang Tilmans is a German photographer based in London whose exhibitions are fascinating, partly because he arranges the photos on the gallery walls (most actually attached to the walls) and includes ‘collages’ on tables with news cuttings, product labels etc. His exhibition at the Serpentine is a typically eclectic collection from people to objects to landscapes to abstracts; always interesting, sometimes beautiful. Outside, the summer pavilion is a riot of red with a touch of green and is one of the best in the ten years they’ve been building one. There are tables for chess, draughts, and other games; table tennis tables; chill-out spaces and a café.

The title ‘Sargent and the Sea’ at the Royal Academy rather misrepresents an exhibition which has c.7 seascapes and lots of beaches and harbours. Not being a big Sargent fan, it was a pleasant surprise though if I’d paid £10 for 42 finished paintings, I think I might have felt cheated!

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