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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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Contemporary Music

Billy Bragg is the antidote to people who don’t give a shit and his value-for-money (£22, half price for the over 60’s!) 2.5 hours set was passionate, covering his whole career but majoring on the excellent new album Tooth & Nail. The new band sounded great and there was a mini-set of solo stuff too. There are few singers or bands left with this much integrity and respect for their audience and we repaid it in quiet engagement and warm response. Kim Churchill, a barefoot man from SE Australia with hair that looked like a straw hat, played an excellent set in support. He told us that he’s been busking around the world for four years when he got a gig at a festival in Canada and needed a lift for the 45-min drive from the hotel to the venue. Billy came to the rescue and there he was nervous but elated on the RFH stage. Dreams come true, it seems.

The Albion Band‘s Christmas concert at Kings Place was a bit of a punt that turned out to be a delight. A combination of songs, carols and readings, with an egg dance thrown in for good measure, it was a charming combination made into an occasion by the presentation of the English Folk Song & Dance Society’s Gold Badge to band founder Ashley Hutchings.

Seeing The Bootleg Beatles in Nottingham was a surprise until an hour or so before and it was a huge treat. They split the show into two halves, each with two sections, so we got the moptops, film period, psychedelia and the endgame. The resemblances and mannerisms were uncanny, but it was the brilliantly played songs that sweep you away, roll back the years and get you singing along, with the occasional dad dance (well, uncle dance in my case). Brilliant.

Opera

How the Whale Became at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio is an opera for children, particularly those whose parents prefer to take theirs to the politically correct rather than to the panto. With music by Julian Phillips and a libretto by Edward Kemp, it’s based on Ted Hughes stories about the creation of animals by god. It’s not the easiest musical ride (particularly for children) but the production is very inventive and the performers (and musicians) very engaging. A worthy attempt rather than a full-on hit, I think.

Classical Music

The Britten Sinfonia with the Choir of Kings College Cambridge provided my penultimate Britten Centenary event at the Barbican. The timely Ceremony of Carols, just boy’s choir and harp, sounded lovely and Saint Nicholas provided a more rousing second half. As much as I approve of audience participation, I have to confess I didn’t really appreciate the audience drowning out the beautiful choirs during the two hymns for audience participation! I’d never heard Arvo Part’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten and it proved to be the perfect opener, with John Tavener’s The Lamb also a timely opening to part two and a taster for my Tavener weekend in January.

I’d never heard Britten’s three Cello Suites so it was nice to end my centenary with something new to me. They are more to be admired for their virtuosity than aural beauty and they were played with extraordinary skill by Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelwey, who gave each one in an informative, charming and entertaining illustrated introduction.

Art

A few hours on the South Bank delivered a bumper crop of exhibitions. First up was Go Away Closer, Dayanita Singh’s B&W photos of India presented in books and museum panels. I loved both the material and the presentation. Downstairs at the Hayward Gallery, Ana Mendieta’s Traces was harder to swallow until her obsession with making ‘art’ using her own body gave way to using the environment instead / as well; a bit too conceptual for me. In the project space, a small exhibition of protest art was nostalgically enthralling – all those anti-war posters and copies of IT. Finally, in the RFH, the annual exhibition of art by offenders, secure patients and detainees (the tile gets longer every year) called The Strength & Vulnerability Bunker was as awe-inspiring as ever; it was the last day, so most of those for sale had gone otherwise there were a number I would have happily bought and hung on my walls.

I adored both Australia and Daumier (1808-79): Visions of Paris at the Royal Academy. The former was a 13-room, 200-year review of the art of a whole country, and I only knew one of the artists! From aboriginal art through colonial landscapes to wonderful Australian impressionists to the present day, this was a real feast. The latter was pretty revelatory too, containing his trademark caricatures but also very high quality paintings and sketches. The two together constituted one of the most enjoyable visits to the RA in a while.

At The Photographers’ Gallery, Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood & Identity wasn’t the easiest exhibition to view, but given that it sets out to challenge the sentimental view of motherhood, that’s not a surprise. The quality of the photography, rather than the subject matter, is what I enjoyed most. At the same gallery, the 1920’s B&W photos of French amateur photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue were charmingly homespun but technically accomplished. I have to confess I enjoyed it more.

The latest Curve installation at the Barbican, Intervals by Ayse Erkman, is a series of theatrical backdrops which you have to navigate as you walk through the gallery whilst they rise and fall. Even though it only takes 10 minutes to get through, the fact you are occasionally trapped means it irritates (well, impatient me, anyway). It is a very original idea, though and another great use of this space.

A Sunday afternoon in Trafalgar Square was a feast of art, starting with Facing the Modern: the Portrait in Vienna 1900 at the National Gallery, a great taster for my Christmas trip to that very city. Wonderful works by Schiele and Klimt plus lots of artists new to me. I went to the NPG for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition, as wonderful as ever, and Elizabeth I & her People, which was a whole lot more interesting than I was expecting, but there were rich pickings in the displays too. Passable portrait sketches by Bob Dylan, Benjamin Britten’s life in photos, William Morris’ wife and Pre-Raphaelite muse Janey, Michael Peto photos of famous people of the late 20th century, Vivien Leigh photos and film posters, terrific Jonathan Yeo paintings and the imaginary portraits of Derek Bashir!!! Room 31 (post-war Brits) may be my favourite room in any gallery anywhere and the NPG my favourite gallery!

It’s extraordinary how quickly erotica can become dull. The 17th-20th century Japanese pictures in Shunga at the British Museum are technically accomplished and often beautifully coloured, but ever so samey. I’m afraid I became bored ever so quickly. Fortunately, the gold and ceramic pieces from ancient Colombia in Beyond Eldorado at the same venue made up for it. This was a beautifully curated exhibition packed full of fascinating items which told a stories of ancient civilizations.

A couple of hours between kids opera and kids theatre enabled me to catch London Transport Museum’s celebration of 150 years of tube posters and it was a real treat, with lots I’d never seen before. The range of reasons for and themes of posters was extraordinary. The space was too cramped but thankfully there weren’t many people. Just as cramped as the space in Somerset House that I then ventured to in order to see Stanley Spencer’s Heaven in a Hell of War, on a short tour from Sandham Chapel during restoration. They are wonderful and I now can’t wait to see them back in the chapel with the three they couldn’t remove without damaging them.

Film

The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug was a lot better than the first installment, visually stunning with terrific 3D, but it’s a still just a journey drawn out to three films – albeit an exciting journey (mostly).

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Contemporary Music

I didn’t consider SO Peter Gabriel’s ‘masterpiece’ until this concert. There are better songs on other albums, but somehow this one hangs together best. It was the ‘main course’ of a 140-minute meal which also included two new songs and lots more oldies. The visuals were excellent and the sound was superb. His voice sounds better than it ever did and the band of regulars were as tight as can be. There was a touch of theatricality and more than a touch of idiosyncrasy and I loved it!

I’ve waited 34 years to see Graham Parker with the Rumour again, but the wait was worth it. Always one of the great live bands, they never sounded better than this re-union. Combining songs from the new album with a whole load of oldies and no tuning and chatting time-wasting, this was 23 songs in 110 glorious minutes with his fans creating an extraordinary atmosphere at Shepherds Bush Empire. They even had The Silver Seas’ Daniel Tashian in support (though there was too much talking by otherwise excellent GP fans!)

A week / month for old rockers it seems.

Opera

The focal point of the autumn visit to WNO in Cardiff was ‘The Tudors’; a trilogy of operas by Donizetti in Italian based on British Tudor history – Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux – in chronological order on consecutive days! In truth, Bel Canto isn’t my favourite operatic sub-genre, but the prospect was enticing nonetheless. The orchestra and chorus were wonderful (sprightly young conductor Daniele Rustioni is a real fine) and there was some good singing but the productions, dressed almost entirely in black, were somewhat disappointing. The highlight turned out to be Tosca, added so that I could take some friends, with lovely singing from American Mary Elizabeth Williams as Tosca and Wales’ own Gwyn Hughes Jones as Cavaradossi.

Fiona Shaw’s production of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia for Glyndebourne on tour is the darkest I’ve ever seen. The theatre in Woking was a bit big for it, but the singing and playing was uniformly excellent so I’m glad I added it to my centenary collection. It looks like there will be three operas I won’t catch this year – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Billy Budd & Paul Bunyan, though I will catch up with that in Feb (having missed curtain up by falling asleep with jet-lag in Sept!); shame, that.

Classical Music

The LPO‘s Britten Centenary concert at the RFH put together an intriguing selection of rarely performed works. The lighter first half featured a ballet suite and a folk songs suite, but the second half was more melancholic, with the song cycle Nocturne, brilliantly sung by Mark Padmore, and the Cello Symphony with soloist Truls Mork. The orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski sounded wonderful and it made me regret not booking more of the The Rest is Noise series of 20th Century music, of which this was a part.

Film

I sneaked off for an afternoon to make a dent in my growing film hit list and saw both Sunshine on Leith and Le Weekend back-to-back. Though I enjoyed both, the former probably suited me better. There are too few film musicals these days and I found SoL heart-warming, moving and funny. LW is a great and highly original midlife crisis film and it’s good to see Hanif Kureshi back in the screenplay saddle and Lindsay Duncan back on the big screen.

Filth also lived up to expectations – a thoroughly original and anarchic film that could only be made in Britain. James McAvoy’s range as an actor really is remarkable and here he’s a drink and drug addled copper with a past he can’t shake off.

Another sneaky late afternoon / evening double-bill paired Blue Jasmine and Captain Phillips. The former really is a career high for Woody Allen, who already has a whole load of career high’s. Cate Blanchet is superb, but in getting all the attention, Sally Phillips brilliant performance is being neglected (A Brit & a Kiwi leading a US film – what do we make of that?). I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film which sustains tension for over two hours, but Captain Phillips certainly does. It’s a stunning achievement for director Paul Gereengrass and again, the attention on Tom Hanks (who is excellent) ignores the superb performances by the Somalian actors playing the pirates.

Art

Elmgreen & Dragset’s six-room installation at the V&A tells the story of a failed architect by letting you view his home, now up for sale. Butlers and maids occasionally engage you in conversation, telling you stories about him and you’re even given a copy of a play called Tomorrow that features him. Outside the building, a hoarding invites you to view the apartment. An extraordinary installation.

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Opera

Even a lover of modern opera like me found American Lulu at The Young Vic challenging. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the score was the worst I’ve ever heard; positively excruciating. There’s nothing wrong with adapting Berg and moving it to 50’s-70’s USA and Lulu as a black dancer / whore makes sense. There were some excellent visuals, most created by projections onto an oval bead curtain, but nothing could block out that awful sound. You have to feel sorry for the singers and musicians who have to perform this for 100 minutes on each of 10 nights (and that’s just in London)!

Noye’s Fludde is a short opera by Benjamin Britten written for children and amateurs and the RFH turned over their ballroom for a promenade performance by the LPO, professional singers and children’s groups. It was a rare chance to catch it in this centenary year and it proved a minor treat, despite some of the children behaving as if they were in a different show or a show of their own!

Contemporary Music

I’ve enjoyed Caro Emerald’s brand of retro jazz / pop on record but wasn’t expecting the live experience to be so much fun. She’s got a terrific band, the visuals were lovely and her personality and the quality of the songs shone through. It seems to me she occupies a unique space in contemporary music which is maybe why she has attracted a big following in a short period of time.

Music Hall!

Seeing music hall in Wilton’s Music Hall, one of only two left in London, was an enticing prospect, but it turned out to be so much better. Somehow I think the venue raised the game of the performers. A pair of dancing and singing sisters, a ukulele player, a comedian and a trio of songbirds were all good, but were topped by both John Styles sets as a comic Chelsea Pensioner and a magician and Peter John’s brilliant creation of barmaid Bertha. The audience needed no encouragement to shout out and sing along and it turned into a huge treat. Encore!

 

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