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Contemporary Music

There was always a risk that Richard Thompson’s 70th birthday concert at the Royal Albert Hall was going to have so many guests that the birthday boy became an extra at his own celebration, but as it turned out he was on stage virtually throughout, whether singing his own songs or duetting with or backing his guests, and an impressive lot they were too. From The Stranglers Hugh Cornwall who was, somewhat surprisingly to most present, in a school band with him aged 14, through Fairport colleagues Dave Mattacks, Dave Pegg, Ashley Hutchings and Simon Nicol, the omnipresent Danny Thompson, Loudon Wainwright III, Martin & Eliza Carthy, Maddy Prior, Kate Rusby, Olivia Cheney, the whole Thompson clan and Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour! I could have done without one of the two Stranglers tracks and the Spinal Tap joke fell a bit flat, but there were way more highs than lows in tribute to a genuine legend who has entertained me for fifty of his seventy years.

Opera

Grimeborn continued its hugely successful roll into September with a superb and rare revival of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Monteccchi. The singing was of an extraordinarily high standard and, at close quarters in in Studio Two, very loud! Later that week, Don Jo was a spin on Mozart’s Don Giovani which was loud in another sense altogether. I’m all up for modern take’s and I was expecting some gender changes, but I wasn’t expecting the recorded music (not much of it Mozart), the fact only two of them could really sing, the long scene breaks and the tackiness of it all. It was such a contrast to the three Grimeborn high’s which had preceded it.

Classical Music

My third and final Prom, another Sunday morning one, was short in time but huge in numbers, with eight choirs totalling 600-700 singers placed in four sections of the auditorium for John Luther Adams’ In the Name of the Earth, a choral homage to the planet with percussion effects and movement from the choirs. It was hugely atmospheric and the sound just wrapped around you and filled the Royal Albert Hall. A big bold experimental success.

The opening concert of the Wigmore Hall season was a Britten feast, with four of his song cycles sung by four young British soloists – one soprano, one mezzo, a tenor and a baritone – and all of them sang beautifully. A real treat for a Britten fan.

The LSO season opening weekend at the Barbican included a rare outing (sighting!) of Messiaen’s final work Eclairs sur l’Au-dela. Famous for orchestrating birdsong and hearing colours, Messiaen’s final 70 minute work peeps into the afterlife and requires 126 players. It showed off the virtuosity of the LSO individually and collectively and Simon Rattle’s love of the work was infectious.

I don’t think I’ve ever known the sedate Wigmore Hall erupt like it did after laBarocca’s concert of the first (Italian) version of Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polierno. I don’t think I’ve seen so many, twenty, on that tiny stage either. The soprano, Roberta Mameli, blew me away and the bass sang lower than I’ve ever heard before, but I wasn’t keen on the tone of the contralto’s very deep voice. A treat nonetheless.

Film
Despite two lovely performances, I found Mrs. Lowry & Son a bit dull. It’s more BBC4 bio drama than cinema release.

More lovely performances and beautiful filming, but The Sacrifice was too art house for me, slow and ponderous.

I know it’s just posh soap opera, but I did love Downton Abbey. The strands of the story came together expertly, it’s a who’s who of fine British acting (with Imelda Staunton joining the regulars from the TV series) and it looks gorgeous.

The Last Tree was a beautifully made film which could so easily have been judgemental but was in fact hopeful. Superb performances too.

I wasn’t expecting a film about Chinese Americans returning to their homeland to say goodbye to their dying mother / grandmother to be funny, but The Farewell was, and the real life revelation at the end a delightful surprise. Charming film.

Art

Urban Impulses 1959-2016 at the Photographer’s Gallery is almost 50 years of Latin American photography, mostly in black & white and it contained some terrific images. One of the best exhibitions at this venue in a long time. Upstairs was the inaugural New Talent exhibition which contained some impressive work but was a bit skewed to the taste of its single selector / curator. I think they need a panel to ensure a diversity of work.

The William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain was very big, with the amount of detail sometimes overwhelming, and too much religious imagery for my taste, but it was a very comprehensive review of his work and life, particularly good at the biographical aspects.

I was beginning to wonder if Anthony Gormley was a one-trick pony, as all we seem to see are his cast iron men. Well, they make a spectacular appearance in one room of his Royal Academy show, but there’s so much more in the other twelve, half of it new, including two whole room works which you walk through – though he did pinch the idea of his reflective room from Richard Wilson’s 20/50!

I wasn’t sure what to expect at Tim Walker’s Wonderful Things at the V&A. I didn’t know much about the work of this photographer, probably because it’s mostly fashion, but the first room familiarises you with his posed, highly stylised, stage-manged work. From there, ten spaces each record, on ‘stage sets’ a photoshoot inspired by something in the V&A, which accompanies them – snuff boxes, Aubrey Beardsley prints, stained glass and so on. It was unique, surreal and rather extraordinary.

For Mark Leckey’s O’ Magic Power of Bleakness, Tate Britain have built a replica of the space under a motorway where he played as a child. Inside the space, there are three video works, but as we were given a leaflet just before we entered the darkness, we didn’t really understand them until we left! That said, it was strangely hypnotic, though whether it was worth all that effort and a £15 entrance fee is another matter.

Drawing Attention, an exhibition of digital architectural drawings at the Roca Gallery, was a bit specialist for me, though there were some nice images, but I was there to see Zaha Hadid’s extraordinary building anyway; a beautiful space to display up-market bathroom fittings!

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Contemporary Music

Alain (Les Mis) Boublil’s play with music, Manhattan Parisienne, was workshopped before an audience in The Other Palace Studio Theatre. It tells the story of the brief relationship between a French actress stranded in NYC and a gay cabaret pianist. Its structure was overly contrived – within, within, as it were – and some of the song choices, from both the French & American songbooks, a bit quirky, but it was performed well and as work-in-progress showed promise; well, some.

Martin Simpson’s Kings Place concert was a treat, particularly the song selection in the second half. The superb sound showed off his guitar and banjo playing and an attentive audience ensured you heard every note. Lovely.

The first concert at the new Bridge Theatre was folk-rock hero Richard Thompson, and after a hesitant start where he seemed a touch unhappy, it became one of his best solo concerts, with a superb selection from his back catalogue, great sound and a respectful audience. How wonderful to be top of your game at 68!

Opera

AAM’s contemporary semi-staged, Brexit-themed version of Purcell’s King Arthur at the Barbican Hall didn’t really work, but I admired them for trying and it was worth going for some lovely music and narrator Ray Feardon’s Henry V speech.

A challenging WNO three-opera weekend at the WMC in Cardiff started with a gorgeous Eugene Onegin, then an often thrilling Khovanshchina, culminating in From the House of the Dead, one of the first operas I ever saw, 32 years ago in the same production at ENO. The orchestra and chorus shone in all three and though by the third I was a bit exhausted, you have to admire WNO for their boldness, whilst others play safe.

Brett Dean’s opera of Hamlet at Glyndebourne (Touring Opera) proved to be one of the best new operas I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen many); indeed, one of the best operatic productions I’ve ever seen too. With music all around the auditorium as well as on stage and in the orchestra pit, it was tense and hugely atmospheric. If you think the touring cast and orchestra (starting with three performances at home) would be second best, think again – they were sensational!

Dance

14 Days is the fourth Ballet Boyz show I’ve seen at Sadler’s Wells and quite possibly the best, largely because it consists of five very different pieces, each by a different choreographer and composer, each one mesmerising from start to finish. Wow!

Film

Victoria & Abdul was a delight, much funnier than I was expecting, a sumptuous production with superb performances.

I liked Blade Runner 2049, though it was too long and a touch overblown. Brilliantly filmed, though.

I enjoyed The Party, and the ending was a genuine surprise, but at 70 mins in B&W maybe I should have waited for the inevitable TV showing?

The Death of Stalin is Armando Iannucci on audacious form again, this time with a cast to die for, including a rare film appearance from acting hero Simon Russell Beale. Brilliantly blackly funny.

Art

At the RA there are another two great exhibitions to add to Matisse in the Studio. Dali / Duchamp is fairly small, but a fascinating comparison and juxtaposition of two artists, contemporaries and friends. Dali comes off better. Jasper Johns’ Something Resembling Truth is much bigger, and a revelation for me, though I did begin to overdose by the end, and on number pictures before then!

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Contemporary Music

Richard Thompson’s solo acoustic concert at Cadogan Hall was a real treat – one guitar, no time-wasting and a selection of songs from his entire career. He responded to an audience request for Fergus Lang, his song about Trump’s (mis)adventures in Scotland before he put himself forward as a candidate and updated it, though as he said it needs updating daily! There was excellent support from Emily Barker; one to watch.

This was the first time I’d attended the Transatlantic Sessions at the Royal Festival Hall, the ultimate folk & roots supergroup with a core of players and guest singers, but it won’t be the last. The sound wasn’t great (sixteen players / singers in the mix) though it got better and from half-way through the first half it took off with lots of real highs.

Classical Music

Jonas Kaufmann‘s recital at the Barbican Hall was my first live experience of this much lauded tenor and he didn’t disappoint. I thought it was a well selected programme of Schumann, Duparc and Britten sung in German, French & Italian. Gorgeous.

Opera

Royal Academy Opera’s Orpheus & Enefers at Hackney Empire was enormous fun, but also of the highest quality, with the stage and pit bursting with talent, brilliant design and a conductor who was visibly having the time of his life in the perfect venue. Welsh soprano Alys Roberts as Eurydice is a real find; a future star if ever I saw one.

Adriana Lecouvreur was the best thing I’ve seen at the Royal Opera for some time. It’s astonishing that this was only the 15th performance of this underrated Pucciniesque 115-year-old opera. The design was sumptuous and handsome and in period and the four leading roles were stunningly sung. American tenor Brian Jagde was new to me and he was sensational. Angela Georgiou was excellent, but I do wish she didn’t milk her bows so much!

My February visit to WNO in Cardiff was a Puccini sandwich with Vin Herbe filling. First up was a revival of their lovely La Boheme which was even better second time round, largely because of faultless casting. This was followed by Le Vin Herbe, the UK stage premiere of Swiss Frank Martin’s take on Tristan & Isolde. He wrote it to reclaim the folk tale from the Nazi hijacking of Wagner’s opera. It was sung storytelling with the chorus centre stage, an unusual piece but it captivated me. The second Puccini was their 39-year-old production of Madam Butterfly. The design might look a bit dated, but everything else was fresh, with beautiful singing and playing. A terrific trio.

Film

I loved 20th Century Women, a quirky, very un-Hollywood film set in a Bohemian home in California. Annette Benning and her screen son were superb.

Hidden Figures had the usual dose of American sentimentality, but it seems timely to be reminded that segregation in the US was still there just fifty years ago, and the film does it very well indeed.

Fences was the least cinematic film I’ve seen in ages, feeling much like watching one of those NT Live screenings, but the direction and performances were stunning and August Wilson’s story was as intense and gripping as it was on stage.

Moonlight was my 7th Oscar Best Picture nominee. A beautifully crafted film; a compelling watch. Of course, like the other five, I didn’t think for one minute that it would beat La La Land, so the following morning I was both surprised and delighted that it did.

Art

The Paul Nash exhibition at Tate Britain was thoroughly comprehensive and mostly gorgeous. He lost me a bit with the still life’s and early ventures into surrealism, but on the whole a real treat.

Sculptor Richard Wilson is a real favourite. His Annely Juda exhibition was taxing on the brain, but worth the trip, with more David Hockney prints of his iPad drawings downstairs a real bonus.

The Gavin Turk retrospective at his chum Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery had its moments but you end up concluding he’s more of a minor than major contemporary British artist. I thought the ‘homages’ to Warhol and Pollock were lazy art and the final room of rubbish, well rubbish.

The late Zaha Hadid‘s exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery was a very pleasant surprise. A very beautiful selection of art meets architecture digital works which are technically accomplished but also very pleasing on the eye.

Anselm Kiefer‘s Walhalla exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey was vast, extraordinary and on the last weekend so popular you had to queue for a few minutes (I’ve never seen so many people in a private gallery). Mixed media and immersive art at its best; he shot up in my estimation.

The small Frank Brangwyn exhibition at the William Morris Gallery explored his Japanese influences and his relationship with a Japanese artist who made gorgeous woodcuts from some of his works. It really whetted my appetite for my visit to Brangwyn Hall in Swansea later in the same week.

Small too was the Australian Impressionists exhibition at the National Gallery, with only 41 pictures by 4 artists, some of which I’d seen the year before last in Melbourne and Sydney, but the quality more than made up for the quantity. Gorgeous.

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Contemporary Music

Surely Richard Thompson hasn’t ever had a band as good as his current trio? His Royal Festival Hall show was the second time I’d seen them in 2.5 years and they’ve got even better. They were such a tight unit and RT was on fire playing guitar. There were so many highlights, but an acoustic Meet Me On The Ledge and a cover of Hey Joe stood out for me. His daughter Kami and her partner did such a lovely 40-minutes in support you had to forgive the nepotism!

Cynthia Erivo‘s late-night ‘bon voyage’ concert (she’s off to Broadway!) at the Hippodrome was a real treat, with a host of great guests that I wasn’t expecting, including Richard Fleeshman (terrific pianist too!) Robert Dean Wilson, Alison Jiear and Eva Noblezada. The vocals were occasionally too unrestrained, but that’s easily forgiven because of the show’s many highs and the emotion of the occasion. Let’s hope they don’t keep her there!

Opera

The Royal Opera’s Orphee et Eurydice felt more like a staged concert, with the orchestra and choir on stage and no set as such. Hofesh Schecter’s dancers were mostly underutilised, but somehow it proved satisfying overall. Gluck’s music was played and sung beautifully and it was this that mattered most, carrying the evening.

Classical Music

The Bernstein Prom was one of the hottest tickets this year and I failed to get an extra single despite trying almost daily. It turned out to be a real highlight too, a lovely combination of stage and screen works with the emphasis on songs from shows. The John Wilson Orchestra sounded great and the soloists were terrific, with Scarlett Strallen bringing the house down with Glitter & Be Gay. Some say the Proms are dumbing down with populist stuff like this, but that’s tosh – Bernstein is a 20th century titan and his stage and screen works are more than worthy of treatment in this way.

Dance

Lest We Forget was a triumph for English National Ballet; three works marking the centenary of the start of the First World War by three great modern choreographers – Liam Scarlett, Russell Maliphant and Akram Khan.  I feel lucky to have seen the early revival. They were extraordinarily diverse pieces, but all were stunning in both visual imagery and emotional power. One of the most perfect evenings of dance I’ve ever experienced.

I haven’t seen Les Ballets de Trocadero de Monte Carlo for many years and I’d forgotten what fun this all-male company is. The parody of classical ballet is brilliant, but what I realised this time is how skilled they really are as ballet dancers. A hoot.

I gave the Hofesh Shechter Company a second chance as I wasn’t sure after Political Mother, but the barbarians trilogy didn’t convince me I’m afraid. The visual imagery was often striking, but the lack of a cohesive narrative meant that it didn’t sustain its 90 minute running time.

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Contemporary Music

I couldn’t do either of the Richard Thompson London dates, something which became even more frustrating after I’d bought his great new album. Almost by accident, just a couple of weeks in advance, I discovered he was playing St. Albans on my birthday, they had a few tickets left, it was only 20 mins from St. Pancras and nearby friends fancied it. How serendipitous is that? It had to be great, and it was. His new trio makes a superb sound, the song selection was excellent and the guitar playing beyond genius. As he was about to start the third encore, he joked that they fancied themselves as a power trio but were 50 years late, then broke into a stunning version of Cream’s White Room; it was a bit high for his voice and he stumbled on the words, but the playing was magnificent. Combined with some Roman history (theatre, mosaic and museum), the gorgeous cathedral and lovely Lebanese food, it was a proper birthday treat.

I couldn’t make the original one week run of Maria Friedman‘s Sondheim / Bernstein show at The Pheasantry, so I was delighted when she added a couple of nights, one of which I could do. A brilliant selection of songs, superb arrangements and accompaniment from Jason Carr and a quiet, respectful audience made for a sensational evening that was often moving, often funny and always captivating. Her personality really shines and no-one else can interpret a song like she does. Unmissable, and I didn’t!

Opera

I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed an opera as much as Medea at ENO. It’s not particularly great music (not a patch on Handel) but David McVicar’s production, Bunny Christie’s design, Lynne Page’s choreography, conductor Christian Curnyn’s musical direction and above all a set of fine performances made it a real treat, particularly Sarah Connolly’s superb Medea and Roderick Williams’ brilliant Orontes. The story is in some ways different to the play (which I’ve seen a lot!) but it still makes a great tragedy. A treat!

Imeneo is an unusual Handel opera as it isn’t based on some epic historical tale; it’s a simple story of whether Imeneo gets the girl he wants as a reward for freeing her and her friend from pirates  – should duty be above love. There’s just about enough story for a 2-hour opera and it suits this modern setting at a spa hotel by the sea, where fun can be had with treatments and smartphones. There’s some gorgeous music and the cast of five and small chorus of six are excellent, with Laurence Cummings & the London Handel Orchestra making a terrific sound in the pit. Hannah Sandison & Katherine Crompton were outstanding and counter-tenor Tai Oney showcased a fine distinctive voice. Lovely.

Classical Music

My second Britten centenary event was the (Royal) Academy (of Music) Song Circle at Wigmore Hall with a recital of 20 songs in five languages. Many of these are challenging pieces for any singer, let alone young singers, but Sonia Grane, Angharad Lyddon, Simon Furness and Gareth John were all superb, as were accompanists Manon Ablett and Finnigan Downie Dear. Yet again, I am in awe of the musical talent we have here in London. Two down, c.18 to go!

During a visit to Budapest, I went to the lovely State Opera House for a concert performance of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion – on Easter Saturday! – and lovely it was too. There was a raised pit for the orchestra, the soloists were on stage behind them, and the chorus were behind a gauze screen on which they projected words and images. It benefited from being sung through without an interval, though this was challenging for the more fidgety audience members.

LSO‘s pairing of the hardly known Stabat Mater by the almost unknown Szymanowski with the ever so well-known Brahms Requiem was inspired. The former turns out to be somewhat Goreckian (though it pre-dates his 3rd Symphony by c.50 years!) and I rather liked hearing it for the first time. Somehow, the Brahms lacked sparkle – certainly not due to the soloists (Sally Matthews and Christopher Maltman) and not really to the playing of the LSO or the singing of the LSC, but lacked sparkle it did. A bit of a puzzle.

Dance

BalletBoyz: The Talent 2013 shows extraordinary growth since their first work four or so years ago. This group of 10 male dancers are unique and the new pieces from Liam Scarlett and Russell Maliphant, though quite different,  both suited them perfectly. Scarlett’s Serpent flowed organically in a hypnotic way whilst Maliphant’s Fallen was edgier and animalistic; I loved them both.

I got the last ticket for Arthur Pita’s dance-theatre piece The Metamorphosis on the day of the performance and it will no doubt be in my highlights of the year when things booked six months before will be forgotten! It’s the first time I’ve seen The Linbury Studio Theatre at Covent Garden in traverse, which meant a better view from my standing position.  Kafka’s tale of a man who turns into an insect is puzzling but mesmerizing and Edward Watson is extraordinary, moving in ways I didn’t think were possible for 80 minutes (8 times in 8 days!). Never has a spontaneous standing ovation been so richly deserved.

Over in Budapest, I saw a lovely production of John Cranko’s ballet of Onegin The music is a mash-up of Tchaikovsky pieces, the design was gorgeous and the dancing beautiful. It was hard to follow the story as they’d run out of programmes (which contained the synopsis in English), so I just let it wash over me – aurally and visually – without really caring what it was all about!

 Art

 An afternoon of two contrasting exhibitions started at the gorgeous (but not very suitable) Two Temple Place for a show called Amongst Heros : the artist in working Cornwall. It’s mostly 19th / 20th century pictures of fishing and fishermen with seascapes and mining scenes and portraits of locals. The highlights were by Charles Napier Hemy (who has popped up all over the place since I first saw his work in Penzance) and Stanhope Forbes, someone new to me whose pictures are wonderful and who will hopefully now also pop up all over the place. At Tate Modern, the Roy Liechtenstein retrospective proves he’s not a one-trick pony in terms of subjects, but is in terms of technique and style. The cartoons are well-known but the landscapes, abstracts etc less so and I enjoyed seeing them, but by the 14th room you’re more than sated.

I thoroughly enjoyed Light Show at the Hayward Gallery – 25 installations that play with light in some way. In addition to the usual suspects like Turrell and Flavin, there were lots of new names (to me). The booking system meant that the numbers were well controlled; great to see a gallery not being too greedy at the expense of visitor enjoyment.

The Bride & The Bachelors at the Barbican Art Gallery brings together the work of ‘artists’ Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg & Jasper Johns with the music of John Cage and the dance of Merce Cunningham. For me, it’s well curated bollocks, particularly the work of Duchamp, the key influence on the others. Some of Johns’ work is good as is some of Cage’s, but the rest seems pointless to me.

I have to confess I’d never heard of artist Kurt Schwitters. Some of his Tate Britain exhibition was familiar, though, but I think this may be indicative of his influence rather than previous sightings. His collages date back to the 30’s and seem ahead of their time, but there were an awful lot of them and it got a bit monotonous. I rather liked Simon Starling‘s Duveen Gallery commission – a film of previous commissions (apparently re-staged) made by what looked like a flying camera, and the screen the only object in a giant atmospherically lit space.

George Bellows at the RA is a great exhibition of an artist I’ve never heard of. His late 19th / early 20th century paintings and drawings vary from boxing to cityscapes to landscapes to portraits to seascapes and they are wonderful. How is it possible someone this good can pass you by?

Back at the NPG, there’s a surprisingly good exhibition of George Catlin‘s paintings of native Americans first shown in London in 1840. The blurb accompanying a picture of the Mandan tribe suggested they intermarried with descendants of a 12th century Welsh prince called Madoc; that came as a bit of a shock!

At Somerset House, there’s an eclectic exhibition of photos called Landmark which ranges from landscapes to satellite shots to arty images, but all with the theme of planet Earth and an underlying environmental message. It was very good, but I wish they’d said where each picture was taken as I kept puzzling over locations!

Film

I thoroughly enjoyed Arbitrage, a multi-layered piece about a wealthy New York financier who embarks on both a business and personal cover up. It’s a gripping thriller which takes unexpected turns and Richard Gere is outstanding in the lead role.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to see Side Effects, but I was so glad I did. It lulls you into thinking you know what it’s about then turns a corner and takes you somewhere else. It really did keep you guessing until the end and enthralled throughout.

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The Wainwright-McGarrigle musical dynasty has been part of my life now for 40 years. The first Kate & Anna McGarrigle album is on my personal soundtrack of the 70’s. Loudon was always lingering there in the background, though I never took to his quirkiness as I did to the McGarrigles gorgeous harmonies. I came late to Rufus, when Want One bowled me over little more than 6 years ago, but have since bought every record and taken every opportunity to see him live. A year or so later I went to see Martha at the Bloomsbury Theatre out of curiosity (with a singer-songwriter called James Morrison supporting!) and from then I was hooked on her too. She provided one of the highlights of 2010 with a solo show at the Jazz Cafe, a break from nursing her premature baby, and contributed greatly to another highlight, the Kate McGarrigle tribute concert that was part of Richard Thompson’s Meltdown – another musical dynasty – which I suspect will prove to be a highlight of a lifetime of concert-going let alone last year.

When I heard Rufus was to have a one week residency at the Royal Opera House, I couldn’t decide if it was brave, arrogant or sheer chutzpah. After picking myself off the floor having seen the ticket prices, it wasn’t difficult to decide which of the concerts to go to. I’d seen his opera Prima Donna twice, so I didn’t want to see part of it in concert, and I wasn’t sure he and his dad Loudon were particularly compatible stage partners.

The first of my selected two was his concert with sister Martha. This may be Rufus’ ROH debut, but it wasn’t Martha’s as she’d been part of a brilliant production of Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins here a few years back. This concert wasn’t what I was expecting, and I suspect fans of the family liked it more than those of just Rufus, but it was still a treat. Martha, after a slow start, delivered a wonderfully eclectic hour of her own songs plus some from her mum and a couple of Piaf’s. She’s growing into as much of an original and as much of a star as her brother. I was expecting Rufus to give us his own selection, but half-way through, on came Martha, then cousin Lily (Anna’s daughter), and we got another eclectic selection which included more Kate McGarrigle songs, a Leonard Cohen song (‘my father-in-law, well, sort of’!) and the Elton John / Kiki Dee duet Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, which was huge fun. Calum, the son of Ewan MacColl (another folk dynasty!) was on guitar so we got Ewan’s lovely homage to London – Sweet Thames, Flow Softly – which was deeply moving, though not as moving as Kate’s Talk To Me of Mendocino, where there wasn’t a dry eye in my seat in the House of Rufus.

When he first did Rufus Does Judy, I couldn’t get excited about it. I wasn’t a Judy Garland fan and didn’t really see the point. Much later, I caught it on TV and then got the point, so seeing it live became a must. By the interval, I wasn’t sure but the second half (when he came on as a queen in crown and robe!) soared and my the end I was absolutely convinced. The arrangements are terrific and his extraordinary voice really suits these songs. The Britten Sinfonia, under Stephen Oremus, was a great backing band, though a shade too loud occasionally, burying the voice. Highlights included two songs with just piano – Gershwin’s A Foggy Day and Noel Coward’s If Love Were All – plus You Go To My Head, Putting on the Ritz, Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart and Chicago. Martha’s almost stole the show with a brilliant version of Stormy Weather (in tutu, tiara and some accomplished but tongue-in-cheek ballet moves!).

So, not arrogant…..yes, brave……yes, chutzpah……and two fine musical evenings I shall cherish with all the other Wainwright-McGarrigle memories.

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Contemporary Music

Richard Thompson recorded his latest album, Dream Attic, live in concert and it was even better live in concert! The whole of the first half of his new show was taken from the album, then in the second half he gave us a superb selection of songs from his back catalogue that particularly suited this band’s inclusion of sax and violin. The selection really showcased his stunning rock guitar playing; the rockiest Thompson show for ages and a real treat – and including all the Meltdown shows, the 6th time I’ve seen him in 8 months!

Classical Music

I’ve waited a long time to see Gustavo Dudamel conduct, having had to sell my ticket for a concert with his Venezuelan youth orchestra as I was working abroad. Of his two programmes with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, I fancied the Adams / Bernstein / Beethoven combination. The Adams was new to be but I enjoyed it very much, mostly because the orchestra made a glorious sound. I loved the first two movements of Bernstein’s 1st, but found the final vocal movement somewhat lacking. Judging by the polite applause at the end of this half, the rest of the audience seemed underwhelmed, but they went bezerk for the Beethoven 7th. Though I enjoyed it, the standing ovation seemed a bit OTT – I’ve seen a lot more thrilling concerts by the LSO at the same venue. Maybe I should have chosen the Mahler?

As if to prove this point, just three days later the LSO provided such a treat, and rare opportunity to hear Elgar’s oratorio The Kingdom, with a favourite conductor, Mark Elder, at the helm. Why oh why is a great piece like this rarely sung when oratorios by Handel, Bach etc. are two a penny? It’s a lovely piece and was beautifully played and sung. Soloists Iain Patterson, Sarah Connelly and Susan Gritton (a late substitute) were excellent, though Stuart Skelton’s performance was marred by illness. The LSO Chorus was on fine form yet again. LAP 1 – LSO 2.

The month ended at St Peter’s church inside the Tower of London for a concert of Handel, Purcell and Dowland songs and arias with organ, cello and recorder accompaniment. Young sopranos Alison Hill and Sophie Jones alternated the Handel German arias with the English songs and both sang well, Sophie really shining at times. It’s a lovely church (with amazing views of Tower Bridge from outside) with a lovely atmosphere and good acoustics.

Film

I adored The King’s Speech. Colin Firth is terrific, but the spotlight on him means an awful lot of other superb performances get overlooked It’s a great story told with such sensitivity and much humour, beautifully designed and filmed. This was the last production funded by the UK Film Council before its sad demise – will we see such a high quality British film ever again?

NEDS got off to a slow start but eventually the story of a Glasgow boy’s decline from talented teenager to virtual psychopath became compelling. Minutes before it ended I was expecting to leave the cinema depressed, but a surprising surreal and somewhat hopeful ended prevented that. I’m normally good at understanding accents, but a good percentage of the thick Glaswegian was impenetrable and made Trainspotting seem like BBC best!

I found Black Swan a bit confusing; I didn’t always understand what was happening in her head and what was for real. I also found it a bit disturbing; I’ve seen more violent films, but I had to close my eyes more than usual (and I was awake!). Still, the film-making was superb; I found myself admiring it more than enjoying it.

Art

The second part of the Saatchi Gallery’s Newspeak collection of contemporary British art was better than the first, though it’s again very hit-and-miss. Still, it’s free and makes for an interesting hour or so.

The Art of the Album – a promising exhibition of original album art at gallery@oxo proved a bit of a disappointment – more about selling pricey limited addition prints than the quality of the artwork.

Over at White Cube, though I’ve liked some of his earlier work, Gregory Crewdson’s B&W photos of a dilapidated Italian film lot did absolutely nothing for me I’m afraid. The trip was made worthwhile by popping in to Chris Beetles nearby for their annual Illustrators exhibition, which this year packed in more than usual (too many?) into their two floors of a pair of terrace buildings. It’s an eclectic selection from Lucy Atwell to Quentin Blake with quite a few treats to hunt out.

Another few hours to kill between work and fun became an underwhelming visit to three small exhibitions. Bridget Riley at the National Gallery was a one-room 12-picture disappointment, more because of the uninspiring later coloured work than the size of the exhibition. The Robert Mapplethorpe photos at Alison Jaques were just as disappointing, this time because it’s an odd collection which doesn’t hang together particularly well – it was curated by The Scissor Sisters because they’ve used his photos on their album(s)! Neither could prepare me, though, for the cynical money grab of Gilbert & George’s new work at White Cube – 155 sets of 13 mounted postcards and phone-box adverts. This is business not art!

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