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Posts Tagged ‘Royal Academy of Music’

This latest (last?) Stephen Sondheim musical has had a tortuous journey since it was first workshopped by Sam Mendes in New York City in 1999. First produced in Washington and Chicago (where I first saw it) in 2003, it re-appeared Off-Broadway in 2008 but never made The Great White Way. It started as Wise Guys before it became Gold!, Bounce and eventually Road Show. It’s not even five years since it’s UK premiere at The Menier Chocolate Factory (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/07/15/road-show), but it’s good to see it again in this revival by Phil Willmott at the Union Theatre.

The show presents the story of the real life Mizner brothers. Younger brother Wilson was a serial entrepreneur / chancer / con-man and Addison a self-trained architect. Their adventures started with the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897, moved to New York City in its hey-day and ended with ground-breaking property development in Florida. In between, Wilson gambles, runs a saloon, becomes a boxing manager, writes plays, sells Latin American furniture, becomes a hotelier and marries a very rich widow. Addison’s journey was less colourful! In truth, in the show their story isn’t anywhere near as exciting and doesn’t make as good source material as any other Sondheim show, but compared to mere mortals it ain’t half bad. The score has too few proper songs and a bit too much ensemble sung dialogue / story, with a lot of melodies that seem familiar from other Sondheim shows.

Phil Willmott’s production is very effective, probably more so that the Menier’s traverse staging. The big two-way mirror at the back works really well and full use is made of the space, making it seem bigger than usual. I particularly liked Thomas Michal Voss’ choreography and Richard Baker’s trio does full justice to the complex, difficult score. The casting of the brothers is crucial to the success of this show and this is its trump card. Howard Jenkins and Andre Refig, both recent RAM graduates with fine vocal and acting skills, are terrific, conveying the completely different personalities, yet totally believable as brothers. The other three leads and ensemble of ten are all very good, but they carry the show.

I wasn’t sure we’d ever see this flawed but fascinating show again and I worried it might be soon to return to it, but I’m very glad I did.

 

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Best New Play – Violence & Son / Iphigenia in Splott

What a bumper year for new plays. I saw more than 80 and almost half of these made it onto the long list. The final cut saw a very diverse bunch competing. At the NT, a brilliant adaptation of Jane Eyre and a stunning ‘mash-up’ of three D H Lawrence plays as Husbands and Sons, a very radical adaptation of Everyman, the somewhat harrowing People Place & Things, the highly original Rules for Living and the expletive-loaded Mother*****r With the Hat. Two ‘minimalist’ Mike Bartlett contributions – Bull at the Young Vic and Game at the Almeida, both original and hugely impressive. The Young Vic also staged Ivo van Hove’s stunning Songs From Far Away. The Royal Court gave us Martin McDonough’s black comedy Hangman, Debbie Tucker Green’s distressing hang and a play about the NHS, Who Cares?, which took place all over the theatre. At The Donmar, Temple was a more conservative but beautifully written piece about the impact of Occupy outside St. Pauls on those inside. The Bush surprised with The Royale, a play about boxing, my least favourite sport, and The Arcola hosted one about rugby, the deeply moving NTW / Out of Joint verbatim collaboration, Crouch Touch Pause Engage as well as the lovely Eventide and Clarion. Jessica Swale graced the Globe with another superb historical play, Nell Gwynn, with the lovely Farinelli & the King next door in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. I was much more positive than most about Future Conditional, a topical analysis of our broken education system, which kicked off the new regime at the Old Vic. Elsewhere in the West End only Photograph 51, Taken at Midnight (from Chichester), Oppenheimer (from Stratford) and Bad Jews made the cut. The Park continued to make itself indispensable with The Gathered Leaves and Theatre 503 punched above its weight with Rotterdam, a sensitive and very funny exploration of transgender issues. Southwark Playhouse found one of the best Tennessee Williams’s rarities, One Arm. Earlier in the year, Hampstead gave us the very underrated Luna Gale and topped this with Ian Kelly’s Mr Foote’s Other Leg, and even the late Arthur Miller was a candidate with the belated world premiere of his first play No Villain, but it was Gary Owen’s contributions that pipped everyone else at the post – Violence & Son, a striking modern family drama at the Royal Court Upstairs, and Iphigene in Splott, a Greek adaptation (but radical enough to be considered a new play) which packed more punch than most in a year abundant with Greek adaptations, which started in Cardiff and toured via the Edinburgh fringe ending up at the NT’s temporary space.

Best Revival – Les Liasons Dangereuses

I saw half as many revivals as new plays, and only a quarter of them made the long list. The best Shakespeare’s were both at the Young Vic – a shockingly modern Measure for Measure and a dance-drama Macbeth. The best of the Greeks were the Almeida’s Orestia and Stratford East’s Antigone, which out-shone the high profile Barbican-Van Hove-Binoche one. The Donmar pitched in with Patrick Marber’s Closer, embarrassingly better than his NT contributions this year, though the NT did shine with both Our Country’s Good The Beaux Stratagem, with particularly good use of music. The Globe gave us a very quick revival of Heresy of Love and the Open Air Theatre’s adaptation of Peter Pan was a triumph, but it was the long-overdue revival of Christopher Hampton’s masterpiece that ended the year with a theatrical feast.

Best New Musical – Bend It Like Beckham

Of the 50 musicals I saw in London, only 40% qualify as New Musicals and only seven made the final cut. I very much enjoyed wallowing in the nostalgia of both Carole King’s biographical Beautiful and the brilliantly staged Bert Bacharach compilation What’s It All About? (renamed Close to You for the West End). Xanadu was a hoot at Southwark Playhouse, which also hosted the very original Teddy, and the ever reliable Union pitched in with Spitfire Grill and The White Feather, a winner in any other year I suspect. Kinky Boots was great fun, but it was Howard Goodall’s brilliant Bend It Like Beckham, the a feel-good triumph which I’m about to see for the third time, that brought a breath of fresh air and a new audience to the West End.

Best Musical Revival – Grand Hotel

A better hit rate for musical revivals, with half of the 30 I saw in contention. The year started with a stunning revival of City of Angels which benefitted from the intimacy of the Donmar and ended with a very rare revival of Funny Girl which didn’t benefit from the intimacy of the Menier (but was still a highlight, and which I expect to be better at the Savoy, which hosted Gypsy which is also on on the list). It took two attempts to see the Open Air’s thrilling Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, but well worth the return on a dry evening. Ye Olde Rose & Crowne in Walthamstow gave us notable revivals of both Face the Music and Bye Bye Birdie and the Landor chipped in with Thoroughly Modern Millie. A rare treat at the Royal Academy was Michel Legrand’s Amour and a unique experience at Belmarsh Young Offenders Institute where Pimlico Opera staged Our House with the residents and Suggs himself. I missed the same show at the Union, but did make three other revivals there – Whistle Down the Wind, Loserville and most especially Spend Spend Spend, my runner up. However, Thom Sutherland’s production of Grand Hotel at Southwark Playhouse was as close to perfection as you can get and made me look again at a show I had hitherto been underwhelmed by, and that’s what makes it the winner.

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This musical by Michel Legrand had a short run on Broadway in 2002 and, despite being a commercial flop, managed to get some Tony nominations, including Best Score. A Broadway musical it is not, but a delightful, funny, charming, tuneful chamber musical it is, and the Royal Academy of Music’s British première is both a coup and a triumph.

Based on a short story by Marcel Ayme, and set in early 50’s Paris, the show follows civil servant Dusoleil’s through his very dull life – until he discovers he can walk through walls! – entirely in song; around 40 of them in fact, some quite short. He consults a doctor but doesn’t take the prescribed medication, and does nothing much with his new powers until he gets a nasty new boss on which he exerts revenge. This leads him into a life of crime and he ends up in prison, which of course isn’t much of a problem for a man who can walk through walls. When he escapes he meets Isabelle, abused by her husband, and he uses his powers for clandestine visits to see her. When he gets a headache, he takes the prescribed medication mistakenly for asprin and loses his powers.  When he finally ends up in court, he finds he’s a bit of a folk hero.

The story is immortalised in Paris by a statue, a fact made great use of in the show. The tunes are lovely and Jeremy Sams’ English lyrics are very funny indeed. Director Hannah Chissick’s excellent staging, with a simple monochrome design by Adrian Gee, has a lightness of touch and flow that has a lot to do with the movement of co-director and choreographer Matthew Cole. Jordan Li-Smith’s seven piece band plays the jazz influenced score beautifully and there are some fine voices in the cast of nine led by Chris McGuigan, who navigates Dusoleil’s journey from dull bureaucrat to a man uncomfortable with his powers to a more bold one using them freely. They all deliver in both the vocal and acting departments and once you’re into the unusual rhythm of the piece, you’re drawn in by its charm and humour.

A delightful show and showcase for some outstanding talent that I’m sure we’re going to be seeing much more of.

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Classical Music

I was perhaps a little too excited about the Berlin Phil / Rattle Sibelius cycle at the Barbican. I enjoyed it very much, but it wasn’t the life-changing event the eye-watering prices and the hype might make you expect. It dipped a bit in the second concert with the particularly dark and difficult 4th, but it was great to hear them all together again, one of the best sets of symphonies ever written.

Another free lunchtime concert at the Royal Academy of Music proved to be a real treat. It’s wonderful to see world class conductors like Sir Mark Elder give up their time to helm and nurture the Academy Symphony Orchestra and his introductions are informative and welcoming. The newly orchestrated Six Songs from a Shropshire Lad (Butterworth / Houseman) were beautifully sung by Henry Neill and this was followed by a thrilling interpretation of Shostakovich’s 6th. Lovely.

Any qualms I had about the Sibelius cycle were wiped away by the same team’s concert at the Royal Festival Hall of Mahler’s 2nd symphony. Joined by the LSC, CBSO Chorus and two soloists, this was unquestionably the best I’ve heard this work. The chorus sung without scores and there was some interesting offstage positioning of musicians. The power of 250 performers is extraordinary.

Back at the Royal Academy of Music, this time for Rachmaninov’s 2nd symphony conducted by Edward Gardner. I’d never heard it before but is was accessible on first hearing and packed full of lovely melodies. The talent on stage was extraordinary; if you’d paid full whack at a major concert hall, you’d go home happy. This was a lunchtime freebie!

Opera

I’ve seen opera in the cinema before, but Der Fliegende Hollander was my first ROH Live experience. Favourite baritone Bryn Terfel as the Dutchman wasn’t the only great thing about it – the Senta, Adrianne Pieczonka, was new to me and I thought she was wonderful and the orchestra and chorus sounded great. With top price seats in the opera house at £190 (four times as much as seeing Terfel in the same opera in Cardiff, albeit not as good a production) I felt my £13 cinema experience was terrific value.

I’d seen the production at ENO of Mastersingers of Nuremberg when WNO premièred it in Cardiff (again with Bryn Terfel, but in German and at a third of the price!) but decided I’d like to see it again. I enjoyed it just as much from my more expensive less comfortable seat further away! The cast was faultless and the orchestra and chorus soared. There’s a lot of flab in this opera, but when it shines it takes your breath away.

Film

What a wonderful film Trash is. Stephen Daldry has given us a thriller with a heart set in Rio and performed mostly in Portuguese, which would have been a BAFTA and Oscar Best Film nominee if it hadn’t! The child actors are extraordinary. Unmissable.

I admired Inherent Vice but it lost me after 30 mins or so and never fully recovered. Joaquin Phoenix is terrific and the depiction of the 70’s is great, but it’s overlong and a bit too convoluted.

Shaun the Sheep is another delightful family film, this time from trusty Ardman. I was surprised but pleased to find it had no dialogue and the visual humour was wonderful, some reserved for the adults like all good family entertainment. Brilliant.

Love is Strange was an impulsive punt based on Time Out’s review. It’s a beautifully understated and unsentimental love story which is also achingly sad. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are so believable as the couple whose lives are turned upside down in the 40th year of their relationship.

Selma is an excellent film, though the events depicted made me very angry and I was astonished when I realised this was only 50 years ago. The failure to nominate David Oyelowo for either the BAFTA’s or Oscars is a disgrace; Eddie Redmayne’s achievement is probably greater, but this is still a superb performance.

I’m a sucker for British romantic comedies and The Second Best Marigold Hotel was a treat. It might be safe and predictable, as the critics suggest, but it’s warm-hearted, charming and entertaining, with a cast of our best thespians having a ball.

Art

A richly rewarding morning in Oxford provided one major exhibition and three smaller ones at the lovely Ashmolean. As major exhibitions go, the William Blake one is small, but beautifully formed. It provides insight into his life and embraces the full range of his talent, as engraver, poet, painter and drawer. Chicago artist Ed Paschke is new to me and I liked his colourful, vibrant, stylised and a touch surreal pictures. The Tokaido Road print series by Japanese master engraver Hiroshige provided a brilliant contrast and a diverse selection of paintings by contemporary Chinese artist Fang Zhaoling completed the visit. A treat.

A less rewarding visit to Tate Modern started with Conflict, Time, Photography. It’s a very good idea – photographs of war zones taken at various times after a conflict – but it’s vast, daunting and relentlessly dark and depressing. It covers conflicts over a 150-year period, but it concentrates on the last 65. It comes to life occasionally, but its a case of more is less I’m afraid. In the Turbine Hall, Richard Tuttle’s installation is probably the most uninspiring they’ve ever had, but the visit picked up seeing South African Marlene Dumas’ The Image as Burden, a highly original portraitist whose images are somewhat spooky but high in atmosphere. Fascinating.

 

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Contemporary Music

I so wish John Grant hadn’t started dabbling in electronica, because even his older songs are now all beginning to sound the same. Without it, the songs shine and the voice soars and much of his Roundhouse concert was stunning, but some of it was annoyingly dated 80’s electromush! Icelandic support act Samaris had two Biorkesque female voices but a similar electronica background which grated on me, I’m afraid.

Classical Music

Going to see Daniel (younger brother of Henry) Purcell’s The Judgement of Paris at St. John’s Concert Hall was a bit of a punt but worth the effort. It was written for the composer X-Factor of its day with four others in contention, using the same William Congreve libretto. It’s one of the first operas written, though not a particularly good one, telling the story of Paris’ goddess beauty parade to select a wife, but the five soloists, Spiritato orchestral ensemble & Rodolfus Choir under Julian Perkins did it full justice.

I like early music and have heard Rameau works before, but didn’t know much about Les Indes Galantes. It was an extraordinary ‘opera’ with five loosely connected ‘courses’ set on an Indian Ocean island, the Peru of the Incas and with Native Americans, amongst others. Each story was told quite quickly, followed by longer musical ‘interludes’. It was a long evening at the Barbican, but it was all beautifully played and sung by six soloists, ensemble Les Talens Lyriques and the Chorus of Opera National de Bordeaux under Christophe Rousset.

A lunchtime freebie at the Royal Academy of Music turned out to be a real treat. Sir Mark Elder led their Chamber Orchestra (seemed a bit big for that title to me!) in a programme of Verdi overtures and preludes, with a bonus aria from Dennis O’Neill no less, and an informative and entertaining commentary from the conductor. The orchestra sounded so much more than conservatoire students and were often thrilling, just like they were for Edward Gardiner last year.

The second of Lucy Parham’s composer portraits at St. John’s Concert Hall, Odyssey of Love, focused on Liszt. It was a little lighter than the previous one, with Martin Jarvis and Joanna David bringing some humour to the tales of his sex life, but just as fascinating and a superb introduction to a composer I know little of. Now I can’t wait for the next two in the autumn.

Imagine a school tackling Verdi’s Requiem! Well, it was Harrow, and the soloists were professional, and they were supplemented by adults. You will hear more technically perfect performances, but may not hear a more rousing & powerful one. The bass drummer was so passionate his huge instrument came close to falling onto a horn player! The Speech Room of Harrow School was grand enough for the occasion but small enough to make you jump. Great stuff.

Opera

I’ve liked the other three Jonathan Dove operas I’ve seen, but I absolutely adored The Adventures of Pinocchio. It’s a bit of a stretch at almost three hours, but it’s hard to see where it could be cut. At GSMD, it’s given a brilliantly inventive production by director Martin Lloyd-Evans and designer Dick Bird and the musical standards achieved by Dominic Wheeler are nothing short of astonishing. The chorus was the best I’ve heard it and there were a whole load of great performances, with Marta Fontanals-Simmons a simply stunning Pinocchio. Watch out for her; she’s going to be huge.

A very welcome initiative by Aldeburgh Music, Opera North and the Royal Opera brings us a pair of new operas, The Commission / Café Kafka. I admired them, but they didn’t entertain me and it made me realize that’s what’s wrong with a lot of modern opera – it aims to impress more than to entertain and composers and writers would do well to consider that. Café Kafka succeeded more than The Commission, and both were well played, sung and staged – but not entertaining enough!

Ariodante at The Royal Academy of Music was simple, modern and elegant with fine playing under Jane Glover no less and some lovely singing. This is one of my favourite Handel operas and they did it full justice.

Art

United Visual Artists provided the Barbican Curve space with one of it’s best installations with Rain Room where it stopped as you walked under it; now they’ve done it again with Momentum, using moving light to create images and shadows on the gallery walls, floor and roof. Another hugely imaginative use of the space.

Glass maker Dale Chihuly is back with another selling show at the Halcyon Gallery only a couple of years after the last. It all seemed more organic – lots of curvy bowls within bowls – but with the trademarks of scale and colour. I discovered he’s opened a museum in his home town Seattle, where I will be later in the year, so that’s clearly going to be a must. Down the road, the Pace Gallery were showing four of James Turrell’s light works but they seemed more of the same to me. Moving on to the Royal Academy for Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined where seven international practices (none of them British!) have created giant, mostly room filling, installations. As much as I admired them, I couldn’t help thinking they didn’t really justify the energy and expense that had been invested in them. Still, it was a rare foray into architecture for the RA and to be welcomed for that.

Soon after I entered Body Language at the Saatchi Gallery, I felt like I was at an end of term school art show. It got better, as did New Order: British Art Today upstairs, and it was good to see more painting than sculpture and installation for a change, but so much of it seemed derivative. I think I might have to give up on modern art.

After the first few rooms, I didn’t think I was going to like the Richard Hamilton retrospective at Tate Modern, but it rather grew on me as the work got better. I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a show so eclectic by a single artist; is there anything he didn’t have a go at?!

I very much enjoyed Vikings : Life & Legend at the British Museum. The exhibits aren’t exactly spectacular, but the story they tell is. I was amazed how far they travelled, all by boat (Nova Scotia & Uzbekistan!), and how the simplicity of their design has continued to modern-day Scandinavia. Beautifully curated, with a recreated long boat and all the Lewis Chessmen.

Film

The Grand Budapest Hotel had a great trailer, but turns out to be just a good film, which is probably a good lesson in overselling. It is quirky and funny and Ralph Fiennes is a revelation in a larger-than-life comic role, but the trailer meant it left me a little disappointed.

As much as I admired the cinematography, I didn’t really understand Under the Skin so I didn’t get much out of it. I admired the fact that ordinary people were filmed, then asked if they minded being in it, but that wasn’t enough to make it worth seeing.

Starred Up was sometimes difficult to watch, but it’s a brilliant film exposing the damage prisons can do and the hopelessness they perpetuate. Jack O’Connell’s small screen debut in Skins was impressive; here he is simply stunning. Unmissable.

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Opera

I didn’t get off to a good start with the ENO’s Peter Grimes after a twitter spat over their withdrawal of standby concessions, despite a large number of empty seats. No production will probably ever match Grimes on the Beach, but musically this is top notch, mostly due to the fact that conductor Edward Gardiner, the orchestra and the chorus were as good as it gets.

Though I’ve seen Tippet’s King Priam before, I’d forgotten how challenging it is musically. This ETO production at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio was quality fare, but I found it hard to engage with the story and even harder to penetrate the music.

Death & the Powers is a SciFi opera by the Royal Academy of Music’s visiting professor of composition Tod Machover, so we (staff, students and Friends) were privileged to participate in its global simulcast from Dallas Opera. It’s more of a technological marvel than a musical one, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, including interaction through the specially created app on my iPhone!

I enjoyed the second ETO offering, Britten’s Paul Bunyan, a lot. I’ve only seen it once before, 15 years ago, but preferred this smaller scale more homespun folk opera treatment. It’s not really an opera, more a musical drama with a mythic quality and some lovely tunes. It was a bit cramped on the Linbury Studio stage, but better seen in such an intimate space.

I ventured to Godalming for the first time to see a friend in one of the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas I’ve never seen, Princess Ida. Somehow, it seemed completely at home performed by an amateur company (of 43!) in the Borough Hall, even though they were almost falling over each other on the tiny stage! The second act is a bit long, but it’s the usual G & S fun, here with terrific costumes and a proper orchestra of 26.

The trio of operas in my latest visit to WNO in Cardiff were programmed as ‘Fallen Women‘. It started with Puccini’s early and rarely performed Manon Lescaut which had a striking modern production and was beautifully sung and played. Henze’s Boulevard Solitude takes the same source and story and gives in a mid-20th century spin with a surprisingly accessible score and a similar modern staging, again with sky high musical standards. I’d seen this La Traviata before, which is why I wanted to see it again and it didn’t disappoint. It’s elegant and moving, though two intervals and a twenty minute overrun did mar the dramatic flow this time. Three operas, two talks, a programme and a drink all for less than £70; opera at its most accessible.

Classical Music

The English Concert’s Theodora is quite possible the most perfect performance of a Handel oratorio I have ever heard. All five soloists were outstanding and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street sounded gorgeous. It’s not a particularly engaging story, but the music is consistently good and the 3h 45m flew by.

Contemporary Music

Kings Place was the perfect venue for Laura Cantrell, with just another guitarist rather than her band. It was a perfect 75 minute set culled from all of her records, plus some covers, but mostly her lovely new album. Her personality comes over so well on stage, too. Sturgill Simpson, supporting, sounded good when his singing wasn’t too nasal and I liked his songs (though too many covers for a man with an interesting new album) but I couldn’t understand a word of any of them, such was his heavily accented diction!

Dance

I wasn’t sure whether to categorise this dansical, Drunk, as a musical or dance, but the lack of a story as such made me plump for dance! Eight performers, solo, as an ensemble and in different combinations dance scenes about being the worse for wear. There’s terrific music from Grant Olding and the talent on show is extraordinary. It has bags of energy and its slick, sassy and sexy, but it’s also a bit relentless and a bit samey, without much shade to break up the light. Choreographer Drew McOnie’s ambitious and welcoming new company, though, is one to watch.

Film

My confidence in film critics took another dent when August: Osage County turned out to be way better than they led me to believe. It worked as well on film as it did on stage and there were a handful of superb performances, notably Meryl Streep as an absolute monster.

I loved Nebraska, a really heart-warming film – in black & white – with wonderful performances by a cast mostly made up of actors of a certain age. It fired me up for a road trip to that part of the US; watch this space!

Private Lives was the first play filmed live that I’ve ever seen (though not shown live in this case). The ability to see things in close-up added something (I saw the same production on stage) though you do sometimes miss the reactions of other characters and the lighting was occasionally poor. I like the fact that more people can see great productions at accessible prices, but I think I’ll stick to the live experience.

Dallas Buyers Club was a slow burn, but it eventually repaid its investment with a compelling David & Goliath story with a heart-warming ending. Unquestionably a career high for Matthew McConaughey, who must be in pole position for an Oscar.

Saving Mr Banks was a big surprise; it had much more depth than I was expecting, largely because of the switch between PL Travers childhood and her Disney experience. It was one of those occasions where staying for the titles paid off as you heard the original recordings she insisted on during the script meetings, which proved it was more than a work of fiction.

I enjoyed Her a lot more than I thought I was going to. It’s a bit overlong (and occasionally soporific!) but it feels very plausible, which makes it scary indeed. I’m going to switch off Siri before it’s too late!

Common People is an independent feature film shot entirely on Tooting Common, on my doorstep. It’s a bit slow to get going, but it builds into a charming, warm-hearted slice of life. It’s been showcased in US festivals and now gets a handful of local screenings which will hopefully lead to more because it very much deserves it.

I’m amazed that The Invisible Woman hasn’t had more BAFTA or Oscar nominations. It’s such a well-made film, full of fine performances. I don’t know how true the story of Charles Dickens personal life is, but I was captivated.

Art

The annual Landscape Photography competition exhibition at the NT continues to demoralize me as a photographer but captivate me as a viewer. Some are almost too good to be true, but hopefully the organizers have ways of ensuring there’s no funny business editing-wise!

Martin Creed‘s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, What’s the Point of it?, is huge fun. The man has an imagination the size of the planet and amongst the items on show was a giant revolving neon sign just inches above your head, a room full to the brim of white talcum-filled balloons you walk through and, on the outdoor terraces, a car which comes alive when all its doors open and wipers and radio start up and a video of a penis changing from erect to flaccid & back!

The NT‘s 50th celebrations included an exhibition of its history in cartoons, National Theatre Lampoon, but I only just discovered it before it closes; it’s both informative and funny and they should keep it longer.

I’m going to have to return to David Bailey’s Stardust exhibition at the NPG. It takes over the whole ground floor with over 250 photos and was a bit crowded on my first visit. What I did see was great, with many now iconic pictures from my lifetime.

A trip to Greenwich for a couple of exhibitions was a mixed affair. There were a lot of paintings not by Turner (23, only 5 less) for an exhibition called Turner & the Sea. I didn’t care for the early work in this exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, but it was probably worth the trip for the watercolours, sketch books and late works. Up the hill at the Royal Observatory there was a small but breathtaking exhibition of astronomical photographs. You couldn’t tell the difference in composition or quality between the main prize entries and the young person’s entries, such was the quality of the work.

Spoken Word

I got in touch with my inner Welshman with a celebration of Dylan Thomas’ centenary at Kings Place. Readings by Guy Masterson were interspersed with a potted biography by Andrew Lycett and observations by other Welsh poets Gwyneth Jones and Owen Sheers. I’d have liked more voices for the readings, but that’s a little gripe. As Owen Sheers said, what other poet could pack out a venue 60 years after he died, requiring an overspill room with a video link!

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The musical theatre summer shows at the Royal Academy of Music were a real treat this year.

The day started with a rare revival of Cy Coleman & Neil Simon’s Little Me (like the proverbial bus, about to be revived again at Ye Olde Rose & Crown), a show I’ve never managed to catch before now. Belle is recalling her life to biographer Patrick Dennis, during which we flash back to scenes from her action & husband-packed life. A poor kid in love with a rich kid, she set about getting wealth, culture & social position in order to get her man. By the time she does, he’s taken a turn for the worse through drink.

It’s a really funny musical farce. The plot’s preposterous twists and turns provide plenty of opportunities for fun and a fresh & sprightly production by Karen Rabinowitz (well designed by Alistair Turner) makes the most of them. The 25- piece orchestra (so rare these days) made a magnificent sound and the performances were excellent, with Kristin Lindstrom a superb Young Belle.

Hey, Look Me Over was a revue of Cy Coleman songs which reminded you how good his 12-show back catalogue is. Some familiar, some new, the 12 performers packed a lot into 60 minutes, with some lovely lyrics about the performers themselves (and their pending job search!) bookending the selection.

The second show, John Bucchino & Harvey Fierstein’s very un-American American chamber musical, A Catered Affair, was a big contrast. Somewhat like Howard Goodall (so I liked it!), it was a very beautiful piece telling the story of a working class New York family in the early 50’s. Son Terence has died in the Korean War. His sister wants a quick & simple wedding to take advantage of an expenses paid trip to California as a honeymoon, but her mum’s having none of it. Things get out of control, as they have a habit of doing with weddings, and relationships are threatened and finances become precarious.

There’s another excellent and simple design, made up of ladders and washing lines, from Alistair Turner,  fine staging by Matt Ryan and a smaller but again gorgeous sounding orchestra. In another fine cast, Christine Allado & Blair Robertson stood out as Janey’s parents. Together they created a production as close to perfect as you’d get.

The future of musical theatre is clearly safe in the hands of RAM.

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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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Opera

The Met Live Rigoletto was wonderful, though two long intervals did mar the dramatic flow somewhat. The staging in 60’s Las Vegas (brilliant design) worked as well as the ENO’s gangster Chicago one many years ago and the lead performances were simply stunning – Zeljko Lucic as Rigoletto, Diane Damrau as Gilda and Piotr Beczala (who I saw there in Manon on my US trip in 2012) as The Duke and there was brilliant support from Stefan Kocan as assassin Sparafucile. The production team were new to opera; in fact they were responsible for Spring Awakening, one of my favourite musicals of recent years (and one of my biggest theatre investment losses!).

My latest visit to WNO showed them off at their best and gave us a flavour of new Director David Poultney’s vision, with a pairing of his new production of Lulu and a revival of his 32-year-old production of The Cunning Little Vixen. They are far from my favourite operas, but I doubt either could get better productions. Lulu was a terrific visual spectacle on Johan Engels giant double-circle steel frame (with wings!), and the orchestra and singers, led by Marie Arnet’s wonderful Lulu, were sensational. Sadly, I find it hard to enjoy Berg’s music and the absurdist surrealist story doesn’t really engage me! Vixen fared better as the music is more accessible and the story, though somewhat slight, is more understandable. The late Maria Bjornson’s superb design, with people and animals popping up all over the place, doesn’t look in the slightest bit dated. Again the standard of singing and playing was exceptional (MD Lothar Koenigs again with the baton – boy, was he a good find for WNO!) with Sophie Bevan a delightful Vixen.

Classical Music

One would never have expected a free lunchtime concert at a music conservatoire to produce anything as beautiful and thrilling as Elgar’s 1st Symphony by the Academy Concert Orchestra at the Royal Academy of Music; it was as good as I’ve ever heard it. I’m sure having the great Edward Gardner to conduct helped, but nevertheless the musicianship seemed extraordinary.

Joyce DiDonato’s ‘Drama Queens’ concert (accompanied by the brilliant Il Complesso Barocco) had a slow start but when it got going, boy did it get going. In a stunning flame red Vivienne Westwood gown which transformed as the evening progressed, she sang eleven baroque arias, some by well-known composers like Handel and Monteverdi but a significant number of rarities. The fillers (breathers) by the ensemble were much more than that, most notably Vivaldi’s Concerto for Violin & Strings with a stunning solo from Dmitry Sinkovsky. Her personality always shines through and it felt like an evening with a very talented friend (and the best thing ever to come out of Kansas!).

Well the Britten centenary got off to a good start with a rare opportunity to hear all three string quartets in chronological order at the Royal Academy of Music. Three young quartets formed within the last six years – Leporello, Wilhelm & Jubilee! – did a great job. Two of them were all-girl quartets and the third had one girl; I’m not sure what to read into that! 17+ more centenary events to come!

Art

The NPG’s Man Ray exhibition only includes his photographic portraits but it’s terrific. Most of them are 20th century artists and other members of the avant-garde. Even though they are between 40 and 80 years old, they seem astonishingly contemporary; that’s style for you.

I had to abandon a visit to the cinema because they’d sold out a Saturday afternoon performance of a film that had been running for three weeks! Can’t we be impulsive any more? Well, we can because this gave me the impulse for a Mayfair gallery wander. Bruce Nauman’s neon works at Hauser & Wirth were great, though the narrow entrance to one (of only four) excluded the larger of us! I was impressed by the use of colour in Fiona Rae’s new paintings at Timothy Taylor, but couldn’t fathom why she’d spoilt them by including little Teddy’s peeping out all over the place. Fred Sandback has become a favourite and his works at David Zwimer were brilliant. It’s amazing what you can do with a bit of string, some white space and an imagination! Their other (group) exhibition would have been better if you’d known which artist was which. The final visit was entirely on spec (Time Out pointed out the others); an Azeri artist called Niyaz Najafov who’s red and black grotesques at Gazelli Art House were interesting but not particularly nice to look at. That’s art for you…..

The Wellcome Collection’s exhibition Death: A Self Portrait was recommended but the prospect of seeing it didn’t exactly capture my imagination. Finding myself nearby with spare time, I ventured forth to find it quite fascinating. It’s the personal collection of one man and the range – of sources, periods and themes – is extraordinary. More skeletons than you’ll see in a normal lifetime!

A trio of Royal Academy exhibitions in one day delivered fascinating and unexpected results. The Manet exhibition focuses just on portraits, so it does become a bit monotonous. There are some terrific pictures and I liked the way photos of the subjects were also displayed, but it’s patchy. It’s also padded out as four rooms are closed, two have no pictures and one has just one! In the member’s rooms, it was hard to get close enough to the many engravings that made up most of the British Landscapes show so it proved a bit frustrating. I liked the Turner and Sandby contributions a lot more than the Constable and Reynolds ones, but that’s the same as I feel about their paintings generally. The really pleasant surprise was the Mariko Mori exhibition in the new galleries. Her sculptures and installations feature light, stones and even water. It’s very different, all very cosmic and new age, and I loved it – a more soothing and relaxing experience than the other two.

Film

Hyde Park on Hudson was an enjoyable if slight insight into the relationship between King George VI and President Roosevelt (and Rooseveldt and his mistress) just before the Second World War. Bill Murray is very good as FDR as is Laura Linney as his mistress, but in all the publicity, the superb performances of Samuel West and Olivia Coleman as the King and Queen seem to have been ignored!

Beasts of the Southern Wild was another of my catch-ups and the third to reap big rewards. Sometimes the hand-held camera’s shakiness irritates, but the overall effect is extraordinary. This is a slice of poor America you rarely see, as shocking as much of what you see in the third world and the central performance by young Quvenzhane Wallis is simply extraordinary.

Despite a stunning performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, I’m afraid I found Lincoln pompous, overlong and rather dull. It focuses on only one aspect of the period – the vote to abolish slavery – but took forever to cover it. As always with Spielberg, he overdoes the sentimentality and loses cynical me by doing so.

Hitchcock is so much better than the critics would have you believe. It focuses just on the making of Psycho and both Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren are superb. It’s very funny and it seemed to me to be a particularly British humour, which may be why it hasn’t gone down so well in the US.

Zero Dark Thirty would be a much better film if they cut the first 90 minutes, before they establish the target, in half. The final hour as they mount the raid and assassinate Bin Laden, is terrific.

I’m puzzled again by the mediocrity of the reviews of I’ll Give it a Year, which I thought was a complete hoot. Rafe Spall and Stephen Marchant are the masters of foot-in-mouth clumsy behaviour, so this is a double whammy. A RomCom that’s as rom but a whole lot more com than the norm, populated with a fine cast of the best of British. Listen to me, not them!

Other

I’d been to Vintners Hall for a wine tasting (somewhat appropriately) but my second visit was a more thorough tour of the public areas. It’s one of the best livery halls in London and, with entertaining anecdotes from their GM, was a fascinating visit. It’s great that an ancient tradition like Swan Upping, part of this company’s heritage, continues today.

A sneaky afternoon off found us at the London Studios watching the recording of new sitcom Vicious with Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as a pair of old queens and Frances de la Tour and Iwan Rheon as their neighbours. It’s by a Will & Grace writer and it was great fun watching it being made (3 hours to make 25 minutes!). It’s on ITV in April (you’ll hear me laughing in Episode Three!). There was a lovely aside from Jacobi as he showed us the photo that was part of the set – a real one of him & McKellen at university in 1958!

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Contemporary Music

The Decemberists’ concert at Hammersmith Apollo built on their last at the Coronet and buried the memory of their first RFH disaster; this was mostly due to excellent song selection and ordering. They now have a fine body of material and they’ve learnt how to deliver it live and still have fun without compromising quality. I will forgive them the self-indulgent whale song encore because of the 90 minutes before and the gorgeous final encore.

Within minutes of arriving at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, I was regretting it. The traffic was awful and I’d missed most of the intriguing support act, the chatter from people at the back was cacophonous and the sound painfully heavy on base. Then, during his second number, they all shut up, the sound improved and John Grant’s weaved the same magic he did when I first heard his album The Queen of Denmark. He writes very personal songs, sings them with a rich baritone voice and plays piano competently. There’s a second keyboard most of the time and a string quartet some of the time, but no guitars or drums. It’s a rather refreshing sound and live his personality makes for a refreshingly intimate experience. I’d have preferred a venue like the Barbican or Royal Festival Hall, but it was a delight all the same.

Opera

A bumper month!

The latest Guildhall School opera offering is Poulenc’s lovely Dialogues des Carmelites, possibly the most tuneful opera written in the late 20th century! I’ve long been fond of this opera about the martyrdom of nuns during the French revolution and musically the GSMD did it proud. There were some excellent young voices – including a gorgeous Blanche from Anna Patalong, fine turns as the Marquis and his son from Koji Terada and Charlie Mellor and a beautiful Mere Marie from Sylvie Bedouelle. It was great to have a GSMD opera that showed off the fine chorus too. I’m afraid I didn’t like David Farley’s design, where everything was framed by a hole through broken glass, a reference to the opening image of a carriage being attacked by revolutionaries. It was particularly irritating when it framed an opening or closing scene image that about a third of the audience could see.

Back in Cardiff for the WNO late winter pairing of Il Travatore and Die Fledermaus. The former has so much wonderful music that you have to forgive its convoluted and somewhat preposterous plot, and in this production some static staging from Peter Watson and a dark and rather depressing (if clever) series of settings from Tim Hatley. There are so many long scene changes and when the curtain goes up after each of them, you just groan because its just a different configuration of the same giant walls! Welsh boys David Kempster and Gwyn Hughes Jones were both excellent as the Duke and Manrico respectively. Veronica Simeoni sang Azucena brilliantly but couldn’t act for toffee. Katie Pellegrino was technically good as Leonora but it wasn’t always an entirely pleasing sound. The chorus was of course terrific. A bit dull to look at, but a treat to listen to.

Despite the fact I’m not really an operetta man, and certainly not a fan of the somewhat twee Johann Strauss, I rather enjoyed Die Fledermaus, which says much about both the production and the performances. Again, superbly well cast, with some fine singing and acing from Mark Stone, Paul Charles Clarke, Joanne Boag and Nuccia Focile and a delightful cameos as prisoner governor from Alan Opie and actor Desmond Barritt in the non-singing role of the prison warden. It probably benefitted from the affection the ‘old school’ production team have for it – director John Copley, designer Tim Reed and Deirdre Clancy made it fizz with considerable charm and much humour (even though you had heard all the jokes before!).

Rodelinda is this year’s staged offering from the London Handel Festival. It’s one of Handel’s best and musically it shines, with lovely singing from Kitty Whately, Christopher Lowrey, Anthony Gregory and Edward Grint. Susanna Hurrell in the title role was occasionally too loud and harsh and Jake Arditti’s voice was a bit small for Unulfo, but an excellent young ensemble just the same. The orchestral playing, under Laurence Cummings, was outstanding. The modern military setting occasionally jarred, with a particularly tacky ending where royal prince Flavio holds up a flag and gun.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies & David Pountney’s new opera Kommilitonen! is both a coup and a triumph for the Royal Academy of Music. Max had given up on opera because he was fed up of writing operas based in places like lighthouses to find them staged in a toilet (the best put down of director-led opera ever!). Fortunately, he relented and wrote this highly original opera linking student protests in the US deep south, Mao’s China and Nazi Germany appropriately staged by students in a college. It’s dramatically and musically thrilling and the student talent on show is extraordinary.

Peter Brook’s edited minimalist A Magic Flute was a bit of a damp squib. Even though it ran for around half the normal time, it seemed a very long 95 minutes. There were some nice humourous touches, some clever staging and some nice voices, but overall it underwhelmed. In short, no magic!

Film

Submarine is a charming film, and a hugely impressive debut from actor-come-director Richard Ayoade. There were some gorgeous performances and the picture of school life in Wales oozed authenticity. I loved it.

Route Irish is a lot to stomach; it’s a very well made Ken Loach film but it’s very depressing. I don’t know how true this tale of private security firms in war zones is, but if it’s only a fraction true, it’s shameful. I admired it, but I can’t say I enjoyed it – and it made me angry; but I suppose it was meant to, so ‘job done’.

Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a peek into French caves first discovered just 15 years ago. The 32,000 year-old cave paintings are extraordinary, shown off perfectly in 3D, but there’s a lot of padding and much of the narration is pompous. Now it’s tourism in 3D at your local cinema; whatever next!

The best was left to last this month, with the wonderfully uplifting and deeply moving Benda Bilili!, a film about a bunch of disabled homeless musicians in Congo. The film allowed the musicians own words and their music to speak for themselves – no narration – which is one of its great strengths. Though completely different, it had the same impact as Buena Vista Social Club. Now, to find the CD….

Art

A bumper Art month too; which tells you how much work I did in March!

Cory Arcangel’s installation at the Barbican projects 14 bowling video games created over 24 years. It’s a fascinating examination of how technology evolves, but it isn’t art!

Eve Arnold’s photos at Chris Beetles’ lovely new gallery were terrific. There are a large number taken during filming of The Misfits and I’d have loved to have bought one of Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, but £12,500-£17.500 they were way beyond my price range!

I went to the wrong branch of Hauser & Wirth where there was a video installation of Chernobyl by Diana Thater, which did little for me – worthy though it was. When I got to the right branch, Martin Creed’s paintings also did little for me – until I came across his giant revolving neon ‘Mothers’, which I loved.

The NPG has a terrific exhibition by an early 20th century photographer called Emil Otto Hoppe. His B&W prints of famous political and artistic figures of the time have so much depth; you seem to be peering into their souls. They are shown with some wonderful London street scenes from the same period, with a documentary style that seems to me to be way ahead of their time.

I was a bit sceptical about Watercolour at Tate Britain; I thought it might be one of those ‘excuses for an exhibition’ in order to make money in this new museum / gallery free entry world. It turns out to be an excellent review of c.500 years of the art form with an exploration of the techniques and a diverse range of pictures, including some simply stunning ones. In truth, it does fizzle out in the last quarter (modern stuff, including the usual suspects like the talentless Tracey Emin), but that doesn’t deter from the astonishing highs. In the same gallery, Susan Hiller’s exhibition is fascinating & intriguing, showing off her inventiveness & technical skills – but as art it left me completely cold; admiration but not pleasure.

I keep going to contemporary art exhibitions and come out disappointed and British Art Show 7 at the Hayward is no exception. There were some nice pictures from Alasdair Gray and a clever 24-hour film collage of time references synchronised with the actual time from Christian Marclay (I only sat in for the 5.30pm section!), but it was Roger Hiorns again who was the most creative. When I walked into a film booth (I really do have a problem with film in galleries and tend to stay in each for only a short while) it was just a metal park / station bench. When I came out there was a real naked man sitting on the back of the bench looking at a real fire burning on the seat next to him. Terrific.

Back at the NPG, they’re showing another fascinating photographer I’ve never heard of! This time it’s the 50’s / 60’s B&W portraits of artists, writers and musicians by Ida Kar. They are both fascinating subjects and fascinating pictures.

At the Museum of London, they have a lovely exhibition of London Street Photos spanning 150 years to the present day. They perfectly capture the personality of my adopted city over the years and contain many by even more photographers new to me! By contrast, the Barbican Centre Gallery nearby is showcasing the work of the 70’s New York avant-garde and in particular polymaths Trisha Brown, Laurie Anderson and Gordon Matta-Clark, the latter the only one new to me. Though much of the background work like preparatory drawings left me cold, I was quite taken with Anderson’s interactive pieces (a pillow that plays to you as you rest your head and a desk from which the sound travels through your arms to your ears as you place your elbows on it and cover your ears!) and the two Brown performances I caught – five dancers walking the walls and two weaving in and out of clothes on top of a rope and steel climbing frame. The Barbican is challenging the Hayward in off-the-wall things like this; they sometimes (often?) fail, but you have to admire their nerve in putting on such niche stuff.

I knew nothing about Gabriel Orozco before I went to his exhibition at Tate Modern. It was a very diverse selection of pictures, ‘sculptures’, installations and project descriptions, some of which were interesting and some of which were just dull. The biggest room was almost entirely filled with photographs that he took of a yellow motorcycle he bought and rode in search of identical ones, taking a photo of each pairing as he did. Why? Hardly worthy of a major retrospective, in my view.

I’m not overly fond of Dulwich Picture Gallery’s permanent collection, but they are indispensible when it comes to special exhibitions, particularly by illustrators. Norman Rockwell may be sentimental, twee and sweet Americana, but he’s technically accomplished as this exhibition of c.30 original paintings, c.10 studies, 4 posters and c.300 Saturday Picture Post front covers shows; he’s particularly good at faces and children. It was particularly fascinating to see how the SPP covers evolved over almost 50 years.

Back at Chris Beetles’ new photo gallery they’d swapped the Eve Arnold I started the month with for a terrific set of B&W pictures of actors, models and musicians by Terry O’Neill. I would have so liked to buy a copy of Macca playing piano at Ringo’s 1981 wedding, a picture that comes alive as you look at it, but didn’t have £2000 on me!

I’d avoided the Royal Academy’s Modern British Sculpture exhibition because the reviews were so bad but as I was passing with time to kill and as it’s free for Friends, I gave it a quick look and it was nowhere near as bad as I was led to expect. It was worth a visit for an amazing Adam by Jacob Epstein alone, but there were others to admire, though they did make up less that half of the exhibition. How you can mount a survey of modern British sculpture without three recent titans – Anthony Gormley, Richard Wilson & Anish Kapoor – is however beyond me. We got a less important example from Damien Hirst but were fortunate to be spared a Tracey Emin. Upstairs, it was hard to get excited about Watteau’s drawings, accomplished though they are. There are an awful lot of studies of heads and hands and few finished works.

Phew, did I really do all that on top of 20 plays, musicals and ballets?!

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