Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Royal Opera House’

Contemporary Music

It took a while for me to get into the cinema relay of the Les Miserables staged concert, largely because it doesn’t really come alive until the prologue of sung dialogue gives way to the first act, but when it got going it was superb. The encores of a handover to the next Javert and four Valejeans from the first to the next were inspired, and very moving.

Rufus & Martha Wainwright’s Not So Silent Night continued their family’s tradition of charity Christmas concerts with lots of guests. At the Royal Festival Hall they included Guy Garvey, Neil Tennent, Chrissie Hynde, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, opera singer Janis Kelly and American actress Martha Plimton, who it turns out is a rather good singer. It proved to be a lovely experience, albeit charmingly shambolic at times.

Opera

I think I’ve only seen Britten’s Death in Venice once before, but then again the night I went was only the 23rd performance at Covent Garden in the 46 years since its premiere, so the opportunity doesn’t come along that often. I’ve never considered it up there with masterpieces like Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, but this David McVicar production changed my mind. Mark Padmore was wonderful as Ashenbach, Gerald Finley terrific in no less than seven roles and Leo Dixin danced Tadzio beautifully. It was just about faultless in very way and the full house cheered wildly. Maybe that will encourage The Royal Opera to broaden its programming. We must have had 230 or even 2300 La Traviata’s in the same 46 years.

Classical Music

The LSO Chamber Orchestra Milton Court concert of early music was a freebie for subscribers but it proved much more than that. The orchestra played the Purcell, Handel & Rameau pieces beautifully under the highly enthusiastic Emmanuelle Haim and there were two great soloists too – Lucy Crowe and Reinoud Van Mechelen. Freebie maybe, but a treat nonetheless.

The Sixteen‘s Christmas concert at Cadogan Hall was a delight from start to finish. Normally unaccompanied, this time there was the occasional addition of percussion and harp, the latter absolutely gorgeous. The programme included lots of rare carols, some mediaeval, and ended with Britten’s lovely Ceremony of Carols.

Comedy

I don’t see much stand-up, other than at the Edinburgh Fringe, but made an exception for Jordan Brookes at Soho Theatre after last year’s Edinburgh buzz. I admired the originality and there were superbly funny moments, but it was perhaps too surreal and off-the-wall for me and didn’t really sustain its 70 minutes length.

Film

Knives Out is a whodunit, with its tongue firmly in its cheek, which keeps you guessing, and smiling, until the final scene. I really liked its old-fashioned style and it’s hugely convoluted plot.

Having not read the book, I struggled a bit with the hopping around in time of Little Women, but I eventually succumbed to the charm of a beautifully filmed story.

Art

I went to see Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Rembrandt’s Light exhibition on the morning after an attempted robbery when the gallery had closed, so I had to go back 10 days later to see it without the two paintings that almost got away but are now back with their owners in Paris and Washington. There were some nice pictures and it was well lit – by the man who did Star Wars! – but I have to confess to being a touch underwhelmed. Not a lot of pictures for a high profile exhibition and a lot with subject matter that doesn’t really appeal to me.

Read Full Post »

Opera

It wasn’t long into Semiramide at Covent Garden that I realised that I don’t really like Rossini’s brand of plinky-plonk music with frilly bits! I was lured by favourite mezzo Joyce DiDonato, but even her presence, and other fine singing and playing, couldn’t lure me back after the interval to this misguided production and more plinky-plonk music! 1h50m was enough, another 1h30m was beyond me.

Classical Music

Mezzo Cecilia Bartoli & Cellist Sol Gabetta, accompanied by the latter’s brother’s wonderful 18-piece ensemble, gave a recital at the Barbican Hall to promote their new CD. Though I admired the artistry, and thought the pairing worked well most of the time, I wasn’t that keen on the content or order of the programme, I’m afraid.

Britten Sinfonia put together two excellent but rarely performed choral pieces with a world premiere for orchestra to make a lovely evening at the Barbican Hall. Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms links it to his centenary and it seemed almost new here. Vaughn Williams Dona nobis pacem showed off the talents of the Choir of King’s College even more, with two wonderful soloists, Ailish Tynan and Neal Davies. I like seeing world premieres and Emma-Ruth Richards’ Sciamachy was an interesting new piece that deserves further hearing.

The LSO & LSC let their hair down in style at the Barbican with a concert version of Bernstein’s musical Wonderful Town under Simon Rattle no less. You rarely hear a musical score played and sung so well, but they has fun with it too, taking the Act I conga finale through the audience, and again as an encore, this time collecting people along the way. I don’t always like opera singers doing musicals, but those here largely avoided the operatic frills. It was paired with Bernstein’s very different 2nd symphony, an inspired idea which worked brilliantly.

Film

My initial instinct not to see Murder on the Orient Express was proved correct as I found it slow and rather dull and unengaging, despite the nice tongue-in-cheek style and idiosyncratic camera angles.

The Florida Project was slow to grab me, but grab me it did, with its documentary-like examination of the US underclass, and it has some of the best child acting I’ve ever seen.

I enjoyed Star Wars: The Last Jedi more than the previous instalment, partly because I didn’t see it in 3D and partly because it was more balanced between story and spectacle, working at an emotional level too.

Art

A disappointing afternoon at Tate Britain started with Impressionists in London which should really be titled 19th Century French artists in exile in London, because a lot weren’t impressionists (the term no doubt chosen to sell the show) and a lot weren’t of London. Not very well curated, I forgave it for a room of eight Monet London pictures brought together from eight different collections. Upstairs, Rachel Whiteread proved to be a one trick pony – a giant room of casts in concrete or resin. More is less….a lot less. We went on to the new V&A galleries for Opera: Passion, Power & Politics which redeemed the afternoon, an opera-lovers treat accompanied by gorgeous music which changed as you walked through. Lovely.

A wonderful morning at NPG followed the disappointing afternoon, with the revelatory Cezanne Portraits, from the man who I didn’t know did portraits, and the ever wonderful Taylor Wessing Photography Prize exhibition, better every year. After lunch, on to Every Thing at Once, a big exhibition of modern art installations and sculptures on three floors of an office block they are taking forever to renovate at 180 Strand. There was the usual tosh, but pieces by the likes of Anish Kapoor and Ai Wei Wei and the bonus of four other full room installations, two of which were terrific, made it a worthwhile visit.

Tove Jansson was a Finnish painter-turned-illustrator, most famous for creating the Moomins, and her retrospective exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery was fascinating. I could have done with more paintings, but she didn’t paint many after she turned illustrator!

Read Full Post »

Opera

It’s baffling why Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera May Night is hardly ever staged, so a gold star to Royal Academy Opera for a production with musical standards that any professional opera company would be proud of. Their theatre is being rebuilt, so it took place in the former testing hall of the University of Westminster across the road, which was just as well as it would never have fitted on their own stage / in their own pit! A real treat.

The London Handel Festival’s annual opera at the Royal College of Music’s Britten Theatre was Ariodante, one of his best, and it was another operatic treat, with gorgeous playing by the London Handel Orchestra under Laurence Cummings and a set of very fine performances from RCM students. I even liked the grungy set, even though it wasn’t exactly evocative of Edinburgh, where the opera is set!

I wasn’t expecting to be as bowled over by George Benjamin’s Written on Skin at the Barbican Centre as I was. I can’t say I entirely understood the story, but I was mesmerised by the music, brilliantly played by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra under Benjamin with three stunning lead soloists – Barbara Hannigan, Christopher Purves and Tim Mead. One of the best modern operas I’ve ever heard.

Popup Opera’s I Capuleti E I Montecchi in The Vaults at Waterloo was their first foray into tragedy and it was a huge success. Stripped down to five singers, an electric piano, a few props and some strip lights, the music shone through. Flora McIntosh and Alice Privett were terrific as the star-crossed lovers (Bellini wrote Romeo as a trouser role), though I wished they hadn’t done the final death scene standing up!

The original version of Boris Godunov at the Royal Opera House was 130 unbroken minutes but it kept me in its grip throughout. Richard Jones production was as masterly and fresh as his Meistersingers and the musical standards under Antonio Pappano were sky high. Bryn Terfel can act as well as he can sing and the rest of the leads were just as good. Terrific stuff.

Dance

The revival of Akram Khan’s Kaash at Sadler’s Wells was an exhausting hour, such was the physicality of the five dancers. There’s no narrative as such, but the combination of Anish Kapoor’s hypnotic design, Nitin Sawhney’s percussive music and the organic, acrobatic choreography of Kahn was rather mesmerising.

At the Staatsoper in Hannover, I caught a ballet of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Was Ihr Wollt (the play’s subtitle, What You Will), with a mash-up of music by Prokofiev Shostakovich and Dvorak, and it was a treat, particularly good at the comedy, with some lovely performances from an international cast. I do love catching opera and ballet on my travels, especially when it’s half the cost at Covent Garden, as it was here!

Film

Sasha Baron Cohen’s Grimsby was clever and often very funny, but also often gross and in the end more gross than funny.

I’m a big Coen Brothers fan, but I was a bit underwhelmed by Hail Caesar! And I’m not sure why. It was a great idea, but it didn’t fully satisfy me.

Though Anomalisa didn’t live up to its five star reviews, it was a very original film, an animation using life-size puppets and the voice of only one actor for all parts expect the two leads, and a clever way of showing a man spiralling into depression.

High Rise was another film that didn’t live up to the hype. It’s a very odd affair that I didn’t really think went anywhere, though it held my attention and the performances were good.

Art

Nikolai Astrup is the best painter I’d never heard of, and Painting Norway at Dulwich Picture Gallery was simply gorgeous. The vibrant colours and beautiful landscapes made you want to get on a plane there and then.

I caught the Frank Auerbach exhibition at Tate Britain in its last weekend. I liked about half of the pictures and was indifferent to the rest; I’m not sure I’ve ever felt like that about an artist’s work. Whilst there, I caught the Artist & Empire exhibition, examining Britain’s Imperial past through art, which seemed to me to be one of those exhibitions created to make some money, though it was very well curated. Between the two was Susan Philipsz clever sound installation featuring samples from The Last Post played on brass and woodwind instruments damaged during the Second World War; very moving.

I was rather chuffed with my photographs of my recent safaris to South Africa, Namibia and Kenya……until I went to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum, and that was just the under-18’s! They benefit, of course, from scale and back-lighting, but it was the compositions which I envied most. Lovely. Next door at the Science Museum, I very much enjoyed the American documentary photography of Alec Soth and the stunning mid-19th century portraits of photographic pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron and the juxtaposition of the two was in itself brilliant. Another diverse afternoon immersion in photography.

Strange & Familiar at the Barbican was a social history of 20th century Britain through an extraordinary collection of photographs by those who don’t live here. There was a bias towards the 50’s and 60’s (my first two decades!), probably the birth of such documentary photography, and many of them seemed attracted to my homeland – South Wales mining communities – so it may have been particularly moving for me.

Painting the Modern Garden at the Royal Academy was one of the best exhibitions I’ve ever seen. Over one hundred paintings from the impressionist and post-impressionist period and a riot of colour. The three Monet-only rooms were a joy to behold. I’ll have to go back. Upstairs, In the Age of Giorgione was a superb collection of early sixteenth century Venetian art. Technically very accomplished, but not really my thing. The one-room collection of Ann Christopher’s ‘Lines of Time’ was a little treat on the way out.

At the Photographers Gallery, a trio of small exhibitions starting with a lovely varied retrospective of American photographer Saul Leiter, another master of documentary photography. On the floor below Rio-Montevideo was a brilliant exhibition of Uruguayan protest photographs which had been hidden during the prolonged period of military dictatorships and were now presented by a Rio photographer and projected by vintage machines picked up in flea markets and second-hand stores (a lot of which were out of order!). Finally, an exhibition commemorating the Easter Rising on its 100th anniversary, something I found it hard to engage with for some reason.

The 100th Anniversary of Vogue was celebrated at the NPG in huge style by an exhibition which took over almost the entire ground floor, containing pictures from each decade. A simply stunning collection which had me rushing to buy the catalogue (again!). Whilst there, I popped into Russia & the Arts, an exhibition of portraits of famous musicians, writers etc, but failed to get enthused after the wonders of the Vogue collection.

Read Full Post »

Contemporary Music

I couldn’t resist the two seventy-something Celtic Knights as part of BluesFest. Van the Man and Jones the Voice at the O2 Arena both proved to be at the top of their vocal game. They each played great one-hour sets with their respective bands and seven songs together, three at the end of Van’s set and four at the end of Tom’s. These collaborations were under-rehearsed, rather random and disorganised affairs but they came out charming. The contrast between Tom’s extrovert showmanship and Van’s introverted cool was extraordinary. A real one-off treat we’re unlikely to see again.

Blood & Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl at the Barbican was another of those themed compilation shows which proved to be a delightful evening featuring his wife Peggy Seeger, folk royalty like the Carthy’s, Unthanks and Seth Lakeman and a whole load of MacColl’s. I have to confess I knew few of his songs, so much of it was a bit of a revelation, particularly The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face. When his son read out the names of those who’d covered this, you realised the family was probably still living off the royalties!

Billy Bragg’s concert at Union Chapel was by and large a return to the solo electric style of his early years, with much of the material coming from this period, though there was a pedal steel guitarist for part of the show. It was lovely, helped by being in my favourite concert venue and the attentive audience. He included his anti-Sun protest song which made me realise he’s about the only protest songster left!

I’m not sure what I was expecting of Lulu – Murder Ballad at the Linbury Studio, but what I got was a Tiger Lillies concert; a song cycle with superb projections and a dancer, but it didn’t add up to good storytelling and was actually rather dull, so much so that I left at the interval.

Opera

A concert performance of Handel’s opera Tamerlano at the Barbican by new (and young!) kids on the block Il Pomo d’Oro got off to a tentative start but soon found it’s form. Just twenty-five singers and musicians making a beautiful noise.

Morgen und Abend was more of a soundscape than an opera. A very impressionistic piece with an entirely off-white design and an off-the-wall sound. I’m not sure it sustained its 90 minute length and I think I’ll probably forget it fairly quickly, but is was original and something refreshingly less conservative at Covent Garden.

The first act of Opera Rara’s Zaza was a bit of a mess. There was so much going on and the comedy sat uncomfotrably with the love story. The remaining three acts were musically glorious, with a stupendous performance from Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho in the title role and terrific turns from Riccardo Massi and Stephen Gaertnern as her love interest. An impulsive outing to the Barbican which turned into a treat.

Art

The World Goes Pop at Tate Modern was rather a disappointment. It set out to show Pop Art wasn’t just a US / UK phenomenon. The trouble is, most it was second or third rate stuff and made you feel it probably was a US / UK phenomenon!

The Ai Wei Wei exhibition at the Royal Academy is one of the best contemporary art exhibitions I have ever visited. The combination of imagination, craftsmanship and the political statements being made is simply overwhelming. Wonderful.

Eddie Peake’s The Forever Loop was one of the most pointless and dull installations to grace Barbican’s Curve Gallery. Not even two naked dancers could liven it up!

Film

The transition of Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van from stage to screen is a huge success. Maggie Smith is sensational, Alex Jennings is superb as Alan Bennett and it’s great to see almost the entire History Boys cast in supporting roles.

Spectre was generic Bond, though with a return to the tongue-in-cheek humour that has been lost in the last couple. The set pieces were superb and it sustained its 2.5 hour length. It’s also a Who’s Who of great British actors, with Ralph Fiennes, Rory Kinnear and Ben Wishaw in supporting roles.

I was surprised that Steve Jobs only covered 14 years or so, but I learnt so much about what made him tick and I was captivated by it. Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet were both superb.

Brooklyn was a gorgeous piece of film-making. I loved everything about this tale of Irish emigration to New York set in the year I was born, and I blubbed!

Carol was a beautifully made film, the 50s again looking gorgeous, and the performances superb, though it was a bit slow for me, particularly in the first 30 minutes or so.

Read Full Post »

Contemporary Music

It’s a long time since I last saw Ben Folds. His concerts used to be a bit random and frequently irritated me. I certainly never expected to see him at the Royal Opera House, but that’s where he played with New York sextet yMusic (violin, viola, cello, clarinet, flute and trumpet / horn) and drummer Sam Smith and boy was it a treat. Though there were some songs from the back catalogue, rearranged for this configuration, it was mostly new stuff and I now can’t wait for the album to follow. It was a serious but good-humoured affair and the vocal contribution of the audience, conducted by Folds, was stunning. A treat.

Classical Music

My second Prom of British music wasn’t as good as the first, as it turned out to be a bit of a ragbag selection. It was bookended by Walton with Vaughan Williams, Elgar and a piece by Grace Williams, a 20th century Welsh composer I’d never heard of, in-between. It wasn’t the individual pieces, which were each good in their own way, it was that they didn’t seem to belong together. Perhaps my continual thinking about the journey home during a tube strike was distracting me.

I was attracted to Prom 32 by works by Gershwin and Copeland and the fact it was choral, though I’d never heard of Eric Whitacre, the American conductor and composer of four of the seven works. It turned out to be a huge treat – Whitacre’s works were inventive and captivating, there was a refreshing informality with introductions to each piece and a touch of showmanship for good measure. I think I became an instant fan.

We followed it (after the picnic, obviously) with another Prom featuring the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique under John Eliot Gardiner playing two classic symphonies, Beethoven’s 5th and Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, and though they were well played (despite the rather rasping brass) it didn’t rise to the afternoon’s heights.

The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra is as good as most of the London orchestras, as they proved convincingly in their lovely Prom programme of three works written in the last year of the Second World War by Britten, Korngold & Prokofiev under their dynamic young Ukrainian conductor Kirill Karabits. The Sea Interludes and Prokofiev’s 5th weren’t new to me and both were beautifully played, but the Korngold violin concerto was and Nicola Benedetti played it (and an encore) brilliantly.

Film

My problem with Dear White People is that I couldn’t get past my distaste of the conservative, traditional middle-class American college system to get to the satire on racism. It was OK, but only OK.

Art

The Alfred Wallis exhibition at new Old Street gallery Modern Art, on loan from Cambridge’s Kettle’s Yard, was fascinating. His naïve childlike paintings, mostly of ships and boats, were painted from memory on salvaged card and paper. They weren’t technically accomplished, but there was something compelling about them.

The London Metropolitan Archives are new to me, but once I’d found them (!) the exhibition of Victorian London in Photographs was fascinating. They included street scenes, street sellers, theatrical figures and albums from schools and asylums.

A trio of photographic exhibitions three days after completing a photography course may not have been my best idea as it plunged me back into feelings of photographic inadequacy. The first was Revelations at the Science Museum, examining the influence on early scientific photography on modern & contemporary art. Though the photos were almost all fascinating, I’m not sure it did what it said on the can. At the Natural History Museum, my reaction to the Wildlife Photography Prize Exhibition was different with the extra knowledge I’d gained since I saw it last. I now seemed to be more aware of, and therefore thinking about, the technology that enabled the photos as much as, if not more than, the creativity of the photographer. Still, they were still amazing. The same happened at the Royal Geographic Society’s annual Travel Photography Prize exhibition, but I was still wowed and still in awe of the results.

Duane Hanson’s uber-realistic sculptures of people at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery were rather spooky. I mistook more than one for real people and a real person for a sculpture; fortunately I didn’t stare too long or photograph him. Back in the Serpentine Gallery itself, I popped in to see an exhibition of paintings, mostly dark portraits with occasional flashes of colour, by contemporary British artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and loved them – an unexpected bonus in an art afternoon, which also provided an opportunity to see the extraordinarily colourful 2015 Serpentine Pavilion from the inside.

Utopia, at The Roundhouse, was their most ambitious summer installation yet. Taking its lead from Thomas More’s 16th century book, it took us through sweat-shops, bookshops and wastelands, questioning the price and value of consumerism. Brilliant, thought-provoking stuff.

Up in Edinburgh it was lean pickings for art this year, though I chose to wait for two exhibitions heading to London, but what I saw I liked. The annual International Photography exhibition was up to its usual standard with a hugely improved colour catalogue for a knock-down price. At the Scottish NPG there was an interesting exhibition of photos by Lee Miller documenting the friendship of her and her husband Roland Penrose with Picasso (which provided an opportunity to see the newly renovated gallery in all its glory). At the new Ingleby Gallery there was a fascinating exhibition of pictures, posters and sculptures by Charles Avery, someone new to me, whilst at Dovecot Studios, another new space, two treats – Kwang Young Chun‘s obsessive but enthralling work made of tiny folded paper parcels and Bernat Klein‘s tapestries with the artwork for them.

Read Full Post »

Contemporary Music

Within minutes of taking my Choir seat behind even the sound crew, I began to wonder what I was doing at the Pet Shop Boys Prom. I hated the electromush of the 80’s with a vengeance, though I’ve liked some of the PSB’s crossover stuff – the musical, the ballet and the film live accompaniment. As it turned out, it wasn’t bad – a musicals style overture made up of nine PSB songs, another four PSB songs arranged for Chrissie Hynde (in white tails) and orchestra and a suite (?) about the life and loves of Alan Turing. I’ve never much liked narration to orchestral music (c/f Vaughan Williams Sinfonia Antarctica) and there was way too much in this (even if it was Juliet Stevenson), though the rest didn’t seem half bad. If only…..

Opera

Gloria A Pigtale was a quirky, surreal experience, particularly because it was at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio. The music reminded me of the more manic Kurt Weill and the staging and design (with a sausage curtain!) were great fun. Even though it was only 80 mins, it didn’t really sustain its length and would have been better as part of a double-bill (but with what?). Still, you have to admire an opera with a line of puppet frogs in red tutus!

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden gave me my third Maria Stuarda in nine months, following WNO and MetLive. It was musically stunning, with Joyce DiDonato at the peak of her extraordinary powers, as she had been in MetLive, but you had to suffer some preposterous stuff in a production which had the two queens in period dress and everyone else in modern dress and Elizabeth without her wig in public carrying an executioners axe! If only it had been the Met’s production and their Elizabeth (who actually shaved her head for the role!) with everything else from Covent Garden. Never trust a French-Belgian production team with British history (even when its written by Italians based on a German play)!

Classical Music

When I booked to see Thomas Tallis at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, I was expecting a candlelit concert by The Sixteen. As it turned out, it was a series of scenes from the life of the 16th century composer interspersed with a dozen pieces of his music. In addition to Tallis as a character himself, we got Henry VIII, the young Edward VI, Elizabeth I and Dr Dee amongst others, which illustrated how Tallis’ life and work were caught up in the flip-flopping from Catholicism to Protestantism in Britain at the time. Unexpected, but both biographically illuminating and an aural pleasure.

Dance

I’m not sure what I was doing at Brazil Braziliero, or indeed why it was at Sadler’s Wells (more Peacock Theatre, I’d say). The talent, energy and quality were all there, but the show that purported to present the history of the samba somehow seemed like one of those tourist culture shows they’re often trying to entice you to when travelling. It probably wasn’t helped by the emptiest Sadler’s Wells I’ve ever sat in. There were good individual components, but it just didn’t work as a whole for me.

Film

I broke my 15-week cinema famine by seeing Boyhood, filmed over twelve years as the actors aged and an extraordinary achievement. It fully sustained its 2h45m length and it was a great one for my return!

I enjoyed Begin Again, though it took a while to take off, the time switching was a bit confusing and Mark Ruffalo was initially very irritating. It won me over though with its feel-good story and unpredictability.

Art

David Hockney’s exhibition at Annely Juda contained new charcoal drawings and colour prints from the iPad paintings shown in his RA exhibition a few years back. The colour prints were editions of 25 for sale and all had been sold. I asked the price and then worked out that they would have grossed over £8m. A few days later I photographed the Monument to the Unknown Artist at Bankside whose inscription is ‘Don’t applaud, just throw money’!

The Hayward’s exhibition The Human Factor features sculptures of people, but only a handful impressed me. There was so much modern tosh that the good pieces were in danger of being overlooked. Unimpressed.

It was difficult to enjoy Matisse Cut-Outs at Tate Modern as it was so busy. At first, though I found it vibrant and colourful, I wasn’t convinced of their artistic merit. As it progressed I did warm to it and toward the end was more convinced. I will have to go back at a quieter time, though, if such a thing exists at a blockbuster exhibition these days.

I know I say this every year, but the NPG Portrait Award exhibition seems to have trumped itself again with a terrific selection. I noticed a trend towards realism this year, which in my more conservative view is no bad thing. Also at the NPG, an exhibition about Virginia Wolf brought together photographs, paintings, books and diaries by her and her circle, which seemed like a London who’s who of the first half of the 20th century. I have to confess I had no idea she was so prolific, or had so many famous friends!

Read Full Post »

Contemporary Music

I booked to see Graham Parker & the Rumour again almost as soon as I left their reunion concert last October. I’m not sure they will ever match that buzz after almost 40 years, but the great thing about this second outing eight months on is that only half the set was the same and there were two new numbers, including one being played for the first time. This must be the most successful band reunion ever. An added bonus was Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook solo in support – a terrific 45 min set by a great singer – songwriter – and guitarist!

Opera

Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites at Covent Garden was a minimalist affair which I thought suited the subject matter. It was beautifully played (with Simon Rattle back at the ROH) and sung and great to hear live again. One of the most beautiful operas of the 20th century.

The WNO spring programme was themed ‘Faith’ and started with Shoenberg’s Moses und Aron, a very challenging piece which was, well, very challenging! It was made worthwhile by the playing of the enlarged orchestra and the singing of an augmented 80 strong chorus. Rainer Trost was great as Aron, Sir John Tomlinson had a strange speaking-singing part as Moses and it appeared to be inexplicably set in the Welsh Assembly next door. It was followed by a musically stunning Nabucco showcasing the WNO chorus and orchestra, with last year’s wonderful Tosca, American Mary Elizabeth Williams, wowing again. Sadly, the production was preposterous, so it was a case of eyes-closed-is-best. Can we ban German & Austrian directors and designers from WNO forthwith please? Thank you.

Another great night at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, and my first time in their new theatre which this contrasting 17th / 18th double-bill fitted like a glove. Thomas Arne’s comic opera The Cooper had nice songs but the comedy was very broad in a commedia dell’arte style. Stradella’s San Giovanni Battista was a complete contrast – very dramatic and very gory. Somehow the pairing worked and as always, the musical standards were outstanding.

Quartett is an 80 minute two-hander opera by Luca Francesconi based on Heiner Muller’s play which is itself based on Laclos’ novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but focuses only on the two main characters. It’s a visually compelling and brilliantly tense drama. The Linbury Studio proves its versatility again, this time housing a metal & concrete platform in a traverse setting, above which white roughly shaped cloths hang (onto which images are projected) and beneath which is the London Sinfonietta! (designer Soutra Gilmour; say no more). The platform contains little except car batteries which power lamps, but one has another purpose at the tragic conclusion. Like almost all modern opera, the music is challenging, but it is suspenseful, in keeping with the story. The two singers & orchestra are augmented by recorded vocals & chorus and sound effects. I rather liked it, but whoever decided on 10 performances is probably regretting this as No. 3 on a Friday was only half full. Given he’s written over 100 works, it’s surprising I’ve never heard of Francesconi!

The Royal College of Music revived a very rare Rossini comic opera and in Donald Maxwell’s production, La Gazzetta it was a hoot. Nigel Hook’s bright and colourful designs set the tone and fun was to be had at the expense of Berlusconi. The male voice choir, in red rugby shirts, was from Cwmbran (which also featured as a clock in one of those world time clock sets you get in hotels). There was some terrific singing, although occasionally ragged at the edges, but forgiven for the fun we were having. A treat.

Dance

I took a punt on something in Sadler’s Sampled, a sort of proms of dance, and was delighted with South African Dada Masilio’s riff on Swan Lake. Other composers’ music was added to Tchaikovsky (Steve Reich & Saints-Saens) and the whole thing trimmed to an hour. Only when I read the reviews afterwards did I realize I’d missed a lot of the narrative and story. Still, I enjoyed the dance for itself!

Art

Tate Britain’s British Folk Art exhibition was fascinating, but not really big enough to be fully satisfying. Lots off embroidery, ship’s figureheads, paintings and shop signs which told interesting stories of their purpose and their times, but it could have had more breadth and depth.

A lovely pair of exhibitions at The Photographers Gallery, beginning with the annual Deutsche Borse Photography Prize – perhaps the best shortlist for some time and Richard Mosse’s infrared Congo landscapes an obvious winner (for once I agree with the judges!). The other was photos (and some paintings) by John Deakin, who was one of those Soho characters who hung out with Jeffrey Barnard, Francis Bacon, Dylan Thomas et al and his pictures of Soho life are superb, really evocative of the place and the period.

Read Full Post »

Contemporary Music

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

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

Classical Music

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

Opera

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

Art

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

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

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

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

Comedy

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

Read Full Post »

Contemporary Music 

I couldn’t make Neil Young’s concert at the O2 and it was always going to be risky going to Birmingham instead. Sadly, nine hours of my life and c.£130 weren’t really worth it; I’d have been better off staying with my memories of all his concerts since the first one 42 years ago! The core issue was song choice. 50 minutes in, four songs later, I began to despair. The new stuff is fine, though elongated – one ending with 10 mins feedback and another with 10-mins of ‘What a fuck up’ chanting (not wrong, there, Neil) – beyond my self-indulgence tolerance limit. In the first two hours, just two classics from the 45-year back catalogue (one also subjected to the endless ending). There was apparently another hour, but I had to leave – and in truth, didn’t feel too bad about that as I’d had enough by now. I suspect this will be my last NY concert; a sad way to end my relationship with a genuine genius I have virtually worshiped.

The world of wrinklie rock redeemed itself just four days later when The Who performed their second rock opera, Quadrophenia, live at the O2. This is a much neglected work and one I’ve always loved as much as Tommy. It sounded fresh, with an enlarged band including three brass, two keyboards, two guitars, bass and drums. The film / photo montage, put together by Roger Daltrey, and the lighting were brilliant and the sound was good. Modern technology enabled deceased band members to contribute vocals and a bass solo by video; very moving. The additional 45 minutes included tracks from Who’s Next which if anything sounded even fresher. Support band Vintage Trouble, an American retro four-piece, were well worth getting there early for and their hard work paid off with a great audience reception.

Opera

June was opera month – nine! – one of which, Grimes on the Beach, I’ve already blogged.

I’m not a huge Rossini fan, but it’s impossible to resist both Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez. La Donna del Lago is a bit daft, with a Scottish setting & characters but sung in Italian, and John Fulljames production is a bit odd, starting and ending in some sort of museum, but the music is good and the singing was sensational. In addition to my two faves, Daniela Barcelona impressed hugely in the trouser role of Malcolm. It would be great if the Royal Opera found a better vehicle for these extraordinary talents, though.

The Perfect American is Philip Glass’ new opera about Walt Disney and, of the five operas of his I’ve seen, I think it’s his best. The score has more variety and less minimalist monotony and his subject matter is fascinating. What takes it from good to great though is Phelim McDermott’s astonishing production, designed by Dan Potra, Leo Warner, Joseph Pierce & Jon Clark, which is packed full of Improbable’s trademark invention, with every bit of it appropriate and effective. In an excellent cast (with such clear diction that, for once, you could hear every word – it can be done!), Christopher Purves shone as Walt. One of the best evenings at ENO and of modern opera in a long time.

The summer pairing at WNO was another Cardiff treat. A new opera by Jonathan Harvey, Wagner’s Dream, set at the moment Wager died, was paired with his Lohengrin. Wagner had apparently been contemplating a ‘Buddhist opera’ and at that moment just before death he reflects on it as we see it performed behind him. Wagner’s moments are acted in German and the opera is sung in the ancient Buddhist language of Pali. With added electronica, it was played and sung beautifully and staging and design were both effective and elegant. Lohengrin will go down as one of WNO’s finest moments. Despite needing a stand-in for the big role of Telramund (well done, Simon Thorpe!), the musical standards were exceptional, with the orchestra and chorus soaring (at one point with four additional fanfare groups at four points in the auditorium sending shivers up your spine). Apart from a noisy scene change in Act Three (while the orchestra was still playing), the staging was highly effective. I love pairings / groupings of operas and next time we have Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy – an 18th century Italian spin on 16th century British history!

Britten’s Owen Wingrave was the first opera made specifically for TV and it’s very rarely staged; gold star then to the Guildhall School for this contribution to the centenary. It’s an excellent production of his pacifist opera about a boy who defies his family’s military traditions. The setting is contemporary and the traverse staging is ‘framed’ by scenes from modern warfare showing what might have happened had he not rebelled, with projections used very effectively. Amongst the fine cast, Joseph Padfield was outstanding as military tutor Coyle and Samantha Crawford and Catherine Blackhouse both impressed as Owen’s aunt and fiancée respectively. 

I very much enjoyed the first outing of Deborah Warner’s production of Britten’s Death in Venice at ENO back in 2007, but I wasn’t prepared for how much better a revival could be. With beautiful, elegant designs from Tom Pye, it really is a masterly staging, but the chief reason that propels it to ‘Masterpiece’ is John Graham Hall as Aschenbach. Very occasionally a singer inhabits a role in such a way that they begin to own it. Simon Keenlyside IS Billy Budd and now John Graham Hall IS Aschenbach; it’s mesmerising. I’m so glad the Britten centenary (and half-price tickets!) persuaded me to see it again as it will go down as one of my great nights at the opera.

Gerald Barry’s opera of The Importance of Being Ernest in Covent Garden ‘s Linbury Studio was a quirky affair. The small orchestra was on a series of white steps surrounded by white walls. The singers entered from the audience and occupied the rest of the steps. The instrumentation includes plate-smashing. Lady Bracknell is a man in a suit with no attempt at female impersonation. The music is strident, almost spoken. It’s more semi-staged than staged. I admired the originality, I loved the way the orchestra was part of it and the performances were very good – but I can’t say I loved the opera. 

The ROH contribution to the Britten centenary (and the queen’s diamond jubilee) is his only historical opera Gloriana and it proves to be a better piece than the myths suggest (though having seen the Opera North production 19 years ago I knew this!). The problem with this new production is director Richard Jones decision to ‘frame’ it by our present queen’s visit to see it at a village hall, complete with 1953 production values and visible wings. Even during the overture we get a brief appearance from every monarch between the two Elizabeth’s in reverse chronological order with olympic style name cards and a row of schoolboys holding up cards signalling their geographic origin! This all robs the opera of its grandness, majesty and pomp. Still, musically it’s first rate with the orchestra & chorus on top form and the largely British cast including many personal favourites. Susan Bullock makes a great queen and it was wonderful to see Toby Spence again, in fine vocal form after his serious illness.

Classical Music

Another Handel oratorio for the collection – Susanna – from Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company at Christ Church Spitalfields. It’s not in Handel’s premiere league, but it was beautifully played and sung and an uplifting end to a challenging day. Emilie Renard and Tim Mead, both new to me, were excellent as Susanna and her husband, and the small chorus was so good I yearned for more than the seven items they were given. Will I ever hear them all live? I doubt it!

Dance

I returned to see The Clod Ensemble after enjoying their last show at Sadler’s Wells. That one was in four parts, with the audience moving from upper circle to dress circle to stalls to stage! Zero was staged conventionally, on stage, but I’m afraid it did nothing for me. The blues harmonica got it off to a great start but it was all downhill from then. I don’t know what it was about, I wasn’t impressed by the movement and the 80 minutes just dragged.

Britten Dances at Snape, part of the centenary Aldeburgh Festival, was a lovely varied cocktail of four pieces from three choreographers – Ashley Page, Cameron McMillan & Kim Brandstrup –  and two ballet companies; The Royal Ballet of Flanders & our own. In addition to two Britten pieces, the musical choices included his arrangement of Purcell and a piece from contemporary composer Larry Groves’ which takes Britten’s take on a Dowland piece as it’s starting point! A unique evening and a unique contribution to the centenary.

Film

Behind the Candelabra was a must-see after the trailer. Though a touch overlong, what makes it worth going to is highly impressive performances from Michael Douglas, Matt Damon & an unrecognisable Rob Lowe. Hard to believe it isn’t getting a cinema release in the US; the land of the free is still the home of the bigots.

I rather liked the new Superman film Man of Steel, the ultimate in prequels, which starts with his birth on Krypton and ends with him getting his job at the Daily Planet. It’s all a bit exhausting, and I’ve seen better 3D (I think maybe I should give up 3D), but it’s gripping and new Superman Henry Cavill is very good. Russell Crowe plays Russell Crowe again as Superman’s dad.

If you like those American gross out comedies like Superbad, you’ll like This is the End and I do /did. This one adds gore and disaster to the cocktail and the effects are excellent. It’s one of those films that’s better in the cinema than at home, because there’s a contaigon about the audience reaction which improves the experience.

Art

A lean month for art. I did pop into the NPG to see the annual BP Portrait Award exhibition, though it seemed to ack sparkle this year. Over at the lovely new giant White Cube in Bermondsey, there are four North American artists on show, the best (and most) of which is Julie Mehretu (actually, she was born in Ethiopia). Her giant B&W canvases are multi-layered and grow on you. It’s like she started with an architectural drawing, they overlaid it with another , then another….Original.

Read Full Post »

Contemporary Music

On the eve of my birthday with a 0, I went to see a role model who is 2 years and 15 days older, growing old gracefully and still seriously cool – Nick Lowe. A nice small venue, very attentive audience and great sound contributed to what was a brilliant experience all round. His keyboard player, Geraint Watkins, who hails from my village Abertridwr and went to school with my brother, also played support. An uplifting evening.

Opera

Miss Fortune is the fourth Judith Weir opera I’ve seen, but sad to say nowhere near as good as the other three. It’s a slight tale of a girl who becomes destitute after a financial crash and seeks to make a living from sweatshop to kebab van to laundry, stalked by Fate and his posse of break dancers. For a small show it gets a BIG production which it just doesn’t deserve. There’s a lot of talent on stage and a lot of talent behind the scenes, but it left me largely indifferent – with the exception of seeing an excellent break-dance group on the Covent Garden stage (and all credit to the ROH audience; they got the biggest cheers!).

Classical Music

The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Shakespeare themed concert at the Barbican was an unusual affair as the audience was almost entirely there for the second half – the UK premiere of the orchestral versions of Rufus Wainwright’s five settings of Shakespeare sonnets, sung by him and spoken by actress Sian Phillips. The first half was a very accessible combination of Korngold’s Much Ado suite and Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet suite (plus a John Adams opener), the Prokofiev a favourite of mine. The sonnets were lush, lovely and moving – beautifully spoken, sung and played – but I enjoyed the evening as a whole because the theme of inspiration by the bard really came through.

It’s a long time since I saw Elijah; an oratorio I like very much. The Britten Sinfonia & Voices under William Carne (new to me) gave a simply brilliant performance at the Barbican, helped by four wonderful British soloists – Andrew Kennedy, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Lucy Crowe and most importantly the incomparable Simon Keenlyside as Elijah. An exhilarating end to an otherwise shitty day!

Art

I enjoyed Jeremy Deller’s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery much more than I thought I would. He’s a complete original, a real one-off, and I found the playful work, and description, videos and records of past work, absolutely enthralling.

Film

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a lot better than some of the reviews. It’s one of those feel good films (well, for people of a certain age – like me!) with a set of fine performances by wonderful actors also of a certain (but older!) age like Judi Dench and Penelope Wilton. Dev Patel rather over-egged the clumsy but lovable young Indian entrepreneur, but hey it was harmless fun.

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »