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Opera

Trojan Women by the National Changgeuk Company of Korea in the newly refurbished (but you’d hardly notice!) Queen Elizabeth Hall is a pop-opera adaptation of Greek tragedy. It looked good and I liked the choruses, but I struggled with some of the strangulated solo vocals and, at two unbroken hours, it was too long. I always think visiting companies should be warmly received regardless, given they’ve travelled half-way across the world, and thankfully so it was at the QEH.

Mamzer Bastard sees the Royal Opera on walkabout again, this time to Hackney Empire, but probably with the wrong opera, if part of the plan was to engage the local community. There were things to enjoy – beautiful Jewish cantor for the first time in opera, expertly sung, and a cinematic production which made great use of live video – but it’s cultural and musical specificity and inaccessibility robbed it of universal appeal, and the film noir monochrome monotony drained me of energy, I’m afraid.

Rhondda Rips It Up! is WNO’s tribute to Lady Rhondda, an extraordinary woman and suffragette in this centenary year, also visiting Hackney Empire. A mash-up of opera, operetta, music hall and cabaret and great fun, with singalongs and flags to wave. Madeleine Shaw was terrific as Lady R and I even liked Lesley Garrett as the MC!

Britten’s Turn of the Screw saw ENO at the Open Air Theatre, the first ever opera there, on a lovely evening. I thought it worked very well, particularly as the natural light lowered, creating a spooky atmosphere. It was by necessity amplified, but the lovely singing and playing, though not as natural as unamplified, still shone through. There were the usual audience behaviour challenges, this time amplified by the bonkers decision to dish out unnecessary librettos so they could be rustled in unison!

Dance

Xenos at Sadler’s Wells Theatre is a one-man dance piece by Akram Khan inspired by the 1.5 million forgotten Indian soldiers lost in the 1st World War. I struggled to understand all of it, but was mesmerised regardless. The design was stunning, the east-meets-west music hypnotic and the movement extraordinary. A privilege to be at Kahn’s last full evening piece as a performer.

Film

I much admired Rupert Everett’s The Happy Prince, about the last days of Oscar Wilde. It avoided lightening and beautifying what was a very dark period in his life and told it as it was.

Art

The Edward Bawden exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery featured an extraordinarily diverse range of works including paintings, posters, linocuts, menu cards, drawings and book illustrations & covers with subjects including animals, people, buildings, landscapes and fantasies. A really underrated 20th century illustrator and a huge treat.

The BP Portrait Award Exhibition at the NPG seemed smaller this year, but the quality remained astonishingly high. Next door at the NG, I loved British-American 19th Century artist Thomas Cole’s paintings, though they only made up 40% of the exhibition, padded out with studies & drawings and paintings by those who influenced him and those he influenced (from the NG permanent collection!), which is more than a bit cheeky.

During a short visit to Exeter I went to their superb Royal Albert Museum to catch Pop Art in Print, an excellent V&A touring exhibition which we don’t appear to be getting in London. A fascinating, diverse range of items, very well curated and presented, probably helped by being the only visitor at the time!

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Opera

There was much to like about Coraline, the Royal Opera at the Barbican Theatre, but I’m not sure the adaptation and production served both Neil Gaiman’s story and Mark Anthony Turnage’s music well as neither were dark enough. Good to see a family friendly opera at accessible prices though.

I didn’t go and see the Royal Opera’s 4.48 Psychosis first time round in 2016 because I didn’t like the Sarah Kane play from which it is adapted. The reviews and awards propelled me to this early revival, again at the Lyric Hammersmith, and I’m glad they did. Philip Venables work makes sense of Kane’s play, a bleak but brilliant exposition of depression and in particular the treatment journey in the eyes of the sufferer. Words are spoken and projected as well as sung and there is recorded music, muzak and sound effects. The artistry of the six singers and twelve-piece ensemble was outstanding. Not easy, but unmissable.

Classical Music

The new Bridge Theatre put on a lunchtime concert of Southbank Sinfonia playing Schumann’s 3rd Symphony, which was a delight, particularly as they unexpectedly blended in poems read by actors. I only wish I’d booked seats within the orchestra, as that would have been a rather unique experience; let’s hope they do it again.

At Wigmore Hall, a young Stockholm-based chamber ensemble called O/Modernt gave a recital spanning almost 400 years of English music from Gibbons to Taverner with an emphasis on Purcell & Britten. They were assisted by a mezzo, a theorbo and vocal ensemble The Cardinall’s Musick. There was even a quirky improvisation on a theme by Purcell. It all sounded very fresh, though there was a randomness about it.

At the Barbican, a delightful double-dip started with a concert of Elgar choral works by the BBC Singers at St Giles Cripplegate. I particularly loved the fact the Radio 3 introductions were made by members of the ensemble. Then at Barbican Hall the BBC SO & Chorus under Andrew Davies gave a wonderful WWI themed concert bookended by Elgar pieces and featuring the London Premiere of a contemporary song cycle and a lost orchestral tone-poem, the highlight of which was an Elgar piece this Elgar fan had never heard, the deeply moving but thoroughly uplifting The Spirit of England, so good I will forgive the ‘England’ that should be ‘Britain’.

Another LSO rehearsal at the Barbican, this time with their new Chief Conductor Simon Rattle, a man who knows what he wants, if ever I saw one; Mahler’s 9th and a new work. It proved to be a fascinating contrast with Mark Elder’s less directive rehearsal method. Again, I wanted to book for the concert.

London Welsh Chorale did a good job with Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus at St Giles’ Cripplegate. It’s one of the first oratorio’s I ever heard (my mother was in Caerphilly Ladies Choir!). They were accompanied by a small orchestra and had four fine young soloists.

I actually went to the LSO Tippett / Mahler Barbican concert to hear Tippet’s Rose Lake again (I was at its world premiere) and as much as I enjoyed it, it was Mahler’s unfinished 10th which blew me away. A highlight in a lifetime of concert-going.

The British Museum reopened the fabulous Reading Room for some concerts and I went to the quirkiest, obviously, for Lygeti’s Poeme Symphonique for 100 Metronomes. They were all set off at the same time, but ended individually, with the fifth from the left on the back row hanging in there the longest for its solo finale followed by a minute’s silence. Strangely mesmerising.

Dance

The Royal Ballet’s Bernstein Mixed Bill was a lovely addition to his Centenary. The first piece, danced to the Chichester Psalms, was wonderful, and the last, to the Violin Serenade, was a delight. Though I love the 2nd Symphony, which provided the music for the middle piece, it was a bit dim and distant to wow me as the others had.

The Viviana Durante Company’s short programme of early Kenneth Macmillan ballet’s, Steps Back in Time, benefitted from the intimacy of Barbican Pit, but could have done with programme synopses so that we could understand the narrative, better recorded sound for the two works that had it, and on the day I went some aircon! Lovely dancing, though.

Comedy

Mark Thomas’ latest show tells the story of running a comedy workshop in the Jenin refugee camp in Palestine, two Palestinian comedians with him on stage and four more showcased on film. In addition to a good laugh, you learn a lot about life in occupied Palestine. The post-show Q&A at Stratford East was a real bonus. Important and entertaining.

Film

Love, Simon is as wholesome and sentimental as only American films can be, but its heart was in the right place and it was often very funny.

The action was a bit relentless in Ready Player One, and the ending a touch sentimental, but it’s a technical marvel and proves Spielberg can still cut it, now with mostly British actors it seems.

Funny Cow was my sort of film – gritty, British, late 20th Century – with some fine performances and some really funny stand-up. Maxine Peak was terrific.

I enjoyed The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, though it was a bit slow to get off the ground. Particularly lovely to see Tom Courtney at the top of his game.

Art

A bumper catch-up month!

I was impressed by Andreas Gursky’s monumental photographs of the modern world (ports, factories, stock exchanges…) at the Hayward Gallery. Much has been said about the gallery’s refurbishment, but I honestly couldn’t tell the difference!

I’m not sure I understand the point of an exhibition about performance art events that have taken place, so Joan Jonas at Tate Modern was an odd affair; intriguing but not entirely satisfying. However, Picasso 1932, also at Tate Modern, was astonishing – work from just one year that most artists would be happy of in a lifetime, with an extraordinarily diverse range of media, subjects and styles. Wonderful.

I love discovering artists and Canadian David Milne at Dulwich Picture Gallery was no exception, his Modern Painting exhibition is a beautiful collection of landscapes, with one room of early city scenes, all very soft and colourful.

Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins at the Barbican Art Gallery brought together some world class, cutting edge photographers, but it was all rather depressing. The quality of photography was excellent, but all those prostitutes, addicts, homeless people…..Agadir by Yto Barrada downstairs in the Curve didn’t do much for me and the wicker seats you sat in to listen to the audio aspects of the installation were excruciatingly uncomfortable.

At the NPG, Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography consisted entirely of portraits, mostly from the mid-19th Century, by four photographers. They were surprisingly natural and technically accomplished, but I’m not sure it was the ‘art photography’ it said on the can. At the same gallery Tacita Dean: Portrait consisted mostly of short films of people with loud projector sound as accompaniment and it did nothing for me.

At the RA, a small but exquisite display of Pre-Raphaelite book illustrations by the likes of Millais, Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Holman Hunt. A little gem, but oh for a much bigger one.

Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the V&A was a brilliantly presented exhibition which conveyed the glitz and glamour but also covered the wonders of the engineering and the historical significance of the mode of travel. Unmissable.

At the Photographers Gallery the annual Deutsche Borse Photography Foundation Prize Exhibition had a real political bite this year with swipes at Monsanto, the US justice system and former Soviet and East European states. Downstairs Under Cover: A Secret History of Cross-Dressers was difficult to take in as it was a load of standard size snaps found in flea markets and car boot sales, but the accompanying display of Grayson Perry’s Photograph Album covering the early days of his alter ego Clare was fascinating.

The content of the Sony World Photography Awards Exhibition at Somerset House was better than ever and it was much better displayed, though it made me feel like a rubbish photographer again. In the courtyard, there were five geodesic domes, ‘Pollution Pods’, replicating the pollution in five world cities with live readings. New Delhi and Beijing come off particularly badly but London wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. It really made you think.

All Too Human at Tate Britain was another of those exhibitions where the premise was a bit questionable, but there were enough great paintings to forgive that. Wonderful Lucien Freud and Bacon pictures and a lot of 20th century British artists new to me. In the Duveen Hall, Anthea Hamilton has created a quirky swimming pool like space with sculptures and a performer moving around all day. Called The Squash, it was momentarily diverting.

Rodin & the art of ancient Greece places his sculptures alongside some of the British Museum’s collection of Greek pieces and it works brilliantly. Rodin apparently took inspiration from The Parthenon sculptures and was a regular visitor and lover of the BM. Wonderful.

The Travel Photographer of the Year Award exhibition moved completely outdoors and to City Hall this year, but the standard was as good as ever. The young photographer entries were particularly stunning.

I was overwhelmed by the scale and beauty of Monet & Architecture at the National Gallery. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see 78 pictures together, a quarter of which come from private collections, a third from public collections scattered all over North America, and only 10% in the UK, half in the NG’s collection. Going at 10am on a Monday was also a good idea, seeing them with a handful of people instead of the crowds there when I left. While there I took in Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell, thirty lovely works, but as always with pervy Degas all young women and girls, Murillo: The Self Portraits, which isn’t really my thing, and Tacita Dean: Still Life, which I enjoyed marginally more than her NPG show!

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Dance

Matthew Bourne’s 20-year-old production of Cinderella, revived at Sadler’s Wells again after seven years, scrubbed up as fresh as ever. The Second World War setting works even better today and the expansion of Cinderella’s family with three step-brothers continues to add much. It looks gorgeous, Prokofiev’s score is one of the best ballet scores ever and the performances are thrilling, packed with detail.

Opera

The Royal Opera went walkabout to the Roundhouse for Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses. It’s not my favourite early opera, but it was an impressive in-the-round production, with the orchestra in a central pit revolving slowly and the stage around them revolving independently in the opposite direction! I was surprised I didn’t leave feeling giddy.

Music

Christopher Purves’ recital of ten Handel arias at Milton Court was lovely, though I’m not sure the selection is the best he could have made. The bonus was accompaniment by the ensemble Arcangelo, who also played two concerto grosso’s and two opera overtures.

The Sixteen’s concert of Purcell’s music for Charles II at Wigmore Hall was an eclectic cocktail of welcome songs, theatre songs, tavern songs and instrumental numbers. The singing and playing was of such a high quality it took my breath away.

The BBC SO’s Bernstein Total Immersion day at the Barbican was a real treat. Eleven works over three concerts in three venues, covering orchestral, jazz, chamber, choral, vocal and piano, clarinet and violin works, only two of which I’d heard before. The GSMD musicians opening concert in Milton Court was the highlight for me, though the BBC Singers came close with their short but beautiful choral concert in St Giles Cripplegate. There was also a brilliant film of his 1961 concert for young people about impressionism. The following day, at LSO St. Lukes, there was a terrific selection of Bernstein stories and anecdotes from Edward Seckerson with musical theatre songs sung by favourite Sophie-Louise Dann and played by the wonderful Jason Carr.

Film

January is always a good month for film as the best are released in the run-up to awards season, and this year is no exception.

Molly’s Game isn’t subject matter I would normally be interested in (Olympic skiing and poker!) but this was a brilliantly made film which gripped me throughout.

I was also riveted by All the Money in the World, and in particular by Christopher Plummer’s last minute takeover of Kevin Spacey’s role. It won’t do J Paul Getty’s posthumous reputation much good though!

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri lived up to every bit of the hype. Watching Martin McDonough’s transition from playwright to screenplay writer to film director / writer has been deeply rewarding.

There have been a number of films along similar lines to Darkest Hour (Dunkirk and Churchill just last year) but this differs in showing the loneliness and vulnerability of its subject. See it for Gary Oldman’s extraordinary performance, and many other fine supporting ones.

The Post is extraordinarily timely, covering press freedom based on an incident before Watergate, and I very much enjoyed the old-fashioned film making, which rather suited the material.

Art

The Soutine exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery was good, but with only 21 pictures in 2 rooms, I was glad it was a while since I’d seen their permanent collection, as this made the visit more worthwhile.

I am a bit embarrassed that I’d never heard of the Scythians before the British Museum exhibition was announced. It was fascinating, particularly lots of 2000-year-old gold animal representations. With a forthcoming trip to Kazakhstan, on the edge of where they once roamed, it was also rather timely. Also at the BM, I was surprised at how interesting Living with Gods was – religious objects from just about every faith on Earth.

At Tate Modern, not one, not two, but three fascinating exhibitions! Modigliani lived up to expectations. I so love his palette of colours and the warmth of his portraits. Ilya & Emilia Kabakov are artists I’ve never heard of, so it was a treat to immerse myself in their retrospective of excellent paintings and installations. Red Star Over Russia was a fascinating visual history of Communist Russia, or should I say USSR, with lots of those rousing posters which define the period. Treatsville Bankside.

Over at White Cube Bermondsey, a ginormous Gilbert & George show called The Beard Pictures & Their Fuckosophy paired walls and walls of phrases all containing the word Fuck, with walls and walls of their giant, loud, symmetrical, in-you-face pictures. Part of me finds it all too samey and juvenile, but I keep going back for more. A gold star this time for a signed catalogue at £10!

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The Rest of 2016

I spent a third of the last third of the year out of the country, so my monthly round-up’s for this period have merged into one mega-round-up of the two-thirds of the four months I was here!

Opera

Opera Rara’s concert performance of Rossini’s rare Semiramide, the last Bel Canto opera, at the Proms was a real highlight. It’s a long work, four hours with interval, in truth too long, but it contains some of Rossini’s best music (and I’m not even a fan!). The OAE, Opera Rara Chorus and a world class set of soloists under Sir Mark Elder gave it their all, with ovations during let alone at the end. Brilliant.

I was out of the country when I would have made my usual trip to Cardiff for WNO’s autumn season, so I went to Southampton to catch their UK premiere of Andre Tchaikowsky’s The Merchant of Venice when I got home and I was very glad I did. It’s a fine adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, with a particularly dramatic court scene, and it was beautifully sung and played, with a terrific performance by American Lester Lynch as Shylock.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been to something that sounded so beautiful but looked so ugly. Handel’s Oreste, a pasticcio opera (a compilation of tunes from elsewhere, in Handel’s case his own works) which the Royal Opera staged at Wilton’s Music Hall. The singing and playing of the Jette Parker Young Artists and Southbank Sinfonia were stunning, but the production was awful. One of those occasions when it’s best to shut your eyes.

Classical Music

Another delightful lunchtime Prom at Cadogan Hall, this time counter-tenor Iestyn Davies and soprano Carolyn Sampson, both of whom are terrific soloists, but together make a heavenly sound. I was less keen on the six Mendelssohn songs than the six Quilter’s and even more so the glorious six Purcell pieces. It was a joyful, uplifting hour.

Juditha triumphans is a rare opera / oratorio by Vivaldi that was brilliantly performed at the Barbican by the Venice Baroque Orchestra and a superb quintet of female singers including Magdalena Kozena as Juditha. It took a while to take off, but it then soared, and the second half was simply stunning.

Visiting the LSO Steve Reich at 80 concert at the Barbican was a bit of a punt which really paid off. The three pieces added up to a feast of modernist choral / orchestral fusions. The composer was present and received an extraordinary ovation from a surprisingly full house.

Berlioz Requiem is on a huge scale, so the Royal Albert Hall was the perfect venue, and it was Remembrance Sunday, so the perfect day too. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, with ten timpanists and an enormous brass section of 50 or 60, occasionally drowned out all three choirs (!) but it was otherwise a thrilling ride.

Joyce DiDonato‘s latest recital with the wonderful baroque ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro was a bit if a disappointment. It had some extraordinary musical high spots, but the selection could have been better and she didn’t really need the production (lights, projections, haze, costumes, face painting and a dancer!). It didn’t help that the stage lights sometimes shone into the eyes of large chunks of the audience, including me, blinding them and sending me home with a headache.

At the Royal Academy of Music their Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Sir Mark Elder in a lunchtime concert of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony and it was thrilling. Sir Mark did another of his fascinating introductory talks, this time illustrated with musical extracts.

The BBC Singers gave a lovely curtain-raising concert of unaccompanied seasonal music by British composers at St Giles Cripplegate, half from the 20th century and half from the 21st, before the BBC SO‘s equally seasonal pairing of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve Suite and Neil Brand’s A Christmas Carol for orchestra, choir and actors in the Barbican Hall. This was a big populist treat.

I’ve heard a lot of new classical music since I last heard John Adams‘ epic oratorio El Nino, so it was good to renew my acquaintance and discover how much I still admire it. 270 performers on the Barbican stage provide a very powerful experience – the LSO, LSC, a youth choir and six excellent American soloists who all know the work. Thrilling.

Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley, accompanied by Sir Antonio Pappano on piano no less, gave a superb but sparsely attended recital at the Barbican Hall. It was an eclectic, multi-lingual and highly original selection, beautifully sung. More fool those who stayed away from this absolute treat.

The standards of amateur choirs in the UK are extraordinary, and the London Welsh Chorale are no exception. Their lovely Christmas concert at St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate included extracts from Handel’s Messiah, Vivaldi’s Gloria plus songs and carols. The soprano and mezzo soloists were superb too.

Dance

Rambert’s ballet set to Haydn’s oratorio The Creation at Sadler’s Wells was one of the best dance evenings of recent years. If you shut your eyes, this would be a world class concert with three fine soloists, the BBC Singers and the Rambert Orchestra. With a gothic cathedral backdrop, the dance added a visual dimension which wasn’t literal but was beautifully impressionistic and complimentary.

English National Ballet had the inspired idea to ask Akram Khan to breathe new life into Giselle and at Sadler’s Wells boy did he do that. It’s an extraordinarily powerful, mesmerising and thrilling combination of music, design and movement. From set, costumes and lighting to an exciting adapted score and the most stunning choreography, this is one of the best dance shows I’ve ever seen.

Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake the following week, also at Sadler’s Wells, wasn’t such a success, and steered even further away from its inspiration. It revolved around a 36-year old single man whose mother was desperate to marry off, but there were lots of references to depression and madness. I’m afraid I didn’t find the narrative very clear, its relationship to the ballet is a mystery to me and it’s more physical theatre than dance. It had its moments, but it was not for me I’m afraid.

Back at Sadler’s Wells again for The National Ballet of China‘s Peony Pavilion, a real east-meets-west affair. Ancient Chinese tale, classical ballet with elements of Chinese dance, classical music with added Chinese opera. Lovely imagery and movement. I loved it.

New Adventures’ Red Shoes at Sadler’s Wells might be the best thing they’ve done since the male Swan Lake. With a lush Bernard Herman mash-up score, great production values and Matthew Bourne’s superb choreography, it’s a great big populist treat.

Contemporary Music

Camille O’Sullivan brought an edginess to the songs of Jacques Brel which I wasn’t comfortable with at first but then she alternated them with beautifully sung ballads and I became captivated. She inhabited the songs, creating characters for each one. Her encore tributes to Bowie & Cohen were inspired.

There were a few niggles with Nick Lowe‘s Christmas concert at the Adelphi Theatre – it started early (!), the sound mix wasn’t great and he gave over 30 minutes of his set to his backing band Los Straightjackets (who perform in suits, ties & Mexican wrestler masks!) but (What’s so funny ’bout) Peace Love & Understanding has never sounded more timely and the closing acoustic Alison was simply beautiful. He’s still growing old gracefully.

Film

I loved Ron Howard’s recreation of the Beatles touring years in Eight Days a Week, plus the remastered Shea Stadium concert which followed. What was astonishing about this was that they were completely in tune with all that crowd noise and no monitors or earphones!

Bridget Jones Baby was my sort of escapist film – warm, fluffy and funny – and it was good to see Rene Zellweger and Colin Frith on fine form as the now much older characters.

I, Daniel Blake made me angry and made me cry. Thank goodness we’ve got Ken Loach to show up our shameful treatment of the disabled. Fine campaigning cinema.

I loved Nocturnal Beasts, a thriller that’s as close to the master, Hitchcock, as I’ve ever seen. I was gripped for the whole two hours.

Fantastic Beasts lived up to its hype. Though it is obviously related to Harry Potter, it’s its own thing which I suspect will have quite a series of its own. Starting in NYC, I reckon it will be a world tour of locations for future productions.

Kiwi film The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a very funny, heart-warming affair with a stunning performance by a young teenager, Julian Dennison, matched by a fine one from Sam Neill.

I loved A United Kingdom, based on the true story of Botswana’s Seretse Khama, leader from mid-60s independence to 1980. It’s the true story of a country that has been a beacon of democracy in a continent of corruption.

The Pass must be one of the most successful stage-to-screen transfers ever. I was in the front row at the Royal Court upstairs, but it seemed even tenser on screen. Good that three of the four actors made the transfer too.

One of my occasional Sunday afternoon double-bills saw Arrival back-to-back with Sully. The former was my sort of SciFi, with the emphasis on the Sci, and it gripped me throughout. I’m also fond of true stories & the latter delivered that very well.

I liked (Star Wars) Rogue One, but it was a bit slow and dark (light-wise) to start with, then maybe too action-packed from then. I’m not sure I will do 3D again too; it’s beginning to feel too low definition and overly blurry for a man who wears glasses.

Art

Sally Troughton‘s installations in the Pump House Gallery at Battersea Park didn’t really do much for me, but Samara Scott‘s installations in the Mirror Pools of its Pleasure Garden Fountains certainly did. A combination of dyed water and submerged fabrics created lovely reflective effects.

There was so much to see in the V&A’s You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970. It was an astonishing five years and the exhibition covers music, art, design, fashion, politics, literature…..you name it. I shall have to go again to take it all in.

Wifredo Lam is a Cuban artist I’ve never heard of, getting a full-blown retrospective at Tate Modern. There was too much of his late, very derivative abstract paintings, but it was still overall a surprising and worthwhile show.

South Africa: the art of a nation was a small but excellent exhibition covering thousands of years from early rock art to contemporary paintings and other works. Most of the old stuff was from the British Museum’s own collection, so in that sense it was one of those ‘excuses for a paying exhibition’ but the way they were put together and curated and the addition of modern art made it worthwhile.

The Picasso Portraits exhibition at the NPG was a lot better than I was expecting, largely because of the number of early works, which I prefer to the more abstract late Picasso. Seeing these does make you wonder why he departed from realism, for which he had so much talent.

Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy was also better than expected, largely because of the range of work and the inclusion of artists I didn’t really know. I do struggle with people like Pollock and Rothko though, and can’t help thinking they may be taking the piss!

The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition, back at the NPG, seemed smaller than usual, but just as high quality. I do love these collections of diverse subjects and styles.

Back at the Royal Academy, Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans was a very interesting exhibition of the work of an underrated Belgian master (with an obsession with masks and skeletons!) curated by a contemporary Belgian artist. I’ve seen samples of his work in my travels, but it was good to see it all together, and I liked the curatorial idea too.

At Tate Modern, a double-bill starting with a Rauschenberg retrospective. I’ve been underwhelmed by bits of his work I’ve come across in my travels, but this comprehensive and eclectic show was fascinating (though I’m still not entirely sold on his work!). The second part was Radical Eye, a selection from Elton John’s collection of modernist photography (with more Man Ray’s that have probably ever been shown together). It’s an extraordinary collection and it was a privilege to see it.

Star Wars Identities at the O2 exceeded my expectations, largely because of the idea of discovering your own Star Wars identity by choosing a character and mentor and answering questions on behaviour and values and making choices at eight ‘stations’ en route which were recorded on your wristband, in addition to film clips, models, costumes etc. The behavioural, career and values stuff was well researched and the whole experience oozed quality.

I didn’t think many of the exhibits in Vulgar: Fashion Redefined at the Barbican were vulgar at all! It was an exhibition made up entirely of costumes, so it was never going to be my thing, but it passed a pre-concert hour interestingly enough.

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Contemporary Music

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

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

Opera

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

Classical Music

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

Dance

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

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

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

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Film 

A bumper 12 movie month, as January always is, leading up to the awards season and filling the gaps in a lean theatrical period. Here’s a whistle-stop tour:

I’ve been critical of how Peter Jackson has strung out The Hobbit to three long films, but I’m a completeist so I had to see the last one and decided to go out with a bang and see The Hobbit – the Battle of the Five Armies in the IMAX. It is overlong, the 3D and CGI is often disappointing and there was something tired and earnest about the performances, so it ended with a yawn.

I adored Paddington, a lovely, charming, heart-warming tale filmed and performed to perfection. I was almost put off by ‘kids film’ branding; what a relief I succumbed.

Though there was much to enjoy in Birdman, I wasn’t as euphoric as the critics. Too much of people shouting at one another for me, and overlong to boot. Good rather than great.

I was somewhat apprehensive about seeing the film adaptation of a favourite musical by one of my heroes, but Into the Woods exceeded expectations bigtime. Brilliantly cast, superb production design and some decent singing. You have to suspend disbelief a lot in the theatre (beanstalks, giant, castle ball….) but the film opens it right up. There was even a delicious moment right at the end when Simon Russell Beale is revealed as the ghost of Baker James Corden’s dad!

It is Benedict Cumberbatch’s great misfortune that The Theory of Everything is released in the same awards year as The Imitation Game, for his superb performance is eclipsed by an even more superb one from Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking. It’s another captivating biopic of another great Briton and we are lucky to have films like this still being made here.

I enjoyed Testament of Youth, an unsentimental yet moving depiction of the First World War from the perspective of one woman, her family and friends. It was well paced, so it sustained its 130 minute length and the performance by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, who I’d never seen before, was superb.

Foxcatcher really caught me out. Reluctant to go and see a film about wrestling, it turned out to have great psychological depth and a superb performance by Steve Carrell. It’s a slow burn, but it’s worth staying with it.

Whiplash was another psychological thriller masquerading, this time as a film about jazz. This one grabs you from the off and doesn’t let go. A thrilling ride.

American Sniper is a very well made film but I found it hard to swallow the delight taken in killing, whatever the rights and wrongs of it. Exceptional performances, especially from Bradley Cooper and an unrecognisable Sienna Miller, weren’t enough to redeem it I’m afraid.

A Most Violent Year is the third great thriller this month, also covering new ground (battles between and corruption within oil distributors in 80’s New York). A slowish start but it draws you in.

Alicia Vikander turned up again in Ex Machina, an interesting if slight and slow film about AI, in a completely contrasting role; definitely someone to watch.

I ended the film-going month with the populist – Kingsman – The Secret Service – which was rather fun. It was extraordinarily violent (not something I usually like) but it was comic rather than realistic violence, so I could stomach it – most of the time.

Dance

I recall being a bit underwhelmed by the first outing of New Adventures’ Edward Scissorhands at Sadler’s Wells nine years ago, but the consensus of ‘much improved’ encouraged me to re-visit it. Sadly, I remain underwhelmed. There’s a lot of moving about but not enough dance for me – a bit like New Adventures recent Lord of the Flies, but without the strong narrative that had. It just seemed like a series of set pieces and I didn’t really engage with the main character or the story. I did like the music though, and it picked up a lot in the last few scenes.

This is the third time I’ve seen BalletBoyz (The Talent) and it’s great to watch them grow and mature. This show, Young Men, also at Sadler’s Wells, is made up of 10 themed scenes about, well, young men and war. The soundtrack by Keaton Henson is brilliant and the design beautifully atmospheric, but it’s the dance that thrills most. Mesmerising.

Classical

It was only my second time seeing the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela under Gustavo Dudamel, but they continue to impress. The first of their two RFH concerts paired Beethoven’s 5th with selections from Wagner’s Ring cycle and their interpretations of both were often thrilling. They’ve all grown up playing together in the El Sistema process and I’m sure this is why they sound so tight and cohesive.

I’d never heard Schumann’s oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri (like almost everyone else in the audience it seems!) It’s rare amongst choral pieces as it’s both secular and romantic, maybe even sickly and sentimental. It was given a thrilling outing by the LSO & LSC at the Barbican with six excellent soloists and a female quartet from GSMD under Sir Simon Rattle. If the rumours are true we might get a lot more of him in the future, which would be the best possible appointment the LSO could make!

Opera

I liked the Royal Opera / Roundhouse co-production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, one of the earliest operas ever written, but more for the music than the production. The differentiation between hell and the real world was lost in a sea of black and grey costumes and the writhing people in grey boiler suits were very distracting. Orfeo acted well, but his singing was uneven, but the rest of the cast were excellent.

Contemporary Music

A Little Night Music isn’t my favourite Sondheim musical but given the casting I couldn’t resist the 40th anniversary concert performance at the Palace Theatre and was very glad I didn’t. The large orchestra sounded lush, Sondheim’s sharp and witty lyrics shone in this setting and, despite some fluffed lines, the performances were excellent, with Laura Pit-Pulford bringing the house down with The Millers Son.

Art

I very much liked the Sigmar Polke retrospective at Tate Modern. He’s clearly an artist who has not lost his creativity as his work has evolved and the artistic journey is brilliantly presented. A second visit beckons methinks.

Its extraordinary how a little known 16th century Italian portraitist can pack them in at the Royal Academy, so much so that it hampered the experience of viewing the Moroni exhibition in its final weekend. Round the back in Pace Gallery there was a fascinating and original exhibition of large B&W photos of museum dioramas of landscapes with wildlife by Hiroshi Sugimoto that I thought at first were paintings. Next door at the other RA galleries the Allen Jones retrospective was the highlight of the afternoon. Even though he was obsessed with women’s legs, the vibrancy and pizazz of the work was terrific.

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What with travelling and theatre catch-up as a consequence, April was a lean month for anything else.

Opera

My first visit to The Globe’s new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was to an opera rather than a play. It’s a gorgeous, intimate venue and it suited Cavali’s L’Ormindo perfectly. The production was lovely, with terrific costumes, a great ensemble under Christian Curnyn and some fantastic singing. Singers popped up all over the place – in a gallery or in the pit, from under the stage or descending from ‘the heavens’. I doubt I’ll have more fun at the opera this year, or for much longer than that.

Through His Teeth at the Linbury Studio was a fascinating short opera by Luke Bedford and playwright David Harrower about a woman preyed on by a conman. Short scenes of her experiences were framed by the filming of a documentary after his imprisonment. There were some first night glitches, but it was an original subject for opera and it was staged with great tension.

Pop Up Opera took Bizet’s early one-acter Le Docteur Miracle and added a Pearl Fishers prologue and a trio of pieces from Carmen as an encore to make a delightful evening. Really well sung, with just piano accompaniment, it was an absolute hoot. This particular venue was called The Department Store and was billed as a disused one, though it turned out to be a space in a block of craft studios next to a railway line in Dalston! A company to watch.

Dance

I was a touch disappointed by the Royal Ballet’s The Winter’s Tale. It looked gorgeous and the music was good, but I didn’t really take to the choreographic style and the middle act was one of those full of show dances that added little to the storytelling and broke up the dramatic flow. Two long intervals also slowed down the drama, with gaps amounting to a third of the running time.

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