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Posts Tagged ‘Rufus Wainwright’

Classical Music

It’s baffling that Hubert Parry’s oratorio Judith hasn’t been performed in London for 130 years. How many Messiah’s and Passion’s Mark and John have we had since then? The London English Song Festival made a fine job of a demanding work to a sadly sparse Royal Festival Hall audience. It really ought to be at The Proms!

Handel’s Semele at the Barbican was a truly transatlantic affair, with British period chamber orchestra The English Concert, New York’s Clarion Choir and three soloists from each side of the pond, and it was terrific, a truly uplifting evening.

I’m a lover of Handel, but I didn’t even know there was such a thing as Handel’s Brockes-Passion. It’s so rarely performed, and it’s taken the Academy of Ancient Music over a year to produce a performing edition, so there was much anticipation in the audience of Handelians at the Barbican on Good Friday 300 years after it was first performed. They lived up to it, delivering a finely played and sung performance of this underrated work. Soprano Elizabeth Watts was particularly wonderful.

Contemporary Music

I was taken to see The Upbeat Beatles tribute band at Melton Theatre as a surprise. Though the production values (costumes and video projections) were a bit amateur, the musicianship was excellent and you couldn’t help being swept away by the nostalgia of listening to the best back catalogue of any band ever.

Joe Jackson’s London Palladium concert celebrated his four decades in music by focusing on five albums – one from each decade, including his first and his new one. It was good to hear hits alongside some neglected pieces and some new ones. His band still includes brilliant bassist Graham Maby – they’ve worked together for 46 years, in what must be one of the longest lasting musical partnerships ever – with a terrific new guitarist and drummer making it one of the tightest bands I’ve ever heard; positively thrilling.

I think I’m going to have to abandon my search for a thoroughly satisfying Rufus Wainwright concert. I’ve only regretted one of the last seven, but there’s always something marring them, often too much messing around. This time it was song choice. He hasn’t released a new album for seven years, so he decided the tour, visiting the Royal Albert Hall, would celebrate his 20-year career by playing his 2nd album in full. That wasn’t a bad idea, but culling most of the rest from his first album was. The last two encores made you realise how much of the rest of his back catalogue you missed. No one album is without fault and the best songs are spread over all of them, so selecting two from seven is a flawed strategy, and an unnecessary interval a mistake!

Maria Friedman’s new cabaret show From the Heart at Brasserie Zedel showcased a very unpredictable and very personal selection of songs, benefiting from the intimacy of the Crazy Coqs room. Pianist Theo Jamieson is more than a match for her regular Jason Carr and she delivered what she promised – ‘From the Heart’ – ninety minutes with friends in her front room. Lovely.

Dance

I had to be talked into English National Ballet’s She Persisted at Sadler’s Wells, a triple-bill of ballets by and about women. They were brilliant – an exciting, original one about Frida Kahlo, a short very dramatic one about Nora from Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House (with Philip Glass the perfect accompaniment), and Pina Bausch’s thrilling 1975 version of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. After so many dance evenings of little over an hour, this was a real feast.

Comedy

I couldn’t resist the prospect of Rob Brydon in conversation with (or ‘probes’, as it was billed) Barry Humphries at the London Palladium. He’s 85 years old now and his anecdotes and stories take time, but he was outrageously and refreshingly politically incorrect it had me in floods of tears on a number of occasions. Two very funny people and two of my favourites.

Film

White Crow, about Rudolph Nureyev’s defection, was a good if not great film. I particularly enjoyed the cold war setting and style.

I’ve much admired how Jessie Buckley, runner-up in the TV casting of Nancy, has managed her career, putting it on hold to go to RADA, then working on stage and in both TV and films. She’s excellent in Wild Rose, a superb film about a wannabe Glaswegian country star, which uses both her acting and singing talents fully.

Art

A mammoth catch-up month!

Van Goch in Britain at Tate Britain is a brilliant exhibition, though the curatorial conceit is a bit dubious. I was very glad we entered as it opened and left the first room for last as we avoided the crowds, the biggest I’ve ever seen at an exhibition. Mike Nelson’s installation The Asset Strippers in the vast Duveen Gallery upstairs makes you think about the demise of our manufacturing base by filling the gallery with industrial items, but it isn’t particularly aesthetically appealing!

The Renaissance Nude at The Royal Academy exceeded my expectations, including a surprising number of works by real masters, though again too much religious subject matter for my liking. Philida Barlow’s three room exhibition of new work, Cul-de-sac, also at the RA, was hardly worth visiting for free, so I pity the non-members who had to fork out £12 for tosh, albeit monumentally large tosh.

The exhibition of Edward Munch drawings Love and Angst at the British Museum was way better than I was expecting and so much more than The Scream, though mostly just as dark! It effectively forms a frieze of his life of anxiety.

Two Temple Place is one of London’s most beautiful buildings, but it isn’t a great exhibition space, and John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing suffered from this in an exhibition that wasn’t particularly well curated either. I learnt a lot about him, though (included how opinionated he was), which made the trip worthwhile.

The Hayward Gallery had two very interesting but completely different exhibitions. Diane Arbus: In the Beginning featured a stunning selection of late 50’s / early 60’s B&W photos of New York life, with brilliant titles for the works. French-Algerian Kader Attia’s somewhat angry multi-media installations The Museum of Emotions were more challenging, and I felt I was being fed anti-colonialist propaganda. Still, a fascinating pairing and worth a visit.

At Tate Modern, another artist I’d never heard of, surrealist Dorothea Tanning. It turns out she was married to Max Ernst. Though many of the early works are somewhat derivative of more famous surrealists, they are great pictures. She moved on to a more impressionistic style and eventually soft sculpture, which is where she lost me. The less said about Franz West’s work, in the same gallery, the better, so I’ll just say ‘tosh’ again.

I’m not really one for fashion, but a visit to the V&A’s very theatrical Galliano exhibition a while back wowed me, so I decided to give Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams a go as its free for members. Whether you’re interested in frocks or not, the design and display of this show is spectacular. Being the first in at 10am helped, as my iPhone & I had every room to ourselves. It was probably a mistake going to Mary Quant straight after. Even though she did more than anyone to make fashion accessible, and her story is well told in the exhibition, it’s not in the same league in terms of elegance, beauty and craftsmanship.

At the Serpentine Galleries another double-bill, beginning with Emma Kunz – Visionary Drawings, or as I’d rather call them Obsessive Pendulum-Assisted Pictures, a bit like ones made with those geometric drawing kits you used to get as a kid. Hito Steyerl: Power Plants was more interesting, video’s created by some sort of artificial intelligence. The explanation hurt my brain, but they looked pretty. There were all sorts of other things associated with the work, including walks and an app, but I focused on what was on view in the gallery.

Late 19th / early 20th century Spanish artist Sorolla is another one new to me and for once the National Gallery exhibition lived up to its title Master of Light. I was blown away by the beauty of the pictures, 55 of them, mostly from fairly obscure galleries or private collections, which made it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Gorgeous.

At the NPG, Martin Parr’s quirky, colourful, brash documentary photos made me smile. He’s good at capturing the British at the seaside in particular, though part of me feels Only Human is a bit patronising, even unfair on his subjects, as if they were in a freak show, but most of the time I just smile! By complete contrast Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard & Oliver is a collection of finely crafted Elizabethan and Jacobean portraits, though it did strain your eyes, and having to wait for a magnifying glass (there weren’t enough) then space to see them, all became too tiresome for me.

The surprising thing about the Sony World Photography Prize exhibition at Somerset House is that the amateurs outshine the professionals, who seem to be following a path of contrived, staged photos that owe more to post-photography manipulation than the creative eye of the photographer. Still it’s good to see amateur, student and young photographer works shining.

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Contemporary Music

Rufus Wainwright returned to form with an eclectic concert as part of the new Festival of Voice at the WMC in Cardiff. In addition to a fine selection of his own songs, we had an aria from his opera, a sonnet from his recent collection and a whole host of show tunes from his Judy Garland tribute, with stunning accompaniment from a cabaret pianist. His own vocals and piano playing were faultless and the sound and audience silence were a rare treat. Support Ala.Ni sang beautifully, with just guitar accompaniment, though I was less enamoured with her retro songs, which were a bit samey. She charmed the audience, though, with her infectious enthusiasm and excitement and complimented Rufus.

I very much like Elbow and booked for three concerts in Guy Garvey’s Meltdown, though one was cancelled when Robert Plant had to hot foot it to LA to defend Stairway to Heaven against copyright infringement some forty years on! Mr Garvey himself was a bit low on solo material so his own concert was short but sweet and very good-natured and warm-hearted. There was excellent support from the delightfully melancholic Jesca Hoop. Laura Marling, the second Meltdown concert at the Royal Festival Hall, was a bit of a disappointment. It was so slick, clinical and soulless, a bit monotonous and lacking in any excitement or emotion. At 75 mins with no encore for £40, I also felt more than a bit cheated – 50p per minute! Another good support act in Marika Hardwick, though.

The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, many refugees, were invited to Europe by Damon Albarn and world music champions Africa Express. At their Royal Festival Hall concert, they played Syrian music with guests from five African countries, the US and the UK, including Albarn and Paul Weller. It was welcoming, uplifting, positive, inspirational and heart-warming – the day after the referendum result!

Opera

Welsh National Opera’s 70th Birthday pairing of their first ever staged opera, the classic verismo double-bill Cav & Pag, and a brand new one, In Parenthesis, at WMC in Cardiff was inspired. I have never seen a better Cav or Pag, a great production that were beautifully played and sung. Iain Bell’s new opera followed the National Theatre Wales in commemorating the Battle of Mametz Wood (part of the Battle of the Somme) where many Welsh soldiers met their end; it was an impressive new work. Both showcased WNO’s not-so-secret ingredient – its superb orchestra and chorus – as well as featuring some fine soloists.

Opera Holland Park provided a rare opportunity to see Iris, a full evening opera by the man best known for the Cav half of Cav & Pag. It’s an odd story set in Japan, before Puccini wrote Madam Butterfly, made odder by a third act that seems to be bolted on for dubious reasons, but it’s lush romantic music with particularly good choruses and here it was played and sung beautifully.

Classical Music

At the Royal Academy of Music, the hugely talented Symphony Orchestra gave a lunchtime concert featuring unlikely Scandinavian bedfellows Sibelius & Neilson which proved to be a real treat. Melancholy + Thrills under the encouraging baton of Sir Mark Elder, who continues to defy convention and provide informative introductions. Lovely.

The Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra gave a short but beautiful early evening concert of English Orchestral masterworks by Vaughan Williams, Gurney & Britten. I am in awe of the talent of these college players. Even the conductor of the VW piece was a student.

Art

Newport Street Gallery, Damien Hirst’s new initiative, opens with a Jeff Koons show. I’m not mad keen on the mounted hoovers or his porno pictures, but the more playful stuff such as giant steel balloon animals and piles of play doe make me smile. It’s a lovely bright airy space and free and I’m looking forward to returning regularly.

Performing for the Camera at Tate Modern was interesting in telling the story of how photography is used to record performance, but as an art exhibition it was rather dull. It was very hard work looking at walls and walls of mostly B&W, mostly small framed photographs.

Dulwich Picture Gallery provided another opportunity to discover an unknown artist (well, to me) Winifred Knights. Though there were only c.20 paintings, and c.5 major mature works (and a lot of studies for…) what was on show was a significant quantity of her limited output and all very beautiful.

A members preview of the Tate Modern extension turned into an art feast, but not because of what was in the extension (largely dull, the space for collections is c.30% of the total space, but the building’s nice!). Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar’s retrospective was wonderful – quirky, original and colourful – and I surprised myself by loving about a dozen of Mona Hatoum’s large sculptural / installation pieces. It was also good to see Ai Wei Wei’s tree in situ on the bridge, though I was puzzled by two mounted police riding around it!

Sunken Cities: Egypt’s lost worlds at the British Museum was as good as an archaeological exhibition can get. In addition to the items recovered from the Med, there were terrific pieces from the museums in Alexandria and Cairo. Wonderful.

Painting with Light at Tate Britain showed the impact of the invention of photography on art and was rather fascinating, with some particularly good pre-Raphaelites on show. Upstairs Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979 just proved it was a movement better forgotten! Meanwhile in the Duveen Galleries Pablo Bronstein has built replicas of both Tate Britain facades and painted geometric patterns on the floor where dancers perform period works in contemporary clothes. Outside in, old and new. Very clever.

The Deutsche Borse Photography Foundation Prize shortlist exhibition at The Photographers Gallery was the best for a long while, and for once they got the winner right! The four projects covered the Arab Spring uprising, European immigration, space & surveillance and car restoration!

Ethics of Dust is an extraordinary installation in Parliament’s Westminster Hall. The artist cleaned the east wall during the hall’s renovations by capturing hundreds of years of dust in a thin latex cast which has now been hung in the hall. Extraordinary.

Film

Nice Guys was a fun caper movie, but it was way too violent for the genre and my taste and overall a bit beyond preposterous.

I very much liked Money Monster, a real thrilling ride with some great performances, a snipe at financial sector ethics but a bit of a depressing ending.

Love & Friendship was an odd affair. I liked it, but again not as much as the hype. A tongue-in-cheek interpretation of a surprisingly racy Jane Austin novella!

Much of the sentiment in Michael Moore’s documentary Where to Invade Next could be applied to the UK as well as the US. As we’ve blindly followed their model, we have lost our way. I thought it made some good points very well.

I loved Adult Life Skills, a lovely independent British film that was again way better than its critical reception with another extraordinary child performance.

I don’t know how much of Elvis & Nixon is true (it’s based on a photo!) but it made for a quirky and funny film which I enjoyed more than I thought I would.

Other!

The Greenwich & Docklands International Festival specialises in outdoor events and everything is free if you stand, and very cheap to sit. My first visit this year was to the Queens House at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich for a spectacular called The House that included dance, projections and fireworks – and the wonderful Sharon D Clarke. I’m not sure I quite got the narrative, but I certainly enjoyed the spectacle! Six days later in Bethnal Green, Polish theatre company Theatr Biuro Podrozy performed Silence which I think was about refugees, but the narrative was even less clear than The House. Still, it kept my attention, though it was beyond melancholic so I ended the evening feeling rather sad. I first saw this company in Edinburgh 23 years ago and it was one of those shows that you’re still talking about, well, 23 years later.

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Contemporary Music

I wasn’t sure I wanted to see Rufus Wainwright again after being disappointed by his last outing promoting the over-produced Out of the Game, but solo and at The Royal Hospital Chelsea? Oh, go on then. There wasn’t much atmosphere in the hall-full space (when will promoters learn that there is a limit to the prices people will pay, however much of a fan they are) and the lovely weather turned 30 mins before he came on stage, but the rain stopped after 10 mins. Rufus’ concerts are inconsistent and uneven because he has a tendency to attempt under-rehearsed and / or overly-ambitious things, resulting in stops & starts and forgotten chords & words, covered up with clumsy humour, but when he’s good he’s stunning, and there were enough stunning moments to make this one very worthwhile. There were bonuses too – a duet with Neil Tennant on Poses, and support from The Villagers, who sounded lovely in the open air, in the sun.

John Hiatt‘s welcome return to Under the Bridge saw a fairly predictable, populist 2-hour set, but it was sung and played very well, and there were two new numbers. The usual final encore of Riding With the King was movingly dedicated to the recently departed B B King. You have to admire the bravery (or foolishness?!) of support act Josh Savage who walked into the club crowd to play an acoustic number with audience participation, but he just about got away with it.

Opera

A Henze double-bill was a also brave choice for the June GSMD opera production & it got a small but largely appreciative audience – an odd choice too, as it only enabled them to showcase nine singers. Ein Landarzt was a short absurdist Kafka monologue set to music, a very early work. Phaedra was his last work and got a really striking production. I had to pinch myself when Chinese counter-tenor Meili Li switched to baritone!

Musically, ENO‘s Queen of Spades was one of the best things they’ve ever done. The orchestra under Edward Gardner were on fire and all of the soloists, especially Peter Hoare as Hermann, were outstanding….. but the staging made little sense. Such is the arrogance of opera directors.

I enjoyed the double bill of Harrison Birtwistle operas in Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio TheatreThe Corridor and The Cure are both based on Greek myth, both two-handers, written five years apart but fitting together perfectly. Mark Padmore and Elizabeth Atherton were extraordinary and the London Sinfonietta (costumed in the first) sounded great.

Classical Music

The world premiere of Nico Muhly’s song cycle Sentences, inspired by Alan Turing, at the Barbican was superb. It was beautifully sung by countertenor Iestyn Davies (who also sampled and sung with himself!) with the Britten Sinfonia and Muhly conducting from the piano. The rest of the programme was well chosen, with a Dowland song and a Britten piece for viola (Lawrence Power) inspired by it and Vivaldi’s Sabat Mater for solo voice (Davies on top form again) and ensemble. A lovely evening.

Film

The second spy spoof of the year, cleverly called Spy, is even better than the first, Kingsman: the Secret Service, and Melissa McCarthy is wonderful, with the bonus of Miranda also cast as a CIA operative. I laughed a lot.

The film of London Road is as ground-breaking as the stage show, but not as good. I’m not sure they did NT Live when it was first on stage, but I think that would be a better experience (and judging by the tiny audience in the cinema, more commercial sense too).

Art

The latest at the Saatchi Gallery – art from Africa and Latin America – is their best for ages, with some great paintings and only a few of those installations that can often be pretentious and dull.

The Ravilious exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery was a real treat. His wistful, very British paintings range from landscapes to port scenes to war art but they all have a very distinctive style which I love. The best exhibition I’ve seen in a long while.

The Alexander McQueen exhibition at the V&A, Savage Beauty, also blew me away. I’m no fan of fashion, but I do love creativity and ingenuity and McQueen clearly had an imagination the size of a planet. In a brilliantly theatrical presentation, you learn a lot about the man and his influences – a lot more than the 100 minute play I saw the Saturday before, in fact – whilst looking at his beautifully crafted clothes.

I was less fond of David Hockney’s Painting & Photography exhibition at Annely Juda than I was his earlier landscape collection, though I liked the way it played with both art forms, and played with your head by having paintings in photographs and the same people turning up all over the place in both forms.

It was good to go back to the Estorick Collection of modern Italian art, though the Modigliani Drawings exhibition which took me there was much of a muchness – too small, really. Re-viewing the one-room permanent collection and three rooms of a current selection made it worthwhile though.

The latest double-dip at Tate Modern yielded an unexpected treat and something dull from two 20th century female artists. Sonia Delaunay‘s colourful work spanned portraits, abstracts, textile patterns and clothes   – diverse but uniformly cheerful. Agnes Martin was Rothkoesqe pretension – all dots, lines and hardly discernible colour.

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Contemporary Music

Joe Jackson is someone who is forever reinventing himself and his latest project is a tribute to Duke Ellington. Given he was with ‘the bigger band’, a six piece, I was expecting his Cadogan Hall concert to be the album plus some other jazz in the same vein, but he mixed in rearrangements of his back-catalogue and it was terrific. The Latin jazz material from Night & Day fared best and the final three songs – Is She Really Going Out With Him rearranged for accordion, tuba and banjo, the timeless Sunday Papers and A Slow Song (with added tears) provided a perfect ending. A treat.

I’m afraid Rufus Wainwright’s concert proved a bit of a disappointment, as was his latest album, and to some extent for the same reason. In seeking a more commercial sound, Mark Ronson’s CD production and the somewhat one-tone live sound design are both in danger of propelling him towards blandness. You can’t take anything away from the fact he writes great songs and has an extraordinary voice, but neither of these were shown off at their best here. The band, featuring solo favourites of mine Teddy Tompson and Krystle Warren, was excellent. Both Teddy (Richard & Linda’s son) and Leonard Cohen’s son Adam provided good opening sets, though the latter wasted 10 of his 35 minutes on anecdotes and arsing around. Talking of arsing around, I sighed as it became clear we were going to get another of Rufus’ pantos as an encore (we haven’t had one of those for some time) – and the most OTT one too, presided over by cupid in loincloth and wings. Rufus entered the auditorium dressed as Apollo, walked through the audience, took people on stage and massacred a couple of songs. Though I did go with the flow and laugh along eventually (when it became so surreal there was room for nothing else) I couldn’t help thinking we could have got 5 or 6 songs in the 20 minutes it took to do all this. Looking at Teddy Thompson and Krystle Warren’s expressions made me think I was not alone!

Opera

The Guildhall School of Music & Drama excelled itself again with a fascinating and hugely entertaining triple bill. La Navarraise is a tragedy by Massenet set in the Basque country, which lent itself perfectly to an updating. The singing from the second cast was superb, in particular Roisin Walsh as Anita, Adam Smith as Araquil, Ben McAteer as his dad and James Platt as Garrido, and the choruses were outstanding. Le Portrait de Manon by the same composer was a gentle romance where Des Grieux (from his opera Manon) has to tackle the young love of his ward; I saw Manon in April and there was something satisfying about seeing Des Grieux turn up in another opera! The final piece, Comedy on the Bridge by Martinu, was more challenging musically but very clever and very funny. The characters find themselves in a no-man’s-land on a bridge between borders, as they give up their passes to one border guard and have nothing to give the other. For opera, very original, and a delightful 40 minutes. 

Four years ago, commemorating 50 years since the death of Vaughan Williams, the late great Richard Hickox & The Philharmonia gave a stunning semi-staged performance of The Pilgrim’s Progress whilst Covent Garden ignored the anniversary and ENO’s contribution was a minor work. Well, ENO now give it it’s first full staging since the 1951 premiere and it proves to be something for which staging doesn’t really add much! It’s beautifully played by the ENO Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins and Roland Wood is an excellent Pilgrim / Bunyan, but the staging and design added little I’m afraid.

Art

I enjoyed the British Museum’s Shakespeare: Staging the World, though I did think the connection of some of the material and items was a bit nebulous. There was however much to fascinate and enjoy and it was an excellent choice of subject for the London 2012 Festival.

The Michael Werner Gallery is actually two rooms on the first floor of a posh building in Hedge Fund City (Mayfair) but it was the location for 10 new paintings by Peter Doig so a visit was mandatory. They are excellent works, but 10 paintings doesn’t really constitute an exhibition in my book!

I don’t really do queuing, but the 60 minutes wait for Random International’s Rain Room at the Barbican Centre was well worth it. You walk through a tropical downpour, but as you do the rain stops wherever you are. It’s brilliantly lit, so you get changing visual images and shadows as you move through the installation. Huge fun!

Art of Change at the Hayward Gallery showcased nine Chinese installation artists and contained some very original work. I was convinced one piece was a sculpture a la Ron Muek, then they closed the space to change performer and I was gob-smacked; how he maintained the position is beyond me.

I did a fascinating backstage tour of Shakespeare’s Globe – from heaven (the attic) to hell (understage) and followed it by viewing the photographic record of the Globe to Globe season at the entrance to its exhibition space. It brought back many fond memories of a unique experience and of course I had to buy the book!

At the Southbank Centre, the annual exhibition of art by offenders didn’t seem as good as last year, but they’ve extended the range of work on show and started selling some. It remains an annual must-see anyway.

The Photographers Gallery has a fascinating little exhibition called Shoot! Existential Photography which is about something I’d never heard of – shooting galleries where you aim for a target whilst a photo is taken of you. It’s extraordinary how similar people’s expressions and poses are and there’s one series of a Dutch woman who had one taken almost every year from 1936 to 2008, so you see her age in minutes.

The pairing of photographers William Klein & Daido Moriyama at Tate Modern is inspired. They’re very different photographers yet somehow the contrast adds value. Klein is in-your-face, dramatic and challenging while Moriyama is more subtle and mysterious. I loved them both, but Klein most of all. By contrast, A Bigger Splash at the same venue is for me a bigger disappointment. It seeks to explore the connection between painting and performance. The first half was mostly film and photos of people throwing paint over themselves and the second half a bunch one-room installations, most of which left me cold. Yawn.

The NPG is a lovely place to pop into when you have a spare few minutes and this time it was a lot of minutes, two exhibitions and a handful of displays. The Portrait Photo Award Exhibition is terrific this year and includes a handful of the known (unflattering Victoria Pendleton but flattering Mo Farrah) amongst the unknown. The Lost Prince commemorates the 400th anniversary of the death of the prince who would have been Henry IX had he lived (and given that Charles I got the job, may have changed British history). Though it was interesting, had I not been a member and paid the £13 admission, I’d have felt somewhat cheated – another one of those excuses for a paying exhibition?

Bronze is one of the best exhibitions the Royal Academy has ever mounted. With pieces spanning 3500 years and organised thematically rather than chronologically, it was simply captivating. Somewhat surprisingly, the oldest were north European finds and the greatest revelation was the wealth of extraordinary pieces from West Africa. Unmissable.

Film

Skyfall was the first film I’ve seen in the cinema for over six months so that could be part of the reason why I enjoyed it so much. There are fewer locations and maybe less action, but focusing on London and bringing the character of M to the fore was no bad thing. Ben Wishaw is a great new Q and there were some excellent cameos, notably from Albert Finney as an old Scottish retainer. I did think Javier Bardem’s baddie was a bit too much of a caricature though.

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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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Meltdown is an annual 10-day music festival at London’s Southbank Centre with a guest artistic director and no rules. Previous AD’s have included Elvis Costello, Patti Smith and David Bowie. This year’s is godfather of folk-rock Richard Thompson

It got off to a disappointing start with Thompson’s 80 minute ‘folkatorio’ Cabaret of Souls. It’s a great idea and there is some very good music, but hearing it for the first time and not being able to hear all the words and therefore engage with the concept, it seemed like a lost opportunity. There were lots of linking pieces making a total of c.30 sections and the applause between almost every one became irritating. I’d love to hear a recording a few times then go see an uninterrupted 80 minutes – I suspect it could be something special in those circumstances.

You’d never use the word ‘disappointed’ in connection with A Celebration of Kate McGarrigle. It was so hyped up (‘sold out in 11 minutes’ etc.) and I was seriously over-excited, but it exceeded my wildest dreams and more. The first Kate & Anna McGarrigle album is part of the soundtrack of my life and this show consisted entirely of songs she wrote or co-wrote. There were five Thompsons and at least seven from the Wainwright-McGarrigle-Lanken families, including a third sister Jane who I never knew existed. Kate’s good friend Emmylou Harris & Jenni Muldaur came over (producer Joe Boyd explained that Jenni’s mum Maria introduced him to the McGarrigles music); Emmy sang with Anna like she was another sister. Seemingly incongruous guests Nick Cave and Neil Tennent made surprisingly welcome contributions. Newcomers Lisa Hannigan and Krystle Warren both brought the house down. There was even a reading from author Michael Ondaatje. Richard & Linda Thompson re-united for a devastatingly beautiful Go Leave and ended with an embrace. Teddy Thompson and Rufus & Martha Wainwright all sang extraordinarily beautiful interpretations of Kate’s songs. Rufus, Martha and Anna all broke down which set off a lot of us in the audience too! It was sad, but ultimately uplifting and exhilarating and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Apart from her contribution the day before, I’d only seen Krystle Warren once, at a Nick Drake tribute show, and she impressed me then too. However, nothing could prepare me for the extraordinary concert she put on at the Purcell Room. She writes terrific original songs and has a unique voice, but above all it’s her ability to inhabit them that is so compelling. Teddy Thompson joined her for a couple of numbers and they sounded great together (future collaboration?). If she isn’t in the Rufus Wainwright league fairly soon, I’ll be very surprised. Support Jim Moray gave a lovely set of folk tunes with clever use of pedals and loops – I want to see more of him.

If the Kate McGarrigle tribute was the hottest ticket, An Evening of Political Songs was probably the ‘coldest’ judging by the empty seats. The title hardly excites, does it! Like all things political, it was somewhat long-winded, but it was an intriguing and eclectic collection which had its moments. The highlight was without question Norma Waterson who brought the house down, and brought tears to my eyes, with an unaccompanied song about the miners strike. Tom Robinson, instead of relying on his own 70’s politics (though he did do Glad to be Gay in the second half) gave us an excellent version of John Walker Blues by Steve Earle (who should really have been there as he’s about the only political songwriter left) and a brave crack (for a recently 60-year-old!) at angry hip-hop. Canadian Chaim Tennenbaum took the self-satisfied nationalism out of God Bless America, Emily Smith sang beautifully and RT himself turned up unannounced for a couple of excellent songs including a bitter one from the perspective of a soldier in Iraq. Then there was Neil Hannon, Martin & Eliza Carthy, Jez Lowe, Boris Grebenshikov, Camille O’Sullivan and poetic contributions from Lemn Sissay and Caribel Alegria. MC Harry Shearer did a good job, as well as a vicious but appropriate up-to-date satirical song about paedophile priests, and MD Kate St John yet again held one of these complex compilations together undeniably well (and for once got flowers and a hug from a grateful RT).

The two-for-the-price-of-one pairing of Richard Thompson & Loudon Wainwright provided 65 minute sets by each plus 30 minutes together. Thompson’s song writing and guitar playing outshine Wainwright’s, but the latter is a great communicator and it’s his humour and connection with the audience which impresses. Separately they are contrasting but together they are complimentary – the voices work well in harmony and Thompson’s intricate guitar work sounds even better on top of Wainwright’s strumming. I could have done with a lot more than the six songs they sang together, but it was still a feast of music by two greats of folk-rock.

This was the best Meltdown since Elvis Costello’s in 1995 and a real vindication of the idea that one person can put together a varied and eclectic programme which hangs together because it’s an expression of their taste & ideas and above all presents high quality music in an age of manufactured recycled mediocrity.

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