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Posts Tagged ‘Sadler’s Wells’

Contemporary Music

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

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

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

Opera

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

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

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

Dance

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

Film

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

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

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

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

Art

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

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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

I was looking for something to take a visiting friend to. I looked at the Globe website and saw someone called Becca Stevens was playing. I’d never heard of her but I looked at some clips on u-tube and booked. Little did I realise that I was going to become a big fan. Her concert by candle-light in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was a lovely combination of folk pop and jazz. She has a beautiful voice and a terrific band and her love of her work and this venue was infectious. A real treat!

Sadly the following night’s Gospel Prom wasn’t a treat. It showcased lots of different British gospel styles but, with one exception, they were all pop-rock-gospel, way too loud and lacking in any subtlety or even genuine feeling. It was hosted by former Destiny Child Michelle Williams, which seemed very appropriate given the content.

I’ve seen guitarist Antonio Forcione many times, mostly in Edinburgh, but his Kings Place concert was the first solo one for a long time. His style is percussive and his talent virtuosic and he never disappoints, though I did miss some of the colour percussion and other instruments can and have added. Support Will McNicol was technically accomplished, but perhaps lacking in the flair and personality of Forcione. A nice evening.

KlangHaus: On Air was part rock concert, part art installation, a promenade performance in the roof space / plant rooms of the Royal Festival Hall, exiting onto the roof. It was put together by band The Neutrinos. The music ranged from neo-punk to gentle ballads. It was unique and extraordinary.

Part of the problem with the Bowie Prom was that most of the audience just didn’t know what to expect. They wanted a celebration, but they got an avant-garde neo-classical evening with a sometimes off-the-wall selection of songs and quirky arrangements. It was interesting but it disappointed nonetheless.

Opera

I haven’t seen that many productions of Il Travatore and haven’t seen it for some time. This Royal Opera production is unquestionably the best musically, with a fine quartet of leads, three new to Covent Garden, and the wonderful RO Orchestra and Chorus. As for the ‘concept’, I’ll just say tank, gypsy caravan and an army taking a selfie with their captured prisoner and you’ll no doubt get my view.

Classical Music

My first proper Prom was a lovely programme of rare Faure, Shylock, Stravinsky’s Pulcinella and Poulenc’s Sabat mater. I like all three composers but the works were new to me. Beautifully played / sung by the BBC SO and BBC Singers, this is just what the Proms are for.

My second proper Prom was an unusual combination of two choral pieces (one a world premiere, with composer Anthony Payne in attendance), a violin concerto (with an auspicious Proms debut by Taiwanese-Australian Ray Chen, playing the same violin the world premiere was played on in 1868!) and a symphonic poem based on Shakespeare’s Tempest – but it all worked brilliantly well under the great Andrew Davies.

My third proper Prom was Mahler’s 3rd Symphony, not one of my favourite symphonies, or even one of my favourite Mahler symphonies, but a fascinatingly structured, monumental work which the LSO did full justice to. The rapturous welcome and standing ovation given to 87-year-old conductor Bernard Haitink was very moving; the Proms audience is the best!

Dance

Natalia Osipova appears to be ‘doing a Sylvie Guillem’ with her first venture into contemporary dance at Sadler’s Wells in a collaboration with three top flight choreographers. The first piece, with two male dancers, was mesmerising, but the second and third, with her (life) partner Sergei Polunin, disappointed – the second was more movement than dance and the third more physical theatre. Overall, it didn’t really show off her talents and I felt she was showing off and being a bit of a diva. Failing to pick up two of the four bouquets thrown on stage at the end was a bit revealing!

Film

I enjoyed Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, but it was another one that didn’t really live up to the hype, and the huge number of cameos seemed a bit desperate. Probably worth waiting for the inevitable TV screening (it is BBC Films) rather than the trip to the cinema.

Romantic comedies are one of my guilty pleasures and Maggie’s Plan is a nice quirky one with some outstanding performances which feels like a homage to Woody Allen rather than a plagiarism of him.

Watching Star Trek Beyond in 3D, I realised how much technology is now swamping storytelling and characterisation. I found myself being wowed but not excited enough and not moved at all. Maybe 3D compounds this – at some points it was moving so fast I lost track of who was who and where each place was in relation to others.

The BFG was the most charming film I’ve seen since Paddington. Mark Rylance was perfect casting, the young girl playing Sophie was delightful and Penelope Wilton as The Queen. What more could you ask for? Rafe Spall as HMQ’s footman, of course!

Art

David Hockney’s Portraits (82 of them, plus 1 Still Life!) at the Royal Academy of Art works well as an installation, scanning the three rooms to get the effect, but as individual works you get bored very quickly, because each one has either blue background and green floor or vice versa, the subjects are all seated in the same chair and some subjects have been painted more than once! Downstairs, favourite sculptor Richard Wilson has done a great job on this year’s Summer Exhibition, which had a very different feel and was very playful.

Shakespeare in Ten Acts at the British Library is a superb celebration of the 400th anniversary of his death. It includes a mass of fascinating written material plus video interviews and performance extracts. It was worth going just to see footage of Peter Brook’s now legendary A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Improbable’s The Enchanted Isle for the Met.

Imran Qureshi’s modern miniatures in the Barbican Curve Gallery were a delightful surprise. With paint on the walls and floors and low lighting, it’s a fascinating and rather beautiful installation.

I liked both the portraits and landscapes in Adam Katz Serpentine Gallery exhibition, but there were only 20 of them. Fortunately the brilliant Summer Pavilion (and four Summer Houses inspired by the eighteenth century Queen Caroline Pavilion near them, a new innovation this year) made the visit very worthwhile.

I’ve always liked William Eggleston’s urban landscape photos, but had never seen the portraits in the NPG William Eggleston Portraits exhibition. They were original and striking and I liked them.

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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.

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Contemporary Music

The return of Graham Parker has been one of the great pleasures of the last twelve months and this third concert saw him and Brinsley Schwarz as a duo in the lovely Union Chapel. A largely different selection of songs again, great intimacy and much good humour. Support act Tristan McKay was hugely impressive and added much to make this a very special evening indeed.

I felt obliged to see Paul McCartney one more time in case it’s the last! It was my 6th in 22 years. His voice clearly isn’t as strong now (well, he is 72) and it cracks occasionally, but in the grand scheme of things – a 3-hour set, 41 songs including 25 Beatles, great band, terrific lights video & pyrotechnics and a loving audience of 23,000 with an age span you rarely see at concerts, whose combined warmth lights up the O2 – it hardly matters. If only for an evening, the years fall away and you replay an earlier part of your life. Wonderful!

Opera

You might wonder if the world needs another Pirates of Penzance, but ENO‘s new production has much to commend it, not least beautiful orchestral paying and some lovely voices. Mike Leigh, who directed the terrific G&S bio-pic Topsy Turvy, treats the material with respect and I rather liked Alison Chitty’s simple bright colourful sets and period costumes. The singers were occasionally too quiet, which begs the question as to whether operetta (with dialogue) should be amplified in the cavernous Coliseum, and not every word was audible, with surtitles which didn’t seem to cover everything. I don’t know whether its me getting old or G&S ceasing to seem old-fashioned, but their renaissance continues, though this one isn’t as good as the Union Theatre’s all-male version currently on its second UK tour.

The spring visit to WNO in Cardiff paired Debussy’s underrated Pelleas & Melisande with a new opera of Peter Pan. I’m told the Pelleas production resembled Game of Thrones, but I’ve never seen that. It was certainly less classic ‘fairytale’ than I’m used to, but it worked, it was beautifully sung and the orchestra sounded like they were making love to the gorgeous score. I was too tired to get the best out of Peter Pan, but it was faithful to the story, musically accessible and the design was delightful. It was great to see so many kids enjoying themselves at an opera that was written for them rather than me, and WNO had as usual organised lots of excellent foyer events to accompany and enhance it for them.

Classical Music

I found I Fagolini’s Betrayal really original, beautifully sung and highly atmospheric, though it was dramatically obtuse and very tiring. The Village Underground space was turned into a large crime scene with chalked bodies and evidence everywhere. The six singers and six dancers performed in pairs in separate parts of the space. They were singing unaccompanied 16th century polyphonic madrigals and enacting crimes of passion. Standing around them was tiring, moving less so, but it did distract from the enjoyment.

Dance

Seeing Sylvie Guillem‘s farewell tour at Sadler’s Wells was a bittersweet experience. Wonderful to see her again, still at the top of her game, but sad that it will be the last. This was no ‘Best of’, with a new solo work and a new duet, her first with another woman, but it did end with the brilliant and appropriate Bye, which I had seen and loved before. Having seen her triumph a few times in the classics, it has been great to follow this reinvention in contemporary dance in the final stage of her 39 year career.

Film

I loved Far From the Madding Crowd. Despite being a period piece, it seemed so fresh, Dorset looked gorgeous and the performances were great.

A Royal Night Out was somewhat implausible and very sentimental, but I still liked it. Heart-warming, with great performances.

I don’t know why we’ve lost Spooks from TV but gained Spooks: The Greater Good, but I thought the transition to the big screen worked well and was much better than the reviews suggested; it gripped me throughout.

Rosewater tells the story of the imprisonment of British Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari. It’s directed by American satirist Jon Stewart, who would have made a better film if he’d made it even more satirical. As it is, the long dry interrogation segment at its core drags it down and lessens its impact.

Art

I didn’t think I was going to get into Inventing Impressionism at the National Gallery as I left it until the last few days, with rumours rife of a sell-out. Despite the fact it’s in their dreadful Sainsbury Wing galleries and despite the crowds, it’s unquestionably one of the greatest collections of impressionists in one place, containing no less than 23 Monet’s and 14 Renoir’s (some of the best I’ve ever seen). The story of art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who does appear to be responsible for their discovery, was captivating too. Unmissable – and I didn’t!

 

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Opera

Verdi’s Les Vepres Siciliennes is rarely performed and after almost four hours standing at the back of the Royal Opera House’s stalls circle it was easy to see why. There’s not a lot of story for four hours and Verdi’s music is nowhere near his usual standard. The singing wasn’t particularly distinguished, but I liked the production (which most don’t seem to!).

The GSMD excelled itself again with an unlikely double-bill of Debussy’s earnest but beautiful L’enfant prodigue and Donizetti’s comic one-acter Francesca di Foix. The Donizetti, in particular, was a little gem and an absolute hoot, given an inspired staging in modern settings (a smart clothing shop and a tennis court) but with period clothes. Beautifully played and sung, Anna Gillingham in the title role and Joshua Owen Mills (Welsh!) as the Duke were terrific.

In the BBC SO‘s semi-staged Albert Herring at the Barbican, this comic opera proved to be a minor masterpiece. Britten’s friend Steuart Bedford led a wonderful small ensemble and a first class cast, led by Andrew Staples as Albert, without a weak link in it. You could hear every nuance of every instrument and every sung word. A real highlight of the centenary.

The Early Opera Company’s concert performance of Handel’s Acis & Galatea at Wigmore Hall was a delight. The 13-piece ensemble under Christain Curnyn played the score beautifully and there were fine performances from Robert Murray and Sophie Bevan in the title roles. Matthew Rose was a stand-in as the giant Polyphemus but his powerful baritone nearly blew the roof off. Minor Handel maybe, but gorgeous nonetheless.

Dance

I’m not very fond of full-length ballets that are excuses for showcasing ‘turns’ by dancers in various combinations rather than telling the story (think The Nutcracker) and I haven’t enjoyed previous productions of Don Quixote that much, but I rather liked Carlos Acosta’s for the Royal Ballet. With handsome designs by Tim Hatley and fresh choreography, it often sparkled. The leading lady was injured during Act One and Marinela Nunez (who originated the role with Acosta as partner) took over and this somehow added even more sparkle. Sadly, Acosta didn’t come on as sub in Act Two or Three!

Another dance contribution to the Britten centenary from the Richard Alston Dance Company at the Barbican, with four short pieces (including two world premieres), each set to a chamber piece, three of them vocal. In Phaedra, the soloist interacted with the dancers, which I loved (and which reminded me of Seven Deadly Sins at Covent Garden a few years back), but Illuminations was the most uplifting. Poor time management meant interval overuns so it took 130 minutes to stage 65 minutes of dance!

Choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui takes a really fresh look at tango with m!longa at Sadler’s Wells and it comes out as a sexy display of virtuosity, relationships silently played out by intricate movements. The five couples – four kosher tango ones and one contemporary dance duo – were all terrific, and the five-piece band were sensational.

The Stuttgart Ballet‘s Taming of the Shrew to a mash-up of Scarlatti at Sadler’s Wells was a bit of a punt that turned into a major treat. Though over 40 years old, apart from the sets, it felt fresh. I’m not sure I’ve seen a comic ballet before and I have to say, the form was perfect for Shakespeare’s comedy, the dancing was terrific and we laughed aloud a lot. There were beautiful romantic moments too and it all added up to a thoroughly enjoyable surprise.

It’s a while since I had a fix of favourite choreographer Mark Morris, so I went to both programmes at Sadler’s Wells on consecutive nights for a feast of seven works. With one exception, they were accompanied by live music – a small ensemble and three singers – which is key to Morris’ success. The best of the first programme was Socrates, set to music by Erik Satie for tenor and piano, which looked like Greek statues come to life. In the second programme, Festival Dance, to a wonderful piano trio by Hummel (who?!) led by stunning piano from Colin Fowler, was thrilling, and as close to Morris’ undoubted masterpiece Handel’s L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato as he’s got since. The one piece to recorded music was In A Wooden Tree. Only Morris would use the songs of Ivor Cutler and it was a delight; quirky even by Morris standards.

Classical Music

The rarely performed song cycle Our Hunting Fathers, sung by Ian Bostridge, was the centerpiece of The Britten Sinfonia‘s namesake’s centenary concert at the Barbican, but it wasn’t the highlight. It’s possibly the quirkiest song cycle I’ve ever heard, but the orchestration is brilliant. The real treats were the orchestral pieces played by a chamber orchestra that seems to me to be absolutely at the top of its game.

The Royal Albert Hall is the perfect venue for Britten’s War Requiem and Remembrance Sunday the perfect day to hear it in this centenary year. The BBC SO under Semyon Bychkov did it full justice, with the boys choir sounding beautiful up in the gallery and the male soloists, Roderick Williams & Allan Clayton, on fine form. The ‘amen’ was extraordinarily moving, hopeful and uplifting; I felt like my body was rising in my seat.

St Cecilia’s day (the patron saint of music). The 100th birthday of my favourite composer. My favourite music venue. The Sixteen‘s recital of Britten choral works – mostly unaccompanied – at Union Chapel was an absolute joy. The acoustic was perfect, the selection eclectic and the voices beyond wonderful. As you can gather, I liked it!

Film

The big film catch-up continued with One Chance, the story of Britain’s Got Talent winner Paul Potts. Apart from some puzzling accents (parents Welsh, Potts West Country) and a touch of resentment that Welsh characters weren’t played by Welsh actors, I rather enjoyed it. Undemanding, feel-good stuff – a touch too sentimental, but very heart-warming and funny.

The Selfish Giant is one of those gritty British films I thought we’d forgotten how to make; even the master, Ken Loach, seemed to have gone a bit soft. It’s not an easy ride watching hopelessness, but its a superb piece of film-making full of stunning performances from people you usually see on TV in things like Shameless, and the two leading boys are simply extraordinary.

I can’t begin to put into words how good a film Philomena is. I’m glad I hadn’t read the book as it surprised and confounded me. Judi Dench is sensational and Steve Coogan a revelation in a straight role. Perfect in every respect, but tissues necessary. The things that have been done in the name of god!

Gravity reminded me of Duncan Jones’ Moon, though it’s (virtually) two people in space rather than one. The 3D is (mostly) brilliant, for once very realistic, and the story is gripping, but I’m not sure it quite lives up to the hype – I’m glad I went, though. 

Art

My second visit to the George Watts Gallery near Guildford was to see the Frank Holl exhibition. It was a bit small and a bit sad and may not be worth the trip on its own, but with another chance to see Watts’ own pictures and combined with opera in Woking and lunch at the retro Withies Inn in Compton it proved worthwhile!

Daniel Silver’s DIG seems to be an archaeological site in a building site where statues have been uncovered and laid out in various states of restoration for you to view (but most oddly pristine white). I’m not sure what point he’s making, but it was quirkily intriguing.

Masterpieces from China at the V&A had some stunning paintings covering 1200 years. The Tang Dynasty seemed underrepresented and it was a struggle to absorb it all with the necessarily low lighting and difficulty getting up close, so I might well have to go again.

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Classical Music

Sir Colin Davies had pulled out of the LSO‘s concert performances of Turn of the Screw due to his deteriorating health, but in the end it turned out to be their first concert after his death. The orchestra’s Chairman & MD made lovely pre-concert tributes, but the greatest tribute of all was that they performed his choice for the Britten Centenary to perfection. Six superb well-matched soloists – Catherine Wyn-Rogers as the housekeeper, Sally Matthews as the governess, Katherine Broderick as Miss Jessel,  Andrew Kennedy as Quint,  Lucy Hall as Flora and an extraordinary performance from 11-year old Michael Clayton-Jolly – were complemented by beautiful playing from the small chamber orchestra under Richard Farnes. I’ve never heard it played & sung so well.

Opera

The Firework-Maker’s Daughter was a charming opera for young people staged in a very lo-tech minimalist style which suited the story-telling of Philip Pullman’s tale. David Bruce’s music, full of appropriately Eastern influences, was tuneful and, unusually for modern opera, accessible on first hearing. There wasn’t a fault in the casting and the small orchestra played beautifully. It was great to see so many (quiet!) kids as it’s a rare evening that is likely to turn them on rather than off opera!

I admired the originality of ENO’s ‘3D’ opera Sunken Garden at the Barbican Theatre and I liked Michel van der Aa’s music, but I didn’t engage with David (Cloud Atlas) Mitchell’s story at all. It didn’t sustain its length (2 hours without a break) and seemed achingly slow. Another one of those situations where the composer shouldn’t have directed? A worthy failure, I think

My third and last (this season) Met Live proved to be the best. David McVicar’s Glyndebourne production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare is one of the best productions of a Handel opera I’ve ever seen and this is one of Handel’s best operas. In truth, Natalie Dessay didn’t hit her stride as Cleopatra until the second act (and even then made a few nervous mistakes) and David Daniels didn’t really show us his best as Cesare, but they both had enough moments of greatness and the supporting cast was faultless. Patricia Bardon and Alice Coote stole the first act, there was a great Ptolemy from Christophe Dumaux and a delightful Nirenus from Rachid Ben Abdeslam. Robert Jones’ design and Brigitte Reiffenstuel ‘s costumes were a real treat.

Dance

I saw the first outing of Fabulous Beast’s The Rite of Spring at ENO paired with an opera. Now at Sadler’s Wells paired with Petrushka it seemed to make so much more sense. This time the Stravinsky scores were played in their four-handed piano versions and were simply brilliant. The ballets become dances, performed by people of all shapes sizes and colours, with none of the fusty ballet business. Rite is better than Petrushka, but I enjoyed the contrast most of all.

The first time I saw Prokofiev’s ballet of Romeo & Juliet, I was astonished that it could tell the story as dramatically as either the play or the two operas made from it. I haven’t seen it for a while, and that Kenneth McMillan production is the only one I have seen, albeit a few times, so it was good to see a different production (and at half the Covent Garden price) by the National Ballet of Canada at Sadler’s Wells. It’s quirkier and brasher, but I liked it. The corps de ballet pieces are bright, with fights handled well and humour unearthed, yet the tragedy is still tragic. It isn’t a match for the McMillan because  it doesn’t move you in the same way, but it’s fresh and less conservative – and the score , the greatest of all ballet scores, was played beautifully.

Contemporary Music

Counting Crows’ concert at Hammersmith Apollo was a huge disappointment; largely because of the sound, which was simply appalling. It turned everything into bland mush with few audible words. Support Lucy Rose (who I’d seen solo with John Cale as a result of which I bought her album) was a whole lot better. Nothing more to say really.

Art

It’s a lot easier to get into the Barbican’s Curve Gallery than it was for Rain Room and it’s well worth doing so. Geoffrey Farmer’s installation fills the space with hundreds of puppets made from paper cut-outs and fabric and places them on tables and podia with a soundtrack throughout and a slideshow at the end. A silent, still, spooky army.

The Designs of the Year exhibition at the Design Museum is extraordinarily eclectic, covering architecture, ‘products’, graphics etc., and a fascinating look at design’s ongoing impact on our lives. Visiting it was also an opportunity to see the newly changed permanent exhibition, which added some retro charm and nostalgia to the visit.

I wasn’t expecting David Bowie is at the V&A to be so big, so comprehensive and so captivating. The automated audio tour didn’t always work (very sensitive to your position and movement) but the combination of costumes, hand-written lyrics, stage sets, video and movie clips were enthralling, though almost impossible to take in on one visit. Beautifully curated, it’s provides conclusive proof of his genius.

A visit to RIBA was somewhat less satisfying as the exhibitions were clearly intended for professionals rather than laymen. Still, it was good to take a look at Dutch floating housing and different approaches to new towns over time and geography.

Film

I rather enjoyed Danny Boyle’s Trance, even though it’s hard to keep up with a real mindfuck of a plot. It twists and turns and keeps you guessing right until the end – well, assuming I got it right!

I enjoyed the Paul Raymond biopic The Look of Love too, though it’s a bit of a soulless piece. His was an interesting life and period Soho looks great, but there was something missing.

If I’d known it was about dysfunctional families, I probably wouldn’t have gone to see Love Is All You Need – I’ve got one of my own! It is a rather lovely and original film though, touching but not sentimental, occasionally funny and sometimes surprising. The mix of Danish and English dialogue worked really well, and brought additional authenticity.

Comedy

Attending a recording of Mark Thomas’ Radio 4 show Manifesto at the BBC Radio Theatre is great value as it’s the full monty (2.5 hours) for free and the drink’s are cheap! The ideas put forward were largely funny, the discussion entertaining and Mark’s added stories a hoot. This will all be distilled down to 28 minutes of course and, like my visit to the News Quiz, you can tell what will be on the cutting room floor. This one took place on the evening of Thatcher’s funeral, so maybe more editing than usual!

I haven’t been to the Comedy Store for ages and I thoroughly enjoyed my latest visit to their improv. night. Perhaps we were lucky to have the combined experience of Paul Merton, Josie Lawrence, Lee Simpson, Neil Mullarkey, Andy Smart and Richard Vranch (no longer confined to the piano). The format doesn’t change much, but the inventiveness is what matters and it seemed as fresh as the first time.

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