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Posts Tagged ‘Sadler’s Wells’

Contemporary Music

It’s hard to write about the Paul McCartney concert at the O2 without downloading a complete thesaurus of superlatives. It was the sixth time I’d seen him in the 21 years he’s been performing live with Wings or solo, and the third in as many years. It was at least as good as all the others – amazing visuals, brilliant sound, 2.75 unbroken hours containing 41 songs (including 27 Beatles songs, two getting their UK live premiere 46 years after their recording!). I sang, swayed, danced and cried. Absolute magic.

Opera, Dance & Classical Music

The ENO’s Castor & Pollux sounded as good as it looked dreadful. Rameau’s music is different to his contemporaries – just as crisp and clean, but with less frilly stuff! Sadly, the white box-modern dress-piles of earth-running around-inexplicable nudity production meant it was a lot better with your eyes closed. The singing of Allan Clayton, Roderick Williams, Sophie Bevan and Laura Tatulescu was lovely though – and the orchestra under Christian Curnyn sounded gorgeous.

Undance at Sadler’s Wells was an intriguing prospect – a double-bill of opera and dance as a collaboration between composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, artist Mark Wallinger and choreographer Wayne McGregor. The opera, Twice Through the Heart, was in fact a monodrama / song cycle about an abused woman who murders her husband. Favourite Sarah Connolly sang beautifully ‘inside’ 3D projections (we were given glasses on the way in!). It was a bit inaccessible on first hearing, but interesting and well executed nonetheless. Undance itself was based on the 19th century ‘motion photography’ of Eadweard Muybridge with projections behind the dancers, one mirroring the other. It was clever and intriguing, but felt like it should be a third of a triple bill rather than a pairing with a mini-opera. I didn’t dislike the evening, but somehow it felt like a couple of snacks rather than a full meal.

The Bizet Double-Bill at The Royal College of Music was a fascinating affair. Djamileh, an ‘opera comique’ had few laughs and inexplicably lost its happy ending to a murder, but the sound was unquestionably Bizet. Chinese tenor Lei Xu and British soprano Katherine Crompton sounded beautiful, as did the orchestra under Michael Rosewell. Le Docteur Miracle was certainly played for laughs, but also ended with a death Bizet didn’t (I think) write. In a veritable United Nations of casting, the singing of the girls – South African Filipa van Eck and Anastasia Prokofieva (guess where she’s from!)  – was great and the acting of Israeli  Pnini Grubner and homegrown Oliver Clarke equally good. A delightful evening.

Offenbach operettas are hardly subtle, but Scottish Opera’s touring production at the Young Vic removed any subtlety Orpheus in the Underworld did have. Everyone was trying so hard, particularly Rory Bremner’s libretto, squeezing in as many contemporary satirical references as he could think of, and the performers exaggerating every move and expression until it seems Am Dram. There was some good singing and the solitary pianist played the score well, but I felt like they were relentlessly beating me on the head with a newspaper (as one character did actually do to another at one point). Having said that, I admire them for touring small-scale opera to 33 venues in Scotland and Northern Ireland including artistic black holes like Stornoway and Lerwick, but why come to London with this? It made me yearn for a revival of ENO’s production with Gerald Scarfe’s extraordinary designs.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s concert at the Barbican was terrific. They combined Walton’s cantata Belshazzar’s Feast with Sibelius’ suite from the music of a play on the same subject and added in some Sibelius songs and Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem. Edward Gardner is now in the conducting premiere league and his interpretations here were thrilling. The chorus sounded great in the Walton and soloist Gerald Finlay great in both the Walton and the Sibelius sons. For once, the audience didn’t hold back the cheers; a cracker.

The LSO is an orchestra at the height of its powers. The Monteverdi Choir is one of the world’s best. Sir John Elliott Gardiner is in the premiere league of conducting. Even so, their concert of Beethoven’s 1st and 9th Symphonies was even more of a treat than I was expecting. The soloists don’t get to do much in the 9th, but they did it well. The chorus soared and the orchestra thrilled. Possibly the best in a lifetime of 9th’s

Back at Wigmore Hall there was a lovely concert pairing the 16th century songs of John Dowland with those of the 20th century composers he influenced – Peter Warlock and Ivor Gurney – with singers Ian Bostridge, Sophie Daneman and Mark Stone accompanied by lute, piano, flute, cor anglais & string quartet in various combinations. I could have done without the cheesy German Christmas encore with children’s pageant that followed a rather lovely evening of English song.

Magical Night at the Linbury Studio was the British premiere of a Kurt Weil ‘kinderpantomime’ choreographed by Aletta Collins, who has created a simple story of toys that come alive in the kid’s bedroom at night (heard that before?!). It was the Weill that was the attraction for me and it was interesting but hardly thrilling. The dance was OK, but the whole show was a bit of a disappointment overall.

Art

I was drawn to Painting Canada at Dulwich Gallery by its poster, as I often am by poster images. Sometimes the poster doesn’t properly represent the content of the exhibition (take note, Tate!) but on this occasion it does. It’s a beautiful exhibition of 122 paintings and oil sketches by the ‘Group of Seven’ Canadian artists from the early 20th Century. I’m not sure I’ve ever been to such a cohesive and consistently good exhibition of paintings. They’re virtually all landscapes, the colours are vivid and they show off (probably flatter) Canada brilliantly. Gorgeous.

Glass-maker Dale Chihuly is best known in the UK for the enormous ‘chandelier’ which dominates the V&A entrance. We were lucky to have a major exhibition of his work at Kew Gardens some years ago, but that’s about my only exposure to his work. Halcyon Gallery now has a brilliant selling exhibition which is surprisingly large and has a long 3-month run. The 57 works are well exhibited and beautifully lit. The only downside was the prices – from £11.5k to £700k; just a little beyond my art budget!

The annual Landscape Photography exhibition in the NT Lyttleton circle foyer is as good as ever; though guarantee to make mere mortal photographers like me feel totally inadequate! There are so many lovely photos here, I had to go round twice to take them all in.

I was initially disappointed by the V&A Friends visit to William Morris’ former home – Kelmscott House in Hammersmith – when I discovered we were only going to see the small basement museum (the rest is now a family home again). However, the curator brought out a lot of fascinating items, like original artwork for wallpaper and fabrics, and added some interesting historical facts to make it worthwhile in the end.

Down in Surrey, a feast of the work of another Arts & Crafts couple – George & Mary Watts – was to be had at the Watts Gallery and nearby chapel. He’s an underrated player in this movement’s game and it was great to see so many of his paintings in one place. The beautifully decorated round chapel (inside and out) by his wife on a nearby hill was an unexpected bonus despite the fading light.

It has taken me 21 months to get round to seeing WildWorks ‘Enchanted Palace’, which is occupying 15 rooms of Kensington Palace during their renovations. There were only 4 days to go, so off I went and boy was I glad I did. They tell the story of seven of the princesses who lived there by installations, light, sound, story books and cards and actors. it’s sometimes mysterious, sometimes playful, often beautiful and always captivating. I now can’t wait for their Babel in Battersea Park in 2012. 

Film

I adored My Week With Marilyn. It was funny and moving, littered with a who’s who of great British actors. Kenneth Branagh does a terrific turn as Laurence Olivier and Michelle Williams is uncanny as Marilyn, but for me it was Eddie Redmayne’s movie – he’s as mesmerizing on film as he is on stage, proven yet again by his Richard II less than 2 weeks later.

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The Rest of November

Contemporary Music

Blind Malian’s Amadou & Mariam staged their concert in complete darkness. The effect was to heighten the listening experience of their uplifting music. I could have done without the life story narrative, which was a bit naff, but otherwise it was an extraordinary experience.

Roy Harper is another of those artists who are part of the soundtrack of my life and Stormcock one of my very favourite albums. I haven’t kept up with his later work and haven’t seen him for some time, but his 70th birthday concert at RFH was irresistible. It proved to be deeply moving – he appeared to be ‘signing off’ and almost cracked up a few times. The 8-piece brass and string ensemble meant he focused mostly on my personal Roy Harper period and I loved it. When Jimmy Page guested for the double-guitar fireworks (on 5th November!) of That Same Old Rock (he played on the album) it was absolutely magical and the hall erupted.

I was amazed when they decided on Hammersmith Apollo for the Gillian Welch concert. It’s a shabby, tacky and dirty place and ever so big for two acoustic musicians. Though I would have much preferred somewhere like the Barbican or the Southbank Centre, she did pull it off. I like the new album and the first set was largely taken from it. The big surprise though was how this was a mere taster for an outstanding second set which ended with superb encores of country classic Jackson and Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit . I’ve waited a long while to see her, but it was well worth the wait – next time, somewhere else though? Please…

Taking eight people to Ronnie Scott’s to see jazz vocalist Ian Shaw was always going to be a risk, but one that paid off. The musicianship shone through and the audience were suitably attentive. His band included a silver-haired bassist who played with Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker. Wow! Astonishingly, it was my first visit to RS, but now that they have shows at civilised times I shall be back!

Opera & Classical Music

The operatic adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness seems to me to be a great success. Set mostly aboard a boat in the Congo, it has great atmosphere and tension thanks to Robert Innes Hopkins superb design and Tarik O’Regan’s music. There was some excellent singing from Alan Oke, Gweneth-Ann Jeffers and Morten Lassenius Kramp with the small ensemble Chroma under Oliver Gooch providing a colourful orchestral background. Just what the Linbury Studio is for.

The Guildhall School of Music & Drama have uncovered a neglected comic gem with Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor, Nicolai(who?)’s take on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. It’s given a sparkling and fresh modern dress production by Harry Fehr with a brilliant set and costumes from Tom Rogers. For some reason Nicolai changed the names of the Ford’s and Page’s but not Falstaff or Fenton. He’s dumped Mistress Quickly, Bardolph and Shallow, but otherwise it’s true to its source. Barnaby Rea is excellent as Falstaff, Ashley Riches is very good as the second cast Fluth (Ford) and Ellie Laugharne is a sweet-voiced Anna – but its Sky Ingram’s show; her Frau Fluth (Ford) is fabulous; we’ll be hearing a lot more of her for sure.

I’ve wanted to see Vaughan Williams’ Hugh the Drover for a very long time, so Hampstead Garden Opera’s production was very welcome indeed. I have to confess though that I wasn’t expecting it to be such a good opera and for the musical standards of this ‘amateur’ production to be so outstanding. It was beautifully played by The Dionysus Ensemble, a group of music students & recent graduates, under the leadership of Oliver-John Ruthven. The leads were also students & recent graduates and they were also exceptional. David de Winter was terrific as Hugh, with Elaine Tate a lovely sweet-voiced Mary and Ed Ballard fine as baddie butcher John. This ballad opera is so so underrated, but this new chamber version will hopefully lead to more productions. A whole packet of gold stars to HGO for leading the way.

Handel’s Saul is a lovely dramatic oratorio and Harry Christophers & The Sixteen delivered an excellent interpretation at the Barbican, helped by a set of outstanding soloists including Sarah Connelly, Christopher Purves and Robert Murray. The quality of the choir is exceptional with a handful of them stepping forward to sing the smaller solo parts.

Opera North’s Ruddigore is destined to be as classic a G&S production as ENO’s The Mikado still is many years on. It’s a completely preposterous story of course, but it’s given a sparking fresh production by Jo Davies, with sepia design from Richard Hudson, and is an absolute delight. Grant Doyle is an excellent leading man, Hal Cazalet (who trained next door at GSMD) acts and sings superbly well as sailor Dauntless, Heather Shipp is as batty as Mad Margaret should be and there’s superb support from a few old favourites I seem to see too little of these days – Anne-Marie Owens, Richard Angas and Stephen Page. I sincerely hope their visits to the Barbican become regular – it would d be good to have good quality opera at decent prices here in London!

Dance

I loved the Scottish Ballet programme I saw a couple of years ago in Edinburgh, so I booked to see their new double-bill at Sadler’s Wells. The first piece – Kings 2 Ends – was playful, funny and quirky. Choreographed by Jorma Elo to music by Steve Reich and Mozart, this young company excelled. Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth to Mahler’s song cycle took a short while to settle but soon became spellbinding. More classical than the first piece, I liked the contrast, though the dancers seemed to find it more of a challenge. I liked soprano Karen Cargill but I’m afraid tenor Richard Berkeley-Steele was nowhere near as pleasing on the ear!

I’m new to Ballet Rambert and this second showing didn’t live up to the first. It was certainly a diverse triple bill. RainForest was a somewhat abstract 40-year old piece by Merce Cunningham with an electronic score, danced in Jasper Johns costumes in an Andy Warhol setting. Seven for a secret, never to be told was Mark Baldwin’s exploration of child behaviour to a Ravel score and Javier de Frutos’ Elysian Fields was a steamy and violent homage to Tennessee Williams and A Streetcar Named Desire in particular, danced to that film’s score with unnecessary and intrusive dialogue. A bit of a mixed bag – I admired the dance / movement but didn’t really find anything entirely satisfactory.

Art

The Royal Academy’s Degas & the Ballet – Picturing Movement should have been subtitled ‘A study in obsession (with a touch of pedophilia)’ It pushed the dancer theme just a bit too far for me. There were some exhibits that I felt were padding (animation and panoramas) and I think it would have been a better 5-room exhibition than it was an 8-room exhibition. That said, the penultimate room of 13 paintings was simply glorious and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Also at the RA, Building the Revolution – Soviet Art & Architecture 1915-1935 was a small but fascinating series of pictures and drawings which illustrated the iconic art deco / modernist hybrid that existed there and then. Most of these buildings are now run down (or worse) and I was struck by how many I’d seen on recent trips to the Ukraine & The Caucasus.

The most extraordinary thing about Gerhard Richter’s retrospective at Tate Modern is that it feels like a show by a bunch of artists rather than one. He completely reinvented himself on a regular basis so there is much diversity on show here. It didn’t all work for me, but as a body of work it’s certainly impressive.

Grayson Perry moved from my list of OK-but-overrated-modern-British-artists to the premier league on the strength of his brilliant exhibition at the British Museum. His own work is interspersed with items from the BM collection (few of which I’d ever seen before). It was equal parts learning, fun and beauty and I was bowled over by it.

Another pleasant surprise was the John Martin exhibition at Tate Britain. This early 19th century artist created vast canvases, mostly on dramatic religious themes like Sodom & Gomorrah. They seem to be the precursors of / influence for apocalyptic films like Independence Day and covers for 1970’s progressive rock albums by bands like Yes. In their day they toured the country with sound and light shows to accompany then, seen by millions of people, so it was terrific that they created a modern version for the Judgement Day triptych – a first for an exhibition? How can I have lived this long without ever knowing about this man?! Upstairs, sculptor Barry Flanagan’s early work seemed tame and dull, I’m afraid, but it did mean you get to climb their brilliant and bright newly painted staircase!

I was smitten by the Pipilotti Rist exhibition at the Hayward Gallery last month and almost smitten by George Condo’s Mental States, which is now sharing the venue. His portraits are like a cartoon version of Francis Bacon and his abstracts like Picasso on acid. I’d never heard of him before, so it was good to see such a comprehensive and fascinating collection. Also at the Southbank Centre, the 2011 World Press Photographer exhibition maintains the standards of this superb annual tradition. It’s often hard to look at, but the photography is always outstanding.

Visiting Two Temple Place is a double-dip treat. The former Astor home is a riot of carving, stained glass and OTT decoration and it currently houses a William Morris exhibition with a superb collection of tapestries, fabrics, wallpaper, paintings and drawings. Gorgeous.

Just as gorgeous was the Royal Manuscripts exhibition at the British Library, a stunning collection of richly decorated books from the middle ages. It’s superbly curated and, provided you go at a quiet time, it’s a real treat.

Film

Two excellent British films this month, the first of which was Weekend, about an intense gay relationship which begins and ends in, well, a weekend. Chris New and Tom Cullen were both outstanding and it was beautifully shot. The second, Resistance, is set in Wales after the failure of the D-Day landings resulting in an invasion of German troops, a small group of whom have reached a Welsh valley! It explores the reaction of the locals and their relationships with the invaders. It’s a bit of a slow burn, but eventually draws you in and becomes deeply moving without a touch of sentimentality. There are some lovely performances, most notably from Andrea Risborough.

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Contemporary Music

Todd Rundgren’s concert at the Jazz Café was a real treat. Small venue – ‘greatest hits’ set – terrific band; and Todd on fine and funny form prancing around like a man half his age. I’m not as familiar with this material as most in the audience, but loved it nonetheless.

Steve Earle couldn’t be accused of offering poor value for money. His sets at the Royal Festival Hall totalled 160 minutes. Sometimes, though, more is less and with poor sound contributing, I’m afraid that’s what it was here. The band was great, the set list eclectic and Earle on brittle and funny form with his chat, but it outstayed its welcome and became a bit of a rushed affair in the end.

Honest John’s Chop Up turned out to be an impulsive treat. Damon Albarn’s label showcased a Ghanaian rapper, Malian singer, US brass ensemble and three people from South Africa who defy description but were huge fun. It was like a party with turns, not all of which were good but some of which were great and I loved it.

Opera

Our autumn opera pairing at WNO, the UK’s most accessible opera company, was a brilliantly cast Don Giovanni and a musically thrilling Katya Kabanova, dedicated to Charles Mackerras (with his wife and daughter present). David Kempster isn’t the best DG I’ve ever heard but his acting was exceptional. There was superb support from a home-grown cast which made you wonder why people make such a fuss about casting international stars. David Soar was a terrific Leporello, Robin Tritshler and Camilla Roberts in fine voice as Don Ottavio and Donna Anna and Gary Griffiths an excellent Masetto. Music Director Lothar Koenigs brought out the best of the WNO Orchestra whose playing of the Katya score in particular was stunning. Amanda Roocroft was an outstanding Katya, with an excellent supporting cast including a fine Boris from Peter Wedd and a suitably malevolent Kabanicha from Leah-Marian Jones.

The Passenger at ENO was a somewhat harrowing experience, but an opera I’m very glad I did experience. It moves between an ocean liner in the 60’s, whose passengers include a former Auschwitz guard and one of her victims, and Auschwitz itself back in the 40’s. It’s a very dramatic but very accessible score and David Pountney’s production is masterly, partly thanks to Johan Engels extraordinary design, with the ship’s deck towering over the rail tracks and desolation of the concentration camp. Richard Armstrong’s conducting was also masterly and the orchestra sounded sensational. Amongst a fine ensemble, Giselle Allen as Marta and Michelle Breedt as Liese were wonderful.

Classical Music

The Cardinall’s Music under Andrew Cawood gave a brilliant recital of William Byrd’s unaccompanied church music at Wigmore Hall. They included selections from five of his contemporaries which by-and-large made Byrd shine (Tallis the exception) and I liked the fact that Cawood breaks with convention to introduce and explain his selections.

I’ve had a passing interest in the music of John Taverner but haven’t really heard that much, so a whole evening of small-scale works at Wigmore Hall seemed like a good place to start. Six choral pieces, three song cycles and solo pieces for cello and piano certainly made it a musical feast. The highlight for me was the choral work, sung with great beauty by a ‘scratch’ choir of young singers put together for the evening under the name Caeli Chorum. Patricia Rozario’s vocal fireworks were extraordinary but the works more challenging, as were the solo instrumental pieces, but it was a fascinating immersive experience nonetheless.

Dance

Clod Ensemble took over Sadler’s Wells but only sold 15% of the seats. Starting at the back of the upper circle, the show took us down each level for a new segment until we were at the back of the stage watching the curtain come down on them with the stalls as the backdrop. I can’t say I understood the concept, and it was more movement than dance, but it was a captivating experience.

Film

I liked The Debt, a film about the botched Mossad abduction of a Nazi war criminal It surprised me and gripped me, not least because of an excellent performance from Helen Mirren.

What I liked most about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was the fact that it didn’t patronise you; you had to work to keep up with it! The other thing I liked about it was the collection of stunning performances, including Gary Oldman as Smiley, John Hurt, Kathy Burke, Toby Jones, Colin Frith, Cairan Hinds, Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch.

We Need to Talk About Kevin was a harrowing experience, but a brilliant piece of film-making. Tilda Swinton really is one of the very best actors working today and yet again she inhabits a role. Wonderful, but if I was a parent it would scare me senseless!

Unless I’ve been avoiding this type of film too long (quite possible!), with The Adventures of Tin Tin – The Secret of the Unicorn, Stephen Spielberg seems to has invented something that is neither animation nor live action but, for a story like this, is better than both. The almost-but-not-quite lifelike characters can look more realistic doing stuff actors or animation can’t. It’s also the best 3D I’ve ever seen. Great fun.

Art

I went to Treasures of Heaven at the British Museum fired up after my recent Caucasus trip. Interesting though it was, there’s a limit to how many religious relics an unbeliever can take – the least interesting of the BM’s big Reading Room shows.

Locked Room Scenario was another of Artangel’s extraordinary installations. When you enter the warehouse where it takes place and ask a girl which way to go, you get a surly response. You’re at an exhibition of the Blue Conceptual art movement, but the entrance to their exhibition is locked so you end up walking round, peeping in where you can, picking up leaflets and looking at the fictitious movement’s timeline. When I was walking away, a young man handed me a page from a book he said I’d dropped. I read it and became convinced this was all part of the experience; the rest of my walk was rather surreal and disorientating.

I’d never heard of Pipilotti Risi before I went to her show at the Hayward Gallery. I love the playfulness of her videos, on translucent screens or hidden in handbags, conch shells and all sorts of other objects. It was like revisiting psychedelia, but with technology which enables artists to do so much more. Huge fun.

The Barbican Gallery continues its unique position amongst London’s major spaces with an exhibition from / about architectural practice OMA (whoever they are!) curated by Rotor (whoever they are too!). It’s a very original presentation of drawings, models, materials etc. though I think you have to be an architect or designer to get the most out of it. An interesting and intriguing one hour wander nonetheless.

The second Koestler Trust Art For Offenders exhibition at the RFH was simply extraordinary. This year it included video, music and spoken word as well as paintings and sculpture. Many of these items would hold their own in any contemporary art selling exhibition. Though the art was uplifting and enthralling, one was left with the feeling of hopelessness that so much talent is locked up.

A visit with the V&A Friends to then newly refurbished Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel was terrific. The highlight is the 5-story stairwell with ceramic tiles on the ground floor, wrought iron and wood banisters, stencilled walls and an extraordinary painted ceiling. They’ve done a wonderful job of restoring all of this and it was a treat being able to see it without having to take out a mortgage to book a room!

In Oxford for lunch, I had enough time to pop into the lovely Ashmolean Museum again (now one of the UK’s very best museums) which included a small but fascinating display of iconic Chinese Cultural Revolution art that showed you how it is possible for paintings to influence people; you could see how they fell for Mao with all these idealised images.

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Contemporary Music

Todd Rundgren’s concert at the Jazz Café was a real treat. Small venue – ‘greatest hits’ set – terrific band; and Todd on fine and funny form prancing around like a man half his age. I’m not as familiar with this material as most in the audience, but loved it nonetheless.

Steve Earle couldn’t be accused of offering poor value for money. His sets at the Royal Festival Hall totalled 160 minutes. Sometimes, though, more is less and with poor sound contributing, I’m afraid that’s what it was here. The band was great, the set list eclectic and Earle on brittle and funny form with his chat, but it outstayed its welcome and became a bit of a rushed affair in the end.

Honest John’s Chop Up turned out to be an impulsive treat. Damon Albarn’s label showcased a Ghanaian rapper, Malian singer, US brass ensemble and three people from South Africa who defy description but were huge fun. It was like a party with turns, not all of which were good but some of which were great and I loved it.

Opera

Our autumn opera pairing at WNO, the UK’s most accessible opera company, was a brilliantly cast Don Giovanni and a musically thrilling Katya Kabanova, dedicated to Charles Mackerras (with his wife and daughter present). David Kempster isn’t the best DG I’ve ever heard but his acting was exceptional. There was superb support from a home-grown cast which made you wonder why people make such a fuss about casting international stars. David Soar was a terrific Leporello, Robin Tritshler and Camilla Roberts in fine voice as Don Ottavio and Donna Anna and Gary Griffiths an excellent Masetto. Music Director Lothar Koenigs brought out the best of the WNO Orchestra whose playing of the Katya score in particular was stunning. Amanda Roocroft was an outstanding Katya, with an excellent supporting cast including a fine Boris from Peter Wedd and a suitably malevolent Kabanicha from Leah-Marian Jones.

The Passenger at ENO was a somewhat harrowing experience, but an opera I’m very glad I did experience. It moves between an ocean liner in the 60’s, whose passengers include a former Auschwitz guard and one of her victims, and Auschwitz itself back in the 40’s. It’s a very dramatic but very accessible score and David Pountney’s production is masterly, partly thanks to Johan Engels extraordinary design, with the ship’s deck towering over the rail tracks and desolation of the concentration camp. Richard Armstrong’s conducting was also masterly and the orchestra sounded sensational. Amongst a fine ensemble, Giselle Allen as Marta and Michelle Breedt as Liese were wonderful.

Classical Music

The Cardinall’s Music under Andrew Cawood gave a brilliant recital of William Byrd’s unaccompanied church music at Wigmore Hall. They included selections from five of his contemporaries which by-and-large made Byrd shine (Tallis the exception) and I liked the fact that Cawood breaks with convention to introduce and explain his selections.

I’ve had a passing interest in the music of John Taverner but haven’t really heard that much, so a whole evening of small-scale works at Wigmore Hall seemed like a good place to start. Six choral pieces, three song cycles and solo pieces for cello and piano certainly made it a musical feast. The highlight for me was the choral work, sung with great beauty by a ‘scratch’ choir of young singers put together for the evening under the name Caeli Chorum. Patricia Rozario’s vocal fireworks were extraordinary but the works more challenging, as were the solo instrumental pieces, but it was a fascinating immersive experience nonetheless.

Dance

Clod Ensemble took over Sadler’s Wells but only sold 15% of the seats. Starting at the back of the upper circle, the show took us down each level for a new segment until we were at the back of the stage watching the curtain come down on them with the stalls as the backdrop. I can’t say I understood the concept, and it was more movement than dance, but it was a captivating experience.

Film

I liked The Debt, a film about the botched Mossad abduction of a Nazi war criminal It surprised me and gripped me, not least because of an excellent performance from Helen Mirren.

What I liked most about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was the fact that it didn’t patronise you; you had to work to keep up with it! The other thing I liked about it was the collection of stunning performances, including Gary Oldman as Smiley, John Hurt, Kathy Burke, Toby Jones, Colin Frith, Cairan Hinds, Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch.

We Need to Talk About Kevin was a harrowing experience, but a brilliant piece of film-making. Tilda Swinton really is one of the very best actors working today and yet again she inhabits a role. Wonderful, but if I was a parent it would scare me senseless!

Unless I’ve been avoiding this type of film too long (quite possible!), with The Adventures of Tin Tin – The Secret of the Unicorn, Stephen Spielberg seems to has invented something that is neither animation nor live action but, for a story like this, is better than both. The almost-but-not-quite lifelike characters can look more realistic doing stuff actors or animation can’t. It’s also the best 3D I’ve ever seen. Great fun.

Art

I went to Treasures of Heaven at the British Museum fired up after my recent Caucasus trip. Interesting though it was, there’s a limit to how many religious relics an unbeliever can take – the least interesting of the BM’s big Reading Room shows.

Locked Room Scenario was another of Artangel’s extraordinary installations. When you enter the warehouse where it takes place and ask a girl which way to go, you get a surly response. You’re at an exhibition of the Blue Conceptual art movement, but the entrance to their exhibition is locked so you end up walking round, peeping in where you can, picking up leaflets and looking at the fictitious movement’s timeline. When I was walking away, a young man handed me a page from a book he said I’d dropped. I read it and became convinced this was all part of the experience; the rest of my walk was rather surreal and disorientating.

I’d never heard of Pipilotti Risi before I went to her show at the Hayward Gallery. I love the playfulness of her videos, on translucent screens or hidden in handbags, conch shells and all sorts of other objects. It was like revisiting psychedelia, but with technology which enables artists to do so much more. Huge fun.

The Barbican Gallery continues its unique position amongst London’s major spaces with an exhibition from / about architectural practice OMA (whoever they are!) curated by Rotor (whoever they are too!). It’s a very original presentation of drawings, models, materials etc. though I think you have to be an architect or designer to get the most out of it. An interesting and intriguing one hour wander nonetheless.

The second Koestler Trust Art For Offenders exhibition at the RFH was simply extraordinary. This year it included video, music and spoken word as well as paintings and sculpture. Many of these items would hold their own in any contemporary art selling exhibition. Though the art was uplifting and enthralling, one was left with the feeling of hopelessness that so much talent is locked up.

A visit with the V&A Friends to then newly refurbished Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel was terrific. The highlight is the 5-story stairwell with ceramic tiles on the ground floor, wrought iron and wood banisters, stencilled walls and an extraordinary painted ceiling. They’ve done a wonderful job of restoring all of this and it was a treat being able to see it without having to take out a mortgage to book a room!

In Oxford for lunch, I had enough time to pop into the lovely Ashmolean Museum again (now one of the UK’s very best museums) which included a small but fascinating display of iconic Chinese Cultural Revolution art that showed you how it is possible for paintings to influence people; you could see how they fell for Mao with all these idealised images.

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Opera & Classical Music

I really liked Nico Muhly & Craig Lucas’ Two Boys. It’s an original subject for opera – internet chatrooms – and it unfolds like a detective story with great pace and narrative drive. I loved the chorus with laptops representing chatroom activity, with projections adding much to the impact. The music creates an atmosphere of suspense for the story-telling and is much more accessible on first hearing than most modern operas. It’s a fine cast, with Susan Bickley shining as the detective. One of ENO’s more successful ventures into modern opera.

The Consul was the first Menotti opera I saw, years ago in Stockholm when I was there for an opera festival I didn’t know they had. A few years later, I was in the attic room of a freemasons hall in Edinburgh late at night (as one does at the fringe!) for another of his short operas and in the tiny audience was Menotti himself, now retired to a castle in Scotland. It has now been re-named The Secret Consul and presented as a site-specific opera in the derelict Limehouse Town Hall. Sadly, it only partly works. Despite the fact the audience was exactly the same size as the cast, they weren’t able to marshal us unobtrusively without confusing and / or irritating us. Apart from the first scene on the stairs, the opera takes place in different parts of the same large room, so you’re just changing direction (most seated) not promenading. The acoustic echo made it hard to understand the English libretto, though you never fully understand a libretto even when it’s in English, so it was difficult to know exactly what was going on. The leads were good, though, and the quartet – piano, cello, violin and clarinet – played the score well.

Bampton Classical Opera is an annual affair showcasing one opera in the garden of a house in Oxfordshire. It punches way above it’s weight, with very good production values and excellent young professional singers. They’ve been invited to Buxton Opera festival this year and will also perform the opera in concert in London at St John’s Smith Square. This year’s offering is a late 18th century light comedy, The Italian Girl in London, by Cimarosa, directed by Jeremy Gray. Cimarosa is best known for The Secret Marriage (he apparently wrote 70 operas, but that’s the only one now produced regularly). It’s the usual fare of this period, a romantic comedy with an implausible plot and a happy ending, with the addition on this occasion of a preposterous yarn about becoming invisible by holding a ‘bloodstone’, but well suited to the venue and occasion. Nigel Hook has managed to create a delightful small London hotel with bar and, most importantly, a food hatch, and the musical standards are very high. There is a small chamber orchestra conducted by Thomas Blunt and five well-matched soloists. Kim Sheehan is lovely in the title role and Nicholas Merryweather gives a fine comic performance as the Italian who loves her and is looking for her but can’t recognise her in disguise as a French maid! I also liked Caryl Hughes hotel proprietor who courts English Lord (Robert Winslade). I’m not sure why we need Dutchman Sumers, but Adam Tunnicliffe sings the role well. They were all almost upstaged by the non-singing policeman, an auspicious debut from local man Martin Havelock; one to watch!

Iestyn Davies’ lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall was an inspired and eclectic programme from 12 composers spanning 400 years. I’m not a huge fan of the counter-tenor voice, but his is very beautiful and this concert showed his range. There were three thematic groups – nature, night and spirit – to hang this diverse collection together. A lovely hour, encoring with Purcell’s Music For A While, which was probably the best of them all.

Dance

Sylvie Guillem’s show at Sadler’s Wells was an extraordinary display of skill; she does things with the human body you don’t think are possible – and she’s 46! There was a duet with Nicolas Le Riche choreographed by William Forsyth, a solo piece choreographed by Mats Ek and a duet from Aurelie Cayla & Kenta Kojiri choreographed by Jiri Kylian. I can’t say that any of the dances meant anything to me, but the artistry had me spellbound.

Hofesh Shechter’s Political Mother at Sadler’s Wells was more like a rock concert than contemporary dance. There’s a 20-piece band on three levels like a wall at the back of the stage and the lighting is extraordinary. The dance seems more like unchoreographed people at a rave (not that I’ve ever been to one!). I’m not sure I got the war references but it was a brilliant spectacle.

Film

Bridesmaids is another of the new breed of quirky American comedies which are often laugh-out-loud funny with a fair dose of satire and good bad taste. Being American, it had its ration of sentimentality, but it was funny enough to get away with it and it’s send-up of wedding obsession was delicious.

Horrible Bosses was another and I liked it. It won’t win any prizes and I probably won’t remember it in my dotage, but it was a good laugh, helped by an outstanding cast, with Kevin Spacey giving us another fine turn.

Beginners was a bit of a slow burn, but I eventually succumbed to its thoughtfulness and quirky structure & style. Ewan McGregor’s relationship with his father Christopher Plummer was very authentic (as it was with his girlfriend and dog!). I don’t know whether it is based on a true story, but it really felt like a true story. A complete contrast to Horrible Bosses.

Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows II was a whole lot better than Part I and quite possible the best of the series. Apart from the three main leads, yet again it’s a Who’s Who of great British actors. This one was brilliantly paced (though I was less convinced by the IMAX 3D) and I left the cinema rather sad that there would be no more. I think I shall have to work my way through the DVD’s now.

Art

Every year I say I’m impressed by the standard at the BP Portrait Award and this year is no exception. Lest you think it’s a dying art form, this years prize-winners are more than thirty years apart in age. There’s a very diverse range of styles and subjects and there was hardly a dud in this years selection.

I turned up at Whitechapel Gallery for an exhibition that had yet to open(!), so I had to make do with a small selection from the government’s art collection, some local photos from the 70’s and a re-visit to Fred Sandbach’s extraordinary string installations. The government has a huge collection of British art which moves from office to office and embassy to embassy seemingly based on the taste of the occupants. This small collection was selected by Nick Clegg, Peter Mandelson, Samantha Cameron and a few others. The most fascinating thing about it was seeing the history of one Lowry painting – everywhere it had been since it was purchased for £120, including photos of it in situ.

Whilst in Manchester for their International Festival, I went to the Art Gallery and caught a little exhibition of some terrific Grayson Perry pots with museum objects selected to sit alongside them plus a small selection of pre-Raphaelites as a preview of a bigger exhibition this autumn; but the artistic highlight was a side trip to Liverpool at see the Magritte exhibition at Tate Liverpool which is a really comprehensive collection of his work. In some ways, in terms of the impact the pictures have, more is less but it was fascinating to see such a range of work. The sculpture exhibition also on at the Tate was so-so, but a hell of a lot better than the Royal Academy one a few months back.

If Time Out hadn’t told me to go to Hauser & Wirth at 196 Piccadilly to see an art installation, and I had just popped in from the street, I really would be thinking that I was in the Piccadilly Community Centre, a space on four floors with canteen, computer room, bar, meeting rooms, charity shop, prayer room…… This was a surreal and extraordinary experience created in impeccable detail by Swiss artist Christoph Buchel! I’m still not sure if it was or it wasn’t…..

The NPG has yet another photo exhibition; this time B&W portrait photos of Hollywood stars from 1920 to 1960 called Glamour of the Gods. Some are iconic and some are quirky, but they are very compelling.

The Courtauld Gallery’s last in-depth exhibition was of one picture by Cezanne and it was a surprise treat, so I went back for a second one; this time a look at the relationship between artist Toulouse-Lautrec and dancer Jane Avril. They’ve brought together pictures and other items from 15 museums, archives & private collections in France, the US and the UK and it was another insightful treat.

The Vorticists at Tate Britain was one of those exhibitions that introduces you to a little known (well, to me anyway) art movement which seems to have had a profound influence on subsequent art and design. I’d seen the portraits of Wyndham Lewis before, but here was other work by him and his contemporaries that was new to me. It ‘s influence clearly lasted much longer than it’s 8-year life as a movement. Fascinating. Whilst there, I took the opportunity to see Mike Nelson’s Coral Reef installation – a maze of rooms with creaky doors to up the spook effect that you get lost in. I’m not entirely clear what it all means, but its huge fun!

Other

Also in Liverpool, I was privileged to get to both Lennon and McCartney’s childhood homes, now National Trust properties. I’d been to McCartney’s before but it was great to visit John’s and indeed both together, even though abandoning the audio tour at McCartney’s is in my view a mistake. You really get a sense of these young lives and to see a photo of them actually writing I Saw Her Standing There on the wall just above where they did still sent shivers up my spine. Being in John’s house is rather moving, though the signs of Ono’s control-freakery are evident. There’s a certain irony to the fact that ‘working class hero’ Lennon lived in middle class comfort whilst much maligned McCartney was squashed into a tiny council house with his mum, dad and brother. For someone for whom the Beatles are a major part of the soundtrack of my life, this was thrilling and the fact that the bus driver’s soundtrack got to Penny Lane just as we drove past it’s street sign was spooky!

A Royal Academy Friends visit to Ironmonger’s Hall (with lunch in the hall) was preceded by a short walking tour that included Paternoster Square, St Paul’s Churchyard, the rooftop views at One New Change and Postman’s Park (where unsung heroes are commemorated by ceramic plaques) and it was a treat. I do love these livery companies and even though I’ve walked this way many times before, with a City blue badge guide you always learn something new.

I visited the shell of the new Jacobean theatre at Shakespeare’s Globe’s and it inspired me as much as the Globe itself did when I first went there. It’s going to be a great indoor space for a completely different complimentary winter season. Donate now – they need £7m!

Down in Somerset visiting friends, my attempt to wrench some value from my National Trust membership took me to four properties in the south of the county – the lovely gardens at the intriguingly named Tintinhall, the even lovelier house and gardens at Lytes Cary, the rather more grand Montecute and Barrington Court for a nice lunch made from local (and mostly estate) produce. This is the first year I feel I’ve had my money’s worth!

What a busy month!

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What would we do without NBT? They produce at least one new ballet / dance drama almost every year (this year we saw Covent Garden’s first new full evening work for 15 years – 20 years since once with a new score). With an Arts Council grant of c.£2.5m, they take their work to the taxpayers of 16 British cities against Birmingham Royal Ballet’s 4 cities (£7.5m grant) and the Royal Ballet’s 1 city (they rarely get off their arses and leave London) for its share of Covent Garden’s £28m. Oh, and NBT’s tickets cost half those at Covent Garden, so they are also significantly more accessible. If taking a brand new ballet danced by a talented young company with excellent production values and a brand new score from a titan of musical theatre to 11 cities in England, Scotland and Wales isn’t value for taxpayers money, I’ll eat my tutu – well, if I had one…..End of rant!

The life of Cleopatra is perfect for dance, though covering her whole life in two hours is rather ambitious. It takes us from her joint rule of Egypt with her brother (following the death of her father) to her murder of her brother, her marriage to Caesar, birth of their child, moving to Rome, death of Caesar (Interval!) return to Egypt, the arrival of Anthony, fighting Octavia for him, invasion by Rome and the death of them both. Phew! You can’t expect a detailed story, but what you do get is a clear dramatic flow through time and events, good characterisation of people and countries and, in the second half, the emotional journey of this iconic relationship.

The second half works better than the first. The duet (I know that’s not the ballet term!) between Cleopatra and Anthony is very sexy, the battle scene is very muscular and the deaths poignant. The idea of Wadjet the snake-god as Cleopatra’s protector is excellent and provides an elegant framing for the story. Some of David Nixon’s choreography was a bit quirky for me, but when it mattered it was good. The simple set, designed by the director and Christopher Giles with great projections by Nina Dunn, looked beautiful and allowed the work to breathe unencumbered. There were one or two odd costume choices (my companion thought the Roman’s were a bit off -kilter, as it were!) but these were also mostly appropriate and elegant. Claude-Michel Schonberg’s score is lovely – even better than the one he wrote for Wuthering Heights – particularly in the second act love and death scenes.

I’m sure we didn’t get the first cast, but they were all excellent anyway. Julie Charlet made a lovely Cleopatra – assertive and sensuous in equal measure. Ashley Dixon was every bit the handsome soldier lover, at home dancing the love scenes and the fight scenes. Darren Goldsmith’s snake god glided and slithered with grace. This is a very young good-looking company who are always a pleasure to watch.

I think I’ve seen seven or eight of their dance dramas, and this is one of the best they’ve done…..and fantastic value for tax-payers!

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This ‘new ballet’ is really a dance drama with, as someone we met after the show accurately pointed out, not enough dance!

It’s based on a Hans Christian Anderson short story, but even with polymath Matthew Dunster on board as Dramaturge, it wasn’t always clear how what was happening on stage related to the story. It was only after I read the story (as opposed to the synopsis, which doesn’t really help) in the programme after the second part did I really understand the second part! This narrative flow isn’t helped by the two intervals (presumably in order to facilitate scene and costume changes and dancer rests) and a lot of moments where a screen comes down and you are left with just projections.

That said, I liked the Pet Shop Boys score, which alternated between technopop and orchestral and technopoporchestral and Katrina Lindsay’s designs and Tal Rosner’s projections, with a nod to Rodchenko, are terrific. What dancing there is is good, but in truth the talents of Royal Ballet star Ivan Putrov, New Adventures Aaron Sillis and the lovely Clemmie Sveaas as the Princess aren’t really exploited.

Choreographer Javier De Frutos has created a dance drama spectacle which was always watchable and listenable but only occasionally fluid. If it comes back (which, based on a sold out 10-day run, it inevitably will) and you go, be sure to read the story first.

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Prokofiev’s score for this ballet – and his Romeo & Juliet – is at least as good as any of Tchaikovsky’s and in my opinion it’s so much better when danced in a fluid modern way than in a fusty classical style. When Matthew Bourne first staged it 13 years ago, I enjoyed it a lot and was a bit surprised it wasn’t as much of a hit as his now legendary staging of Swan Lake, so it was good to get a second look.

To all intents and purposes it’s the story we all know, though Cinderella’s family is expanded to include three step-brothers, the prince is an airman, the fairy godmother is a male angel and the ball is an evening at the Cafe de Paris dance hall……and it all takes place in the blitz…..and it works! Cinderella goes to ‘the ball’ in a motorcycle sidecar. The step-sisters are ugly on the inside so we’re spared grotesques. Though the airman searches for Cinderella with her shoe in hand, we get none of the try-it-on stuff; instead we’re whisked through the streets of London, in the Underground and on the Embankment. There isn’t much of a wedding, but we see them off on their honeymoon from Platform 12 at Paddington Station (somewhat spookily, an hour later I was departing from Platform 13 at Paddington!).

Bourne’s choreography is, as always, fresh and fluid. I’m not sure who danced who at the performance we attended, but I don’t think it matters – they were all great. I was nervous that he’d dispensed with a live orchestra, but surprised that this didn’t actually bother me – maybe because the recorded sound was superb and the occasional integration of a blitz soundscape very successful. I would have complimented Lez Brotherston’s designs, but I understand he doesn’t want to be referred to in blogs, so I won’t.

This is the great populist modern dance style that made Bourne’s name and on this showing, he’s lost none of his creativity and talent. Another Christmas treat!

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I couldn’t describe this show better than its own billing –  a ‘Dance Revue’ about shoes! This could so easily fail and come out as tacky showbiz, but in the hands of Jerry Springer – The Opera creator Richard Thomas and inventive choreographer Stephen Mear it’s a whole lot of fun.

Who’d have thought you could come up with so many clever ideas about footwear; here there are some 30 ‘numbers’ including health and safety advice for walking in high heels, how Hush Puppies can help the promiscuous, Imelda Marcos’ infamous obsession with shoes and the worship of everything from Flip Flops to Ug’s to Jimmy Choo’s (but not Crocs!).

The dancing is terrific and the songs are good (with often hysterical lyrics). Tom Pye’s design, with Laura Hopkins costumes and Tim Hope & Gaelle Denis’ projections, is a colourful gaudy feast for the eye. The dancers are hugely talented and the singers top-notch. A small 8-piece band plays as if their lives depended on it.

Not everything works as well as the high spots and they pull more punches in the first half than the second. I found the opening number too much to take in whilst adjusting to a very different type of show and the sound occasionally buried the lyrics (co-lyricist Alethea Wiles), but these are small points because this is something completely different that continually surprises you, makes you smile from start to finish and above all is original and fresh.

A wonderful post-Edinburgh treat to kick-start the autumn season in London.

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I’ve long liked this curious Japanese art form. Played entirely by men with extravagant costumes and heavy make-up, exaggerated movement & facial expressions on picture-book kitsch sets, it’s almost like a cartoon coming alive before your very eyes.

Despite the helpful simultaneous translation (& commentary) through individual earpieces, I can’t say I followed the story. Part of the reason is that you’re glued to the visual imagery, so much detail is put into every costume, movement and expression.

They mostly enter along a catwalk running half the length of the stalls on one side, which is very effective (if you’re sitting on the other side, as I was!) and on one occasion enables them to distract you to facilitate a surprise entrance. There’s much quick-change stuff and dramatic entrances from the star, Ebizo Ichikawa XI, in the second half.

I’m not sure the story matters anyway, as gasping at the skills of the performers, admiring the extraordinary costumes and smiling at the kitschness of it all is enough.

It may sometimes seem like a museum or a tourist attraction, but it has to be seen!

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