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Posts Tagged ‘Shostakovich’

It was wonderful to be back at The Proms after two years, and by my seventh and final concert it felt like life was back to normal; all of my summer traditions – Shakespeare’s Globe, Open Air Theatre and The Proms – had returned.

It started (for me) with Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson, whose residency on the daily BBC Radio 4 arts programme Front Row rekindled my interest in the solo piano and ignited my interest in his artistry. His two beautifully played piano concertos – Bach & Mozart – were bookended by Prokofiev and Shostakovich symphonies from the Philharmonia Orchestra, but this didn’t stop him doing a few solo encores in the middle of the second half, during which you couldn’t hear a pin drop. A great programme and a great showcase for this young man whose international career is clearly taking off.

I’d never heard of South African cellist Abel Selaocoe, but I fancied a bit of fusion, this year promoted from late night proms to evening proms. He’s a real force of nature, the blending of classical music with African rhythms was a great success and the party atmosphere was infectious. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Clark Rundell were having a ball, moving from the baroque pieces of Rameau to orchestral arrangements of contemporary pieces based on African traditions. Selaocoe’s trio Chesaba provided the rhythmic foundation for most of them, Moroccan Londoners Gnawa and the Bantu singers adding colour. A punt that paid off.

The BBC singers concert was another experimental success. This time it was the Renaissance meets the present day with contemporary composers like Nico Muhly and Roderick Williams contributing a response to the older pieces by composers such as Hildegard von Bingen and Byrd. With no gaps between each piece it flowed beautifully under the direction of Sofi Jeannin, who has gone from strength to strength since becoming their chief conductor. One of the responses was ‘played’ on turntables and electronics from the centre of the prom area, which was rather surreal to watch as well as listen to.

The LSO and Simon Rattle are Stravinsky experts and it showed in a brilliant programme of three of his less well known ‘symphonies’. It was lovely to see the wind section shine in the Symphony of Wind Instruments, and you could hear each one clearly in this vast hall. I was more familiar with the Symphony in C, though I’ve never heard it sound this good. The Symphony in Three Movements showed the cinematic direction his work had taken on moving to the US and it proved fascinating.

Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde was this year’s contribution from Glyndebourne Opera. It was semi-staged, though I rather wish they hadn’t bothered as moving up, down and around a few steps doesn’t really add anything. A concert version would suffice. The London Philharmonic Orchestra under Robin Ticciati sounded wonderful and the soloists were fine indeed, though Simon O’Neill seemed to be struggling in Act II. We found out why just before Act III began when it was announced that Neal Cooper (hitherto Melot) would sing Tristan from the side while O’Neil acted the role. This added an extra layer of drama, with Cooper shining brightly (without score, though he had understudied and sung the role in Melbourne). All’s well, as they say.

This was followed a day later by a gorgeous choral programme by the Monteverdi Choir with the Baroque Soloists under John Elliott Gardiner. A Handel sandwich with Bach filling, the highlight was the joyful Dixit Dominus to end, with a couple of encores of the final movements. The vocal soloists all stepped out of the choir, such is the standard of this brilliant group. A treat.

My proms ended with Bach’s mighty St. Matthew Passion, given by Jonathan Cohen’s Arcangelo musicians and chorus with a superb set of six British soloists. I’d forgotten how demanding the part of the Evangelist is, and Stuart Jackson did a fine job. Iestyn Davies was particularly good and Roderick Williams’ contribution grew as the evening proceeded. I hadn’t heard the piece for some time, so it was good to be reminded of its quality with this fine reading by all.

Good to be back.

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Opera

Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Britten Theatre at the Royal College of Music was an absolute gem with wonderful singing and playing, a superb design, and stunning staging by Liam Steel. Any opera house in the world would be proud to have a production this good in its repertoire.

The Royal Academy of Music inaugurated their lovely new theatre with a brilliant revival of Jonathan Dove’s opera Flight. I’d forgotten how good it was, and here it was superbly played and sung and, like the RCM last week, in a fine production that any opera house would be proud of.

The English Concert have become the go-to company for Handel operas in concert and their take on Rinaldo in the Barbican Hall, his first Italian opera specifically for London, was superb, faultlessly cast and beautifully played (though I could have done without the attempts at semi-staging which seems a bit naff). Handel wrote himself a harpsichord solo for this opera and here the harpsichordist almost stole the show with his thrilling rendition.

Classical Music

The Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra under Sir Mark Elder gave a blistering Shostakovich 8th Symphony at another of their Friday lunchtime recitals, with Elder again giving an insightful introduction to the piece. The talent on stage is awe-inspiring and the nurturing by a world class conductor heart-warming.

Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons Reimagined combined baroque music with a contemporary twist and puppetry to provide a spellbinding 80 minutes by candlelight in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Another lovely evening in a space that seems to suit absolutely everything!

Britten Sinfonia Voices gave an inspired Easter programme at GSMD’s Milton Court Concert Hall, with choral music spanning more than 400 years, with a few brass pieces as a bonus. The idea of fitting two Stravinsky pieces between movements in a Mozart Mass was particularly inspired.

Dance

Ballet Black’s contrasting double-bill at the Barbican Theatre was a real treat. The Suit was mesmerising, moving and ultimately tragic and A Dream within a Midsummer Night’s Dream was cheeky and playful. I need to ensure this company are on my radar permanently.

Film

You Were Never Really Here is a dark and disturbing but original and brilliant film with a stunning performance from Joaquin Phoenix, and refreshingly short at 90 minutes!

The Square was 2.5 hours of my life I’ll never get back. Lured by 5* reviews, it was overlong, slow and a bit of a mess, the satire largely lost or overcooked.

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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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Another LIFT treat after the somewhat underwhelming The Roof; this time something unique & uber-creative from Russia. This is the first time I’ve seen Dmitry Krymov’s work, but it won’t be the last.

The two loosely linked pieces take place on the Barbican Theatre stage, reconfigured during the interval from wide face-on to audience on three sides. With lots of overhead spots, it’s hot and uncomfortable, but each piece is under an hour and captivating enough to divert you from the conditions.

In the first half, we have the story of the persecution of Russian Jews, with extraordinary imagery using a wall of screens from which things and people emerge. It starts with paint splashed onto the screens and continues with still and moving images. Lo-tech spectacle but brilliant. The second piece is about the treatment of composer Shostakovich under Stalin. We first meet a puppet woman the height of three people (Mother Russia? Shostakovich’s mum?), then a young Shostakovich playing in a rickety wooden piano frame. After censorship, the composer becomes more subservient and we see him honoured, but we also see what this all takes out of him. Towards the end there is an extraordinary ‘dodgem race’ where the cast wheel seven metal pianos, clashing and colliding. The multi-talented performers include beautiful singers who come into their own in the closing scene.

Krymov is an artist and his theatre work is a combination of art installation and movement, with the minimum of dialogue and music. It’s very much a visual experience, but as visual experiences go, it’s thrilling. It conveys the essence of the tragedy of both situations more movingly than words can.

Time to book for his November visit with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, seen in 2012 in Edinburgh & Stratford but not London!

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