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Posts Tagged ‘Simon Callow’

Contemporary Music

Elvis Costello brought his Spectacular Spinning Songbook tour to the Royal Albert Hall. This is the development of an idea he first used in a residency at the then Royalty Theatre (now Peacock Theatre) ages ago. Audience members come up and spin the wheel which determines the next song, though he does add in other songs, and remain on stage for a drink, or a cage dance(!). The sound took a short while to adjust to this huge space, but when it got going it was a great set of mostly oldies but goodies. His brother’s Irish folk band (new one on me) joined him for a moving tribute to his recently deceased dad. Other guests later included Brinsley Schwartz guitarist Martin Belmont and Squeeze’s Chris Difford, but the real surprise was the arrival of Russell Crowe for a song by the other Elvis and another by Johnny Cash. With a veritable army onstage for the final encore, and Steve Naïve on the RAH organ, (What’s so funny ‘bout) peace love and understanding was a fitting end to a great night.

Opera

South African company Isango, who opened the Globe to Globe festival, moved on to Hackney Empire where their residency included an extraordinary La Boheme. It worked well in a 70’s township, but it was the quality of singing and acting which took your breath away. The ‘orchestra’ was composed of wooden marimbas and steel drums. The overture was partly sung (hummed) which in itself was so moving it brought a tear to my eye. This was as good as their Carmen and Magic Flute and amongst the most emotional productions of this favourite opera I’ve ever seen. I had to see it, even though I’ve had a WNO La Boheme next Sunday booked for over a year!

Our Town (based on Thornton Wilder’s play) was a real coup for the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. They dramatically re-configured the Silk Street Theatre ‘in the round’ with the orchestra in a pit in front of one of three sets of seating. Twelve members of the chorus occupied two rows on the fourth side and it was played out on a central platform and elsewhere. I’m not sure I like the story that much, but the music is lovely and it was acted and sung to perfection. Stuart Laing was excellent in the part of the Stage Manager (a sort of narrator) and despite an infection, Sky Ingram again impressed as Emily. It was particularly good to see the GSMD putting on a 21st Century opera.

Classical music

The LSO Stravinsky mini-season got off to a wonderful start with three brilliant pieces. His mass for voices and wind is a great spin on the usual; his violin concerto in D major, played brilliantly by Leonidas Kavakos, a thrilling revelation and the full Firebird ballet set the Barbican alight. When the LSO & Gergiev are on form, they’re unbeatable and here they were absolutely on form. The second concert was a more low-key affair, with Renard, a piece for four male soloists and small orchestra and a narrated version of The Soldiers Tale. They were fascinating pieces, though not thrilling. The thrills returned at the third concert with a brilliant interpretation of the opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex. The chorus were on fine form, though I wish the singers hadn’t been buried at the back. Simon Callow again narrated and the Russian soloists were all good. The Rite of Spring, which preceded it, is a less accessible work than The Firebird and though I enjoyed it, again it didn’t thrill. The final concert was a real treat; a selection of seven jazz influenced chamber works. I really liked the ‘running commentary’ from conductor Timothy Redmond – very insightful and fascinating. The Octet for Wind Instruments was the highlight for me, though I enjoyed it all. I love ‘immersing’ myself in a single composer and this mini-festival provided an excellent opportunity to do so with a much underrated 20th Century one.

Dance

Ballet Revolucion was Cuban ballet dancers having a go at contemporary dance, but it was a bit of a hit-and-miss affair. The first half was rather samey and didn’t really inspire, but the second half had more great moments. More light and shade and more variety of musical style and accompanying choreography would show off this young talented company so much better.

Art

I was glad I caught David Shrigley’s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery on its last day as it made me smile the whole while I was there. He’s rather eclectic (animation, sculpture, drawings, paintings…..) and very quirky and funny.

The Yayoi Kusama retrospective at Tate Modern showed an artist who never seemed to sit still; the variety of her work was extraordinary and she’s continued working in the 35 years she has lived in a hospital. I didn’t like all of it, but it was fascinating and worth going for the final room alone – an infinity mirror space with changing coloured lights. I want one!

Back at Tate Modern for the Alighiero Boetti exhibition; another artist I’ve never heard of and another eclectic retrospective. There were rooms that captivated amongst others very dull, but overall an interesting review of one artist’s work rather than an aesthetically pleasing whole.

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Well, the second half started on a high with the National Theatre Of Wales production of The Dark Philosophers*****, stories by Gwyn Thomas interspersed with scenes from his life.  A mountain of wardrobes provided multiple entrances and exits, and eight brilliant actors played the many roles in a wonderfully theatrical and ingenious staging. The tales are dark but the life story funny, and it’s punctuated by a lot of beautifully sung music. I took a short while to get into the rhythm of it, after which I was spellbound. A triumph; I left the theatre wanting to adapt Brian Blessed’s Oscar moment and shout ‘the Welsh are coming’.

More storytelling followed after lunch with another national company – the National Theatre of Scotland – in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart**** (the second of three shows from the prolific David Grieg). Prudencia is an expert on the history of the folk ballad and her story is told in a restaurant / cabaret bar with the cast moving between (and on to) the tables to play out the scenes and play in the folk band at one end. It’s an odd staging for storytelling, but it worked. It’s a touch overlong, but the infectious cast pulled it off.

My fifth show by site-specific specialists Grid Iron was their first real failure.  They’ve moved closer to Punchdrunk’s territory, but it’s too staged and you never get lost in the immersive experience, because it’s not that, well,  immersive. In What Remains?** ,we’re exploring the life of a pianist, composer and head of a conservertoire as we attend a recital and a lesson / audition and visit the museum of his life. More puzzlingly, we also get to apply for the conservertoire during a sleepover! David Paul Jones is a better composer and pianist than he is an actor and it just didn’t stir any emotions or involve you. You can’t be a voyeur at an immersive piece!

Back at the Traverse for Futureproof,**** a play about a freak show, which wasn’t at all what I was expecting. It was a much more thoughtful and thought-provoking piece about the motivations and feelings of both those who staged them and those who appeared in them. It needed more pace, but it was beautifully performed by a cast who had to become the world’s fattest man, a bearded armless woman, half man / half woman, conjoined twins and a mermaid (well, she was a fake rather than a freak!).

Alan Bennett’s monologue, A Visit from Miss Protheroe***, about a recently retired man getting a visit from a former colleague was a showcase for Nicholas Parsons (yes, it is he!) and Suki Webster (AKA Mrs Paul Merton). It was a charming if slight 30 minutes and given neither are proper actors, they did a decent enough job (though Parsons appeared to have given up on a northern accent within a few minutes!).

Our final visit to the Traverse was back in sweltering Traverse Two for the third offering from David Grieg, a musical comedy called Monsters in the Hall***. We’re back in storytelling territory with no set or props, the cast left to create everything – and it was their virtuosity that impressed most. It wasn’t a patch on Midsummer, his 2010 hit musical comedy which transferred to London (twice), but fun nonetheless.

Back to music at the lovely Queens Hall. The Burns Unit**** are one of those groups that come together occasionally, with the members having separate bands / careers. I only knew folkie Karine Polwart, so I wasn’t expecting something quite so poppy. It took a while for the sound to fit the hall and for the band to settle, but what followed was 100 minutes in Decemberists / Midlake zone distinguished by good songs, terrific vocals from the three girl singers and a sort of Weilesque quirkiness at times. It certainly whetted my appetite for more.

Tuesday at Tescos*** sees Simon Callow in drag as a transvestite visiting his father who won’t accept him as he is. I couldn’t understand why it was  punctuated by live discordant piano music, and I do wish he’d dressed better to hide his belly and calf muscles! I didn’t really engage with it, I’m afraid, so as much as I admired the acting, I wasn’t moved by the story.

I was moved by Bones****; I can’t see how you couldn’t be by a teenage boy’s tale of neglect and abuse. Forced to look after his drug addict mother and baby sister, he contemplates infanticide. We move between his day today and past events, particularly a life changing holiday in Skegness with his mother and grandfather. It was a harrowing 45 minutes, but it was performed with passion and sensitivity by Mark Doherty. If Africa Heart & Soul showed the international spirit of the fringe and Arthur Smith it’s comic spirit, then this is the spirit of fringe theatre.

I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate and uplifting ending than seeing Dundee’s Michael Marra**** at the St Brides Acoustic Music Centre. He’s got a lived-in voice and a lived-in face and delivers his delightfully funny and quirky songs like a cheerful Tom Waites. He’s a real one-off who sadly hardly ever ventures south of the border, though if he did they may have to provide a translation; the Dundee dialect is certainly challenging. A lovely heart-warming happy end.

So there you have it – 21 shows and 9 exhibitions (subject of a separate Art in August blog shortly, also covering London and trips to Chichester, Margate and Folkstone! – how can you wait?) in 7 days; a bit tame by Fringe standards. Even after 20-30 years (I’ve lost count) I’m still making mistakes – this year booking too much in advance again (only two added whilst I was here), not enough comedy and trusting the Traverse too much (is it losing its magic touch?). The theatrical highlights were both Welsh, which made me very proud, and music the most consistently excellent with three lovely shows. It’s impossible to tire of this feast of the arts and I’ve no doubt I’ll be back. Until then…..

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Sondheim’s 80th celebrations continued with a concert performance of Merrily We Roll Along, re-uniting 80% of the Donmar’s 2000 UK premiere cast. I have fond memories of the production, and have seen two more since, but I really wasn’t expecting this to be quite so thrilling. The dream cast included Daniel Evans, Anna Francolini, Julian Ovenden and Samantha Spiro. This show contains some of his most complex songs and to achieve such perfection in a one-off concert performance 10 years after you performed it on stage is astonishing. Gareth Valentine’s band was terrific and the cheers and standing ovation were richly deserved. For years I avoided opera in concert as I couldn’t see why or how you could bring alive something that was meant to be staged – well, now I’ll have to change my mind about musicals in concert too.

Earlier in the month I attended the ceremony to confer an Honorary Doctorate on Sondheim at the Royal Academy of Music. There was a terrific brass fanfare and a procession of men in robes which included a bearded man in sports jacket, yellow shirt and chinos looking uncomfortable in his. I don’t know whether he wrote it himself, but John Suchet’s citation was wonderful and an emotional Sondheim clearly appreciated the honour. It was followed by a 30-minute performance by students and recent graduates which was an unusual selection and a little hampered by failing amplification, but the chorus numbers were fabulous. Julia Mackenzie, Trevor Nunn, Simon Callow and Lesley Garrett were also in the audience to honour the great man. It’s proving a great 80th celebration and we aren’t finished yet!

Contemporary Music

At his Cadogan Hall concert, Nils Lofgren reminded us of his first UK visit in 1973 as part of Neil Young’s band on the ‘Tonight’s the Night’ tour ‘when we played all this new stuff and pissed everyone off’. I can still hear the hissing but refuse to believe it was 37 years ago. Anyway, this concert was by far his best acoustic outing, with just one other person on keyboards / trumpet / guitar & rock tap dancing! It was mostly old stuff, but he’s a great guitar player and has a distinctive voice; add in terrific sound and a lovely atmosphere and you have a treat. 

Classical Music

The Houston Symphony Orchestra playing Holst’s Planets beneath a giant screen showing footage of the planets themselves was an intriguing prospect and proved to be a unique experience. In truth though, I was more impressed by the orchestra’s playing that the projections, possibly because the darkness and visuals heightened the aural experience where every sound was crisp and clear. I also loved the Barber and Stravinsky symphonic suits which preceded the main event.

Tenor Ian Bostridge has a Cecilia Bartoli-style project called ‘The Three Tenors’ which focuses on three early 18th century singers and the pieces that were composed for them by contemporary composers. It’s an album and tour with baroque ensemble Europa Galante and in concert it was very much one of two halves – the first a distinctly underpowered and underwhelming affair and a much better second half when a clearly unwell Bostridge rose to the exciting heights the ensemble had achieved throughout. I’m not sure the repertoire really suited this sweetest of sweet tenors, though the Handel pieces certainly did. The animated ensemble, which stands to play, were often thrilling.

There was a lovely Sunday afternoon affair at the Royal Academy of Music examining the relationship between W H Auden and Benjamin Britten & Lennox Berkley, both of whom set his poems to music. It took the form of an informative discussion / readings followed by afternoon tea (with homemade cakes!) followed by a recital / reading by college students followed by wine – and all for a tenner! Katie Bray stole the show with spirited renditions of Britten’s Cabaret Songs.

Opera

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the only thing 18th century composer Thomas Arne wrote was Rule Britannia. Apparently, the main reason we don’t know much more is that most of his manuscripts were burnt in a fire. Fortunately, most of the masque / opera Alfred survives and it was given a rare and very welcome outing by The Classical Opera Company at Kings Place. It’s similar to, and stands up well against, Handel’s work of the same type and period –a patriotic tale of invasion by and repulsion of the Danes populated by the king, queen & prince, a shepherd & shepherdess, a war widow and a spirit! The small orchestra was terrific, the young company of seven singers excellent and actor Michael Moloney’s tongue-in-cheek narration was an added bonus. Another treat!

I wish I could say the same for the first in our autumn pairing at WNO, Beethoven’s Fidelio. It’s a lovely opera, but it was given a dull, drab and inert production – clumsily staged and full of old-fashioned mannered movement. The director also designed and did the lighting, so I suspect that the lack of a creative team meant one man’s perspective and no challenge. Dennis O’Neill still has a lovely tone to his tenor voice but it was Clive Bayley’s Rocco who shone. The chorus and orchestra were again the real stars, though. It’s one of those evenings when you wished it had been one of those concert performances, or you had closed your eyes during the gorgeous overture and opened them again for the uplifting final chorus.

Fortunately, things picked up for the second opera – Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos – which had a sparkling production and twelve (yes, twelve!) first class and well matched singers, led by Sarah Connolly in the trouser role of The Composer. Though I’d seen the opera a couple of times before, I only realised this time how Wagnerian the second act is – and it also suffers from Wagner’s penchant for the overlong; if it had been 20 minutes shorter, it would have been a lot better. Another treat nonetheless.

Alexander Goehr’s Promised End is an opera based on King Lear. The libretto is entirely Shakespeare’s words and given it’s half the length of the play, it’s surprising how much of the story is told. It’s well directed and designed and the performances are uniformly good. The trouble is the music is just dull – it’s like they were about to do the play, when someone suggested they sing the lines instead of speaking them and improvised it on the spot. If the addition of music doesn’t do anything, it all seems rather pointless.

L’Isola Disabitatia is a short & silly Haydn opera with lovely music about two girls abandoned on a desert island. The musical standards of the Jette Parker Young Artists production at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio were very high with excellent singing from Elizabeth Meister, Anna Devlin, Steven Ebel & Daniel Grice and lovely playing from the Southbank Sinfonia under Volker Krafft. Unfortunately, Rodula Gaitanou’s decision to set it in a post-apocalypse world was preposterous and ugly; it detracts from your enjoyment significantly – again, it would be much better with your eyes closed. With a 75-minute running time, the interval was misguided and did nothing except increase the bar profits.

Film

I haven’t been to the cinema for five months, mostly because I just haven’t fancied anything. It took a British film covering a slice of social history like Made in Dagenham to draw me back and I loved it. They’ve taken liberties with the history, compressing it somewhat, but it’s still a great story and with hindsight a much more important one than I remembered. The who’s who of British acting included fine performances from Sally Hawkins, Daniel Mays, Geraldine James and Miranda Richardson.

I was also impressed by The Kids Are Alright, which takes very contemporary subjects – gay parenting and sperm donation – and produces a charming film which moves seamlessly from funny to thoughtful with an excellent script, sensitive direction and five fine performances. When one child reaches adulthood, she asserts her right to find the sperm donor on behalf of her younger brother and their world is turn upside down when he enters all four of their lives. Very intelligent, clever, modern and grown-up. 

Art

I’d seen a small exhibition of Art by Offenders in Edinburgh, but the one in the Royal Festival Hall is more extensive and so much better exhibited. There is an extraordinary amount of talent here; you can’t like everything, but you can admire it and cheer the good work being done in using art as therapy and rehabilitation.

The V&A has three great exhibitions at the same time. The first we saw was the Raphael cartoons with the tapestries from which they are designed. It was fascinating to see them side-by-side; in one case a threesome with a century younger tapestry copy as well. I was bowled over by how good the Diaghilev & Ballets Russes exhibition was, proving conclusively how much impact they had on art and design of the period. It included lots of costume and set drawings & models as well as actual costumes and front cloths plus much more. It was a feast for the eyes and seemed so contemporary. The best was left until last though, with Shadow Catchers, showcasing five artists who make cameraless photography – their photograms were simply gorgeous.

Nearby in Kensington Gardens, there are four pieces by Anish Kapoor and walking to and between them, watching them change and grow, was a delight. The large disc on the opposite side of the Serpentine with reflections in the disc and in the water and ducks and swans passing in front was the highlight. There were no highlights in Klara Liden’s pointless installations and videos in the Serpentine Gallery I’m afraid – dreadful! 

Gaugin is one of those ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions that lives up to the hype. You’d be forgiven for thinking he just painted semi-naked Tahitian women; well, here’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dispel that myth and see the whole range of his work. There are carvings and woodcuts as well as paintings. The oils are so soft they look like watercolours. The colours are a feast for the eyes. By the time I got to the Turbine Hall downstairs, you weren’t allowed to walk on the millions of tiny porcelain pellets that ARE the installation which makes the whole thing pointlessly expensive.

I’m not sure I got much out of Damian Ortega’s Barbican Curve installation inspired by a month of news stories, but it was original and intriguing; I think I need to go back with more time to do it justice. I’ve really got to love popping into this space before a show or concert.

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