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Opera

I managed to catch an opera during a visit to Brno in the Czech Republic, a rarely performed Dvorak work called The Devil & Kate. They consider it a children’s show there, so it was an early start and was full of (well behaved) kids. I liked the music, but the story was a bit weak and the performers didn’t seem to have their heart in it. Still, £11 for the best seat in the house!

The Royal Academy of Music’s production of Massenet’s Cherubin was terrific, with sky high musical standards – some stunning soloists and a great chorus and orchestra. Any opera house would be proud to have a production this good in their repertoire, yet here it was at a conservatoire!.

Classical Music

The LSO invited American conductor Andre Thomas and his pianist, soprano & baritone to lead a Gospel evening which included a Mass he composed, with traditional spirituals on either side. With 450 singers, 90% of them in community choirs, overflowing into the front third of the Barbican Hall stalls, it was rousing, but it had its gentle moments too, notably a beautiful unaccompanied soprano solo of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Great to see one of the world’s top orchestras extending itself in this way.

Another lunchtime concert at RAM, this time their Chamber Orchestra conducted by Trevor Pinnock in a lovely combination of Ravel and Mozart. I so love these little gems.

Trying to rescue an afternoon after a cancelled theatre matinee, we decided on a wander along the south bank of the Thames, starting by popping in to Southwark Cathedral where we caught the last half of a delightful concert by Wake Forest University Concert Choir. Our half seemed to be the more interesting selection, five secular works. Lovely.

The LSO were on fine form at the Barbican yet again, with a pairing of Britten’s Violin Concerto, superbly played by Norwegian Vilde Frang, which I was hearing for the first time, and Vaughan Williams uncharacteristically dark 6th Symphony, which I have heard before but it felt like the first time. The curtain-raiser of VW’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis completed a superb programme brilliantly played. Antonio Pappano thanked us for coming to support them, acknowledging the many seats clearly vacant due to Coronavirus fears. This had somehow added an air of foreboding and melancholy. It turned out to be my last dose of culture, excluding art, before lockdown.

Dance

We’ve been inundated with juke box musicals, but the dancical, which followed at the beginning of this century with Contact and Moving Out, never really took off. Well, Message in a Bottle, hip hop dance to the music of Sting at the Peacock Theatre certainly did. The twenty-six songs, many re-recorded by him with the help of Hamilton’s Alex Lacamoire, sounded great. The refugee narrative worked well, thanks to playwright Lolita Chakrabarti’s dramaturgy. Kate Prince’s choreography was thrilling, often taking your breath away. Now to see the man again in six months’ time…..hopefully.

Film

I enjoyed Military Wives, even though I blubbed through a lot of it! I was however puzzled and a bit upset by the fact they wiped Gareth Malone and The Choir documentary series out of the story altogether. It felt like changing history to me.

I like and admire films that expose injustice and Dark Water was a fine one, though embarrassingly close to home for someone who once worked in the chemical industry. A lack of law suits against the film suggest its story is true, so shame on you DuPont.

Art

Masculinities: liberation through photography at the Barbican Art Gallery had some interesting photos, but I’m not sure what the point of it was. It was vast and varied, but it was one of those exhibitions you go to because it’s free for members; if you’d paid, you’d be even less satisfied.

At Borough Market, I popped in to see Picturing Britain, an exhibition of photographs about the poor and those working with them. It was a bit small and the space didn’t really do them justice, I’m afraid.

On a visit to Oxford I went to the Ashmolean Museum to see Young Rembrandt, which focused mostly on pictures from his late teens / early twenties, much of it drawings. It was a stunning body of work and a way more satisfying exhibition than the recent Rembrandt’s Light at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

On the day before the lockdown, I decided to do an art binge of exhibitions I didn’t want to miss, starting with Aubrey Beardsley at Tate Britain which was brilliant, and an astonishing body of work by a man who only lived until he was 25. It was easier to get social distance in the gallery than any shop, workplace or school so I continued by travelling on the Tate to Tate boat (at one point the only passenger) to see Andy Warhol at Tate Modern. I’ve seen a lot of his work, including visiting his museum in Pittsburgh, but there were still things new to me. Next stop was the Royal Academy of Arts to be introduced to a new artist once again, Belgian Leon Spilliaert, whose exhibition was particularly diverse and well worth catching. The final stop was a double-dip at the NPG, staring with David Hockney’s Portraits. Again, I’m glad I caught them, but there were only really three or four subjects in addition to a lot of self-portraits which made it a touch monotonous, though his diverse styles were indeed fascinating. Finally, a retro treat in Cecil Beaton’s photographs, most from the golden age of the mid-20th century, mostly black and white. I was exhausted but satisfied. It’ll be a long time before I see a fraction of what I saw on that day.

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Opera

Porgy & Bess was probably my best Met Live experience. It was the same production as that at ENO last year, but with a largely black American cast telling a quintessentially American story, it seemed to be where it should be. The orchestra and chorus were stunning and every soloist shone.

My visit to WNO at WMC in Cardiff was for only one opera this time, but it was a rare outing for Verdi’s underrated Les vepres siciliennes where the orchestra and chorus were brilliant yet again, a handful of international soloists from Korea, Armenia, Italy and Poland were introduced to us and David Pountney’s production fused period costumes with timeless settings. Well worth the trip.

Little did I know that Met Live was about to reach another level with a simply stunning production of Handel’s Agrippina. The acting of Joyce DiDonato, Iestyn Davies, Kate Lindsey, Brenda Rae and Matthew Rose matched their superb singing, rare in opera in my experience. David McVicar’s staging and John Macfarlane’s design were brilliant. This was a highlight in a lifetime of opera-going, which a third of a million people could see at a reasonable price, unlike the few thousand who paid ten times the price to see it in Covent Garden last year.

Classical Music

Crouch End Festival Chorus was hugely ambitious and very enterprising with their concert of Glass, Stravinsky and Ives at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. These were difficult works and you could see the concentration on their faces, and those in the London Orchestra da Camera, but they pulled it off with aplomb. A fascinating afternoon.

The LSO’s pairing of Prokofiev & Shostakovich works at the Barbican proved to be fascinating, with the orchestra’s leader given a moment to shine as a soloist in the former’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and the whole orchestra played superbly under Gianandrea Noseda in symphonies from both composers and a prelude from that other Russian, Mussorgsky.

The LSO’s Half Six Fix series at the Barbican reached its pinnacle with a thrilling Beethoven’s 9th conducted by Simon Rattle. The second movement never sounded better, the LSC were on fine form and there were four well matched soloists, but above all it was the orchestra who rose to the occasion, as they always seem to do under Rattle.

Contemporary music

The Musical Box are a Quebecois Genesis tribute band who have gone global, to the point where they get to perform at the London Palladium. I’m not really a tribute band man, but there was a buzz about this lot which I couldn’t resist, though by the interval I was wishing I had. It was post-Gabriel Genesis, instrumentally strong but vocally relatively weak and the visuals were patchy. About fifteen minutes into the second half though it took off on a wave of nostalgia. Now we were in MY Genesis period. It culminated with a spectacular encore of Supper’s Ready from Foxtrot. All 25 minutes of it. I went home happy.

Film

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is a quirky film but I rather enjoyed its other-worldliness and its message. Why Tom Hanks performance is ‘supporting’ is beyond me; the film revolves around his character.

The Gentlemen was another film I put off until the last minute unconvinced it was for me, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite the sort of violence I keep saying I don’t like. It’s very cleverly plotted and benefits from great performances against type by both Hugh Grant and Michelle Dockery.

I’m also one who avoids foreign language films because, as a slow reader who absorbs every word, I find that by reading subtitles I’m missing the visual, but I made an exception for Korean film Parasite after all the awards buzz and again I was right to do so. Highly original and completely enthralling.

Greed is a coruscating, thinly veiled, well deserved satirical swipe at the odious Philip Green, linking the exploitation of workers in the developing world with the fashion industry. It’s a bit heavy-handed, but I enjoyed it nonetheless, and it has an extraordinary cast of talented British actors.

Art

Picasso and Paper at the Royal Academy is a huge and astonishing exhibition. He is so prolific and, though I’d don’t like everything (cubism in particular), it’s littered with gems. I was overwhelmed by it all.

British Baroque: Power & Illusion, late Stuart paintings from 1660-1714, at Tate Britain wasn’t really my thing, more of academic than aesthetic interest. Also there, I caught Steve McQueen’s Year 3: a Portrait of London which was not really about looking at the 3128 classic pose class photos of 76,000 7-8-year-olds in 1504 schools, it was about engagement and citizenship and I admired it for that. The latest Spotlight one-artist room was devoted to British Zanzibar artist Lubaina Himid whose work of women with women was very striking.

Whilst in Cardiff, I visited the National Museum of Wales where there were three photographic exhibitions, the highlight of which was Martin Marr in Wales – loud, brash and colourful documentary photos. I’d seen and admired a small selection of August Sander’s portraits of 20th century Germans in a private gallery in London, but the bigger selection here didn’t really add much; it became a bit monotonous. Bernd & Hilla Becher’s Industrial Visions was what it said on the can – lots of photos of mines, water towers, factories etc. but it did contain one of the mine where my father worked all of his life, and others in South Wales, contrasting with ones in Germany and the US.

The combined running time of all the films and videos in the Steve McQueen retrospective at Tate Modern is an hour more than their opening time. Add in waiting and queuing time and you need to allow at least 1.5 days! I ‘sampled’ it, which was enough for me I’m afraid.

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Opera

Though I find the music to Wozzeck somewhat inaccessible, I was drawn to the Met Live relay by the fact it was being staged by William Kentridge. It was an extraordinary production, and I even found the music more accessible this time around.

Classical Music

The LSO gave us Beethoven’s oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives at the Barbican, which is hardly ever performed, as a result of which I was baffled as to why. It was glorious, with the LS Chorus on particularly fine form.

Comedy

Radio 4’s 40-year-old I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue is a wireless cult favourite, and even more fun on stage at the New Wimbledon Theatre with a full house, a real comic treat chaired by Jack Dee with Tim Brooke-Taylor (who has been on it since the pilot), Tony Hawkes, Miles Jupp and Richard Osman, with Colin Sell at the piano. Sadly Samantha was otherwise engaged!

Film

I wasn’t sure about Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker at first – I hadn’t really been keen on the last two – but I did like the way it concluded the series, going full circle to where it started.

I was sold JoJo Rabbit by the trailer, but on reflection I think it was somewhat mis-sold. Despite some stunning performances by the kids and some genuinely funny moments, I found some of it rather uncomfortable.

Cats wasn’t as bad as the reviews, but it was still a bit weird and surreal. I think it proves that live theatre can do things film just can’t.

1917 isn’t an easy ride, but it’s an extraordinary piece of film-making by Sam Mendes, with stunning cinematography by the great Roger Deakins, and a performance by George MacKay which is going to propel him to stardom.

I put off seeing Joker until its last week, when the awards buzz finally made me give in. I’m not keen on glorified, stylised violence, but I found this psychological thriller clever, with a surprising amount of depth, and Joachim Phoenix was simply superb.

I thought Bombshell was a very good expose of the Fox News sexual harassment scandal, presumably true as no-one has sued! Charlize Theron is superb.

Purists probably won’t like The Personal History of David Copperfield, but I thought it was original and clever, often very funny, sometimes moving, with a British cast to die for.

Art

Two Last Nights: Show Business in Georgian Britain at The Foundling Museum was a great show for a theatre buff like me. A detailed examination of theatre practices and theatre-going in the 1700’s and early 1800’s including images, objects, posters and tickets. It was good to renew my acquaintance with this lovely museum too.

I’ve always been fascinated by Anselm Kiefer’s work, though it’s usually bleak and somewhat depressing, as is his Superstrings, Runes, The Norns, Gordian Knot exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey, but these seventeen monumental textured and three-dimensional pieces were astonishing and I was so glad I saw them.

I made another visit to Pitzhanger Manor, this time to see Es Devlin’s Memory Palace, a topography, 360°because of mirrors, of places associated with her 74 most significant moments in world history, from cave paintings through the pyramids, Indian temples and Machu Picchu to the internet. Fascinating.

Troy; Myth & Reality was an excellent exhibition at the British Museum which told the story of Troy in paintings, statuary, archaeology and other objects. Very comprehensive and beautifully curated.

I’ve lived in London for 38 years but have never been to the Wallace Collection. What attracted me after all this time was a special exhibition, Forgotten Masters: Indian paining for the East India Company, an exquisite collection of paintings of people, buildings, flora & fauna and animals. I took a quick look at the permanent collection while I was there, but it’s enormous, very dense, too ornate, mostly sixteenth and seventeenth century with lots of armour, so not really to my taste.

Three treats at Tate Modern starting with the latest Turbine Hall installation, Fons Americanus by Kara Walker, an enormous sculpture modelled on the one of Victoria outside Buckingham Palace, but as a comment on colonialism. One of the best of these Turbine Hall commissions. I wasn’t convinced I was going to like Korean video artist Nam June Paik‘s retrospective, but I found it playful and fun, though a lot to take in. The highlight though was Dora Maar – photos and paintings by her and of her, most of the latter by Picasso. Her photography, the biggest part of the show, ranged from fashion through documentary to portraits and abstracts. A very rewarding showcase of a fascinating and talented woman.

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Another visit to Masterpiece London, an extraordinary art and antique fair with museum quality exhibits in a stunning temporary structure in Chelsea. This year’s art crop included Canaletto, Picasso, Chagall, Warhol and Banksy, all for sale. It’s hard to believe people come to a marquee, albeit a luxury one, to buy things like this, but they do.

I didn’t think the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition lived up to recent years, but the bonus was seeing an excellent painting of a friend, and it’s always worth a punt. Upstairs, Painter of Disquiet, an exhibition by relatively unknown late 19th century Swiss-French painter Felix Vallotton, proved a treat. An extraordinarily diverse range of subjects and styles, but all rather lovely.

I love seeing the work of artists I’ve never heard of, and after my second time at Van Gogh & Britain at Tate Britain, I took in the Frank Bowling retrospective. Not all of his experiments with paint caught my imagination, but much did, so he was a welcome find.

The Michael Rakowitz exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery was more interesting than aesthetically pleasing. The best installation linked the break-up of The Beatles with events in the Middle East at that time and included footage of them discussing playing live again, possibly in North African amphitheatres. They ended up playing on the Apple building roof, of course, and the installation included film of a recreation of that on a Jerusalem rooftop!

Two treats at the NPG starting with the queen of the selfie, Cindy Sherman, who only photographs herself, but in all sorts of guises, mostly satirising society and fashion. Sometimes spooky, but strangely compelling. I followed this with the BP Portrait Award exhibition, which is of an astonishingly high standard this year.

Lee Krasner at the Barbican Art Gallery proves she was much more than Jackson Pollock’s wife, having lived her life in his shadow. The abstracts weren’t all to my taste, but it was a comprehensive and worthwhile retrospective.

The AI: more than human exhibition at the Barbican was a bit hit-and-miss. In the first part, the background, in The Curve Gallery, there was too much in a small space with too many people, but some of the interactive stuff, like the all-around projections in The Pit, were great – and the cocktail making robots were huge fun.

Beyond the Road at the Saatchi was a very creative immersive exhibition which combined art, film, sound, light and original music to create a hugely atmospheric space to explore. Two of the Punchdrunk boys and musician James Lavelle were behind it. Whilst there I took in two small exhibitions by Chinese artist Mao Jianhua and Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi, both interesting, but neither particularly striking.

Initially I thought my first visit to the Zabludowicz Collection for Rachel Rossin’s video & VR work Stalking the Trace was going to be another of Time Out’s wild goose chases, but there was also a quirky mixed show and an artist showcase and the converted chapel proved to be an interesting space for art.

Cutting Edge: Modernist British Printmaking at Dulwich Picture Gallery was simply stunning. The work of people from the Grosvenor School of Art in the 1920s-40s, there wasn’t one item that didn’t please in some way. One of the best exhibitions of the year in what is fast becoming one of my favourite galleries.

Manga at the British Museum surprised me. Its traditions go back to the 19th century, and influences beyond that, and the BM has been collecting it for 10 years. It’s a very broad review, very informative, a real showcase for the skills of its proponents.

Kiss My Genders at the Hayward Gallery sets out to explore gender fluidity but goes off-piste quite a bit. It’s way off-the-wall and only occasionally engaging. In the Project Space at the same venue, Hicham Berrada’s Dreamscapes were rather fascinating, using scientific processes like chemical reactions to create art.

A visit to the newly, beautifully restored Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing was a double treat because of the Anish Kapoor exhibition, 10 new ‘mirror’ works, in their gallery next door to the house, which itself is a peach of classical architecture and design. To justify the long schlep West, I also visited the Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner, also a double treat with a small exhibition of Tim Lewis’ automata, Post Nature, alongside the small permanent exhibition of Heath Robinson’s work and displays about him and his family.

My companion described the V&A’s Food: Bigger than the Plate exhibition as a bit like a school project. It certainly started out like that, but there were interesting sections on recycling and sustainability, a terrific silent movie showing mass food production and a tasting bar where they made you something on the basis of the three words you chose from the fifteen available, so worth a visit, if not wholly successful.

A fascinating triple bill at Tate Modern, starting with the playful Olafur Eliasson retrospective In Real Life. Coloured shadows, a 13 metre tunnel of haze and colour, a wall of lichen and all sorts of reflective stuff. Great fun. Natalia Goncharova’s retrospective proved how diverse her paintings are, both in terms of style and subject, and how beautiful her use of colour. The ballet sets and costumes were a bonus. Takis: Sculptor of Magnetism, Light & Sound was just that, mostly metal pieces that moved or made sounds which I liked more than I thought I was going to. All three added up to a bit of a quirky art fest.

I went into town to take in two exhibitions, but as is often the case walking between galleries in Mayfair leads you into others – sometimes successfully, sometimes not. My first planned destination was Gagosian for Francis Bacon: Couplings, fourteen double-figure paintings. I felt it was just more Bacon, with the curatorial coupling idea adding nothing. The first distraction, at Halcyon, was Bob Dylan’s surprisingly good paintings of American life, painted whilst on tour. I’m sure they wouldn’t get such a showcase if he wasn’t Bob Dylan, but he is a talented painter. The less said about his gates made of recycled iron items the better, though. At Camden Arts Centre’s pop-up in Cork Street, I wandered into Time Out recommended Wong Ping: Heart Digger, which is a combination of subtitled Chinese animations and inflatables; I yawned a lot, but the youngsters seemed to enjoy bouncing on the inflatables. Art. My second planned destination was the treat of the day. Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946) is virtually unknown here, but when you see her sixty-five pictures at the Royal Academy you can’t help wondering why. Perhaps the fact her work changed and evolved meant she didn’t have one style, at a time when artists were known for and by their style. Mostly portraits, including a whole room of seventeen self-portraits spanning sixty years of both her ageing and her art, I found it captivating. Popping into Pace, a commercial gallery in the RA building, passed five minutes just by the walk through, as there was little need to stop and look at the mainly white ‘abstractions’ of At the Edge of Things: Baer, Corse, Martin, three artists I don’t think I’ve seen before and have little desire to see again.

I’d never heard of the BJP (British Journal of Photography) Award, or been to the T J Boulting Gallery in Fitzrovia, and it was Time Out again that sent me to see this year’s winning project, Jack Latham’s Parliament of Owls. It tells the story of the highly secretive Bohemian Club’s summer camp in Northern California, through photos from the outside. Its members have included nine presidents – five republican ones from the last fifty years! – and it’s a magnet for conspiracy theorists. The photos are well taken ones of dull places and subjects, but I did get caught up in the story.

At the Serpentine Galleries, the Faith Ringgold retrospective was a brilliantly uncompromising selection of paintings, quilts and embroideries which seemed to shout ‘black lives matter’, even though most were made well before that phrase came into general use. Luchita Hurtado: I Live I Die I Will Be Reborn was less fascinating, but with enough interesting pictures to make the short detour worthwhile

The annual Freize open air sculpture show in Regent’s Park was way better than last year, with quite a lot of treats amongst its 20 or so sculptures. Particularly enjoyable on a sunny afternoon in the park.

I’ve seen a lot of Dale Chihuly‘s glass works in the US (Denver, Tacoma & Seattle), at a selling exhibition in London, and once before at Kew Gardens. This time, though, it was at night walking through the gardens and in one of the greenhouses, where live music accompanied them. A lovely experience, though now I need to see them in daylight to appreciate the difference. A great way to end my summer of art in London.

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Classical Music

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

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

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

Contemporary Music

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

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

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

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

Dance

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

Comedy

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

Film

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

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

Art

A mammoth catch-up month!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Opera

Scottish Opera visited Hackney Empire with new operatic thriller Anthropocene, which was multi-layered, brilliantly dramatic and superbly sung and played. It’s the first of the four Stuart MacRae / Louise Welsh operas I’ve seen and has whetted my appetite for more. Exciting stuff.

The Monstrous Child at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio was terrific. The story of Norse Goddess Hel was brilliantly staged with gothic punk sensibilities and the music was strikingly original. They called it their first opera ‘for teenage audiences’ but there didn’t appear to be any in the lovely recently renovated space!

My winter opera visit to WNO at the WMC in Cardiff paired a new production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera with another look at their fourteen-year-old Magic Flute. The musical standards were as high as ever, with Ballo a thrilling gothic creation, taking its inspiration from the love of theatre of the real life king upon whose life / death the opera was originally based, and Zauberflöte a revival of the Magritte inspired Dominic Cook staging, with terrific designs from Julian Crouch. Loved them both.

Classical Music

The Royal Academy SO was on blistering form again under Sir Mark Elder with a thrilling if melancholic lunchtime programme of Britten, Bax & Sibelius. Magic.

I’m very fond of baritone Roderick Williams, whom I’ve seen as an oratorio soloist and in opera, but never in recital. In Milton Court he sang beautifully, but the largely 18th Century German programme (Brahms and Schuman) isn’t really to my taste and the three British song groupings were lovely but not enough for a satisfying evening, for me anyway.

Film

Another great month leading up to and during the awards season, beginning with If Beale Street Could Talk, a superbly filmed and beautifully performed adaptation of a James Baldwin novel; the first, I think.

Boy Erased was a chilling true story of amateur gay aversion therapy in the name of god, which fortunately ended with the reconciliation of parents and son. Young actor Lucas Hedges impresses for the third time in recent years.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is another true story, beautifully told, with delightful performances from Melisa McCarthy and Richard E Grant. A bit of a slow burn, but ultimately satisfying.

I loved Green Book, a great comedy with heart, beautifully performed, anchored in a shameful period of American history, just 60 years ago.

All Is True looked gorgeous, but seemed slight and somewhat melancholic. Judi Dench was of course incandescent, Kenneth Branagh virtually unrecognisable and if you blinked you might miss Ian McKellen, the third person on the poster, suggesting a leading role.

Art

Dulwich Picture Gallery have discovered another Scandinavian artist, Harald Sohlberg, whose gorgeous landscapes I found enthralling. I was completely captivated by the colourful beauty of Painting Norway.

Don McCullin is a hugely important photographer who’s documented conflicts and their consequences worldwide for many years. His B&W pictures are stunning, but twelve rooms of Tate Britain is a lot to take in and it becomes relentlessly depressing, I’m afraid.

I like Bill Viola’s video works, which for some reason almost always feature people under water, but I’m not sure their juxtaposition with works by Michelangelo in Life Death Rebirth at the Royal Academy made much sense to me. It seemed like a curatorial conceit to elevate the dominant modern component and / or sell tickets.

Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory at Tate Modern was beautiful. This underrated contemporary of Monet, Matisse et al filled all thirteen rooms with a riot of colour; his landscapes in particular, many taken through windows, doors and from balconies, were stunning.

At White Cube Bermondsey, Tracey Emin’s A Fortnight of Tears consisted of three giant crude bronze sculptures, a room full of big photos of her in bed and a whole load of childish paintings which wouldn’t be selected for a primary school exhibition. As you can see, I loved it. Not.

The problem with Black Mirror: Art as Social Satire at the Saatchi Gallery is that it’s often not at all clear what its satirising! Better than some exhibitions there, though. The little Georgll Uvs exhibition of ultraviolet paintings Full Circle: The Beauty of Inevitability was lovely though.

Daria Martin’s installation Tonight the World in the Barbican Curve Gallery was based on her Jewish grandmother’s dream diary and featured the apartment where she lived before she left Brno to avoid the Nazis. In the first part, the apartment is the centre of a video game she has created and in the final part, film recreates some of the dreams there. In between we see pages of the dream book, too far away to read. Interesting enough to see in passing, but maybe not the Time Out 4* experience!

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Opera / Classical Music

My second Nash Ensemble War’s Embers concert at LSO St. Luke’s featured beautiful pieces from Bax and Butterworth with others by Rebecca Clarke and Patrick Hadley, neither of whom I’d ever heard of. I do enjoy these lunchtime treats.

BBC SO’s Total Immersion In Remembrance: World War I at the Barbican combined an excellent film about poet / composer Ivor Gurney, a concert by hugely talented GSMD students of pieces from composers who died during / because of the war, the first revival of Mark Anthony Turnage’s brilliant opera The Silver Tassie, David Lang’s choral work Memorial Ground performed in the foyer (the wrong location!) with a couple of talks and even a Virtual Reality experience, culminating in a BBC Singers concert featuring new choral works by Bob Chilcott and Roderick Williams, the former conventional but beautiful and the latter stunningly re-inventing recitative with a new form of prose setting. Given the reason for this mini-festival, it was a melancholic experience, but a musically thrilling one nonetheless.

The Royal Academy of Music’s production of Handel’s Semele will be one of my operatic highlights of the year. A production that looked great, a chorus and orchestra that sounded great and a star was born – Lithuanian soprano Lina Dambrauskaite. Gorgeous.

The BBC SO pairing of Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto and Ethyl Smyth’s Mass in D at the Barbican Hall seemed odd, apparently put together because the former said some nice, if patronising, things about the latter. As it turned out, though, both were treats, the first because young pianist Pavel Kolesnikov was sensational and the latter, which I’ve been wanting to see for some time, because the chorus and orchestra sang and played terrifically.

Back at the Royal Academy of Music, their Symphony Orchestra thrilled again under visiting American conductor Robert Trevino with a superbly played Bruckner’s 4th Symphony. I can’t think of a better way to spend a lunchtime.

I was attracted to a French song recital by Sarah Connolly & James Newby at Wigmore Hall as it featured two favourite composers, Ravel and Debussy, but their songs, which I didn’t really know, did not live up to their orchestral, chamber or operatic works, so despite the artistry I was a bit disappointed.

Back at Wigmore Hall, Mark Padmore & the Britten Sinfonia paired a Vaughn Williams song cycle with a premiere by Luke Styles and sadly the former overshadowed the other. The new piece was too challenging for me!

ENO staged Britten’s War Requiem, as it has done with other choral works before. I’m not sure the staging adds much, though there was some beautiful imagery, and the orchestral sound lost something in the pit, but the three soloists and chorus sounded terrific.

Dance

Layla & Majnun at Sadler’s Wells is the first Mark Morris show to disappoint me. Based on a Middle-Eastern / Central Asian Romeo & Juliet, with Azerbaijani music by the Silkroad Ensemble, it had little of his creative flair and the designs by favourite artist, now deceased, Howard Hodgkin disappointed. I liked the music initially, but it did wear me down long before the 75 minutes were up.

GoteborgsOperans dance company made their first visit to Sadler’s Wells with two of the most thrilling dances I’ve ever seen, both choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and designed by Anthony Gormley. Icon started with Gormley re-cycling some of the clay people in his 25-year-old work Field before tons of soft clay, thirteen dancers and five musicians playing mostly Japanese music became one mesmerising whole. In Noetic, nineteen dancers with a singer & percussionist and pliable metal strips which created a globe before your eyes were spellbinding too. Let’s hope they become regulars here.

Film

A catch-up month starting with A Star Is Born, which I enjoyed. Bradley Cooper and Lady Ga Ga were impressive, the former also as director in his debut.

Widows was a superbly unpredictable film, beautifully shot by Steve McQueen with musical theatre’s Cynthia Erivo proving she’s no one-trick pony.

First Man took a while to take off, but once it did I was captivated by the blend of personal story and actual history, which was gripping even though we all know the outcome!

I wasn’t a big fan of Queen, and I didn’t think they got Freddie Mercury right (teeth too pronounced and too camp), but I was surprised by how much Bohemian Rhapsody moved me and was very glad I went to see it.

Despite superb performances from Glenn Close & Jonathan Pryce, The Wife disappointed, largely because the emphasis on the endgame meant they brushed over the meat of the deceit.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald was technically accomplished and well-acted but I didn’t really engage with the story, though it was good to see Hogwarts again, and to meet the young Dumbledore.

Art

Faux Pas of the year was visiting Ribera: Art of Violence at the Dulwich Picture Gallery thinking it was (Diego) Rivera! I’m afraid Ribera’s pictures of torture, and his particular penchant for flaying, were not to my taste! Fortunately, as a member it’s free, oh, and the brunch was great!

Modern Couples at the Barbican Art Gallery is a fascinating idea well executed, work by artist in relationships shown together, with biographical information about the relationship. It’s a huge affair featuring some 45 couples, some well-known and others unknown (to me), but had much to like in it.

The Hayward Gallery’s Space Shifters was a bit gimmicky, but again worth a visit, though I didn’t bother to queue for the highlight, Richard Wilson’s 20/50, as I’ve seen it quite a few times since its first outing at the tiny Matt’s Gallery 31 years ago.

At the Barbican’s Curve Gallery, Kiwi artist Francis Upritchard has created a ‘museum’, called Wetwang Slack, of item’s she’s made, from quirky models of people to hats, jewellery, urns and much more. It made me smile.

I think it’s extraordinary that a 20th Century weaver can get a huge retrospective at a major public gallery, but that’s what the late Anni Albers has at Tate Modern. In yet another connection with my Bauhaus trip, she trained with them. It was interesting, but probably more for real lovers of textiles and weaving than a generalist like me.

The Edward Burne-Jones retrospective at Tate Britain was brilliant – well, at least to this lover of the Pre-Raphaelites. I normally find studies and drawings exhibition fillers, but here they demonstrate his craftsmanship. The finished pictures and tapestries were stunning, though the stained glass less so for some reason. Upstairs the Turner Prize exhibition was all films, which I skimmed as life is too short to waste several hours on some pretentious shit masquerading as art.

Oceania at the Royal Academy is probably the best showcase of a culture and peoples I’ve ever seen. Art and objects from some of the 10,000 islands that make up the vast area of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia between them conveyed the real essence of this part of the world. Absolutely fascinating. Upstairs in the Sackler Galleries I was surprised at how much I liked Klimt / Schiele drawings from the Albertine Museum in Vienna. The outstanding skills of these two artists really came over in what were mostly portraits and nudes. Beautiful.

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