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Posts Tagged ‘Toby Spence’

Contemporary Music 

I couldn’t make Neil Young’s concert at the O2 and it was always going to be risky going to Birmingham instead. Sadly, nine hours of my life and c.£130 weren’t really worth it; I’d have been better off staying with my memories of all his concerts since the first one 42 years ago! The core issue was song choice. 50 minutes in, four songs later, I began to despair. The new stuff is fine, though elongated – one ending with 10 mins feedback and another with 10-mins of ‘What a fuck up’ chanting (not wrong, there, Neil) – beyond my self-indulgence tolerance limit. In the first two hours, just two classics from the 45-year back catalogue (one also subjected to the endless ending). There was apparently another hour, but I had to leave – and in truth, didn’t feel too bad about that as I’d had enough by now. I suspect this will be my last NY concert; a sad way to end my relationship with a genuine genius I have virtually worshiped.

The world of wrinklie rock redeemed itself just four days later when The Who performed their second rock opera, Quadrophenia, live at the O2. This is a much neglected work and one I’ve always loved as much as Tommy. It sounded fresh, with an enlarged band including three brass, two keyboards, two guitars, bass and drums. The film / photo montage, put together by Roger Daltrey, and the lighting were brilliant and the sound was good. Modern technology enabled deceased band members to contribute vocals and a bass solo by video; very moving. The additional 45 minutes included tracks from Who’s Next which if anything sounded even fresher. Support band Vintage Trouble, an American retro four-piece, were well worth getting there early for and their hard work paid off with a great audience reception.

Opera

June was opera month – nine! – one of which, Grimes on the Beach, I’ve already blogged.

I’m not a huge Rossini fan, but it’s impossible to resist both Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez. La Donna del Lago is a bit daft, with a Scottish setting & characters but sung in Italian, and John Fulljames production is a bit odd, starting and ending in some sort of museum, but the music is good and the singing was sensational. In addition to my two faves, Daniela Barcelona impressed hugely in the trouser role of Malcolm. It would be great if the Royal Opera found a better vehicle for these extraordinary talents, though.

The Perfect American is Philip Glass’ new opera about Walt Disney and, of the five operas of his I’ve seen, I think it’s his best. The score has more variety and less minimalist monotony and his subject matter is fascinating. What takes it from good to great though is Phelim McDermott’s astonishing production, designed by Dan Potra, Leo Warner, Joseph Pierce & Jon Clark, which is packed full of Improbable’s trademark invention, with every bit of it appropriate and effective. In an excellent cast (with such clear diction that, for once, you could hear every word – it can be done!), Christopher Purves shone as Walt. One of the best evenings at ENO and of modern opera in a long time.

The summer pairing at WNO was another Cardiff treat. A new opera by Jonathan Harvey, Wagner’s Dream, set at the moment Wager died, was paired with his Lohengrin. Wagner had apparently been contemplating a ‘Buddhist opera’ and at that moment just before death he reflects on it as we see it performed behind him. Wagner’s moments are acted in German and the opera is sung in the ancient Buddhist language of Pali. With added electronica, it was played and sung beautifully and staging and design were both effective and elegant. Lohengrin will go down as one of WNO’s finest moments. Despite needing a stand-in for the big role of Telramund (well done, Simon Thorpe!), the musical standards were exceptional, with the orchestra and chorus soaring (at one point with four additional fanfare groups at four points in the auditorium sending shivers up your spine). Apart from a noisy scene change in Act Three (while the orchestra was still playing), the staging was highly effective. I love pairings / groupings of operas and next time we have Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy – an 18th century Italian spin on 16th century British history!

Britten’s Owen Wingrave was the first opera made specifically for TV and it’s very rarely staged; gold star then to the Guildhall School for this contribution to the centenary. It’s an excellent production of his pacifist opera about a boy who defies his family’s military traditions. The setting is contemporary and the traverse staging is ‘framed’ by scenes from modern warfare showing what might have happened had he not rebelled, with projections used very effectively. Amongst the fine cast, Joseph Padfield was outstanding as military tutor Coyle and Samantha Crawford and Catherine Blackhouse both impressed as Owen’s aunt and fiancée respectively. 

I very much enjoyed the first outing of Deborah Warner’s production of Britten’s Death in Venice at ENO back in 2007, but I wasn’t prepared for how much better a revival could be. With beautiful, elegant designs from Tom Pye, it really is a masterly staging, but the chief reason that propels it to ‘Masterpiece’ is John Graham Hall as Aschenbach. Very occasionally a singer inhabits a role in such a way that they begin to own it. Simon Keenlyside IS Billy Budd and now John Graham Hall IS Aschenbach; it’s mesmerising. I’m so glad the Britten centenary (and half-price tickets!) persuaded me to see it again as it will go down as one of my great nights at the opera.

Gerald Barry’s opera of The Importance of Being Ernest in Covent Garden ‘s Linbury Studio was a quirky affair. The small orchestra was on a series of white steps surrounded by white walls. The singers entered from the audience and occupied the rest of the steps. The instrumentation includes plate-smashing. Lady Bracknell is a man in a suit with no attempt at female impersonation. The music is strident, almost spoken. It’s more semi-staged than staged. I admired the originality, I loved the way the orchestra was part of it and the performances were very good – but I can’t say I loved the opera. 

The ROH contribution to the Britten centenary (and the queen’s diamond jubilee) is his only historical opera Gloriana and it proves to be a better piece than the myths suggest (though having seen the Opera North production 19 years ago I knew this!). The problem with this new production is director Richard Jones decision to ‘frame’ it by our present queen’s visit to see it at a village hall, complete with 1953 production values and visible wings. Even during the overture we get a brief appearance from every monarch between the two Elizabeth’s in reverse chronological order with olympic style name cards and a row of schoolboys holding up cards signalling their geographic origin! This all robs the opera of its grandness, majesty and pomp. Still, musically it’s first rate with the orchestra & chorus on top form and the largely British cast including many personal favourites. Susan Bullock makes a great queen and it was wonderful to see Toby Spence again, in fine vocal form after his serious illness.

Classical Music

Another Handel oratorio for the collection – Susanna – from Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company at Christ Church Spitalfields. It’s not in Handel’s premiere league, but it was beautifully played and sung and an uplifting end to a challenging day. Emilie Renard and Tim Mead, both new to me, were excellent as Susanna and her husband, and the small chorus was so good I yearned for more than the seven items they were given. Will I ever hear them all live? I doubt it!

Dance

I returned to see The Clod Ensemble after enjoying their last show at Sadler’s Wells. That one was in four parts, with the audience moving from upper circle to dress circle to stalls to stage! Zero was staged conventionally, on stage, but I’m afraid it did nothing for me. The blues harmonica got it off to a great start but it was all downhill from then. I don’t know what it was about, I wasn’t impressed by the movement and the 80 minutes just dragged.

Britten Dances at Snape, part of the centenary Aldeburgh Festival, was a lovely varied cocktail of four pieces from three choreographers – Ashley Page, Cameron McMillan & Kim Brandstrup –  and two ballet companies; The Royal Ballet of Flanders & our own. In addition to two Britten pieces, the musical choices included his arrangement of Purcell and a piece from contemporary composer Larry Groves’ which takes Britten’s take on a Dowland piece as it’s starting point! A unique evening and a unique contribution to the centenary.

Film

Behind the Candelabra was a must-see after the trailer. Though a touch overlong, what makes it worth going to is highly impressive performances from Michael Douglas, Matt Damon & an unrecognisable Rob Lowe. Hard to believe it isn’t getting a cinema release in the US; the land of the free is still the home of the bigots.

I rather liked the new Superman film Man of Steel, the ultimate in prequels, which starts with his birth on Krypton and ends with him getting his job at the Daily Planet. It’s all a bit exhausting, and I’ve seen better 3D (I think maybe I should give up 3D), but it’s gripping and new Superman Henry Cavill is very good. Russell Crowe plays Russell Crowe again as Superman’s dad.

If you like those American gross out comedies like Superbad, you’ll like This is the End and I do /did. This one adds gore and disaster to the cocktail and the effects are excellent. It’s one of those films that’s better in the cinema than at home, because there’s a contaigon about the audience reaction which improves the experience.

Art

A lean month for art. I did pop into the NPG to see the annual BP Portrait Award exhibition, though it seemed to ack sparkle this year. Over at the lovely new giant White Cube in Bermondsey, there are four North American artists on show, the best (and most) of which is Julie Mehretu (actually, she was born in Ethiopia). Her giant B&W canvases are multi-layered and grow on you. It’s like she started with an architectural drawing, they overlaid it with another , then another….Original.

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CONTEMPORARY MUSIC

Using the label ‘Folk’ for Seth Lakeman stretches it somewhat. I can live with folk-rock, but the driving rhythm of his sound stretches even that. It works so much better live than on record, though he’s wise to keep his set short and snappy to prevent it becoming relentless; the bass is pushed too high and it’s close to hurting (one of my companions had to move back after the first number). The Open Air Theatre was a terrific venue and it was the most exciting folk-rock set I’ve heard for more than 25 years (it reminded me of Fairport Convention and Alan Stivell when they rocked). There was a sex imbalance in the audience the opposite of what’s usual at ‘folk’ concerts – he’s a good looking guy who has quite a following with the girls! The unannounced support of A John Smith, who’s CD I like a lot, was a bonus – his melancholy on record was lightened live, helped by a charming self-deprecation in between songs.

The Kings Place Festival is an eclectic selection of 100 concerts over 4 days, each costing no more than £4.50. We took in three 45-minute folk concerts in one evening and a contrasting collection they turned out to be. Eliza Carthy showed off her technical expertise at both fiddle playing and acapella singing; her dad Martin Carthy’s set with Dave Swarbrick was more about nostalgia, such is the decline of skill and passion with age; and the best was left to last, with a set of great warmth and charm from Chris Wood. This is turning out to be a great venue.

I have a memory of seeing Tom Jones & The Squires at Penyrheol Community Centre (one mile from my home and three from his) before he had his first hit. When you look at his chronology and mine, this seems a bit implausible but my recollection is vivid! So this is (possibly) my second Tom Jones concert – 150 miles away and 45 years later – in Islington’s Union Chapel in Sept 2010. It was a small-scale showcase for the new gospel blues album Praise & Blame (which I love) and was announced by a ticket agency on Twitter. I thought it might be fun, but wasn’t expecting something so musically perfect; the songs sounded even better live, the band was terrific and his voice simply extraordinary. The venue was so perfect – Jones in front of the pulpit beneath the backlit stained glass rose window singing gospel! A real treat.

OPERA & MUSIC THEATRE

Peri’s opera Euridice, written in 1600, may be the first ever opera. 380 years later prolific composer Stephen Oliver produced a new version with the songs and choruses intact, an English translation and new ‘accompaniment’ and this is what British Youth Opera showcased this month. It’s the classical myth of Orpheus & Eurydice – with a happy ending! – and it was simply staged with costumes but no set. Somehow the lovely early music songs & choruses and modern accompaniment work well together and both the singing and playing from the cast of 18 and tiny 8-piece ensemble (intriguing instrumentation including cowbells, handbells, banjo and tabor!) were excellent. BYO’s name conjures up images of pimply teenagers but these are the next generation of opera singers currently studying at our best music colleges so, like the GSMD operas, the standards are really high.

ENO’s Faust is a lot better than the reviews lead you to believe. It seems to me perfectly legitimate to make Faust an atomic scientist at the time of Horoshima and the production worked for me. Some of Gounod’s music really is lovely and it is particularly well sung by Toby Spence as Faust, Iain Paterson as Mephistopheles and Melody Moore as Marguerite, with excellent support from Benedict Nelson, Anna Grevelius and Pamela Helen Stephens. ENO’s MD Edward Gardner yet again gets the best out of his band, and the chorus are on fine form. Director Des McAnuff is better known for theatre (notably the excellent Tommy and Jersey Boys) but I think his second outing in an opera house tells us he may well produce even better work in this form.

I much admired Pleasures Progress, Will Tuckett’s music theatre staging of William Hogarth sketches at the ROH’s Linbury Studio, though I was exhausted and fed up, so I didn’t get as much out of the evening as I should have. Very bawdy and often gross, it was a clever cocktail of music, dance and theatre which was superbly staged, designed, performed and played.

OTHER

I was hugely impressed by my visit to Denbies Winery in Dorking. I remember buying a bottle of their wine many years ago and thinking it was ghastly! Well, now it’s the largest winery in the UK producing over 250,000 bottles (80% sold from the cellar door) and the whites and rose were very nice indeed. They’ve cleverly expanded the business to include a winery tour (by people mover!) with an excellent 360 degree film & tasting and a tour of the vineyards by ‘train’.

I had 30 minutes to kill between afternoon tea with an Icelandic friend passing through and pre-theatre drinks with visitors from Somerset (as one does!), so I popped into White Cube at Mason’s Yard. Having returned from the Faroe Islands just a month ago, imagine my surprise to fine 10,080 photos – one taken each minute for a week – from that very place. Darren Almond’s exhibition also had some terrific film footage from Siberia with a hugely atmospheric soundtrack. Such is life lived on impulse…..

I thought Open House was going to be a damp squib this year as I’d only booked for one building (the brochure arrived AFTER booking opened – so much for advance ordering! – by which time everywhere I wanted to visit that had to be booked was fully booked). So I took pot luck with non-bookable buildings expecting to find queues, give up and get fed up. Well, it actually turned out to be one of the best ever with 12 visits. I only gave up on one (the BBC’s Bush House) and only really queued once, though I was seated watching videos so it was hardly a chore at all. Saturday started with Carpenter’s Hall, which added to my ‘collection’ of livery companies. The Arts Council (the one I booked) was a clever refurbishment which produced a funky and comfortable work space with great contemporary art in an old terraced building with stunning views of Westminster Abbey, Parliament and the London Eye from the terrace. Channel 4 was a riot of glass and steel, typical Rogers, and I couldn’t understand how I hadn’t walked past it in 15 years. The Ruebens ceiling at the Banqueting Hall was terrific and the place oozed history (I can’t understand why I’ve never been there before). The Foreign Office self-guided tour was really well organised and I loved the state rooms like the Locarno Suite and the Durbar Court. They were unloading Popemobiles outside. I then had to cross the anti-Pope demo in Piccadilly to get to The Royal Society of Chemistry and The Geological Society, neighbours in Burlington House, which had both benefitted from tasteful refurbishment.

On Sunday, the visit to The Royal Ballet Upper School was much more than a walk along the extraordinary ‘Bridge of Aspiration’ (which was terrific) with performance videos while you waited and dancers rehearsing on your tour route. Parliament’s Portcullis House is hideous on the outside but a lot better on the inside, with excellent contemporary art and an exhibition of photos taken during the last election. I loved the simple elegance of the Ismaili Centre; the towers and turrets of the neighbouring South Kensington museums peeping over the walls of the gorgeous roof garden. It was rather surreal walking through Brompton Cemetery while Chelsea fans were using it as a short-cut to the game and druggies were hanging out around the graves. Finally, I visited the art nouveau / art deco former Finsbury Town Hall with wrought iron entrance canopy and stunning Great Hall. This is a once-a-year opportunity which I can safely say I exploited fully this year!

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