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Contemporary Music

West End Recast was an impulsive last-minute punt which proved a treat. The idea is that musical theatre performers sing songs they would never normally get to sing, because they’re the wrong sex, colour, age etc. It was slow to take off, until Nathan Amzi gave us Cassie’s Music & the Mirror from A Chorus Line! This was followed by a stunning Being Alive from Company by Cynthia Erivo (quite possible the best it’s ever been sung), then a brilliant Rose’s Turn (Gypsy) from Nick Holder to end the first half. The second didn’t reach these heights, but there was much to enjoy.

I’ve always thought Damon Albarn was the best (pop) thing to come out of the 90’s and has become someone, like Elvis Costello and David Byrne, who continually reinvents himself and is always open to collaboration and experimentation. Though his Royal Albert Hall show was built around his excellent new solo album, it dipped into other incarnations and included guest appearances from Blur’s Graham Coxon, musicians from Mali, US hip-hop outfit De La Soul, rapper Kano and virtual recluse Brian Eno! Albarn is clearly in a very happy place and this was a very happy concert.

As her brother heads for the middle of the road, Martha Wainwright continues to do concerts that combine eccentricity, fun and beauty, showcasing her extraordinary voice and ability to inhabit her (and others) songs. This Queen Elizabeth Hall concert was good as the Union Chapel outing last August, though this time her son on stage outstayed his welcome. As one of my companions said, it’s hard to concentrate on a song about a man dying of cancer when you’re petrified a 5-year old might be about to electrocute himself!

I was hugely disappointed by John Grant at the Roundhouse earlier in the year, but had hoped that with an orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall he would be a lot better. Well the sound engineer was having none of that. With bass levels at painful vomit-inducing levels and the orchestra often buried in the mush of the mix, this was another disappointment. There were snatches of greatness (when the man at the back with the machines wasn’t producing his electro shit) but on the whole it was great musicianship ruined by a seemingly deaf arsehole.

Opera

My first (of two) concerts in the short Mariinsky Opera residency at the Barbican Hall was the original version of Boris Gudunov. It was good but lacked the sparkle of Gergiev’s work with the LSO. They seemed to be wheeling out a Mariinsky staple for the Nth time and going through the motions.

The contrast provided by the following night’s OAE / Opera Rara concert version of Donizetti’s Les Martyrs at the Royal Festival Hall couldn’t have been bigger. An orchestra, chorus and six soloists under Sir Mark Elder, all at the the top of their game, polishing a rarely heard opera and producing a musical jewel that shone brighter than Donizetti’s more popular operas. A spontaneous standing ovation is rare at such events, but not for this. Wonderful.

You can always rely on GSMD to give us a rare opera, but you don’t think of Dvorak as rare – productions of his operas are, though. We only ever see one of the eleven he wrote (Rusalka) so it was good to catch his comedy, The Cunning Peasant, in an English translation relocating it to Hardy’s Wessex. It’s a bit derivative of Mozart’s comedies and the first half didn’t grab me, but the second half was great. As always at GSMD, the production values and the performances were excellent.

The ever inventive Les Arts Florissants’ latest project is two short rarely performed Rameau opera-ballets, Daphnis et Egle & La naissance d’Osiris. The seven dancers, six singers and chorus of ten, all costumed, shared the bare Barbican Hall stage in front of the period ensemble, staging them as they would have been staged when they were first performed for the French Court in the eighteenth century. The stories are slight but it sounded gorgeous and this type of performance fascinating.

Glare at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio Theatre was a SciFi opera which I saw less than an hour after the SciFi film Interstellar (below) and it was less than half its length. I admired it more than I enjoyed it, but as modern opera goes, it’s better than most. All four singers trained at GSMD and one, Sky Ingram, blew me away here as she had there.

Dance

It’s been a privilege following the final chapter of Sylvie Guillem‘s career, as she transitioned from classical ballet to contemporary dance and this fourth show (for me) with Akram Khan, Sacred Monsters, at Sadler’s Wells had a biographical twist. The dialogue was a surprise and the shows playfulness was both surprising and delightful. The music was great and the dancing of both mesmerising. In almost exactly six months it’s the farewell show as she retires, wisely, at 50. Real class.

Classical Music

A second outing to the Mariinsky Opera Chorus, but this time on their own, unaccompanied, at GSMD’s new Milton Court Concert Hall for a programme of secular music and folk songs. The acoustic was a bit harsh when they were at full throttle, but the singing was gorgeous and the standard of solos exceptional. If only they smiled more.

The following day, at a lunchtime concert at St. John’s Smith Square, a small group of 10 singers, also unaccompanied, all young enough to be the children of the Mariinsky Chorus (!) made an equally gorgeous sound with music from both ends of a 500-year range. The Erebus Ensemble are an exciting new early music group who also tackle 20th century equivalents like Tavener and Part. Lovely.

Looking at a couple of hundred late teens / early twenties performing Britten’s War Requiem at the Royal Festival Hall on Remembrance Sunday was deeply moving. 100 years ago, many of them would have been heading to the trenches and likely death. This added a poignancy to a beautifully sung and played requiem. The standards of the RAM orchestras and the National Youth Choir were astonishing and the three young soloists – a British tenor, a German Baritone & a Moldovan (former USSR) soprano, as Britten intended – were terrific. Not forgetting the excellent children’s choir assembled especially for the occasion. Conductor Marin Alsop’s command of it all was extraordinary.

The Chapel in the Royal Hospital Chelsea is a lovely venue for a choral concert and Rutter’s Mass of the Children and Britten’s St. Nicholas was a great pairing. Interval drinks in Wren’s beautiful refectory and Chelsea Pensioners in their bright red uniforms greeting all adds to the occasion.

A visit to Handel House with the LSO Friends included a short recital in the room where Handel himself held them, with his composition room just next door. The soprano and harpsichordist sounded lovely and it was great to hear music in this historic room.

The fourth and last of the Composers in Love series at St. John’s Concert Hall was Nocturne, a portrait of Chopin. Given the lack of letters left by him and his family, it was biographically sketchier than the others, but musically it was extraordinary and Lucy Parham converted me to Chopin, who hasn’t really been on my musical radar up until now. The readers this time were Alex Jennings and Harriet Walter (subbing for Juliet Stevenson). What a lovely series this has been.

Cabaret

I didn’t quite know what to expect from national treasure Anne Reid in cabaret (with Stefan Bednarczyk) at St. James Studio and I was delighted when it turned out to be the music of unsung musical theatre heroes Comden & Green, interspersed with the story of, and anecdotes from, their lives. Delightful & charming.

Film

Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner has the most incredible cast, a who’s who of British acting minus the ‘stars’ which would be guaranteed to win BAFTA’s Best Ensemble award (if there was one). Turner’s story is a fascinating one and Leigh’s attention to detail is extraordinary. A towering achievement.

I liked Set Fire to the Stars, about Dylan Thomas’ first US tour, when its American organiser had his work cut out to keep him under control. The US in the 50’s looked great in B&W and the performances, particularly Celyn Jones as Dylan, were very good, but I thought the focus was too much on the US organiser and not enough on Thomas, no doubt because of the star casting of Ethan Hawke.

The Imitation Game is an even better film than I thought it would be. It moves between Alan Turing’s childhood, wartime work and tragic final days and really does illuminate his story. In a terrific cast, Benedict Cumberbatch is extraordinary.

Even though I go to plays more than three hours long, films of similar length rarely hold my attention and I don’t really know why. Interstellar comes in just under three hours but I was captivated throughout. So so much better than last year’s Galaxy, maybe a touch too sentimental but an absolute must see.

Art

I’ve seen Anselm Keifer works in galleries all over the world, but seeing them all together in the Royal Academy’s retrospective exhibition was a bit overwhelming as they are virtually all dark and depressing with his brown-to-black palette. Many (but not all) are great as individual works, but together it’s a different experience. His books were a revelation, but displayed in cases open at one page seemed like a lost curatorial opportunity to me.

Waled Besthty’s installation at the Barbican’s Curve Gallery is more impressive for its execution than its visual appeal. It’s a whole year’s worth of images created using the cyanotype printing process covering the whole curved wall. You have to take in the overall impact rather than the detail (unless you’ve got a day or two to spare). It’s not the best the Curve has offered, but this space is still indispensable for innovative big scale works.

I’m afraid Mirror City at the Hayward Gallery went right over my head. Apparently, the artists are seeking ‘to address the challenges, conditions and consequences of living in one of the world’s busiest cities in the digital age’. Yeh…..back in the real world next door in the RFH, the annual World Press Photo Exhibition shows us what it’s really like living in cities, countries, the world; a reminder of last year’s events, mostly sad ones this year.

The Late Turner exhibition at Tate Britain is a riot of gorgeous colour and a great companion for Mike Leigh’s film (above). It’s a brilliant example of how a man in his 60’s and 70’s can be bursting with creativity and originality. Upstairs in the Turner Prize exhibition there isn’t a painting in sight – it’s all film, slides & photos – I wonder what Turner would think. I hated it. In the Turner Galleries themselves, one room has been given over to Olafur Eliasson’s colour experiments where he tries to create the late Turner palette. The room contains giant circles each with their own colour range. Interesting.

Catching Dreams was the title of this year’s Koestler Trust exhibition of art by offenders, secure patients and detainees at the Royal Festival Hall and it was as intriguing and inspirational as ever. This must be excellent therapy and great that their work is seen and sold in this way.

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Contemporary Music

A friend suggested going to see Welsh harpist Catrin Finch & Senegalese cora player Seckou Keita at Union Chapel and what a brilliant suggestion it was. Their instruments blend beautifully and create an uplifting sound. It was the perfect venue, with a quiet respectful audience. Gorgeous.

I really don’t know what to make of Elvis Costello‘s concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Part of BluesFest (what?!). He brings Steve Nieve & they play 8 songs together, some in radical new arrangements. His song selections are eclectic and perhaps a bit quirky. He’s often uncharacteristically flat or off key. He talks a lot. It contained sublime moments, but not enough of them. It was certainly no crowd-pleaser and the audience reaction was distinctly underwhelming. Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames, supporting, were great (though he talked a lot too). They played two songs together, one in each others’ set. I’ve seen almost every EC London outing in 30+ years and this was probably the least satisfying. Most odd.

Opera

The autumn Rossini pairing at WNO was amongst their best ever. Neither William Tell nor Moses in Egypt are typical Rossini (which may be why I liked them so much!); the latter more identifiably Rossini. Tell was the more satisfying all round – Moses was also a musical feast but the production wasn’t so good. Former MD Carlo Rizzi brought the best out of the orchestra and chorus (yet again) and there was no weakness in the soloists – just various levels of good to great.

The English Concert’s performance of Handel’s opera Alcina at the Barbican was a huge treat. A faultless cast was led by Joyce DiDonato & Alice Coote and the orchestra made a beautiful sound. I’d thought it might be a star vehicle for Joyce, but she was superbly matched by the rest and the audience showed their appreciation for them all.

I’ve seen a handful of Philip Glass operas, but until The Trial they’ve all been on a huge scale. What this chamber piece proves is how much more suited his music is to this smaller scale. It’s an absurdist, impenetrable story but it was superbly staged and performed by Music Theatre Wales in Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio.

Dance

Lord of the Flies is a big departure for New Adventures at Sadler’s Wells. With two-thirds of the large cast amateurs selected from workshops and open additions, there’s a freshness and energy thoroughly in keeping with William Golding’s story and contemporary dance is a suitable form to tell the tale. It was dark, but I loved it.

I don’t normally like mixed ballet programmes but Birmingham Royal Ballet‘s Shadows of War at Sadler’s Wells caught my imagination, largely because of the music. The first piece, to a Ravel piano concerto, was a bit frivolous for me, but the second was a fascinating re-staging of a Robert Helpmann work set in wartime Glasgow with music by Arthur Bliss and the third a lovely piece set to Malcolm Arnold and Benjamin Britten – and all at a half to a third of prices at the other Royal Ballet.

Cassandra is a rare modern dance piece from the Royal Ballet at the Linbury Studio. It was a nice combination of dance, music and film and it held me for 70 minutes, but in the end it was just OK. I think it was the lack of effective narrative drive / story that was its weakness.

Classical Music

I persuaded a friend who has recently taken up choral singing to go for one of those ‘scratch’ performances put together in one day. The choice of Elijah was ambitious, but they pulled it off. The soloists were terrific, particularly baritone Neal Davies, who gave it his all as if was at the Royal Albert Hall, and the orchestra of a handful of Philharmonia section principals with music students sounded great. It would have been good to see a much bigger audience – where were all the friends and families of the orchestra and chorus?

The third of the Composer Portrait series at St John’s Smith Square was the best so far. Reverie was about Debussy whose writings were spoken by Simon Russell Beale no less. Pianist Lucy Parham played his gorgeous music beautifully and it was a captivating couple of hours.

Film

As much as I loved Pride, the casting of so many English and Irish actors as Welsh characters did irritate me – though I suppose you need Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton to sell films like this. I was surprised I never knew the true story behind it, but maybe it didn’t get much news coverage at the time. It’s certainly the most heart-warming, feel-good film for a long long time.

Dylan Thomas centenary

I found out about the Dylan Thomas in Fitzrovia festival very late on, by which time the diary was choc a block with other stuff, but I did manage to fit in some. A Warring Absence was readings of writings by him and his wife about one another by Daniel Evans & Sian Thomas with accompaniment by the Bernard Kane Players as a Platform performance in The Olivier Theatre and it was original and fascinating.  I’d never heard the Stan Tracy Jazz Under Milk Wood before – read excerpts accompanied by jazz which somehow works brilliantly; again original and fascinating. The final Gala Concert I had known about and this proved a real treat. An eclectic selection of Welsh music played by Camerata Wales (including world premieres) with readings of letters and poems by Sian Phillips, Tom Hollander, Griff Rhys Jones, Robert Bathurst, Lesley Manville, Jonathan Pryce and Owen Teale and songs from Welsh tenor John Owen-Jones and old folkie Ralph McTell. Two of the pieces combined Thomas’ works with music very successfully. For an Englishman, Tom Hollander’s reading of Fern Hill was almost as good as Dylan’s own!

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With the month split between five countries (six if you count Wales!), it’s a bit lean…..

Contemporary Music

I wasn’t expecting Nick Lowe to come on stage at Union Chapel on his own and I was a touch disappointed when he did. That lasted just a few minutes, as the songs began to shine, stripped back to voice & guitar. Later joined by Led Zep’s John Paul Jones on bass and even later fellow Abertridwr boy & regular collaborator Geraint Watkins on keyboards, this was an absolutely delightful evening, 80 minutes packed with Lowe’s short but perfectly formed songs and just a little of his charming and modest commentary. Growing old gracefully indeed.

The Rutles were a Beatles parody band created by Eric Idle and Neil Innes for a comedy TV programme called Rutland Weekend Television way back when. What was so good about the music was that, though a parody (with references to real Beatles songs), the tunes and lyrics were in themselves excellent. George Harrison loved them and supported the making of a full length feature film. I never saw them play live, so I was glad to catch this 2014 incarnation, with two original members and three new ones, in a small venue in Didcot (because I couldn’t make the London date). It was simply superb. Innes’ voice isn’t as strong, but everything else about the show was brilliant and the smile didn’t leave my face for the duration. Lovely.

Opera

I can’t imagine a more perfect production of Rossini’s Cenerentola than the one 3 million of us experienced in cinemas worldwide as part of Met Live. The production was fresh and very funny, with a terrific surreal design, but it was the matchless cast of seven principals that shone most. Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez are both at the top of their game as Angelina (Cinderella) and Don Ramiro (The Prince), but they were matched by five others and a great chorus (no bows?) and orchestra under Fabio Luisi. I have to say I do enjoy the interval interviews and behind the curtain scene changes and they all added up to my best Met Live experience so far.

Dance

Oliver Dubois’ Tragedie at Sadler’s Wells is nine naked women and nine naked men moving to a very loud and relentless electronica soundtrack for 90 minutes. At times it was hypnotic and mesmerising, but it was overlong. The formal ‘marching’ bits didn’t work as well as the anarchic bits. You have to admire their bravery and energy, though. Coming on dressed for the curtain call however was most odd!

Scottish Ballet’s Romeo & Juliet is a pared down version with a 20th century setting. I loved the style of it, the freshness of Krzysztof Pastor’s choreography and the energy of the unfeasibly young company. Though the score has been edited, the orchestra played it beautifully. Nothing will ever probably match Kenneth MacMillan’s Royal Ballet staging, but this was a treat nonetheless.

Art

Artangel’s latest off-the-wall installation takes us to a house in Brixton where Vincent van Gogh lived as a young man in the late 19th century. In Saskia Olde Wolbers work, the dilapidated house tells you its story in sound as you walk through three floors of rooms. It’s a bit like a radio play come alive. Fascinating.

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Opera

Verdi’s Les Vepres Siciliennes is rarely performed and after almost four hours standing at the back of the Royal Opera House’s stalls circle it was easy to see why. There’s not a lot of story for four hours and Verdi’s music is nowhere near his usual standard. The singing wasn’t particularly distinguished, but I liked the production (which most don’t seem to!).

The GSMD excelled itself again with an unlikely double-bill of Debussy’s earnest but beautiful L’enfant prodigue and Donizetti’s comic one-acter Francesca di Foix. The Donizetti, in particular, was a little gem and an absolute hoot, given an inspired staging in modern settings (a smart clothing shop and a tennis court) but with period clothes. Beautifully played and sung, Anna Gillingham in the title role and Joshua Owen Mills (Welsh!) as the Duke were terrific.

In the BBC SO‘s semi-staged Albert Herring at the Barbican, this comic opera proved to be a minor masterpiece. Britten’s friend Steuart Bedford led a wonderful small ensemble and a first class cast, led by Andrew Staples as Albert, without a weak link in it. You could hear every nuance of every instrument and every sung word. A real highlight of the centenary.

The Early Opera Company’s concert performance of Handel’s Acis & Galatea at Wigmore Hall was a delight. The 13-piece ensemble under Christain Curnyn played the score beautifully and there were fine performances from Robert Murray and Sophie Bevan in the title roles. Matthew Rose was a stand-in as the giant Polyphemus but his powerful baritone nearly blew the roof off. Minor Handel maybe, but gorgeous nonetheless.

Dance

I’m not very fond of full-length ballets that are excuses for showcasing ‘turns’ by dancers in various combinations rather than telling the story (think The Nutcracker) and I haven’t enjoyed previous productions of Don Quixote that much, but I rather liked Carlos Acosta’s for the Royal Ballet. With handsome designs by Tim Hatley and fresh choreography, it often sparkled. The leading lady was injured during Act One and Marinela Nunez (who originated the role with Acosta as partner) took over and this somehow added even more sparkle. Sadly, Acosta didn’t come on as sub in Act Two or Three!

Another dance contribution to the Britten centenary from the Richard Alston Dance Company at the Barbican, with four short pieces (including two world premieres), each set to a chamber piece, three of them vocal. In Phaedra, the soloist interacted with the dancers, which I loved (and which reminded me of Seven Deadly Sins at Covent Garden a few years back), but Illuminations was the most uplifting. Poor time management meant interval overuns so it took 130 minutes to stage 65 minutes of dance!

Choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui takes a really fresh look at tango with m!longa at Sadler’s Wells and it comes out as a sexy display of virtuosity, relationships silently played out by intricate movements. The five couples – four kosher tango ones and one contemporary dance duo – were all terrific, and the five-piece band were sensational.

The Stuttgart Ballet‘s Taming of the Shrew to a mash-up of Scarlatti at Sadler’s Wells was a bit of a punt that turned into a major treat. Though over 40 years old, apart from the sets, it felt fresh. I’m not sure I’ve seen a comic ballet before and I have to say, the form was perfect for Shakespeare’s comedy, the dancing was terrific and we laughed aloud a lot. There were beautiful romantic moments too and it all added up to a thoroughly enjoyable surprise.

It’s a while since I had a fix of favourite choreographer Mark Morris, so I went to both programmes at Sadler’s Wells on consecutive nights for a feast of seven works. With one exception, they were accompanied by live music – a small ensemble and three singers – which is key to Morris’ success. The best of the first programme was Socrates, set to music by Erik Satie for tenor and piano, which looked like Greek statues come to life. In the second programme, Festival Dance, to a wonderful piano trio by Hummel (who?!) led by stunning piano from Colin Fowler, was thrilling, and as close to Morris’ undoubted masterpiece Handel’s L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato as he’s got since. The one piece to recorded music was In A Wooden Tree. Only Morris would use the songs of Ivor Cutler and it was a delight; quirky even by Morris standards.

Classical Music

The rarely performed song cycle Our Hunting Fathers, sung by Ian Bostridge, was the centerpiece of The Britten Sinfonia‘s namesake’s centenary concert at the Barbican, but it wasn’t the highlight. It’s possibly the quirkiest song cycle I’ve ever heard, but the orchestration is brilliant. The real treats were the orchestral pieces played by a chamber orchestra that seems to me to be absolutely at the top of its game.

The Royal Albert Hall is the perfect venue for Britten’s War Requiem and Remembrance Sunday the perfect day to hear it in this centenary year. The BBC SO under Semyon Bychkov did it full justice, with the boys choir sounding beautiful up in the gallery and the male soloists, Roderick Williams & Allan Clayton, on fine form. The ‘amen’ was extraordinarily moving, hopeful and uplifting; I felt like my body was rising in my seat.

St Cecilia’s day (the patron saint of music). The 100th birthday of my favourite composer. My favourite music venue. The Sixteen‘s recital of Britten choral works – mostly unaccompanied – at Union Chapel was an absolute joy. The acoustic was perfect, the selection eclectic and the voices beyond wonderful. As you can gather, I liked it!

Film

The big film catch-up continued with One Chance, the story of Britain’s Got Talent winner Paul Potts. Apart from some puzzling accents (parents Welsh, Potts West Country) and a touch of resentment that Welsh characters weren’t played by Welsh actors, I rather enjoyed it. Undemanding, feel-good stuff – a touch too sentimental, but very heart-warming and funny.

The Selfish Giant is one of those gritty British films I thought we’d forgotten how to make; even the master, Ken Loach, seemed to have gone a bit soft. It’s not an easy ride watching hopelessness, but its a superb piece of film-making full of stunning performances from people you usually see on TV in things like Shameless, and the two leading boys are simply extraordinary.

I can’t begin to put into words how good a film Philomena is. I’m glad I hadn’t read the book as it surprised and confounded me. Judi Dench is sensational and Steve Coogan a revelation in a straight role. Perfect in every respect, but tissues necessary. The things that have been done in the name of god!

Gravity reminded me of Duncan Jones’ Moon, though it’s (virtually) two people in space rather than one. The 3D is (mostly) brilliant, for once very realistic, and the story is gripping, but I’m not sure it quite lives up to the hype – I’m glad I went, though. 

Art

My second visit to the George Watts Gallery near Guildford was to see the Frank Holl exhibition. It was a bit small and a bit sad and may not be worth the trip on its own, but with another chance to see Watts’ own pictures and combined with opera in Woking and lunch at the retro Withies Inn in Compton it proved worthwhile!

Daniel Silver’s DIG seems to be an archaeological site in a building site where statues have been uncovered and laid out in various states of restoration for you to view (but most oddly pristine white). I’m not sure what point he’s making, but it was quirkily intriguing.

Masterpieces from China at the V&A had some stunning paintings covering 1200 years. The Tang Dynasty seemed underrepresented and it was a struggle to absorb it all with the necessarily low lighting and difficulty getting up close, so I might well have to go again.

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Contemporary Music

I often take a punt with the Proms and this year it was the Urban Classic Prom, attracted by new favourite Laura Mvula. I was more at home with the soul of Mvula, Maverick Sabre & Jacob Banks than the hip hop / rap of Fazer, Wretch 32 and Lady Leshurr (what names!), but the combination was compelling, the atmosphere was extraordinary and the respect of the ‘urban’ crowd for the BBC SO was wonderful to behold. I could have done without the intros, but hey that’s a small quibble. Put together by conductor /arranger Jules Buckley, this was a brave experiment that worked big-time, moving the Proms on again and finding yet another new audience.

I’ve seen Martha Wainwright a few times before, but her Union Chapel concert was at another level altogether. Her voice soared, packed full of passion and sincerity, with just acoustic guitar for accompaniment. Her sound seems even more unique than ever, but she’s also clearly very happy and for the first time her infectious eccentric charm cast a spell (with self-deprecating humour and faux bitchiness about brother Rufus). Her 3-year-old son almost stole the show when he accompanied his dad on stage; this could have been indulgent, but it came over as more charm, making you think how much fun it would be to have Sunday lunch at the Wainwrights. Great support from Luke Sital-Singh (who used to be an usher there!) and a terrific evening overall.

Classical Music

The Proms rarely disappoint, but this year my third (and last) did. In the first half, Holst’s ‘Hindu’ symphonic poem Indra was paired with the world premiere of Nishat Khan‘s sitar concerto. The former seemed slight and uninspiring and the latter just didn’t work – the sitar and orchestra appeared to be in competition rather than harmony; their styles didn’t compliment and the sitar sometimes fought to be heard. In the second half, Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony lacked sparkle, not helped by audience additions, notably a mobile phone ringing (and being answered!) just at the point where the harp is playing solo, drowning it out and destroying the atmosphere.

Film

If Alpha Papa was a feature-length episode of a TV series, I’d have been happy. I’m not sure it justifies it’s cinema release though. It’s often funny and the character of Alan Partridge has, somewhat surprisingly, evolved and endured, but it’s not really good enough for such a high profile release.

Art

A trio of exhibitions at Tate Britain, led by a major Lowry retrospective. There is a limit to the number of Lowry pictures one can take before they appear very formulaic; towards the end it began to feel like chimneys, terraces and stick people assembled in different configurations, and the people became more like caricatures. Though he is unique in portraying early 20th century British industrial life, and I admired and liked much of the paintings on show, it is a case of more-is-less. Mind you, after you’ve taken a look at the Gary Hume & Patrick Caulfield exhibitions, your admiration of Lowry shoots up! Caulfield is the better of the two, but neither excite.

The annual Travel Photography exhibition at the RGS was up to its usual standard. It comes to something when you think you take good photos but you’re in awe of the talent of a 10-year-old Indonesian boy! Across the road and in the park, the Serpentine Gallery is hosting another of those take-it-or-leave it shows (Sturtevant), but Sou Fujimoto’s 2013 Pavilion outside is lovely. A bus ride to Piccadilly and there we were in superstar architect Richard Rogers very personal Royal Academy show. Lots of those building models I so adore (especially the ones of the unbuilt) with lots of philosophical ramblings to go with them.

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Contemporary Music

When she walks onto the stage, she looks like she’s just left the set of Desperate Housewives or come straight from a meeting on Wall Street, but when Laura Cantrell strums her guitar and opens her mouth, you’re in the presence of one of the greatest modern country singers. She’s not been here for 6 years and with the release of her Kitty Wells tribute album, I wasn’t expecting such a varied set – the best of her back catalogue, some covers, some new songs and a few of the Kitty Wells songs. The two guitars (one sometimes pedal steel) / mandolin line up proved perfect for every song in a brilliant selection and ninety minutes later we were on our feet in appreciation. The Union Chapel proved yet again – despite the bum- numbing pews! – that it’s the perfect venue for this sort of concert.

Staff Benda Bilili are a bunch of homeless (well they were!) street musicians from Kinshasa, DR Congo, most of whom are paraplegic. They were the subject of a documentary that went on to raves at Cannes and a cinema and DVD release, part of which included making an album and making live appearances. Their Roundhouse show was as uplifting as the film, though in 75 minutes the pace doesn’t let up and this old man found it exhausting! Young Roger, who plays a one-string instrument of his own invention and manufacture, became a bit over-excited, but who can blame him given his journey. Great stuff.

A Sunday afternoon at the Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year (plus the Stiles & Drew Best New Song Prize) – phew! what a title – proved a real pleasure. The standard was very high (I’m glad I wasn’t judging) which is what I find in my regular visits to our best drama / music colleges. Future musical theatre talent is secure, though how all of these will get work I don’t know. None of my personal top 4 made it, but I was happy with winner Taron Egerton (not just because he’s Welsh!) though less keen on the runner-up.

I don’t normally go to those benefit evening any more as they’re rarely satisfying because they cram so much in. Fortunately, Survivors UK at Cadogan Hall concentrated on a few excellent artists, including Lesley Garrett, Leanne Jones, Ian Shaw, Meow Meow and Hannah Waddingham, which made it a lovely musical evening. I was given a free ticket, which made me feel like a shit, so I made a donation higher than the cost of the ticket!

The Incredible String Band is part of the soundtrack of my life. I was surprised to see one of its founders, Mike Heron, on a bill with newbie’s Trembling Bells as part of Stewart Lee’s Austerity Binge mini-festival at the Southbank Centre, but couldn’t really resist. I certainly didn’t expect a magical hour of (mostly) early Incredibles’ songs. With help from Mike Hastings of Trembling Bells (and later the whole band), multi-instrumentalist Nick Pynn (who had opened the show with a virtuoso set) and someone called Georgia, he delivered these 35-40 year old songs so beautifully that Sleepers Awaken and A Very Cellular Song brought me to tears. Trembling Bells made the mistake of following him; however good they were, they were never going to live up to something so unexpectedly stunning.

Opera & Classical Music

Having been indifferent to James MacMillan’s last chamber opera, Parthogenesis, my expectations for Clemency weren’t high, which may be part of the reason I enjoyed it so much! It’s the story of three strangers who are befriended by Abraham and Sarah en route to reeking vengeance on twin cities full of sin. They prophesy a post-menopausal pregnancy for Sarah whilst the couple seek to persuade them to abandon their plan. I liked the triptych framing of the design and Janis Kelly and Grant Doyle were both excellent in the lead roles whilst the ‘triplets’ of Adam Green, Eamonn Mulhall & Andrew Tortise sounded great singing in unison. The music is easily accessible, though yet again a lack of surtitles means you miss a lot of the (English!) libretto.

Ariodante in concert at the Barbican was an absolute joy. I’m a bit puzzled that I haven’t seen Baroque group Il Complesso Barocca and their conductor Alan Curtis before; the musicianship was exceptional and the assembled cast first class. After a shaky start, I warmed to Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s thoroughly dramatic performance as baddie Polinenesso. Karina Gauvin sang Ginevra beautifully and sounded great when dueting with Joyce DiDonato’s stunning Ariodante. Sabina Puertolas and Nicholas Phan sang Dalinda and Lurcanio respectively with great style. When he was asked to stand in as Odorardo, RAM student Sam Furness probably couldn’t believe his luck. He acquitted himself very well in such an outstanding cast, but so good was this evening he may have to come to terms with the fact it’s all downhill from here! It was DiDonato’s evening though – after only two concerts, I’ve fallen head over heals for this American mezzo. 

John Mark Ainsley’s lunchtime recital at Wigmore Hall was a treat – Britten, Purcell & Poulenc – right up my street! We’re so lucky to have so many good tenors whose voices suit English song; just one week later I was back there for an evening recital by another – Ian Bostridge – whose programme was a very original affair, though very dark. It started with Purcell’s beautiful Music For A While and stayed light-ish in the first half with some rare Bach and Haydn pieces. After the interval, though, it was a funeral lament, bleak tales of violence pain and death of children and the American Civil War. It was all a bit challenging, but fortunately he encored with the opening Purcell to lift our gloom before we left!

Comedy

I love people who use their talent for good and top of this list is comedian Mark Thomas who combines humour and passion in equal measure so effectively. In his new ‘show’, Extreme Rambling, he tells the story of walking the wall between Israel and Palestine, the people he met and the things he learnt. It’s a rare thing to go home having learned a lot while being entertained (but not preached at) and the Tricycle Theatre is the perfect venue for this.

Film

I couldn’t believe Hanna was directed by the man who gave us Pride & Prejudice and Atonement – talk about change of direction! I loved the quirky cocktail of fantasy, action adventure and humour which was often unpredictable, never dull, but sometimes too violent (how on earth did it get a 12 rating?!). The Chemical Brothers soundtrack added much to the action sequences and the performances were all outstanding.

Attack the Block is another very good small scale British film, though I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so scary (it’s amazing how you can make giant cuddly toys terrify people!). It’s a very assured directorial debut but what distinguishes it most is a superb cast of (mostly) young actors. There was a certain frisson seeing it in Clapham, just a few miles from where it is set.

Art

A lovely afternoon of photographic exhibitions paired the RGS Travel Photography Prize with the Sony World Photography Awards at Somerset House. The former was right up my street but gave me a severe dose of wanderlust. The latter was much more extensive than I was expecting, including a retrospective of US photographer Bruce Davidson, such that it was too much to take in; but it was very varied and included some terrific stuff.

At the Whitechapel Gallery, there’s an excellent exhibition of the documentary photos, in nine series, by Paul Graham covering a journey up the A1 amongst other subjects! They also have a room with two terrific installations by Fred Sandbach made simply of string; for some reason I found then beautiful!

I suppose going to see an exhibition of someone whose work you have never liked seems perverse. Well, I wouldn’t have paid to see it, but as a Southbank Centre member, I decided to make this major retrospective at the Hayward Gallery one last chance to see if there really was anything to Tracey Emin’s soul baring autobiographical work. You will not be surprised to hear then that my conclusion is that there isn’t…..but I admire her immensely for convincing the art establishment that there is and in doing so make a shitload of money. This collection of drawings, ‘sculptures’, blankets and memorabilia may make for an interesting diary, but art it ain’t.

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Contemporary Music

Some of the best things I’ve been to were on impulse. The impulse to see Mari Wilson with jazz vocalist / pianist Ian Shaw came a few days before. In truth, I’d never heard of Shaw, but Mari has been a favourite for almost 30 years and I’ve recently re-connected with her through new albums and concerts with her own band. After a couple of solo songs from Shaw, Mari marched on looking as glamorous as ever carrying a decorated Christmas tree, put it on a small table and announced ‘£12.74 from Neasden IKEA’ and from this moment on we were treated to a light-hearted but virtuoso display of well known songs in interesting arrangements – a ‘mash-up’ of The Ronettes ‘Be My Baby’ and The Righteous Brothers ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’ was a particular highlight. Shaw brought on X Factor audition reject John Wilding whose interpretation of Radiohead’s Creep brought tears to my eyes (it had been massacred on that very programme the previous week by tone-deaf Wagner!). Even though The X Factor is one of my guilty pleasures, sitting listening to these brilliant musicians whilst most of the country was watching it on TV did put things in perspective somewhat; when I got home and watched the recording, I didn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much as I usually do!

I’m not sure how to categorise Richard Thompson’s latest project, but I’m putting it here in Contemporary Music! Nutmeg & Ginger is a lovely title for his collaboration with Philip Pickett & the Musicians of the Globe singing spicy ballads from Shakespeare’s time. He’s had a renaissance guitar made and is accompanied by bass viol, violin, lute, bandore and recorder in 10 songs plus eight dance tunes. Cadogan Hall was the perfect venue and after a nervous start where he seemed to be finding it difficult to get all the words sung at the pace of the music, he soon started smiling and it settled into a delightful evening. Few rock / folk musicians would have the necessary musicianship – or sheer balls! – to attempt a project like this, but like his 1000 Years of Music project, it’s both fascinating and rewarding. Keep your eyes open for the album he hinted at (but wouldn’t commit to).

I was thrilled when I heard The Unthanks had chosen the songs of Robert Wyatt and Anthony & The Johnsons as a project as I like all three. At their concert in the Union Chapel, they did a 40 minute set of Anthony songs followed by a 60 minute set of Wyatt. I enjoyed them both greatly, but the second set worked better – the songs were more challenging and complex and they rose brilliantly to the challenge. The final song about the neglect of gypsy holocaust victims in the Czech republic was deeply moving and it was impossible to follow with an encore.

There’s a direct line from The Kinks through Squeeze to Madness and Lily Allen which represents a soundtrack of London. It’s a very long time since I last saw Squeeze but an attack of nostalgiaitis prompted me to book for one of their run of London gigs; sad to report that it didn’t really live up to expectations. Support Lightening Seeds set them up well, and when they were good they were good, but there was lot of padding in their 90 minute set, a little too many self-indulgent solos and sound which was often turned up at the expense of clarity to distortion levels.

Opera

The music of A Dog’s Heart by Raskatov is difficult to penetrate on first hearing, but Complicite’s Simon McBurney’s production is an extraordinary theatrical feast of terrific performances, clever puppetry from Blind Summit and brilliant projections & inventive design from Michael Levine. It’s a satire based on Bulgokov’s banned satirical novel about a dog that is turned into a man and back again. The dog has two voices brilliantly sung by Andrew Watts and Elena Vassilieva (who also double up as the Vyasemskaya and The Cook), there is a wonderful turn as The Maid from Nancy Allen Mundy, Peter Hoare is fantastic as the man (dog) and Steven Page is terrific as the professor at the heart of the story with Leigh Melrose also great as his assistant. I think you would have to hear it a fair few times to get into the music, but the production was a treat.

Classical Music

Handel and Cecilia Bartoli is a partnership made in heaven. Backed by the brilliant Basle Chamber Orchestra with fine second half support from young (though he doesn’t look it!) Argentinean counter-tenor Franco Fagioli, this was a highlight in a lifetime of concert-going. There were the vocal fireworks and beaming smiles you always get at her concerts but, on this occasion, the match with the composer (OK, so he’s a fave of mine) meant she reached new heights and delivered pure joy. Given the ovation, it wasn’t just me!

Art

The Hayward Gallery has cornered the market in quirky exhibitions you can’t really call art and Move – Choreographing You is another one of them. It didn’t do a lot for me, I’m afraid, but maybe I didn’t ‘play’ enough. Fortunately, the South Bank offered two photographic gems to make the journey worthwhile. At The RFH, the annual World Press Photo exhibition lived up to its exceptionally high standard; though this year there was a series of photos of a man being stoned in Somalia which was hard to look at. At the RNT, things were less harrowing at the Landscape Photography exhibition; there were so many beautiful images, it made me feel like a completely inadequate photographer.

I really enjoyed the GSK Contemporary exhibition at the Royal Academy annexe this year, a sort of art meets fashion meets politics. There was one video of men posing in shirts with chest holes or flaps you could open which became chilling when it was followed by its inspiration; men opening their shirts in Palestine to prove they were not suicide bombers.

The Photographic Prize Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery was as good as ever – another photography exhibition to make me feel an inadequate photographer.

Another impulsive treat was popping in to the Courtauld Gallery when passing by with time to kill to see the Cezanne Card Players exhibition where they’ve put together 14 preparatory paintings and drawings with three of the Card Players paintings themselves. They’ve gone to a lot of trouble to get them from 6 countries but it’s absolutely worthwhile. I’ve avoided these in-depth exhibitions before but won’t do again.

Finally, and somewhat appropriately for year end and courtesy of Whinger Andrew I went to the recording of the News Quiz of the Year (three weeks before its broadcast) with Sandi Toksvig and (in my view) the best of the panellists – Andy Hamilton, Francis Wheen, Sue Perkins and Jeremy Hardy. The 90 minutes recorded will be edited down and you knew exactly where are there were some very rude bits! It was a bit of a palaver to get in but it was worth it.

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