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Posts Tagged ‘V&A’

Contemporary Music

I wasn’t sure I wanted to see Rufus Wainwright again after being disappointed by his last outing promoting the over-produced Out of the Game, but solo and at The Royal Hospital Chelsea? Oh, go on then. There wasn’t much atmosphere in the hall-full space (when will promoters learn that there is a limit to the prices people will pay, however much of a fan they are) and the lovely weather turned 30 mins before he came on stage, but the rain stopped after 10 mins. Rufus’ concerts are inconsistent and uneven because he has a tendency to attempt under-rehearsed and / or overly-ambitious things, resulting in stops & starts and forgotten chords & words, covered up with clumsy humour, but when he’s good he’s stunning, and there were enough stunning moments to make this one very worthwhile. There were bonuses too – a duet with Neil Tennant on Poses, and support from The Villagers, who sounded lovely in the open air, in the sun.

John Hiatt‘s welcome return to Under the Bridge saw a fairly predictable, populist 2-hour set, but it was sung and played very well, and there were two new numbers. The usual final encore of Riding With the King was movingly dedicated to the recently departed B B King. You have to admire the bravery (or foolishness?!) of support act Josh Savage who walked into the club crowd to play an acoustic number with audience participation, but he just about got away with it.

Opera

A Henze double-bill was a also brave choice for the June GSMD opera production & it got a small but largely appreciative audience – an odd choice too, as it only enabled them to showcase nine singers. Ein Landarzt was a short absurdist Kafka monologue set to music, a very early work. Phaedra was his last work and got a really striking production. I had to pinch myself when Chinese counter-tenor Meili Li switched to baritone!

Musically, ENO‘s Queen of Spades was one of the best things they’ve ever done. The orchestra under Edward Gardner were on fire and all of the soloists, especially Peter Hoare as Hermann, were outstanding….. but the staging made little sense. Such is the arrogance of opera directors.

I enjoyed the double bill of Harrison Birtwistle operas in Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio TheatreThe Corridor and The Cure are both based on Greek myth, both two-handers, written five years apart but fitting together perfectly. Mark Padmore and Elizabeth Atherton were extraordinary and the London Sinfonietta (costumed in the first) sounded great.

Classical Music

The world premiere of Nico Muhly’s song cycle Sentences, inspired by Alan Turing, at the Barbican was superb. It was beautifully sung by countertenor Iestyn Davies (who also sampled and sung with himself!) with the Britten Sinfonia and Muhly conducting from the piano. The rest of the programme was well chosen, with a Dowland song and a Britten piece for viola (Lawrence Power) inspired by it and Vivaldi’s Sabat Mater for solo voice (Davies on top form again) and ensemble. A lovely evening.

Film

The second spy spoof of the year, cleverly called Spy, is even better than the first, Kingsman: the Secret Service, and Melissa McCarthy is wonderful, with the bonus of Miranda also cast as a CIA operative. I laughed a lot.

The film of London Road is as ground-breaking as the stage show, but not as good. I’m not sure they did NT Live when it was first on stage, but I think that would be a better experience (and judging by the tiny audience in the cinema, more commercial sense too).

Art

The latest at the Saatchi Gallery – art from Africa and Latin America – is their best for ages, with some great paintings and only a few of those installations that can often be pretentious and dull.

The Ravilious exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery was a real treat. His wistful, very British paintings range from landscapes to port scenes to war art but they all have a very distinctive style which I love. The best exhibition I’ve seen in a long while.

The Alexander McQueen exhibition at the V&A, Savage Beauty, also blew me away. I’m no fan of fashion, but I do love creativity and ingenuity and McQueen clearly had an imagination the size of a planet. In a brilliantly theatrical presentation, you learn a lot about the man and his influences – a lot more than the 100 minute play I saw the Saturday before, in fact – whilst looking at his beautifully crafted clothes.

I was less fond of David Hockney’s Painting & Photography exhibition at Annely Juda than I was his earlier landscape collection, though I liked the way it played with both art forms, and played with your head by having paintings in photographs and the same people turning up all over the place in both forms.

It was good to go back to the Estorick Collection of modern Italian art, though the Modigliani Drawings exhibition which took me there was much of a muchness – too small, really. Re-viewing the one-room permanent collection and three rooms of a current selection made it worthwhile though.

The latest double-dip at Tate Modern yielded an unexpected treat and something dull from two 20th century female artists. Sonia Delaunay‘s colourful work spanned portraits, abstracts, textile patterns and clothes   – diverse but uniformly cheerful. Agnes Martin was Rothkoesqe pretension – all dots, lines and hardly discernible colour.

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Contemporary Music

In Laura Muvla‘s late night Prom she performed the whole of her one and only album, Sing to the Moon, with an orchestra and choir. Some of the arrangements were a bit overcooked, smothering the lovely songs a bit, but overall it was a success as the writing and singing shone through. The sound was great and the audience even more quiet and attentive than most classical Proms. Now we need a new album, Laura.

Anything Goes at Cadogan Hall was anything but another one of those song compilation shows. First it was Cole Porter and the 50th anniversary of his passing. Second, it was musical theatre royalty with Maria Friedman, Clive Rowe, Jenna Russell & Graham Bickley all at the top of their game, with obvious chemistry, mutual respect and friendship. It was great to see the Royal Academy of Music MTC Chorus given a chance to work with such musical theatre icons and with a band as good as the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra under Richard Balcome. You rarely hear musical theatre songs played this well, and the winds and brass were positively glorious.

Opera

A return to Opera Holland Park after a few years to see an early 20th century  relative rarity by Francesco Cilea, Adriana Lecouvreur. My enjoyment of the first half was badly hampered by a full-on view of the conductor and not a lot else – a relatively expensive restricted view front row seat that wasn’t sold as restricted view! The highlight of the evening was the fantastic orchestra under said conductor, Manlio Benzi. There was some good (rather than great) singing and the updated production just about pulled it off. Sadly, OHP seems to be turning into a London version of those country house operas – rising prices, conspicuous corporate hospitality, dressing up…..if they introduce long picnic intervals, the transformation will be complete!

Classical Music

I don’t often go to piano recitals, then when I do I ask myself why?! A visit to Oxfordshire included one by John Lill at Christ Church Cathedral and I thoroughly enjoyed it. In a great programme of Mozart, Schumann, Brahms and Beethoven, the Schumann and Beethoven shone and the venue was a real bonus.

My first proper Prom of 2014 was an all-English affair, with three works from Vaughan Williams and a real rarity from someone I’ve never heard of – William Alwyn. Alwyn’s 1st Symphony isn’t brilliant, but it’s good enough and not worthy of such neglect (like the rest of his work). By contrast, The Lark Ascending is by all accounts the most popular classical work and here it was beautifully played by Janine Jansen. The gung-ho Wasps Overture and rarer Job ballet suite made up an excellent programme conducted by the BBC SO’s new chief conductor Sakari Oramo, whose enthusiasm and joy were infectious.

The next Prom was named Lest We Forget and it was a melancholy but very beautiful affair, featuring four composers, one German, who fought in the First World War, three never coming back. Two were completely new to me (the German, Rudi Stephan, was getting his Proms debut and Australian Brit Frederick Kelly is rarely performed). George Butterworth‘s song cycle A Shropshire Lad was sung beautifully by Roderick Williams and the BBC Scottish SO under Andrew Manze played all four pieces wonderfully. Vaughan Williams Pastoral Symphony (with tenor Allan Clayton, instead of the more usual soprano) has never sounded better. The loss of three talented composers was very sad, but it was a lovely tribute.

My final Prom for 2014 saw Andrew Davies back where he belongs and he chose a terrific programme of Strauss (R), Elgar & Berlioz to show off his great new band, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, who got a great welcome from the Proms audience. Music by German  British & French composers spanning 89 years, an Australian orchestra & a Norwegian cellist & a British conductor and an audience of real music lovers – that’s what I like about the Proms.

Cabaret

Celia Imrie’s show Laughing Matters at St James Studio was a quirky and sometimes surreal affair. Songs accompanied by a pianist and drummer (I wish I knew who wrote them), monologues and anecdotes and two male assistants! It ended with a panto-style sing-along complete with song sheet, with the cast dressed as sailors and the audience in sailor hats emblazoned with ‘R.M.S. Celia’! She can’t really sing, the show had a certain amateurishness about it, but her charm won you over and made you smile – a lot.

Film

I was lured to The Inbetweeners 2 by rave reviews (4* in The Times!) and even though it was fun, it was like watching a triple episode of the TV series with big screen technicolour projectile vomiting. A peculiarly British take on gross-out teen comedy.

Positive reviews also lured me to Guardians of the Galaxy (another 4* in The Times), but it was no time at all before I was bored with the banal story and just watched the 3D effects, but they became relentlessly repetitive too. There were some nice tongue-in-cheek touches, but I’m now wondering why I stayed.

I refused to pay Sonia Freidman’s obscene prices for Skylight in the West End but I eventually succumbed to the ‘encore’ of the live cinema transmission. Carey Mulligan proves to be an exceptional stage actor and Bill Nighy has lost none of his charisma. The 19-year-old play seemed bang up-to-date and the interval interview with Hare was a bonus. I’d have loved to see Bob Crowley’s brilliant set live, but hey it came over as a great production and I thoroughly enjoyed my first NT Live experience, even though it wasn’t the NT and it wasn’t live!

Art

I think I’m going to have to stop going to the Saatchi Gallery as, yet again, only a small fraction of what was on show appealed. This time it was Abstract America Today upstairs and Pangaea: New Art from Africa & Latin America downstairs. When the best room has walls covered with giant insects, you know you’re in trouble.

I’m not a fan of fashion and if I’d had to pay I probably wouldn’t have gone, but The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier at the Barbican was great fun and extremely well curated with a nice tongue-in-cheek touch (some of the dummies had holographic talking heads!). Whatever you think of his clothes, you have to accept that he has a colossal imagination.

No less than three exhibitions for an afternoon at the Royal Academy. The Summer Exhibition never changes but it’s an important institution and it’s always worth a visit. The highlights this year were the model of Thomas Hetherwick’s garden bridge (I can’t wait to see it built) and a couple of hilarious Glenn Baxter cartoons. Upstairs, Radical Geometry is an exhibition of 20th Century South American art which you’d never know was South American if it wasn’t billed as such. It’s well executed but they are very derivative abstract, geometric works. Interesting, but…..Round the back, Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album is a very personal record of six years in the sixties which would never be seen if the photographer wasn’t a famous film actor / director. Interesting, but…..

In just six years the Travel Photography Awards exhibition at the Royal Geographic Society has become so popular that my usual amble through it has become a scrum, partly because I left it until the final day I suspect. It was hard to get close enough to what seemed like a less impressive collection this year. Down the road at the V &A Disobedient Objects is an original, fascinating and wide-ranging look at items associated with protest, including banners, posters and even vehicles. Well done, V&A!

The British Library Comics Unmasked exhibition was a frustrating affair – low lighting combined with small print labels, but above all lots of nerds stooped over the exhibits reading every word of every cartoon and monopolising them. Again I was probably hampered by catching it on its last day, but it could have been curated so much better. The Enduring War exhibition, part of the WWI commemorations, was a lovely unexpected bonus which I enjoyed more!

The Photographers Gallery continues to be an essential regular visit and this time it was a fascinating exhibition tracing colour in Russian photography over 120 years. It proved to be a social and political history as well as a photographic history. At the entrance, they currently have a video wall which shows how a couple of Germans mined Facebook for images then put them on a spoof dating site with categorisations based on the images. It includes the victims comments, TV coverage and the legal threats they received. Clever, fascinating but spooky! I shall brush over the other exhibition – still life photos (and installations including them) of decaying fruit from Ridley Road market!

The first few rooms of the Malecvich exhibition at Tate Modern are spectacular – bright, colourful, original paintings of people and landscapes with a geometric spin. Then he goes all dull and abstract before returning to his earlier style. Frankly, it would be a better exhibition if it was ‘The early and late works of…’ and reduced from 12 rooms to 6!

There was some great stuff to see around town this month; two WWI tributes – the moving sea of poppies at the Tower of London, spectra – the lights illuminating the sky from Victoria Embankment Gardens – and this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, like a spaceship which has landed. Up in Gateshead, Daniel Buren created glorious colourful spaces in Baltic by covering the windows and skylights with coloured panels and placing large mirrors on the gallery floor. A real regional treat.

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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 didn’t consider SO Peter Gabriel’s ‘masterpiece’ until this concert. There are better songs on other albums, but somehow this one hangs together best. It was the ‘main course’ of a 140-minute meal which also included two new songs and lots more oldies. The visuals were excellent and the sound was superb. His voice sounds better than it ever did and the band of regulars were as tight as can be. There was a touch of theatricality and more than a touch of idiosyncrasy and I loved it!

I’ve waited 34 years to see Graham Parker with the Rumour again, but the wait was worth it. Always one of the great live bands, they never sounded better than this re-union. Combining songs from the new album with a whole load of oldies and no tuning and chatting time-wasting, this was 23 songs in 110 glorious minutes with his fans creating an extraordinary atmosphere at Shepherds Bush Empire. They even had The Silver Seas’ Daniel Tashian in support (though there was too much talking by otherwise excellent GP fans!)

A week / month for old rockers it seems.

Opera

The focal point of the autumn visit to WNO in Cardiff was ‘The Tudors’; a trilogy of operas by Donizetti in Italian based on British Tudor history – Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux – in chronological order on consecutive days! In truth, Bel Canto isn’t my favourite operatic sub-genre, but the prospect was enticing nonetheless. The orchestra and chorus were wonderful (sprightly young conductor Daniele Rustioni is a real fine) and there was some good singing but the productions, dressed almost entirely in black, were somewhat disappointing. The highlight turned out to be Tosca, added so that I could take some friends, with lovely singing from American Mary Elizabeth Williams as Tosca and Wales’ own Gwyn Hughes Jones as Cavaradossi.

Fiona Shaw’s production of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia for Glyndebourne on tour is the darkest I’ve ever seen. The theatre in Woking was a bit big for it, but the singing and playing was uniformly excellent so I’m glad I added it to my centenary collection. It looks like there will be three operas I won’t catch this year – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Billy Budd & Paul Bunyan, though I will catch up with that in Feb (having missed curtain up by falling asleep with jet-lag in Sept!); shame, that.

Classical Music

The LPO‘s Britten Centenary concert at the RFH put together an intriguing selection of rarely performed works. The lighter first half featured a ballet suite and a folk songs suite, but the second half was more melancholic, with the song cycle Nocturne, brilliantly sung by Mark Padmore, and the Cello Symphony with soloist Truls Mork. The orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski sounded wonderful and it made me regret not booking more of the The Rest is Noise series of 20th Century music, of which this was a part.

Film

I sneaked off for an afternoon to make a dent in my growing film hit list and saw both Sunshine on Leith and Le Weekend back-to-back. Though I enjoyed both, the former probably suited me better. There are too few film musicals these days and I found SoL heart-warming, moving and funny. LW is a great and highly original midlife crisis film and it’s good to see Hanif Kureshi back in the screenplay saddle and Lindsay Duncan back on the big screen.

Filth also lived up to expectations – a thoroughly original and anarchic film that could only be made in Britain. James McAvoy’s range as an actor really is remarkable and here he’s a drink and drug addled copper with a past he can’t shake off.

Another sneaky late afternoon / evening double-bill paired Blue Jasmine and Captain Phillips. The former really is a career high for Woody Allen, who already has a whole load of career high’s. Cate Blanchet is superb, but in getting all the attention, Sally Phillips brilliant performance is being neglected (A Brit & a Kiwi leading a US film – what do we make of that?). I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film which sustains tension for over two hours, but Captain Phillips certainly does. It’s a stunning achievement for director Paul Gereengrass and again, the attention on Tom Hanks (who is excellent) ignores the superb performances by the Somalian actors playing the pirates.

Art

Elmgreen & Dragset’s six-room installation at the V&A tells the story of a failed architect by letting you view his home, now up for sale. Butlers and maids occasionally engage you in conversation, telling you stories about him and you’re even given a copy of a play called Tomorrow that features him. Outside the building, a hoarding invites you to view the apartment. An extraordinary installation.

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Classical Music

Sir Colin Davies had pulled out of the LSO‘s concert performances of Turn of the Screw due to his deteriorating health, but in the end it turned out to be their first concert after his death. The orchestra’s Chairman & MD made lovely pre-concert tributes, but the greatest tribute of all was that they performed his choice for the Britten Centenary to perfection. Six superb well-matched soloists – Catherine Wyn-Rogers as the housekeeper, Sally Matthews as the governess, Katherine Broderick as Miss Jessel,  Andrew Kennedy as Quint,  Lucy Hall as Flora and an extraordinary performance from 11-year old Michael Clayton-Jolly – were complemented by beautiful playing from the small chamber orchestra under Richard Farnes. I’ve never heard it played & sung so well.

Opera

The Firework-Maker’s Daughter was a charming opera for young people staged in a very lo-tech minimalist style which suited the story-telling of Philip Pullman’s tale. David Bruce’s music, full of appropriately Eastern influences, was tuneful and, unusually for modern opera, accessible on first hearing. There wasn’t a fault in the casting and the small orchestra played beautifully. It was great to see so many (quiet!) kids as it’s a rare evening that is likely to turn them on rather than off opera!

I admired the originality of ENO’s ‘3D’ opera Sunken Garden at the Barbican Theatre and I liked Michel van der Aa’s music, but I didn’t engage with David (Cloud Atlas) Mitchell’s story at all. It didn’t sustain its length (2 hours without a break) and seemed achingly slow. Another one of those situations where the composer shouldn’t have directed? A worthy failure, I think

My third and last (this season) Met Live proved to be the best. David McVicar’s Glyndebourne production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare is one of the best productions of a Handel opera I’ve ever seen and this is one of Handel’s best operas. In truth, Natalie Dessay didn’t hit her stride as Cleopatra until the second act (and even then made a few nervous mistakes) and David Daniels didn’t really show us his best as Cesare, but they both had enough moments of greatness and the supporting cast was faultless. Patricia Bardon and Alice Coote stole the first act, there was a great Ptolemy from Christophe Dumaux and a delightful Nirenus from Rachid Ben Abdeslam. Robert Jones’ design and Brigitte Reiffenstuel ‘s costumes were a real treat.

Dance

I saw the first outing of Fabulous Beast’s The Rite of Spring at ENO paired with an opera. Now at Sadler’s Wells paired with Petrushka it seemed to make so much more sense. This time the Stravinsky scores were played in their four-handed piano versions and were simply brilliant. The ballets become dances, performed by people of all shapes sizes and colours, with none of the fusty ballet business. Rite is better than Petrushka, but I enjoyed the contrast most of all.

The first time I saw Prokofiev’s ballet of Romeo & Juliet, I was astonished that it could tell the story as dramatically as either the play or the two operas made from it. I haven’t seen it for a while, and that Kenneth McMillan production is the only one I have seen, albeit a few times, so it was good to see a different production (and at half the Covent Garden price) by the National Ballet of Canada at Sadler’s Wells. It’s quirkier and brasher, but I liked it. The corps de ballet pieces are bright, with fights handled well and humour unearthed, yet the tragedy is still tragic. It isn’t a match for the McMillan because  it doesn’t move you in the same way, but it’s fresh and less conservative – and the score , the greatest of all ballet scores, was played beautifully.

Contemporary Music

Counting Crows’ concert at Hammersmith Apollo was a huge disappointment; largely because of the sound, which was simply appalling. It turned everything into bland mush with few audible words. Support Lucy Rose (who I’d seen solo with John Cale as a result of which I bought her album) was a whole lot better. Nothing more to say really.

Art

It’s a lot easier to get into the Barbican’s Curve Gallery than it was for Rain Room and it’s well worth doing so. Geoffrey Farmer’s installation fills the space with hundreds of puppets made from paper cut-outs and fabric and places them on tables and podia with a soundtrack throughout and a slideshow at the end. A silent, still, spooky army.

The Designs of the Year exhibition at the Design Museum is extraordinarily eclectic, covering architecture, ‘products’, graphics etc., and a fascinating look at design’s ongoing impact on our lives. Visiting it was also an opportunity to see the newly changed permanent exhibition, which added some retro charm and nostalgia to the visit.

I wasn’t expecting David Bowie is at the V&A to be so big, so comprehensive and so captivating. The automated audio tour didn’t always work (very sensitive to your position and movement) but the combination of costumes, hand-written lyrics, stage sets, video and movie clips were enthralling, though almost impossible to take in on one visit. Beautifully curated, it’s provides conclusive proof of his genius.

A visit to RIBA was somewhat less satisfying as the exhibitions were clearly intended for professionals rather than laymen. Still, it was good to take a look at Dutch floating housing and different approaches to new towns over time and geography.

Film

I rather enjoyed Danny Boyle’s Trance, even though it’s hard to keep up with a real mindfuck of a plot. It twists and turns and keeps you guessing right until the end – well, assuming I got it right!

I enjoyed the Paul Raymond biopic The Look of Love too, though it’s a bit of a soulless piece. His was an interesting life and period Soho looks great, but there was something missing.

If I’d known it was about dysfunctional families, I probably wouldn’t have gone to see Love Is All You Need – I’ve got one of my own! It is a rather lovely and original film though, touching but not sentimental, occasionally funny and sometimes surprising. The mix of Danish and English dialogue worked really well, and brought additional authenticity.

Comedy

Attending a recording of Mark Thomas’ Radio 4 show Manifesto at the BBC Radio Theatre is great value as it’s the full monty (2.5 hours) for free and the drink’s are cheap! The ideas put forward were largely funny, the discussion entertaining and Mark’s added stories a hoot. This will all be distilled down to 28 minutes of course and, like my visit to the News Quiz, you can tell what will be on the cutting room floor. This one took place on the evening of Thatcher’s funeral, so maybe more editing than usual!

I haven’t been to the Comedy Store for ages and I thoroughly enjoyed my latest visit to their improv. night. Perhaps we were lucky to have the combined experience of Paul Merton, Josie Lawrence, Lee Simpson, Neil Mullarkey, Andy Smart and Richard Vranch (no longer confined to the piano). The format doesn’t change much, but the inventiveness is what matters and it seemed as fresh as the first time.

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A lean month once you take out 10 days in Scotland and 6 days at the Olympics or Paralympics as either volunteer or spectator!

There was a pair of Proms – Bernstien’s Mass and Elgar’s The Apostles. The former is a favourite rarely performed so much-anticipated (particularly as almost all of the vocal and orchestral inputs were Welsh!), but I’m afraid it didn’t quite live up to the anticipation. The weak link for me was Morten Frank Larsen in the key role of ‘The Celebrant’ . There were no weak links in The Apostles where Mark Elder, The Halle and all six soloists shone in this underrated oratorio.

At Sadler’s Wells Theatre, I caught the last performance of the revival of Matthew Bourne’s 9-year-old Play Without Words, a dance piece based on the film The Servant, with a terrific jazz score. It was as good as I remembered, sexy slick and truly unique.

British Design 1948-2012 (so good, I wanted to steal a lot of the 50’s-70’s stuff!) and Heatherwick Studio (which by the time I got there included the prototype for his extraordinary Olympic cauldron). The post-war years really did produce iconic designs and the exhibition captured the best of it in almost every form. Thomas Heatherwick works across a lot of forms and his exhibition was simply enthralling. Has there ever been a more inventive designer?

Portrait of London at the Wandsworth Museum showcased photos of London in general and the borough of Wandsworth in particular and it was fascinating. I took in their permanent collection for the first time and was particularly delighted to see them covering the late 19th century tradition in Earlsfield of electing a ‘fool’s mayor’; somehow that feels so up-to-date!

A trip to a multi-story car park in Shoreditch was an unusual experience, specifically to see the 16 BMW Art Cars over six floors, painted by the likes of Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Roy Liechtenstein et al. A quirky, interesting diversion rather than spectacular art, unlike the Bauhaus – Art as Life show at the Barbican Art Gallery which was an extraordinary review of the impact of this short-lived design ‘movement’. Covering everything from architecture, fashion, painting, sculpture, graphics, toys, furniture and performance, their influence was so much more than you’d ever imagine could be achieved in just 14 years.

RGS Travel Photography Exhibition looks like becoming as much of a tradition as the International Photography Exhibition in Edinburgh – and has exactly the same impact of making me feel inadequate as a photographer. I love the way that here they exhibit many of them in the open air and the fact it specialises on travel makes it even more up my street.

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Contemporary Music

I’m not sure how to categorise the Hofesh Shechter / Anthony Gormley collaboration Survivor at the Barbican but it felt more like a staged concert than anything else, so here it is! The 30-piece string / percussion band are on three platforms high above the stage. At one stage they come down onto the stage and are supplemented by a vast ‘community’ percussion band. Six performers use the space below (and at one point the auditorium) though occasionally a screen is lowered for projections, as is the metal safety curtain which is part of the performance, as is the whole stage really. The music is largely rhythmic and there doesn’t appear to be a story. It’s all very clever and diverting but felt like they were just throwing in every idea they could think of, including a bath instead of a kitchen sink. The rest of the audience appeared to love it. I was a bit indifferent.

I’ve been following the career of Clive Rowe since I saw him in Lady Be Good at the Guildhall school many years ago. He’s one of our best musical performers and for his ‘cabaret’ at the Landor he selected an unpredictable, idiosyncratic and very personal group of songs which I really enjoyed. He gave us a potted biography between songs and a Q&A in the second half and it was like being entertained by a friend in your front room. The highlights included Putting on the Ritz and an interpretation of Sondheim’s Being Alive which brought a tear to my eye (again!).

I’m new to Laura Veirs and attending her QEH concert was a bit of an afterthought. Apart from a couple of new songs and a pair from her recent children’s album, most of the set was from her impressive back catalogue. The combination of acoustic and electric guitar with viola makes for a very pleasing sound and her lovely songs sounded even better live than they do on record. She engaged enough with the audience to convey her upbeat personality but not too much that it got in the way. A short but perfectly formed set.

Classical Music

I love choral oratorios, but as they are mostly on religious themes (and often settings of the requiem mass) they become a bit samey and one yearns for something more secular. Haydn’s The Seasons is therefore a breath of fresh air and performed by The Gabrieli Consort & Players under Paul McCreesh (who provided a new English translation) at the Barbican, it was lovely, particularly jolly old Autumn which moves from love duet to hunting songs to drinking songs. The three soloists – Christiane Karg, Allan Clayton and Christopher Purves – were all exceptional. A treat!

Art

Postmodernism: Style & Subversion is another of the V&A’s reviews of a design movement. Though not as good as some of the others, it’s still indispensable if, like me, you want to understand and absorb the history of design. It’s an eclectic collection of architecture, furniture, fashion, graphics etc and a lot to take in during one visit. Also at the V&A (if you can find it!) is a two room review of Private Eye’s first 50 years which made me smile and laugh. Made up of cartoons, comic strips and memorabilia, it brings home to you the indispensability of a satirical institution in any civilised society.

When 10 photos constitute an exhibition, you would be justified in feeling cheated – if you’d paid! This two-floor show of Jeff Wall’s work at White Cube Mason’s Yard was a big non-event for me, I’m afraid. I was just as disappointed by Annie Leibovitz ‘Pilgrimage’ at Hamiltons. Known for her extraordinary portraits, these 26 digital pigment prints of places and objects associated with famous people (like Lincoln’s hat and gloves) seemed completely pointless.

American installation artist Paul McCarthy is never dull but often hit-and-miss. This exhibition takes over two galleries and part of St James’ Square gardens. The installation that takes up the whole of Hauser & Wirth Saville Row did nothing for me – a pile of stuff that was interesting to look at, but meant nothing (to me, anyway). It was better at the Piccadilly ‘branch’ where two of the three works (there was one on each floor!) were good, particularly a revolving hydraulic cube. I never made the gardens as it was dark and they were closed.

American photographer Catherine Opie is new to me and her exhibition at the Stephen Friedman Gallery contained two very different collections. I wasn’t particularly impressed by the early B&W portraits of a punkish sub-culture but I was impressed by the seven pairs of sunset / sunrise photos taken on a container ship voyage across the Pacific Ocean; each had a different atmosphere created by the climatic conditions when they were taken.

Bloomberg New Contemporaries isn’t a regular affair for me, but this year at the ICA it was quite impressive. These students and recent graduates seem to be returning to more traditional art forms – paintings, photos and sculpture – which makes a refreshing change from endless films and installations!

I was expecting to like David Hockney at  the Royal Academy as I had enjoyed my first view of the first of his Yorkshire landscapes in a small gallery a few years back, but nothing prepared me for the overwhelming beauty of this exhibition. It’s a riot of colour and an homage to nature and one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in my entire life. Room 9 in particular was stunning – three walls of paintings showing the transition of winter to spring in the same place and a giant canvas on the fourth wall. Gorgeous.

Film

When I see a film based on a book I’ve read, I’m often disappointed when it isn’t faithful to the book and / or doesn’t match what’s in my head.  That was absolutely not the case with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo which was true to the story and just like my mind pictures. It has great pace, as it should, but doesn’t seem rushed.

The Artist isn’t the sort of film I would usually go to, but yet again the reviews and recommendations meant I succumbed. I wish I trusted my instinct more. I didn’t dislike it, but wasn’t really satisfied by it – a 30 minute TV show spun into an overlong 100 minute feature film. There was a lot to like, buy in my book it’s over-hyped.

I much admired The Iron Lady but wished they hadn’t told the story in flashback from her current dementia. I’m no Thatcherite, but it seemed somewhat disrespectful and unnecessary. Meryl Streep was simply extraordinary, but so were the actors playing her male colleagues, a veritable who’s who of British male actors of a certain age. When you see recent history recreated, you realise how much you’ve forgotten – as it was here!

The film of War Horse was a lot more sentimental than the stage show (well, it’s Spielberg after all) but I still enjoyed it very much. The story translates to the screen well and again there are a whole host of excellent performances. I was shocked at the number of under 12’s in the audience; it’s a 12A and having seen it I think that’s right. I would never allow a youngster of mine to go and see the maiming of animals and the slaughter of men – it almost traumatized me!

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Opera

ENO has given us its best work for ages away from home at The Young Vic, The Return of Ulysses. This 370- year-old opera is given a radical updating that for once works. It’s staged in and outside a modern apartment that revolves, fully transparent on all sides – a sort of mini Big Brother house. There are two shop style cameras that project close-ups and detail onto two screens at either side of the stage. At the start it’s sparkling and new, but as the opera progresses it becomes smeared and more. You completely believe Pamela Helen Stephen (terrific – never better) has been waiting 20 years for her man, as you do Tom Randle (wonderful)’s exhaustion after such a long war. There isn’t a fault in the rest of the cast (even an understudy as Eurimaco) who sing Monteverdi’s music beautifully, accompanied by a lovely sounding 14-piece ensemble situated stage left where you can hear every note. It’s a masterpiece of staging and acting when you can take a shower fully naked in a revolving glass room without showing any of your bits, as Randle managed! Despite this undoubted success, I’m still somewhat nervous that Terry Gilliam (as opposed to Berlioz!)’s The Damnation of Faust next month will take a few steps back after this huge leap forward.

Opera Shots was a double-bill of new operas at the ROH’s Linbury Studio. The first is a 30-minute mess by The Police’s Stewart Copeland in a gothic / commedia dell arte style with a ragbag of musical styles; the design is the best thing about it. The second is a 60-minute comic gem from Anne Dudley and Monty Python’s Terry Jones – tuneful, very funny and positively charming.

I’m a bit indifferent about Covent Garden’s Aida. The design has one of those big walls that revolves (yawn) and some quirky costume combinations. The singing by a UN cast (Russian, Polish, American, Korean & British) is mostly good, in that vocal-power-at-the-expense-of-beauty-and-characterisation way, but the acting is wooden. The chorus didn’t start well, but get better. One expects better from a world class opera house.

Classical Music

When the LSO decided to change its plan to screen Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible accompanied by Prokofiev’s score played live to a concert performance of the oratorio, I almost sold my ticket back. How glad I am I didn’t, as it was a fascinating evening. The 75-minute piece for orchestra, chorus, mezzo and bass has a lot of flaws but it was always interesting and showed off the power of the LSO and LSC. I could have done without the live Russian narration and wished I hadn’t followed the surtitles of the preposterous and pompous words and just listened to the glorious sound. The opener was his Violin Concerto, another piece new to me that I also enjoyed.

The first two acts of the concert performance of five-act Pelleas & Mellisandre were a little subdued, restrained and static, but things picked up in the third act and the fourth was thrilling. The Orchestre de Paris and a largely French cast clearly had an affinity with their composing compatriot, but it was Laurant Naouri as Golaud and Simon Keenlyside as Pellaes who shone. Natalie Dessay kept her head in the score and failed to animate Melisandre for me, I’m afraid. This orchestra is the first I’ve seen that credits the designs of its outfits!

Dance

Balletboyz the Talent was absolutely mesmerising and one of the best evenings of dance ever! The three pieces were very different but together made an exciting combination. It was edgy, original, thrilling and sexy and I loved it.

Art

It’s amazing what you can do in a morning at the British Museum! On this occasion, we took in the fascinating exhibition of treasures from Afghanistan, with some wonderful 2000 year old gold, accompanied by a little display showing the importance of the Afghan city of Herat in the history of Central Asian art, followed by a small but fascinating Eric Gill display showing designs for stamps, coins, books etc which I never even knew he did and finally a selection of their huge collection of drawings that included anyone and everyone. This is surely the world’s greatest museum?

Back to the Barbican Gallery to catch the other two performances as part of their New York Avant Garde ‘exhibition’ and they were both worth seeing – in one, the container divided by doors is occupied by five dancers moving fast and often confronting one another and in the other, three are climbing a wall with holes for hands and feet. Fun!

At Karsten Schubert, there’s a small but excellent exhibition of sculptures and pictures by American Fred Wilson on the theme of race politics. The most striking is a series of heads of Nefertiti that look like they are Egyptian antiquities and that go from white to black via shades of grey.

The Cult of Beauty at the V&A links together the late 19th century aestheticists – Leighton, Morris, Rosetti, Burne-Jones, Dresser et al. There are some beautiful paintings, designs and objects but as a whole it was somewhat over-powering.

Royal Family at the Hayward Gallery is a tiny exhibition about representations of its title. The only thing I liked about it was how they made an exhibit of a letter from Charles’ people declining to loan them a statue of him in heroic pose presented to him on tour by people in the Amazon!

It’s amazing how many exhibitions you can take in walking from the tube to the pub if your route takes you down Cork Street and you’ve got some time to kill! I started with William Nicholson at Browse & Darby – almost 60 pictures loaned from private collections including some absolutely stunning landscapes. Across the road at the Waddinton, I found Bill Woodrow’s sculptures / installations dated and faded, but a few doors up at Hay Hill there was a lovely exhibition of contemporary Icelandic artists; I was hugely impressed by the paintings of Tolli and the photos of Iris Thorstenindottir. On the way home, I took in the Deutsche Borse Photography Prize exhibition, which is underwhelming this year except for the political documentary work of Jim Goldberg which was deeply moving.

The art month ended back at the V&A for Figures & Fictions, a selection of contemporary South African photography and a stunning collection it was too; I’d be surprised is you could put together a better British collection. Then I popped into the Yohji Yamamoto fashion exhibit on the way out and it proved that fashion isn’t me!

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