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Posts Tagged ‘Welsh National Opera’

Contemporary Music

I booked to see Graham Parker & the Rumour again almost as soon as I left their reunion concert last October. I’m not sure they will ever match that buzz after almost 40 years, but the great thing about this second outing eight months on is that only half the set was the same and there were two new numbers, including one being played for the first time. This must be the most successful band reunion ever. An added bonus was Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook solo in support – a terrific 45 min set by a great singer – songwriter – and guitarist!

Opera

Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites at Covent Garden was a minimalist affair which I thought suited the subject matter. It was beautifully played (with Simon Rattle back at the ROH) and sung and great to hear live again. One of the most beautiful operas of the 20th century.

The WNO spring programme was themed ‘Faith’ and started with Shoenberg’s Moses und Aron, a very challenging piece which was, well, very challenging! It was made worthwhile by the playing of the enlarged orchestra and the singing of an augmented 80 strong chorus. Rainer Trost was great as Aron, Sir John Tomlinson had a strange speaking-singing part as Moses and it appeared to be inexplicably set in the Welsh Assembly next door. It was followed by a musically stunning Nabucco showcasing the WNO chorus and orchestra, with last year’s wonderful Tosca, American Mary Elizabeth Williams, wowing again. Sadly, the production was preposterous, so it was a case of eyes-closed-is-best. Can we ban German & Austrian directors and designers from WNO forthwith please? Thank you.

Another great night at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, and my first time in their new theatre which this contrasting 17th / 18th double-bill fitted like a glove. Thomas Arne’s comic opera The Cooper had nice songs but the comedy was very broad in a commedia dell’arte style. Stradella’s San Giovanni Battista was a complete contrast – very dramatic and very gory. Somehow the pairing worked and as always, the musical standards were outstanding.

Quartett is an 80 minute two-hander opera by Luca Francesconi based on Heiner Muller’s play which is itself based on Laclos’ novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but focuses only on the two main characters. It’s a visually compelling and brilliantly tense drama. The Linbury Studio proves its versatility again, this time housing a metal & concrete platform in a traverse setting, above which white roughly shaped cloths hang (onto which images are projected) and beneath which is the London Sinfonietta! (designer Soutra Gilmour; say no more). The platform contains little except car batteries which power lamps, but one has another purpose at the tragic conclusion. Like almost all modern opera, the music is challenging, but it is suspenseful, in keeping with the story. The two singers & orchestra are augmented by recorded vocals & chorus and sound effects. I rather liked it, but whoever decided on 10 performances is probably regretting this as No. 3 on a Friday was only half full. Given he’s written over 100 works, it’s surprising I’ve never heard of Francesconi!

The Royal College of Music revived a very rare Rossini comic opera and in Donald Maxwell’s production, La Gazzetta it was a hoot. Nigel Hook’s bright and colourful designs set the tone and fun was to be had at the expense of Berlusconi. The male voice choir, in red rugby shirts, was from Cwmbran (which also featured as a clock in one of those world time clock sets you get in hotels). There was some terrific singing, although occasionally ragged at the edges, but forgiven for the fun we were having. A treat.

Dance

I took a punt on something in Sadler’s Sampled, a sort of proms of dance, and was delighted with South African Dada Masilio’s riff on Swan Lake. Other composers’ music was added to Tchaikovsky (Steve Reich & Saints-Saens) and the whole thing trimmed to an hour. Only when I read the reviews afterwards did I realize I’d missed a lot of the narrative and story. Still, I enjoyed the dance for itself!

Art

Tate Britain’s British Folk Art exhibition was fascinating, but not really big enough to be fully satisfying. Lots off embroidery, ship’s figureheads, paintings and shop signs which told interesting stories of their purpose and their times, but it could have had more breadth and depth.

A lovely pair of exhibitions at The Photographers Gallery, beginning with the annual Deutsche Borse Photography Prize – perhaps the best shortlist for some time and Richard Mosse’s infrared Congo landscapes an obvious winner (for once I agree with the judges!). The other was photos (and some paintings) by John Deakin, who was one of those Soho characters who hung out with Jeffrey Barnard, Francis Bacon, Dylan Thomas et al and his pictures of Soho life are superb, really evocative of the place and the period.

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With eight days at the paralympics at the beginning of the month, five days housebound at the end of the month and seven shows in-between, there wasn’t much room for ‘the rest’.

Opera

We’d seen both productions in our autumn visit to WNO in Cardiff before – Handel’s Jeptha some years back and Puccini’s La Boheme just 3 months ago. Neither were quite up to their earlier incarnation, but both were well worth re-visiting. Jeptha was never meant to be staged and it is directed by my bête noire Katie Mitchell, but despite that I like the modern war-time staging and the music is simply gorgeous. Robert Murray was excellent in the title role. The La Boheme staging is one of the best, but the new Mimi, Giselle Allen, wasn’t really believable. This was a ‘safe’ visit – the next one is Janacek and Berg and the one after Wagner and a modern one about Wagner, so they should be more challenging!

Ballet

I was persuaded to go to San Francisco Ballet by some visitors, but came out glad I was. The very diverse third mixed programme was a veritable feast. It started with a quirky and camp Mark Morris piece (not his best), then we got a more classical piece (to a lovely Prokofiev symphony), a captivating Japanese dance drama and some more modern dance with a blend of early and contemporary music. It seemed like a very young company which is probably why it all felt exuberant and fresh.

Art 

Another London at Tate Britain was both a superb idea and a brilliantly curated exhibition of B&W photos of London taken by foreign photographers. It included most of the 20th century’s iconic photographers and though it focused a bit too much on ‘grimy poor London’ it was unmissable.

At the Photographers’ Gallery, the annual Deutsche Borse Photography Prize exhibition was the best ever, in particular the images of Ghanaian scavengers and the arty Japanese selection. The new galleries have been improved since they moved in and now provide an excellent space to show these works.

The Korean Eye exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery was one of the best of their recent overseas contemporary art exhibitions with a nice combination of sculpture, installation and painting (yes, painting!). An excellent bonus during this visit was a small but hugely creative exhibition of chess sets by British artists (the usual suspects such as Hirst and Emin). How does this gallery survive without subsidy?

At the ICA, I liked Bruce Nauman’s soundwork Days – you walked through a space where speakers on both sides projected people speaking. Sadly, the rest of the soundworks ‘exhibited’ at the same time were hugely disappointing.

A brilliant trio of exhibitions at the NPG this month with the BP Portrait Prize living up to its reputation, photos of people associated with London 2012 (not just athletes) all over the building and a surprisingly interesting exhibition of pictures and photos of the queen  I’m no monarchist, so enjoyment of the latter was a bit of a shock!

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Contemporary Music

Todd Rundgren’s concert at the Jazz Café was a real treat. Small venue – ‘greatest hits’ set – terrific band; and Todd on fine and funny form prancing around like a man half his age. I’m not as familiar with this material as most in the audience, but loved it nonetheless.

Steve Earle couldn’t be accused of offering poor value for money. His sets at the Royal Festival Hall totalled 160 minutes. Sometimes, though, more is less and with poor sound contributing, I’m afraid that’s what it was here. The band was great, the set list eclectic and Earle on brittle and funny form with his chat, but it outstayed its welcome and became a bit of a rushed affair in the end.

Honest John’s Chop Up turned out to be an impulsive treat. Damon Albarn’s label showcased a Ghanaian rapper, Malian singer, US brass ensemble and three people from South Africa who defy description but were huge fun. It was like a party with turns, not all of which were good but some of which were great and I loved it.

Opera

Our autumn opera pairing at WNO, the UK’s most accessible opera company, was a brilliantly cast Don Giovanni and a musically thrilling Katya Kabanova, dedicated to Charles Mackerras (with his wife and daughter present). David Kempster isn’t the best DG I’ve ever heard but his acting was exceptional. There was superb support from a home-grown cast which made you wonder why people make such a fuss about casting international stars. David Soar was a terrific Leporello, Robin Tritshler and Camilla Roberts in fine voice as Don Ottavio and Donna Anna and Gary Griffiths an excellent Masetto. Music Director Lothar Koenigs brought out the best of the WNO Orchestra whose playing of the Katya score in particular was stunning. Amanda Roocroft was an outstanding Katya, with an excellent supporting cast including a fine Boris from Peter Wedd and a suitably malevolent Kabanicha from Leah-Marian Jones.

The Passenger at ENO was a somewhat harrowing experience, but an opera I’m very glad I did experience. It moves between an ocean liner in the 60’s, whose passengers include a former Auschwitz guard and one of her victims, and Auschwitz itself back in the 40’s. It’s a very dramatic but very accessible score and David Pountney’s production is masterly, partly thanks to Johan Engels extraordinary design, with the ship’s deck towering over the rail tracks and desolation of the concentration camp. Richard Armstrong’s conducting was also masterly and the orchestra sounded sensational. Amongst a fine ensemble, Giselle Allen as Marta and Michelle Breedt as Liese were wonderful.

Classical Music

The Cardinall’s Music under Andrew Cawood gave a brilliant recital of William Byrd’s unaccompanied church music at Wigmore Hall. They included selections from five of his contemporaries which by-and-large made Byrd shine (Tallis the exception) and I liked the fact that Cawood breaks with convention to introduce and explain his selections.

I’ve had a passing interest in the music of John Taverner but haven’t really heard that much, so a whole evening of small-scale works at Wigmore Hall seemed like a good place to start. Six choral pieces, three song cycles and solo pieces for cello and piano certainly made it a musical feast. The highlight for me was the choral work, sung with great beauty by a ‘scratch’ choir of young singers put together for the evening under the name Caeli Chorum. Patricia Rozario’s vocal fireworks were extraordinary but the works more challenging, as were the solo instrumental pieces, but it was a fascinating immersive experience nonetheless.

Dance

Clod Ensemble took over Sadler’s Wells but only sold 15% of the seats. Starting at the back of the upper circle, the show took us down each level for a new segment until we were at the back of the stage watching the curtain come down on them with the stalls as the backdrop. I can’t say I understood the concept, and it was more movement than dance, but it was a captivating experience.

Film

I liked The Debt, a film about the botched Mossad abduction of a Nazi war criminal It surprised me and gripped me, not least because of an excellent performance from Helen Mirren.

What I liked most about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was the fact that it didn’t patronise you; you had to work to keep up with it! The other thing I liked about it was the collection of stunning performances, including Gary Oldman as Smiley, John Hurt, Kathy Burke, Toby Jones, Colin Frith, Cairan Hinds, Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch.

We Need to Talk About Kevin was a harrowing experience, but a brilliant piece of film-making. Tilda Swinton really is one of the very best actors working today and yet again she inhabits a role. Wonderful, but if I was a parent it would scare me senseless!

Unless I’ve been avoiding this type of film too long (quite possible!), with The Adventures of Tin Tin – The Secret of the Unicorn, Stephen Spielberg seems to has invented something that is neither animation nor live action but, for a story like this, is better than both. The almost-but-not-quite lifelike characters can look more realistic doing stuff actors or animation can’t. It’s also the best 3D I’ve ever seen. Great fun.

Art

I went to Treasures of Heaven at the British Museum fired up after my recent Caucasus trip. Interesting though it was, there’s a limit to how many religious relics an unbeliever can take – the least interesting of the BM’s big Reading Room shows.

Locked Room Scenario was another of Artangel’s extraordinary installations. When you enter the warehouse where it takes place and ask a girl which way to go, you get a surly response. You’re at an exhibition of the Blue Conceptual art movement, but the entrance to their exhibition is locked so you end up walking round, peeping in where you can, picking up leaflets and looking at the fictitious movement’s timeline. When I was walking away, a young man handed me a page from a book he said I’d dropped. I read it and became convinced this was all part of the experience; the rest of my walk was rather surreal and disorientating.

I’d never heard of Pipilotti Risi before I went to her show at the Hayward Gallery. I love the playfulness of her videos, on translucent screens or hidden in handbags, conch shells and all sorts of other objects. It was like revisiting psychedelia, but with technology which enables artists to do so much more. Huge fun.

The Barbican Gallery continues its unique position amongst London’s major spaces with an exhibition from / about architectural practice OMA (whoever they are!) curated by Rotor (whoever they are too!). It’s a very original presentation of drawings, models, materials etc. though I think you have to be an architect or designer to get the most out of it. An interesting and intriguing one hour wander nonetheless.

The second Koestler Trust Art For Offenders exhibition at the RFH was simply extraordinary. This year it included video, music and spoken word as well as paintings and sculpture. Many of these items would hold their own in any contemporary art selling exhibition. Though the art was uplifting and enthralling, one was left with the feeling of hopelessness that so much talent is locked up.

A visit with the V&A Friends to then newly refurbished Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel was terrific. The highlight is the 5-story stairwell with ceramic tiles on the ground floor, wrought iron and wood banisters, stencilled walls and an extraordinary painted ceiling. They’ve done a wonderful job of restoring all of this and it was a treat being able to see it without having to take out a mortgage to book a room!

In Oxford for lunch, I had enough time to pop into the lovely Ashmolean Museum again (now one of the UK’s very best museums) which included a small but fascinating display of iconic Chinese Cultural Revolution art that showed you how it is possible for paintings to influence people; you could see how they fell for Mao with all these idealised images.

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Contemporary Music

Todd Rundgren’s concert at the Jazz Café was a real treat. Small venue – ‘greatest hits’ set – terrific band; and Todd on fine and funny form prancing around like a man half his age. I’m not as familiar with this material as most in the audience, but loved it nonetheless.

Steve Earle couldn’t be accused of offering poor value for money. His sets at the Royal Festival Hall totalled 160 minutes. Sometimes, though, more is less and with poor sound contributing, I’m afraid that’s what it was here. The band was great, the set list eclectic and Earle on brittle and funny form with his chat, but it outstayed its welcome and became a bit of a rushed affair in the end.

Honest John’s Chop Up turned out to be an impulsive treat. Damon Albarn’s label showcased a Ghanaian rapper, Malian singer, US brass ensemble and three people from South Africa who defy description but were huge fun. It was like a party with turns, not all of which were good but some of which were great and I loved it.

Opera

Our autumn opera pairing at WNO, the UK’s most accessible opera company, was a brilliantly cast Don Giovanni and a musically thrilling Katya Kabanova, dedicated to Charles Mackerras (with his wife and daughter present). David Kempster isn’t the best DG I’ve ever heard but his acting was exceptional. There was superb support from a home-grown cast which made you wonder why people make such a fuss about casting international stars. David Soar was a terrific Leporello, Robin Tritshler and Camilla Roberts in fine voice as Don Ottavio and Donna Anna and Gary Griffiths an excellent Masetto. Music Director Lothar Koenigs brought out the best of the WNO Orchestra whose playing of the Katya score in particular was stunning. Amanda Roocroft was an outstanding Katya, with an excellent supporting cast including a fine Boris from Peter Wedd and a suitably malevolent Kabanicha from Leah-Marian Jones.

The Passenger at ENO was a somewhat harrowing experience, but an opera I’m very glad I did experience. It moves between an ocean liner in the 60’s, whose passengers include a former Auschwitz guard and one of her victims, and Auschwitz itself back in the 40’s. It’s a very dramatic but very accessible score and David Pountney’s production is masterly, partly thanks to Johan Engels extraordinary design, with the ship’s deck towering over the rail tracks and desolation of the concentration camp. Richard Armstrong’s conducting was also masterly and the orchestra sounded sensational. Amongst a fine ensemble, Giselle Allen as Marta and Michelle Breedt as Liese were wonderful.

Classical Music

The Cardinall’s Music under Andrew Cawood gave a brilliant recital of William Byrd’s unaccompanied church music at Wigmore Hall. They included selections from five of his contemporaries which by-and-large made Byrd shine (Tallis the exception) and I liked the fact that Cawood breaks with convention to introduce and explain his selections.

I’ve had a passing interest in the music of John Taverner but haven’t really heard that much, so a whole evening of small-scale works at Wigmore Hall seemed like a good place to start. Six choral pieces, three song cycles and solo pieces for cello and piano certainly made it a musical feast. The highlight for me was the choral work, sung with great beauty by a ‘scratch’ choir of young singers put together for the evening under the name Caeli Chorum. Patricia Rozario’s vocal fireworks were extraordinary but the works more challenging, as were the solo instrumental pieces, but it was a fascinating immersive experience nonetheless.

Dance

Clod Ensemble took over Sadler’s Wells but only sold 15% of the seats. Starting at the back of the upper circle, the show took us down each level for a new segment until we were at the back of the stage watching the curtain come down on them with the stalls as the backdrop. I can’t say I understood the concept, and it was more movement than dance, but it was a captivating experience.

Film

I liked The Debt, a film about the botched Mossad abduction of a Nazi war criminal It surprised me and gripped me, not least because of an excellent performance from Helen Mirren.

What I liked most about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was the fact that it didn’t patronise you; you had to work to keep up with it! The other thing I liked about it was the collection of stunning performances, including Gary Oldman as Smiley, John Hurt, Kathy Burke, Toby Jones, Colin Frith, Cairan Hinds, Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch.

We Need to Talk About Kevin was a harrowing experience, but a brilliant piece of film-making. Tilda Swinton really is one of the very best actors working today and yet again she inhabits a role. Wonderful, but if I was a parent it would scare me senseless!

Unless I’ve been avoiding this type of film too long (quite possible!), with The Adventures of Tin Tin – The Secret of the Unicorn, Stephen Spielberg seems to has invented something that is neither animation nor live action but, for a story like this, is better than both. The almost-but-not-quite lifelike characters can look more realistic doing stuff actors or animation can’t. It’s also the best 3D I’ve ever seen. Great fun.

Art

I went to Treasures of Heaven at the British Museum fired up after my recent Caucasus trip. Interesting though it was, there’s a limit to how many religious relics an unbeliever can take – the least interesting of the BM’s big Reading Room shows.

Locked Room Scenario was another of Artangel’s extraordinary installations. When you enter the warehouse where it takes place and ask a girl which way to go, you get a surly response. You’re at an exhibition of the Blue Conceptual art movement, but the entrance to their exhibition is locked so you end up walking round, peeping in where you can, picking up leaflets and looking at the fictitious movement’s timeline. When I was walking away, a young man handed me a page from a book he said I’d dropped. I read it and became convinced this was all part of the experience; the rest of my walk was rather surreal and disorientating.

I’d never heard of Pipilotti Risi before I went to her show at the Hayward Gallery. I love the playfulness of her videos, on translucent screens or hidden in handbags, conch shells and all sorts of other objects. It was like revisiting psychedelia, but with technology which enables artists to do so much more. Huge fun.

The Barbican Gallery continues its unique position amongst London’s major spaces with an exhibition from / about architectural practice OMA (whoever they are!) curated by Rotor (whoever they are too!). It’s a very original presentation of drawings, models, materials etc. though I think you have to be an architect or designer to get the most out of it. An interesting and intriguing one hour wander nonetheless.

The second Koestler Trust Art For Offenders exhibition at the RFH was simply extraordinary. This year it included video, music and spoken word as well as paintings and sculpture. Many of these items would hold their own in any contemporary art selling exhibition. Though the art was uplifting and enthralling, one was left with the feeling of hopelessness that so much talent is locked up.

A visit with the V&A Friends to then newly refurbished Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel was terrific. The highlight is the 5-story stairwell with ceramic tiles on the ground floor, wrought iron and wood banisters, stencilled walls and an extraordinary painted ceiling. They’ve done a wonderful job of restoring all of this and it was a treat being able to see it without having to take out a mortgage to book a room!

In Oxford for lunch, I had enough time to pop into the lovely Ashmolean Museum again (now one of the UK’s very best museums) which included a small but fascinating display of iconic Chinese Cultural Revolution art that showed you how it is possible for paintings to influence people; you could see how they fell for Mao with all these idealised images.

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Opera / Dance

The summer pairing at WNO was amongst the best since they moved to the WMC. Christopher Alden’s production of Turandot is 17 years old, but you’d never know it. It was inventive and fresh with three excellent leads in Gwyn Hughes Jones, Rebecca Evans and Anna Shafajinskaia. Musical Director Luther Koenigs had apparently never conducted it before, but the sound he got from the orchestra and chorus was rich, lush and positively gorgeous – a shivers-up-your-spine job. Cosi Fan Tutte isn’t my favourite Mozart – overlong for the silly story  – but this new British seaside staging complete with prom, mini fairground, Punch & Judy show and Café was delightful and the singing of all six leads – Neal Davies, Robin Tritschler, Gary Griffiths, Camilla Roberts, Helen Lepalaan & Claire Ormshaw – was excellent. Yet again, Britain’s most accessible opera company provided quality and value.

The ENO’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is musically beautiful, but the production is so contemptuous and disrespectful of its dead composer, Benjamin Britten, who can’t answer back. This isn’t Britten’s opera, its director Christopher Alden’s.  If he wanted to steer so far from the composer’s intentions, he should have written his own opera. This is the worst example of director arrogance I have ever seen – and from someone whose work I have so far admired (including the revival of his WNO Turandot above). This is the second occasion this year where the ENO have allowed a director’s vision to overwhelm and overpower a composer’s work. If they were alive they couldn’t / wouldn’t do it, which makes it completely unacceptable. It’s particularly galling that they’ve ditched a lovely production for this travesty. Oh, I wish I’d kept my eyes closed.

Cocteau Voices is an inspired double-bill at the ROH’s Linbury Studio. It pairs Poulenc’s one woman opera based on a Cocteau playlet with another two-character Cocteau playlet, written for Edith Piaf and her lover, adapted as a wordless dance drama with an electronic score from Scott Walker. In the latter, three dancers play each character and it was a mesmerizing athletic visual feast. Italian singer Nuccia Focile isn’t as good an actress as Joan Rogers in the only other production of this piece I have seen (by Opera North) and I found it difficult to believe in her as a dumped lover. After a while, I tuned out the libretto (in English) and just allowed the music to wash over me. One of the better ROH2 experiments.

L’amico Fritz is a rare opera from the man who provided half of Cav & Pag (if he knew, I wonder what Mascagni would think of the fact only one of his 15 operas is now regularly performed – and that as part of a double-bill; I’d certainly be interested in hearing some of the others). Young soprano Anna Leese is the reason for seeing this; she is simply delightful. David Stephenson is also good as, well, David, but I’m afraid Eric Margiore was no match for either of them – and he completely fell apart on the third act. I thought the modern-ish settings took away the opera’s charm, clever though they were, but the orchestra sounded particularly lush. It’s a minor opera, but one I’m glad I caught up with. As much as I have loved OHP over the years, I’m afraid it’s starting to become country house opera in the city, with the associated prices, dress and non opera-loving audience; I fear the worst…..

Contemporary Music

I’ve never been that keen on Ron Sexsmith, who I’ve always found depressing, but my nephew gave me his new album and a compilation to convert me and it worked. It’s the production of the new stuff that lifts it for me, though I have to say the older material worked well in concert. He was supported by Anna Calvi, who was original but a bit intense for me. As it was part of Ray Davies’ Meltdown, he both introduced her and sang a song with Sexsmith. A nice evening.

I wasn’t as enthused by the programming of Ray Davies’ Meltdown as I was Richard Thompson’s last year, even though he is as much of a hero. However, his final concert with his band, the LPO and the Crouch End Festival Chorus was another highlight in a lifetime of concert going. The first half saw the whole of the highly under-rated 1968 album Village Green Preservation Society (it was released on the same day as The Beatles white album!) played for the first time and the second half a set of 13 Kinks & solo classics, the pinnacle of which was Days, with the addition of two thousand audience members singing too. When the orchestra and chorus left the stage, he came back saying ‘we can’t finish yet, it’s not even 10 o’clock’ and the band delivered a three song mini-set which had us all dancing. Terrific!

I couldn’t resist going to Glee Live as the TV show has become such a guilty pleasure. There was much to enjoy, and it was extremely well staged at the O2, but the fan worship and tendency to both over-sing and over-amplify marred what could have been a real fun evening – albeit a short and expensive 80 minute one that came in at over £1 a minute!

Art

I was hugely disappointed by the Joan Miro retrospective at Tate Modern, particularly as the first room was stunning. After these gorgeous early paintings, he moved to Paris and got in with bad company (Picasso and Masson) and it’s poor surrealism, abstraction and downhill from there! I actually preferred Taryn Simon’s exhibition, showing her somewhat obsessive and indescribable collection of genealogical photographic groups. Each group represents people associated with an event or location and there are (explained) gaps where the sets are incomplete. As I said, indescribable!

Chris Beetles indispensable gallery / shop had probably the most comprehensive exhibition of Heath Robinson ever mounted. It was stunning, though it was closely packed and too much to take in. In addition to his quirky stuff, there were less well-known fairy tales and cricket drawings, amongst others. Against this, the fascinating Hoffnung exhibition also there couldn’t compare.

The weather marred our annual visit to the Taste of London restaurant showcase in Regent’s Park, though there also appeared to be a lot less restaurants, less interesting food and a broader less foodie remit. I think it may be time to drop this particular modern tradition.

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Contemporary Music

The Decemberists’ concert at Hammersmith Apollo built on their last at the Coronet and buried the memory of their first RFH disaster; this was mostly due to excellent song selection and ordering. They now have a fine body of material and they’ve learnt how to deliver it live and still have fun without compromising quality. I will forgive them the self-indulgent whale song encore because of the 90 minutes before and the gorgeous final encore.

Within minutes of arriving at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, I was regretting it. The traffic was awful and I’d missed most of the intriguing support act, the chatter from people at the back was cacophonous and the sound painfully heavy on base. Then, during his second number, they all shut up, the sound improved and John Grant’s weaved the same magic he did when I first heard his album The Queen of Denmark. He writes very personal songs, sings them with a rich baritone voice and plays piano competently. There’s a second keyboard most of the time and a string quartet some of the time, but no guitars or drums. It’s a rather refreshing sound and live his personality makes for a refreshingly intimate experience. I’d have preferred a venue like the Barbican or Royal Festival Hall, but it was a delight all the same.

Opera

A bumper month!

The latest Guildhall School opera offering is Poulenc’s lovely Dialogues des Carmelites, possibly the most tuneful opera written in the late 20th century! I’ve long been fond of this opera about the martyrdom of nuns during the French revolution and musically the GSMD did it proud. There were some excellent young voices – including a gorgeous Blanche from Anna Patalong, fine turns as the Marquis and his son from Koji Terada and Charlie Mellor and a beautiful Mere Marie from Sylvie Bedouelle. It was great to have a GSMD opera that showed off the fine chorus too. I’m afraid I didn’t like David Farley’s design, where everything was framed by a hole through broken glass, a reference to the opening image of a carriage being attacked by revolutionaries. It was particularly irritating when it framed an opening or closing scene image that about a third of the audience could see.

Back in Cardiff for the WNO late winter pairing of Il Travatore and Die Fledermaus. The former has so much wonderful music that you have to forgive its convoluted and somewhat preposterous plot, and in this production some static staging from Peter Watson and a dark and rather depressing (if clever) series of settings from Tim Hatley. There are so many long scene changes and when the curtain goes up after each of them, you just groan because its just a different configuration of the same giant walls! Welsh boys David Kempster and Gwyn Hughes Jones were both excellent as the Duke and Manrico respectively. Veronica Simeoni sang Azucena brilliantly but couldn’t act for toffee. Katie Pellegrino was technically good as Leonora but it wasn’t always an entirely pleasing sound. The chorus was of course terrific. A bit dull to look at, but a treat to listen to.

Despite the fact I’m not really an operetta man, and certainly not a fan of the somewhat twee Johann Strauss, I rather enjoyed Die Fledermaus, which says much about both the production and the performances. Again, superbly well cast, with some fine singing and acing from Mark Stone, Paul Charles Clarke, Joanne Boag and Nuccia Focile and a delightful cameos as prisoner governor from Alan Opie and actor Desmond Barritt in the non-singing role of the prison warden. It probably benefitted from the affection the ‘old school’ production team have for it – director John Copley, designer Tim Reed and Deirdre Clancy made it fizz with considerable charm and much humour (even though you had heard all the jokes before!).

Rodelinda is this year’s staged offering from the London Handel Festival. It’s one of Handel’s best and musically it shines, with lovely singing from Kitty Whately, Christopher Lowrey, Anthony Gregory and Edward Grint. Susanna Hurrell in the title role was occasionally too loud and harsh and Jake Arditti’s voice was a bit small for Unulfo, but an excellent young ensemble just the same. The orchestral playing, under Laurence Cummings, was outstanding. The modern military setting occasionally jarred, with a particularly tacky ending where royal prince Flavio holds up a flag and gun.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies & David Pountney’s new opera Kommilitonen! is both a coup and a triumph for the Royal Academy of Music. Max had given up on opera because he was fed up of writing operas based in places like lighthouses to find them staged in a toilet (the best put down of director-led opera ever!). Fortunately, he relented and wrote this highly original opera linking student protests in the US deep south, Mao’s China and Nazi Germany appropriately staged by students in a college. It’s dramatically and musically thrilling and the student talent on show is extraordinary.

Peter Brook’s edited minimalist A Magic Flute was a bit of a damp squib. Even though it ran for around half the normal time, it seemed a very long 95 minutes. There were some nice humourous touches, some clever staging and some nice voices, but overall it underwhelmed. In short, no magic!

Film

Submarine is a charming film, and a hugely impressive debut from actor-come-director Richard Ayoade. There were some gorgeous performances and the picture of school life in Wales oozed authenticity. I loved it.

Route Irish is a lot to stomach; it’s a very well made Ken Loach film but it’s very depressing. I don’t know how true this tale of private security firms in war zones is, but if it’s only a fraction true, it’s shameful. I admired it, but I can’t say I enjoyed it – and it made me angry; but I suppose it was meant to, so ‘job done’.

Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a peek into French caves first discovered just 15 years ago. The 32,000 year-old cave paintings are extraordinary, shown off perfectly in 3D, but there’s a lot of padding and much of the narration is pompous. Now it’s tourism in 3D at your local cinema; whatever next!

The best was left to last this month, with the wonderfully uplifting and deeply moving Benda Bilili!, a film about a bunch of disabled homeless musicians in Congo. The film allowed the musicians own words and their music to speak for themselves – no narration – which is one of its great strengths. Though completely different, it had the same impact as Buena Vista Social Club. Now, to find the CD….

Art

A bumper Art month too; which tells you how much work I did in March!

Cory Arcangel’s installation at the Barbican projects 14 bowling video games created over 24 years. It’s a fascinating examination of how technology evolves, but it isn’t art!

Eve Arnold’s photos at Chris Beetles’ lovely new gallery were terrific. There are a large number taken during filming of The Misfits and I’d have loved to have bought one of Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, but £12,500-£17.500 they were way beyond my price range!

I went to the wrong branch of Hauser & Wirth where there was a video installation of Chernobyl by Diana Thater, which did little for me – worthy though it was. When I got to the right branch, Martin Creed’s paintings also did little for me – until I came across his giant revolving neon ‘Mothers’, which I loved.

The NPG has a terrific exhibition by an early 20th century photographer called Emil Otto Hoppe. His B&W prints of famous political and artistic figures of the time have so much depth; you seem to be peering into their souls. They are shown with some wonderful London street scenes from the same period, with a documentary style that seems to me to be way ahead of their time.

I was a bit sceptical about Watercolour at Tate Britain; I thought it might be one of those ‘excuses for an exhibition’ in order to make money in this new museum / gallery free entry world. It turns out to be an excellent review of c.500 years of the art form with an exploration of the techniques and a diverse range of pictures, including some simply stunning ones. In truth, it does fizzle out in the last quarter (modern stuff, including the usual suspects like the talentless Tracey Emin), but that doesn’t deter from the astonishing highs. In the same gallery, Susan Hiller’s exhibition is fascinating & intriguing, showing off her inventiveness & technical skills – but as art it left me completely cold; admiration but not pleasure.

I keep going to contemporary art exhibitions and come out disappointed and British Art Show 7 at the Hayward is no exception. There were some nice pictures from Alasdair Gray and a clever 24-hour film collage of time references synchronised with the actual time from Christian Marclay (I only sat in for the 5.30pm section!), but it was Roger Hiorns again who was the most creative. When I walked into a film booth (I really do have a problem with film in galleries and tend to stay in each for only a short while) it was just a metal park / station bench. When I came out there was a real naked man sitting on the back of the bench looking at a real fire burning on the seat next to him. Terrific.

Back at the NPG, they’re showing another fascinating photographer I’ve never heard of! This time it’s the 50’s / 60’s B&W portraits of artists, writers and musicians by Ida Kar. They are both fascinating subjects and fascinating pictures.

At the Museum of London, they have a lovely exhibition of London Street Photos spanning 150 years to the present day. They perfectly capture the personality of my adopted city over the years and contain many by even more photographers new to me! By contrast, the Barbican Centre Gallery nearby is showcasing the work of the 70’s New York avant-garde and in particular polymaths Trisha Brown, Laurie Anderson and Gordon Matta-Clark, the latter the only one new to me. Though much of the background work like preparatory drawings left me cold, I was quite taken with Anderson’s interactive pieces (a pillow that plays to you as you rest your head and a desk from which the sound travels through your arms to your ears as you place your elbows on it and cover your ears!) and the two Brown performances I caught – five dancers walking the walls and two weaving in and out of clothes on top of a rope and steel climbing frame. The Barbican is challenging the Hayward in off-the-wall things like this; they sometimes (often?) fail, but you have to admire their nerve in putting on such niche stuff.

I knew nothing about Gabriel Orozco before I went to his exhibition at Tate Modern. It was a very diverse selection of pictures, ‘sculptures’, installations and project descriptions, some of which were interesting and some of which were just dull. The biggest room was almost entirely filled with photographs that he took of a yellow motorcycle he bought and rode in search of identical ones, taking a photo of each pairing as he did. Why? Hardly worthy of a major retrospective, in my view.

I’m not overly fond of Dulwich Picture Gallery’s permanent collection, but they are indispensible when it comes to special exhibitions, particularly by illustrators. Norman Rockwell may be sentimental, twee and sweet Americana, but he’s technically accomplished as this exhibition of c.30 original paintings, c.10 studies, 4 posters and c.300 Saturday Picture Post front covers shows; he’s particularly good at faces and children. It was particularly fascinating to see how the SPP covers evolved over almost 50 years.

Back at Chris Beetles’ new photo gallery they’d swapped the Eve Arnold I started the month with for a terrific set of B&W pictures of actors, models and musicians by Terry O’Neill. I would have so liked to buy a copy of Macca playing piano at Ringo’s 1981 wedding, a picture that comes alive as you look at it, but didn’t have £2000 on me!

I’d avoided the Royal Academy’s Modern British Sculpture exhibition because the reviews were so bad but as I was passing with time to kill and as it’s free for Friends, I gave it a quick look and it was nowhere near as bad as I was led to expect. It was worth a visit for an amazing Adam by Jacob Epstein alone, but there were others to admire, though they did make up less that half of the exhibition. How you can mount a survey of modern British sculpture without three recent titans – Anthony Gormley, Richard Wilson & Anish Kapoor – is however beyond me. We got a less important example from Damien Hirst but were fortunate to be spared a Tracey Emin. Upstairs, it was hard to get excited about Watteau’s drawings, accomplished though they are. There are an awful lot of studies of heads and hands and few finished works.

Phew, did I really do all that on top of 20 plays, musicals and ballets?!

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

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

Contemporary Music

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

Classical Music

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

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

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

Opera

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

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

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

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

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

Film

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

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

Art

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

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

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

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

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

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