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Posts Tagged ‘Whitechapel Gallery’

Opera

La Voix Humaine is a rarely staged 50-minute one-woman opera by Poulenc, one of only three he wrote, and Opera Up Close are to be congratulated on an accessible, high quality production at Kings Place starring Sarah Minns with the score played on piano by Richard Black. Captivating.

A French double-bill at the Royal College of Music proved to be a delight. Chabrier’s Une Education Manquee, about a couple who didn’t know what to do on their wedding night, and Poulenc’s rather surreal cross-dressing boob-expanding Les Mamelles de Tiresias worked brilliantly together and the singing and playing was divine.

I saw the rarely performed Leoncavallo opera Zaza in concert a couple of years ago, so I was looking forward to seeing it staged. Sadly, the staging and design were so incompetent and inconsiderate (sightlines and audibility) that I wished I was hearing it in concert again! The final straw was a downpour soon after the second half started, where the noise of the rain on the canvas roof virtually drowned out the singers – but that wasn’t Opera Holland Park’s fault.

The Arcola‘s enterprising Grimeborn (geddit?) opera festival staged a musical-opera hybrid called The Marriage of Kim K which was a great idea, very ambitious and had its moments, but didn’t entirely work. It alternated between the story of Kim Kardashian’s short marriage to Kris Humphries, Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro and a British couple (him composer, her lawyer) on a couch fighting over the remote and switching between the two. It was this middle section which let it down by being rather dull and underperformed (and often out of tune). Gold star for trying, though, and hopefully we’ll see it again re-worked and improved.

Classical Music

I don’t think I’ve ever reacted so differently to two halves of the same concert as I did at Simon Keenlyside’s recital at Wigmore Hall. I adored the first half of Vaughn Williams, Finzi and Sibelius, but didn’t care for the more frivolous selections of Poulenc and Mahler in the second half, despite the obvious skills of the performers. A matter of taste, I guess.

The BBC Singers / Eric Whitacre concert at GSMD’s Milton Court was an absolute gem. An eclectic programme of ten pieces by living composers from five countries, including four world premieres and one UK premiere, with all composers present, with Whitacre’s first and latest compositions included. To cap it all, an encore of favourite Laura Mvula’s own arrangement of her song Sing to the Moon. Wonderful stuff.

Andrew Norman’s children’s opera A Trip to the Moon, based on the 1902 French silent movie of the same title, was paired with Sibelius 2nd Symphony in a terrific LSO Discovery concert in the Barbican Hall that saw the former involve local communities and both involve GSMD students, under Simon Rattle. Watching the white-shirted post-grad students sitting alongside the black-shirted LSO players provided a great sense of current musicians nurturing the next generation, which really moved me – and they sounded bloody great together too.

Soprano Sophie Bevan & tenor Allan Clayton gave a lovely recital of 28 Shakespeare songs by 20 different composers at Wigmore Hall, a very diverse and sometimes unpredictable selection. The acoustic was unkind to the soprano as it was to Simon Keenlyside’s baritone last week, which is a bit odd.

Contemporary Music

My first Prom this year was a late night celebration of Scott Walker‘s late 60’s solo albums, songs that have never been played live by anyone let alone Jarvis Cocker, John Grant, Suzanne Sundfor & Richard Hawley, with small choir and big orchestra! I didn’t think Cocker’s voice suited Walker’s songs, but the other three were terrific. I’m not a huge fan, but it was well worth the punt.

Film

Seeing Baby Driver broke a two-month film famine. It wasn’t the sort of film I usually go to – glorifying violence in a Tarantinoesque way – but it was exciting and brilliantly made, though let down by the implausibility of the ending.

Dunkirk is an extraordinary film about an extraordinary event. It was tense for the whole 100 minutes, but deeply moving too. Unmissable.

Dance

The Barbican gave over their Art Gallery for four weeks of performance art, well dance really, created by Trajal Harrall. There were lots of short works in different places, so I planned my visit to see as many as possible. Sadly, they weren’t as organised as me so I ended up having to go with the flow a bit, but that proved to be fun. I managed to sample about twelve pieces over a couple of hours and left feeling rather pleased with myself.

Art

A lot to catch up on…..

The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition was great this year, though I missed all those architectural models I’m so fond of. Still, the biggest selling exhibition of them all had a lot I would have bought if I bought art!

If I wasn’t a Friend, I probably wouldn’t have gone to the Sargent watercolours exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, which would have left a gaping hole in my life because I loved it! Portraits, city scenes and landscapes, they were all wonderful.

A visit to Whitechapel Gallery en route to a concert proved disappointing as Benedict Drew’s The Trickle-Down Syndrome was slight, A Handful of Dust was a bit pointless and the ISelf Collection underwhelming!

White Cube Bermondsey is such a big gallery that trying to fill it with women surrealists was bound to lead to variable quality, but fortunately there was enough good stuff to make Dreamers Awake worthwhile.

You don’t expect to see Picasso in a private gallery, let alone 111 paintings, drawings, sculptures, tapestries & ceramics of Minotaurs and Matadors, all bar one from private collections! It wasn’t a selling exhibition and entrance was free, so I’m not sure how the Gagosian funds it, but I’m glad they do.

Gregory Crewdson‘s heavily staged and artificially lit photos are like stills from an indie movie or paintings by Edward Hopper, which appear to tell a story but tantalisingly don’t, quite. His Cathedral of the Pines exhibition at the Photographers Gallery puts nudes in white clapperboard houses in snowy landscapes. Weird but a little bit wonderful.

A lovely double-dip at the NPG en route to the theatre, starting with the excellent class of 2017 at the BP Portrait Award, followed by The Encounter, featuring drawings from the 15th to 17th centuries, mostly culled from private collections including fifteen, a third of them, from the Queen! Another treat.

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at Tate Modern took me by surprise. Covering just 20 years of Black American art from the outset of the 1960’s civil rights movement, it contained some powerful, bold political statements alongside some terrific abstract pictures.

Though low lighting and overcrowding made Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave at the British Museum a bit of a challenge, it was great to see his complete range of gorgeous, finely detailed work. I shall now pour through the catalogue to see them properly!

The month ended on a real art high with Alma-Tadema at Leighton House, an artist I’d never heard of whose very comprehensive retrospective was absolutely fabulous.

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Contemporary Music

Camille O’Sullivan really is a one-off. I adore the edginess, anarchy, unpredictability and eccentricity, but above all her unique interpretation of songs; she inhabits them. The Union Chapel was the perfect venue for her and I was captivated.

I was a bit nervous that Show of Hands’ could pull off the challenge of having their 25th Anniversary concert in the vast Royal Albert Hall given that the only other time I’ve seen them was at the tiny candlelit Sam Wannamaker Playhouse, but somehow they turned it into an intimate folk club (with raffle and birthday announcements!). The duo expanded to a trio and then an ensemble of up to eleven with a 26-piece choir, but it all worked brilliantly.

The Unthanks latest ‘Diversions’ project involves the songs and poems of Molly Drake, mother of singer-songwriter Nick Drake and actress Gabrielle Drake, whose recorded voice reads the poems. They are nice songs but 90 minutes of them was maybe a bit too much, though there was enough to enjoy to make the evening at Cambridge Corn Exchange worthwhile, with a Nick Drake song as an encore a terrific bonus.

Classical Music

I’m not familiar with Dvorak’s Requiem so it was good to hear it in the Barbican Hall, and the BBC SO & SC made a great job of it, with three excellent well-matched soloists. I’m a bit puzzled why it isn’t done more often as it’s as good as many others that are.

Global Voices at the Royal Festival Hall was a bit of a punt that turned into a major treat. In the first half, the National Youth Choir of Great Britain did a musical world tour with innovative pieces from or influenced by Italian, Indian, Latvian, Chinese, Swedish, Aboriginal and British music. In the second they were joined by seven other guest youth choirs from the US, Hong Kong, Indonesia, South Africa, Latvia and Israel to form a 350-piece choir accompanied by the Southbank Sinfonia and two excellent young British soloists for Jonathan Dove’s superb oratorio There Was a Child, written to celebrate the life of the son of two musicians who died aged 19. I can’t begin to describe how inspirational, captivating and uplifting it all was.

The big classical event of the month was Sounds Unbound 2017 : Barbican Classical Weekender which was so good, it got its own blog https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2017/05/01/sound-unbound-2017-barbican-clasical-weekender

Dance

I enjoyed the New Adventures 30th anniversary mixed bill at Sadler’s Wells, but it came as a bit of a shock after all those large-scale shows. It was a good reminder of where it all started though, and a charming and funny show.

Film

It’s been a lean period, but I did catch Their Finest which I loved. A fascinating true story with a cast of British actors that reads like a Who’s-Who. Gemma Arterton continues to impress on screen as well as stage – even playing Welsh!

Art

I really enjoyed the Vanessa Bell exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery. I didn’t really know a lot about her, hadn’t seen much of her work before and I was very impressed. I do love going to Dulwich, where the exhibitions are always the right size, with brunch in the café to follow!

The David Hockney exhibition at Tate Britain blew me away. Spanning sixty years, with everything from paintings to photo collages to iPad drawings, it was a huge exhibition and a huge treat. From there, via the brilliant new Cerith Wyn Evans light installation in the Duveen Gallery, downstairs to Queer British Art, an odd exhibition in that not everything seemed connected to its theme, but there were some great individual works, including more of the Sussex Modernists I’d seen three and five days before in Dulwich and at Two Temple Place.

The American Dream, the British Museum’s review of Pop Art through prints, was very comprehensive and fascinating. It included the usual suspects like Andy Warhol but had a lot more I’d never heard of. The puzzle was, though, what is it doing in the British Museum?

The Eduardo Paolozzi retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery was just as comprehensive, and much more diverse than I was expecting. I wouldn’t call myself a fan, but it was good to see the entire career of an important British artist like this.

The Barbican Art Gallery’s exhibitions are often surprising and fascinating and The Japanese House was one of those. It examines domestic architecture in Japan since the Second World War and they’ve recreated ten units of an actual house on the ground floor! Downstairs in the Curve Gallery, Richard MossIncoming projects giant images of refugees and their camps taken with long-distance thermographic cameras normally used in warfare to create something oddly voyeuristic but deeply moving.

Tate Modern has a giant Wolfgang Tillmans photography exhibition. As usual, Tillmans mounts his photographs, sometimes with narrative, to create room installations. It’s a bit hit-and-miss in my view, but worth a mooch.

The annual Wildlife Photography Exhibition at the Natural History Museum now seems to start as soon as the last one finishes; we were even wondering if we were going to one we’d already seen! There’s something new each year – a category or theme perhaps – and it’s always hugely impressive.

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Contemporary Music

I’d never heard of Joe Henry until his field recordings of railroad songs with Billy Bragg last year, and I only heard that record a few days before their lovely concert at Union Chapel, which took a side-trip to include some timely protest songs, and a surreal ending when they were joined on stage by Chas & Dave!

Opera & Dance

I wasn’t keen on the music of Lygeti’s Le Grand Macabre when I saw a staged production at ENO eight years ago, but with the superior LSO, on stage, under Simon Rattle, the LSC in the auditorium aisles (flouting fire regulations!) and a fine line-up of soloists and instrumentalists popping up all over the place in the audience it was rather thrilling. I got the humour which I missed last time, though I’m not sure I got Peter Sellers’ Chernobyl staging (which the composer took against when this version was first staged in Salzburg 19 years ago). I still don’t understand it, but now I’m not sure I’m supposed to!

Les Enfants Terrible, a ballet-opera by Philip Glass, was only partly successful for me. I liked the music, played by three pianos, and the design was good (apart from an unscheduled break when a screen refused to move!) but I’m not sure Javier de Frutos’ choreography with multiple dancers for the two principal roles really worked; it was a bit too fussy.

Film

January is always a busy month in the cinema as all the Oscar contenders are released, and so it was……

Passengers was a bit far-fetched, but quality SciFi nonetheless. Worth seeing for Michael Sheen as an android barman!

A Monster Calls is a highly original and deeply moving story of a young boy coping with his mother’s death from cancer. Young Lewis MacDougall was extraordinary.

Manchester by the Sea took me by surprise. It has a very un-Hollywood authenticity and emotionality; it feels very much like a European film. Sad but beautiful.

La La Land had so much hype it was never likely to live up to it and so it was. Though I enjoyed it, the score, singing and dancing all weren’t good enough to make it an Oscar winner, though it probably will as it’s Hollywood’s love affair with Hollywood.

I adored Lion, so heart-warming and beautifully acted. Based on the true story of a lost Indian boy adopted by a Tasmanian couple, it ended beautifully and movingly with film of the meeting of the real people on which it was based.

Jackie was a big disappointment, despite a fine performance by Natalie Portman. A film about a very interesting woman and a very interesting period turned out to be ever so dull.

I’m not sure it was a good idea to make T2 Trainspotting; I found it a bit disappointing. It was a film of its time and maybe it should have been left that way.

I greatly admired Denial, the very gripping story of the defamation case brought by holocaust denier David Irving against an American academic. It unfolded like a thriller and had a superb British cast.

Art

Dulwich Picture Gallery discovered another old master, this time 17th century Dutch landscape artist Adriaen van de Velde. His pictures might be landscapes, but they have lots of people and animals in them, and there are beaches, sea and boats too. Sadly, there were only 23 finished paintings, less than half the show.

William Kentridge‘s six installations at Whitechapel Gallery were fascinating and playful. I’d seen individual works by him before, but this combination of machines, video, music and tapestry really showed off his inventiveness.

Malian photographer Malick Sidibe‘s exhibition of B&W photographs at Somerset House was a revelation, such an evocative representation of Malian society since the 60’s, and the accompanying soundtrack of Malian music was the icing on the cake.

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I missed the first Folkestone Triennial, but I was determined not to miss the second, so off I went on the High Speed Train on a (too) sunny day. There are 19 new art works scattered all over the town and it’s a lot of walking between them; even more if you want to take in the 8 permanent works remaining from the last triennial. Better directions / maps would have helped me see more, but as it is I managed to see two-thirds of both in my four-hour walk, though that included snatches of film works rather than complete films. At its best it was brilliant – A K Dolven’s bell on the beach, Hala Elkoussy’s archive & reading room exploring Egypt’s colonial past, Mikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen’s three-screen film about illegal immigration (his name is an art work of its own!), Zinab Sedira’s multi-screen installation, Hew Locke’s model ships hanging from a church ceiling, Cornelia Parker’s bronze mermaid on the rocks and Paloma Varga Weisz’ sculpture on the tracks of a disused railway station. Amongst the permanent works, Richard Wilson’s beach huts made from an old crazy golf course is a masterpiece. This is a great idea and a fun day out –see you in three years, Folkestone, when I will allow more time!

Fired with enthusiasm for art at the seaside, the next day I went to Margate to visit the new Turner Contemporary gallery. From the outside, the architecture didn’t inspire me, but it’s a better on the inside. For a building so big, the display space is small. The works in the opening exhibition were excellent, but I’m afraid it was like having a starter but no main course. There was another exhibition there, which helped justify the 5-6 hour round trip, at the ‘pop up’ Pie Factory Gallery in the old town. It explores the British saucy seaside postcards that were judged obscene (or not) in the 50’s. Some were prosecuted in one town but deemed OK in another and the law was clearly an ass. The exhibition works on two levels – the postcards are retro funny in a carry on sort of way, and the historical perspective is fascinating. Great fun.

Having turned up before the exhibition opened in July, I went back to Whitechapel Gallery to see Thomas Struth’s photographs. They are realist pictures of people in museums, industrial installations, city streets etc., most on a big scale, but they are printed onto Perspex, which gives them a hyper-naturalistic yet surreal quality; very original.

Most things in the Saatchi Gallery’s New Sculpture exhibition are on a big scale, with many sculptors getting a whole room to themselves (and some using it for just one sculpture). It has some good pieces but little is original and some very derivative (notably the lifelike figures of two men which owes absolutely everything to Ron Muek). One day this fabulous space will house something truly extraordinary. How about a Richard Wilson retrospective?

The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition is the best for a long time, though I’m not entirely sure why. I think it must be the way it’s curated, as each room is hung by a different RA member (though they’ve done this before). The architectural models fascinated again, but there were lots of lovely paintings and prints too. It may also be particularly good because there’s only one video and no film! Upstairs the small exhibition of 20th Century Hungarian Photography proved that these guys were way ahead of their time, producing insightful and artful shots when many were locked in staged and posed perfection. Quite why Hungary produced so many I really don’t know; maybe they influenced one another. Great to see them all together for once.

I wasn’t impressed by this year’s Serpentine Summer Pavilion. It’s a huge double-walled rectangular black box with a garden inside and tables and chairs around it. Fortunately, inside the gallery there’s an excellent installation called The Mirror of Judgement by the wonderfully named Michelangelo Pistoletto, who has created a 4-room labyrinth of chest high corrugated cardboard with different mirrors and religious references in each room. Very original and fun to walk through.

The Roundhouse’s second summer installation is as good as the first, David Byrne’s Playing the Building. This time local designer Ron Arad has hung a 360 degree curtain made up of 7 tons of translucent silicon tubing which would be 50 km long if linear. A variety of films are projected continuously onto it and though better seen from the inside, its good to spend some time outside too. I stayed much longer then planned and saw a diverse range of about eight original films, including animation, realism and digital abstractions. A real visual treat.

During a theatrical outing to Chichester I popped into their newly extended Pallant Gallery where there were five small exhibitions in addition to their permanent collection. The prime reason for visiting now was to see the Frida Kahlo & Diego Riviera exhibition. It’s not that big – just c.20 paintings and c.10 other works – but there are some gems amongst them, particularly from Riviera. Two of the other exhibitions were related; from the same Gelman collections, they have a small collection of Guillermo Kahlo’s (Frida Kahlo’s father) photos and more photos from Kahlo / Riviera friends Manuel & Lola Alvarez Bravo. Butlin’s should use Anna Fox’s highly flattering photos of their Bognor Regis camp in their publicity – they made me smile. Punk rocker Nick Blinko’s somewhat obsessive pen drawings were also fascinating. The permanent collection is heavy on rarely seen 20th century Brits like Graham Sutherland, Peter Blake and the Nicholson’s which makes it well worth a look. The good people of Chichester are lucky to have somewhere like this which much bigger cities would envy.

…..and so to Edinburgh, which didn’t look good on paper, but turned out better in reality. Our artfest started at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art One with Tony Cragg. I liked his sculpture much more than I thought I was going to. The craftsmanship is extraordinary (particularly the plywood) and all those curves make you imagine all sorts of shapes as you move around them. In SNGMA Two, Hiroshi Sugimoto‘s photographic work includes some extraordinary B&W lightening pictures. They’re paired with his photos of original Fox Talbot negatives which had a historical interest and a certain ethereal quality, but didn’t really live up to expectations.

At St Mary’s Cathedral they have a modern-day Bayeux in the Battle of Prestonpans Tapestry which commemorates the Jacobite uprising led by Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745. An artist took six months to draw the panels and then 200 volunteers too another six months to complete it. Though it’s impressive, one does have to ask the question ‘why?’.

David Mach has taken over all five floors the Edinburgh City Art Centre (including moving his studio to the third!) where he is showing collages of scenes from the bible and sculptures of Jesus and Satan. It’s an ambitious and fascinating exhibition to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the King James bible. Across the road at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Ingrid Calame‘s obsessive ‘tracings’ left me completely cold. It seemed such a lot of effort for such pointless and unrewarding work. The gallery redeems itself somewhat by its involvement in Martin Creed‘s ‘installation’ which is in fact replacing the Scotsman Steps with new multi-coloured marble ones. A lovely permanent practical work of art.

I didn’t really fancy the Elizabeth Blackadder exhibition at the National Gallery of Scotland, but something compelled me to give it a go and it turned out to be a delightful experience. I was impressed by the range of subjects and styles and her use of colour. The short videos gave you an insight into the woman; charming & unassuming – I suspect you’d never believe she was an artist if you met her.

At the Open Eye Gallery I wished I was rich as I’d have bought quite a few of the John Byrne paintings and prints on show. I’ve wanted to see more of his work since being bowled over by the picture of his ex-wife Tilda Swinton at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. He’s a writer and director as well as an artist and his cartoonish style is playful and theatrical.

Visiting the Phoebe Anna Traquair murals at St. Mary’s Cathedral Song School was a real treat. This Arts & Crafts / Pre-Raphaelite genius is much neglected and this may well be her masterpiece. With one overall theme and much detail it covers all four walls of this rectangular building and it’s breathtaking.

Now that the National Museum of Scotland‘s renovations are complete, they are showing a recent bequest of modern glass, a lovely eclectic collection given a nice light space in the new section. Whilst there, I hunted out the Phoebe Anna Traquair items – a painted piano, enamel items and some drawings. You have to go to three different locations on four floors, but that also meant coming across some Charles Rennie Mackintosh, William De Morgan, Tiffany, Lalique and small Art Deco and Art Nouveau collections.

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Opera & Classical Music

I really liked Nico Muhly & Craig Lucas’ Two Boys. It’s an original subject for opera – internet chatrooms – and it unfolds like a detective story with great pace and narrative drive. I loved the chorus with laptops representing chatroom activity, with projections adding much to the impact. The music creates an atmosphere of suspense for the story-telling and is much more accessible on first hearing than most modern operas. It’s a fine cast, with Susan Bickley shining as the detective. One of ENO’s more successful ventures into modern opera.

The Consul was the first Menotti opera I saw, years ago in Stockholm when I was there for an opera festival I didn’t know they had. A few years later, I was in the attic room of a freemasons hall in Edinburgh late at night (as one does at the fringe!) for another of his short operas and in the tiny audience was Menotti himself, now retired to a castle in Scotland. It has now been re-named The Secret Consul and presented as a site-specific opera in the derelict Limehouse Town Hall. Sadly, it only partly works. Despite the fact the audience was exactly the same size as the cast, they weren’t able to marshal us unobtrusively without confusing and / or irritating us. Apart from the first scene on the stairs, the opera takes place in different parts of the same large room, so you’re just changing direction (most seated) not promenading. The acoustic echo made it hard to understand the English libretto, though you never fully understand a libretto even when it’s in English, so it was difficult to know exactly what was going on. The leads were good, though, and the quartet – piano, cello, violin and clarinet – played the score well.

Bampton Classical Opera is an annual affair showcasing one opera in the garden of a house in Oxfordshire. It punches way above it’s weight, with very good production values and excellent young professional singers. They’ve been invited to Buxton Opera festival this year and will also perform the opera in concert in London at St John’s Smith Square. This year’s offering is a late 18th century light comedy, The Italian Girl in London, by Cimarosa, directed by Jeremy Gray. Cimarosa is best known for The Secret Marriage (he apparently wrote 70 operas, but that’s the only one now produced regularly). It’s the usual fare of this period, a romantic comedy with an implausible plot and a happy ending, with the addition on this occasion of a preposterous yarn about becoming invisible by holding a ‘bloodstone’, but well suited to the venue and occasion. Nigel Hook has managed to create a delightful small London hotel with bar and, most importantly, a food hatch, and the musical standards are very high. There is a small chamber orchestra conducted by Thomas Blunt and five well-matched soloists. Kim Sheehan is lovely in the title role and Nicholas Merryweather gives a fine comic performance as the Italian who loves her and is looking for her but can’t recognise her in disguise as a French maid! I also liked Caryl Hughes hotel proprietor who courts English Lord (Robert Winslade). I’m not sure why we need Dutchman Sumers, but Adam Tunnicliffe sings the role well. They were all almost upstaged by the non-singing policeman, an auspicious debut from local man Martin Havelock; one to watch!

Iestyn Davies’ lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall was an inspired and eclectic programme from 12 composers spanning 400 years. I’m not a huge fan of the counter-tenor voice, but his is very beautiful and this concert showed his range. There were three thematic groups – nature, night and spirit – to hang this diverse collection together. A lovely hour, encoring with Purcell’s Music For A While, which was probably the best of them all.

Dance

Sylvie Guillem’s show at Sadler’s Wells was an extraordinary display of skill; she does things with the human body you don’t think are possible – and she’s 46! There was a duet with Nicolas Le Riche choreographed by William Forsyth, a solo piece choreographed by Mats Ek and a duet from Aurelie Cayla & Kenta Kojiri choreographed by Jiri Kylian. I can’t say that any of the dances meant anything to me, but the artistry had me spellbound.

Hofesh Shechter’s Political Mother at Sadler’s Wells was more like a rock concert than contemporary dance. There’s a 20-piece band on three levels like a wall at the back of the stage and the lighting is extraordinary. The dance seems more like unchoreographed people at a rave (not that I’ve ever been to one!). I’m not sure I got the war references but it was a brilliant spectacle.

Film

Bridesmaids is another of the new breed of quirky American comedies which are often laugh-out-loud funny with a fair dose of satire and good bad taste. Being American, it had its ration of sentimentality, but it was funny enough to get away with it and it’s send-up of wedding obsession was delicious.

Horrible Bosses was another and I liked it. It won’t win any prizes and I probably won’t remember it in my dotage, but it was a good laugh, helped by an outstanding cast, with Kevin Spacey giving us another fine turn.

Beginners was a bit of a slow burn, but I eventually succumbed to its thoughtfulness and quirky structure & style. Ewan McGregor’s relationship with his father Christopher Plummer was very authentic (as it was with his girlfriend and dog!). I don’t know whether it is based on a true story, but it really felt like a true story. A complete contrast to Horrible Bosses.

Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows II was a whole lot better than Part I and quite possible the best of the series. Apart from the three main leads, yet again it’s a Who’s Who of great British actors. This one was brilliantly paced (though I was less convinced by the IMAX 3D) and I left the cinema rather sad that there would be no more. I think I shall have to work my way through the DVD’s now.

Art

Every year I say I’m impressed by the standard at the BP Portrait Award and this year is no exception. Lest you think it’s a dying art form, this years prize-winners are more than thirty years apart in age. There’s a very diverse range of styles and subjects and there was hardly a dud in this years selection.

I turned up at Whitechapel Gallery for an exhibition that had yet to open(!), so I had to make do with a small selection from the government’s art collection, some local photos from the 70’s and a re-visit to Fred Sandbach’s extraordinary string installations. The government has a huge collection of British art which moves from office to office and embassy to embassy seemingly based on the taste of the occupants. This small collection was selected by Nick Clegg, Peter Mandelson, Samantha Cameron and a few others. The most fascinating thing about it was seeing the history of one Lowry painting – everywhere it had been since it was purchased for £120, including photos of it in situ.

Whilst in Manchester for their International Festival, I went to the Art Gallery and caught a little exhibition of some terrific Grayson Perry pots with museum objects selected to sit alongside them plus a small selection of pre-Raphaelites as a preview of a bigger exhibition this autumn; but the artistic highlight was a side trip to Liverpool at see the Magritte exhibition at Tate Liverpool which is a really comprehensive collection of his work. In some ways, in terms of the impact the pictures have, more is less but it was fascinating to see such a range of work. The sculpture exhibition also on at the Tate was so-so, but a hell of a lot better than the Royal Academy one a few months back.

If Time Out hadn’t told me to go to Hauser & Wirth at 196 Piccadilly to see an art installation, and I had just popped in from the street, I really would be thinking that I was in the Piccadilly Community Centre, a space on four floors with canteen, computer room, bar, meeting rooms, charity shop, prayer room…… This was a surreal and extraordinary experience created in impeccable detail by Swiss artist Christoph Buchel! I’m still not sure if it was or it wasn’t…..

The NPG has yet another photo exhibition; this time B&W portrait photos of Hollywood stars from 1920 to 1960 called Glamour of the Gods. Some are iconic and some are quirky, but they are very compelling.

The Courtauld Gallery’s last in-depth exhibition was of one picture by Cezanne and it was a surprise treat, so I went back for a second one; this time a look at the relationship between artist Toulouse-Lautrec and dancer Jane Avril. They’ve brought together pictures and other items from 15 museums, archives & private collections in France, the US and the UK and it was another insightful treat.

The Vorticists at Tate Britain was one of those exhibitions that introduces you to a little known (well, to me anyway) art movement which seems to have had a profound influence on subsequent art and design. I’d seen the portraits of Wyndham Lewis before, but here was other work by him and his contemporaries that was new to me. It ‘s influence clearly lasted much longer than it’s 8-year life as a movement. Fascinating. Whilst there, I took the opportunity to see Mike Nelson’s Coral Reef installation – a maze of rooms with creaky doors to up the spook effect that you get lost in. I’m not entirely clear what it all means, but its huge fun!

Other

Also in Liverpool, I was privileged to get to both Lennon and McCartney’s childhood homes, now National Trust properties. I’d been to McCartney’s before but it was great to visit John’s and indeed both together, even though abandoning the audio tour at McCartney’s is in my view a mistake. You really get a sense of these young lives and to see a photo of them actually writing I Saw Her Standing There on the wall just above where they did still sent shivers up my spine. Being in John’s house is rather moving, though the signs of Ono’s control-freakery are evident. There’s a certain irony to the fact that ‘working class hero’ Lennon lived in middle class comfort whilst much maligned McCartney was squashed into a tiny council house with his mum, dad and brother. For someone for whom the Beatles are a major part of the soundtrack of my life, this was thrilling and the fact that the bus driver’s soundtrack got to Penny Lane just as we drove past it’s street sign was spooky!

A Royal Academy Friends visit to Ironmonger’s Hall (with lunch in the hall) was preceded by a short walking tour that included Paternoster Square, St Paul’s Churchyard, the rooftop views at One New Change and Postman’s Park (where unsung heroes are commemorated by ceramic plaques) and it was a treat. I do love these livery companies and even though I’ve walked this way many times before, with a City blue badge guide you always learn something new.

I visited the shell of the new Jacobean theatre at Shakespeare’s Globe’s and it inspired me as much as the Globe itself did when I first went there. It’s going to be a great indoor space for a completely different complimentary winter season. Donate now – they need £7m!

Down in Somerset visiting friends, my attempt to wrench some value from my National Trust membership took me to four properties in the south of the county – the lovely gardens at the intriguingly named Tintinhall, the even lovelier house and gardens at Lytes Cary, the rather more grand Montecute and Barrington Court for a nice lunch made from local (and mostly estate) produce. This is the first year I feel I’ve had my money’s worth!

What a busy month!

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Contemporary Music

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

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

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

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

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

Opera & Classical Music

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

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

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

Comedy

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

Film

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

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

Art

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

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

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

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