Sunday, 29 July 2012

Performance art highlights of the last 18 months

Performance art highlights of the last 18 months

I have a file of ticket stubs for most of the concerts I go to, and at the beginning of 2011 I got the box out and wrote down which concerts I had enjoyed most in 2010 (here) .   Slightly late, here’s the next installment of that, covering what I have enjoyed most in 2011 and the first half of 2012.

What are my ticket stubs telling me? First perhaps are the statistics:

2010:    89 concerts and dance performances
2011:    68 concerts and dance performances
2012:    42 (in the first six months)

So I don’t think my appetite is flagging – I was away for work quite a lot in 2011 which possibly explains the apparent slight reduction in my obsession, and perhaps the lateness of this post.

Of the 100 or so performances from the last 18 months, the one that remain most vivid in my memory are:  

1.   Chamber music from Debussy to Crane – 16th October 2011.  The high point not only perhaps of the last 18 months but perhaps also one of the high points of my life - a concert at the Southbank with music especially for my 50th birthday!  I had commissioned Laurence Crane to write a quintet for Piano and Strings which was played with verve and style by Andrew Matthews-Owen and the Brodowski quartet.  The concert also included Debussy’s settings of Baudelaire’s cinq poemes sung by Anne Sophie Duprels; Shostakovich’s 8th String Quartet, and some further little compositional hommages to my increasing age.  All the musicians were on fire – the Shostakovich in particular must be the best rendering of it I have ever heard.  My birthday quintet has turned out to be a sought after piece that other ensembles wish to play and I gather even record (I have been so far to Amsterdam with Laurence to hear it performed by the Ives Ensemble, and trips to Montreal, Utrecht and Oslo beckon).  So what started as a small idea for a birthday has blossomed into a musical foundation now on its ninth commission (Link to the Foundation)

2.  My second commission was to ask Gavin Higgins to write a piece to accompany ice-skating.  He decided to set an Oscar Wilde poem to a brass band instead, and this was premiered on 28th January 2012 at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.  Absolutely amazing to hear the Tredegar Town Band in their full Salvation Army mode suddenly stop that, and start playing Gavin’s contemporary melancholic but waltz timed piece. With one’s eyes closed you would not have known it was a brass band at all, as they sounded instead like a particularly colourful and beautiful orchestra.  It’s a profoundly beautiful thing that Gavin has created, and I’m looking forward to helping the brass band get it recorded and out onto CD.

Violin section

3.  As part of the Bath International Music Festival Alina Ibragimova played Bach in the Assembly Rooms on 4th June 2011.  I took a train to Bath and back merely to sit in the second row of this concert and bask in the magic that is Alina playing the entire Partitas and Sonatas for violin.  Her interpretation of this music seems to me to embody the entire range of human emotion, to the extent that I find it difficult to listen to anyone else play it.  I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but it is what it is. 

4.   Alina Ibragimova (again) and the Quay Brothers, 16th July 2011.  At the Manchester International Festival Alina played solo violin pieces by Bach, Berio, Biber and Bartok while promenading through the dark oak and books of the medieval Chetham’s School of Music Library, the Bartok piece accompanied by a film from the Brothers Quay and the smell of decaying books.  She seems to play as though for herself not for us, and one participates not so much as the audience but almost voyeuristically.  Utterly evocative, and it introduced me to Berio’s Sequenzas which I had not heard before and have now absorbed completely.  I’ve also mostly as a result of this concert got to know quite well Alex Poots, director of the Manchester International Festival, and am in the process of helping him set up a commissioning circle to support the Festival in the future.

5.   Nicola Benedetti and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, 2nd November 2011 at the Festival Hall, playing the Brahms double concerto for Violin and Cello.  The LPO seem to be going from strength to strength.  It’s the effect of Jurowski in part, although this particular concert was conducted by Christoph Eschenbach.  The really memorable aspect is Nicola Benedetti’s ability to command an orchestra.  Quite unlike Alina (her peer at the Yehudi Menuhin school) whose gift is to play with a technical and emotional precision for herself (see above), Benedetti plays with an expansive extroversion for the audience.  It’s really fantastic to watch.

6.  The BBC Symphony orchestra playing Arvo Pärt at the Barbican on 28th April 2012.   Many of my knowledgeable contemporary classical music friends are quite sniffy about Arvo Pärt, viewing him as a “one-horse pony” and a populist sell out.  I’d come back to the UK especially for this concert, I admit more drawn by one of the soloists than by the music, and indeed the high point was watching, as well as listening too, the interplay of Alina Ibragimova and Barnabas Kelemen – the two violin soloists playing Tabula Rasa.   To put this in some historical context, it was written in 1977, only a year after Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians.  We’ve been too exposed to Pärt’s tintibulation as the backdrop to every moody TV drama going, but this concert was in the end a timely reminder that Pärt is an important composer who has produced significant music of complexity, originality and beauty.

Enough with the strings, let’s dance!

7.  Hofesh Schechter – Political Mother, the Choreographer’s cut, 11th July 2011 at Sadler’s Wells.  It’s like being consensually assaulted by a rock band. Powerful and over the top, one’s senses overloading.  A definite antidote to some of the more tentative aspects of the art form.

8.  New Movement Collective – 2 productions, the first at the Architectural Association in September 2011 which was a sort of Andy Warholian happening involving dance, film, objects and beautiful people, and quite possibly the grooviest moment I had in the whole of 2011.   I liked it so much I helped to support the second (“Casting Traces”) at Testbed1 in Battersea in July 2012 – an immersive dance piece that used Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy as its kicking off point. It was an absorbing, unusual and successful piece.  I shall be encouraging the members of the collective to give up their day jobs. (

9.  Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra at the QEH on 29th November 2011 played a mixed programme of Grieg, Shostakovich and Mozart.  One of the true highlights of the year.  This chamber orchestra is amazing, and has true vitality. They all play standing up.  Definitely one of my new favourites.  They are collaborating with the Sydney Dance Company (see below) in October 2012 but only performing in Oz.  I might have to get on a plane.

10.  Raphael Bonachela’s Sydney Dance Company performing 6 Breaths, and LANDforms on 3rd December 2011 also at the QEH. It’s perhaps only when you don’t have something you realise what you are missing; when Raphael moved to Sydney 3 years ago London lost one of its best lyricial choreographers.  I’m rather hoping that eventually he might come back to run one of the companies here, but the dancers he has in Sydney are truly brilliant, so he may have no reason to do so.

11. Christian Blacksaw playing Mozart’s Piano Sonatas Nos. 3,4,5,10 and 13 at the Wigmore Hall on 23rd May 2012. This concert was a revelation – I had not previously heard his playing, nor was I that familiar with Mozart’s Sonatas.  He played so beautifully, thoughtfully, teasing out phrasing one might not have imagined inhabited the music.  A transcendental experience of time slowing down for two hours.  I have tickets for all his future performances!

12.  Finally, the Ninagawa Company’s Cymbeline (by Shakespeare of course) on 29th May 2012, Barbican.  A play which in English can be quite dull really worked well in Japanese! It was quite a surprise to discover that not understanding the words helped one to understand the narrative better.  A bit like watching operas in Italian perhaps.