Wednesday 29 August 2012

The Broadway Sound

I’d been wondering what the atmosphere would be like at one of these ‘event’ Proms. John Wilson and his orchestra (and they do seem to be, literally, his orchestra – presumably he got them off eBay, or something) are now a regular feature of the season, finding a mass audience – a sell-out, I understand – for his painstaking reconstructions of showtunes and musical numbers.

I had seen his variety concerts from previous years on TV – one tackling MGM musicals, another Hollywood tunes – and enjoyed them, but this would be the first one, focusing on Broadway songs, that I’d got to in person. (Well, ish – Wilson was also the architect of the ‘My Fair Lady’ Prom I went to earlier in the run, but as a complete performance, that was clearly a totally different enterprise.)

Wilson always seems to make sure key elements are in place. He assembles a crack team of vocalists – a trio of women who between them cover soprano and sass, with three male counterparts for tenor, baritone and bass. Not forgetting the splendidly-named Maida Vale Singers as back-up.

As for approach – there are the big hits (‘Another Op’nin’, Another Show’, ‘Bess, You Is My Woman Now’), but even more prominent are the relatively obscure gems unearthed from shows that are – perhaps – justly neglected these days (that’s you, ‘The Boys From Syracuse’), but which threaten to take with them into oblivion one amazing set-piece or number. Wilson is on a rescue mission for these pieces.

When not conducting, Wilson is – inevitably – a slighter-looking man than his telly appearances might suggest, and has the look of an impish scholar. Serious, but with tuck concealed somewhere about his person. Once he starts batoneering, though, it’s all change. There is absolutely no question that he loves this music. He is clearly dancing on the podium, feet constantly in a waltz-style shuffle, torso swaying in a non-existent breeze. The orchestra is his partner, and they love him, too. We could see the beams on their faces, and we were in the circle.

Two solo performances stood out for me, but the first for perhaps a slightly odd reason. Rodney Earl Clarke, the bass, gave a show-stopping rendition of ‘Ol’ Man River’. I have a bit of ‘form’ with this song. The first Christmas after my nan died, my mum and I made what you might call ‘the mistake’ of watching ‘Showboat’ on the telly. This song’s incredible lyrics (‘I get weary and sick of trying, I’m tired of living and scared of dying’) are of course about something so much larger than a single life (or death), but who knows what has the power to push particular buttons? The two of us ended up in floods. Hearing it again – live, inescapable – reminded me of that, so that could well be my first and last experience of wiping away a few tears at a Prom. (Mind you, I’m going to see ‘Nixon in China’ later in the season, so who knows, it might happen again...!)

Seth MacFarlane – yes, that one, who created ‘Family Guy’ – sang baritone. He is a very accomplished vocalist, but perhaps more importantly for tonight’s purposes, his default setting – as you might expect from his other job – is ‘wise-ass’. His numbers not only demanded someone in fine voice, but also presented technical challenges, like ‘Ya Got Trouble’s near-rapping, ten-to-the-dozen rhyming delivery which he carried off in exhilarating style. Everybody sang beautifully, but MacFarlane seems to inhabit the songs more like an acting performer would, bringing the character alive as well as the music.

But the real stars were the orchestra. A significant part of the programme was made up of soundtrack or ‘overture’ music where the band had the chance to really shine. I have to single out the drummer. In his head, this guy is in a touring rock band, probably from the 70s. He would thrash out complicated rhythms, stop at the exact moment necessarily to turn the page of his score, before switching to or from woodblock or tom-toms back to the main kit. Also extra points for shoving one his drumsticks in his mouth to assist in a particularly tricky manoeuvre.

Overall, though – and I have no idea how this effect is achieved – the music sounded ‘old’. In my mind’s ear, I could easily supply the shy thrum of the radio or the crackle on my dad’s old vinyl. The strings have that woozy elision that make all the notes flow into one curve of sound, and the Maida Vale Singers have perfected the old-fashioned tones that you only seem to get if someone is singing into one of those huge mics that hang down from the ceiling. 

Final mention to the rather delicate-looking couple who tried to leave before the encore. Their ‘nearest exit’ happened to be the brightly-lit staircase next to the stage. A few titters went round the Hall as some onlookers realised that the pair had chosen the most conspicuous place possible to sneak out. Imagine everyone’s delight, then, as a few steps above the horrified escapees, a legion of tap dancers started pouring down the stairs, pushing past them to get to their positions. Inevitably, a round of applause began, as the luckless twosome progressed gingerly upwards, no doubt thinking, ‘Surely....just one more dancer to negotiate, then all this will be over...’

You can still hear the concert on iPlayer for a bit (link to part 1 here), but take note that on Saturday night, it’s being televised. If this kind of music is your cup of tea, you will appreciate the skill and affection that all the performers poured into it. As a parting shot, please enjoy this picture of an illustration in the programme of Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and – for it is he – Jules Munshin (?) apparently yelling in each other’s faces in ‘On The Town’.

Wednesday 22 August 2012

Prom nights

Just back from a long weekend in Scotland with the McInlaws (and Mrs Specs came too, obviously - I'm not that strange), which means this is my first opportunity to jot down a line or two about the Proms I went to last week. That is a deliberate plural - we'd booked two. We've actually lined up quite a few Proms overall - not that we need any excuse, but you have to book a certain number of concerts to qualify for the ballot for 'Last Night of the Proms' tickets. (And we were successful - yay! - although at the rate I'm going I might end up blogging about that in 2015...)

The first Prom of the two was a bit unusual. It revolved around a performance by the fearsomely talented - and frighteningly young - pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, playing Saint-Saens's 2nd Piano Concerto. I'd loved the Saint-Saens chamber music that I'd heard, so I suspected I would enjoy this - and I was right. Grosvenor's playing is sublime - he glides across the keys with such facility that you don't really get any sense of his fingers depressing each note. Instead, it's as if his lightest touch can make the instrument ring out - crucially, no matter how fast (and some of this is FAST) the music demands. The concerto came just before the interval, so Grosvenor had time to encore with a piano transcription this time, still of Saint-Saens - a brief, delicate piece called 'The Swan'.

I've since realised - having purchased the CD in question - that Grosvenor's appearance was timed to promote his new record, which leads off on Saint-Saens - both concerto and encore. This might explain the rest of the Prom, which was pleasant but odd. It began with a 20-minute piece by Delius, called 'Paris: the Song of a Great City'. To me this sounded a few decades ahead of its time, in that it reminded me of an overture to an MGM musical or similar. Bustle! Then quiet! Then skitter! Noise! Peaceful! Uneasy! Then elegiac... as though we were hearing snippets of what would be proper pieces of music later. But without the later. I don't know why this slightly spoiled my enjoyment of the piece. After all, I don't moan about overtures to musicals, some of which I find awe-inspiring. Or side 2 of 'Abbey Road', for that matter.

Does it have a name, this feeling of being fed-up with something that pre-dates a cliche, purely because you've since been subjected to the cliche? Retrojection?

I think I just really wanted the whole evening to flow - and the Delius didn't. After the interval, we heard Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony - or, as our classical music buff companion described it, 'Tchai 5', which to me sounds like a spaceship or a planet. That aside, I still hated myself as, even while I enjoyed every last note, I was secretly wishing that we could have kept going with more Saint-Saens, more piano, more Grosvenor - why couldn't he just have played and played and played?

Two nights later, we were back for three Vaughan Williams symphonies. Apparently these are going to be repeated on Radio 3 on 31 August, so please please please listen if you can (or pick the broadcast up on iPlayer when it appears). There was too much music here for a novice like me to write about successfully, but the single, key point is: it's not what you think.

Vaughan Williams is probably best known for relatively friendly fare like 'The Lark Ascending', or his work based on folk music and Christmas carols. Clearly the symphonies are his picture in the attic, on this evidence. He seems to have poured into them dissonance, experiments with form, in fact any tendencies towards the avant garde you imagine he might have mustered and elsewhere suppressed. Here the programming really worked, with the unsettling 4th moving into the more 'as you'd expect' 5th Symphony, which contains a famous Romanza that must be one of the most purely moving pieces of British classical music ever written. That led us, false-sense-of-security style into the interval, then back for the 6th, which has a reputation - denied by VW himself - for reflecting the Second World War (only just over when the symphony was composed) in its noise and pace. All four movements run together in a sequence - is all classical music like side 2 of 'Abbey Road'? - and amid the carnage, a lone tenor sax takes centre stage at one point, supposedly to symbolise the Parisian jazz clubs that vanished in the face of occupation.

This is rebellious, difficult and disgruntled music. There are moments of pure loveliness - especially in the 5th symphony - but as often as not, they are the calm in the middle of the storm. Recommended!

(And PS! - a hello to pals JoLean and Doods - lovely to bump into you, compare notes, and make for the Tube together after the VW Prom...!)

Monday 13 August 2012

A Tate in every town. (Nearly.)

Blog Health Warning: this could be a bit long. I mentioned a few posts ago that I was embarking on a bit of an 'art-a-thon'. I think the only way I'm going to manage to blog about any of it is if I try and round at least some of it up, almost as a bit of a tour report. So here goes.

In the past few weeks, I've been to the Barbican Gallery to see Bauhaus - which I've already raved about - and the Bond movie exhibition. (Not sure this latter one is quite 'art' - more 'show' - and I'll try and tackle that another time. Sorry, M. Don't let it happen again, 007. Etc.)

However, in the last few weeks I've also managed to cover three Tate galleries: St Ives (where Mrs Specs and I had a mini-break a couple of weeks ago), Modern, and Liverpool (thanks to a flying day trip last Saturday).

The pilgrimage to Tate St Ives was to see an exhibition by possibly my favourite living artist, Alex Katz. There are so many things I love about this artist - where do I start? I know - with a list!

  1. While some of his paintings are melancholic, his work seems to exist for beauty's sake, and I always get the impression that he is producing art designed to make me feel good. For example, on hearing of St Ives's location, he made sure the selection included plenty of summer, coastal pictures. Chap!
  2. He uses words like 'pizzazz' when describing other artists he likes.
  3. It's a matter of record that most of the people in Katz's paintings are family and friends. But he makes them look sophisticated and almost fantastic, with deceptively simple portraits that risk you thinking at first that these are 'blank' characters, until you give them a closer look and see how accurately their expressions are captured with such little fuss.

Perhaps the thing I love the most about Katz is how much he clearly adores his wife. There she is, in the middle of the group above. Alex met Ada in 1957. He has been painting her ever since, and I find some of his portraits of her so lovely - his signature style such a great match for her strong, dark looks - that they make me want to shout with joy. This link will take you to one of my favourites of these portraits - 'Blue Umbrella' - I've not reproduced the image since it isn't in the Tate exhibition - and I would like you to follow the lead to Wikipaintings so you can browse more of his stuff if you so desire. (In particular, the thrilling 'Red Coat'.) Plus the exhibition is moving to a different coastline in October - to the Turner Contemporary in Margate. Please go if you can.

Back into the smoke and to the Munch exhibition at Tate Modern. Munch was not, on the whole, making paintings designed to make me feel good. There is the backstory if you want it - mental illness, alcoholism - but I found the exhibition, which seems to have a kind of 'there's more to all this than The Scream, you know' fearlessness about it, strangely uplifting.

One reason for this, I think, is that when a hefty selection of his art is shown together, he seems more of an innovator than, well, a hatstand ghoul. One room is devoted to showing how he fixed upon certain themes and developed them over time, presenting his progress as logical rather than maniacal. Another focuses (!) on his interest in photography, particularly self-portraits. Amusingly, instead of rigging up a complex self-timer set-up, he was happy to hold the camera at arm's length and photograph himself - as the exhibition points out, in much the same way that people do with compacts or camera phones today. In other words, you're basically seeing Munch larking about. Who'd have thought? And yet another section of the exhibition looks at his experiments with perspective (ok, so they feature folk on operating tables and a murderer running away from a dead body, but each to their own).

I felt like I was viewing the work of someone who wasn't exactly at their wit's end, but who could quite clearly see their wit's end on the horizon, just waiting for them to get there. Grim in places, euphoric in others - but always fascinating.

Finally, to Tate Liverpool, to see one of those exhibitions where they show a few artists alongside each other and run their names together: in this case, 'Turner Monet Twombly'. The first two are unlikely to need any introduction, but I suspect Cy Twombly is more of a mystery to some. He was a major contemporary painter (he died just over a year ago) and I have to admit, what work of his I've seen I've always found particularly challenging. (Again, go to Wikipaintings for a look at some of them.)

In some ways, he fits that cliche of making work that appears to require no skill (it's squiggles, lines and splashes). I'm actually all for that sort of thing. But I struggle to find the ideas behind it. And placing him in the company of this particular pair does him one great service amid untold damage. It seems clear from this collection that Twombly loved and admired both Turner and Monet, and at face value, we are shown explicitly how he incorporated inspiration from Turner's mythological works and Monet's water lilies into his own abstract versions. But why? To me, the visual 'hooks' are pretty much absent. The title of the picture, and the notes from the exhibition, basically had to TELL me how to understand the paintings. Without these prompts, I would've been totally lost.

I actually rather regret the way I came out of an exhibition like that thinking the 'greats' WERE great (although I'm more of a Turner man than a Monet worshipper) and the upstart disappointing in comparison. I thought it would enhance my appreciation of all three. And I liked a couple of the Twombly pictures, purely on their own terms - the colours he chose, and where he put them. I can understand that all by myself. But too often, I couldn't see any colour, and I couldn't work out why it wasn't there.

[Thoughtful pause.]

Still. Never mind all that art! Look out of the WINDOW!

Friday 10 August 2012

Ronin and rosti

This could be the strangest gig I've been to in a long, long time. Perhaps you've been aware for some time (unlike me, sport bumpkin that I am) that some of the countries competing in the Olympics have taken over various bits of London for hospitality/PR purposes.

Which is how Mrs Specs and I find ourselves in the 'House of Switzerland', which is not strictly what I'd call a house. It is in fact, an entire stretch of road between Southwark Cathedral and the Thames, running under one end of London Bridge and out the other side. (The House of Switzerland banners announced it was 'open to the public' for the duration of the Games. It's open to the public the rest of the time as well, you clots, it's a street. Gah!) The nerve centre of the set-up is the Glaziers Hall, where there's a proper lounge for the big of wig, a posh restaurant and a fabulous poster exhibition. Mooch around the block, however, and there are temporary shops, more eateries and - most importantly - an open-air stage and courtyard.

Swiss bands are taking over the stage each night to play free concerts. I've made the pilgrimage here to listen to Nik Bartsch's Ronin, who are playing two sets, one at each end of the evening. We just had time to grab some Helvetian cuisine before the first note was struck... (Foreground: rosti with mushroom sauce - background: bratwurst. 1.5 cardboard plates of YUM!)

Summing up Ronin in a few sentences is not easy. Bartsch, the band's composer and mastermind, even made up a name for his single-band genre: ritual groove music. Resist the urge to dismiss that as too pretentious, because as a description it's quite accurate. Ronin record for ECM, and in some ways they resemble an 'ECM band' (glacial Nordic-style jazz), but with a few more vitamins. Bartsch's compositions (which he calls 'modules') are numbered rather than named, and they all seem to have a carefully worked out structure and, above all, the repetitive, watertight groove the self-coined genre name suggests.

The cumulative effect they build up over a live set is like listening to pieces in a musical jigsaw. Benefiting from a percussionist (who stole Mrs Specs's heart, the cad) as well as a drummer, the music is arguably more akin to funk than jazz - until you factor in the tricky time signatures, and the telepathic understanding the band seem to share. In fact, I have never seen a group make so much eye contact before.

We bumped into the percussion chap between sets and Mrs Specs - keeping it together - asked him how much was carefully worked out and how much improvised. He said, in carefully measured English (possibly in an unusual time signature), 'We play. A lot.'

The end result is both hypnotic and surprising, as if they can lift you momentarily back out of your trance, then ease you back into it. Here is an epic video of them from YouTube - I know it's far too long to give people a 'quick taster', but the gradual build and incredible beat make posting it irrestible. Play, and if you have the time, stay.

And how could I have got this far without mentioning:
  1. Bumping into Jon, who I was at college with and hadn't seen for 18 years - he spent most of the evening with us and it was so pleasant to catch up with him and discover how he's managed, incredibly, to become even more musical than he was back in the day.
  2. The rather refreshed gents who started a  two-man moshpit in front of the stage. (This was, in slightly non-rock fashion, by a couple of picnic tables. More of a noshpit.)  'Security' gave them a sharp dressing down, before they were taken away and perhaps recycled.
  3. The shop that sold Lindt chocolate - and only Lindt chocolate. Bizarrely, they were closing early, and almost refused us entry. However, I think the till bloke identified the look on Mrs Specs's face as 'feral' and let us in. Rum-flavoured Lindor, you know. Tropic of Switzerland...
  4. And finally - the gorgeousness of Southwark Cathedral, by night.

Monday 6 August 2012

Bauhaus at the Barbican

Help! It's all happening at once! Sneaked in another couple of exhibitions today and to my horror, I realised that one of them - 'Bauhaus: Art as Life' at the Barbican, London - actually closes next weekend. This is the kind of exhibition that I would be running around telling everyone I've ever met to try and see, but I've left them no time to get there. (I had been um-ing and ah-ing about it myself, until I was prompted to 'haul ass' by a rabidly enthusiastic tweet about the exhibition from Jude Rogers, a writer I totally trust.)

So - just on the off-chance that any of you are in the London area over the rest of this week and have a spare hour or two - one quick shuffle of my 'art-a-thon' running order later, and here follows my earnest plea for you to catch this if you can.

I'll try and keep the historical background really short, because it can all be looked up and explored if you fancy. In a nutshell, the Barbican calls the Bauhaus the 'world's most famous modern art and design school'. It was founded in Germany, in the aftermath of the First World War, with the aim of fusing the artistic disciplines with practical living and mass production. It survived for fourteen increasingly bumpy years (govenments withdrawing arts funding! - couldn't happen here) until finally closing in the face of the unstoppable rise of Nazism.

For someone like me, who knows 'a little bit about some art', an exhibition like this acts as some kind of magic thread, that locates the tiny nuggets of knowledge and appreciation nestling in my brain cells somewhere and with a quick tug, links them all up. It was a mind, as well as eye, opener.

An example - Kandinsky, whose art I had only previously encountered by itself. Abstract, vibrant, attractive. Turns out he was in the Bauhaus - and I now find that his art has its context in colour charts and composition for all sorts of practical uses (architecture, decoration). Students would make balanced models to see how some of the gadget-like shapes in the pictures conjured up by their fellow artists would cope if realised in 3D.

Driven by the school's objectives to shape modern living (and make/sell enough stuff to stay solvent), these fiercely innovative artistic minds turned to everything from typography to teapots to tapestries. My favourite product had to be the chess set, where each piece is not only a glorious example of minimal design, but also a guide to how it moves. I've included an image of it here, taken from a marvellous post by a chap called Brad Woodard - you should definitely link to it if you like ogling this sort of thing for any length of time. (In fact, the whole Visual News site looks well worth having a root around.)

Like stumbling across an album by - well, I don't know, the Velvet Underground, maybe - where you can hear the music sow the seeds of hundreds of bands to come ... In this same way, so much of the work in this exhibition seems to breathe life into everything that followed. Clean, bold graphic design. Elegant, yet functional furniture. Performance art and surreal stage dressing. Trick photography. The Bauhaus must have been a crucible of creativity.

So much so, in fact, that I was genuinely relieved to see one of the fascinating reportage photos in the gallery simply feature one of the students lounging back in his comfy chair with the paper. That's more like it!

Check out the website and its selection of images here. Then GO!

Friday 3 August 2012

Bach in action

Not long back from a battery-recharging short holiday in Cornwall, and I find myself in the middle of an 'art-a-thon'. While away, we took in an exhibition by probably my favourite living artist (Alex Katz) at Tate St Ives, when I was already giddy from a spirit-lifting visit to the Barbara Hepworth Sculpture Garden. Then I saw Munch at Tate Modern, thanks to an extra day off after arriving home. And now Mrs Specs and I are planning to get to one or two more exhibitions tomorrow.

So, I'm in that happy, slightly dazed and culture-drunk phase where my reactions to (or anticipations of) all of these separate experiences are buzzing around my head and bouncing off each other. I will write about them here, promise - but am likely to need a day or two to get my head round them.

In the meantime, let me plug something I didn't go to!

This pattern will probably be familiar to those of you, like me, *whispers* who possibly buy a few too many records. An artist or band have a handsome catalogue of Big Tunes, so the time feels right for a hits album. All the same, it's best to hook people's interest by adding a few new tunes so that even the die-hard fans who've been there for years will still pay attention. Countless 'best of' compilations - especially if they stretch to a couple of discs or a box-set - adopt this approach.

So I'm rather tickled by the thought that Bach came up with a prototype for this in 1749. Not strictly in the 'oh God, J S, not the remastered B-sides AGAIN' sense. However, his 'Mass in B minor' - considered one of the absolute crowning glories of the choral repertoire - is essentially a compilation, as though Bach was bringing together all the elements he felt made the perfect, ideal version of its kind. It incorporates parts of his previous works alongside the inevitable new material, and may not even have been written for performance (there's far too much of it to fit into a service, for example). The expert consensus - including Wikipedia AND the Beeb! - is that the mass wasn't sung as a whole in Bach's lifetime and didn't really resurface until decades after he died (only a year after completing it), when it gradually took on its current status as the 'ultimate' mass.

It is a thing of total beauty, as you might expect a composer like Bach's self-compiled highlights would be. If you're curious, you have slightly less than a week to get to iPlayer and wallow in last night's Proms performance. Don't be put off by the length of the piece - like any good 'mix', there is tremendous variety in the use of different orchestral arrangements, soloists (vocal and instrumental) and general chorus.

The BBC decided to show it on TV as well as radio. So if you're new to the piece, watch it here and have a look at what everyone's getting up to.

Or just listen - the radio broadcast comes in two parts: first bit here, second bit here.