Friday 26 July 2019

Lobal warming: a heatwave playlist

Is it finally cooling down? Will there be some respite this weekend? Snakes alive, I hope so. In the meantime, I have wakefully and overheatedly indulged in a typical late-night YouTube wild goose chase for some favourite tunes to express the fire within. Hope you enjoy the playlist.

Spoiler alert: does not contain 'Here Comes the Sun' by the Beatles.


Simple Minds: 'Sweat in Bullet' (Extended Mix)

Belle and Sebastian: 'I Know Where the Summer Goes'

Lise Davidsen: R Strauss, 'Morgen!'

Don Henley: 'The Boys of Summer'

Wolcensmen: 'Sunne'

Girls Aloud: 'Long Hot Summer' (Alternate Version 1)

Paul Esswood, Stuttgart State Opera Orchestra / Dennis Russell Davies: Glass, 'Hymn to the Sun' from 'Akhnaten'

Siouxsie and the Banshees: 'Melt!'

Rick Wakeman: Main Theme from 'The Burning'

The Beach Boys: 'The Warmth of the Sun'

The Human League: 'Being Boiled'

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra / André Previn: de Falla, 'Ritual Fire Dance'

Sieben: 'Ogham the Sun'

Shirley Horn: 'The Sun Died'

Julian Cope: 'Sunspots'

Gundula Janowitz: Schubert, 'An Die Sonne'

The Cure: 'Hot Hot Hot!!!'

Peter Gabriel: 'Steam'

Lee Morgan: 'Fire'

Emmylou Harris: 'Hot Burrito #2'

Cream: 'Sunshine of Your Love'

Nina Stemme: Wagner, Brünnhilde's Immolation Scene, 'Götterdämmerung'

Spotify version (less a couple of tracks I couldn't find...)

Sunday 14 July 2019

Intelligent design: the Stanley Kubrick exhibition

I'm sure that any of you with a fondness for cinema and a manageable journey to or across London will have read about, if not already been, to the incredible Stanley Kubrick exhibition at the Design Museum.

If you're in any way undecided: please go. It has the authentic, comprehensive feel you would expect from such a vast and detailed archive, but never feels dry or heavy. While the great man's films often moved at a stately pace - and were none the worse for that - this show gets the balance right between informative detail, exemplary clips from the movies themselves, and original relics or tools of the trade for fans like me to nerd out over. Certain parts of the exhibition even manage to simulate the detached eerieness of many Kubrick films (sometimes it's hard to remember that 'The Shining' is his only out-and-out horror film), but punctuated by frequent simple thrills at spotting THAT costume, or THAT prop.

Here's a brief tour of some of the exhibits that particularly struck or affected me. (There is so much more to see.)

The very first thing you do on showing your ticket is walk along the Overlook's famous patterned carpet into a corridor of screens (shown above in a publicity photo by Ed Reeve, from the Design Museum website - the only shot in this post not snapped by me). A quick succession of scenes on the far wall show with brilliant economy Kubrick's regular motif of the symmetrical 'into the distance' perspective shot. Then only a few paces later, an early look at Kubrick's chessboard instantly throws some light on his signature style...

This being the Design Museum, I was hoping they'd give some quality posters from the archive pride of place - and sure enough:

(And given the stylised graphics of so many Kubrick film posters, I wonder why this suitably sinister treatment for 'Eyes Wide Shut' was rejected in favour of just a photographic still of Cruise and Kidman. I suppose I've just answered my own question, but still a pity. But I'm not going to argue with the cult...)

The exhibition doesn't dwell on Kubrick's work before the 'imperial masterpiece' period, but it would be hard to find a film by anyone with a more, well, 'arresting' strapline than 'Killer's Kiss':

Appropriately for such a 'show, don't tell' director, I really enjoyed the way the exhibition isn't overloaded with commentary, as such, but lets a great deal of behind-the-scenes and documentary photography do the talking. For example, even off set, the photos of Sue Lyon (who played Lolita) surrounded by older men have a slightly uncomfortable charge to them...

Filming 'Spartacus' was clearly terrifying (although Kirk Douglas seems to have been fond of the experience, judging by this letter to SK...)

And nailing the exact visual aesthetic for 'A Clockwork Orange' ranged from finding the right brutalist locations that would look both futuristic and timeless (here Thamesmead) to enacting a number of 'hat tests' before deciding on Malcolm McDowell's bowler...

The sheer beauty of 'Barry Lyndon' on-screen is nicely prefaced by breathtaking storyboards and a series of gorgeous test photographs of Marisa Berenson (anticipating the use of natural light the film is renowned for).

Although this is definitely a museum (as opposed to a gallery) show, the 'hang' is very lucid and resonant, careful to show where Kubrick found inspiration or benefited from gifted collaborators. The 'Full Metal Jacket'  section is a case in point: the 'Born to Kill' helmet on show by the famous Don McCullin image of the shell-shocked soldier; the astonishing transformation of the deserted Beckton gas works into the Vietnamese city Huế (the film's production designer was Anton Furst).

...not to mention Saul Bass's immediately distinctive storyboards for 'Spartacus' (best known for his unmistakable opening title sequences, Bass also designed the posters for 'Spartacus' and 'The Shining') and Ken Adam's set designs for 'Dr Strangelove':

One moment in the exhibition sent a genuine shiver down my spine: with no fanfare, and in as unassuming a way as his detached monotone might suggest, you suddenly meet HAL. (This is one 'red eye' I actually wished would show up more in the photo...)

I noted that the curators had left HAL safely disassembled. Just in case.

The slightly-reverent quiet of a museum environment suited the '2001' exhibits. Sadly, we weren't allowed to take up one of the space station's red chairs, but the emptiness contributed to that arid, airless feel. I was taken aback to see that the '2001' script resembled a large black rectangle...

Inevitably, I was most excited to see what was on display from my favourite Kubrick film, 'The Shining'. It's one of the only films I've written about at length on this blog, here. (I love it, but my relationship with it is, well, tortuous.) Certainly when it came to props, the exhibition didn't let me down - the actual typewriter ("aargh!"), the actual Grady twin costumes ("AARGH!")...

... and as ever, it was worthwhile looking up...

But there is something about the level of meticulous preparation, taken to such extremes for this film, that makes you feel there is something insane and uncanny embedded in the celluloid. The paper modelling for parts of the Overlook gave me the chills: it's so horribly precise:

I felt admiration (and - *whispers* - a little amusement) on seeing photographs of Garrett Brown, the genius who invented the Steadicam - so crucial to the unnatural glide of the all-seeing camera monitoring the Torrance family. Kubrick was an early adopter of the new technique and Brown operated the camera on 'The Shining' himself. I loved the fact that he's strapped into it in every picture, as if Kubrick never let him remove it (wouldn't have put that past him, after all), or as if he'd in some way merged with it...

Spoiler alert: If you've ever wondered how that haunting final shot of the 1921 photograph might have been executed without the aid of such state-of-the-art technology, I can help.

The exhibition is at the Design Museum until 15 September 2019 - get there if you can.

Wednesday 3 July 2019

Gala land: 'A Serenade to Music' at Wigmore Hall

I picked a winner for my first gala. The purpose of this amazing gig at Wigmore Hall was to raise funds for Leeds Lieder, the organisation behind a brilliant art song festival held in the city each spring (and much more besides).

The Director of Leeds Lieder is Joseph Middleton - a name that is likely to be familiar to regular readers of this blog, as the pianist on some of my favourite song recordings of recent years. For example, there's the superb body of work he is currently building with Carolyn Sampson ('Fleurs', 'A Verlaine Songbook', 'Lost is my Quiet' featuring Iestyn Davies, 'A Soprano's Schubertiade' and the brilliant, latest album 'Reason in Madness'); 'Nocturnal Variations' with Ruby Hughes; 'Voyages' with Mary Bevan; 'Songs to the Moon' with his vocal super-group the Myrthen Ensemble... the list goes on, but I'm going to stop there, for fear of leaving too many - or too few - of his colleagues out.

Why mention JM's handsome back catalogue? In a modest but telling address to the audience, he recounted how he was able to put the concert together. I paraphrase, of course: but he said how grateful he was that all it took was a few texts to his friends, and within the day he was receiving an avalanche of positive replies. It was clear from the warm atmosphere onstage that - on top of waiving their fees - all the artists were quite happy to go the extra mile (well, in some cases, thanks to our public transport system, many extra miles) to take part.

One of the characteristics of any event - recording or gig - where JM is involved is his flair for collaborative programming. I'm always inspired by the way that the discs he puts together with singers feel like proper 'albums', with thematic threads and careful sequencing providing a real sense of unity and continuity, often across a range of varied, intriguing material. And here, he managed it over some two-and-a-half hours of live performance, with 18 performers presenting the work of 23 composers. Here is that stellar line-up:

(The eagle-eyed among you may notice my subtle adjustment to correct the typo in Ema Nikolovska's name.)

Our unifying theme for the evening was Shakespeare: all but one of the songs was a setting of Bardic text - the exception was... well, see below! (And at the foot of this post I've added another photo showing the whole sequence of songs, which I hope will be legible enough on your device.) However, with Shakespeare's canon providing ongoing inspiration for composers over several centuries, we were led through a number of journeys and detours - making up a perfectly-balanced, yet still unpredictable, whole.

For example, we sometimes heard the same text repeated in adjacent performances, showing how musical interpretations can differ: for example, the treatment of 'Fancy'/'Fancie' by both Poulenc and Britten, side by side - or going back in time from Tippett's version of  'Where the bee sucks' (verse from 'The Tempest') for solo voice, to the Thomas Arne / William Jackson 18th-century group setting. Elsewhere, comparative versions were separated, the recurring lines of the poetry becoming reminders of the endless fascination Shakespeare holds and why composers might be drawn to the same texts ('Orpheus with his lute' from Sullivan and Vaughan Williams; 'It was a lover and his lass' by way of Quilter and Rutter).

The overall shape of the programme worked like a (midsummer night's?) dream, as well. Each half was bookended with rousing group performances, the climactic Vaughan Williams 'Serenade' involving the whole ensemble. In between, everyone was given their chance to shine, with the various pieces matched skilfully to their performers.

To pick highlights is almost painful, with each song arguably a stand-out moment. Again, I'm in terror of leaving someone or something out. So - accepting that it's impractical to describe every note from start to finish - I will be really strict with myself, my memory and my critical faculties by picking just five moments that had me spellbound. In no particular order:
  • James Gilchrist's rendition of Quilter's 'Fear no more the heat of the sun' - achieving a kind of hymnal simplicity in his restrained treatment - reminded me just what a singularly beautiful voice he has, and how I don't get to hear it enough.
  • Ema Nikolovska gave an unforgettable performance of Alison Bauld's 'Witches' song'. There is no piano accompaniment - using voice(s) alone, EN inhabited the characters of all three witches, plus Hecate, from 'Macbeth'. The result - impeccably sung - looked and sounded like someone breaking out into multiple personalities onstage, humorous one second, horrifying the next.
  • Earlier in the post, I implied that one song used the text a little more freely than the others. That was John Dankworth's 'Dunsinane Blues' - a witty jaunt through Macbeth's final days by way of the jazz club (Ronnie Scot's, perhaps?!)... Nicky Spence - to use the proper musicological term - 'went for it', in full showman mode, communicating total joy in the song's surreal good cheer. 
  • Fully inhabiting R Strauss's 'Three Ophelia songs', Carolyn Sampson captures the character's ruined innocence, matching the purity of her tone with (especially given the gala setting) highly convincing acting and movement. Appearing truly haunted, her right hand sought the side of the piano - as far from a singer's relaxed pose as you could imagine, the fingers scratched and groped for purchase, the support somehow not there; her vulnerability was evident; and we were completely in the moment.
  • Staying with Ophelia, Ruby Hughes sang the chillingly beautiful setting of 'They bore him barefaced on the bier' by Cheryl Frances-Hoad. Spare, spectral, with JM on piano she conjured up an atmospheric sound close to their fine 'Nocturnal Variations' CD.
I could so easily have typed up five other bulletpoints - or ten. What came over so clearly was how pleased everyone was to be there, enjoyment and appreciation writ large on the faces of the performers watching each other onstage, and no doubt inspiring the instant chemistry obvious in the group numbers.

It was a privilege to have a miniature Leeds Lieder festival come to London in this way, like a benign Birnam Wood to Dunsinane. Now all I need to do is get to the real thing..!

For more information about Leeds Lieder - including upcoming events, and how to support the organisation - look here.

Here is the full concert programme: