Category Archives: MUSIC + THEATRE

London Slant: An exotic evening at Leighton House

An oriental crescent moon was shining as I arrived at Leighton House and entered its bejewelled Arab Hall. Ever since this One Thousand and One Nights fantasy was unveiled in 1879 by its artist/owner, Lord Leighton, it has dazzled visitors with its panels of Islamic tiles, golden dome and mosaic floors. Queen Victoria was one of many who have come to marvel at what he built “for the sake of something beautiful to look at once in a while”—and to showcase paintings that included his own, executed in his upstairs studio.

Leighton House Arab Hall

A fountain, fabulous tiles and a golden dome: the Arab Hall at Leighton House.

But not since Leighton died in 1896 and his collection was dispersed has there been a better time to soak up its atmosphere. Its silk-clad walls are currently hung with 52 rarely seen paintings owned by Mexico’s Pérez Simón, the largest collection of Victorian art outside Britain. These include four works by Lord Leighton that have returned for the first time since he painted them here.

Greek Girls picking up Pebbles by the Sea by Frederic, Lord Leighton

Back after a long absence: Greek Girls picking up Pebbles by the Sea painted by Lord Leighton in his vast studio upstairs.

Roaming around these sensual rooms I felt as if I were being drawn into a dream. A fountain lazily trickled and Moorish lanterns illuminated lustrous friezes of fantasy creatures and calligraphy. Many of the paintings feature women draped in flimsy robes and I could imagine them descending from the walls to perform the dance of the seven veils.

A cruel Roman emperor drowns his dinner guests in petals: The Roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

A cruel Roman emperor drowns his dinner guests in petals: The Roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Adding to the mystique was the heady scent of roses that billows from the room with the stand-out painting: The Roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. This unsettling depiction of the depraved eponymous Roman emperor drowning his dinner guests in a sea of sumptuous petals is particularly strange for the lack of expression on the guests’ faces: neither horror nor blind pleasure as they suffocate in this exquisitely rendered onslaught.

Inspired by the Pre-Raphealites: Song without Words by John Melhuish Strudwick.

Inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites: Song without Words by John Melhuish Strudwick.

Indeed many of the works feature wistful subjects gazing as if in a reverie. Don’t come here for psychological insight: this show is about entering a magic kingdom of myth and romance. I drifted through rooms with paintings such as Alma-Tadema’s woman on a Neapolitan terrace: Her Eyes are with her Thoughts and they are Far Away, Henry Arthur Payne’s princess sailing on a shell: The Enchanted Sea, and John William Waterhouse’s woman gazing into her future: The Crystal Ball.

I looked at works by painters who often visited Leighton in his house—Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and John Everett Millais—and imagined the artists sprawling on the ottoman divans.

Fabulous Iznik and William de Morgan tiles and ceramics catch the light at Leighton House.

Fabulous Iznik and William De Morgan tiles and ceramics catch the light at Leighton House.

A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón Collection at Leighton House Museum, near Holland Park, London, continues until 29 March 2015. It is both a chance to view art and a piece of “immersive theatre”, where the setting is part of the show.

My tip for maximum atmosphere is to attend one of the many upcoming evening events. There are regular late night openings and curator tours plus debates, music, poetry, film and theatre evenings. I especially like the idea of the Aesthetic Soirée on 25 February. I’m only sorry that Lord Leighton, known for his “princely manner”, won’t be there to act as host.

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London Slant: What’s inside London’s three new cultural caskets?

It’s a year since a red inverted table called The Shed appeared at London’s Southbank. This temporary theatre’s first play, appropriately set around a table passed down through generations of a family, kicked off a string of full-house hits. Now this rough timber building with a fringe vibe has had its planning licence extended until 2017. Could it end up a permanent landmark alongside its neighbouring once-temporary structure, the London Eye? As a showcase for edgy works that are tapping a new, younger audience, there seems no reason why it shouldn’t run and run.

The Shed, National Theatre, London's South Bank

Extended run: The Shed at London’s Southbank Centre frames St Paul’s.

It’s just one of three timber boxes that have freshly sprouted in London’s cultural hubs. A short amble along the Thames leads to another fizzing theatre: the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe. It’s also been packing ’em in since Bond girl Gemma Arterton took to the stage as the Duchess of Malfi a few months back.

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London

The gorgeous candlelit interior of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe.

This intimate “jewel box” is a real feast for the senses. You don’t just wander in and sit down. You wait until invited to make your entrance: just stepping inside is a piece of theatre in itself. The scent of the hand-crafted oak auditorium wafts over you as you step among flickering beeswax candles, the only source of light. Then, as your eyes adjust to the dim glow they wander from the richly patterned backdrop up to the ceiling, a celestial scene of cherubs among clouds.

On the occasion of my audience with The Duchess, I took my seat as strolling minstrels in Elizabethan garb appeared onstage playing viols and lutes. Then came figures in fabulous ruffs and pantaloons bearing tapers. Chandeliers came spiralling down from the ceiling which they lit with great bravura to enthusiastic applause. Now it was time for the performance to begin.

Sam Wanamaker ceiling

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse ceiling, lit by candles in revolving chandeliers.

If the Sam Wanamaker has been designed to reflect a true Jacobean-era night out, right down to its bum-numbing benches, the opposite is true at the high-tech Milton Court Concert Hall. The Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s new performance space boasts indulgently bum-hugging seats. From its light-flooded glass lobby with a Martin Creed artwork to its white ceiling and walls, this 600-capacity hall feels fresh yet surprisingly intimate. And yes, it too features masses of wood—in this case sapele, a native African cousin of mahogany often used to make musical instruments. The acoustics are superb.

Milton Court Concert Hall, London

The intimate Milton Court Concert Hall.

The Hall hosts concerts by the school’s musicians alongside performances by the Academy of Ancient Music and the Britten Sinfonia, bookable through the adjacent Barbican Centre. It’s part of a complex that also include two new theatres, which I’ve yet to sample but could well take my tally of beautiful new boxes to five.

 

Photography: Sam Wanamaker Playhouse by Pete Le May; Milton Court Concert Hall by Morley von Sternberg

 

LONDON SLANT: POMPEII VERSUS DAVID BOWIE

This summer two “blockbuster” London exhibitions go head to head. In the first corner we have Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum. Opposite, across town at the V&A, we have David Bowie is…

Pompeii/Bowie

This season’s must-have coffee table ornaments: catalogues for David Bowie is… and Pompeii and Herculaneum

With 67,000 tickets pre-booked, Bowie has attracted more advance sales than any previous V&A show. Pompeii, which one reviewer even compared to the landmark 1972 Tutankhamun exhibition, has gone a step further with nearly 72,000 enthusiasts reserving slots before the opening day. What is it that’s got everyone scrambling to get in?

At first glance the two shows couldn’t be more different: the elegant, exquisitely presented British Museum exhibition versus Jean Genie and Rebel, Rebel pumping through headphones at the V&A.

But hang on a minute…

Going to the Pompeii show is like being invited to dinner at a Roman house minutes before Vesuvius starts to spew. Many of the exhibits are so intimate—a child’s wooden cradle charred by the heat, a table arrayed with trinkets to impress guests, a flask of the condiment du jour, fish sauce—you feel an instant bond with these people even though they lived in AD79. With the notable exception of a container to breed dormice for the cooking pot, the exhibits constantly remind you of how their lives resemble ours.

David Bowie

Origins of a legend: where Ziggy Stardust began.

The Bowie exhibition, too, is a walk-in scrapbook of minutiae that build into a living portrait of a time past. We have the pieces of paper that he scrawled his lyrics on and even a tissue with lipstick blotted from his lips. Of course there are the gorgeous costumes and enough high art (Die Brüke, Warhol and Gilbert and George) to elevate the show above the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. But I won’t forget the crowd of balding heads just inside the entrance completely spaced out by a video of Bowie playing Major Tom beneath a television shaped like a sputnik and an image of the moon. This is a snapshot of an era. And they were there.

Both shows still have months to run. You’ve seen the advance booking figures, but who will come out tops in the end? If the two venues want to really see visitor numbers skyrocket the British Museum could host evenings of drinks in the fabulous Roman garden they’ve created. (How about serving the favourite Pompeiian tipple of watered-down wine—perfect for these straitened times?) Meanwhile the V&A could deploy its Sennheiser headphones to run a silent disco among the vast screens pulsing with the Spiders from Mars.

Count me in.

AN EVENING OF POETICALL MUSICKE

There’s nothing like a few flakes of snow to send London into a tailspin. Following the first reports of last Friday’s Arctic weather, by 9am anxious faces were gathered round the office coffee machine. The first flurries an hour later saw people nervously peering through windows and by noon we were being urged to depart at 3pm lest we get stranded in a drift. A stop at Tesco en route to the safety of home involved long queues of shoppers toting baskets bursting with emergency supplies.

The weather meant a lower turnout than deserved at a delightful concert in a church that evening by Poeticall Musicke. But the plus point for those of us who did brave the elements was an intimate evening with a group of young musicians whose performance matched their magical name.

An evening of beautiful harmonies on period style instruments: Poeticall Musicke.

An evening of beautiful harmonies on period style instruments: Poeticall Musicke.

We enjoyed works by Monteverdi and Fontana played on violin, lirone (the cello-like instrument held by Donald Bennet, second from the right) and theorbo (the lute shown with group founder Alex McCartney, right). Kaisa Pulkkinen coaxed rippling notes Continue reading

A REAL DO FROM KATHMANDU

If Africa Express got me worried about the future of “world music”, Kutumba had me smiling once again. This superb band from Kathmandu takes traditional Nepalese music and makes it their (totally modern) own.

Invitations to their performance at Covent Garden’s Actor’s Church had stated “English time”, but the band’s arrival on stage 3/4 hours late heralded an evening that was Nepali through and through.

They started off with their own compositions, adding a wonderfully contemporary twist to centuries-old sounds. New numbers like “Yak” really conjured up the ponderous animal lumbering through distant hills. The trilling flute was magical, the pulsing drums exciting and I loved the plaintive violin-like stringed instrument, the tungna, which I encountered here for the first time. Huge applause followed from the largely 20-something audience of Nepalese lads and girls.

But then – a surprise.

The band announced that they would now play some folk tunes – and the audience erupted in cheers. Clutches of friends stormed the stage and others rushed down to dance at the front. By the end of the evening we were all up on our feet, writhing around in the distinctive coiling movements – one hand on hip, the other up in the air – that characterise Nepali dance.

Last time I’d done this it was in Kathmandu, among ladies in long black skirts edged in red, with flowers in their hair. This time it was with girls in micro skirts and Ugg boots. Somehow it seemed exactly right, and wonderful to know that traditional Kathmandu culture continues to thrive so far from the Himalayan snows.


http://www.kutumba.com.np/bio.html

AFRICA EXPRESS ON THE WRONG TRACK?

What a great idea. A private train trundles around the UK, taking African and British musicians to different venues. Not only does it carry some of the countries’ top performers to concert halls up and down the land, but it stops at station platforms for impromptu jams. Then, at the end of the tour, it brings them to London’s King’s Cross for one big, farewell show….

The grand finale event began at around 6pm and I was there, ready to get into the groove. On stage came the flamboyant Fatoumata, Amadou and Paul McCartney, all providing a very different take on the guitar. I wondered whether 25 years ago any of the stars had ever imagined Sir Paul in their back up band, standing well behind them, strumming bass.

There were some great moments—especially when honey-voiced Rokia Traore came centre stage with her guitar. Bassekou Kouyate and Baaba Maal were other greats.

But as the evening wore on, electric sounds took over, and even began to grate. Where were the gentle, rippling melodies of the kora and ngoni? Why were all the traditional instruments often inaudible among the head-banging acid house beats?

Fusion at its best can take elements of different cultures up to a higher realm. But let’s not overwhelm African instruments with non-stop Western thrust. In the end I tired of straining to hear Africa make its presence felt. I left hoping that the vogue for “world music” won’t inadvertently result in drowning out traditional sounds.