Halle Orchestra: Wigglesworth’s Mozart Tribute

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Halle Orchestra: Wigglesworth’s Mozart Tribute

The Bridgewater Hall, 31 October 2019

Halle Orchestra: Elgar’s Massive Hope. Conductor Andrew Manze, photo by Benjamin Ealovega

Mozart and more, much more.

For this exhilarating concert of classical and original compositions, Ryan Wigglesworth (pictured above) conducted the Halle, including in a performance of one of his own works, and played piano with Paul Lewis. A busy evening for him, then, and we certainly got our money’s worth.

Altogether, we heard these four gorgeous works:

  • Debussy (orch. Robin Holloway): En blanc et noir
  • Mozart: Concerto for Two Pianos
  • Ryan Wigglesworth: Locke’s Theatre
  • Ravel: Valses nobles et sentimentales

The ‘Concerto for Two Pianos’ was my favourite performance, Mozart’s ease and elegance not quite disguising an elfin foreboding. That bad thing probably won’t happen, but anyway do take care. Meanwhile make the most of life.

Ryan Wigglesworth’s own ‘Locke’s Theatre’ draws on the work of the seventeenth-century English composer Matthew Locke, who incidentally was one of Purcell’s teachers. I didn’t know this while listening to it, having assumed that the title referred to John Locke, where his theatre might be the theatre of the mind. There was a frenetic, stream of consciousness feel to it. You could imagine Ideas (some atomic, some more multilayered) getting up on stage to strut their stuff, full-throatily delivering their lines and then exiting, no doubt being pursued by a bear. To be followed by a cry of ‘Next!’

Of the French works, I preferred Ravel to Debussy this time, though actually there were luxuriant moments in both. They were designed primarily to give pleasure, you felt, and in this they succeeded.

Details of future Halle concerts can be found here.

By the Grace of God

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By the Grace of God

Directed by François Ozon

France, 2019

HOME, 31 October 2019

By the Grace of God

A raw, emotionally edgy, violent and tender film.

This film is about a number of men who were sexually abused as boys by a Catholic priest. The church covered up for him, his crimes went unpunished.

We look at the lives of these men as they try to get justice. Some men are Catholic, others are atheist; some are alone, while others seem (on the surface, at least) to be in stable relationships. Yet the damage done, the awful effect of the abuse on their lives, their toxic, dysfunctional selves – it is there for all to see.

It is a powerful film, full of haunting terror, raw emotion and resolute integrity, and it put me in mind of Spotlight, a similar film of a few years ago (my review of that one is here).

Non-Fiction

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Non-Fiction

Directed by Olivier Assayas

France, 2019

HOME, 31 October 2019

Non-Fiction

A very smart, very French film.

While it is chock-ful of intense Parisian chatter there are serious issues to to be discussed. What does the future hold for literature? Can it survive in a digital age of internet and social media and TV on demand?

Along with the serious discussion, mind, there is a lightness to the telling. An irony and playfulness, a lambent quality, in how the film is paced. And unlike a Woody Allen film, which it superficially resembles, there are no head-up-his-arse protagonists and the talk never wears.

Naturally, this being a French film, there is sexual infidelity. Yet there is faith to a kind of intellectual ideal, to the integrity of reason itself perhaps, and that is inviolable. And contrary to the claim of a few cynical characters here, the notion of ‘post-truth’ is not new. Bertrand Russell, long ago, set out an antidote to it: deliberately seek out information that challenges your world view, rather than confirms it. This might involve a simple procedure such as reading a different newspaper for a month.

What this fine film shows is that intelligent, deep cinema need not be stodgy or maudlin. I loved Non-Fiction and did not want it to end. But end it did. It has a quicksilver quality. It skims and soars, then it is gone.

Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Blackmail’ (1929)

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Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Blackmail’ (1929)

RNCM Theatre, 3 November 2018

Eric Marienthal

Perfect or near-perfect cinema.

It was an extremely well crafted film, especially considering its vintage (released in 1929, so almost a century old), but on reflection that is hardly surprising when you cast a glance at who the director was: the great Alfred Hitchcock. The film was shown at the RNCM with live organ accompaniment, dazzling in its own right, by Darius Battiwalla.

So a silent film and set in London – the archetypal big city – and you are struck first and foremost by certain scenes’ similarities to the great masterpieces of Hitchcock’s heyday. When the police officers burst into Tracey’s tenement flat and we see him reading a newspaper on the bed it is like the boarding room occupied by Joseph Cotton’s killer at the start of Shadow of a Doubt. And when Tracey escapes through the window and over the rooftops and we see police officers following it is like the prologue to Vertigo.One of those police officers could be James Stewart’s Scottie. And the film evokes The 39 Steps in myriad ways.

Anny Ondra, a very beautiful Czech actress with expressive eyes, plays the damsel in distress. In one scene we see her walking down the Strand, a desolate Trafalgar square in the distance. There is a fleeting glimpse of Piccadilly Circus in another scene. Elsewhere we are at a Lyon’s Coffee House, a bustling form of life. People dining after a day at work. And then we are at a police station, with its tenebrous interiors and murky corridors. Finally, there is the British Museum, with the villain Tracey scarpering over the tombs of Egyptian mummies and statues Assyrian nobles. A frantic pursuit that has echoes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

It is wonderful how Hitchcock switches from verisimilitude – we are in a real city with real people – to showing us the anxious point of view of various different characters, saying in effect: this is the world that this person lives in. To be precise: not all of the characters are anxious. Some aware of their peril, others are oblivious to what is happening around them (as in life). There is a great, extended shot when Alice and the guy she has met walk up the staircase of his apartment building. It is a single tracking shot and we follow them floor by floor. How did Hitchcock manage to do that in 1929?

The concise and economical storytelling has a spellbinding elegance. There is artistry yet it never interferes with the momentum of the narrative, which is forever going forward.

Manchester Collective: Sirocco

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Manchester Collective: Sirocco

RNCM Concert Hall, 15 October 2019

Eric Marienthal

Abel is able.

And that goes not only for Abel Selaocoe, the frontman of Manchester Collective (who here played cello and sang), mind, but for the whole group, which for the most part is made up of RNCM alumni. They showed the versatile pizzazz and the can-do quality of the city that gave them their name.

Manchester Collective were open for business, that was for sure, as they played Haydn and Purcell one moment and traditional African song the next. There was plenty of  magnificent, bombastic drumming courtesy of Sidiki Dembele and a choir of angelic, baroque melodies from the Singh sisters (Rakhi Singh and Simmy Singh) and company on strings.

It was a collision of worlds, you could call it Alex Park and the Bridgewater Hall and all points in between. A cityscape of sound, and all good.

For further details of Manchester Collective, visit their website here.

The Intelligence Park

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The Intelligence Park

Music by Gerald Barry

Libretto by Vincent Deane

Music Theatre Wales and The Royal Opera with London Sinfonietta

RNCM Theatre, 12 October 2019

The Intelligence Park
A love triangle assembled in eighteenth century Ireland.

The structure attracts one’s attention because it is so unusual in design. There is an opera composer who is tempted by a castrato, the singer appearing in his current production. While in turn the said castrato falls for the composer’s bride to be.

With great verve the opera explores the relation between life and art (we watch as the composer’s anxieties acted out by singers in Frank Sidebottom heads) and the malleability of gender and sexuality. At times there is a frenzy to the music; we are in a torture garden of acrid blooms, sweet and sickly blossoms. You feel zest, yes that is true, yet it is undercut with agony. That sense of a boundless freedom marred by shards of compulsion. And on some mornings, the question: do you step out into the sunlit landscape or do yourself in? Not a question for me, I should add, rather one for the protagonist here.

An interesting production of an interesting opera.

Halle Orchestra: Elgar’s Massive Hope

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Halle Orchestra: Elgar’s Massive Hope

The Bridgewater Hall, 10 October 2019

Halle Orchestra: Elgar’s Massive Hope. Conductor Andrew Manze, photo by Benjamin Ealovega

A happy homecoming for Elgar’s first symphony.

For this exhilarating concert Andrew Manze (pictured above) conducted the Halle, and they played these three gorgeous works:

  • Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
  • Bizet: L’Arlésienne Suite No.1
  • Elgar: Symphony No.1

Debussy’s work will forever be associated with Nijinsky’s ballet L’après-midi d’un faune. If you have ever heard the haunting flute solo at the start, the way the melody swirls and soars, like a beast of prey careening its way through a dense forest, you can never forget it. Somehow the melodic theme recurs throughout the work, like the refrain in a villanelle.

By contrast, Bizet’s work was originally written for the theatre, in fact for Daudet’s play L’Arlésienne where it worked as a soundtrack, a background to poetic dialogue, but that play has now been almost wholly forgotten. The music has shed its origins.

Still, Daudet’s drama is there in the music. You feel it first in the Prelude, where the stop-start melody tugs at your sense of calm, creating a vague disquiet. The Menuet has a lot in it, a waltz and a minuet too, of course. It is a varied assemblage, a bag of goodies. While the Adagietto is subdued, tender, very beautiful indeed.

There followed the interval, a serving of the Bridgewater Hall’s excellent ginger ice cream (courtesy of Doddington), then Elgar’s Symphony No.1.

And it was a happy homecoming for Elgar’s masterpiece. For, let us recall, the symphony had its premiere in Manchester, having been first performed at the Free Trade Hall on 3 December 1908. The orchestra on that occasion was… the Halle. A very welcome reprise, then. All good here, simply to say that the performance of the third Adagio movement was absolutely glorious.

The Halle will be performing the same concert program on future dates, further details can be found here.

Details of future Halle concerts can be found here.

Joker

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Joker

Directed by Todd Phillips

USA, 2019

HOME, 4 October 2019

Joker

You would call it a bleak film, but it is undoubtedly a beautiful one too.

Joaquin Phoenix’s sad bastard is the joker in the pack, a harbinger of aleatory anarchy, everyone’s favourite sociopath.

Although Todd Phillips makes use of DC characters, it is not a conventional comic book film by any means. Mind, you could think of it as an ‘origins’ film for the Joker. (Or an uber-Joker, for this character seems to predate the emergence of the actual Joker in the Batman series. But I confess that I am not up to speed with the cosmology of the DC Universe – all that Infinite Crisis stuff that they have put out in recent years, which clarifies very little and to my mind simply adds to the confusion- so maybe this guy is the Joker. Anyway, an issue for the fans to talk about.)

Here the Joker is recast as Batman’s older brother, the illegitimate son that Bruce Wayne’s father disowned. Cain and Abel were brothers…  and so too these ancient protagonists. The laughter is dark and sad and involuntary. Emetic. Aural vomit. Unpleasant to listen to. The jokes (touching on cruelty and chaos, human nature and everyday folly) are on all of us. At the end, Bruce’s parents are gunned down by a clown-masked destroyer – and we all know what happens next.

There is an electric moment where the Joker dances on a stairway leading down to an alley, glam rock playing in the background (I think a few riffs from Gary Glitter’s Leader of the Band: I have not heard his music in a while) as he goes off on a killing spree. Out to paint the town red – or is that luminescent purple?

I found the first twenty minutes of Joker a bit of a grind (what the hell is going on here?) but after that it soared and took flight. From then on, pure cinematic heaven.

 

The Last Tree

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The Last Tree

Directed by Shola Amoo

UK, 2019

HOME, 2 October 2019

The Last Tree

A raw, emotionally edgy, violent and tender film.

It tells the story of Femi, who moves from foster care in middle England to inner city London, where he lives in a high-rise flat together with his mother.

It is a culture shock and at first the bond with his mother is weak. Femi gets into trouble at school, becomes involved with a gang and soon his life is under threat. But somehow he never quite loses his soul, and an ability to empathize with people. It is wonderful to see how, in time, he turns to the people in his life. The ones who have showed up and managed to stick around. His mother above all.

Sam Adewumni is terrific as Femi, in a convincing film studded with fine performances.

 

 

The Laundromat

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The Laundromat

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

USA, 2019

HOME, 2 October 2019

The Laundromat

It is a well-meaning film, but a bit too moralistic and simplistic for my taste.

There is a cleverness to it,  Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas as a pair of financiers, giving an account of their own dastardly careers, making you think of Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, the camp villains in Diamonds are Forever. Meryl Streep is a widow (her husband dies in a boating accident and she has a bit of a nightmare trying to get fair compensation for his death), a character in one of the stories, but even she turns preachy at the end.

The problem is that the director would rather explain and complain about financial capitalism, and preach about it, rather than tell an immersive story with convincing characters, while touching on various themes raised by said capitslism. The explanations are simple and light, the preaching comes across as virtue-signalling (especially when mouthed by Streep) and the story is, naturally enough, unconvincing (it comes across as mere illustrative reconstruction than story, to be honest). It is just not enjoyable to watch.

Were there any memorable moments in the film? Well, I cannot remember any.

Stroszek

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Stroszek

Directed by Werner Herzog

West Germany, 1977

HOME, 27 September 2019

Stroszek

Werner Herzog’s America.

In Stroszek he shows us a forlorn Elsewhere of desolate lives subsisting on limpid dreams, a flatland where his queer pioneer scrabbles to survive. Stroszek is a misfit who believes, at the start of his journey anyway, that changing his immediate surroundings will save him. So he leaves a grimy, gritty Berlin for Wisconsin’s wide vistas. But changing his very own self, his habits, peccadilloes and predilections, that is something he cannot do. Needless to say, his sojourn is not a happy one. Misery is his cruel lot in Germany, undeniably, but in America it is worse.

The performing chickens and other small animals at the end, a characteristic touch of genius by Herzog, put me in mind of Kleist’s famous essay on puppet theatre. These sentient creatures, aglow with dancing and music and song, have the febrile glitter of cheap magic. They are animate automata, mechanical toys, and their antics mock Stroszek’s inability to radically change his life. He fails, yet so do we all. (People cannot ever really change their lives, can they?) Anyway, I love the denouement to the film, it is as though Herzog had stumbled upon a New World Cabinet of Curiosities.

And in the end, we realise, it has all turned to shit for Stroszek. His golden-hearted girl goes back to her old profession. He dreams up a plan to rob a bank, but it is closed so he goes to a barber’s shop instead. Even that goes awry. And self-dissolution, getting banged out of your head on booze, is never entirely successful. It didn’t work in Berlin and it doesn’t work here. For there is always a little light of awareness, of consciousness, peeking through the blurry clouds of oblivion. And what does consciousness mean, in a Werner Herzog film? Yes, consciousness means suffering, the capacity to experience pain. We know that art may console the soul, but the problem is that dire entertainment and zany amusement is all that is on offer in the Flatlands. Can that do the job as well? Well, why don’t you watch the film and see.

Stroszek was showing as part of the David Lynch’s True Favourites film season. Further details here.

 

Honeyland

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Honeyland

Directed by Ljubomir Stefanov

Macedonia, 2019

HOME, 25 September 2019

Honeyland

It looks like a documentary, this film, and at first you are not certain that it is a feature. It is a feature (I think…).

A story is told, anyway, so it is a documentary that has been shaped and sculptured in some way. Hatidze lives with her aged mother in an isolated village. They are the only ones there. She keeps bees. Her practice is to take half of their honey to leave the bees half. It is sustainable, and works for them both.

Then into the village, some newcomers arrive. A family with livestock, intending to farm and keep bees too. At first Hatidze welcomes them, helps them, gives them advice as to how to tend their bees. But the family is under pressure from their landlord. They need to maximise the output from their livestock and bees, get the most out them. It doesn’t work, that is the first thing to say: the bees sting them, for starters. But their approach impacts on Hatidze’s life and livelihood. How could it not

It is a beautiful film, superb cinematography capturing the landscape, which is stunning. In one wonderful scene we see Hatidze walking in the mountains towards a bee enclave as a plane flies by, high in the sky. A faraway plane, yet an imminent threat to her way of life. All in all, a tender portrait of Hatidze, a remarkable woman. I especially liked the moments with mother and daughter alone in their dark home (a cave or catacomb almost) with a candle lit between them. It is like looking at a Caravaggio.

Halle Orchestra: Shostakovich’s Defiant Response

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Halle Orchestra: Shostakovich’s Defiant Response

The Bridgewater Hall, 19 September 2019

Halle Orchestra: Shostakovich’s Defiant Response. Conductor Klaus Makela, photo by Heikki Tuuli

Beethoven and Shostakovich: ferociously intelligent music.

Klaus Makela (pictured) conducted the Halle this evening, and they played these three wonderful works:

  • Beethoven: Overture: The Creatures of Prometheus
  • Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.1
  • Shostakovich: Symphony No.5

Beethoven’s ‘Overture: The Creatures of Prometheus’, the great composer’s only ballet score, was full of vivid images and versatile invention. Being something of a Promethean figure himself, it is hardly surprising that Beethoven was atttracted to the subject. It is a ballet where Prometheus plays God, bringing a male and female statue to life. Time for a revival?

As for his ‘Piano Concerto No.1’, well it is a masterpiece, clearly. I loved the Largo, the second movement, though in truth it was all good. Some passages are playful, others possess a raw power, an ineluctable rhythm and irresistible force. Víkingur Ólafsson played piano with consummate skill; and his encore, a Bach adagio for a friend who had just died, was plenty moving too. Both Beethoven works, incidentally, were first performed n Vienna.

Shostakovich’s ‘Symphony No.5’ was a complex, ambivalent epic, a tussle between authenticity and irony. The first movement, incorporating a quote from Carmen, was slushy and romantic. While the second featured a Landler, a slow waltz. In the third, a Largo, you were drenched in longing. Which led you to ask, Where was the composer going to take us next? Well the fourth and final movement was a military march, all that torment and anguish directed outward. Violence in service of the revolution. The question to be asked, though it can never be answered, is whether the symphony should be taken at face value. Was Shostakovich for real? Or was he being ironic? Was this music – spectacular as it often was – simply a show to avoid as show trial?

The Halle will be performing the same concert program on future dates, further details here.

Details of future Halle concerts can be found here.

For Sama

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For Sama

Directed by Edward Watts and Waad Al-Kateab

UK, 2019

HOME, 19 September 2019

For Sama

Harrowing dispatches from a city under seige.

Waad al-Kateab’s film, dedicated to her daughter Sama, charts life in Aleppo as it comes under bombardment from Syrian and Russian forces. Five long years, and counting. Waad is the wife of a doctor, Hamza, and she and her camera witness many moments of death and grief. You see blood on the floor, corpses abandoned in a white-tiled room. Inconsolable suffering everywhere. This is a film where children die, where brothers and mothers grieve. It is not an easy watch.

Mind, there are sometimes moments of black humour (say, a mother recounting how her child would piss down her back whenever the shelling starts) and even miracle (a baby, seemingly dead, cries into life).

You realise that these people feel (correctly) that they are alone in the world. Yes, they must daily face the hostility of Assad and Putin’s henchmen. Yet they must also accept each day the West’s indifference their plight. Western leaders may have called, following the Arab Spring, for Assad to go. But after Iraq, no Western nation was ever going to act to make that happen. So the carnage goes on.

Sunset Boulevard

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Sunset Boulevard

Directed by Billy Wilder

USA, 1950

HOME, 17 September 2019

Sunset Boulevard

An American film, although with Austrian elements too.

There is, to start with, Erich von Stroheim’s presence and Billy Wilder’s script and direction. And the story, the way that William Holden’s protagonist Joe Gillis is drawn into Norma Desmond’s (Gloria Swanson) clutches puts you in mind of both Stefan Zweig’s great novel Beware of Pity (because Joe does feel pity for Norma, her depression and suicide attempts and general mental instability) and various Austrian artists’ attraction to the figure of the femme fatale. You think of Richard Strauss’ opera Salome, the role that tempts Norma out of retirement. And the related figure of Judith, painted by Klimt and Cranach (Cranach’s painting of Judith is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Were these images swirling about in Wilder’s mind when he came to write the story?

Nonetheless Sunset Boulevard owes much to film noir and to hard-boiled crime novels with their penchant for first person narration.

Hollywood is a poisonous presence in the film. It is a locus and portal of dreams, not always healthy ones. It peddles fantasies, which can transmute into obsession and perversion. Unrealities. When Joe meets Norma he is drawn into the past (a vanished Europe?) away from America and the future of an open road. Hope, the sanity of a social world – he leaves that all behind.

It shows a nostalgia for silent films, the sacred power inherent in the pure theatrical gesture, when stars possessed a kind of royal mystery. A mystery now lost in an age of vulgar speech, slick banter (at which Joe is adept) and shallow celebrity.

Sunset Boulevard, an undoubted masterpiece, was showing as part of the David Lynch’s True Favourites film season. Further details here.

Red Dust Road @ HOME

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Red Dust Road

Written by Jackie Kay and adapted by Tanika Gupta

HOME and the National Theatre of Scotland

HOME, 12 September 2019

Elaine C. Smith, Lewis Howden, and Sasha Frost in Red Dust Road. Photograph by Richard Davenport.

Elaine C. Smith, Lewis Howden, and Sasha Frost in Red Dust Road. Photograph by Richard Davenport.

A portrait of a poet who is always on pilgrimage.

This play is a heartwarming, sometimes humorous adaptation of Jackie Kay’s fine memoir. At the close, you come away happy, though you feel that Kay’s life wasn’t always like that. She has had a lot to contend with. There was the racism of ’70s Scotland and, as a black child adopted by white parents, her identity was always going to be conflicted. Mind, it is clear here that she could always depend on the love of her parents. Later, at university, she came out as a lesbian (cue disco music).

There are strong performances throughout the play. From Sasha Frost as Kay herself, even though she isn’t quite able to capture the full-throated warmth of Kay’s own voice, and from Elaine C. Smith and Lewis Howden as Kay’s parents. Irene Allan plays Elizabeth, Kay’s birth mother, and there is a moment where she sings a harrowing, heartfelt Scots ballad (during a sequence where the play quotes from The Adoption Papers, and we hear the voices of the two mothers). It is the still, standout moment in the play.

If Red Dust Road has a flaw it is that there is a slightly precious, over-reverential attitude to Africa and Kay’s Ibo identity. As though this might offer a final answer, a true key to unlocking what makes her who she is. An authentic end to all her searching. Yet even this notion is undercut. In modern Nigeria, on the journey to her ‘ancestral village’, Kay is pestered by policemen demanding kickbacks.

Red Dust Road is a multi-layered play about a woman with a multi-layered identity. It is showing at HOME until 21 September, details here.

Rojo

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Rojo

Directed by Benjamín Naishtat

Argentina, 2018

HOME, 7 September 2019

Rojo

This disconcerting, disquieting film is set in Argentina prior to mid-’70s coup.

The protagonist is Claudio (Darío Grandinetti), a successful lawyer who is at the edge of violence. He is a moral agent who chooses not to act. Is it complicit in murder? Well, not if he can be later implicated. Does he stand up to injustice and profiteering? There would be a danger in that, wouldn’t there, so no. He is reluctant, yet willing to turn a blind eye.

The import of the film seems to be that state acts – and here one thinks of Latin America’s ‘Disappeared’ – are preceded by individual acts of violence, theft, jealousy, a desire to profit from others’ misfortune. We see the shadows – an eclipse even – before the darkness falls. At the film’s end, anyway, darkness does fall.

In one scene a mother goes into a church because her son is missing. He has not returned home, has disappeared. A priest is nowhere to be seen. The response of man in prayer, an avowed Christian (Alfredo Castro, who plays a private detective, brilliantly), is along the lines of: ‘I am not your son’s keeper.’

A very impressive accomplishment.

 

Pain and Glory

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Pain and Glory

Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

Spain, 2019

HOME, 8 September 2019

Pain and Glory

It is an autobiographical film, but an artful one too.

There is an elegance and a restraint to it all, a tenderness even, not least Antonio Banderas’s central performance as Salvador, a film director suffering from a prolonged creative block. He is frail and vulnerable and I like the authenticity of his small movements. The reluctance to bend his back (perhaps he cannot) when putting on his clothes. The way he walks, cautious and slow. The way he gets up after sitting down. He is a man who knows what pain is, who manages it as he can.

The story is captivating and humorous, uplifting at the end, yet throughout it is studded with moments of poignancy and pain. There is one great line, so desperately sad and honest that it must be true. That is when Salvador says that, while his mother and the people in their village made him who he is, he failed his mother as a son ‘by being who I am’.

I like also the allusions to Spain and its hinterlands. Argentina, Cuba and Mexico are places of significance. Salvador reads Roberto Bolano, underlines passages in one of his novels. And his drama samples a song by the tumultuous Chavela Vargas, a trans/gay pioneer long admired by Almodóvar.

A late masterpiece.

Arik Brauer: All of My Arts @ Jewish Museum Vienna

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Arik Brauer: All of My Arts

Curated by Danielle Spera and Daniela Pscheiden

3 April 2019 – 20 October 2019

Jewish Museum Vienna

Arik Brauer, um 1965 (c) Brigitte Lüttge-Dauth.jpg

Arik Brauer, um 1965 (c) Brigitte Lüttge-Dauth

At the Jewish Museum Vienna there are two exhibitions, each very different from the other, each in its own unique way compelling.

Arik Brauer: All of My Arts is a survey of the great Austrian artist’s life and work. His paintings are much in evidence. Yes, the Fantastic Realism masterpieces but also, as well, a Bosch pastiche that he completed whilst a student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna (unlike Hitler, he got in) and a number of coloured drawings he did  even earlier, when a child: beautiful, prodigiously accomplished drawings.

You get to hear as well many of his most famous songs. For those unfamiliar with Brauer’s music, imagine Dylan writing not in an American idiom a la Woody Guthrie but in a contemporary update of Johann Nestroy’s Viennese Deutsch. You will have a pretty good sense of why Brauer is admired  as a singer-songwriter.

Also in the exhibition there is a chess set , I think though set up wrong (on the board, the white square is not on the right hand side, unless I have read it wrong); a clip from a French film, Les distractions (English title: Trapped by Fear), with Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Parisian cool playing off against Brauer’s passionate song. Another section of the exhibition explores Brauer’s buildings: architecture became an interest for him in his mid-late career. And much else besides.

Arik Brauer: All of My Arts is an exhibition that does full justice to the great artist’s’s fecund creativity.

As it happens, the other exhibition, Café As. The Survival of Simon Wiesenthal, is also about architecture. It is curated by Michaela Vocelka and runs until January 2020.

When Simon Wiesenthal was at the Mauthausen concentration camp in 1945, he made friends with a fellow prisoner named Edmund Staniszewski. Staniszewski had an ambition to start a café after the war (if he survived, that is) and Wiesenthal, who had trained as an architect, designed some plans for him. He made sketches and drawings of the premises, its outside and interior, and even thought about staff uniforms. Here is Wiesenthal’s design of a chess room within the cafe. Note the chequered floor and seat coverings, the rook depicted as a tank turret in the painting on the wall, where we see as well a pawn being carried away on a stretcher. No doubt it has been sacrificed for the greater good…

Schachzimmer des Café As (c) Jüdisches Museum Wien

Schachzimmer des Café As (c) Jüdisches Museum Wien

This project was a hinterland for both men, you sense, a shared dream that likely helped them to survive the dire situation that they found themselves in. In planning the future of the Cafe As, they projected themselves into the future and reaffirmed their resolve to survive.

You see a slue of Wiesenthal’s designs in this exhibition, along with letters and photos and other archival materials. It is a valuable contribution to our understanding of this fierce warrior for justice.

Further details of Arik Brauer: All of My Arts can be found here.

Further details of Café As. The Survival of Simon Wiesenthal can be found here.

The Pointe Dances @ Theatremuseum Wien

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The Pointe Dances: 150 Years of Ballet at the Wiener Staatsoper

Curated by Andrea Amort

16 May 2019 – 13 January 2020

Theatremuseum Wien

VIEW OF THE SIDE STAGE AT THE WIENER STAATSOPER, REHEARSAL OF "SWAN LAKE" (2.3 MB) © Wiener Staatsballett/Ashley Taylor

Side-stage view at the Wiener Staatsoper, during a rehearsal of Swan Lake.
© Wiener Staatsballett/Ashley Taylor

At the minute, at the Theatermuseum in Vienna, you can see two dance-related exhibitions: The Pointe Dances and Everybody Dances, both curated by Andrea Amort.

The Pointe Dances looks at the history of ballet in Vienna, from the early seventeenth century to the present day, with the focus firmly on ballet at (what is now) the Wiener Staatsoper. In the middle of the nineteenth century the Ringstrasse was built, and in 1869 Vienna’s main ballet company moved into (what was then) the Hofoper am Ring building. Ballet performances have been taking place there (and elsewhere too, mind: I saw a wonderful production of Coppelia earlier this year at the Volksoper out past the Wahringer Strasse) virtually ever since.

Notable historical highlights include Richard Strauss’s reign, from the end of World War One to the early ‘20s, so right at the birth of Austria as a republic, and Rudolf Nureyev’s tenure in the 1960s, where he famously devised a new way of doing Swan Lake. His version is still in production at the Wiener Staatsoper, incidentally; I saw one such performance in February. In this exhibition there are myriad photographs of dancers and productions, together with related films and video clips and diverse archival materials such as posters, postcards and letters. A treasure trove for fans of ballet.

With Everybody Dances, also curated by Andrea Amort, you get something different: a history of modern dance in Vienna (and Greater Vienna and, to some extent, Austria itself) from about 1900 to now. And it is still very much a vital tradition, what with the flagship ImPulsTanz festival taking place in Vienna each Summer. Bestriding this exhibition you have the gigantic presence of Rosalia Chladek (1905-1995) – charismatic dancer, inventive choreographer and influential dance theorist – although, as the title implies, it covers popular dance as well as the avant-garde. In Vienna, especially Rote Wien, dance was not an exclusively elitist pursuit.

I was surprised to learn that Isadora Duncan had once danced in Vienna, at the Secession no less, in 1902, and that Klimt (amongst other artists) was in the audience on that occasion. And here is a weird and wonderful photograph of an avant-garde dance troupe, captured in mid-1930s Vienna:

TÄNZERINNEN DES ENSEMBLES GERTRUD BODENWIESER IN "DÄMON MASCHINE", 1936, FOTO: DʼORA-BENDA Theatermuseum © KHM-Museumsverband

TÄNZERINNEN DES ENSEMBLES GERTRUD BODENWIESER IN “DÄMON MASCHINE”, 1936, FOTO: DʼORA-BENDA
Theatermuseum © KHM-Museumsverband

Also at the Theatremuseum, for the last couple of years and for a few years more one hopes, you can see masterpieces by Bosch, Cranach, Titian, Rubens and others. The Paintings Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts, much of it anyway, has been installed at the Theatremuseum while the Academy of Fine Arts building is being refurbished. You can also see Lifelines, an exhibition of drawings by Rembrandt, there at the moment until 22 September 2019.

The Theatermuseum has always been one of Vienna’s hidden gems, and just now there is an awful lot worth seeing. So check it out.

Further details of The Pointe Dances: 150 Years of Ballet at the Wiener Staatsoper can be found here.

Further details of Everybody Dances: The Cosmos of Viennese Dance Modernism can be found here.

Further details of the Paintings Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts, including the Lifelines exhibition, can be found here.

Details of current and forthcoming exhibitions at the Theatremuseum Wien can be found here.

The Last Day @ Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

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The Last Day

Photographs by Helmut Wimmer

2 March 2018 – 15 August 2019

Bassano Saal, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

Fotoserie „The Last Day“ © Foto: Helmut Wimmer

Fotoserie „The Last Day“
© Foto: Helmut Wimmer

In the Bassano Saal at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, there was an exhibition of a dozen photographs by Helmut Wimmer, going by the collective title of The Last Day.

Now ended, alas, it was an exhibition with an apocalyptic, revenge of nature flavour, but we can certainly expect to see more work like this as the reality, the overwhelming presence of climate change, hits home. Here we have the grand staircase of the Kunsthistorisches Museum – a Greek warrior raising his sword, the scene of myriad selfies – exposed to the elements, looking for all the world as though it is overgrown with earth and twigs and moss. We see, in one photograph, cranes – at least, I think they are cranes: they are birds with a stately, distinguished plumage at any rate – wandering through a room adorned with one of Velasquez’s portraits of an infant Hapsburg prince. A courtly scene that would not look out of place in a Werner Herzog movie.

In the Bruegel room (see below), the artist’s painting of a winter journey (or of a return from a hunt, I forget which) is visible on one wall – and you can spy others, the peasant not looking where he is going, say – snow is encroaching. Winter is coming.

Fotoserie „The Last Day“ © Foto: Helmut Wimmer

Fotoserie „The Last Day“
© Foto: Helmut Wimmer

In other photographs there are rooms that contain rocky cliffs, petrified trees, a lake reflecting (Monet-like) Renaissance masterpieces. And a few rooms are flooded with water, the waves crashing and swirling. There are a typical museum-goers in many of these photographs too, doing the usual museum-goer things. Such as looking at paintings intently, consulting catalogs and explanatory text, fiddling with their phones. Being alternately hyper-attentive and impervious to their surroundings. All of which, perfectly captured by Helmut Wimmer, seems about right. For wouldn’t that be what you would expect to happen?

For about the end of the world, they were never wrong, the Old Masters. How well they understood that the end of civilization (like Christ carrying the cross to Calvary in Bruegel’s great painting) would take place while people were doing ordinary, everyday things. Like, in a modern museum setting, looking at a picture or taking a selfie or – in the cafe on the first floor – mashing whipped cream into a Sachertorte.

Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien is a wonderful museum which is not unlike the National Gallery in London. In that it has ramshackle charm and is organised in quite an hackneyed way, but you can forgive all that – and even the cafe located slap-bang in the middle of it, which the National Gallery has not yet thought of, thank God – because it is piled to the rafters with masterpieces. A treasure trove of great art, in fact.

Further details of The Last Day can be found here.

Helmut Wimmer’s website is here.

Details of current and forthcoming exhibitions at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien can be found here.

MELTDOWN @ Naturhistorisches Museum Wien

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MELTDOWN: A Visualization of Climate Change by Project Pressure

Curated by Lina Aastrup

5 June 2019 – 8 September 2019

Naturhistorisches Museum Wien

MELTDOWN: A Visualization of Climate Change by Project Pressure

Certainly this was the most challenging and topical exhibition in Vienna this summer, and it is at the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien for only a fortnight more.

MELTDOWN: A Visualization of Climate Change by Project Pressure aims to visually represent the effect of climate change, at times by showing glaciers before (using historic photos taken from various archives, etc.) and after: that is to say now, today. And the change, the loss of a precious planetary resource (and natural beauty as well, of course) was often startling.

Curiously, one effect of the loss of glaciers – as one clump within the exhibition explained – is that borders between countries will need to be re-calibrated and (maybe) redrawn. A process whereby the rightful ownership of assets is called into question and can become, perhaps, a matter of controversy and conflict. So Austria and Italy had a bit of a kerfuffle recently over the discovery of a well preserved prehistoric man. He was found in what was not so long ago Austria, but is now Italy. This case was settled amicably, by all accounts, but we can expect these sort of disputes to multiply in the future.

Another issue is that the loss of glaciers, the dissolution of snow, will make it easier to access natural gas and precious metals and minerals. Already countries are making robust claims over areas of the Arctic, pushing these more seriously than they have done hitherto. And Trump’s supposed offer to buy Greenland, which I read about after visiting this exhibition, belongs in this playbook too. Here is a vision of our future: countries squabbling over the planet’s dwindling resources, rather than trying to stem their loss, with leaders of the most vociferous countries even denying that climate change is taking place at all.

There is another exhibition at the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien that is well worth your time as well. FLORA PHOTOGRAPHICA: The Time Between, an exhibition of photographs by Petra Lutnyk, runs until 6 October 2019. These are wonderful photographs, mainly of flowers, with a few English roses thrown in the mix. She has  an extraordinary eye for nature’s fragility; with each ethereal image you see blossom and decay.

Further details of MELTDOWN can be found here.

Further details of FLORA PHOTOGRAPHICA can be found here.

Tree @ MIF19

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Tree

Created by Idris Elba & Kwame Kwei-Armah

Campfield Market Hall, 4 July 2019

Sinead-Cusack-and-Alfred-Enoch-in-Tree-at-Manchester-International-Festival-runs-at-Young-Vic-from-29-July.-Credit-Marc-Brenner-13-Custom.jpg

Sinead Cusack and Alfred Enoch in Tree @ MIF19. Photo by Marc Brenner

A brutalist sculpture of contemporary South Africa.

Following his mother’s death, Kaelo (Alfred Enoch) journeys to South Africa. Both his parents were from there – though he never knew his father, he died before his birth – and he wants to place her ashes on his fathers grave. Problem is, though, that his father was abducted, ‘disappeared’, by some white supremacist hit squad back in the day, and his grave (if, in fact, he had been buried) is not known.

Kaelo lodges with his grandmother (Sinead-Cusack), a farmer, and also makes contact with his sister or half-sister, who is involved in current protests about land reclamation and restitution (which target his grandmother’s estate). She leads a noisy, violent, righteous faction. And with that Kaelo’s quest for his father’s resting place crashes into South Africa’s present political disputes big-time.

This is a decent drama, inspired in part by Idris Elba’s recent album. Alfred Enoch plays Kaelo as a slightly prissy London liberal, looking very dapper in his carrot-shaped pants, and prone to take offence and start arguments over very little. He idolises Nelson Mandela, whereas his sister sees him as just another politician who didn’t deliver. This is a South Africa where peace and reconciliation seem a long way off.

The space of Campfield Market Hall is used well: the audience stand during the performance, and seem themselves like a forest of trees. Enoch traverses the audience as he tours his grandmother’s estate. And the protestors are dispersed throughout the audience, placards going up at certain points. Also, you always had a good view of the stage.

Tree, a brutalist sculpture of contemporary South Africa, is showing at the Campfield Market Hall as part of the Manchester International Festival 2019. Further details can be found here.

Unquiet Graves

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Unquiet Graves

Directed by Sean A Murray

UK, 2018

HOME, 12 June 2019

Unquiet Graves

This documentary is a difficult watch, and that for a host of reasons.

One reason is because the grief, still, is all too real. And the testimony of families affected is overwhelming. So you hear from grown men and women, who as children lost a father or mother, still perplexed by their absence. You see an old woman who, as a young wife and mother, watched her husband die and later had to identify one of his killers (she had answered the door to his killers). The grief and sorrow is palpable and, you know for sure, will remain with them after you have watched the film.

Another reason is that it makes a compelling case for collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) – and therefore the British state – in over a hundred murders. Indeed, in some instances serving police officers took part in killings. There is the further claim that this involvement ‘came right from the very top’, which would be at prime ministerial or cabinet level, not merely the activities of MI5 or MI6, and entailed a colonial policy of ‘divide and rule’ aimed at the Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland. I am unsure whether to accept this entirely; after all, these two communities were pretty divided anyway. But the evidence may be found in the minutes of a key meeting held at Chequers during Harold Wilson’s tenure as PM. Those minutes should be investigated and disclosed.

Further details of the film can be had here.

Halle Orchestra: Ravel’s Bolero

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Halle Orchestra: Ravel’s Bolero

The Bridgewater Hall, 9 May 2019

Sir Mark Elder and the Halle

This was an impromptu concert, so an unexpected bonus, and all the better for that.

Sir Mark Elder conducted the Halle and the orchestra played these three wonderful works:

  • Debussy: Images for Orchestra
  • Mussorgsky (in an orchestration by Ravel): Pictures at an Exhibition
  • Ravel: Bolero

You could see how the works, although in many respects very different in tone and texture, were interlinked. Debussy’s Images for Orchestra aimed to evoke scenes from memory – it is focussed around various countries – and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition attempted a similar feat: it was about a painter and his pictures. There is a difference, mind, between memories, psychological images as it were, and external vision: pictures, things seen in the world.

Ravel orchestrated the version of Mussorgsky’s work performed here and he composed the final work, Bolero. There is also a further connection: the most elaborate of Debussy’s Images focuses on Spain, the country from which Bolero takes its inspiration.

In Bolero just the one theme is repeated again and again, with more colour and orchestration gradually added with each repetition. But the underlying theme is always present, never obscured. It is thrilling – the way it builds up to a climax, the uncertainty as to how it will all end – but a bit gimmicky, in truth: you are pleased that Ravel wrote it because that means that no one else now has to. Here, though, a visual analogy occurred to me. That Bolero is like one of those Warhol silkscreen prints where the same image (say: Marilyn pouting, Elvis drawing a gun) is repeated over and over, with slight variations in colouring, say.

An evening of vital music and visual culture. A lot to hear, a lot to see.

Details of future Halle concerts can be found here.

Halle Orchestra: Wigglesworth’s Mozart Tribute

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Halle Orchestra: Wigglesworth’s Mozart Tribute

The Bridgewater Hall, 31 October 2019

Halle Orchestra: Elgar’s Massive Hope. Conductor Andrew Manze, photo by Benjamin Ealovega

Mozart and more, much more.

For this exhilarating concert of classical and original compositions, Ryan Wigglesworth (pictured above) conducted the Halle, including in a performance of one of his own works, and played piano with Paul Lewis. A busy evening for him, then, and we certainly got our money’s worth.

Altogether, we heard these four gorgeous works:

  • Debussy (orch. Robin Holloway): En blanc et noir
  • Mozart: Concerto for Two Pianos
  • Ryan Wigglesworth: Locke’s Theatre
  • Ravel: Valses nobles et sentimentales

The ‘Concerto for Two Pianos’ was my favourite performance, Mozart’s ease and elegance not quite disguising an elfin foreboding. That bad thing probably won’t happen, but anyway do take care. Meanwhile make the most of life.

Ryan Wigglesworth’s own ‘Locke’s Theatre’ draws on the work of the seventeenth-century English composer Matthew Locke, who incidentally was one of Purcell’s teachers. I didn’t know this while listening to it, having assumed that the title referred to John Locke, where his theatre might be the theatre of the mind. There was a frenetic, stream of consciousness feel to it. You could imagine Ideas (some atomic, some more multilayered) getting up on stage to strut their stuff, full-throatily delivering their lines and then exiting, no doubt being pursued by a bear. To be followed by a cry of ‘Next!’

Of the French works, I preferred Ravel to Debussy this time, though actually there were luxuriant moments in both. They were designed primarily to give pleasure, you felt, and in this they succeeded.

Details of future Halle concerts can be found here.

By the Grace of God

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By the Grace of God

Directed by François Ozon

France, 2019

HOME, 31 October 2019

By the Grace of God

A raw, emotionally edgy, violent and tender film.

This film is about a number of men who were sexually abused as boys by a Catholic priest. The church covered up for him, his crimes went unpunished.

We look at the lives of these men as they try to get justice. Some men are Catholic, others are atheist; some are alone, while others seem (on the surface, at least) to be in stable relationships. Yet the damage done, the awful effect of the abuse on their lives, their toxic, dysfunctional selves – it is there for all to see.

It is a powerful film, full of haunting terror, raw emotion and resolute integrity, and it put me in mind of Spotlight, a similar film of a few years ago (my review of that one is here).

Non-Fiction

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Non-Fiction

Directed by Olivier Assayas

France, 2019

HOME, 31 October 2019

Non-Fiction

A very smart, very French film.

While it is chock-ful of intense Parisian chatter there are serious issues to to be discussed. What does the future hold for literature? Can it survive in a digital age of internet and social media and TV on demand?

Along with the serious discussion, mind, there is a lightness to the telling. An irony and playfulness, a lambent quality, in how the film is paced. And unlike a Woody Allen film, which it superficially resembles, there are no head-up-his-arse protagonists and the talk never wears.

Naturally, this being a French film, there is sexual infidelity. Yet there is faith to a kind of intellectual ideal, to the integrity of reason itself perhaps, and that is inviolable. And contrary to the claim of a few cynical characters here, the notion of ‘post-truth’ is not new. Bertrand Russell, long ago, set out an antidote to it: deliberately seek out information that challenges your world view, rather than confirms it. This might involve a simple procedure such as reading a different newspaper for a month.

What this fine film shows is that intelligent, deep cinema need not be stodgy or maudlin. I loved Non-Fiction and did not want it to end. But end it did. It has a quicksilver quality. It skims and soars, then it is gone.

Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Blackmail’ (1929)

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Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Blackmail’ (1929)

RNCM Theatre, 3 November 2018

Eric Marienthal

Perfect or near-perfect cinema.

It was an extremely well crafted film, especially considering its vintage (released in 1929, so almost a century old), but on reflection that is hardly surprising when you cast a glance at who the director was: the great Alfred Hitchcock. The film was shown at the RNCM with live organ accompaniment, dazzling in its own right, by Darius Battiwalla.

So a silent film and set in London – the archetypal big city – and you are struck first and foremost by certain scenes’ similarities to the great masterpieces of Hitchcock’s heyday. When the police officers burst into Tracey’s tenement flat and we see him reading a newspaper on the bed it is like the boarding room occupied by Joseph Cotton’s killer at the start of Shadow of a Doubt. And when Tracey escapes through the window and over the rooftops and we see police officers following it is like the prologue to Vertigo.One of those police officers could be James Stewart’s Scottie. And the film evokes The 39 Steps in myriad ways.

Anny Ondra, a very beautiful Czech actress with expressive eyes, plays the damsel in distress. In one scene we see her walking down the Strand, a desolate Trafalgar square in the distance. There is a fleeting glimpse of Piccadilly Circus in another scene. Elsewhere we are at a Lyon’s Coffee House, a bustling form of life. People dining after a day at work. And then we are at a police station, with its tenebrous interiors and murky corridors. Finally, there is the British Museum, with the villain Tracey scarpering over the tombs of Egyptian mummies and statues Assyrian nobles. A frantic pursuit that has echoes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

It is wonderful how Hitchcock switches from verisimilitude – we are in a real city with real people – to showing us the anxious point of view of various different characters, saying in effect: this is the world that this person lives in. To be precise: not all of the characters are anxious. Some aware of their peril, others are oblivious to what is happening around them (as in life). There is a great, extended shot when Alice and the guy she has met walk up the staircase of his apartment building. It is a single tracking shot and we follow them floor by floor. How did Hitchcock manage to do that in 1929?

The concise and economical storytelling has a spellbinding elegance. There is artistry yet it never interferes with the momentum of the narrative, which is forever going forward.

Manchester Collective: Sirocco

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Manchester Collective: Sirocco

RNCM Concert Hall, 15 October 2019

Eric Marienthal

Abel is able.

And that goes not only for Abel Selaocoe, the frontman of Manchester Collective (who here played cello and sang), mind, but for the whole group, which for the most part is made up of RNCM alumni. They showed the versatile pizzazz and the can-do quality of the city that gave them their name.

Manchester Collective were open for business, that was for sure, as they played Haydn and Purcell one moment and traditional African song the next. There was plenty of  magnificent, bombastic drumming courtesy of Sidiki Dembele and a choir of angelic, baroque melodies from the Singh sisters (Rakhi Singh and Simmy Singh) and company on strings.

It was a collision of worlds, you could call it Alex Park and the Bridgewater Hall and all points in between. A cityscape of sound, and all good.

For further details of Manchester Collective, visit their website here.

The Intelligence Park

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The Intelligence Park

Music by Gerald Barry

Libretto by Vincent Deane

Music Theatre Wales and The Royal Opera with London Sinfonietta

RNCM Theatre, 12 October 2019

The Intelligence Park
A love triangle assembled in eighteenth century Ireland.

The structure attracts one’s attention because it is so unusual in design. There is an opera composer who is tempted by a castrato, the singer appearing in his current production. While in turn the said castrato falls for the composer’s bride to be.

With great verve the opera explores the relation between life and art (we watch as the composer’s anxieties acted out by singers in Frank Sidebottom heads) and the malleability of gender and sexuality. At times there is a frenzy to the music; we are in a torture garden of acrid blooms, sweet and sickly blossoms. You feel zest, yes that is true, yet it is undercut with agony. That sense of a boundless freedom marred by shards of compulsion. And on some mornings, the question: do you step out into the sunlit landscape or do yourself in? Not a question for me, I should add, rather one for the protagonist here.

An interesting production of an interesting opera.

Halle Orchestra: Elgar’s Massive Hope

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Halle Orchestra: Elgar’s Massive Hope

The Bridgewater Hall, 10 October 2019

Halle Orchestra: Elgar’s Massive Hope. Conductor Andrew Manze, photo by Benjamin Ealovega

A happy homecoming for Elgar’s first symphony.

For this exhilarating concert Andrew Manze (pictured above) conducted the Halle, and they played these three gorgeous works:

  • Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
  • Bizet: L’Arlésienne Suite No.1
  • Elgar: Symphony No.1

Debussy’s work will forever be associated with Nijinsky’s ballet L’après-midi d’un faune. If you have ever heard the haunting flute solo at the start, the way the melody swirls and soars, like a beast of prey careening its way through a dense forest, you can never forget it. Somehow the melodic theme recurs throughout the work, like the refrain in a villanelle.

By contrast, Bizet’s work was originally written for the theatre, in fact for Daudet’s play L’Arlésienne where it worked as a soundtrack, a background to poetic dialogue, but that play has now been almost wholly forgotten. The music has shed its origins.

Still, Daudet’s drama is there in the music. You feel it first in the Prelude, where the stop-start melody tugs at your sense of calm, creating a vague disquiet. The Menuet has a lot in it, a waltz and a minuet too, of course. It is a varied assemblage, a bag of goodies. While the Adagietto is subdued, tender, very beautiful indeed.

There followed the interval, a serving of the Bridgewater Hall’s excellent ginger ice cream (courtesy of Doddington), then Elgar’s Symphony No.1.

And it was a happy homecoming for Elgar’s masterpiece. For, let us recall, the symphony had its premiere in Manchester, having been first performed at the Free Trade Hall on 3 December 1908. The orchestra on that occasion was… the Halle. A very welcome reprise, then. All good here, simply to say that the performance of the third Adagio movement was absolutely glorious.

The Halle will be performing the same concert program on future dates, further details can be found here.

Details of future Halle concerts can be found here.

Joker

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Joker

Directed by Todd Phillips

USA, 2019

HOME, 4 October 2019

Joker

You would call it a bleak film, but it is undoubtedly a beautiful one too.

Joaquin Phoenix’s sad bastard is the joker in the pack, a harbinger of aleatory anarchy, everyone’s favourite sociopath.

Although Todd Phillips makes use of DC characters, it is not a conventional comic book film by any means. Mind, you could think of it as an ‘origins’ film for the Joker. (Or an uber-Joker, for this character seems to predate the emergence of the actual Joker in the Batman series. But I confess that I am not up to speed with the cosmology of the DC Universe – all that Infinite Crisis stuff that they have put out in recent years, which clarifies very little and to my mind simply adds to the confusion- so maybe this guy is the Joker. Anyway, an issue for the fans to talk about.)

Here the Joker is recast as Batman’s older brother, the illegitimate son that Bruce Wayne’s father disowned. Cain and Abel were brothers…  and so too these ancient protagonists. The laughter is dark and sad and involuntary. Emetic. Aural vomit. Unpleasant to listen to. The jokes (touching on cruelty and chaos, human nature and everyday folly) are on all of us. At the end, Bruce’s parents are gunned down by a clown-masked destroyer – and we all know what happens next.

There is an electric moment where the Joker dances on a stairway leading down to an alley, glam rock playing in the background (I think a few riffs from Gary Glitter’s Leader of the Band: I have not heard his music in a while) as he goes off on a killing spree. Out to paint the town red – or is that luminescent purple?

I found the first twenty minutes of Joker a bit of a grind (what the hell is going on here?) but after that it soared and took flight. From then on, pure cinematic heaven.

 

The Last Tree

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The Last Tree

Directed by Shola Amoo

UK, 2019

HOME, 2 October 2019

The Last Tree

A raw, emotionally edgy, violent and tender film.

It tells the story of Femi, who moves from foster care in middle England to inner city London, where he lives in a high-rise flat together with his mother.

It is a culture shock and at first the bond with his mother is weak. Femi gets into trouble at school, becomes involved with a gang and soon his life is under threat. But somehow he never quite loses his soul, and an ability to empathize with people. It is wonderful to see how, in time, he turns to the people in his life. The ones who have showed up and managed to stick around. His mother above all.

Sam Adewumni is terrific as Femi, in a convincing film studded with fine performances.

 

 

The Laundromat

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The Laundromat

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

USA, 2019

HOME, 2 October 2019

The Laundromat

It is a well-meaning film, but a bit too moralistic and simplistic for my taste.

There is a cleverness to it,  Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas as a pair of financiers, giving an account of their own dastardly careers, making you think of Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, the camp villains in Diamonds are Forever. Meryl Streep is a widow (her husband dies in a boating accident and she has a bit of a nightmare trying to get fair compensation for his death), a character in one of the stories, but even she turns preachy at the end.

The problem is that the director would rather explain and complain about financial capitalism, and preach about it, rather than tell an immersive story with convincing characters, while touching on various themes raised by said capitslism. The explanations are simple and light, the preaching comes across as virtue-signalling (especially when mouthed by Streep) and the story is, naturally enough, unconvincing (it comes across as mere illustrative reconstruction than story, to be honest). It is just not enjoyable to watch.

Were there any memorable moments in the film? Well, I cannot remember any.

Stroszek

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Stroszek

Directed by Werner Herzog

West Germany, 1977

HOME, 27 September 2019

Stroszek

Werner Herzog’s America.

In Stroszek he shows us a forlorn Elsewhere of desolate lives subsisting on limpid dreams, a flatland where his queer pioneer scrabbles to survive. Stroszek is a misfit who believes, at the start of his journey anyway, that changing his immediate surroundings will save him. So he leaves a grimy, gritty Berlin for Wisconsin’s wide vistas. But changing his very own self, his habits, peccadilloes and predilections, that is something he cannot do. Needless to say, his sojourn is not a happy one. Misery is his cruel lot in Germany, undeniably, but in America it is worse.

The performing chickens and other small animals at the end, a characteristic touch of genius by Herzog, put me in mind of Kleist’s famous essay on puppet theatre. These sentient creatures, aglow with dancing and music and song, have the febrile glitter of cheap magic. They are animate automata, mechanical toys, and their antics mock Stroszek’s inability to radically change his life. He fails, yet so do we all. (People cannot ever really change their lives, can they?) Anyway, I love the denouement to the film, it is as though Herzog had stumbled upon a New World Cabinet of Curiosities.

And in the end, we realise, it has all turned to shit for Stroszek. His golden-hearted girl goes back to her old profession. He dreams up a plan to rob a bank, but it is closed so he goes to a barber’s shop instead. Even that goes awry. And self-dissolution, getting banged out of your head on booze, is never entirely successful. It didn’t work in Berlin and it doesn’t work here. For there is always a little light of awareness, of consciousness, peeking through the blurry clouds of oblivion. And what does consciousness mean, in a Werner Herzog film? Yes, consciousness means suffering, the capacity to experience pain. We know that art may console the soul, but the problem is that dire entertainment and zany amusement is all that is on offer in the Flatlands. Can that do the job as well? Well, why don’t you watch the film and see.

Stroszek was showing as part of the David Lynch’s True Favourites film season. Further details here.

 

Honeyland

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Honeyland

Directed by Ljubomir Stefanov

Macedonia, 2019

HOME, 25 September 2019

Honeyland

It looks like a documentary, this film, and at first you are not certain that it is a feature. It is a feature (I think…).

A story is told, anyway, so it is a documentary that has been shaped and sculptured in some way. Hatidze lives with her aged mother in an isolated village. They are the only ones there. She keeps bees. Her practice is to take half of their honey to leave the bees half. It is sustainable, and works for them both.

Then into the village, some newcomers arrive. A family with livestock, intending to farm and keep bees too. At first Hatidze welcomes them, helps them, gives them advice as to how to tend their bees. But the family is under pressure from their landlord. They need to maximise the output from their livestock and bees, get the most out them. It doesn’t work, that is the first thing to say: the bees sting them, for starters. But their approach impacts on Hatidze’s life and livelihood. How could it not

It is a beautiful film, superb cinematography capturing the landscape, which is stunning. In one wonderful scene we see Hatidze walking in the mountains towards a bee enclave as a plane flies by, high in the sky. A faraway plane, yet an imminent threat to her way of life. All in all, a tender portrait of Hatidze, a remarkable woman. I especially liked the moments with mother and daughter alone in their dark home (a cave or catacomb almost) with a candle lit between them. It is like looking at a Caravaggio.

Halle Orchestra: Shostakovich’s Defiant Response

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Halle Orchestra: Shostakovich’s Defiant Response

The Bridgewater Hall, 19 September 2019

Halle Orchestra: Shostakovich’s Defiant Response. Conductor Klaus Makela, photo by Heikki Tuuli

Beethoven and Shostakovich: ferociously intelligent music.

Klaus Makela (pictured) conducted the Halle this evening, and they played these three wonderful works:

  • Beethoven: Overture: The Creatures of Prometheus
  • Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.1
  • Shostakovich: Symphony No.5

Beethoven’s ‘Overture: The Creatures of Prometheus’, the great composer’s only ballet score, was full of vivid images and versatile invention. Being something of a Promethean figure himself, it is hardly surprising that Beethoven was atttracted to the subject. It is a ballet where Prometheus plays God, bringing a male and female statue to life. Time for a revival?

As for his ‘Piano Concerto No.1’, well it is a masterpiece, clearly. I loved the Largo, the second movement, though in truth it was all good. Some passages are playful, others possess a raw power, an ineluctable rhythm and irresistible force. Víkingur Ólafsson played piano with consummate skill; and his encore, a Bach adagio for a friend who had just died, was plenty moving too. Both Beethoven works, incidentally, were first performed n Vienna.

Shostakovich’s ‘Symphony No.5’ was a complex, ambivalent epic, a tussle between authenticity and irony. The first movement, incorporating a quote from Carmen, was slushy and romantic. While the second featured a Landler, a slow waltz. In the third, a Largo, you were drenched in longing. Which led you to ask, Where was the composer going to take us next? Well the fourth and final movement was a military march, all that torment and anguish directed outward. Violence in service of the revolution. The question to be asked, though it can never be answered, is whether the symphony should be taken at face value. Was Shostakovich for real? Or was he being ironic? Was this music – spectacular as it often was – simply a show to avoid as show trial?

The Halle will be performing the same concert program on future dates, further details here.

Details of future Halle concerts can be found here.

For Sama

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For Sama

Directed by Edward Watts and Waad Al-Kateab

UK, 2019

HOME, 19 September 2019

For Sama

Harrowing dispatches from a city under seige.

Waad al-Kateab’s film, dedicated to her daughter Sama, charts life in Aleppo as it comes under bombardment from Syrian and Russian forces. Five long years, and counting. Waad is the wife of a doctor, Hamza, and she and her camera witness many moments of death and grief. You see blood on the floor, corpses abandoned in a white-tiled room. Inconsolable suffering everywhere. This is a film where children die, where brothers and mothers grieve. It is not an easy watch.

Mind, there are sometimes moments of black humour (say, a mother recounting how her child would piss down her back whenever the shelling starts) and even miracle (a baby, seemingly dead, cries into life).

You realise that these people feel (correctly) that they are alone in the world. Yes, they must daily face the hostility of Assad and Putin’s henchmen. Yet they must also accept each day the West’s indifference their plight. Western leaders may have called, following the Arab Spring, for Assad to go. But after Iraq, no Western nation was ever going to act to make that happen. So the carnage goes on.

Sunset Boulevard

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Sunset Boulevard

Directed by Billy Wilder

USA, 1950

HOME, 17 September 2019

Sunset Boulevard

An American film, although with Austrian elements too.

There is, to start with, Erich von Stroheim’s presence and Billy Wilder’s script and direction. And the story, the way that William Holden’s protagonist Joe Gillis is drawn into Norma Desmond’s (Gloria Swanson) clutches puts you in mind of both Stefan Zweig’s great novel Beware of Pity (because Joe does feel pity for Norma, her depression and suicide attempts and general mental instability) and various Austrian artists’ attraction to the figure of the femme fatale. You think of Richard Strauss’ opera Salome, the role that tempts Norma out of retirement. And the related figure of Judith, painted by Klimt and Cranach (Cranach’s painting of Judith is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Were these images swirling about in Wilder’s mind when he came to write the story?

Nonetheless Sunset Boulevard owes much to film noir and to hard-boiled crime novels with their penchant for first person narration.

Hollywood is a poisonous presence in the film. It is a locus and portal of dreams, not always healthy ones. It peddles fantasies, which can transmute into obsession and perversion. Unrealities. When Joe meets Norma he is drawn into the past (a vanished Europe?) away from America and the future of an open road. Hope, the sanity of a social world – he leaves that all behind.

It shows a nostalgia for silent films, the sacred power inherent in the pure theatrical gesture, when stars possessed a kind of royal mystery. A mystery now lost in an age of vulgar speech, slick banter (at which Joe is adept) and shallow celebrity.

Sunset Boulevard, an undoubted masterpiece, was showing as part of the David Lynch’s True Favourites film season. Further details here.

Red Dust Road @ HOME

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Red Dust Road

Written by Jackie Kay and adapted by Tanika Gupta

HOME and the National Theatre of Scotland

HOME, 12 September 2019

Elaine C. Smith, Lewis Howden, and Sasha Frost in Red Dust Road. Photograph by Richard Davenport.

Elaine C. Smith, Lewis Howden, and Sasha Frost in Red Dust Road. Photograph by Richard Davenport.

A portrait of a poet who is always on pilgrimage.

This play is a heartwarming, sometimes humorous adaptation of Jackie Kay’s fine memoir. At the close, you come away happy, though you feel that Kay’s life wasn’t always like that. She has had a lot to contend with. There was the racism of ’70s Scotland and, as a black child adopted by white parents, her identity was always going to be conflicted. Mind, it is clear here that she could always depend on the love of her parents. Later, at university, she came out as a lesbian (cue disco music).

There are strong performances throughout the play. From Sasha Frost as Kay herself, even though she isn’t quite able to capture the full-throated warmth of Kay’s own voice, and from Elaine C. Smith and Lewis Howden as Kay’s parents. Irene Allan plays Elizabeth, Kay’s birth mother, and there is a moment where she sings a harrowing, heartfelt Scots ballad (during a sequence where the play quotes from The Adoption Papers, and we hear the voices of the two mothers). It is the still, standout moment in the play.

If Red Dust Road has a flaw it is that there is a slightly precious, over-reverential attitude to Africa and Kay’s Ibo identity. As though this might offer a final answer, a true key to unlocking what makes her who she is. An authentic end to all her searching. Yet even this notion is undercut. In modern Nigeria, on the journey to her ‘ancestral village’, Kay is pestered by policemen demanding kickbacks.

Red Dust Road is a multi-layered play about a woman with a multi-layered identity. It is showing at HOME until 21 September, details here.

Rojo

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Rojo

Directed by Benjamín Naishtat

Argentina, 2018

HOME, 7 September 2019

Rojo

This disconcerting, disquieting film is set in Argentina prior to mid-’70s coup.

The protagonist is Claudio (Darío Grandinetti), a successful lawyer who is at the edge of violence. He is a moral agent who chooses not to act. Is it complicit in murder? Well, not if he can be later implicated. Does he stand up to injustice and profiteering? There would be a danger in that, wouldn’t there, so no. He is reluctant, yet willing to turn a blind eye.

The import of the film seems to be that state acts – and here one thinks of Latin America’s ‘Disappeared’ – are preceded by individual acts of violence, theft, jealousy, a desire to profit from others’ misfortune. We see the shadows – an eclipse even – before the darkness falls. At the film’s end, anyway, darkness does fall.

In one scene a mother goes into a church because her son is missing. He has not returned home, has disappeared. A priest is nowhere to be seen. The response of man in prayer, an avowed Christian (Alfredo Castro, who plays a private detective, brilliantly), is along the lines of: ‘I am not your son’s keeper.’

A very impressive accomplishment.

 

Pain and Glory

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Pain and Glory

Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

Spain, 2019

HOME, 8 September 2019

Pain and Glory

It is an autobiographical film, but an artful one too.

There is an elegance and a restraint to it all, a tenderness even, not least Antonio Banderas’s central performance as Salvador, a film director suffering from a prolonged creative block. He is frail and vulnerable and I like the authenticity of his small movements. The reluctance to bend his back (perhaps he cannot) when putting on his clothes. The way he walks, cautious and slow. The way he gets up after sitting down. He is a man who knows what pain is, who manages it as he can.

The story is captivating and humorous, uplifting at the end, yet throughout it is studded with moments of poignancy and pain. There is one great line, so desperately sad and honest that it must be true. That is when Salvador says that, while his mother and the people in their village made him who he is, he failed his mother as a son ‘by being who I am’.

I like also the allusions to Spain and its hinterlands. Argentina, Cuba and Mexico are places of significance. Salvador reads Roberto Bolano, underlines passages in one of his novels. And his drama samples a song by the tumultuous Chavela Vargas, a trans/gay pioneer long admired by Almodóvar.

A late masterpiece.

Arik Brauer: All of My Arts @ Jewish Museum Vienna

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Arik Brauer: All of My Arts

Curated by Danielle Spera and Daniela Pscheiden

3 April 2019 – 20 October 2019

Jewish Museum Vienna

Arik Brauer, um 1965 (c) Brigitte Lüttge-Dauth.jpg

Arik Brauer, um 1965 (c) Brigitte Lüttge-Dauth

At the Jewish Museum Vienna there are two exhibitions, each very different from the other, each in its own unique way compelling.

Arik Brauer: All of My Arts is a survey of the great Austrian artist’s life and work. His paintings are much in evidence. Yes, the Fantastic Realism masterpieces but also, as well, a Bosch pastiche that he completed whilst a student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna (unlike Hitler, he got in) and a number of coloured drawings he did  even earlier, when a child: beautiful, prodigiously accomplished drawings.

You get to hear as well many of his most famous songs. For those unfamiliar with Brauer’s music, imagine Dylan writing not in an American idiom a la Woody Guthrie but in a contemporary update of Johann Nestroy’s Viennese Deutsch. You will have a pretty good sense of why Brauer is admired  as a singer-songwriter.

Also in the exhibition there is a chess set , I think though set up wrong (on the board, the white square is not on the right hand side, unless I have read it wrong); a clip from a French film, Les distractions (English title: Trapped by Fear), with Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Parisian cool playing off against Brauer’s passionate song. Another section of the exhibition explores Brauer’s buildings: architecture became an interest for him in his mid-late career. And much else besides.

Arik Brauer: All of My Arts is an exhibition that does full justice to the great artist’s’s fecund creativity.

As it happens, the other exhibition, Café As. The Survival of Simon Wiesenthal, is also about architecture. It is curated by Michaela Vocelka and runs until January 2020.

When Simon Wiesenthal was at the Mauthausen concentration camp in 1945, he made friends with a fellow prisoner named Edmund Staniszewski. Staniszewski had an ambition to start a café after the war (if he survived, that is) and Wiesenthal, who had trained as an architect, designed some plans for him. He made sketches and drawings of the premises, its outside and interior, and even thought about staff uniforms. Here is Wiesenthal’s design of a chess room within the cafe. Note the chequered floor and seat coverings, the rook depicted as a tank turret in the painting on the wall, where we see as well a pawn being carried away on a stretcher. No doubt it has been sacrificed for the greater good…

Schachzimmer des Café As (c) Jüdisches Museum Wien

Schachzimmer des Café As (c) Jüdisches Museum Wien

This project was a hinterland for both men, you sense, a shared dream that likely helped them to survive the dire situation that they found themselves in. In planning the future of the Cafe As, they projected themselves into the future and reaffirmed their resolve to survive.

You see a slue of Wiesenthal’s designs in this exhibition, along with letters and photos and other archival materials. It is a valuable contribution to our understanding of this fierce warrior for justice.

Further details of Arik Brauer: All of My Arts can be found here.

Further details of Café As. The Survival of Simon Wiesenthal can be found here.

The Pointe Dances @ Theatremuseum Wien

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The Pointe Dances: 150 Years of Ballet at the Wiener Staatsoper

Curated by Andrea Amort

16 May 2019 – 13 January 2020

Theatremuseum Wien

VIEW OF THE SIDE STAGE AT THE WIENER STAATSOPER, REHEARSAL OF "SWAN LAKE" (2.3 MB) © Wiener Staatsballett/Ashley Taylor

Side-stage view at the Wiener Staatsoper, during a rehearsal of Swan Lake.
© Wiener Staatsballett/Ashley Taylor

At the minute, at the Theatermuseum in Vienna, you can see two dance-related exhibitions: The Pointe Dances and Everybody Dances, both curated by Andrea Amort.

The Pointe Dances looks at the history of ballet in Vienna, from the early seventeenth century to the present day, with the focus firmly on ballet at (what is now) the Wiener Staatsoper. In the middle of the nineteenth century the Ringstrasse was built, and in 1869 Vienna’s main ballet company moved into (what was then) the Hofoper am Ring building. Ballet performances have been taking place there (and elsewhere too, mind: I saw a wonderful production of Coppelia earlier this year at the Volksoper out past the Wahringer Strasse) virtually ever since.

Notable historical highlights include Richard Strauss’s reign, from the end of World War One to the early ‘20s, so right at the birth of Austria as a republic, and Rudolf Nureyev’s tenure in the 1960s, where he famously devised a new way of doing Swan Lake. His version is still in production at the Wiener Staatsoper, incidentally; I saw one such performance in February. In this exhibition there are myriad photographs of dancers and productions, together with related films and video clips and diverse archival materials such as posters, postcards and letters. A treasure trove for fans of ballet.

With Everybody Dances, also curated by Andrea Amort, you get something different: a history of modern dance in Vienna (and Greater Vienna and, to some extent, Austria itself) from about 1900 to now. And it is still very much a vital tradition, what with the flagship ImPulsTanz festival taking place in Vienna each Summer. Bestriding this exhibition you have the gigantic presence of Rosalia Chladek (1905-1995) – charismatic dancer, inventive choreographer and influential dance theorist – although, as the title implies, it covers popular dance as well as the avant-garde. In Vienna, especially Rote Wien, dance was not an exclusively elitist pursuit.

I was surprised to learn that Isadora Duncan had once danced in Vienna, at the Secession no less, in 1902, and that Klimt (amongst other artists) was in the audience on that occasion. And here is a weird and wonderful photograph of an avant-garde dance troupe, captured in mid-1930s Vienna:

TÄNZERINNEN DES ENSEMBLES GERTRUD BODENWIESER IN "DÄMON MASCHINE", 1936, FOTO: DʼORA-BENDA Theatermuseum © KHM-Museumsverband

TÄNZERINNEN DES ENSEMBLES GERTRUD BODENWIESER IN “DÄMON MASCHINE”, 1936, FOTO: DʼORA-BENDA
Theatermuseum © KHM-Museumsverband

Also at the Theatremuseum, for the last couple of years and for a few years more one hopes, you can see masterpieces by Bosch, Cranach, Titian, Rubens and others. The Paintings Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts, much of it anyway, has been installed at the Theatremuseum while the Academy of Fine Arts building is being refurbished. You can also see Lifelines, an exhibition of drawings by Rembrandt, there at the moment until 22 September 2019.

The Theatermuseum has always been one of Vienna’s hidden gems, and just now there is an awful lot worth seeing. So check it out.

Further details of The Pointe Dances: 150 Years of Ballet at the Wiener Staatsoper can be found here.

Further details of Everybody Dances: The Cosmos of Viennese Dance Modernism can be found here.

Further details of the Paintings Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts, including the Lifelines exhibition, can be found here.

Details of current and forthcoming exhibitions at the Theatremuseum Wien can be found here.

The Last Day @ Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

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The Last Day

Photographs by Helmut Wimmer

2 March 2018 – 15 August 2019

Bassano Saal, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

Fotoserie „The Last Day“ © Foto: Helmut Wimmer

Fotoserie „The Last Day“
© Foto: Helmut Wimmer

In the Bassano Saal at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, there was an exhibition of a dozen photographs by Helmut Wimmer, going by the collective title of The Last Day.

Now ended, alas, it was an exhibition with an apocalyptic, revenge of nature flavour, but we can certainly expect to see more work like this as the reality, the overwhelming presence of climate change, hits home. Here we have the grand staircase of the Kunsthistorisches Museum – a Greek warrior raising his sword, the scene of myriad selfies – exposed to the elements, looking for all the world as though it is overgrown with earth and twigs and moss. We see, in one photograph, cranes – at least, I think they are cranes: they are birds with a stately, distinguished plumage at any rate – wandering through a room adorned with one of Velasquez’s portraits of an infant Hapsburg prince. A courtly scene that would not look out of place in a Werner Herzog movie.

In the Bruegel room (see below), the artist’s painting of a winter journey (or of a return from a hunt, I forget which) is visible on one wall – and you can spy others, the peasant not looking where he is going, say – snow is encroaching. Winter is coming.

Fotoserie „The Last Day“ © Foto: Helmut Wimmer

Fotoserie „The Last Day“
© Foto: Helmut Wimmer

In other photographs there are rooms that contain rocky cliffs, petrified trees, a lake reflecting (Monet-like) Renaissance masterpieces. And a few rooms are flooded with water, the waves crashing and swirling. There are a typical museum-goers in many of these photographs too, doing the usual museum-goer things. Such as looking at paintings intently, consulting catalogs and explanatory text, fiddling with their phones. Being alternately hyper-attentive and impervious to their surroundings. All of which, perfectly captured by Helmut Wimmer, seems about right. For wouldn’t that be what you would expect to happen?

For about the end of the world, they were never wrong, the Old Masters. How well they understood that the end of civilization (like Christ carrying the cross to Calvary in Bruegel’s great painting) would take place while people were doing ordinary, everyday things. Like, in a modern museum setting, looking at a picture or taking a selfie or – in the cafe on the first floor – mashing whipped cream into a Sachertorte.

Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien is a wonderful museum which is not unlike the National Gallery in London. In that it has ramshackle charm and is organised in quite an hackneyed way, but you can forgive all that – and even the cafe located slap-bang in the middle of it, which the National Gallery has not yet thought of, thank God – because it is piled to the rafters with masterpieces. A treasure trove of great art, in fact.

Further details of The Last Day can be found here.

Helmut Wimmer’s website is here.

Details of current and forthcoming exhibitions at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien can be found here.

MELTDOWN @ Naturhistorisches Museum Wien

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MELTDOWN: A Visualization of Climate Change by Project Pressure

Curated by Lina Aastrup

5 June 2019 – 8 September 2019

Naturhistorisches Museum Wien

MELTDOWN: A Visualization of Climate Change by Project Pressure

Certainly this was the most challenging and topical exhibition in Vienna this summer, and it is at the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien for only a fortnight more.

MELTDOWN: A Visualization of Climate Change by Project Pressure aims to visually represent the effect of climate change, at times by showing glaciers before (using historic photos taken from various archives, etc.) and after: that is to say now, today. And the change, the loss of a precious planetary resource (and natural beauty as well, of course) was often startling.

Curiously, one effect of the loss of glaciers – as one clump within the exhibition explained – is that borders between countries will need to be re-calibrated and (maybe) redrawn. A process whereby the rightful ownership of assets is called into question and can become, perhaps, a matter of controversy and conflict. So Austria and Italy had a bit of a kerfuffle recently over the discovery of a well preserved prehistoric man. He was found in what was not so long ago Austria, but is now Italy. This case was settled amicably, by all accounts, but we can expect these sort of disputes to multiply in the future.

Another issue is that the loss of glaciers, the dissolution of snow, will make it easier to access natural gas and precious metals and minerals. Already countries are making robust claims over areas of the Arctic, pushing these more seriously than they have done hitherto. And Trump’s supposed offer to buy Greenland, which I read about after visiting this exhibition, belongs in this playbook too. Here is a vision of our future: countries squabbling over the planet’s dwindling resources, rather than trying to stem their loss, with leaders of the most vociferous countries even denying that climate change is taking place at all.

There is another exhibition at the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien that is well worth your time as well. FLORA PHOTOGRAPHICA: The Time Between, an exhibition of photographs by Petra Lutnyk, runs until 6 October 2019. These are wonderful photographs, mainly of flowers, with a few English roses thrown in the mix. She has  an extraordinary eye for nature’s fragility; with each ethereal image you see blossom and decay.

Further details of MELTDOWN can be found here.

Further details of FLORA PHOTOGRAPHICA can be found here.

Tree @ MIF19

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Tree

Created by Idris Elba & Kwame Kwei-Armah

Campfield Market Hall, 4 July 2019

Sinead-Cusack-and-Alfred-Enoch-in-Tree-at-Manchester-International-Festival-runs-at-Young-Vic-from-29-July.-Credit-Marc-Brenner-13-Custom.jpg

Sinead Cusack and Alfred Enoch in Tree @ MIF19. Photo by Marc Brenner

A brutalist sculpture of contemporary South Africa.

Following his mother’s death, Kaelo (Alfred Enoch) journeys to South Africa. Both his parents were from there – though he never knew his father, he died before his birth – and he wants to place her ashes on his fathers grave. Problem is, though, that his father was abducted, ‘disappeared’, by some white supremacist hit squad back in the day, and his grave (if, in fact, he had been buried) is not known.

Kaelo lodges with his grandmother (Sinead-Cusack), a farmer, and also makes contact with his sister or half-sister, who is involved in current protests about land reclamation and restitution (which target his grandmother’s estate). She leads a noisy, violent, righteous faction. And with that Kaelo’s quest for his father’s resting place crashes into South Africa’s present political disputes big-time.

This is a decent drama, inspired in part by Idris Elba’s recent album. Alfred Enoch plays Kaelo as a slightly prissy London liberal, looking very dapper in his carrot-shaped pants, and prone to take offence and start arguments over very little. He idolises Nelson Mandela, whereas his sister sees him as just another politician who didn’t deliver. This is a South Africa where peace and reconciliation seem a long way off.

The space of Campfield Market Hall is used well: the audience stand during the performance, and seem themselves like a forest of trees. Enoch traverses the audience as he tours his grandmother’s estate. And the protestors are dispersed throughout the audience, placards going up at certain points. Also, you always had a good view of the stage.

Tree, a brutalist sculpture of contemporary South Africa, is showing at the Campfield Market Hall as part of the Manchester International Festival 2019. Further details can be found here.

Unquiet Graves

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Unquiet Graves

Directed by Sean A Murray

UK, 2018

HOME, 12 June 2019

Unquiet Graves

This documentary is a difficult watch, and that for a host of reasons.

One reason is because the grief, still, is all too real. And the testimony of families affected is overwhelming. So you hear from grown men and women, who as children lost a father or mother, still perplexed by their absence. You see an old woman who, as a young wife and mother, watched her husband die and later had to identify one of his killers (she had answered the door to his killers). The grief and sorrow is palpable and, you know for sure, will remain with them after you have watched the film.

Another reason is that it makes a compelling case for collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) – and therefore the British state – in over a hundred murders. Indeed, in some instances serving police officers took part in killings. There is the further claim that this involvement ‘came right from the very top’, which would be at prime ministerial or cabinet level, not merely the activities of MI5 or MI6, and entailed a colonial policy of ‘divide and rule’ aimed at the Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland. I am unsure whether to accept this entirely; after all, these two communities were pretty divided anyway. But the evidence may be found in the minutes of a key meeting held at Chequers during Harold Wilson’s tenure as PM. Those minutes should be investigated and disclosed.

Further details of the film can be had here.

Halle Orchestra: Ravel’s Bolero

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Halle Orchestra: Ravel’s Bolero

The Bridgewater Hall, 9 May 2019

Sir Mark Elder and the Halle

This was an impromptu concert, so an unexpected bonus, and all the better for that.

Sir Mark Elder conducted the Halle and the orchestra played these three wonderful works:

  • Debussy: Images for Orchestra
  • Mussorgsky (in an orchestration by Ravel): Pictures at an Exhibition
  • Ravel: Bolero

You could see how the works, although in many respects very different in tone and texture, were interlinked. Debussy’s Images for Orchestra aimed to evoke scenes from memory – it is focussed around various countries – and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition attempted a similar feat: it was about a painter and his pictures. There is a difference, mind, between memories, psychological images as it were, and external vision: pictures, things seen in the world.

Ravel orchestrated the version of Mussorgsky’s work performed here and he composed the final work, Bolero. There is also a further connection: the most elaborate of Debussy’s Images focuses on Spain, the country from which Bolero takes its inspiration.

In Bolero just the one theme is repeated again and again, with more colour and orchestration gradually added with each repetition. But the underlying theme is always present, never obscured. It is thrilling – the way it builds up to a climax, the uncertainty as to how it will all end – but a bit gimmicky, in truth: you are pleased that Ravel wrote it because that means that no one else now has to. Here, though, a visual analogy occurred to me. That Bolero is like one of those Warhol silkscreen prints where the same image (say: Marilyn pouting, Elvis drawing a gun) is repeated over and over, with slight variations in colouring, say.

An evening of vital music and visual culture. A lot to hear, a lot to see.

Details of future Halle concerts can be found here.