The second of our forays into North London on the lovely Overground; appropriate, since we were heading to an exhibition strong on leisure journeys by public transport.
I didn’t know the Estorick Collection existed until A’s walking buddy J handed her a leaflet about their current exhibition of Edward McKnight Kauffer posters, The Poster King. Most of the posters are from the heyday of Transport advertising in the 1910’s-30’s, both London Transport and Shell being well represented and many of the images were familiar in a subconscious way, possibly from films of the time.
They were also familiar because they made use of styles prevalent at the time; and reminded me of such diverse artists as Jean Cocteau, Picasso, M C Escher, Clarice Cliff and John Heartfield.
A wide range of styles:
Bucolic scenes of trees and rivers (that’s Watford? Really?) and oddly what seems to be lime kilns at Godstone (wonderful image but as a destination?), aimed at tempting the urban workers out for a day in the countryside by train, bus or tram.
Scurrying windblown shoppers abstracted into mere suggestions of silhouette, shadow and rainy reflection (A particular favourite for me) who are wisely advised that the tube is a good way of avoiding all that weather, though anyone who (like me) has got on a tube having already been completely drenched in an unexpected downpour, knows how silly you can feel dripping on dry troglodyte passengers who got on before it rained.
Bright innovative posters for rather earnest museums
Quirky cubist advertisements assuring us that Actors, Artists, and Magicians each prefer Shell.
Pastel-coloured marionette-like figures in paper collage backgrounds extolling public holidays for trips out, one Green Man for Whitsun, reminiscent of a tarot card: the fool tripping along his mind wandering, all that was missing was the drooping hose and snappy dog.
book covers with loose, delicate, duo-tone images of ancient Greece…
and wild, thrusting, lozenge-shaped birds that would be Oyster Catchers if their beaks were red, but aren’t because they aren’t birds, they are an idea of progress, happily flying into the future together in praise of the Daily Herald (“Soaring to Success… the Early Bird”). This particular image makes great use of space, the birds are roughly the top quarter of the image, and the message is maybe an eighth and right at the bottom; in between, an expanse of vigorous yellow silence.
As much social history as art, I would highly recommend this exhibition for both the images themselves and as a window onto the artistic movements and advertising claims of the time.
There are a number of gallery talks coming up that might be worth catching:
5/11/2011 A Quest for Kauffer 12/11/2011 Posters and Modern Life in 1930s Britain
10/12/2011 Kauffer’s England
Kauffer exhibition continues until 18th December 2011.
Wednesdayto Saturday 11:00 to 18:00 hours. Sunday 12:00 to 17:00. Late night opening Thursdays until 20.00. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
£5.00, concessions £3.50, includes permanent collection and temporary exhibitions. Free to under-16s and students on production of a valid NUS card.
Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art: 39a Canonbury Square, London N1 2AN
Puzzle Piece Opera’s Figaro in 50 minutes, is the latest in a series of 50 minute operas they have performed and my second Figaro in a week, but it was worth the journey, and what a journey! Figaro transported to the office at top speed.
How do you get through the Marriage of Figaro in fifty minutes? Lose the choruses, take out the recitative, truncate some of the arias and dispense with some minor characters: Barbarina does not feature nor does the Gardener. Although the singing is in Italian, the action is held together by a narrative in rhyming couplets in English written by Lucy Drever who also directs and page turns for a nimble fingered Gaspar Hunt on piano; and performed by Figaro himself, (Simon Dyer) doing cheeky chappie by turns plotting and sulking; and taking the narration a tad too fast, although his singing was excellent. In fact everyone was in good voice, it would be unfair to single anyone out (although I will).
The Regent Hall is an obscure performing space, right on Oxford Street but almost invisible. It is a massive echoing space, and the singers had a lot of stage room to fill too: much effective use is made of a coat stand centre stage, hiding in turn: Cherubino, Figaro, the Boss and Mrs Boss; this last played by Emily Garland typically mopey, and rather static, but her voice is amazing: vibrant, clear and delectable, her duets with Susanna (Emma-Claire Crook) were particularly fine.
The Boss (Casey-Joe Rumens) was played with conviction as feeling absolutely entitled to grope Susanna, stitch Figaro up and sack Cherubino on a whim, and thoroughly undeserving of his wife’s forgiveness.
Basilio (Matthew Straw) was a very effective toadying second in command, conniving at the Boss’ attempts to seduce Susannah whilst secretly yearning after the boss himself. Susanna herself flirts and bats her eyelashes and fakes a faint to protect Cherubino from discovery.
I particularly enjoyed Clara Lisle playing Marcellina as a bit of a would-be vamp (wearing enormous gold platform shoes reminiscent of Vivienne Westwood). She thoroughly enjoyed twisting Figaro’s tail and was anxiously checking her makeup (or possibly her crows’ feet), in between cat fights with Susanna, and had to be physically restrained by Basilio and Steven East’s Bartolo, a loyal supporter of Marcellina who seems a bit surprised to find himself named as the father of her child.
Cherubino’s escapade with the window is managed wittily, and cheeky use is made of coffee jugs. Georgina Mottram playing him staggeringly young I felt, possibly on work experience!
All is resolved as the office workers bury their differences, grab coats and scarves, and head for the pub.
Puzzle Piece are performing 50 minute Figaro again, 28th October 1pm at Charlton House, and next month at Blackheath Halls, go and be entertained.
Spent Saturday afternoon at a singing workshop run by Stephen Taberner of the Spooky Men’s Chorale. There were about eighty of us, a high proportion affiliated to Raise the Roof in its various guises, other people I recognised from Sing for Water, and many complete strangers.
We started with a physical warm up and relax largely made up of shaking, and a vocal warm up that started with whispering numbers and ended with sobbing. The sobbing was to get us to notice that we could at will widen our voice boxes and get a better noise out of them and having done so, we could then push our lower voice higher and vice versa without hurting ourselves. Stephen had us singing Amen’s in harmony to show us the difference and it was considerable. He then moved on to other voice tricks to improve volume tone and timbre. My favourite was Honk or Woof, which was differentiating that rather nasal Ngya noise some people produce when singing compared to a more open sound, and how you can hear a tiny number of people honking even when eighty are woofing, This was to get us to blend, his constant mantra was try not to be the loudest/quietest or whatever, so that we were listening to each other.
We moved quickly to putting together a song about feet and dreams, which was one of those greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts things, because each part was a small rhythmic section and only when they were put together did they make sense. Us Tenors got a bit of a tongue twister which consistently defeated me, I could do the first half but my brain tangled the second, notes were fine, it was the words… This became particularly apparent to me (if no one else when we walked round in the hall interweaving with other parts, and I couldn’t hear any of the other tenors, walking was one to many things for my brain to compute!
We were making a fabulous noise very quickly, and had nailed it within 15 minutes of the first note being sung at us. An intensive process which was repeated with us channelling James Brown for a riff on Get up off of that thing, which was considerably simpler in terms of individual parts, but we took turns to mix harmonies together (bass and Sop, Sop and tenor, tenor and bass and so on), which gave something that could have become monotonous a much longer shelf life.
the next number which was largely made up of grunts and yep!s, which got us firmly back into the rhythmic stuff.
The final section was (apparently) an 80’s pop song Under the Milky Way by The Church, which I hadn’t ever come across. Again we were taught isolated phrases (with the tenors taking the lead) and built up to the entire thing, which by the time we finished was sounding stunning, Sops and altos being the brass section, and the basses taking the rhythm section; The sopranos at one point split in three and only having one note to a part. Ultimately (having found the original on the web) I think what we produced was more exciting, and certainly more sinister, than the original. Spooky!
To the ENO for the Marriage of Figaro last night, with around 20 fellow Onegin chorus members, which added to the entertainment value. We went because Kate Valentine, who sang Tatyana in our production of Eugene Onegin, is singing the Countess, and very relieved we were that she was singing the Countess, as she missed the opening performances due to a chest infection.
There was no sign of this recent illness impeding her, Kate has a phenomenal voice, with great beauty, clarity and power. It is only with the distance of being in the audience rather than on stage with her, that I truly appreciated just how lucky we were to get her for Onegin. Up in the balcony (never again in the balcony, uncomfortable is an understatement, I was worried about developing DVT, my feet went numb!) we could hear brilliantly, in fact it was only Jonathan Best as Doctor Bartolo who let us down on that front, he seemed unaware that the top stack existed and projected his voice exclusively at the stalls.
With a piece that will be (very) familiar to a lot of the audience it is important to have a fresh approach without going off the rails. If I don’t have much to say about Iain Paterson (Figaro), Devon Guthrie (Susanna) and Roland Wood (Count Almaviva) in this production it is because they are wonderful, but equally I’ve never seen a production of Figaro where this wasn’t the case, and in a big opera like Figaro its the quality of the minor characters that sets it apart for me.
Being in the balcony had its advantages with understanding the ever spinning set. (that’s an exaggeration it does stand still a fair bit.) I imagine that from the stalls you only get glimpses of what’s going on behind the front layer, through the windows and doorways, whereas we had a bird’s-eye view of the Almaviva’s household about its business. There has been a bit of discussion about this in reviews, but I liked it, it freed the action from the confines of the one room and rigid entrance/ exit options and allowed us to witness the characters interacting with others in ways that particularly filled in their temperament and state of mind: The Count pursuing other serving women, and their strategies for staying out of his way; him ignoring the one who rather wants him to notice her. In fact there is a lot of ducking through doorways to avoid each other going on, and with the steady turn of the revolve, this became balletic and exciting rather than tedious; although I can imagine it making the rehearsal process a lot more challenging, you would need to time the movements a lot more carefully and stick to it; less room for improvising an exit.
There was something about the hustle and bustle, spying and overhearing, ducking and diving, and pursuit and hiding that puts the main action into context, and genuinely gives a feeling of threat: the Count really is a powerful man who can dispose his favours and his displeasure as he sees fit, and no one, including his wife, is safe from him. It makes the subterfuge less silly, and more plausible; these are not people with a lot of tools to fight their battles, they have only their wits and the power of ridicule – there is this constant feeling of if this goes wrong we are in major trouble; which accentuated the humour; and the libretto translation by Jeremy Sams, is very funny, there was a lot of startled laughter from the audience; and laughter from something that your audience can anticipate the humour of is quite an accolade.
The cast have no doubt benefited from Fiona Shaw’s acting experience informing her direction, and the chorus get a lot of silly things to do like lugging the Count’s hunting kill into the Countess’s bedroom (was it a wild boar? couldn’t tell from that high, even with binoculars) and mugging their way through Figaro’s conducting of their hymn to the modern thinking of their feudal overlord.
Kate Valentine plays the Countess as addicted to smelling salts and wine, jittery, at the end of her tether and liable to do anything in her misery, even play along with Figaro’s crazy schemes. Good for her, the Countess is often played whining or sulky and I have never been much on her side before.
I’m always fond of a britches part and Cherubino has some of the best tunes is a dazzlingly satisfying score, and Kathryn Rudge does a superb job both vocally and in her acting; which if a little broad at times doesn’t have that lovesick-calf-mooning-pricipal-boy discomfort that some singers give it, naming no names. She does adolescent irrepressibility very well, and is very funny when ‘cross dressing’ to hand over flowers to her/his beloved countess, dress rucked up and proffering an entire rose-bush, roots and all, which is later battered against a kitchen table by the Count. (I bet the gardener had something to say about that).
Marcellina (Lucy Schaufer) is a vigorous, sparky and rather arch madam, and again, refreshing for it.
The costumes are not what you’d call ravishing, but I rather liked the austerity of almost everyone in black with white trim, and there are some wonderful hats. Against the white walls of the set, it felt more like Flanders than Spain, but then the bull skulls drew you back into the suggestion of bull fighting. There was some interesting use of projection onto the screen that doubles as part of the set and a curtain; both of live action with shadows and of filmed snatches of the cast in costume and in mufti mainly for the overtures, but also occasionally commenting on the action, a silhouetted horned man, made by the use of sickles stands behind the Count when he thinks he’s being cuckolded. That mufti seeps out into the action: there are a few deliberate anachronisms, Cherubino wandering around with a cine camera, the Countess in a trench coat and trousers when she threatens to leave the Count at the end, by implication literally walking out of the story, not just her marriage; Cherubino skipping about in an anorak when he has no more to do.
I do have a nit to pick however, why is Don Basilio (Timothy Robinson) played as blind – or played as playing blind, perhaps?
It’s been a bit of an indulgent weekend, feasting our senses, and there’s more to come.
We started with the visual and a trip to the Guildhall Art Gallery in the heart of the city for an exhibition of John Atkinson Grimshaw paintings. Grimshaw started out as a bit of a fellow traveller with the Pre-Raphaelites, but quickly moved away to his own style, typified by his stunning nocturnes of both town and country. These have a photographic clarity and use of depth of field, and an extraordinary understanding of light, natural and artificial, direct and reflected.
I discovered his work in my teens and was very struck with his silhouetted figures and lampposts against green skies. Actually his figure work is pretty poor, he is much better at crowds where you get the essence of bustle and little knots of humanity; when he puts a solitary figure into his landscapes you feel it is there purely for convention and scale, a bit like the woman in a red coat in picture postcards of the 60s and 70s; and the proportions are frequently suspect – one group of young women all looked decidedly implausible: if the middle one had been standing she’d have been around eight feet tall!
Allegedly Grimshaw’s fellow painters were scandalised by the fact that he worked from photographs (black and white obviously and fairly rudimentary at this stage) and by his style of painting which is very smooth – there are no visible brush marks. This gives his skies a clarity and lucidity which is very true to life – you can feel the cold of his winter moon, wrapped in scudding cloud, and there is definitely a feeling of the painting as a source of light.
You do start to notice his tics when you see a large collection of pictures all at once – his female figure-in-a-landscape is generally mob-capped and clutching an open basket to her waist with one hand, there is generally a bay window on the dock with a net curtain on the lower half and venetian blinds on the upper; there is likely to be a chemist in a street scene – so that the light can pour through those red and green bottles. I would not for a moment suggest he has invented the chemist, just chosen that spot to paint because the chemist is there – I’m less persuaded of that window with the venetian blind in Hull and Glasgow and… and its surprising how regularly the woman about to open her umbrella appears –
it’s as though he created his own clip art figures to go into his landscapes. However I can honestly say there isn’t a single painting in the exhibition that isn’t at least entertaining.
My particular favourite is of tall ships at anchor (Nightfall down the Thames).
At first you see the moon, and then the thin cloud, then the mass of St Paul’s in the background and then the forest of masts and rigging … and then you notice that there is a small light on the rigging of the most prominent ship, and then you notice another and another … lights everywhere, tiny pinpricks, reflecting in the gentle ripples that ruck the surface of the water. You can almost hear them slap against the wood.
Reproductions do not do these pictures justice. It is really exciting to see the real thing.
There are some gaw’blimey interiors with a bit of a Tissot feel to them (an influence apparently), though more sentimental and fussy – this is where you remember he was a Victorian, and wish he wasn’t quite so photographic in his recording of every last plate, but even in the ghastly Dulce Domum, where the woman of the house doesn’t quite manage to sit convincingly in her over decorated chair, I was captivated by a small patch of green velvet in a chair back, the nap brushed up the wrong way where someone has been resting against it.
In his later works Grimshaw turned to daylight most emphatically: there is a lovely beach scene that reminded me of Hendrik Willem Mesdag’s Panorama of Scheveningen in 1881 (though nothing like the same scale!) which must be close in time, with its crowded busy water edge, and empty sands in the foreground, but the detail is more sketched and the light is all his own, flooding and overwhelming the day-to-day excitement of children at the sea.
We had a quick look at the rest of the collection while we were there, and they have a hilarious collection of large-scale historically themed paintings of great imagination, Salome dancing for Herod, (some fascinating faces in the onlookers) Greek warriors dancing a ‘pyrrhic’ dance like some ancient version of Strictly…, rival philosophic groups in a cabbage field… (why?) some predictable worthies of London, some Pre-Raphaelites, and some London cityscapes (my favourite by John Virtue, almost entirely black with a sky just emerging behind St Paul’s) and, in the basement, discovered relatively recently, the remains of the Roman amphitheatre.
There is only a scattering of foundations and a bit of wall about hip height, and a miraculous drain with the wooden lining still preserved, but the way it is presented, lit only as you walk into it, the columns holding the building up with figures drawn in light, and the rest of the amphitheatre and gladiators sketched in on the wall ahead of you as you come in, like some soon to be realised hologram, is quite thrilling: despite being in a fairly small underground space it feels like you are in the amphitheatre, and then you notice above the air-conditioning a faint hubbub of voices that occasionally peaks in roars of approval, though still very faint; like voices reaching from the past. I’ve seen more complete Roman amphitheatres in France and Spain, including ones still in use they have worn so well, but this works. It shouldn’t but it does.
We had walked from London Bridge, and decided to walk back via St Paul’s, the Millennium Bridge and Bankside. This is a bit of the City that is hard to love, all unattractive concrete, glass and steel, whereas the walk up was all limestone, just as ostentatious and blocky, if marginally less oppressive; but I do like the way the streets still hold the medieval pattern of London in their narrow twists and dog-legs, and their names. And there is a church on almost every corner, and mostly they are open, often with a café in the crypt. We bought sandwiches, and A said, we need a churchyard to sit in, and I glanced up and there was a spire, we walked a few yards turned left and there we were, at the Guild church, which seemed appropriate seeing we’d just been at the Guildhall.
Walking over Millennium Bridge we passed two accordionists and a fiddler playing Autumn Leaves as a Tango, which managed to make it rather more dirge-like than ever. The far end of the bridge there was a steel drum player who was a lot more cheerful. We had been thinking of dropping into the Tate for the Gerhardt Richter, but we already had museum feet (and hips and knees) so we kept going and, recalling that it was Friday, instead went to Borough Market.
We were intending to just pick up a bit of cake for tea, but you can’t just anything there, you have to check every stall and resist what you can bear to resist, and leave only when your bags are full or your purse empty.
We found an interesting liquorish stall, and the Chocolate Artisan (of course) and a spice stall, and a cake stall which we could not resist, and plenty that we could.
Saturday, and I persuaded A away from her book proofs to go to the Union Chapel at Highbury ( I love the Overground! 34 minutes on the train, 3 minutes on foot either end) for their daylight music concert at lunchtime.
Sensibly they have a food stall, and just ask for donations to get in. The concert kicked off with Heidi Elva, a harpist from New Zealand, with an annoying giggle who is over fond of playing with her sampler and her iPhone apps. The harp isn’t my favourite instrument, but I can enjoy the complexities of the harmonies one person can create on it, Ms Elva was more into mood music and the occasional plink repeated ad nauseam on her sampler so I felt no guilt at all in taking advantage of the daylight to read a book until she’d finished. No doubt she has fun, but it wasn’t a performance: there was nothing to look at and I really take exception to being played sampled flute on a sodding iPhone – she said that despite her constant plugs of iThis and iThat she wasn’t employed by Apple… just as well, she was putting me right off.
The London Bulgarian Choir were quite a different outfit, energetic, exciting and charming. I can’t tell you the names of the songs although I recognised some of them, they ranged from flirting to death, via sock-knitting (no, really!).
Led and discreetly conducted by Dessislava Stefanova, a long line of mostly women, in black but sporting vivid red embroidered aprons and big silver belt buckles, and men in Astrakhan hats and embroidered waistcoats, linked arms and gave it some welly. There are some glorious harmonies, great dynamics, humour, pathos, drama.
The occasional lead singer, drummer or windplayer steps forward for a moment in the limelight, then steps modestly back, smaller groups take over briefly for a verse or two, but this is about ensemble and community and having a good time. The acoustic in the Union Chapel suited them perfectly, and they probably didn’t need the minimal amplification they had. (UPDATE: I have been corrected, Ulrike from the choir has contacted me to say the mikes were recording them not amplifying… they really are that loud. As she says, – It’s the singing style for mountains! ) New album launched next month. It’s in my diary.
Our local church, St Augustine’s on One Tree Hill, likes music and as a consequence sees more of us than they would otherwise. Last night there was more reason than usual to go, as our friends Mel, Katrina and Laura were playing.
The evening was entitled Songs from the Edge: The edge of what, I didn’t discover.
We kicked off with Katrina Rublowsky singing songs of protest from America, encouraging audience participation (whoopee we’re all going to die) and moving me nearly to tears with Reunion Hill. Another high spot was James Taylor’s Mill Worker, based on Stud Terkel’s oral history project.
Katrina has a lovely light soprano, and a gentle way with her, particularly when talking about her family history and linking it to the songs. Her voice might be better suited to a more intimate setting than the rather cavernous St Augustine’s, where she wouldn’t need a microphone, but she set the hairs up on the back of my neck none the less.
Laura Davis’ set was altogether more dramatic. Laura knows how to work the room, and engages with her material very much at gut level. She has a fantastic voice and sings the Sephardic tradition songs of love and disappointment, birth and death with passion; ably assisted by Andrew Petrie on guitar. They both made it look enviably easy.
Katrina joined Laura to put some harmonies onto a chorus, and their voices melted together most satisfyingly.
After the interval Melanie Harrold took over, chuntering happily at the audience as she fidgeted with an amp lead that didn’t want to play nicely, and introducing her back catalogue, mainly self penned. Melanie has several alter-egos, including recording a record in the 70’s under the name of Joanna Carlin, which is soon to be re-released.
There was more audience participation on one of these songs, My Guru Says No; Mel conducted the audience with her usual vigor.
Mel has plenty of different styles at her finger tips, at one moment wistful, the next stomping through a big number, and frequently sending herself up, particularly in a number which I think is called It’s the way you... which regularly deteriorated into what I call her ‘mud monster’ persona. Very funny.
Melanie was joined by a small selection of Tradewinds folk (Maggie, Maria, Carrie and Trish) to put backing vocals onto her rendition of Gerry Rafferty’s Whatever’s Written on Your Heart, which is a bit of a signature song for Mel.
The evening finished with Mel, Katrina and Laura singing a couple of songs together, notably Love Hurts, which they really went for.
Despite vigorous applause there was no encore… What were you thinking ladies!