Tuesday, 14 August 2007

The Dome; Panic Attack!; Culture Secretary; A Flowering Tree.

The Dome

It was a depressing but also happy experience visiting what was formerly known as the Millennium Dome, now the O2 (don’t you just love sponsorship? I’m still calling it The Dome).

Depressing because of the tacky and homogenised corporate parade of restaurants housed on the main drag, or some of the truly awful concerts planned in its various venues (but each to his own).
Happy because finally something useful that is not costing us lots of money is being done with the building. There are plenty of good concerts planned, and even an exhibition (Tutankhamen, a highly commercial touring show with eye watering prices being talked about). And of course I do actually approve of people having a good time, even if that does mean eating at Nando’s followed by a drink in the Slug and Lettuce or watching Take That perform their greatest hits.
I personally enjoyed visiting the Dome in 2000, and it was Britain’s most popular paid for visitor attraction that year. I thought it a shame the exhibition had to close on the 31/12/00, as I’m sure a year or two more would have done well at the box office and given the Government more time to plan what to do with it afterwards. The Dome has become an essential part of the London skyline and an icon of our city, and I do actually like looking at it (in moderation). So I wish it well, and I’ll be back for King Tut.

Panic Attack! Art in the Punk Years. Barbican Art Gallery.

A superb exhibition of aft from the brief flowering of punk in the mid to late 1970’s and it’s aftermath into the early 1980’s. All your favourite (and maybe not so favourite) iconoclast 70/80’s artists are here, arranged thematically (in a rather orderly and un punk arranged gallery), including Basquiat, Cosi Fanni Tutti, Gilbert & George, Keith Haring, Cindy Sherman, Mapplethorpe, Jenny Holzer, Derek Jarman and many others (I always forget how big the Barbican Art Gallery is).

I’m not going to comment much upon the exhibition, but I was very struck by some of the later works by Nan Golding, Mark Morrisroe and Stephen Willats, whose photograpghic works (with text and objects in the case of Willats), were powerful self portraits and extraordinarily vivid and engaging.

Not being alive when punk came to the fore, and not being a particular fan (or anti either), I had never quite put some of these artists together, let alone so comprehensively coupling them with the punk music scene. It was an unflinching and fascinating exhibition.

Culture Secretary and Culture

Before attending the concert that I describe below (a new John Adams opera directed by Peter Sellars), I saw Ruth Mackenzie (now the Manchester International Festival second in command) and our new Culture Secretary James Purnell striding purposefully through the hallways and then again enjoying a drink before the performance (after a fascinating talk by the director). What’s more it seemed it wasn’t a political visit for the cameras or an event he had to attend, but something he wanted to attend and was interested in. No offence to Tessa Jowell, now demoted to Olympic Minister, but can you see her at a John Adams Opera at the Barbican, not holding court but simply attending the performance? I couldn’t. Going to a football match, motor racing or launching a casino yes, ‘elitist’ culture, no. So welcome to Mr Purnell, genuinely interested in the arts it seems (based on more then just his attendance on Friday night I should add). Any chance you could reverse the funding cuts?

A Flowering Tree, Barbican Hall.

I attended the pre show talk given by Peter Sellars, director of the New Crowned Hope Festival, (a festival originally held in Vienna at the end of last year to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, with new works responding to his works) and director of John Adams’s latest opera (indeed also the collaborator on his last two opera’s seen in London). He is a persuasive and charming speaker, and also comes across as a very nice man. His talk was interesting, hearing about the thoughts behind creative works is always informative (and it really helped me understand the opera and why it was put together in the way that it was).

I thought the piece excellent, a beautiful and meaningful piece of music and theatre. Adams eschews his modern aesthetic (Nixon in China or The Death of Klinghoffer are both very modern feeling, despite the former also evoking the early 1970’s), in favour of a two thousand year old Indian folk myth about a woman who can turn into a stunning flowering tree (she marries a price and then is left in limbo by his jealous sister. Eventually being reunited with him and restored to her human form). He was inspired towards this tale by Mozart’s Magic Flute, which also deals with magic and transformation. The opera is minimalist with only 3 main voices, but a large chorus occasionally intervening. The chorus are the Venezuelan Schola Cantorium, who sing in Spanish as opposed to the principal's singing in English. The chorus are really thrilling, dressed in Indian robes, and sat behind the orchestra; they jump up and blast you with their extraordinary voices in Adams discordant style. The principals are joined by 3 Javanese dancers, on a stage behind and above the orchestra and chorus. The Javanese dancers use their traditional dances to represent the characters, in the second act fusing with the singer almost becoming one entity. Their dancing is astounding, slow, gracious and purposeful, with stunning self control and precision.

It all adds up to a moving, musically challenging (but rich, becoming more dangerous in the second act) evening of great beauty. The duality of the self is explored, as is magic and wonder, but in a very understated and non pretentious way. The two thousand year old poetry is undiminished by time; I’m putting it on my Christmas list. It is only a semi staged concert, but because of the simplicity of the opera and pared down dramatic elements (it is more or less a series of monologues anyway), with the dance as the main visual element, it never felt like second best.


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