Friday, 29 January 2016

Soile Isokoski sings Strauss's Four Last Songs, Royal Festival Hall

[January 23rd, 2016]
Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs (Vier letzte lieder) was performed by Finnish lyric Soprano and leider singer, Soile Isokoski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) and, indeed, it was beautiful but that's not surprising considering Isokoski is no stranger to the work of Strauss. This was even more evident during her performance as she sang with her eyes closed (to some sections of the piece), calmly and passionately to the German seasons. Each song had its own heartfelt temperament with the music embedded with a diverse range of emotions felt by the composer himself when he wrote it. For Isokoski though, some moments seemed louder than others, but she was still in her comfort zone and gave a performance that did not disappoint.

The LPO didn't fail either as they offered a refreshing performance to the Royal Festival Hall audience. LPO conductor Vladimir Jurowski went straight in with 'Frühling', bringing life to nature's changing leaves through the characteristic score which led onto 'September'. Here radiant strings and mighty horn-playing took full force while the audience immersed themselves to Isokoski's high reaching notes alongside the romantic music, filled with pathos and nostalgia.

The night was accompanied by three other pieces: Mozart's D-major Notturno, Magnus Lindberg's Gran Duo and Mozart's C-minor Serenade (K388). Although they seem like contrasting pieces on face value, after hearing them (one after the other) it's easy to see why the programme has brought these pieces together as the music have some audible similarities.

For the Mozart piece, Jurowski had the LPO divided into four small orchestras which was slightly unorthodox but intriguing nonetheless. There were two at the front by the choir area and two at both sides of the exits, which acted as an echo for the first two. It was definitely an experience having to move heads and eyes around for the auditorium for this piece. The opening movement was harmonious, graceful and easy to follow, but the best was saved for the last through the delicate sounds of the final Minuet and Trio where the LPO turned it up a notch. It almost seemed like a merry march had began to enter the auditorium.

Yet the piece is rather long and can be repetitive which is typical of  Mozart's music but the performance was an interesting and hearty one. This was also the case for the LPO's performance of Serenade, which was slow, clear and elegant. The finale, however, was, perhaps, the fun part of the piece, which had the LPO breaking into sweat (I'm sure) with an enthusiastic conclusion from the percussionists, ending with a loud but welcomed climax.

Lindberg's piece first premiered in Birmingham in 2000 under maestro Rattle, and it is a stylish score written for thirteen woodwinds and eleven brass instruments. There's a terrain of sounds layering over one another, which made this an intense listen for the audience but the LPO gave it their best shot, which turned out to be a success as Lindberg stepped onto the stage to congratulate them and Jurowski.

For more information on other concerts at the Royal Festival Hall, please click here. Or here for information on the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Review of Bluebeard's Castle by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. (2015)

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse ☆☆☆☆☆

What are the first few words that come to mind when you think of the French artist, Claude Monet? Japanese bridges or water lilies perhaps? You wouldn't be far off as his exquisite impressionist pieces capture the tranquil colours and dreaminess of the garden world, simply looking at his work - the 'Grandes Décorations' (1914-26) - teleports you to his immersive garden in Giverny, Normandy.

This Saturday sees the opening of Painting the The Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse at the Royal Academy, and for horticultural lovers, garden hobbyists or a fan of the great artists of the late 18th century and early 19th century, they're in for a treat. It's curators, Ann Dumas and Dr. William H. Robinson, have programmed something rather original, that doesn't entirely focus on the pinnacle works of Monet, even though he is the touchstone of the exhibition. 

Having transferred from the Cleveland Museum of Art, Painting the Modern Garden presents Monet's love for the art of gardening and painting through his works up against other international artists who sought inspiration from the back of their homes. For such artists like Pierre Bonnard, Emil Nolde, John Singer Sargent, Gustav Klimt,  Max Libermann, Wassily Kandinsky and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the garden was an outdoor studio. 
Though, the exhibition also touches on the personal and poignant influence the First World War had on Monet - his Normandy garden was only 50 kilometres away from the gunfire and battlefields. 'Yesterday I resumed work,' he wrote on 1 December 1914. 'It's the best way to avoid thinking of these sad times. All the same, I feel ashamed to think about my little researches into form and colour while so many people are suffering and dying for us.'  While many fled Giverny, Monet stayed behind, '... if those savages must kill me, it will be in the middle of my canvases, in front of all of my life's work.' Water Lilies with Weeping Willows (1916-19) is the closest we see of Monet's sense of grief and loss during the war, which is on display at the exhibition.  

By the mid 1800s, the practice of gardening was deemed a privilege for the bourgeois and middle classes. Its popularity grew out of people's curiosity of such leisurely activity as well as its science for botanists and horticulturalists, including Monet. For artists, painting the garden was advantageous to their skill set: by exploring and challenging their imagination, whilst allowing them to experiment with brighter and darker hues.

Divided into eight separate rooms, 120 pieces of work are delicately presented for viewers to observe how these great artists encapsulated flora, dahlias, blossoms, roses, trees, hyacinths and other blooming flowers. Both Dumas and Dr. Robinson, have defined these rooms with interesting names such as Impressionist, Avant-Gardens, Reverie, Silence, Monet's Earlier Years at Giverny and Monet's Later Years at Giverny. Besides the last room, which is solely focused on Monet in Giverny, which he and his family moved to in 1883, I found that these different names were subtle and shed very little distinction between one another. In essence, I discovered that when I left one room without having seen all of the paintings, I didn't feel as if I had broken a thematic flow; after all these beautiful paintings had one thing in common - beautiful gardens.

Agapanthus Triptych, 1916-19
Monet spend the first 15 years in Giverny not painting. Instead he devoted his time and fortune on watering, weeding, digging and planting his garden. He took his gardening seriously; he kept many books of gardening and horticulture in his library, and designed his garden based on his experience as an artist. He positioned his bed of flowers in separate colours like dividing his paint brushes and boxes. As an instruction to his chief gardener, Félix Brueil in early 1900 he wrote, 'From the 15th to the 25th, lay the dahlias down to root, plant out those with shoots before I get back... In March show the grass seeds, plant out the little nasturtiums, keep a close eye on the gloxinia, orchids etc., in the greenhouse...'

He was first inspired to recreate water lillies in his garden when he attended the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1889, where 48 of his paintings were exhibited in Paris under the title Water Lillies: Series of Water Landscapes in 1909. Critics adored his work for their authenticity that one observed: 'No more earth, no more sky, no limits now.' Some of these works are also displayed at the exhibition.

Yet Monet stopped painting for three years following the death of his wife in 1911, and was diagnosed with cataracts. When his vision improved in 1914 he resumed painting his water garden and water lilies from memories. During these years he re-created mesmerising works that underpin his sombre and tender feelings in his personal life. This included the Agapanthus triptych, which is brought together and displayed for the first time in Europe. The are currently owned separately by three American museums - the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, who kindly donated it to be seen at the Royal Academy in a stand-alone room. It's a peaceful and moving display of Monet's passion for his self-made garden and the intense emotions he felt of the war going on in Europe. 

I would like to thank the Royal Academy of Arts for allowing me to take photos on the Press Preview event. The exhibition opens to the public from 30th January - Wednesday 20th April. For more information and to purchase tickets please go to:

For those unable to attend the Royal Academy of arts, you can see this exhibition on screen nationwide from 12th April 2016 through Seventh Art Productions and Arts Alliance Ltd. For more information on the screening, please go to

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ MetOpera: Live in HD: Les Pecheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers) at the Gate Cinema

Picture from the Huffington Post
Firstly, it should be said that this is an original production from the English National Opera (ENO) in London. Whilst sitting at the Gate cinema in Notting Hill, I noticed there was barely any mention of it, and although it may have seemed like a brand new revival for New York, it certainly wasn't for London audiences. On top of the so-called novelty was the performance of Bizet's Ceylon romantic opera, which hadn't been staged at the Metropolitan Opera for 100 years. In 1919, Enrico Caruso and Giuseppe De Luca sung as the two best friends who fell in love with the same Hindu priestess (Frieda Hempel), which was, sadly, only performed three times in the run.

Back in my mind I recalled some of my concerns I had about the ENO production I saw in 2014. Director Penny Woolcock, set designer Dick Bird and lightening designer Jen Schriever were here again to regal their 'traditional', silky, smooth Eastern pearl-diving village, with its aquatic, ocean shimmer. The French words, the romantic libretto, and steaming story line of secret lovers hiding behind society - ultimately taboo - is why many opera lovers adore the opera so much. Second to Carmen, Les Pecheurs de Perles is another operatic success composed by Bizet.
The chorus and soloists were dressed in autumn coloured sarongs and saris, and compared to the static London production there was more magnetism and energy from the performers here. Perhaps that was due to the pressures of HD Live: some performers chose to improvise their acting for the camera, for those close up shots.

As a cinema viewer, I was under the powers of Live in HD director, Matthew Diamond and his camera men who were directing my eyes away from any tetchy scene changes going on in the background, which the Met audience were privy to. (There were no laddish conversations going onbackstage like the ENO production. Phew!) Undoubtedly with a larger budget, the Met managed to get 59 Productions to coordinate their projection designs, which, with aeroplane machinery, allowed dancers and acrobats to swim in the air with animated bubbles following their tracks.

Diana Damrau sung as the pure and scared protector of the village Leïla - not allowed to give into temptation. Yet she had already fallen in love with Nadir (Matthew Polenzani) whose best friend, Zurga (Mariusz Kwiecien) was the leader of the town. He too is in love with Leïla. Both Zurga and Nadir promise to make friends and put their fight over Leïla behind them, yet Nadir doesn't abide. 
Picture by Ken Howard
Polenzani sung 'Je crois entrendre encore' with supreme confidence as the starry-eyed Nadir. There's a hopeful, wanderer's quality about his singing, which is, arguably, one of the most memorable parts of the entire production. Damrau's vocals displayed relative ease in the colouratura sections. She gave a convincing performance as the Hindu priestess lost to love's ways, though Damrau seemed to get carried away with too much delicate vibrato; I wasn't sure if she was simply showing off or deliberately singing like this to prove how fragile and naive her character was. With her partner, Polenzani, their voices blended with interesting colouring and phrasing, though, looking back, they didn't seem to make their clandestine relationship look especially romantic. I'd rather give the credit to the Met orchestra, maestro Gianandrea Noseda and Bizet for keeping the theatrical atmosphere sweet and dreamy.

The town is under the control of Zurga, performed by baritone Kwiecien. He's the good guy. He hands out money to the community and considers what is best for their livelihood. Yet, he loses out on the girl of his dreams and loses his best friend's loyalty on the way. Kwiecien's Zurga is like a captain - controlled, calm and subdued. With Polenzani, the best friend's duet is performed with panache and is another sparkling gem in the production. Standing on different ends of the stage, they sing 'Au fond du temple saint' walking slowly, closer and closer together, breaking the social boundaries that once separated them. 
Picture by Sara Krulwich
In the second half of the opera, Kwiecien and Damrau sung emphatically about love, but for different people. The dynamic is entirely different; kindness and innocence has been destroyed.  Zurga no longer respects his best friend for betraying him and he denounces Leïla, condemning both of them to death. With a cigarette, a clean washed shirt and swig of alcohol Kwiecien's Zurga tries to calm himself down, but is riled up by Leïla's presence, begging him to let Nadir live. Back at the Gate Cinema, it's an aggressive and scary sight. Damrau's singing is passionate, while Kwiecien is red in the face; jealous and angered, and, just, about, manages to sing his lines, clearly and fluidly.

In the pit, the Met Orchestra were tremendous, taking fine direction from conductor Noseda. Simultaneously the prelude was tender and powerful . Together they brought out the luscious lyricism of Bizet's gorgeous opera. I find it difficult to comment about the music in detail given that I was depending on the Gate Cinema's speakers. Overall, I can say it gets a thumbs up from me. Let's just hope the Metropolitan Opera doesn't wait another 100 years to show another performance of The Pearl Fishers.

For more information on this production at the Met Opera, please see 

Click here to check out full showings and listening at the Picture House, Gate cinema.  

Click here for my review of the ENO's production of The Pearl Fishers, 2014 

Click here for my review of Live in HD production of Berg's Lulu, 2015 at Curzon Cinema, Chelsea

Click here for my review of Live in HD production of Othello, 2015  at Curzon Cinema, Chelsea

Monday, 4 January 2016

Film: The Danish Girl ★★★★

I am ashamed to say that I still haven’t seen the Theory of Everything, yet, having now seen Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl. Based on a true story, this tender film breezes through the tormented life of Scandinavian couple Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda (Alicia Vikander), and Lili’s transformation from a transgender to a transsexual. Yet during the 1920s it was a dangerous time to be transgender, let alone homosexual - the concepts (transgender; transsexual) hardly existed in those days.

The film follows landscape artist Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) stroking fur jackets, concealing silk dresses underneath men’s clothing and, eventually, strutting like a woman. Hiding behind tutus, and looking at his naked reflection in the mirror, imagining what life would be like without a penis, Hooper and screen play writer Lucinda Coxon reveal a pretty woman that had been locked up and buried deep inside a man’s body. Yet all of this begins with Wegener’s wife, asking him to sit as a ballet dancer for her painting. 

Holding up a luxurious dress and wearing embroidered shoes and stockings, he is immediately taught how to apply lipstick and how to wear a wig in public. Yet that’s where it goes downhill. On pretending to be Wegener’s cousin, Lili meets Henrik (Ben Whishaw) who believes Lili to be a woman and by that point it’s too late - Gerda’s husband has kissed a man. Or was it Lili?

However, despite how shocking this may seem for a devoted wife, Gerda sticks by Lili even when she doesn’t agree with her desire to fast track her transformation with another surgery (a womb transplant) shortly after her first. The love, patience and tenaciousness of Wegener’s wife is poignantly preserved by Vikander’s hard and durable portrayal of Gerda. Though she is ambitious, yet failing as an artist, she finds the time to love her husband knowing what she is effectively losing.

Jamie Redmayne is compelling as Lili Elbe, the truer side of artist Wegener. The most touching scene is seeing him secretly attend a Parisian peep show, not to watch a woman but to learn how to be a woman, through mimicking her physical behaviour; the placing of one’s gentle hand along their soft face, the intense glare, pouting of lips and touching of one’s female sex.

In many ways the film is sensual, yet far from indecent; it’s quite easy to get wrapped up in Wegener's and Gerda’s heartbreaking story in Hooper’s glossy cinematography. The artistic influences underpinning the couple are shared through mesmerising panoramic shots of Paris with finely focused scenes of Copenhagen’s pastel-lit architecture.

I believe Redmayne and Vikander deserve individual prizes for their uncompromising performances. The Danish Girl is such a beautiful film.  By the end of it, I felt proud to be a woman, especially in a time when it is far more acceptable to be transgender or transsexual, compared to the unprogressive past.