Tag Archives: Barbican Centre

The big child inside / Where the Wild Things Are + Higglety Pigglety Pop! / Barbican Hall – 3 November 2012

6 Nov

This co-production of Aldeburgh Festival with the Barbican and the LA Philharmonic only opened in Suffolk a month after the death of Maurice Sendak, making it feel as the definitive end to this long collaboration with Oliver Knussen. Having Netia Jones on board gave the production values a welcome lift and interestingly moved the monsters in Wild Things permanently on the screen allowing the Max of Claire Booth free reign on the raised stage platform behind the Britten Sinfonia to jump and writhe to roll and to crouch, while singing with clarity and childish enthusiasm.
The score is a bright, colourful quilt that boisterously illustrates and suggests the action. He included an overwhelming percussion section adorned playfully with cow bell, wind machine, glockenspiel, maracas, wooden clogs and a balloon waiting to be popped when the frumpy Mama of Susan Bickley showed up with a menacing vacuum cleaner. I can only imagine how impressive it would seem to young ears when, for instance, the antiphonal clanging announces the arrival of a scary lion.
This production avoided naff monster costumes and instead opted for Sendak’s well crafted drawings as an animated projection. Affording it a much sleeker look and enhancing its appeal to the demanding young fans and the many adults present. Knussen’s boisterous score is full of mischief but found the quiet moments that shine brighter. The particularly mesmerising quiet passage when Max boards a boat in scene 3 full of textural effects suggesting the sea journey ahead was a great example of the atmospheric writing.
I have to admit to finding Wild Things much more difficult to get into; feeling that Knussen went too heavy handed in the orchestration, at times being rather shouty and attention seeking. The animation on screen was spread across the whole screen, simulating the double spreads of the book with a separate booth at stage left looking like a standing book, becoming the home of the singers that voiced the monsters on screen. Unfortunately during the first opera the Barbican’s speakers picked up some interference marring the more quiet passages with intermittent buzzes.

The second half was a much more pleasurable and more evenly produced piece. Knussen’s score for Higglety, the direction and Sendak’s delicate black and white line drawings were in perfect harmony.
The projection screen was now split in nine sections allowing for a more dynamic projection and somewhere for Jennie the Sealyham terrier to hide and interact with more spontaneity and dynamism. Lucy Schaufer was a wonderfully devoted and thoughtful presence and with the right amount of doggie spark. Her singing and acting in what must be a very heavy and warm shaggy dog costume was superb. Susanna Andersson made for a very loud, funny and churlish baby, a great antagonist to Jennie’s calm resolve and searching personality. Again Sendak’s story presenting a dog in a state of existential angst is not the most obvious subject but alongside the flowing score, full of whimsical quotations was intriguing. It’s both a memorialisation of his dead dog and an interesting reverie into the interplay of the mundane and the fundamental.
The orchestral textures were simplified in comparison to Wild Things allowing his invention to shine through unadulterated and strong. The final scene at the World Mother Goose Theatre introduces much needed colour in both the illustration and the costumes, finishing the work with a child friendly repeat of the performance of Higglety Pigglety Pop!

Higglety, pigglety, pop!
The dog has eaten the mop;
The pig’s in a hurry,
The cat’s in a flurry,
Higglety, pigglety, pop!

Can only imagine how daunting it must be for Ryan Wigglesworth (like Knussen himself, both a Conductor and Composer) to conduct those two operas with the composer present. He contributed a thoughtful programme note, which can be read here. Both he and the Britten Sinfonia produced an admirable flow and ebb for both pieces, their specialisation in contemporary music evidently helping them along and generating spark and excitement.

It was a very moving evening and it was wonderful to see such a dedicated on stage team making the two quirky fantasy operas shine and Knussen obviously proud of the result with an audience that was deeply reverential and grateful. The ingenious staging with live controlled animation was a masterstroke and hope this production will have an afterlife in other venues and continents.

Read More

Knussen Double Bill Programme  (PDF) 

Blog dedicated to the new production

Piece by Netia Jones on her collaboration with M Sendak

Piece by Claire Booth on working with Knussen’s music

Wild Things and Glyndebourne



Even goddesses falter / Anne Sofie von Otter + Michael Tilson Thomas + London Symphony Orchestra / Barbican Hall – 2 February 2012

10 Feb

It has taken me a full week to process the disappointment of last Thursday’s LSO + Anne Sofie von Otter and Michael Tilson Thomas concert at the Barbican. I was expecting intense pleasure and jagged angular mid-war sonorities. Unfortunately what we got was a badly amplified performance, by a conductor that has all the finicky attention of a control freak and yet not a  natural ear for this music. The programming alone was a strange combination, with a rather starchy first piece and La Mer as the conclusion.

Singing Kurt Weill song cycles in a large auditorium like the Barbican ,with a fairly dry acoustic, is unforgiving. Those songs were meant for smaller venues where the amplification would be unnecessary or at least more subtle. At the Barbican the amplification of ASvO’s voice was hidden under a blanket of mushy, unfocused sound and her holding of the mic made it more so. It distorted every phrase and took away any possibility of jagged phrasing and honed gravel precision in the spirit of Lotte Lenya.

Her voice was as usual a mine of beauty, unfortunately that was only allowed to be shown when she would snarl phrases across to the audience without the microphone, in those brief moments she relayed, shame, confidence, strength and sex appeal. The main issue throughout was the non idiomatic approach of Tilson Thomas.

This band of wonderful musicians should be able to convey Weill’s intentions but sadly fell very short. Especially for the first three songs, the playing was lacking in authority and brightness. It sounded more like a dull ABBA sing-along (a favourite past time for ASvO) than a Berlin cabaret. It was hugely disappointing and led me to not stay for La Mer, a piece that can so easily slip into being a semi comatose  conductor auto pilot vehicle, with no sense of direction and structure.

At least she gave us a wonderful encore that was a glorious glimpse of what it could have been…alluring, warm, dangerous…listen to it and see what you think:

A few tweets from the evening

How much?

25 Jan

Having had a look through the new season listings by the major London-based orchestras. Somehow happened upon the amazingly high prices of visiting orchestras, (Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra / Staatskapelle Berlin) particularly at the Royal Festival Hall…top price seems to be a consistent £85, which seems very steep and even the back of the Stalls is priced at £70! At the same venue the Philharmonia’s top price is £35 with some premium seats at £45. The LPO charge £39, with premium seats at a considerable £65.

Compare that with the top price for many Barbican concerts by the LSO  of £35 and decent seats at Circle for £19.50 .  At the same venue the New York Phil is playing with a top price of £45!

The Wigmore Hall is charging an average top price of £30-35 with some very decent seats for £15-20.

Clearly the subsidy from the Corporation of London is helping to keep Barbican prices on the low-end, but am very surprised by the prices at the South Bank Centre. Paying £85-70 in order to listen to music at the very hollow acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall is not exactly the most tempting proposition. This season except for a rare London appearance by Jessye Norman I will stay away from the RFH due to their prices, regrettably as I do love the Philharmonia.

The SBC is pricing themselves out of my concert going budget and make themselves look terrible value even in comparison to the Royal Opera House and English National Opera.

Has anyone else noticed the climb in prices?

Another night of wonder / London Symphony Orchestra + Sir Colin Davis + Dame Mitsuko Uchida / Barbican Hall – 11 December 2011

12 Dec

Another night, another concert. But of course when that orchestra is the LSO and under the direction of Sir Colin Davis things are far from just routinely chugging along. The programme itself stretching from Haydn’s Symphony No 93 written in 1791 to Nielsen’s Symphony No3 written in 1911 via Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto has to be one thrilling ride through over one hundred years of European music. The orchestra managed to create three distinct soundworlds as befitting the range of moods and sensitivities of each composer. Proving that the orchestra hasn’t got an auto pilot like default sound but is flexible in reflection to the wide repertoire.

My joy at modern instrument orchestras playing Mozart and Haydn is not exactly secret. I totally hate period ensembles that have robbed the balls off these wonderful compositions and give them a half life on stage complete with crude horns. The LSO  under brisk but seated Davis gave us a focused sound that took in its stride the playfulness of Haydn’s writing and created an elegant edifice that never became self indulgent or academic. The teasing pizzicato playing connected it directly to the Nielsen, despite the huge differences in sonority. When he demanded Allegro, he got a dancing response from the players and when the Minuet arrived, the teasing exchanges between winds and strings made this a feast for the eyes and ears. The feeling in the auditorium was of celebration and the genuinely thunderous applause sealed the deal.

For the Nielsen Symphony the LSO gave us a much more dry sound, not as lyrical to start off with, almost giving a modernist very Nordic sound to the first movement. The soundscape was as expansive and beautiful as one would imagine an evening would be at a cold abandoned beach in Denmark. The pizzicato of the strings against the reedy and evocative sound of the piccolo created more environmental images in our heads. Sir Colin, surely drove the brass to play with emphatic pride but avoided at all costs Mahlerian hyperbole. The Andante Pastorale of the second movement did drive us more into the Danish countryside that was the formative influence in so much of Nielsen’s writing. The soprano (Lucy Hall) and the baritone (Marcus Farnsworth) were placed amongst the members of the orchestra, the tremolo of the strings providing a filigree backdrop for their vocalism. The closing movements were a triumphal mix of stillness and urgency. The finale was so rousing as to have a resounding and very loud bravo! echo even before Davis put his baton down. He was called back to the stage three times in a wave after wave of applause.

After the interval we were treated to a performance of utter sophistication and unapologetic beauty. Mitsuko Uchida does not need introductions when it comes to playing Beethoven or Mozart; she is a specialist per excellence and has been in demand for over 30 years. But despite her considerable pedigree I was totally thrown by the brilliance of her playing and the obvious rapport with Davis and the orchestra. When the three of them meet live, something very special happens, the chemistry is unmistakable.

Her playing over all was a perfectly judged balance of assertiveness and sweetness. She did not bash her instrument like a mad woman just to show she can play loudly, but she used the full range of colour it provided her with and indeed was not afraid to give Argerich like arpeggios at full tilt. Dressed in yellow gold trousers and top, with a transparent cornflower blue organza jacket, she obviously enjoyed listening to the warm elegiac sound of the LSO as the accompanied her, crossing her arms in approval while bobbing her head to the music.

She gave a unique sense of mystery to the first movement, almost as she knew a secret Beethoven whispered in her ear, but did not want to reveal it to us, but wanted us to keep on guessing. The Adagio had the fluency of one would expect, but with an almost vocal line…it would not have been out of place if she started singing alongside the very lyrical, attentive playing she gave us. Such was the sweet caress by her that when she introduced the opening theme for the third movement without a break, a few people around us jumped at the sudden change. Again the dialogue between orchestra and soloist was captivating. The warm and totally idiomatic sound of the orchestra created the perfect backdrop and contrasting material for all the variations on that one triumphant theme she played again and again. Every time with a new voice, every time with a new dialect. This was the summation of the careers of two great musicians and an orchestra at the top of their game, truly exceptional. When a lot of capital cities would have nothing more to boast on a Sunday evening,  than an episode of a reality TV show (and amusingly it was the final of the UK X Factor tonight) London can offer an almost sold our concert hall with an amazing cast of musicians playing from the heart.

The same programme is repeated on Tuesday 13th and will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, if nothing else do tune in!

Some tweets from the evening

Beethoven renaissance? / Gewandhaus Orchestra / Barbican Hall – 1 November 2011

3 Nov

There aren’t many orchestras in the world that can claim to have been around when Beethoven was composing his Symphonies, the Gewandhaus can and surely has one of the most enviable pedigrees in the business. Since its foundation in 1743 it has been a mainstay of orchestral playing in Europe alongside The Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic orchestras. One goes to one of their concerts with high expectations, especially when they are playing two Beethoven symphonies in one evening!

This was their third concert at the Barbican as part of their full cycle of Beethoven Symphonies as a promotion for their set released by Decca last week.  The recordings have been (as usually the case with Decca) overhyped and created pent up anticipation in the smallish orchestral loving circles.

When I was growing up the two complete Beethoven cycles I owned were the Karajan/Berlin Phil and the Sawallisch/Royal Concertgebouw. Those Symphonies seemed the pinnacle of orchestral accomplishment, they were big and bold. Surely as impressionable 12 year old I embraced the excitement and grandeur. This symphonic cycle is like no other, it shaped the very make up of symphony orchestras that we listen to today. And became the early war horse of nascent record companies trying to sell records for the gramophone. Intriguingly in you search for Beethoven Symphonies you get 2956 results in the database of back issues of Gramophone Magazine. So when a new set comes out, there is a long and hard discussion of the treatment of this Mount Parnassus of music making in minute detail. Chailly’s cycle has caused some disquiet as he has elected to use the original metronome values, away from most established performance practice that deems them too fast. So I chose to go to the concert that contained a mature work (No8) and his most prominent slow movement (the funereal march in No3). Would the speed ruin the atmosphere of the No3, would the sprightly No8 sparkle?

The audience reception was very warm at the start of the concert, with thunderous applause for the maestro. Being on the second row from the stage I was rather alarmed by the amount of patent leather on show, the players of the Gewandhaus do dress traditionally in dark grey tails or black ensembles for the ladies. A world away from most British orchestras, but then this is the oldest orchestra in the world, we’ll allow them to hold on to their old fashioned garb.

I was very happy to read about Chailly including contemporary compositions to their Beethoven programmes, after all they championed Beethoven’s compositions when they were only months old. So it was appropriate and it paid off, Colin Matthews’ Grand Barcarolle had affinities mainly to Symphony No3, when it came to the mood it portrayed. It had some exquisite string passages that enveloped us gently and made a great opener before the main event. The composer looked very moved and thankful to Chailly and the orchestra and I can imagine very few higher honours than having a composition played by these wonderful players.

Symphony No8 displayed in abundance the wonderful woody, centre heavy sound of the orchestra. They surely have an individual sound. Being used to great effect when floating between Beethoven’s intermingling themes and variations. The pomp and romp of the second movement was brought almost to an operatic finale, a truly exceptionally vibrant and alive reading. An interesting manifestation of the relationship between the Italian conductor, his fiery personality and the considerable heft of this historic orchestra. This symphony does give a great insight into Beethoven’s mature writing, with great attention to woodwind and seamless orchestration of the different incidents into a satisfying, uplifting whole. Listening to it one can feel his excitement for this amazing instrument (the orchestra) and using it’s chromatic and dynamic variation to bring light and shade into a coherent inspiring union. The feverish finale was exciting (especially if you weren’t looking at some bored and immobile people in the front row).  It built up the expectation for the second half.

Beethoven’s Eroica, is one my most favourite works, especially the deep sadness in the funereal march with its haunting horn led theme. So was slightly worried if the majesty and poise of the march would be preserved. The first movement indeed had a lot of brio and the string playing was open but not too overindulgent and glistening. When the second movement started the hushed beginning was fluid and had all the empathy and weightiness one would expect. Chailly’s conducting was trying to bring out the intricate detailing of all the ornamentation, bringing into sharp focus all the characteristic small conversations between orchestral sections that is so typical of Beethoven. I’m sure some people may find that very detail focused playing to be a distraction from the painful core of this movement, but I was won over and seemed like a great way to add more verve to this movement that can so easily sag into a mournful mess. The shaping and flow were electric, goose bump inducing to the max.

The next two movements were again beautifully played and I’d call them a ballet for my toes…which jumped around and tapped around my shoes in tune to the forward, energetic playing and the maestro’s own dance routines 😉 Surely not a dull moment during those movements and with a tight focus on the mood and overall structure. Have to say at times the brass seemed a bit too hot but that has to do more with the acoustic of the hall and my proximity to the stage.

Now I can’t finish this small report without mentioning the relationship between Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhaus. The orchestra was totally obedient, well rehearsed and clearly responding to Chailly’s exuberant, physical way of conducting. Every pizzicato note was clearly articulated by his baton and the players became an extension of the maestro. In many ways a very old fashioned way to conduct business but it really works. As Chailly has a much more fiery temperament than the orchestra, when they come together it’s a beguiling, verging on the intoxicating, combination.

Can’t imagine anyone at the Barbican being left unmoved by some of that magic, despite any disagreements on the fast tempi. Who said those symphonies were the domain for grandiose statements by 80 year old conductors building a legacy. On Tuesday night those two works were played with commitment and freshness, despite the fact this is their fourth full cycle in the last few months. Now I’ll be chomping through the recorded set and see if their sound has been captured in all it’s fullness. It must be a great time for a new generation to fall in love with this orchestral staple. 

Tweets from the night: 

The noisy way to please

8 Mar

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MESSIAEN Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum
BRUCKNER Symphony No 9

Sir Simon Rattle conductor
London Symphony Orchestra

It has been years since I’ve seen Simon Rattle live and a year ago bought a couple of tickets for tonight’s concert at the Barbican. It was the perfect opportunity to avoid the noise and promo madness of his residency with Berlin Phil and to see him again with the wonderful LSO. Of course a major positive was the lack of Mahler from this programme, he just bores me witless (have promised myself to have another go at the old man when I turn 50…in 17 years, ‘nough said!).

The Messiaen was a bold bit of programming and a touch of Rattle’s genuine love for contemporary music that has been his calling card for over thirty years. This particular piece was tough loving for the audience, but in my view a very good way to start the evening. Having the woodwinds, brass and percussion of the orchestra blaze through his undulating angular forms was a joy. Rattle managed to find beauty in the unconventional rhythms the composer provided him with and the players of the orchestra responded with panache and precision. The crescendos in parts 3 and 4 where verging on the deafening from the second row of the stalls that we were sitting! But it was almost an aural cleansing preparing us for the wondrous  architectural greatness of the Bruckner.

It was quite funny watching members of the orchestra shielding their ears during those loud, exclamatory percussion laden concluding segments. And despite any technical hair-splitting, which I’m the least qualified to do, ( I tend to  judge live performances on the strength of the visceral impression they make) I can say one thing about the Messiaen, it surely gave me goose bumps as the last movement was reaching its climax. It was powerful and some of his spatial/sound effects where brilliant and in a way reminded one that the composer’s main occupation as a church organist. Now if we could grab the LSO and drag them into an ancient cathedral the sights and smells of the place would surely enhance the mesmerising effect.

I came in after the interval fearing that Rattle would go for overtly slow tempi (which it seems to becoming a bit of a problem for him lately) and make the Symphony drag unnecessarily. I shouldn’t have done, my partner actually mentioned how lively Rattle was at the podium and indeed his timings were brisk. In the first movement his emphasis on the individual phrases was impressive, the very good acoustic of the Barbican really helped him to sculpt the sound around quiet melodies and the silence in between incidents. His approach may not have been in the same line of enquiry as Bruno Walter or John Barbirolli who emphasised the overall structure of the Symphony. Rattle added his personal touches to it that made it an emotionally charged testament by a conductor that feels at ease with the material and at home with the Orchestra.

For me the star of the show was the second movement. Where Rattle brought out the dance aspect of the music, his treatment of the trio was bringing up memories of Stravinsky’s ballet music, it was fun and powerful but at the same time very elegant (the luscious string playing was magical) . It was a surprise for me and an interesting contribution in the middle of a very grand orchestral edifice (the piece, after all requires a 107 member orchestra!) . Rattle allowed the formality of the piece to come though but at the same time little charming incidents throughout were given space to develop and transport the listener.

When people ask why is Rattle a special conductor it’s a night like this they have to experience. The playing he extracted from The LSO may not have been totally faultless but it was arresting and with a humane, beating heart in its middle. It’s what great music should do, it should be perfect escapism but at the same time excite the spirit and the senses.

And of course dear reader you can make your mind by listening to the broadcast on BBC Radio 3, on at 7pm, 14 March, here’s the link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00zdfj6

Milton Court a monstrocity or a lost jewel on Barbican’s crown?

27 Jun











I was browsing today and was made aware that Milton Court, at the edge of The Barbican in London is about to be redeveloped.

Modernist architecture has had a very rough ride in the UK from most of last century. Especially in the aftermath of the dreadful social housing that used Modernist language without the philosophical and ideological background. 

Milton Court was built in 1965 as a support building to the main Barbican Centre. It was not listed unlike the Centre and a few years ago all leftover residents were bought out of their flats and it has been lying empty read to be redeveloped, here’s the proposed plan on the Corporation of London’s website: http://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/Corporation/media_centre/files2006/City+selects+preferred+Milton+Court+developer.htm

Here are some more links that relate to the campaign to save Milton Court on the debate about its architectural merit:

The BBC’s website:http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/6222792.stm

CABE’s website with an elevation plan: http://www.cabe.org.uk/default.aspx?contentitemid=1925&refid=0&sl=

Advocates of Milton Court have put together a website to try and save it: http://www.miltoncourt.org/  (website now defunct) and also the 20th Centrury Society is advocating the building: http://riskybuildings.c20society.org.uk/docs/08milton/index.html

 CABE seems not to be too impressed by the quality of the proposed development

“We do not think that the architecture in this case is of sufficient quality to make a positive contribution to its immediate and wider setting.” 

 The objections of CABE are higlighting a major problem when developers are brought in to built mixed use development for public bodies. On one hand they have to keep their clients happy by fullfilling the brief even in the expense of the design. And also trying to deliver it to a predetermined price point and make enough money for the architectural practise and the contractor. Unfortunately this kind of development very rarely produces good architecture. And in this instance the Corporation of London should be thinking more about how to make a interesting contribution to the London skyline than how to self-finance the new theatre for the Guildhall School of Music by selling the flats in the new development. 

Let’s hope that reason will prevail and maybe a sensitive redevelopment will incorporate the original building.


The building was demolished in 2008, a great shame but developers have won once more.

(the also, ironically, now defunct) CABE approved the new design after three review panels

Some images of the site after demolition

and a PDF on the contractor’s website

The erected building has been named The Herron, here is their home page with all the sales patter.

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