Royal albert hall

‘Psychedelic folk that twists and leaps’: Beth Gibbons, at the Barbican, reviewed

A decade ago, a group of people who owned small music venues came to the conclusion that the kinds of places they ran were teetering on the brink of a catastrophic extinction event. And so they formed the Music Venue Trust, which has spent ten years kicking cans and shouting the odds about the need to preserve these places, about how they are the production lines from which the festival headliners of tomorrow come. A brilliant guitarist, a fascinating songwriter, St Vincent cycles sleekly through styles with utter assurance Quite right. Good, small venues are the best place to enjoy both live, loud, raucous music and intimate performances where the

Leave Bizet’s Carmen alone

I’ve always felt uncomfortably ambivalent about the work of Matthew Bourne. Of course, there is no disputing its infectious exuberance or its enormous appeal to a broad public beyond the ballet club. I suppose its eclectic mix of Ashton and MacMillan, camp jokiness, Hollywood movies and Broadway razzmatazz is quirkily unique too – at least sui generis, inasmuch as nobody seems to imitate it with his degree of commercial success. And Bourne’s house designer Lez Brotherston always gets it just right: the shows invariably look great. Yet there’s also a relentless brashness to them, an absence of psychological nuance and aesthetic restraint. I take a deep breath and try to

Swan upping

Was Tamara Rojo, when she danced Swan Lake last Saturday at the Albert Hall, thinking as she shaped each phrase, ‘This will be the last time I dance this …and this …and this’? I wonder. She told me a few years back that she had a five-year diary to cover the rest of her dancing career, a diary ending in 2016. Akram Khan’s modern Giselle this autumn will be a Rojo role, but if at 42 she was privately saying farewell to her classical career on Saturday, she did it with the spectacular and refined artistry the public has come to expect. A woman sitting next to me complained that

The promoter the critics love to hate: an interview with Raymond Gubbay

When Raymond Gubbay left school, he was articled to an accountant’s firm. Fascinated by opera and depressed at the prospect of life as a Golders Green beancounter, he wriggled out of it in a matter of months, and into an assistant’s job at Pathé Newsreels. Sensing that newsreels had a looming expiry date, he asked Arnold Wesker (a family friend) to wangle him an interview with Victor Hochhauser, Britain’s leading promoter of mass-market classical concerts. Hochhauser sat behind a desk in his office above a fridge shop in Kensington and asked the 17-year-old Raymond three questions. Where did you go to school? Are you a Jewish boy? And can you

At last some genuine gala material: Royal Ballet’s Balanchine and Robbins reviewed

The OED defines ‘gala’ as ‘a festive occasion’. In the ballet world this usually translates as a handful of stars, a mile of tulle and more triple fouettés than you can shake a stick at. Most balletgoers could put a half-decent programme together in their sleep: a firecracker duet (Swan, black), the odd solo party piece (Swan, dying), a dash of romance (Romeo, Manon) and the dear old Don Q. pas de deux. After a year being drip-fed small-screen ballet, the prospect of a little bling and bravura generated a buzz of excitement around Dame Darcey Bussell’s charity gala. The Hall (Albert) was hired, sponsors were found, eight major companies

Why I called Michael Gove to ask for some dosh for the teenage cancer trust

Is locking down again the right remedy for Britain, or will it only add to this country’s suffering in the long-term? It’s certainly been a disaster for many British charities — one report earlier this year estimated that there would be a £12 billion black hole in funding. And it’s been catastrophic for the charity I support: the Teenage Cancer Trust, which provides bespoke care for ill teenagers. An awful lot of people have heard of the Teenage Cancer Trust — but there’s something about teenagers that means they don’t pull at people’s heartstrings the same way that children do, so raising money is that bit more difficult. You could

Why orchestras are sounding better than ever under social-distancing

Our college choirmaster had a trick that he liked to deploy when he sensed that we were phoning it in. He ordered us out of the choirstalls and positioned us at random all over the chapel. It was sadistic but effective. With nowhere to hide, there could be no quiet fudging of that awkward leap in ‘O Thou the Central Orb’, and no waiting until after a more confident neighbour had begun their note before scooping hastily (and hopefully unnoticeably) upwards to match their pitch. Every singer became a reluctant soloist. The result was usually either mutiny, or an immediate and dramatic improvement in tone, tuning and ensemble. Apply that

Fascinating and compelling: Bruce Hornsby at Shepherd’s Bush Empire reviewed

In the unlikely event that Bruce Hornsby and Morten Harket, A-ha’s singer, ended up featuring in the Daily Mail for, I don’t know, getting into a fight in a supermarket over the last luxury Scotch egg, they would be described as ‘“The Way It Is” hitmaker’ and ‘the “Take on Me” star’. In neither case, I suspect, would that be how they would choose to be remembered. In Hornsby’s case, I know it’s not, because he told me so earlier this year. And when he played that song — a piece of high-class MOR so persuasive that it’s been sampled by hip-hop stars and used incessantly in TV montages since

The open-hearted loveliness of Hot Chip

Squeeze and Hot Chip are both great British pop groups. But they never defined a scene. Their ambitions extended further than being hailed by a few hundred people in bleeding-edge clubs. Squeeze piggybacked on punk, but they were quite evidently never a punk group, even if they dressed up as one. They were of the street rather than the art school, but they had no interest in gobbing, and Chris Difford was able to turn vignettes of everyday London life into three-minute comic dramas. (Perhaps he had more in common with John Sullivan — another south Londoner whose characters combined humour and pathos in his scripts for Only Fools and

Laughing matters

‘Comedy for music by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Music by Richard Strauss.’ That’s what the creators of Der Rosenkavalier wrote on the score, but don’t expect to see it reprinted in any programme books. Their careful wording doesn’t fit modern assumptions about Der Rosenkavalier, and not merely because it gives the librettist first place. There’s that troublesome word ‘comedy’, too. Advertising blurbs tell us (I know, I’ve written a couple) that Rosenkavalier is a bittersweet meditation on love, transience and loss. Yet its creators meant it to be funny. ‘Don’t forget that the audience should also laugh!’ wrote Strauss to Hofmannsthal. ‘Laugh, not just smile or grin!’ Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production

Letters | 9 February 2017

No fear Sir: Why does Matthew Parris think I am ‘secretly terrified’ of having voted to leave the EU (‘Brexiteers need ladders to climb down’, 4 February)? Anyone over the age of 50 knew that choosing to vote Leave or Remain was not an easy decision. My own beliefs nudged me just far enough to vote Leave; my partner’s beliefs nudged him just far enough to vote Remain. Mr Parris admits that he can imagine Brexit being a surprising success, and I may have to face the fact that it could be a failure. We are both reasonable people. I was satisfied with the result, but since June I have

Letters | 2 February 2017

Going Dutch Sir: As a Dutch man who lives in Britain, I found it heartening to read two such different but well-considered articles on the state of my home country (‘Orange alert’ and ‘Dutch courage’, 28 January). Douglas Murray is right to attack the Dutch government for its attempts to criminalise opinions it doesn’t like. I take issue, however, with his defence of Geert Wilders, who does indeed resemble Donald Trump in his eagerness to stoke outrage for political gain. His film Fitna, while pretending to be an honest statement about the nature of Islam, was really just an attempt to be so shocking as to provoke the liberal establishment

Do Labour MPs not understand how private arts funding works?

You would think there was enough financial scandal in the world to keep MPs exercised without denouncing the owners of private boxes at the Royal Albert Hall. But no. Sharon Hodgson, member for Washington and Sunderland West, has just shown once again that what really gets a Labour MP seething with indignation is not wrongdoing or injustice – it is the whiff of class. Sharon is upset that the Royal Albert Hall’s 330 members – who individually own 1276 privately-owned seats — are exercising their right to sell tickets for those seats through third party websites. A ticket for the Last Night of the Proms in September has, shock, horror,

Barometer | 12 January 2017

Black background A Morris dancing troupe with blacked-up faces had to abandon its performance in a Birmingham shopping centre after being heckled and accused of racism. — There are several explanations for the tradition of Border Morris groups blackening their faces, but it was certainly established by 1509, when a Shrovetide banquet for ambassadors featured torch-bearers with blackened faces. — Some believe it to have derived from Spain and Portugal, where dancers blacked up as Moors. Others believe that it derives from the practice of poachers blackening up to conceal themselves in darkness. — Blacking up is punished more mildly now than in the 18th century: a 1723 anti-poaching law

Breaking up is hard to do

’Will you be dancing?’ the man in front asks his friend before the lights go down. ‘Most likely,’ she says. Two songs in and it’s looking less and less likely. The world’s best-known Icelander is fronting a 27-piece chamber orchestra in a strings-only performance of songs from her last album (not her most toe-tapping collection). It feels like hard work. Lyrically, Vulnicura (Greek for ‘cure for wounds’) is a blow-by-blow account of her split with long-term partner Matthew Barney. Musically, anything resembling a good tune is hard to find. Each verse of ‘Black Lake’, the album’s mournful centrepiece, ends in a wavering monotone that fades to silence. Watching conductor Andrew

Saintly sins

They say that the devil gets all the best tunes, and on the basis of this week’s opera-going it would be hard to disagree. Performances by Cape Town Opera and Opera Rara turned their attention on two historical icons: South Africa’s anti-apartheid campaigner and president Nelson Mandela, and ancient Assyria’s murderous and would-be incestuous queen regent Semiramis. No prizes for guessing who came out on top. When it comes to art, evil takes it nearly every time. Who wouldn’t choose The Rake’s Progress over The Pilgrim’s Progress, Don Giovanni over Don Ottavio, sex over sanctity? For a good man, Nelson Mandela has inspired a lot of really, really bad art.

How does Karl Jenkins get away with his crappy music?

In a week that saw the UK vote itself out of the EU, the resignation of David Cameron followed by most of Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, the audience who dutifully trooped to the Royal Albert Hall this Sunday for a concert celebrating the 2,000th performance of Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man – A Mass for Peace were clearly looking for reassurance. And reassurance is what they got – because whatever happens in the big wide world outside, Jenkins’ music has always been, and probably always will be, utter crap. If you believe ‘crap’ to be unworthy of the critical lexicon, no word could be more apt. Believe me, nothing would have

Punk turns 40

There have been many punk exhibitions over the years so I can’t help but chuckle at the ‘experts’ who are getting hot under the collar about the ‘sacrilege’ of housing punk memorabilia in museums. Hasn’t it always been the case that anything considered culturally significant ends up in a ‘cultural establishment’ of sorts? Joe Corré, son of Dame Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, is even threatening to burn his punk collection in protest. Really!! The experts I know, i.e. band members, don’t seem too bothered about it. In fact, many will be turning up to do Q&As at the British Library’s tasteful if limited Punk 1976–78 exhibition. As the title

Last words | 5 May 2016

This, my 479th, is to be my last contribution as a regular columnist to The Spectator. I have written here for 33 years and 4 months, a way of life really, and one I have greatly enjoyed. I thank Auberon Waugh in absentia for suggesting me to Alexander Chancellor in the first place; and Charles Moore for keeping me on in the early years, once we were up and running. I also thank three quite exceptional arts editors: Gina Lewis, Jenny Naipaul and the doyenne of these pages, Liz Anderson. Things have moved on from my habitual think pieces, outraged rants, ad hominem demolition of palpable idiots written in the

Maximum Bob

We were like four hapless contestants on University Challenge. None of us knew the answer. But just like they do on the telly, I leaned learnedly across towards my 28-year-old son, who in turn looked despairingly towards one of my stepsons, before my other stepson made his contribution with a shrug of the shoulders. So, it was up to me as captain of the team to take a guess as the first few bars wafted through the Royal Albert Hall. ‘“Tangled Up in Blue”?’ I proffered with as much enthusiasm as Jeremy Corbyn at a white-tie dinner. But, fingers on the buzzer, there were far bigger questions to be answered.