Thursday, October 16, 2014

Benjamin Britten | Jamie McDermott | Conor Mitchell – Cabaret Songs at RomaEuropa Festival 2014

Teatro Eliseo on 15 October 2014

Italy still languishes behind almost all its European neighbours in recognition of gay rights, so much so that when the Mayor of Bologna, amongst others, recently started registering foreign gay marriages at the local municipality, Interior Minister Angelino Alfano sent out a circular ordering all Italian municipalities to remove these gay marriages from their registries. Mayor of Rome Ignazio Marino has promised he’ll defy this ruling and personally officiate at the registration of foreign gay marriages in the city this weekend. These registrations remain essentially “symbolic”, however, with no pending legislation on a national level in the offing. I am saying all this in order to properly understand and contextualize the impact of a performer like Jamie McDermott, who made a welcome return to Rome this week, and how his exploration of the history of gay song writing in the twentieth century, though a sophisticated selection of Cabaret Songs, inspired by the music of Benjamin Britten and the words of WH Auden, truly comes as a breath of fresh air in Italy. Most of the love songs to men in this show were, after all, written at a time of homosexual illegality, with the repression of homosexual desire their driving force. In this show McDermott throws the closet doors wide open with his gorgeous re-imagining of the Britten/Auden compositions.

Teatro Eliseo was magically transformed into an intimate nightclub, as McDermott appeared, not on stage during the opening number - Fallen Out of Love with You, a WH Auden piece, set to music by contemporary composer Conor Mitchell – but instead among the audience, moving through the red velvet seats, as if from table to table in some Berlin nightlife joint. It was the perfect start to what would be an elegant, refined, and also at turns poignant, funny, and wilfully camp evening. Admittedly, the performance wasn’t free of minor technical glitches – microphone problems, a music stand falling over – but these things only seemed to endear McDermott even more to the Rome audience, who had already been seduced by his glorious voice, with its operatic vibrato and soaring falsetto. Pianist Stephen Higgins – a dexterous and sensitive foil to McDermott’s vocals - also delighted us with his new Italian lyrics to Cole Porter’s Let’s Do It.

Musical highlights for me were Noel Coward’s achingly lovely Mad About the Boy, with new explicitly gay lyrics that were censured at the time, the Rodgers and Hart classic My Funny Valentine, and a wonderfully sultry Too Darn Hot by Cole Porter. Dermott seemed genuinely surprised by the warmth of the applause at the end of the show – “Are you all insane?!” - and was called back on stage for two encores, an exquisite repeat of the Auden/Mitchell piece After Sappho performed early on in the setlist, and a brief burst of Johnny One Note, abandoned in favour of My Funny Valentine.

Jamie McDermott will be back at Teatro Eliseo tonight with The Irrepressibles – Nude: Viscera. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The magic of Martha Argerich in Rome

The Orquesta Sinfonica Juvenil da Bahia conducted by Ricardo Castro at the Santa Cecilia Hall, Auditorium Parco della Musica – 15 September 2014

Ahead of the official opening of the 2014-15 Accademia di Santa Cecilia concert season on 25 October, when Evgeny Kissin will perform with the resident orchestra, September is dedicated to a series of concerts by four different international orchestras - Around the world in four orchestras - with each concert led by a renowned conductor and accompanied by an important soloist.

Monday evening saw the Brazilian youth orchestra Orquesta Sinfonica Juvenil da Bahia under the baton of Ricardo Castro joined by a very special guest – the legendary concert pianist Martha Argerich. Rightly hailed by many as one of the greatest pianists of our time, she is also a performer who is actively engaged in the musical education of young people, and is always generous and encouraging in her praise of younger musicians, so it was a joy to see her working with this extremely talented young orchestra.

For one reason or another, I’d never managed to see the divine Ms. Argerich play until Monday night. She retired from solo recitals some years ago, and while she does seem to have a busy schedule planned for next year, her concert appearances have become much rarer in recent times, and notoriously unpredictable – she has been known to cancel at the last minute on occasions. So when the house lights dimmed, and after what felt like an interminably long wait, the stage doors finally opened and the pianist and conductor appeared, I felt a wave of relief and genuine excitement. She is also known to suffer terribly from stage fright, and as if to assuage those fears, the Rome audience gave her one of the loudest and warmest welcomes I’ve ever heard at a classical music concert. The love for this artist was palpable, and she had yet to play a note!

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from the evening. Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no.1 is something of a warhorse, after all, and a powerhouse piece that Argerich has revisited several times in notable recordings. From the very second her hands first touched the keys – or rather, gently caressed them, such is the impression of her seemingly effortless technique - it was clear that the 73-year-old Argerich had lost none of her brilliant virtuosity, and that this would be a very special evening indeed. It was a performance of power and precision, but stripped of the bombastic, to leave a graceful, lyrical concerto, full of shimmering cascades of sound, and dynamic contrasts. She was mesmerising.

The roar of approval, protracted applause, and foot stomping at the end of the performance coaxed the pianist back out on stage for half a dozen or so curtain calls, before the audience was rewarded with an unexpected gift – an exquisite encore. It would be hard to think of a better close to her collaboration with the Brazilian Youth Orchestra, than the 1st movement from Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood) entitled Of Foreign Lands and Peoples. Sheer perfection.

I had fully expected the rest of the night to be a rounding out of the programme, but instead the second half of the evening saw exhilarating and hugely enjoyable performances by the orchestra of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, followed by a nod to Brazil with Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No.4.

When Martha Argerich reappeared from the stage doors at the end of the concert, and took a seat in the audience to watch the orchestra’s encore, however, we knew we were in for a surprise! Zequinha de Abreu's Tico-Tico no Fubá brought the house down, with concert etiquette thrown out the window as the audience cheered and clapped along as the musicians stood up and danced as they played! It was a wonderful end to a memorable concert.

Full programme:
Piano Concerto no.1
Kinderszenen No.1- Of Foreign Lands and Peoples
Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Villa Lobos
Bachianas Brasileira n. 4
Zequinha de Abreu
Tico-Tico no Fubá

Goran Visnjic presents ‘Extant’ at Roma Fiction Fest 2014

Goran Visnjic in Rome
Now in its eighth edition, Roma Fiction Fest 2014 sees Carlo Freccero at the helm, and a rich programme of high calibre television shows presented on the big screen. Sadly, however, very few international stars are slated to appear at this year's festival, so it was great to see Goran Visnjic tread the festival’s pink carpet at the Auditorium Parco della Musica yesterday evening. While Visnjic is probably best known to TV viewers for his recurring starring role as Doctor Luca Kovac in the ground-breaking TV medical drama ER, he was at the Roma Fiction Fest for the Italian TV Première of his recent US sci-fi drama Extant, in which he co-stars with Halle Berry. The actor took time to pose for photographs and sign autographs for fans before taking the stage in Sala Petrassi to introduce the opening episode.  

Extant will see its Italian television première on Rai 3 tomorrow evening.

Watch some highlights from the Extant event at Roma Fiction Fest 2014 below (or click here to watch on You Tube).

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sublime perfection from the mighty Mogwai at Luglio Suona Bene 2014

Mogwai on stage in Rome at Luglio Suona Bene
When Mogwai first appeared on stage at dusk on Friday evening at the Auditorium Parco della Musica, there was initially only a slow ripple of applause. This quickly transformed into huge cheers as this most unassuming of bands picked up their instruments, and after a brief hello from Stuart Braithwaite, the electronic glockenspiel chimes from Heard About You Last Night, the opening track from their new album Rave Tapes, rang out in the open air Cavea. The hauntingly atmospheric Friend of the Night from Mr. Beast, and Take Me Somewhere Nice from the even earlier album Rock Action, with some rare, and achingly beautiful vocals from Braithwaite, followed. It was an exquisite, understated, yet instantly compelling start to what would turn out to be an utterly exhilarating, and very, very loud evening.

Ostensibly in Rome to promote Rave TapesMaster Card and Deesh also appeared on the setlist, as did the infectiously catchy Remurdered, which even sparked a brief bout of spontaneous clapping-along from the audience, provoking an amused smile from Braithwaite – the band also dug deep into their back catalogue of some nineteen years of recordings, and included gems such as Xmas Steps, with a mournful and hypnotic violin solo by fellow Scottish musician Luke Sutherland.

I last saw the Glasgow post-rock band during the Auditorium’s Luglio Suona Bene summer concert season back in 2009, and I attended that gig as a Mogwai neophyte. I left that concert five years ago as convert who has listened to their music ever since. Early on during Friday night’s concert – about halfway through the euphoric crescendo in How to be a Werewolf, in fact – I decided that they might also be one of my favourite ever live bands. Conventional rock groups take note: in a set comprised almost entirely of instrumental music, played for the most part at jet engine level decibels, there was a total absence of aggressive, macho posturing, instead consummate musicianship was the hallmark of this mesmerising performance. The sound mix was also extraordinarily good, even at the most deafening moments. Lead guitarist Stuart Braithwaite is probably as close as Mogwai come to having a front man of sorts, and between every song he would thank the audience with “Cheers!” or “Grazie mille! ...Thank you very much.” Seated up close on Braithwaite’s side of the stage, it was hard to take my eyes off this charismatic performer.

Dominic Aitchison and  Stuart Braithwaite on stage in Rome
 Ominous slow-burner Mogwai Fear Satan built up to its blistering crescendo to close the concert, but foot stomping and cheers brought Glasgow’s finest back out on stage for New Paths to Helicon, Pt. 1. The entire audience was on its feet and those of us in the parterre seating rushed the stage for this final encore – “Nice to see you all up so close...Hi!” joked Braithwaite, before thanking us for coming and blasting us with the immensity of Batcat. Rarely does such an eagerly anticipated event not only meet one’s expectations, but exceed them so completely. Sheer perfection.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club® bids farewell to Rome on Adios Tour

Featuring Omara Portuondo, Eliades Ochoa, Guajiro Mirabal, and Barbarito Torres

Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club on stage in Rome

The return of the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club during the Auditorium Parco della Musica's Luglio Suona Bene summer season of concerts is an eagerly anticipated annual event, with the Cuban band playing to sold out audiences in the open air Cavea year after year. Thursday night’s concert, however, which once again saw the legendary Buena Vista Social Club veterans joined on stage by a new generation of talented Cuban musicians, under the baton of band leader Jesus Aguaje Ramos, marked the end of an era and the orchestra’s farewell to Rome on this, its final tour.

As the lights dimmed and the concert began, it was the orchestra’s youngest member, the hugely talented virtuoso pianist Rolando Luna, who first took to the stage. He sat alone at the piano to play Como Siento Yo as images and footage of original Buena Vista pianist Rubén González were projected onto a giant screen at the back of the stage. It was a poignant and fitting opening for a concert tour that not only celebrates the Social Club members who are no longer with us, but in many ways also signals the passing of the torch to younger musicians who are keeping traditional Cuban alive. Later in the show, seeing Ibrahim Ferrer dancing on the big screen as Carlos Calunga sang Bruca Maniguá was a genuinely moving experience.

Barbarito Torres, Omara Portuondo and Papi Oviedo on stage in Rome
As always, regular singers Calunga and Idania Valdés worked their charm on the Rome audience throughout the first half of the show, with star turns by guitarist and singer Eliades Ochoa and lute player Barbarito Torres eliciting cheers, but it was Omara Portuondo who received an instant standing ovation when she appeared on stage. Her adoring fans stayed on their feet clapping and dancing through La Mulata del Cha Cha Cha. There was a hushed silence, however, as the orchestra left the stage leaving her alone with Luna on the piano, and Ramos on trombone, for a wonderful version of 20 años, where she displayed all the warmth and range of what, at 83 years of age, is still an incredibly fine voice.

No Buena Vista Social Club concert would be complete without Compay Segundo’s Chan Chan, and it was this song, with vocals by Ochoa, which accompanied the video tribute to the late bandleader. At this point the entire audience in the packed Cavea was on its feet and stayed that way, swaying and dancing through show closer El Cuarto de Tula, and singing along with Omara’s final song in the encore – a lovely duet with Calunga on Dos Gardenias. Finally, after a frenetic and utterly infectious Candela, it really was time to say goodbye to this formation of Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club.

Adios...and gracias.

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