Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Antony and the Johnsons | Auditorium Parco della Musica, Sala Santa Cecilia | 29 March, 2009

Antony Hegarty performed to a capacity crowd in Sala Santa Cecilia at the Auditorium, Parco della Musica on Sunday evening together with his six-piece band - which included Johnsons stalwart Julia Kent on cello – in one of the most eagerly anticipated concerts of the season. The atmosphere was electric as Antony came on stage in almost total darkness, hidden in the shadows at his piano with the Johnsons so dimly lit as to be barely discernible. When the lights grew stronger, as if dawn were breaking over the performers, and Antony finally emerged, there was a burst of spontaneous applause as if this were a shy man needing to be coaxed out of his shell. As it turned out, he seemed in a relaxed and chatty mood, and was often dryly humorous in a self-effacing way, sharing anecdotes such as how he came to write the title track of his new release The Crying Light about the Japanese Butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno (who is also on the cover of the album); or the highly personal experience of waking up in Ancona the previous day and looking out over the Adriatic sea as fine drizzle, almost like snow, blew onto his face as he stood on the balcony of his hotel room early in the morning – it was an entrancing, poetic moment - "Nature can be so terrible... and yet so tender," he said, then added with a giggle, "When she's in the mood!"

Whilst the studio versions of Antony's songs are superb, the experience of hearing the added depth and dynamism of when they are performed live – of hearing the magic of that unique voice singing live – can be incredibly moving, for this is a performer at the very height of his powers – both vocally and creatively. He is able to shift gears between the blistering power of songs such as the bluesy Shake That Devil or the pounding violence of the anthem to masochism Fistful of Love, and the emotionally devastating bleakness of Another World. Such is his versatility that we were even treated to a little country music with a wonderful cover of Dylan's I was young when I left home ("I'm not much of a country girl," he laughed).

Back on stage for the encore, Antony improvised a playful Ti Amo Roma to cheers from the audience saying that he'd just composed it! During the devastatingly beautiful I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy, again during the encore, Antony paused for a fraction between the song's prelude and main verses, and was met with a ripple of applause. "I haven't finished yet!" he said, and interrupted, sat in silence to recapture the moment, inviting the audience to do the same. Sadly, this was asking too much of some members of the public and so began a flurry of idiotic cajoling shouts from a handful of people who were simply incapable of sitting for a few moments and listening to the silence. Antony was the clear winner, of course, in what became a provocative battle of wills – he sat stoically at his piano staring out at us with a blankly benign expression for what may have been several minutes – I wasn't close enough to see if he blinked or not, but I like to think that he didn't. It was a brilliant piece of defiance and a reminder of his interest in performance art.

Hope There's Someone was the ideal closing song for an evening of sublime perfection. Antony and the Johnsons will be back in Rome at the end of July accompanied by the Rome Symphony Orchestra - miss them at your peril!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Omara Portuondo | Auditorium Parco della Musica, Sala Sinopoli | 28 March, 2009

One of the most poignant scenes in Wim Wender's extraordinary documentary about Ry Cooder's trip to Cuba in 1998 to record with the musicians of The Buena Vista Social Club is surely the moment when Ibrahim Ferrer wipes a solitary tear from Omara Portuondo's cheek after performing their duet Silencio. In fact, it was that film which finally brought some of the greatest stars of Cuban music – many of them already well into their seventies - such as Omara Portuondo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo and Ruben Gonzalez much deserved international acclaim.

Born in 1930, Omara Portuondo is still touring the world as a charismatic ambassador for Cuban music, amazing audiences with the range of her extraordinary and still impeccable voice and her unique interpretive style. Last night, when she appeared on stage in the packed Sala Sinopoli at the Auditorium Parco della Musica, she looked genuinely moved by the warmth of the Roman welcome – here was a living legend, a world famous diva, whose modesty and humour shine through.

She is currently on a European tour promoting her latest CD release, Gracias, celebrating the 60th year of her career, and in fact she opened the concert with the title track and followed quickly with the first track Yo vi and then an absolutely spine tingling version of Adios felicidad.

Most of those original Buena Vista Social Club stars are sadly, no longer with us, and Omara paid particular tribute to Ibrahim Ferrer singing one of the songs he made famous - Dos Gardenias – pausing before continuing the song at one point for the protracted and spontaneous applause that came from the audience at the mention of Ferrer's name.

She was accompanied on stage by a young and dynamic band of mostly Cuban musicians – the 24 year old jazz pianist Harold Lopez Nussa would certainly have earned the highest score if there had been a clapometer in the theatre last night – what a star! The extended band solos during the mid-set intermission of sorts when Omara briefly left the stage were thrilling – Swami Jr. (musical director and guitar), Felipe Cabrera (double bass) Andrés Coayo (drums) and Rodney Yllarza Barreto (percussion) all took turns in the spotlight. In fact, Omara's championing of this younger generation of Cuban musicians is testament to her determination to keep the torch of great Cuban folk music alive.

There was even a nod to Italian music too last night when she invited Italian singer-songwriter Joe Barbieri and guitarist Gino Evangelista on stage – introducing them in Italian, not Spanish, to the delight of the audience – to perform a lovely duet on the song Malegria.

The standing ovation she received at the end of the show was a foregone conclusion...leaving the stage as audience and performer sang “gracias, gracias, gracias” together she was back again for the briefest of encores – a perfect Bésame Mucho and a promise to return in two years' time.

Gracias Omara!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Cy Twombly at The National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rome

Cy Twombly at GNAM (Galleria nazionale d'arte moderna e contemporanea) - Rome, Italy

To celebrate Cy Twombly's eightieth birthday the Galleria nazionale d'arte moderna e contemporanea (or GNAM for short) is hosting a major retrospective of the American born artist (first shown at the Tate Modern in London last summer and curated by the Tate's director Nicholas Serota). In spite of the fact that he has lived in Italy for over fifty years this is the first large retrospective of his work in this country making it one of the must-see shows of the season for anybody interested in contemporary art. Featuring over 70 works including paintings, sculptures and drawings, the Tate show was originally subtitled Cycles and Seasons – an apt title, which seems to have disappeared on route to Rome, for an exhibition which takes us on an exhaustive journey through the very long productive life of one of the world's most celebrated and exciting living artists.

I'm a huge admirer of Twombly and was lucky enough to catch the Tate show on my last trip back to the UK so I was thrilled to see it again here in Rome. The Tate Modern is an extraordinary exhibition space and the huge canvases looked wonderful there but the GNAM show is also hung extremely well - the two long and very large versions of the minimalist paintings Treatise on the Veil from 1968 and 1970 look wonderful positioned either end of the largest space in the gallery, as do another pair of 1971 paintings created in tribute to the late Nini Pirandello, which are also facing each other across the gallery. Curiously, the Rome show begins with Twombly's most recent works and the viewer is greeted with the dazzling blood red Bacchus – the painting which closed the London show.

Twombly is a painter whose work really needs to be seen and experienced and reproductions alone can't prepare the viewer for the sheer scale of the paintings, or the dynamism and variety of brush strokes and thickness of paint – either so dense it cracks or so thin it appears like a veil over elements of calligraphy, real words, poetry or scribbles. The four paintings representing the Quattro Stagioni, or Four Seasons, embody all of the above elements and are reason enough to visit this show!

Cy Twombly at GNAM runs until 24 May 2009

Galleria nazionale d'arte moderna
Viale delle Belle Arti, 131
00196 Roma, Italia
Tel. 0039 06 322981
www.gnam.beniculturali.it

Friday, March 6, 2009

Sèvres Porcelain at the Capitoline Museums

Colossal statue of Constantine - Musei Capitolini, Rome
The Capitoline Museums are certain to be at the top of any must-do list for visitors and tourists in Rome. Whilst I often wander up to Michaelangelo's wonderful Piazza del Campidoglio somehow several years seem to have passed since I last visited any of the palaces around the square which are home to the museums. The Musei Capitolini house the most famous Roman statues which are instantly recognisable the world over – what could be more iconic than the Colossus of Constantine in the courtyard of the Palazzo dei Conservatori or the bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback? Indeed the figure of Marcus Aurelius once towered over the main square but the recently restored figure now resides in its own purpose-built wing of the palace to protect it from the elements (the statue presently in the square is a copy).

Musei Capitolini, Rome - Sèvres exhibition
One hardly needs any added incentive to visit the museums, therefore, but for the last couple of months the Musei Capitolini have – and according to their website, for the first time in their history - been displaying porcelain and designs from the National Sèvres Factory alongside exhibits from their permanent collections creating an exciting juxtaposition between striking contemporary design and ancient sculpture, in the splendid and elaborately decorated rooms of the Conservator's Apartment. I particularly enjoyed the positioning of Fabrice Hyber's dazzling green L’Homme de Bessines in the same room as the Lo Spinario, the Greco-Roman bronze sculpture of a boy with a thorn in the sole of his foot, whilst Bertrand Lavier's La Bocca at the top of the stairs to take us into the exhibition was the perfect welcome.

There is also a small separate exhibition about the National Sèvres Factory - La Conquista della Modernità - Sèvres, 1920 - 2008 - which includes a fascinating documentary about the factory, its techniques and output and has a room dedicated entirely to Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass.

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