Saturday, November 30, 2013

Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang play Brahms in Rome

 Santa Cecilia Hall, Auditorium Parco della Musica – 29 November 2013


I recently watched a fun interview on YouTube with Chinese concert pianist Yuja Wang in which she answered 10 rapid fire questions. When asked who inspired her most she replied “right now I would say Kavakos. I just had a rehearsal with him and I was very, very inspired”, whilst her favourite composers were named as “Stravinsky, Brahms and Chopin...and Ligeti.” Less than a year since her last sensational performance in the capital, Yuja Wang was back on stage in Rome last night, and true to the answers she gave in the interview, this time she appeared in the company of Greek violinist and conductor Leonidas Kavakos, playing a programme of all three Brahms violin sonatas.

My autographed programme!
Kavakos and Yuja are immensely charismatic virtuosos in their own right, yet from the second they appeared on stage it was patently clear that there would be no tug of egos here - the firebrand Yuja was even dressed slightly more demurely for the occasion in a full length indigo gown (with no dramatic costume changes mid-programme to upstage the maestro with whom she shared the stage). Instead, what emerged was an easy complicity between these two very different, yet highly communicative performers, in a perfectly balanced musical dialogue, with Yuja exhibiting a new tenderness and warmth in her playing, which proved an exquisite foil to Kavakos' lyrical depth of expression and sweet, singing tonality. Of the three, the third and final sonata was the most passionate and fiery, bringing rapturous applause and cries of “Bravi!” from the audience at its close.

The pair were back on stage for an utterly delightful encore – Brahms again with the Scherzo in C minor for violin and piano - a perfect finale to showcase the strengths of both performers allowing for brief displays of individual bravura. I was thrilled to meet both musicians after the show at a CD signing session in the Auditorium bookshop, where the easy rapport between the two appeared to continue off stage, as they chatted and joked with fans. A wonderful evening!

Full Programme:
Brahms
Sonata n. 1 op. 78
Sonata n. 2 op. 100
Sonata n. 3 op. 108
Encore:
Brahms
Scherzo in C minor for violin and piano

Monday, November 18, 2013

Benny Chan's 'The White Storm' closes Rome Film Festival 2013

Sean Lau, Louis Koo and Nick Cheung on the red carpet

The international première of Benny Chan's adrenalin-fuelled action-thriller The White Storm (Sou Duk) closed the eighth edition of the Rome Film Festival on Sunday evening with a star-studded screening. All three of the movie's main protagonists, prolific Hong Kong actors Sean Lau (accompanied by his wife actress Amy Kwok), Louis Koo and Nick Cheung, joined the director on the red carpet, and were greeted with screams of delight by the many fans who had arrived early at the Auditorium Parco della Musica to catch a glimpse of the stars.

With its gun-play, spectacular action choreography, and underlying themes of loyalty and friendship, The White Storm follows firmly in the tradition of Hong Kong action movie “heroic bloodshed” classics such as John Woo's A Better Tomorrow and A Bullet in the Head. An immensely enjoyable roller-coaster ride, full of plot twists and turns, and with stunningly photographed locations, the film is underpinned by engaging performances by the three charismatic leads – Nick Cheung is particularly good – and was warmly received by the Rome audience, with rapturous and long applause as the credits rolled.

To get a taste of the atmosphere at the Rome screening of The White Storm watch the video below (or click here to watch on YouTube).

Tsui Hark honoured with Maverick Director Award at Rome Film Festival 2013

Giona Nazzaro, Olivier Assayas and Tsui Hark on stage in Rome
I'm a huge fan of Hong King cinema so I was absolutely thrilled when I first learned that the visionary film director and producer Tsui Hark would be attending the Rome Film Festival this year to receive the Maverick Director Award, a special prize given to innovative auteurs. Tsui Hark was at the festival on Saturday evening to collect the award from French director Olivier Assayas, and to attend the international première screening of his new film Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon 3D, presented Out of Competition. Tsui Hark revolutionised Hong Kong cinema in the 1980s and 1990s, and he continues to thrill audiences today, with breathtaking special effects, and in the case of his latest movie, stunning use of stereoscopic 3D, which makes his gravity-defying high-wire martial arts action scenes even more spectacular.

After the film Tsui Hark and Olivier Assayas returned to the stage in Sala Sinopoli for a late night Masterclass moderated by Giona Nazzaro, in which the director began by explaining that he had started out wanting to make documentaries and had fallen, almost by accident, into making a wuxia martial arts television series. The discussion moved quickly through his career, from his early horror movie Butterfly Murders, to his controversial social commentary about delinquent youth Don't Play with Fire, which to his dismay was heavily censored at the time of its release, through to his hugely influential landmark special effects fantasy film Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain. Asked what drives his constant innovation, he remarked that as life is short he wants to leave something lasting behind. At the close of the evening I was one of the lucky few who managed to get an autograph and am now the proud owner of a Once Upon a Time in China DVD signed by the legendary Tsui Hark.

To see a few moments from the Tsui Hark Masterclass and award ceremony watch the video below (or click here to watch on YouTube).

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Spike Jonze in sold-out CineChat at Rome Film Festival 2013

Damian Lewis, Douglas Booth and Christian Cooke on the red carpet for Romeo and Juliet

Mario Sesti , Sandra Hebron and Spike Jonze
Rome Film Festival 2013
This year's edition of the Rome Film Festival may be taking place under a cloud of controversy with reports in the Italian press of alleged behind the scenes political bickering and criticism aimed at artistic director Marco Müller, yet many of the special events and screenings - in particular the CineChat on-stage conversations with actors and directors - are proving to be extremely popular with the public. There were certainly long queues to get into the sold-out Sala Petrassi at the Auditorium Parco della Musica on Monday afternoon to see film director Spike Jonze in conversation.

Appearing uneasy in the spotlight at first – he asked that a giant projected photo of himself be removed from the big screen, and even moved his chair closer to those of moderators Mario Sesti and Sandra Hebron to create more intimacy - Jonze soon relaxed into easy conversation, often throwing questions out to the audience for a show of hands, and revealing an irreverent sense of humour. The afternoon saw a fascinating discussion of his cinematographic career, from his childhood memories of making home movies on a video camera, through his television advertisements and pop music videos, and his ground-breaking films such as Being John Malkovich, right up to his latest In Competition festival offering Her. He also generously name-checked collaborators such as the band Arcade Fire, and screenwriter Charlie Kaufmann, and was keen to stress the importance of mutually influential directors of his generation such as Michel Gondry and Roman Coppola.

Leaving the Spike Jonze encounter I was lucky enough to catch the Romeo and Juliet red carpet and watched as delighted, mostly teenage, girls screamed and posed for photographs with the young and extremely pretty British actor Douglas Booth and co-star Christian Cooke. The Carlo Carlei film, with a screenplay by Julian Fellowes (both present, together with special guest Guillermo del Toro), is being presented Out of Competition at the festival. It also stars Homeland actor Damian Lewis, who was a huge hit with waiting fans along the red carpet.

To get a taste of the atmosphere at the Romeo and Juliet red carpet watch the video below (or click here to watch on YouTube).

Monday, November 11, 2013

Star-studded opening weekend at Rome Film Festival 2013

John Hurt, Jared Leto, Jonathan Demme, Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Rooney Mara, and Spike Jonze on the red carpet

Jared Leto (with Lapo & Ginevra Elkann)
Arriving in the early afternoon at the Rome Film Festival on Saturday I was surprised to see that the entire length of the Auditorium Parco della Musica's red carpet was already packed. These mostly teenage fans were there to see Thirty Seconds to Mars frontman Jared Leto, in Rome to present the In Competition movie Dallas Buyers Club. His red carpet walk later in the evening was accompanied by screams and scenes of pandemonium, which I watched from the safety of the Auditorium’s Cavea!

British film and theatre actor John Hurt was also back on Saturday afternoon for a wonderfully intimate on-stage conversation as part of the festival's new series of movie talks with actors and directors - CineChat - moderated by Mario Sesti and London Film Festival's Sandra Hebron. A droll and generous raconteur, it was an absolute delight to spend an hour in the company of such a distinguished actor.

Mario Sesti, Jonathan Demme and Giona A. Nazzaro
Autumn arrived very suddenly in Rome over the weekend, however, bringing heavy rain on Sunday. Film director Jonathan Demme was sadly forced to cut short his red carpet walk thanks to a sudden downpour. Luckily, I had tickets for his hugely enjoyable CineChat conversation yesterday afternoon in Sala Petrassi. Moderated by Mario Sesti and Giona A. Nazzaro, the encounter was a fascinating exploration of Demme's career, from his early days as a protégé of Roger Corman, through to his recent return to lower budget filmmaking in his latest film Fear of Falling, which sees its world première screening at this year's festival. His passion for his craft was palpable, and I particularly liked his questioning of the morality of spending inordinate amounts of money on multi-million dollar movies. It was also fun to see Demme's genuine surprise when, after praising the Neapolitan composer Enzo Avitabile with whom he had worked on the documentary Enzo Avitabile Music Life, the musician stood up and revealed that he was sitting in the audience!

The bad weather did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the fans who thronged the length of the red carpet for a glimpse of the biggest Hollywood names at this years festival, Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson, who, along with their co-star Rooney Mara and director Spike Jonze, were in attendance for the In Competition screening of Her. Already an early favourite for a festival prize, the film was warmly received in the packed Santa Cecilia hall yesterday evening with the biggest cheers reserved for the enormously charismatic Phoenix.

To get a taste of the atmosphere at the Her première watch the video below (or click here to watch on YouTube).

Saturday, November 9, 2013

John Hurt presents 'Snowpiercer' at Rome Film Festival 2013

John Hurt at Rome Film Festival 2013
The eighth edition of the Rome Film Festival, once again under the artistic direction of Marco Müller, got underway yesterday evening with the gala world première of Italian director Giovanni Veronesi's new comedy The Fifth Wheel (L'ultima ruota del carro). The biggest thrill of the day for me personally, however, was to see veteran British actor John Hurt grace the red carpet before a late night Out of Competition screening of Korean director Bong Joon-Ho's stunning Snowpiercer. Greeted by dozens of admirers on his arrival at the Auditorium Parco della Musica, Mr Hurt took the time to sign autographs and pose for photographs before entering Santa Cecilia Hall, where he was met with cheers by the audience. The movie was warmly received in Rome and received lengthy applause as the credits rolled.

To get a taste of the atmosphere at the Snowpiercer premiere watch the video below (or click here to watch on YouTube).

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Bob Dylan thrills at the Atlantico, Rome – 6 November, 2013

Guessing the setlist ahead of shows at a Bob Dylan concert is a popular and somewhat obsessive sport amongst fans, and I confess that in the run up to Dylan's show at the Atlantico in Rome's EUR district last night, I too had spent hours online cross-checking the song lists and watching concert “spoilers” on YouTube. I arrived at the concert convinced, therefore, that we would be hearing a selection of songs taken predominately from his latest studio album Tempest. When his band took to the stage (with Charlie Sexton back on lead guitar), followed by Bob Dylan who positioned himself immediately behind the grand piano, and they launched into 1960s classics Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat, followed by a gorgeous Don't Think Twice, It's All Right, I quickly realised that my predictions couldn't have been more wrong! As it turned out, the evening would focus almost entirely on his 1960s output, with Tempest completely absent. Trying to second-guess such an unpredictable figure as Bob Dylan is impossible – as he huddled together with the band between songs, the song choices yesterday evening really did feel utterly spontaneous.

The shows during this autumn 2013 European tour are all in surprisingly small venues, rather than stadiums. Arriving early at the standing-only Atlantico I was able to quickly find a spot only a few rows back from the stage, but even those at the very back were easily able to see the singer. This closeness to the audience made for an intimate evening. It's rare for there to be much interaction between Dylan and his public, but after a blisteringly bluesy Highway 61 Revisited brought the first set to a close, he walked centre stage, smiled, laughed, and then thanked us in Italian - “Grazie amici!” The mixed crowd of all ages cheered enthusiastically throughout, applauding stand-out moments mid-song, with cries of “Thank you Bob!”

The performance was close to perfection - Dylan was in fine voice, enunciating every word so that the lyrics were crystal clear, and his revisitations of old songs were beautifully phrased and instantly recognisable. There were so many moments when I found myself gasping with delight - Blind Willie McTell with Bob's exquisite harp playing, Queen Jane Approximately was a dream come true, Ain't Talkin' (one of the few songs recorded this side of the millennium on offer last night) was a mesmerising show stopper, whilst Make You Feel My Love, Boots of Spanish Leather and Every Grain of Sand were sung with vocal precision and real tenderness. Like a Rolling Stone, which closed the second set, inspired a mass stadium volume sing-along during the chorus, with Bob even skipping a line now and again and leaving it to the crowd to sing. Back on stage for one final encore – an exhilarating All Along the Watchtower – and it was time for final bows...and then the roadies were out unplugging the stage gear, the lights were up and we were left blinking and stunned by the brilliance of the performance we'd just seen.

Bob Dylan is back at the Atlantico again this evening. And there's only one man who knows what songs he'll be singing!

Full setlist:
  1. Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
  2. Don't Think Twice, It's All Right
  3. Watching The River Flow
  4. Blind Willie McTell
  5. Honest With Me
  6. Make You Feel My Love
  7. Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
  8. Queen Jane Approximately
  9. Highway 61 Revisited
  10. Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues
  11. Ain't Talkin'
  12. Most Likely You Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine
  13. Boots Of Spanish Leather
  14. The Levee's Gonna Break
  15. Every Grain Of Sand
  16. Like A Rolling Stone
  17. Encore
  18. All Along The Watchtower

Full band

Bob Dylan - piano, harp
Tony Garnier - bass
George Recile - drums
Stu Kimball - rhythm guitar
Charlie Sexton - lead guitar
Donnie Herron - banjo, electric mandolin, pedal steel, lap steel

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