Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas - Buon Natale from Rome!

Christmas shopping in Rome on via Cola di Rienzo

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Homage to Arvo Pärt - Pari intervallo | Auditorium Parco della Musica | 8 December, 2010

Vox Clamantis, Cello8ctet Amsterdam and the Parco della Musica Contemporanea Ensemble

Arvo Pärt
The Auditorium Parco della Musica began 2010 with a week long series of events in January dedicated to the Estonian classical music composer Arvo Pärt entitled Diario dell'anima to celebrate his 75th year. Yesterday evening, another concert - Pari intervallo – closed the cycle with a world premiere of music from his latest recording for the ECM label.

Throughout his career Pärt has often revisited his own earlier compositions and created new versions, scored for different instruments giving the pieces an entirely different and sometimes surprising feel, and yesterday's intimate evening in Sala Petrassi showcased several recent variations. The Parco della Musica Contemporanea Ensemble opened the concert with an exquisite version of Für Alina performed by Oscar Pizzo on the piano and flautist Manuel Zurria playing an extremely unusual instrument, but one which lent itself beautifully to Pärt's tintinnabuli style – a set of tuned wine glasses. Zurria would return later on during the concert to play the flute part in a new version of Estländler and a third time, with another less conventional instrument - a set of tuned bottles, played as a wind instrument - in a mesmerizing version of Pari Intervallo. In this, the title composition of the evening, he was once again joined by Pizzo on the piano using Mauro Bagella's P.O.P.System (Piano Overtones Production System) where the piano had been “programmed” as it were, in order to modify pitch and timbre depending on the harmonic sounds. The piano lid, in fact, was raised to reveal a complicated series of rods attached to the strings. Percussionist Fulvia Ricevuto added one final, yet essential ingredient to this piece – the rolling hypnotic sound of the bass marimba.

Pärt is strongly associated with holy minimalist music inspired by Gregorian chants and the group Vox Clamantis, a world famous Estonian vocal group, who perform early polyphony and contemporary minimalist music, were absolutely stunning during the sacred songs, such as the utterly captivating Most Holy Mother of God. He has also composed extensively for the cello and last night the vocalists were joined on stage by Cello8ctet Amsterdam, an eight piece cello ensemble, for two of the sacred pieces - Alleluia-Tropus and the enthralling concert closer Da Pacem Domine. It was an absolute joy to hear Summa, one of Arvo Pärt's most elegantly beautiful compositions, twice last night – once by the cello ensemble and later by two male and two female voices from Vox Clamantis (it was originally written in 1978 for four solo voices).

The performers received rapturous applause at the close of the evening and returned for what was genuine “encore” – a repeat performance of Alleluia-Tropus.

A wonderful concert!


Für Alina (new version)
Alleluia-Tropus (for voices and cellos)
Summa (for cellos)
And One of the Pharisees (for voices)
Missa brevis (Italian debut – for cellos)
Estländler (new version)
Summa (for voices)
O-Antiphonen (for cellos)
Most Holy Mother of God (Italian debut – for voices)
Pari Intervallo (new version for piano, tuned bottles and bass marimba)
Da Pacem Domine (for voices and cellos)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra | Auditorium Parco della Musica | 5 December, 2010

Yu Long conducting, with violinist Ning Feng, soprano Xu Xiaoying and baritone Yuan Chenye

The Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra, one of China's most important and critically respected orchestras, was in Rome yesterday, playing to a enthusiastic late afternoon audience in Santa Cecilia at the Auditorium Parco della Musica. The third appointment in the Italian leg of its current European tour, which also saw performances at Teatro La Fenice in Venice on 29 November and Teatro Verdi in Florence on the first of this month, the concert was one of the first in a series of events to mark the start of the Chinese Culture Year in Italy and the 40th anniversary of the establishment of Sino-Italian diplomatic ties on 6 November 1970.

Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra - Photo ©
The two halves of the concert were perfectly balanced between classical Western music and contemporary Chinese classical music. Violin virtuoso Ning Feng thrilled us with a display of not only technical brilliance, but pure passion, during Tchaikovsky's astoundingly difficult Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35. Concert protocol was thrown out of the window between movements and there was loud spontaneous applause from a sizeable portion of the public, which both conductor Yu Long and Ning Feng graciously acknowledged with a nod (and a refreshing lack of snobbery). As the closing notes of the third movement finished, the applause and cheers of bravo were thunderous, with Ning Feng called back on stage for a solo violin encore – a dazzling performance of Paganini 's Variations on God Save the King. As the winner of not only the first prize, but also two other special prizes at the 51st Paganini International Violin Competition in Genova several years ago, Paganini was the perfect way to end a faultless performance.

After a short break, the orchestra was back on stage, but there was no sense of the programme being merely rounded out, as is sometimes the case after a splendid soloist. Instead, in part two, the orchestra was joined by soprano Xu Xiaoying and baritone Yuan Chenye for a mesmerizing performance from both singers of The Song of the Earth, composed in 2005 by Ye Xiaogang, whose Starry Sky was played by Lang Lang at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. A Chinese version of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, The Song of the Earth takes the same Chinese poems by Li Bai that Mahler had used in German translation and instead uses them in their original Chinese language, also incorporating traditional Chinese instruments and the vocal sounds of Chinese opera into the score. I was, quite literally, enthralled by the crystalline beauty of Xu Xiaoying's voice and the warmth and expressiveness of Yuan Chenye's baritone.

After rapturous applause at the close of the piece, Yu Long signaled to somebody sitting in the audience, who turned out to be none other than composer Ye Xiaogang himself, who was called up on stage to take the final bows with the singers and the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra. A wonderful evening!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Laurie Anderson – Delusion | Auditorium Parco della Musica | 2 December, 2010

When Laurie Anderson last performed in Rome three years ago, she brought with her what was then a work in progress – Homeland – a sometimes cynical, often darkly humorous portrait of America in the 21st century. Much of the material performed in that show finally appeared in one form or another on her latest (and stunning) CD of the same name, which was released earlier this year. The opening strains of Transitory Life from Homeland, followed by Another Day in America, narrated by Anderson's male-voiced alter ego Fenway Bergamot, are used to bridge the gap between that earlier work, with its undeniable political overtones and comments on broad social issues, and her newest work, Delusion, a far more intimate journey into the world of dreams, family and personal loss.

Whilst Homeland was a somewhat sparse affair on stage, Delusion is a fully interdisciplinary work – additional audio effects such as pouring rain and video projections onto a large screen and two smaller ones showing falling leaves, the surface of the moon, animated chalkboard drawings, dandelions, as well as occasional close ups of Laurie Anderson herself – are perfectly integrated with the music, whilst the artist herself stands mostly at the control keyboards, but sometimes, fostering greater complicity and intimacy, she moves centre stage to sit on sofa before delivering one of her monologues.

In recent interviews Anderson has talked about the fact that she has been asleep, quite literally, for twenty years of her life, and Delusion takes a closer look at that other state of being, recounting dreams and the uncontrollable craziness of the subconscious – when we are delusional, as it were. In one story, for example - recounted in Italian for the Rome show - she recalls a dream in which she gives birth to her pet rat terrier! Many more of the delusions in this performance are the stories we tell ourselves in our waking state – family histories and distortions of the truth. I adored one story in particular, in which she tells of meeting a farmer in Iceland, who lives in the midst of an utterly flat and desolate landscape, yet who wants to convert his barn into a dance hall, convinced that people, and even elves, will come from all around to dance there! This wryly humorous piece then meanders down a more personal root to musings about her father and his own similar delusions, and reflections on her probable Swedish and Irish ancestry. The devastating heart of the show, however, is the story of the death of Laurie Anderson's mother. Whilst her dying mother's words are jumbled and delusional, the artist's inability to fully mourn the mother she couldn't love rings painfully true.

As the final notes faded and the words “Thank you” indicated that the performance had ended, there was a moment's pause before the applause began – people were still absorbing this absolute masterpiece! And then the applause began and got steadily louder and the audience got to its feet bringing her back out for an encore, for which she chose Flow, the exquisite violin solo which also closes Homeland. We had come full circle.

Delusion by Laurie Anderson was performed in Rome as part of the 25th edition of the Romaeuropa Festival and It's Wonderful 2010. It was first commissioned by the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad and the Barbican Centre, London.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

An encounter with Christo at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni

Christo signing autographs in Rome
Whilst the Auditorium Parco della Musica may have stolen my heart as top music venue in the city, the Palazzo delle Esposizioni continues to woo me for the top spot of Rome's best exhibition space! Yesterday evening's event – an encounter with the artist Christo, back in Rome some thirty-six years after wrapping Porta Pinciana in January 1974 – once again demonstrated the calibre and importance of this arts centre. I fell in love with the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude when I first saw the wonderful documentary Running Fence as an art student many years ago, so I was thrilled to have the chance to see the man in person.

Speaking to a packed room, with an encouraging number of young people making up a large part of the enthusiastic audience, Christo began the talk with the very sad news that his wife Jeanne-Claude, had died just over a year ago. His partner in life and art for over forty years – they even shared the same date of birth on 13 June, 1935 – Jeanne-Claude may no longer be with us physically, but her collaboration with Christo was clearly intrinsic to the realisation of all their works and he proceeded, rather movingly, to speak of her only in the present tense during the entire evening.

In what turned out to be an exhaustive review of almost their entire creative output, Christo then gave an illustrated talk with over eighty slides looking at their temporary past projects such as the world famous Wrapped Reichstag in Berlin, the breathtaking Wrapped Coast in Little Bay, Australia, as well as more recently completed urban installations such as the poetic The Gates in Central Park, New York City. The main purpose of the talk, however, was to take a closer look at two artworks in progress - Over The River: Project for the Arkansas River, State of Colorado, consisting of fabric panels suspended horizontally and following the changing course of the river, slated for a period of two consecutive weeks in August 2014 (permission pending) and The Mastaba: Project for United Arab Emirates, a work of art made of approximately 410,000 horizontally stacked oil barrels standing taller than ever the highest pyramid. Both projects have already been in the planning stages for years (in the case of Mastaba, for decades) and serve to demonstrate the sheer immensity of work, the years of dogged determination and patient negotiations involved, in the preparation and planning of any one of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's previous works.

As Christo explained in what was both a lengthy and lively question and answer session after the talk, this preparative period is necessarily part and parcel of the the entire work and does not detract from the final result. Some elements, he explained, such as the choice of which colours to use, were the result of testing and experimenting on scale models in situ and were decided relatively late in the development stages. In The Umbrellas, Joint Project for Japan and USA, for example, the choices of blue for Japan and yellow for USA, were linked very much to the climate and surrounding landscape of the respective sites in Ibaraki and California .

Signed by Christo!
What was most striking about Christo during this more spontaneous part of the evening, was his willingness to answer in great detail and with total transparency questions from which other artists might shy away, such as how he manages to finance mammoth projects costing tens of millions of dollars. All projects are entirely self-financed through the sale of the studies, preparatory drawings, collages, scale models, early works, and original lithographs, with Christo and Jeanne-Claude having always acted as their own art dealers. Their business acumen, in fact, so impressed the Harvard Business Review that they published a case study looking at how they have managed to finance such spectacular multi-million dollar projects. There were three topics he would not answer questions about, however, as he announced with a smile at the beginning of the evening – religion, politics and other artists!

Generous to a fault, Christo stayed behind after the event to sign catalogues or posters with a distinctive blue pencil – a wonderful souvenir of a very special occasion.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Fontana dell'Orso on via di Monte Brianzo

Fontanella dell'Orso © Deborah Swain
I first spotted this tiny drinking fountain from the window of the 492 bus, which passes directly by it, just below the Lungotevere near piazza Ponte Umberto on via di Monte Brianzo. I was intrigued and went to take a closer look on foot one day and thought it would make another interesting item for our Discover Rome section.

Unfortunately, this early 20th century fountain by is somewhat neglected nowadays – its elegant travertine basin is chipped, its pedestal is often covered by unswept litter or leaves and it has to compete for attention with faded election campaign posters that plaster the nearby walls. This is a real pity. Whilst this bronze head of a bear spouting pure drinking water from its mouth - carried by the Acqua Vergine aqueduct - may not be a star attraction in a city that boasts some of the finest sculptural fountains in the world, it is still a charming reminder of the history of its immediate surroundings.

Situated in the old Rione V Ponte, the use of a bear – orso in Italian – may well have been a nod towards the local Orsini family, not to mention one of Rome's most famous inns, the fifteenth century "Locanda dell'Orso" (known as "Hostaria dell'Orso" today) which is just yards away at the end of none other than via dell'Orso.

The fountain was constructed by the Comune of Rome as indicated by the SPQR coat of arms above the fountain, although the sculptor who created the bear would seem to be unknown.

Definitely worth a short detour if you find yourself in the old Rione Ponte V district!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Julianne Moore receives the Marc'Aurelio Acting Award at the 2010 International Rome Film Festival

Julianne Moore on the red carpet
Following in the footsteps of previous winners Sean Connery, Sophia Loren, Al Pacino and last year's recipient Meryl Streep, the 2010 Marc'Aurelio lifetime achievement acting award at the International Rome Film Festival was presented to one of my absolute favourite actresses, the always brilliant and dazzlingly beautiful Julianne Moore. Arriving for the Italian premiere of the film The Kids Are All Right in Santa Cecilia at the Auditorium Parco della Musica yesterday evening, where she would also collect the prize from the Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, she first stopped to chat, pose for photographs and sign dozens of autographs for the numerous fans who had started lining the red carpet route a good hour before her arrival.

The timing could not have been better for this particular event. Earlier in the day Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had managed, once again, to create worldwide outrage after his homophobic comments during a discussion about his latest scandal. Defending his own behaviour, he stated: It is better to like beautiful girls than be gay. In The Kids Are All Right, directed by Lisa Cholodenko, Moore and Annette Bening play a lesbian couple who are parents of two children, and whose relationship is challenged by the arrival of their kids' biological father, played by the excellent Mark Ruffalo. It was inevitable, therefore, that she would be asked to comment on Berlusconi's words at the film press conference earlier in the day. I think it's unfortunate, archaic and idiotic, she said, and underling the message that the movie illustrates so well: What children need is two loving parents. It doesn't matter if they are two moms, or two dads, or a mom and a dad.

It was immensely pleasing to hear the loud applause and cheers of appreciation as the titles rolled at the end of The Kids Are All Right in Santa Cecilia last night. The film is, dare I say it, perfect – brilliantly written, wonderfully paced and with finely nuanced performances by every single cast member. Here's hoping that this funny and at times deeply moving study of modern relationships will be a huge success in Italy too, where it may well have the power to seriously enlighten and educate the movie-going public.

Watch a video of Julianne Moore on the red carpet and her acceptance of the Marc'Aurelio award below or click here to watch on YouTube.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Bruce Springsteen Rocks the International Rome Film Festival!

Bruce Springsteen, Thom Zimny, Jon Landau and Mario Sesti
When I arrived at the Auditorium Parco della Musica yesterday afternoon to see the Italian première of the immensely enjoyable The People vs George Lucas, Alexandre O. Philippe's passionate nerd's eye view investigation of the cultural impact of Star Wars, crowds of die-hard Bruce Springsteen fans had already bagged their places three hours early along the red carpet, in preparation for the chance to see The Boss up close. The torrential rain that had lashed Rome and most of Italy yesterday was no deterrent – by the time I came out of the Philippe film the red carpet route was swamped and the atmosphere outside the entrance to Sala Sinopoli was electric. I wasn't overly concerned about battling through the crowds outside, because I knew I was one of the lucky ones to have a ticket for the main event – the European première of Thom Zimny's documentary The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, which would be followed by an encounter with not only Zimny, but also record producer Jon Landau and the man himself, authentic living rock legend Bruce Springsteen!

Amazingly, the rain eased off long enough for Bruce to walk the sodden red carpet, greeting fans, shaking hands and signing autographs, before posing for the press photo call in the cavea. At this point nothing short of pandemonium had broken out in the foyer and I assumed he would be taken around to some secret stage entrance. Instead, to stadium chants of Bruce Bruce Bruce, the star just dove straight into the crowds and came in through the front doors – protected by bouncers who had their work cut out to shield him from what could easily have become a rugby scrum with Bruce at the bottom of the heap!

Once inside, the organisers made the wise choice of running the film right away, after the briefest of introductions by Mario Sesti and Thom Zimny – with the promise that there would be a pleasant surprise for us all at the end of the film! The documentary itself is fabulous – made up of never-before-seen studio footage from the recording of Springsteen's fourth album Darkness on the Edge of Town, inter-cut with contemporary interviews with the singer and the members of the E Street Band, it's an extraordinarily intimate look at the creative process of an artist at the very height of his creative powers. The film was received with cheers of unanimous approval and moments of spontaneous applause and audience participation throughout – the atmosphere was more akin to that of a rock concert, not a film criticism salon and when eventually Springsteen appeared, Sala Sinopoli erupted into cheers and chants with a stampede towards the stage!

Luckily, things did eventually calm down enough for the discussion about the documentary to begin and the rare opportunity for us to hear Bruce Springsteen talk about making his music. One of the things that comes across most strongly about the man from the film is his total commitment to his personal ideals and the utterly uncompromising way he approached the creation of the album, cutting a staggering 60 or 70 tracks and honing them down to the final 10 songs. What is most rewarding about Springsteen, perhaps, is that he is a man who has never, ever disappointed his fans – he has never sold out, as it were, and is still, at heart, that young idealist. As Sesti rightly commented, in the 1978 footage he has a face made for cinema with the charisma of a young Al Pacino or Paul Newman. Seeing him so close on stage last night it was hard to believe that he turned 61 a month ago, such was the energy that he still exudes.

The most wonderful thing, of course, is that all this footage still exists, as do the “out-takes” from those recording sessions, which will soon be released together with the documentary as a double CD The Promise, or a Deluxe 6 Disc set The Promise:The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story, together with a facsimile edition of Springsteen's copiously filled song writing notebook, which features so heavily in the documentary. I can't wait to get my hands on a copy! The singer did say he hadn't realised that his notebook would be published until it was far too late to refuse permission and joked that it is also filled with “some really bad writing” as well!

To get a taste of what happened in Sala Sinopoli yesterday and hear Bruce talk about his song writing techniques, during this fantastic, once in a lifetime experience, watch the video montage below or click here to watch on YouTube.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Bollywood comes to Rome! Shah Rukh Khan at the International Rome Film Festival 2010

Shah Rukh Khan at Rome Film Festival 2010
If Saturday was a celebration of Italian cinema with a star-studded premiere for the restored edition of Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita, with director Martin Scorsese in attendance, and Anita Ekberg, whose dip in the Trevi fountain during the movie is legendary, taking a turn up the red carpet, the big event on Sunday was the arrival of Shah Rukh Khan, the undisputed king of Bollywood! Crowds started gathering early along the red carpet, with a large contingent of the capital's Indian community there to greet “SRK”. When his car pulled up at the Auditorium Parco della Musica he was the first star of this edition to be greeted by screaming fans and crowds chanting his name – he didn't disappoint them, stopping to shake hands, pose for photographs and sign autographs along the Rome Film Festival's famously long red carpet. The organisers certainly laid on the VIP treatment too, with dancers in Indian costume lining the route and accompanying him during the photo call in the cavea.

Shah Rukh Khan was at the festival as part of the Special Events section to promote the Italian premiere of what has become the most successful Bollywood export of all time - My Name Is Khan. Prior to the screening there was an encounter with the man himself on stage in Sala Petrassi, where he participated in a relaxed question and answer session. Named by Newsweek in 2008 as one of the 50 most powerful people in the world, in person the beautifully eloquent Shah Rukh Khan comes across as surprisingly humble and enormously grateful for the successes and opportunities that have come his way. Asked about coping with life as a huge superstar he even joked that he was just a little schizophrenic and said he imagined that there were really two SRKs – the big Bollywood star called Shah Rukh Khan and another one, who is just an employee busy working for him! When he spoke about the pain of losing his parents so young and being afraid he could never love anybody as much again, only to discover the new love he now has for his own two children, his candour was disarming. Surely, the secret to Khan's popularity, is not only his undeniably charismatic presence, but a generosity of spirit and the sense one gets that he is genuinely a nice guy.

Facing a far more challenging role in My Name is Khan, than the usual romantic leading men for which he is known, Khan plays a person suffering from Asperger's syndrome and impresses with a wonderfully modulated performance, supported by a dazzling co-star, Kajol. Comparisons to Forrest Gump and other Hollywood films that have looked at autism are perhaps inevitable, but should quickly be put aside. My Name is Khan has a particular resonance in this new age – the film suggests at one point, that there are now three ages in the western world: BC, AD and 9/11 – and its message of tolerance and love is so utterly free of cynicism, that it succeeds brilliantly. As the titles rolled at the end of the film there was an extremely warm reaction from the audience and protracted applause. Put prejudice aside and go watch this heart-warming movie!

To get a taste of the event watch the video of Shah Rukh Khan in Rome below (or click here to watch on YouTube).

Saturday, October 30, 2010

John Landis in Conversation - Burke & Hare Premiere at the International Rome Film Festival 2010

John Landis photographs crowds lining red carpet at Rome Film Festival
The start of the fifth edition of the International Rome Film Festival on Thursday this week made the headlines in both national and international press, not as organisers had planned, because of the red carpet appearance of Keira Knightley and Eva Mendes, stars of the opening film Last Night, but because of an unprecedented demonstration by Italian film industry workers who occupied the red carpet completely and forced the cancellation of the event. In a show of solidarity with the hundreds of actors, directors, screenwriters and other industry workers who were protesting against government cuts to the film and TV industry, Knightley even joined the protest briefly.

On Day 2, however, it was business as usual at the Auditorium Parco della Musica, as French actress Fanny Ardant and American film director John Landis, amongst others, took their strolls up the red carpet, stopping to chat to fans and sign the odd autograph. I was lucky enough to have a ticket for the world première of Landis' new film Burke & Hare, which was preceded by an encounter with the director in Sala Petrassi.

Presented as part of the Cinema Lessons series in the Extra section of the festival programme, presided over by erstwhile Extra organisers Antonio Monda and Mario Sesti, the encounter followed the usual formula for these interviews, in which actors and directors chat in a relaxed way between clips from their movies. With such an eloquent and generous guest, however, and one with a seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema, the movie clips were hardly necessary to stimulate conversion, with Landis happily diving off at entertaining tangents and discussing everything from the greatest gorilla suit actors to the war in Iraq. It emerged, in fact, that Landis doesn't really enjoy seeing bits of his films taken out of context, with one clip in particular yesterday highlighting a pet gripe of the director – during the cafeteria scene in Animal House, in which John Belushi fills his tray (and his face!) with as much food as possible, the soundtrack features Sam Cooke singing Wonderful World...or rather, should feature that song. The Italian DVD version has some stock music in its place because of copyright issues – unfortunately, the new music had been added to the film with neither the director's knowledge or consent! This irritation aside, however, Landis spoke extremely warmly of working with Belushi, describing him as a talented and good person who had tragically died because of the illness that is substance addiction, dismissing recent conspiracy theories about the circumstances surrounding the actor's death. Indeed, Landis isn't one for conspiracy theories of any kind - his comments about Oliver Stone's movie JFK were hilarious: I love that film, it's beautifully made... but totally insane! - or words to that effect!

John Landis is a director who has made several very different films which have all gone on to acquire cult status. In addition to Animal House, which elicited inevitable ripples of applause from the audience, the biggest cheers were reserved for the Oscar-winning special effects sequences of An American Werewolf in London, the song and dance sequences in The Blues Brothers and the ground-breaking music video for Michael Jackson's Thriller. Landis even shared a couple of old fashioned pre-CGI tricks of the trade that were used for the werewolf transformation and the creation of a hand painted full moon backdrop in American Werewolf and expressed a nostalgia for less computer-dependent film-making.

Burke & Hare, which marks Landis' return to the screen after a ten year absence, is enormously entertaining, by the way. For anybody that loves the black humour of the classic British movies that came out of the Ealing Studios during the 1950s (with a touch of Carry On thrown in), this is a must see! Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis do a wonderful job of making the 19th century grave robbers sympathetic characters, but it's also a who's who of British acting and comedy talent with some marvellous turns by Ronnie Corbett, Jessica Hynes and Tom Wilkinson, and fleeting cameos by Christopher Lee and Stephen Merchant. Catch it if you can!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Lang Lang | The Auditorium, Rome | 23 October, 2010

After stunning audiences during the Lang Lang Fest, a concert marathon of four shows on consecutive evenings last summer, superstar pianist Lang Lang made a welcome return visit to the Auditorium Parco della Musica on Saturday evening in the first of a three concert stint in celebration of Chopin in what is the composer's 200th anniversary year.

On his last visit to Rome, Lang Lang closed the festival with a wonderful performance of Chopin's Piano Concerto No.1, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. This time around Antonio Pappano, the ebullient musical director of the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, was at the helm as Lang Lang and the Santa Cecilia Orchestra once again performed Chopin's early masterpiece.

As a classical performer, Lang Lang is an extremely rare breed – not only does he fill concert halls the world over, he also sells huge amounts of records. Indeed, when he made the move from the classical music label Deutsche Grammophon earlier this year and signed a new record contract with Sony Music, the sums of money involved in the transfer – several million dollars, it was rumoured - are more usually associated with the sale of football players! In spite of his staggering success, however, Lang Lang has often polarised critical opinion, with his showmanship and on stage gestures irritating some stuffier critics. Reviews of his most recent CD however, have seen a recent mellowing towards him. As Nicholas Kenyon said recently in the Observer:
It's become rather fashionable to sniff at the achievements of Lang Lang, but he is the most communicative pianist of his generation […] the technical command is peerless and the emotional warmth envelops us. He is surely the Horowitz of our generation.

This was the fourth time that I've seen Lang Lang play and anybody who has read my previous reviews here will have understood that I'm a huge fan. Saturday's performance, however, may well have been the finest that I've seen so far. I've never been in the least bit bothered by Lang Lang's movements on stage, but it has to be said that this time there were far fewer gestures and a poetic intensity to his playing that was breathtaking. The second movement was simply magical. That he is still so young – he turned twenty-eight in June - and is showing all the signs of entering a new phase of technical maturity, is a wonderful thought. The very best may still be yet to come!

Rapturous applause from the audience and foot stamping from the orchestra on stage brought him back out for several curtain calls and an exhilarating encore that had the air of an impromptu display of bravura which demonstrated just how much Lang Lang loves to perform! Catch him in concert if you possibly can!

In what has become a tradition with Lang Lang concerts and something that brings him closer to rock musicians than traditional classical music performers, he once again made a personal appearance in the book shop at the Auditorium after the concert to meet and greet fans and sign copies of his CDs – total fan-girl that I am, I queued in line and was thrilled to exchange a few words with the man himself!

Full programme: The concert was rounded out with Rossini's Semiramide as the opening piece, and closed by a thrilling performance of Symphonie fantastique by Berlioz, energetically conducted by Pappano, which was also met with cheers of approval.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Italy's Water Footprint on Blog Action Day

Today, 15 October, is Blog Action Day 2010 when thousands of bloggers around the world all write a post about one important topic. After the success of the 2008 initiative when bloggers looked at Poverty, and last year's look at Climate Change, this year the topic under discussion is Water, with the aim of focussing world attention on the severity of the global water problem.

Several days ago I started doing a little research on the Internet for this post and within minutes had stumbled upon a series of alarming statistics about water consumption right here in Italy. In fact, in spite of being a considerably smaller country, Italy lags only a little behind the United States in the league table of world champion water guzzlers! At a time when almost a billion people on the planet don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water, studies have shown that in daily living Italians use about 380 litres of water every single day, but when the amount of water used to make the food we eat, such as pizza and pasta, or even the clothes we wear, are factored into the total, water consumption is roughly 17 times higher!

The water footprint of a nation refers to the total amount of water that is used to produce the goods and services consumed by the inhabitants of that nation. The total water footprint of a country is divided into two parts: the part of the footprint that falls within the country (the internal water footprint) and the part of the footprint that presses on other countries in the world (external water footprint). And it would appear that Italy is leaving an extremely large water footprint on the planet right now. Did you know, for example, that to make a standard Pizza Margherita about 1,200 litres of water are required, whilst a kilo of pasta has a water footprint of 1,900 litres of water?

With water resources scarce in the South of the country and on the islands of Sicily and Sardinia and with the situation likely to worsen over the next few years, water should be seen as a future emergency in Italy too and one that needs to be addressed now.

Sources used in this post:

Blog Action Day 2010: Water from Blog Action Day on Vimeo.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Way to Blue - The Songs of Nick Drake | The Auditorium, Rome | 12 October, 2010

Almost 37 years have passed since English singer-songwriter Nick Drake died on 25 November, 1974 at the tragically young age of 26, leaving us three extraordinarily beautiful and utterly flawless albums - Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon. Whilst these works may have failed to find a wide audience during his lifetime, his posthumous success and reputation has steadily grown, together with the image of him as a twentieth century version of a tragic Romantic poet. The very special evening in Sala Sinopoli at the Auditorium Parco della Musica yesterday, however, which saw Vashti Bunyan, Green Gartside, Teddy Thompson, Krystle Warren, Scott Matthews, Robyn Hitchcock, Neill MacColl, Roberto Angelini and Violante Placido revisiting Drake's songs, transcended any sadness surrounding this enigmatic figure and was instead, a celebration of his life and music.

The Way To Blue Concert was originally commissioned by Birmingham Town Hall for the English Originals festival in May 2009 and was curated by Nick Drake's record producer Joe Boyd, as well as his friend and string arranger Robert Kirby, who sadly died in October last year. This Italian version of the concert was organised by both Fondazione Musica per Roma and the Barbican Centre in London, together with Puglia Sounds. In fact, the vocalists were accompanied by a string sextet of Apulian musicians from the Collegium Musicum di Bari. Boyd himself appeared on stage several times during the evening and seemed at special pains to ensure that the Italian audience understood the significance of Drake's lyrics, asking Roberto Angelini to translate some passages, whilst the presence of Danny Thompson in the band, the legendary bassist who played on many of Drake’s recordings, further emphasised the continuity between the original albums and this tribute.

I absolutely adore Nick Drake and I'll admit that before the concert I had some reservations about whether I really wanted to hear other artists perform his songs. My fears were instantly assuaged as the strains of Joey – just music, no words – opened the evening, and then artist after artist proceeded to delight the audience with their own interpretation of Drake's songs, under the musical direction of Kate St. John, a former member of pop band Dream Academy, whose massive 1980s hit single Life In A Northern Town was dedicated to Drake. There were many wonderful moments, but I particularly enjoyed Fruit Tree sung by Green Gartside (of Scritti Politti fame), whose voice suited the material exceptionally well. Teddy Thompson's Poor boy and River man were exquisite, as were Vashti Bunyan's soft and breathless versions of Which will and I remember (by Drake's mother Molly), whilst Scott Matthews' vocal and physical similarity to Drake himself during Day Is Done made one imagine, just for a second, that the man himself was back among us. Jazz pianist Zoe Rahman was stunning all evening, but her duet with bassist Danny Thompson on One of These Things First was a show stopper. The discovery of the night for me personally, however, was Krystal Warren. Her mesmerizing performance of Time has told me, which stripped the song down to its raw essentials and transformed it into a gospel-meets-soul rendition that even Nina Simone would have been proud to call her own, brought the house down last night, as did her exhilarating duet with Teddy Thompson on Pink Moon.

The first song of the encores was, in fact, the only song of the evening not to have been written by Nick Drake, but was instead a song about him. In broken Italian, Robyn Hitchcock explained that he had dreamed about Drake many years after his death, and proceeded to sing the curious I saw Nick Drake. After over two and half hours of celebrating the man and his music the simple sentiments of the lyrics “I saw Nick Drake...and he was fine” were unexpectedly moving. The entire ensemble then gathered for Voice from the Mountain, a song from Nick Drake's final recording session. We now know that life was very dark for Drake when he recorded this, but yesterday the song sounded ultimately uplifting.

This was a wonderful evening and a fitting tribute to Nick Drake's utterly timeless songwriting.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Room in Rome - an installation by Franz West in Piazza di Pietra

Room in Rome by Franz West
Rome is already an open air museum where one is left smiling with surprise and wonder at every turn, so it follows that its squares and open spaces should lend themselves so well to temporary art installations and exhibits. Piazza di Pietra, where the imposing columns of a Roman temple built to Emperor Hadrian were incorporated into the central Customs Office under architect Carlo Fontana at the end of the 17th Century, is the setting for the first public installation in Italy by Austrian artist Franz West. Entitled Room in Rome, the sculptural installation is constructed in aluminium panels, soldered together in a patchwork effect to form three monumental forms, then lacquered in colours familiar to anybody living in Rome – sky blue, and shades of orange and pink used to tint the local intonaco or plaster.

Sitting on a raised plinth, the pieces appear as if on a stage set, although the audience is explicitly invited to climb up and interact with the installation and even sit on the scupltures breaking the “Do Not Touch” taboo! Certainly, when I visited Piazza di Pietra yesterday afternoon on a gloriously sunny day, a couple was sitting in the crook of an elbow-like shape, children were playing in and around the structures and the entire installation was exciting considerable curiosity.

Room in Rome by Franz West at Piazza di Pietra is presented in conjunction with an exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery, Rome and continues until October 16, 2010.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

No Berlusconi Day 2 – Wake up Italy!

No Berlusconi Day 2
Ten months after the first No B Day protest led by Il Popolo Viola (literally the “Purple People”) on 5 December last year, tens of thousands of us took to the streets of Rome yet again today to demand the resignation of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Once again, this was a protest organised entirely via Facebook and social networks online and whilst the numbers may have been smaller than at last year's demonstration, there was a noisy and decidedly angrier turn out this time round, with an atmosphere of collective exasperation with the current political situation palpably in the air.

Things went off peacefully, however, with frustration vented via rousing choruses of Bella Ciao and a good smattering of chants against Berlusconi and his cohorts. Antonio Di Pietro, leader of the Italia dei Valori party, was given a hero's welcome when he joined marchers at Piazza della Repubblica and walked amongst the cheering crowds along the streets of the capital to Piazza San Giovanni, where the demonstration continued with speeches and music.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Joanna Newsom | The Auditorium, Rome | 28 September, 2010

The last time we were lucky enough to see Joanna Newsom perform here in Rome was just over three years ago. On her previous visit she had played as a relatively unknown artist in Italy at the small San Giovanni venue Circolo degli Artisti, where she had received an enthusiastic response and even managed to bring an awed hush to the packed club. Last night in Sala Sinopoli at the Auditorium Parco della Musica, however, there was an atmosphere of quiet anticipation long before she appeared on stage. Roman audiences can be notoriously bad at sitting still and listening on occasions, but not tonight. Even Scottish folk singer Alasdair Roberts, who is supporting Newsom on this leg of her tour, and who had the unenviable task of playing most of his solo set of traditional songs with the house lights up as people made their way to their seats, was treated with unusual respect – rather than chat all over his performance, people quickly sat down and listened to his often haunting songs and applauded him warmly.

It was Joanna Newsom that we were all eager to see, however, so when she didn't appear right away and there was a protracted soundcheck after Roberts left the stage, anticipation turned to fractiousness in some parts of the theatre and even a ripple of slow clapping from some quarters...where was she? The very second she appeared, of course - all charismatic smiles and radiant beauty, saying grazie to the welcoming cheers - she was enveloped in nothing short of unanimous adoration. You could, quite literally, have heard a pin drop during the songs – there was even a nanosecond's pause after the last note died at the end of each piece and an almost collective sigh from the audience, before the deafening cheers, cries of brava! and applause filled the auditorium. Unlike at most popular music concerts, not once did anybody clap or cheer during the shifting moods of any individual number either. Joanna Newsom's songs - like all twelve enthralling minutes of Emily from her second album Ys, that she played so brilliantly last night - aren't over until she has taken you on the entire journey!

Whilst this tour is ostensibly promoting her latest triple CD Have One on Me, she opened the evening with The Book of Right-On, a gem from her first official recording The Milk-Eyed Mender, playing the instrument with which she is perhaps most associated – the harp – and accompanied by guitarist (and player of just about anything else with strings) Ryan Francesconi and percussionist Neal Morgan. They were then joined by the rest of her immensely talented backing band - Andrew Strain on trombone and Veronique Serret and Mirabai Peart on violins - for the title track from the new CD. I was thrilled to see a piano on stage – she'd played no keyboards last time I'd seen her – and indeed, she then moved to the keyboards for a stunning Easy. She would return to the piano several times during the evening, most notably during the exhilarating Good Intentions Paving Company (extra kudos to the trombonist during this song) and Soft As Chalk.

Harpist, pianist, singer and maybe even metaphysical poet, Joanna Newsom is an artist who defies categorisation and any attempts to pin down a comparison with other performers – Kate Bush and Jonie Mitchell spring most easily to mind – ultimately fail and one is left with the feeling that she is utterly and wonderfully unique. She is also one of those artists that one feels privileged to have seen and thankful to have had the opportunity to hear them perform at the absolute height of their creative powers. When she left the stage to a standing ovation after the final song Peach Plum Pear, Sala Sinopoli staff attempted to end the concert there and then, putting on the house lights and even slipping on some musak to encourage the audience to leave. We stayed obstinately in our seats and brought the house down until they let her back out again for an encore – an exquisite Jackrabbits performed with just voice and harp.

The woman is a genius - miss her at your peril!

The full set list as follows:
1. The Book Of Right-On
2. Have One On Me
3. Easy
4. Cosmia
5. Soft As Chalk
6. Kingfisher
7. Inflammatory Writ
8. Go Long
9. Good Intentions Paving Company
10. Emily
11. Peach Plum Pear
12. Jackrabbits

Friday, September 10, 2010

Orquesta El Arranque and Hernán Lucero | The Auditorium, Rome | 9 September, 2010

Now in its third edition, the Buenos Aires Tango Festival, a 12 day celebration of tango in all its forms, has returned to the Auditorium Parco della Musica with a series of concerts, dance lessons and events introducing tango musicians, singers and dancers to Italian audiences. Every evening the Cavea is transformed into an open air Milonga with tango demonstrations and an open invitation for the public to dance beneath the stars.

As somebody with an admittedly sketchy knowledge of tango, but with a healthy addiction to live music, I initially headed over to see Orquesta El Arranque, a seven piece tango orchestra performing in Sala Sinopoli last night, out of curiosity, only to find myself bowled over by the brilliance of these musicians. At times it was hard to believe that the complexities of layered sound were being produced by only two bandoneóns (played by Camilo Ferrero and Ramiro Boero), two violins (Guillermo Rubino and Gustavo Mulé), a double bass, piano and guitar (played by Ignacio Varchausky, Ariel Rodríguez and Martín Vázquez respectively) – the impact of El Arranque's sound was so immense!

Photo © Auditorium Parco della Musica
In an evening entitled Milongueros de hoy: La música de Leopoldo Federico, they played several pieces by Leopoldo Federico, one of the world's most influential exponents of the bandoneón. Better known as a musician than composer, Federico collaborated with El Arranque on their last album, which features new versions of some of the musician's lesser know work. This was a voyage of discovery for me, so unfortunately, I can't provide any details of the setlist... other than to say that it was thrilling music, sophisticated yet immediate at the same time.

And there were yet more discoveries to be made! Invitied onto the stage to join El Arranque at various moments throughout the evening, we were also treated to the entirely captivating voice of the tango singer Hernán Lucero. Part of a new generation of tango singers on the contemporary scene in Buenos Airies, Lucero's voice evokes music from the golden era of tango and his charismatic stage presence and matinée idol good looks only serve to compound the dramatic effect! What a star...I could have listened to him all evening! We were also lucky enough to bump into him outside after the show, where he graciously shook hands and signed an autograph.

Buenos Aires Tango is sponsored by the Ministry of Culture of the Government of the City of Buenos Aires in collaboration with Fondazione Musica per Roma and continues at the Auditorium Parco della Musica until 19 September, 2010.

Monday, September 6, 2010

MAXXI - The National Museum of XXI Century Arts

MAXXII - Photo © Deborah Swain
New architectural projects in Rome are as rare as hen's teeth and when they do appear, are inevitably met with a mixed reception with Romans either loving or hating the challenging new buildings in the midst of the open air museum that is the Eternal City. Richard Meier's Ara Pacis Museum, for example, has received considerable flack in recent years with the city's mayor even proposing the dismantling of part of the structure to appease the Vox populi, although as a fan of that particular building, I for one hope that was merely an empty election promise that will never be realised!

The brand new National Museum of XXI Century Arts aka MAXXI, which opened its doors to the public in May this year, is just far enough away from the city centre and its ancient monuments to avoid the controversy that Meier's building has met. Instead, this enormously ambitious gallery, designed by London-based Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, is safely situated on the spacious site of the former Montello military barracks in Rome's Flaminio district, a primarily residential area. The spark of urban vitality that planners had hoped to bring to the area, however, was immediately dampened this summer when residents protested about the noise-level of evening concerts in the grounds of the museum, leading to the cancellation of a programme of summer music shows. With Renzo Piano's world class concert venue the Auditorium Parco della Musica only a stone's throw away from MAXXI, however, this is surely only a minor hiccough, in the museum's inaugural year.

MAXXII - Photo © Deborah Swain
MAXXI has been a long time coming, taking 10 years to complete at a cost of 150 million euro – the mind boggles at the feasibility of Rome's 2020 Summer Olympic bid – but the result is a stunning work of architecture. Eschewing the rectangle, its snaking galleries make for a positively labyrinthine and, at times, bewildering experience. Time and time again I found myself disorientated, until I gave up trying to understand where I was on the map and simply went with the flow and let the museum's stairways and walkways funnel me where they wanted! Gallery 5 is perhaps the most bizarre of the spaces. Currently showing the third part of the Gino De Dominicis show entitled The Immortal, the gallery is for the most part spread over a slope, so that one is forced to walk up hill through the works until one reaches the striking glass fronted top of the gallery with views over local roof tops. As it happens, I actually saw a family group with an elderly woman being pushed in a wheel chair in that section and was immediately made aware of the potential difficulties of tackling that gradient for some visitors. The somewhat mystifying, but curiously beautiful tempera and gold panel panel paintings by De Dominicis are displayed in the top space. Sadly, housed as they are behind glass, the glare from the floor to ceiling windows and consequent reflections made these final works hard to view on a bright and sunny afternoon. The space would lend itself maybe better to sculpture or installations.

MAXXI is undoubted a fabulous architectural space and an exciting building – as to whether it works as an exhibition space, the jury is still out – I need more time on that one, although I'm extremely curious to see how the curators will continue to meet the challenges of this most unconventional of galleries in the years to come.

The other major challenge facing MAXXI at its inception was that of creating an art collection from scratch. Whereas recent critically acclaimed structures such as the Tate Modern in London, were built to house an existing collection amassed over decades, plans for MAXXI were laid before the new century had even begun. Whilst the architecture has excited interest and curiosity, what about the work inside its meandering walls? For this inaugural period 90 pieces from the 300 odd works in the gallery's possession are on display (until 23 January 2011) under the loose umbrella title of Spazio (Space), a suitably vague expression that seeks to unite both the building and its two permanent collections of art and architecture. This Space is then subdivided into four further thematic areas - Natural Artificial, From the Body to the City, Maps of the Real and The Scene and the Imaginary - where an eclectic mix of works by relatively little-known artists of the new century are displayed alongside minor works by some of the big guns who made their names in the last. There's the ubiquitous, yet nevertheless lovely, Sol LeWitt wall painting tucked in behind the cafe on the ground floor, not far from the must-see 15 metre long structure by Anish Kapoor Widow, one of his monumental tube sculptures that emerges from the wall like a giant, elongated gramophone horn. Bill Viola's video installation Il vapore and the always thrilling Anselm Kiefer with the stunning painting Sternenfall are worth tracking down, as are the photographic triptych Fille aux fleurs by Finnish photographer Elina Brotherus and South African artist William Kentridge’s delightful model theatre Preparing the Flute.

What we've seen so far may be a little patchy overall, but it's still very early days yet and Rome, as the old adage goes, wasn't built in a day. A collection needs time and space, and crucially funding, to grow. With MAXXI the first two boxes are ticked - how much change there was left in the kitty for new acquisitions after construction is anybody's guess. Here's hoping that this is a gallery that will go from strength to strength over the course of the century it was built to celebrate.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Fontana delle Cariatidi in Piazza dei Quiriti

Fontana delle Cariatidi © Deborah Swain
Rome in August takes on a strange identity – it looks like Rome, but doesn't quite feel like Rome - with almost half of the population having left on their annual summer holiday in the mass exodus that marks the two weeks either side of the Public Holiday of Ferragosto on 15th August (traditionally the date of the Roman Catholic Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but going back as far as the pagan days of the Roman Empire). Tourists and residents are left behind in what is a truly unique situation for Rome – an almost car free city centre! What better time, therefore, than to stroll around and discover some of the Eternal City's hidden treasures which are sometimes ignored in a city so rich in world famous landmarks.

In our Discover Rome section I thought I'd take a closer look at another one of my favourite fountains – the Fontana delle Cariatidi situated just off Via Cola di Rienzo in the Prati district of Rome. Stretching from the river Tiber to Piazza dei Risorgimenti the elegant tree lined shopping street of Via Cola di Rienzo is well worth a visit in itself and being so very close to St. Peter's Basilica, is an easy addition to any itinerary. The Fontana delle Cariatidi, on the other hand, is overlooked by the Church of San Gioacchino and found in Piazza dei Quiriti. Constructed between 1927-1928, it was designed by the sculptor Attilio Selva (1898 – 1970) and inspired by 17th century designs. At the time of its unveiling however, the nudity of the four female caryatids supporting the large basin topped by a pine cone, caused quite a scandal!

Happy holidays and Buon Ferragosto!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Florence + the Machine | The Auditorium, Rome | 22 July, 2010

It's just over a year since Lungs, the debut album by Florence + the Machine, exploded onto the British music scene, eventually becoming one of the best selling albums of 2009 (and 2010 so far) and scooping countless prizes including the coveted Mastercard Best British Album at the 2010 BRIT Awards. Last night Florence Welch brought her seemingly never ending world tour to Rome, where she closed her recent European round of Summer Festivals at the Auditorium Parco della Musica as another highlight of this year's Luglio Suona Bene programme.

Dressed all in white in a flowing gown, Florence was the second barefooted singer to take the Cavea stage this week - Graham Nash was the other for any trivia fans reading this – although I'd secretly rather hoped to see her repeat some of her death-defying dancing on spectacularly high heels! It was another steamy night in Rome, but this girl had boundless energy and a strangely ethereal presence. Maybe it was the way she was dressed, but she moved with such light footed steps as to appear almost angelic – an innocent appearance that was dramatically at odds with the darkness of some of her eerie lyrics - My Boy Builds Coffins was particularly good early on in the show – or the (self) destructive energy of Hurricane Drunk and the song that has caused a flurry of controversy since it appeared as her debut single, Kiss With a Fist.

The Florence + the Machine live show presents a pared down version of her music where the power of Welch's extraordinary voice takes precedence over the veneer of studio production. It was a downright boisterous crowd at the Auditorium last night who cheered deafeningly between and even during songs if there was a moment's silence, but also, unfortunately, it was one of the noisiest audiences I've encountered for quite some time where people chatted distractedly throughout the show and it felt rather like being in a field at a rock festival rather than at the Cavea. Looking around at the predictably very young audience, I was painfully aware of a yawning generation gap with myself at the furthest end! Despite efforts of the youngest around me to ruin the evening, however, it was still a wonderful concert, which was one of discovery for me as I went primarily out of pure curiosity to see what all the hype was about. I discovered that Florence Welch is the real deal and by the end of the show I was a newly converted fan! The cheers after the encore, which included an absolutely stunning Dog Days Are Over, would have blown the roof off the venue if it had had one! I'm really curious to see how her career develops as she is a performer with amazing stage presence and huge talent.

Watch Dog Days Are Over below or click here to watch on YouTube.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Jónsi | The Auditorium, Rome | 21 July, 2010

Jónsi on stage in Rome - 21 July, 2010

Of all the events in this year's Luglio Suona Bene open air concerts in the Cavea at the Auditorium Parco della Musica, it was last night's appointment with Sigur Rós frontman Jon Thor Birgisson, better known as Jónsi, that I had been most eagerly anticipating. I'd been following the development of the tour on Jonsi's website and knew that it was going to be a visually stunning show with gorgeous animation work and projected graphics specially designed by 59 Productions. When I bought the tickets way back in March, however, I was given an almost pitying look by box office staff who clearly thought my eagerness to get what I thought were surely the hottest tickets in town was exaggerated! As it turned out, it wasn't a sell-out show last night, but the devoted fans in the audience made up for its size in enthusiastic applause and cheers during what was an amazing performance by the Icelandic musician - it was everything I had hoped it would be...and more! Hearing Jónsi use his extraordinary vocal gifts and that achingly beautiful falsetto live on stage is something you really have to experience in person.

Last year Jónsi released an exquisite ambient instrumental album Riceboy Sleeps recorded at home in Reykjavik with his boyfriend Alex Somers, who also joined him on stage last night in Rome on guitar, sound effects and keyboards, together with the other three vital musical components of this tour - Thorvaldur Thór Thorvaldsson on drums, Ólafur Björn Ólafsson on keyboards and Úlfur Hansson on bass and monome. The focus of last night's show was firmly on Jónsi's stunning first solo studio album Go, released in April this year and he performed all nine tracks on the album, with the sheer euphoria of Go Do and Boy Lilikoi totally bringing down the house, as well as several so far unreleased songs - the gorgeous opening acoustic number Stars in Still Water, the heartbreaking Icicle Sleeves, Saint Naive and an unnamed piano song.

When Jónsi came back out on stage for the encore in full Native American headdress and launched into a joyous version of Sticks and Stones (from the score to the 2010 film How to Train Your Dragon) and then totally let rip in ecstatic oblivion with the pounding grand finale of Grow Till Tall with blizzard and thunderstorm visuals playing on the screen behind him, it was as if we were thrust into the very heart of a storm and made to experience that awe of the elements that city dwellers so often ignore. Throughout the night, animals – running wolves and deer, butterflies, swooping owls and scurrying rats and insects - had all come to life on the backdrop screens reminding us of the terrible beauty and sometimes destructive power of Nature. It was a wonderful journey that kept the audience rapt. Thank you Jónsi for taking us with you.

Watch Boy Lilikoi below or click here to watch on YouTube.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Crosby, Stills & Nash | The Auditorium, Rome | 19 July, 2010

Last night's appointment at the Auditorium Parco della Musica in the open air Cavea saw yet another of the highlights of this year's Luglio Suona Bene programme with living legends of folk rock David Crosby, Stephen Stills and recent OBE recipient Graham Nash performing on stage again together as Crosby, Stills & Nash. Throughout their various permutations – with and without Neil Young, as solo artists and duos too – and their widely reported fallings-out over the years, what has remained a constant has been the quality of the music, and seeing them play last night, reconfirmed the fact that over forty years since the release of their eponymous debut album, these men are still consummate musicians who sing songs that resonate as much today as ever before.

Crosby, Stills and Nash on stage in Rome - 19 July 2010

Crosby, Stills & Nash opened the show in spectacular fashion with a Joni Mitchell song that is synonymous with their status as cultural icons of American music and was a clear nod to their very beginnings when they performed at the most famous music festival of all time - Woodstock. When, towards the end of the show, somebody screamed out a request for this very song, David Crosby smiled and replied, “We already played Woodstock” and Graham Nash added with a chuckle, “You missed it!” A blistering first set took in several of their absolute classics - Long Time Gone, Marrakesh Express, Southern Cross and a gorgeous Long May You Run (their Neil Young tribute of the present tour – aka the "tall skinny Canadian", as Crosby described their sometime collaborator) - wrapping up the first hour with a breathtaking Wooden Ships.

After a short break they were back on stage for an acoustic, close harmony set that kicked off with a lovely Helplessly Hoping and then moved through a series of cover versions – rumour has it they have a cover album in the works – the Beatles' Norwegian Wood, Gregg Allman's Midnight Rider, a fabulous Bob Dylan cover with Girl From The North Country, which perfectly suited Stills grittier vocals, as well as a Rolling Stones classic, Ruby Tuesday, which saw the audience singing along. Another surprising cover would come later on in the evening with a rocking homage to The Who with Behind Blue Eyes. The sell-out crowd last night whooped and cheered every time Nash and Crosby made magic with their still perfect vocal harmonies (Guinnevere, Delta and Cathedral were stand-out songs by Crosby and Nash) and each time Stephen Stills amazed us with some seriously impressive guitar work. When they closed the main show with Almost Cut My Hair - David Crosby's vocals soaring over the Cavea, the ever defiant hippy-at-heart standing with his long white hair blowing behind him, whilst Stephen Stills and Graham Nash duelled guitar licks – it was simply spine-tingling! And it wasn't over yet...they had already been on stage for more than two hours in torrid temperatures, but deafening applause called them back for an extended encore and one more chance for us to join in on the chorus of the civil rights anthem Chicago (We Can Change the World), Stephen Still's solo hit Love the One You're With and one final crowd pleaser, Teach Your Children. A truly wonderful evening.

Watch Almost Cut My Hair below or click here to watch on YouTube.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Arrivederci Roma! Closing awards ceremony at Roma Fiction Fest

Hollywood stars and some of the most famous faces on television were at the Auditorium Conciliazione for the closing awards ceremony of the Roma Fiction Fest 2010 yesterday and the crowds were out in force on what was a steamy hot Saturday evening in Rome to see them take their turn on the festival's distinctive orange carpet.

Veronica Pivetti, the “godmother” of the 2010 festival was the compere for the night and was accompanied on stage by the Pino Jodice Orchestra who provided musical diversion throughout the show with their arrangements of some of the most popular TV themes from television history. Marg Helgenberger and Andy García both picked up prizes for Artistic Excellence, whilst Claire Danes scooped the top prize for Best Leading Actress in a TV Drama for her riveting performance in Temple Grandin. Jason Priestley was joined on stage by this year's Roma Fiction Fest jury president A.J. Buckley of CSI: New York fame, who presented him with the Best Leading Actor in a TV Comedy Award for his latest incarnation as Richard Fitzpatrick in the hilarious Call Me Fitz. The Best Leading Actor in a TV Drama Award went to Estonian actor Margus Prangel for his moving performance in Klass: Elu Pärast, which also won Best Product in the TV Drama category. There were also plenty of prizes for Italian TV shows and stars with national treasure Virna Lisi receiving the warmest welcome on both the orange carpet, where she was greeted with spontaneous applause from fans outside the theatre, and when she took the stage to receive the Best Actress in a Continuing Series Award for Caterina e le sue figlie 3.

To get a taste of the event scroll through the images in the gallery above or watch the video of Marg Helgenberger collecting her prize below (or click here to watch on YouTube).

Saturday, July 10, 2010

'Midsomer Murders' star John Nettles at Roma Fiction Fest 2010

John Nettles at Roma Fiction Fest 2010
Day 5 of Roma Fiction Fest 2010 saw more stars of the small screen tread the orange carpet at Cinema Adriano – Claire Danes was there to promote the recently Emmy nominated Temple Grandin, whilst British actor John Nettles arrived to present an episode from Season 13 of the hugely popular Midsomer Murders, entitled The Sword of Guillaume. As the show's producer Brian True-May explained in an encounter in Sala 9, this is will be Nettles' final series playing Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby – indeed, they had wrapped shooting on the very last episode only the evening before – but that the show will continue with Neil Dudgeon taking over in the 14th series as Barnaby's cousin DCI John Barnaby. The Sword of Guillaume – another cracking Midsomer episode, with the mandatory gruesome slayings and fairly modest body count – is, in fact, the first time audiences are introduced to the “new” Barnaby.

The meeting with the star of the show might easily have been advertised as “An Evening with John Nettles”. The man is a marvellous raconteur and spoke easily and at length about his favourite moments from working on Midsomer (he particularly cherished the episode in which Oliver Ford Davies is pinned down on a croquet lawn, whilst pelted with bottles of his favourite vintage wine from a replica Roman catapult), his earlier TV career playing Jim Bergerac and his work in theatre with the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as his recent OBE for services to drama – all interspersed with amusing anecdotes and infectious laughter! I was thrilled when he paused to sign autographs at the end of the event and I was able to exchange a few words with him in person.

Watch some highlights from John Nettles' appearance at Roma Fiction Fest 2010 below (or click here to watch on You Tube).

Jason Priestley launches 'Call Me Fitz' at Roma Fiction Fest 2010

It may have been twenty years since Jason Priestley first appeared as teen heartthrob Brandon Walsh in the smash hit TV show Beverly Hills, 90210, yet on Day 4 of Roma Fiction Fest he was asked the inevitable question about the impact of playing that part and answered with remarkable patience and wry humour, saying that every actor has baggage that they carry with them throughout their career and that Brandon is his...or in Brandon's case, not baggage, but a steamer trunk!

In Rome with writer Sheri Elwood, Jason Priestley is here to launch a vehicle for his talents that couldn't be further from Brandon - an offbeat post-PC era comedy entitled Call Me Fitz – in which he plays a morally bankrupt second-hand car salesman and all-round sleaze-ball called Richard Fitzpatrick aka Fitz. The show is highly cinematographic and looked great on the big screen in Sala 7 at Cinema Adriano – it's also very rude and very, very funny and I look forward to seeing the whole series when it's released!

Watch highlights of the interview with Jason Priestley at Rome Fiction Fest below (or click here to watch on YouTube). The opening sequence was shot a few days earlier on the orange carpet outside the Auditorium Conciliazione on 5 July when he paused to sign an autograph.

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