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.

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