Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Vermeer: The Golden Age of Dutch Art at the Scuderie del Quirinale

The Little Street - Vermeer
Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675) was a modestly successful painter in his own lifetime, famous locally in Delft for his small and intimate interiors. Today, over three centuries since his death, he is acknowledged as one of the greatest artists of the Dutch Golden Age, with art lovers flocking to see his work in galleries across the world. Remarkably, the present Vermeer show at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome is the first monographic exhibition of the artist’s paintings ever to be held in Italy, and to mark the occasion the curators have gathered a total of eight works by Vermeer, an impressive number when one considers that only 34 paintings attributed to the man have survived to the present day. These eight pieces by Vermeer are accompanied in Rome by a superb selection of paintings by his contemporaries.

It is sometimes difficult to pinpoint what makes Vermeer's work so magically timeless, yet once experienced, a first hand encounter with a Vermeer painting is one that stays with the viewer forever. I was sixteen when I first saw The Milkmaid at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and remember so well the feeling of joy that painting, with its dazzling ultramarine and yellows, gave me when I finally saw the original with my own eyes. (Incidentally, The Milkmaid travelled to Rome in 1954, where it was exhibited at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, but it isn't, alas, part of this present exhibition.) In many ways Vermeer is an elusive artist – his paintings are loved by so many, yet very little is known about the man, with the gaps in our knowledge of his life filled in by recent fictionalised accounts in literature and film – but this exhibition, through its judicious selection of works from several genres, and many different artists, provides an effective overview not only of Vermeer's entire oeuvre, but also his life in 17th century Delft.

The very first painting we see on entering The Golden Age of Dutch Art is the delightful The Little Street, Vermeer's painting from around 1658, which places us firmly in the painter's neighbourhood with its small, higgledy-piggledly red brick buildings, its everyday folk going about their domestic routines, and, of course, that northern light. A snapshot of Vermeer's life and times, this is the perfect opening to a very special exhibition.

The Girl with the Wineglass - Vermeer
Vermeer is undoubtedly most famous for his interiors, and the staples of the genre such as courtship and seduction, letter writing, playing a musical instrument, and tippling, are all well represented - The Girl with the Wineglass (1659-1660) from the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum is a gorgeous, showstopping example in the final room on the lower level. The girl in a vivid red dress, with her unusually brazen stare had drawn a small, mesmerised crowd on the day I visited. With its perfectly harmonious balance of primary colours, and the light infusing the scene from an open stained glass window, this painting is quintessential Vermeer. It was almost certainly inspired by Pieter de Hooch's Woman Drinking with Soldiers, which hangs in the Louvre. Whilst that painting is absent from this show there are several other truly wonderful paintings by de Hooch in the same room, most notably Card Players in a Sunlit Room (1658), on loan from H.M. Queen Elizabeth II, with its open doorway revealing the world beyond the interior scene, and the Portrait of a Family in a Courtyard in Delft (1657-60), which further exemplifies de Hooch's extension of the domestic space from the interior into a courtyard.

Portrait of a Family in a Courtyard in Delft
Pieter de Hooch
From de Hooch's comparatively large group portrait, the star attraction on the upper floor is surely the smallest image in the exhibition. For many years subject to debate as to whether it was even by Vermeer at all, Girl with a Red Hat (1665 – 1667) from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C ., is simply exquisite. As if to seal the question of its attribution, it was chosen as the poster image for the Scuderie show. The only known painting by Vermeer to have been executed on a wooden panel, this example of a "tronien" - a Dutch portrait in which the sitter usually wears hats or exotic costumes and plays the part of a fictitious character – is most striking for the compositional impact of the vibrant red hat, and the opulence of the blue robes, which are balanced by the purity of the white scarf, and of course, the light and reflected light from an unseen source.

Man Writing a Letter
Gabriel Metsu
Other works to look out for on the upper floor are two companion paintings by Gabriel Metsu where the influence of Vermeer is unmistakeable - Man Writing a Letter (1662-65) and Woman Reading a Letter (1662-65) from the National Gallery of Ireland, as well as Pieter Janssens Elinga's Interior with a Gentleman, a Woman Reading and a Housemaid (1670), an exquisite study in the play of shadows and light.

Absolutely unmissable!

Vermeer: The Golden Age of Dutch Art is curated by Walter Leidtke, Arthur K. Wheelock and Sandrina Bandera, and continues at the Scuderie del Quirinale until 20 January 2013.

Image usage note: web-resolution, fair use rationale on all images.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Johnnie To, Wallace Chung and Gao Yun Xiang present 'Drug War' at Rome Film Festival 2012

Wallace Chung signing autographs at Rome Film Festival
Background (L-R): Liu Yanming, Johnnie To, Yau Nai-hoi and Gao Yun Xiang
The presence of legendary Hong Kong film director Johnnie To at this year's Rome Film Festival was announced late in the day, but once the news broke that the second of two “surprise” In Competition films from Asia would be To's latest thriller Du Zhan (Drug War), I was absolutely thrilled! I'm a huge Hong Kong cinema fan and have been a fan of Johnnie To since the early days of his long career and I'm delighted to report that I now own an autographed DVD of To's cult classic The Heroic Trio, which the director kindly signed for me on Thursday evening in Rome!

Johnnie To was joined on the red carpet by the impeccably dressed and incredibly handsome actors Gao Yun Xiang and Wallace Chung, as well as To's longtime collaborators screenwriters Wai Ka-fai and Yau Nai-hoi, and producer Liu Yanming, with their arrival heralded by the strains of a traditional Chinese erhu and pipa played by two glamorous musicians. The red carpet for this year's festival is decorated with props from film sets taken from movies filmed at Rome's Cinecittà studios such as The Gladiator and Gangs of New York - the Chinese delegation politely obliged when they were inevitably invited to pose for photographs in front of the Chinese Dragons set from the Italian movie Delitto al ristorante cinese (Crime at the Chinese Restaurant).

Inside Sala Sinopoli the atmosphere was charged with anticipation – clearly, the audience at this Gala World Première included many Johnnie To fans from the general public – and the arrival of the director elicited huge applause.

The very first of To's many films to be shot and set in mainland China rather than Hong Kong, Drug War tells the story of a complex police operation to trap a cadre of drug barons. It is chock full of the staples of the cop thriller genre - double identities, double-crossings and explosive action sequences – but it is the gritty realism, slow building tension, and the stand-out performances by lead actors Louis Koo as the drug boss Timmy Choi and Sun Honglei as the police captain Zhang that make this movie particularly effective and stay with the viewer long after the credits roll. I loved it!

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

Friday, November 16, 2012

Walter Hill Masterclass at Rome Film Festival 2012

Giona Nazzaro, Walter Hill and Mario Sesti at Rome Film Festival 2012
This year's recipient of the Rome Film Festival Maverick Director Award Walter Hill was back at the Auditorium Parco della Musica on Thursday afternoon to conduct a film making Masterclass with Mario Sesti and Giona Nazzaro in Sala Petrassi. Greeting numerous admirers along the red carpet on his arrival, he signed autographs and posed for photographs. I was fortunate enough to exchange a few words with the director whilst he signed my DVD of the wonderful Broken Trail.

The well attended masterclass opened with a long, violent sequence from Hill's 1981 movie Southern Comfort, but the conversation rather surprisingly began with the director mentioning poet John Keats, when asked about his own artistic imagination and the creative process. The director had visited the house where the poet died at the foot of the Spanish Steps earlier in the day, describing it as a melancholy place to die. This immediately set the tone of what would be a thoughtful, relaxed and extremely generous encounter with Walter Hill. Always modest about his own talents, yet quick to acknowledge those of his colleagues, the director also seemed to genuinely enjoy watching the selection of clips from his own movies, many of which he said he had not seen since they first came out in movie theatres. The Long Riders, Geronimo: An American Legend, The Warriors, The Driver, Red Heat and Crossroads were used as springboards to fascinating discussions about westerns, action sequences and music.

I love Walter Hill's westerns so was delighted to hear his thoughts on the decline in the popularity of the genre. He suggested that cinema audiences today were no longer in touch with their agrarian roots, and that of all the movie forms the western was probably the most subject to parody and self-parody, adding that he still tried to make them now and again.

Asked about the rapid pace and editing in his movies he admitted that he loved to keep things moving fast and tried to avoid overstatement in any of his films: I believe in brevity and economy in statement...I don't like long films, I certainly don't like my films to be long! He also added that the influence of television had made audiences more used to faster cutting these days.

Not a great lover of storyboards or excessive planning prior to shooting a scene, Hill has clearly always enjoyed the post-production scoring of his films. His love of music and the importance of putting his images to music is apparent in so many of his films, and the director talked with great affection about his working relationship with Ry Cooder, whom he described as the most talented person he had ever worked with.

A wonderful lesson in cinema!

Watch the video of excerpts from the Walter Hill masterclass below (or click here to watch on YouTube).

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Sylvester Stallone and Walter Hill attend 'Bullet to the Head' World Premiere at Rome Film Festival 2012

Several hours before Sylvester Stallone was due to arrive at the Rome Film Festival yesterday evening fans of the Hollywood legend had already started lining the red carpet, clutching Rocky posters and DVDs waiting for an autograph. The wait was a long one, with the star eventually arriving just in time for the world première Out of Competition screening of the new Walter Hill action movie Bullet to the Head. Whisked rapidly along the red carpet by festival security guards and organisers, there was clearly no time for signing autographs, but the star nevertheless made a point of greeting his adoring public, walking the whole length of the red carpet route, shaking hands with as many fans as possible along the way. Inside Sala Sinopoli the atmosphere remained as boisterous as the scenes outside, with the audience chanting “Rocky, Rocky, Rocky...” when the actor took his seat.

Before the screening of the movie festival director Marco Müller invited screenwriter Alessandro Camon to join him on stage to introduce the other major event of the evening – the presentation of the Rome Film Festival Maverick Director Award to director Walter Hill who expressed his gratitude to the Rome Film Festival, to Müller, and to Italian cinema audiences, adding that if you're an action director you don't tend to win a lot of awards.

The screening of Bullet to the Head, Hill's immensely enjoyable, fast paced and decidedly tongue-in-cheek action thriller, was accompanied by spontaneous cheers and applause throughout, with Sly's one-liners getting huge laughs. Both director and star received huge cheers as the credits rolled, with fans on their feet applauding. A fun evening!

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

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Guillermo del Toro on the Rome Film Festival red carpet for 'Rise of the Guardians'

Guillermo del Toro at Rome Film Festival
Film director Peter Ramsey collected the Vanity Fair International Award for Cinematic Excellence for the animated movie Rise of the Guardians at the 7th Rome Film Festival yesterday evening. He was joined on the red carpet before the Out of Competition screening by the movie's executive producer Mexican film director Guillermo del Toro, producers Jeffrey Katzenberg and Christina Steinberg, as well as three of Santa's elves from the movie!

I'm a huge admirer of the work of Guillermo del Toro so had arrived early along the red carpet armed with my Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy DVDs in the hope that I could get at least one of them signed by the man himself. The organisers of the event were clearly on a tight schedule and kept steering del Toro away from the public, but the director was clearly enjoying meeting his fans and broke ranks at every opportunity, going back to sign more and more autographs, laughing and joking the whole while, and signaling his exasperation every time he was dragged away for a press interview or photo call. At the strict admonition from one of the organisers that only one autograph per person was allowed I invited Mr del Toro to choose which DVD he would like to sign – with a big smile, and to my enormous delight, he graciously signed both!

To get a taste of the atmosphere along the Rise of the Guardians red carpet watch the video below (or click here to watch on YouTube).

Monday, November 12, 2012

Standing ovation for Feng Xiaogang's 'Back to 1942' at Rome Film Festival 2012

Adrien Brody joined Chinese director Feng Xiaogang, actors Xu Fan and Zhang Guoli, and screenwriter Liu Zhenyun on the Rome Film Festival red carpet on Sunday evening for the presentation of Back to 1942, the first of two “surprise” In-Competition films from Asia.

An often harrowing study of the 1942 Henan Province famine during which a staggering 3 million people starved to death, Feng's movie has all the hallmarks of an epic, with its sweeping cinematography, a cast of hundreds of extras trudging through a bleak snowy landscape during scenes of the refugees' exodus, as well as spectacular special effects to illustrate the devastating impact of the Japanese bombing raids on the refugee column. There is even a smattering of dark gallows humour to relieve some of the tension, used just sparingly enough to never appear even remotely disrespectful.

At the heart of the movie, however, are the intimate, personal stories of how the tragedy breaks down the social divisions between wealthy landowner Fan Dianyuan, (played by Zhang Guoli in a beautifully measured performance), his servant Shuang Zhu, and his tenant Hua Zhi (played by Zhang's real-life son Zhang Mo and Feng's wife Xu Fan) whose scenes together are some of the most moving in the film. Chen Daoming, best known to international audiences as the emperor in Zhang Yimou's Hero, is also very effective as the chillingly detached 'Generalissimo' Chiang Kai-shek, whilst Adrien Brody is highly credible as the passionate Time war correspondent Theodore H. White, the man who first broke the horrific news of what was going on in Henan in the West.

The film was extremely well received by the Rome audience and was met with long and rapturous applause and a standing ovation for the actors and director who appeared visibly moved by the warmth of the film's reception.

Watch the video of the final applause in Sala Sinopoli below (or click here to watch on YouTube).

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Paul Verhoeven and PJ Hogan at Rome Film Festival 2012

The Rome Film Festival has seen some big changes over the last year, with erstwhile artistic director of the Venice Film Festival Marco Müller taking the helm for this, the 7th edition, which opened at Rome’s Auditorium Parco della Musica on Friday. Whilst this year's festival may not boast the huge roster of Hollywood big names of earlier editions, the programme includes an interesting and eclectic mix of international stars, presenting movies both in and out of competition, as well as a new focus on Italian cinema, with actors such as Carlo Verdone drawing large crowds along the red carpet on Saturday afternoon.

Paul Verhoeven signing my copy of RoboCop!
The name I was most excited to see on the programme this year was that of Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch-born director best known internationally for his US movies of the late 1980s and early 1990s, all of which have achieved cult status – Total Recall, Basic Instinct, and my absolute favourite, the legendary RoboCop. In Rome to present and discuss his latest film Steekspel /Tricked  in the CinemaXXI - Out of Competition section of the festival, before entering Sala Petrassi the director took the time to greet his many fans and sign numerous autographs along the red carpet. I am now the proud owner of a RoboCop DVD signed by Paul Verhoeven!

The director was joined for the screening of Steekspel by his excellent cast - Peter Blok, Robert de Hoog and Jochum ten Haaf. A highly enjoyable, impeccably paced drama with shades of back comedy, the medium-length movie clocks in at under an hour, yet is as satisfyingly complete as far longer films, and was received with huge applause from the audience as the credits rolled.

After the screening Verhoeven then joined Mario Sesti and Giona Nazzaro on stage to discuss the rather unusual genesis and creative process behind the film. Starting with only the first four minutes, the director had invited contributions from his fans online in the form of scripts and videos, for ideas as to how the rest of the film should progress, admitting that he had completely underestimated the scale of the job. Expecting to immediately be able to select a couple of really good scripts, he found himself having to read hundreds, none of which were particularly good, but from which he was able to select a line or idea here and there. Nevertheless, he found the whole experience inspiring and one of rejuvenation, particularly enjoying the sense of unknown destiny. In response to a question from the public, however, he reiterated the importance of the author, or director.

In answer to the inevitable invitation to comment on the recent remake of Total Recall in another question from the floor, Verhoeven said he thought the remake didn't work so well because takes itself far too seriously, adding with a smile, that “Arnie” and he had received better reviews since the remake than they ever did at the time of the original movie's release!

PJ Hogan on the red carpet at Rome Film Festival
Later on in the evening it was time to see another favourite director with Rome Film Festival judge PJ Hogan's turn on the red carpet for the presentation of the Out of Competition film Mental. The director graciously chatted with admirers and signed autographs on the red carpet, where he was joined by actresses Kerry Fox and Caroline Goodall. Kerry Fox was even kind enough to pose for a photo.

The film is inspired by the director's childhood experiences and explores the difficulties of living with mental illness. Full of Hogan's trademark bitter-sweet humour and often surreal comedy, the film stars the always amazing Toni Collette, supported by a fabulous ensemble cast. The hugely enjoyable movie was extremely well received in Rome with thunderous applause and a standing ovation from the audience in Sala Sinopoli.

Kerry Fox at 'Mental' screening at Rome Film Festival 2012

Friday, November 2, 2012

Evgeny Kissin in Recital | Auditorium Parco della Musica | 1 November 2012

Concert dedicated to the memory of the pianist's father Igor Kissin

Less than a year after delighting audiences in Rome with Grieg's Piano Concerto Russian virtuoso pianist Evgeny Kissin was back at the Auditorium Parco della Musica yesterday evening for a solo recital in the Santa Cecilia concert hall. Kissin is a frequent visitor to the Auditorium, and as always there was an atmosphere of eager anticipation in the packed concert hall before he appeared. When Kissin stepped from the wings he walked briskly to the centre of the stage, graciously bowed to acknowledge the rapturous applause that greeted him, sat swiftly at the piano, and launched almost immediately into the opening piece, Sonata No.9 by Haydn.

If Kissin has, on occasions, suffered at the hands of critics who see him as technically brilliant, yet somewhat cold and detached, concerts with such astonishing playing such as last night in Santa Cecilia should put paid to any such claims, with the pianist wearing his heart on his sleeve in an utterly commanding performance of often moving intensity. The Haydn sonata was exquisite, with a lovely second movement, but it was during the second movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No.32 that his playing reached the truly sublime. The third variation was played with such joyous verve it felt almost ragtime, whilst the slower variations were filled with achingly beautiful moments. The applause was deafening at the close of the piece and he was brought out for two curtain calls before the audience would allow him to leave the stage for the interval.

The second half of the concert saw Kissin reining in the emotional intensity at first during his interpretation of Schubert's Impromptus, yet he would startle us again with the tenderness he brought to the Op.90 No.3 serenade. Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 was chosen as the bravura finale showcasing the pianist's prodigious technical skills and bringing the audience to its feet at the close in a hugely deserved standing ovation. Well-known for his generosity with encores, his adoring Roman concert-goers were rewarded with yet more Liszt in three enthralling returns to the stage, which included the Liszt transcription of Schubert's Die Forelle.

An astounding concert!

Full programme:
Sonata No. 59
Sonata No. 32 Op. 111
Four Impromptus:
Op. 142 No. 1
Op. 142 No. 3
Op. 90 No. 3
Op. 90 No. 4
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12
Sgambati - Gluck
Melody from Orpheus
Transcendental Étude No. 10
Schubert - Liszt
Die Forelle (The Trout)

Thursday, October 4, 2012

'True Blood' stars Alexander Skarsgård, Kristin Bauer and Valentina Cervi at Roma Fiction Fest 2012

Alexander Skarsgård signing autographs in Rome
Crowds of die-hard fans started gathering early yesterday afternoon along the fuchsia carpet at the Roma Fiction Fest, waiting for the chance to glimpse cast members Alexander Skarsgård, Kristin Bauer and Valentina Cervi from the cult TV show True Blood. When the actors eventually appeared later that evening whoops and screams from the many teenage fans accompanied them every step of the way, but all three made sure that the long wait had been worth it and that nobody was left disappointed, stopping to chat, pose for photographs and signing endless autographs.

Taking the stage in Sala Petrassi prior to the screening of the first two episodes of Season 5, they were greeted by deafening cheers, before answering questions from the audience.

Watch some highlights from the True Blood event at Roma Fiction Fest 2012 below (or click here to watch on You Tube).

A Masterclass with Kelsey Grammer – Roma Fiction Fest 2012

Kelsey Grammer Masterclass in Rome
American actor Kelsey Grammer is best know worldwide for his portrayal of psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane in the hugely successful sitcom Cheers and its equally popular spin-off Frasier. TV viewers in the US, however, have recently seen him in a very different dramatic role, portraying the utterly corrupt Mayor of Chicago Tom Kane in the new drama Boss, which earned him a Golden Globe earlier this year. Mr Grammer was at the Roma Fiction Fest yesterday to give a Masterclass and present the opening Gus Van Sant-directed episode on the big screen ahead of its Italian television premiere this evening on Rai 3.

The Masterclass with Kelsey Grammer in Sala Petrassi opened with a montage of classic moments from the actor's long career – not only the inevitable clips from Frasier, but also parts as diverse as a singing Ebenezer Scrooge in a musical TV movie version of A Christmas Carol, and the Simpsons cartoon character Sideshow Bob – before the charismatic actor appeared on stage to a small but enthusiastic audience of admirers. Mr Grammer gave long and thoughtful answers to host Marco Spagnoli's pertinent questions, sharing his consideration on the craft of acting with a combination of effortless erudition and genuine warmth.

The intimate tone was set right from the start of the talk when he was asked about how he first became an actor. He looked visibly moved as he remembered the loss of his grandfather, the only male figure in his life at that time, when he was only twelve years old, and explained how he took comfort from reading Shakespeare's plays and learning about stoicism through Julius Caesar. Shakespeare was a recurrent theme in the afternoon's conversation – the concept behind Boss, he explained, came from discussions with the show's writer Farhad Safinia about creating a modern take on King Lear (with a clear nod to Orson Welles' Citizen Kane in the name of the show's anti-hero).

Acknowledging that Hollywood can sometimes be guilty of political propaganda in its movies, he denied that Boss had a specific political agenda, and instead took a wider look at the machinations and corruption on both sides of the political divide. Indeed, the actor said he had met with two former Mayors of Chicago to reassure them that Tom Kane wasn't a respresentation of them personally, joking that they were first relieved...and then maybe a little disappointed!

In the spirit of a true Masterclass Marco Spagnoli then invited further questions to Kelsey Grammer from the public. Asked about voicing Bart Simpson's arch-nemisis in The Simpsons to the obvious delight of the audience we were treated to a brief “Die Bart die...!” in his Sideshow Bob voice. The biggest laugh of the afternoon, however, came when he was asked about which role he would most like to have played. Aside from starring in a western, he said, or playing the part of Hamlet, a role for which he was now regrettably too old, he confessed that the person he would most like to play would be Sean Connery!

At the close of the Masterclass Kelsey Grammer was honoured with a standing ovation and then graciously signed autographs for fans.

Watch Kelsey Grammer talk about the playing Frasier at Roma Fiction Fest 2012 below (or click here to watch on You Tube).

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Gillian Anderson and Matthew Macfadyen at BBC Worldwide Day - Roma Fiction Fest 2012

Gillian Anderson receives
Artistic Excellence Award from Steve Della Casa
Yesterday was BBC Worldwide Day at the Roma Fiction Fest 2012 with some of the very best British small screen entertainment such as Doctor Who and Sherlock showcased on the big screen at the Auditorium Parco della Musica, as well as panel discussions with industry insiders. In fact, it was whilst waiting to attend a BBC discussion that I caught an unexpected glimpse of one of the most hotly awaited stars of the day. Gillian Anderson, best know for her role as Dana Scully in cult 1990s sci-fi show The X Files, appeared briefly to greet a group of die-hard fans who had been patiently waiting for her in the foyer.

During the evening she would be joined by Matthew Macfadyen on the festival's distinctive pink carpet, greeting yet more fans, with both actors graciously signing autographs and posing for photographs, prior to the screenings of two recent BBC dramas: the first episode of Great Expectations starring Gillian Anderson, whose mesmerising and extraordinary portrayal of Miss Havisham garnered critical acclaim when it was first broadcast in the UK over Christmas last year, and the world premiere of the brand new drama Ripper Street, an exhilarating Victorian crime show set in the East End of London in the aftermath of the Jack the Ripper murders starring Macfadyen. Both actors were cheered as they took to the stage in Sala Petrassi and the episodes were met with resounding and spontaneous applause as the credits rolled.

Gillian Anderson was also in Rome yesterday to receive the festival's annual Artistic Excellence Award. Looking dazzlingly beautiful and modestly thanking the festival for the award, she spoke about her decision to live in London, rather than in America, and how this had opened up new opportunities for her as an actress and how fortunate she felt to have been offered such interesting roles, particularly by the BBC. She also praised the Roma Fiction Fest and its championing of high quality television.

Watch some highlights from Gillian Anderson's appearance at Roma Fiction Fest 2012 below (or click here to watch on You Tube).

Watch Matthew Macfadyen's presentation of Ripper Street at Roma Fiction Fest 2012 below (or click here to watch on You Tube).

Monday, September 24, 2012

WaterFire art installation lights up the Tiber

WaterFire Roma

WaterFire brazier
The spectacular WaterFire public art installation by Barnaby Evans, which was first created by the artist in the city of Providence on Rhode Island some eighteen years ago, had its European première in Rome on Friday and Saturday evening. Thirty wood fire braziers set just above the lapping waters of the Tiber were lit between the bridges of Ponte Sisto and Ponte Mazzini on the Trastevere side, whilst an enchanting and eclectic soundtrack of world music was played over loud speakers. The flames were continually fed by fire-tenders who passed by in torch-lit boats silently gliding up and down the river.

It was an eerily melancholy sight, and really rather beautiful, attracting hundreds of visitors who strolled along the riverside in Piazza Tevere, with many people stopping to sit along the edge of the river, gaze into the flames and watch the flickering reflections in the water.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club ® featuring Omara Portuondo

Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club ® featuring Omara Portuondo at Luglio Suona Bene 2012

In what has become an annual event at the Auditorium Parco della Musica's Luglio Suona Bene summer season of concerts the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club returned to Rome on Tuesday evening performing to a packed and enthusiastic audience in the open air cavea. The original and now legendary Buena Vista Social Club line up only ever played two concerts together in Amsterdam and New York City's Carnegie Hall after Ry Cooder brought the ageing Cuban musicians out of retirement to record a CD together, with Wim Wender's documentary in 1999 introducing them to a worldwide audience. Sadly, Compay Segundo, Rubén González and Ibrahim Ferrer are no longer with us, yet the Orchestra continues to tour the world with many Social Club veterans, celebrating the original Havana music venue that gave the band its name, as well as introducing a new generation of Cuban musicians such as the immensely talented young pianist Rolando Luna.

I've seen the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club in Rome many times over the last few years, but last night was an extra special evening with Social Club original members Guajiro Mirabal on trumpet, orchestra director Jesus Aguaje Ramos on trombone, and lute player Barbarito Torres, being joined on stage by Buena Vista guitarist and singer Eliades Ochoa for several songs including their signature tune Chan Chan, which brought spontaneous cheers during its opening bars, as well as the amazing Cuban tres player Papi Oviedo, who wowed the audience with some amazing improvisational dueling with Rolando Luna on the piano.

Omara Portuondo on stage in Rome
As always, the greatest cheers of the evening were reserved for Omara Portuondo, who appeared for a handful of songs in the second half of the show. Teasingly introduced by bandleader Ramos as “la mas sexy”, she opened her set with a lovely Tres palabras, demonstrating right away that the almost eighty-two year old Cuban diva is still in fine voice, and earning an immediate standing ovation. Whilst the effortlessly charismatic singers Idania Valdés and Carlos Calunga had done a fine job of getting the Rome audience clapping along and even dancing at some moments during the first half of the concert, it was Omara who had absolutely everybody up and out of their seats and singing along with songs such as Quizas Quizas Quizas. The house lights stayed up during her performance further dissolving the division between artist and adoring public, and when she hoisted her skirts and danced a few Cha-cha-cha steps there were cheers of delight!

Omara was back again for an exquisite encore of Dos Gardenias, which she sang with excellent lead vocalist Carlos Calunga, before the traditional show closer Candela brought the entire ensemble back on stage for an exhilarating finale!

Once again, a wonderful evening in the company of Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club! Highly recommended!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Beach Boys 50th Anniversary Reunion Tour at Rock in Roma!

The Beach Boys 50th Anniversary Reunion Tour at Rock in Roma!

Very few bands over the years have given me the pure, unadulterated listening pleasure of the Beach Boys. As a child growing up in the UK, I remember always listening to the Beach Boys with my sister at the start of the school summer holidays - this joyous pop music would somehow herald the start of the summer for us. As an adult I discovered the more sophisticated side of the Beach Boys and Pet Sounds quickly made its way into my list of top ten favourite albums. When I heard that after years of legal wrangling the original band members had seemingly buried the hatchet and would be performing again in a 50th Anniversary Reunion Tour I knew that this really was a chance to see musical history in the making and a rare opportunity to see my musical heroes live on stage! On Thursday evening the band brought this amazing show to the Ippodromo delle Capannelle as part of the 2012 Rock in Roma festival.

The reunion concert tour opens every night with the eminently appropriate Do It Again, the first of a staggering 45 song setlist which spans 50 years. From the pure pop of the early 1960s classics celebrating California surf and car culture - Little Honda, Catch a Wave, Surfin' Safari, and Little Deuce Coup to name but a few - right up to this year's brand new single That’s Why God Made the Radio, the tour takes us on an exhilarating journey through the musical history of one of the most important bands of all time. There were also nods to the 1950s and the influence of Doo-wap with excellent covers of the Dell Vikings' Come And Go With Me and Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers' Why Do Fools Fall in Love, as well as a tribute to 1960s close harmony group the Mamas & the Papas with a wonderful California Dreamin'.

At the beginning of Be True to Your School, the band joked about their ages as Mike Love dropped to his knees to sing an extra long opening note, only to be then “helped” to his feet by his band mates to the sound of creaking noises! Indeed, with most of the Beach Boys approaching their seventies, they could be forgiven for any slight vocal imperfections, but in fact, they are all still in very fine voice. Mike Love and Al Jardine took the majority of the lead vocals during the evening, with the gregarious Love also acting as emcee for the evening, playing to crowd and clearly loving every minute of his time on stage. His distinctive baritone sounded great on I Get Around, whilst Jardine belted out a stunning Cotton Fields, as well a wonderful All Summer Long, which segued into the foot stomping crowd pleaser Help Me Rhonda. Bruce Johnston was on keyboards for most of the evening, but he took a turn on lead for Wendy, whilst guitarist David Marks, whose Chuck Berry inspired guitar licks on Fun Fun Fun and Surfin' Safari are so much a part of the Beach Boys sound, provided a gorgeous lead vocal on Getcha Back. Brian Wilson, the undisputed Beach Boys genius sat rather impassively behind the piano for much of the show, but the moments when he sang lead were truly very special indeed: the poppy You're So Good To Me; a marvellous Sail on Sailor; the concert highlight, Heroes and Villains, which saw the Beach Boys on stage together at last performing a track from the legendary SMiLE album, with its complex multi-part harmonies; and an achingly lovely God Only Knows from Pet Sounds, where Brian Wilson sang his late brother's Carl's part. In My Room was a show stopping demonstration of how all their voices still fit so well together.

The Beach Boys were augmented on stage by a formidable backing band of nine extra players with very nearly honorary Beach Boy Jeff Foskett adding a perfect falsetto on Don't Worry Baby, whilst Darian Sahanaja sang a cracking version of Darlin', another Carl Wilson number.

Wouldn't It Be Nice, the opening track from Pet Sounds literally brought the house down, with the swirling magic of Good Vibrations coming in quick succession, followed by the iconic California Girls. It was a dizzyingly brilliant setlist! After two hours and forty odd songs, the Beach Boys left the stage, briefly, before being cheered back for a three song encore – Kokomo, Do You Wanna Dance? and a final Fun Fun Fun. The entire extended band took their bows to deafening cheers and applause, and left the stage to the sound of the crowd still singing the falsetto from Fun Fun Fun! An truly unforgettable night!

Full setlist:
  1. Do It Again
  2. Little Honda
  3. Catch a Wave
  4. Hawaii
  5. Don't Back Down
  6. Surfin' Safari
  7. Surfer Girl
  8. It’s OK
  9. Getcha Back
  10. You're So Good to Me
  11. Then I Kissed Her
  12. Please Let Me Wonder
  13. Wendy
  14. Come And Go With Me (Dell Vikings cover)
  15. Why Do Fools Fall in Love (Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers cover)
  16. When I Grow Up (to be a Man)
  17. Darlin'
  18. Cottonfields
  19. Be True to Your School
  20. Don't Worry Baby
  21. Little Deuce Coupe
  22. 409
  23. I Get Around
  24. In My Room
  25. California Saga (On My Way to Sunny Californ-i-a)
  26. Sail On Sailor
  27. All This is That
  28. Good Timin'
  29. Heroes and Villains
  30. That’s Why God Made the Radio
  31. California Dreamin’ (The Mamas & the Papas cover)
  32. God Only Knows
  33. Sloop John B
  34. Wouldn't It Be Nice
  35. Good Vibrations
  36. California Girls
  37. All Summer Long
  38. Help Me Rhonda
  39. Rock and Roll Music (Chuck Berry cover)
  40. Barbara Ann
  41. Surfin' USA
  42. Encore
  43. Kokomo
  44. Do You Wanna Dance?
  45. Fun Fun Fun

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Patti Smith rocks Luglio Suona Bene!

Patti Smith on stage at Luglio Suona Bene

Patti Smith may have been dubbed the high priestess poet of punk and rock over the years, but whenever she performs in Rome, as she does most years, she is welcomed back to the Eternal City as nothing short of a goddess! Few bands in these difficult financial times in Italy are able to completely sell out a venue, but the open air Cavea at the Auditorium Parco della Musica was absolutely packed on Friday evening. And few artists are greeted with such thunderous, eardrum splitting cheers of adoration as they take to the stage. We love Patti and Patti, looking totally relaxed and waving and smiling, clearly loves Rome.

Opening the evening with two classic tracks from her back catalogue - Redondo Beach from her debut album Horses, followed by a stunning Dancing Barefoot from Wave - it was clear that the 65 year old Patti Smith was in fine voice. In fact, she is one of the few singers whose voice has actually improved with age - she has never sounded better! I've become quietly addicted to her absolutely wonderful new CD Banga over the past few weeks, so was thrilled when she launched quickly into one of my favourite tracks, the achingly lovely song about Amy Winehouse This is the Girl. April Fool, the most poppy sounding track on the album was followed by her haunting prayer to the victims of the Japanese Tohoku earthquake and tsunami Fuji-San.

Distant Fingers (from Radio Ethiopia) isn't performed often on tour, but the Rome audience was given a chance to hear this rare live treat, after an exhilarating Free Money with some amazing guitar work by Lenny Kaye. In a perfectly paced setlist that shifted up and down the gears, the next song turned the pace down a little with Patti on acoustic guitar on My Blakean Year, which was preceded by what sounded like a new poem set to music, in which she told the story of visiting Raphael's tomb in the Pantheon that morning and then her distress at turning into the adjacent square and discovering that the Elephant and Obelisk had been restored, removing the “tear stains” that had streaked the elephant's face. It was a lovely, intimate moment.

With Friday evening's concert happening just hours after the tragic Denver cinema shootings at the screening of the new Batman movie, she made an impassioned plea for gun regulation in her country: “nobody should be able to go into a store and buy a f***ing automatic weapon in ANY country in the world!” A show stopping version of Beneath the Southern Cross seemed to echo her feelings of anger and frustration about this event.

And then something extra special happened. Whilst her backing band - Tony Shanahan on bass and keyboards, guitarist Jack Petrucelli, Jay Dee Daugherty on drums, and long-time collaborator Lenny Kaye on guitar and vocals – launched into a medley of covers, she wandered over to a small group of fans who had broken ranks and started dancing, sat down on the edge of the stage and in a moment had jumped down and started dancing with them, and the deluge of people who suddenly rushed to get close to her!

The poignant and reflective Maria was next, her tribute to an old friend, the actress Maria Schneider, who died last year, followed by an absolutely gorgeous vocal on Pissing in a River. She teasingly introduced the next piece as an “Italian folk song” - there was an immense cheer when the first notes of her iconic signature tune Because the Night rang out instead! A reflective Peaceable Kingdom slowed the pace just for a moment, before a blistering performance of Gloria, ending with a final G-L-O-R-I-A...R-O-M-A brought the concert to a stunning close.

Deafening applause, foot stomping and cries of Patti! Patti! Patti!, however, brought her back out for an encore. Strumming an acoustic guitar and singing a few lyrics from Wave, she paid tribute to her “favourite pope” Papa Luciani (Pope John Paul I), explaining that he was a revolutionary pope, with a wonderful smile, who sadly did not live long enough to carry out his revolution. A fabulous version of Banga, the title track of her new album and new single, followed – a one chord song “so easy even a dog could f***ing play it” - thrashed out on distorted guitars, before the final anthem People Have the Power brought the evening euphorically to a close, with us all singing loud enough to raise the roof – or rather, to reach the stars, in the open air venue.

A truly memorable night!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Standing ovation for Tony Bennett at Luglio Suona Bene!

Tony Bennett at Luglio Suona Bene
If ever a performer deserved the title “living legend” it is surely Tony Bennett. Revered alongside the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Bennett is considered one of the greats of American jazz, and at almost 86 years of age and with a sixty year career behind him, seems in no hurry to retire from show business. In fact, the recent chart successes of his Duets and Duets II albums in which he recorded with newer stars such as Amy Winehouse (tragically, her final recorded vocal performance), and Lady Gaga, have helped to introduce him to a younger generation. And most amazingly, his unmistakeable voice is still as warm and wonderful as ever, as he demonstrated on Sunday evening at the Luglio Suona Bene festival to an adoring public in a packed Sala Sinopli at the Auditoium Parco della Musica.

Tony Bennett's daughter Antonia opened the show with a handful of numbers, which included a delightful song by Noël Coward called Sail Away, which I'd never heard before, and Lucky Guy which she dedicated to her father waiting in the wings. The audience responded warmly at the end of her set, but when Tony Bennett appeared on stage, dapper in an off-white jacket, and beaming a huge smile, the audience raised the roof with cheers and applause, with many on their feet before he had even sung a note! Complete hush descended once he started to sing, and it was instantly clear that this would be a very special evening indeed.

Dazzling us with a variety of jazz classics, standards and show tunes, every song was a potential showstopper – from the heartbreaking delicacy with which he sang Just The Way You Look Tonight, Charlie Chaplin's Smile, or Hank Williams' Cold Cold Heart, to the soaring vocals that reached the rafters in the finale of Maybe This Time, or the effortless cool of One For My Baby – there really was something, as they say, for everybody. His signature tune I Left My Heart in San Francisco brought cheers, and I particularly loved his mesmerising performance of his first ever recording Boulevard of Broken Dreams. At one point, he even obliged a shouted request for a song and with a nod to his four man combo, sang Because of You, whilst the Neapolitan song 'O Sole Mio was dedicated to a special guest in the audience, Italian composer Manuel De Sica, who Bennett introduced as the son of an “old friend” of his – Italian film director Vittorio De Sica.

Tony Bennett's nonchalant singing style may have earned him the nickname King of Cool, but he was in a playful mood on Sunday evening, delighting us with dance steps and even the odd twirl. The love affair between Bennett and his fans is clearly a two way relationship – many times during the show he would point at the audience whenever the word “you” was uttered in a song. The absolutely superb backing quartet comprised a roll call of jazz greats - Count Basie's legendary drummer Harold Jones, Marshall Wood on the double bass, Lee Musiker on piano, and guitarist Gray Sargent – with each musician given brief and enjoyable solos during several songs.

The power of Tony Bennett's voice is still formidable. During the evening he would often move the microphone far away from his body, but the spine-tingling highlight of the evening was surely the moment when he set aside his microphone completely at the end of the show, and sang Fly Me to the Moon a cappella, his voice easily carrying to the furthest reaches of the auditorium. Stunning! A standing ovation and chants of Tony! Tony! Tony! brought him back out on stage for one more song, before sending us on our way after a truly unforgettable performance!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

A spectacular close to Japanese Music Fest with GOCOO

GOCOO Tokyo Tribal Groove Orchestra on stage in Rome
An utterly thrilling performance in the Cavea by the GOCOO Tokyo Tribal Groove Orchestra brought the inaugural edition of the Japanese Music Fest to a close yesterday evening at the Auditorium Parco della Music in Rome. Organised in conjunction with the Japan Foundation, the three day festival explored themes of tradition and innovation in Japanese music and culture, and in particular, the point at which tradition and innovation merge. Who better, therefore, than GOCOO, an eleven-member Tokyo percussion band playing over 40 Taiko Japanese drums, in a hypnotic fusion of musical influences ranging from classical Japanese Taiko to hardcore techno dance, to bring the party to a close!

Autographed by Kaoly
Founded in 1997 in Tokyo by charismatic lead drummer Kaoly Asano, GOCOO are now hugely popular on the International festival circuit, and their utterly unique sound has also used been used in movie soundtracks (Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions) and in computer games. Hypnotic, trance, techno, even Taiko-Trance – the band's music, with its pulsating, perfectly synchronised and often complex drum beats, ultimately defies categorization, and instead taps into something deeply primeval in all of us. The Auditorium's Cavea, an open-air amphitheatre under the stars, was the ideal setting – it would be hard to imagine the sheer immensity of GOCOO's sound in the closed environs of a theatre.

GOCOO's eleven core members - seven female and four male – were supported on stage by guest musician GoRo, a didgeridoo player. The deep, rumbling drone of the instrument added extra texture to GOCOO's pounding drums and was the perfect compliment. He also sang an exquisite traditional Japanese song dedicated to the children of the world in remembrance of the recent earthquake in Japan, accompanying himself on a Japanese thumb piano, and another instrumental piece played on the Jew's harp. This beautifully-measured two song interlude gave both audience and GOCOO slight pause before the final songs of the evening – 1997, a track to celebrate the creation of the band that year, and a final mesmerising piece that blended traditional cymbals, with GOCOO's increasingly frenetic drum sounds.

The Rome audience absolutely loved GOCOO - people were on their feet, clapping and dancing for the exhilarating encore, and eagerly gathered around the performers as they signed autographs immediately after the show. A hugely entertaining band – catch them if you can on their European Tour!

Monday, July 9, 2012

An Intimate Evening with Joan Baez at the Auditorium Parco della Musica in Rome

Gabriel Harris, Joan Baez, Marianne Aya Omac and Dirk Powell on stage in Rome

When folk music legend Joan Baez last played at the Auditorium Parco della Musica in Rome a little over five years ago something rather special happened: after the close of the show, when the house lights were up and many people had already left the theatre, she returned to the stage and led the remaining members of the audience in a sing-along a cappella version of We Shall Overcome. It was one of those magical you-had-to have-been-there moments that one treasures, so much so in fact, that I had, rather foolishly as it turned out, almost feared that seeing Joan Baez in concert again might in some way prove disappointing, or mar the memory of that past event. Fast forward to this year's Luglio Suona Bene season of open air concerts in the Cavea and Ms Baez was back at the Auditorium on Friday evening in a show billed as “An Intimate Evening with Joan Baez”. And it turned out, of course, to be another truly wonderful concert.

Joan Baez at Luglio Suona Bene 2012
Rome audiences clearly adore and respect Joan Baez. Applause for the singer began even before she took the stage; starting as a ripple when a handful of people spotted her in the wings, it broke into thunderous whoops and cheers as she made her way to the spotlight at the centre of a simply dressed set, which included a sofa and reading lamp. She opened with a newer song - Steve Earle's lovely God is God from her 2008 album Day After Tomorrow – and we were all instantly captivated, from the very second she started to sing. Her pitch-perfect chrystalline voice may be a little huskier nowadays, yet it has lost none of its soaring power, and if anything, has gained a new warmth and depth over the years. Be Not Too Hard and the Dylan classic Farewell Angelina were next up before she quite literally kicked off her shoes and called her band on stage – a pared-down two man affair she jokingly referred to as her “mega band” - her son Gabriel Harris on percussion and cajon box drum, and multi-talented musician Dirk Powell on accordion, banjo, mandolin, and keyboards. They instantly displayed their refined musicianship, and easy affinity with Baez, in a wonderful version of the traditional folk ballad Lily of the West.

Beyond the odd smattering of “ciao” and “grazie”, and the occasional “buona sera”, very few artists who play in Rome make much of an effort to address the audience in Italian. Joan Baez instead, in a gesture of enormous generosity towards her audience, and as befits a singer of songs with meaningful, often political, lyrics, read Italian introductions to almost all the songs she performed. She also sang two songs in Italian – Gianni Morandi's 1960s hits Un mondo d'amore and C'era un ragazzo che come me amava i Beatles e i Rolling Stones, to the obvious delight of the audience. Explaining that during the tour the band had supported Italy and Balotelli during the recent European Football Championships, she laughingly apologised when she was joined by her extremely talented French guest performer Marianne Aya Omac and said that they would be singing in Spanish! This enjoyable interlude with Latin American music was followed by a Tunisian song - Jari Ya Hamouda – which she dedicated to those involved in the Arab Spring.

Showcasing the singer's entire career, the setlist was a dream selection, with too many highlights to mention, her choices markedly demonstrating how Joan Baez has always managed to take an iconic song that is synonymous with its author - The Boxer, Suzanne, Imagine, and Blowing in the Wind, to name but a few - and some how borrow it for those moments and truly make it her own.

I lost count of precisely how many encores Joan Baez performed at the end of the show to a standing ovation – the cheers and applause were deafening and she kept coming back out to sing song after song! Saving the most exquisite moment for almost the very end, Friday evening's version of Diamonds and Rust was heartbreakingly beautiful, with its updated lyric “50 years ago I bought you some cufflinks” adding to the poignancy. Then, at the very close of the show, rather as had happened five years ago, Joan Baez let us sing the final chorus of Donna Donna. The perfect end of a perfect evening.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Roma Pride 2012: We want it all!

Roma Pride 2012
After last year's Euro Pride event in Rome, which saw a million participants marching through the capital and the presence of Lady Gaga on stage, yesterday's annual Gay Pride parade in Rome was an admittedly smaller affair. Considering how poorly publicised Roma Pride 2012 was, however, with barely a mention in the lead up to the parade on local TV news channels, yesterday's event should be considered a resounding success, with an estimated 150,000 people singing and dancing in the torrid heat from Piazza della Repubblica to Piazza Bocca della Verità, taking in tourist hotspots Via dei Fori Imperiali and the Colosseum on route.

Vogliamo tutto” (We want it all) was the simple slogan of Roma Pride 2012 – we want the same rights as heterosexual couples and the right to marry – with a clear message to Italy's politicians that if they want the votes of the gay community they need to start listening to our demands. Italy, meanwhile, doggedly remains one of the few EU Member States which refuses to recognise civil partnerships for same-sex couples. There is also no law against homophobia in Italy, and after a new spate of vicious homophobic attacks in the city the need for tough new laws to combat homophobia can no longer be ignored. With only one political party - Italia dei Valori – participating yesterday, however, with Beppe Grillo's increasingly popular MoVimento 5 Stelle conspicuous by its absence, the road ahead for gay rights in Italy looks still to be a long one.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A dazzling start to Rome's Lang Lang Fest 2012

The classical music summer season at the Auditorium Parco della Musica got off to a thrilling start yesterday evening in the Santa Cecilia concert hall when Chinese classical pianist Lang Lang gave a dazzling solo performance in the first of three concerts this week as part of the Lang Lang Fest 2012.

A passionate player with impeccable technique, Lang Lang has not always been treated kindly by critics, who have accused him of being nothing more than a virtuoso showman and seem to resent his popular appeal. Last night's measured and introspective performance, however, demonstrates that Lang Lang, who turned thirty last week, is moving into a new phase of musical maturity. Regular readers of this blog will have understood that I'm a huge fan of this charismatic pianist and have seen him play many times before in Rome, but last night's intimate programme of Bach, Schubert and Chopin, must surely rank as the finest Lang Lang's performance I've seen yet – I was mesmerized.

The evening opened with Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B flat, BWV 825, executed with grace and elegance. I particularly enjoyed the final Gigue, and the seemingly effortless precision of the left hand crossing back and forth over the right in a fast tempo.

This was followed by an epic performance of Schubert's final Sonata in B flat major, D.960. The masterpiece was written during the last months of the composer's life in 1828, and Lang Lang brought real foreboding to the opening movement with heavy emphasis on the bass tremolos, thereafter leading his captivated audience through every subsequent mood change.

After a short interval, Lang Lang was back on stage for an extraordinary second half consisting of Chopin’s 12 Études, Op. 25. The Winter Wind Étude (No.11) and the final Ocean Étude (No.12) were quite simply breathtaking.

Lang Lang's impeccable artistry was met with ecstatic approval at the end of the programme - thunderous applause, cheers of “bravo” and a well-deserved standing ovation (never a given in Rome where audiences are generally rather lazy about getting to their feet), brought Lang Lang back out on stage for three exquisite encores – Liszt's Romance, Chopin's Nocturne No.1, and an apparently spontaneous Grande Valse Brillante.

Utterly unmissable! A fantastic concert!

Full programme:
Partita No. 1 in B flat major, BWV 825
Sonata in B flat major, D.960
12 Études, Op. 25
Nocturne in B Flat Minor Op.9 No.1
Grande Valse Brilliante

The Lang Lang Fest at the Auditorium Parco della Musica continues on Thursday 21 June with the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in an evening dedicated to Beethoven, and again on Friday 22 June when he'll perform together with 100 young pianists from the Santa Cecilia Conservatory in a special workshop/concert.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Guggenheim Collection: The American Avant-Garde 1945–1980 at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni - Closing soon!

Richard Estes: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Summer 1979
After visitors at this season's blockbuster show at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni have been taken on a whistle-stop tour of all the major developments in American art in the years immediately following the Second World War, by way of sixty iconic works from the permanent collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, as well as pieces from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, in the final room they are greeted with a surprisingly lovely architectural portrait of the New York museum, painted in the summer of 1979 by photorealist artist Richard Estes.

Robert Motherwell: Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 110 
Whilst the previous exhibition rooms chart the Guggenheim Collection's history from its beginnings as a small window on European abstract painting in New York, to becoming world famous through its championing of primarily American movements - Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimalism, Post-Minimalism, Conceptualism, and finally Photorealism - Estes' painting of Frank Lloyd Wright's cylindrical building is pure 17th century Vermeer, a gentle reminder of the European roots of the modern art movements of the last century. Indeed, the opening rooms focus on the early works of European émigrés to New York and the rise of Abstract Expressionism through the works of Dutch American Willem de Kooning, Russian-American Mark Rothko, and German-born American Hans Hoffman, which are shown alongside US-born contemporaries such as Jackson Pollock, Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Motherwell.

Frank Stella: Harran II
Agnes Martin: White Flower
The high ceilings and the cathedral-like floor plan of the Palazzo delle Esposizioni with its seven chapel-like galleries set around a central rotunda, afford long views to the end walls of each gallery across the entire length of the building, and is the perfect setting for these works. Agnes Martin's exquisite, almost monochrome, minimalist White Flower painting from 1960, for example, faces Frank Stella's fluorescent Harran II (1967) on the far wall of the opposite side of the building. Robert Motherwell's starkly imposing Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 110 (1971) is also, thankfully, given end-of-gallery pride of place (hung behind highly reflective glass it is difficult to view comfortably as one gets nearer to it).

Andy Warhol: Orange Disaster #5
Poster-boy for the exhibition Jackson Pollock, whose 1950 painting Number 18 is being used to advertise the show all over town, is represented on the other hand by unexpectedly small works – don't expect to see any huge drip paintings at this show – although the aforementioned Number 18 and Untitled (Green Silver) from 1949 are both dazzling.

It isn't easy to chose favourite works in such a hugely enjoyable show, but certainly Andy Warhol's chilling Orange Disaster #5 (1963), with its electric chair repeated 15 times, Roy Lichtenstein's humorous Pop Art growling dog Grrrrrrrrrrr!! (1965), and Kenneth Noland's gorgeous 1969 colour field painting April Tune, stick in my mind.

Roy Lichtenstein: Grrrrrrrrrrr!!
The show closes very soon – well worth a visit!

Guggenheim Collection: The American Avant-Garde 1945–1980 is curated by Lauren Hinkson and continues at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni until 6 may 2012.

Copyright on paintings © Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (web-resolution, fair use rationale).

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Star-studded Red Carpet at 'The Avengers' Rome Premiere

Some days ago a giant poster advertising The Avengers - this season's most hotly anticipated superhero movie – appeared on a billboard on the street below my home. On a personal level the ad campaign seems to be working, as I now can't wait to to see this film! Directed by the immensely talented Joss Whedon, the film is already garnering rave critical reviews prior to its opening next week, whilst its Italian premiere was hosted in Rome yesterday evening in a traffic-stopping star-studded event in Piazza della Repubblica.

Hundreds of fans started gathering early in the afternoon for a chance to see cast members appear on the red carpet and on the specially created stage outside The Space Cinema Moderno, and I'm delighted to report that all four stars in attendance - Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner / Hulk) and Tom Hiddleston (Loki) – made it worth the wait, signing endless autographs and posing for photographs, and appearing on the elevated stage together so that even those at the back of the crowd got a chance to see them. A fun evening!

To get a flavour of the event watch the video below or click here to watch it on YouTube.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

An Encounter with Roger Corman at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni

Movie-buffs and fans of Gothic horror films were in for a rare treat at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni yesterday evening at the very special opening event of An outlaw in Hollywood: The world of Roger Corman, a film retrospective dedicated to the legendary director and producer. Prior to the screening of his 1961 classic adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe short story The Pit and the Pendulum, starring a wonderfully histrionic Vincent Price, the undisputed King of the B-movie Roger Corman appeared in person before a packed audience, who warmly applauded his entrance before any introductions were necessary, joining Mario Sesti on stage for a relaxed and fascinating conversation.

A phenomenally prolific independent filmmaker – Corman has either directed or produced over 400 titles – it would be hard to sum up such a long and successful career, yet through a series of pertinent questions from Sesti and generous answers from Corman, yesterday's encounter managed to do precisely that. Starting with his beginnings as a runner at 20th Century Fox, through anecdotes about taking LSD with Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and the then-screenwriter Jack Nicholson, as preparation for the 1967 drugs movie The Trip (“as a conscientious director I thought I should take LSD and find out what it was like so that I could interpret the experience in the film”), right up to his latest project, a collaboration with Las Vegas film students on a heist movie with a twist called Stealing Las Vegas, this was a rewarding introduction to his work.

When asked by Sesti if it was true that The Little Shop of Horrors was made in only three days, he added that he had, in fact, pulled it off in two days and one night! Making use of a free studio, director and crew approached the film as “a joke as well as a challenge” confessing that nobody took themselves seriously on that film and that the spirit on set had positively affected the finished film. Confirming another much quoted comment from Corman, that he had never made a film that was the film he had intended to make, he went on to clarify in typically modest fashion, that a film always changes during shooting because of the input and thoughts of everybody working on the film – Corman always encouraged a camaraderie on set which helped to create new ideas, concluding that “it's director's job to pull all the thoughts together”.

The roll call of directors who were given their first big breaks thanks to Roger Corman consists of names that are now part of the Hollywood aristocracy - Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, and Jonathan Demme were just some of the names mentioned yesterday evening. Linking film studios to a long tradition starting with the Renaissance artistic studio system whereby students of great masters might eventually go on to become great artists in their own right, Corman was also at pains to stress that these great directors would have always found success even without his involvement, because of their extraordinary talent, conceding only that “it just may have taken them a little longer”.

Generous to a fault he then signed autographs and posed for photographs for the numerous admirers who surrounded him at the close of the talk, before leaving us to enjoy one of his most iconic movies. A wonderful evening – thank you Mr Corman!

An outlaw in Hollywood - The world of Roger Corman continues at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni until 29 April 2012.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Roger Daltrey performs The Who's 'Tommy' at the Auditorium Conciliazione

Roger Daltrey performing on stage in Rome - 23 March 2012

The Who's legendary front man Roger Daltrey was in Rome last week to perform the band's rock opera masterpiece Tommy. On arriving at the Auditorium Conciliazione on Friday evening to see the second of his two Roman tour dates it was already clear from the buzz of excitement in the foyer that this was going to be more than a mere concert - this was an event – with fans of all ages posing for souvenir photographs in front of the advertising billboards. After all, this was one of those “you had to be there” opportunities to hear The Who's 1969 album played live in its entirety, and sung by Roger Daltrey.

As the lights dimmed and Daltrey appeared on stage to thunderous whoops and cheers, and the opening notes of the Tommy Overture began, it became instantly clear that he had brought a stunningly good backing band with him (including Simon Townshend on guitars, looking and sounding remarkably like his older brother Pete). Moving swiftly on through the original recording with no banter - It's A Boy, 1921, Amazing Journey – it was also clear that Daltrey, who has been beset with throat problems in recent years, was in fine voice. Effortlessly charismatic and with his trademark microphone swirls, double tambourines and poses, he was clearly enjoying himself, whilst the enthralled audience was noisily appreciative - Pinball Wizard raised the roof - but curiously remained sitting, as if in respectful reverence throughout the whole Tommy performance, until very suddenly as the “Listening to you” chorus of the final track We're Not Gonna Take It began, the audience got to its feet and there was a rush, en masse, to the stage for Tommy's exhilarating finale.

Cue the second half of the concert, where freed from the discipline of the Tommy presentation, Daltrey now chatted and joked between songs during an amazing set of Who classics. Opening with I Can See for Miles, what followed was a eminently satisfying mix of both early songs - The Kids Are Alright, Pictures of Lily, a bluesy My Generation - and later rock anthems, with blisteringly good performances of Who Are You, Baba O'Riley, Behind Blue Eyes, which had most of the audience singing along, as well as The Who's frequent live cover version of Mose Allison's Young Man Blues.

To send us on our way from the concert two songs closed this unforgettable evening - Without Your Love from the soundtrack of the film McVicar, and Blue, Red and Grey, on which Daltrey played the ukulele.

Absolutely unmissable!

Full band:
Frank Simes (guitar)
Scott Deavours (drums)
Jon Button (bass)
Loren Gold (keyboard)
Simon Townshend (guitar)

Full setlist:
It's A Boy
Amazing Journey
Eyesight To The Blind
Cousin Kevin
The Acid Queen
Do You Think It's Alright?
Fiddle About
Pinball Wizard
There's A Doctor
Go To The Mirror
Tommy Can You Hear Me?
Smash The Mirror
I'm Free
Miracle Cure
Sally Simpson
Tommy's Holiday Camp
We're Not Gonna Take It
I Can See For Miles
The Kids Are All Right
Behind Blue Eyes
The Way It Is (solo by Simon Townshend)
Pictures Of Lily
Who Are You?
My Generation
Young Man Blues
Baba O'Riley
Without Your Love
Red Blue And Grey

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