Thursday, December 11, 2014

Poetic musicality - Benjamin Grosvenor plays Liszt in Rome

Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia conducted by Kent Nagano

Santa Cecilia Hall, Auditorium Parco della Musica – 6 December 2014

Meeting Benjamin Grosvenor in Rome
When, at the age of nineteen, the prodigiously talented British concert pianist Benjamin Grosvenor appeared at the First Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in 2011, he was the youngest ever soloist to have performed at the event. The piece he chose to play on that occasion was Liszt's Concerto for Piano No. 2 in A major, and it was with this work that he made another début this past weekend, in his first collaboration with the Santa Cecilia Orchestra in Rome. I’ve enjoyed Grosvenor’s recent recordings enormously, so was thrilled by the prospect of finally seeing him play live, particularly under the baton of guest conductor Kent Nagano, who was last in Rome conducting another brilliant young pianist, Rafał Blechacz.

Salvatore Accardo once made a wonderful observation about Maurizio Pollini, commenting that he played not to demonstrate his own virtuosity, but to demonstrate the beauty of the music. I was reminded of those words on Saturday afternoon as I watched Benjamin Grosvenor on stage at the Auditorium. At only twenty-two his technical command of the keyboard is already formidable, but what really shone through during his performance of Liszt's Second Piano Concerto – ostensibly less of a showcase for flamboyant displays of virtuosity than his First Piano Concerto – was Grosvenor’s innate musicianship, and the grace and poetry he brought to the dialogues between the piano and the woodwinds and strings of the orchestra. His playing was a delight from start to finish. Grosvenor’s performance was short and sweet, however. Sadly, on Saturday afternoon the powers that be at the Auditorium prevented the pianist from performing an encore, much to the disappointment of the audience who had rewarded him with rapturous applause and numerous curtain calls. After such a tantalisingly brief, yet brilliant performance, I can’t wait to see him back in Rome again soon.

The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to Kent Nagano’s exploration of musical Romanticism, with all three composers on the programme sharing an obsession with repeated musical motifs or rhythms, opening with Wagner’s Tannhäuser with its leitmotifs, through to the “idèe fixe” which permeates the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz. A hugely rewarding concert that closed to noisily appreciative cheers from the audience.

Full programme:
Ouvertüre und Venusberg aus Tannhäuser
Piano Concerto No 2 in A major
Symphonie Fantastique

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Devilishly good! Daniil Trifonov in Rome

Sala Sinopoli, Auditorium Parco della Musica – 14 November 2014

Autographed Daniil Trifonov CD
Since winning the 2011 Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition, and sweeping the board at the XIV International Tchaikovsky Competition that same year, 23 year old Russian concert pianist Daniil Trifonov has been steadily making a name for himself around the world, garnering critical praise and performing at prestigious venues. When a concert pianist of the calibre of Martha Argerich publicly expresses wonder at the prodigious talents of a young pianist, one tends to sit up and take notice after all. I was mildly surprised, therefore, to see that Trifonov’s recent Rome concert was to take place in Sala Sinopoli, one of the smaller of the main concert halls at the Auditorium Parco della Musica, and that whilst reasonably full, the venue was by no means sold out. No doubt that will change in the future as his reputation grows in Italy too. Certainly the stunning performance he gave on Friday evening will have earned him many new admirers.

There’s a fearlessness about Daniil Trifonov that is apparent from the very second he steps out on stage. A brisk bow, and it was right down to business with Liszt’s arrangement of Bach’s organ Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, played with majestic boldness and assurance. Next on the programme was Beethoven’s final sonata, No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, another excellent choice that exhibited Trifonov’s extraordinary interpretive abilities as a performer. He brought a freshness and sense of improvisation to the sonata, with his formidable technique eliciting gasps during the most delicate pianissimos.

After a short interval, Trifonov was back on stage and already at the keyboard as stragglers in the audience were still returning to their seats, launching zealously into what would prove to be a remarkable tour de force – all twelve of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes. Clocking in at over an hour in length, a live performance of these technically challenging Etudes is a formidable feat of sheer stamina for any artist – and can be exhausting for the listener too - but Trifonov seemed, at times, a man possessed, unafraid to explore his own hidden depths, and push the capabilities of the piano as an instrument. His playing was so seductively demonic, one really did begin to wonder if he had made a Faustian pact with the devil!

The audience followed him spellbound on this journey and the close of the Etudes was met with rapturous applause. Trifonov was coaxed out on stage for numerous curtain calls and to loud cries of bravo! He did not, however, perform an encore. After such a marathon it was clear that he had given us his all. Remarkable – a must-see performer.

Full programme:
Fantasia and Fugue in G minor BWV542, transcribed for piano by Liszt
Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111
12 Etudes d’exécution transcendante S139

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Rome Film Festival 2014 | Festival Internazionale del Film di Roma

16 - 25 October 2014 at the Auditorium Parco della Musica

Geraldine Chaplin at Rome Film Festival 2014
The ninth edition of the Rome Film Festival, with Marco Müller once again at the helm for a third and final time as artistic director, has just drawn to a close. The annual kermesse may have seen a dramatic cut in budget and consequently a reduced number of screenings this year, but there was still plenty to enjoy, with a rewarding selection of encounters with both mainstream and cult filmmakers and actors such as Miike Takashi (winner of this year’s Maverick Director Award 2014), Park Chan-wook, Jia Zhangke, Walter Salles (Marc’Aurelio Lifetime Achievement Award), and Geraldine Chapman, as well as a varied programme of world cinema premières.

In many ways I enjoyed this festival, with its focus away from mainstream big budget movies and Hollywood stars, more than previous years - there were some truly wonderful films in this year’s programme. Russian director Alexey Fedorchenko – inaugural winner of the Marc’Aurelio of the Future Award, a new festival prize – presented the stunning and poetic Angely Revoluciji (Angels of Revolution). Award-winning Chinese theatre director Xu Ang was in Rome with actor He Bing to present his debut film Shier gongmin (12 Citizens), an engaging transposition of Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men exploring the contradictions and different social strata of Chinese society. The film was warmly received during its première and took home the People's Choice Award in the Cinema d'Oggi category.   

Jia Zhangke and Walter Salles on stage in Rome
Walter Salles’ work-in-progress version of Jia Zhangke, un Gars de Fenyang (Jia Zhangke, A Guy from Fenyang), shown ahead of its official world première in Sao Paulo, was a fascinating, and often moving documentary about the life and work of the Chinese director, who also joined Salles for an on stage discussion after the screening. Kamisama no iutoori (As the Gods Will), Miike Takashi’s latest gory, gloriously bonkers, and thoroughly enjoyable film, was given its world première in the presence of the director and its young stars Sota Fukushi and Hirona Yamazaki. I also loved Dólares de arena (Sand Dollars), directed by Laura Amelia Guzman and Israel Cardenas, with its mesmerizing central performances by Geraldine Chaplin and co-stars Yanet Mojica and Ricardo Ariel Toribio.

Miike Takashi on the red carpet
From the screaming teenage (mostly) girls who bivouacked along the red carpet from dawn on Sunday morning to see Lily Collins and Sam Claflin attend the première of Love, Rosie, and later that same day, Josh Hutcherson and Benicio del Toro for Escobar: Paradise Lost, to the 1980s music fans who greeted Spandau Ballet for the Gala première of Soul Boys of the Western World, and with Richard Gere, Kevin Costner and Clive Owen on hand to add a pinch of Hollywood glamour, Müller’s festival really did have something for everyone.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Benjamin Britten | Jamie McDermott | Conor Mitchell – Cabaret Songs at RomaEuropa Festival 2014

Teatro Eliseo on 15 October 2014

Italy still languishes behind almost all its European neighbours in recognition of gay rights, so much so that when the Mayor of Bologna, amongst others, recently started registering foreign gay marriages at the local municipality, Interior Minister Angelino Alfano sent out a circular ordering all Italian municipalities to remove these gay marriages from their registries. Mayor of Rome Ignazio Marino has promised he’ll defy this ruling and personally officiate at the registration of foreign gay marriages in the city this weekend. These registrations remain essentially “symbolic”, however, with no pending legislation on a national level in the offing. I am saying all this in order to properly understand and contextualize the impact of a performer like Jamie McDermott, who made a welcome return to Rome this week, and how his exploration of the history of gay song writing in the twentieth century, though a sophisticated selection of Cabaret Songs, inspired by the music of Benjamin Britten and the words of WH Auden, truly comes as a breath of fresh air in Italy. Most of the love songs to men in this show were, after all, written at a time of homosexual illegality, with the repression of homosexual desire their driving force. In this show McDermott throws the closet doors wide open with his gorgeous re-imagining of the Britten/Auden compositions.

Teatro Eliseo was magically transformed into an intimate nightclub, as McDermott appeared, not on stage during the opening number - Fallen Out of Love with You, a WH Auden piece, set to music by contemporary composer Conor Mitchell – but instead among the audience, moving through the red velvet seats, as if from table to table in some Berlin nightlife joint. It was the perfect start to what would be an elegant, refined, and also at turns poignant, funny, and wilfully camp evening. Admittedly, the performance wasn’t free of minor technical glitches – microphone problems, a music stand falling over – but these things only seemed to endear McDermott even more to the Rome audience, who had already been seduced by his glorious voice, with its operatic vibrato and soaring falsetto. Pianist Stephen Higgins – a dexterous and sensitive foil to McDermott’s vocals - also delighted us with his new Italian lyrics to Cole Porter’s Let’s Do It.

Musical highlights for me were Noel Coward’s achingly lovely Mad About the Boy, with new explicitly gay lyrics that were censured at the time, the Rodgers and Hart classic My Funny Valentine, and a wonderfully sultry Too Darn Hot by Cole Porter. Dermott seemed genuinely surprised by the warmth of the applause at the end of the show – “Are you all insane?!” - and was called back on stage for two encores, an exquisite repeat of the Auden/Mitchell piece After Sappho performed early on in the setlist, and a brief burst of Johnny One Note, abandoned in favour of My Funny Valentine.

Jamie McDermott will be back at Teatro Eliseo tonight with The Irrepressibles – Nude: Viscera. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The magic of Martha Argerich in Rome

The Orquesta Sinfonica Juvenil da Bahia conducted by Ricardo Castro at the Santa Cecilia Hall, Auditorium Parco della Musica – 15 September 2014

Ahead of the official opening of the 2014-15 Accademia di Santa Cecilia concert season on 25 October, when Evgeny Kissin will perform with the resident orchestra, September is dedicated to a series of concerts by four different international orchestras - Around the world in four orchestras - with each concert led by a renowned conductor and accompanied by an important soloist.

Monday evening saw the Brazilian youth orchestra Orquesta Sinfonica Juvenil da Bahia under the baton of Ricardo Castro joined by a very special guest – the legendary concert pianist Martha Argerich. Rightly hailed by many as one of the greatest pianists of our time, she is also a performer who is actively engaged in the musical education of young people, and is always generous and encouraging in her praise of younger musicians, so it was a joy to see her working with this extremely talented young orchestra.

For one reason or another, I’d never managed to see the divine Ms. Argerich play until Monday night. She retired from solo recitals some years ago, and while she does seem to have a busy schedule planned for next year, her concert appearances have become much rarer in recent times, and notoriously unpredictable – she has been known to cancel at the last minute on occasions. So when the house lights dimmed, and after what felt like an interminably long wait, the stage doors finally opened and the pianist and conductor appeared, I felt a wave of relief and genuine excitement. She is also known to suffer terribly from stage fright, and as if to assuage those fears, the Rome audience gave her one of the loudest and warmest welcomes I’ve ever heard at a classical music concert. The love for this artist was palpable, and she had yet to play a note!

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from the evening. Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no.1 is something of a warhorse, after all, and a powerhouse piece that Argerich has revisited several times in notable recordings. From the very second her hands first touched the keys – or rather, gently caressed them, such is the impression of her seemingly effortless technique - it was clear that the 73-year-old Argerich had lost none of her brilliant virtuosity, and that this would be a very special evening indeed. It was a performance of power and precision, but stripped of the bombastic, to leave a graceful, lyrical concerto, full of shimmering cascades of sound, and dynamic contrasts. She was mesmerising.

The roar of approval, protracted applause, and foot stomping at the end of the performance coaxed the pianist back out on stage for half a dozen or so curtain calls, before the audience was rewarded with an unexpected gift – an exquisite encore. It would be hard to think of a better close to her collaboration with the Brazilian Youth Orchestra, than the 1st movement from Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood) entitled Of Foreign Lands and Peoples. Sheer perfection.

I had fully expected the rest of the night to be a rounding out of the programme, but instead the second half of the evening saw exhilarating and hugely enjoyable performances by the orchestra of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, followed by a nod to Brazil with Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No.4.

When Martha Argerich reappeared from the stage doors at the end of the concert, and took a seat in the audience to watch the orchestra’s encore, however, we knew we were in for a surprise! Zequinha de Abreu's Tico-Tico no Fubá brought the house down, with concert etiquette thrown out the window as the audience cheered and clapped along as the musicians stood up and danced as they played! It was a wonderful end to a memorable concert.

Full programme:
Piano Concerto no.1
Kinderszenen No.1- Of Foreign Lands and Peoples
Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Villa Lobos
Bachianas Brasileira n. 4
Zequinha de Abreu
Tico-Tico no Fubá

Goran Visnjic presents ‘Extant’ at Roma Fiction Fest 2014

Goran Visnjic in Rome
Now in its eighth edition, Roma Fiction Fest 2014 sees Carlo Freccero at the helm, and a rich programme of high calibre television shows presented on the big screen. Sadly, however, very few international stars are slated to appear at this year's festival, so it was great to see Goran Visnjic tread the festival’s pink carpet at the Auditorium Parco della Musica yesterday evening. While Visnjic is probably best known to TV viewers for his recurring starring role as Doctor Luca Kovac in the ground-breaking TV medical drama ER, he was at the Roma Fiction Fest for the Italian TV Première of his recent US sci-fi drama Extant, in which he co-stars with Halle Berry. The actor took time to pose for photographs and sign autographs for fans before taking the stage in Sala Petrassi to introduce the opening episode.  

Extant will see its Italian television première on Rai 3 tomorrow evening.

Watch some highlights from the Extant event at Roma Fiction Fest 2014 below (or click here to watch on You Tube).

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sublime perfection from the mighty Mogwai at Luglio Suona Bene 2014

Mogwai on stage in Rome at Luglio Suona Bene
When Mogwai first appeared on stage at dusk on Friday evening at the Auditorium Parco della Musica, there was initially only a slow ripple of applause. This quickly transformed into huge cheers as this most unassuming of bands picked up their instruments, and after a brief hello from Stuart Braithwaite, the electronic glockenspiel chimes from Heard About You Last Night, the opening track from their new album Rave Tapes, rang out in the open air Cavea. The hauntingly atmospheric Friend of the Night from Mr. Beast, and Take Me Somewhere Nice from the even earlier album Rock Action, with some rare, and achingly beautiful vocals from Braithwaite, followed. It was an exquisite, understated, yet instantly compelling start to what would turn out to be an utterly exhilarating, and very, very loud evening.

Ostensibly in Rome to promote Rave TapesMaster Card and Deesh also appeared on the setlist, as did the infectiously catchy Remurdered, which even sparked a brief bout of spontaneous clapping-along from the audience, provoking an amused smile from Braithwaite – the band also dug deep into their back catalogue of some nineteen years of recordings, and included gems such as Xmas Steps, with a mournful and hypnotic violin solo by fellow Scottish musician Luke Sutherland.

I last saw the Glasgow post-rock band during the Auditorium’s Luglio Suona Bene summer concert season back in 2009, and I attended that gig as a Mogwai neophyte. I left that concert five years ago as convert who has listened to their music ever since. Early on during Friday night’s concert – about halfway through the euphoric crescendo in How to be a Werewolf, in fact – I decided that they might also be one of my favourite ever live bands. Conventional rock groups take note: in a set comprised almost entirely of instrumental music, played for the most part at jet engine level decibels, there was a total absence of aggressive, macho posturing, instead consummate musicianship was the hallmark of this mesmerising performance. The sound mix was also extraordinarily good, even at the most deafening moments. Lead guitarist Stuart Braithwaite is probably as close as Mogwai come to having a front man of sorts, and between every song he would thank the audience with “Cheers!” or “Grazie mille! ...Thank you very much.” Seated up close on Braithwaite’s side of the stage, it was hard to take my eyes off this charismatic performer.

Dominic Aitchison and  Stuart Braithwaite on stage in Rome
 Ominous slow-burner Mogwai Fear Satan built up to its blistering crescendo to close the concert, but foot stomping and cheers brought Glasgow’s finest back out on stage for New Paths to Helicon, Pt. 1. The entire audience was on its feet and those of us in the parterre seating rushed the stage for this final encore – “Nice to see you all up so close...Hi!” joked Braithwaite, before thanking us for coming and blasting us with the immensity of Batcat. Rarely does such an eagerly anticipated event not only meet one’s expectations, but exceed them so completely. Sheer perfection.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club® bids farewell to Rome on Adios Tour

Featuring Omara Portuondo, Eliades Ochoa, Guajiro Mirabal, and Barbarito Torres

Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club on stage in Rome

The return of the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club during the Auditorium Parco della Musica's Luglio Suona Bene summer season of concerts is an eagerly anticipated annual event, with the Cuban band playing to sold out audiences in the open air Cavea year after year. Thursday night’s concert, however, which once again saw the legendary Buena Vista Social Club veterans joined on stage by a new generation of talented Cuban musicians, under the baton of band leader Jesus Aguaje Ramos, marked the end of an era and the orchestra’s farewell to Rome on this, its final tour.

As the lights dimmed and the concert began, it was the orchestra’s youngest member, the hugely talented virtuoso pianist Rolando Luna, who first took to the stage. He sat alone at the piano to play Como Siento Yo as images and footage of original Buena Vista pianist Rubén González were projected onto a giant screen at the back of the stage. It was a poignant and fitting opening for a concert tour that not only celebrates the Social Club members who are no longer with us, but in many ways also signals the passing of the torch to younger musicians who are keeping traditional Cuban alive. Later in the show, seeing Ibrahim Ferrer dancing on the big screen as Carlos Calunga sang Bruca Maniguá was a genuinely moving experience.

Barbarito Torres, Omara Portuondo and Papi Oviedo on stage in Rome
As always, regular singers Calunga and Idania Valdés worked their charm on the Rome audience throughout the first half of the show, with star turns by guitarist and singer Eliades Ochoa and lute player Barbarito Torres eliciting cheers, but it was Omara Portuondo who received an instant standing ovation when she appeared on stage. Her adoring fans stayed on their feet clapping and dancing through La Mulata del Cha Cha Cha. There was a hushed silence, however, as the orchestra left the stage leaving her alone with Luna on the piano, and Ramos on trombone, for a wonderful version of 20 años, where she displayed all the warmth and range of what, at 83 years of age, is still an incredibly fine voice.

No Buena Vista Social Club concert would be complete without Compay Segundo’s Chan Chan, and it was this song, with vocals by Ochoa, which accompanied the video tribute to the late bandleader. At this point the entire audience in the packed Cavea was on its feet and stayed that way, swaying and dancing through show closer El Cuarto de Tula, and singing along with Omara’s final song in the encore – a lovely duet with Calunga on Dos Gardenias. Finally, after a frenetic and utterly infectious Candela, it really was time to say goodbye to this formation of Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club.

Adios...and gracias.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Last chance to see Hogarth, Reynolds, Turner: British Painting and the Rise of Modernity – final weekend!

Sir Joshua Reynolds was born on this day in 1723. He is currently one of the star attractions at a immensely rewarding exhibition at the Museo Fondazione Roma, in Palazzo Sciarra. Indeed, visitors to Rome over the last couple of months will surely have seen his delicious portrait of Lady Bampfylde used in posters for the show dotted about the city. The English portraitist may share top billing with pictorial satirist William Hogarth and landscape painter Joseph Mallord William Turner, but visitors will also encounter marvellous works by other major names – Canaletto, Joseph Wright of Derby, Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable, and George Stubbs, to name but a few – as they journey through eighteenth-century English painting and into the early years of the following century.

Divided into seven thematic sections - London, Capital of the British Empire; The New World; Towards a National Iconography; The Heroic Age of the Portrait; On the Spot Landscape: the Success of Watercolour; Variations on Landscape; and Inside and Beyond Landscape: Constable and Turner - the exhibition explores how British art evolved from the continental painting traditions of the eighteenth century into an authentically new British school, with its own distinctly “modern” artistic identity, in the nineteenth century.

The City Seen through an Arch of Westminster Bridge
(Collection of the Duke of Northumberland)
Setting the scene for the dramatic social, economic and cultural upheavals to come, the show opens with a series of highly evocative views of eighteenth-century London on the cusp of industrialisation, with Canaletto’s light filled scenes of the Thames and Westminster Bridge (1747) contrasting beautifully with the first factory smokestacks seen in William Marlow’s View of the Adelphi from the River Thames (1789).

There’s a wonderful portrait of Johann Christian Bach by Thomas Gainsborough in the second section, a room which celebrates the great and the good in a changing world order, where composers, such as Bach, but also painters, actors, boxers, scientists, industrialists, and explorers were all lauded through the genre of portraiture. Gazing upon Wright of Derby’s A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery in which a Lamp is put in Place of the Sun is worth the entrance price alone.

William Hogarth’s hugely popular satirical paintings attacking the upper classes of eighteenth-century society - Marriage à-la-mode - were also engraved and achieved wide circulation as prints, so it is fitting that the Thomas Cook etchings are represented in the third section, while Henry Fuseli’s huge, and often nightmarish Shakespearean-themed paintings dominate the rest of the space.

Johann Zoffany
Fra Giovanni Poggi Magnano
(Galleria degli Uffizi, Firenze)
There are some simply stunning portraits in the fourth room. The section is dedicated predominantly to Gainsborough and Reynolds – Gainsborough’s portrait of his friend the politician William Wollaston, in which he holds the attributes of a musician, is exquisite – but don’t miss Johann Zoffany’s portrait of Fra Giovanni Poggi Magnano on loan from the Uffizi.

The invention of watercolour painting and the immediacy and freedom to create “on the spot” landscape sketches is the focus of the fifth section, with several poetic Alpine and Italian views by watercolour pioneer John Robert Cozens, including the strange and atmospheric The castle of Sant' Elmo, Naples (1790). The inclusion of a Thomas Reeves & Sons early paintbox from 1790 is a delightful addition to this room.

The Valley of the Stour with Dedham in the distance
(Victoria and Albert Museum)
The final two sections are dedicated exclusively to landscape painting, with the final room bringing us into the nineteenth century and putting two of Britain’s greatest painters centre stage – Constable and Turner. Gazing at Constable’s The Valley of the Stour with Dedham in the distance (1800-1805) I was struck by the utterly timeless quality of this beautiful, quintessentially English view. It is with Turner’s landscapes, however, a pinnacle of achievement in English painting, that the “modernity” of the exhibition’s title, is reached. Looking at works such as Tivoli, the Cascatelle (c.1827–8), the distance between Turner, a true visionary, ahead of his time, and twentieth-century artists such as Cy Twombly, suddenly seems very small.

Tivoli, the Cascatelle

Exhibition catalogue by Skira
If you’re unable to catch this wonderful show, I can highly recommend the English language catalogue with illuminating essays, detailed information about the works on display, as well as good quality reproductions of the paintings. Click here to visit publisher website.

Hogarth, Reynolds, Turner: British Painting and the Rise of Modernity is curated by Carolina Brook and Valter Curzi and continues at the Museo Fondazione Roma, Palazzo Sciarra (entrance on Via Marco Minghetti) until Sunday 20 July, 2014.

Copyright on all images in this post as indicated (web-resolution, fair use rationale). 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Massive Attack, massive sound at Luglio Suona Bene 2014

Massive Attack on stage in Rome
The 12th edition of Luglio Suona Bene, the annual open air concert season at the Auditorium Parco della Musica in Rome, got off to a rocky start this year with three artists – Jeff Beck, Rufus Wainwright, and Tom Odell – forced to cancel concerts at the last minute, making the M.I.T Meet in Town appointment with Massive Attack the first international event so far.

Dusk was slowly turning into night yesterday evening when the Bristolian trip hop pioneers took to the Cavea stage to whoops and cheers from the capacity crowd, and launched into the hypnotic Battle Box 001, with United Snakes and Risingson following in quick succession. More than simply a concert, a Massive Attack show is a multimedia spectacle blurring the edges between music and performance art, with the band engulfed in clouds of dry ice and silhouetted against huge screens. During the show we were lambasted visually with false flags, advertising logos, Iraq war statistics, Internet searches, and ticker tape news headlines (in Italian), with the audience cheering occasionally at the odd local news story. It was a fascinating examination of present society's banalising of news and politics into sound bites, mixed with gossip and entertainment tidbits.

Horace Andy with Massive Attack in Rome
Ultimately, however, it was the music - the sheer immensity of sound – that one took away from the evening. With no new album or product to promote, last night’s concert was an exhilarating “best of” journey through the band’s entire career, visiting tracks from Blue Lines, Mezzanine, 100th Window, and Heligoland, with band stalwarts Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja and Grant ‘Daddy G’ Marshall joined by regular live collaborators on the signature Massive Attack songs – notably the excellent Martina Topley-Bird providing the vocal on Teardrop, Horace Andy’s stand-out performance of the evening on Angel, and Deborah Miller’s stunning vocals on Unfinished Sympathy during the final encore. Utterly compelling.

Martina Topley-Bird with Massive Attack in Rome

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Pope Francis floral portrait at Rome’s Infiorata

Pope Francis at the 2014 Infiorata Romana
Rome celebrated the feast day of the city’s patron saints, Peter and Paul on Sunday with a spectacular carpet of flowers along Via della Conciliazione and in Piazza Pio XII, near Piazza San Pietro. The traditional Infiorata Romana included a portrait of Pope Francis, as well as designs based on paintings by Italian old masters such as Botticelli.

Madonna del Magnificat in flowers, by candlelight

Infiorata Romana

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Rome Mayor attends 20th Roma Pride Parade

Mayor of Rome Ignazio Marino (on left, wearing tricolour sash) at Roma Pride 2014
Roma Pride celebrated its twentieth anniversary in grand style yesterday with a huge turn out – 200,000 of us marched in the blazing sunshine from Piazza della Repubblica to Via dei Fori Imperiali – and with none other than Mayor of Rome Ignazio Marino at the head of the parade. Whilst the presence of the first citizen might be considered normal in any other European capital, in Rome this was only the second time a Rome mayor had attended Pride since Francesco Rutelli appeared at the inaugural edition in 1994. Marching behind the slogan “Adesso fuori i diritti” (Now give us our rights), Marino reconfirmed his election campaign promise to create a local register of civil unions for same-sex couples in the city and expressed his full support for LGBT rights.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Standing ovation for Ted Neeley and cast of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ at Rome opening!

Opening night at Il Sistina
There was a buzz of excitement in the air in the packed foyer of Teatro Sistina in Rome yesterday evening. Some forty years after appearing as Jesus in Norman Jewison’s big screen version of the Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Jesus Christ Superstar, and thousands of stage performances in the role, Ted Neeley was about to tread the boards in those famous sandals for the first time ever before a European audience.

Italian rock group Negrita were to play live on stage throughout the show, with the band’s frontman Pau in the part of Pontius Pilate, so I wasn’t too surprised to see so many young faces in the audience, but as the curtain went up it became clear that people of all ages were there to see its star, Ted Neeley, whose first appearance on stage elicited a huge cheer. When he started to sing, in a voice made richer and deeper by the passage of time, but with all the power and range of a man half his age, the audience cheered even louder. So electrifying, in fact, was his performance that the musical was quite literally brought to a halt on several occasions by spontaneous applause, with an extraordinary protracted standing ovation mid-song during Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say).

There were also some fine supporting performances from fellow cast members – I particularly enjoyed Shel Shapiro and Paride Acacia’s moments together on stage as Caiaphas and Annas, Pau’s languid Pilate's Dream, and Emiliano Geppetti’s turn as Simon the Zealot. The revelation of this production, however, was surely newcomer Feysal Bonciani as Judas, whose vocal dexterity and charismatic stage presence were reminiscent of the late, great Carl Anderson.

The production boasts some ingenious set designs by Giancarlo Muselli and Teresa Caruso, which make excellent use of the limited stage space available at Teatro Sistina, and through the use of large projected images skillfully introduce the anachronistic elements common to all productions.

The audience reaction was ecstatic at the close of the show, with a standing ovation lasting 15 minutes and even an encore sung by Judas. Truly amazing!

This special twentieth anniversary production of the Italian stage version of Jesus Christ Superstar, directed by Massimo Romeo Piparo and presented in English, will run until 1st June 2014 – catch it if you can if you’re in Rome over the next few weeks. It’s a must see!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Gregory Porter’s Liquid Spirit in Rome

Auditorium Parco della Musica - 10 April, 2014

Liquid Spirit CD autographed by Gregory Porter in Rome
When I first heard Gregory Porter singing Be Good on YouTube I fell in love with his voice in a heartbeat. While I was born too late to see Nat King Cole, Marvin Gaye or Ray Charles perform on stage, I now feel truly privileged to have seen Gregory Porter – whose own jazz-meets-soul voice seems to combine something of all three – in concert. Hearing that glorious baritone voice live on Thursday evening at the Auditorium Parco della Musica in Rome convinced me that he may well possess the greatest voice of our time. Porter has released three albums so far, Water, Be Good, and the recent Grammy-winner Liquid Spirit, but as he opened with Painted on Canvas from his second album, it became instantly clear that these recordings, as great as they are, pale in comparison to the sheer immensity and warmth of his voice in concert.

Gregory Porter is a hugely charismatic performer. From the second this gentle giant of a man appeared on stage wearing his ubiquitous “jazz hat”, smiling in acknowledgement of the spontaneous cheer from the audience, he completely seduced us - not only with his voice, but also by his elegant stage presence. Together with his extremely talented quartet of musicians - Chip Crawford on piano, Yosuke Sato on alto sax, bassist Aaron James, and drummer Emanuel Harrold, who all performed captivating solos during the show - Porter cast a magic spell in Rome, and transformed the thousand-seater Sala Sinopoli concert hall into an intimate jazz club.

Ostensibly in Rome to promote Liquid Spirit, there were plenty of songs from this album. Presenting the title track early on in the evening, he invited the audience to “Clap your hands on the two and the four and if you want to wiggle in your seats, that would be okay too...” . Rome audiences are some of the most enthusiastic clappers-along I’ve ever known, and indeed this proved a sure fire way of ratcheting up the atmosphere to a peak of enthusiasm that never seemed to diminish throughout the entire show. Rome clearly loves Gregory Porter, and he rewarded his Roman fans with an impromptu nod to Sam Cooke and a tantalizingly brief lyric from Rome wasn’t built in a day.

In such a consistently perfect performance from an artist with such an enormous range of moods, and a dextrous ability to shift across genres mixing gospel, blues, and soul influences into his jazz, it is extremely difficult to pick any single highlights. Certainly Wolfcry, which saw Porter alone on stage with only the accompaniment of Crawford on piano, was mesmerising; Lonesome Lover segued brilliantly into Hit the Road Jack and was an enormous crowd pleaser; No Love Dying, Work Song and Be Good featured impressive solos from the band; and the impassioned civil rights anthem 1960 What? with an a cappella audience singalong at the end was the perfect choice after Musical Genocide, Porter’s condemnation of disposable market-driven pop.

Back on stage for an encore after thunderous applause Porter eased the evening to a close with a lovely Real Good Hands, before greeting fans and signing autographs in the Auditorium Bookstore after the show. Getting to meet and shake hands with the man himself was the perfect end to a wonderful evening. As Nat King Cole once sang...Unforgettable.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Elegance and flair – Lang Lang plays Prokofiev in Rome

Santa Cecilia Hall, Auditorium Parco della Musica – 1 March 2014

Fresh from sharing the stage with Metallica at the recent Grammy Awards in one of the most unlikely pairings of the ceremony, Chinese classical pianist Lang Lang was back in Rome at the weekend with the more familiar accompaniment of the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia under the baton of the orchestra’s very own Sir Antonio Pappano. Certainly, the Metallica gig will do little to endear Lang Lang to music critics who abhor his showmanship – it’s hard to think of a contemporary classical musician capable of polarising critical opinion so dramatically – but there’s no denying his drawing power. For this concert at the Santa Cecilia Hall I had chosen seats behind the stage – perfect for watching Lang Lang’s hands, and noticing his constant interaction with the orchestra and conductor – and I watched amazed as the 2,800 seat hall slowly filled to sold-out capacity.

When bestselling Harry Potter author JK Rowling recently published a thriller under a pseudonym the book garnered rave reviews from critics. Reading the exaggeratedly scathing reviews of Lang Lang recordings and concerts I often wonder whether the prodigiously talented pianist should attempt a similar ruse in order to free himself from the preconceived ideas about his playing and force critics to listen without prejudice. I remain an unrepentant admirer of Lang Lang, both as a performer and as an extraordinary global ambassador for classical music. I’ve been enjoying his recent Prokofiev 3 Bartók 2 CD with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and was very much looking forward to hearing him play Prokofiev’s challenging Piano Concerto No. 3 in Rome.

Lang Lang signing CDs after concert!
If he is at all bothered by his press, it certainly didn’t show on Saturday afternoon, when a relaxed and smiling Lang Lang strolled out onto the stage, looking utterly composed, nodding his acknowledgment to the audience (including those of us seated in the rear gallery) who greeted his appearance with loud applause. And what a wonderful concert it turned out to be! Lang Lang is immensely suited to a work of such dramatic contrasts in mood, and he effortlessly shifted gears through the lyricism, wit, and melancholy mystery that the piece demands. His technical accuracy is always breathtaking, and the sheer flair and brilliance of his playing can be utterly thrilling at times, but as he enters a new, more mature phase in his virtuoso career, it quickly became clear that he is now bringing something truly poetic to the mix – this was beautiful, limpid playing.

Lang Lang’s sheer enjoyment of performing is clear, and when he returned to the stage during the thunderous applause after the concerto, we were treated to an exquisite and subtle encore of Manuel Ponce’s Intermezzo – just amazing.

The entire programme on Saturday was hugely rewarding. The afternoon opened with the debut performance by the Santa Cecilia Orchestra of Meyerbeer’s Overture from Dinorah, which included a choral part sung by the Coro dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. Unseen by the audience, the choir performed outside the rear stage gallery where I was sitting. Hearing the effect of distant voices behind me was a magical experience. The concert concluded with an exhilarating performance of Symphony No. 3 in C minor by Camille Saint-Saëns, which unusually includes a pipe organ to reinforce the orchestral sound. An immensely enjoyable afternoon!

Full programme:
Dinorah: Ouverture
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26 
Symphony No. 3 in C minor 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

River Tiber at dangerously high levels

River Tiber, Castel Sant'Angelo and Ponte Sant'Angelo
1 February, 2014
Days of incessant rain have brought floods north of Rome and the swollen River Tiber has risen to dramatically high levels in the city. When the rain briefly turned to drizzle yesterday afternoon I took a stroll to Castel Sant'Angelo where the Tevere had almost reached the arches of Ponte Sant'Angelo. Later that evening the Tiber rose to almost 13 metres at high tide.

I shot this video from Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II bridge. Watch below or click here to watch on YouTube.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Spellbinding - Yuja Wang plays Prokofiev in Rome

Santa Cecilia Hall, Auditorium Parco della Musica – 18 January 2014

Less than two months after her last appearance in Rome in the company of Leonidas Kavakos, the utterly amazing Yuja Wang was back at the Auditorium Parco della Musica on Saturday, this time under the baton of conductor Sir Antonio Pappano, musical director of the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. Yuja’s recently released live recording with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 has rarely left my CD player over the last few weeks, so I couldn’t wait to hear her perform Prokofiev’s colossal, yet intricate, work in Rome.

CD autographed by Yuja Wang after concert!
With her hugely charismatic personality and flamboyant sartorial choices Yuja Wang excites interest from the very second she appears on stage – her skintight dresses and stiletto heels inevitably provoke gasps – but it is ultimately the breathtaking brilliance of her pianism that leaves her audiences bedazzled. On Saturday afternoon she appeared to achieve the impossible, and to trump even herself, in a performance of mesmerising artistry that held the Rome concert-goers utterly captivated. Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto is a notoriously complex work, unrelenting in the physical demands it makes on the soloist, with absolutely no respite for the pianist at any point. The cadenza during the opening movement alone is a terrifying beast clocking in at six minutes in length, executed by Yuja with an enthralling lyricism infused with pummeling menace. Throughout this enigmatic and fantastical concerto she was given marvellous support by Pappano and the orchestra – I particularly loved the complicity of orchestra and soloist during the Intermezzo, which managed to be sinister, threatening and playful all at once.

It was an exhilarating performance of virtuoso technical brilliance, played fearlessly by one of the most talented young concert pianists in the world today. The applause was thunderous and Yuja was called back out for four curtain calls. There was an audible sigh of fleeting disappointment when it became clear that there would be no encore, but after such a formidable performance, it was clear that Yuja had given us her all. Stunning.

The evening was rounded out after the intermission by the melancholy elegance of Brahms Symphony No. 2. A greater contrast would be hard to find, but it acted beautifully as a virtual decompression chamber after Yuja’s electrifying Prokofiev.

Full programme:
Symphony No. 59 “Fire”
Piano Concerto No. 2
Symphony No. 2

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