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

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