An important and brilliant new work in the opera repertoire was given its world premiere at Blackheath Halls last night. Banished, composed by Stephen McNeff with a moving and sometimes witty libretto by Olivia Fuchs, tells the story of the 10,000 women who were transported to Australia for petty crimes two centuries ago. And crucially it puts these courageous, defiant and resilient women centre-stage, which was one of McNeff’s major aims because, as he said at the press conference to launch the work back in the spring, “female characters in opera are too often sad, mad or bad”. The work was commissioned by Trinity Laban, whose students provided the fabulous cast and orchestra. The six women soloists – sopranos Rebekah Smith, Lucy Bray, Katy Huntley and Susanna Buckle and mezzos Rebecca Leggett and Emily Gray – were particularly good and helped turn a fine opera into a great one.
This was the UK premiere of the Italian choreographer’s work Surprised Body Project, which is intellectually provocative, emotionally stimulating – and enormous fun. The piece, developed by Norway’s Wee company and featuring British trio Luke Divall, Ben McEwen and Tiia Ojala, was backed by a striking percussion-driven score played live, which added an extra layer of enjoyment for the audience at Greenwich’s Borough Hall who were already enraptured by this fascinating, relentlessly physical exploration of movement and space and the ebb and flow of existential coalescence and separation. And the Superman gag at the end was priceless.
Messrs Clapton & Co routinely name this veteran guitar hero as one of their major influences and he showed why at Oliver’s during Trinity Laban’s Inside Out jazz festival last week. Picking the strings using only his right thumb – the rest of that hand barely moves – his left hand was often a blur as he explored the fretboard in a series of great tunes, including the Freddie Hubbard classic Birdlike. Brilliantly backed by Martin Speake on alto, Andrea Vicari on piano, Tom Williams on bass and Tom Wright on drums, Mullen was even more dazzling when in ballad mode, ending his set with a heart-achingly gorgeous rendition of My One And Only Love. I first saw him play more than four decades ago when he was part of a prog outfit. My teenage self thought he was brilliant – my aged self thinks he’s even better now.
American percussionists Garrett Arney and Mari Yoshinaga created an extraordinary South American soundscape inside St Alfege’s parish church in Greenwich by using a dozen caxixi – tiny basketry shakers filled with seeds – whose sound encapsulates the complex, beautiful and primal rhythms of Brazil. The work, prosaically titled Seeds, was written by Leonardo Gorosito and Rafael Alberto and was the highlight of a recital that saw 16 Trinity Laban percussionists and composers showcase their skills. Other than Arx Duo, the standouts for me were Thomas Leach using a contrabass bow to play a vibraphone in Michalina Sobaszek’s lovely Languor and Isis Dunthorne and Malgorzata Kepa teasing tam-tam, snare and cymbal in Marcus Elkjer’s LHEJ, an evocative tribute to composer Lou Harrison and legendary jazz drummer Elvin Jones.
A swift recommendation… Take yourself off to the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens and have a look at Quick Light, the latest exhibition by the veteran New York artist. The portraits for which he’s probably best known are in short supply here but the central room contains two of the most gorgeous landscapes I have seen in ages, one a night-time scene in an urban park, the other a vast celebration of the green world. Exquisite. As a bonus, have a drink outside in the Bjarke Ingels Group’s temporary pavilion – it’s a stunner. Katz’s show runs till September 11.
Ten flautists joined forces in the chapel of the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich to give us a programme that embraced the traditional (Bach, Bizet and Boehm), the contemporary (a magnificent rendition of Steve Reich’s minimalist masterpiece Vermont Counterpoint) to the brand new – Georgia Cooke’s Morning After A Fantastic Night Out. Cooke is a member of this brilliant ensemble and led the performance of the piece, which was inspired by the grogginess of waking up after a night on the tiles. It’s awash with harmonic subtlety that captures the sometimes jarring, sometimes trance-like post-blowout state. There’s even a fabulously funny sequence in which the massed flutes explore the chromatic scale fortissimo to represent the polychrome horror of the technicolour yawn. I’ve never heard music before that so honestly captures the morning-after feeling – but who knew hangovers could be so lovely?
The real surprise of this show, subtitled Art And Photography From The Pre-Raphaelites To The Modern Age, is that the photos are, by and large, so much better than the paintings they either inspired or recorded. For example, DG Rossetti’s ludicrous Proserpine, modelled by Jane Morris, pales into insignificance beside the two brilliant photographs of Morris which accompany it. And Peter Henry Emerson’s photographs of the Norfolk Broads capture the quintessence of that raw, wild yet beautiful world so much more honestly than Thomas Goodall’s rather idealised paintings of the same scenes. The painters’ reputations are only saved thanks to magnificent contributions by Turner and Whistler. But ultimately this fine show helps you understand why figurative art has been eclipsed by abstraction. It runs at Tate Britain till September 25 .
There are only a couple of dozen paintings in this exhibition in Room 1 of the National Gallery but it’s worth devoting an hour of your life to them. The pictures, from the 17th and 18th centuries, begin with symmetrical arrangements then slowly blossom into the wild floral flights of fancy of Paulus van Brussel that make you wonder if the Dutch weren’t early European users of mescalin. For me, the highlight of the show comes halfway round the display. Flowers In A White Stone Vase, painted by Dirck de Bray in 1671, is a gorgeous jugful of black tulips, red and white chrysanthemums, blue periwinkles and red roses. In the shadow behind the vase is a bumble bee, while a tiny ladybird scurries across the marble mantle on which the bowl stands. The overall impression is hypnotic and deeply spiritual – and it epitomises the spellbinding allure of flower-painting. Catch this small but perfectly formed display before it closes on August 29.
Koons really is a Marmite artist – everyone I’ve ever met who knows his work either loves it or despises it . I’m firmly in the former camp, although with reservations. And his latest exhibition, at Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery in Lambeth, is a perfect demonstration of what’s great and grim about the American. The hardcore porn images look hopelessly outdated today but the rest of this selection, from Hirst’s own collection, is a must-see even for detractors because each piece shows off Koons’ fantastic craftsmanship and because the final room, with a 10ft pile of Play-doh wrought in stainless steel which is reflected in the perfect curve of a steel dome brilliantly disguised as an inflatable toy elephant, is nothing short of miraculous. Look and marvel. The show runs till October 16.