Harp-playing bards were once so influential in Ireland that Elizabeth I notoriously ordered the island’s governor: “Hang the harpers wherever found and destroy their instruments.” It was a command quoted with glee by brilliant harpist Lily Neill when she wowed Mycenae House with a miscellany of tunes from Tudor times and the five centuries since. A solo harp concert may at first sound of limited interest. But in this hands of a virtuoso the instrument becomes an orchestra in miniature – and it won Neill a rapturous reception from the packed auditorium. She began the gig with a gorgeous self-penned epithalamium written for a friend’s marriage, then let the lilting melody segue into the traditional Irish jig The Rolling Waves. She followed it up with Loftus Jones by blind 17th century Irish bard Turlough O’Carolan – a tune she once played as a 14-year-old with legendary Chieftains’ harpist Derek Bell. Neill peppered the rest of the concert with her own compositions such as Life On Wheels, a whimsical tribute to the case she uses to carry her harp to gigs around the world, and the wonderful Bedford Row which was the highlight of the first half of the evening. The second half was truly cosmopolitan, with a succession of tunes from Scandinavia, including an amazing Finnish tango, the 19th century American gospel classic The Wayfaring Stranger, the jazzy Black And White Rag – used as the theme tune for TV snooker show Pot Black – and the music hall favourite If You Were The Only Girl In The World. Neill and her 30-string harp were joined for the final section of the show by genius guitarist Clive Carroll who harmonised with a fabulous selection of Finnish, Swedish and American songs – and, of course, some foot-stomping Irish jigs and reels. I can’t remember the last time I saw a concert with a playlist featuring such a wide range of eras and genres. It was a treat for all of us who were lucky enough to be there.
The Carducci Quartet are one of the world’s finest ensembles – and their most recent recital, at St Alfege’s, showed why. The foursome opened with Shostakovich’s String Quartet No8 in C Minor which the great Russian, who had already spent decades in the shadow of murderous Stalinist purges, wrote after visiting the charred ruins of Dresden at the close of the Second World War. From the opening phrases, played in a rising sequence by cello, viola and two violins, the work miraculously captures the horror of such carnage – yet does it with startling and unsettling beauty. The quartet – violinists Matthew Denton and Michelle Fleming, violist Eoin Schmidt-Martin and cellist Emma Denton – encapsulated this paradox perfectly, provoking an emotional response that was at once agonising and ecstatic. They finished their recital with a similarly emotion-rich piece composed a century earlier – Felix Mendelssohn’s moving String Quartet No6 in F minor. It was as fine a recital as I have ever heard at St Alfege’s and a reminder of how fortunate we are in Greenwich to be the home of Trinity Laban, where the Carducci Quartet are currently an ensemble-in-residence.
The legendary photographer Tony Ray-Jones once called this country’s passion for the beach a “gentle madness” and the quote greets you as you enter the National Maritime Museum’s latest exhibition, The Great British Seaside. It is printed on the wall next to a series of sensational pictures taken by Ray-Jones in the 1960s, the starting point of this show which features four cameramen whose names are synonymous with this island population’s determination to enjoy the seaside even when an icy gale is blowing. One of the best of Ray-Jones’s pictures is of a middle-aged man in jacket and tie sitting in a deckchair on Blackpool seafront with his eyes covered by a white handkerchief – underneath his glasses. Another, taken at Broadstairs in Kent, shows a group of kids following Punch & Judy Man Peter Butchard, who later moved to Deptford where he died aged 99 in 2009. Ray-Jones – killed by leukaemia in 1972 when he was just 30 – spent the last years of his life touring UK resorts in a campervan on his restless search for subjects, always shooting in black and white. Monochrome is also the preferred medium of the exhibition’s oldest contributor David Hurn, now in his mid-80s, who continues to take seaside pictures in his native Wales. The absence of colour makes even his 21st century work look as timeless as Ray-Jones’s – yet neither of them ever becomes nostalgically twee or maudlin. That sense is exemplified by a shot of a girl in a bikini which looks as though it could have been taken yesterday. In fact it’s one of the earliest pictures on display. There’s a particularly fabulous photo of a Welsh beach deserted but for a distant lone surfer and, in the foreground, a large group surrounded by windbreaks. Hurn told me they were all neighbours from the same mining village street. His ration of 20 photos also includes an amazing shot of a woman snoozing in front of what appears to be a smoke-filled war-zone but which is in fact a crowded shore partially obscured by sea-mist. The exhibition, which neatly includes esplanade paraphernalia like deckchairs, resort benches and a cinema disguised as a beach-hut, then moves into full colour with two rooms of photographs by the best-known of the artists, Martin Parr. These pictures capture the garishness that continues to characterise the British seaside experience but also follow the lead of Ray-Jones and Hurn in stressing its timelessness. There is a brilliant picture of a woman in warm cardie and headscarf carrying a deckchair across the chilly-looking sand in Margate which encapsulates our never-say-die spirit. And as part of a commission by the museum of 21 new pictures taken at Essex resorts there is a great shot of a girl in a hijab larking about in the sea at Southend while close by is a man in Union Jack swimming trunks. In many ways it’s a perfect symbol for Britain today. The show finishes with a selection by the youngest of the four photographers, Simon Roberts, who gives us a series of wonderfully detailed deep-focus panoramas as well as close-up looks at that most archetypal seaside attraction, the pier. I can’t imagine the museum will ever surpass the photographic magic of its Ansel Adams’ exhibition of five years ago. But this fabulous survey of the British at play by the seaside sure comes close.
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We’re being spoilt for choice in Greenwich at the moment when it comes to seaside photography. Ordinarily, the show at the National Maritime Museum featuring legendary lensmen David Hurn, Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr would fulfil most art-lover’s needs. But last month also saw an extraordinary exhibition at the Greenwich Gallery by Kent-based Ross Andrews, who offered a view of the English seaside whose like I have never seen before.
Andrews dons wetsuit and flippers and immerses himself in the surf to photograph waves as they break on the beach. The 12 pictures on show at the Greenwich Gallery were all taken around Margate and Broadstairs – but some of them look as if they were shot off Hawaii. Two in particular – entitled Platinum and Green Room – were taken in the tunnel formed by a wave at the moment it crashes down on the shore. Both captured the staggering power and beauty of the sea. And the latter had such an otherworldly, eerie feel it could almost have been mistaken for a Hubble telescope photograph of a distant swirling galaxy. Other highlights of this fabulous show included White and Whisper, in which the sea-foam looked like ice-statues. Blue and Red were huge acrylic prints capturing two sunsets on the same stretch of water. And Beneath revealed an astonishing view of the shore as seen by someone half-submerged in the surf. If you missed this exhibition but have the opportunity to see another by Andrews in the future, grab it. Your soul will love you for it.
Legend is a much overused word when talking about musicians. But it‘s an entirely appropriate one when describing folk/roots powerhouse Show Of Hands, who played two sold-out gigs in the wonderful Sammy Ofer Gallery beneath the gleaming copper-clad hull of Cutty Sark. Multi-instrumentalists Steve Knightley and Phil Beer have been playing together for 32 years and despite selling millions of albums, winning countless awards and filling cavernous spaces such as the Royal Albert Hall they prefer the intimacy of smaller venues where they can get up close and personal with their adoring audiences. And boy, did the audience adore them at Cutty Sark as singer-songwriter Knightley and string genius Beer joked, told stories and performed a greatest hits playlist that included such classics as Fennario, Cold Frontier, The Man In Green, John Harrison’s Hand, the gorgeous Hook Of Love, The Preacher, My True Love, The Setting/Mary From Dungloe, Tall Ships, Exile and – my own favourite – The Train/Blackwaterside before ending with the rousing singalong Cousin Jack. They were joined for a couple of the songs by another legend, Geoff Lakeman, virtuoso player of the rare duet concertina, dad to superstars Seth, Sam and Sean Lakeman, father-in-law of Cara Dillon and old Fleet Street hand who spent decades as the Daily Mirror’s West Country correspondent. He had set the mood of this brilliant evening with a hugely entertaining half-hour opening set that included contemporary classic England Green England Grey, historical tunes such as The Green Cockade and self-penned polemic Tie ‘Em Up. It’s not often you get to see a master at work, so to see three at once like this was close to a once-in-a-lifetime thrill.
Brilliant Dutch jazz guitarist Jesse van Ruller showed just why he has such a towering international reputation when he played sell-out gigs on successive evenings at Oliver’s in Greenwich. Backed by Irish percussion virtuoso David Lyttle and ace bassist Conor Chaplin, he gave a masterclass in musicianship that left the audience wide-eyed with admiration and whooping with delight. The set I saw was bookended with storming versions of the 1960s’ compositions Serenity and A Shade Of Jade, both written by one of his greatest influences, American legend Joe Henderson. Van Ruller’s artistry was perfectly matched by Lyttle’s dazzling drumming, which even featured passages played with his bare hands, and by Chaplin’s astonishing runs on the double bass. In between, van Ruller played self-penned numbers including what for me was the highlight of the set, a gorgeous slow ballad entitled Memorabilia which showcased not only his talent as a writer but also his amazing ability to create a lyrical mood without ever losing sight of the essential rhythm that defines all great jazz. It helped, of course, that Lyttle and Chaplin were in the form of their lives, helping to make this truly a night to remember.
After the grisly horrors at the heart of Edward II and Lord Of The Flies, the decision by company-in-residence Lazarus to finish their Greenwich Theatre stint with A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a neat touch – and a joyful one. Adapted by director Ricky Dukes, the cast threw themselves into Shakespeare’s beloved comedy with gusto, slapping on the slapstick and revelling in the silliness of a plot awash with magic, mischief, myth, misunderstandings and metamorphoses. There were fine performances all around, with standout turns by Ingvild Lakou as Titania, David Clayton as ass-eared Bottom, John Slade as leader of the “rude Mechanicals” Quince, Tessa Carmody as Puck and Saskia Vaigncourt-Strallen as Helena. Stuart Glover’s lighting design, which transformed the fairies into points of dazzling white light, was inspired. And there were some great jokes – Puck’s urge to swamp the stage in apparently unending quantities of colourful confetti and the sheer hammy awfulness of the Mechanicals’ attempts to stage the classical tragedy Pyramus And Thisbe. Lazarus have impressed throughout their residency in Greenwich. I look forward to seeing them here again in the future.
The great diarist Samuel Pepys famously buried his block of Parmesan before alerting his family when flames threatened to engulf his house during the 1666 Great Fire of London. It’s one of the more unusual episodes of that turbulent periods of British history and it has been celebrated in a suitably unusual new work by Trinity Laban composition student Caitlin Harrison which was premiered at the Old Royal Naval College chapel by the conservatoire’s Wind Ensemble. Entitled Bury The Cheese, the 21-year-old’s creation was the centrepiece of an open day for Trinity’s Faculty Of Music – and it’s hard to imagine a better exemplar of excellence. It was scored for two piccolos, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns and a tuba. So far, so predictable. But for most of the time the oboists, clarinettists and bassoonists were required to put down their instruments and play their mouthpiece reeds like kazoos while the horn and piccolo sections dealt with uptempo cascades that must have been highly challenging to play. Meanwhile, the melody was primarily carried by the tuba and was performed with thunderous virtuosity by Joe Tucker. It was simply wonderful. It was also witty and wildly original – and was thus the perfect advert for Trinity Laban.