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Hanging gardens of Barbican - click opera
February 2010
 
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Fri, Oct. 23rd, 2009 10:22 am
Hanging gardens of Barbican

Performing at The Barbican last night felt like a bit of a homecoming; ten years ago I was living (on the last of my Japanese publishing royalties) in a penthouse flat just next to the vast and bewildering arts bunker. From the orange plastic-themed kitchen of my flat, which topped a 1970s office block, I looked out over the Barbican's towers, its raised concrete walkways, its ziggurat apartments cascading with plants.



The Barbican is, itself, all orange plastic and paint now, after a bit of a redesign inside. Once upon a time I'd routinely deplore this place, comparing it unfavourably with the light, airy, accessible, ingenious, flexible and futuristic Pompidou Centre in Paris. For a major, massively expensive arts centre, The Barbican is in the wrong place (they should have put it bang in the middle of Trafalgar Square), designed by the wrong people (most people know Piano and Rogers, but who recalls the faceless construction company that, between 1962 and 1982, put The Barbican together, painful piece by piece, on a site consisting of leftover rubble from WWII?) and has entirely the wrong attitude.

It's almost impossible to find the entrance. You go up some concrete steps, down some others, and -- unless you follow the painted thread -- get quickly lost in a warren of ramps and lifts leading to areas called "minus one" and "minus two", or to a glass walkway leading to a cul-de-sac with a view of a pond and some flats. You half expect to confront a minotaur.

But The Barbican has grown on me. It has its own charm. With age, it's becoming more weird, eccentric and unique. Yesterday, before running through the Brel show in the big theatre, I had a good rummage through the building. There's a fantastic installation in The Curve gallery just now by an artist with a Polish name, who's transformed the entire gallery into a musty warren of rooms in a 1941 military bunker.

The conservatory upstairs is -- like a lot of the complex -- evocative of one of those 1970s sci- fi movies set on an orbiting ecosystem; under graph-paper glass lush bamboo, orchids and koi ponds create a secret, empty world of paths, ladders, fecund plants, hidden upper walkways. It must be one of my favourite places in London.

Even the gents toilet at the back of the cafe is amazing. The big, solid quirky-yet-quality 70s fittings so typical of The Barbican (a chunky oblong tap that juts out of the wall) greet you, then a long curved, tiled corridor leads you to the urinal. Instead of sharp corners everything has rounded edges; ceiling panels, concrete detailing, it's all organic in the way they found futuristic back in the 70s, and yet also discreetly luxurious. Never has a building boasted more bowel-shaped "bowels".

The artists' quarters backstage are as warren-like and confusing as the rest of the complex -- it's as if the whole place is expecting an imminent visit from Ghengis Khan, and intends to fox, split, entrap and slaughter his army. To get backstage you have to come down a ramp, go through the artists' entrance, descend a confusing set of brass-handrailed stairs, go along a gallery past a "choir room" used, incongruously, for catering, descend another staircase...

Everything is curved, split-level, windowless. You aren't sure whether you're above ground or below it, on earth or up in space, in 1980 or 2009.

And then you're ushered to a side door by someone wearing headphones, down some steps in the dark, up some more, and suddenly you're standing in a vast room, singing an intimate, hesitant song from the stage, and behind the dazzling follow-spot two thousand people are sitting, listening intently. Some, you later learn, are weeping.

42CommentReply


(Anonymous)
Fri, Oct. 23rd, 2009 09:37 am (UTC)

You weren't one of the strongest performers last night, to say the least.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Oct. 23rd, 2009 12:58 pm (UTC)

Your's wasn't one of the stronger posts this morning, to say the least.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Oct. 23rd, 2009 09:42 am (UTC)

Barbican Brel less than brill

A concert performance of songs by Jacques Brel was a right old dog’s dinner last night, with some hefty, well justified booing for Diamanda Galas, the Greek Anatolian Goth, and an anaemic opening set by oddball Scottish rocker Momus in an eye-patch that drained Brel of all drama, rhythm and poetry.

The excuse for the shindig was Brel’s eightieth birthday (he died, aged 49 in 1978) and a Francophone season at the Barbican that was launched by Nick Kenyon and Graham Sheffield at a pleasant reception beforehand.

One of the guests was Peter Straker, someone who really can sing Brel, and I tried to drum up a petition in the interval for him to take over the second half of the show.

The second half, as it turned out, was infinitely better than the first, with the Irish (half French) cabaret singer Camille O’Sullivan laying down an a capello version of “Marieke” in Flemish with perfect enunciation and vocal vibrato.

Things flopped a bit with the arrival of a washed out looking Belgian rocker called Arno who sat on a chair and waggled his legs about, but Marc Almond did a fair, if too tidy trio of songs ending with a “Carousel” that caught the speed and the hurdygurdy of the song without really its dark heart and bitterness.

All of these singers, apart from Camille, were getting off on their own empathy with the great troubadour, as if their expression of that was a sufficient qualification to perform his songs.

It was the 1968 Greenwich Village show — Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris — that popularised the singer in the theatre community at least, and the original cast recording wore out several needles on my old gramophone.

Devoted Brellians are sniffy about that cabaret, and Mort Schuman’s translations, but very little in the Barbican evening rivalled the energy and passion of that recording.

There was something infinitely absurd about the French singer Arthur H declaring “Je Suis Un Soir D’Ete” as if possessed by the broken spirit of Tom Waits’s old grandad.

But nothing matched the sheer horror of Diamanda Galas — part Valkyrie, part Addams family — swallowing her own voice and misreading her own piano music as she thumped and screamed her way through the port of Amsterdam.

David Coulter, the concert organiser and musical director, thanked the Barbican for “letting us do this event.”

Which gave the impression that it was a sort of room for hire arrangement.

Jacques Brel is far too important an artist to be thrown at this lot. Where was the quality control? Why hadn’t Diamanda Galas been asked to leave the building? Why was the onstage orchestra so poor and the amplification system so dreadful?

The Barbican should make amends by announcing, and planning properly, a season of French chansonniers in appropriate musical settings: Juliette Greco, Brel, Serge Gainsborough and Charles Trenet would be a good start…


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Oct. 23rd, 2009 10:47 am (UTC)

an eye-patch that drained Brel of all drama, rhythm and poetry.

Might I suggest you get a new eye-patch for the Warwick show?


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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
theodor
theodor
theodor
Fri, Oct. 23rd, 2009 09:44 am (UTC)

I'm writing my MA thesis on this estate, and it may interest you to know that the Arts Centre was somewhat shoehorned in. It was conceived as a performance space for the Guildhall school, and and general amenity for the estate, but the brief ballooned to include cinemas, a library and an art gallery, and it became something rather larger than it perhaps should have been. That's why it's all underground.

For something that large, it is in the wrong place. A fortified oasis-like estate probably shouldn't have an international arts centre dumped in the middle of it. But it's there now, and I rather like the serendipity of it.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Oct. 23rd, 2009 09:45 am (UTC)

Rubbish Music: Carousel The Songs of Jacques Brel

An oddly shambolic concert took place at the Barbican tonight in what was supposed to be a show to highlight the music of Jaques Brel and his ongoing influence on musicians. Instead we had a band that drowned out the singers, half the singers sounding as if they had spent a bit too long at the bar, and a concert that looked and sounded like it needed to have a tech run and a rehearsal.

Some people loved this show and obviously had an affinity to the performers. I suspect however they would have been happy for them to read from the phone book. It wasn't all bad either, but when half the performances were so inept, many of those who were more interested in the music of Brel voted with their feet and left at intermission. Some of us stayed to see if it got better, but only after a stiff drink at the bar...

Part of what is amazing about Brel's music is its nuances and particularly its lyrics. But when you pump up the volume or get a performances that are just loud, noisy and atonal it all gets a bit lost. Perhaps if it was an evening of performance art that might have been a different matter and we all could have come ready to wail for the recently deceased and put up with all that self-indulgence.

The Barbican website playing clips of Brel only helps to underscore how it should have been performed so much better. Brel's influence wasn't so much on display as the a general contempt for the audience. Maybe Friday's performance at Warwick Arts Theatre will be better. I couldn't imagine it could be any worse...


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Oct. 23rd, 2009 10:21 am (UTC)

Hey, I'm digging having a press clippings service here, but could you say where these reviews appeared?


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Oct. 23rd, 2009 09:54 am (UTC)

Some, you later learn, are weeping

with frustration, by the sounds of it.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Oct. 23rd, 2009 10:05 am (UTC)

Great night. Spirited music-hall audience. No-one tried to impersonate Brel. The translations were vivid and modern. I wanted much more of everyone.

The performance felt intimate - “fat douchebag” could’ve been sung just to me.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Oct. 23rd, 2009 10:26 am (UTC)
dearie me

I am LOLing at the sense of bourgeois entitlement you'd need to believe that it was somehow OK to petition the MD of a concert to include your pal on the bill in the interval. Amazing.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Oct. 23rd, 2009 10:19 am (UTC)

You were not the worst thing in it, Momus, but to be honest the evening was a bit of a mess.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Oct. 23rd, 2009 11:16 am (UTC)

Well me and my pals enjoyed it, but of course we would, as it felt a bit like an extended Momus gig really, with somewhat under par sound and some distinctly Kabuki performances.

And why is everyone posting anon today? Come out come out whoever you are!

miles


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Oct. 23rd, 2009 12:29 pm (UTC)

Dear me, you're getting a right pasting today, Momus! And on your own blog to boot! Surely there be must a few more of your fans out there who attended.

I can't imagine your being a great fit with Brel, to be honest. Your voice is too feeble for his type of chanson. You're not exactly a belter, are you? But I didn't attend so who knows, perhaps your performance was "so wrong it was right".


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Oct. 23rd, 2009 12:45 pm (UTC)

I had a dream last night in which you had written a much-anthologized and beloved short story. I was assigned to read the story during a classroom test, and it began with an epigram from Morrissey. Shocked by the opportunity to read such a work, which instructed the readers to provide orchestral accompaniment when it was read, I kept flipping through the pages -- which were marked beautifully with verse and prose -- but couldn't read a word. I got up from my test, left the room, and hailed a cab. Then I took it right back to where I had originally hailed it.

I was down in love, spurned by women in the worst of unrequited relationships. Walking past churches which were grotesque parodies of the ones I grew up in, I had a revelation: I needed a man, not a woman. The story clicked, the music was understandable, and the words of your story were legible again.

-Kevin


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Oct. 23rd, 2009 01:45 pm (UTC)
Voir Un Ami Pleurer

Matilda, my daughter, and I enjoyed the show immensely, as I noted did the large group of people seated around us. I would have thought it was rather evident from the billing what the curator was trying/going to realise with the show. Galas is Galas and no Lena Zavaroni, and of course one feels like lying down after listening to her sometimes but I thought she set an interesting counterpoint. And indeed I was moved to tears on a couple of occasions during the performances, the opening rendition of Ne Me Quitte Pas by Momus and O'Sullivans version of Les Vieux. I really do think there is an unhealthy amount of preciousness around Brels music, and whilst the sound on occasion was not optimum I thought the evening a Flemish success!! In fact I've been trawling YouTube all day to see if I can find a captured clip of Arno's Bruxelle.

maf


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kineticfactory
kineticfactory
this is not your sawtooth wave
Fri, Oct. 23rd, 2009 03:30 pm (UTC)

The Barbican strikes me as an oddly humanistic example of Brutalism, and a relic of several bygone eras. The architecture looks like it belongs on a 1970s sci-fi prog-rock album cover, and the concept in general is very pre-Thatcherite, a product of a lost age of high-minded, public-spirited quasi-socialism when things weren't measured purely in monetary terms.

Walking out into the sunlight a few weeks ago after seeing Werner Herzog's Aguirre, with the Popol Vuh score still playing in my head, and beholding the late afternoon sunlight over the rectangular ponds, pillars and ziggurats was a pretty interesting juxtaposition.


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eptified
eptified
H. Duck
Fri, Oct. 23rd, 2009 05:22 pm (UTC)

I love the Barbican to death, precisely because you can get lost on it, and in it, and because the london school for girls is basically inside it. I am going to write a novel set in it one day.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Oct. 23rd, 2009 06:38 pm (UTC)

A curse upon the cynics, sneerers and toss-pots who wasted seats last night. The evening was wonderful, transporting, at times jubilatory, at times truly moving. Apart from the drunken, shambolic Gallic Worzel Gummidge that is Arno, each performer had panache, presence and real interpretive skill. The whole spirit and tradition of chanson makes it abundantly clear that there are many ways to inhabit (even embody) a song. And Brel’s works lend themselves so well to different sensibilities and inflections. (Indeed, I sometimes find the phlegmatic booming of Brel himself a little tiresome - though that varies a great deal from song to song.) Diamanda Galas reading Amsterdam as a city of the cursed, with savage piano stabs at every verbal twist, was characteristically ferocious and funereal but entirely within the spirit of the lyric and, to my mind, magnificently judged and delivered – as were her other renditions. La Chanson des Vieux Amants is differently devastating in her treatment, but still achingly beautiful. Camille O’Sullivan’s ‘Marieke’ and ‘Les Vieux’ were just as powerful as the Galas interpretations, but more through swelling tenderness and grief than morbid bravura. She’s a cabaret star in the best sense: although melodrama is intrinsic to the performance, there’s no innate opposition between theatricality and true emotion; O’Sullivan was visibly moved and able to transmit that state to many others through the power and control of her delivery. Marc Almond was in fine, feisty form, too: another consummate showman who works a room but who nonetheless knows how to make a song ache, and who blends humour and pathos instinctively and contagiously. Few performers can do what he and O’Sullivan do to, with and for an audience, and there are many who cherish them deeply for that. Quite right too.

And who (but a self-regardingly cynical git) could not cherish the man who opened and closed the night’s proceedings with such a consummate blend of irony and earnest: that loveable rogue ‘Nicky’ in his tongue-in-cheek spirit-of-Brel suit (complete with up-turned lapels: nice touch) who strode out into a stomach-flippingly vast, hushed auditorium and pulled off an impeccable, beautifully sung and shiveringly lovely ‘Don’t Leave’ (still the best translation by far), and whose reading of ‘La Ville S’Endormait’, with its many subtly different workings of the title-wording (lyrics on website, please!) refreshed a sense of the song’s mystery. Like so many Brel compositions, it’s almost wearily cerebral and yet irreducibly romantic. Momus understands this – and FEELS this. And I don’t think that understanding and feeling were lost on the better parts of the audience. The scathing slapstick of ‘Les Bourgeois’ came off very nicely too. As did the Brel-pastiche bouncing and jigging: droll, dappy and apt.

The finale was sublime: seriously cute, seriously stupid-arsed. If anyone has any photos of Nick, Marc and Camille on stage together as the unforgettable Beast with Three Jackies, please post them here.

Sometimes a concert makes me ache with pleasure so much I can’t sleep. It’s a long time since I’ve felt that, but last night was such a night. Thank you.

Jamesy


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bennycornelius
bennycornelius
Fri, Oct. 23rd, 2009 07:22 pm (UTC)

I really enjoyed last night too ... I think the ability of the line-up to polarise opinion as it evidently has is a good thing. I found some of the acts puzzling, some amusing, some fascinating, some terrifying (which is more or less how I find the Brel canon) but none of them were mediocre. Good choice of songs for singers. I couldn't have asked for a more interesting first Momus gig ... though I will now be expecting spotlights, 19-piece band and amble through a bunker at all subsequent shows.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Oct. 23rd, 2009 07:49 pm (UTC)
Benthamesque Brutalism

the bldg looks like jeremy bentham's panopticon; how anyone could romanticize this kind of inhumanity is amazing...


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Oct. 23rd, 2009 09:16 pm (UTC)

Well I wish I'd seen it, just for Momus's Ne Me Quitte really, but I did kind of see him. He was leaving the breakfast room of the hotel in Barbican just as I was queuing to get in. I stood aside to let him pass.

Nick, I would have said hello and introduced myself but at that time and place it would have been excruciatingly embarrassing for both of us! Nice suit!

Hope some of the show gets YouTubed. Best of luck for the next show.

Norman Lamont


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Oct. 23rd, 2009 10:03 pm (UTC)

Oh! Well, might see you at breakfast tomorrow, Norman, if you still there!


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rougeforever
rougeforever
Liz
Fri, Oct. 23rd, 2009 11:03 pm (UTC)

thank you SO much for tonight at Warwick. An amazing night. I will write more tomorrow - but your Ne Me Quites Pas was magnifcent -as was your whole performance. How have I completely missed your sense of humour all these years?


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