Belarus Free Theatre – The Show Must Go On

The eastern European country, Belarus, is often described as the continent’s last dictatorship. Its president, Alexander Lukashenko, has held on to power since 1994, and while the security services exercise tight control over dissent, since 2005, Belarus Free Theatre has been a critical voice in the country, promoting the works of Belarussian playwrights whose plays are banned inside Belarus, and holding an annual playwriting competition. This year, for the first time, the award ceremony for the competition was held in London. Jason Caffrey reports for BBC World Service, with following discussion with journalist Peter Pomerantsev and Politics professor, Julia Buxton. Presented by Paul Henley.

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Hooked on NMC


It’s becoming an addiction.

First I stumbled across Richard Causton’s Twenty-seven Heavens. We were once schoolfriends, so I was both chuffed and impressed to find recordings of his compositions.

Then it was a trio of London Sinfonietta Shorts – a series of what you might call contemporary music singles. I sampled works by Mark Bowden, Harrison Birtwistle, and Dai Fujikura. They went straight into the shopping basket.

Before the week was out I snapped up two collections of Oliver Knussen’s works in quick succession, and went back in for the remaining two Sinfonietta Shorts. After hearing what Anna Meredith does with the bassoon, I’ll never think of it in the same way again.

Today I was tempted by Jonathan Harvey’s Bird Concerto with Piano song. I’m already eyeing Causton’s new release, along with more Birtwistle. Judith Weir and Mark-Anthony Turnage beckon.

The source of this new-found compulsion? The NMC online shop.

Now celebrating its 25th birthday, NMC will no doubt be familiar to devotees of new music. For newcomers keen to explore contemporary music, it’s a rich seam to be mined.

Championing living composers, NMC offers flac and mp3 downloads as well as hard copies of recordings, plus a music map charting the connections between composers.

It’s true, I drift off to Presto Classical or Qobuz now and again, or occasionally drop by at Linn to drool over their high resolution, high price downloads. I might even swing by Deutsche Grammophon. But right now it’s NMC that I find myself going to first, and going back to time and again.

I can hardly get enough of the music I’ve found there – the unexpected and unthought-of sounds, the tangential, the majestic, and the thrilling.

Factor in quality recordings by top flight artists and my resistance is crumbling. Add a simple, stylish presentation with album downloads for under nine quid and it’s all over. I’m hooked and happy. Hit me again.

A talent for seduction

 Mariusz Kwiecie as  Don Giovanni and Véronique Gens as  Donna Elvira,

Compulsion for seduction: Véronique Gens as Donna Elvira and Mariusz Kwiecie as Don Giovanni.

As the Royal Opera House prepares for a live cinema relay of Kasper Holten’s new production of Don Giovanni, conductor Nicola Luisotti gives Jason Caffrey an insight into Mozart’s tragicomedy.

“I think every man has a compulsion for seduction.”

Nicola Luisotti is at the end of a day’s rehearsal at the Royal Opera House, but shows no signs of fatigue as we sit down in his dressing room to discuss Mozart’s great seducer, Don Giovanni.

“Of course there are men that stop this impulse,” he tells me, with an animation and charisma that sit comfortably with his Italian-inflected English, “because they think it’s better to have a wife, have children, have a family.”

Hear the full interview with Nicola Luisotti on the Thump podcast:

In this quiet corner of the Royal Opera’s vast backstage complex, the conductor for the debut run of Kasper Holten’s new production ponders the lasting appeal of one of opera’s most dissolute characters.

“If we are talking about impulse, I have to be honest I have this kind of impulse. Of course…I have to stop this impulse, because life calls me.”

“Don Giovanni has a talent to seduce women”

Don Giovanni’s calling though, is to a destructive and fatal path. “What he does,” says Luisotti, “is just follow this impulse, and follow all the women that he meets, just to seduce them – because what is important for him is not just to have a woman but to seduce her.”

And this production sets out to be very clear about Don Giovanni’s power over women. “Donna Anna can’t resist him, Zerlina as well, and Elvira. Probably there is something about the way he smells – he has a talent, an attitude to seduce women.” Mischief crosses Luisotti’s face. “I think women like people that are bad boys,” he offers, “and Don Giovanni is a bad boy.”

Luisotti has enjoyed a career that has seen him raise the baton in front of orchestras from the Berlin Philharmonic to the Tokyo Symphony and the Russian National Orchestra. He holds two musical directorships, at the San Francisco Opera, and the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples. “It’s exhausting,” he says, but “this is my life and my life is in the music. I’m dedicating my life – like a priest dedicates his life to god – I think that music is the voice of god so I’m dedicating my life to this voice.”

But for all his undoubted commitment to music – not to mention wealth of experience – Don Giovanni continues to present him with its own special challenge.

“The problem,” says Luisotti, “is the marble.

“Does the statue represent his conscience? He killed a man in the morning…”

“With Don Giovanni,” he continues, “there is a problem at the end when a statue comes on stage. A statue! It is impossible! None of us has seen a (living) statue before. I can’t go to the cemetery and invite a statue to dinner.”

The Don meets his fate: Alxander Tsymbalyuk as Commendatore, with Mariusz Kwiecie as Don Giovanni.

The Don meets his fate: Alxander Tsymbalyuk as Commendatore, with Mariusz Kwiecie as Don Giovanni.

To help the audience understand that they will see something in the finale that is impossible in normal life, Mozart probably wrote the opening symphony last, to prepare at the outset for the Commendatore’s supernatural entrance at the end – something that in Holten’s production, only Don Giovanni can see.

“It’s a projection that Giovanni has in his own personal mind,” says Luisotti. “Does the statue represent his conscience? He killed a man in the morning, during the assault on Donna Anna. And now this man is coming as a statue inside of him. He will be not able to escape. It is impossible to escape something once it is inside you.”

It was this idea, Luisotti tells me, which prompted him and Kasper Holten to commit Don Giovanni to a hell not of flames or fire, but of solitude.

To drive this story, Luisotti has spent hours studying the libretto, going “inside the text deeply, to understand what Mozart wanted to do.” It’s a task he views as a responsibility as well as a pleasure.

“Don Giovanni has his own planet”

“My duty is (to) let the music live again, like it was written not 230 years ago, but just this morning,” he says, “let the music be fresh. I think every conductor that goes in front of this massive work has to do the same.”

And Luisotti believes that this opera continues to speak across centuries from what was a special vantage point in history, standing apart in the Mozart canon.

“Don Giovanni has his own planet,” says the conductor, “he is alone in the history of the music – not just for Mozart, but for all of the other composers.”

By the time Mozart’s tragicomedy premiered, his Italian contemporary, Giuseppe Cazzanigi, had already staged a version of the Don Giovanni tale set to a libretto by Giovanni Bertati. It was a popular story across Europe, “but for some reason, in the hands of Mozart, this music became important.”

Perhaps, Luisotti suggests, Mozart’s talent tapped into the zeitgeist on a continent that was veering towards a historic and violent upheaval.

“Don’t forget we are in 1787,” he says. “In two years, we will have the French revolution,” a shock that reverberated across Europe, and one that would be compounded by the sight of French kings and queens going to the guillotine. Don Giovanni’s demise, says Luisotti, would have raised eyebrows.

“If you were to see a nobleman go to hell in 1787,” he smiles, “you know politically it was not so correct.”

Don Giovanni continues at the Royal Opera House until Monday 24th February, and will be relayed live tonight to more than 1,000 locations in at least 40 countries.

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Southbank halts Festival Wing plans

The Southbank Centre has decided to withhold its planning application for the Festival Wing, putting a huge question mark over its £120m plans to redevelop London’s riverside cultural quarter.

The move comes after London mayor Boris Johnson told a preliminary planning meeting last month that the undercroft skate-park that has been the focus of opposition to the plans should stay in its current location. A petition against moving the skatepark has gathered at least 27,000 signatures.

The Southbank wants to move the skatepark to a new site near Hungerford Bridge and redevelop the undercroft into restaurants – a move it says would generate commercial income to support other parts of its redevelopment programme.

“The skate park is the epicentre of UK skateboarding and is part of the cultural fabric of London…it helps to make London the great city it is.” – Boris Johnson

But with Johnson holding the final say over whether to grant the go-ahead for the Festival Wing, the Southbank Board decided its proposal would probably not get permission, leaving the scheme with a multi-million-pound hole in its balance sheet.

The centre says it has given itself three months to come up with an “alternative funding model”.

Describing it as a “big setback”, Southbank Centre Chairman Rick Haythornthwaite said there was a “compelling case for closing the project down right now”, but that the board felt it owed “a last ditch revival attempt to the many people that have supported us over the past four years of planning, not least the Arts Council England.”

Calling on Boris Johnson and Lambeth Council to come forward with ideas on how the redevelopment could continue he said he was under no illusions.

“We have been handed a massive challenge and we don’t yet see how we will make it work” he said, “it is not as if we haven’t already explored numerous options”.

The Southbank Centre says that, even with no new buildings, the refurbishment of the 1960s site would rely on new commercial income. It says redeveloping the undercroft would have achieved this, and points to the restaurants and retail units at the Royal Festival Hall as an example of how that model would work.

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Transmission Triple

Salon London awards its Transmission Prize, for the communication of ideas, on February 6th at Foyles on Charing Cross Road, London. Three special editions of its podcast, Pocket Salon, preview the award and introduce the candidates:

Olivia Laing on why writers drink, Prof. David Nutt telling it straight about drugs, and Lloyd Bradley on black music in London:

John McHugo condenses Arab history, Sarah McCartney on the evocative aromas and Prof. Barbara Sahakian on popping pills to make you smarter:

Prof. Tim Spector on how to improve on your gene inheritance and Aarathi Prassad on the changing shape of sex:

On the night theoretical physicist David Tong explains life, the universe and pretty much everything else along the way, QI writer Stevyn Colgan draws together the ideas that hit home in 2013, and Salon’s Helen Bagnall previews the coming year of big ideas. 

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A double dose of Benjamin Britten

It’s been a satisfying week for feeding the Benjamin Britten obsession. Sunday evening at the Barbican saw an extraordinary concert at the Barbican. Top of the bill was the world premier of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s Symphony No.10, but I was there to hear Maxim Vengerov’s rendition of Britten’s Violin Concerto. It’s a piece that has long been a favourite of mine. I first heard it on the 1970 Decca recording of the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Britten himself, with violinist Mark Lubotsky, and I have since collected a handful of recordings by other artists. But until Vengerov’s concert, with the LSO under Antonio Pappano, I had never heard it performed live.

Both violinist and conductor drew an astonishing level of detail from this concerto. Vengerov, showboating his expressive range, would attack hard through Britten’s rhythmic abrasions, pull back on lyrical arcs, release for cascading motifs, then charge back onto the front foot before closing a phrase on a single pizzicato strike that would sing to the back of the room. Vengerov recorded this concerto for EMI in 2003, and it seems he has combed the score, mining every mark on it for meaning and content. This was supreme command of the instrument in the service of an artistry licensed by a deep and detailed knowledge of Britten’s only concerto for violin. This is a piece that has always spoken to me of the sea, and alongside Pappano’s LSO, Vengerov painted it at its most beguiling, its most dangerous, tender and beautiful, but marching always to its own temper.

Another celebrated Britten seascape was on show at the ENO this week, with Stuart Skelton in the lead for Peter Grimes in a return of David Alden’s 2009 production. Edward Gardner’s conducting offered firm guidance to Skelton’s doomed protagonist, with Elza van den Heever as Ellen Orford, and Rebecca de Pont Davis as the David Bowie look-alike Auntie, among a clutch of excellent supporting performances. It’s an intense and focussed presentation of the suffocating hypocrisy of small-town England, which hastens the self-destructing Grimes to his end. I was impressed five years ago, and again on Wednesday night, although I did ask myself if this production has been overtaken by the more recent Midsummer Night’s Dream, and in particular Death in Venice. Nonetheless, this was a provocative and engaging Grimes, and one I was glad to have the chance to see for a second time.

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Les Sapeurs de Brazzaville: Made Of More

Jason Caffrey:

This is a nice mini-doco tied to the advert. I spoke to Italian photographer Daniele Tamagni, who photographed Les Sapeurs in Brazaville in 2007 and 2008.

“I learned that for them it is really a lifestyle, it’s something that’s a passion and part of their identity”, he told me. “It fascinated me the way they do a daily job and then transform themselves when they dress as Sapeurs. They are not all wealthy people – I recognise some of the people in the advert – one of them was a cook, he worked in a restaurant – some of them are employed.”

They make me want to go out and buy a new waistcoat and a bright pink shirt. Now where did I leave my gilt cufflinks?..

Originally posted on :

Les Sapeurs de Brazzaville: Made Of More is the latest venture into global style by Guinness.

guinness-congo-hed-2014It was something of a surprise to come across this latest Guinness advert which shines a light on Les Sapeurs – the Society of Elegant Persons of the Congo. These Gentlemen of Bacongo are mostly blue-collar workers who dedicate their leisure time to displaying an effortless savoir faire.

The Republic of Congo has experience civil wars and militia conflicts. After three coup-ridden but relatively peaceful decades of independence, the former French colony experienced the first of two destructive bouts of fighting when disputed parliamentary elections in 1993 led to ethnically-based fighting between pro-government forces and the opposition. A ceasefire and the inclusion of some opposition members in the government helped to restore peace. According the this short film, a relative peace has settled on Brazzaville and given these brethren renewed optimism and confidence. However…

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How the Whale Became


Jason Caffrey reports for BBC World Service on How the Whale Became, the children’s opera based on Ted Hughes’s stories, commissioned by the Royal Opera.

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Opera for grown-ups, opera for kids

Two very different productions were presented in London this week in the capital’s opera houses.

The Royal Opera previewed it’s children’s opera, How the Whale Became, in the Linbury Studio Theatre. Based on Ted Hughes’s short stories collection The Dreamfighter and Other Creation Tales, it is a new commission, composed by Julian Philips to Edward Kemp’s libretto.

Best suited to children aged five to 12 years old, it features a lycra-clad Peacock, a diva-styled Polar Bear, and a ‘garden shed inventor’ – God, in fact – who, played by each of the singers and musicians in turn, cycles through a variety of characters, switching gender along the way.

It’s a fun, slightly wacky show, and if a straw poll of a gaggle of eight-year-olds is anything to go by, it does a good job of keeping its young audience engaged and entertained.

A short walk away at English National Opera, the grown ups are offered Philip Glass’s Gandhi narrative, Satyagraha. ENO describes it as a ‘mesmerising musical meditation’, and Glass’s repetition techniques mirror religious mantra chanting. At times hypnotic, it can also test the endurance of some listeners.

My companion at Wednesday’s performance made it to the first interval complete with a sense of wonder, happily astonished at both the music and the production. By the final curtain though, wonder had turned to resentment. “It’s amazing!” had become “it’s too long!”.

Both productions show a readiness to step outside the safety zone, although I suspect ENO took more of a risk with Satyagraha than ROH did with How the Whale Became. There is little reason to doubt that the ROH production will justify comfortably its lengthy run across Christmas and into the New Year.

Satyagraha asks a higher degree of commitment from its audience, though for those who can reach the finish line with their good humour intact, it is perhaps more fulfilling. Although my own energy reserves were tested, I came away impressed with some outstanding performances, and marveling at the production. My only real niggle was with how the opera seemed to struggle somewhat to fit Martin Luther King Jnr. into the narrative.

The closure of New York City Opera earlier this year is a reminder of how lucky London is to have two opera houses, both ready to stretch out. To those that take the risk comes the reward, and both of these productions deserve full support.

Southbank Centre updates development plans

Southbank Centre has released a summary of changes to its planned re-development its riverside complex.

Night shot of London with Southbank Centre and Festival Wing scheme by FCBS credit Miller Hare

The full press release, below, leads with the benefits Southbank Centre says the development will bring in terms of its free events. Anthony Gormley recently suggested that it might be better to bulldoze the site and start from scratch rather than press on with the proposed revamp. You can see the plans for yourself on Lambeth Council’s website.

Southbank’s full press release:


Southbank Centre’s proposed Festival Wing plans will bring free art and culture each year to two million people of all ages and backgrounds. Overall, the redevelopment project is expected to quadruple the audience for festivals, events and exhibitions in and around the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Hayward Gallery and Purcell Room complex.

In addition to the 400,000 people each year who currently visit the Festival Wing complex for ticketed events, two million people will take part in an expanded free festival programme in the Festival Wing:

1.4 million visitors each year engaging in an expanded festival programme in the Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer, which is currently closed during the day, and the new Central Foyer space, the focal point for the Festival Wing and a spectacular display space for art installations, performances and exhibitions. The Central Foyer connects the Hayward Gallery, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and the BFI Southbank.

300,000 visitors enjoying the beautiful new roof gardens which triple the size of the current garden and will be open all year round, and performances in the new public square between the Royal Festival Hall and the Festival Wing.

50,000 children and young people engaging in an expanded free education programme in the Children’s House, Youth Village, Arts Education Studios and Big Backstage. Overall, 150,000 children and young people will benefit from our educational programmes each year.

250,000 visitors to new venues including the Glass Box, where visitors are brought close to the world’s great orchestras as they rehearse, experiment and perform; the History House, a dynamic exhibition space showcasing the histories of individuals, neighbourhoods and cultural movements that have transformed lives; and the Word Space, the first large-scale poetry and literature centre in London, including the relocated Poetry Library.

Jude Kelly, Artistic Director at Southbank Centre said: “We see this new development as a major part of our ambition to give away as much free culture as possible, having as profound an effect on arts centres as it had for museums and galleries. Because people know there is always something free going on, they are more likely to visit.

We passionately believe the arts have the power to transform lives and must be available to all of us. That is why free art and culture are so important to everything that we do. Our summer festival programme is an increasing part of London life and with the Festival Wing we can dramatically expand our Winter programme, making full use of the fantastic new venues we will create.

“Our Festival Wing plans enable us to touch millions more people with art and culture. This sort of opportunity does not come along very often and we must grab it. When Festival Wing is complete, people young and old, and from all backgrounds will be able to watch, learn, listen, engage, enjoy and be part of the largest cultural centre in the world, right in the heart of the greatest city in the world.”

Already 3.8 million engage in free art and culture each year during the Southbank Centre’s summer festival programme. A further one million people purchase a ticket to attend an event at the Royal Festival Hall, Hayward Gallery, Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room. 4 million people visit Royal Festival Hall annually.

This analysis of visitor numbers comes as Southbank Centre submitted updated plans to Lambeth Council following extensive additional consultation over the previous four months.

The project was paused in the summer, at Southbank Centre’s request, to give more time to consult all its communities. As a result, the Centre has made a series of design improvements to the plans, including pulling back the Liner Building three metres from the river front, providing detailed cladding to the Glass Box and developing the façade on Belvedere Road.

The consultation also included detailed design development of the proposed new skate space under Hungerford Bridge, to which Southbank Centre recently made a binding legal commitment ensuring it is permanently available to skateboarders. The final design for the new skate space was announced on 28 November.

The main proposed changes are:

  • The end of the Liner Building has been moved back from the river by three metres to improve riverside views and visibility along Queens Walk. One of the three columns supporting the Liner Building has been removed. This will open up more space between Waterloo Bridge and the new buildings, making the walkway more attractive.
  • The design and location of the structures supporting the Glass Box have been developed, offsetting the columns from each other so that they are asymmetrical. This allows the concrete ‘bridge’ between the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Hayward Gallery to be retained and will improve the setting of the Glass Box and the look of the entrance to the new Central Foyer. The external finish to the Box will comprise of pre-fabricated glass-faced cladding panels above the clear glass windows of the space. The detail of the glass cladding will create a shimmering façade, which will naturally change its appearance in response to changing weather and sunlight throughout the day and seasons.
  • A small new cafe in the Central Foyer has been added, opening out onto this area next to Waterloo Bridge, to help ensure that the space feels busier and animated. As with our other cafés and restaurants this will be carefully chosen so as to provide an interesting offer attractive to our visitors.
  • The Festival Steps (in between the Royal Festival Hall and the Queen Elizabeth Hall / Hayward Gallery) to the Central Foyer have been developed to make them even more welcoming. There is increased visibility of the lifts, the new foyer spaces and the Queen Elizabeth Hall Roof Garden, so that it’s even easier to get around the site.
  • The façade of the Children’s House and family-friendly cafe / restaurant on Belvedere Road has been simplified, creating windows that allow more light into the space.
  • The right balance between opening up the Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer and respecting and restoring its original qualities has been further explored. The amount of glazing planned on the corner closest to the river has been increased, to encourage visitors to come in and to help make the foyer more welcoming. The vast majority of the key architectural features that make this space so special will be retained.
  • The internal layouts of some of the spaces have been developed; to improve functionality and circulation for visitors, artists and staff. This has included further development of the audience access into Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room, and Hayward Gallery.
  • The interface with the existing BFI Southbank building under Waterloo Bridge has been developed including a prominent new entrance on level 2 adjacent to the new Central Foyer.
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