London 2013: Classical Music, Ballet, Dance and Opera


It's not so much Back to the Future as Back to Futurism this year, says Rachel Halliburton

Three major celebrations of music from the first part of the twentieth century - 'The Rest Is Noise', 'Dancing Around Duchamp', and 'A String of Rites' - will immerse audiences in the thrilling turbulent atmosphere that heralded the avant-garde. For those more guarded about their avants, it's also the centenary of Benjamin Britten, whose aversion to much of the experimentalism surrounding him attracted scorn in his lifetime. Today however, he is the most performed British composer worldwide. That will be marked not just by the performance of all his works across the UK (including his 14 operas) and a central position in this year's Proms, but also by the Royal Mint's release of a new coin bearing his image.

'Why did the Holocaust change the course of music for ever? How did America, through the CIA, become the biggest funder of avant-garde composers?' These are just two questions posed by Jude Kelly, artistic director of the Southbank Centre, in her introduction to 'The Rest Is Noise' festival. When the music critic of the New Yorker Alex Ross published his book of the same name in 2008, he instantly spawned a devoted following with his brilliant analysis of the cataclysmic cacophonous century into which he had been born. This, then, is the ultimate tribute, a season of talks, concerts, films and art installations, kicking off with the London Philharmonic Orchestra's performance of Strauss's 'Salome' and bringing audiences right up to the last millennium. En route you can tune in to such delights as 'Zeitgeist: Dance of the Machines' - an adventure into Paris featuring pianola, aircraft propellers and electric bells; Kurt Weill's 'The Threepenny Opera' conducted by Vladimir Jurowski; the festival's featured artist, Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan singing Schoenberg, Alma Mahler, and Berg; and Messiaen's 'Quartet for the End of Time' performed by the Capuçon Brothers, pianist Denis Kozhukin and clarinettist Jorg Widmann.

Lang Lang shows off his magic fingers; Akram Khan's 'iTMOi' at Sadler's Wells; Philip Glass's Disney-inspired opera 'The Perfect American'

In pleasing counterpoint to this season is the Barbican's 'Dancing Around Duchamp', dedicated to the French artist who famously detonated his first piece of controversy at the New York Armory Show in 1913 with his painting 'Nude Descending A Staircase'. This cross-disciplinary celebration will include two dance works. Legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham's 'Rain Forest' will be performed by the Rambert Dance Company, while the electrically exciting Richard Alston Dance Company will recreate extracts from Cunningham's repertoire in 'Event'. Composer John Cage will also feature - not least in a talk given by director Robert Wilson who will give Cage's talk on 'Nothing', famously based on musical principles (main picture).

It's unlikely that the multi-disciplinary exuberance surrounding the performance of avant-garde music will lead to the sacrifice of a virgin - say - on the South Bank. But there will be plenty of tributes to the piece of music that evokes this, Stravinsky's 'The Rite of Spring'. In February it will be performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, while later in the year Sadler's Wells will introduce 'A String of Rites', three works inspired by this radical moment in the history of both music and ballet. At the wildly beating heart of the season is choreographer Akram Khan's 'iTMOi' ('In The Mind of Igor'), which bravely bypasses Stravinsky's own music to celebrate him with a new work by Nitin Sawhney, Jocelyn Pook and Ben Frost. Kicking off the Sadler's Wells celebrations, Michael Keegan Dolan will recreate his Olivier-nominated version of 'The Rite of Spring', while in June 'RIOT Offspring' brings together four choreographers, a full orchestra, and 80 non-professional dancers to examine links between 2011's London riots and the uprisings caused by Stravinsky in 1913. Back in the Southbank, on 31st May, the UK première of 'The Oracle' by Australian choreographer Meryl Tankard adapts the first performance of Nijinsky's original choreography for Stravinsky's classic.

'Bach Unwrapped' features more than 70 concerts at Kings Place; the Tanztheatre Wuppertal Pina Bausch performs 'Vollmond' at Sadler's Wells

Yet another champion of the avant-garde is celebrated in the City of London Sinfonia's Poulenc Festival in April. It will take place in a number of venues close to the City, culminating in the performance of his fantastic Organ Concerto and 'Gloria' at Southwark Cathedral. In the same month, admired Finnish soprano Karita Mattila performs his 'Banalités' as part of her recital at the Wigmore Hall. Although Poulenc was French, in a neat piece of circularity he was first published in London because Stravinsky was a fan of his early work.

There's also a link with Britten, since in 1945 the English composer and Poulenc performed together in the latter's 'Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra'. It's rather pleasing that there's an overlap in festivals for all three, though the festival dedicated to Britten ('Britten at 100', already underway) is by far the largest. The many highlights include ENO's staging of his final opera 'Death in Venice' at the Coliseum in June, the Royal Opera House's production of his 'Gloriana' - composed to mark Queen Elizabeth II's coronation in 1953 and directed here by Richard Jones - and the BBC Symphony Orchestra's performance of his 'War Requiem' at the Royal Albert Hall in November. His work will also, as previously mentioned, form a central strand to the BBC Proms which runs from 12th July to 7th September. And Kings Place presents 'Britten at 100' from 7th-9th February, and among other concerts featuring his work the Barbican will put on a dedicated weekend in early November.

The English National Ballet performs 'Swan Lake' at the Royal Albert Hall; Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta celebrates his 40th birthday

Several anniversaries mark the living as well as the dead, not least the 40th birthday of dynamic Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta. Among several appearances, this February he will play the Greek god of music in George Balanchine's 1928 ballet, 'Apollo', at the Royal Opera House. A more specific celebration of his birthday comes in July with 'Carlos Acosta: Classical Selection' at the Coliseum, in which he will perform a programme of classical and neo-classical works with some of his former dance collaborators. The Barbican kicks off the year with a celebration of 'Sir Colin Davis at 85'. He will conduct the London Symphony Orchestra in the Mozart 'Requiem', various Schubert symphonies, and Britten's 'Turn of the Screw'. Pioneer of the period instrument movement, Sir John Eliot Gardiner will conduct the LSO playing Stravinsky for his 70th birthday concert in April, while Valery Gergiev, principal conductor of the LSO, will mark his comparatively youthful 60th year at the Barbican in May.

All conductors have their followers, especially Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel, who shot to fame when he started conducting the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, which famously rescued some of Venezuela's most deprived children, giving them instruments in return for their weapons. This March he brings the Los Angeles Philharmonic to the Barbican for their first residency as Barbican International Associate. That other firebrand conductor - who's been burning for much longer than Dudamel but shows no signs of burning out - Sir Simon Rattle comes to the Royal Festival Hall with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment to perform Mozart's last three symphonies.

'Two Cigarettes In The Dark' at Sadler's Wells; RUBBERBANDance combine ballet with hip hop in 'Gravity of Centre' at the Purcell Room

There are a lot of exciting premieres this year, not least the arrival of Philip Glass's 2011 opera 'The Perfect American', a controversial portrait of Walt Disney, at the London Coliseum this June. The ENO also presents Michel van der Aa's new 'Sunken Garden' - a collaboration with David 'Cloud Atlas' Mitchell - and Carrie Cracknell's new take on 'Wozzeck'. Outside 'The Rest Is Noise' festival, the South Bank Centre's London Sinfonietta presents Steve Reich's 'Radio Rewrite', inspired by two Radiohead Songs. (Reich will also take part in every music student's favourite, his 'Clapping Music', in the same concert.) The Royal Opera House will present the UK première of British composer George Benjamin's 'Written on the Skin'. Benjamin collaborated with leading playwright Martin Crimp on this work, and it will be directed by the much lauded, intellectually rigorous Katie Mitchell. Another première, though admittedly three hundred and twenty years after it was first written, is French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier's 'Medea', which receives its first full UK staging this February back at the Coliseum.

Those in search of something completely different might be intrigued by the arrival of Canadian company RUBBERBANDance Group, who combine ballet with hip hop. They will appear at the Purcell Room in May with their UK première of 'Gravity of Center', a piece of dance inspired by the collapse of Lehman Brothers. For more classic experimentalism, the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch brings two of the late choreographer's rarely performed works to Sadler's Wells, 'Two Cigarettes In The Dark' and 'Vollmond' ('Full Moon'), to mark the company's 40th anniversary. In the same month Ballet Black - the company that works with black and Asian dancers - presents a season of new choreography at the Royal Opera House. Choreographer Wayne McGregor's new work 'Raven Girl' will be presented there in May - his first narrative ballet, it will be based on a graphic novel by Audrey Niffenegger, who wrote 'The Time Traveler's Wife'.

The centenary of Benjamin Britten is marked with numerous performances throughout the year; soprano Karita Mattila in Strauss's 'Salome'

All this, and so much more, as the cliché goes. As ever London will also be catering to more traditional tastes with a huge range of established talent. Pianist Andras Schiff will complete his cycle of Beethoven Sonatas at Wigmore Hall, culminating in an extraordinary demonstration of stamina on his 60th birthday in December with a performance of the 'Diabelli Variations' and the 'Goldberg Variations'. And Lang Lang will be performing Mozart and Chopin at the Royal Albert Hall in November. At Kings Place, which continues to earn its credentials as one of London's most exciting new venues, there will be 'Bach Unwrapped', a year-long series featuring more than 70 concerts, events, and study days. At the Royal Opera House there's a new staging of Verdi's 'Nabucco' by Daniele Abbado, the English National Ballet perform 'Swan Lake' in the round at the Royal Albert Hall, and 'West Side Story' makes a triumphant return to Sadler's Wells.

From Bach to Bausch, from Romanticism to Minimalism, there's something to satisfy all tastes this year in London. If music be the food of love, let's face it, 2013's going to be an orgy.

Daniele Abbado's new staging of Verdi's 'Nabucco' at the Royal Opera House; Stravinsky under the spotlight in 'A String of Rites' at Sadler's Wells
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Sophie Wallace


Sophie Wallace

28th September 2023


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