If you’re looking for a seaside break or a hiking vacation, you have to consider where and when the weather will most likely favor your activity of choice. But if what you hunger for is mainly theatre and classical music (like me), you can count on the larger metropolitan areas where they occur in abundance to deliver the goods year round.
So during a recent trip over the water it was a large helping of theater and a bit of music in London during the last week of May and strictly music — but quite a variety of it — in Berlin the first week of June.
Day 1. I’d read so many raves about Joshua Harmon’s “Admissions” starring Alex Kingston at the 350-seat Trafalgar Studios, I was prepared (as much as jetlag would allow) for a real bombshell blast. Sadly, although its “issues” were argued with skill and rigor by one and all, it felt more like a series of longish speeches in an extended shouting match than a play with a developing narrative. Maybe it was a case of my being not only jet-tired but sick of the unescapable word war over white privilege, but there were just too many bromides to keep the text as lively as the players.
Day 2. By contrast, Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” at the Almeida absolutely invites you in. It doesn’t preach at you. It simply carries on, carrying you along with it. The characters don’t speak for your benefit even though you benefit from overhearing them. Granted, this wasn’t the same “Three Sisters” that enthralled me in Bristol so many years back, but despite being newly translated, its reality reshaped by a distinctively different cast, it remained old and true as Chekhov, as evocative and captivating an imaginary journey as ever.
Playing at the Lyttelton, the midsize venue of the National Theatre complex was Githa Sowerby’s grim 1912 drama “Rutherford and Son.” It’s part of a tide of revivals of unjustly forgotten (or at least extremely neglected) works by female playwrights undertaken at the NT as a make-up for the sexism that long governed the decisions by male-dominated companies of what to stage. The new revival is highly “atmospheric,” enhanced by pre-curtain north-country ballads sung by a pair of balcony-level trios, heavy stage rain to open and to close, and persistent gloom throughout. It makes its case against paternalism, social stratification, and pig-headed bigotry with incremental but relentless force that both convinces and exhausts. Luckily the cast is headed by the intrepid and ever formidable Roger Allam who carries the action forward to its bitter end.
Day 3. Sundays, being mostly off days at theatres, provide good opportunities for musical interludes, among which the one-hour Wigmore “Coffee Concerts” are always worth attending. The program of May 26 was a particular treat, as it featured cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason (he who won worldwide acclaim playing at last year’s royal wedding) and pianist Isata Kenneh-Mason. It’s easy to see why Sheku has such a following: loads of personal charm combined with a mentally absorbed involvement and a visceral intensity of execution result in an impression of such overwhelming devotion to his art as is impossible to resist.
Just down the road from the Barbican Centre at the Guildhall School’s Milton Court concert hall, pianist Benjamin Grosvenor and the Doric String Quartet joined forces in a curious concert whose centerpiece was a “chamber version” of Chopin’s F-minor piano concerto. Curiouser yet, the program notes gave no clue as to who did the reduction. If the composer himself, it was likely to satisfy requests for a “play at home” version of the work. Regardless, it came off less as “concerto” and more as piano sonata with quartet and string bass obligato. The Doric’s readings of Janacek’s episodic “Kreutzer Sonata” Quartet which opened the program and their closing collaboration with Grosvenor in Dvorak’s second piano quintet were both interpretively solid.
Day 4. Each Monday the BBC sponsors a one-hour “Lunchtime” (1 pm) concert at the Wigmore. That on May 27 featuring the Kuss Quartet began with the UK premiere of a very short, highly mannered piece, “Freizeit,” by Enno Poppe and finished with Beethoven’s very long, deeply introspective A-minor op. 132 quartet. The Poppe was surprisingly witty, the Beethoven--especially the “Dankgesang”--beautifully rendered.
The notion of building an Elizabethan playhouse on London’s South Bank and calling it Shakespeare’s Globe and putting on mostly Shakespeare plays there in “period” mode might seem downright hokey, that is until you’re physically there feeling the energy, both the raw and the tempered, of the “wooden O.” Of course Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon is special, Shakespeare performed by the RSC is special, but Shakespeare at the Globe is simply unbeatable, even if it’s only “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” one of the Bard’s lesser efforts, probably done to cash in on “Falstaff Fever.” Never mind that it’s not “Hamlet,” at the Globe it beats every other show in town.
Day 5. Performances of Agatha Christie’s courtroom soap opera “Witness for the Prosecution” in the disused courtroom space at County Hall are all about location. Hard to say how long the crowds will continue to flock to what is the perfect venue for this show (Agatha’s “Mousetrap” has been going for 67 straight years), but they don’t look like quitting booking anytime soon.
Day 6. Looking to make the last night in London a big one, I opted for the much-lauded National Theatre hit, “The Lehman Trilogy,” a three-hander starring Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, and Adam Godley. I knew ahead of time that the play would contain lots of biographical data since it was rooted in the history of the Lehman family whose financial empire collapsed in 2008, but I kept expecting the vision of the script to expand, for a subtextual message to emerge pointing up some cautionary thesis, for all the evidence to build toward some overwhelmingly cathartic resolution. And it never did. It stayed mired in the moneymaking mess, never rose above it. Huge disappointment!
Day 7. To Berlin and Staatsoper Unter den Linden for a world-class performance of Verdi’s “Macbeth” (no escaping Shakespeare!). In the title role, Placido Domingo was as vocally commanding a baritone as he’d been a tenor. The sonorous and sumptuous basso cantante of Rene Pape made an ideal match for Domingo and gave Banquo comparable stature and authority. Dramatic soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk’s Lady Macbeth was fiercely menacing, a truly terrifying force, both vocally and histrionically.
Yet for all its star power, this was above all an exceptional team effort with no weak members in its cast, all of whom contributed with distinction to the degree required by their assignments. Nor did the vast chorus lack either sonority or tonal balance. Whatever the calls on their service, witches and courtiers alike, they were there. Stage sets and lighting lent appropriate support. Above all, the pit orchestra under the reliable leadership of Daniel Barenboim provided superb instrumental support throughout.
Day 8. At the Philharmonie, Michael Sanderling conducted the Berlin Phil in a program pairing Haydn’s “Cello Concerto No. 2” and Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony, a study in contrasts between the elegant finish of the finest classical style and the brutal voice of harsh twentieth-century iconoclasm. First, Bruno Delepelaire’s cello laid out for us the sound of Haydn’s Good Old Days. Then Shostakovich threw us into the nightmare tragedy of World War Two. Chilling, horrific, wrenching, revelatory.
Day 9. It being my first visit to the Boulez Saal, I didn’t know what to expect. I did know I’d bought into a recital titled “Baroque Birds,” which program had lost much of its lustre when key performers and works were dropped in favor of--for me--less engaging substitutes. I found this newish “refit” venue disappointing. To be greeted on entry by an unfriendly, hard-edged foyer containing a clutter of tables for those (un)lucky enough to picnic there on a meagre “cold collation” to be had from a cash-only vendor isn’t a great start. The hall itself, a spiral of fenced-off tiers of seats enclosing a small central arena, feels more like Mad Max’s Thunderdome than a place to enjoy an evening of music. As it turned out, there being so little music to my ears on the revised Capricornus Consort playlist, I reckon I have no business complaining about what the facility deprived me of.
Day 10. Deutsche Oper Berlin is notorious for its outrageous “designer” stagings, so it came as no surprise that their production of Massenet’s “Don Quichotte” should have been, well, outrageous. To be sure, Massenet’s version of Cervantes’ classic tale doesn’t aspire to the epic feel of the original, so some loss of gravitas is to be expected. But director Jakop Ahlbom has turned what the composer intended as a good-natured tribute to Quixote’s quest into a comic book (OK, graphic novel) full of magical realistic farce. The celebration of life becomes a spoof of aspirational goal-seeking.
Day 11. My cultural mini-tour ended with a string quartet/quintet recital in the gilded and pillared Apollosaal of the Philharmonie. It opened promisingly enough with Stravinsky’s brashly witty “Three Pieces for String Quartet” but descended into a tedious wandering through the seemingly endless barren landscape of Boccherini’s “String Quartet No. 3.” After a pause (to recover from stupor?) the quartet came back to life with a sensitive reading of Prokofiev’s challenging “String Quartet No. 2” and closed out the evening with Mozart’s masterful C Major string quintet.
Bit of an overdose? So be it, but nonetheless my drug of choice.