The Lit & Phil is an independent library in Newcastle, UK, the largest independent library outside of London. Little bears went inside to have a look!
Little bears found the best spot! 🙂
Newcastle is home to many fantastic buildings, places that you walk past or into, trying to imagine what they were like years ago. You don’t need to imagine what the Lit & Phil was like because it retains its original purpose as well as all of its charm. The interior of the main reading room is skylit with three enormous dome lanterns set into the roof. The walls of the galleried, double height space are lined with some of the 160,000 book collection.
The Lit & Phil contains rich holdings of material from the 18th and 19th centuries alongside contemporary fiction and non-fiction, and an exceptional music library. It’s a phenomenal, inspiring and welcoming space, a great place to spend some time. Members and visitors enjoy the peaceful atmosphere and use the library to read the papers, meet friends, work and study.
The Literary and Philosophical Society was founded in 1793 by a few like-minded gentlemen, and they first met in three Newcastle locations including The Old Assembly Rooms. The Society thrived and in 1822 members decided to build themselves a permanent home in the gardens of Bolbec Hall, and the Lit & Phil was opened in 1825. It was always populated with leading thinkers of the day who met to talk and exchange ideas; early presidents of the society included Robert Stephenson, Lord Armstrong, Joseph Swan and Charles Parsons.
Testament to these innovators, it was to members of the Literary and Philosophical Society that George Stephenson demonstrated his miners’ safety lamp in 1815. In 1880 the society’s lecture theatre was the first public room to be lit by electric light, during one of Joseph Swan’s many lectures at the Lit & Phil.
The library offers free guided tours on the first Saturday and third Wednesday of each month. Or you can do a self-guided tour.
Little bears are on a mission to visit the top 10 concert venues in the world and they have taken to it like a duck to water 🙂
This year they made it to the Sage Gateshead.
Opened in 2004, at a cost of £70 million, the Sage ((named after its sponsor, the accounting software company) was the latest architectural jewel to stud the south bank of the Tyne, the Foster and Partners-designed concert hall sitting by the extraordinary “blinking eye” Millennium Bridge and the new Baltic contemporary “art factory”, itself converted from a flour mill and opened just two years previously at a cost of £46 million. The amorphous, curvaceous shape of the Sage – inspired by the familiar arches of the original Tyne Bridge, which is known by locals as the ‘coat hanger’ – contrasts with the industrial rectilinear mass of the Baltic and the slender, sculptural Millennium Bridge. Together the three projects form almost a laboratory experiment in how to regenerate an urban area such as the Gateshead quay by using culture as a tool.
Along with the Millau Viaduct in France (which received the 2006 Outstanding Structure Award from the International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering) and the 30 St Mary Axe office tower in London (which won the 2004 Stirling Prize from the Royal Institute of British Architects), the Sage Gateshead cemented Norman Foster’s position as the UK’s most famous architect, capable to designing any type of building.
The Sage Gateshead was Norman Foster’s first performing arts project, and luckily, unlike Chamberlin, Powell, and Bon, the designers of the Barbican Arts Centre, he listened to the acoustic designers, Arup Associates!
The Sage is really three buildings: the large hall, small hall and rehearsal room, placed in a row and covered by a huge undulating tin tent. Each is expressed as a freestanding volume with the stairs to the upper levels sitting in the clefts between them and outside them at either end. The great roof floats over all three, without touching them, supported on slender raking masts. At podium level an enormous bow fronted foyer space, overlooking the River Tyne, links all three spaces, below which is the Music Education Centre, providing studios and teaching spaces for an ambitious community music programme. The building is entered through the glazed walls at either end and the foyer acts as a street, leading from one to the other. The result is a building with enormous clarity which, like all good public buildings, is instantly legible and accessible to everyone.
The acoustic designers for the project were Arup Acoustics and their usual rigour has been applied throughout. The large hall is a classical shoe-box concert hall with 1700 seats and the small hall is a flexible galleried space with 450 seats. Both spaces are designed with a variable acoustic, starting with high volumes for unamplified music, which can then be damped down with moving ceilings and motorised banners for amplified music. Background noise levels in both auditoria are claimed to be an amazingly low NR10. To achieve this each section of the building is physically isolated, deep sound lobbies are everywhere, displacement ventilation trickles air in at the bottom of the spaces and all equipment which might make a noise, like moving lights, is banned during unamplified concerts. The intention is admirable but it did come at a considerable cost. Stage elevators had to be cut out of the project scope to stay within budget.
The large hall (Sage One) is a classical shoebox hall in the manner of proven European models such as the Musikvereinssaal (Vienna) or the Concertgebouw (Amsterdam). It is kept refreshingly simple, with three levels of balconies at the sides and rear and few concessions to multi-purpose use. The entire room is lined in blond timber with curved plywood balcony fronts and vertically slatted walls.
Sage One has a fixed platform that caters primarily for chamber orchestra performances, and that’s a good thing since it’s the home of Royal Northern Sinfonia! Little Puffles and Honey saw them in concert with a program of French delights celebrating the ‘City of Light’: Gabriel Fauré conjuring up a pastelcoloured dreamworld, Frédéric Chopin making the salons swoon, and Mozart dressing to impress with a spectacular new symphony.
Fauré – Masques et bergamasques
Chopin – Piano Concerto No.2, Ingrid Fliter piano
Busoni – Berceuse élégiaque
Mozart – Symphony No.31 ‘Paris’
The stage can be extended for larger symphony orchestras. Acoustic flexibility is achieved by the use of six gargantuan ceiling slabs weighing some 14 tonnes each, which can be adjusted in height from 10 to 21 meters. Motorised sound-absorption panels can be deployed to cover 90 percent of the wall area. As Foster explains, the concert hall is one of the hardest-working building types, because everything has to perform: “Every surface material and texture is there for a reason. All the timber surfaces in the room are shaped to provide optimum sound diffusion. The timber is very tick and/or directly bonded to the concrete structure to prevent unwanted low frequency sound absorption. Wall surfaces incorporate a convex curvature (for low frequency sound diffusion) and the timber battens diffuse the middle and high frequency sounds. All other surfaces, including the balcony fronts and ceilings, also incorporate curvature and shaping to help promote sound diffusion.”
The second hall, Sage Two, had an unusual brief. As well as providing a stage for classical chamber music, as part of the repertoire of Northern Sinfonia, it was to be the home of the Sage Gateshead’s other principal group, Folkworks, which is the UK’s leading folk music organisation, rooted in Northumbrian pipes, fiddles and accordion music of the region. Jazz, in its many forms, is also performed in this hall. The galleried space holds 400 people on three levels, with a five-sided form at stage-level opening out into a ten-sided one above. The decagonal form satisfies the acoustic requirements and provides an intimate but well-sized space in which artists can experiment with music and musical theatre.
In practice both halls are used flexibly; there can be a rock concert in Sage One, or a string quartet in Sage Two.
The Northern Rock Foundation Hall is a smaller, 200-300-seat ‘shoebox’ hall intended primarily as rehearsal space for the Northern Sinfonia. It has been designed to match the acoustic characteristics of Sage One, although its natural acoustics are also suitable for small groups of performers.
A large concourse provides a public focus to the building with its cafés, bars, shops, box office, a music information and education centre, and informal performance spaces.
The centre’s over-arching roof, designed by Buro Happold, is entirely independent of the auditorium volumes, and is supported by four structural steel arches spanning 80 meters from north to south with a secondary structure of single-radii steel members. The 720 tonne steel grid is covered with 3000 linen-finish steel and 280 glass cladding panels. All the cladding panels are flat and the 12,000 sqm surface area is the minimum possible, to keep costs down.
Norman Foster buildings aim consistently high. Sleek and clear, each makes extensive use of aerospace materials and details. Each aims to use as little energy as possible. These are buildings relentlessly optimistic about the future of technology and of the modern adventure. For the Sage, great attention has been paid to minimizing the building’s impact on the environment, and only the auditoria are artificially air-conditioned, although the need for absolute quiet in these spaces meant that the plant had to be housed separately. Cooled air is fed through large ducts to the seating pedestals at 0.5 m/s, the lowest possible air flow. The prevailing south-westerly winds provide natural ventilation to the concourse and education centre. The concourse, which is north-facing, requires no artificial cooling and its thermal conditions are regulated by a mixed-mode heating and ventilation system. In addition, the mass of the brick and masonry forms of the auditoria is harnessed as thermal storage.
During their whirlwind trip to UK in October, little Puffles and Honey went to Barbican Centre to see (and hear) London Symphony Orchestra in concert. It was a good opportunity to also check out conductor Philippe Jordan who is currently music director of the Opéra national de Paris. He will be conducting the orchestra for next year’s production of Don Giovanni at Palais Garnier. Yes, little bears will be seeing Don Giovanni in Paris 🙂 They are very excited!
The program was an easy listening one under the baton of conductor Philippe Jordan:
MUSSORGSKY Night on the Bare Mountain
SZYMANOWSKI Violin Concerto No 2, Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider violin
TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No 5
And it sounded amazing! Even in Barbican Hall!
Barbican Hall is a concert hall and the home of London Symphony Orchestra. It is one of several venues at Barbican Centre. The LSO was named by Gramophone as one of the top five orchestras in the world. Little bears agree 🙂
According to Marin Alsop, a regular guest-conductor with the LSO, the London Symphony Orchestra stands out from all the orchestras because of its totally unique work ethic. The players are always ‘on’, whether it’s 9am or 9pm, whether they’ve been working flat-out all week or whether they’ve just come back from their holiday. The moment they start playing, the players will immediately light up in a way not experienced anywhere else.
The LSO style is well known – there’s snappiness and vitality, a precision and a drive, and the players give their all, especially when it comes to volume. Where does it come from? They have extraordinary versatility: they can play anything! But there’s an attitude that goes with that – they have the same openness to every project that comes their way. They are there because they want to be – and that shines through. They have the vocabulary to be true to every style of sound that’s required. They are constantly adapting.
They also benefit from great management, people who share with the musicians a curiosity about new things, and don’t shy away from new challenges. And as the players are involved in many of the decision-making processes, they choose to work with people who share their philosophy. They love putting things together and the range of music-making they tackle is colossal.
Completed in 1982, the Barbican Hall underwent a £7 million acoustic and aesthetic refurbishment in 2001. Despite this, Sir Simon Rattle, the current music director of the LSO, recently described the hall as ‘serviceable‘, which apparently is a fair description of the acoustic quality both from scientific listening tests and from detailed measurements in the hall published in the literature. And that’s after the refurbishment! What was it like before?
There are fundamental issues in terms of the size and shape of the hall that can not be solved with mere tinkering. The ceiling is too low, a hangover from the space being originally conceived as a conference facility rather than an auditorium for classical music. Without sufficient volume, the sound in the hall dies away a little too quickly. No wonder the LSO players give it their all when it comes to volume!
The other problem is the shape. The Barbican Hall is a fan-shape with splayed walls. Such a design naturally lacks wall reflections arriving from the side. In the Barbican, this has been partially compensated for by angled wooden panels placed in front of the side walls. But this can only ever be a partial solution to the problem.
The first few reflections to arrive at a listener are crucial to the quality of a hall. In a shoebox auditorium the first reflections off walls reach the listener from the side. The music at both ears is then subtly different. It takes longer for each reflection to reach the furthest ear, and it is attenuated because the sound has to bend around the head. This gives the listener a sense of being more enveloped by sound, something that has been shown to significantly improve the music listening experience.
There was sufficient scientific knowledge in 1982 to avoid many of these problems. But there are consequences to lack of experience. Chamberlin, Powell, and Bon, the designers of the Barbican estate, had never designed a performing arts centre before and therefore had never worked with acoustic designers. When they were designing the cinema, the architects originally had the screen on the ceiling and the front row would have had moviegoers laying down on beds. Evidently, someone picked up on that issue, one that could not be explained away by lack of experience!
The Barbican estate is built on an area of land that has had the name ‘barbican’ for over 2000 years. The word ‘Barbican’ comes from a Latin word, barbicana, meaning ‘Bastion’ or ‘fortified outpost’ and it was this that occupied the space in the Roman city of Londinium.
The area known as Barbican covers around 40 acres, 35 of which hold the present-day estate. The Barbican is on the very edge of the City of London, City meaning the area surrounded by the Roman London Wall.
On 29th December 1940, a night sometimes known as the Second Great Fire of London, 64,000 incendiary devices were dropped over the City of London, cutting a huge swathe of destruction from St Paul’s to Islington. The entire Barbican site was bombed, 35 acres, from Moorgate to Aldersgate Street.
In 1952 discussions began about what should be built on this site, and on 19th September 1957 the Court of Common Council (ie the central decision-making body of the Corporation of London) agreed to build residential premises on this site. Construction of the residential complex began in 1962.
One of the largest developments in London, today the Barbican estate comprises primarily of the residential towers, the City of London School for Girls, the Museum of London, Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Barbican Centre. The Barbican was designed as the model of a self-sustaining city and one of the first major multi-use developments. Its total floor area is 20 acres and the total area of the grounds is 35 acres. The entire Barbican development contains over 130,000 cubic metres of concrete, which is enough to build roughly 30 kilometres of a six-lane freeway.
The three residence towers are named Cromwell, Shakespeare, and Lauderdale for Oliver Cromwell, William Shakespeare, and the Earl of Lauderdale, respectively. They are among the tallest residential towers in London and each is 123 metres high. At the time they were built, the towers were the highest residential structures in Europe.
The architects devised ingenious solutions to the perceived problems of living in buildings of this height. Each lift is designed with a secondary small panel door which provides direct access between the lift and a tenant’s service cupboard. In this way the daily milk, the morning newspaper and post can be delivered directly from the lifts to the individual flats without the milkman or the postman having to get out of the lift. Similar attention to detail was paid to the fixtures and fittings: the architects installed windows which pivoted horizontally to make them easy to clean from the inside, and a Garchey sink unit was employed across almost all residential blocks to facilitate waste disposal. The architects did have extensive experience with residential developments.
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama is an independent music and dramatic arts school which was founded in 1880 in London. Students can pursue courses in music, opera, drama and technical theatre arts. The modern Guildhall School is a major European conservatoire which is both a music school and a drama school. The school took up residence at the Barbican in 1977 and in 2013 opened new facilities at Milton Court, across the road from the Silk Street building.
The 2018/19 season was the first year of a three-year residency of the Australian Chamber Orchestra as International Associate Ensemble at Milton Court in partnership with the Barbican Centre. The ACO is one of three International Associate ensembles who have been invited to take residence, in good company with the LA Philharmonic and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. ACO Artistic Director Richard Tognetti was the Barbican’s first ever Artist-in-Residence at Milton Court Concert Hall in the Barbican Presents 2016/17 season.
The Museum of London looks likely to relinquish its site at the Barbican to a new Centre for Music currently under design by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, New York. The museum will move to a new home a kilometre west in West Smithfield. DS+R have bested a shortlist that included Frank Gehry (Walt Disney Concert Hall, LA; New World Centre, Miami Beach, Florida), Renzo Piano (Parco Della Musica, Rome), Snøhetta (Oslo Opera House) and Foster + Partners (Sage Gateshead), winning the commission to design the Centre For Music, the new home for the London Symphony Orchestra and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Nagata Acoustics will be the acousticians and they have plenty of experience. Yasuhisa Toyota, company director and U.S. Representative of Nagata Acoustics of Tokyo, has been the chief acoustician for over 50 projects worldwide including Walt Disney Concert Hall, LA; Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg; Musiikkitalo, Helsinki; DR Concert Hall Copenhagen; and New World Centre, Miami Beach, Florida, all in the top 10. The concept design for the Centre for Music was scheduled to be submitted to the City of London Corporation this month. No update on that!
Dubbed a gift from the City of London to the nation, the Queen declared it one of the wonders of the modern world when opening the Barbican Centre in March 1982. While it attracts 1.7 million visitors each year, its grey, dreary, brutalist forms see it regularly cited as one of London’s most ugly buildings. The Barbican became a Grade II-listed building in 2001, with English Heritage citing the project’s ambition, scale and cohesion. So love it or hate it, it’s here to stay.
The final cost of building Barbican Centre in 1982 was £156 million, which in today’s money would be over £550 million.
The Barbican Centre was fitted in almost as an afterthought to the upmarket housing complex around it. In 1964 the City of London Corporation presented Chamberlin, Powell and Bon with a revised brief which demanded an expanded theatre and concert hall. The outcome of this was the Barbican Centre, a building which had to be shoehorned into the master plan after construction of the residential estate had already begun. The construction of the arts centre did not begin until 1971.
After opening, the Centre established itself quickly as a leading venue for classical music with a series of concerts featuring some of the world’s top orchestras. The Barbican enjoyed instant credibility though its association with the Royal Shakespeare Company, which had been involved with the new complex since the design stage. While RSC no longer resides at the Centre, having relocated entirely to its Stratford base in 2002, it still has a season at Barbican Centre.
Since it opened in 1982, more than 50 million visitors have been to the Centre to attend some 100,000 events. This impressive statistic raises the question – how many of these visitors are still in there? The building’s labyrinthine intricacy is immortalised in the anecdotes of countless theatre- and concert-goers. The labyrinth of foyers, booking offices, lobbies, staircases, and high, low and mezzanine levels, caused the havoc – leaving bewildered visitors often queuing at the wrong box office and friends never seeing each other again. Long live online booking systems and print-at-home tickets! The three cinemas, two theatres, two galleries, a concert hall and a library, all regularly sent out runners to retrieve terminally lost visitors. The old logo, the four interlocked Bs, was an image summing up many the Barbican Centre’s problems.
In 2000, the consultant hired to rebrand the London complex – after much agonising the Barbican Arts Centre was to become barbican (a fact we have been ignoring throughout this story for better clarity) – missed the turn into the car park and got lost on the way to the launch. “Clarity and simplicity,” a shaken Jim Northover, of Citigate Lloyd Northover, proclaimed the new motto when he finally arrived.
Apparently navigation around the centre has vastly improved. Little bears had no problems 🙂 Also apparently orienteering had been a generational thing, the younger generation has far fewer difficulties in locating and enjoying the building.
The Barbican’s location in the financial centre of the British capital made it attractive to commercial developers and, as a result, several office schemes were proposed. These were rejected by the City of London Corporation, partly due to the area’s dwindling population. As the area had become increasingly commercialised, the number of residents had plummeted from 100,000 in 1851 to just over 5,000 in 1951, with 48 people living on the 35 acre Barbican site. With such a small electorate, the City of London was at risk of losing its Member of Parliament and, as a result, its political clout. A housing scheme put forward by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon in 1955 offered an opportunity to reverse the population decline by enticing new residents into this void in the City.
While the selection of Chamberlin, Powell and Bon’s housing scheme would allow the Corporation better chances of maintaining its parliamentary representation, it would bring in far less revenue than a commercial development. In order to maximise rental income and make the scheme financially viable, the architects proposed a high-density development aimed at those earning a mid-to-high income. The complex was designed as an urban microcosm, with residential blocks arranged around communal spaces – an approach inspired by the work of Le Corbusier. Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation housing project in Marseilles had been recently completed; his vision for a ‘vertical garden city’ is evident in both the Golden Lane Estate and the Barbican.
In addition to “luxury” housing, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon’s masterplan for the Barbican featured cultural facilities (including a concert hall and theatre), a shopping mall, underground parking, private gardens, and lakes with fountains and a waterfall. It was hoped that the vast array of amenities within the estate would attract their target market and justify the higher cost of the housing. The Guildhall School of Music and the City of London School for Girls would be moved to new premises on the site, forging a sense of community within the complex. St. Giles Church, one of the few buildings to survive the bombings of 1940, would stand in the centre of the estate.
Collectively, the residential blocks of the estate form one of the most remarkable examples of Brutalist architecture anywhere in the world. The term ‘Brutalism’ is derived from the French béton brut, meaning raw or unfinished concrete. Although the concrete at the Barbican Estate was left exposed, it was not unfinished, having been pick-hammered to give it a rough, rusticated appearance implying a sense of monumentality.
The estate comprises three tower blocks, thirteen terrace blocks, two “mews” (terraces of small two-story houses) and a row of townhouses. The tower blocks dominate the skyline, their façades featuring a grid pattern of concrete panelling. The horizontals of this concrete grid are broken by the continuous lines of the verticals, emphasising the height of the towers. The terrace blocks, meanwhile, are orientated horizontally, creating a dynamic contrast to the soaring towers. In both the tower and terrace blocks, the layout of the apartments was designed to maximise the amount of natural light in the rooms that would most benefit from it. Bedrooms, dining rooms and living rooms are therefore positioned along external walls, while kitchens and bathrooms are placed against inner walls.
The residential blocks are linked by two systems of pedestrian circulation: the highwalk and the podium. The highwalk, a network of bridges and narrow walkways, encompasses the estate. The podium is a raised platform which becomes a new ‘ground level’ once inside the boundary of the estate. This design feature allows the Barbican to be entirely pedestrianized, with road and rail traffic passing underneath, out of both sight and sound.
All three tower blocks and the majority of the terrace blocks stand above the podium on piloti, enabling pedestrians to navigate the estate unimpeded by buildings. Perhaps the most striking of these can be found beneath Gilbert House, a terrace block spanning the lake which bisects the podium. The height of the columns allows even the highwalk to pass beneath the main structure; a bridge is nestled amongst the supporting colonnade. The podium creates a sense of airiness, while the highwalk encourages movement and exploration; together, they produce open space which flows throughout the estate.
While developing the design for the Barbican, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon travelled abroad extensively to seek architectural inspiration, spending much of their time in Italy. Bon had spent part of his earlier career working in Milan, and the architecture of Italy held a great fascination for the three architects. This influence is evident in the estate; the penthouses of the terrace blocks, for example, have barrel-vaulted roofs – a feature widely employed in Roman architecture. The architects cited the canals, bridges and pavements of Venice as the model for the pedestrians systems of the Barbican, describing it as “the best example of a city where foot and service traffic is completely segregated. This segregation,” they continued, “has worked admirably for many centuries and there is no good reason why the principle should not be applied equally effectively in the City of London.”
The lake and gardens provide the residents with generous communal outdoor space; a rarity in an otherwise heavily built-up area of London. These landscaped areas lie below the level of the podium, with the changing elevations adding visual interest and lending a sense of seclusion. To ensure the underground line below did not disturb those enjoying the gardens, Ove Arup devised an engineering solution to reduce vibration from passing trains. The track was mounted on rubber bearings; the only section of the entire London Underground network to be modified in this way.
Chamberlin, Powell and Bon’s original plans featured five tower blocks of twenty stories. These designs were rejected by the planning authority, primarily on the grounds that the scheme had insufficient outdoor space. In response, the architects reduced the number of tower blocks to three in order to minimize the buildings’ footprints. At the same time, they more than doubled their height to maintain housing density.
Standing at such a height and with complex programmatic requirements, the project demanded specialised engineering, delivered by Ove Arup & Partners. The towers utilise pre-cast reinforced concrete elements for the frame, which places the majority of the load around the exterior of the building “on the same principle as is familiar in a chimney”. Roughly triangular in plan, each floor of the towers contains three apartments arranged around a central core of lift shafts, stairwells and service risers. The living rooms are located at each corner of the triangle, where the meeting of two walls affords panoramic views.
The highly distinctive cantilevered balconies of the towers, with their elegantly curved tips, resemble the hull of a ship. They also have a practical application: their unique form reduces wind resistance and eases the strain on the structural frame. The long protrusions of the balconies, a design feature recommended by the engineers, create deep eaves over the apartments below. The eaves offer both protection from the elements and a sense of security to residents, some of whom, the architects reasoned, “might otherwise dislike the impression of living on the edge of a cliff”.
So this brings up an interesting point. The architects listened to the advice of the structural engineers, possibly because they could understand it. At the same time they failed to take advice from the acoustics engineers, who possibly used a technical language that was unfamiliar to the architects, making it easy for them to dismiss it.
Surviving fragments of the ancient Roman wall, and a later 13th century bastion, can be found about the estate. History and modernity collide as the weathered bricks of these ruins are juxtaposed against the grey concrete of the monolithic structures above. Further references to the history of the site were made by naming each of the residential blocks after a prominent local figure. Shakespeare Tower, for instance, is so called because the great playwright once lived in the area.
As Brutalism became the prevailing architectural style for new housing estates in Britain throughout the 1970s, the reputation of the Barbican suffered from association with less successful projects (such as the Hulme Crescents in Manchester). More recently, however, the estate has benefited from a resurgence of public interest in Modernist and Brutalist architecture. It received Grade II listed status from the British government in 2001, and apartments in the estate are now highly sought after.
Residents speak of the excellent quality of life they enjoy there; architecture critic Jonathan Glancey spent four years living in the estate, and proclaims that “there is nothing like [it] in scale, intelligence, ingenuity, quality, urban landscaping and sheer abstract artistry anywhere else in Britain, perhaps even the world.” Alongside buildings such as the Royal National Theatre in London and Park Hill Estate in Sheffield, the Barbican Estate has become a symbol of British post-war architecture.
While Puffles and Jay went to see Hamilton, Honey and Isabelle went to see Porgy and Bess at the Coliseum.
Porgy and Bess has been called the first great American opera, made all the more significant by being set in a black American community and performed by black artists at a time when black culture was exoticized by the country’s white majority. Since its premiere in 1935, Porgy and Bess has became one of the most celebrated American works of the 20th century, while simultaneously igniting controversy every time it was performed due to its themes, characterizations, and appropriative nature — an opera about black Americans created by three white men – George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward.
Porgy and Bess was the product of a collaboration between George Gershwin and Southern Renaissance author Dubose Heyward, whose libretto was based on both his 1925 novel Porgy and the successful Broadway stage adaptation co-written with his wife Dorothy two years later. In addition to the Heywards, George’s brother and main collaborator, Ira, also made contributions to the lyrics. Authorship of the work is credited to both the Gershwins and the Heywards.
Musically, Porgy and Bess is a kaleidoscope of styles, referencing European operatic traditions, Tin Pan Alley tunes, and black-American vernacular idioms of jazz, spirituals, and blues; Gershwin’s idiomatic voice is characterised by the synthesis of these different musical languages. The music also shows him at the height of his compositional abilities, having spent three years in intensive study with composer and teacher Joseph Schillinger. As Gershwin’s voice was silenced by his untimely death in 1937 at the age of 38, Porgy and Bess represents his most advanced and ambitious compositional achievement.
Despite an initially lukewarm critical reception, Porgy and Bess has since emerged as a cornerstone of the American operatic repertoire, and produced such Gershwin standards as Summertime, I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’, My Man’s Gone Now, and It Ain’t Necessarily So. The presence of distinct songs in the work led early critics to debate whether Porgy and Bess was really an opera or a musical. It didn’t help the confusion when Porgy and Bess opened in 1935 it wasn’t in an opera house, but on Broadway.
The opera tells the story of the African-American inhabitants of an impoverished tenement near the docks of Charleston, South Carolina called “Catfish Row”. The story itself has been a source of controversy concerning the depiction of southern black life by white authors.
Although Gershwin made an extended trip to Charleston to attend church services and absorb black musical idioms, he elected to compose his own original “spirituals” rather than incorporate existing African-American melodies, and this drew criticism in light of the work’s subtitle, “An American Folk Opera”. The fact that the composer claimed “folk” authenticity in his original music remains problematic.
From the outset this has been an opera that courted controversy. Even before the opening night, questions were being asked as to whether a white American of Russian Jewish descent was the right person to speak for African-Americans. Since its premiere, Porgy and Bess has come under fire for its treatment of black themes and black music, with some critics seeing it as a caricature of black artistry: “What we are to consider…is not a Black opera by Gershwin, but Gershwin’s idea of what a Black opera should be.” The opera’s characters themselves have drawn criticism, as they engage in racial stereotypes that echo blackface minstrelsy.
Others have a more pragmatic viewpoint on the opera’s depictions: “Porgy and Bess reflects the realities of life that exist amongst communities where poverty of circumstance dictates morality to a considerable degree, as well as the mode of survival, a fact no different for the black community than for any other.”
The English National Opera-led co-production with the Metropolitan Opera, New York, and the Dutch National Opera does not confront any of these issues.
James Robinson’s production is pitched midway between an opera and a Broadway musical, which suits Porgy and Bess well enough. Catfish Row, the fictional setting inspired by a deprived quarter in Charleston, South Carolina, is depicted as a skeletal community of houses, not specifically of any here or now.
One reason the opera does not get performed more often is the need to assemble an all-black company. The Gershwin family maintained a contractual requirement that in staged productions, all black characters in the cast and chorus must be performed by black singers; in non-staged performances, the chorus need not adhere to this restriction. This has made Porgy and Bess an important vehicle for celebrating black operatic talent. The English National Opera has brought together a chorus of 40 singers from diverse countries and this ad hoc group is the glory of the show. Choruses, spirituals, ensembles, all were heart-warmingly uplifting.
It is Gershwin’s music that wins out in this less than perfect opera. Not unlike Wagner’s operas, it could be a bit shorter. There’s plenty of wonderful musical material to fill its three hours (the original version was four hours long), but there isn’t enough plot (again, just like Wagner): basically, it’s “While Crown is on the run for murder, his woman Bess takes up with the cripple Porgy; when Crown returns to claim Bess, Porgy murders him; while Porgy is in jail, Bess leaves.” There is a bit more detail and a few interesting subplots, but too much of the opera is spent adding local colour and not enough driving the action forward. However, the musical richness is so great that it carries you through.
In October, little bears went to see Hamilton in London, to see what the fuss was all about.
Where to start? What’s with the ticket prices? You can google “why are Hamilton tickets so expensive” and there is no end of websites talking about the ticket resell sites ripping people off, despite stern (and mostly useless) warnings from various quarters. Hamilton producers have apparently been working to combat the unauthorised profiteering of third party resellers and ticket touts. If there is any profiteering to be made, it is to be made by the producers! Official ticket prices keep going up and up because of the hype surrounding the show. This phenomenon is not limited to Hamilton, but the musical has taken this price hike to a whole new level. In January this year, the premium seats for performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday in London, for the period from the end of July to mid-December, went up by 25%, from £200 to £250. That then allowed the next ticket bracket to become £200 and so on. Why? Because they can. I would love to know what the official price for the premium tickets during the second half of December, the Christmas period, is. It’s sold out, so you can’t see the prices on the Ticketmaster UK website. During the lucrative Christmas period in 2017, premium tickets for the New York production reached an eye-watering $1,150. Official price. Again, because they can. Because people still pay the astronomical prices to see the show.
There are 240 tickets priced at £37.50 or less for every performance of Hamilton in London. Out of a theatre seating capacity of 1,550. The musical also has a lottery system, with winners able to buy one or two tickets for £10 each. Hamilton‘s lottery initiative began on Broadway, where top-price seats for the show are far more expensive than in London. Premium seats for the London production of Hamilton are now among the most expensive tickets in West End history.
When it first opened, ticket prices were nowhere near this expensive. A premium ticket was $150. It is the hype surrounding the show that has pushed the ticket prices to near-astronomical levels. Now people have to make a decision between purchasing tickets at astronomical prices or give up the chance to see the show everyone is talking about. And evidently, most people are choosing to pay. We paid £250 for a premium ticket (there were only premium tickets left when we got the tickets). We would never buy a reseller ticket, unless it was for the same original price.
But is it worth it?
Since it first opened in New York in 2015, Hamilton has become a great theatrical success story. First conceived by the writer Lin-Manuel Miranda as a hip-hop mixtape based on the life of Alexander Hamilton, a man known to most simply as the face on the $10 bill, it grew into one of the most ambitious and record-breaking productions ever staged on Broadway, subsequently winning a record-breaking 11 Tony awards and the 2016 Pulitzer prize for drama. It also received the first Kennedy Center Honors ever given to a work of art and not a person. In March this year the London production of Hamilton got 13 Olivier Awards nominations, making it the most nominated show in the history of the awards. It won 7 of the awards, tying with Matilda the Musical for the most wins.
It is widely regarded as the musical of the Obama era. Miranda created Hamilton after becoming enthralled with Ron Chernow’s biography of the Founding Father, and proceeded to write songs for an album called The Hamilton Mixtape. It’s a sign of his audacity that he performed the first of these early works at the White House in 2009, despite being invited to perform hits from his previous musical, In The Heights. But it paid off: the song paved the way for the musical’s opener, Alexander Hamilton. Then in 2016 Miranda visited the White House to perform songs from the musical and a video of him freestyling in the Rose Garden with President Barack Obama went viral. First Lady Michelle Obama reportedly called the show “the best piece of art in any form that I have even seen in my life.” Seriously?
In the face of such critical and Obama acclaim, it is not politically correct to criticise anything about the show. The common retort to people who criticise the show is, ‘If you know so much, how come Miranda is the famous one and no one cares what you think?’ Miranda is not just famous now, he is cocky as a rooster and actively encourages recognition from people as he walks by. He is still under 40, the crown prince of Broadway and clearly living his wildest dreams. As a child, he was so obsessed with musicals and hip-hop that he listened to his cassettes until they broke.
The critics talk about the writing being sloppy with the rhymes not being true, and the musical score being so-so, with harmonies seldom rising above the level of ad-land jingles. Well, it is hip-hop! First I have to say that I know nothing about hip-hop as a genre. I have no interest in it and I do not listen to it. But it doesn’t strike me as a genre renowned for its rhyming or musical eloquence. Yes, good writing takes second place to the overall concept in Hamilton. But Hamilton is hardly the only show guilty of this. The issue I think is the hype surrounding Hamilton given these short-comings, and it is over-hyped.
The other issue with the musical is the presentation of Alexander Hamilton. While waiting for the show to begin, I read about the real Hamilton in the program notes. I took an instant dislike to the man. He was a despicable human being. Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804) was a leading politician in the creation of the United States. He was George Washington’s top military aide in the fight for independence from Britain and he later helped shape the US constitution. He was the first-ever Secretary to the Treasury and he established the banking and credit system required by the emerging federation of states. By all accounts he was a genius in certain matters, but a despicable human being.
Academics in the know about the real Hamilton, point out that Hamilton perpetuates the trend of “founders chic” which venerates figures such as George Washington while forgetting their slave-owning and other sins, as the race-blind casting masks this issue. Hamilton has been hailed as a landmark for its nontraditional casting of minorities as white Founding Fathers, but if you put all the slaves owned by Washington, Jefferson and Madison on the Hamilton stage, they wouldn’t fit.
Hamilton offers a celebratory American nationalism and mythmaking that a lot of Americans long for. It offers this assurance that if you work hard enough you’ll be successful, while playing down the systemic obstacles. In view of this, and the nationalist ethos running through the show, it is a mystery that Trump hasn’t taken to it. The fact that the Obamas have praised it so, must be causing Trump to take the opposite view. I imagine Miranda’s response to be, “I really don’t care, do U?”
Six weeks on, the only line I still remember from the musical is Aaron Burr’s line to Hamilton: “Talk less… smile more”, having found myself wishing several times during the show that Hamilton talk less.
What has remained is the memory of the speed of the vocal delivery, the bullet-fast insistence of the assonance and the technical ability of the main singers in spitting out all those words. The London cast, a multiethnic ensemble as it is in all Hamilton productions, enunciated more precisely than their American counterparts. It didn’t help much. It’s better if you know the words, and I never will. Hamilton is packed with rapid-fire lyrics, shooting out at you in a firework range of styles: The better you know the album, the more you’ll enjoy it. Just like at any rock/pop concert.
Hamilton has been hailed as a landmark for bringing hip-hop seamlessly into a Broadway musical. The best reason for catching this over-hyped American musical is the energy of its hip-hop rap writing.
The audience does encounter a watertight show. The awards for best costume design, best lighting design, best choreography, best orchestration and best direction of a musical are well deserved. This is a shipshape presentation: text and music and dramaturgy are seamlessly crafted together and presented in an equally seamless production, from the wooden sets to the synchronized and peripatetic dancers.
It is a thrilling, contemporary, immersive stage presentation that’s a union of story, text, music, image and movement, all hip-hop rap style, that gets under the skin of the audience. While I didn’t forget my dislike of Alexander Hamilton the man, the show was a wondrous spectacle that got under my skin and I enjoyed immensely.
There were a few tweaks for the London production, apart from actors with better enunciation. King George’s outfit got a much bling-ier garter because he was looking a bit dingy, especially so close to Buckingham Palace. Miranda rewrote a joke about the Vice-Presidency for a British audience that might not know that John Adams once held that office. He also replaced references to Weehawken and the Potomac, since even general geography lacked local purchase. (A line about duelling across the Hudson because “Everything is legal in New Jersey” didn’t get the laugh it earned in Manhattan.) But a “Macbeth” allusion played better in the UK than it did Stateside: when a beleaguered Hamilton, “son of a whore and a Scotsman,” sings to Angelica, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day / I trust you’ll understand the reference to another Scottish tragedy without my having to name the play,” the audience chuckled in appreciation.
The greatest cheer of the night came after the line: “Immigrants, they get the job done.” At a time when a lack of diversity in the arts is an ongoing issue in the UK, the pointedly diverse casting of Hamilton – with black, Asian and mixed-race actors filling almost all the roles – ensured that it felt as groundbreaking on the West End stage as it did when it made its Broadway debut in 2015.
The fervour that attends this show is off the scale. There was a standing ovation at the end. Spectacular? Yes. The best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen? No.
Newcastle Theatre Royal was voted UK’s Most Welcoming Theatre for the North East region in 2018, for the fourth year in a row.
The theatre was most welcoming to little bears 🙂
Honey and Isabelle are exploring the Story of Theatre exhibition, a legacy of the £5m auditorium restoration in 2011. The permanent exhibition in the Gallery Foyer level at the Theatre Royal, illustrates the history of theatre from its origins in Ancient Greece through to the present day.
Designed by David Hudson, Interior & Exhibitions Designer, it includes costumes from the Victoria & Albert Museum Theatre & Performance Collection – seen for the first time outside of London – and Theatre Royal’s vast collection of memorabilia, alongside a large array of other artefacts. Highlights of the exhibition include a Dame Alicia Markova tutu and headdress from the 1930s, Royal Shakespeare Company costumes and a scale wooden model of Newcastle quayside, the site of medieval plays, complete with figures and stages along the banks of the river.
Granted its Royal licence by King George III, the Theatre Royal Newcastle opened on Drury Lane off Mosley Street in 1788 and soon established itself as one of England’s leading theatres.
Three months before Queen Victoria ascended the throne, in February 1837, the Theatre moved to Grey Street, a flagship building in Grainger and Dobson’s famous city plan. It features what is generally regarded as the finest Theatre façade in the UK. The theatre has been renovated many times since it opened, the largest of which was instigated directly after a fire following a showing of Macbeth in 1899. The renovation work saw the entire auditorium re-designed by one of the most iconic theatre architects, Frank Matcham.
For the theatre’s 175th birthday in February 2012, a major six month restoration recreated Matcham’s classic 1901 Edwardian design, using Matcham’s 1901 template for the decorative scheme, reprinting wallpapers, reinstating lost tilework, sourcing original carpet patterns and using extensive gold leaf work. Specialist workshops reproduced period light fittings, brassware and ornamentation. And seating was reconfigured, with new seats in all areas – 1901 in style, but modern in comfort.
Damaged by the elements and recent severe winters, the famous portico was also in urgent need of repair. As well as conservation measures, a new lighting system was installed to show off the splendour of the iconic main entrance.
Over the centuries, many of the great names of the English stage have played at the Royal, from Keane to Irving, Olivier to Dench and the Hollywood greats Orson Welles, Charlton Heston and Jack Lemmon have also trodden the famous boards; Sir Ian McKellen has described the Theatre Royal as his favourite theatre.
The Theatre Royal presents over 380 performances to over 300,000 people each year and is the regional home of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, Opera North and Rambert Dance Company.
Honey and Isabelle are at the theatre to see Northern Ballet’s revival of their acclaimed production of The Three Musketeers.
Choreographed by David Nixon, who has been Artistic Director of Northern Ballet since 2001, and with a score by Malcolm Arnold, the ballet premiered in 2006, on the day of the composer’s death. Based on Alexandre Dumas’ classic novel, The Three Musketeers score is compiled from Sir Malcolm Arnold’s catalogue by Anthony Meredith and arranged by John Longstaff. The Three Musketeers was nominated for an Olivier Award in 2008 and won the award for Best Dance at the MEN Theatre Awards.
Years before Arnold had toyed with the idea of writing a ballet on the colourful subject, even writing a few sketches. Yet his fragile health prevented him from progressing and it was John Longstaff, prompted by choreographer David Nixon, who with the composer’s approval and Anthony Meredith’s assistance, devised a sequence of pieces from Arnold’s enormous catalogue, arranging them for the theatre orchestra of Northern Ballet. The score includes selections from symphonies, film music and other concert works composed by Arnold over his 70-year output, providing an exciting summary of the work of this towering figure in 20th century music.
The score works superbly. The Overture is an archetypal example of Arnold’s film music, taken from Trapeze, followed by one of the best-known pieces all – the English Dance used as the signature tune for TV’s What the Papers Say. The energetic pieces, apt for the Dumas novel, give way to the Wedding Night sequence from Hobson’s Choice, and music from Symphonies Nos 3 and 5, David Copperfield and Hobson’s Choice fits nicely into the sequence.
Act 2 opens with a string orchestra arrangement of the very early Phantasy. Longstaff’s coup at the emotional climax of the ballet is to have two sections of Symphony No 5 – the haunting opening of the slow movement followed by the finale, which ends on the fortissimo reprise of that great melody, rounded off with a few hushed bars of ghostly chimes. In the ballet they represent d’Artagnan’s tender farewell to his beloved Constance, followed by the Musketeers’ race to Calais and their capture.
Set in 17th century Paris where honour is everything but no secret is safe, The Three Musketeers sees devoted friends d’Artagnan and musketeers Athos, Porthos and Aramis race off on a chivalrous quest to save the Queen’s reputation and the life of d’Artagnan’s love. Faced with scheming villains at every turn, the path to victory does not run smooth in this dashing tale of intrigue, treachery and romance. This is a gripping ballet with thrilling swordplay and larger than life characters for little bears to enjoy 🙂
The remarkable staging and scenario take their cue from Nixon’s dutiful re-telling of the original and the work is packed full of details that require close attention. There is an overwhelming amount of visual, choreographic and musical treats on offer. The costumes made the most of the dancers’ movement while conveying the characters position and personality to the audience.
There is a lot to like about this Three Musketeers, most notably Nixon’s at-times imaginative use of period costumes and lighting, the grand sets cast in wood panelling and the number of ensemble pieces involved for a very busy corps.
Sometimes, it all goes by a little too quickly, with strong pacing selected in favour of sustained action, sacrificing an essential soupçon of lovers’ intimacy, particularly in the scenes of illicit tryst between Queen Anne and Buckingham.
David Nixon said: ‘With its action-orientated plot, The Three Musketeers is an engaging and fun production both to perform and to watch. It has every element that makes a great ballet; romance, politics, fun and fights; and our dancers especially love gaining sword-fighting skills! I am delighted to be bringing this production back out on tour for the first time in a decade; our loyal audiences have been asking for this for a long time so I am pleased that they will be able to see it again, as well as for a new generation to be able to enjoy.’
Little bears agree 🙂
Since 2007, when it was last performed in the UK, The Three Musketeers has been performed by several companies across Canada and Europe. David Nixon’s productions have been staged worldwide including Europe, Canada, the USA and South Africa. The West Australian Ballet performed his production of The Great Gatsby in 2017.
We are in the age of the super-long-haul flights. In March this year, Qantas launched the Perth-London direct flight. It is the third longest flight, at about 15,000 kilometres. The second longest flight is the Qatar Airways Doha-Auckland flight, launched in 2017. In October this year Singapore Airlines re-launched what is now the world’s longest nonstop flight — a 15,343 kilometres, 18.5 hour journey from Singapore to Newark. This month, Singapore Airlines is introducing its direct flight to Los Angeles. Industry experts define super-long-haul travel as any flight over 13,000 kilometres one way.
New, lighter and more fuel efficient, dual-engine aircraft — including the Airbus models and Boeing’s Dreamliner — make flying for nearly a day economically viable as the number of super-long-haul flights increases. Singapore Airlines abandoned its ultra-long-haul flights to the US in 2003 because of high fuel prices.
In September this year, Cathay Pacific Airways began flying 13,120 kilometres, its longest route, between its base in Hong Kong and Washington, D.C. Later this month, Air New Zealand plans to add service between Auckland and Chicago, its longest flight at a distance of about 13,200 kilometres.
As flight times grow, carriers are experimenting with everything from healthy menus to onboard gyms to make almost 20 hours in the air more bearable. Business classes are the beneficiaries of most of the new investment. Some airplanes, like Singapore Airlines’ new craft, contain only 161 seats in business and premium economy, which are more spacious than standard economy. But across the industry, even regular economy passengers will find extra perks.
Well-being exercises on some of the new long-haul flights go beyond the extend-and-flex directions of older exercise programs. In some cases, they are beginning before passengers even get on the plane.
When it launched its Perth-London route earlier this year, Qantas created a new transit lounge at the Perth airport for business class travellers featuring stretching and breathing classes offered every 15 minutes, bathrooms with light therapy in the shower suites designed to help travellers adjust to time changes, and a hydration station with fruit-infused water and herbal tea. An open-air terrace is open to fliers in all classes of travel.
Earlier this year, Cathay Pacific joined with the international yoga studio Pure Yoga to launch a new in-flight wellness program called Travel Well with Yoga. Six videos feature yoga and meditation exercises to improve circulation, mobility and relaxation.
As Australia is quite remote relative to other major airports, and pretty much the end of the line, not a global hub, Qantas aims to reimagine how aircraft cabins are designed to include, possibly, bars, children’s nurseries and exercise areas. Its new exploratory program called Project Sunrise has challenged aircraft makers to design planes that could fly more than 20 hours between Sydney and London or New York by 2022. The airline is exploring how it can convert space not suited to seats into bars, stretching zones and work and study areas.
Maybe they should also work on the entertainment choices! A marathon flight is tedious enough without the added struggle of finding something to watch for 17 hours.
Last month we experienced the marathon flight between Perth and London, and the return about ten days later, and the one word to describe the 17 hour experience is tedious. Especially in economy class. FYI, not doing that again! But given our extravagant year off and the incredible deal on the economy seats for the flights, we decided to travel rough 🙂 Having said that, the time saving of a few hours was welcome (with a stop over the trip can be anything up to 24 hours or worse if you miss the connection) and the jet lag was significantly less. A separate personal problem resulted in no jet lag because my sleeping patters were not adjusted to any particular time zone!
It is possible that prior conditioning from years of taking flights with a stop over means that around the 11-12 hour mark the body and the mind start getting really restless. The last five hours were trying but we got through it. It’s not like there was another choice!
One of the first things I checked for after settling in my seat was for the presence of the life jacket under the seat. Not that I didn’t trust Qantas to have one, but just days before taking the trip I read a Washing Post article about what passengers steal from planes. Apparently anything that isn’t bolted down. Among the items snatched from commercial flights: coffee mugs, cutlery, blankets and life jackets. Even the warning placards (“Life Vest Under Your Seat”) have been stolen. No one knows how much passengers steal from planes. There are no surveys on airline theft, and airlines don’t publicly report thefts. Especially the thefts of upgraded amenities from first class and business class. The stories are unbelievable. Anyway, the life jacket was safely under the seat and it was still there when we left the plane!
Tediousness aside, we have already decided to take the direct flight to London every time we go to Europe. It helps that we now have a few good reasons to stop in London every time. We have a few months before the next trip to sort out the entertainment problem!