Elizabeth Llewellyn In Fine Voice in Opera Holland Park’s ‘Manon Lescaut’.



It had been quite some time since I had last seen Manon Lescaut, Puccini’s early opera. Not since 2014 when leading man, Jonas Kaufmann, the Tom Jones of opera, topped the bill, playing an overly confident De Grieux at the Royal Opera House. Nevertheless I lapped up his ill-fated love affair with Latvian soprano, Kristine Opolais, singing Manon, and the extravagent sets. 

Thinking back on it now, I question the lavish production. The operatic couple may have melded beautifully and the contemporary staging may have dazzled at first, but somehow it was distracting. 

Puccini’s operas run on high octane emotion. To have an ostentatious set can be de trop!

Opera Holland Park minimalist set did its work with no frills: a bar, a boudoir, which morphed into a film set and finally the harbour with broken brick wall, where Manon and other fallen women are shipped off to New Orleans. New Orleans well – you just had to imagine it. You wouldn’t have known the places without checking the libretto. Sometimes this was a touch disorientating.

More important was the inspired casting and interaction between the lovers and other key members of the troupe.

Here, I believe, Holland Park Opera got it absolutely right. Elizabeth Llewellyn, a statuesque Manon, was good at fleshing out her heroine’s complex character. Kittenish and flirtatious at first, cavorting with abandon at a party on a Twister mat, she shows herself to be easily led and impressed by money. She has supposedly fallen for student De Grieux beforehand and yet it doesn’t stop her playful antics with her brother, Lescaut, before Geronte, the wealthy and aged pursuer of young women. 

Paul Carey-Jones, as Lescaut, artfully demonstrated his slippery character in the way he disappeared and popped up unexpectedly on stage, first in the De Grieux, then in the Geronte camp. His baritone voice contained the right amount of menace and humour required for the role.

TT_Ssv80Meanwhile Stephen Richardson, singing Geronte, had the air of an eminent professor one minute, his elegant grey streaks and sharp suits giving him maximum allure, and mafioso, the next, in his dark shades. Wherever he was, he seemed to dominate the scene. His solid bass voice was memorable in the lower register but not allowed much space in this opera for tenors!

Peter Auty, playing the all important paramour, De Grieux was an interesting one. It must be hard for all principal singers to interpret well known roles and works. The audience expects so much of you and your leading lady, and Puccini certainly expected 100 per cent from his singers. 


There is also the problem of the way we perceive the lover. De Grieux in the story of Manon is a poor student and madly in love. The audience sympathies could well lie with him. In this production, he is seen as not only grief-stricken but obsessive and childish; even unhinged! I’m thinking that that might be what Karolina Sofulak, director of Manon, had in mind.

Peter Auty captures the restlessness of the lover, his jerky body language on stage, manifests physically the inner turmoil Manon instils in him. His Italianate tenor voice is at times close to breaking point and his high notes seem to be wrested from a truly tortured soul. Important arias like ‘Guardate, pazzo son’ (Have a care – I’m driven to madness’) when he persuades the captain of the ship, to take him on board to join Manon, are truly moving.  

Placed before the more poised Manon, whose strangled emotion only really comes through in the final act, De Grieux comes across as a psychological mess.

Llewellyn’s soprano voice was sophisticated, rich with all the necessary fragility in all the right moments. In the final act for example, when De Grieux has left her momentarily to seek help, she crumbles as the lights suddenly  illuminate the cinema posters on the wall where a ‘Manon’ tops the bill . She rips them to shreds, no longer able to contemplate her young, beautiful former self or is it her replacement? ‘Now I beg for the grave.’ ‘My love help me.’ 


There was some consternation in the audience after the final scene as the lovers ended up far apart from each other, Manon standing beneath a flickering street lamp and De Grieux many metres away in despair. The ladies in question seated in front of me, might have seen Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais in the Convent Garden Opera version, virtually joined at the hip, lying on the edge of a truncated flyover (you had to be there!). 

There is method to Karolina Sofulak’s vision. This quirk at the end emphasises Manon’s complete isolation. When Manon sings ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata,’ she really is, even when her lover returns from his vain search for help.

Highly recommended as Elisabeth Llewellyn is in fine voice.

Manon Lescaut, Opera Holland Pk runs for four more performances : Tues 18th June, Thurs 20th June, Saturday 22nd June and Wednesday 26th June.


Natalia Goncharova at Tate Modern


Natal’ya Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov were the power couple of the Russian avant-garde. They met at art school in Moscow in 1898, where their talent was spotted by Sergei Diaghilev, whose role as an impresario extended far beyond the performing arts. The two gained further recognition by exhibiting with various short-lived groups: Knave of Diamonds (named by Larionov because of its vaguely subversive associations), Plevok (‘spit’) and The Donkey’s Tail (don’t ask). Larionov was no slouch when it came to self-promotion but Goncharova garnered more column inches because of her sex. In 1910 she was arrested on charges of peddling ‘pornography’, i.e. nudity; she helped things along by wearing trousers in public and appearing in experimental cabaret daubed in body paint and not much else.

As Tate’s retrospective shows, Goncharova’s early work was relentlessly experimental and impressively diverse: as well as her paintings, she turned her hand to book illustration, printmaking and designing for fashion, textiles and the theatre. Her preferred subject-matter was in a rather idealised version of peasant life: hay cutting, apple picking, harvesting and so on. She used an unholy mix of modernist styles du jour: Neo-Primitivism, Cubo-Futurism and a weird, semi-mystical form of abstraction known as Rayonism, which had been dreamt up by Larionov (who gets short shrift here, by the way). Despite these influences Goncharova roundly denounced Western art and pledged her soul to ‘the source of all arts, the East’. This meant adding folk art, religious icons – very risky – and, above all, the glorious tradition of the Russian popular woodcut (lubok), grandaddy of today’s criminal tattoo art. The overall effect is exuberant, eclectic – I think I spotted some Pointillism in there as well – and invigorating. It’s also very uneven, deliberately so; her four ‘Evangelists’ (1911), for example, which caused much scandal, are as coarsely painted as scenery flats.


Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) Peasants Picking Apples 1911 Oil paint on canvas 1045 x 980 mm State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Received from the Museum of Artistic Culture 1929 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019


Goncharova’s big break came when Diaghilev took her to Paris to work on designs for Rimski-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or, which brought her international fame. In 1915 she and Larionov settled permanently in Paris and never returned to Russia, meaning that they missed out on all the later upheavals: Suprematism, Constructivism and, of course, the Revolution. Living in genteel poverty in a small flat on the Left Bank, their work became decorative and rather tame. Goncharova’s creative urges waned still further after Diaghilev’s death in 1929; she died aged 81 in 1962, Larionov two years later. At the risk of exposing my ‘bourgeois’ tendencies, I have to say I rather like the prettified version of Cubism that Goncharova adopted in her Paris years (see below). All the same, Tate is probably right to concentrate on the glory days.


Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) Orange Seller 1916 Oil paint on canvas 1310 x 970 mm Museum Ludwig © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019


But visitors to the show will probably gravitate most towards the final room, covering Goncharova’s work for Ballets Russes, for which she’s probably best known. Here you can admire her dazzling sets and costumes for Les Noces, Sadko and the Firebird, as well as Le Coq d’Or, while the music of Stravinsky strums away in the background.



Natalia Goncharova at Tate Modern until 8 September 2019

Installation image, Natalia Goncharova at Tate Modern, 2019. Photo:©Tate Photography (Matt Greenwood)

Header image credit: Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) Self-Portrait with Yellow Lilies, 1907-1908 Oil paint on canvas 775 x 582 mm State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Purchased 1927 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Rowan Hudson – Passing Ships

Guest review by Doug Thomas

Rowan Hudson is a British pianist and composer who stands halfway between the worlds of jazz and minimalism. His musical activity is diverse – playing with his piano trio with JJ Stillwell (bass) and Angus Bishop (drums), his duo with singer Richard Hadfield, his six-piece group Nattacackle, and his new five-piece group Passing Ships with whom he has just released a debut album, Rowan Hudson’s Passing Ships. With his piano trio and the addition of Sophie Creaner on clarinet and Sophie English on the cello, Hudson delivers a project full of cool jazz harmonies, pictorial sounds tinted with Delius-esque passages (the pianist writes a blog dedicated to the English composer), and humorous textures.

Passing Ships starts with Transatlantic; it is built on a dominant tonality that creates a pulse of tension, progressively unfolding and over which the ensemble decorates and sets contrasting pictures and textural idioms. Hudson might have been influenced by the works of The Dave Brubeck Quartet, and it is visible through Wind-up Birds. Here the prominence of the cello creates an opportunity for the composer to develop the structural aspect of the piece, making it richer and richer, and at times more intense and perhaps darker. Ometepe Patterns is based on pianistic musical cells that provide a foundation for the clarinet and the cello to jokingly sing. The Lighthouse is a lot more melancholic and very lightly built on an odd rhythmical structure that creates a musical sway.

Although all the album has been fully composed, pieces like Pianosa display Hudson’s talent at creating true organic conversations between the instruments. It is based on a dancing pizzicato pattern on the cello and double bass, with a responding and contrasting cymbal. Finally, the very descriptive Longitude reflects on the passing of time and monotony; the pianistic ostinato, the beating cymbaling of the waves and the liquid motion of the cello.

Hudson’s music is very light in spirit, and at times whimsical. One can really hear the musicians interacting with each other, and enjoying their performance, and this reflects on the listener’s experience. While listening to Passing Ships, I had pictures of Renoir, Manet, Sisley, Monet and Pissaro. But most importantly I could see the pictorial landscapes of Bournemouth, Margate, Brighton or St Ives. In this album, there is a sensation of joyfulness, lightness and peace of mind; there are images of children running on the shore, couples cruising away from it, and friends playing on the dunes. A musical escape from the grey sounds of the city.

Rowan Hudson’s Passing Ships is available on CD or via download. More information

Meet the Artist interview with Rowan Hudson

Doug Thomas is a French composer and artist based in London and a regular writer for ArtMuseLondon.

Read more


This review first appeared on Doug Thomas’ own site


When you think about it, it’s a strange sort of job, being a reviewer. There we are, exerting all our writerly skills to create on the page the experience of attending an exhibition, doing all we can to help you decide if it’s one for you, and if it is, zhuzhing you up to buy that ticket now, now, now; when the exhibition you will experience is inevitably going to be entirely different to the one we work so hard to bring to life for you.

These philosophical musings were prompted by the Press View for this year’s RA Summer Exhibition  – which, with its whiff of the London season, the cocktail party and the 19th-century Paris salon, is always a bit of an oddity in any case, and all the better for it, IMHO. Attend the show as a punter and you will be shuffling round shoulder to shoulder, shouting to make yourself heard; and whether you intend it or no, being shoved constantly one way or the other in your judgement of the works on display by the all-important splatter of red dots they do (or don’t) carry, as just to add to its novelty, the Summer Exhibition is also a buying show. So there’s a whole vital level of engagement available to you, the visitor, which is not accessible to us reviewers at all, unless of course we wish to drop the persona of objective professional, and start squealing with excitement over the one work that has just summoned us across the room with its siren cry of ‘Take me home or you’ll never forgive yourself.’ (If you want to experience the most ruinous thing you can do to your personal finances, catch the germ for buying art. Trust me, I know whereof I speak, and so does my bank manager.)

In place of all that, us reviewers get sepulchral hush, unless and until the curator starts speaking, and no over-excited crowds of punters at all. Doesn’t sound anything like as much fun, does it? Not a solitary red dot, either, unless you count Cornelia Parker’s distinctly cheeky print of three diminishing empty frames, freckled with pseudo red dots as part of the work itself.

Tsunami, 2019

Jock McFadyenPoor Mother, Oil on canvas 151 x 211 cm, Photo: Lucid Plane

The Summer Exhibition this year, the RA’s 251st, which opens on the 10thJune, has been curated (or ‘co-ordinated’, as the RA puts it), by the painter Jock McFadyen. Grayson Perry was in charge last year, and Grayson now has the sort of Living National Treasure status otherwise only accorded to Stephen Fry and Sir David Attenborough, so yes, he’s a hard act to follow. Whether by accident or design, however, the show this year takes the public temperature in a rather intriguing way. Walk in, and the mass of sculptures that greet you in the Wohl Central Hall, and the paintings surrounding them, are all inspired in some way by our relationship with all the other species with whom we share this planet. I’ve just published a book – The Animal’s Companion – that explores this very subject via the lens of the pet-owner and their history, and it’s unmistakable, how much the imperiled nature of our relationship with the natural world is uppermost in the human hive-mind at present, and certainly in the minds of those making the selection for the show – 16,000 works, whittled down to 1,500.  The curation this year is old-school, earnest, and present – themes repeat from one wall to the next, and from one gallery to the next as well, sending you from one piece to another and then (the shoulder-to-shoulder business of being there not for the Press View permitting) back to check on something that snagged your eye somewhere else altogether; but then that’s exactly what curation should do.

Photo: © David Parry/ Royal Academy of Arts

Photo: © David Parry/ Royal Academy of ArtsOne of the great good things about the RA show is that it exposes you to everything, that’s its point – the excellent, the proficient; the bad, the alarming; the naff, the kitsch, the clichéd. There are, for example, at least three different ‘murmurations’ of seagulls, one of them repurposing the background to Fragonard’s Girl on a Swing. There are two works that use the

woodgrain of woodblock to create ripples of water, of sand, or clouds of pollution. There’s an homage to Clara the rhinoceros (just visible at top) who so entranced Venice in the 18thcentury. There’s recycling, if you like, of ideas from the past – Brueghel’s Hunters in the Snow becomes people walking their dogs on snowbound Richmond Park. This being Brexit Britain, there’s a Banksy. There are slightly less than the predictable number of female nudes, and (predictably again) just about no male nudes at all, unless you count the gentlemen disporting themselves top-right in Claire Douglass’s recycling of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Of portraits there are very few – until you walk behind a spur wall, and there they all are. Portraiture was once what the Paris salons were all about. Now art is – and it truly is – Kate McGwire’s Viscera, a giant intertwined knot covered in pheasant feathers that make it look as if it’s perpetually slithering over itself; and a nightmarish installation of oversize crows, made out of torn, melted, half-decayed bin-liners, with a soundtrack of inane human burble that resolves itself into Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘known unknowns’ speech, only to disintegrate anew. And there are three miniature sky-boats, held in mid-air, like airborne Noah’s Arks of ecological rescue, sailing off into some happier future where their intervention might be no longer necessary.

Tony Bevan RA, TREE (PP1845), Acrylic and charcoal on paper, 85 x 121 cm, Courtesy of the artist

Tony Bevan 2

It’s part of the British summer to decry the RA Summer Exhibition as pointless and hackneyed, just as it is the NPG Portrait Award, but that shoulder-to-shoulder shuffle carries on regardless. People come here to see art, to engage with art, to comment at deafening volume on art, and some of them even buy art. All of them have a damn good time. And one of the other great good things about the RA Summer Exhibition is the little book they produce listing all the works in the show. This is un-illustrated, and the listings are as basic as can be – but no bloody app, for people to pour over, heads down, whilst the art goes past them unseen. There will be a website, once the show opens, but if you want to see the art as art, let alone as retail therapy, you gotta go see the art. And you gotta applaud that.


Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2019 sponsored by Insight Investment

10thJune – 12 August 2019

Top image: The Wohl Central Hall. Photo: © David Parry/ Royal Academy of Arts

‘Mrs Pollock’ breaks free of her husband’s shadow in a vibrant burst of colour and energy

Lee Krasner: Living Colour

so good you would not know it was done by a woman – Hans Hofman

For too long the artist Lee Krasner (1908-1984) lived in the overbearing shadow of her alcoholic husband, Jackson Pollock, in both life and death. Yet when they met in 1941, she was already developing a significant career for herself as an artist in her own right who earned praise – and a dancing partner – from Piet Mondrian, amongst others. But that was then – when women were sidelined, overlooked or just ignored (Krasner changed her name from Lena to the andrognous “Lee” in response to this) – and this is now. And this long overdue exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery – the first in Europe in 50 years – reveals Krasner as an important artist in her own right, a pioneer of Abstract Expressionism who adopted an entirely abstract approach which endured throughout her life. Her artistic language was distinctive, independent and continually evolving. Unlike many of her contemporaries, her husband included, she refused to develop a ‘signature image’, preferring to “believe in continuity”.

Largely organised chronologically (take the mini guide with a map as the exibition layout is initially rather confusing), the Barbican show actually begins with work created in 1945 and after, when Krasner moved to Springs, Long Island, with her new husband, Jackson Pollock. While Pollock worked in his own studio, Krasner set up her own makeshift studio space in a bedroom. The paintings produced during this period may be small in scale but include a wealth of precise detail, and they pulsate with an energy redolent of her husband’s famous drip paintings. These jewel-like abstractions, and the mosaic tables she created from old wagon wheels, prove that size need not be a constraint on the freedom of artistic imagination.

You can have a tiny painting which is monumental in scale

– Lee Krasner

Lee Krasner, 1908-1984 Self Portrait, 1930 Oil on linen 30 1/9 x 25 1/8 in. The Jewish Museum

The exhibition then backtracks to Krasner’s early years, when as young woman she started experimenting with self-portraits. By 1928 she had graduated from the Women’s Art School at Cooper Union, and was due to commence her studies at the prestigious National Academy of Design. These self-portraits are confident works, her love of colour and bold strokes already evident. Examples of her life drawing, classical in style but assured and uninhibited, are displayed in the next room, opposite her early adventures in abstraction: the influence of the cubists, and particularly Picasso is clear in these works.

The most significant work on the upper floor of this exhibition is Prophecy (1956) a large canvas dominated by fleshy human forms and gashes of red and yellow. Boldly outlined with black, the work was painted at a time when her relationship with the unfaithful, alcoholic Pollock was under considerable strain. She herself was disturbed by the painting, leaving it on her easel while she went to France. On 12 August 1956 she received a telephone call informing her that Pollock had crashed his car, killing himself and Edith Metzger, a friend of his lover Ruth Kligman. Just a few weeks after the funeral, Krasner returned to her painting, creating equally troubled, psychological companion pieces to ProphecyBirth, Embrace and Three in Two, which are reunited in this exhibition.

In the downstairs rooms of the Barbican Art Gallery, a series of spacious white rooms allow the viewer to fully appreciate Krasner’s ongoing artistic development. It was as if the loss of her husband allowed her artistic vision and creativity to really take flight, and the works on display here are big-boned, expansive and highly expressive. Colours bounce exuberantly from the canvasses – soft shapes in vibrant crimsons and hot fuchsia pinks which pay homage to one of her artistic heroes, Henri Matisse. Even her monotone canvasses in umber and white, painted at nighttime during periods of insomnia, are vivid and gestural. Her willingness, or need, to create and reinvent, to move forward, is seen clearly in the ‘Palingenesis’ series, paintings with hard-edged abstract forms in which cool blues and greens join Krasner’s favourite reds and pinks. These works have a minimalist grace and a sense of peace, expansive yet restrained.

The same hard-edged forms find new expression in her ‘Eleven Ways’ collages, created from earlier works and cut with scissors to achieve “precise incision” (her earlier collages were made from torn paper and her old canvasses and even some of Pollock’s discarded works). The juxtaposition of shapes bring energy and dynamism to these striking works.

In an age when the habit of identifying artists, writers and composers as “female artist/writer/composer” seems paramount, Krasner’s work confirms that there is no need for such distinctions, that it is all just “art” – and very fine art it is too.



Lee Krasner: Living Colour

Barbican Art Gallery, London, until 1 September 2019


Header image: Desert Moon, 1955. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. © 2018. Digital Image Museum Associates/LACMA/Art Resource NY/Scala, Florence

Leonardo da Vinci. A Life in Notebooks


Study of Fetus in the Womb circa 1511


Part artist, part scientist, Da Vinci embodies the Renaissance man par excellence.

Luckily for us, the workings of his inner mind in painting, sculpture, anatomy, military engineering and cartography have all been recorded in the notebooks he kept throughout his life.

One of these notebooks made it into the Queen’s Royal Collection during Charles II’s reign. For hundreds of years following, the 550 drawings were carefully preserved in the Print room at Windsor castle.

To mark the 500th anniversary of da Vinci’s death, 200 of these drawings have travelled up to London for a show entitled Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing at the Queen’s Gallery, London.

Leonardo began his career as an apprentice artist, a garzone, aged 14, working for the eminent Florentine painter and sculptor Verrocchio. Under his inspirational master’s wing, he was exposed to both theoretical training and a wide range of technical skills, including drafting, chemistry, metal work, plaster casting, leather work, mechanics, woodwork, as well as drawing, painting and modelling. 

To complement their education in the human body, Verrochio’s pupils were sent down to the local hospital to perform dissections. For Da Vinci it was a revelation, setting him along the path of scientific observation.  

At the show the anatomical section is the most fascinating. Da Vinci’s documentation of muscles, nerves and vessels demonstrate the artist’s investigation into the  mechanics of movement. 

The act of procreation also preoccupies the polymath as you would expect. His artistic representation of coitus is both intriguing and poetic. Man’s ‘material’ is seen to enter the female uterus, and in Da Vinci’s drawing, it is the man’s brain which baptises it with an ‘animal element’ or soul. Meanwhile woman, the receptacle of the man’s offering, gives her soul to the child via her spinal cord.

Further on in the show, da Vinci’s dissection of a uterus reveals a mature foetus  (see heading). Beautifully drafted, it is unsettling to think of the circumstances in which Da Vinci captured nature’s best kept secret. Burying its head in its hands, its placenta snaking around its back and thigh, the baby is both immaculate and lifeless.

Other highlights were Da Vinci’s outstanding botany drawings, the map of the Tuscan valley he drew up as a military engineer and cartographer, and finally a sculptural project for the Duke of Milan.

Da Vinci was commissioned to make a bronze equestrian statue to honour one of the Duke’s forebears. Unfortunately only the clay version survived until it was destroyed by French soldiers when they invaded Milan. As for the bronze required for the colossal equine cast totalling 75 tons, it was used instead for the production of cannon balls.

The theme of unfinished works is a reoccurring one with da Vinci. Personal procrastination and  destruction seem to have blighted da Vinci’s existence. It is really poignant to think that though Leonardo was revered in his day as a painter, he was only able to complete 20 paintings.

The exhibition does give us the opportunity to view the preparatory sketches for several of the most famous works, The Last Supper for instance. The relatively unknown (The) Head of Leda was the main attraction at the show however.

Da Vinci’s charming sketches of a beautiful young woman with Renaissance hair, plaited, rolled and trained and seen from all angles, is enchanting. Da Vinci worked on the painting for the last 15 years of his life. It entered the French Royal Collection but had to be destroyed due to its ruinous state.


The head of Leda

Head of Leda 1504-1505


For me, The Head of Leda’s studies are a precious record of what could have been da Vinci’s greatest painting of all.

All in all, I found this an inspiring show and one which leaves you wanting more.


Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing runs until October 2019 at the Queen’s Gallery, London.

The Power of Music and Birdsong


Southwark Cathedral and London Bridge surrounded by fields around 1548


Man has always been enraptured by birdsong. The nightingale’s song is not only a thing of rare beauty but a complex affair. Naturalists have likened the nightingale’s musical talents to that of a jazz musician, who is able to improvise on several instruments at once! 

I was therefore horrified to hear recently of the 90 per cent decline in the nightingale population. The statistics for birds are grim overall: 67 species have disappeared in the past 50 years amounting to about 40 million birds.


Of course we have all noticed how silent our city parks have become. If it wasn’t for the shrieking parakeets which have populated London in the last 15 years, our green spaces would be nearly silent.

With these sad thoughts running through my mind, I attended a bird-inspired musical event, Absolute Bird, held at Southwark Cathedral. It was hosted by our capital’s most forward-looking orchestra, the City of London Sinfonia.  The orchestra, made up of 40 outstanding professional musicians, has always believed in the transformative powers of music in all sectors of our society and this evening was no exception. Their mission tonight was to educate, entertain and inspire us with bird-inspired works and BBC wild-life presenter, Miranda Krestovnikoff, seen on BBC Ones’s The One Show, and President of RSPB, was brought on board to provide us with essential bird facts.

We had all received digital downloads of familiar songbirds on our mobile phones. Krestovnikoff explained that from April, for two months, birds in the breeding season, speak to each other through birdcalls and songs to warn about danger, woo their mates or protect their nests. The bird with the best song, gets his pick of mates and prime nesting sites.

 Asked to choose one bird song out of eleven on offer, I opted for the great tit, going for appearance as well as song. My friends either side of me, pressed ‘house sparrow’ and ‘nightingale’ (the Nation’s favourite).

We got up and were encouraged to take a walk around the Cathedral. Circling the nave, we started to weave in and out of the pillars (whose original design had been modelled on trees), our phones tweeting at full volume. Passing Shakespeare’s memorial, I stopped to admire the exquisite stained-glass window above it, inspired by his plays. I carried on along my way and focussed on the crescendoing dawn chorus we were in effect reproducing. Not since I was a teenager, had I heard the full orchestra of birds!



Shakespeare’s Window in Southwark Cathedral

Back in our seats, we settled down to the musical performance. First off, some early, renaissance and baroque music by Daquin, Janequin and Couperin. Le Rossignol en Amour (The Cuckoo in Love) by Couperin, was particularly enchanting, played on flute and theorbo, a large, extended lute. The flute’s trilling mimicked perfectly the cuckoo’s song and showed how the simpler tune gets to the core of the bird’s sound.

Rameau’s Movement from The Hen (La Poule) was a joy, played with humour and gusto by the strings with first violinist, Alexandra Wood at the helm, ensuring precision timing. 


Haydn’s Symphony no. 83, also named The Hen followed, this time with full orchestra. The second subject in the first movement artfully evoked the jerky back-and forth head motion of a walking hen.


More serious in tone was Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in A Major, The Cuckoo and also the First movement of Spring, from The Four Seasons. The divine sound of soaring strings filled the airy Cathedral which had been so beautifully lit for the occasion, the stone of the upper galleries glowing in a warm yellow light.

At the end of this inspiring programme I walked over to a sound sculpture on a raised stage in the middle nave. On three branches perched three plump birds, carved of wood. A black box emitted tiny flickering lights beneath it.

Gawain Hewitt, proud author of this interactive, sonic piece has worked with young people of Bethlem and Maudsley Hospital School on The Absolute Bird project, getting their musical input, recording it and coding it. The benefits of music on mental health is a growing field and City of London Sinfonia seem to be at the forefront of this very exciting initiative.

I picked up two birds and moved them to another branch. As I did so different ethereal sounds and snatches of birdsong came through the black music box. In all, there were 33 variations of a dawn chorus.

Not surprisingly the project has been a huge success with children who have suffered great trauma and brain injuries.

I left the concert feeling warmed and moved by what I had heard and the next morning found myself rushing into my garden to record a song thrush singing in my neighbour’s tree.


To find out more about City of London Sinfonia orchestra: https://cityoflondonsinfonia.co.uk

And https://cityoflondonsinfonia.wordpress.com/2019/01/31/the-influence-of-absolute-bird/

RSPB (Royal Society of Protection of Birds) : https://www.rspb.org.uk

Southwark Cathedral has perfect acoustics. What’s on : https://cathedral.southwark.anglican.org/whats-on/