The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Art

Whitechapel Gallery, London E1, Zarina Bhimji, until 9 March
Landscapes and buildings and their multi-faceted histories inform British artist Zarina Bhimji's photographs and large-scale film installations. India and East Africa are the key locations for her evocative journey into the archaeology of place. This exhibition surveys 25 years of Bhimji's work, and is organised in collaboration with Kunstmuseum Bern.

Comedy

Slug & Lettuce, 19 Hanover Street, London W1S, Comedy at SohoHo, 4 February
There's always a fine night of comedy here and tonight is no exception, with a line-up including Danny Buckler, Nick Revell, the Reverend Obadiah Steppenwolfe III and MC Simon Happily.

Theatre

Almeida Theatre Islington, London N1, The House of Bernarda Alba, until 10 March
Following her husband's funeral, powerful matriarch Bernarda Alba instructs her five daughters that the household will enter into a period of eight years' mourning. The only one, it seems, who will escape this fate is the eldest daughter, Augustias, who is already betrothed to the village's most eligible bachelor. A new production by Emily Mann of the Federico García Lorca classic.

Dance

Sadler's Wells, Rosebery Avenue, London EC1, British Dance Edition: Russell Maliphant Company, 5 February
Having mesmerised everybody with his last piece, AfterLight, based on the drawings of Nijinsky, choreographer Russell Maliphant turns to another creative inspiration - Rodin. For The Rodin Project, Maliphant has incorporated elements of popping and breaking into his usually fluid movement style. The work comes with a new score by Russian composter Alexander Zekke and lighting by long-term collaborator Michael Hulls.

Music

St John's Smith Square, London SW1, Peer Gynt Suite, 6 February
Barbirolli Christ's Hospital under Andrew Cleary: Holst's "Mars" from The Planets; Beethoven's Egmont Overture; Britten's Hymn to St Cecilia; and Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite. (A Christ's Hospital: Bluecoat School Concert).

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.