Provost’s View: UCL’s artistic talents on show

29 May 2014

“This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius” is a line from a song which, if you know it, rather dates you to my generation. Alternatively, it might sound familiar because you were lucky enough to join me in attending the UCLU Musical Theatre Society’s production of Hair in the Spring Term.

I have been fortunate enough to be invited to several events and performances recently, all of which have demonstrated the incredible artistic talents of our students.

A good “Hair” day

I am (just) old enough to have seen the original West End production of Hair in the early 1970s. It was quite controversial at the time (drugs and nudity) and the subject of much public debate, but back then I really liked the music and thoroughly enjoyed the show.

As we sat in the Bloomsbury Theatre I reminded my wife Liz about the West End experience, only for us to simultaneously realise that it pre-dated our time together and that I must have seen the show with a previous girlfriend! Fortunately, Liz is a very understanding and tolerant person and I was forgiven my faux pas as we both became absorbed with the quality and style of the UCLU Musical Theatre Society production.

There were some wonderful voices (too many to name check) and the chorus were clearly having a great time. My congratulations to everyone involved particularly the producer (Sam Lansdale) and the director (Ben Hiam). Liz and I were deeply impressed and had a fantastic evening, so thank you to all concerned.

While we are on the subject of ‘confessions’, I have to admit to recently re-engaging with vinyl and thoroughly enjoying it. All my old LPs have been retrieved from our loft and I am driving my family and friends to distraction with my restyled listening habits. As a lasting memento of my personal reconnection with Hair I managed to find a vinyl copy online for £5, complete with scratches and imperfections (the real thing), so I am now able to listen to it again and again….

A Spring Fairy Tale

Our next trip to the Bloomsbury Theatre was to see a production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden performed by UCLU Music Society. This is not an opera I had seen before and I congratulate the Music Society for taking it on.

I’m sure that it wasn’t easy, but the quality of the production was simply outstanding and I would like to pass on my congratulations to all of our students who took part.

Whether you were playing in the orchestra, singing in the chorus or one of the Principals, you were all outstanding and I was very proud of you all. My congratulations go to the Director, Christopher Cowell, and the Conductor and Music Director, Charles Peebles. It was clear that a huge amount of work and rehearsal had gone into creating a performance of such quality.

Our links with the opera

I enjoy opera and I was, until recently, a member of the board of Opera North – a company that prides itself on being at the artistic cutting edge. My membership of the board came about in part because of a very interesting and productive partnership between the University of Leeds and the opera company. At UCL, we have recently become involved in developing a different, but equally exciting, partnership with English National Opera (ENO) – a really innovative, world-class opera company.

This partnership has huge potential to do a great deal for both UCL and ENO and our respective teams are currently exploring how best to formulate the interaction to maximum academic and artistic advantage. The relationship is already gathering pace and initial plans include some PhD studentships to conduct research at this interesting interface.

Best wishes to colleagues in Glasgow

Last Friday my exposure to the artistic talents of our students was further extended after I accepted an invitation to the final degree show for undergraduates at the UCL Slade School of Fine Art.

The evening got off to an unexpected start with a full fire alert, which fortunately turned out to be a false alarm. The potential seriousness of such an event was brought home with the dreadful news, that same day, of a real fire at the Glasgow School of Art.

Sadly, Glasgow did not share our good fortune, suffering damage to their historic buildings and significant losses to their library collection. I would like to express our best wishes to colleagues at Glasgow and hope that they can quickly recover from the impact of the fire.

Fine Art at UCL

Provosts view


Once we received the all clear from the fire brigade and wardens, the final year show got underway in earnest – albeit a little later than scheduled. If you have never been to the annual Slade Degree Shows, you must go, as both the quality and range of art on display is simply outstanding. The undergraduate show finishes this evening, but the MA/MFA show will be open 12–18 June.

There was an incredible buzz to the whole event and every medium was in use: painting, screen printing, sound, film, sculpture, odours and performance. I had pencilled in about an hour for my visit but found myself still there nearly three hours later.

It would be unwise of me to select favourites – I would have to spend much more time per exhibit to make such a judgement – but a couple of exhibits caught my attention. The first was a movie of A girl in a gallery. I won’t recount the story – you will have to go and see it for yourself – but it appealed to my sense of humour and it certainly drew the crowds.

The second was a piece of “red” performing art that was conducted under the portico and directed by one of the finalists with great style. The photograph to the right provides a visual snapshot of what went on, but essentially those on the outside of the table ate and drank for themselves, while also feeding the “heads” upon the table – all “red” food and wine, of course.

I was struck by the surprising level of intimacy to that element of the performance and I remember thinking that there are usually three stages of life when we all need such support – as a child, when ill, or towards the end of life. As they say: “if it makes you think, it is definitely art”.

Extraordinary talent

The unifying theme behind all these events is not only the extraordinary talent of our student body, but also their willingness and confidence in expressing that talent to the rest of us. This contributes to the great sense of community we share and enables us all to enjoy the performing and visual arts at UCL. It is one of the great joys of being part of an outstanding, comprehensive and diverse multi-faculty institution.

Michael Arthur

President and Provost


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