Monday, September 01, 2014

September: some gigs and a song

Hello, it's September. How did that happen?!

Here are a few things I'm doing this month: do come along if you're in the vicinity of any of them!

14 September, 3.30pm:
HAMPSTEAD AND HIGHGATE LITERARY FESTIVAL: JOHN OGDON. I interview Ogdon's biographer Charles Beauclerk about the life and work of the troubled musical genius. LJCC, Ivy House, North End Road, Golders Green, London NW11.

21 September, 4pm:
ALICIA'S GIFT, the Concert of the Novel. Viv McLean (piano), me (narrator). Chopin Society, London, Westminster Cathedral Hall.

24 September, 6.15pm
PANUFNIK CENTENARY Pre-Concert Talk at the CBSO, Symphony Hall, Birmingham. I interview Sir Andrzej Panufnik's daughter, composer Roxanna Panufnik, about the life, legacy and influence of her father and his music. Concert includes A.Panufnik's Piano Concerto (with Peter Donohoe) and Sinfonia Elegiaca. 


September is one of the most beautiful months of the year. Here is its eponymous song by this year's top anniversary man, Richard Strauss, from Four Last Songs. The soprano is Nina Stemme, and it's the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Tony Pappano. 

I am sick as the proverbial parrot about having missed Nina's Salome at the Proms on Saturday night. I was in Salzburg to interview a VIPianist and was travelling back at the time. Apparently it was totally sensational and you can hear it on the iPlayer here: click on Listen Again, even if you haven't listened before.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

"It's got to be obsessive." Meet Mark-Anthony Turnage

I went to see Mark-Anthony Turnage the other week to talk to him about the revival of Anna Nicole that is to open the Royal Opera House's new season (11 Sept). Article is in the Independent now and the uncut version is below. First, a taster: the PARTAY scene with the amazing team of Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole and Gerald Finley as Howard Stern... 

One more thought: isn't it also high time someone staged his earlier opera The Silver Tassie again? 





The premiere of Anna Nicole by Mark-Anthony Turnage, in 2011, was unlike any other the Royal Opera House has experienced. The foyer was plastered with images of the soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole Smith, complete with supersized fake breasts; and on the stage’s red velvet curtains the initials for the Queen, ER II, were replaced with “AnR”. This startling transformation of empty celebrity into high art is back to open the Royal Opera House’s new season on 11 September, with a special performance for an audience of students.

Turnage himself is all for this latter idea. “I think it’s fantastic,” he says. “I feel it’s part of a genuine effort by Covent Garden to get a wider audience in – they really want to make a difference.” Still, he has no idea how the work will go over with this youthful crowd: “I hope they’ll see it as a comic piece with a tragic end. But it’s quite likely that none of them, mostly aged between 18 and 26, will have heard of Anna Nicole Smith,” he remarks.

The eponymous heroine, to remind you, built a career as model and TV presenter after having her breasts surgically enhanced to vast proportions. She married an octogenarian billionaire, but was excluded from his will, lost her son to drugs and died of an overdose aged 39 in 2007. The court cases around her have rumbled on into recent weeks.

Still, it is the archetypal “fallen woman” resonances of her tale that well suit the genre of opera. “I think you can get too obsessed with the idea that it’s a story that relates to today,” says Turnage. “We were after a story that’s universal. Relevance – so what? If it dates, it dates. This time I won’t read the reviews.”

Anna Nicole was a hit with some for Turnage’s gritty, jazzy, sometimes heartbreakingly beautiful score and its snarky libretto by Richard Thomas (of Jerry Springer: The Opera). Others, considering the subject too trashy for an opera house, couldn’t abide it. For its composer, creating it was both agony and ecstasy.

“I found it very hard to write,” he says. The difficulty was the comedy: “It’s so hard to make people laugh!” He says he relied strongly on Thomas’s skill and experience with that side of it, adding, “All the miserable, angsty, lyrical stuff – that’s much easier for me.”

Controversy still surrounds the work: several opera houses in the US have demurred from staging it because of its bad language. But at 54 Turnage is no stranger to controversy. He shot to fame in his late twenties when his first opera, Greek, established him as the “bad boy” of British new music. While modernism and serialism were still excessively dominant forces, he drew vital influences from popular idioms, which was considered highly rebellious; and much was made in the press of his Essex background and his passion for football. “I’d played it up,” he admits, “and it hasn’t done me any harm.”

More fuss emerged in 2010 when his orchestral work for the Proms, Hammered Out, proved to have rather a lot in common with Beyoncé’s "Single Ladies". The imitation was a sincere form of flattery, plus a musical gift for his son, who liked the song; but eventually, Turnage says, “I paid 50 per cent to Beyoncé. I’d handled it really badly,” he reflects. “I should have come clean about it from the start.” His biggest regret, though, seems to be that he did not get to meet the R&B star.

His penchant for popular idioms may not have endeared Turnage to musical establishment organisations that give annual awards; incredibly, his only prizes are for his opera The Silver Tassie, which scooped an Olivier Award and a South Bank Award in 2000. Nevertheless, he has a strong following among both public and musicians, constantly garnering an impressive string of international commissions at the highest level, with orchestras including the New York Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic. The premiere takes place in Flanders, in October, of Passchendaele, a work commemorating World War I; further highlights ahead include another opera for Covent Garden, planned for 2020.

“People say I’m prolific,” Turnage remarks. “Well, I’ve got a lot of kids, so I’ve got to write a lot of music. I’m not writing to be indulgent, I’m writing to provide for my family.” He has four children aged between 18 and three, from two ex-marriages. Composers, he acknowledges, can be difficult to live with: “You can become so focused on work that you can be a pain in the arse. I think I’ve learned how to switch off.” Today he lives alone in a compact north London flat where his desk companions are busts of Beethoven and Brahms and, on his computer, an exceptionally scary photograph of Stravinsky.

“People do find composing hard and they do struggle,” he says. “But that struggle, the pain of it, is also very attractive to me, very engaging. If we’re not totally bound up in this strange world we’re in in composition, then something’s wrong. It’s got to be obsessive.”

Anna Nicole, Royal Opera House, London, from 11 September. Box office: 020 7304 4000





Thursday, August 28, 2014

New music on the Beeb: a reversal of fortune

In The Guardian, Susanna Eastburn, head of Sound and Music (the organisation that advocates for contemporary composers in the UK), has written a fine, to-the-point post asking why the BBC assumes that its audience won't like new music. This results from the exclusion from TV broadcasts - even on the niche BBC4 - of a clutch of premieres including works by some of Britain's leading composers, and equally those from abroad.

Roxanna Panufnik, John McLeod, Jonathan Dove (right), Harrison Birtwistle and the two composers commissioned by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra - one Israeli, one Syrian - have all been excised from their Proms and sequestered away on a designated website, where nobody who is not already deeply involved in the notion of new music can ever become aware of their existence.

It took some of us a long time to get into Birtwistle. It took me 30 years, and I had a musical training. But not all new music is as terrifying to the uninitiated these days as he might be. Panufnik, McLeod and Dove, for example, are all eminently listenable and could more than prove that music written today is inventive, inspired, varied, "relevant" (that awful word) and more besides. Yet the subliminal message from this move is that the powers-that-be are somehow afraid of it, simply terrified that the poor dears at home will switch off their TVs if they hear a sound that's unfamiliar because it happens to be brand new. The Birtwistle piece chopped from the Prom on TV tonight - the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain - is all of three minutes long. And Panufnik's Three Paths to Peace was the only thing in the World Orchestra for Peace's Prom, with Gergiev conducting, that really had anything to do with peace.

The funny thing is that if people are afraid of new music in Britain, they may very well be that way because of years of conditioning by...ah. The BBC.

Now, look. I LOVE the BBC. You only have to spend a week in the US dealing with American TV to realise how great the BBC is. We'd be lost without them. We'd be stuck with Fox News. Still, it does seem to have a way of getting things awfully wrong where contemporary music policy is concerned.

When I first worked on Classical Music Magazine as assistant editor, back in 1990, I would often find myself speaking to composers, either for interviews, or on the telephone when they rang up begging for a little attention. I don't know how many were convinced that they had been blacklisted according to some alleged new music policy at Radio 3 in its days under the control of William Glock and Hans Keller. Every neglected composer of tonal works was adamant that their music was not played on the radio because it went against received ideology: new music had to be atonal or, preferably, serialist. Microtonality was OK. Tunes were not. This same ideology had permeated the university I had left a few years earlier, where in the music faculty one scarcely dared utter the words 'Steve Reich'.

This alleged policy at Radio 3 has never been categorically proven, to the best of my knowledge - but if it was indeed there, it certainly dovetailed with the funding mechanisms of the Arts Council as was. New music had to be done; metaphorically speaking, a box had to be ticked, in the way it now must be for education, outreach and diversity. But it tended to have to be the right kind of new music, and most people outside the tiny new-music elite didn't like it. Guess what? Many still don't. And it is very, very difficult to persuade newcomers to contemporary music that some of this stuff is really fabulous. I regard Boulez is the kind of musical phenomenon that comes along once a century if you're lucky, but it took some very great performances - by Barenboim - to produce an epiphany for me at the Proms, as recently as 2012. I find it interesting that composers like Birtwistle and Boulez (left) are both being said, here and there, to have "mellowed" with age.

But in some ways it is not surprising if this former policy, if policy it was, eventually put listeners off new music. Music can hurt you, physically, in a way that visual art tends not to: those sound-waves go straight into your body and bypass the intellect, like it or loathe it. Thus people learned to avoid putting themselves through the pain. It's a case of Pavlov's Dog at the concert hall (or deliberately staying away from it).

The stupid thing is that all that is over: instead, a huge variety of new music is being written, engaging, fascinating, intriguing, communicative music, some of which even dares to be beautiful. But now it's being kept away from the TV as if it is certain to poison us if allowed into our homes? This is ridiculous.

And if the BBC is unhappy about us being unhappy about this, as many of us are, in the end it probably has nobody to blame but its old self.

Undersung heroines: a way to sing them

After yesterday's little bit of awardish news, a few of us tweeps are starting a #fantasticfemales hashtag to help keep great female achievers in our sights, and yours. We're aiming to tweet about five fantastic females per day each. Please retweet us or tweet your own contributions. And the more men who join in, the better! It's about celebration, after all. Nothing more, nothing less.

Here are my first five: 

1. , medieval musician extraordinaire
2. Fanny Mendelssohn: the composer who never gave up, despite brother's best efforts
3. Claudia Muzio (1889-1936), one of the all-time great Italian singers. Hear this:
4. Gioconda de Vito, the amazing violinist who stopped her career at its height because she did not want her playing to deteriorate
5. Clara Haskil, pianist supreme: dogged all her life by ill health & nerves, but an interpreter of genius

Enjoy.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Gramophone Awards - for blokes

Wonderful list of winners for this year's Gramophone Awards. All top-quality stuff, including such luminaries as Jonas Kaufmann, Mahan Esfahani, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Arcadi Volodos, Iestyn Davies, Riccardo Chailly...

Oh, and, er, all the composers and conductors and instrumentalists are blokes. Great guys. Amazing musicians. Phenomenal talents, the very best in the business. But still, all blokes.

Plus ça change.

Now, there are some fabulous women involved in the line-up. George Benjamin's opera Written on Skin features the soprano Barbara Hannigan and director Katie Mitchell; there are female singers, of necessity, in the likes of the Ravel double bill from Glyndebourne, the Mozart Requiem and (I think) Marenzio's Madrigals; and the Pavel Haas String Quartet does have one female member. Plenty of women in the orchestras, choruses and so forth. But still, we hope there might even be some proud women included among the actual front-runners accepting the awards on the platform - not just another row of men in suits?

A few key awards remain to be announced on the day, e.g. Recording of the Year, Artist of the Year, Young Artist of the Year, Lifetime Achievement Award and Outstanding Achievement, etc, so hope remains. Shall we venture to hold our breath this time?

This is not to denigrate any of the winners - all deserve enormous congratulations and fulsome applause. But the issue needs addressing. If the Gramophone Awards are for men, we need some other music awards that are for women.

Full list here. http://www.gramophone.co.uk/awards/2014