Thursday, June 30, 2005

The Pagan Serenity Prayer

I love this. An unfamiliar version of a familiar yet perennial plea..

PAGAN SERENITY PRAYER
God & Goddess grant me:
The power of water, to accept with ease & grace what I cannot change
The power of fire, for the energy & courage to change the things I can.
The power of Air, for the ability to know the difference.
And the power of Earth, for the strength to continue my path.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

On Friday 8 July...

...the place to be is the Wigmore Hall, where a concert is taking place that's rather special to me. If you introduce a violinist to a cellist over dinner one day and suddenly they're playing your favourite piece of music together at the Wigmore Hall, you can't help feeling a little responsible! Anyway, this performance by the Razumovsky Ensemble is the result. Online booking here via the Wigmore website, or phone the box office on 020 935 2141.

The Razumovsky Ensemble is Oleg Kogan's baby. He's hit on a most unusual but highly creative modus vivendi for it, drafting in top-notch musicians who don't often have the chance to get together and play chamber music, but give everything when they do. The line-up is never exactly the same, but the combinations are always intensely combustible - every one of their Wigmore gigs that I have heard has absolutely raised the roof. For this concert, Philippe and Asdis are joining the line-up for the first time. And I am so thrilled that they are playing my beloved Faure C minor Piano Quartet that I'm ready to turn somersaults.

Here's what The Times said about the Razumovskys a few concerts ago: "They open up a world of music-making fabulously rich in tone colours, ensemble precision and lyrical sweep of a kind rarely met this side of paradise. Each Razumovsky member may be king of their chosen instrument, but they scale the heavens as a team."

Need I say more? Except: BE THERE!

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Oyyyyyyyyyyy

I reckon it's the beginning of the end.

I've been reading what I initially thought was a wonderful book, published in a serious literary imprint, with an exotic setting and a nice arty photo on the cover. I was riveted from the first page. But a little way in, the brakes screeched: I was reading - and I'm not making this up - the words "he was stood". The hero was standing in a doorway. In a literary novel he should not have "been stood" anywhere. In NO novel purporting to be written in halfway decent English should one see the expression "he was stood" - or anything similar. Nor was this a one-off accident. Later, I found a reference to a bunch of characters who "were sat" in a bar. It's not as if this writer was trying to create a colloquial local voice (the novel's hero is supposedly a writer himself and would probably rather have died than use this moronic construction). And the author's biog suggests he's someone who should have known better.

No doubt there'll be plenty wrong with my own book - but at least not that...

I would like to excise from the current use of English the following turns of phrase"

"was sat/stood" - in every permutation;

"concertize" - you don't concertize. You give a concert. Please note that I use 'z' here and not 's' for a reason;

"I'm, like,....and she's, like,....and then I'm, like,...." as a way of explaining who said what;

"Buy your CD's here" - note incorrect use of apostrophe. Not long ago I had an email from a youngster working for a reputable music agency who didn't have a CLUE where to put his apostrophes. If I were the artist he's working for, I'd be worried about my chances.

Oh heck, there has got to be a better way than this to spend a Saturday evening...

Friday, June 24, 2005

Return to the old country


Oldest church
Originally uploaded by Duchenj.

It's a little like meeting people: it can take two encounters to make the penny drop, a double dose to take in the full measure of somebody special. So it was with Vilnius.

Above, the oldest church in Vilnius, or so it says inside. You can see from this picture the kind of loving care that has been lavished on its restoration. There are around 130 churches in Vilnius and they are all architectural gems (though I can do without the Russian orthodox one that contains a glass casket of three pickled 14th-century saints in white stockings!).

Only one synagogue is left. And it's closed. It appears that the old divide between the mystics and the intellectuals has resurfaced in a rather unexpected way. All very complicated... I hear, however, that there is a long-term project to restore the old Jewish sites of the city and a very long-term hope that perhaps one day the Great Synagogue, destroyed by the Nazis, could be reconstructed. At the moment there is an open basketball court where it once stood.

I'm very, very glad that I went back to Vilnius to re-order my impressions after the vaguely surreal experiences I had there during my first visit last year (see archive for June 04). It was an incredible trip, full of extraordinary music and wonderful people. I met most of my friends from last year and made some new ones too. Tom came with me and was bowled over by the whole experience; we both feel that this place, in one way or another, gets under one's skin. You can't escape the horrors of the past, however much you try to look forward rather than back; but maybe this is why the place has such a sense of soul.

It was once a melting pot; and perhaps it will be again, since during two days we encountered Indian classical music (the incredible Wahajat Khan in collaboration with the Ciurlionis Quartet), a travelling Norwegian choir, a free concert of Lithuanian premieres and Mischa Maisky performing Bruch's Kol Nidrei looking extraordinarily like the Vilna Gaon himself. Whatever the programme notes had managed to dredge up about the lack of Jewishness in this piece of music, I can think of little that would be more moving than listening to it being performed in "Vilne". Several members of the audience around us were in tears too.

The language seems impenetrable at first - it's like nothing you've heard anywhere before (unless you happen to know Latvian). I've managed to remember Labas (hello), Aciu (thank you - sounds like you're sneezing) and I svekata (cheers - memorable not only through quantity of use but because it sounds like "is the cat here?"). As for the food, I'm still not keen on the potato pancakes, but can heartily recommend my favourite soup EVER: Saltibarsciai. Essentially it's cold borscht with hot potatoes. Here's a recipe, which I'll be trying at home shortly...

Vilnius is, in one word, extraordinary. Don't ask how or why, but something tells me that this won't be my last visit.

A thought

Have just leaned via BBC Breakfast news that tickets to the Glastonbury Festival this year cost £125 each. Thunderstorms forecast for today. So much for that old argument that opera houses are elitist because of the price - though that's often less than this pop bonanza in the English countryside. If people are willing to pay £125 to go and listen to loud noise in the middle of a field of mud, why should they be told they're elitist if they pay the same money to hear quality stuff in beautiful surroundings? OK, it rains at Glyndebourne too, but the mud factor is considerably diminished...

Just back from Vilnius. Will report fully when I have put my brain back together.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Notorious?

I'm amused to see that one of the music sites I visit most often, The Classical Source, is running a banner ad for pet food deliveries. Are we music lovers also such notorious animal lovers? It certainly made Solti's day (though he has been comatose in the heat under a rose bush for most of it). I regret to say that I've come across a cat nicknamed Clawed DePussy and one answering to Milhaud - and the possibilities of Faure and Furry don't really bear thinking about. At this rate it will all unRavel...

Anyway, I am off to Lithuania tomorrow, where the weather's going to be slightly cooler. I've just been sent an advance copy of the CD of the concert I went there to hear last year, Vytautas Barkauskas's Duo Concertante - it will be released by Avie Records on 27 June. Very excited to be going there again to straighten out and consolidate last year's impressions. At least it will stop me sitting at my desk blogging lousy puns after getting tipsy on ginger beer and too much sun.

Also, NB, final tonight of Cardiff Singer of the World Competition. I've managed to miss the run-up to it - I look at my Freeview box so infrequently that I've actually forgotten how it works - but am looking forward to hearing the English contestant Andrew Kennedy, whom I heard on the radio the other day by accident without knowing who he was and found exceptionally impressive. Lovely, open-toned lyric tenor, selected by some of the UK's best young artists schemes and evidently going places. The Lithuanian candidate, incidentally, looks seriously gorgeous, but I haven't heard him and don't know whether he has reached the final.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Heatwave...

Argument this morning on the TV over whether one or two days of blistering sunshine, such as we're now having, constitutes a heat wave. No idea of the correct definition, but it's a scorcher and poor Solti is a very hot cat.

I've done some very nice interviews this week, including composer Jonathan Dove (for Indy) and violinist Nikolaj Znaider (for Strad) - both great guys and terrific musicians in totally different ways. It's a relief to get back to normal and not have to play the piano. Summer is shaping up super-hectic, which hadn't been the idea - I am supposed to sit at my desk and write my new book, not go gadding off to four or five different festivals, but that's life... I shouldn't complain since I will be returning to Vilnius and Verbier and adding some more.

Too hot to carry on thinking now. Will try again soon...

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Return of the king

Tom and I have accumulated a cast of musician's nicknames that somehow resembles Alice in Wonderland. There's a Bishop, a Baron, a Count and, of course, several delightful Queens! But there is only one king. Having spent five years in Denmark, where kings tend to be called Frederick or Christian, Tom has dubbed our favourite pianist King Krystian. Last Thursday, Krystian Zimerman came back to the Festival Hall for a recital that simply blew our socks off.

Over the last 25 years I've missed maybe two of Krystian's London concerts - I hope not more than that - so by now my expectations of his playing are of course astrononimcal. But however much I expect of him, I'm always astonished, devastated and humbled by how far he goes. He always discovers some new truth that makes your heart stop for a second or more; while the emotional range of the whole is nothing less than phenomenal. On Thursday he began with the most angelic of Mozart sonatas and progressed, via the Ravel Valses Nobles et Sentimentales and the Chopin Fourth Ballade, towards some mazurkas and the B flat minor sonata at completely the other end of the spectrum. And while the Mozart was as pure and exquisite as I've ever heard it, the Ravel as exciting and the Ballade radiant with that elemental energy that few can truly sustain through its coda, the second half was where the extreme magic happened.

The Op.24 mazurkas finish with one of my favourites, in B flat minor - which KZ made into a bridge towards the sonata in the same key, its conclusion suspended in mid air like a premonition. And finally the sonata revealed everything he had saved up until then. In the funeral march, the sound of the piano somehow doubled in size - and just when you thought you'd heard it all, at the climax of the march's return, down went the soft pedal. The sonoric effect was absolutely extraordinary: comparable only to a black gauze curtain falling in front of a brilliantly lit stage. I don't believe I've heard a sound like that come out of a piano before. The standing ovation begged him for an encore, but I have the impression he never plays an encore after that sonata and I don't think anyone could blame him. After such a journey of emotional devastation, it's amazing that he could even stand up.

Though a totally different musician from Grigory Sokolov, Zimerman has one thing in common with him: he gives five hundred per cent of himself in a concert. Musicians who can do this have always been the ones I admire the most - but now I understand why that is. Having tried to perform myself, I feel that the vast majority of musicians can't physically take the risk of turning their souls inside out on stage. Only the absolute masters with total artistic integrity can manage it and live to tell the tale.

Andrew Clements gives him a five-star review in The Guardian today.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Coming up for air

I hadn't thought further ahead than 10th June for weeks and now suddenly it's the 12th. Reaching the end of last week, it's quite a surprise to discover that the concerts are OVER and the book is FINISHED - all at once.

Final concert was at Woodhouse Copse in the hills near Dorking, Surrey - a fabulous place with a marvellous acoustic, a delicious Steinway and the most beautiful gardens. They are going to stage Dido & Aeneas there in early September and it's well worth a visit.

Meanwhile, RITES OF SPRING has gone back to its publisher with my final edits...next thing will be proofreading in a few weeks' time.

Have been too absorbed in all this to blog about Krystian Zimerman's amazing recital at the Festival Hall last Thursday...but will try to correct this soon. He IS amazing. He's really, really amazing.

Proper blogging to resume once I've got my breath.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Aw, shucks....

I'm very touched by all the moral support I've been receiving, directly and indirectly, from friends visible and invisible, over these concerts. Special thanks to Bart at The Well-Tempered Blog, where our Elgar gig takes second place only to detailed reports of nothing less than the Van Cliburn Piano Competition (which sounds as if it has a worthy winner in Alexander Kobrin).

Lack of blogging here this week is not only down to practising but also to the fact that I have to finalise the text of my novel NOW. It is about to go off to be typeset, which means that anything that I don't change now will probably outlive me on a shelf somewhere. Today I also had my first glimpse of the "blurb", or draft for it, that will go on the back cover. When I started my 'professional' life, thinking it would be nice to combine music and writing, I never thought that I'd find myself preparing my "first" novel for typesetting AND doing my first full-length, ticket-selling recital since student days within the same WEEK at the age of - oh well, never mind...

As if that wasn't enough, my brother got married on Saturday!

By the end of this week, both novel and concerts will be complete and I can get back to blogging in earnest.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Elgar conundrum


Tom & Jess Elgar house
Originally uploaded by Duchenj.

Here's a picture of me & Tom outside the Elgar Birthplace Museum yesterday. If you've never been, go and see this place - it's wonderful, full of treasures, exquisitely maintained by a team that knows its Elgar inside out and backwards.

Our concert was in the visitor centre and I can say, rather smugly, that it was quite full...We got interviewed live on BBC Radio Hereford too! Most flattering of all was that Elgar's great-niece turned up. And she told us all about the time she met Uncle Edward when she was a little girl.

Well, the evening seems to have been a real success. We got home about midnight feeling exceedingly pleased with ourselves.

Here's the conundrum: beforehand, for weeks, I felt FRIGHTFUL. Lots of those last-thing-at-night conversations with Tom in which I came up with many permutations of "Why the hell are you making me do this? I'm a writer, for God's sake!" During the journey to Worcester, I found myself wishing that the car would break down or I'd collapse or - well, anything rather than have to do the concert. But then afterwards I felt FABULOUS. This was a day we'll both remember fondly for the rest of our lives. As Tom says: "Of course it's always easier to do nothing, but..."

So there we are. It's torture. It's misery. And now we can't wait to do it again. Ridiculous? Totally. True? Oh yes.

Elgar would have been 148 today. Happy birthday, Uncle Edward!