Monday, October 31, 2005

New jobs?

As if Pieter Wispelwey doubling up as the British PM wasn't enough, a trip to the cinema last night revealed that Philippe Graffin may have a new job too, playing moody Jane Austen anti-heroes...unless Matthew Macfadyen has taken up the violin.............

Saturday, October 29, 2005

The nice surprise I mentioned

After - how many?! oh no!! - decades of living in London and attending its various flawed concert halls, I had a huge surprise the other day. Tom's orchestra, the London Philharmonic, is (like its sister Philharmonia) currently homeless while the Royal Festival Hall undergoes its long-awaited refurbishment. So they're playing next door at the Queen Elizabeth Hall instead. Normally I loathe the QEH. It's a miserable concrete monstrosity and its gloomy interior induces little other than sleepy ennuie.....well, until now. What happened? They've opened up the platform so that it's far deeper than usual; they've put up some wooden acoustic stuff (looks a little like stacked up coffins) to the back and sides and - bingo! The band and Vassily Sinaisky started up some lovely Glinka and there was the sound we'd always wanted. Resonant. Warm. Clear. Close. Wallow-in-able. Glorious. Right there in our very own QEH. I was speechless.

Great concert too - another first was hearing Tchaikovsky's Third Symphony live in a concert hall. A work I've always loved from recordings but one that never normally gets played, except for the New York City Ballet performing Balanchine's 'Jewels'. Tchaikovsky in a good mood is such a rarity that it's surprising nobody makes the most of it when it happens, as it undoubtedly does here. The nickname 'Polish' makes me laugh, though, because - except for the Polonaise in the last movement - this music is so terrifically, unmistakeably Russian...

The evening was only marred a little by the Dvorak Cello Concerto, played passably - I use this word with reason, as you'll see in a mo - by the LPO's quasi-resident soloist, Pieter Wispelwey. He's a handsome Dutch fellow (peculiarly resembling a leading British politician) who is very good at Bach in period style. No reason, I guess, why he should have a grander concept of the Dvorak, given that his natural bent is clearly not for romanticism. But hear that famous recording of Slava playing his guts out, and one wonders why anything less would ever do. Playing aside, Wispelwey's facial expressions - ranging from apparent surprise to intense frustration to incipient apoplexy - conjured up for me startlingly marvellous images of Tony Blair in need of prunes.

UPDATE: SUNDAY MORNING - Here's Anna Picard's review of the concert from The Independent - she has less time than me for the QEH acoustics, and more for Wispelwey's playing, but her impression of his face is even more extreme than mine...!

Friday, October 28, 2005

No more laurel-resting

After a day or two of quiet gloating over being Blog of the Week, it struck me that I'd better get blogging again! So no more resting on the laurels. We went to the ballet last night and this is as good a place as any to resume.

The Royal Ballet at Covent Garden has startled me by programming not one but two ballets to Faure this season. I had to go and see at least one of them (I may give the Requiem ballet a miss, as that piece makes me cry, not an advantage if you're trying to watch a ballet). Last night's triple bill opened with 'La fete etrange', which, I'm reliably informed, the company nicknames 'Strange Feet'. The very slight story is based - very slightly - on part of Le Grand Meulnes by Alain-Fournier - one of my all-time favourite books - and Faure is the perfect choice to accompany it. Darcey Bussell danced the leading role of the ultimately abandoned Bride. She is incredibly wonderful to watch, with such openness and lyricism in her long limbs that she radiates light by simply walking on stage. The choreography has its moments, but on the whole wasn't particularly memorable; as for the music, seven piano pieces and two songs by Monsieur Gabriel, orchestrated by Lennox Berkeley - well, all I can say is there's a reason why Faure used a piano. Disappointing over all - yet Darcey Bussell's performance was the best part of the evening.

Second up was Pierrot Lunaire - a Glen Tetley masterpiece, danced for a long time by Rambert but currently in the Royal's repertoire for the first time. This choreography is absolutely stunning and a humungous tour de force for the dancers, especially Pierrot (in this case the gorgeous Federico Bonelli). The ensemble in the pit managed the score superbly, which was a relief since the Faure had sounded dreadful. But even today most people in the audience absolutely can't stand this music. That also goes for professional violinists being dragged along by their balletomane wives. It's phenomenal to think that Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire will soon be a hundred years old. Nobody has ever LIKED it. Nobody is EVER GOING to LIKE it. However much we admire it, however much we're forced to study it at school, however 'important' it's supposed to be - was it really? was it not rather a path into an unusually blind alley? is it not desperately dated today? - the miserable fact remains: this stuff SOUNDS ghastly. Bluster away, ye purists: it's true. There were people in Covent Garden last night who walked out, despite the astonishing things that were taking place on stage.

And finally to Marguerite and Armand - the Frederick Ashton classic created for Fonteyn and Nureyev and not revived after their demise for many years, since it was deemed that nobody else could carry it off. Last night we saw Sylvie Guillem and an Italian hunk - excellent dancers, yet the Italian lacked all sense of charisma and Guillem lacked all sense of tenderness. As the ballet depends heavily on both - a lot of it consists, to put it bluntly, of snogging - this was a major disappointment. The Liszt B minor Sonata, transformed into a concerto and slowed down to accommodate dancers' needs, has also heard better days, though it's incredible to see the way the story fits it so perfectly - there's even a built-in cough motif. Guillem's fan club was out in force, but in the Bussell - Guillem rivalry stakes, Tom and I back Darcey all the way. She moved me more in the insubstantial role she took in La Fete Etrange than Guillem did at any point in the wildly dramatic Marguerite.

A rare surprise, however: Anthony Dowell put in an appearance as Armand's father. Dowell was my great pin-up when I was 13. Seriously, when I had a ticket to see him dance I used to count the days until the show! I lived from performance to performance (tickets were a lot cheaper then, incidentally) and the agony was only relieved when I found a musician whose concerts provided the same thrill and the same need to count days - KZ, of course. I'd never expected to see the glorious Sir Anthony on that stage again, as we are none of us as young as we used to be, and this therefore brought a gentle lump to the throat.

Another nice surprise the previous night at the LPO's first gig at the Queen Elizabeth Hall...but more of that another time.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


THE TIMES MADE THIS SITE ITS BLOG OF THE WEEK last Saturday - I didn't know until now -!!! Cooo-errr. Will try not to let this go to my head........


Rites of Spring
Originally uploaded by Duchenj.

This is the front cover of RITES OF SPRING. It's up on Amazon now, so seems I can let you see it at last!

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Never say never...

No sooner had our friends at Junkmusic declared that I maybe ought to write about pop someday, when I got the most peculiar commission from my editor at The Indy. The result is published today, complete with photo of Roger Daltrey, who's my new pin-up (at least, as he looked in 1996). Here it is.

What I love about writing for the Indy is that it's a constant challenge. The learning curves move rapidly and are sometimes steep (this certainly was), but always stretch my brain in one way or another. The complete opposite is writing the novels, poring for days on end over whether I really ought to have a particular phrase on the first page...although that's the biggest stretch of all.

For the moment, I've discovered rock 'n' roll. And I love it.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Poles apart?

So the Chopin Competition in Warsaw has been won by a Pole for the first time since KZ carried off the prize in 1975. Bart at The Well-Tempered Blog seems distinctly underwhelmed. Rafal Blechacz, 20, looks the part in this BBC report. But since I can't get interested enough in piano competitions at the moment even to watch one online, I can't offer an opinion on whether the prize was deserved. Some extremely sobering thoughts from Solo Piano blogger Lyudmila Chudinova, who was there.

I used to enjoy watching piano competitions. I even went to Leeds once (about 7 years ago, if I've counted right) to cheer on some friends who were participating, and I heard some wonderful people who didn't make it past the second round or, sometimes, even the first. The winner, I thought later, was also terrific. I went to a concert he gave at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and loved every minute of it. I believe he moved to the States. It's so long now since I heard of him giving a concert in the UK that I can't even remember his name. Was he that much better than those I went to cheer on? They, in some cases, are struggling to keep their heads above water. Some of them are struggling to have enough to eat. And frankly, the differential wasn't huge. I'm not sure it existed.

At Leeds I was able hear for the first time a marvellous young Romanian pianistLuiza Borac, who played Liszt sounding like a young Argerich. She's recording for the redoubtable Avie now and is starting to get the recognition she deserves. Did she get into the finals? No, of course not...How do they decide these things?!? All too often the wrong people get the prizes, and the right ones are left out in the cold. No wonder things in the music world need a shake up.

I'll only say this once: CORRUPTION KILLS ART. And piano competitions are full of it.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Jokes for Friday night

I was trying to research something quite serious, but found this site by chance and have been cracking up ever since. Jokes for every instrumentalist...

Q: What's the definition of a major second?
A: Two baroque oboists playing in unison.

Plenty more where that came from.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Barging in

I wish we had this in London. New York's Barge Music sounds simply incredible, and this article from yesterday's Indy gets right to the heart of the matter, spelling out in excellent writing why we need classical music and why we need it to be presented more like this more often.

Monday, October 17, 2005

'RITES' rights

Since Andrea's raised the question of pre-ordering RITES OF SPRING in the US, I thought I'd better mention, regretfully, that as yet we haven't sold the US rights. Hodder & Stoughton are publishing it in the UK and Commonwealth territories - so if you're in Canada, South Africa, Australia etc, you'll be able to find it in a shop near you sometime after 13 March. But in the USA, nope. I suggest pre-ordering from via the link at the top of the index - I'm sure they can ship to the States. Sweet of you to toast me/it, Andrea - thank you!! My cat decided to join in and brought me a well-mangled mouse as a present last night...

By the way, the Amazon blurb has nothing to do with me, and, frankly, not all that much to do with my book. RITES may not exactly be Ian McEwan, but it's a little more serious than it sounds in their paragraph. Anorexia ain't funny and the girl in the story is in a life-threatening situation. Before you ask, I've never had anorexia. Given the amount of it in the school I attended, that seems little short of miraculous, but I always liked my food far too much. Especially chocolate.


Saturday, October 15, 2005


Tasmin Little is on tour in South America and is ALMOST blogging it. She's writing 'Letters' chronicling the trip on her website. To me, that looks like blogging, Tasmin - welcome aboard the blogosphere! In just a few days her experiences have included an earthquake, an almost equally alarming cocktail, some astonishing-sounding food and some fantastic audiences at her recitals. But does Roger Moore do the Spanish cryptic crossword? To read the latest, click here.

Memory lane

A post at Sequenza 21 about Palestrina takes me back twenty years to heady (and chillier than now) days at Cambridge University, where all music students had to learn to write 16th-century counterpoint. It was rather like filling in a crossword puzzle. I suppose it kept us out of all-night parties, dangerous drugs and, worst of all in the faculty's eyes, daring to practise our musical instruments. I'm not certain what other useful function it fulfilled, but I do have a vague fondness for the calmness and beauty of Palestrina as a result. Two LPs of it found their way into my then-modest collection and I used to play them frequently in an attempt to immerse myself in the ancient aesthetic we were attempting to recreate. The trouble was that the music is so calm and so beautiful that it's also extremely soothing. I don't remember ever hearing either album to the end - I always fell sound asleep about half way through...

If you're new to the wonders of Palestrina, try this CD.

Meanwhile, to wake you up, here are a few responses to Google searches that have led to some readers finding this blog:

The Octobass is huge and magnificent and lives in the Musical Instrument Museum in the Cite de la Musique in Paris.

I don't think Nikolai Znaider is married, but I may be wrong.

I don't know who Leif Ove Andsnes's girlfriend is.

Marc-Anthony Turnage is NOT 'awful'. He's a great guy and writes fantastic music.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Heim truths

Oh yes! Norman tells it like it is.

All I can add is that I wouldn't mind paying to hear this lady if I could stand what she does musically. But I can't. Her Korngold recording, to be fair, is OK, but the Tchaikovsky that's paired with it is for the Mozart, well, we'll see.

Monday, October 10, 2005

KEATS for golden October

TO AUTUMN by John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind,
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too -
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Rites of publishing...

UPDATE 3.35pm: OH MY GOD, it's already up on! You can pre-order RITES OF SPRING here right now!

The bound proofs of RITES OF SPRING arrived yesterday. Bound proofs, in case you've never met any, look like normal paperback books but are actually a kind of mock-up, less polished and requiring correction, but useful for advance promotion, book fairs, sales of foreign rights etc. It's the nearest thing I've seen yet, though, to My Novel In Print. Publication date for the hardback is scheduled for 13 March (they promise me it's not a Friday) and paperback should, I hope, be sometime in May. My agent will be taking her bundle of these to the Frankfurt Book Fair in a couple of weeks' time.

For the moment, I'm staring at the spine of this almost-book that bears my name, the title and the immortal words HODDER & STOUGHTON, trying to get my head around the fact that I've 'done it' . I have to try, however, not to look inside at the text because every time I do, I find something I want to change. And now I can't.

"Artistic fulfillment", for want of a better expression, is very different in writing from that of music. A musician works for weeks, months, sometimes years towards a performance: then, on the day, you're on the spot, producing the goods and feeling the energy coming back to you from people listening. In writing, however long you work on something, when you finally release it to its audience, all you can do is sneak an occasional glance at them while they're reading and say daft things like, "Where are you up to?", "Do you still like it?" or "You know that bit where....well, do you think it's believable?" The immediacy of emotion that you feel in performance is missing; on the other hand, if you've written well enough, the impression you convey has a much better chance of being what you set out to convey in the first place. And unlike a concert, the book on the shelf will be there forever. It's a tad scarey to reflect that RITES OF SPRING will be gathering dust in a library somewhere long after I'm pushing up the daisies........

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Read this one aloud

A chicken goes into a library, goes up to the librarian and says: "Book."

"Ah?" thinks the librarian. "A chicken wants a book?" She pushes a book over the counter to the chicken, who tucks it under one wing and goes out.

An hour later the chicken is back, pushes the book over the counter with its beak and says to the librarian: "Book book." The librarian gives it two books. It tucks one under each wing and heads off again.

Two hours later the chicken comes back, gives her back the two books and says: "Bookbookbookbookbookbookbook...bookbookbookbookbook" So the librarian gives it a whole pile of books. The chicken balances the books on its back between its wings and goes away.

At the end of the afternoon, the chicken comes back with all the books and returns them to the librarian. She's very surprised. "Hey," she says, "for a chicken you certainly get through a lot of books."

"Oh," says the chicken, "they're not for me. I've been getting them for my friend, the frog. But every time I give him a book he says: 'Read it. Read it. Read it. Read it."

Monday, October 03, 2005

hanging in there

Combination of lifting suitcases, sitting in cars for too long and worrying about the new book seems to have done in my back, yet again. Hence lack of recent posts, and, no doubt, of current coherence. I made it to half an hour of the LPO's rehearsal at the Royal Albert Hall yesterday but couldn't face sitting through a three-hour concert, so went home and MISSED WYNTON MARSALIS, about which I'm none too happy.

The LPO is touring Britain with Marsalis & his New York jazz band & a gospel choir in a big piece for big forces that he's written called ALL RISE. The orchestra is seriously excited about it - Tom says it's one of the best things he's ever done. I love big band jazz and was looking forward to hearing them in action - but the chairs in the Albert Hall eventually sent me and my lower back home for a hot bath instead. Watching the rehearsal - during which the unlikely combination of Kurt Masur and Marsalis proved quite an original team - was better than nothing, though.

Personally, however, I do have issues with the question of mingling jazz and classical playing in this way. I kept wishing the choir would shut up so we could hear the jazzers. It's a perennial question in the music magazines: do such joint-force efforts, whether with world music or jazz or pop, create something new and stimulating and inspiring, or do they water down their originals into some kind of three-legged hybrid that doesn't quite work? I always try to take the first view, but do sometimes find myself landing with the second despite myself. What do people think about this?

You can see the show in Manchester tomorrow (Tuesday) and Glasgow on Wednesday.