Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The whole tenor of this is...



La Boheme, Glyndebourne 2003. There I was, squeezing into orchestra last-minute spots whenever I could, lurking backstage whenever I couldn't, weeping fit to bust every time: David McVicar's magic director's touch turned Rodolfo, Mimi et al into my dearest friends and I felt personally bereaved every time it ended, quite apart from drooling over the gorgeous Nathan Gunn, who was Marcello. I was so busy eyeing him up that when Rodolfo sang, I thought 'wow, that's quite a voice', but didn't dwell on it too much. So, it was Rolando Villazon, just before he hit the headlines. Turns out Villazon spends his spare time scribbling cartoons - like this one. Yes, there I was in tears, but Rodolfo was scribbling the mickey out of the whole thing! More of Villazon's cartoons on his website, here.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Southbank on Volga?

Note from colleague in organisation confirm we now write leading arts complex as SOUTHBANK CENTRE. No definite article. Harasho, guys, spassiba balshoy, we do best we can. Be warned, other halls have try this. Is not so long since Wigmore Hall tell us it never had definite article, though most devoted audience find big surprise. I think perhaps is Russian influence, growing in city of Moscow-on-Thames?

UPDATE, 1 Feb: Colleague in organisation has own blog, having started playing cello from scratch! Ochin priatna, Erin! Welcome to blogroll.

Nothing like a Dame...

Apparently Dame Kiri has pulled out of some concerts with Australian pop star John Farnham because his fans throw their underwear at him. She's in court for breeches of contract. Read all about it here. And get Opera Chic's slightly sassier take on it here.

Heck, why didn't I think of that in time for the JDF show?!? Admittedly Upper Amphitheatre to Stage at Covent Garden is a long way to chuck anything, but maybe if one took along a cricket-playing pal and weighted the lilac silk ever so slightly with non-damaging ball-bearings... For Kiri & John, I suspect there are some lessons about multiculturalism, assimilation and how to reach a fair deal - eg, accept the low-flying pants, then in return get him to try to wow La Scala. Though that isn't fair.

Norman Lebrecht featured music blogging on his Radio 3 programme the other day and it's available to hear online here for the rest of this week. Norman's been called many things in his time, but I think this must be a first for 'juicy awesomeness', again c/o Opera Chic who was special guest star and deservedly so!

Last but not least, here's NL's piece about the BBC's Tchaikovsky bonanza. He tells it like it is. Don't get me started on the Beeb's latest foibles (Jonathan Woss?? £18m of taxpayers' licence fee money when he can't even talk properly!?!) before my third cup of ethical African coffee.

Monday, January 29, 2007

By the way...

...announcing one of the South Bank Show Awards last night, Andrew Lloyd Webber said that he's going to turn Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita into a musical, and I can't work out whether he was joking or not. HELP!

South Bank rising

In today's Independent, Jude Kelly, the South Bank (or Southbank?) Centre's artistic director, gives the run-down on the gear-up, with reopening of the Royal Festival Hall scheduled for the weekend of 11 June, in grand style. There's a remarkable amount of good news, besides the Korngold stuff I just had to yell about first. The press conference the other day had one of the best atmospheres I've ever encountered at a SBC event; people were positive and excited, as well as broadly supportive of the new team including Jude herself and music supremo Marshall Marcus; the only slightly tetchy note was sounded by one journalist who wanted to know what's happened to the Lieder recitals we used to have in the Good Old Days (I'd like them back too, come to think of it). I'm particularly pleased that they're putting on Carmen Jones this summer, because the LPO will accompany and it means fewer late nights for me while Tom comes back from playing at the South Bank (20 mins) instead of Glyndebourne (1 hr 15 mins).

But the best thing of all was when Jude, wrapping things up, wanted to make sure everything had been included and said "Is there any fairy that's been left out?" The press conference must have consisted of at least 50 per cent gay critics, so everyone cracked up laughing. "I mean in the Sleeping Beauty sense," Jude added gracefully.

Seriously, though, this is laughing with, not at, because Jude is not only a Very Good Thing, but she's also emblematic of long-term, forward thinking. It's hard to believe that in over 50 years, nobody's thought of giving the SBC an overall artistic director before. Jude is the first. Now she's there, the absence of such a post beforehand seems all the more astonishing - and rather typical of 20th-century arts management British bungling. Let's hope that we're in a new era in which people are going to do things properly. The Royal Opera House is a good example of how matters can be turned around; now the South Bank has its chance; and if ENO can follow suit, and someone can transform the Barbican into a place that one actually wants to go (programming is the least of its worries), then London will be the all-round world class player that it ought to be.

Friday, January 26, 2007

LPO TO GIVE UK PREMIERE OF KORNGOLD'S 'DAS WUNDER DER HELIANE'

It's true! Korngold's biggest, greatest opera is finally to receive its UK premiere, nearly 80 years after it was written. The London Philharmonic will play, Vladimir Jurowski will conduct, and an all-star cast is headed by Patricia Racette, Michael Hendrick and Andreas Schmidt; supporting roles will be taken by the likes of Willard White, Robert Tear, Ursula Hesse von den Steinen and Andrew Kennedy. Date for the diary: 21 November 2007. Pre-concert talk by a Korngold devotee closer than you think (*blush*). Full details here.

Yesterday the upbeat team of what's now written as the Southbank Centre launched the classical music programme for the reopening season of the spanking newly refurbished Royal Festival Hall. 11 June is the big day; the first 48 hours are all free; and all four resident orchestras - the LPO, the Philharmonia, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the London Sinfonietta - will play together for the very first time (Ravel's Bolero included). There's a tremendous bonanza of world-class music-making to look forward to. I note with tears in my eyes that the Philharmonia lists piano god Radu Lupu among its soloists. He hasn't played at the South Bank since...well, I can't remember. Pollini will be playing two Beethoven concertos with the LPO. The Piano Series includes recitals by Uchida, Brendel, Andsnes and Krystian Zimerman. Violinists include Mutter, Fischer, Kavakos. There's a run of Carmen Jones in the summer, and later there'll be festivals of Nono and of Messiaen for his centenary.

And they are going to do a Korngold anniversary series. A couple of years ago, I realised that 2007 would be the 50th anniversary of EWK's death and decided that someone had to do something, otherwise nothing would happen. Sketched out my Fantasy Football Korngold Festival, took it to the then head of classical music at the South Bank and left it in her capable hands. Cripes - they went for it. I'm still pinching myself in wonder. Of course, the series has evolved from the basic plan, with everyone deciding which pieces to do; and Vladimir himself plumped for Heliane, not Die tote Stadt.

The LPO is doing three Korngold concerts: a film music programme on 2 November conducted by John Wilson, putting his music alongside Steiner, Newman, Rozsa, Williams et al; the Violin Concerto with the glorious Nikolaj Znaider on 14 November, in a programme with Zemlinsky and Shostakovich conducted by Jurowski; and Heliane to culminate. The Korngold series will also feature a day of events on 27 October, with the showing of Barrie Gavin's splendid documentary, a round-table discussion with a panel of exerts (I'll be asking the questions), a chamber concert by the Nash Ensemble and a song recital by Anne Sofie von Otter with that great Korngold champion Bengt Forsberg at the piano.

I'll introduce a Korngold Watch series on this blog as soon as I can, as there are events taking place all over the world. But to the best of my knowledge, ours here in London is one of the biggest. BOX OFFICE IS NOW OPEN: 020 7840 4242 or online via the concert links above.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Can critics and artists ever be friends?

The Guardian is having a debate about this, which makes sobering reading for those of us who sometimes try.

You'll have noticed a heading in my sidebar called 'Musician Friends'. Heck, some of my best friends are musicians. I've never pretended otherwise. Do I review them? Sometimes: a) if my editors know darn well that we're friends, but still send me their CDs; b) if I've enough faith in their abilities to know that the review can be genuinely positive; c) if I know they have enough faith in me not to take it badly if the review is negative. Honest reviewing has sometimes strengthened friendships, because it can result in genuine mutual respect.

I treat friendly overtures from some musicians with suspicion; one can usually sense the 'caution needed' occasions pretty fast. A few experiences have left me cynical - some people don't bother to disguise their ulterior motives, but even individuals you've trusted for years sometimes cool off when they realise you're spending more time writing novels and less editing magazines, or, worse, that your 'art' (yes, "general fiction" is an art) is suddenly as much in the limelight as theirs.

True friends, though, are the dearest and most valued people on earth, and if they happen to be terrific musicians, so much the better. And the interesting thing is that these friends don't regard me as a critic at all.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Yikes, it's Tchaiks

Everything is covered in snow this morning. One of those gorgeous every-twig-and-every-blade-of-grass falls, more common when one was a kid pre global-warming; the world looks like a black and white movie with splashes of colour spliced in where lights illuminate distant windows. A disgruntled-looking blackbird is huddling in the apple tree outside my study; and for once, following the paw-prints, I can see something of where Solti goes after breakfast.

What composer could be snowier than Tchaikovsky? The BBC is about to have one of its little bonanzas: his complete works on Radio 3. Oh, and Stravinsky's too, only nobody's been shouting about that. Is it a little add-on to please the R3-diehards for whom wall-to-wall Tchaik just sounds too nice? The Russians are coming on 10 February, until 16th.

Of course there's nothing nice about Tchaikovsky. Pain, yes; tragedy, yes; and this greatest of Russians beats the Germans at their own game because there is no musical sehnsucht that can compare with his. Yet this is the quality for which people denigrate him. Dearie dear, he wears his heart on his sleeve. How Russian. How Romantic. How very un-Anglo-Saxon.

The intriguing thing is this: musical hearts don't get worn on sleeves unless their composers have the technique to put them there. And the articulation of longing is not easy. It's hard enough in words, as I've been discovering to my cost while revising third novel (go through manuscript taking out every superfluous adjective and every mention of hearts, souls or spirits, then try to convey how it feels to fall head over heels in love during the course of one conversation on a train. hmm...).

It must require a certain genius to express longing through the metaphor of music to the degree that Tchaikovsky does. Tatiana's letter scene, the transforming swans, princesses and nutcracker princes, the first, fourth, fifth and sixth symphonies, the violin concerto, the Suite no.3 - there's no end to his yearning for the unattainable. It's so perfect that we take it for granted. Yes, people long for the unattainable, yes, so did Tchaikovsky, so it gets into his music, so what? Actually, so plenty.

My favourite Unintentionally Appropriate Tchaikovsky-related quote is from ballerina Alina Cojocaru in a piece currently on the Indy website: 'I find the Sugar Plum Fairy pas de deux terribly uplifting'. I'm sure her partner Johan Kobborg would agree...

They're showing The Sleeping Beauty on BBC2 on Saturday 27 October. Ballet on terrestrial TV is so rare these days that that's newsworthy.

UPDATE, Thursday 25 January: Solti requests that anyone confused by the above mention of paw-prints should come on over to his blog to see how he won his battle to be allowed outside again...

Monday, January 22, 2007

Wish I'd had my camera...

Just back from doing an interview at Covent Garden. Walking down Floral Street towards the stage door, I saw outside it the vehicle that chauffeurs the real star of Carmen: a van bearing the words ISLAND FARM DONKEY SANCTUARY. Polyanne the grey donkey is seriously, seriously cute and has worked with all the biggest names, darling, including Domingo. Van deserved a photo, had I been equipped.

'La Stupenda' was supposed to have been at the House today, opening the new exhibition to celebrate 60 years of the Royal Opera. But unfortunately Dame Joan had broken a bone (I think) and had to cancel. Instead, Juan Diego and Natalie came along to cut the cake. And was I there? No, I bloody wasn't! I declined the invitation in order to stay home tussling [cue: brightening halo] with third novel and a pile of CD reviews as tall as me. (OK, I'm not tall, but it's all relative...) And all I really managed to do was listen to two uninspiring discs and screw up the timescale that I was trying to fix. As Solti would say: grr.

The interview wasn't with any of the above, not even Polyanne. More soon...

Sunday, January 21, 2007

birthdays...

Any of my friends will confirm that I'm 99.9 per cent useless at remembering birthdays. Yesterday, I forgot Chausson's. At least he's not around to ring up and say "well, where were you, then?" Bravissimos to Operachic in Italy, who not only remembered, but gave him a suitably celebratory hat.

Operachic, like me, adores the Poeme de l'amour et de la mer. What about Monsieur Ernest's opera, Le roi Arthus? A couple of years ago, I went to Walthamstow to listen to some of the BBC Symphony Orchestra recording sessions for their CD. Arrived at the last stop on the Victoria Line just as the performers, in the run-down recording venue somewhere in the town hall complex, were tackling the final pages of the opera. Heaven had come to north-east London. Any Chausson fan who hasn't heard the opera yet should do so a.s.a.p... Bonne anniversaire hier, maestro.

By the way, a note to Ionarts, who, bless him, has got quite the wrong end of the stick: Tom would have a thing or two to say about this...

UPDATE, 8.40pm: Good old Opera Chic is ahead once again, celebrating that other underrated French genius Henri Duparc, whose birthday is not yesterday but today! And yes, guess who didn't remember... What is it about composers and the Capricorn-Pisces cusp?? We haven't even got to Mozart on 27th yet.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

On 'dumbing down'

I've been basically mute on the matter of dumbing-down in the British media (and elsewhere), because the topic is so huge and so miserable - besides, everyone's written such reams about it, including much dross, that I don't want to add to the heap. But today in The Independent, Howard Jacobson says everything I'd like to say, only better, so here it is.

After the Revolution, the Terror. This - the invariable consequence of filling the heads of the uneducated with grandiosity - is what we are seeing on Celebrity Big Brother. In the days when she sweetly knew herself to be pig ignorant, Jade Goody had neither the reason nor the confidence to launch the sort of terrifying tirades to which poor little rich girl Shilpa Shetty has been subjected - never mind with what provocation - this last week.

But then television made Jade a star. Television rewarded her with renown for all the things she didn't know...

Read the rest here.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Sky high Cs...

When is a writer not a writer? When she's transformed into a screaming schoolgirl going nuts over a favourite tenor. Sorry to keep on and on about this guy, folks, but seriously, when Juan Diego Florez opens his mouth and that voice hits the high notes....I don't think I was the only person in Covent Garden last night whose heart hit the stratospheres with it. It's like someone striking the jackpot full on, the centredness, the perfection, and if there's one thing better than the high notes it's the velvet legato, the softness, the beauty of line...

As you'll have gathered, I finally made it to La fille du regiment at Covent Garden yesterday. If there was a ticket left for the rest of the run, I'd say go and see it, but the place is booked solid. And what an evening it is - not just Florez. In fact, the show really belongs to the French soprano Natalie Dessay, whose bell-like voice seems a near-perfect partner for Florez's and whose sparkle, intelligence, spirit and ability not only to hit the high notes but to hit them while being hoisted into the air on her side all add up to a humungous performance which ought to ensure her superstar status from now on.

The production by Laurent Pelly is like prosecco, fizzing, light and fresh, full of clever touches and brilliant characterisation. Dessay's foul-mouthed Marie, complete with a stubborn, sticky-out auburn pigtail, stomps about like one of the lads as she irons the longjohns and peels the potatoes, dropping a spud in shock when Tonio declares his love, then melting into ecstasy behind him as he sings, but only as long as he can't see her. Her singing lesson in the second act is a terrific highlight, with all that virtuosity gradually transformed into a prime tantrum. Felicity Palmer as the Marquise de Birkenfield strides about with her fox-fur intimidating everyone in act one, only to turn into a quivering heap of jelly when faced with one person more indomitable than herself: the Duchesse de Krakenthorp, a.k.a. Dawn French (no, she doesn't sing), whose English asides - translated into French in the surtitles - had immortal moments all their own. 'Sweetheart, don't be stingy with the chocolate fountains...' Alessandro Corbelli, as Marie's surrogate father (at least, the lead daddy out of 1500), is one of the great comic baritones of today's opera world. And as the end approaches, just when you think you've seen it all, Florez arrives to rescue Marie, on a tank. I've been trying to think how it could possibly have been any better. It couldn't.

A little message for director Tonys Pappano and Hall at the ROH: what about Comte Ory with Dessay and Florez next?

And now for something completely different: here's my latest piece for today's Indy. Ochin priatna, Maestro Gergiev, and welcome to the LSO!

Monday, January 15, 2007

A bit of self-promotion

I've got a double page spread in The Independent today, a quick look back at 60 years of the Royal Opera. Odd to think that the organisation is exactly the same age as David Bowie.

Also, in case anyone still fancies a look at my first novel, Rites of Spring, Amazon.co.uk is currently offering it at a 32 per cent discount. :-)

The next one, Alicia's Gift, will be out in hardback on 8 March...

Friday, January 12, 2007

Speaking of tenors...

...The Met in New York has announced casting for its Ring Cycle in 2012 (!) and Kaufmann is to be Siegmund. Forward planning or what.

Meanwhile, Richard Morrison in The Times says that La fille du regiment with Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Florez is the hottest ticket in town........

(UPDATE: So does Ed Seckerson in The Independent...)

The Three Tenors: for Domingo, read Villazon; for Pavarotti, read Florez; for Carreras, read Kaufmann. Are these wonderful guys the future of opera? It's looking like it.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Recipe for success?

Rather touched to discover a hit from a reader in the Far East looking for 'Faure Piano Quartet No.1 recipe'. Tricky, that. Perhaps rack of spring lamb with mint sauce would reflect the work's youthful yet meaty quality. Or the torrential last movement could suggest a salmon leaping upstream, maybe accompanied by a tasty tarragon mayonnaise. Put the right portamento into the first movement's violin part and you also have a case for the finest fresh oysters. Haydn might be easier to match: my Gundel Cookbook from Budapest contains a mouthwatering recipe for Steak Eszterhazy (though I don't fancy the lard).

A bigger recipe for success is the new Universal Classics and Jazz download site, launched yesterday. It claims to be the largest site of its type catering to the classical and jazz market to date, with 125,000 tracks, and there's some fantastic stuff on the Universal labels which include Deutsche Grammophon, Philips and Decca. Don't be put off by all that Katherine Jenkins and Da Vinci Code Soundtrack stuff on the front, because Heifetz, Wunderlich, Argerich and Pollini lurk in that back catalogue. And the site is hoping to offer digital downloads of complete ballet and opera videos in the near future. The press release says: "The downloadable tracks will be offered at over double the quality iTunes offer: 320K Stereo WMA files as opposed to Apple's 128" Stereo AAC files." Note that it's not compatible, though, with the iPod.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Trio brio

First, here's the feature I wrote about classical music on Youtube for The Independent - out today.

Elated yet again after the trio concert last night. I love living in London: a city where you can hear Jonas Kaufmann on Saturday, the Menuhin-Graffin-Wallfisch Trio on Sunday, the Razumovsky Ensemble on Tuesday (Wigmore again - be there, they're fab), Juan Diego Florez and Natalie Dessay on Thursday, and the LPO in a new work by John McCabe somewhere in between (regret to say that Tom has 'flu and won't be playing in it).

Back to the trio at the Wigmore. A wonderful concert, full of glorious tone, finely gelled musicianship and a beautiful combination of sparkiness, sensuality and intelligence. Philippe, Raphael and Jeremy are all powerfully individual players, but since they've formed themselves into a regular trio, they've been growing together an exciting, creative way, as the best chamber groups ideally should. The hall was full, the atmosphere was terrific and although the Ravel Trio brought the house down, the opportunity to hear Schumann's Trio No.2 in F minor made the evening all the more significant.

It's incredible: I've never heard this thing before. It brims with Clara-themes and Clara-sighs; there's a quote (?) from the song 'Dein Bildnis', a slow movement to die for and a revelatory third movement that lopes along softly in subtle, mysterious fashion, and rhythms in the first movement that I'm convinced Korngold grabbed. How can it be that I've reached the age I am, fortunate enough to be surrounded by classical music at its finest, and I've never heard this piece? Why on earth doesn't it get played more often?!? Philippe, Raphael and Jeremy did it proud.

Fascinating to reflect that these musicians share one big area of common ground other than music: prodigious families. Raphael is the son of the pianist Peter Wallfisch and cellist Anita Lasker (her memoir is required reading); Philippe's father Daniel Graffin is a fascinating artist; and Jeremy's...well! I can't deal with the psychology of this before I've had my third cup of coffee. Probably not even then. All that matters, though, is that they're great musicians and great guys in their own right.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Jose takes the cake

Still reeling after Carmen at Covent Garden last night. I'm glad to report that Jonas Kaufmann is indeed the bees' knees, even more so than anticipated (and I dug out my old glasses so was able, more or less, to see as well as hear).

The production is a tad clunky at times - populist, West-Endish, traditional, with an orange tree, big orange walls complete with shadows, a well-behaved horse for Escamillo and a couple of walk-on roles for Polyanne the donkey, who I'm told has also worked with Placido Domingo. Apparently there were chickens too, but I missed them (wrong glasses?). A massive cut at the beginning of the final act was puzzling. But among a few superb touches are: the opening image to the Fate motif section of the overture - Don Jose being prepared for his execution, rendering the opera a flashback, rather in the spirit of Merimee's original story; the end of Act III when Escamillo sings off stage and Carmen, instead of leaving with the smugglers, suddenly decides to run off in the direction of his voice; but above all, the scenes between Carmen and Don Jose, which lifted the whole evening onto quite another level.

As Francesca Zambello told me when I interviewed her a few weeks ago, Carmen is all about the chemistry, and this chemistry was extraordinary. The murder scene was exceedingly harrowing - nothing in the rest of the show had remotely prepared me for what Antonacci and Kaufmann would do with it, nor for its impact.

Anna Caterina Antonacci is a glorious singer - more soprano than mezzo in timbre, though with the range to cope with the lot; but she'd be a more natural princess than she seemed a natural gypsy. One never really sensed the fizz of sorcery that's expected from Carmen. Yet perhaps it worked because the unfolding action was truly Jose's story, and not only because the opening images put him at the front of our minds. Kaufmann's Flower Song created the kind of magic atmosphere that you hear once in a blue moon - the heart-thumping, knee-wobbling magic where you can't quite believe your ears - the phrasing, the pianissimos, the raw emotion, the espressivity in every word and overtone. Throughout the opera, he seemed a man possessed, conveying the depth of his character with even the smallest of consistent signs. This Jose is doomed before he even meets Carmen: his character is his fate. Something was always going to send him over the edge; it happens to be her. Even Carmen remains mesmerised by him to a subtle degree despite herself, and dies in his arms when he stabs her.

I think I was probably wrong, talking about his Strauss disc the other day, to call him a 'heldentenor' - he may perhaps become one in time (next decade's greatest Tristan?) and he's still only in his early thirties. But now he's the most romantic of German romantics, ideal for this role, Mozart, Strauss of course, he'd be a great Lensky, and if he ever sings Schumann's song cycles in Australia, I think I'd fly there specially to hear him. He's one who knows that the soft is more powerful than the loud, passion more significant than virtuosity, giving more important than taking.

Would someone please tell Tony Pappano that? The orchestral side had its moments, but the insensitivity of Pappano's accompaniment was inexcusable. If Don Jose is doing his magic, half-light pianissimo but the orchestra comes crashing in at mezzo-forte, what's the earthly use? If the fine baritone Ildebrando d'Arcangelo's Toreador Song gets drowned out, is it any wonder that nobody seemed to know they were supposed to clap afterwards? Perhaps I'm naive, but I still dare to hope that an opera conductor's first priority might just be to make the most of his singers' capabilities and enhance their beauties, not ride roughshod over them.

Anyway, enough carping. Kaufmann is a miracle. Not just a wonderful tenor, but a great artist through and through. Time to call down some angelic protection to take good care of him.

MEANWHILE, TONIGHT AT THE WIGMORE HALL, don't miss Philippe Graffin, Raphael Wallfisch and Jeremy Menuhin's trio! Beethoven Ghost, Schumann 2 and Ravel, and it's the Sunday Times's Pick of the Week. Box office 020 7935 2141.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Owwch!

To get into the Vienna Philharmonic's Neujahrskonzert in the Musikverein, you have to apply a year in advance. They have 1,000 seats and usually around 36,000 applications, and it's done by ballot. The odds are bad, but still better than the National Lottery, so we decided we should try for next year's.

Guess who entered the ballot with the 'egal' tab (= 'any seats') without first checking the ticket prices....???!?

Hey, they can keep their sodding seats. The Rathausplatz is far better. You can see everything. The digital sound is great. You can dance to the waltzes. You can eat bratwurst and drink punsch. Who needs to fork out E680??!? (and that's for ONE ticket...).

Friday, January 05, 2007

Not exactly a new year peerage

I had such a good time in Vienna that I managed to lose my glasses. Serves me right for having too much fun just before I finally get to see Jonas Kaufmann as Don Jose. Or rather, not see. Can't get off-the-shelf ones as have strange astigmatic prescription probably resulting from too much time spent at computer screens. Vision without specs induces everything to come out looking like Vuillard. Of course Kaufmann's voice alone is something exceptional, but his photo's rather nice too and I'd been looking forward to the whole package. Anyway, if you see a short, dark blogger with gritted teeth peering at the Covent Garden stage through screwed-up eyes tomorrow, it's probably me.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Ah, Vienna...

Just about recovered from a thrilling New Year in the city of waltzes... Appropriately enough, since 2007 is the 50th anniversary of Korngold's death and the 110th of his birth, we spent New Year's Eve dancing the night away outside the Rathaus, where Korngold and Luzi von Sonnenthal got married.

Oh boy, do the Viennese know how to party. The city centre turns into one big celebration, with different music going on in various squares and pedestrian areas until 2am, and all the sausages, langos, gluhwein and schnapps you could wish for, not to mention strudel, with fireworks zooming about overhead constantly - none of that wait-for-midnight nonsense here, thanks... Apparently Vienna entertained about 700,000 people that night, double the number who risked chaos in central London (where organising so much as a p***-up in a brewery seems to defeat even the most well-intentioned). A few firecrackers to dodge along the way, and it's best to avoid the most crowded areas like the Karntnerstrasse, but otherwise the atmosphere was simply wonderful.

One learns some startling things about one's partner in these circumstances. Good old Tomcat turns out to be an unreconstructed old rocker! After the operetta crew finished The Blue Danube after midnight (yes, we waltzed, or tried to), on came a band called Remembering Elvis. Tom doesn't have much hair, but a few bars of Blue Suede Shoes and what's left came down in spectacular fashion. After that, along came a band called Montevideo and Tom discovered that I'm a frustrated South American at heart, itching to learn salsa and samba (our tango classes tragically having ended in abandonment of all hope). 2007 resolution: learn to waltz and go back next time - maybe even to a ball...???

The next morning, we watched the New Year's Day concert on a big screen in the Rathausplatz. The Vienna Philharmonic sound as glorious as ever. BUT it's still very odd only to see one woman in their ranks. Read some interesting info about this here (thanks to Ionarts for the link). How do they get away with it? I interviewed two of them for Classical Music Magazine about 15 years ago when the orchestra played in London, and asked them why they don't employ more women. They told me it was because of maternity leave laws: apparently they'd have to keep the job open for three years (or was it five?). I can't say I was convinced. It's tempting to wonder why other Austrian orchestras seem to manage fine, or why some fabulous female musician who doesn't intend to have children should be excluded. In Britain, there'd be no rest from the negative media over something like this. At least on this occasion they had an Indian conductor...

Vienna's an odd place. What was once the capital city of the biggest empire in Europe now feels like a small, isolated town with a lot of beautiful cafes and some very good music. It always takes me a day or two to stop thinking about the Korngold family and those like them fleeing the Anschluss, Hitler waving to the cheering crowds from the hotel balcony, and all that followed. But once I've got past that and started drinking in the Klimts in the Belvedere, the shades of Mozart at Schonbrunn, and on this occasion one of the best Chagall exhibitions I've seen, not to mention coffee with liqueur and schlagobers, it's impossible not to enjoy it.

Stars in the pavement of the Kartnerstrasse and Graben pay tribute to the likes of Weber, Haydn, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Kreisler, Rubinstein, Chopin, Schumann and Clara Schumann and more (though I couldn't find Korngold or Schoenberg). Two youngsters from Ankara asked us the way to the Figarohaus, where Mozart lived; for my part, I was sorry to leave without paying tribute to Schubert's spectacles in the house where he was born. And during our last coffee-stop we chatted to a Viennese couple at the next table who knew all the gossip about the New Year's Day concert reviews (catty indeed!). But the strangest thing is that you can spend a happy holiday in Vienna without setting eyes on that famous river even once. If you want to see the Beautiful Blue Danube at its finest, go to Budapest.

Most important, this is Korngold year. There'll be plenty going on all over the world and I'll try to keep posting about the most interesting events to come my way. For starters, watch out for a major exhibition about the composer opening in late October in Vienna, and a very special concert series right here in London in the autumn.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007