Monday, June 25, 2007

Mess o'potamia

Back. Have been in Denmark, eating fish...more of that when I've copied the photos properly.

So, where were we? Well, a big thank-you to everyone who wrote in support of the Kismet feature! The Times has its own take on the thing today (my dear readers will recognise the quoted critic, which could perhaps have been attributed more precisely), and they've interviewed Luther Davis (90), the surviving member of the original team. Ho-hum, here's what he says about the Baghdad problem:

“There’s a line in the song Not Since Nineveh in which Lalume sings ‘Don’t underestimate Baghdad!’ Now we were discussing how to deal with this in the current situation. Should we get rid of it, or downplay it? No, my suggestion was to lean on it heavily, to really belt it out. In a way it reminds you that Baghdad isn’t just a war zone, it’s a place that’s been full of real human beings for millennia.”

Er, right...Read the whole thing here. The headline is good.

UPDATE, 9pm: OOOH, the fur is flying backstage!!! This is what happened while we were away...and the first preview has been put back a night...

Monday, June 18, 2007

A few essentials

I'm rather 'under the snow' at the moment, hence lack of posting, but wanted to present a few essentials while I can:

The Nigel Osborne opera I went to see in Mostar, Differences in Demolition, is absolutely wonderful: a work full of heart and soul, with hardline modernism set beside glorious lyrical melody in a way that feels entirely natural. Goran Simic's libretto - the first work he has undertaken in English - is so full of wonderful poetry that I'm thinking of framing the copy that I now have. The production is poetic too, and the singing and playing superb - amazing how many different sounds can emerge from an accordion. The work as a whole seemed to have grown out of the soil of Bosnia itself. It will be at Wilton's Music Hall, near Tower Bridge, on 10, 11 and 12 July, as part of the City of London Festival, performed by Opera Circus. Do yourself a favour: go and see it.

The Pavarotti Centre in Mostar, however, is in financial difficulty. It opened its doors in 1997 and still offers the only clinical programme of its type in the world specialising in treating war-traumatised children and PTSD. But as things stand, the entire music therapy programme may have to close due to lack of funding. As Nigel Osborne explained during our trip, this treatment is very cheap and very effective and does a huge amount of good, but it doesn't 'fit into any boxes' and bureaucratic purse-string holders simply don't understand it - even though the methods pioneered there are being applied now in many other countries. They need support, both moral and financial.

Finally, my current snowdrift involves rewriting a play - with three months to go till the premiere - and a novel in one month flat. See you soon, I hope...

Now, have a look at the sensational young Chinese bass Shen Yang, who has just scooped the Cardiff Singer of the World prize.

And gluttons for punishment can read in today's Independent what I really think about English National Opera doing Kismet.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Back to Mostar...

This slide-show of pictures from Mostar is unfortunately not a Jess original but lifted from YouTube. But here's much of what I saw, the place I was staying (the gorgeous Ottoman Muslibegovic House with the courtyard and carved windows is a guest house as well as a tourist attraction) and some of the kind of thing I heard: the music is a typical sevdah song performed by the famous band Mostar Sevdah Reunion, some members of which were apparently at the premiere of 'Differences in Demolitions' on Saturday, joining in the standing ovation, so I'm told. Enjoy.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

My old friend...

I was told yesterday that an old friend and musical partner of mine from university days, Phanos Dymiotis, died in March in a car crash.

Phanos, a Greek Cypriot, was one of the brightest guys in the Cambridge music department when I got to know him. I remember him as a witty, warm, unassuming, self-contained and slightly enigmantic character; he was both an excellent composer and a brilliant violinist - the sort that's so brilliant that he could play the socks off the Saint-Saens Havanaise in a concert, but again with knobs on at the end of the post-concert party. He got a 'double first' (anyone who's survived the Cambridge music tripos will know that that takes a lot of doing), then headed for postgraduate studies at Princeton; last time I heard of him, several years ago, he was freelancing as a violinist in New York. I haven't heard any of his music for many years, but he had won a number of prizes and it sounds as if he was finally gaining the recognition I am certain he deserved.

We played the Faure A major Violin Sonata together once (a lunchtime concert at Emmanuel College), and enjoyed many of those priceless student moments with our many mutual friends - the Guy Fawkes Day fireworks and fun-fair on Midsummer Common, the Darwin College May Ball where we danced together to a Glenn Miller band at dawn, and late-night winter wanders across town from concerts/celebrations along the frosty grass on the Backs. Sadly, we lost touch after university, as too often one does, and despite many good intentions of correcting that, I never got round to it...

Phanos, a fond farewell from London. We'll never forget you.

UPDATE: Drew McManus covered this, I now discover, back when it happened in March. There is also a very moving tribute to Phanos by another friend, here. Here is the site of the Mariner String Quartet, of which he was a member. And more information at this Baltimore news site.

Phanos was the victim of a drunk driver, whose car hit his in a head-on collision and who also died at the scene along with his 19-year-old passenger. I also found a clip of a news item on Youtube. Nothing I say about tragedy, drink, irresponsibility, government bans or anything else is going to make any difference, so I shall shut up and go and cry instead.


It's The Firebird, it's the Royal Festival Hall, and I nearly fall out of my seat. It's loud. It's clear. You can hear the harp from the back row of the rear stalls. Some of the players used to describe the RFH acoustic as 'pigeon hitting wall'. Now the pigeon bites back.

The dear old place looks more or less the same inside, with some crucial differences - a bigger stage, more acoustical aids, less carpet; there's a tad more leg room in the rows and each seat is equipped with a little metal ring for holding your drink (assuming they decide to let the audience take some in). The foyers are magnificently open and glassy, the spaces giving maximum light and making the most of the river views; the bars and the new-look first-floor restaurant are sleeker and shinier; and mercifully, we're told, there are twice as many ladies' loos as before.

If there's a downside to the acoustic, it's that while every note of the celesta can be heard bright and clear, so can every cough, rustle of sweet paper, watch alarm, hearing aid and mobile phone. Two seconds into The Firebird, a mobile phone playing Mozart's 40th rang out across the double basses. Vladimir Jurowski called a halt...such is life...

Musically the evening was a mixed bag: I suspect that it was too worthy for its own financial aims. I'm mystified as to how anyone could programme world premieres by Julian Anderson and Harrison Birtwistle, load the programme up with Ligeti and Ives, and expect people to fork out £500 for a ticket. If you charge those prices, you have at least to pull some rabbits out of some hats, or at least a Gheorghiu or Terfel or Kissin or two (the biggest wigs last night were the three conductors, none of whom is a household name, though Vladimir will be soon). Maxim Vengerov was in the audience. He should have been on the platform and on the publicity. People with big money like big stars.

The Anderson will no doubt be praised to the skies (and already is in today's Independent), but it struck me as typical establishment-approved modernism with vaguely poncy establishment religious connotations ('Alleluja', all right, already) that wasn't celebratory, interesting, inspired or original and fulfilled no function greater than Parry's 'I was glad', which would have done the trick better last night. The Birtwistle was a reworking of a funeral lament that he wrote in memory of Michael Vyner (former chief of the London Sinfonietta) 18 years ago - which has its place, but surely not in a celebratory reopening concert? Birtwistle's place in our house is in the kitchen: we have a Glyndebourne fridge magnet of him. It's usually upside down, and is very useful for holding shopping lists.

Ligeti and Ives, while more interesting, still tend to scare people away from buying expensive tickets. And after imbibing as much champagne as you can swallow in 20 minutes, does anyone really want to listen to pootly Purcell? Oh dear. Still, Ravel's Bolero, played by representatives of all four resident orchestras - the LPO, the Philharmonia, the London Sinfonietta and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, around 120 players, with Marin Alsop having a great time on the podium - did indeed raise the roof as the grand finale, and Richard Morrison notes in today's Times that the sound in the last movement of Beethoven 9 (given with its original words this time) made the lights flicker.

Afterwards there was an extremely glittery party in and around the ballroom, and the champagne continued to flow...It's fantastic that the arrival of the nearest thing we now have to a world-class concert hall should be seen in with such a tremendous celebration. There's no doubt that it's certainly become a world-class venue. The weeks ahead will say more about the sound.

UPDATE, 13 June 8.36am: 'Mad props' to Vanessa Thorpe from (gasp) The Guardian for linking here. She was sitting next to the owner of the errant mobile...

Monday, June 11, 2007

Meanwhile back at the ranch...

While I was pottering over the bridge in Mostar, the Royal Festival Hall opened its doors at last after its snazzy refurbishment. It's taken two years of building work and some two decades of blundering beforehand; now they're doing nothing by halves. From Friday evening until yesterday there was a grand jamboree of free music and dance inside and outside the venue. Billy Bragg led a festival of mass busking and wrote some new words for the finale of Beethoven 9; a floating chorus took to the waters of the Thames; dancing both Bollywood and ballroom was on display; 2500 school kids were involved; and 18,000 performers in all. Unfortunately I missed the lot, but going to Mostar was my own decision and in any case there's plenty more to come.

Tonight, for example. The grand first night gala: a concert in three parts with all the resident orchestras (they'll play together for the first time), two world premieres - Julian Anderson and the ubiquitous Birtwistle - plus a big party in the ballroom afterwards. Dress code is given as "to celebrate" and there'll be wall-to-wall champagne. It looks sure to be a night to remember. The big question: purple silk or sea-green linen? Either way, the tango shoes will be shown off... A full report on the state of the place will follow in due course. And from now on it's business as usual at the RFH: the LPO's first real concert is on Wednesday, with Vladimir Jurowski conducting and Imogen Cooper playing the Mozart D minor Piano Concerto; and on Thursday, the inimitable Brendel is giving a recital. Speaking of Vladimir, here's Richard Morrison's interview with our favourite resident maestro from The Times the other day.

It's going to seem weird after experiencing the Mostar opera premiere the other day, in a little theatre covered in a smallpox rash of shelling damage.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Just back from Bosnia-Herzegovina

Here's an extract of the poem by Goran Simic on which the new sevdah opera by Nigel Osborne, with libretto by Simic, is based. Like the poem (from Simic's book of poems Immigrant Blues), the opera is called Differences in Demolitions.

In the Country where I live
when a house has to be torn down
a few workers arrive with a contract,
tear down the house in a few days and leave
and later nobody remembers any more the names of those
who lived there until yesterday.

In the Country I came from
before the house is torn down
an armed police squad arrives
and an ambulance for someone who might want
to die grieving under the demolished roof
beneath which he was born long ago.
For months afterwards even the children avoid the place
where once there was a house
because of the ghosts of ancestors who moan
from the spiderwebs and weeds.
There the demolition ball is heavy as a curse.

That's just the first part...

Here's a taste of the difference between London and Mostar.

Do not leave your luggage unattended. Any unattended bags may be removed and destroyed.
Hold the handrail on the ecscalator. Stand on the right.
Do not allow children to ride in the luggage trolleys.
Do not allow children to play on the escalators.
Dogs must be carried.
From 1 July smoking will be banned in all enclosed public spaces in England.
'We are sorry to announce that the 15.55 service to Hounslow is delayed by approximately six minutes. We are sorry for the inconvenience this may cause to your journey.'
All places wishing to present live music must apply for a very expensive licence.
Those with five cars exhort those of us who take trains to oppose planned parking restrictions and pricey residents' permits in our road.

'Attention! Dangerous ruin. Access and parking forbidden.'
'Ticket: Differences in Demolitions. National Theatre, 8pm.'... 8pm: people start to arrive, drink and talk to each other in the square. 8.25pm: doors open; stampede for best seats. 8.40pm: first sounds...
'Oh, Jess, it's best not to wander off the paths into open patches of grass. There could be landmines.'

A trip like this can cause some ructions in the soul. I need to process this before writing about it fully.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Meanwhile in Milan...

...Our dear colleague Opera Chic has been on the receiving end of a sense-of-humour failure on the part of La Scala's in-house lawyers. We're still trying to think of any other musical organisation that would turn their noses up at free publicity to the value of thousands of $$$s...but she's being forced to replace her logo in case someone mistakes it for the official La Scala one (...yes, really). Solidarity from London, OC!

(If I had any idea how to design my own logo, the one I'd pick to rip off would probably be London Zoo, because London's musical life is so full of strange fish. As things are, the Blogger template will have to suffice.)

Tuesday, June 05, 2007


Sokolov, a.k.a. PianoGod, is playing at the Wigmore Hall tonight and Guess Who Got The Last Ticket?!? :-)

Meanwhile I'm swotting Noel Malcolm's excellent book Bosnia: A short history. The early 1990s come surging back. The names we heard daily on the news: Milosevic; Arkan; Srebrenica; Sarajevo. The pigs-ear that resulted not least because Western governments, it appears, didn't have the first clue what the conflict was really about.

A few examples. An arms embargo was placed on the entire region - which left most of the old Yugoslavian supplies in the hands of the Serbs, but the Bosnians without recourse to defend themselves. "No-fly zones"? Unenforced and unenforcable. "Safe havens"? Ditto. UN peacekeeping forces? Nice idea, but they ended up becoming human shields. You can scarcely miss the frustration in the text:

"It fell to the British government, as holder of the rotating presidency of the EEC, to chair a joint EEC-UN conference on the entire situation in Yugoslavia...The paralysis of the Wrst was made only more apparent. John Major obtained what he thought were solemn pledges from the Serb leaders to lift the sieges of Bosnian towns and cities and place their heavy weaponry under UN supervision. It later emerged that 'supervision' was to be interpreted in its original, etymological sense: UN monitors were allowed to look over the artillery pieces above Sarajavo every day while they were being fired."

Off to Sarajevo tomorrow.

Monday, June 04, 2007

What did I just say about loudness?

The Times runs an article today saying that rock music really is getting louder, and that it is definitely not a good thing. It has an adverse effect on human physiology, makes listeners feel fatigued and sick, drives neighbours round the twist and wrecks the music. WTF, why did it take so long for anyone to notice?

Here's a sample:

...Peter Mew, senior mastering engineer at Abbey Road studios, said: “Record companies are competing in an arms race to make their album sound the ‘loudest’. The quieter parts are becoming louder and the loudest parts are just becoming a buzz.”

Mr Mew, who joined Abbey Road in 1965 and mastered David Bowie’s classic 1970s albums, warned that modern albums now induced nausea.

He said: “The brain is not geared to accept buzzing. The CDs induce a sense of fatigue in the listeners. It becomes psychologically tiring and almost impossible to listen to. This could be the reason why CD sales are in a slump.”

Geoff Emerick, engineer on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album, said: “A lot of what is released today is basically a scrunched-up mess. Whole layers of sound are missing. It is because record companies don’t trust the listener to decide themselves if they want to turn the volume up.” ...

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Elgar's 150th anniversary...

Edward Elgar was born 2 June 1857 in Broadheath near Worcester. Here's the latest in a spate of articles about him - this by Richard Morrison in yesterday's Times, on the perennial enigma of the Enigma Variations.

It's kind of strange hearing Elgar the morning after Bosnian sevdah and Romanian Gypsies. Thank heaven there's room in the world for all of them.

UPDATE: Monday 4 June, 8.50am - discovered a pretty interesting take by Stephen Pollard in The Times the other day, in which he makes it clear that our own dear Arts Council doesn't think there is room in the world...

Barbican burns down

Metaphorically, that is. Went to the latest concert in the Gypsy Music festival last night and heard these guys. Ever seen the Barbican bopping like mad to Bartok? I have now. Please welcome, from Romania, TARAF DE HAIDOUKS:

Now add a packed hall, yelling, whistling and dancing in the aisles, and a smattering of classical musos looking on with dropped jaws (that'll be me & pals) and you get the idea. It was fast, it was loud and they took no prisoners. The place went bananas.

The cimbalom player boggles eyes and ears alike. Last time I saw one close to, in a restaurant in Budapest, I thought the instrument was simply a poor substitute for a pub piano. Wrong! This was wall-to-wall fireworks and white-hot energy - harpsichord and rock drummer rolled into one. The fiddles were fevered and furious, the accordion sounded like a clarinet, and the singing - Romany? Romanian? I'm not sure - the men's voices are direct, natural, communicative, conversational, and even if you don't understand a word it doesn't matter, you still get the general idea and that's fine.

Amira, the Bosnian sevdah singer, was the curtain-raiser to all this. She has a beautiful, sweet, soulful voice; the music is haunting, deeply sad, distinctly Mediterranean in sound (lots of Turkish influence, if I'm right) and her band was super, especially the pianist Kim Burton who isn't Bosnian but British. Fabulous rapport between them.

I have certain issues with overamplified music - not least that it makes my ears hurt for hours afterwards - which is why I don't go more often. And it would perhaps have been nicer, at least more 'authentic', to hear them unamplified (preferably somewhere in the wilds of Romania). All the same, this morning my head is reeling with wild Gypsy sounds and a smattering of Bartok, Kodaly and Khatchaturian that they 'regypsified' (including the Romanian Dances) and that will never sound the same again.