Saturday, July 30, 2011

FRANZ LISZT: SINS OF THE FATHER

Very happy to announce that TOMORROW, in AUSTRALIA, my latest 'stage work' will take the platform for the first time at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville, Far North Queensland. Entitled Franz Liszt: Sins of the Father, it's a grand-scale piece bringing together as many of the resident musicians as humanly possible, and commissioned for the Liszt Bicentenary Year by the doughty Piers Lane, pianist and artistic director of the festival. The show kicks off at the Townsville Civic Theatre at 4pm.

The popular Australian radio presenter Damien Beaumont is Franz Liszt, narrating the strange history of how his sometime friend Wagner stole his limelight, his music and his daughter Cosima - and how, perhaps, the scandal of the latter was his own fault. There is humour, pathos, poetry (from Obermann), love and some reflection on the bonds that bind families so close, however bizarre that family may be.

It's very exciting that Lisa Gasteen, the great Australian Wagnerian soprano, is making a rare return to the concert platform to perform Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder and Liszt's 'O lieb', accompanied by Piers (pictured right) himself. The performance opens with Wagner's Siegfried Idyll, and along the way there are solo spots for violinists Jack Liebeck in Paganini's Variations on God Save the King and Philippe Graffin in Liszt's Romance Oubliee and Bartok's Romanian Dances; pianist Danny Driver, who'll play Liszt's transcription of Wagner's Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde; and cellist Louise Hopkins, who plays the cello version of La lugubre gondola and joins Philippe and Danny in the trio version of Vallee d'Obermann. And finally there's the Hungarian Rhapsody No.2...played by the Contiguglia Brothers piano duo, the American pianists who were among the last pupils of Dame Myra Hess.

I just wish I was there. But the performance will be broadcast the next day on ABC Radio and I'm informed that it should be possible to access it by internet, though I haven't quite worked out the time difference issues... UPDATE: An Australian tweet-friend has sent me this link which should hopefully do the trick: http://www.abc.net.au/classic/audio/#again

Do please feel free to drop me or Piers's agent a line if you are a venue that would like to book the show for Wagner Year, 2013.

UPDATE: Limelight Magazine has an interview with Damien today in which he (pictured left) talks quite extensively about Sins of the Father and what he loves about Liszt.
Taster:
Beaumont says a complicated triangle of musical passions, love and betrayal lies at the heart of the show, which takes as its subject not only Liszt but also that other Romantic titan, Richard Wagner. “We explore the story of Liszt, his daughter Cosima and her eventual marriage to Wagner. It’s an extraordinary tale of these two men connected by women, and connected by music."
The suave Hungarian and the imperious German were longtime friends, the wealthy concert pianist often helping Wagner financially. But the relationship turned sour. “The whole story is predicated on what Wagner stole from Liszt, right from his daughter to a musical phrase that Wagner turned into a five-hour opera.”

Thursday, July 28, 2011

This one is especially for...

...some Parisian friends who turned up unexpectedly at Wilton's Music Hall the other night. "Music Hall?" they said. "This was really one of the first concert halls - ?" So I tried to describe what that English 19th- to early 20th-century concept of music hall entertainment was all about: the stand-up comedy, sort of, the Gracie Fields-type songs, tap-dancing, risque and suggestive this, that and the other, and...well, it's so English that it's not easy to give an accurate picture, so I looked it up on Youtube.

And guess what I found? A cancan. From 1943. Not so English after all. Voila!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Look what I found on Facebook



Amazing what you can stumble across on Facebook. If I hadn't logged on just after Jonathan Dove posted a flier for his new opera Mansfield Park, which will be premiered next week. I might never have known he'd written it. What? Jonathan Dove has turned Jane Austen's Mansfield Park into an opera?!? Clearly this needed urgent attention, so I've written a feature, which is out today in The Independent. Read it here.


There was a little more in the original version about the doughty Heritage Opera and how this tiny and excellent enterprise went about raising the necessary dosh to commission a new work from one of the UK's best music-theatre composers. So here is the director's cut.






Plenty of new opera has graced the stages of London and Manchester this year, much of it controversial, cutting-edge and high profile. But off the beaten track, in the stately homes of northern England, a small and very plucky opera company has dared to think big in a completely different way. Heritage Opera, based in Staffordshire, is about to give the world premiere of an opera based on nothing less than Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, written for it by one of Britain’s finest music-theatre composers, Jonathan Dove.

The intimate scale of the enterprise might have pleased Austen herself, who once referred to “The little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush...” Involving just ten singers and piano-duet accompaniment, the opera has been conceived specifically for performance in country houses, which has been Heritage Opera’s speciality since its founding in 2006 by its musical director, Chris Gill. The ‘theatre’ itself serves as the opera’s set.

Commissioning Dove was ambitious for such a small and still relatively new company: this audience-friendly musical creator has some extremely successful operas to his name and can probably pick and choose. His Flight, created for Glyndebourne in 1998, has been staged across three continents; his Pinocchio for Opera North was a more recent smash hit. Yet the encounter with Heritage Opera was serendipitous: it enabled Dove to fulfil a cherished dream.

“The idea for Mansfield Park goes back a long way,” says Dove. “When I first read it, more than 20 years ago, I remember hearing music and feeling that it wanted to become something. At that time there was another company that used to tour stately homes doing blockbuster opera repertoire with piano; it went through my mind at the time that that would be the perfect way of doing Mansfield Park
. I’ve never thought it would be right for a larger opera house.”


Austen fans will be familiar with the story of Fanny Price, a poor relation in a grand house, in love – at first unrequitedly – with the family’s second son, Edmund. The long-suffering girl watches helplessly as he is dazzled by the sophisticated Mary Crawford; scandal, heartbreak and stargazing all have their places in the tale before it reaches its quietly happy conclusion. Dove nails its appeal: “It’s just like Cinderella,” he says. His regular librettist, Alasdair Middleton, has boiled down the substantial book to its dramatic essence, framing each scene with a sung ‘chapter’ heading and retaining Austen’s words wherever possible.

Strange, perhaps, that Austen has been largely overlooked by opera composers until now; strange, too, that of all Austen’s books Mansfield Park could seem the least obvious choice for adaptation. Would Pride and Prejudice or Emma, more popular novels with more extrovert characters, not hold more appeal? Dove says that in fact the reverse is true.

“I heard music in Mansfield Park in a way I hadn’t with the others,” he says. “It’s the way Fanny Price is written. Elizabeth Bennett and Emma Woodhouse are delightful and fantastic characters, but I never felt there was anything that I needed to add to that. With Fanny, we sense her suffering, but she’s never explicit – she never says to Edmund ‘Stay away from Mary Crawford’. It’s what she’s not saying that provokes the music.”

He hasn’t attempted to create a pastiche of the musical style of Austen’s day: “The score doesn’t strictly behave like early 19th-century music, but I hope it suggests that era,” he says. “The accompaniment is for four hands at one piano, a medium that Austen would have heard often. I like the idea that while that the musical grammar might be unfamiliar to her, the vocabulary is something she’d recognise.”

Sarah Helsby Hughes, HO’s artistic director who also sings the role of Mary Crawford, has high praise for Dove’s musical characterisation. “The music for Fanny is gorgeous, extremely haunting and touching,” she says. “Mrs Norris is very cleverly done, with spiky writing that’s her to a T. And for the conversation between Mary and her brother Henry he’s created an urbane, almost jazzy, city-gloss idiom that’s different from any of the other characters’ music: it tells us that these are city slickers who’ve arrived in the country. The words of that conversation are lifted straight from the book – it really is Jane Austen.”

Dove’s Mansfield Park arrives in typically restrained Austenesque style, virtually unannounced compared to this year’s other, noisier world premieres. The Royal Opera has brought us Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole; English National Opera presented Nico Muhly’s social-networking crimmie Two Boys; Damon Albarn’s Dr Dee has just taken the Manchester Festival by storm. Heritage Opera’s approach to commissioning has been altogether different – of necessity, since unlike those other companies it receives not a penny of state subsidy.

The cost it faced, £36,000, may seem relatively modest, but it’s still a substantial amount for a small company to raise from scratch. Help arrived in a grant from the Peter Moores Foundation; a healthy donation came from a private sponsor; but still, for three years HO collected doggedly via fundraising events and appeals at their other performances around the north of England. Responses ranged from fans popping in a few pounds to one enthusiast writing a cheque for £1000. “Our local audiences have responded like kings and given everything they could,” says Helsby Hughes.

And what will hardened Austen fans make of a Mansfield Park opera? Tim Bullamore, publisher of the Bath-based magazine Jane Austen’s Regency World, thinks it will be welcomed with open arms. “The ‘Janeites’, as Rudyard Kipling called them, are absolutely devoted,” he comments. “They’ll go round the world, they’ll go to conferences, they dress up – recently I saw 100 of them walking through Bath in regency costume. That’s especially popular with Americans – I think this opera should cross the Atlantic really well.” As an opera in its own right, he adds, Mansfield Park has great potential: “It has all the subjects you need in an opera: adultery, affairs, money...”

There, though, any resemblance to Anna Nicole ends. Austen’s Mansfield Park has a special sensibility (and perhaps sense, too) that enjoys an apparently timeless appeal. Dove’s version may start out on a piece of operatic ivory with its first stately homes tour. But I suspect this won’t be the last we hear of it.

Mansfield Park opens on 30 July and tours until 11 August. Full details at: http://www.heritageopera.co.uk/whatson.html

And the winner is...

Congratulations to STEPHEN LLEWELLYN, winner of the JDCMB 'Chacun a son gout' competition. Yes, bizarrely enough, that is indeed the same Stephen Llewellyn who was the proud champion of Miss Mussel's first #operaplot competition. Stephen, you will be the lucky recipient of the new CD by Joseph Calleja, 'The Maltese Tenor', which will be sent to you straight from the offices of Universal Classics.

The correct answers: 'Chacun a son gout' is featured prominently in Johann Strauss II's opera Die Fledermaus. And it is sung by Prince Orlofsky. I am impressed that everybody who entered the competition - and there were lots of you - got it right.

The prize draw took place last night in the concertmaster's dressing room at the Royal Albert Hall, just after the London Philharmonic had completed its 'Vladothon' all-Hungarian Prom, which involved Kodaly's Dances of Galanta, Bartok's Piano Concerto No.1 with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet as soloist, and to end, Liszt's Faust Symphony.

We asked the orchestra's one actual Hungarian violinist, Katalin Varnagy, to select the winner's name from the many entries that mingled in the violin case... You can see the very glam Kati talking about her Hungarian musical heritage in the Prom interval when the concert's televised on Thursday evening.



Then, since the occasion was also Tomcat's birthday and, besides, marked the 25th anniversary of him joining the LPO (odd, as he's only 21...) everyone came along for a drink, including the adorable and stupendous Mr Bavouzet...




 













...and also Vladimir Jurowski and concertmaster Pieter Schoemann (pictured below - l to r, Vladimir, Tomcat, Kati and Pieter). The flag is Hungarian - there's a green stripe at the bottom.


I'd just like to reassure any Hungarian Dances fans that the characters of Karina (semi-Hungarian) and Rohan (South African) were not actually based on Kati and Pieter. It's all pure coincidence, honest to goodness, guv. These things happen with books sometimes. Life imitates art. It does.

Quite a late night. Please excuse the JDCMB team while it adjourns to the kitchen for extra coffee....

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Alina rocks Wilton's

(UPDATED) Went to the newly-saved Wilton's last night to see what Alina Ibragimova (left, photo by Sussie Ahlburg) has been up to with the visionary Quay Brothers. Here's my review in The Independent - five stars, thanks very much. Taster:

Perhaps the image that lingers most strongly is that of her Bach Chaconne: the young violinist in white and gold, side-lit to cast a gigantic shadow, as if she were at once an angel of light and one of death. But with such violin playing, we could have been anywhere and still emerged wonderstruck... 

Do go and see it: there are further performances tonight and tomorrow. It's extremely special. More details from the Barbican here - part of the centre's Blaze Festival.

A bit of competition tonight, though, from the Tomcat's special birthday Prom...oh, all right, it's just a coincidence, but it is indeed his birthday and it's also the 25th anniversary (honest!) of him joining the LPO. As they say, time flies when you're enjoying yourself. The LPO and Vladimir are performing an all-Hungarian programme (yes!) featuring the Kodaly Dances of Galanta, Bartok's Piano Concerto No.1 with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and the Liszt Faust Symphony. More about it here.

AND REMEMBER: YOU HAVE UNTIL 1PM TODAY TO ENTER THE JDCMB 'CHACUN A SON GOUT' COMPETITION TO WIN A JOSEPH CALLEJA CD!


Meanwhile, I feel lucky to have escaped Norrington's Mahler Nine yesterday. I've been listening online this morning in an increasing fascination of horror. At times it's barely recognisable. Not just for the lack of vibrato, either, but that is a big part of it... Look at what Gavin has to say about it at EntarteteMusik.

At least Alina's Bach sounds wonderful without vibrato. But switching off vibrato in Mahler smacks of the worst kind of musical fundamentalist fanaticism - the point at which curio becomes religion, and tradition becomes doctrine, without sense, without proof, indeed contrary to both sense and proof. Especially when we know from Leopold Mozart that as early as Bach's lifetime many players were using lashings of what we now call vibrato - Wolfgang's dad even provides exercises for practising it! Let's just recognise Sir Roger for what he really is: an interesting, eccentric, experimental maestro, sometimes inspiring, sometimes bumbling and who sometimes goes rushing in where angels fear to tread. He's a one-off. With any luck he will stay that way.

Monday, July 25, 2011

L'orchestre des boulevardiers...

In case you didn't see my review of the second Prom by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Myung-Whun Chung and the Capucon Brothers last Tuesday, here it is. (It was in the paper on Thursday, but I can't find it on the website.) I think I'm a teeny bit in love with Renaud now.

****
PROM 6, 19 July 2011: Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Myung-Whun Chung/Renaud & Gautier Capuçon, Royal Albert Hall

That whooshing sound isn’t just the manic tam-tam of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. It’s also the fresh air that swept into town with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the first overseas orchestra to visit this year’s Proms. Its long-time principal conductor Myung-Whun Chung took the helm for a second consecutive evening in the limelight.

Opening with the Overture to Weber’s opera Oberon, an early romantic gem, Chung placed the emphasis firmly on ‘romantic’ rather than ‘early’. Plaudits go to the elegant solo horn, arching the notes of his call with Matisse-like deftness. After latecomers had scuttled in (amazing there aren’t even more, given the hall’s cumbersome security), the celebrated Capuçon brothers arrived to offer their party piece, Brahms’s Double Concerto for violin and cello.  

Siblings, yes; but they remain very different musical personalities. Renaud, 35, is a persuasive and assured violinist at the very top of his game; the cellist Gautier, 29, sometimes sounded less secure, with erratic vibrato and occasional moments of forced tone, yet maybe he’s the one who takes more musical risks. But in their shared episodes, their playing was so unified that they seemed positively telepathic. Chung, himself from a distinguished musical family (his sister is the violinist Kyung-Wha Chung), cushioned them in orchestral luxury more indulgent than is now broadly fashionable in Brahms, creating textures into which you could really sink your teeth. As an encore, the brothers whirled into the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia, the perfect duo showstopper. If anyone wasn’t yet seduced, their quirky virtuosity quickly sorted that out.

And so to The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky’s ballet score from 1913 about human sacrifice in an ancient Russian tribe. Blood-lust took a back seat and the high-calorie Brahms was left far behind: the Parisians chose a refreshing lightness of touch which spilled into shimmering explosions of wonder, conjuring up the rising energy of the earth breaking into bloom. Colours were transparent, the insistent repetitions bouncing rather than battering, the woodwind solos remarkable for their songfulness. In sonic garb so chic, the story’s horror was admittedly lessened – though the closing Sacrificial Dance still took us right inside the physical sensations of the victim. Mostly the orchestra seemed to breathe as one; a pity that some startling ensemble problems disrupted a few transitions.

That was forgiven in a sizzling encore, the overture to Bizet’s Carmen delivered with boulevardier panache that virtually turned the rhythm into a can-can and the Toreador’s Song into a suave chanson. The spirit of Charles Trenet hovered tantalisingly close.

Has anyone seen my dream aria?

It's amazing what we do behind our own backs. The subconscious is a peculiar and fascinating phenomenon. But I don't know what Doctors Freud or Jung would have made of the great aria I dreamed last night. It was extremely beautiful, but unfortunately it doesn't exist - at least not as far as I know.

(Left: Luciano Pavarotti tries to catch the dream as it flies...)

It is a grand romantic aria, for tenor. It's in French, with dusky orchestration involving lots of cellos and harp, somewhat a la Werther - indeed, the closest match of composer I could come up with was Massenet, though in the Land of Nod it sounded rather better than most of his work. It's not wholly unlike 'Pourquoi me reveiller?', but it's longer, more inventive, less strophic, wider ranging. It's a passionate appeal by the opera's hero - for presumably this non-existent aria comes from a non-existent opera - to someone who presumably is the heroine or anti-heroine, pleading with her to leave whatever/whoever it may be that's making them all miserable. It ends with the desperate words: "Ah, quittez-la, quittez-la!"

Then I woke up and realised I'd overslept and missed Joseph Calleja in both the Verdi Requiem last night  (I'm slightly allergic to the piece, but let's not digress) and on BBC Breakfast this morning. Maybe Dr Jung would say that has something to do with it.

Has anyone seen my dream aria? If there is any way of identifying or recapturing it, I'd love to know.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Top five reasons to love Amy Winehouse (1983-2011)



1. Amy was a real artist, despite hitting the big-time during an age of what can politely be called artifice.

2. She had a tremendous voice that possessed character, power and huge individuality.

3. Her songs were honest, often heartbreakingly so. That's why they spoke so strongly.

4. "They tried to make her go to rehab, but she said no, no, no..." She said "No" to the world for the sake of staying true to herself. Even if that means, as it appears to, that that's what ultimately destroyed her.

5. We're too used to stories like hers. She was far too young to die and had far too much still to offer.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A swan for Norway, from Grieg

We're all in shock about the horrific attacks in Norway, an act of mad, senseless and fascistic terror perpetrated against a city centre and a youth camp apparently by a right-wing extremist. Here's a swan to carry the heartfelt thoughts and solidarity of the UK to our friends across the North Sea. The song 'En Svan' is of course by Grieg and the soprano is Karita Mattila.




Kremer versus...?

Do have a look at this astonishing post on Norman Lebrecht's blog in which he publishes, at Gidon Kremer's request, the letter that the great violinist sent to the head of the Verbier Festival explaining why he has pulled out of it. 
"...I simply do not want to breath the air, which is filled by sensationalism and distorted values.  Lets’ admit – all of us have something to do with the poisonous development of our music world, in which “stars” count more than creativity, ratings more than genuine talent, numbers more than…. sounds..."
Oof. The festival's composer-in-residence, Lera Auerbach, has written an eloquent response which Norman has also popped up:
"...The show must go on even when the walls around are falling down, because this is part of being an artist – accepting the  imperfections of the world around and transcending the reality, transcending the gravity, creating regardless of circumstances and above all – sharing the gift of music..."
Kremer's letter is interesting on many counts. There's a message that I sense seeping through between his words. I accept, of course, that there could be other interpretations, but I'm still seeing the same one after a few days of following the story. Is it possible that this revered violinist is objecting to the possibility that some of the more image-focused younger artists might, in his view, use this starry festival to further their careers by "name-dropping" the great artists they've worked with there, when he feels that their talent doesn't merit it, when in his opinion they are perhaps more about glamour and "sex appeal" than genuine musicianship that "serves" the cause of great music?

I've taken a peek at some of the young artists appearing at this year's Verbier, because in my experience - and I've been there frequently - Verbier doesn't usually take just anyone. Here are some videos of three of Verbier 2011's "rising stars".

Khatia Buniatishvili: Liszt Liebestraum No.3. You know Khatia if you read JDCMB regularly - she's featured several times this year. She is 23, is a BBC New Generation Artist and is making her Proms debut this summer.



Jan Lisiecki: Chopin Waltz in C sharp minor, performed at Chopin's birthplace. Jan, from Canada, won the Manchester Piano Competition a few years ago when he was only 12 or 13 - I was there and heard his winning performance, an exceptionally beautiful and well-calibrated performance of a Chopin concerto. Now DG has signed him up and it won't be long before his debut disc comes out.



And now, meet violinist David Garrett. Plus, here's his website.



OK, that was a bit naughty... though I think it must have brightened up people's lunchtime in the Big Apple. Here he is again, playing in Verbier just the other day: an extract from the Beethoven Violin Concerto, conducted by Gabor.



Just for a little comparison in terms of style, approach, technique, etc, here is Kremer himself (audio only) playing Schnittke's cadenza for the Beethoven Violin Concerto.



I am drawing no conclusions whatsoever, naturally...

Friday, July 22, 2011

Friday Historical: Galina Ulanova & Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet



This film of the great Russian ballerina Galina Ulanova, dancing with Mikhail Gabovich, was made in 1951 and it's the bedroom pas de deux from Romeo and Juliet. It's fascinating on several counts: Ulanova herself, profoundly expressive and tender; the choreography by Leonid Lavrovsky, which is not often seen in the UK; and, not least, the tempi, phrasing and pacing of the music, which is exceptionally flexible, songful and highly characterised. The score was written just 16 years earlier in 1935 and revised in 1940; and when this extract was filmed, Prokofiev was still very much alive. Unfortunately the conductor and orchestra are uncredited here, but it's probably reasonable to assume that it is the Kirov. Enjoy.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Time-travelling with Gil Shaham

A hearty thanks to the Aspen Festival of Ideas for sending me a link to this fascinating discussion about "iconic" works of the 1930s. Last year I interviewed Gil about his project surveying the great violin concertos of those times: it was extraordinary to realise that a dizzying number of the 20th-century pieces in the genre that can justifiably be called "iconic" were written during one eight-year timespan from 1931 to 1939, among them some by Walton, Barber, Bartok's Second, Berg, Britten, Szymanowski, Schoenberg and more.

Now a note from Aspen tells me I got "name-checked"... It is very sweet of Gil to credit me for switching him on to the term "iconic", which has provided the central tenet of this discussion. I can't help wishing I'd found a more original expression, but I'm glad it proved appropriate and came in handy.

The discussion is about an hour long and if you are fascinated, as I am, by the culture, atmosphere, style and general zeitgeist of the Thirties (if there was such a thing), and how these relate to our own times, it is very well worth a listen.

WIN A JOSEPH CALLEJA CD!

JDCMB has a new motto: "Chacun à son gout," which translates roughly as "to each his/her own" (though I have a slight preference for "chacun à son goo".)

To celebrate, we're having a competition. Universal Classics is kindly offering as a prize the new CD The Maltese Tenor by rising superstar Joseph Calleja. For a chance to win, answer these two questions by email to jessica.duchen@yahoo.com (NB - please email, don't post the answer in the comments box!):

1. In which opera does the phrase "Chacun à son gout" feature?
2. Which character sings it?

The names of those who answer correctly will be popped into the one hat in the JDCMB household that remains uneaten, and the winner will be drawn by a mystery musical celebrity on Tuesday evening, 26 July. The draw will take place at the London Philharmonic Orchestra Prom. We'll announce the winner on Wednesday morning, 27 July, & the winner will also be notified by email. Answers must be received by 1pm UK time on Tuesday 26 July.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

About time too...

Small-scale live music in Britain has been hobbled in the Helf'n'Safeteh Years by regulatory tourniquets that have seemed determined to prevent any blood flowing into what should be a vibrant scene and a valuable testing ground. Good news arrives from the Incorporated Society of Musicians this morning: parliament is progressing well towards passing laws that seek to stop the hamstringing. (Assuming, that is, that there'll be any parliament left after Rupertgate.)

Here's the ISM's statement - but first, a nice little example of what's possible with just two instruments, courtesy of Jascha Heifetz and William Primrose. I have this piece on the brain after the delectable Capucon brothers gave it some serious welly in their Proms encore yesterday. Yes, I know, I know - that's not at all what the bill means by 'small-scale', but I'm happily clutching at musical straws in the hope of bringing you something beautiful to brighten your day.




ISM welcomes continued progress of Live Music Bill
Government confirms entertainment de-regulation plans

Proposals to de-regulate small scale live music events could become law in 2012 after the Live Music Bill made it through its committee stage in the House of Lords.

Speaking in support of his own Bill, Lord Clement-Jones highlighted the ‘great encouragement’ it would give to young musicians ‘performing in all kinds of venues, who will be able to take advantage of these provisions.’

The Bill has just two readings left (usually carried out together) before it reaches the House of Commons.

Deborah Annetts, Chief Executive of the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) said:

‘With Lord Clement-Jones winning further support for his Bill the continued progress is fantastic news, and the Government’s continued support – given the concession made – is also welcome.

‘This Bill will provide real help to musicians and make it far easier to put on live performances. We now hope to see the Bill make rapid progress through parliament and if successful it will reverse much of the devastating impact of the 2003 Licensing Act.

Baroness Garden of Frognal re-iterated the Government’s support of the Bill in the Lords in light of a concession to change the time limit from midnight to 11pm and announced that the Government was ‘planning to consult shortly on wider reforms to live entertainment’.

Deborah Annetts added:

‘We welcome this news, and urge the Government to bring forward its planned consultation on the de-regulation of entertainment as swiftly as possible.’

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara backed the Bill on behalf of the Labour Party.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Piano Files for pianophiles

A pianistically megabrained pal has pointed me in the direction of a website that should go straight into the bookmark menu of anyone who aspires to be similarly pianistically megabrained. The Piano Files is run by Mark Ainley, an authority on historical recordings, especially, but by no means only, those of the Golden Age piano greats. The site's mission statement is simple: "The Piano Files is dedicated to the best recorded piano performances ever made."

Anyone dazzled by Benjamin Grosvenor will enjoy reading Mark's substantial and extremely intelligent interview with him. A daily 'featured recording' is a prime attraction - at present it's a svelte, pastel-toned performance of Chopin's A flat major Etude Op.25 No.1 by Jakob Gimpel. Earlier posts include an extraordinary rare recording of Cortot playing the Berceuse from Faure's Dolly Suite in 1925, excerpts of Horowitz, Rachmaninov and Youri Egourov and much more. Mark offers additional gems on The Piano Files' Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Piano-Files-with-Mark-Ainley/100464539673.

Permanent link now available under Music Places in my sidebar.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Why I didn't go Gothic

As you'll have noticed if you have even half an eye on music in London, yesterday the Proms put on the first professional UK performance in 31 years of Havergal Brian's 'Gothic' Symphony. Everyone's been in a ferment about this. More than 1000 performers were involved; the RAH sold out promptly. There've been previews aplenty... and now the reviews are coming through.

 Oh dear. Just look at this, from David Nice at The Arts Desk. "I proclaimed that this was exactly the sort of thing the Proms should be trying. Now I'm hanging out the garlic and spraying the air-freshener to keep Brian's other 31 symphonies at bay." Read the rest here. Meanwhile our friend Entartetemusik put it slightly more tactfully: "The Gothic outstays its welcome..." And my colleague Ed Seckerson at the Independent: "It’s an incomprehensible, albeit sporadically thrilling, mess..."

I listened to a bit of it on Radio 3 - but I didn't buy into it. I didn't stay the course. What I heard was just enough to confirm my reasons for not going: I've had it with white elephants. And this is the biggest white elephant of the lot. Besides, as Andrew Clements says "Bruckner is an obvious model...", I'm not surprised if it wasn't quite my tasse de thé.

The White Elephant is a familiar story. We unearth a 'forgotten masterpiece', a work of vast ambition and grand scale and (often) British significance that's disappeared because of a) The Nazis, b) William Glock, c) Pierre Boulez, d) Schoenberg, e) Margaret Thatcher (delete as you think applicable). It is going to change our lives and our view of musical history. There is usually an astonishing tale behind it. We enjoy a huge anticipatory build-up... and then it turns out that maybe there's a good reason after all that the thing isn't performed every other weekend in Weston-super-Mare.

For instance, there was John Foulds and his World Requiem. Foulds, a rather fine composer who has been much championed recently and with good reason, married a mystic Maud who whisked him off to India, where he died of cholera. His World Requiem was given on Armistice Day for three consecutive years after World War I. Then it disappeared...until a few years ago. Much excitement: Foulds undoubtedly wrote some wonderful pieces. Unfortunately it turned out this wasn't one of them.

Sometimes white elephants are too risky; sometimes too large; sometimes virtually unplayable. Sometimes the critics love them and the audience hates them. Sometimes the audience gives an eight-minute standing ovation, as apparently was the case last night, yet the critics wheel out the wild garlic. 

So should we keep doing them? Shouldn't we just let sleeping Gothic Symphonies lie? Ahh - I didn't buy into the Gothic, but I'm still glad it happened. I still think it was absolutely right to give it an airing. Because sometimes, in amongst the football rattles and the harmoniums, sifting through strange texts and outlandish philosophies, there might be a gem waiting for us. If we don't give the white elephants a chance to be heard, we'll never know the truth. You need to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince.


UPDATE: after a rather Middle Eastern-style scrap about balanced viewpoints, it seems fitting in the interests of world peace to present an alternative and more enthusiastic view written by someone who was at the performance and has explored it in depth. Over to Brian Reinhart: http://bgreinhart.wordpress.com/2011/07/18/seeing-the-gothic/

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Up close with Osipova and Vasiliev



My ultimate night off is a trip to the ballet. Yesterday I treated myself to a spot close to the front at the Coliseum to see Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, the young supernovas of the Bolshoi Ballet, in Sir Frederick Ashton's Romeo and Juliet. I sat near enough to hear Osipova breathe and to watch the rippling of Vasiliev's impressive leg muscles.

I've always been curious about this ballet. Ashton is a big favourite and this is one of his that I've never seen before, since it's not often done in London. It was created for the Royal Danish Ballet and apparently was bequeathed  in Ashton's will to the dancer and director Peter Schaufuss, whose company was responsible for its nine-performance visit.

Here in the Big Smoke we're steeped in the Kenneth MacMillan version, and it's hard to forget about it while watching this very different, exceedingly condensed account. But while MacMillan's is a grand-scale company piece, full of dazzling solo spots and set pieces for the corps de ballet, Ashton extracts the essence of Shakespeare's poetry and focuses on nothing else - as if Romeo and Juliet has become a Shakespeare sonnet. The corps - or the few couples representing it - have little to do; the ballroom scene looks more like a preamble to a family dinner party; and the lovers are dead at 9.30pm, by which time (if I remember rightly) Covent Garden has usually just killed off Tybalt. Having so said, I've no idea whether or not this was precisely Ashton's original or if it has been further truncated for this run (other reviewers have suggested so).

It didn't strike me as the vintage Ashton of gems like La fille mal gardee and A Month in the Country. Yet it has many moments of poetic beauty in the several pas de deux that feature ecstatic, open-limbed lifts and lavish backbends; Juliet flourishes in intricate and skittering choreography, and there's fantastic character development for her that leaves the rest of the cast in the shade. Direct references to Shakespeare are enjoyable: the lovers, meeting for the first time, make much of their touching palms (see left); Mercutio 'bites his thumb' at Tybalt; and of the relationships on stage, perhaps the most touching of all was that between Juliet and her nurse (who's feistier than MacMillan's equivalent and gives the importunate page boy a good thrashing). There's much gazing over shoulders while, unusually, the dancers are required to turn their backs on the audience. Generally, though - musical as it remains - it seemed to lack the degree of focused imagery and points of crystallisation in which so many of Ashton's other ballets excel.

Osipova and Vasiliev aren't natural Ashtonians, and the surrounding Danes proved interesting company in every sense: while it seemed that the Bolshoi pair were making a great effort to rein in their natural athleticism and immense technical prowess to suit Ashton's poetic restraint, the bouncy and lyrical Danes let rip. Alban Lendorf of the Royal Danish Ballet brought the house down as Mercutio: as in Shakespeare, it's more of a character role than the moony Romeo, and Lendorf's acting ability had the chance to exceed that of his star colleague. Dancing next to Vasiliev in purely technical terms must be a huge challenge, too, and Lendorf met it at literally every turn. Showpieces for Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio found Vasiliev giving us those glorious leaps and his magically controlled spins that flower into slow motion at the end, but Lendorf's multiple whirls (wonderfully on-the-spot) would put many Odiles to shame; and Robin Bernardet as Benvolio offered seriously dazzling footwork.

Their Tybalt, Johan Christensen, was a renegade Goth type, a problem child with a major anger management problem; slightly hard to believe in Lady Capulet's passion for him, but his sword fights are magnetic and that roll down the steps when Romeo kills him must be jolly painful.  Super support, too, from Schaufuss himself as Friar Laurence; and his daughter, Tara, had a lively and tender solo spot as Mercutio's girlfriend.

But it was Osipova's show. She's an astounding dance actress, growing before our eyes from teasing child to awakening woman, from furious teenager to desperate and decisive suicide, making every high-set developee and every last pas de bourree into an expression of character. At times I nearly feared for Vasiliev, since his Juliet outacted him and his Mercutio nearly stole his limelight.

On balance, though (pun unintended), I don't think he needs to worry. What a gorgeous pair they are, these two real-life lovers: magnetic, flexible, passionate, all-giving artists in the grand sense of which the Bolshoi tradition has never lost sight, and imbued with a charisma that makes it physically impossible to glance away while they're on stage. Never mind the production's shortcomings in terms of lighting/sets/costumes: this was a night to remember.

More previews from the Peter Schaufuss Ballet's run-up to the run here:



Saturday, July 16, 2011

Bravissimo to Benjamin at the Prummm....

I don't think I'll ever forget hearing Benjamin Grosvenor's Proms debut last night. Especially his encore - of all things, a transcription by Cziffra of the Brahms Hungarian Dance No.5.

What is it with that lad? How does he do it? How does he know? Where does it all come from? I'm not usually a great subscriber to the notion of reincarnation, but if the soul of either Benno Moiseiwitsch or Ignaz Friedman decided to do a re-run in Britain about 19 years ago, it's very obvious where he landed. Just listen to this.



Alas, the rest of the concert didn't live up to its soloist, and I've said as much in today's Independent. The best - Benjamin - proved the enemy of the workaday. Honest to goodness, with the other major UK orchestras in their best-ever form from the Barbican and Festival Hall to Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle, with hungry, ambitious conductors turning up the electric heat, workaday is just not good enough. It never occurred to me before that Janacek's Glagolitic Mass could be as boring as that. It shouldn't be. Janacek is portraying a marvellous dream of marrying Kamila Stosslova. We got Czech dumplings. I'm pleased to see that the Last Night of the Proms is being conducted by Ed Gardner. Wish he'd conducted opening night too.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Restive for the festive?

OK, so I didn't make it to Tosca and I'm not getting over to Verbier this time, but so what? I mean, with the Proms about to begin and a dazzling line-up of overseas festival webcasts available to view from the comfort of my own computer, there's plenty to occupy me right here in sunny London. No, I'm not turning green in the face...I'm not, I'm not, I'm not...

First of all, here is my round-up from today's Independent of the best webcasts from the elite (in the best sense) festivals of Europe.

Next, the Proms kick off tonight: a Judith Weir premiere, then Brahms and Liszt, the latter's Second Piano Concerto featuring Benjamin Grosvenor in his Proms debut; finally nothing less than Janacek's Glagolitic Mass. More good news is that it's not raining yet also it is not too hot. I don't fancy a re-run of my Meistersinger debacle last summer. If you can't go along, the First Night is on the TV: details here.

Here's Benjamin playing Liszt's arrangement of Chopin's song 'The Maiden's Wish', filmed out in Kensington Gardens on a very wet, very cold morning in April. We're promised that tonight both piano and pianist will be let into the hall.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

They're queuing overnight at Covent Garden

Yeah, classical music is really dying...not. Tonight at the Royal Opera House there's the first of two all-star performances of Tosca. Angela Gheorghiu, Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel are Tosca, Cavaradossi and Scarpia and we've learned that people have been queuing overnight outside the theatre for day seats that go on sale this morning. Don't despair if you can't get in: the thing is being filmed, along with the second performance by said megastars on Sunday, and it will be broadcast and (I think) cinecast later this year.

Last night the ROH beamed Massenet's Cendrillon into Trafalgar Square where a huge crowd listened to those mellifluous mezzos Joyce DiDonato and Alice Coote in rapt respect. What's that? Massenet's Cendrillon? No, we'd never heard it before either, but the ROH, the performers and the doughty director Laurent Pelly have apparently done it proud: thus Massenet has claimed his moment in the moonlight alongside the much more predictable Puccini. Last week's Trafalgarcast of Madama Butterfly attracted a crowd of 8000 - with another 2000 spectators turned away because there wasn't enough room for everyone in the UK capital's largest square.

Such is the popularity of opera that's it's outgrown its theatres. At Bayreuth, with about 1800 seats, it's almost impossible to get tickets, even if you can afford it. Glyndebourne, with around 1200, is probably not truly untouched by the financial crisis, but it can certainly look that way. Those are, admittedly, the slenderer-sized jobs, but even so Covent Garden, as we just noted, is packed out.

ENO has the biggest theatre in London and fewer appearances by the DiDonatos and Kaufmanns that draw the hordes; ergo, it's easier to get in. As for its ballet runs, I've managed to get hold of a good seat to see Osipova and Vasiliev. But when the reviews came out yesterday it seemed apposite to book in as PDQ as possible. The Coliseum, too, can sell out - witness the visit of Terry Gilliam to Berlioz.

So is it just the star names that sell? They don't hurt, that's for sure. Yet Madama Butterfly didn't involve megastars at all; instead it featured a comparatively little-known Latvian soprano, Kristine Opolais (left), who stepped into the role at very short notice after the scheduled singer fell ill. The budding diva is no longer so little-known. With Cendrillon, it was the other way round: a virtually unknown opera that, with Joyce and Alice aboard, and a production by the director who worked wonders with La fille du regiment a few years ago, was able to pull and get its coat.

As you'll know if you read my piece in the Independent a few weeks ago, I've some reservations about live opera on the big screen. For the audience it's not truly live; and because the stage demands one approach and film another, you see all manner of things that you'd prefer not to, while the sound can be flattened, or simply made too loud. I'm reliably informed, incidentally, that opera houses risk losing rather than making money on cinecasts - but in this day and age, it's expected of them for "access" etc. Still, what's the alternative?

Bigger opera houses? The chances of a Met-sized theatre being built in the UK are zilch: no money and no space. And huge theatres have their drawbacks; after seeing Eugene Onegin some years ago from the back row of the Met's balcony and finding I needed a NASA-sized telescope, I've never wished to try the place again; I'd rather go to the cinema. For similar reasons I avoided the Royal Ballet's Romeo and Juliet at the O2...OK, maybe I need a visit to the optician. I  hope I'm less short-sighted in observing that these performances and screenings are going down very, very well. Now that they've 'bedded down' in public consciousness, there's a real and increasing demand. If you build it, they will turn up with their sandwiches and a bottle and have an excellent evening.

I'm not going to risk pre-judging the forthcoming appearance of Placido Domingo and Angela Gheorghiu at the O2 on 29 July. I'm not a fan of either the place or the concept, but if it works, it works. Everyone deserves a chance to hear them and this is probably the only way to do it.

I've always maintained that we, the public, are not as stupid as some people like to think. When there's an artist of genuine star quality around, and when music truly speaks to us - no matter its genre - we go and enjoy. You can manufacture artists all you like, with sexy photos, fake-fur marketing and so forth, but ultimately that will be futile if the talent is not there to support it. The star has to be able to cut the mustard on stage, because there you can fake nothing.

Nothing is more exposing than to step forward and perform. Yes, I've witnessed some total charlatans receive standing ovations from time to time - but these are not the musicians whose performances are being beamed around the world to six or seven-figure audiences, or for whom Londoners are ready to camp out overnight on a cold Covent Garden pavement. You can't fake a Kaufmann. And people whose artistry is of that level are in short supply. They always were and they always will be. There is such a thing as magic.

The picture at the top, of Angela (credit: Jason Bell), is from the ROH's 2012 Olympics campaign and says it all.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"Always in love": Great Dane bounds into the BBC

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales has just announced that its new principal conductor from September 2012 will be the young Danish maestro Thomas Søndergård. He has an impressive track record, having been principal conductor of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra - and by all accounts the heat is on. Forget Nordic cool with this guy around. Critics have already spoken of his "piercing intelligence and intense passion" and called him "a sensation". I'm looking forward to seeing him in action - and another Thomas not many miles from here, being a fluent Danish speaker, will no doubt bound in at the first possible opportunity for a man-to-man conversation that the rest of us can't understand. In the picture: Søndergård with some of the BBCNOW principal players. Meanwhile, here's a little Q&A from the orchestra, in which their new top man says he is always in love...


Q: What are you most looking forward to about your new role with BBC National Orchestra of Wales?

TS: I am really look forward to getting to know the orchestra better and exploring new music as well as the great standard repertoire with them.

Q: Who are your favourite composers and why?

TS: It varies, of course, but I have always greatly admired Sibelius.  His symphonies give me such pleasure to work with - especially the final two; 6 and 7. Number 7 will always have a special place in my heart; to be able to describe the array of life's emotions - magic, sorrow, joy etc. - in just 20 minutes is quite extraordinary, and what's more he does it in such a personal way. I recently discovered that he finishes the symphony with a harmonic reference to his own "Valse triste". I am also interested in the contemporary repertoire and that of B. Tommy Andersson and Magnus Lindberg are among my absolute favourites.

Q: What is your favourite moment in your career so far?

TS: In my former years as a percussionist, I performed Mahler's Symphony No.9 twice with EUYO and Haitink in the Concertgebouw, where I stepped in for a player with a broken leg. I was there visiting my friends and Haitink saw me in the rehearsal studying the score, and asked me to step in. I only had a small part to play but this worked out better for me - as it meant I could watch Haitink all the more closely. There was an incredible contact between him and the orchestra. It was the last project for many of the players and the music-making from all was just so touching; we all knew that we would never experience anything like it again in our lives.

Q: Do you enjoy any other styles of music other than classical and if so, what?

TS: I grew up listening to Modern Jazz which I love, and I started listening to Salsa 20 years ago - it's great at parties!

Q: What are your hobbies and interests?

TS: I can quite easily travel long distances just to eat good food. I also love to swim in the sea all year round - and if I can combine the two of them... heaven!

Q: Who in the classical music world do you most admire?

TS: Paavo Berglund means a lot to me - he's conducted me many times. I've learnt so much from watching him working, particularly with string sound and phrasing.

Q: Which six words best describe you?

TS: Passionate, enthusiastic, happy, curious, communicative and…always in love!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

And now it's farewell to Roland Petit

My friends at The Ballet Bag have just tweeted news from Le Figaro of the death of the great French choreographer Roland Petit, at the age of 87. Here is his full obituary (in French), also from Le Figaro. UPDATE: And here is Ismene Brown's, in English at The Arts Desk.

Chic yet daring, classic yet acrobatic, cool yet sometimes emotionally devastating, Petit's work achieved both notoriety and immortality. Though it's sad to report yet another death this week, it's a good reason to watch Rudolf Nureyev and Zizi Jeanmaire in Petit's iconic ballet Le jeune homme et la mort, choreographed to Bach's Passacaglia in C minor and based on a libretto by Jean Cocteau. Meanwhile, speaking of French playwrights, I'm half dreaming of the conversation my father-in-law's spirit could be having with those of Josef Suk and Roland Petit up in the waiting room...