Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Licitra is still fighting for his life

A few days ago the news reached us that the Swiss-Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra was in a serious condition after his Vespa hit a wall on Saturday night in Sicily. Now Opera Chic has more news - according to an Italian radio interview with Licitra's doctor, it seems he could well have had a cerebral haemmorhage just before the accident happened.

We're all thinking of this much-loved operatic figure in his hour of need. Here he is singing 'Recondita armonia' from Tosca. Send your preferred form of prayer/good vibes urgently towards him.

How desperate are YOU?

Or... A Little Black Humour for Tuesday Morning. To begin, here's some music.


It's a tough old life, being a musician. Many of us in this field are reared by doting parents who, along with our schools, convince us at the tender age of 0 that we are born to be stars and have a talent second only to that of Johann Sebastian Bach. By the time we're 20, we've usually begun to understand that this isn't the case, and to wonder how we can make ends meet in such a cut-throat field. By 40, some of us are still at it.

How desperate are you? What does your future hold? 
Take the JDCMB quiz to find out...

1. You can't get a recording contract, so you produce your own CD. Do you:

a. Send a well-presented package to an 'artist-led' label and invite the manager to lunch with you, your sponsor and a famous advisor like Ivor Chestikoff to discuss market gaps and interesting repertoire.
b. Do it all yourself, hiring a good PR and making sure your distributors are reputable and respected, but neglect your practising in order to organise everything. Then you give a concert to launch the disc...
c. Decide it's not worth doing at all: it's got to be DG or bust. You devote yourself instead to learning the 48 and writing about how your interpretation is the definitive one and that nobody else knows how to play Bach properly. Only at that point do you make a demo disc and send it out with your tracts to blind everyone with your expertise.
d. Do it all yourself, but decide that PR and advertising is a waste of money: only word of mouth counts. You always carry a supply of your CDs, so that if a music critic happens to turn up at your mum's 80th birthday party, you can talk to him for half an hour about your achievements and give him a copy to take home and write about. You know he wants it.

2. Your sponsor hires the Wigmore Hall for you. Do you:

a. Plan your programme carefully, featuring the works Ivor Chestikoff says you're best in, and tactfully try to avoid the concert being on a Monday evening or a major public holiday. You engage a good PR person at least six months in advance, organise a drinks reception after the gig to which you can invite more potential sponsors, critics and all the people to whom you 'owe one' for their support over the years. You practise like the blazes, give some trial runs at friendly private salons and make sure your concert outfit fits you snugly and elegantly. On stage, you forget about everything but the music.
b. You decide you're going to play Bach's 48: 24 in the first half, 24 in the second, everything by memory, even though so far you've only learned 12 of them. You love a challenge! And what an opportunity: this could make you a real splash. You're so busy memorising the fugues that you forget you need to publicise the gig until a week beforehand. Oh well, perhaps Facebook and Twitter can sort it - "Please RT".
c. You don't need to do PR - everyone will come to hear you anyway, because you're the best, even if nobody knows it yet. It's all down to luck in any case.
d. You splash out on a Vivienne Westwood outfit, have your photo taken in it and put it on your Facebook page and website. Then, to save money, you write your own press releases, though there's no time to have them checked or proofread, and you badger every publication and website with them, plus phone calls, sending emails four times if no reply comes within the first day to the first one. Finally, on the underused blog section of your website, you embed the tags "Vivienne Westwood", "Luciano Pavarotti" and "Katherine Jenkins" to ensure more hits. 

3. You've managed to get backstage to meet a famous conductor. Ivor Chestikoff introduces you and the maestro holds your hand, gazes into your eyes and says it's a great pleasure to meet you. Then he tells you to call his secretary to arrange an audition. You do so; the PA says you can go to play to him in Los Angeles, Berlin or Hong Kong. You can just afford Berlin if you go on a budget airline, but it's in the middle of your holiday. Do you:

a. Cancel the holiday and go to Berlin, taking the pieces that Chestikoff has suggested that you are good at and that he knows the maestro will respond to well. You arrive the night before and make sure you're well rested despite your nerves. You arrange to fly back on the last plane on the day of your audition to save the hotel bill. When the maestro asks you what you're doing later that night, you explain you have to get back home to prepare for your concert in three days' time.
b. You can't bear to miss your holiday. You decide to go to LA and you twist a sponsor/parent's arm into paying your fare and a cheap motel for two nights. You get there ready to audition the next day - but you're jet-lagged. Will you play your best? Will you notice the inference when the maestro asks you what you're doing later that evening?
c. You laugh and say you couldn't possibly afford to go to LA or Hong Kong and you can't miss your holiday, so what about looking further ahead? The PA checks the schedule and suggests October 2012 in Moscow or Sydney. 
d. You choose whichever is soonest - hang the air fare and the holiday. You play the most difficult piece you know. You wear sexy clothes and you smile a lot. When the maestro asks you what you're doing later, you're free. He invites you to dinner and you go; you get a bit starry-eyed that you are quaffing expensive champers with the maestro and he's flirting with you something chronic, even though he is decades older than you and you'd maybe hoped he'd be fatherly and caring. Then he suggests you go up to his room where he can give you some of his latest CDs. You don't have the contract or a promise of a concert yet, but you go. You will do anything for your art. 

Results:

Mostly a: Your feet are on the ground and you have a good chance of achieving a certain amount of recognition; with luck and talent you might have a breakthrough. Do you take enough risks to get the extra edge of danger that sets concert halls alight? 
Mostly b: You take risks, but you're erratic. If you hit the jackpot, it'll probably be by sheer fluke. You may have something special to offer; or you may find yourself passed over as a harmless eccentric. 
Mostly c: Take a teaching diploma or business course, or learn to touch-type. You may need a job.
Mostly d: You're desperate. Very desperate. Someone will notice. See 'Mostly c'. 


Monday, August 29, 2011

Shock news: good-looking violinist can really play

Dodging our diligent builders who work on bank holidays, I turned on BBC Breakfast to see what the hurricane news was from the US, only to find myself witnessing some pretty bloody amazing Paganini instead. The culprit: Charlie Siem, a young British violinist fresh out of Cambridge and, uh, the modelling world. When I read that he was the 'global face' of Dunhill, I thought that meant the cigarettes and I was all ready to write an Outraged Non-Smoker of Sheen piece about the iniquities of young musicians having to get ahead by modelling for a filthy habit that kills people. But it turns out that Dunhill is actually a James Bond-ish designer menswear label...I wouldn't know; my husband is, like, more of a Ralph Lauren man.

When a fresh-faced, square-jawed, youthful supermodel type emerges with violin in hand and one painted fingernail, the knee-jerk music-critic reaction is to yawn and switch off; the knee-jerk Gidon Kremer-style reaction could be to walk out of the festival. But this guy can really play. And not just because he has Menuhin's Guarneri del Gesu, nor just because he's related to Ole Bull (have tweeted him to ask how so, but am not currently convinced he does his own tweets), nor just because Lady Gaga likes him. Seems he can talk the talk, walk the walk and, best of all, play the Paganini.

Have we turned full circle? Now that almost every young musician who pops up does look good, they need more than ever to be differentiated by their playing. Rather than one photogenic fiddler standing out from the crowd of technically adept ones because of his or her appearance, do we have a case in which the really fine musicians will emerge from the crowd of photogenic ones because of their playing after all? Hmm. He's got a new album out (hence BBC Breakfast), so see what you think.

Here's Charlie in something a little different (?! pink shorts) - two years ago, in Cuba with the Royal Ballet...



...and some Wieniawski.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Watch Glyndebourne's The Turn of the Screw right here on JDCMB

Missed the webcast? Missed the show? I can't blog you a slice of Miles's birthday cake, but here is the complete performance of Britten's The Turn of the Screw as performed last Sunday at Glyndebourne. It will be online until 12 September. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did. More resources, videoed interviews et al at the Glyndeboune website here.









Friday historical: Authentic Johann Strauss II

Here is Johann Strauss II conducting an extract from his own Voices of Spring. A dream for all Viennese schwung junkies.

I'm up to my eyeballs in noise & dust from domestic building works, internet connectivity problems and other stuff I could really, seriously do without, so it's over & out for the moment. Back when I can think straight, Enjoy the music.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Of football, webcasts, Britten and cake

Here's my review of The Turn of the Screw at Glyndebourne the other day. I think I once described the piece as dreary, weak and boring. Please scrub that. It's completely brilliant. Not as mad about this production as about David McVicar's for ENO, but it's striking, original and very clever. Chances are you've already seen the webcast via the Guardian site the other day. I had to treat that like the football results, when you're advised to 'look away now' if you don't want to know the outcome before you've watched the match ...

Toby Spence was singing Peter Quint. I once wrote a piece about him headed 'Toby Takes the Cake' - metaphorically speaking, of course. So on Tuesday I bumped into him on the train and this time he was taking a real cake. It was for Miles, who was turning 13 that day. A pleasing sequel.

Less pleasing was the return journey in which the train was diverted via Falmer and Brighton because of - yes, a football match. The London train from Lewes had to go off route to pick up the overcrowded footy fans, so we were late late late and arrived at to Clapham Junction aeons after my connection had departed. It was the Turn of the Screwed.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Meet Daniil Trifonov

Happy Monday, dear readers. We've got builders in from today (bathroom), my back is playing up and I'm ploughing through some deadlines, so blogsperation is flagging slightly. But I'm happy to tell you that I'll be writing a new monthly Letter from London for the Istanbul-based music magazine Andante, starting from its October issue. In the meantime I'm following one of the most fascinating musical trails I've yet discovered, if and when I can think straight...but here's some nice music to entertain you while I can't.

This is Daniil Trifonov, winner of the Tchaikovsky Competition's piano prize, a prizewinner at the Chopin Competition and seen here at the Arthur Rubinstein Competition earlier this year. He's been a very busy boy and I've just heard his new CD of Chopin, recorded before the Tchaikovsky win; it is jolly impressive. But this, as you'll see and hear, is Liszt. Trifonov will be coming to London in the autumn to take part in Gergiev's concert with the LSO featuring concertos with the Tchaikovsky Competition winners, so it looks as if we'll be hearing a lot more of him... Enjoy this spirited, lit-from-within performance.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Double Brahmsfest: Haitink and Abbado go head to head

Another Friday, another Brahms Piano Concerto No.1 given at a great music festival by legendary performers. Honest to goodness, it's quite something to hear it in Lucerne with Abbado at the helm one week and at the Proms under Haitink just seven days later. Last night's Prom was a Brahmsfest par excellence - and the first of two, since tonight the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Bernard Haitink and Emanuel Ax follow it up with the Piano Concerto No.2 and the Symphony No.4.

Yesterday opened with the Third Symphony (which steamed into first place as my favourite of the four while I was on tour with the LPO and Vladimir last December) - the most intimate of them, it's the one you can turn, while listening, into the middle-period piano sonata Brahms never wrote, or the finest of his chamber works. In Haitink's hands the solid centre radiated the orchestration's golden glow; the playing was faultless, the tempi spot-on-delicious, the beauty and reflectiveness balanced out with certain touch and vast affection. Brahms 3 doesn't get much better than that. It was so good that there's almost nothing to say.

As for the concerto, Manny Ax was everything that last week Radu Lupu unfortunately didn't manage to be. I don't know what happened to Lupu in Lucerne, but he wasn't on form - technically the concerto was all over the shop, and there were some alarming moments where he and the orchestra seemed to be on different planets - the passage in the final movement just before the fugue, where the piano duets with a French horn off the beat, was a case in point (one pitied the poor horn player). What remained was Lupu's characteristic sound, a palette like an Odilon Redon pastel, dusky, velvety and radiant all at once. Ax, by contrast, was rock solid, dynamic, shining, thoughtful, humane.

And Haitink v Abbado? Telling, dear friends. Very telling. Haitink is a conductor whose work I've revered for donkey's years. There's something pure about his approach, free of egomania and point-proving, setting out simply to convey the truth of the music as he feels it and thinks it through. In the past his Ring Cycle was what turned me on to Wagner, his Ravel Daphnis left me exhilarated and his Mahler Nine sent me home speechless. And this Brahms 3 was, as I said, pretty much perfect.

But last week Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra arrived riding a different variety of phoenix. Things went wrong - plenty wrong - if this was only Lupu's doing, I just couldn't say. Yet that opening orchestral exposition wasn't only strong, but revelatory. Abbado's detailed emphases lit the opening motif like a shaft of sidelight in a Caravaggio; the phrasing of the second theme's descending scale linked it at once in the mind to the melody of the slow movement. Risks were taken, all of them in the service of dear old Johannes, and when they paid off they did so spectacularly. Haitink and Ax took few risks: what resulted was the solidity of the ideal just about realised. Yet despite all its problems, it's the Abbado-Lupu performance that I suspect I'll still remember in 20 years' time, assuming my brain is still in reasonable working order by then.

One other little grumble involves the RAH acoustics. For me, Ax's performance fell foul of The Echo. Apparently this phenomenon is well known at the Proms. It's not something I normally encounter in the usual press seats around door H, but this time we were by door J, further round the circle, and each piano note seemed to sound twice in rapid succession. Others have tweeted that they too experienced this, one from the centre of the arena, another from the other side of the stalls, so it's clearly not specific to seat 52 in row 7. Some say it does not detract from their enjoyment of the music, but I found it immensely bothersome, especially in the fast passages where at times it felt like seeing double. Please could someone investigate whether anything can be done about it?

Meanwhile, read more about my trip to Lucerne in yesterday's Independent, here.

And here is a taster of the performance last night from BBC TV - accessible only to UK readers, I'm afraid (that's not my doing, folks).

Friday, August 19, 2011

A quick dart to Dartington


Revisiting the Dartington International Summer School of Music after more years than I'd like to admit, I've had an absolute ball. I was only there for a few days, but am now experiencing serious withdrawal symptoms, just as I used to when I was a starry-eyed piano student knocked sideways by proximity to such musicians as Schiff, Keller, Perlemuter, Imogen Cooper et al. But the biggest surprise was to find myself recognising the same people I saw there in 1982. I asked the familiar-looking gentleman opposite me at lunch whether he would indeed have been there 29 years ago. The reply? "Of course. I've been here every summer for 40 years." He was far from being the only one.

Some things are different, of course. The make-up of the masterclasses is unrecognisable: instead of Americans, Japanese and Canadians queuing up to audition in droves, everything's organised in advance and Stephen Kovacevich's class involved just five students, each of whom played to him most days. They came not from the US and Japan, but Poland, Lithuania, France and Russia-via-UK. The situation in the singing class with the irrepressible Della Jones seemed similar, and involved both eager amateurs and good students. Meanwhile keen attendees of all levels, including the basic, can take intensive classes with top-level pros like Helen Reid and Gemma Rosefield.

I'm promised by the new DISS artistic director, John Woolrich, and the Dartington head of arts, David Francis, that the summer school is secure, it's not moving, it's not closing, it has funding and access to more - being dropped by the ACE has given it a 10 per cent shortfall, but they regard this as manageable - and it will continue to delight its regulars and newcomers alike in the years ahead. Composition and contemporary music remain vital, but early music won't be banished. The mix is everything - and why shouldn't it be? That's what creates the magic.

One institution that's disappeared is the tradition of morning coffee and afternoon tea-break on the courtyard lawn - now you can get your beverages in paper cups anytime and take them into classes. It's a pity in a way, though presumably it frees up the schedule. The whole summer school is also much more integrated into the year-round Dartington activities, focused strongly on issues of social justice, sustainability, literature, poetry (the original Dartington was the brainchild of Rabindranath Tagore) and much more. And let's not forget the cider press. Powerful stuff, that home brew.

But what has not changed is the atmosphere. Partly it's the place - the medieval hall, which must be haunted up to the back teeth, never mind the back stairs - and the gardens with their gigantic, ancient trees and mysterious tiltyard. Still, what makes it so very special is that the audience at the concerts are all themselves performers, and vice-versa. Everyone is there to make music in whatever way they can. When we walked into Nick Daniel's oboe recital on Tuesday night, we bumped into a friend who's a retired cancer specialist and plays the clarinet. He greeted us in great joy. "I've just had the greatest day of my life!" he declared. "I played first clarinet in the Mozart Gran Partita."

The whole thing is completely infectious and life-enhancing. I took myself to the music shop (provided by good old Brian Jordan's, from Cambridge) and bought the Faure C minor Piano Quartet, which happens to be my favourite piece and is possibly the only thing that can tempt me back to some serious piano practice after a five-year hiatus (writing Alicia's Gift proved cathartic, but it got "the piano thing" out of my system that bit too thoroughly). Tom and I came back yesterday evening and the first thing we did was bash through the thing on violin and piano together. We haven't done anything like that in years. Somehow I don't think it will be another 20 years before I go back again.

Here are just a few of the musicians we've been hanging out with.







Celebrate Liszt! Win a piano with 44 keys!

I'd like to pass on to you verbatim, dear readers, an email that has arrived from the US branch of Universal Music, offering a distinctly 21st-century approach to marking the bicentenary of Franz Liszt.


The prize is AOK as long as you don't mind your piano having only 44 keys instead of 88, which will probably ditch the chance of you ever actually *playing* any Liszt on it (but clearly our friends over the pond don't consider that the point.)  


I should add that the compilation album you find when you follow the crazyliszt link is rather good, full of quality performances, and there's a lovely picture of Alice Sara Ott. Not sure about that wedding march... but you will find Liszt's paraphrase of Mendelssohn's one in the track listing.


Have some fun with this... 



"...[we]would like to share FIRST WITH YOUR SITE  a contest  that we are hosting that I feel that you and your audience would really enjoy.  The contest is FREE to enter and being held at www.crazyliszt.com – in which we are giving away a FREE RED BABY GRAND Piano in honor of 200 years of the music of Franz Liszt, known for composing the “Wedding March” piece heard at EVERY Wedding, along with many other popular pieces heard in movies, cartoons, and plays. The contest is very asy to enter. Basically since Franz Liszt was known for his incredible piano skills and crazy lifestyle, people simply post a short “list” of their craziest things they love.  The “liszt” with the most votes wins a trendy, fashion-forward 44 key Baby Grand Piano from Schoenhut (valued at over $2000).  Attached to this email is a photo of the piano if you would like to take a look.This contest offers your audience the opportunity to revisit classics from one of the greatest composers in history while possibly also winning a baby grand that would look great in any home – especially those with little space.  We would love for your site to featurewww.crazyliszt.com and getting your viewers not only the first chance on this great contest, but the opportunity to win an instrument that is both fun and trendy!  It really is a great way for mothers and kids to enjoy classical music with a really HIP LOOKING piano!Thanks again and I hope you would be interested in featuring the contest on your site.Any questions or request to have the contest featured on your site, please let me know! www.crazyliszt.com"

THE CRAZIEST THINGS JD LOVES
My husband
My cat
Sight-reading Faure by candlelight at about 1am
Tofu
Doing summery things in the UK, under an umbrella, shivering with cold
Trying to keep beautiful ideas alive in a mad, mad, mad, mad world




Monday, August 15, 2011

Off to memory country lane

As part of the seasonal runaround, I'm off shortly to the place without which I wouldn't be here now, writing this: the Dartington International Summer School of Music, near Totnes, Devon. It's going to be my first visit in...well, I wouldn't like to say exactly, so please accept 'quite a while' as the time-frame. This year it has a new artistic director in the eminent form of John Woolrich, and among delights that await is an oboe recital by the one and only Nick Daniel and a chance to listen to Stephen Kovacevich, aka "The Bishop", giving masterclasses. (A mild digression sparked by masterclass-panic memories: in another of my musical dreams t'other night, it seemed that I had to learn to play Chopin's Piano Concerto No.1 in four days flat, and I knew I had the music, but I couldn't find it anywhere in the music cupboards, or the attic, or under the piano, or my study or...oh phew.)

So I will leave you with a treat: here is Andras Schiff playing Bartok's Third Piano Concerto at the Proms a few weeks back, with the Halle Orchestra conducted by Sir Mark Elder. They're repeating this in Manchester in October. But it was at Dartington that I first encountered Andras in person. Back then, he was an unstoppable rising star who loved to play the piano from sunrise to moonset - and inspired us all to want to do likewise. The week of his Dartington masterclass knocked my teenaged self sideways (so, too, did a few lectures by Hans Keller). The place, the atmosphere and the amount I was learning seemed magical beyond belief.

Yet it's only now, looking back, that I know fully how lucky I was to be there, and to meet the people I met and experience the musical contacts that followed in the six or seven years subsequent to that. It's not often - in life - that you tumble completely by accident into the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Enjoy the Bartok.





Sunday, August 14, 2011

I love you, Nigel Kennedy

Blimey, guv - good old Nigel is at it again. In an age when much of the world feels toothless and truthless, he hasn't lost one bit of his bite or his bark. The Guardian reports:

In a broadside at fellow musicians, he said that some were sidelining Bach into "a rarefied and effete ghetto" while others were turning "philosophical masterpieces" into "shallow showpieces". He despaired at musicians who have "learned the same technical way [and who] all play the same technical way".
A protege of Yehudi Menuhin, Kennedy wrote in programme notes for last weekend's performance that "four melodic notes from Yehudi are worth more than a thousand from any of our living violinists", adding that "Bach speaks through Menuhin's violin".
It takes someone with real passion and chutzpah to speak up like that; not many dare to. Of course, he's generalising a little... I wish he could have heard Alina Ibragimova's mesmerising Chaconne at Wilton's the other week. No doubt this latest outburst will leave his targets pretty peeved, but I don't think that's his aim. I think he speaks up because he flippin'well cares - and you can hear that in his playing. That's why he's still here and still at it after all these years.

Read the whole thing here.

Wagner was here...


I've just been to paradise, aka Lucerne. This Swiss lakeside city has got to be one of the most beautiful spots in Europe (and its KKL concert hall matches that point for point).

Wagner must have thought so too, because he lived here, at Tribschen (above) - a beautiful, good but gentle walk along the lakeside from the hall, the house is in a location second to no other. And it was here, on the stairs, that he assembled an ensemble of musicians to play the Siegfried Idyll to Cosima - who was upstairs in bed - on her Christmas Eve birthday. The view from the house is really not bad.




The only thing in Lucerne to convince you that you're still in the real world is...cost. With the Swiss franc among the world's strongest currencies at present, and the dear old pound plummeting, you pay, for example, more than six quid for a frappuccino and about seven for a reasonably decent sandwich. When I have written my 25th bestseller and all the other 24 have been filmed starring Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, I shall consider moving there. More about the concert I attended soon, but for now, suffice it to say that it was the Lucerne Festival Orchestra with Abbado...

Meanwhile, I wrote a piece about the agony and ecstasy of film music, for The Independent - it came out on Friday in time for the film music Prom and pays special attention to that desperately underrated centenary boy of 2011, Bernard Herrmann. Couldn't post earlier as was on the move, but here it is.

Yes, Korngold is in it too, but he would be - and I'm also delighted to say that next year I'll be doing a Radio 3 Building A Library broadcast to choose the finest available CD of the Violin Concerto, which is good news because it's a sure indication that now there are plenty available.





Thursday, August 11, 2011

Laughter, please!

The first-ever Comedy Prom kicks off on Saturday night. And alongside star turns by Kit and the Widow and soprano Susan Bullock, Danny Driver is the pianist in a brilliant spoof piano concerto by one Franz Reizenstein, (born Nuremberg, died North London). I went to interview him for the JC, so here's the piece about the pianist who wants you to laugh when he plays. (The piece says 'tomorrow' for the Comedy Prom - that's because the JC is a weekly paper that hits most mats on Friday mornings. So don't worry. It's film music tomorrow and laughter on Saturday.)

In the following clips he's playing something a bit less funny: York Bowen's Fantasia for Piano and Orchestra (1907). Toi-toi-toi for your Proms debut, Danny!



Wednesday, August 10, 2011

And from a place that knows true hardship and oppression...

Receiving a message of concern about the UK riots from friends in the West Bank is frankly rather embarrassing. When you've seen how people there maintain dignity, education and patience in the face of absolute oppression and poverty, any 'grievances' experienced here seem worse than pathetic. Looting and destruction for designer trainers? Gimme a break.

And the role of music? Immeasurable. Here is Razmi from Al Kamandjati, whom you'll remember from my posts back in June. Ramzi started off throwing stones in the 1987 intifada as a small child; a photograph of him became a symbol of the entire era. Then he learned music. He studied viola in France. Now he runs a music school, Al Kamandjati, in Ramallah. "I want to change children's dreams," he says. "When you show children art, their eyes open wide." This clip is from Swiss TV and the subtitles are in French.




Here are a couple of pictures from our own tour of the West Bank last year.

See what a bit of violin playing can do for the kids? This was the youth centre in the West Bank village of Al Sawiya. And that's Tom with the fiddle.



A superb oud player in the village, and behind him his teenage son, Issa - who longed for music lessons. Just look at his face as he listens to his father play. We understand Issa is now learning the oud himself.




Been here. Seen this. Until you do, you can't believe it - especially not if you come from the background that I have. But this is real.



Tuesday, August 09, 2011

What do we want? EL SISTEMA! When do we want it? NOW!

Here are two videos. The first is a news report about London last night. The second is about El Sistema. Go figure.

Update: Several of you have written to point out that Sistema is indeed here in the UK. You bet it is. We have pockets of Sistema activity and, as Dudamel told me himself, it's working. Raploch in Scotland has Sistema Scotland's Big Noise, the superb results of which I reported in my piece about The Dude on Friday. And Julian Lloyd Webber is the figurehead for In Harmony, with projects in Liverpool, Lambeth etc - it has just gained permission to use the Sistema name. But to be fully effective these schemes need to be nationwide and they require real recognition, backing, commitment and universality.






The Lang Lang of ballet?

The Guangdong Acrobatic Troupe of China's version of Swan Lake is back in town tonight and could make Rudolf Nureyev turn in his grave. I took a sneak peek and my preview of the show is in today's Independent. It's incredible, but is it art? And does that matter?

Monday, August 08, 2011

Happy Monday



"When 5000 people pay to listen to Bach on a solo violin, there's hope for Western civilisation," says The Times. My colleague Ed Seckerson at the Indy says it was 6000 people, so the news is perhaps even better. Either way, bravo Nigel Kennedy. The markets are in turmoil, people have been looting in Tottenham, Enfield and Brixton, but over at the RAH, or in front of our own radios, we're listening to the Proms and feeling lucky to be alive.

Honest to goodness, guv, I really believe the world would be a better place if we could all spend more time making or listening to great music and less time on greed, envy, accumulation, materialism and...oh well. It's worth saying now and then, even if only one person takes it on board.

How anybody could have failed to take the lessons of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra on board with that Mahler 2 on Friday is beyond me (pictured left: the queue at 1pm). Music for all. Music as the resurrection of hope (to quote Gustavo's words to me). I went to the rehearsal and sat mesmerised by them - these guys give everything. So, too, did the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, so you don't have to be Venezuelan... The churlish have been out in force, predictably, carping on about tempi being too slow, edges being too rough, and so on. There's still an element in British life that loathes anything too successful. Most of us saw past that to the essence of the event, and took it all to our hearts, where it belongs. The point of this Prom was not to offer benchmark Mahler to compete against the recordings of Tennstedt, Bernstein et al. What had to be definitive was the honesty and passionate nature of the music-making, the symbol, the life-affirming pulling-together of it all. Yes, it was the event that came first, and there is nothing wrong with that - not when it's an event you'll remember until your last breath. If every concert could be an event on such a scale, nobody would ever have talked of classical music 'dying', because it couldn't be clearer that that is not true, never was and certainly won't be as long as these guys are around.

Hope resurrected? You bet. Besides, give Gustavo another ten or 15 years and he could potentially grow to be a figure comparable to Bernstein. I can't think of another conductor working today who has quite that type of energy. It's easy to forget that he's only 30 as he is so much a part of the musical landscape at present. Watch that space. (Right: The Dude in rehearsal, flanked by Miah Persson and Anna Larsson, and in discussion with assistant.)

It's been one thing after another at the Proms, and yesterday I caught up not only with the Mahler but also with the National Youth Orchestra with Benjamin Grosvenor and Vlad, plus Nigel's very late-night Bach. Benjamin played the Britten Concerto - a terrific piece and much underrated. It's very much of its 1930s day, a British cousin to Bartok and Prokofiev, and Benjamin's coolly ironic eye and deft, light-sprung touch suited it to a T. Vlad wrought dynamic stuff from the orchestra, too - they're not the Bolivars, but they're the creme-de-la-creme of what young British musicians can be. And full marks to everyone for bringing Gabriel Prokofiev mainstream, putting his Concerto for Orchestra and Turntables centre stage in the Royal Albert Hall. Sergey's grandson may have 'Nonclassical' as his brand-name, but the piece, even with all its 21st-century irony, humour and imagination, still reminded us at times of The Rite of Spring. Character, precision and charm were everywhere; and the Radio 3 announcer's apparent bemusement about the whole spectacle had a type of charm all its own. He even considered DJ Switch's light-blue tee-shirt worth remarking upon.

I missed Saturday evening in London because I went to work with Tomcat. Which means I cried my eyes out over Rusalka. Watch out for the marvellous Dina Kuznetsova (left), a big Russian voice with a great heart to match, her every phrase serving Rusalka's searing emotional journey. Melly Still's production is magical - a timeless fairy-tale taken on its own terms, mildly modernised and exquisitely imagined. We know the Freudian ins and outs of the story's psychological implications well enough these days to add our own interpretation, if desired - it's refreshing that directors need no longer bash us over the head with it, and we can enjoy Dvorak's folksy joys and quasi-Wagnerian ventures with a view to match.

And Nigel? He's still working his own brand of magic; and it's as irresistible as ever because beneath the famous image is a passionate and phenomenally accomplished musician. He has not only magic, but the staying power that comes from true underlying solidity. Others may try, but there's still only one Nigel.

Friday, August 05, 2011

And here he is!



Listen, if you'd just had this photo taken, you'd also be putting it on your blog... Enjoy Gustavo's Prom! Hasta luego.

COMETH THE HOUR, COMETH THE DUDE



Here is my exclusive interview with Gustavo Dudamel for today's Independent - the interview that most of the music business said I'd never get in a blue moon.

"I think we have to make everyone understand that it's important to have a future for the people. It's important to give the best level of art, the best level of culture and the best level of music to ALL the people, not only to one part of the community. This is the message of El Sistema..." 

He and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra are at the Proms tonight doing Mahler's Second Symphony. "Resurrection is happening every day," he says. "It's the resurrection of hope."


Remember my Fred & Ginger clip the other day? This is what it was all about... "They laughed at me, wanting The Dude, said I was reaching for the moon...But ah, he came through - now they'll have to change their tune..." 


Here's what happened last time they came to the Proms. You've seen it before. See it again. If you can't get to the show tonight, it's live on BBC Radio 3 as usual and on TV tomorrow.




Thursday, August 04, 2011

Don't make such a cadenza of it....

Those were the words my dad used to trot out when I had a piano or violin exam and I got nervous. It seemed kind of unfair. You're shipped in to strut your scales in front of a glum stranger on a chilly day with no warm-up, to say nothing of the sight-reading, which was always an odd and unmusical piece written specifically to catch you out... Ugh. It was all right for Dad. He didn't have to play. "Don't make such a cadenza of it," he'd say. Or alternatively, "Don't make such a matzo-pudding..." I can't explain the matzo-pudding, having never eaten one, but the cadenza implication is clear: it's the musical equivalent of throwing one huge wobbly.

I couldn't help a nostalgic smile when it turned out that some high-profile appearances by Claudio Abbado and Helene Grimaud are now not going to happen because, allegedly, they have had a fallout over a cadenza. One of the happier side-effects is that in the opening concerts of the Lucerne Festival next week, Grimaud is being replaced by RADU LUPU, who is not the kind of guy you expect to catch as stand-in, but rather someone whose appearances you make damn sure you book for a year in advance. And I'm going to be there. I'm fond of Helene, but if I could choose any living pianist to hear play Brahms 1 in concert, it really would be Lupu.

The cadenza in question, though, is not for Brahms, but for a Mozart concerto. Apparently the pair had "artistic differences". Now, we've been trying to work out how a conductor and soloist could manage to fall out over a cadenza. Isn't this the moment at which the conductor stands back and lets the soloist do her own thing, whatever it may be? And given the scale of the concerts she's now missing - huge dates with ticket prices to match, and, one imagines, contractual obligations and appropriate fees - it must be a pretty awkward spat. Someone suggested to my colleague at the Indy that the pair "needed a break from each other".

Or...are they just making too much of a cadenza?

Still, if anyone's going to make a matzo-pudding about artistic differences, it would probably have to be in Mozart. Let's have a look at their different approaches.

Here's Grimaud playing some Mozart at Suntory Hall, Tokyo.



And now here is Maestro Abbado - who, if you remember, JDCMB readers voted "Greatest Living Conductor" in a poll a few years back - with the Berlin Phil in the Overture to Le nozze di Figaro.



Any thoughts?

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

A pertinent spot of Fred & Ginger

Been a bit busy, hence quiet blog. But here's the kind of day I've had, described to perfection by Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and George & Ira Gershwin. Strictly in the professional sense, you understand.