Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Off to Munich

Tomorrow I'm heading for the new classical music trade fair, Classical:NEXT, in Munich. On Thursday morning at 11am I'll be speaking on a panel session about the present and future of music journalism, along with Oliver Condy, editor of BBC Music Magazine, and Carten Dürer, editor of the German magazine Piano News. I think we can promise a lively and thought-provoking discussion! Do come along, join in and say hello if you're there.

The Classical:NEXT programme is jam-packed with intriguing talks, showcases, performances and screenings, to say nothing of the odd party or two. A number of concerts are open to the public - details of these can be found here. All being well with computers et al, I hope to blog some updates on the goings-on while I'm there.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The power of laughter

One thing I want to do when I have a spare mo is to go and see Sacha Baron Cohen's film The Dictator. As Channel 4's Lindsey Hilsum says in her blog post here, there's nothing that cuts down to size as efficiently as humour. "The plot was bonkers and the jokes variable, but after 18 months immersed in the horrors perpetrated by Gaddafi, it was good to see him diminished by humour," she says.

Maybe that's why comedy is, notoriously, the hardest genre of all at which to succeed - and probably why it doesn't get into music very often, as we noted not long ago when splitting our sides at Rainer Hersch's Victor Borge show in the West End.

Fauré and his one-time flatmate André Messager managed it, though. Perhaps it was with a coating of laughter that they were able to protect themselves against the great "red spectre" of Wagner that constantly haunted and intimidated their friend Chausson and many other musicians whose personalities were positively overwhelmed by that particular juggernaut. Fauré took what he needed, or wanted, from Wagner, and left the rest. You can hear plenty of Wagnerian influence in his opera Pénélope, where perhaps it was expedient for him to employ a leitmotif system, or in the twizzling, sleight-of-hand enharmonic pivoting of the harmonies in such works as the Nocturnes nos. 6 and 7. But Fauré was able to remain very much his own man. So was Messager - who, incidentally, ended up in London running the Royal Opera House.

You want perspective? Laugh. Here's Souvenirs de Bayreuth for piano duet by Fauré and Messager, played by Pierre-Alain Volondat and Patrick de Hooge.



Saturday, May 26, 2012

On your marks, get set...

...GO! Yet the identity of the extreme cultural bonanza that is the London 2012 Festival is anything but clear. I've tried to unravel it all in today's Independent, but when I tried to draw a Venn Diagram it ended up looking like a psychedelic Mickey Mouse. We probably won't see the likes of this festival again, though. Its existence must not be used as an excuse to relegate the arts, thereafter, to the austerity-bound sidelines. They should always be this central to a civilised society.

Read the whole thing here: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/the-london-2012-festival-the-greatest-show-of-a-great-year-7785745.html

Friday, May 25, 2012

A Music World Fair

Here's that bit of news I promised...

My play A Walk Through the End of Time is to be performed in this year's International Wimbledon Music Festival, starring Penelope Wilton and Henry Goodman. [with all the normal 'subject to availability' clauses.] It will be at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond-on-Thames, Sunday 18 November, at 2.30pm. The following night, 19 November, at St John's, Spencer Hill, Wimbledon, the Nash Ensemble will perform the Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time. Alongside the play in the afternoon, there will be a talk by Anita Lasker Wallfisch about her experiences in the Auschwitz Women's Orchestra.

This year's IWMF is 'A Music World Fair' - a tremendously international job, lighting up South West London with performances by the Kopelman String Quartet, Alina Ibragimova, Nicholas Daniel and Sam West, Christine Brewer, Zuill Bailey, Cristina Ortiz, Mark Padmore and many more. Three special highlights are Patricia Routledge and Piers Lane in Admission: One Shilling, a music-and-words theatrical recall of the National Gallery wartime concerts of Dame Myra Hess; a newly co-commissioned work by Benjamin Wallfisch entitled Chopin's Waterloo; and pianist Mikhail Rudy in a new interpretation of Petrushka with the Little Angel Marionette Company and the piano as the ultimate puppet.

The site goes live later today and you can find all the details here.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

How Beecham image-managed Delius


Strange fact about Delius, no.1: he owned this Gauguin. 'Nevermore': it's one of the most famous of the lot. He and the artist were close friends and had more than a little in common - both personally and artistically. The sensual, the exotic, and that death-haunted passion for living.

Don't miss John Bridcut's beautiful new documentary about Frederick (aka Fritz) Delius on Friday evening. Here's my piece from today's Independent about how today's Delius myths were born - essentially, at the hands of Sir Thomas Beecham and Ken Russell.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

He had everything. Absolutely everything.

We're all saddened by the news that Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau passed away yesterday, aged 86. His voice is one of the chief ingredients of the musical bread that generations have fed upon: I certainly got to know and love the baritone Lieder repertoire from his recordings. One eternal favourite is the Schumann Dichterliebe, recorded with Christoph Eschenbach at the piano; I had the LP and nearly wore it out.

Tributes around the web are many and varied. Here is the obituary from The Telegraph. And below our chosen songs - including 'Im wunderschoenen Monat Mai', of course, from that Dichterliebe - is a transcript of an interview that Dame Janet Baker gave on BBC R3's In Tune yesterday in which she gives her personal memories of this great man and towering artist.

On Music Matters today (at 12.15) you can hear Tom Service interviewing the mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig and the pianist Murray Perahia about him, and another chance to hear two interviews with "DFD" himself.
  
Roger Wright, Controller of BBC Radio 3 and Director of the BBC Proms, offers us a tribute of his own:   
“The loss of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau brings to a close a significant era in classical music. His unique artistry was wide-ranging and above all his singing defined the art of lieder performance and set new standards for future generations."




Dame Janet Baker: “Some people say ‘Is there anything in your life you regret?’. There is something that I felt very sad about at the time: he asked me to do the female Schubert songs when he recorded all the Schubert songs. He wanted to bring in a woman’s voice to do certain songs and I was contracted very firmly to my own recording company in this country and they didn’t feel that it was right or possible for me to do that. Artistically speaking, that was a great disappointment for me because I would have loved to have been on that label with him.”

Sean Rafferty: Is it Impossible to analyse his talent? 
Dame Janet Baker: “I think you used the word unique a minute ago and that again is a word that one can apply. We’re all singing the same repertoire - presumably on a certain level we are all singing very well. The thing that sets us apart, like all human beings, is the personality of the human being behind all this and there are never two of us totally alike. And so the great artist brings that sense of uniqueness to everything they do and it’s unmatchable. It’s why I think there should never be any jealousy between singers, because, no matter what we do, we are all quite different from one another.”

Sean Rafferty: What was it like to work together?
Dame Janet Baker: “He was quite a formal man and there was a - not a distance, not at all, he was friendly - but as we got to know each other better he showed his light-hearted, humorous, warm, human side. And to know him at that level was a sort of bonus, quite apart from his great musicality, and he became a friend.  That doesn’t mean to say that one was ever blasé about his status, so to speak, and his great artistry, one never forgets that for a moment, but it was a very special privilege to know him at a different level.”

Sean Rafferty: How would you describe his legacy?
Dame Janet Baker: “I think it is probably a bit like Kathleen Ferrier. An artist of that magnitude doesn’t cast a shadow over the ones coming after, not at all, but it is something to emulate. I always measured his voice category by what he did and that’s quite tough for younger people to cope with, I think, but nevertheless the benchmark is important - and, as you say, he had everything. Absolutely everything.”


Thursday, May 17, 2012

JDCMB Exclusive: 15% off Medici TV subscriptions

JDCMB has teamed up with the online performing arts channel Medici TV to bring you an exclusive special offer: a significant reduction on the cost of access to their Aladdin's Cave of live-streamed or on-demand video. 

Medici's catalogue stretches to about 1000 titles, featuring world-class opera, concerts, dance and arts documentaries, adding a couple of new VODs plus two or three live concerts every week. In summer the channel usually live-streams most of the concerts from the Verbier Festival. 

Now readers of JDCMB can save 15% on a subscription to Medici TV. Here's the range of options (prices in Euros - Medici is based in Paris):

-       One-month Classic subscription at 5.9 instead of 6.9 for your first month
-         One-month Classic+ subscription at 9 instead of 10.85 for your first month
-         One-year Classic subscription at 59 instead of 69
-         One-year Classic+ subscription at 90  instead of 109

All you need to do to claim your discount is go to the Medici subscriptions page, choose your option and enter the word JESSICAMUSIC in the promotional code box.

As a taster, here is an extract from Medici's latest addition: from the Royal Ballet here in London, it is Kenneth MacMillan's Manon (known in Europe as L'histoire de Manon) starring no less a team than Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta. It was filmed at the Royal Opera House in 2008.


The tale, based on a terse 18th-century thriller by the Abbé Prévost, depicts the fall of the heroine from innocent convent girl to tragically abused deportee - her fatal flaw is allowing herself to be seduced away from true love by the lure of wealth. By the time she learns that love is the only way, it is too late... The book may be centuries old and the ballet decades, yet the story and their characters can seem all too contemporary right now.

Manon is much enriched by MacMillan's knack for conveying through choreography emotional nuances that you might never expect dance to be able to reflect. And its high points are its several magnificent pas de deux for Manon and Des Grieux, modelled in the original cast of 1974 on the legendary duo of Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell. The score is a carefully wrought kaleidoscope drawn from extracts of Massenet by Leighton Lucas. 

As the invaluable Kenneth MacMillan website tells, us, Manon herself is a gift for a ballerina with dramatic bent to put her own slant on the character:
Antoinette Sibley saw her as a girl ‘who allowed it all to happen to her . . .I don’t think she’s a schemer - she only makes decisions when she has to’. Lynn Seymour made her more ruthless: she and her brother are ‘cut from the same cloth, both bandits, using all they have to achieve what they want . . . she broke the rules and the punishment crushed her’. Natalia Makarova understood her as an instinctive creature who lives for the moment, ‘extracting from it all the excitement she can. At the same time she fully knows that the day will come when she must pay the price…. for the pleasure of living fully’. Sylvie Guillem’s guileful Manon used her sexual allure to survive in a male-dominated world. Des Grieux’s misfortune was to have strayed into her path just as she was discovering her power. Where other Manons die as desperate victims, limp as rags, Guillem fought on, defying death itself.
You can see the whole thing on Medici, of course, which released the video last week, on 12 May - Jules Massenet's birthday. This year marks both the 170th anniversary of the composer's birth and the centenary of his death. 

Happy viewing!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Addendum

In the Young Musician of the Year post I forgot to plug my novel ALICIA'S GIFT, in which the heroine wins this contest, among other things. You have to plug your books if you have a blog, so here it is.

Bourne again: Swan Lake in 3D



Swan Lake is making a splash again - this time in 3D. The other week I trotted off to Islington where Matthew Bourne's dance company New Adventures was in rehearsal. It was April, but felt like December... so Matthew and I huddled beside a gas heater in the back room and had a good talk about that Swan Lake and how he and Ross MacGibbon went about turning it into the 3D movie that hits cinemas worldwide from today. Besides, I always wondered what made him think up the concept. And now we know - and it's good. My feature is in The Independent today.

Happy 25th birthday to the company! Don't miss them at Sadler's Wells in the "Early Adventures" triple bill from 21 May. Full info on Swan Lake in 3D and the cinema screenings here.


Monday, May 14, 2012

There can only be one BBC Young Musician of the Year...


Thought for Monday: for every musician whose lifelong public career is launched in the arena of BBC Young Musicians, there are maybe 100 more, at least, who vanish. And if there's one thing more dangerous than that, it is to be the BBC Young Musician of the Year - and find you are still BBC Young Musician of the Year when you're 40.



(Above, l to r, this year's "semi-finalists": Charlotte, Alexander, Laura, Yuanfan, Hyun-gi) 

If the BBC YM 2012 contest has left me a tad underwhelmed, that is not the fault of the YMs. Certain other commentators have been applauding the fact that there weren't any screaming audiences and other commodities wheeled out for TV talent shows. But really, the polite, packed, Sage audience aside, the resemblance to The Apprentice was all too obvious.

"...but there can only be one BBC Young Musician of the Year..." Sounds familiar?

Now, look. The Tchaikovsky and Chopin International Competitions manage it. They don't award a first prize if nobody merits it. They sometimes give two silver medals instead of a gold and a silver. Very occasionally they've given a joint gold. Even Dragon's Den lets more than one contestant get an investment. There can be more than one winner; there can be no winner. Someone makes the rules. Perhaps someone can remake them.

And obviously someone already has, because all five section winners of BBCYM used to play a concerto. This time, they had to do a semi-final "play-off". "...but now they must compete against each other!...Two of them will be going home today..." So the final only contained three concertos instead of five, and was...er, shorter.

The trombonist Alexander Kelly and percussionist Hyun-gi Lee had no business being kicked out. They were both fabulous. As purveyors of niche instruments on which a solo career is rare, perhaps they started off at a disadvantage. Occasionally a brass instrument or a percussionist does win BBCYM. Just not very often.

The most daring choice as outright winner would have been Charlotte Barbour-Condini, who made history by being the first recorder player ever to reach the final. Talk about a natural musician: Charlotte has everything - charisma, confidence, tremendous musicality, the bearing and spirit of a mature artist. At least she can reap the benefits now of national TV exposure without the pressures of having won outright; she is apparently just as good at the piano and the violin (!), so she has a little time to choose her direction. Yesterday was her 16th birthday. She will be fine - and will probably remain the most interesting of them all.

Another finalist clearly couldn't wait to get out there and deliver the goods, and was assured enough to perform a (rather engaging) composition of his own in the semis, then, for the big final, the Grieg Piano Concerto, which he seemed to find a piece of cake. I first encountered Yuanfan Yang in 2007 when he was all of ten. He was in the Chetham's International Piano Competition for Young Musicians and he'd already attracted considerable attention. He will be fine, too, no matter what happened yesterday. He'll probably be in the Royal Festival Hall before you can blink.

The 15-year-old cellist Laura Van Der Heijden from Forest Row scooped the award, playing the Walton Cello Concerto. She's lovely, of course: advanced, mature and aware for her age, and that Walton is no small ask. But is she "ready"? When Nicky Benedetti won the prize aged 16, she was "ready" to the point that she'd already been signed up by IMG. Laura has tremendous potential, but it bothers me - through issues such as occasionally insecure intonation - that she may be where she is two years too soon? Time will tell, though, everyone seems to have adored her, and we wish them all the very, very best of luck.

This competition, as Norman Lebrecht has already noted, has failed to ignite attention in the national press. Would it have done so if, instead of being shoe-horned into that Apprentice-like style, it had stayed truer to the nature of its beast within? Then it could have retained, just like a recorder player, its individual niche. But by repositioning itself in too much the vein of other "reality" shows, it's landed itself as a fringe member of a club that doesn't really want to admit it, instead of holding the centre ground of that rare phenomenon, classical music on mainstream TV. 

Next time, please, a reconsideration of what BBCYM really is; and of what it is not; and of how it can maximise its power to assist these gifted young people. You can watch the final for the next 6 days here (UK only).

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Singing for their supper picnic...

May? It'll soon be Glyndebourne.

I had a nose about the new season that left me wondering - given the nature of their poster - who the black sheep of the Glynditz family could possibly be. Well, blow me down - it's Ravel? Seems that people don't want to eat something that they can't pronounce. I asked general manager David Pickard how it's all going in these hard times, and also had a chat with Melly Still about her new production of The Cunning Little Vixen - you remember, she was the director of Glyndebourne's utterly magical Rusalka a couple of years ago. Read all about it in my piece for today's Independent.

Meanwhile, Glyndebourne is currently offering a free streaming on its website of On Such a Night. It's a wonderfully 1950s film directed by Anthony Asquith, designed to introduce audiences, and Americans in particular, to the delights of English country house opera. Catch it here.

And if you're heading to Trafalgar Square this evening to hear the LSO, guess what? The sun is out. Is there nothing that Valery Gergiev can't fix?




Friday, May 11, 2012

Friday catch-up and Friday historical...

Busy patch. Here are some highlights of days past and the weekend ahead.

>> I was on BBC Radio 4's Front Row the other day, in discussion with Klaus Heymann, founder of Naxos Records, about the way the record industry has changed since the company launched 25 years ago. If you missed it, you can catch it on the BBC iPlayer until Tuesday: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01h75d9#p00s959x

>> Pianist Anthony Hewitt, "The Olympianist", has set off on his big ride from Land's End to John O'Groats and was lucky enough to encounter a strong west tail wind to get things started. He made it from kick-off to Truro in three hours, with his trusty BeethoVan close behind. Follow his progress via his website here. He's already raised more than £4000 for his seven musical and sporting charities.

>> The Royal Philharmonic Society Awards ceremony was held on Tuesday night at the Dorchester. Highlights included a gold medal for Mitsuko Uchida, whose speech was as vivid and genuine as her playing. So was Gareth Malone's - as keynote speaker he was gloriously positive. We are representing the best music in the world, so let's celebrate that! He stopped short of getting us all to sing, though. Maurizio Pollini was Instrumentalist of the Year and Claudio Abbado scooped the Conductor prize. Cellist Olly Coates was selected as Young Artist, heading off extraordinary competition from a shortlist that also included Benjamin Grosvenor and Sophie Bevan. It was an extremely good night for ENO, which won the Opera award for its Eugene Onegin. With them was Toby Spence, who won Singer of the Year, a prize that incidentally was decided upon well before the distressing news reached anybody that he has been having treatment for thyroid cancer. He tells me he is on the mend, supported by a superb team of doctors and vocal coaches. And he was wearing some spectacular leopard-print shoes. A fine time was had by one and all. Full list of winners here. A Radio 3 broadcast is coming up on

>> I've just attended a special screening of John Bridcut's new documentary about Delius. It's fabulous. Exquisitely shot, full of insights and containing one or two considerable surprises - not least, some unfamiliar music that has no business being as neglected as it is. A few familiar faces on board, too (hello, Aarhus!). Don't miss it. It will be on BBC4 on 25 May.

>> My latest piece for The Spectator Arts Blog is about the unstoppable rise of the modern counter-tenor. I asked Iestyn Davies to explain to us how That Voice works. Read the whole thing here.

>> Tomorrow the LSO is giving a free concert in Trafalgar Square, complete with Valery Gergiev on the podium. Expect lots of Stravinsky, big screens and a London backdrop second to none. And the weather forecast says that, for once, it is NOT going to rain. Even Prince Charles will tell you so. Apparently he's always wanted to be a weatherman. Now his guest appearance on BBC Scotland has gone viral...

>> On Sunday Roxanna Panufnik has the world premiere of her new choral piece Love Endureth at Westminster Cathedral, during Vespers, 3.30pm. You don't have to be Catholic to go in. Here's an interview with her about this multi-faith project that I wrote a few weeks back - for the JC.

>> Apparently Roman Polanski is making a film about the Dreyfus Case. In the Guardian he comments: "one can show its absolute relevance to what is happening in today's world – the age-old spectacle of the witch hunt on a minority group, security paranoia, secret military tribunals, out-of-control intelligence agencies, governmental cover-ups and a rabid press." (Quite.)

And so to Friday Historical. Tomorrow is Gabriel Fauré's birthday. Here is Samson François playing the Nocturne No.6 in D flat.



Monday, May 07, 2012

Happy Birthday, Brahms. What did you do to that B major Trio?

It's Brahms's birthday. Today, before twigging the date, I heard something I've not encountered before that nearly made me choke on my Cornflakes. It's the original version, dating from 1854, of his B major Trio, Op.8. The revised version, from 1890, is the one generally performed now, acknowledged the world over as a masterpiece. This is very different.

In 1854, Brahms was 21. That year, in February - just five months after Brahms met him and Clara for the first time - Schumann suffered a mental breakdown and attempted suicide; he then went, at his own request, into a mental asylum at Endenich. Brahms spent the next two years being supporter-in-chief to the grieving Clara and the large brood of Schumann children. Schumann died in the asylum two years later.

Guess what Brahms excised from the last movement of that trio? Its first version is replete with a rather familiar theme. It is "Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder", from Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte - used by Schumann, in his youthful days when he and Clara were trying to communicate against her father's instructions, as a coded message - most of all in the Fantasie in C major, Op.17.

Here is what Brahms did with it. What it - and its absence from the 1890 version - tells us about the turbulence of that last movement, and the tragic climax to which he brings it, can only make us wonder what else he hid, revised or burned later in life. It's played here by the Trio Jean Paul - named after the writer who so influenced Schumann.

Noah Stewart: the director's cut

My interview with Decca's newest tenor sign-up, Noah Stewart, is in today's Indy, but I thought you might like to see the "director's cut"....

First, a spot of Puccini...




When Decca put on a launch in London for its starry new signing, the American tenor NoahStewart, technology malfunctioned. The video broke down, the dry ice played up and the microphone went on the blink. Perhaps that was the intervention of fate. After navigating some Puccini, plus ‘Nights in White Satin’ in Italian, Stewart ditched the dodgy microphone for ‘Amazing Grace’. Now the whole room realised that this man could really, seriously sing. 

His first solo album hasn’t malfunctioned at all. It has whooshed to no.1 in the classical charts, making Stewart the first black artist ever to top that category. Meanwhile he has been attracting attention in opera. He made his Covent Garden debut last month, in Judith Weir’s Miss Fortune; he sang Lieutenant Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at Opera North; and he is currently in Detroit, tackling The Pearl Fishers by Bizet for the first time. Later this month he’ll be back in the UK for his first solo tour.

Still, to misquote Joanna Trollope, it can take years to become an overnight success. Stewart’s journey may have landed him a five-CD recording contract – “a dream come true,” he says – but he’s had more than his fair share of tough times. 

Stewart grew up in Harlem, the son of a single mother who worked as a cashier in a supermarket. He owes everything to her devotion, he says; she made sure he went to a good school and put his education first. When he was 12 a teacher recruited him for the school choir, with encouraging words about his voice. His mother thought he would be a comedian, “because I always loved making people laugh”; and young Noah, testing his wings in musical theatre, found he loved acting. “I was quite heavy as a kid, and I was happier playing someone else,” he admits. 

His first passion was jazz, not least thanks to his mother’s New Orleans background. Then, attending an arts school, he spotted a laserdisc of the Verdi Requiem with a picture of the great mezzo-soprano Leontyne Price on the cover. “She was the only person of colour in the image and I was immediately drawn to it.” The performance proved a giant shockwave: “It was the first time I heard a person of colour sing with an operatic technique in a different language. The combination of the voice and the orchestra drew me in immediately. Everyone around me in high school wanted to be a pop star or a gospel star. But I felt that, for me, this was the way to go. It wasn’t a road much travelled.” 

Role models were few. “I didn’t see images of any coloured men singing opera. I knew about Paul Robeson, Bobby McFerrin, Marian Anderson and Jessye Norman, but the only tenor I could see was George Shirley, who retired from the stage when I was in middle school. I heard an interview with Leontyne Price, recorded in the 1970s, in which she said ‘I wish there were more black men in opera – I wish they would choose the operatic path.’ That only inspired me more to stick to it even when times were bad and people wouldn’t give me a chance.”

He won a scholarship to the Juilliard, New York’s most famous music college, but when he wanted to go to the summer school at the Aspen Music Festival, his mother couldn’t afford the fees. She wrote to the comedian Bill Cosby, who was appearing at a nearby club, and took the letter round to the doorman herself. Cosby sent a cheque. That summer in Aspen proved a seminal experience for Stewart. 

Breaking into the profession later, though, proved so tough that his confidence plummeted. While his former classmates were “ushered into theatres and young artists programmes”, he received rejection after rejection. He reached rock-bottom after auditioning for a conductor who told him he should reconsider his decision to be a musician. For three years he took other jobs – as a salesman, a restaurant host and a receptionist in Carnegie Hall, where his supervisor ordered him to stop singing at work. 

Finally, after studying with a new vocal coach, he auditioned and was accepted for the young artists’ programme at San Francisco Opera. There his big break arrived in classic style: he was understudying Macduff in Verdi’s Macbeth and had to stand in for the scheduled tenor at the last moment. “After that people started talking. I was singing for artist managers and so on, and they said, ‘Noah, where have you been?’” His answer: “Carnegie Hall!” 

His confidence came back. “I knew I had a lot to learn – but I knew that I could do it, because I did it for myself. No-one gave me the opportunity; they needed me and I was able to capitalise on that, but I was able to do it because I worked for it. 

“My mum told me early on: ‘You are a black man. You have to be better at everything you do.’ Not that I went around with a chip on my shoulder, but I knew I had to be the best that I could be, so I lost weight and worked on my languages and took coaching. My will and determination have just got stronger over time. People think it’s a ‘rags-to-riches’ story, but it is totally not. I got a couple of contracts, but when I wasn’t working I went back to the restaurant and back to temping, because I was so thankful I’d learned some trades. Growing up in New York was not only about education – it was also about how you survive as a person. 

“I’m not Noah the Opera Singer; I’m Noah the Person who loves to sing opera. I love jazz, I love hip hop, I’m a person with many different interests. I chose opera because I didn’t see people who looked like me doing it. And I’ve developed skills to be competitive. I’m still in love with it, but if it all fell apart tomorrow I’d be OK, because I know who I am and I could develop other skills and go into any profession I desired. There are so many young people now who feel so lost and I always say to them: ‘You have so many abilities, you can do anything you want to – just don’t stop believing.’”

What would he say to opera buffs who, having heard him sing Puccini, Massenet and Verdi, wonder why he’s also recording pop songs translated into Italian? “Just because I sing opera, that doesn’t mean it’s the only style I enjoy,” he insists. “I remember, early on, telling one a friend who was specialising in musical theatre that I was going to sing a musical theatre song. She said: ‘You can’t sing that – you’re an opera singer.’ And I thought maybe she’s right, maybe I’m not going to be taken seriously. But how can I let someone else dictate my life? If I want to sing a pop song, I’m going to sing a pop song! I’m going to sing it in its correct style, put my own spin on it and make it mine. 

“I’m happy that I’ve lived a sheltered life, so I did not have people influencing me. It wasn’t easy. I spent many times being alone while people made fun of me because I didn’t dress or speak like a guy from Harlem. It’s hard being different. But it’s much more fun. You get to create your own rules.”

Noah Stewart’s debut album is out now on Decca. His UK tour begins on 17 May at The Sage, Gateshead

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Marilyn, Marie and me: meet Laura Aikin

My interview with the exciting American soprano Laura Aikin (left) is the cover feature for this month's OPERA NEWS magazine in New York.

What's it like to create a new operatic portrait of Marilyn Monroe? How do you tackle a challenge as hefty as Marie in Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Die Soldaten? And just how much of a kick do you get out of being Berg's Lulu? Read all about it here.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

If you missed me on 'CD Review' today...



...my 'Building a Library' on the Korngold Violin Concerto is available to download as a podcast from BBC Radio 3 (UK only). Find it here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/bal

Above: a photo of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, probably around the time he wrote the concerto.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Do tune in...

Tomorrow morning I am on BBC Radio 3's 'CD Review': a 'Building a Library' for the Korngold Violin Concerto. The best news is that there are now enough recordings of it for this to be possible! I hope you'll love my top choice as much as I do. You can access the programme online via this link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01h5xvv

The Flying Duchen

Let's get to the heart of this right away. How can we "do" Romanticism in an age of cynical post-modern irony? I don't pretend to have the answer, but the question is a hefty one. And Jonathan Kent's new production of The Flying Dutchman at ENO asks it full on. That is not the least reason it is so effective. Whether or not the director intended to do so, he's sunk his teeth into one of the big artistic conundrums of today. It deserves to be brought into the open.


We see Senta first as a child in pink pyjamas, watching the waves through a giant skylight; she craves her father's affection, but he is unable to deliver any and pushes off to sea, leaving her with a book of fairy tales for company. The Dutchman manifests as her imagining, her interior living, if you like, of such a fairy tale - as children do, as we all do if only we remember, casting her father one of its characters, and the Steersman too - who sings his quiet song with rapt nostalgia and falls asleep on the floor, where little Senta covers him tenderly with her duvet. The Dutchman and his ship arrive in a terrific coup-de-theatre, he in full Mr Darcy getup, while the ship wouldn't disgrace Errol Flynn's in The Sea Hawk. And Daland's eagerness to marry the stranger off to his daughter without noticing that said stranger is one of the Undead is all too convincing, because Daland is a stranger to love and values nothing but money.

Senta, meanwhile, grows up to be Orla Boylan - except that she doesn't. She's still living that fairy tale, her emotional world twisted into an alternative reality by the lack of emotional substance around her. She works in a factory making ships in bottles - the set (designed by Paul Brown) is magnificent, with a vast window and plenty of wood suggesting past glories for this Norwegian one-ghost suburb. Her refuge is the image of the Dutchman: her own longing, her own clinging to belief in the redemptive power of love and compassion. There's none of that in her real world. Even Erik (sung by Stuart Skelton, who is an absolute knockout of a Heldentenor) is no answer. He's a security guard at the factory and there's a hint of violence, born of frustration, in his treatment of her; this big guy doesn't know his own strength. And the other girls pick on her: she's the mildly deranged fat lump in the pink dress (Primark?) who pooh-poohs their sluttishness.

And then the boys come back from sea, they have a piss-up in the factory and they try to gang-rape her. In the song to the Steersman they're egging him on, as their leader, to do the deed. Remember that nostalgic first song he had in act 1? Everything now is inside-out and upside-down. The ghost ship chorus - beamed in by amplification from somewhere offstage (a bit of a pity soundwise) comes to Senta's aid and scares everyone off, but the event pushes her over the edge and, exhausted and already dead within, she breaks a beer bottle and stabs herself with it. She is destroyed by the society in which she lives. Jonathan Kent shows us the death of a soul.

The performances match the power of the staging. The chorus, for a start, is possibly the best I've ever heard at ENO. Orla Boylan's Senta gives everything in her Ballade; there may be issues about pacing and stamina, as in the scene with Erik she began to sound strained and tired, but she summoned reserves of strength for the final scene that made her Senta seem cousin not so much to Isolde (as Wagner later saw her, rewriting the ending post-Tristan - we got the early version at ENO) but Brunnhilde, facing a test of fire instead of water.

Clive Bayley is a magnificent and all too believable Daland; James Creswell as the Dutchman is strong and even-toned, though could maybe use more variety in vocal colour to put across the emotional content, rather than relying too heavily on diction - it's good to hear all the words, but it sometimes distorted the ends of his phrases. Tenor Robert Murray made much of the Steersman aria, which in the grand scheme of the staging acquired extra dramatic significance. But Skelton just about steals the show, despite his character having too little to do. He tweeted the other day that he was off to New York to sing in Die Walkure at very short notice (jumping in for Kaufmann). Lucky Met.

Still, there's big stuff happening at home, and it is happening most of all down the pit. This is Ed Gardner's first Wagner. And from the moment the lights go off and the orchestra plunges into the deep end, we plunge with them. They grab us by the throat and don't let us go for the full 135 minutes (no interval, thanks). The intensity is fabulous, both at the opera's wildest moments and its stillest; the pacing is excellent, passionate, convincing. This seemed the case after that glorious Rosenkavalier a few months back, but now there's no doubt about it: ENO is busy growing a great conductor.

So, I was wondering how we do romanticism in an anti-romantic age. And then I went to see a preview screening of the 3D film of Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake, which is being released into cinemas worldwide on 15 May starring Richard Winsor (and very good it is). And there's the prelude. The child prince in bed, in his pyjamas. His mother comes in; he reaches out to her, she backs away. He has a fuzzy swan by way of comforter. He has a nightmare vision of the real swan. And the action commences. Remind you of anything?

Now, I'm not suggesting for one moment that this Dutchman production borrows anything from anybody, but the general atmosphere and logic of the concept is quite prevalent enough for different directors to arrive at the same scenario from contrasting positions. The Flying Dutchman story has plenty in common with that of Swan Lake. The lead character's fantasy world becomes his/her reality, encroaches on actual reality, then destroys him/her.

And today, we can't take it on its own terms, the way Wagner or Tchaikovsky intended; we have to interpret and explain it, because it seems nobody will buy into it otherwise. If a twisted mind through lack of a parent's affection is becoming the dramatic cliche of today (taking over from child abuse, which has been used ad nauseam), there may be a good reason for it.

It's one of those odd things about Romanticism, though, that it involved plenty of cynicism. It was the composers, not the writers, whose senses of humour and awareness of irony sometimes fell flat. The Flying Dutchman is based on a story by Heinrich Heine, whose bite is much fiercer than his eloquent bark. In Heine, the ending of the tale - the suicide of "Mrs Flying Dutchman" - is cynical as hell: the only way a woman can be faithful to this man unto death, he suggests, is if she dies right away. Wagner makes a virtue out of this, but that's not how Heine wrote it. Just as Schumann, setting Heine's songs, avoids the razor edge of this poet's fearsome blade and refuses to laugh or sneer with him, so Wagner goes a stage further and creates his own philosophy out of it - perfumed, feverish and egotistical it may be, but it's alive and well and blazes out of the music. Heine, one suspects, would have been livid.

And Romanticism? Its music still has the strongest appeal to audiences for classical music - not all, of course, but a distinct majority. You want "popular classics"? You get Tchaikovsky. So it is not dead. Twisted, certainly, but defunct, not at all. Most of us still, somewhere, believe in the redemptive power of love - don't we? - and the current craze for vampire movies suggests that maybe we even want to believe, at some level, in the supernatural. But the destruction of a soul through lack of love, and that lack of love, and tenderness, and compassion, and kindness, and idealism, as a comment on our society, is taking hold. Maybe we should take notice.