Saturday, June 30, 2012

An operatic top ten...

What makes a really good opera production? I saw one the other day. It was Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades at the bijou Grange Park, an hour or so down the M3 in the Hampshire woods and fields. World-class quality in a place about the same size, seating-wise, as the Wigmore Hall; an absolute powerhouse of a Herman from the American tenor Carl Tanner and a Lisa to match from the radiant French soprano Anne Sophie Duprels. The roller-coaster score, in the hands of conductor Stephen Barlow - who knows precisely how to pace and shape the drama - swept us all along, Pushkin incarnate in music. This is an opera I've seen a number of times, yet often under slight duress of the "I really prefer Eugene Onegin" type. But this time, I fell for it wholesale and stayed under the spell throughout.

That's thanks, in no small part, to the direction of Antony McDonald. A former co-director and co-designer with Richard Jones, McDonald has become a Grange Park stalwart, and his insights into this work leave me eager to sample more from him. The production does everything that a truly excellent opera production should. It takes a problematic work and convinces you that it's a masterpiece; it takes a problematic tale and makes it almost too real; and it stays with you for days afterwards, teasing out the deeper currents of the story and pointing up the connections that undoubtedly are there, but that could easily be forgotten, neglected or lost.

Here's my Top Ten of what makes a really good opera production - illustrated by this one.

1. It pulls everything together. It makes sense; it's rounded and satisfyingly deep.

2. The majority of operas are familiar to the majority of opera-goers (sad, perhaps, but true). A good production makes you feel you're seeing it for the first time, in the best possible way.

3. Psychology is acute; action matches script, plus some. Prince Yeletsky's aria - beautifully sung by the young Dutch baritone Quirijn de Lang - is delivered to a Lisa who is slipping away from her unfortunate fiance's grasp by the minute. And he - attending the fancy-dress ball - is clad in a Pierrot ruff [pictured left] that makes him seem pitiable, even though the rest of the time he's an arrogant, entitled, sod-off aristo - and doesn't neglect to collect his winnings from the dead Herman's pile at the conclusion.


4. It's alive to semi-visible dramatic truths and draws them out, without thumping everyone over the head. For instance, Herman is totally bonkers. He's known by his friends to be obsessive; but we soon see that he's also a fantasist who has lost touch with reality. If he brandished his revolver at the Countess (a superb Anne Marie Owens, pictured right), it wasn't noticeable. Instead, she starts to succumb early in that devastating scene to clear symptoms of a heart attack. Herman is so bound up in himself that he doesn't notice. "Do you even have a heart?" he demands, failing to observe that that heart is busy killing her. When he states, later, that he brandished his gun at her and she keeled over, this is his own grandiose fantasy - it's not what actually happened, and that tells us more about him than this moment would have were it the truth. Later, we notice that the final gambling scene takes place without him knowing that his one-time pretext for undertaking it - winning money so he can "deserve" Lisa - is defunct, because Lisa has shot herself and is lying dead at the side of the stage where we can see her but he can't. He never thinks to ask where she is or what will happen to her.

5. The society in which the action takes place is all-important and enhances the action even when it is not the original. McDonald has updated the action to just-pre-Revolution Russia. As the Empress appears (in the auditorium) and the chorus pay her homage, red leaflets flutter down from above, and we don't need to pick one up to know what it's all about. The aristocrats - principally the Countess and Yeletsky - are of another era, stuck in the past; contrast the Countess's crinoline ballgown with Lisa's schoolmarmish outfit. And they behave with considerable vileness towards their underlings; it's clear why they would be hated and rejected, but they are rounded enough for us not to hate them altogether. This is a portrait of a society that has gone to pot and will soon implode: and with that goes the obsession with gambling, the drunkenness, the venality...

6. ...therefore it tells us a lot about our own time too.

7. It draws out darker psychological suggestions in the story, but lets us figure out the rest. Herman has the key to the Countess's room because it's a short cut to Lisa's room and her bed. He, though, is keener to wrest the secret of the Three Cards from the Countess, who long ago gave up her virginity for the sake of that secret. He unveils a giant nude painting of the Countess in her youth, when she was known as The Venus of Moscow. There's some correlation within Herman of the Countess and Lisa, and of the Three Cards and something sexual - and we don't learn exactly what it might be, but it's there, and it nudges our perception towards some deep-seated trigger for his madness.

8. The design (also by McDonald) and lighting (Paul Keogan) mesh together and match the music and the concept. And this is a concept production, but it's so good that you don't realise it at the time.

9. Attention to detail is magnificent. That matters more than ever at Grange Park, because the audience is so close to the stage that everyone can see everything. Tomsky's narrative in act I (sung by the excellent Roman Ialcic) is a case in point: he brings his storytelling to life by casting himself and one of his several pals in its roles, and becomes quite carried away when proferring an illustrative kiss. The pal's astonished exchange of looks with the other pal is priceless.

10. None of this would work were the performers not up to it. The casting is superb. Set-piece moments - like Polina and Lisa's duet (brava to the fulsome Polina of Sara Fulgoni) - are able to shine, with stagecrafted images that match their emotional content.

And now for something completely different. This is the beginning of another version altogether of The Queen of Spades - starring Anton Walbrook and Edith Evans, with music by Georges Auric. Spot one motif that pays tribute to Tchaikovsky's leitmotif for the three cards...







Monday, June 25, 2012

How Cage sets you free

I'd have loved to be at the Aldeburgh Festival for John Cage's Musicircus the other day. It looks like a heap of fun. Below, my piece from Saturday's Independent, trailing the event, with an extra para or two, and a wonderful photo of festival artistic director Pierre-Laurent Aimard, posted by Aldeburgh's doughty tweeters, trying out a new piano-playing technique...

I'm a closet Cage fan. Long story, but it involves mushrooms, meditation and Sonatas and Interludes, not necessarily in that order. He deserves a much, much bigger piece than I can deliver today, but I hope this is better than nothing, at least to start with. Glad that he's getting a whole Prom more or less to himself this summer.

Here goes...



He has been termed music’s greatest iconoclast. But now, in his centenary year, is the composer John Cage going mainstream? 

His Musicircus [was aired on Saturday] at the Aldeburgh Festival; later this summer, a whole evening at the Proms is devoted to his works. Classical music doesn’t get much more mainstream than that. Yet in his lifetime, often struggling for a living, balancing on an idiosyncratic tightrope between classical music, eastern philosophy, visual art, contemporary dance (his partner was the choreographer Merce Cunningham) and ‘chance operations’, Cage (1912-1992) might have regarded this outcome with incredulity. 

Cage’s outlook could scarcely have been more different from Benjamin Britten’s, on whose territory Aldeburgh is founded. It wasn’t just Cage’s prepared pianos, plucked cactuses and so forth that upset the establishment; more than anything, it was the way he incorporated into his music the notion of chance – eliminating the creator’s ego and instead making choices with, for example, the I Ching. This was the opposite of what most composers do; avant-gardists of the mid century like Pierre Boulez and Iannis Xenakis were promptly alienated.

Musicircus is not a concert but a “happening”: as many different performances as possible go on at the same time, piled together in one big-top-like area, while the public wander about. “You won’t hear a thing. You’ll hear everything,” Cage once explained, hoping that attendees would “get the joyousness of the anarchic spirit”. At Aldeburgh, the ensemble Exaudi and sound artist Bill Thompson promise[d] to “throw open the doors and let the sound stream out”. 

Cage’s most famous creation is 4’33 – four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. The point isn’t the irony of a musician playing nothing. It is that we listen to whatever we hear, experiencing the world and our consciousness as music. 

Anarchy, joy, chance and fun aren’t precisely traditional elements of classical concerts – but isn’t it time we grew into them? In his quirky way, maybe Cage can set us free.




BRIGITTE ENGERER, 1952-2012

Tributes have been pouring in following the death of the French pianist Brigitte Engerer at the age of 59. She had been suffering from cancer for several years. I've always loved her playing and have long felt she deserved far greater recognition on the international scene than she received during her lifetime.

UPDATE, 26/6/12: Obituary of Engerer from The Telegraph.

Below is a short interview with her from French TV, and further info below. (Alas, I have no interview of my own to run here, so this statement is provided by her record company, harmonia mundi).



PARIS — French virtuoso pianist Brigitte Engerer, known for her brilliant interpretations of French and Russian repertoire, died in Paris on Saturday at the age of 59, her agent said in a statement.

Engerer "played with some of the very best", said Concerts de Valmalete, and "brought all of her talent to what was a continual quest for musical truth".

French President Francois Hollande said in a statement he was "saddened" by the news of her death and said Engerer's "talent... honoured France".

Engerer always "supported young musicians... while pursuing a remarkable international career", he said.

"We will all remember her great personal bravery" in "fighting the illness that took her from us."

Engerer had been battling cancer for several years.

Born on October 27, 1952 in Tunis, Engerer started playing the piano at age four and went to study at the Paris Conservatory at the age of 11.

In 1969 she left Paris for the Moscow Conservatory, which gave her a deep affiliation with the works of Russian composers, including Tchaikovsky's "The Seasons" and Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition". She would later release recordings of both.

"A part of her became Russian," her agent said.

Stanislas Neuhaus, her teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, once described Engerer as "one of the most brilliant pianists of her generation".

"Her playing is characterised by its artistry and romantic spirit, its depth, the perfection of her technique and her innate ability to reach the listener," he said.

Invitations to perform as a soloist with some of the world's top orchestras took Engerer from Berlin, Paris and Vienna to Japan and New York's Carnegie Hall, playing under conductors including Daniel Barenboim and Gary Bertini.

Her life was "an unremitting search for musical truth to which she gave all her talent", the Concerts De Valmalete said.

A fan of chamber music, Engerer also regularly performed with other instrumentalists such as the violinist Olivier Charlier and the cellist Henri Demarquette.

She was well-known for her high-profile four-hand piano performances with Russian pianist Boris Berezovsky.

Engerer gave her last concert on June 12 at the Champs-Elysees Theatre in Paris playing Schumann with the Paris Chamber Orchestra, 50 years after first playing in the prestigious venue.

She received a number of honours, including the French Legion of Honour, and in 2011 was given a lifetime achievement award by the French music industry.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Wisdom in Lucerne, with Bernard Haitink

At Easter I went to Switzerland to listen to Bernard Haitink's conducting masterclasses at the Lucerne Festival Academy. Three intensive days of fascination later, the mystery of the maestro was in no way reduced. If anything, quite the opposite. Never has it been clearer that the sound of an orchestra changes entirely, depending on the person standing up and waving the baton in front of them; it does so immediately; and it is almost impossible to explain it. I talked to Maestro Haitink and some of his students about what the masterclasses mean to them, and found myself learning a few little lessons in the process. My feature about it all is in Radar with today's Independent. Slightly shortened for space, though, so the director's cut is below.

As an exciting footnote, I'm glad to say that the other week I ran into the youngest of the students, Duncan Ward, at the OAE Night Shift concert and he tells me he's been assisting Simon Rattle in Berlin on, among other things, Die Walküre. Watch that space.


WISDOM IN LUCERNE, WITH BERNARD HAITINK

It’s a training experience like no other. Twenty of the world’s brightest young conductors have come to the Lucerne Easter Festival, Switzerland, hoping to be chosen for a masterclass with Bernard Haitink. Of those 20, seven make the final cut. Their task: in front of the veteran Dutch maestro and a fascinated public, they must conduct the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.

There, though, any resemblance to The Apprentice ends. This is not a competition and it’s anything but cut-throat. All 20 youngsters, selected from 150 applicants, listen to the course;  they all have a chance to conduct, not just the final seven. It is like Hogwarts for conductors, with Haitink, a legend in his own lifetime, serving as benevolent Dumbledore to the lot. 

“I supervise them, give them my ideas and see if it suits them and if it helps them,” Haitink, 83, remarks with characteristic self-deprecation. “I can’t work miracles. But there are so many wrong ideas about this profession that it doesn’t do any harm when a conductor who has a certain amount of experience tries to share it with younger people. It takes an enormous amount of energy, but I enjoy it.”

Would-be conductors are at a disadvantage compared to instrumentalists: they can’t practise easily because their instrument consists of 50-80 highly trained humans. That gives this course extra value even before Haitink has said a word. “The chance to work with an orchestra like this one is something we don’t normally have as students,” says Antonio Mendez, one of the final seven; he hails from Spain and is studying in Germany. “To do Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra is really a rare thing.” (Since Easter, Antonio has won second prize in a major conducting competition in Denmark)

Each participant has prepared four set works: Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony, Schumann’s Manfred Overture, the first movement of Bruckner’s Symphony No.7 and Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. The chosen seven each have half an hour per day to strut their stuff. 

“Some teachers might try to make everyone do things the same way that they do,” says Gad Kadosh, a French-Israeli conductor currently working as a vocal coach at the Theater für Niedersachsen, Hildesheim. “But Maestro Haitink works with each of us as an individual, trying to bring out the best in everyone.” Haitink’s techniques certainly keep the youngsters on their toes.

Usually (to generalise) a conductor gives the beat with his/her right hand, using the left to aid direction and amplify expression. Having decided that Anton Torbeev is using his left hand to excess, Haitink grabs his wrist in mid flow: the Russian student must finish the piece with his right hand alone. [Do have a look at Anton's blog.] Then, with Kadosh, Haitink does the opposite, asking him to conduct only with his left; the result sounds marvellous, apparently to Kadosh’s own surprise [photo, right]. 

Another student is startled when Haitink removes the score from under his nose halfway through a piece: he must continue from memory. “I could see that you know it,” Haitink explains afterwards. “Looking at the score was distracting you. Have confidence!”

In the most common traps, the practicality of Haitink’s advice proves its worth. “Not so holy,” he says, stopping a student after a few phrases of Bruckner. The massive Seventh Symphony’s opening inspires too much reverence; if the tempi slouch, the energy will soon flag. Haitink gently encourages him to think less of the heavens and more of the mountains. He takes the baton and demonstrates: at once the sound changes, the music becoming supple and vivid. “It’s a long symphony,” he points out. “Don’t make the brass play full out even more than they are – they will be exhausted halfway through.” 

Then there’s a recurrent question about focusing the movements. “Don’t move so much,” Haitink exhorts a student whose flailing limbs are not helping the orchestra: a particular flute entry is late every time. “Concentrate the energy.” He demonstrates – and with one flick of one finger of Haitink’s left hand, the flute is spot on.

Isn’t it alarming to feel Haitink’s eye upon your every move? “Not at all,” declares Zoi Tsokanou from Greece, the only girl in the top seven [photo, above right]. “His energy is all about ‘Let’s make lovely music’. He gives us a lot of trust and a lot of love – there’s no need to be afraid.” Her animation and assurance in the Schumann overture inspire the orchestra into giving her a spontaneous round of applause.

JonathanMann, from the UK [photo, left], says that the course has been “one of the most exciting experiences of my life so far”. He has already started his own orchestra, the Cardiff Sinfonietta. What does he feel he’s learning here? “Maestro Haitink mentioned that sometimes the simple things are the hardest to do,” he says. “Holding a pause a little longer or getting a really quiet sound from the orchestra – those tiny things can make the difference between a good performance and a great one.” 

Another youthful Brit, Duncan Ward, is in the final 20 and is asked to run through the Schumann one afternoon. Having studied with (among others) Ravi Shankar in California [photo, right], Ward especially enjoys Haitink’s anecdotes about the great conductors of the past, such as Bruno Walter and Willem Mengelberg: “The Indian tradition passes everything down aurally from guru to pupil,” he points out. “This is a little similar – the sense of a contact point with those great figures is fabulous.”

The course is short, but its effects long-lasting. “We will always have Maestro Haitink’s comments with us,” says Gad Kadosh. “There is so much to think about that we won’t be able to integrate everything fully right away; maybe not in a year, maybe not even in ten years. But I think that much later these ideas will pop back to us and maybe the next level of learning will happen.”

The conductor’s art is not exactly demystified by listening to Haitink teaching. “Every conductor gets a completely different sound from an orchestra,” says Antonio Mendez. “It’s something you just can’t explain.” And it’s completely true, hearing the transformation of the sound from student to student. Nobody could come out of this audience believing that a conductor just waves his arms about. 

Life lessons are here, too: concentrate energy on the essentials, rather than expending it on diffuse peripheries, and maybe the rest follows. This class isn’t just about conducting. This is the getting of wisdom. 

Bernard Haitink returns to the Lucerne Festival with the Vienna Philharmonic on 14 and 15 September. More details: http://www.lucernefestival.ch/en/

Friday, June 22, 2012

Friday Historical: Treasures of Russian Ballet

First, though, a quick look at the kick-off of the London 2012 Festival yesterday, with the Big Concert next to Stirling Castle in Scotland by Gustavo Dudamel, the Simon Bolivar Orchestra and the kids of the Big Noise in Raploch, which seems to have gone down a storm, so to speak....Yes, it rained.  Of course it did. It wouldn't have been Scotland on the summer solstice otherwise, would it? ;)

We have guests staying, so I'll have to catch up with the concert on TV later, but a snatched glance at the box mid-Beethoven revealed a bedraggled crowd and a lot of damp, shivering Venezuelans getting a hands-on taste of what we still seem to call "Dunkirk spirit". The total effect, though, has been something very, very different.

Here are two reviews that capture the soul of what this extraordinary night was all about. From STV Entertainment and The Telegraph . One calls Beethoven's 'Eroica' Symphony a 'set' (and why not? It works). The other tries to make the concept fit Tory ideology (slightly odd, but hopefully useful). Yet the same atmosphere of joy, passion and transformation comes through both, loud and clear. This shows that El Sistema does reach places that others cannot and is essentially transcendental: you don't need traditional musicological vocabulary or any particular political stance to get the message. Music changes lives. It does. It's been proved again and again. And it could be the biggest force for positive change in society as we know it - if only we were willing to take that message on board and deliver the goods. As The Guardian's review mentions, Richard Holloway, chairman of Sistema Scotland, says: "This will only mean something if it is peppering the whole country." I hope that someone is listening in Westminster.

Medici TV - for which JDCMB readers can, as you know, enjoy a special 15% subscription discount - has a documentary on El Sistema available to watch online: Music to Change Lives, directed by Maria Stodtmeier and Paul Smaczny.

And now, more from Medici for our special Friday Historical - a quick escape from Olympic rain into the magical world of Russian ballet, with a new film bringing together extracts of some of the 20th century's biggest stars. Treasures of the Russian Ballet includes footage of Galina Ulanova in Swan Lake, Alla Sizova in The Stone Flower and Maya Plisetskaya and Vladimir Vasiliev in Don Quixote - and much more besides. The majority of the extracts were filmed at the ROH, incidentally, and are accompanied by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.


New! Treasures of the Russian ballet on medici.tv.




Thursday, June 21, 2012

JD on R4

I'm on BBC Radio 4's The World at One today, talking about the London 2012 Festival. Do tune in.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Heat and light...

Kicking off the Olympic cultural festivities in style, The Dude and his Simon Bolivár Orchestra of Venezuela are back in Britain. Dudamel & co are taking over the Royal Festival Hall this weekend (concerts to be streamed live on The Guardian website, btw), and right now they’re in Raploch, Scotland, visiting the Big Noise project – Sistema Scotland’s own take on the Venezuelan music education scheme, revolutionising children’s lives through the making of music (an illuminating read about it here). We can see this concert on TV tomorrow, live on BBC4

But one question remains: why are we all so potty about Venezuelan young musicians when the UK has plenty of its own?

Britain’s got talent. And the real talent has little to do with Simon Cowell, but everything to do with our youth orchestras. The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain is a prime training ground for the best young orchestral musicians in the country; to hear them is to be bowled over and out by the standard of their playing, and the passion and dedication they show for their music.


Nor are they alone. The National Youth Orchestra of Wales claims to have been the first national youth orchestra in the world. The National Youth Orchestras of Scotland, the NationalYouth Choirs and the award-winning National Youth Choir of Scotland are all flourishing. The Aldeburgh Young Musicians, based at Snape in Suffolk, takes around 40 talented kids aged ten to 18 from the East Anglia area and provides them with high-level courses in school holidays, treating them not as children, but as young artists who compose, conduct and perform their own music. 

What’s the matter with us, then? Why do we fête the Venezuelans instead? What on earth do they have that we haven’t?

It would be easy to say “Nothing”. It would be easy to pretend that the Simon Bolivárs are all show and no substance: the twirling basses, the football shirts, all that Latin heat and light. But, though it pains me to say it, there is something. And it’s the other way round. It’s something that we have that they don’t have that’s the cause.

In a recent interview for The Strad, I asked Levon Chilingirian, leader of the Chilingirian String Quartet, what he thought about this. He and his three colleagues visit Caracas regularly to coach the students of El Sistema in chamber music. “One aspect which is very different from here,” he says, “is that they don’t have any limits set for them.” Many children learning music in the UK work their way through the Associated Board grade exams system by hook or by crook. “Mostly by crook as far as I can see,” Chilingirian adds. “It can be a case of: ‘You do your Grade V this year and next year I’ll give you a nice present when you do Grade VI’. And if you suggest to someone that they might learn a particular piece, they’ll say ‘No, no, that’s Grade VII and I’m only Grade IV.”

That doesn’t happen in Caracas. Chilingirian met a young violinist who’d been learning for only a year, but brought the Bruch Violin Concerto No.1 to a lesson and was determined to perform it with an orchestra soon afterwards. The group also told me about a 23-year-old taxi driver who, bored with his job, met some youngsters from El Sistema, heard about their work and decided to become a cellist, having never touched an instrument before. “Nobody said ‘You can’t’ - so he did it,” says Chilingirian. “He’s a very accomplished player.”

Music exams in Britain are an extremely mixed blessing. On the plus side, they provide a target to work towards, a chance for youngsters to prove themselves and gain a sense of achievement. The exams set by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in particular are a global success story, a system embraced wholeheartedly in countries the world over, notably the Far East.

And yet, and yet... How many people in the UK have horror stories to tell about childhood music exams? How many youngsters who might have gone on to enjoy making music socially are left with a terror of performing after an unfortunate sojourn in the exam room? How many have had a bad experience and given up, because working for an exam is no fun at all? For many of us, these exams are our first-ever try at playing to other people, and an unhappy start can leave deep scars.

This set-up is satisfactory for very few. The examiner has little space to write notes and very, very little time in which to do so. Sight-reading tests rarely bear any relation to real music. The pieces offer a bit of choice, yet so little that often a child has to spend months practising something that he or she doesn’t even like – and then, of course, it often sounds like it, too. And sometimes a candidate’s chin wobbles or the eyes start to brim, but an examiner can’t take time to reassure them, because the system is a conveyor belt - the next candidates are in the waiting room building up their own store of nerves and mustn’t be kept waiting. This is an exam all right. But is that any way to make music?

It’s worth reflecting that in a target-oriented, achievement-focused society blighted by the class-ridden nature of the education system, children have to be very lucky to find themselves making music for the sake of enjoying it. Oftener than not they do so to please their parents, to win a music scholarship (few parents realise the hard work involved in that), to pass exams that will allow them to go on and pass more exams. It’s all about measurement and competition. But for El Sistema, it’s about personal and social transformation. 

Maybe it’s no wonder that many successful British professional musicians of my acquaintance never went through the graded exam system at all; if someone is more than averagely talented, exams quickly become an irrelevance. Do they hold the students back? I believe so. Just think about scales. You could learn them all. But if your grade prescribes only a certain number of them, you’re probably going to bother learning just those few, aren’t you? Levon Chilingirian is right: music exams instil the sense of an invisible ceiling that we dare not shatter. Rarely are we encouraged to chuck out the exam books, find a piece of music we love and damn well learn how to play it, even if it’s by Rachmaninov. That would be real motivation: a passion from within.

Plenty of other ways exist to learn and make music, and plenty exist in the UK. There’s Colourstrings, for example – a Saturday morning music school derived from Zoltán Kodály’s famous Hungarian system in which every child first learns to sing; they subsequently develop excellently trained 'ears'. The kids perform to one another in relaxed concert days, play in ensembles together early on and seem confident with their instruments.

And now we have pockets of El Sistema too: with enthusiasm for these schemes taking root around the country - the Big Noise in Scotland and In Harmony across England, in centres including Lambeth, Liverpool and more - there’s hope that our youngsters may also discover, like the Venezuelans, that making music is about joy, life and love. Not about quaking in your shoes alone with your half-size violin in a chilly school gym in Hatch End.

The Venezuelans are back? Bring 'em on. We need their inspiration. It’s working. It needs to work some more.

UPDATE, 5.40pm: This is clearly ringing some bells, and not just in the UK. Try this post by John Terauds from Musical Toronto: http://musicaltoronto.org/2012/06/20/music-exams-can-be-limitations-instead-of-goals/

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Szigeti speaks!

"The unforgivable sins of big business" - Joseph Szigeti's opinion of the fact that the record catalogue contained only four recordings of Bartok playing the piano. The great Hungarian violinist is interviewed in this priceless radio broadcast from 1964 by John Amis, talking about the intuition of art, Dartington, fingering ("the lifeblood of performance"), Prokofiev, recording, Bartok's passion for Beethoven, and much else...



Saturday, June 16, 2012

A good honours day for musos

It's a bumper year for classical music and opera in the Queen's Birthday Honours List for the Diamond Jubilee. As if perhaps someone suddenly realised there were all these amazing people who deserved honours and hadn't yet got them, so they're having a little catch-up? Arise, Sir David McVicar, just for starters. 

Violinist Tasmin Little has been awarded an OBE (and about time too!). ENO's own lightning conductor, Ed Gardner, also gets one; so does pianist Joanna MacGregor. Harry Christophers, conductor of The Sixteen and more, is given a CBE, as are composer and broadcaster Michael Berkeley and TV choir supremo Gareth Malone. Andrew Jowett, chief exec of Symphony Hall, Birmingham, receives the OBE just in time for that fabulous venue's 21st birthday and one also goes to Elaine Padmore, formerly director of opera at the ROH. Nor has ballet been left out: OBEs for Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, founders of BalletBoyz. Conductor and composer Douglas Coombes is given an MBE; so is Katie Tearle, formerly head of education at Glyndebourne and now on board as opera and ballet specialist at Peters Edition; and Ernest Tomlinson, that usually undersung composer of "light music". Meanwhile, down under, pianist Piers Lane has received an AO - Officer in the General Division of the Order of Australia. 

As it's not easy for classical musicians to be noticed and honoured in this day and age, etc etc, they all deserve a big cheer! BRAVI, FOLKS!

Monday, June 11, 2012

My first night shift

 I'd never ventured to the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's Night Shift series before, having assumed that I'd be a bit over-the-hill for the target age group - as you know, I'm 29... But the promise of hearing Simon Rattle (left) conducting the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and La Mer was irresistible, so last night your intrepid writer set out into the monsoon with mac and brolly to see what all the fuss was about.

Here's what happens. The OAE finishes its first concert of the evening - normal stuff - about 9pm. As the old audience flocks out of the RFH foyer, the new one flocks in. There's live music by the bar, in this case a folk-rock singer whose identity eludes me, with violinist and bassist; a lively atmosphere ensues as everyone meets their friends and enjoys the party feel. Then there's a short concert with announcer and chit-chat with the performers from 10pm to 11pm, and finally a DJ sets up in the foyer until midnight.

A range of creative ideas helps to recruit audience members: you can get a ticket for just £5 with the TextTicket scheme, or there's a four-for-three offer, and now the OAE has launched a venture for the Night Shift in the form of a Loyalty Card, with which you can save up a stamp for each NS concert you attend and eventually exchange them, at various levels, for a beer mat, a pint glass or an invitation for drinks backstage with the performers before the show. More details on their website.

Having so said, we didn't get off to the best start. Folk-rock doesn't always do it for me and my companion for the evening pronounced himself utterly allergic. Friends assured us that they'd heard worse, but when the no doubt very nice and very good singer started asking people to sing along, we slunk off and cowered with a glass of something at the furthest-away table we could find.

On the one hand, there's an argument that we should just have gone to the 7pm concert. Much more in-hall music, including Fauré's Pelléas et Mélisande and the Ravel Left Hand Piano Concerto on an Erard with Pierre-Laurent Aimard - and no monkey business. But on the other hand, the atmosphere inside the hall for the 10pm concert was something rather special.

A guest presenter, surrounded by welcoming pink light, got Simon and members of the orchestra talking about the music and the historic instruments on which they were playing it. Simon is a persuasive speaker at the best of times - and though a 'normal' audience might read some of what he said in programme notes, the impact is altogether more striking when it comes straight from the maestro's own chops. The flautist talked about why she loves playing Debussy with Simon; the horns demonstrated the difference in expected playing technique between 1904 and 2012; the oboist enthused about his unusual instrument. There's a sense of sharing, an atmosphere of downright friendliness, that really does make a difference. The end result is that the Night Shift audience could well have ended up much better informed than the 7pm one.

Despite the presenter's exhortations that we should all feel relaxed and were free to leave and re-enter the hall any time during the performance, only one person did so. Otherwise, the Night Shift audience was as quiet as the promenaders. I have it on good authority that the 7pm audience had had a cough-fest. We didn't. Perhaps everyone was as mesmerised by Simon's way with Debussy as I was. He has such an instinct for the pacing, ebb and flow of this music, for the confluence of image and symbol (we never heard the word 'Symbolism' in the intros - maybe we could, someday, as its use is not yet illegal) and the sheer refulgent gorgeousness of it that you could be swallowed up by its beauty and wish never to emerge.

Extra fascination in the use of instruments of Debussy's time: that super-astringent oboe was something you'd recognise from historical recordings; the horns and other brass were finer, lighter, mellower; the flute had a darker, stiller timbre, suggestive of pan-pipes; the gut strings add seductive colour and make a subtle difference to the balance and blend. Simon pointed out that he'd never heard Debussy on original instruments before this tour; it's not generally done. He compared the instruments' tones to the combination of flavours in a Thai meal: a squeeze of lime juice, a smattering of chilli.

In the end, I wasn't too long-in-tooth for the Night Shift. People of all ages attended; the youngest I saw must have been about seven, the oldest probably about 77. In between, plenty of 30-and-40-somethings besides 20-somethings. A younger audience than most concerts, yes. But this was about more than being young. This was an audience that wanted something a little different and knew where to find it.

Personally, I'd enjoy a halfway house. A concert in which the conductor and players talk to the audience - not at the expense of playing time, but enough to make a connection. In which the lighting is good - dark in the auditorium to encourage concentration, but soft and warm on stage. In which people feel relaxed enough to move about, but choose not to because they want to hear the music. In which you can take in something to drink, including hot chocolate when soaked through. I'd prefer an earlier start to my mix-and-match event, too - it's annoying to have to run out at the last note to catch one of the few trains that go your way at that hour. And if there's to be foyer music, it would be nice if it could be something idiomatic provided by members of the orchestra we're about to hear, rather than a disconnected genre.

I didn't stay for the DJ. Had to get that train... And besides, after the glories of La Mer I didn't fancy any more sound. If you've just heard Simon Rattle conducting Debussy, you want to hold the impression of it as long as humanly possible. You don't like it to be shoved aside by amplified pop. (Proofing my draft of this post, I noticed, by the way, that I mistyped that last remark as "amplified poop". Nuff said.)

But overall, full marks to the OAE not just for magnificent playing but also for creative thinking; and for their willingness to experiment with the new, as well as resuscitating the old in the form of those spot-on historic instruments.

Friday, June 08, 2012

It's Schumann's birthday

It's Schumann's birthday, so for a Friday Historical I'd like to play one of the most exquisite and heartbreaking recordings I know. This is Menuhin in the slow movement of the Violin Concerto. A much-maligned work that might have lain forgotten in a Berlin library forever, had Clara and Joachim had their way, it's a piece that can baffle on first hearing; but the better you know it, the more there is to discover, especially in the cyclic nature of its themes - for instance, a pattern that sounds like a curving, linking melody in this movement is derived from the second subject of the first movement and forms the main theme of the third. That's just a taster idea; listen and go deeper. Much deeper.

Recorded in 1937 with Barbirolli conducting  the New York Philharmonic. (It cuts off rather abruptly at the end - this movement, of course, leads straight into the finale.)




Thursday, June 07, 2012

On the future of music journalism

Here are a few thoughts I've cobbled together in the wake of last week's panel discussion at Classical:NEXT. A few things I aired there, a few that happened there, some that there wasn't time to air and one or two that have come to mind since. Just a tuppence-ha'penny, really. (Below, a pic from the panel: L to R, Oliver, Carsten and me.)




On 1 April I put out a spoof blogpost announcing that henceforth every music critic would be obliged to audition as a musician for the conductor Valery Gergiev. Imaginary quotes took differing standpoints: readers deserved the assurance that those pontificating knew what they were talking about, but it’s also true that some musicians can’t string together a proper sentence. To my amazement, some people actually fell for this. Perhaps it inadvertently contained a little truth. What can the future hold for a specialised area that first of all depends on two skills – musical knowledge and writing ability – that are dwindling in the education system; and that secondly remains inextricably linked to the prospects for print journalism in general?

Music journalism may sound like an ivory tower, but the issues that affect it are the same ones that apply to everyone in the wider creative industries. The question of education, or lack of it, is especially alarming. The UK’s arts and humanities courses in higher education, including the music colleges, are about to lose all their state funding; and musical education at school is a lottery. As for grammar, my first advice to youngsters who want advice on entering music journalism is all too often: “Read Eats Shoots and Leaves.”

With classical music no longer an accepted part of everyday life, the topics we cover have changed in the past few decades. When I first went into music journalism, after an academic and pianistic training, I thought I’d be interviewing my favourite musicians and conveying their hoped-for words of wisdom. Now, though, this would be seen as something for specialists: space is limited and “good musician” isn’t reason enough to fill it. We have to find topics of wider general interest – and work with the trend rather than against it in order to keep this art in the public eye at all.

The future of music journalism depends on much more than our ability to do our jobs well. This came into sharp relief during our panel discussion at the new classical music trade fair in Munich, Classical:NEXT. My fellow panellists were two highly respected editors, Oliver Condy of BBC Music Magazine and Carsten Dürer of the German journal Piano News. Both passionately defended print, and Oliver Condy pointed out, quite rightly, that music journalism must be recognised as the skilled profession it is, and should be respected and remunerated accordingly. Up went a hand in the audience: a woman from New York told us that her younger friends and colleagues read only online, and won’t pay for anything. Another delegate suggested that the future may lie in streamed exclusive videos. Yet print journalists - and writers who love language for its own sake - aren’t always renowned for simultaneous expertise in digital film editing.

The Internet, obviously, represents the biggest shake-up in human communication since the introduction of the telephone, if not the printing press. It’s no wonder if there are teething problems while we work out what to do with it. An audience member asked about my blog and why I write it for free. Easy: it’s an accident. Eight years ago, when blogs were relatively new – it seemed a good way to keep in touch with friends in far-flung places. Today, though, Facebook and Twitter serve that purpose, and just about everyone blogs. So now it’s time-consuming and it doesn’t buy the cat food, but friends say I mustn’t close it down because it is “part of my personal brand”. 

Blogging has become a sort of “value-added” model: you hope that if readers find and like you, they’ll buy your newspapers, magazines and books. In the blogosphere too, though, things are in a state of flux. Discussion has grown more immediate: by the time a post is written, it’s likely the topic will already have been done to death on Twitter. Meanwhile this twilit world has morphed from a mutually supportive, creative environment to something more combative. Online anonymity is pernicious, promoting false “reader reviews”, cyber-bullying, prejudice and hysteria. I suspect one day it will be quashed once and for all – though something frightful might have to happen first.

Technology moves faster than we can. What we can’t afford to do is ignore that technology. We haven’t got it right yet, but we do need to seize opportunities to make this medium work for us, not against us. Obviously that’s easier said than done, but the first step is embracing the notion and ditching the fear. We’re supposed to be a creative industry; it’s up to us to be creative. And if we “creative people” lack the necessary business and technology skills – let’s face it, some of us would be mincemeat on The Apprentice – then perhaps we should jolly well learn some.

But there’s a future for music journalism, just as there’s a future for music. Contrary to popular opinion, there’s more classical music around now than ever. It’s the dated means of hearing and enjoying it that are fading out, not the music itself. And as long as it’s there, people will want to write about it – in one way or another.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Operalia finale - coming to a computer near you

The grand finale of Placido Domingo's Operalia competition is on Sunday 10 June. Reflect that this contest has launched the careers of Rolando Villazon, Joyce DiDonato, Nina Stemme, Jose Cura and many more in its past 19 years - this year marks its 20th anniversary - and you might well want to see what's going on. The competition is held in a different place every time and this year it will be at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing, China, and will be streamed live on Medici TV. Ten young candidates will perform for an audience and jury led by Domingo himself. Remember, as a JDCMB reader you can benefit from a cut-price subscription to Medici TV: full details here. Fans can also see there a selection of films displaying some of those former winners since they've made the big-time.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Classical:NEXT takes wing with a whoosh



(Above, a news report from BRTV about Classical:NEXT - in German, and starring a Danish wind quintet, Carion.)

Several people have said to me: "What do you do at Classical:NEXT?" Back from Munich, I could make a few suggestions.

First of all, you talk. You talk and talk. And talk some more. Seven hundred delegates assembled at the Gasteig, 60 per cent from outside Germany. You meet them. You make appointments to see people you know by email,  blog or repute from the other side of the world; they make appointments to see you. Or you just bump into them in the foyer; it's relaxed enough for this to be easy (unlike the London Book Fair, which is rather like Euston Station at rush hour). You introduce your friends to each other and in turn they introduce one another to more friends. Or you just read the name labels and bounce up to someone. And you drink a lorralorralorra coffee.

You listen to talks and discussions. The future design of music venues, for instance - can we afford huge multithousand-seater halls today? Do we need them? Is that, in any case, the best way to listen to music? Or the inspiring Alan Bern from Weimar on the correlation of classical and folk music - try his exciting ensemble The Other Europeans.

Oliver Condy of BBC Music Magazine, Carsten Durer of Piano News and yours truly discussed Perspectives on Music Journalism - a panel from which we can conclude that we live in very interesting times. Olly and Carsten passionately defend print. A lady from New York puts up a hand and declares that none of her younger friends and colleagues read anything but online, and won't pay for it either. I attempt a little realpolitik in between. How do we survive in a world that's determined to have something for nothing? How does a profession that depends on good writing and musical expertise survive in a time when both skills are desperately run down in the education system and about to be run down still further?

You bring your spheres together. I saw my lovely editor, Serhan Bali, from Andante magazine in Istanbul. I met Ilona Oltuski from New York, where she's started the Get Classical Lounge at the Rose Bar, a classy yet informal salon setting in which music enthusiasts can listen to gifted young musicians. I met Fritz Wunderlich's daughter, Barbara, who runs Wunderlich Media, and I became no doubt the latest of several million to tell her with tears in eyes how much we love her father's voice (I listen to his recordings at home even more than to Kaufmann or Calleja). Plenty of pals turned up from Denmark, including the irrepressible Jesper Buhl of Danacord and our old friend Lone Ricks of Travel Art, Copenhagen, who is now an orchestral tour manager - if you are indeed an orchestra on tour, you need this woman, because she has been known to rescue, in person, precious cellos from luggage destined for an aircraft hold. I hung out with Ian Roberts of A Star PR: trapped together in delays at Gatwick for three hours, we held our own mini trade fair in the South Terminal's branch of Apostrophe. 

You can be "mentored" if you so wish: many of us could do worse than spend a few hours learning how to use social media more effectively, for instance. Or you can listen to showcases. Musicians with new projects have about half an hour each to present themselves in the concert hall. Everything from the Sjaellend String Quartet (told you there were a lot of Danes) to the Dutch pianist Daria van den Bercken, winner of the Amsterdampreijs 2012, who has been popping up around Holland with a piano on which to play Handel.

And a new online project, Open Goldbergs, launched at Classical:NEXT. It's a crowd-funded recording by Japanese pianist Kimiko Ishizaka of the Bach masterpiece, offered free of charge, along with associated illuminating technology. Kimiko performed the music while the audience followed the score on its laptops and mobile phones using open-source software MuseScore.com. In its first three days Open Goldbergs had 200,000 listens and 50,000 downloads. More info and downloads here on their site.

Yes, the world wants something for nothing, yet music practitioners still have to eat. Hey - we're the creative industries. It is up to us to be creative. Talking and meeting and mingling traces new pathways in the brain (or something like that). You start cooking up ideas. Couldn't we have a regular music world network in London that meets, for example, once a month? Couldn't we mix more with representatives from other genres of music, share ideas and build bridges? It's all very well building communities online - but it is still in person, over coffee, that the real progress can be made. And after a while, it seems that anything is still possible, if only we can make it happen. It's up to us to create the future ourselves. That's what you do at Classical:NEXT.  

Prost!

Monday, June 04, 2012

Messing about in boats...

I don't think it was really meant to be funny. But I found myself glued to the webcast of yesterday's Diamond Jubilee River Pageant in the hope that someone, sometime, might bring on Captain Mainwearing and reveal the whole thing to be an episode of Dad's Army.

Like when the royal barge was turning round, just that wee bit weirdly, and nobody on the announcing panel seemed very sure whether or not it was meant to be doing what it was doing - "It's going sideways! Isn't that amazing!" Or when Tower Bridge nearly didn't do its thang in time (we do love Last Minute here). And a phalanx of increasingly desperate and chilled (in the wrong way) BBC reporters uttered the phrase "The rain can't dampen the spirits" so often that, had this indeed been a comedy script, it would have signalled a character's self-delusion that enough repetitions make something true. Now, I'm sure plenty of people indeed didn't mind - we're a tough nation, aren't we. But at the end, according to Channel 4 News, docking priority was given to the open boats with suspected hypothermia sufferers on board.

Meanwhile the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh are getting on in years, but stood on their freezing barge throughout - never have the words "God Save the Queen" seemed so appropriate. Someone needed to save her, fast. Or at least take her a nice cup of tea.


June is the UK's monsoon season. We all know this. We just don't want to admit it. But if you plan a big outdoor event, which requires young singers to stand on the roof of a boat belting into microphones, it is surely your responsibility at least to let them borrow a brolly? The poor choir from the RCM gave Land of Hope and Glory everything they'd got, but they were absolutely sodding drenched. The people in the 1m-strong crowd lining the riverbanks had a choice: to be there or not to be there (incidentally, I know people who wanted to be there and tried to go, only to be told by the police that they might as well go home!). But the performers didn't.

The LPO-on-Thames was dry indoors, but I'm not sure about the musicians on other boats because we saw zippity-plunk of them on the TV. You know that joke about the holidaymakers at dinner? "This food is terrible," says one. The reply: "Yes - and such small portions." So, the BBC audience heard a bit of the Dambusters March while a chap from Horrible Histories rabbited through some  shtick. And we caught a glimpse of LPO-o-T, while the royals jigged about to the Henry Wood Sea Shanty piece. Just long enough for me to recognise the leader of the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra at its helm, and for BBC News to say it was the LSO, and for @Queen_UK to credit the RPO, and for Norman Lebrecht to reveal on Twitter that it's looking for a new PR...

For about four seconds, earlier, a faint echo of Water Music emerged as the Academy of Ancient Music sailed by. The Royal Marines' brass band was slightly more audible - that's the nature of trumpets. Yet, dear readers, I'd tuned in wanting to hear the specially written new compositions by a raft (so to speak) of extremely fine British women composers - among them Debbie Wiseman, Rachel Portman and Jocelyn Pook - yet the BBC's TV coverage conveyed not a single note of them. Why not? Is contemporary music deemed too difficult for us poor uneducated general public to appreciate, or what? A desultory tweet from one of their performers went "Just spent 2 hours playing them and getting soaked" - followed by a plea of: "Could you really not hear any music?"

No, my friend. Not a bloomin' squeak. Only a special performance by a choir of sailors of a sea-shanty that said they were heading for South Australia, which seemed like rather a good idea.

But this is Britain. And what a day it was. Extraordinary. Unforgettable. Ever so British. World records were set. Boats were well messed about in. It was wonderful entertainment, just maybe not in quite the intended manner. I'm wondering who will be the first media person to crack, call a spade a spade and admit that it was a washout. Naturally, to misquote Oscar Wilde, I'm happy to say that I have never seen a spade.

[Photo: Press Association]


Saturday, June 02, 2012

In Darcey's shoes?

Tonight Kenneth MacMillan's last full-evening ballet, The Prince of the Pagodas, opens at Covent Garden after being missing for a generation. It's so much associated with Darcey Bussell, whom it propelled to stardom, that to step into her shoes is a tall order. I talked to the leading ballerinas Marianela Nunez and Sarah Lamb about what it's like to try. Here's my feature from today's Independent.

And here is the adorable Marianela in rehearsal, filmed in the Royal Ballet's entire day of live webcasts in March (on her birthday).



Meanwhile, it's Diamond Jubilee time. Of course, this being London in June, it's raining and the forecast for tomorrow's River Pageant is 13 degrees... Readers overseas might like to know that there are flags everywhere. The whole of London has sprouted up looking like it's the Last Night of the Proms. Union Jacks are all over the city centre, where the Christmas lights usually go, and plenty of people have hung bunting outside their houses. The atmosphere is wonderful, despite the rain, or perhaps because of it. Let's face it, the Queen is a remarkable woman who has been doing the same job for 60 years with a professionalism that puts the politicians to absolute shame.

As far as the River Pageant is concerned - 1000 carefully-chosen boats on the Thames - they could have come up with a more imaginative musical programme, really, although there are some nice premieres. You may have missed my "jeepers-who-came-up-with-this-UKIP-style-fantasy" piece about the music on the ten boats, written when the programme was announced. I'd nurtured a faint hope that the then-still-TBC Ninth Boat might hold a waterborne world premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies's Ninth Symphony. It doesn't. Just as well. Now, several months later, it's evident that all of this is just aural wallpaper. Probably there'll be so much noise that nobody will be able to hear anything anyway.