Showing posts with label Judith Weir. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Judith Weir. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Great news for two wonderful composers, who happen to be women

As of this morning, Judith Weir is officially Master of the Queen's Music. She is off to Buckingham Palace today for an audience with HM.

She is also launching a blog, which you can follow from her website.

Here's Tom Service's interview with her about what she plans to do with the post. 




Meanwhile, here is my interview from today's Independent with another marvellous British composer: the one and only Errollyn Wallen. Her new opera Anon is a very contemporary adaptation of Manon...and was partly inspired by her own experience of nearly getting murdered when travelling around Europe in her teens. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/features/errollyn-wallens-anon-manon-lescaut-for-the-21st-century-9619708.html






Apropos of women in classical music, I am delighted to have been invited to join the board of the Ambache Charitable Trust, which awards grants to organisations and individuals for projects that involve the performance of music by women. The aim is "to raise the profile of women composers by funding people who promote their music to the widest possible circle". As it was recently revealed (via the PRS for Music Foundation) that only 7.8 per cent of its income for composers goes to those who happen to be female, I hope you can see how necessary such initiatives remain even today. More information about it on the website, here.

UPDATE: Here is a vital piece (via Sinfinimusic.com) by Susanna Eastburn regarding the shortage of women composers and what we can do about it. Includes some pretty shocking statistics.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Master of the Queen's Music: why it's vital that a woman gets the job

As some happy news for women in music - well, really for Judith Weir - leaked out in the Sunday Times earlier today, I've been writing this piece for The Guardian's Comment is Free. Bet you didn't know I once wanted to be a composer. It was a short-lived dream a long time ago, but never entirely forgotten.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Time for the Queen to have a musical mistress

Brilliant piece in today's Independent on Sunday by Claudia Pritchard: as Max steps down as Master of the Queen's Music, it's time that a woman held the job. Judiths Weir and Bingham, Sally Beamish, Roxanna Panufnik and plenty more could all be in the running.
http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/why-its-time-that-the-queen-had-a-mistress-9129190.html

Monday, May 07, 2012

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

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Fate is...a counter-tenor?

The UK premiere of Judith Weir's new opera  Miss Fortune, a co-commission with the Bregenz Festival, was indeed a blend of the ups and downs its story suggests. Life is a roller-coaster, its protagonists point out. But whatever happened to free will?

If Fate is a counter-tenor, then we're all doomed. It's a Sartre-esque choice of a voice, inescapable as it shadows the powerful lead soprano, Emma Bell, in the most claustrophobia-inducing way. The psychological, or psychiatric, implications of his presence as the voice inside Miss Fortune's head could have been the most interesting thing about this opera, had they been explored a lot more. But they weren't. The implications of her awful relationship with her ghastly parents, too, could have been explored a lot more, but... yes, exactly. And is her supposed saviour, a nice, very rich boy called Simon, actually that nice? Come off it - he wants to pull down Donna's laundromat and build pied-a-terres for his City chums! Amid many uncomfortable dramatic choices, some of which are more uncomfortable than ever inside a place as plush as the ROH, Miss Fortune offers a tantalising glimpse of what might have been.

Miss Fortune's personal Fate - Andrew Watts - isn't to blame for that. He, his colleagues and the dazzling breakdancers of Soul Mavericks made the show a treat in its own way; so, too, the designs and its special effects (set: Tom Pye, lighting/projections: Scott Zielinski, Leigh Sachwitz, Flora and Faunavisions) - projected video effects are clearly flavour of the operatic zeigeist at the moment. The orchestra, under Paul Daniel, and the chorus provided all the sympathetic backup you should expect from a top international opera house.

Bell held the stage throughout, a scarlet flame in voice as well as costume. The men in her life - the American rising star tenor Noah Stewart as Hassan, the man with the kebab van, and the South African baritone Jacques Imbrailo as Simon - should have been a tough choice for her at the end, although she apparently doesn't even consider the penniless Hassan. I'd have wished she'd gone off with him had Imbrailo's gorgeous, luminous voice not beguiled heart and mind every bit as much. And had it not been for the quality of the singing, the breakdancers would have had a walkover triumph (though walking is perhaps the only thing that doesn't happen in breakdancing).

I wonder if the Bregenz request for an opera "for an entirely normal audience" became perhaps a shackle to one of British music's most enticing imaginations? Weir's story is linear, told "from A to Z", but supposing it wasn't? Supposing there'd been carte blanche for her to turn more fantastical, to go deeper, to go wild with all the possibilities that music, drama, stage technology and fabulous musicians can offer? One way or another, that didn't happen. The music felt as hamstrung as the drama. It just doesn't get off the ground - not even when Noah Stewart sings his Aubade from the roof of kebab-van-ex-machina.

The trouble with updating folk stories about Fate to the modern world is that we have to believe that that is how things work. Covent Garden's programme uses a quorum of chopped-down trees trying to convince us: among several essays on the topic, there's even a fascinating one about chaos, randomness and astrophysics. But what happened to the fact that the financial crash - which sparks the entire story - was entirely man-made? It is a miserable history of cause, effect, ideological idiocy and the seven deadly sins, a true tragedy that unfurls the fatal flaws in human nature - Greek in more ways than one. That in itself would make a much better story. Yes, things do happen to us that we don't plan. But sometimes, somewhere, some of those things are the result of someone else's stupidity, greed or megalomania. You can't entirely avoid cancer or multiple sclerosis. But financial crashes can be prevented by sensible economic management. And this opera is about a financial crash.

Here's my alternative scenario for Tina and her missed fortunes.

* The sweat-shop workers join forces with the breakdancers and organise themselves into a powerful protest lobby. They hold Lord Fortune's bossy wife to ransom and remind him of those modest, hardworking roots of which he boasts so copiously. His conscience is swayed.

* Instead of losing what remains of his offshore riches to pirates, he gives his daughter a trust-fund so that she doesn't have to work in the laundromat but can devote herself to becoming Director of Communications for the protest lobby. He then agrees to stand as an independent MP to fight the cause of liberty, siblinghood, equality.

* Simon, instead of telling her to throw her winning lottery ticket away, uses his portion of the proceeds (because Tina's going to share it all out) to chuck in his horrid City job and become a full-time baritone, donating the income from his first album to an inner-city regeneration project.

* He and Tina and Hassan can't choose between one another, so they set up as a menage-a-trois and finish the opera by singing All You Need Is Love.

* Somebody seizes Fate by the throat and chucks him into the orchestra pit.

If you want to see it - and you should, for the singing and dancing at the very least - there's a special offer from the ROH for 23 March, when you can get the best available seat, a kebab and a beer for £45. More details here.

(Photos: Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House)

Friday, March 09, 2012

Fanfare for uncommon women

As promised, for International Women's Day #2: ten women composers of now. A small selection and a personal one - kicking off with Joan Tower's Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman. Enjoy.


JOAN TOWER



JUDITH WEIR



KAIJA SAARIAHO



LERA AUERBACH



ERROLLYN WALLEN



SOFIA GUBAIDULINA



ROXANNA PANUFNIK



ANNA MEREDITH



SALLY BEAMISH



ELENA FIRSOVA

Friday, March 02, 2012

Girl Power

Hooray for music's powerful women! 

1. JUDITH WEIR AND EMMA BELL ON MISS FORTUNE


Judith Weir's latest full-length opera is heading for Covent Garden, opening on 12 March, and it's the first opera ever to finish (as far as I'm aware) with the heroine winning the lottery. Emma Bell is in the leading role of Tina, conquering a number of different stratospheres (left, Emma atop "the shape"). I talked to them both about creating what Bregenz Festival director David Pountney called "an opera for an entirely normal audience". See my feature in today's Independent, here.





2. DANIELLE DE NIESE TO STAR IN OPERA OF ANN PATCHETT's BEL CANTO


The Lyric Opera of Chicago has commissioned the young Peruvian composer Jimmy Lopez to write the work, which is scheduled for the 2015-16 season. Ann Patchett's novel describes a terrorist attack in a South American jungle in which a group of opera lovers, politicians and a singer, Roxanne Coss, are taken hostage: over the months, attackers and hostages form unexpected alliances. RENEE FLEMING, Lyric's creative consultant, chose the book as the perfect topic for the opera. The libretto is by playwright Nilo Cruz, the director is Stephen Wadworth and Sir Andrew Davis conducts. And Danni, who's much more than Glyndebourne's fabled Cleopatra, takes the lead as Roxanne. More here.

“It’s about terrorism on one level, but it’s also about what happens when people are forced to live together for a long time, and how art can raise their level of humanity as a group,” Fleming said. “Most of us crave a cathartic emotional experience when we’re at the theater, and I believe Bel Canto has the components to do that... I was struck by Jimmy Lopez's intelligence and the way he understands both the problems in bringing this piece to the stage, but also the possibilities that opera as a medium offers for illuminating a story. For example, the orchestra can accentuate the dramatic situation onstage, but it can also convey the underlying turmoil that one might not see. This is something that many composers miss and that Jimmy understands completely.” 


3. JD TO SPEAK AT CLASSICAL:NEXT


The new classical music trade fair Classical:Next, taking place in Munich from 30 May to 1 June, has announced its initial line-up of events and speakers, and I am happy to report that JD is to be on a panel discussing the future of music journalism, along with BBC Music Magazine editor Oliver Condy and the editor of the German magazine PIANONews, Carsten Durer. Classical:Next is a sister production to WOMEX, and if that event is anything to go by, we want to be there.

4. DON'T FORGET TAZ AND ROX's BIG NIGHT


Tonight at the Anvil, Basingstoke, and tomorrow night at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon, the London Mozart Players and TASMIN LITTLE (left) give the world premiere of the complete Four World Seasons by ROXANNA PANUFNIK. Having had a sneak peek for Classical Music magazine, I reckon Vivaldi wouldn't know what's hit him. Rox writes:
"In early 2008, the violinist Tasmin Little rang me to ask whether I’d write a series of short pieces for her, accompanied by chamber orchestra. Considering a world where global concern for climate change and seismic shifts in international political landscapes affect us all, we decided to take Antonio Vivaldi’s much-loved 1725 Four Seasons and give the concept a 21st-century twist, creating an entirely new work with each season (lasting approximately 5 minutes) influenced by a country that has become culturally associated with it."  Spring in Japan, an Indian Summer, Autumn in Albania and a Tibetan Winter form the music in this celebration of music across the world, reflecting the many cultures that descend on London for the 2012 Olympic Games." 


5. JUST FOR THE HECK OF IT, HERE'S DARCEY BUSSELL AS SYLVIA


Ahead of her time, Frederick Ashton's Sylvia was created for Margot Fonteyn in the 1950s. Diana's top nymph is not exactly your typical 1950s ideal housewife. I love the power, joy and freedom in Darcey Bussell's interpretation, filmed at the ROH in 2005. Girl Power if ever we saw it! Roberto Bolle is her lovestruck swain. Enjoy.