Showing posts with label LSO. Show all posts
Showing posts with label LSO. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Fireworks

Some music critics and bloggers are calling for a boycott of Gergiev over his support of Putin, with regard to the anti-gay laws in Russia. Following a pre-concert solitary protest in the hall the other night, we understand that tomorrow evening (Thursday) activist Peter Tatchell is inviting anybody who's concerned about gay rights in Russia to join him and friends outside the Barbican for a peaceful demo, complete with sparklers. "Putin represses, we sparkle!" his website declares. Details here.

The LSO has handled the furore by distancing itself. It put out a tweet saying simply: "The LSO believes in equal rights for all. Gergiev’s personal views are his own, and not of LSO." Some will consider the response not robust enough - but having seen other organisations behave like ostriches, jam-jar fleas and headless chickens on certain tricky occasions, my view is that this is the most sensible thing it could do under the circumstances.

Music and politics: you can't separate them. Unless you're kidding yourself.

And meanwhile...the saga of leadership at the Vaganova Academy continues. Ismene Brown's blog is the place to find in-depth explorations of Russian sources - highly recommended. [JD note to self: in next life, learn more Russian than the alphabet and how to say "Я люблю тебя".]. In Russia, a leading ballet columnist has allegedly received threats for covering the story.

A few key points: a petition is being gathered to protest about the appointment of the former Bolshoi dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze as rector of the Vaganova Academy. There are also major concerns about Gergiev's grand plan to unite the great St Petersburg arts institutions into one organisation, under his direction, a plan that awaits approval by Putin but is apparently on his desk. Further reports in The Guardian, here.

Moreover, Ismene links to a Russian blogger who suggests that the force behind Tsiskaridze's bid for the appointment is actually the wife of an oligarch (Gergiev is said not to be in favour of the dancer getting the job). Big money calling the shots, for reasons best known to itself. This syndrome is not solely a Russian phenomenon. Watch for it a little closer to home as the years roll by.


Friday, November 01, 2013

Whither Gergiev?


Woke up to reports flying around Twitter that Gergiev's concert with the LSO at the Barbican last night had a surprise speaker in the form of Peter Tatchell, who made his way on to the stage before the performance to protest about Gergiev's support for Putin, with regard to recently introduced anti-gay laws in Russia. (More on the background here.) Tatchell was swiftly removed, but the blog The Last Ditch suggests that a member of the orchestra also gave him a shove (not the world's greatest idea, chaps).

More concerning still is this report from ballet journalist and Arts Desk founder Ismene Brown re the situation in Russia vis-a-vis the Mariinsky and the leadership of the Vaganova Ballet Academy. A number of insiders there are placing blame on Gergiev's leadership for what they see as the financial marginalisation of ballet within the centre's artistic activities. Please read.

I have one concern to add. A recent CD I heard from LSO Live - the first of the Szymanowski series - sounded, essentially, as if Britain's top orchestra was under-rehearsed, a major problem in something as complex and gorgeous as Szymanowski's Symphony No.2. I found the disc disappointing, especially when listened to alongside Ed Gardner's account on Chandos. The next LSO/Gergiev album, of the symphonies nos. 3 and 4, fortunately seemed more successful - but standards, especially at this level, need to be consistent.

Some of us were much in favour of Gergiev's appointment to the LSO when it first happened. He would, we thought, raise the already fine international profile of the orchestra and of London with it; he would fill houses, compel audiences, produce unparalleled excitement in performance. All this has indeed happened. I've met musicians who adore him and who feel he pushes other conductors into the shade; some, indeed, who don't like playing for anyone else. And yet...things can (nearly) fall apart nonetheless. Upon that initial appointment, those who opposed it questioned his likely commitment to our orchestra compared to his Mariinsky.

My personal impression, from interviewing him a number of times over the years, is that for Gergiev - despite his protestations of admiration and affection for the LSO - the Mariinsky is the light of his life and he will do pretty much anything for it; and that it was to this end - ie, the ongoing development of and funding for his vision for the Mariinsky - that he has always found it prudent to talk directly to Putin.

The question is, as the TV presenter said to the tattoo artist: where do you draw the line?

A catch-up on this week's intense patch of other activities may have to wait (and I have to go to the dentist).

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Some breaking news that's Rattling around...


A report in today's Times [£] suggests that Sir Simon Rattle "is understood to have accepted the job of principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra".

[UPDATE, 11:30: The LSO has responded on Twitter: "Morning all; thanks for all the tweets. We're delighted to have strong artistic projects with Sir Simon Rattle in forthcoming seasons …but as the article says, we have no further comment to make on the speculation that appeared in today's Times!"

So nothing is actually official. But no categoric denials per se... ]

If it is all true, it would be the following:

* Brilliant news for the LSO. Gergiev's name is a draw that would be difficult to follow;

* Brilliant news for London and the UK. Rattle is the most famous British conductor in the world, but has not previously held a London post. For the UK's top orchestra (which the LSO is - sorry, rest of you) to snaffle the UK's top conductor is a major snooker achievement. This sphere is often about timing, contracts, forward planning and, sometimes, a stroke of good fortune.

* Brilliant news for Rattle, we hope. He is much in tune with the British arts scene's pioneering activities in pushing the boundaries of repertoire, outreach, community and education alike, and the LSO, with its beautiful facilities at St Luke's, is perfectly set up for that. One senses that his innovations in Berlin may have been a bit of an uphill struggle at times.

* He has a fine track record of persuading people to do things, including the building of very good concert halls. See Birmingham. Guess what we need in London?

* If it is true, and mentions in The Times and BBC Radio 4 are normally pretty serious, it is much as I predicted in January. Everyone was asking why he was leaving and who the BP might appoint next; I wondered where Rattle could go from there (we didn't yet know that Gergiev was going to step down from the LSO); and by process of elimination.... => http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/features/sir-simon-rattle-and-the-berlin-philarmonic-is-this-great-relationship-ending-on-a-sour-note-8455762.html?origin=internalSearch


Meanwhile, on a much more modest scale...

If you like JDCMB, come to my concert! TOMORROW afternoon we are at the Musical Museum near Kew Bridge, west London.

You could view the museum's collection of musical curiosities, have lunch overlooking the river, then go on to enjoy the show in the Concert Hall. With your concert ticket you can get discounted entry (£3) to the museum, with a guided tour at 1pm. The  museum and cafe are open from 11 a.m.

SUNDAY 8 SEPTEMBER, 3PM
HUNGARIAN DANCES: the concert of the novel
with DAVID LE PAGE - VIOLIN, VIV McLEAN - PIANO, JESSICA DUCHEN - NARRATOR

The HUNGARIAN DANCES concert is great fun and is stuffed full of wonderful Hungarian and Gypsy-influenced repertoire, including Ravel's Tzigane, Bartok's Romanian Dances, gorgeous pieces by Vecsey, Dohnanyi and Kreisler, and much more. And the storytelling aspect of the performance means it's 500% accessible for first-time concert-goers.

* Tickets : BOX OFFICE:  020 8560 8108/HOUBENS BOOKSHOP: 020 8560 8108
or from Yvonne Evans 07889 399 862.

Next up: PenFro Book Festival, Rhosygilwen, Wales, on Thursday 12 September (with David Le Page, violin, & Anthony Hewitt, piano); and Bournemouth Arts Festival, Shelley Theatre, 26 September (with Jack Maguire, violin, and Barbara Henvest, piano). 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Dear Valery, please bring us back the spring...

On the day the LSO and Valery Gergiev played in Trafalgar Square last spring, the rain stopped and the sun came out. Mostly it rained for four months solid, so this was quite an achievement. Now we've all had enough of the freezing, grey, endless winter that's been engulfing the UK (fyi, it's thought that as 80% of the Arctic ice has melted, it's shifted the Gulf Stream, which used to stop this from happening, so we're stuck with it. Climate change in question? The climate has already changed...).

So we need Gergiev to do something about this, please. Or maybe we need to make a sacrifice PDQ to propitiate Yarilo the sun god (a member of the cabinet would do nicely). For the time being, here is Gergiev with the Mariinsky Ballet in a complete performance of The Rite of Spring, with the original choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky and designs by Nicholas Roerich. It'll warm up your computer, if nothing else.

Meanwhile, I am confined to my Sarah Lund sweater. Hope they don't mind if I wear it to the Coliseum tonight to see Osipova and Vasiliev dance Giselle.


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

And he's off...

So Valery Gergiev is going. According to Norman, he'll finish with the LSO in 2016 and is strongly tipped to be heading for the well-moneyed Munich Philharmonic.  [UPDATE, WEDNESDAY 23 JAN, 5PM: it's confirmed. Munich Phil has got VG, with a five-year contract: 2015-20.]

Do you have any idea how much public subsidy that city puts into its arts? It's enough to make Keynes weep. The opera house alone gets well over E100m every year. The orchestra of the Bayerische Rundfunk is one of the finest I have ever heard in all my years of hanging out with orchestras, easily as good as Berlin, possibly better than Vienna. The townsfolk of Munich love their culture and regard classical music and opera as an accepted part of daily life, which is where it should be. The Munich Philharmonic can afford the best - and it makes sure it gets the best. Oh, and Germany just increased its arts budget. If the biggest musical stars in the world head for where the money is, we shouldn't be remotely surprised.

As for the LSO - well, looks like this timing won't work for Rattle, so a range of other brilliant and probably younger maestri will be lining up for the UK's top job. I can think of three or four seriously good candidates without trying too hard, of whom two are Russian, one is English and one is - ah, but that would give it away. (Meanwhile Solti is now waiting for two phone calls. He says there's no reason that he couldn't do both Berlin and London, being that sort of cat.)

The person at the top of my wish-list is a little different. I don't know if he'd be in the running, since I'm not sure he's conducted the LSO before. But we can dream, can't we, and I urge anyone who has the chance to get to the Manchester Camerata, the Verbier Chamber Orchestra or the Budapest Festival Orchestra (where he's Ivan Fischer's second-in-command) to grab a concert with this amazing, inspirational man.







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.



Friday, March 23, 2012

When JD met Sir Colin Davis...

...he had a real go at the early music brigade. Blimey, guv. The results of this are in today's Independent. Still, you don't talk to a man like Sir Colin Davis for twenty minutes if you can talk to him for an hour instead, so after the video you will find something meaty on a great many more topics than that - including what Stravinsky told him about metronome marks and why it's great that young conductors are so sought-after now. You won't need to add mustard; there's plenty already. Meanwhile, if you want to hear Sir Colin speak at the ISM conference on 12 April, booking details are here.




STOP RUSHING AND START LISTENING: SIR COLIN SPEAKS OUT

It’s slightly disconcerting to interview a great conductor while sitting beside a skeleton. It hangs in a corner of Sir Colin Davis’s Georgian music room, the skull decorated by pieces of shiny paper, like a Christmas tree. “It’s a reminder,” Davis glowers.

Perhaps it is no wonder if Davis feels himself haunted and his time limited. He celebrates his 85th birthday later this year. His wife, Shamsi, who was a leading advocate and teacher of the Alexander Technique, died in 2010 in a north London hospice while he was conducting a performance at Covent Garden; the loss has been a heavy blow to him. But he shows no sign of abandoning his musical vocation: this spring, besides giving a concert performance of Weber’s operatic masterpiece Der Freischütz with the LSO, of which he is President, he is due to appear at the Incorporated Society of Musicians conference in an April event dedicated to his life and work. 

“I don’t have the energy I used to,” he insists. “Performing a big piece really takes it out of me now – afterwards one feels one ought to be put out to grass, like an old donkey. I’ve given myself the task of reading the whole of Shakespeare once again. I did it before because I thought I might die. But I’m quite sure I’m going to this time, so I’d better hurry up.” 

Yet behind this somewhat doom-laden facade, he’s lost little of his sparkle and none of his ferocious devotion to music. I’ve arrived at his doorstep armed with a plethora of questions about how he sees the future of classical music, but it is the state of the present that really works him up, especially the domination of the music world by those who, in his opinion, misunderstand what music is all about, or don’t understand it at all. And, naturally, the future depends on the present.

Reports of the death of classical music and the decline of audiences are very much exaggerated, in his view. “All I know is that the orchestra I work with is very much alive,” he declares. “It has good audiences, interesting performers, soloists and conductors, and it seems to be all right. But things are not usually what they seem, so one wonders. There have been, in my lifetime, three or four suggestions that we only need two point seven orchestras in London, or something utterly ridiculous like that – rather like having three point five babies. Statistics are stupid; they sometimes have no foundation in fact. We shouldn’t start really worrying about that unless people don’t want to hear music any more, and I don’t think that’s the case. A mass of people have never been interested in music anyway, and those that are are stubbornly in favour of it. It’s such an interesting invention that it’s always going to attract the more curious and the more emotional individuals. 

“The youth orchestras have never been so well attended,” he adds, “nor have they ever played so well. That goes for the symphony orchestras, too – the standard is incredibly high now and it won’t be because of that that things fail. The promise of new musicians and people perpetually coming into the profession keeps the standard up and the accusation that only old people go in for it is absolute nonsense.” 

But then we come to something that for a conductor whose fans adore his Mozart (he recently did Così fan tutte at Covent Garden) can’t help but be a major issue: the domination of 18th century repertoire by period-instrument  ensembles and specialists in “historically informed performance” which has had the unfortunate side-effect of scaring symphony orchestras away from classical music’s ultimate core repertoire of Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart - and often beyond. 

Davis, of course, has refused to be intimidated. It’s intriguing to find that one of the finest musicians of our day has no time whatsoever for this dominant trend. 

“I think they just hijacked that repertory to give themselves something to do and something new to do with it,” he insists. “The way they play Baroque music is unspeakable. It’s entirely theoretical. Most of them don’t play it because it’s deeply moving – they play it to grind out their theories about bows and gut strings and old instruments, and about how you have to phrase it this way or that way. Music isn’t like that, is it? At least, I don’t think it is. A great composer, especially someone like Mozart, does not fit into that. We’re not alive then - what music means to us now is probably different, in a limited way.” 

Focusing on academic correctness in minute details of phrasing and articulation, he adds, means that too often the deeper meaning of the music is ignored. “The articulation comes from the line you happen to be expressing. Of course it’s about expressing. When you get married you don’t go to the public library to look up what’s going to happen! It’s so stupid – especially in music which is so alive, such a living thing when people play it.”

“There’s Roger Norrington, who plays Berlioz’s Requiem without any vibrato – it must be a foretaste of purgatory. And John Eliot Gardiner can be very horribly theoretical about things. People may say ‘well, they didn’t play it with vibrato’. Perhaps not – but perhaps if they had, they would have preferred it! 

"Playing without vibrato is one of the musical colours available in romantic music – if you play something without vibrato sometimes it can give something a most unnerving effect. But to set out to play all these vocal melodies without vibrato – it doesn’t accord with so much of what was written.  Geminiani [Francesco Geminiani, composer and violinist, 1687-1762] wrote that you should play the violin as if it was the most beautiful voice you’ve ever heard. I’ve never heard a voice sing in squeegee phrasing, with no vibrato. I’ve been to performances where the instrumentalists played like that, but of course nobody sang like that – because you can’t! So it doesn’t make any sense.I suspect some of these musicians are emotionally retarded. They’re afraid to let go.

His own mentors included Sir Thomas Beecham, who invited him to work at Glyndebourne with him on Mozart, something that helped to establish the young Davis as a leading Mozartian. He was much influenced, too, by musicians such as the Amadeus String Quartet – “We had a great number of Jewish refugees, particularly from Vienna, and they taught us a very great deal. They had tremendous discipline. But it was also an emotional matter. I’ve heard Beethoven quartets played sort of a la baroque, very fast – it’s utterly meaningless. What’s the point of that music? If you go too fast you can’t understand it anyway. It’s barmy. But people forget that when I was a young man, there was this early music thing, but it didn’t have the hold on things that it does now. 

“People like Robert Donington, Thurston Dart and George Malcolm played old instruments when they felt like it, but it wasn’t obligatory. I don’t know what it is that seduces human beings in such a way. It’s arid, in the end. I’ve heard Bach especially mangled, as though he has no emotional content, as though his harmonies aren’t the most weird things. And it’s all just swept through. It’s no good at all.They don't listen to the music.

“That’s another wretched business: the metronome marks. The academic freaks treat them as holy numbers. That was brought home to me by Stravinsky. We did Oedipus Rex when I was a young man, at Sadler’s Wells, and he came to a performance. He said to me, “Why did you go so slowly in Jocasta’s aria?” and I said, “Mr Stravinsky, I was just trying to do the metronome mark”. He responded: “ My dear boy, the metronome mark is only a beginning!” A lot of great music doesn’t have any metronome marks, so people are afraid of playing it – they’ll have to sit and puzzle over what they think it should sound like. I don’t find any problem with that. If you listen to the music it will tell you how it wants to go. But if you impose on it from the beginning, the poor thing’s in a straitjacket – you’re not discovering anything about it, you’re just saying ‘do that’. That’s daft – because music is one of the few things left where we have any freedom.”

How, then, can we ensure a strong future for classical music? “There are some relatively simple things – for instance, making sure every child is musically literate,” says Davis, “as the Hungarians used to. It’s a fantastic thing – and it could be done, if anybody had any imagination . These dull, dismal politicians who are encased in Plaster of Paris - they don’t listen to anybody, they don’t really entertain new ideas. They just juggle the old ones. And the famous Lady Thatcher took away money from schools for employing peripatetic music teachers because she didn’t think music was very useful. She was just a materialist, and that’s what they all are. But the LSO do what they can, and so do the other London orchestras, taking their instruments round to the schools, trying to get the kids interested. It’s a lovely job.” 

What does he think of El Sistema, the now fabled music education system from Venezuela that has transformed many deprived children’s lives with instrumental lessons? “It’s nothing new,” he insists. “We’ve always said that the way to keep difficult youngsters out of mischief is to give them enough to do. And music is one of the most wonderful ways of doing that.”

“The other thing that irritates me is ‘elitism’ accusations against classical music. Most of those wonderful composers came out of nowhere. Dvorak was a butcher as well as a viola player – they go very well together, don’t they?” (Viola players are, as ever, the butt of most orchestral jokes.) “Martinu was a wheelwright. Elgar and Berlioz were both largely self-taught. Mozart was the son of an indifferent court fiddler. Beethoven came from a drunken family. Look at them. None of them were from the aristocracy – except Gesualdo. And he got into trouble for running through his wife and her lover with a sword.”

 “I think the most important thing is that people just get back to playing musical instruments. On the great days of the calendar my family turns up and we play chamber music. That’s great.” He has five children: two are professional musicians and all of them play instruments. “Of course the best pieces of chamber music are extremely difficult, so we’re still struggling with them. But that’s where freedom really begins. Take a violin soloist like Nikolai Znaider – he can play the violin and he doesn’t have to worry about technique, so he can think about the music. The same with orchestras: when they’re very good, they’re not disturbed by technical problems. They just need an hour or two. When we started to play those Nielsen symphonies – I’ve never seen anything so difficult in all my life! The LSO’s eyes popped out when they saw it. But they sat down together and practised it.” 

You might imagine that a senior conductor who took a slow, steady path towards the top of his profession might be sceptical about the speed with which young conductors today become established – but Davis applauds the new generation with enthusiasm. “I think it’s great,” he insists. Doesn’t he think they do too much, too young? “If they do, they’ll find out later,” he quips. “The one I know best is Robin Ticciati. He’s coming over to dinner and we’re going to cook spaghetti – then we’ll find out what he’s really like! It’s important to do human things, to take time away from music.” 

That is his main advice to young conductors: “Some conductors, it’s true, fly from place to place, but they don’t give them time to think about anything and I don’t think that develops a person very much. It’s much better to take three weeks off, get a pile of books and read them. Things used to be like that – it wasn’t any better, but it was a little livelier.” There’s no need for conductors to be in such a hurry in career terms: “Fill your mind as much as you possibly can with anything else. Where are you going to get new ideas from if you don’t read? Music doesn’t feed itself.”




Saturday, March 10, 2012

Hung up on the hang?

I had a fascinating chat the other day with Manu Delago, composer, percussionist and champion in chief of an astonishing newish instrument that looks like a cross between a UFO and a wok. It's called the hang - and he's got the hang of it so well that Bjork became a fan and invited him to tour with her. He's performing soon at LSO St Luke's, with a new Concertino Grosso of his own. Here's the short interview from yesterday's Independent, and below is an example so beguiling that it's had more than 3m Youtube hits.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Debussy's bustin' out all over

Here we go...it's the Debussy anniversary! A grand 150 years since the birth of (almost) everyone's favourite French composer, a figure without whom the entire face of 20th-century music would have been utterly different. I've written two relevant pieces which are both out today.

First, here's my interview with Michael Tilson Thomas from this week's JC. The American conductor is presiding over the LSO's Debussy series which starts next week. His family background is truly fascinating, though: the American Yiddish theatre proved a rich and radical field for artistic development of many kinds, including his.

And here, from The Independent, is an interview with the lovely Noriko Ogawa, who is doing a Debussy festival in Manchester with the BBC Philharmonic, opening tonight. The influence of Japanese culture - 'Japanoiserie', at any rate - on Debussy was vital; and in return, his music has made a major impact on the Japanese composers of today. The piece has been somewhat chopped, though, so below is the director's cut. Plus a video interview with Noriko from Cardiff, recorded last summer.




NORIKO OGAWA & REFLECTIONS ON DEBUSSY
Jessica Duchen

In 1862 Claude Debussy was born in Paris: the biggest musical celebrations of 2012 will mark his 150th anniversary. ‘Reflections on Debussy’, a major new festival based at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, promises to be one of the most unusual takes on this seminal French composer and his legacy. It unites past and present, Europe and Asia, and a pianist and orchestra who, having been caught up in Japan’s devastating earthquake, are lucky to be here at all.

On 11 March 2011 the Japanese pianist Noriko Ogawa was waiting for a train in Tokyo when the platform began to shake under her feet. At the same moment, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, on tour in Japan, was travelling in a bus, which was crossing a bridge. Miraculously, they all escaped unscathed. Now they are working together, exploring the links between Debussy and Japanese culture.

The links are more serendipitous than one might imagine. “It was in the year of Debussy’s birth, 1862, that a group of 30-40 Japanese diplomats came to Europe for the first time,” Ogawa points out. “They would have been wearing full traditional regalia, complete with swords, and they must have looked incredibly exotic to the populations of Paris and London.” In those days, Japan was still “closed”, mysterious to the outside world, more distant even than India and China. And as the century progressed, a vogue for Japanese culture swept through France, carrying Debussy with it.

Ogawa suggests that Debussy had a natural affinity with deep underlying qualities in Japanese art, especially the ukiyo-e “Floating World” woodblock prints by artists such as Hokusai and Hiroshige. They likewise made a profound impact on western artists of successive generations – first Manet and Monet, later Gauguin, Lautrec and Matisse.

“Japanese art then used a very deformed perspective,” Ogawa points out. “Artists picked out the aspects they wanted to emphasise. For instance, if a man is looking furious in one Floating World picture, his face is much bigger than the rest of his body – just to reinforce the sense that he is angry.” It is not a vast step from there to the fantastical perspectives of Symbolism, a movement absorbed in subjective, dreamlike and suggestive atmospheres rather than literal images. Debussy associated himself with this artistic movement more than any other.

The cover picture on the first printed copies of his orchestral work La Mer – effectively a kind of sea symphony – is Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanegawa. “It brings out the strength of the sea, exaggerating this rather than being perfect like a photograph,” says Ogawa. “That deliberate deformation of perspective creates a stronger impression. Debussy does this, too, in his music. He broke all the rules!”
Other pieces by Debussy seem to share the formality, restraint and concision of Japanese art. 

“You need a strong sense of control on the keyboard to play Debussy,” says Ogawa. “You can’t be overemotional or drown yourself in it; you have to be objective and keep searching for the right quality and beauty of sound. It’s the opposite of Brahms and Beethoven’s rock-solid Germanic music. After the incredibly emotional Romantic era, Debussy opens the window to let the fresh air in.” 

The most Japanese of his works, she suggests, is ‘Poissons d’or’, the final piano piece from Images, Book II – directly inspired by exquisitely wrought images on a Japanese lacquer cabinet depicting koi carp.

Debussy’s fondness for Japanese culture was first sparked at the Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair) in Paris in 1889; there, too, he encountered the music of the Indonesian gamelan, which also made a deep impression on him. He never travelled to the Far East, but his entire personality predisposed him to the absorption of influences rich and strange. Debussy, whom some considered Bohemian and non-conformist and whose personal life encompassed some very public scandals, was sensitive to a remarkable degree. His unceasingly enquiring mind allowed him to draw on innumerable sources for his music: everything was fair game, from the poems of Baudelaire to the novels of Dickens, from the drawings of Arthur Rackham to circus performances by acrobats. Perhaps his affinity for Japanese art was innate, or perhaps there was even more to it: “It’s almost as if he was able to tune in to its wavelength, like a radio,” says Ogawa.

Highlights she has devised for ‘Reflections on Debussy’ include a traditional Japanese tea ceremony before she performs the composer’s Etudes for piano, and a flower ceremony before the Préludes; and the series also features works by the late Toru Takemitsu and a younger Japanese composer, Yoshihiro Kanno, who were both profoundly influenced by Debussy’s musical language.

Ogawa has commissioned a set of three piano pieces from Kanno, each of which involves a different traditional Japanese percussion instrument. For instance, A Particle of Water employs Myochin Hibashi chopsticks: these are manufactured by a craftsman from the 54th generation of a family that once made swords for Samurai warriors and are constructed from the same metal as those legendary weapons. Ogawa couldn’t resist adding Chopsticks itself to the programme, though.  

Joking aside, though, the festival is part of her post-earthquake therapy. Born and brought up in Japan, she thought she was used to earthquakes, but this one was different: “The horizontal movement told us that this was something much stronger,” she recalls. “It went on for 90 seconds, which is really long. After that the electricity went off, everything shut down and in the north of the country the tsunami arrived very quickly. People there lost everything – homes, businesses, livelihoods – in just half an hour.”

Dazed, confused, and convinced that Japan was facing apocalypse, she lost interest in playing the piano until she decided to go to America and give a fundraising concert to help the victims. So far, she has raised more than £21,000 for the British Red Cross’s aid to Japan; and additionally she has organised the design of some greeting cards – involving black cats, pianos and Debussy, who used to frequent a club named Le Chat Noir – which she sells at her concerts to benefit the Japan Society.

“There are still aftershocks even now,” she says. “But I don’t want to talk about disastrous things too much, because people are trying to be positive. I’d just like to offer something that people will enjoy, feeling at the same time they’re doing something to help.”

The intuitive Debussy could well have approved.

Reflections on Debussy begins on 20 January at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester. Box Office: 0161 907 9000