Showing posts with label Sir Simon Rattle. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sir Simon Rattle. Show all posts

Monday, November 23, 2015

Hall of mirrors?

The results of the feasibility study into the mooted new concert hall in the City of London are due out, I hear, (two months late) on Wednesday.

In case you missed it when the whole thing began back in February, here's a piece I wrote over at The Amati Magazine, wondering whether the project is a) a political football, or b) a vanity project, or c) the results of remotely joined up thinking about the needs of London's cultural life, or music education, or d) an attempt to kill off the Southbank (presumably together with all its ensembles - has the LSO ever quite forgotten that murderous 'superorchestra' plan?), or... what exactly? We need a hall, but we don't need it at any price.
...How ironic that some of the people behind this ambitious, “mostly” privately-funded new project should be the very same that effectively killed plans to transform the Southbank Centre into an more attractive, state-of-the-art location.
Is this hall not a hall? Is it a political football, intended to prove the worth of private finance over public and therefore of right-wing attitudes over left?
Conspiracy theories aside, what’s certain is that, far beyond the Square Mile, budget cuts to local authorities – necessitated by Osborne’s austerity policies – are threatening music tuition for thousands of children around the country who cannot afford to pay for private lessons...
Read the whole thing here. 

But many things have changed since February - above all, this past week. In the light of the terrorist attacks in Paris and the current outcry over the projected gigantic cuts to policing here, the idea that a new concert hall costing in the region of several hundred million pounds could be given a significant injection of government money to get it underway would perhaps not be guaranteed to go down exceedingly well with the general public.

And with costs doubtless spiralling, where is the money really going to come from? What chance that the lifeblood of government funding might be sucked out, vampirically, from other arts organisations in London in order to build a super vanity project?

Let's see what happens on Wednesday. I wouldn't rule anything out. The only thing that can usually be guaranteed where British governments and the arts are concerned is that sometime, somewhere, somehow, there'll probably be an almighty cockup.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Honeymoon music-making, and a story about Brahms

Rattle (left), Zimerman (centre) and the LSO: a night to remember. Photo: Amy T. Zielinksi

The honeymoon is underway over at the Barbican: Sir Simon Rattle is here for his first concerts with the LSO since The Announcement a few months back. On Thursday night he kicked off this stint with his orchestra-to-be, offering a high-octane programme of Brahms and Dvorak.

The LSO, let's face it, needs him. We need him, too. He offers a taste of the genuine passion that should be at the heart of musical experience, yet all too often isn't as others let its precedence falter under the competing weight, variously, of intellect (necessary, but in balance), power (less necessary), greed (not at all) and ego-building pretension (aagh...). Rattle is, for music, pioneer, evangelist and born leader; and while raising such high expectations for his forthcoming tenure at the LSO is obviously dangerous, it's hard not to notice that everyone is hoping he'll be the best thing that's happened to us in a good while.

The fact that he was able to bring Krystian Zimerman with him to play the Brahms D minor Concerto says much about his persuasive nature, since this titan of a pianist is, sadly, now among several greats who no longer willingly subject themselves on a regular basis to the many and varied iniquities of London.

Rattle in action. Photo: Creative Commons
Rattle conducts like a man in love with music and with life; and the orchestra responded to him like a purring cat experiencing sunshine and tuna fish. One almost expected it to roll on its collective back and let him stroke its tummy. The sheer sensual gorgeousness of sound he draws from them is light years away from Gergiev's heavy-duty ferocity; no less visceral, but with different intent, different texture - speaking to the heart as much as to the gut.

A second half of Dvorak tone-poems and a joyous, high-stepping Slavonic dance as encore was a surprising but refreshing choice of repertoire - something else we need from the LSO and Rattle is a healthy injection of unusual pieces - and when delivered with such narrative charm and all-giving warmth (y'know, Mrs Rattle is Czech), it convinces, lingering in the mind. And Zimerman's Brahms found conductor and soloist in more than exceptional accord.

When I interviewed Zimerman for the first time back in c1990, I quizzed him about that special intensity that seems to drive his playing. He commented that he likes to play on the very edge of what's possible. Sometimes it seems he goes beyond it. This Brahms was one such occasion - and how excellent to hear, once more, that white-hot quality that so compelled in the young pianist, and that remains intact and alight in his late fifties.

Brahms's Piano Concerto No.1 is the creation of a very young composer; the first sketches date from 1854, when he was all of 21 and was considering writing a symphony, soon after Schumann's attempted suicide and incarceration in the Endenich mental hospital. Several permutations later, the drafts evolved into the D minor Concerto. Brahms once wrote to Clara Schumann that the Adagio was a "gentle portrait" of her - and the theme apparently sets the unheard words "Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domine", from the Requiem mass, in tribute to Schumann, who by then had died.

So far, so beautiful - but what about that last movement? Some approach it as an austere, Bachian-Beethovenian counterpoint exercise. Zimerman brought us a Hungarian dance. When have we ever heard it sound quite so alive and aflame?

It makes sense, too. Think about it. Variation 14 of the Brahms 'Handel Variations' is extremely similar to this movement's main theme in certain ways: a lively, staccato, syncopated number with strongly marked rhythms, trills flying around and a running semiquaver bassline; and it follows from the sultry variation 13, verbunkos style. The two variations make up a lassù and friss. You can almost feel Joseph Joachim, Brahms's close friend and Hungarian violinist par excellence, peering over his shoulder and picking up the tribute with a brusque nod of thanks. Perhaps it's not only youthfully exuberant; perhaps, complete with that pernickety fugue episode, it's a portrait of Joachim to complement the portrait of Clara? It would not have been the first such piece Brahms created, and it certainly wasn't the last.

Who does that leave for movement no.1? It's been said before that the opening plunges, with Schumann, into the Rhine. This music feels like a soul in existential crisis. As Zimerman and Rattle bounced ideas off each other, plumbing the extremities of the score, the anguish and struggle behind Brahms's conception shone out as vividly as if they'd poured descaler over its furred-up contours and brought it to life new-minted. Zimerman's moments of pianissimo playing at times seemed almost to shock the orchestra into matching him. The balance never faltered; Rattle's support let him fly up to the sun on wings that can take the heat.

Is this a sign of things we can look forward to when Rattle arrives in earnest? Bring it on.

Next summer Zimerman is scheduled to come back with him, too, this time for a spot of Beethoven.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Symphony Hall to be shifted to London

Is this to be Orfulkoff Symphony Hall, City of London?
Photo: Craig Holmes

In a strange yet possibly inspired twist to the saga of the new venue for Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, is to be shifted brick by brick to London.

Rattle's campaigning for a state-of-the-art concert hall during his years with the CBSO resulted in the construction of what many consider to be the UK's finest of its kind. But now, as Birmingham City Council struggles against budget cuts that have already rendered its splendid new library openable only in restricted hours, selling Symphony Hall to London appears to kill many birds with one concrete block. Rattle and the LSO get the use of Symphony Hall's fabulous acoustic and magnificent interior; the cost to London will be lower than commissioning a brand-new design and buying new materials; Birmingham City Council gets the money from selling off arguably its finest asset; and everybody is happy, with the possible exception of the CBSO.

It is thought that the tab for much of this will be met by a massive donation from the philanthropic pharmaceutical oligarch Ivan Orfulkoff, whose firm will later gain further promotion by offering audiences attending events free manuka honey lozenges. The hall will, obviously, be renamed after the man who has given so much to support its arrival in the capital. It is expected that Orfulkoff Symphony Hall will open its doors to the public in time for Rattle's first concert as LSO music director.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015


Today a dream has come true for the LSO.  They just confirmed that Sir Simon Rattle is to take over as music director in 2017. Congratulations, guys. Brava, managing director Kathryn McDowell, with her well-placed butterfly net. And good luck with everything this may bring to London at long last.

Wondering what this means for the rest of the orchestral scene in London, meanwhile.

Rattle said of his appointment:

“During my work with the LSO over the last years, I noticed that despite the Orchestra’s long and illustrious history, they almost never refer to it. Instead, refreshingly, they talk about the future, what can they make anew, what can they improve, how can they reach further into the community. In terms of musical excellence, it is clear that the sky's the limit, but equally important, in terms of philosophy, they constantly strive to be a twenty-first century orchestra. We share a dream in which performing, teaching and learning are indivisible, with wider dissemination of our art at its centre. I cannot imagine a better or more inspiring way to spend my next years, and feel immensely fortunate to have the LSO as my musical family and co-conspirators.”

Mind Unit - websites, content management and email marketing for the arts

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Rattle's Sibelius...

I went along to the Barbican on Tuesday for the opening night of the Rattle/Berlin Sibelius cycle. My review is for The Independent and should be online there soon. I wanted to post it here before The London Residency comes to its close tomorrow...


Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
Barbican, London, 10 January 2015

Jessica Duchen

The Barbican was heaving at the concrete seams as the Berliner Philharmoniker began its London residency, the promise of which has been engendering unprecedented heat. Divided between this hall and the Southbank Centre, it features Sir Simon Rattle at the helm of his German orchestra, widely termed the best in the world. The expectations of this orchestra are such that tickets for its Mahler Second Symphony at the weekend are rumoured to be changing hands for £200 a piece. Meanwhile Rattle’s mooted appointment as music director of the London Symphony Orchestra is still up in the air.

Opening their complete cycle of symphonies by Sibelius with the first two, Rattle and the Berliners proved at the peak of their powers: an orchestra of individual virtuosi playing as one, as if in supersized chamber music, with Rattle, conducting from memory, leading the way with an assurance that proved at every turn that the music is part of him and he of it.

Rattle has a long history with the Sibelius symphonies – he recorded them back in his years last century with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – and his interpretations have grown into something at once individual and universal. Here the progress of the composer's imaginative sophistication from the first to the second symphonies shone out: No.1, dating from 1900, aching in the shadow of Tchaikovsky; No.2 moving into new dramatic territories in which no step is safe, no illusion unquestioned, yet no lament unanswered by hope.

For some, Rattle’s interpretations might at first seem too rich, too warm; we imagine Sibelius as rugged and lonely, shivering through the Finnish winter. But his ability to pace the drama paid ample dividends: working in long lines and giant paragraphs, generating energy from small details that gradually rise to take over, striking just the right balance to cast new light over the precipices, the power of thought is made palpable with overwhelming intensity.

Above all, though, listening to this orchestra is an experience of astonishing sensuality, the aural equivalent of, for example, bathing in asses’ milk laced with rose petals while sipping the finest vintage Bordeaux and watching the Northern Lights at their most spectacular, topped by a meteor shower. If you thought an orchestra could not do that, be advised: it can.

This opulence of tone is the Berliner Philharmoniker’s own, honed long ago under the baton of Herbert von Karajan; Rattle is in some ways åits custodian. But it is clear how much he will be leaving behind in Berlin when he departs, and equally clear what we would be missing if he does not ultimately accept that post with the LSO. Frankly we need Rattle here more than he needs us. If a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like this is missed, if the UK’s only home-grown great maestro is allowed to slip through our fingers thanks to finance and mealy-mouthed politicians, it would be an act of criminal irresponsibility against the cultural life of the UK.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Rattle: "European orchestral conditions are like the wildest edges of science fiction in our country"

Sir Simon Rattle: only on his terms
Photo: c Sheila Rock/EMI Classics

Following a spectacular opening for his London Residency with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon has been speaking to BBC TV News. Yesterday, in an interview with the BBC's Will Gompertz, he declared: 

"I think it's clear that London and Munich are the two great cities in the world that don't have proper concert halls. The music lovers of London and of the country would deserve to have something where also the orchestras can flourish. 

"You have no idea how wonderful an orchestra like the London Symphony Orchestra can sound in a great concert hall. The Barbican is serviceable. But it's like when I've seen so many young violinists finally be handed a great violin - it's a whole other world."

He also drew a pertinent comparison between the general conditions and the generous rehearsal time he has with the Berliner Philharmoniker and the LSO's relentless schedule of performing and touring. 

"The kind of conditions a European orchestra has, which any orchestra would take for granted in Europe, are on the wildest edges of science fiction in our country, particularly in London. It's hard to explain to people just how hard and brutally these London orchestras work."

Will Gompertz asked him whether he was saying that if he can alter the conditions towards something a little closer to that of Berlin, then he would accept the LSO music director post, and if not, he wouldn't? 

"I think the conditions for the players are incredibly important," said Sir Simon, "because it's a matter of what actually people can achieve." 

Gompertz concluded that Rattle would come back to Britain - but only on his own terms. Which is pretty much what we thought. 

The sound of the Berlin orchestra in Sibelius's first two symphonies was so overwhelming, by the way, that I scarcely slept a wink that night. My review should be up at the Independent website soon.

Monday, January 19, 2015


Sir Simon Rattle is 60 today. He's on his way over to London for a major residency and a slew of celebratory programmes on BBC TV(!) and Radio 3 next month. The fuss and the heat is growing by the day - but we still don't know if he's definitely taking the LSO job. Never mind; this film shows him conducting SIX school orchestras in Berlin. Which is exactly the sort of leadership we need here.

With politicians calling for more diversity in the arts, yet simultaneously making the cost of music (and theatre) education so high that only the privileged can afford to train unless the good fortune of a rare full scholarship comes their way - where's the joined-up thinking, chaps? - a terrific celebrity maestro of this magnitude could potentially make a major difference to the state of the art, not just in his musicianship, but also as advocate, figurehead, role model and inspiration for all.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

St Matthew and St Mark?

It was one of the hottest tickets in town yesterday: the semi-staged performance at the Proms of the Bach St Matthew Passion with the Berlin Philharmonic, Sir Simon Rattle conducting, direction by Peter Sellars. Add to this the Berlin Radio Choir, singing from memory, an all-star cast and a packed Albert Hall that was ready for anything...

Well, almost anything. We were not quite ready for the utterly devastating performance that Mark Padmore gave as the Evangelist. In Sellars' concept - sometimes convincing, sometimes less so - the Evangelist carries everything, experiencing the emotions and traumas of each character, supporting them, leading them, suffering in their place. Christ - the astounding Christian Gerhaher - is a distant figure, seated above the orchestra and outside the action through the first half, then entirely off stage for his scant few phrases in the second. The Evangelist lives the drama and is its focal point. The beauty, nuancing, clarity and stillness of Padmore's voice would have been enough to carry the night on its own, but his every move magnetised us and convinced us that he felt every anguish, every burden and every lash. If the British music business had not already given him a virtual sainthood by repute, they certainly should now. (Gerhaher, of course, is just as magical, but has frustratingly little to sing.)

The staging has its ups and downs, many of them literal. A lot of rushing around is involved and sometimes one wished they'd keep still for a few minutes. Yet some extraordinary images unfolded that also enhanced the music at a profound level, notably through the interaction of the instrumental soloists with the singers, moments that carried a plethora of meanings. Sometimes the players seemed to represent the soul, the conscience or the better self; perhaps even God, or Bach in place of God? Magdalena Kozena sang 'Erbarme dich' kneeling at the feet of her violinist; Camilla Tilling in 'Aus liebe will mein Heiland sterben' stood in close quartet with her oboists and flautist; Emmanuel Pahud, no less, beside her right shoulder. Tenor Topi Lehtipuu stretched up towards an unattainable oboist in the organ inset; bass Eric Owens appeared to pray for mercy before a vengeful virtuoso fiddler. 

Rattle's tempi were largely very brisk, sometimes too much so - occasionally I longed for an old-school influence to bring back a little more time for breath, contemplation and refulgence, since some of the intricate instrumental writing whooshed by to somewhat unsettling effect. But the magic was there all the same and the moments of stillness stood out all the better. The episode that brings the whole work together is (I feel) the final bass aria, 'Mache dich mein Herze rein' - here he understands, accepts and transcends all that has gone before. If that doesn't do its job, nothing does. It worked. 

My personal frustration with the staging is mostly due to the sonic impact, as it entails much clonking about and some directional echoes which are the fault of the RAH's acoustic, not the performers. Still, there's much to chew over: the presence, or lack of it, of Jesus himself (we might ask: is he real?), those intimate dialogues between singers and instrumentalists, that soul-searing performance by Padmore. 

Would less be more? We can feel the suffering in the music; we don't need to see it. The spiritual catharsis of this work, like Parsifal's, is perhaps better internalised if there is not too much to observe and assess: that process puts us outside ourselves, switches on our objective brain and mutes the intuitive, emotional plane that's necessary for the full cumulative effect to reach us. (Btw, I am not religious in any way, shape or form; yet perhaps that makes the spiritual dimensions of Bach and Wagner all the more meaningful.)

What seemed at the time a long, hot evening now haunts for its ineffable beauty, its deeply human quest for meaning and its all-consuming, tour-de-force performances. 

In the foyer I spotted the head of the LSO, who may or may not have been clutching a metaphorical butterfly net. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The soprano who keeps her head when all around are losing theirs...

It's Sally Matthews, who stars as Blanche in the forthcoming run (the Robert Carsen production) at Covent Garden of Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle. The opera ends with the onstage beheading of 16 nuns. 

Here's my interview with her from today's Independent.  And a little extract from Gianni Schicchi.

If you met Sally Matthews in the street you might not guess that she is one of Britain's finest sopranos. Quiet, serious and rather reserved, the 38-year-old singer is anything but an obvious star; but on stage her voice speaks for itself. Blessed with great range and a rich tone containing unusual warmth, colour and shadow, her refulgent yet pure sound is ideal for Mozart, Strauss and, not least, French music.

Matthews is about to take the leading role in Francis Poulenc's opera Dialogues des Carmélites at the Royal Opera House, amid an all-star cast conducted by Simon Rattle. Operatic success does not get much bigger than this, but she refuses to play the diva. To her, opera is teamwork; and she prefers to avoid repertoire like the more melodramatic moments of Puccini, which possibly attract a different type of personality. "Sometimes the big egos completely detract from what we're doing," she muses. "I've worked with a few of them and I didn't like it much. It should be all about the music."

The Southampton-born singer's career was launched when she won the Kathleen Ferrier Singing Competition in 1999, but it was a special opportunity at the Royal Opera House in 2001 that subsequently determined her direction...

'Dialogues des Carmélites', Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000) 29 May to 11 June

Monday, January 13, 2014

My top ten wishes for music in the new year

1. Re performers, I wish we might see the return to these shores of the pianists Grigory Sokolov, Krystian Zimerman, Martha Argerich and Menahem Pressler.

2. Re audiences, I wish for the principle to be established that you have a responsibility to consider other people as well as yourself - you may have bought a ticket, but so have they. Therefore during the concert you don't talk, you switch off all functions of your phone and you - er - listen to the music.

3. Re orchestras and other ensembles, I wish that those who depend on their local councils for life-giving tranches of funding could find alternative sources, fast. I fear they will need them. Here is the first of what will be many such problems: the BBC Philharmonic's grant is being slashed by Salford Council, which - shamefully - is also ending its contribution to music and performing arts in schools, according to this report from the Manchester Evening News.

4. Re programming, I wish for scope, breadth and depth. I am sick of pianists in particular programming same old same old. Do you know how much piano repertoire there is? More than any of us could possibly read through in one lifetime. So no more Schumann Etudes Symphoniques; why not Gesange der Fruhe? And enough of the last three Schubert sonatas; why not the G major or the big D major instead, or, if you can face its challenges, the "little" A minor? This could go on, but you get my drift.

5. I also wish for plenty of Andrzej Panufnik, whose centenary falls this year. He is a neglected master and he's due for a big-time return to the concert hall. Watch this space for further details of the centenary plans so far. At least there's a good chance of this wish being fulfilled.

6. I wish that Sir Simon Rattle would confirm or deny, definitively, whether or not he is coming to head the LSO. Preferably the former.

7. An end to witch-hunting and bullying in all its forms. The notion that a composer/performer/any individual who does something artistic/creative/literary/etc should be judged in that activity first by his/her personal beliefs/sayings/doings in matters of religion/sex/politics/etc is insidious and daft.

8. I wish that along with endeavouring to increase levels of sponsorship, membership, Friends schemes etc, there could be an increased sense of responsibility to those who can't afford to be among them. Venues exist that sell out to their members before anyone else gets a look in. Some of those venues keep day seats for which you can queue. Those that don't currently do this should start. The ones that already do should keep more day seats.

9. I wish that some doughty, important and fearless conductor would decide that it is OK to perform Mozart operas with a bit of vibrato and an orchestra that's non-microscopic in size.

10. Last but by no means least, I wish for the realisation of my dream of an awards ceremony to celebrate and raise the profile of the great achievements of women in music. And I'm sure Fanny Mendelssohn (right) would approve.

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.... =>

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.

HUNGARIAN DANCES: the concert of the novel

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). 

Monday, September 02, 2013

Nice work

Been here, reviewing.

As locations for music festivals go, it really ain't bad. This is Lake Lucerne, snapped from the shore at the bottom of Wagner's lawn at Tribschen. I spent a happy afternoon there, working on the revision of my new play Sins of the Fathers, which is, at Tribschen. Pure coincidence, but nice. (The premiere, 24 November, is selling fast...)

I was really there to attend two concerts in the Lucerne Festival, one conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, the other by Jonathan Nott. Somewhat amused to see the heading "Viva la revolucion!" on the programmes. In Spanish. One concert was of Viennese and Russian music, the other was Wagner's Das Rheingold (part of Lucerne's first-ever Ring cycle). Few festivals have a less revolutionary atmosphere - the glorious lakeside and the wonderful acoustic of the KKL are populated by the sleek and meek of the moneyed festival circuit - but nevertheless, the programming is absolutely sterling and below the gleaming surface the waters are deep and fertile, especially where the Festival Academy is concerned. My review is out now in the Independent, here:

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Feasts, joy and optimism at the BBC Music Magazine Awards

A seriously impressive line-up of award-winners raised eyebrows and spirits alike yesterday at Kings Place when Oliver Condy and James Naughtie presented the BBC Music Magazine Awards 2013.

The Instrumental prize went to the fabulous and brave pianist Janina Fialkowska. (I was thrilled to be "sat" next to her at lunch - she is on the right.) Imogen Cooper was there to present her prize and it was deeply touching to see these two distinguished artists, who have been friends ever since their student days in Paris, take the stage together at such a celebration.

Janina's winning CD is of Chopin and she treated us to two waltzes that were fine testimony to her feel for natural expressiveness, delicate rubato and radiant tone. Knowing the story of her cancer survival adds a twist of poignancy (see my recent article about her in Classical Music Magazine), but her artistry transcends her personal history. Clear of the disease now for six years, she has started to plan long-term at last and the prize is worthy recognition for her, not a moment too soon.

Heart-warming, too, to find the occasion - quite unlike last year's Gramophone Awards - celebrating the achievements of women musicians extremely strongly. Composer Kaija Saariaho won the Premiere prize for a CD of her music and made a gracious acceptance speech. Star mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager was present to collect the Singer award for her CD of Liszt Lieder on Hyperion, and treated us to a gorgeous performance of Schumann's Widmung, accompanied by Roger Vignoles. And the young Malaysian pianist Mei Yi Foo scooped an audience prize for her album of contemporary piano pieces, Musical Toys: she proved herself a terrific player, assured, intelligent and glitter-fingered. Her career, we heard, has been on the up since she was spotted by the composer Unsuk Chin, who noted that she'd had three awful reviews of the type that meant she was probably a really interesting musician. "I don't only thrive on bad reviews," she added, accepting her prize. "I like good ones too..." I am sure she will win many more.

It was a good day, too, for Sir Simon Rattle - who wasn't there in person, but landed the prizes with his Berlin Phil both for the Orchestral category (the musicologically completed Bruckner 9) and the DVD (the Bach St Matthew Passion in a "ritualisation" by Peter Sellers). The principal cello of the Berliner Philharmoniker collected the award and made one of the day's most valuable points. The BBC has a classical music magazine? And it presents annual awards to celebrate the art form? Wow! In Germany - a country that we usually assume values classical music more highly than our own does - an equivalent situation is something of which he can only dream, he said. Do we know how lucky we are? (We do now.)

Last but by no means least, Sir Mark Elder scooped Record of the Year for his CD with the Halle of Elgar's The Apostles and was there to talk about its creation in inspiring tones, together with the baritone Jacques Imbrailo, who sings the role of Christ.

All in all, it was an enlightened selection, populated by genuine, passionate music-lovers and some of the finest performers on earth. A time for optimism, blessing-counting and great hope.

The full list of award-winners can be found here.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Salzburg: I am a Festspielhave

I'm just back from the Salzburg Festival, where I heard more amazing singers within 72 hours than you'd believe possible. Three very different operas from three different centuries, each focused on war, actual or between the sexes - usually both. My review-proper will be in Opera Now magazine. In the meantime, here's a little taste of the trip.

Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Die Soldaten proved perhaps opera's most devastating experience: an all-out tour-de-force, assaulting senses and emotions alike. Good to see TV cameras there last Sunday, as this production is a great achievement that requires preservation on film; nothing, though, can really capture the impact of experiencing it live, from a seat almost beneath the largest of several outsize tam-tams. This opera musters every last shred of force available to an orchestra, a cast, a lead soprano (the magnificent Laura Aikin), a conductor (heroic Ingo Metzmacher) and the human ear itself to get across its message: the horrors that these military men foist upon the hapless Marie, and the failure of a variety of parents to prevent it. The composer took his own life in 1970. Books on Zimmermann are in short supply, and there seems to be nothing in English, but Alex Ross provides some valuable insights here.

Other question-marks hang over Carmen. Updated to Franco's Spain, it starred Magdalena Kozena as a red-haired firebrand partnered first of all by her husband, Sir Simon Rattle, in the pit, and secondly by Jonas Kaufmann, whose Don Jose was a puzzling matter possibly determined by directorial decisions rather than tenorial ones.

Finally, Handel's Giulio Cesare, with Andreas Scholl as Julius, Cecilia Bartoli as Cleopatra, Anne Sofie von Otter Cornelia and Philippe Jaroussky Sesto. These people know how to Handel you. A perturbing moment towards the end when one reckoned that the Salzburg Festival and all those great singers should know better than to put drinks on a piano. But otherwise...these guys and GFH together moved me to tears several times - Cornelia's first aria, the duet for her and Sesto, Cleo's 'Piangerai' - and left me at the end of five hours almost ready to beg for more. Gulp.

Inside the venues: phenomenal music-making, imaginative productions (some more than others) and world-class performances. The setting: mountain scenery, evening dresses, outsize jewellery, facelifts, sponsors' parties, pre-show drinkies choice of Moet on one side of the road or Taittinger on the other.

And the Festspielhave? In case you haven't seen all this before, the Festspielhaus bears Roman-style lettering above the door, declaring it the 'Festspielhavs'. This is where the Festspielhaves go in. The promenade of the audience around the champagne stalls often attracts onlookers. Those are the Festspielhavenots.

Pretentious though it may look, it's not all snob value. On my second and third evenings my neighbours were enthusiasts who were there on their own purely for love of music and interest in theatre. One was a retired lady from west of Paris, the other a mechanic from the Salzkammergut. And there is kindness aboard, too. Exiting Die Soldaten, I was brolliless in a downpour that put Salzburg's famous Schnurlregen to shame. A Californian lady festival-goer spotted me and offered to share her umbrella across the bridge. That's never happened en route to Waterloo Station. (Below: the view of the Castle from the interval crowd outside the Felsenreitschule. The dog is a Festspielhavenot.)

The atmosphere has changed a little since my last visit, some 20 years ago. Back then, almost every shop window bore a poster showing one or more of the musical stars visiting the town. The buses carried advertisements proudly welcoming Maurizio Pollini and Krystian Zimerman to Salzburg. The record shops were full to busting. Today? The sides of the buses plug designer outlets and free parking. I only spotted one record shop in town, and it specialised in world music. Zimerman's recital had been cancelled due to illness (Leif Ove Andsnes replaced him). Sponsor logos are plastered everywhere - gone are the graceful days of discretion in philanthropy (though it's nice of Nestle to provide Kit-Kats for the journalists in the media centre). And a gaping division is all too evident between the down-at-heel atmosphere on the outskirts of town and around the station, and the dripping-with-gold-and-designer-shops historic centre. The one thing that hasn't changed is the number of tourists and the amount of Mozartkugeln on sale.

A more welcome addition is a big screen in the Domplatz that relayed Die Soldaten live on Sunday, and on other evenings showed film of operas from festivals gone by. And I may have missed a trick by not taking the Sound of Music tour bus - apparently you all sing 'Doe, a Deer' and there's a quiz to win a packet of Edelweiss seeds. But the way time panned out, it was a choice of that or a jog along the river, and the latter won. Had to burn off some of that chocolate.

Check the November issue of Opera Now for my detailed review of the three performances.