Friday, September 25, 2020

32 not out: a Beethoven piano festival with a few major differences

Moving music online may have reduced audiences in one way, but it's expanded them in others. Next weekend, on 3 and 4 October, you can log on from anywhere on earth to see all the Beethoven piano sonatas being played in a festival in a tiny 12th-century church in west London. Hugh Mather, who runs the series at St Mary's Perivale, has put together what looks like an extraordinary logistical feat: 32 pianists for 32 sonatas. Here he tells me why and how - and what Beethoven has meant to us in these troubled times. You can see the whole festival line-up here:  http://www.st-marys-perivale.org.uk/events-beethovenfestival3.shtml 


Amit Yahav performs at St Mary's Perivale

JD: Why did you decide to have a festival of the Beethoven piano sonatas at St Mary’s Perivale, given that Beethoven was already to be so extensively celebrated this year in the “upper echelons” of the music world?

HM: We obviously had to mark the great 250th anniversary in some way. I had organised three similar cycles of the sonatas with 32 pianists at St Barnabas Ealing in 2009, 2012 and 2014, so I knew the format works. Our strong suit is the large number of superb pianists who live in or around London. A sonata cycle was the obvious way of giving 32 of them a chance to perform, and the opportunity for listeners to re-discover many of the lesser-played works. Unfortunately the virus has led to many other festivals being cancelled, and we are now one of the few big Beethoven events still happening. Our friends in the Beethoven Piano Society of Europe are also putting on a similar cycle, but spread over the whole year, rather than a weekend, and in different venues. I had also planned to present all 10 violin sonatas played by 20 musicians in a single day, but that will have to wait till next year.  


JD: You have a different pianist for each sonata - a major contrast from most Beethoven cycles which are attempted like a solo Everest-climb by individual pianists. Why did you decide on this?   


HM: Simply because the format is infinitely more interesting and enjoyable with 32 different pianists!   I have at least 15 CD or LP sets of the complete sonatas, but I always skip around to hear different pianists and their various sonorities and approaches. Even if Schnabel were reincarnated, I would get slightly bored in hearing the same sort of sound and aesthetics for 14 hours, whereas with different pianists it is endlessly fascinating. And we have a superb team of pianists who will each have something special to offer and will all sound very different from each other. I guarantee a very high standard of performance throughout the cycle, and it will be compelling viewing and listening for anyone interested in Beethoven or fine piano-playing.       


JD: What were the issues involved in putting it together? Organising 32 pianists sounds like a logistical nightmare… 


HM: Actually it was surprisingly easy. I wrote to a carefully selected group of pianists in early January, asking them if they would like to participate, and if so, which sonatas they would like to perform. A handful of pianists were unable to participate because it was expected to clash with the Warsaw Chopin competition (since postponed), but otherwise virtually all instantly agreed to play, and I am very happy with our current team !    


To put this in perspective, I have a database of 160 very good pianists who have asked for a solo recital slot. Our venue is always popular because we pay our musicians, we have a nice piano and we provide a high quality recording. So I could easily construct teams to play 2 or 3 cycles! As regards choice of sonatas, nearly all offered the 'Appassionata' and 'Moonlight', etc, but I asked them to specify less familiar sonatas which they would be prepared to play in 9 months' time. From previous festivals, I know that the difficult sonatas to fix are Op 2 no 2, Op 22, Op 31 no 1, Op 54 and the two Op 49s. The jigsaw fell into place over the spring, before the lockdown in March.  



St Mary's Perivale


JD: It’s wonderful that you can livestream concerts from St Mary’s, even without a physical audience. How has COVID-19 affected your plans in terms of the pianists themselves? Have many had to drop out, and how do you replace them?  


HM: The original team of 32 pianists in January included a very good Polish pianist – Michal Szymanowski – who obviously had to cancel because of travel restrictions, and two other pianists cancelled because of other considerations, but otherwise the team is virtually unchanged. I recently advertised on Facebook for replacements to play Op 13 and Op 79 and within 24 hours received offers from 20 and eight pianists respectively. With such a large team of musicians, I suspect there may be at least one to three cancellations next week, and I will need to find a replacement at short notice! That is the worst aspect of the whole project.


JD: What are the technical challenges of relaying concerts on the internet? How does St Mary’s manage this?  


HM: Our video and streaming facilities were developed over several years by a group of retired BBC personnel, led by Simon Shute and George Auckland, who live in Ealing and are longstanding friends.    The system now comprises 7 high definition cameras and 2 high quality microphones permanently installed in the church. It was developed as an adjunct to our concerts, initially to provide recordings for our musicians, and it only realized its full potential in the lockdown, since when we have become, in effect, a broadcasting studio! Since then we have streamed 28 live concerts and 53 concert recordings.  Our superb technical team provide their services free of charge, in keeping with everyone else at Perivale, so we have been able to install broadcast quality video systems remarkably cheaply.

     

JD: Do you think concerts change substantially without an audience? How do performers cope without that live feedback? 


HM: Broadcast concerts, viewed at home, are inevitably a poor substitute for the ‘real thing’, and I can’t wait to return to having a ‘live’ audience enjoying a communal experience again. Nevertheless, the concerts have filled a void in many peoples’ lives, providing much entertainment and solace, and they have enabled us to support so many musicians over the past few months of financial hardship, from viewers’ donations. Performing in an empty venue is indeed slightly nerve-racking, rather like a professional broadcast, but most of our musicians are experienced performers and soon get used to it.


JD: As a pianist yourself, can you tell us something about what makes the Beethoven sonatas such an extraordinarily special body of works? Do you have any personal favourites among them? If so, which and why?


HM: The Beethoven sonatas have been called the ‘New Testament’ of the piano literature. They cover such a remarkable range, from the early classically-based works to the late transcendental sonatas, and there are few if any weak pieces among them. I love them all, and have listened to them all my life, but I didn’t have time to study many of them, on top of my medical career. My favourite will always be the 'Hammerklavier', for personal reasons. After graduating in medicine in 1971, I took a few months off to study the piano with Jimmy Gibb at the Guildhall, and decided to learn the great work, which I played at an open recital at the Guildhall in 1972. Then I got married to Felicity Light, who was a medical student, so I had to earn a living, and returned to a frantically busy career, which precluded serious practice for years. So I have only learned and played about 5 of the sonatas in public. The 'Hammerklavier' has stayed with me ever since, and I played it in our complete Beethoven cycles at St Barnabas in 2009 and 2014. The slow movement still moves me to tears every time I hear or play it – one of the most profound and transcendental pieces ever written. 


JD: Medicine and music are often deemed to “go together”. While writing ‘Immortal’ I’ve been fascinated to learn that Beethoven occasionally practised almost an early form of music therapy: he would improvise for friends who were suffering grief, bereavement, depression etc, and his musical response to their frame of mind would bring them the relief of tears. During this weird year, I’ve gone back to my piano and playing Beethoven has brought me energy, positivity and renewed enthusiasm for life. Do you find he has a similar effect?


HM: The link between medicine and music is indeed widespread. As for Beethoven, one can spend a lifetime exploring these wonderful masterpieces, and I never tire of them. I particularly enjoy all the early sonatas which people rarely play in recitals, as well as the immortal late sonatas. Part of the joy of our festival will be a re-acquaintance with some of the less-commonly played works. In the lockdown I have been re-listening to the late string quartets and have found them to be life-enhancing and deeply enriching, and appropriate listening material for this strange and depressing time. At the risk of sounding pompous, Beethoven’s compositions really do encapsulate every facet of the human experience, rather like Shakespeare. We hope to show that in our great festival at St Mary’s Perivale on 3 and 4 October.


Beethoven Festival, St Mary's Perivale, 3 and 4 October, is online here: http://www.st-marys-perivale.org.uk/events-beethovenfestival3.shtml 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Can conductors change the world? A guest post by Rebecca Miller



I've been astounded, these past tricky months, at the explosion of creative thinking and doing by musicians around what can feel like a very shattered world. The news in the papers is universally awful: a third of MU members are thinking of leaving the profession, while the ISM has found that 64 per cent of musicians are considering the same, and there are eye-watering redundancies at many of our leading concert halls. And yet things have come about in six short months that we'd never have dreamed of a year ago, from ENO staging a drive-in La Bohème in the car park at Alexandra Palace, to a whole new opera by Alex Woolf and David Pountney at Grange Park Opera, and the ability to tune in online to performances from far and wide, many of which are fortunately starting to charge for viewing, which they should. 

With education and social life suffering abominably, creative initiatives that bring people together online for stimulating discussions and masterclasses are coming into their own. Among the best I've come across is Beyond Borders, devised by the conductor Rebecca Miller, which is launching on 2 October, aiming to gather musicians, educators and music industry leaders from all over the world. I'm delighted that she has written us a guest post. Please follow the links at the end to sign up and take part. JD

  


Can conductors change the world? 

A guest post by conductor Rebecca Miller

 

Who is this crazy woman spouting about conducting masterclasses when the world is falling apart? What relevance do orchestras have to us today? Why should we try to save them? Can orchestras make the world a better place? How? What makes a community? How can we fix the world? 

 

(…just a small insight into the current state of my mind)

 

From darkness to light

 People often ask me if I have a favourite composer. I usually laugh and say, ‘that’s impossible to say - it’s like asking me which of my children I like best’. But if I had to choose one at gunpoint, I would choose Beethoven. Of all the composers who mastered the art of finding light through the darkness… for me, it is Beethoven. Of all the composers who excelled in imagination through extreme limitations… for me, it is Beethoven. 

 

Throughout lockdown, throughout the darkness, the despair, the fear, the longing, I have found a token of strange and sombre comfort somewhere - it wasn’t in Beethoven, but it was in the knowledge that everyone in the world is in the same plight - that everyone is in this isolation - together; that everyone in the world is affected in some way by COVID and that we are all fighting the same fight. When else has it been that the whole world fights the same problem at the same time? That we are completely united as a world, against a single cause? As humans, as societies, we are usually wrapped up in our own problems - we often don’t pay enough attention to the problems of others. But here we are, every single person in the world has heard of COVID, is affected by COVID, wants to rid the world of COVID. 

 

That unified purpose - that’s what an orchestra does on stage. We are all committed to one objective - to play this piece, at this time, on this day, for this audience, to the best of our abilities. Nothing else matters at this moment. It doesn’t matter who the person is next to us - what is the shape their violin, or what is the colour of their skin. All we care about is getting it right - getting it better, and better, as we strive further and further towards an unattainable perfection. 

 

I started Beyond Borders out of isolation, out of a desire to overcome the restrictions on human contact - to bring people together, from across the world, in ways and for discussions and sessions that previously didnt seem possible. I think we have all accepted - like it or not - that digital meetings and conferences are a way of the present and likely a way of the future - and I have decided to embrace it, rather than reject it. So I turn back to Beethoven. To find the light out of the darkness. To create something imaginative out of extreme limitations. 

 

Beyond Borders aims to bring people throughout the world together through online sessions and masterclasses - to discuss and contemplate community, leadership, and orchestras, but through the eyes of a conductor. Individual sessions and masterclass series - details here and more below.

 

So… can conductors change the world? 

 

I’m passionate about changing the world. I have been ever since I was little. I did realise at some point, however, that I cannot change it all myself. And I probably can’t change very much about it. But in my own little way, each day, I try to at least make small changes. 

 

I want a world that is kinder, more respectful, more empathetic, and that listens more to each other. Through Beyond Borders I’m trying to take my small corner of the world - conducting an orchestra - and shed a light on the relevance to society of this rather strange and seemingly mysterious job. 

 

I’m passionate about teaching my conducting students that the ‘stick technique’ (arm waving) is only a very small portion of ‘the job’. The majority of the job is actually the people skills, the collaboration, the leadership, the big ideas, and of course all the intense study of the music and its context that is the basis for all of the former. In order to lead you must be able to offer - at the very least - knowledge, ideas, and context, and then hopefully you’re also able to add a dollop of inspiration, trust, and enabling. 

 

I bang on and on in my conducting lessons about stepping outside of yourself - what’s the view like from the other side? What do your co-collaborators need from you? Do you understand their position? Do you understand what they need in order to do what you are asking of them? That you serve the musicians - your team - not the other way around. 

 

For me these skills - putting yourself in context, viewing yourself from the outside, and having a wide perspective - are life skills. And I hope that my students - conducting and orchestral - take these pieces of advice and apply them to their wider lives as human beings. I am convinced that by widening the perspective of a few young conductors, that I am in my own tiny little way, changing the world - just one conductor at a time. And that’s OK with me. 

 

 

I hope you’ll join me at Beyond Borders - whether as a participant, as a guest at one of our sessions, or as a member of our mailing list to start. We will be rolling out sessions on orchestras, community, conducting, and leadership. 


Our first offering is a master class series that touches on all of these topics - Making Waves - October 2-4th, with some fantastic guests from the industry. Please join with us - to help bring the world together and to work towards a kinder and more collaborative society. 

 

Rebecca Miller 

 

———————

 

 

 

 

Friday, September 11, 2020

Nights in the garden of panic

(A shared post with 'Immortal' at Unbound.)
If you're a subscriber to 'Immortal', which is due out on 29 October, you should by now have received a message from Unbound announcing that the book has gone to press. So there we are: done, dusted and ready to rock. People have been asking how I feel, expecting "great", "thrilled", "proud" and "let's PARTAAY...except we can't..." . 

 The reality is that I'm scared witless. 

 I'm sure I'm not the only person who, throughout this hideous year, hasn't been enjoying the dark. I've woken in the small hours almost every night in a state of anxiety that does violence to my mind, heart and physical state. 

Sometimes it's about the cat throwing up: is it really just hairballs? Next up, so to speak, the collapse of the arts: 64 per cent of the UK's musicians are thinking of leaving the profession, according to the ISM. If you've lived half a century fuelled, inspired and/or paid by music and theatre, the prospects are bleak. Then the knock-on effects: where will we all be in a year's time? Will we even be alive to witness the wreck our country will become if there's a no-deal Brexit? Oftener than not, I'm feeling as if I'm on the Titanic yelling about the iceberg ahead, and everyone's shrugging and saying "but it's not in anyone's interests to hit an iceberg...". 

 But that's not what's waking me in the nocturnal garden of panic. It's something worse: THE BOOK. Have I overwritten? Have I left out something crucial? Have I interpreted x, y or z right? Are people in the right place at the right time doing the right thing? Have I thanked all the right people, and what will they say if I haven't? If not, tough: it's too late. I find comforting words to talk myself down: the book is long because it starts in the 1790s, ends in 1828, and is written from Therese's perspective in 1759, so there is a lot to fit in - and I have actually cut 21,000 words. 

It could easily have been double the length. Gigantic 19th-century novels were fine in the 19th century, but no longer. I excised a whole chapter exploring notions of romanticism and it pretty much broke my heart; but then, I never finished reading Les Misérables because Hugo takes us into a labyrinth of a section set in a nunnery, which goes on and on, and I failed to find my way out. If only someone had said, "Look, Victor, about that nunnery..." 

As for people being in the right place at the right time: sometimes they're not, because if Therese is observing her sister, she has to be there with her. Therefore at some moments I've put her in Vienna although she was, in reality, in Budapest. I am upfront about this in the "author's note". Is there still such a thing as "artistic licence"? 

 I can justify all these questions and alarms all I like, but I still wake up panicking. A Facebook post asking how people deal with anxiety attacks produced such a welter of responses that it's clear innumerable others feel exactly the same way. If you do: my sympathies and solidarity. 

I still don't know which, if any, of our autumn narrated concerts will go ahead - sadly, Oxford at the Holywell Music Room has been cancelled, or at least postponed. I don't know when we can have our launch party or give one special benefactor his private concert. I don't know if the book will be welcomed and praised, or if it and I will be torn limb from spine. You may like it. You may loathe it. It's up to you; either way, there's nothing more I can do about it now. 

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your support, your kindness and your enthusiasm for the idea of IMMORTAL. I hope the reality will live up to it. 

 Please excuse me while I go and pop another Kalms.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Catch up with Ludwig and Levit here

While we in the UK continue to run about like headless chickens (which in many ways we actually are), the Salzburg Festival has managed to be up, running and shouting about it with well-deserved pride. In the fast-growing blackberry bushes of classical music on the internet, there is plenty of ripe fruit waiting to be foraged, stewed and savoured, and the concerts of Salzburg being streamed by Arte.tv are not only some of the best, but also available to watch in the UK (which not all Arte films are).

Having been working flat out to finish the editing and proofreading of IMMORTAL - which is now going into production - I haven't had time, energy or inclination to watch or listen to anything very much for weeks, so it's time to catch up, and I'm very happy to say that they have sent me the first three of Igor Levit's complete Beethoven sonatas cycle for us all to enjoy here on JDCMB. Plenty more available at Arte's own site, of course. Levit has been one of music's outstanding lockdown heroes and I am looking forward to hearing the lot in due course.
Enjoy!


Monday, August 03, 2020

Leon Fleisher (23 July 1928 - 2 August 2020): in memoriam

Sad news today of the death of the great pianist and teacher Leon Fleisher, aged 92. I much regret not having met him in person, especially as my father was among the scientists whose research led to the therapy that ultimately helped Fleisher's focal dystonia. I did, however, talk to him on the phone for the Independent back in 2010 when he came to the UK to participate in the Aldeburgh Festival. Here is some of that interview.

                                                                       Leon Fleisher 
                                                                    Photo: Ned Burgess
 

JD: Please talk us through your experience of focal dystonia, what it did to you and how it came about?

 

LF: I noticed that the fingers of my right hand started to have the tendency to curl under and my initial reaction was that it seemed to me I’d have to increase my practising and it was a sign that I wasn’t working enough – which was the wrong thing to do. Over a period of about 10 months that tendency became so pronounced that two fingers virtually dug into the palm of my hand and it took enormous effort to straighten them out, followed by endless visits to countless doctors and a search that lasted 35 years with no answers. 


To make a long story short, I found two modalities eventually that helped me. One was called Rolfing, named after the German therapist Ida Rolf. Because Rolfing is a modality of tissue manipulation that can restore the normal plasticity of even the fibres of whatever tissue is being manipulated; and eventually I was informed of a programme at the National Institute of Health in Maryland for people with similar dysfunction and they were treating them with something called Botox, of all things. They inject the botox where the nerve informs the muscle to contract, which is not at the site of the muiscle itself but usually somewhere between the site where the muscle is affected and the brain. In my case, it’s in the forearm and they inject a minute amount of botox - which is a virulent poison - into the muscle, just paralysing it a little bit so that the tendency to curl under is weakened just a wee bit and therefore allows the opposing muscles, the flexor muscles, to be more effective. That’s the mechanism for the treatment of focal dystonia. They don’t know what causes it and therefore they don’t have a cure, but they’ve found this way to help deal with the symptoms. 

 

JD: My father was a neuropathologist, involved in the early research into the therapeutic use of botulinum toxin….) 

 

LF: Possibly he knew the neurologist friend of mine here in Baltimore who developed the idea of the botulinum – Dan Drachman. (JD: Yes, they were good colleagues). His father-in-law was Gregor Piatigorsky! Dan was the one that told me about this programme. 

 

JD: You returned to playing with both hands around 1995-96. How do you feel the whole experience changed you as a musician? 

 

LF: All I can say is that after a couple of years in a pretty deep depression I finally woke up one morning realising that my connection to music was not exclusively as a two-hands piano player, it was a little more profound than that. This enabled me to do a number of things. It enabled me to expand my teaching in a way that became more productive: that is to say I was no longer able to push students off the piano bench and demonstrate the way I thought it should go, I had to find words to express that very intangible and ephemeral aspect of music, and I think I became a better teacher. 


The formal admission to myself that I had this thing of being dystonic somehow freed me up to examine the not-inconsiderable literature for the left hand alone in which can be found several great works – the Ravel Left Hand Concerto is one of the great pieces of literature for the piano and it gave me the idea also to start conducting, which was a totally new endeavour for me and from which I learned so enormously and which brought me tremendous satisfaction and gratification – it makes me wonder, were I to live my life over again I’m not sure I would change anything.

 

JD: Do you remember now how it felt the first time you were able to sit down & play with both hands again?

 

LF: Yes, and curiously enough it wasn’t what many people might think – I’d tested it every day of those 35 years so that I was expecting somewhere, somehow, I was always one step away from being able to do it. So when I finally did it, it was enormously satisfying, but not as enormously revelatory as you might think. 

 

JD: Was there any special piece or composer that you were most happy to be able to play again?

 

LF: Well, yes, I played some of my old favourites for myself – the D minor Brahms Concerto, Beethoven 5. Enormously satisfying.

 

JD: What happens now? Do you have to keep having treatment? 

 

LF: Once a dystonic, always a dystonic, so I get my injections now once every four months.

 

JD: There have been a lot of studies recently, looking at music and science and the way the brain and musical instinct hook up – I wonder, why now? Do you have any views on that? 

 

LF: Perhaps it’s just that it’s probably about time and it’s ripe for investigation. I don’t think the question is so much from the artistic side, but science is now ready. The mind is always trying to break things down and look for that moment in time when creativity starts