Sunday, August 18, 2019

Korngoldarama at Bard Summerscape

My report from my trip to the Korngold and his World festival at Bard Summerscape is now up at The Arts Desk, so here is a taster and a few more photos.




There could be no greater gift to any festival director than Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Where the exploration of his life, times and contemporaries are concerned, this composer is a veritable Spaghetti Junction for different strands of genre, development and fates. 


One of the most remarkable child prodigy composers in history, Korngold was the son of the music critic Julius Korngold. He studied with Zemlinsky (on Mahler’s advice) and enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame; his opera Die tote Stadt, premiered when he was 20, was a smash hit in the 1920s. Desperation to escape his father’s monstrous control-freakery also led him to work for some years in operetta. 

The stage is set for our symposium
With the Nazis’ rise to power he was fortunate, being Jewish, to move to Hollywood; he later credited Warner Brothers with saving his life and those of his family. He wrote relatively few film scores, but won two Oscars and was largely responsible for creating the sound that was long considered typical “film music” - the truth, of course, is not that Korngold sounds like film music, but that film music sounds like Korngold. In 1950, though, he attempted a comeback in Vienna, only to find that not only was his presence an unwelcome reminder of a shameful past era, but that his style was considered an anachronism. 

JD with Michael Haas, author of Forbidden Music,
creator of Decca's Entartete Musik series and
fellow panellist at the festival

He died aged only 60 in Hollywood, believing himself forgotten. In the past few decades, changing times and evolving attitudes have allowed his distinctive voice with its emotional and melodic largesse to be fully appreciated on its own terms - often for the first time.

The Fisher Center at Bard, designed by Frank Gehry
Mix together the child prodigy years, the melting pot of influences; the splices of the serious and the ‘light’; the fading 19thcentury and horrifying development of the 20th; and the worlds of Mahler’s Vienna, 1940s Hollywood and shattered post-war Europe. There’s enough material to keep any festival going for probably a year...


A treasured souvenir - thank you to Michael Serota!

Friday, August 16, 2019

Proms firsts!

I'm seriously behind here on all the summer activities. I've been to the wonderful Tuscan music festival Incontri in Terra di Siena and Bard Summerscape's 'Korngold and his World' and a few Proms, but have so many stories and experiences to "process" that I've not written any designated blogposts about them yet. You can read my review of Incontri here (though you will probably need a subscription to do so): https://theartsdesk.com/classical-music/theartsdesk-incontri-terra-di-siena-galloping-concertos-and-stravinsky-starlight

Anyway, here's the power-trio of Errollyn Wallen, Elim Chan and Catriona Morison who lit up the Royal Albert Hall at last night's Prom (my report for The Arts Desk): https://theartsdesk.com/classical-music/prom-39-morison-bbcnow-chan-review-night-inspiring-firsts


Taster:
A clever programme, a vivid premiere, a Proms debut for an exciting young conductor and the first appearance there by Catriona Morison since she won the 2017 Cardiff Singer of the World: all this provided grist to the mill for a sold-out Prom that was more than the sum of its impressive parts. 

Elim Chan, who won the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition (the first woman to do so) in 2014, was on the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’s podium for pieces themed around the sea and pictures. The 33-year-old conductor from Hong Kong is a tiny, pleasingly charismatic figure – offering ideas that were not only sizable but often inspiring, even in repertoire that otherwise could sometimes seem too well worn for its own good. 

Romanticism was the musical land that historical performance forgot, at least until recently. Designated researchers have been delving into real 19th-century styles of late, and if you think it has nothing to do with rigid rhythm, you’re right. What’s emerging instead is the sort of flexible and intense characterisation that Chan brought to Mendelssohn’s Overture ‘The Hebrides’. This was long-lined musical thinking, the softest moments replete with a hushed glow, sometimes slowing to a rapt stillness, and the vigorous episodes ratcheted up the tempo, balancing them out...

Read the rest here.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Happy Princess and a happy composer

On Friday the Garsington Opera Youth Companies are giving the world premiere of The Happy Princess, a new opera written especially for them by composer Paul Fincham and librettist me. It's based on Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince, but reimagined, updated and somewhat tweaked, and it involves around 80 young people and the soprano Lara-Marie Müller (whom you may have seen as Esmeralda in Garsington's smash-hit production of The Bartered Bride earlier in the summer). I asked Paul: "How was it for you?". We're off to the dress rehearsal shortly...




Rehearsing the factory scene...
Photo: Julian Guidera


PAUL FINCHAM WRITES:

However hard we might try to shape our lives, ultimately so much depends on random happenings. The genesis of The Happy Princess, my first opera and the most significant commission to date in my second career as a composer, is no exception.

I was introduced by Marina Abel Smith to Karen Gillingham who runs the Learning and Participation division at Garsington; she and I met and she then connected me with Jess. 

Jess and I found we had a lot in common (about life as well as music). Jess listened to some of the music I had composed over the last few years and then suggested that she put forward a pitch to Karen for us to write a youth opera based on Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince. There was some initial discussion about writing a 20 minute piece, everything went quiet for a while and then out of the blue, whilst I was at a wedding reception in Delhi(!), an e mail popped up confirming the commission for a performance of a 60-minute youth opera for the main stage at Garsington in summer 2019.  

Deep breath. I had never written an opera (at least not since a rock opera when I was a schoolboy). I had recently taken up composing again after a break of some 30 years, put together a CD of short, intimate pieces recorded in my home studio, delivered a film score for a successful low/micro-budget feature film and written a Christmas carol for the London Philharmonic Choir.  


But writing an opera - setting the text for around 80 singers making up three choirs and a professional soprano as well as arranging the score for an eight-piece band....How would I do that?......But what an enthralling opportunity to work with what many regard as the leading Learning and Participation division in the country.


JD: What’s been the most challenging thing(s) about the project for you?

PF: There are around half a dozen set pieces for chorus, which I would say are my comfort zone (I have sung in the London Philharmonic Choir for over 30 years and there is probably no better training for composing for choir than singing in one!). More challenging were the exchanges between the soloists, which in a Mozart opera would be recitative. These are often quite sparsely scored, but deceptively difficult to write. Quite a bit of this material ended up on the cutting room floor, in some cases more than once (my “bin” folder for the project seems quite crowded!). 

I should add that the necessary process of mastering the computer software for the vocal score and full score, almost from scratch, was quite some challenge (and a sincere thank you to the clever folk at Dorico for their patient support throughout).


What are the most exciting and rewarding aspects of it?

I entirely endorse Britten’s mantra that composers should not occupy ivory towers. Ultimately the most rewarding aspect of writing The Happy Princesshas been working with Jess and with the creative team at Garsington and then finally (it seemed a long time after I started writing it) witnessing it all being drawn together under the conductor, Jonathan Swinard, leading up to the premiere - which is of course the most exciting aspect of all!


Lara being fitted with a prototype 
of her Princess costume
Photo: Julian Guidera
What have you learned through writing the opera that you maybe didn’t expect to learn?

I learnt that writing an opera is (like writing a film score) as much as anything about collaboration: first and foremost, of course, with the librettist, but alongside that with the production team, which at every level provided insightful feedback throughout the process. That brought home to me the paramount importance of respecting text and narrative: every bar you write must be faithful to the drama. From start to finish virtually everything I wrote evolved. Only one set piece (the simple love duet for the Princess and the Swallow in scene 9) survives in exactly the form in which it began. By the time I penned the last notes of the opera I felt I was in a different space from where I had started.


What do you like most about working with a youth company?

Enthusiasm, excitement, energy!


What do you hope to write next? 

Whilst writing HP I kept my head down, writing a score for a short film and taking on one other small commission to compose a wedding anthem – which, unbelievably, is being performed on the same day as the premiere of HP by a choir comprising singers from the Glyndebourne Opera chorus!

What next? I will likely go wherever it takes me - I would like to write another feature film score, I certainly aim to write more choral music, possibly another Christmas carol. I finished HP feeling elated but pretty drained; it felt as though it had been in my in tray a long time (it was around 15 months from start to finish, including orchestration).   

But if someone calls me on Saturday and asks whether I’d consider writing another youth opera…I am pretty sure I know what the answer would be. And of course I would love to work with you again - though I understand you're in demand! [thanks :) jd]


THE HAPPY PRINCESS world premiere is at Garsington Opera on Friday 2 August, directed by Karen Gillingham and conducted by Jonathan Swinard






Tuesday, July 30, 2019

IMMORTAL: my new Beethoven novel, coming soon...





Dear friends and supporters,
If you enjoyed the historical musical mystery of Ghost Variations, you'll love - I hope - my new book currently in the works.
For the past few years I've been reading obsessively about Ludwig van Beethoven's 'Immortal Beloved' - the unnamed addressee of an impassioned love letter that he wrote in July 1812. Supposedly nobody knows exactly who she was, though there have been many theories. Yet when you start looking, you find things... 
Was this woman's identity anything but immortal? Was she deliberately wiped from history by a family terrified of scandal? Was her tragedy - and Beethoven's - perhaps even greater than we thought? I believe so.
While obscure biographies and some terrible translations lurk on dusty shelves, I wanted to present this book as a novel for its roller-coaster emotions, its vivid characters, its you-couldn't-make-it-up plot - and the mulifarious possibilities offered by an unreliable narrator.
The music is ever-present, the piano sonatas most of all: for that is how the majority of Beethoven's admirers would have known him best, through playing his works at the piano, orchestral performances being relatively rare events. The piano sonatas contain, too, some crucial clues - though you'll have to read the book to find out what they are.
I have returned to Unbound for several reasons: first, a publisher in the hand is worth ten in the Writers and Artists Yearbook, especially when there's a topical anniversary to catch, just 23 months away. Secondly, they have done a brilliant job on 'Ghost Variations' and 'Odette' and I trust them completely. And finally - it's fun! I've cooked up a range of rewards at different levels to tempt you in, starting at just £10 for the e-book and a thank-you in the patrons list. But above that you can order an early-bird discount paperback, or two, or five; come with us to hear Vladimir Jurowski conduct the Symphony No.1 at the Royal Festival Hall; attend the launch party (we love launch parties!); sponsor a character and receive a special thank-you on a separate page; or simply make a donation of any amount you like to help turn this project into reality. More rewards are on the way, too, so watch for updates.
On the IMMORTAL page you will find a synopsis, an extract from the book, the complete pledge list, and a video in which I introduce the project and, er, attempt to play Op.111. 
I do hope you will wish to become part of the IMMORTAL family. Your moral support will be crucial as I plough on with the writing. And knowing that you're waiting eagerly for the results is the best spur of them all.
Thank you so much - and here's the link. https://unbound.com/books/immortal/
Love and best wishes,
Jessica

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Eton Riverside

An old Etonian is taking over: a middle-aged white bloke with lots of charm, appointed by a tiny number of people, without any say from more than 99% of those over whom he'll wield life-changing power.

A familiar story, no? But while the newspapers are preoccupied, understandably, with the old Etonian heading into Downing Street, another alumnus of the school has scooped another head position over the Thames: Edward Gardner, who has been signed up by the London Philharmonic Orchestra to be its new chief conductor. (Told you so.) He only has school, not university, in common with Boris Johnson, as he went to Cambridge, not Oxford. Oxford produces politicians. Cambridge produces conductors, which is way preferable, depending on your point of view.

Edward Gardner
photo: Ben Ealovega

As music director of ENO, Ed wielded the baton for some glorious operatic performances - his Meistersinger, The Flying Dutchman, Rosenkavalier and more were among my most memorable trips to the Coliseum. He has proved his mettle time and again in the great choral works like the Verdi Requiem, Tippett's A Child of Our Time and, at his Bergen Philharmonic, Schoenberg's Gurrelieder. Unlike the pifflepaffle exponent who has got the keys to the country, Ed can start his own new post with every expectation that he will rise to the challenge ahead with great aplomb and convince us all that he was the right person to install there.

The appointment of an English conductor at Brexit time says much. The LPO's CEO Tim Walker, from Australia, has been interviewed in the past appearing to be in favour of Brexit. Hopefully he's woken up to the mistake now, but if he hasn't, he soon will, and with Boris Johnson in No. 10 it's a bit late in any case. So, one can't help speculating on the reasons for this choice. Much as I like Ed and unfailingly enjoy his performances, I personally was still hoping they would appoint an equally deserving conductor who happened to be female - ideally Susanna Mälkki or Karina Canellakis (whom I'm told the orchestra adored and who got rave reviews for her concert with them last year). This could have sent out a positive, inclusive, adventurous, positive message and ushered in an exciting new era...

Is it a question of the changing face of orchestras? A presentation of "best of British" being perceived as requiring a British figurehead in some way? I doubt it. My hunch is that with the ACE funding priorities changing radically, and a likely crash in public finances once we've actually departed the EU (lots of jobs will be lost and tax revenues will plummet), the issue of fundraising is soon going to be even more important - at a time, too, when Britain's image internationally will be badly tarnished; they already think we're mad, and with good reason. International support is going to be absolutely vital and it's possible that a different cohort of donors will have to be magicked into the fold. This would indicate a move to a more American-style approach in which the principal conductor is a lynchpin for, essentially, schmoozing. Ed's personal charm would stand him, and them, in good stead under such circumstances.

The bottom line with any principal conductor appointment, though, has got to be musical chemistry. An orchestra is a living organism made up of a large number of expert performers and the relationship between it and its principal conductor is like a marriage (I know this is a cliché, but it happens to be true. If you want some insight into how this all works, I recommend Tom Service's book Music as Alchemy: Journeys with Great Conductors and their Orchestras.) The best conductor on the face of the planet cannot ever be the ideal person for every single orchestra that sits in front of him - just as not every Strad is the right instrument for every single violinist. Things work, or they don't. They can develop. They can change. They can grow. They can grow together. But the essential match does have to be right.

With some irony, I realise I experimented with a blind-date review format for a concert by the LPO under Ed's baton at Snape a little while ago, here.
Imagine a spouse who is used to - and loves - long, deep, intense conversations, in which each word is controlled with immense precision and the underlying philosophy must be considered at every moment...suddenly taking a walk with someone who laces up his boots, links his arm through hers and points out the dramas among passers by, the green parrots flying about and the sun sparkling on the water and says "great, so what do you want for lunch?"
This is an orchestra that still, in 2019, carries the pride and the sound quality that was shaped by Klaus Tennstedt's Mahler. After a long stint with Vladimir Jurowski - who by the time he leaves in 2021 will have been its longest-serving chief conductor ever - there is nothing that it cannot do or play or adapt to. There may be cliques, personality clashes and petty fights off-stage, but that's equally true in every company and every orchestra (what is the matter with our orchestras - why on earth do some of them not have HR managers?). When it comes to the concert, though, they pull together every time. The one thing they have to rely on is their artistic reputation which, aside from a teeny blip arising from a crazy political situation in the early '90s, has been an unblemished record in the top rank. The orchestra of Tennstedt, Haitink, Solti, Masur and Jurowski wants to stay international.

Orchestra politics the world over, meanwhile, are notoriously thorny and often, as I watch from a safe distance, seem more than a bit daft. There can be threats, excuses, twists, slipperiness and high dudgeon that would once have been news. But now most of the press don't give a flying f*** because they've got bigger things to worry about, and the only journalists so far who do think this appointment is a story have been very positive. But when the CBSO musicians (and chorus, audience and critics - !) are able to help choose their own music directors - and they do keep on just picking unknowns like Andris Nelsons and Mirga Grazynite-Tyla and turning them into megastars - frankly London musicians get very little say in the equivalent situation. This still puzzles me, because those are the people who have to create that chemistry. I do think that leaving them so little input can store up trouble.

Ed has a chance to win over any nay-sayers - they are bound, after all, to exist for anyone appointed to this type of position anywhere - and prove that the management has got it right. I gladly cheer him on as he takes up the post and I look forward to many fresh, exciting concerts - with sun sparkling on the water of the Thames.