Monday, November 11, 2019

ODETTE AND TCHAIKOVSKY

Dear all, please come to the Barnes Music Society at the OSO, Barnes Pond, London SW13 this Wednesday, 13 November 2019 (7.30pm) for this:

ODETTE: A CELEBRATION OF SWAN LAKE
A narrated concert

Fenella Humphreys (violin)
Viv McLean (piano)
Jessica Duchen (author/narrator)


“Enthralling…an unpredictable and original voice and a dazzling perceptiveness” -- Joanna Lumley

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet score for Swan Lakecasts a powerful spell over generation after generation. It has had innumerable reimaginings and retellings, balletic and otherwise. The latest is author and music critic Jessica Duchen’s magical-realist novel Odette, in which the enchanted swan princess meets 21st-century Britain. 

This remarkable narrated concert mingles selected readings from the book with the story behind Tchaikovsky’s creation ofSwan Lakeand its passionate, tragic inspirations. Award-winning, ballet-loving British violinist Fenella Humphreys embraces the great violin solos with which Tchaikovsky embroidered his score, as well as the closely related Violin Concerto; pianist Viv McLean evokes the influence of Chopin and Liszt on Tchaikovsky; and there’s plenty of humour, with works by Saint-Saëns and Gershwin. Share the enchantment through this joyous celebration of a beloved ballet, its composer, its fairy tale and what they can mean to us today.




THE MUSIC
Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake – Introduction
Saint-Saëns: Danse macabre
Liszt arr. Achron: Liebestraum No.3
Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake – Odette’s Solo
Gershwin: The Man I Love
Chopin: Polonaise-Fantaisie 
Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake – White Swan Pas de Deux
Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake – Adagio from the Black Swan Pas de Deux
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major - finale



FENELLA HUMPHREYS - VIOLIN

Winner of the 2018 BBC Music Magazine Instrumental Award, violinist Fenella Humphreys enjoys a busy career combining chamber music and solo work. Her playing has been described in the press as ‘amazing’ (The Scotsman) and ‘a wonder’ (IRR). 

A champion of new and unknown music, a number of eminent British composers have written for Fenella, including a set of 6 new solo violin works by composers including Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Sally Beamish and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. She has been fortunate to record these over 2 critically acclaimed CDs for Champs Hill Records, both chosen by BBC Music Magazine as Instrumental disc of the month with 5 Star reviews, and the second also picked as Editor’s Choice in Gramophone Magazine.  

Described on BBC Radio 3’s Record Review as an ‘absolutely exquisite album’, Fenella’s new CD, ‘So Many Stars’ with Nicola Eimer has just come out on Stone Records. Summer 2019 sees the release of Max Richter’s Four Seasons Recomposed on Rubicon Classics. Her teachers have included Sidney Griller CBE, Itzhak Rashkovsky, Ida Bieler and David Takeno, studying at the Purcell School, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and the Robert-Schumann-Hochschule in Düsseldorf graduating with the highest attainable marks. 



VIV MCLEAN - PIANO

Viv McLean won First Prize at the 2002 Maria Canals International Piano Competition in Barcelona and has performed in all the major venues in the UK, as well as throughout Europe, Japan, Australia and the USA. He has performed concertos with orchestras such as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, English Chamber Orchestra, Halle Orchestra, BBC Concert Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra, Sinfonia Viva, Orchestra of the Swan and the Northern Chamber Orchestra under the baton of such conductors as Daniel Harding, Wayne Marshall, Christopher Warren-Green, Owain Arwell Hughes, Carl Davis and Marvin Hamlisch. 

Viv plays regularly with the Adderbury Ensemble and has also collaborated with groups such as the Leopold String Trio, Ensemble 360, the Ysaÿe Quartet, the Sacconi String Quartet and members of the Allegri and Tippett Quartets. Viv has appeared at festivals including the International Beethoven Festival in Bonn, the Festival des Saintes in France, Vinterfestspill i Bergstaden in Norway and the Cheltenham International Festival in the UK. He has recorded for labels such as Sony Classical Japan, Naxos, Nimbus, RPO Records and future releases include a Gershwin cd for ICSM Records. Viv has also recorded regularly for BBC Radio 3 as well as for radio in Germany, France, Australia, Norway and Poland.

“ Viv McLean revealed extraordinary originality, superb simplicity, and muscles of steel hidden by fingers of velvet. He plays with the genius one finds in those who know how to forget themselves, naturally placing themselves at the right point to meet the music, this mystery of the moment.” Le Monde (Paris)


JESSICA DUCHEN - AUTHOR/NARRATOR

Jessica Duchen's novels have gathered a loyal fan-base and wide acclaim. Odette, published by Unbound in November 2018, is her sixth, but has occupied her for over 26 years. Ghost Variations(Unbound, 2016) was Book of the Month in BBC Music Magazine and was John Suchet’s Christmas Choice for the Daily Mail's Best Reads of 2016 ("A thrilling read" - John Suchet). 

Jessica grew up in London, read music at Cambridge and has devoted much of her career to music journalism, with 12 years as music critic for The Independent. Her work has also appeared in BBC Music Magazine, The Sunday Times and The Guardian, among others. She was the librettist of Silver Birchby composer Roxanna Panufnik, commissioned by Garsington Opera and shortlisted for an International Opera Award in 2018, and she works frequently with Panufnik on texts for choral works. 

Her further output includes biographies of the composers Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Gabriel Fauré, her popular classical music blog JDCMB, and the play A Walk through the End of Time

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Is Beethoven actually trying to kill me?

I spent last week in Vienna, on the Beethoven trail for my new book, IMMORTAL; what follows is my Letter from Vienna for the Unbound 'shed', which is emailed to all the book's supporters. It's both substantial and quite interesting (I think), so I wanted to bring it to you here too. Delighted to say that the funding is all in place, but if you would like to be part of the IMMORTAL family, be thanked in print, pre-order your copy and receive regular updates on progress, you still can, here.



I came home from Vienna on Friday evening sick as the proverbial dog and barking like one. I was already unwell when I set off the previous Sunday; charging around the city, trying to see everything, walking about 7 miles a day during a nasty cold snap, did me so little good that I wondered if Beethoven is trying to kill me. 
Nevertheless, it was worth every second, because this trip will radically transform the atmosphere of IMMORTAL. Seeing what's available of the pleasant yet very plain apartments that the composer lived in, then visiting the former residences of his princely patrons in a grand city centre where palace piles up next to baroque palace, hammers home the desperately divided nature of that society. Among his chief supporters, Prince Kinsky's extravaganza is phenomenally OTT; Prince Lobkowitz's odd corner block is rather more tasteful (it is now the Theatre Museum, which is handy); and those are just two examples, neither of them the most extreme. 
The fascinating thing about research trips is that what you learn is never quite what you were looking for. One of my most startling impressions was that for tourism purposes, Beethoven is nowhere to be heard (seen, yes; heard, no.) Wherever you find a touristy concert in a church or palace, they are playing... Mozart. Occasionally Haydn, sometimes even Schubert. But Beethoven? Dearie dear - you have to go to the Musikverein or the Konzerthaus to listen to his music. You won't stumble upon it in the street. Nobody touting for tourists' business near the Hofburg is going to say to you "Psst, wanna hear some Beethoven?"
So is he too difficult? Too demanding? Too German? Too...foreign? Beethoven was indeed a foreigner in Vienna. He was an immigrant; he arrived as a student and never went back to Bonn. If not exactly a refugee, he was certainly reluctant to go home after Napoleon invaded the Rhineland (even though Napoleon was his hero for a while). The Brunswick sisters were similarly outsiders. Vienna would have been as foreign to them, from Hungary, as it was to Beethoven. 
Much is intact; much is not. Beethoven's longest place of residence, the Pasqualati House, is high on a hillock beside what used to be the city walls; he would have gazed out over the Glacis and the Prater towards the Vienna Woods from the top floor flat. Today you see only Vienna University, constructed directly opposite some decades later. Josephine's house, the Palais that her first husband built and where she lived on and off for the rest of her life, is long gone, demolished in the late 19th century. On its site you can now find a McDonald's.
But if you walk through the back streets, you come across lanes little changed since the 18th century; straight, well-proportioned channels lined with elegant buildings and occasionally opening onto a cobbled square beside an ancient church. In one such location you discover what used to be the university, run by the Jesuits in Beethoven's time; today it is the Austrian Academy of Sciences. "Beethoven? Oh, you'll want the first floor," says a remarkably relaxed gatekeeper. "It's open, just go in." And there, in what's now a ballroom and lecture theatre, equipped with state of the art AV equipment, is the room in which Beethoven premiered his Symphony No.7 - and in which a gala performance of The Creation was held in the presence of the elderly Haydn himself. There Beethoven broke through the crowds to kneel at his old professor's feet (and not before time).

One could not help noticing that these are some massively significant occasions in the history of music - yet there was nobody else around. I didn't even know, previously, that this place existed. 
Vienna is a layer cake of a city, its historical strata spreading one on top of the other. Century piles after century. The reason I haven't seen the Beethoven sites before is that whenever I've been there I've been looking for Korngold or Mahler or Johann Strauss, or celebrating new year waltzing round the Rathausplatz. My souvenir this time? A Klimt umbrella. Beethoven is subsumed, in a way, beneath everyone he influenced.
The place has its advantages - including a fantastic, easy-to-use public transport system and two of the world's best concert halls - but also its drawbacks. For instance, my specific annoying dietary problem is easier to solve even in Hungary than it is here (honest, guv, in Budapest I found a gluten-free bakery on Andrássy Boulevard). Eventually I came across a vegetarian buffet on the Schottenring that had a good selection, but I've never before eaten so many beans in three days. Otherwise it's tafelspitz or risotto; occasionally a gf cake if you're very lucky. 
Now I am back and setting to work not only on my target of finishing the first draft before Christmas, but also the remedial updating necessitated by the insights of this past week. My feet are covered in blisters, I'm coughing something chronic and I need to sleep for a fortnight, but fortunately writing takes place indoors. If Beethoven is trying to kill me, he hasn't succeeded. At least, not yet.


If you've enjoyed this post, please consider supporting my work in progress: IMMORTAL, a novel in which Beethoven is a crucial character. Please visit its page at Unbound for further details.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Far from the Home I Love



The wonderful pianist Margaret Fingerhut is busy with a huge charity tour at the moment, entitled Far from the Home I Love. She is raising money for refugee charities, in particular for City of Sanctuary and the West London Synagogue's Asylum Seeker Drop-In Centre, and so far her year-long tour of the UK has raised £60,000 out of a target of £88,000. Please come along and support her in the weeks ahead! 

Five concerts remain:
Oct 28 - Oxford
Oct 30 - Durham
Nov 01 - Ripon
Nov 03 - London
Nov 06 - Sheffield

Margaret writes:

“My ancestors settled here from the Ukraine, Poland and Ireland, so I have always been acutely aware of the plight of refugees and asylum seekers, never more so than today, given the climate of increasing hatred, intolerance and hostility to ‘others’. 

I wanted to find some unique way of raising awareness as well as funds for UK refugees, so I was very excited to come up with this idea. It struck me that the landscape of classical music would be very different if composers had not been allowed to migrate. Many of the world’s best-loved composers had to move from their homeland, either because of war or fear of persecution, or they simply migrated for their work.
I have picked all the pieces for their association with the theme of migration, exile and homesickness. However, I have designed the programme to be by no means just sad! The music I have chosen is also uplifting, happy, even humorous, as well as emotional, dramatic, heroic and virtuoso. 

I’m especially thrilled to have commissioned a new piece ‘Memories from my Land’ by the Kurdish composer, Moutaz Arian. This beautiful and and haunting piece has also now been released as a single track download, with all the proceeds going to City of Sanctuary UK. It can be downloaded on Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon or Google”. 

Here's the full programme:

Handel (1685-1759)                           Minuet in G minor
Haydn (1732-1809)                            Sonata No.38 in F, Hob.XVI/23
-  Moderato, Adagio, Presto
Grieg (1843-1907)                              Three Lyric Pieces: 
-  Solitary Traveller, Homesickness, Homeward
Francis Pott (b.1957)                          Farewell to Hirta
Rachmaninov (1873-1943)                 Two Etudes-Tableaux from Op.39
-  No.8 in D minor, No.9 in D
    INTERVAL 
Moutaz Arian (b.1983)                       Memories from my Land (This commission has been
generously supported by Rob & Sara Lucas)
Hans Gal (1890-1987)                                    Two Preludes from Op.65
Prokofiev (1891-1953)                       Two Pieces from Romeo and Juliet:
-  The Montagues and Capulets, Romeo bids Juliet Farewell
Chopin (1810-1849)                            Polonaise in A flat Op. 53


Monday, October 21, 2019

The triumph of Mahler

Saturday was a day I shall remember for a very long time. When strange things connect, when music does what it was meant to do, when people from all parts of life reach new heights and new meanings come together and you realise that over the years melodies converge: we all need each other more than ever. 

Even today it's hard to know where to begin, but here it is - from the flame of a single candle in Wells Cathedral to the tsunami of energy and light that is Mahler's Symphony No.2 at its best.

Inside Wells Cathedral

I was in Wells for its Festival of Literature. Having arrived the night before (and massive thanks to the festival and its representatives for such a warm and hospitable welcome!), I started the day with a visit to the cathedral, which I had virtually to myself. It's an awe-inspiring place, with proportions, geometry and grace that are exceptional even among its magnificent peers in York, Salisbury, Lincoln et al. It was silent, rapt, atmospheric. I lit a candle. I have not ever been much into religion, prayer or belief, but the state of things at present has strange effects: perhaps a little focus, some valiant intent, some deeply held hope can make a difference. On a more mundane plane, at the market afterwards, I availed myself of a big shiny spider brooch à la Lady Hale. One unintended consequence of The Brexs**t Show is that I've developed a whole new admiration for lawyers.

My assignment in the festival was to be interviewer to Jane Glover about her book Handel in London. It's a beautiful and fascinating volume (I reviewed it for the Sunday Times when it came out last year) and brings 18th-century London to vivid life. Some of the most interesting aspects of our discussion, though, were about the man himself: who was Handel? How do you get, well, a handle on him? Few letters exist; some famous anecdotes may be apocryphal; some may have been misinterpreted. Jane is convinced that when he threatened to throw Francesca Cuzzoni out of the window it was simply a joke to defuse a dangerous prima donna situation. The key, she suggests, is in the music and perhaps can be found most keenly in L'allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato - which ends with a quiet contemplation at the fireside. Perhaps at the end of a long day, he liked to go home, shut the door and gaze quietly into the flames. 

Jurowski rehearsing Mahler with the LPO
Meanwhile in London, the flames were metaphorical as more than a million people took to the streets to surround parliament and shout against Brexit. Wells is in Somerset, a good hike from London via Bath, and I didn't get back until about 5pm, so annoyingly missed the midday march and most of the action - but the atmosphere upon arrival was uplifting nonetheless. To see the number of blue-and-yellow berets and flags and placards and smiling protestors brought the feeling that one could breathe, that the clouds had lifted and that all hope has not yet been crushed. I've been gorging on the reports and videos. Who knows if it will make a difference; if it does not, dark times lie ahead; once that slippery slope begins, its end point cannot be predicted. Some of my musician friends, acting as canaries in the UK coal mine, departed several years ago for more open-minded shores and have scarcely been seen since. I can't blame them. More will doubtless follow. 

A discussion yesterday found a family member describing Brexit as a "category error", which is why it can never work: you are trying to impose one narrative onto a framework that is not designed for it and cannot hold it. Oddly enough, this is how too many opera productions seem to be at present; comedies handled with the weight of a Mahlerian mallet (Orpheus in the Underworld), or by all accounts a blingy and ludicrous staging of Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus, which is emphatically not a comedy. I wonder if this is symptomatic.

At the South Bank, I slunk into Tom's rehearsal for the Mahler 'Resurrection' Symphony. There in the choir seats was Dame Sarah Connolly, singing the mezzo solos. She is undergoing treatment for breast cancer, but spent the afternoon on the march singing choruses from Carmen, Beethoven 9 and (I hope) "Bollocks to Brexit" with a group from the Royal Opera, then came to rehearsal and performance singing with a dignity and eloquence that had to be heard to be believed. 

The concert was one in a million, or would have been were it not the third in close succession conducted by Vladimir Jurowski that was on this level and left me lost for words. All of life was here: the darkness and the dread, the elegant and ironic grace, the sardonic yowls, the deep, rapt spirit of nature, the blinding blaze of redemption. 

The LPO, Jurowski and Sarah Connolly in rehearsal
Recently I interviewed the artist Mat Collishaw - one of the Young British Artist generation, who's working on a fascinating musical project. He made an impact on me by stating something that should perhaps be obvious, but is not: namely, that without darkness, beauty loses its meaning. He tries to bring both into his artwork, which is often, or usually, an extraordinary mix of beauty and horror. (Explore his works here.)

Occasionally someone says something that changes how you experience art, or even life. My best example was Boulez, who said in our interview that you can't just stand in front of something you can see is wrong and do nothing. This is the next mind-bender. Both statements seem no-brainers when you think back over them later, which must be why they have such an effect: because do we truly think about such things? Do we articulate them to ourselves clearly enough? Can we understand them and assimilate their principles if we don't? Here's a moment when everything comes into focus, when you know there is a lesson that is meant for you, now, right here. You sense the idea crawl on the back of your neck, burrow into your innards: you need this message. 

"Gravity and grace," said Mat. And listening to Vladimir's Mahler, how right his words seemed. I've grumbled in the past about Mahler performances that lacked adequate darkness. Here was one that said "You want it darker?" and went there - all the better to rise to the heavens at the end. And my God, it was overwhelming. The playing was taut, furious, unified, exultant; Sarah Connolly and Sofia Fomina as soloists; the LPO Choir and London Youth Choir giving everything. The audience was on its feet within seconds of the final chord, yelling. Backstage, conversation was difficult because everybody's breath had been so totally removed that nobody could find the right words. Many were in tears, some of the orchestra included. And Marina Mahler, the composer's granddaughter, was there. 

After the Mahler
The orchestra's journey to the stratospheres has been remarkable to experience; perhaps, faced with the imminent departure of Vladimir to Munich in 2021, they've now realised what they currently have on the podium. But this Mahler, the Tchaikovsky Pathétique the other week and, in between, the Strauss Alpine Symphony have been a trilogy the like of which we see and hear all too rarely in the grand scheme of things. (The question arises: if more music-making held this degree of excellence and meaning, would we appreciate it so much...? hmm.)

Vladimir's journey, too, has been a saga of building, experimenting, exploring, deepening, widening and now flowering on uppermost branches. As for Sarah: my heart is in pieces over her indomitable stance, her dignity and determination and the way she channels the lot into her singing. Jane remarked in out talk in Wells that Handel would have adored a singer such as Sarah Connolly. Seconded. I know too many people who are suffering from this appalling illness at present (its latest victim is the wonderful journalist Deborah Orr) - a terrifying scourge on women, often of our age group. Please send all your energy, your healing, your hope and your determination to Sarah as she embarks on a new journey, through chemotherapy.

At this level, music becomes a matter of life and death; nothing is ever "just a piece of music", but now we know how and why not. And that's what music is for. Without its role as ultimate catharsis, reaching the heart directly, beyond words, beyond sight, beyond intellect, it loses its power. Without darkness there is no light. 


Update, 22 Oct: I am mightily embarrassed to realise that originally I didn't mention the other piece in the programme: Colin Matthews, 'Metamorphosis' from Renewal. It's a glistening, intense setting of Ovid, burrowing into the text's exploration of the world in a constant state of flux. It was performed at the start of the concert and led straight into the Mahler. Even if it was the latter that produced the sensation of Total Overwhelm, it was the Ovid that I later copied out into my "commonplace book" and that actually encapsulates much of my feeling about the symbolic lessons of this evening as articulated above.

If you've enjoyed this post, please consider supporting my work in progress: IMMORTAL, a novel in which Beethoven is a rather crucial character. Please visit its page at Unbound for further details.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Underwhelmed in the Underworld

Mary Bevan as Eurydice and Alan Oke as John Styx in ENO's Orpheus in the Underworld,
supposedly a comic operetta
Photo: Bill Knight/The Arts Desk

It takes quite a dreadful evening at a fundamentally misconceived operetta production to make real life seem fun at the moment. But my goodness, I was glad to get out of this show at the end. ENO has well and truly gone to hell this time. I am giving up on British opera houses trying to do operetta - and suspect the Birtwistle Orpheus will be more fun than this.

My full review of a production that was better designed and performed than it deserved to be is now up at The Arts Desk.

Maybe British opera houses just don’t get operetta. Without wit, lightness and snappy pace, and instead cudgelling us with desperate relevance, the frothiest works crash to earth stone cold dead. There have been disasters elsewhere, too, though ENO is the chief culprit, and (after a miserable Merry Widowand a fearful Fledermaus) this one is the nail in the coffenbach. If you think that’s a bad joke, wait til you hear the ones on stage...