Monday, December 10, 2018

Wales goes to China

Xian Zhang, principal guest conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, fulfils a long-standing dream this month: she is at the helm as the orchestra heads for a tour of her native land. She's sent me a guest post about what this confluence of countries means to her, with a look, too, at the state of musical life in China [compared to the state of things here at the moment, one could weep - jd.]. Enjoy!

First, here they are performing Respighi's The Pines of Rome.





A Meeting of Minds

Guest post by the conductor Xian Zhang



Xian Zhang
Photo: Benjamin Ealovega
It has long been a dream of mine to take a European orchestra to my native country, China, and after years of planning, it is finally happening as I conduct BBC National Orchestra of Wales in five concerts in four major cities 15-21 December. 

For me, it’s a homecoming: I was born in China and studied there but, the main focus of my career has been in Europe and the United States. It feels a bit like three old friends meeting up, having looked forward to it for a long time, and simply picking up where they left off last time: as if they’d never been apart. BBC NOW has toured to China before, but it is still quite rare to see a Chinese native bring a foreign orchestra to China. 

The popularity of classical music in China is rapidly growing, with audiences getting younger and younger which is great. Education is focused on letting children play music: almost all take private lessons. They are even more likely to play an instrument than play soccer. We are very fortunate in China that music education is taken seriously.

The ‘software,’ as I like to think of it, of the industry then improves, with the standard of playing in Chinese orchestras being very high. As the economy grows, people want to indulge their cultural interests and an effect of this is that more and more concert halls, ‘hardware’, are being built all over the country: every year a couple of new concerts halls are built. Indeed, we will be playing in some fantastic, beautiful venues. 

My own journey into music started when my father built me a piano. My parents wanted me to learn at a very young age, but they were very expensive. He is an instrument maker, so he made the shell of the piano himself and sourced the keys and strings, assembling them together himself. My own ‘hardware!’ What a fantastic gift. I actually played it for about 10 years, up until I went to conservatoire, and then we sold it to a fellow student. We eventually bought it back as I have so many memories attached to it but unfortunately it is not playable anymore. 

That neatly sums up how I feel about this tour: with China and Wales both meaning so much to me, I wanted to reunite them. Thankfully, that is where the metaphor ends: BBC NOW is definitely not broken and unplayable! Bringing one of the best orchestras in the world to my home country? I can’t wait.


Xian Zhang
Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

There are two concerts in Beijing at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (15 & 16 December), then we travel to Changsha for a performance at the Concert Hall there (18 December), followed by a date at Qintai Concert Hall, Wuhan (19 December). The tour culminates in the Shenzhen Concert Hall (21 December), which I’m looking forward to, in particular as it is so close to Christmas and New Year: there’s always a different atmosphere in the audience around this time of year.

I am very proud of my connection to both China and Wales and I was keen to show that in the programme. All musicians believe in music’s ability to build bridges, relationships and friendships (particularly when the language options are Chinese, English or Welsh!) and this is precisely what I want the tour to achieve between the players, audience and the two countries. We are doing this in a number of ways: one of our encores is a piece by Welsh composer Huw Watkins and Chinese harpist (the national instrument of Wales, of course) Shimeng Sun performs Mozart’s Flute and Harp Concerto with BBC NOW’s Principal Flute Matthew Featherstone. Sun also studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in the UK. Cellist Jiapeng Niealso joins us on the tour, having studied in Germany, to perform Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations

In the final concert in Shenzhen, BBC NOW will perform alongside musicians from the Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra who hosted the Vienna Philharmonic last year, so this is something they are particularly passionate about and good at championing. I absolutely loved the idea when their director suggested it to me, particularly as I did one about 10 years ago with the Julliard Orchestra.  It is great for the players to perform together, exchange ideas and for the audience to see the mixture of players together: that’s the point of touring! 

Xian Zhang
 BBC National Orchestra of Wales and their Principal Guest Conductor Xian Zhang tour China 15-21 December. They perform in Beijing (15 & 16 Dec), Changsha (18 Dec), Wuhan (19 Dec), Shenzhen (21 Dec). Full details here.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Smash all-male choirs? A choral expert responds

Much fuss has been caused in the choral world these past few days by a suggestion from Lesley Garrett that it's high time all-male choirs were abolished. Some defenders of the great English choral tradition, in which these have featured since forever, have been up in arms. Others lean strongly towards providing equal opportunities for girls to sing, because at the moment they still miss out, and have done for centuries.

I was somewhat amused by a press release that landed in my in-box the other day in which a famous choral conductor vaunted the importance of keeping choirs all-male, saying - without irony - that boys would lose opportunities to make music if they admit girls (um, what does he think has been happening to women all this time?) and that the choir is defined by its people, after which he lists a number of highly distinguished personages going back to the 19th century, who are of course all men. My instinct is to cheer on Lesley Garrett's opinion. At the same time, though, I know it is really not as simple as perhaps we'd like.

What solutions could we present? One is that every institution that has a boys' choir should also start one for girls - indeed, many have already done so. But Anna Lapwood, a choral conductor and director of music at Pembroke College, Cambridge, has another suggestion. Here's a guest post from her on the topic. JD


The choir of Pembroke College, Cambridge conducted by Anna Lapwood sing Eric Whitacre's Lux Aurumque

GIRLS IN CHOIRS: A SOCIAL ISSUE


I grew up wishing I could be a chorister. And yet, when I saw today’s article by Ben Dowell in the Radio Times advocating introducing girls into King’s College Choir, I was angry. 

I consider myself an advocate for gender equality and for encouraging young woman in choral music. I was the first female Organ Scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford; I was part of an all-male choir; I saw how far we had to go before we could achieve equality. 

However, I also eavesdropped on the unique dynamic of an all-male choir. What I saw was mutual respect and support; an environment where the back row understood what it was like to be a chorister, and helped them through it.

Having set up a girls’ choir at Pembroke College, I’ve observed the wonderful dynamic that comes from an all-female choir too: not only the shared singing, but a shared understanding of getting your ears pierced for the first time, or braces, or periods. A girls’ choir like ours, or the choirs at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge and Merton College, Oxford, provide an opportunity for a non-linear educational experience, in which children seven years apart can come together to make music. This is unique, and it’s important. 

I have worked with numerous treble lines made up of boys; I have watched them perform as professional musicians to thousands of people without batting an eyelid. I’ve also watched them turn into quivering messes when they’re talking to a girl they fancy. The issue, in my mind, is not one of the sound of the voices; the voices of young boys and girls are both wonderful, and should be celebrated. The issue is one of social implications. 

Research has shown that boys sing better in an all-male environment, in which it is totally normal to love singing, and do it every day. I fear that if we were to mix the treble line, the boys would lose confidence. 

Choral conductor Suzi Digby did an experiment several years ago, creating two parallel after-school classes. One was mixed with 12 girls and 12 boys, and the other was all boys. At the end of two years, both groups had grown to have over 40 singers, and yet there were only two boys left in the mixed class. It’s not a huge step from boys losing confidence to giving up entirely.


Anna Lapwood conducting the girl choristers at Pembroke

Losing boy choristers completely is something I feel would be a great loss for both the choral world and the wider world of classical music. The education of a chorister is gruelling; in addition to the busy life of a school child, he or she is expected to rehearse every morning and sing Evensong almost every day. 

It is this education that produces the lay-clerks of tomorrow, and more recently-formed girls’ choirs are now providing this opportunity for females; daily familiarity with the rhythm and repertoire of choral worship is one of the most important aspects of a chorister’s education.

 If, as has been suggested, girls were to sing half the services in a place such as King’s, this education would be diluted for both the boys and the girls. We’ve made huge progress in the past 20 years, creating more and more opportunities for girls in choral music, and yet we’ve still not achieved equality. In my mind, there is only one way to do this: a choir needs to be set up with an all-female treble line, singing with male and female lower parts. This would be a choir where girls would sing six services a week; a choir where girls would receive the full educational scholarship of a chorister. This would be a step towards equality. 

I have absolutely no doubt that we need to generate more opportunities for girls in choral music. However, these opportunities should be in addition to the ones available to boys, not a call to abolish all-male choirs altogether. 

Anna Lapwood
Director of Music, Pembroke College, Cambridge





Friday, December 07, 2018

Need a place to rehearse? This may have the answer...

Last week I went north of the river to interview Steven Isserlis about a certain big birthday he has this month, to be celebrated with some close friends on stage at the Wigmore Hall (and more, of course - results in the JC soon). On my way out, I met another Isserlis going in: Steven's son, Gabriel. 

A few weeks ago Gabriel launched a new scheme called Tutti to help musicians find rehearsal space when and where they need it. Given the headache that such things cause - even finding somewhere to practise the piano can turn into a student's worst nightmare, as I well remember - this seems an absolutely inspired idea. It functions like Airbnb: those with space can sign up to offer it and musicians who need it can sign up to book in. 

The crucial thing at the moment is: if you have a space to offer musicians, please sign up NOW, using the links below.

Here's Gabriel himself to tell us more about it, after an energising Schumann treat from dad and Dénes Várjon.




CREATING TUTTI


My family have been in music for generations. I like to say that before I learned English, I learned the language of music. I have always been surrounded by music: at home, on family holidays, my family even performed chamber music as part of our Christmas celebrations. 
However, as much joy as music brings, I was always very aware of the less wonderful side of it: the challenges it produces for people who dive in full time. After a brief decade, trying to escape the music in my blood, I gave in and returned, albeit from a different angle. During that time, I had trained in visual arts, audio engineering, and programming, and decided to combine my knowledge and passions into one. 
I spent over a year analysing the different issues that plague musicians, listening to my friends and family talk about all the frustrations they experience. Throughout that time, a number of key issues were most apparent but only one of them sparked a twinkle in every eye when I shared my potential solution: “AirBnB for Rehearsal Spaces.” That simple idea has grown into Tutti and has so much potential ahead of it – we’re just getting started. 
We just launched our very first version a few weeks ago: beta.tutti.space and we have already had a couple bookings come through. We just need people to list their spaces if interested. No one can book your space without your approval – if a musician attempts to book your space, you will be notified immediately and have 3 days to accept or reject the request. If you list your space before 2019, we will provide a photographer to come round to your venue and take quality photos, free of charge. Go to beta.tutti.space and click “List a Space” in the top right, or email support@tutti.space if you have any questions/need any help.
-- Gabriel Isserlis

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Russian into London: a fabulous violinist makes her debut

I’ve just had a terrific Skype chat with the young Russian violinist Alena Baeva, ahead of her London debut at the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday. She and I have a little Schumann-related project together in June in Oxford and it’s splendid to get to know her. Here she is, talking about her turbulent background in central Asia, her first-rate musical training, her passion for historical recordings and all we can learn from them, and a few particularly wonderful concertos…






JD: Alena, you’ve recently been playing a very special piece in Katowice to mark 100 years of Polish independence… 

AB: It was a major event for me because I’d wanted to play the Karlowicz Concerto for a long time. It’s hardly played anywhere but Poland, which is a pity because it’s a great piece. It’s quite difficult! Someone brought it for me to play in a masterclass in Poland and I was fascinated. I’m happy we did it this summer. 


JD: Where are you from and where did you grow up? 

AB: That’s the most difficult question! I can’t say one place I’m from. I was born in Kyrgistan, by chance because my parents’ parents were sent to work there - they were sent to random places in the Soviet Union. I lived in my grandmother’s small house with a garden the first five years, which was a very happy time. Then civil war broke there and I remember we were hiding underneath the storage in the basement. I don’t remember many things about it, but my dad, when there was the first possibility to take a plane, he sent us to Almaty in Kazakhstan because his mother lived there at the time. We came to her because we had no other place to live and we were there for another five years. I started to learn the violin there. 

Almaty is a very special place for me, because I was at an important age when you start to discover the world around you. People there are so warm, so nice and so kind. I missed this a lot when we moved to Moscow when I was 10. The violin was going so well and I needed some education to go and study somewhere so my parents chose Moscow because of great Soviet school of playing. I entered the Central Music School, which was a big contrast. Moscow is somehow more than a metropolis. 


JD: Who was your main teacher?

AB: I was studying from the age of 10 with Eduard Grach, an accomplished violin player and student of Yampolsky – a great, great school. I continued studying with him at the Moscow Conservatory, so it was for 12 years! When I was 16-17, I started to seek some other ideas and influences too. It was thanks to Mstislav Rostropovich, who supported talented children in Moscow. He had a foundation and he sent me to Paris to study. This was a whole big change because it was too late to enter the Conservatoire, but his French friends organised private lessons. I lived in the house of his good friends who are fantastic people and became my French family. It was so enriching just to be with them and discover this great country and great culture. I was staying several months of the year and it was in Chartres, a fantastic place with a rose garden, just in front of the cathedral - a dream! Now I appreciate it even more than I did before.

I had lessons there with Boris Garlitsky, a Russian violinist who had moved more than 20 years before to Europe and became a very European style of musician - it was so helpful to study Mozart and Brahms with him. It was such a change from old-style Russian School teaching with big sound, big vibrato and big emotion all the time. It was quite opposite, what I learned from Boris, so that was very important for me. And going to concerts and exhibitions, I fell in love with everything French! I connected to the French language and the French style of life - they can enjoy life so well, better than many people… 


JD: And you’ve settled eventually in Luxembourg?

AB: I really wanted to move to a French-speaking place! So I ended up here eight years ago. It’s easy to remember because it was three weeks before giving birth to my daughter. I didn’t really care about what was a good moment to move, I just kept going! She is eight now and my son is ten. It’s a very good base - calm, beautiful, central and efficient. The airport and train station are very close, especially compared to Moscow, where the way to the airport takes longer than the flight! 


JD: Which violinists have you most admired? 

AB: It was changing all the time, I had my favourites every month! Most things I discovered on CDs at the time because there was no Youtube and not many people used to come to play concerts in Moscow. I remember my father presented me with a Michael Rabin box of CDs: that was fantastic - he’s not as known as he deserved to be. I was in love with Menuhin for a long time. And what is most important, I think, is the variety of expression, the different languages performers and composers speak to us: it’s impossible to be stuck with something. Like life itself, it continues and changes. 




JD: You’re quite a recording buff?

AB: I am lucky to know a great collector of old 78s in Paris who happens to be my ex-uncle-in-law. He’s a fantastic person and every time I go to Paris I try to see him and listen because there are such treasures, unknown and unpublished recordings. One of many impressions I had was from the Casals Festival in Prades: a live performance of Christian Ferras playing Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in the church and you can hear a thunderstorm outside. The C major fugue – I never heard anything like that on the violin! 


JD: This Wednesday, 5 December, you have your debut with the LPO and Vladimir Jurowski, playing Tchaikovsky...

AB: I’m so much looking forward to that! I learned the concerto when I was 14 and since then I have played it regularly, as it is one of the best concertos ever written for violinists, one of the most masterful and perfect pieces. With Vladimir Jurowski it’s a very special story because we met first several years ago when we worked on the Strauss concerto, which was v interesting. Then we played Tchaikovsky in Moscow and we had three hours of rehearsal with orchestra which is itself a luxury, but especially for this concerto and the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra. It was the way only Vladimir can make it: totally different way than what I was doing before, and it was incredible to feel these new connections which make the phrases and the whole mood sound totally different. I like very much his idea of this concerto, which is that it’s not so heavy, as stuffed and middle of 20thcentury in style. It’s closer to Mendelssohn. That’s exactly what I feel about this piece too - it’s very light. The second movement is very intimate, but not going too deep. It all finds resolution in the tempos we take & the accents we try to make. So I very much look forward to discovering it with LPO. 


JD: What’s your violin?

AB: A Guarneri del Gesù, a wonderful instrument of 1738, and it’s a whole new world to discover. It’s very interesting to see how much you can observe and learn from the instrument - I still don’t understand how that works. I was playing a modern instrument previously, also a wonderful instrument which got lots of compliments and I really enjoyed playing it. But the Guarneri somehow has something bigger. It’s really a mystery how time and the violinists who have played it before do change it. This violin was discovered relatively recently and has not had many owners, but still it’s very rich. It is lent to me by a private sponsor who wished to stay anonymous - he’s a fantastic person and I’m grateful to get to know him. 


JD: You’re working a lot with the pianist Vadym Kholodenko?

AB: His playing is very special for me. We were in the conservatory studying at almost the same time and for our first sonata together he suggested Beethoven No. 10, one of the most complex sonatas ever written! I learned so much from him, first of all because he’s a great musician and for a teenage violinist when we started to play it was very important, because violinists especially in the early years are obsessed with practising and have to invest so much time… so this was a whole new world. We’ve played together for more than 12 years already. 



JD: In June, you and I are working together - hooray! We’re doing a concert with the Oxford Philharmonic called The Ghosts of War, in which I’ll narrate the story of Jelly d’Arányi and you are the soloist in the Schumann Violin Concerto. Tell us about the concerto - what’s it like to perform? How do people respond to it?

AB: Since I first played the Schumann, I’ve tried to schedule it everywhere I can, which was not as simple as with Tchaikovsky! But I’m playing it several times before Oxford and I’m very much looking forward to that. 

The most common answer when I suggest programming the concerto is ‘Oh, the public doesn’t like it so much’… but that’s absolutely not true, because also important is the way it’s played, because it is so personal and so intimate. 

There are some most precious moments in the concerto - the second movement I adore, and going up to the third movement, it’s absolute magic. I think the fact that it’s not being accepted as it deserves to be is just because it’s not being heard much. That’s the only reason. It can be difficult to find the balance with the tempi, but it is possible. I’m convinced that at that time performances involved much more natural changes of rubato and a much more natural flow which makes much more sense in the finale and in Schumann in general. Of course he was improvising a lot, but I don’t think we should consider his pieces improvisations, especially the later ones: it’s very well thought and well shaped music, and he managed to find such a spare means of expression to express so much emotion. It’s a miracle. 


JD: The metronome marks are quite controversial…

AB: The finale makes sense when you swing it a little bit. Obviously it’s a polonaise, but it makes most sense when you don’t play it too strictly, in terms of movement. And of course I think it should be natural: if something is written unplayable, you can take it and bring sense to it, and that’s how I’m trying to manage this concerto. I think the tempi should be taken into consideration, but you can also change the tempo within the movement. If you listen to how Auer played this melody of Tchaikovsky… the old recordings were so much more free - it was like talking, like a conversation. I also heard a CD included in a book called How to Play Brahms, which had recordings of Brahms symphonies, the same excerpts with the same Berlin orchestra every 10 years - from the 1910s, 20s, 30s, 40s, and it’s absolutely shocking how much it changed. The early recordings had a flow like a flock of birds flying - it’s hypnotising, this feeling of time. Gradually over the decades it was more and more squared within time and slowed down. This can give us a thought about how to better play it. And before, the composers were so much more open to the performers… 


JD: Alena, thank you so much for making time to talk. See you on Wednesday, and toitoitoi!

5 DECEMBER, 7:30 PM, ​ ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL, LONDON
Weber Overture, Der Freischütz
Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto
Bruckner Symphony No. 2 (1877 revised version)

Vladimir Jurowski conductor
Alena Baeva violin
London Philharmonic Orchestra

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Best music books of 2018

Chopin
In today's Sunday Times I've rounded up six of the best classical music books of the year. Somehow 2018 was a bumper year for big, fat, beautiful ones - I've been ploughing through massive tomes on such figures as Chopin, Schumann, Debussy, Boulez, Handel and much more. 
I don't mind telling you that my top choices are headed by Alan Walker's magisterial new biography of Chopin. The other five cover a spread of different music, topics and approaches. I am very sorry that I had to leave out at least four others that really deserve inclusion. 
For some reason, it is not often that so many significant not-purely-academic and not-schlock books about classical music emerge in one year, and I hope this signals the fact that there's a real demand out there for fantastic writing on the subject.