Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Vibrato in Vilnius

Back from Vilnius, reeling a bit. Four incredibly intense days of walking, looking, listening, talking, tasting, paying tribute... I'll be writing about it 'properly', but here are some initial impressions.

I went on the invitation of the Vilnius Festival, thanks (of course) to Philippe Graffin who, with Nobuko Imai, was playing the new Duo Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra by Vytautas Barkauskas. There is a great deal of interest in the place at the moment thanks to Lithuania's accession to the EU, so it seemed a marvellous 'diem' to 'carpe'.

Vilnius is a city divided both physically and mentally. The old town, paradoxically, seems newest. It has been lovingly renovated with WHF grants and is now full of souvenir shops, little restaurants and such like, including my hotel, the Stikliai, which was utterly gorgeous (though we had a day of heavy rain and my ceiling developed 3 leaks!). In a few years' time - not many - there is going to be a tourist boom here. Beyond the old city, however, the town still seems partly immured in 1980s Russia.

The most moving event, among many, was the celebration after the Duo Concertante concert on Sunday evening. 'Vytas' Barkauskas and his wife, Svetlana, invited a number of us back to their flat, where they took enormous pride in gathering and entertaining their friends, far more than most British people generally do. Svetlana prepared masses of food, with sushi in Nobuko's honour and Baron Philippe de Rothschild wine in Philippe's, not to mention an incredible home-made poppyseed cake with DUO written on it in large letters - a recipe, apparently, of 'Vytas's grandmother's. There were toasts, celebrations and conversations in an extraordinary mix of languages (Lithuanian, English, French, German, Russian, Japanese, you name it) until almost 2am. I experienced this kind of warmth and hospitality in Kiev ten years ago. It's a special approach to life: soulful, heartfelt and deeply touching. Barkauskas and I managed to communicate in French, more or less; but when we said goodbye on the last day and I apologised for my lousy vocabulary, he declared that he understands everything with his eyes, head and heart.

On Monday, however, I went to the Jewish Museum. Emerged deeply upset. We've all seen pictures and documents of the Holocaust, but being in a place where it happened - a place very different from Berlin, where memorials and rebuilding have transformed the city - made it feel desperately close. The hotel's immediate vicinity used to be the ghetto. I found the statue of my ancestor the Gaon 20 yards up the road - apparently in the middle of nowhere, but a map in the museum revealed that this open area of ill-kempt grass and Soviet-era offices was where the Great Synagogue once stood. It seated more than 3000 people and was the heart of Jewish life in the town that for so long was a renowned centre of culture, learning and art. The Jerusalem of the North. It was burned down by the Nazis and its ruins were then flattened by the Russians. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were shot in the woods at nearby Ponar.

The museum evidently runs on a shoestring. You can visit Ponar, but I didn't want to. The Gaon, topical though his memorial may be, is tricky to find. My impression of modern-day Lithuanians is that they don't know much about any of this, aren't interested and don't really see why they should be. After all, goes the argument, they were victims too (they were, of course). Even the Mr Big of the music world there - someone who has initiated a couple of festivals of Jewish music and art - said that to them, that world is something historical. Which, I guess, means something that isn't alive any longer. I met and interviewed Vilnius's one Jewish composer, Anatolijus Senderovas, who is writing a ballet score for next year's festival and is a most delightful man. By that time I felt very glad to see him.

They're missing a trick - for one thing, they could make more of their most famous musical son, one Jascha Heifetz. The stage of the Filharmonja, where Philippe and Nobuko played their new piece, was where little Jascha aged about seven made his debut. The morning before we left, several of us went to find Heifetz's birthplace, which Philippe had tracked down. No marking; no celebration. Behind the house, some ancient stables. Heifetz was not perceived as Lithuanian. Therefore, little credit is given to him - other than by crazy journalists, violinists and record producers on bizarre pilgrimmages to his back yard.

Vilnius is full of churches, packed to the rafters on Sunday morning. There is one synagogue - currently closed, apparently because of infighting in the Jewish community.

Food...Dumplings R Us. Potato pancakes R Us too...effectively latkes. Delicious, but a little goes a long way and sits heavy on the stomach. My favourite local food: cold borscht with hot potatoes. My favourite meal experienced in Vilnius: of all things, a Japanese feast on Saturday night with the Barkauskases, Philippe, Nobuko & Simon Foster. A totally international group of six people, only two of whom shared a first language (Svetlana's is Ukranian), eating Japanese food in Lithuania!

The whole trip was an experience that I will remember vividly for the rest of my life. It was part fairy tale, part nightmare, part glorious, part just all too much... More about it will emerge in due course as I start writing my articles.

Friday, June 25, 2004

Bravo Bizet

I'm off to Vilnius in a few minutes. But I just had to pause to write something about how completely bloody marvellous Bizet is.

Two things brought on this sudden rush of enthusiasm yesterday. First, I'm learning the accompaniment to the Flower Song from Carmen, which I have to play in a concert in Sussex in a few weeks' time with a marvellous young singer called Andrew Clark. It's meant to be a Spanish evening - OK, the Flower Song is as francais as they come, but we're talking Carmen here, so we think we can get away with it. I know the thing backwards by ear, but to play it is totally different: one gets under the music's skin and suddenly its immense skill, its perfect expression, its economy and precision of means and all those fabulous and extraordinarily original harmonies come leaping out as if I've never noticed them before. The man was a first-rate master.

Later yesterday afternoon I was on my way to an interview in Soho and was a bit early, so I settled down in Starbucks for some iced tea. Then noticed that the Muzak was being sung in French. How nice, how Euro-friendly, how refreshing, I thought - a French crooner, albeit a rather bad one. Then - oops - I recognised the tune. Pearl Fishers Duet, of course. Hence probably Bocelli and pal. First thought: how strange that opera can be deemed accessible to the masses only if badly sung and accompanied by some dreadful pootly arrangements instead of the real thing. Second thought: poor old Bizet, if only he could have known that one day people would be hearing his music in Starbucks in Soho. Perhaps, in some way, that proves my earlier point: the man was a first-rate master and his music is going to live and live and LIVE.
OK, time to go get that plane. Back Tuesday, ciaociao til then.

Friday, June 18, 2004

Orange juice, freshly squeezed, with bits

The freelance life often feels like juggling oranges. You have two hands and six oranges and you have to keep them all in smooth motion, without dropping or squishing any. The great advantage of this peculiar existence is that if one of the oranges turns mouldy, you have five left that are still OK and room to bring in a fresh one, if and when you can pick it up.

Journalism, especially in such an 'elitist' field as music, is an uncertain game that involves a lot of frustrated, ambitious, egotistical people (yeah, me too...) who may behave in unpredictable ways. Sometimes they do so at the top of major decision-making corporations, which is the scariest thing of all. For instance, the announcement that BBC Music Magazine is to be shifted lock, stock but no staff to Bristol has hit us freelancers hard in the goolies. Not that the staff have been sacked. They've merely been informed that that is what's happening to the mag and they can go with it if they want to. Unfortunately, they mostly don't.

Bristol is a lovely city: trendy, attractive, nice place to raise a family etc etc. But it's not exactly the centre of the musical universe and getting to London by train takes an hour and three quarters. So far, no editor has appeared on the scene. Daniel Jaffe, author of the Phaidon biography of Prokofiev, has bravely accepted the Reviews Editor post, but as far as I'm aware, that's it. Nobody knows quite what the future will hold.

Meanwhile I am juggling frantically with the more certain oranges in life. This week I have to review a bunch of CDs, write an article about Music for Youth for an arts-in-the-community publication, play with Tom in a charity concert tomorrow afternoon, see 'Beloved Clara' at Chelsea on Sunday afternoon, interview a top music film-maker, prepare material for two substantial articles for said BBC Magazine and organise my interviewing schedule for a five-day trip to the Vilnius Festival in Lithuania next Friday. I have to fit in meetings, a haircut and a full day's training on 23rd for a new string to my bow (of which more if I get through). Definitely feeling squeezed.

But there's good news amid the stress: 'Beloved Clara' got picked up from my Independent article by BBC R4 Women's Hour - Lucy is going to be interviewed by Martha Kearney today and the broadcast will be tomorrow (Saturday) afternoon to trail Chelsea.

Also, I'm thrilled to bits about going to Vilnius. I'm going to find my roots: I'm informed that I had an ancestor in 18th century Vilna named the Vilna Gaon, a famous rabbi, Talmudic scholar and community leader. More usefully, I am going to interview the festival directors and a wonderful composer named Vytautas Barkaukas, whose new double concerto is being played in the festival by Nobuko Imai and Philippe Graffin (who I must thank profusely for suggesting that I go there and setting up the contacts for me. Listen, Philippe, if you ever get tired of playing the violin, I shall appoint you my literary agent!).

Apparently 'thank you' in Lithuanian sounds like someone sneezing. Achoo. Or something like that. More about this after I've been there.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Back to the future II

Over three weeks on, my back is still hurting. One of Tom's medical friends in Denmark thinks I may have a slipped disc. I can't help wondering whether CD reviewers are particularly prone to this condition?!?

Monday, June 14, 2004

Yay for the global village

Just back from a long weekend in Denmark, celebrating our sixth wedding anniversary with friends in Aarhus. Tom's first job was in the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra, back in the early 1980s. He still speaks the language fluently (incredible) and loves going back. It's a delightful place, pretty and friendly, gentle and fun to be in - and the northern light is sharp and silvery and marvellous, especially at this time of year. We spent yesterday celebrating with friends who are respectively a nurse (Danish), a microbiologist (Danish) and a radiologist (originally Canadian) - walking by the sea and enjoying a bottle or two of champagne in the afternoon on a deserted beach.

In this laid-back, international context, it was depressing to hear about the strides made by the UK Independence Party in the elections the other day. The world has become such a small place that you really can't turn the clock back and pretend that it's unnecessary to team up with anybody but your own little island and its island mentality. I feel very sorry for people who can't see past the end of their own noses. They don't know what they're missing.

In the musical sphere, we're better placed than most to appreciate the benefits of the increasingly international society. Tom's orchestra has recently appointed a Hungarian, a Chinese girl, a Spaniard, someone from Holland, a French violinist, a South African and several Russians. There are several Germans already, an Italian or two and a particularly charming and infamous Brazilian cellist who seems to get tickets for the finals of every World Cup. For Glyndebourne, take all of this, add singers and stir well. Everyone is pulling together towards the same end. Everyone has concerns in common and friends are made across every boundary. Hence boundaries cease to exist.

I'm losing track of the number of international couples that we know. My brother is about to marry an Italian. Our friend Paul Lewis, hotshot British pianist, has just married the Norwegian cellist of the Vertavo Quartet, Bjorg Vaernes - many congratulations to them!! We know couples who are French and American, Russian and Canadian, Tartar and Welsh. And countless others. That's one of the best things about the modern western world: this cultural exchange is endlessly stimulating.

As it happens, I love England. I am proud of our heritage in cathedrals, great houses, beautiful gardens, pretty villages, literature, certain kinds of music, cricket on the green etc etc. But, being privileged enough to live among music and musicians, I don't see any sign of the threat that so many people in this country think that Europe poses.

When Tom moved to Aarhus, he'd spent the past few years at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, living in a cramped bedsit where he had to put coins into a meter to get any heating. He practised all the time and lived on peanut butter sandwiches and orange juice. Manchester in those days was a pretty vile place, grimy and depressed and gloomy. Then he got his job in Aarhus and suddenly found himself in a clear-aired, friendly, clean environment with a thriving cafe society, an easy-going population, lots of bicycles and thousands of Danish blondes. He thought he'd died and gone to heaven.

ALSO - ARTICLE IN TODAY'S 'INDEPENDENT' by yrs truly, about Beloved Clara and the increasing spate of music & words projects going on. Link on the sidebar.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Epiphany time

Since my fellow music-bloggers are doing their musical epiphanies at the moment, I thought I'd do some too.

It's not easy, because I learned most of my music rather subconsciously. My father, who was a neuropathologist, lived for music when he wasn't at work and used to have BBC Radio 3 on all the time, from 7am onwards. So over breakfast before school I'd probably have absorbed the Dvorak Czech Suite, a Mozart concerto, a Haydn symphony, usually conducted by Dorati - ah, those were the days! - and a piece or two of Debussy or Saint-Saens. I've always been fortunate in having a good aural memory (though I'm fairly useless on visual imagination) so the BBC provided me with a basis for My Life Since Then that has proved more than a bit useful.

Dad also used to take me to the Conway Hall chamber music concerts on Sunday evenings, where I got to know the string quartet repertoire, plus various piano quintets, a trio or three and the Ravel Introduction and Allegro. The latter must have made a big impression because I have a vivid memory of watching Marisa Robles and being transfixed by the sounds she was conjuring out of the angelic contraption under her hands. I still adore the piece. The Conway Hall has a text on its proscenium arch that says TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE. Interesting contemplation material...

More vivid still, however, was something I once heard in the car coming home from the Conway Hall when I was eight. We'd come out from some string quartet performance, got in the car, Dad of course switched on R3 - and out poured the most astonishing sound. A soprano singing passionately in a weird language. An oboe; throbbing off-beat strings; and then a horn melody that transported me to a world I didn't know existed. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever heard, bar nothing, and I was left (so they told me) speechless.I already loved Tchaikovsky ballet music, but I'd never heard of Eugene Onegin. This was the Letter Scene. Now, however much I enjoy my French stuff, however far I travel to see Korngold's Die tote Stadt and however often I sing through the whole of The Magic Flute in my mind, there is still no opera dearer to me than Eugene Onegin.

I sometimes wonder what my father would think of Radio 3 today if he was still alive.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Pelleas premonitions

Attention everyone who wants to go to Glyndebourne: there are tickets =still available for Pelleas et Melisande. It's an extraordinary production with world-class singing by John Tomlinson et al and the LPO at its absolute finest under Louis Langree. And you can picnic in the interval. Book NOW - more info on the website, link on the sidebar.

What I want to know is why there are tickets. Usually you can get into Glyndebourne for neither love nor money. (Well, sometimes love, but not always - Tristan was chockablock last year and I only saw the dress rehearsal.) This year, Carmen and The Magic Flute are sold out. But not the Debussy. Nor, I believe, Jenufa or Rodelinda.

Pelleas is not easy listening. It's unbelievably beautiful, detailed, hypnotic, magical, but it's not strong on The Big Tune. It doesn't get played on Classic FM. Pelleas is like no other opera on earth, despite a few wisps of Tristan and Parsifal creeping in on occasion. It's haut-Symbolism, in which every image represents a range of unspoken allusions. That is partly why I love it so much: every time you hear it you can hear something new, something you didn't quite get a handle on before. Could it be that it is entirely lost on 85 per cent of Glyndebourne-goers?

In our consumer age, it often seems to me that people like to sit in an opera house and consume the opera. They pay their money and they take in the returns. Heaven forfend that they should do any spadework to make sure they get the most out of what they see. Why should anyone have to make an effort after paying £100 for a ticket? "I don't think the producer has read the synopsis," was one haughty comment I heard on the way out of the show the other day (Vick's circular flashback trick works wonders on Pelleas, but you can only see that if you have heard the word Symbolism before). I remember going round a spectacular Art Nouveau exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum a few years ago and hearing a woman complaining to her companion about the use of the word 'sensibility' in one of the commentaries on the wall. She didn't know what it meant - worse, she didn't see why she should.

With music education stripped to bare minimum, hundreds of TV channels offering nothing worth watching and, hovering over everything like great vultures, the mind-numbing curses of the Cool and the Correct, a masterpiece like Pelleas doesn't stand much chance. Cultural 'Sensibility' - that word one shouldn't use because someone mightn't know its meaning - is under a general anaesthetic. If I have the chance to see this production of Pelleas again, I shall do so - because God alone knows when there will be another opportunity. Are operas like this going to vanish from our stages because of audience indolence?

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Publishers be damned...

I've just been reading Alex Ross's article 'Listen to this' from The New Yorker, which you can find on his Blog. It's a superbly written, perceptive, spot-on critique of the concepts and preconceptions that are too often associated with the word 'classical'; and it serves to underline several gripes I have with the outside world's attitude to 'us', especially the attitude of publishers and bookshops.

As Alex points out, when people hear the word 'classical', they think 'dead'. Music is alive. Try telling this to the publishers of books on music. Browsing through the few remaining shelves in shops like Waterstones and Books Etc devoted to music - almost all have cut back to the bare minimum - I look at the offerings and wonder what planet these people are on. One noteworthy thing about Alex's aforementioned article is that it is so well written. There are not many writers on music with such a fine grasp of style. That's possibly why, when they exist, they get snapped up by a public that does have a hunger for intelligent writing about culture in general. Norman Lebrecht also springs to mind - even if what he says raises your blood pressure, the way he says it is so well-turned that some of us forgive him virtually anything.

Music begins where words end. Therefore expressing the essence of a musical experience in words is unlikely to be adequate. Usually it is rather worse. The bookshelves, such as they are, feature volumes intended for university libraries and perhaps the private collections of what we in Britain commonly call 'anoraks'. Publishers perceive a specialist market for books on music in which anything basically 'accessible' (awful word) or 'readable' is wide of the mark. At the opposite extreme, the number of books on classical music addressed in their titles to 'dummies' or suchlike is staggeringly large. Publishers seem to think that to want to read about music, you have either to be so intellectual that you can't bear to step outside your ivory tower, or alternatively that you regard yourself as thick. Most of us are neither.

Music books are segregated in the music shops like women in an orthodox shul. I dream of the day when my biography of Korngold will live on a shelf of mainstream biographies rubbing shoulders with Kafka and Kokoschka, and my Faure book will happily cohabit with tracts on Foucault and Flaubert. Composers have made as great a contribution to the history of culture as writers and artists, but are seen as something to be handled with kid gloves, graphs and Schenkerian analyses, kept well away from the superbug infections of the mainstream. Music is boxed out, away from literature, away from art, away from real life. (It is also boxed out of absolutely everything by lazy marketing and promotion departments...) This is not only ridiculous but also damaging.

About a year ago I made a little academic discovery... The full story will be coming out in The Strad later this year. All I can say for now is that this discovery has been lurking in the depths of fin-de-siecle Paris for more than a century, but has so far gone unremarked. Perhaps that is because music, art and literature tend to be studied in isolation from each other. If experts on certain writers also bothered to look at the lives of certain composers who were close to them, this would have been spotted decades ago. And if experts on composers looked in any detail at their contact with the writers in question, who knows what could turn up? About 110 years ago in Paris, these segregations were unheard-of. Chausson was friendly with the artist Odilon Redon. Faure married the daughter of a well-known sculptor. Pauline Viardot virtually lived with Ivan Turgenev, an opera libretto by whom her friend Brahms once rejected (!). Most of them met at each others' salons. I rather enjoy Schenkerian analysis on occasion, but what can it tell us about the way these circles of artists fed off each other's creativity and what cross-fertilisations this could have produced that we enjoy, unknowingly, today?

Here are a few recommendations of books on music that are well written, well researched, serious and still enjoyable to read:

Edward Elgar: a creative life, by Jerrold Northrop Moore

Beyond the Notes, by Susan Tomes (as mentioned the other day)

Parallels and Paradoxes, by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said

Wagner and Philosophy, by Bryan Magee

Tchaikovsky, by David Brown

The Maestro Myth, by Norman Lebrecht