Friday, August 27, 2004

LSO US tour cancelled

The London Symphony Orchestra was supposed to have a three-week tour of the US in September, entitled 'The Music of Hollywood'. The programme was going to consist of music from the movies, including excerpts of John Williams's score for Harry Potter. According to most reports on American internet news sites, the promoter, Jeff Bown, has cancelled the tour because of sluggish ticket sales. One site cites 'travel difficulties' as the reason.

It's absolutely tragic for the orchestra, who presumably will be left out in the cold for that time with the usual British orchestra 'no play, no pay' situation. But dare I suggest that if the 'sluggish ticket sales' report is accurate, there may be a lesson to learn here? Faced with one of the great orchestras of Europe, probably with commensurate ticket prices, perhaps the concert-going public doesn't really want to hear it play Hollywood scores. Perhaps it would have responded a little more eagerly to a bit of Brahms, a dab of Debussy, a mouthful of Mozart... Alternatively, faced with a programme of film music, the people willing to sit in a concert hall to hear it maybe haven't heard of either the LSO or, indeed, London, which they may think is a little town in Canada.

Anyone know anything more about this?

Thursday, August 26, 2004

No. 88 Black-and-White-Notes Street

I've spent several days at the Chetham's International Festival and Summer School for Pianists in Manchester. Back in London today, attending a record company launch for its new releases, I've come to understand just how valuable the experience of the summer school was. When you're surrounded by like-minded people, it's appallingly easy to start taking them for granted. Until, that is, you return to the "real world" and realise that the performances you heard in 48 hours up north by lesser-known names knock the spots off all those glitzy soloists with their snazzy photos and empty heads.

The Chetham's Summer School, held in one of the UK's tiny handful of fine specialist music schools, is run by the school's head of piano, the redoubtable Scot Murray McLachlan, who's an old friend of mine from university. He had assembled 20 piano professors and 160 students of all ages and levels; each student was to have around 4 hours of personal tuition during the week, the chance to practise as much as they liked and the freedom to listen to as many other lessons as they could swallow. There were lectures, concerts by the professors and, for the kids, even a trip to Laserquest. Back at my own piano after only 48 hours, I was staggered to discover how much I'd learned from two days of intensive listening without playing a note myself.

The range of lessons was fabulous. From Murray there was focus, strength and support. From Jeremy Siepmann, a nearly mystical sense of connection between matters of the piano and everything from physiology to astrophysics. Yonty Solomon, once a student of Dame Myra Hess, seems to be the mentor I've long itched to find - and he says he'll listen to me (!); he is a Faure fanatic, his recital displayed a luminosity of tone and total emotional involvement that one hardly ever sees, while his classes were filled with pearls of wisdom handed to him from Hess herself, someone I've always idolised. Noriko Ogawa, whose concert included one of the most stunning Liszt B minor Sonatas I've heard in years, offered a perceptive and analytical approach in her teaching. Bernard Roberts bounced in with down-to-earth common sense, good humour and high spirits - and I can't understand how he's managed not to change one jot since I played to him at Dartington in 1984, while the rest of us have aged past recognition. There were plenty of other professors too whom I didn't have time to hear.

All were kind; all were generous; all had their hearts in the right place. They were there because of their passion for the piano and an almost equal passion to communicate that love and its secrets not only to the next generation but to anyone who hungers for it. It was moving and marvellous. School dinners notwithstanding.

We must feel at home in the piano keyboard, said Yonty. This is where we live: no. 88 Black-and- White-Notes street.

It's difficult to return to normal life after a sojourn at this address.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Carmen by train

I've been spending a few days in Lewes with Tom, whose Glyndebourne schedule doesn't permit daily homecoming at the moment. This week he has rehearsals at St Luke's (City of London) in the mornings for Edinburgh Festival concerts next week, followed by performances at Glyndebourne in the evenings. Insane. So he's staying with some friends and I went to stay too. I came home by train this morning and there on the train was Carmen.

I'm very accustomed to meeting musicians and feel lucky to count some incredible ones among my dearest friends, to the point that round the East Sheen dinner table I can often forget what they do for their living (until they slope off to try the Bechstein). But opera singers are quite another matter - it's almost impossible to get their latest character out of your head. Once I had to interview Richard van Allen about the opera studio in London which he was involved in running, not long after seeing him play the baddy in 'Billy Budd'; I turned up for the meeting and could only think 'Oh my God, it's Claggart!' So sitting on the Victoria train seeing Carmen leafing through the Sunday Times and then nodding off for the better part of the journey was a tad strange. She deserved her nap, though.

The weirdest thing of all, however, was the time Tom got to play in the stage band of Don Giovanni in Graham Vick's highly controversial staging, nicknamed 'the dead horse production'. The on-stage musicians were made up to look as decadent as everyone else, so Tom had to wear an 18th-century frock coat and a wig, with his face made up stark white except for black circles around both eyes. He looked like a vampire. But he thoroughly enjoyed himself and was even told off at one point for over-acting. All sorts of stuff goes on on the last night of the season, of course, and he took that particular opportunity to kiss several girls in the chorus during the dance scene, knowing full well I was out front and could do nothing about it...

Glyndebourne is nearly finished - the last night is 29th. But it's not quite the end of the summer...not quite...the Proms are still on, the Edinburgh Festival is in full swing (I am going for the first time) and St Nazaire is not until well into September. That will be the grand finale, especially for Tom, who has finally got a moment of real glory. He has been invited to play in the Weber Clarinet Quintet with Philippe Graffin, Nobuko Imai, Gary Hoffman and Charles Neidich. Go to Consonances de St Nazaire and scroll down the pics to a smiley fiddler between Devoyon and Graffin... Quite apart from that, St Nazaire will be fascinating this year because of the presence of the astonishing Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin, who has written a new concerto for Philippe. St Nazaire is a strange place for strange marvels.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

The Emperor and his new clothes

FIRST, here is the link to Artsblogging, the collaborative blog in which George Hunka, Helen Radice and I are pooling forces (if you'll pardon the mixed metaphor). This is how George describes it:

"Romantic tradition has it that artists are alienated not only from our
culture but from each other, and despite the explosion of information
technology in the past twenty years I can't say that personally I feel any
less alienated than I did in 1984. Blogs have the potential to provide the
communication and communion missing from the fragmented cultural milieux
in which we're all participating. Now, at least, we can be alienated

Do come and join us! I shall, of course, be keeping this one going as diligently as ever... which end, the Prom last night was quite an experience. Anyone convinced of the imminent demise of classical music should have been there. The place was packed to the magic mushrooms in the ceiling. And the ovation that greeted the veteran pianist Alfred Brendel before he had even played testified to the way people not only love the music but love its finest exponents even if they do happen to be white, male and 75. This was to be Brendel's last Prom: reports say that he no longer wants to do live broadcasts, and for someone who has been playing at the Proms for 36 years this seems fair enough. He played the Beethoven 'Emperor' Concerto, and for this night he was an emperor of the piano himself. The performance was full of colour, the tenderest and most luminous phrasing and the exhilaration of making music in such a joyous atmosphere; only a few memory lapses betrayed what might be the great man's reasons for wanting to bow out.

This was not all: before the concerto, we had to listen to the token piece of Birtwistle. Apparently there has only been about one Prom season in the last 20 years or so (that figure may be wrong - I'll check it) in which Birtwistle has not been played. I've never 'got' the big deal about Birtwistle. There are vast numbers of finer composers both dead and alive who never get a look in the BBC Proms door. It's not only that I don't like the way it sounds; but often, and certainly last night, I don't think it's very good music. This was a setting of three poems by Brendel - who, in case you haven't read them, is a marvellous poet, not only musical but also surreal and often hilarious. The three poems Birtwistle set are all excellent, but did the music add anything? Did it have anything to do with the words? Think of what Schumann could add to Heine, Faure to Verlaine, Duparc to Baudelaire... But here I found the noises emanating from (very good) baritone and orchestra little other than pointless - the usual Birtwistlian gloom and discord and squalliness. What for? Yes, it was the emperor again: but this time, the Emperor's New Clothes. The Emperor did very well without them.

And, oh my dears, it was SO last century. As Brendel is giving up Proms, couldn't someone persuade Birtwistle to do so as well so that we can hear some 21st-century voices instead? Music has GOT to move on from this cod-liver-oil effect. We need new sounds that can inspire us, sounds that look forward instead of backward, individual voices that communicate and fascinate and stimulate. We need new voices for a new century and the Proms should be trying to find them.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

This is Solti

Originally uploaded by Duchenj.

It's the silly season, it's Saturday night and as usual I'm home alone because Tom is working, so here is a picture of our cat, Solti - Sir Georg for short. He lives up to his name. He thinks he's the boss. He thinks he's a tiger. We think he's a mobile teddybear with whiskers and, sometimes, claws.

It's warm and muggy here in London. After a hectic patch I've been doing useful things like washing my autumn skirts, buying jeans and trying, rather half-heartedly, to practise Faure.

A propos of ACD's comment on my misuse of the word 'crossover' the other day, I wonder what people made of the use of Mahler 3 in the Olympic opening ceremony yesterday? Despite the symbolism of the half-nude dancer on the sugarcube suspended above all that water, which according to the BBC commentator was 'man becomes a logical, spiritual being in quest of knowledge', it is still only a major sporting event that can expose Mahler 3 via TV to an audience of 4 billion. With my naive facility for being wonder-struck, I was blown away by the whole thing and am thoroughly in favour of Mahler being aired in this way, which goodness knows he deserves. The rest of the summer is going to be deathly, with nothing on TV except sport, sport and more sport. Honest to goodness, the BBC had nothing better to do today than show the HUNGARIAN Grand Prix. Excuse me while I vote with the red button at the top and take up a good book instead.

Speaking of good books, my Vilnius thoughts were reawakened today by a conversation with the editor of the Jewish Quarterly, for whom I've written a substantial article about the trip (yes, the editor of the JQ is prepared to work on a Saturday and so, mercifully, am I!). I am now reading The Pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman's memoirs on which the film was based - immensely harrowing. But not nearly as harrowing as the book that Philippe gave me for my birthday last year, 'The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania' - an 800-page tome of the diary kept by Herman Kruk, a librarian in the Vilna ghetto chronicling, day by day, moment by moment, the descent into destruction, horror and death of 90 per cent of entire community during the Second World War. Kruk, too, was eventually shot. Just before, anticipating his fate, he had buried the manuscript of his diaries in the presence of six witnesses, one of whom later dug them up; they constitute a horrendously vital document.

Oh my, there is a series about Stalin on Channel 4. I shall now go and watch a programme about Soviet genocide...

PS - I've been tinkering with my list of Musician Friends, deciding to limit it to those who have been round to dinner and/or invited us to their place, or with whom we have good intentions about getting together socially if they and we can ever find a moment when we're in the same place at the same time. I've also put the list into alphabetical order, since it was previously random and "there's some as might take their placing amiss". At some point I'll get round to making a list of Musicians I Think Are Interesting, to restore the casualties of these decisions.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Artsblogging is here!

George Hunka (see his blog Superfluities on the blogroll left) has started a new collaborative blog called Artsblogging. I just joined. Contributors include George, Helen Radice and - though so far just in comments pulling our grammar and word choice apart - ACD. (Note: Who is the mysterious ACD? My guess is that he must be a fearsomely experienced sub-editor, exactly what most of us started blogging in order to avoid!!)

Posts on Artsblogging so far have been focusing on the need for a greater interchange of ideas in the arts. Practitioners of each tend to stay in their own little pigeon-holes and don't mix easily. Even in a place like a 'school of music and drama' the chances are that the musicians will huddle in corners comparing notes on how fast they practise certain studies; and the actors will, well, be actors together. Very different from the early 20th century when writers, artists, musicians etc used to meet and mingle in places like the Princesse de Polignac's Parisian salon...oh for a time machine... The shell-shock for Lucy and me in 'Beloved Clara' was the insight we gained into the world on the other side. Only when working with these actors, Lucy said, has she ever found herself weeping with laughter 90 seconds before walking on to a concert platform.

Exchanging ideas is what Artsblogging is all about. Good on you, George!! It will have a new URL in the next few days, so when that is established I shall add it permanently to the blogroll.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Today in the Indy...

Today in the Indy I have this:

A hard act to follow about Clive Gillinson's imminent departure from the LSO.

I just want to clarify my reasons for having wanted to write this piece, because no doubt there will be people out there in the big wide orchestral chinese whisper factory who say that I want to bad-mouth the LSO because my husband's orchestra doesn't get as much money as they do. If anyone says this to you, please remember that it is bollocks. The LSO is a fantastic orchestra and everybody respects that, no matter where they are. The thing is, I am well placed to write this article because I know all about how orchestras function here and very often I get so angry about it that I risk high blood pressure.

Clive's achievements have been truly amazing, and what I wanted to do is to put the recent events into context: orchestra runs up deficit creating education centre, managing director pushes off to New York, etc, all highly symptomatic of the state of the arts in this country where the former shouldn't be allowed to happen and the latter tends to happen to anyone who is seriously good at their job. Unfortunately some of the juicier bits were cut, presumably because of space on page, but I think it still says what I wanted it to say. The point, though, is that the LSO has become what it is today largely thanks to Clive's cleverness and now, while the band has a deficit (albeit a small one) for the first time in years does not seem the greatest moment for him to say he's leaving. Because orchestras here depend on the brains of their MDs like on nothing else. They have to find someone equally good, otherwise...

Tuesday, August 10, 2004


Went to the dress rehearsal of Jenufa at Glyndebourne yesterday. Dress rehearsals are for invited audiences of company family & friends and orchestra family is often seated in the front row of the stalls. Therefore I got the full knockout impact of what must be one of the most powerful, horrifying and inspiring operas in the whole repertoire. It is an emotional roller-coaster second to none, with a libretto so fine that, enhanced by this marvellous Lehnhoff production, all the violence and misery is entirely believable. By the end I felt as if I'd been hit by a truck. I can think of few other works quite as upsetting as Jenufa, other than the Mahler Kindertotenlieder, which I now refuse ever to attend because I am so gutted by it.

Nor was there a single weak link in the performance - and this was just the dress rehearsal. Marcus Stenz makes his Glyndebourne debut in the pit - he told me it's not only his first Glyndebourne but his first Jenufa too. It's a huge achievement and I'm sure he'll be back for more. Orla Boylan is enchanting and convincing as Jenufa, a bright girl horribly betrayed by those closest to her; Kathryn Harries as Kostelnicka managed to make this monstrous woman completely human, showing that she acts out of love for her step-daughter and genuinely believes she is doing the right thing until the guilt drives her mad. The men are excellent, the mayor looks like Alf Garnett and the leader of the orchestra, Pieter Schoeman, plays his big Act 2 solo with a beauty and intensity that wouldn't disgrace Pinchas Zukerman.

I adore Janacek but don't know nearly enough about him. That has to change, because this evening begged one question: what on earth drives someone to create an opera like this? Time for a trip to the library.

Unconnected note for UK readers: get The Independent tomorrow... and if you're overseas, have a look on-line after lunch UK time.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Gillinson goes west

Blimey, this really is news.

Clive Gillinson is leaving the LSO and is going to be head of Carnegie Hall

Clive Gillinson has run the LSO for yonks. So why exactly is he leaving now? Of course Carnegie is the tops and you can't blame anyone for jumping at that particular opportunity. But it does feel ironic, since the LSO, the most moneyed orchestra in Britain, hasn't been in such great financial shape recently thanks to the costs of building St Luke's (education/rehearsal centre in City church).

As a majority of my readers seem to be overseas, I should point out that in dear Little Britain, it is almost impossible for any arts organisation to get any government money for anything unless it's seen to be doing Something Socially Useful. An extreme example would be that orchestras wanting to put on Mahler 9 with a world-class maestro will only get any money towards that if they are also teaching Newham schoolkids to play Twinkle Twinkle. Demoralising, perhaps, but true. People in Britain still seem to feel they have to apologise for the fact that classical music is a good thing in itself, that it enriches life in a way that nothing else can...well, we've said all this before. But I wouldn't blame any top arts administrator for wanting to get the hell away from this country with its political footballs, its double standards, its hypocrisy...

Apropos of the Guardian's report (see above link), good old Charlotte just had to get in a dig at the LPO, didn't she? 'had to look as far afield as Australia...' For your information, dear colleagues, half of London's music is now run by Aussies: the Wigmore Hall, the South Bank Centre, English National Opera as well as the LPO. The press stands by, daggers at the ready, waiting for them to do something wrong. But they don't. They are bloody marvellous, most of them, full of creativity and spark, and they're here because a) there's not much for them to do down under, b) we need them because our old boys' network can occasionally make a pig's ear of things if left to its own devices. The only Aussie who boomeranged was the guy who came over to run the Royal Ballet a few years ago.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Blogging for books

Through an early morning blog ramble (earlyish, anyway), I came across this clever idea:

Blogging for books

It's an invitation to write a blog entry about the worst experience you've ever had working for someone else; when finished, one posts the url as a comment to thezeroboss. I've been self-employed for about eleven years now and the time has flown by, so thinking back to the Big Bad Days of Employment induces more than a little shudder. It's just a question of which really was the worst...

OK...this one...

I once worked for three years for a magazine company in central London. My first day in the office should have been a sign of things to come. This was August 1990, humidity was high and the thermometer beside my desk registered 94. Charles Dickens would have adored this company, with its heaps of paper, reusable jiffy bags, battered and filthy 'battleship grey' paint on the walls and a carpet made in the Jurassic age (I don't think the "cleaner" did more than empty the bins). The computer screens were green on black, and they blinked. This was an "open plan office" - neither very open, nor remotely planned - and about ten people were squeezed into an editorial department that must have measured about 25 foot by 15. The phones went all the time and as I was a) the youngest, b) the junior staff member ("assistant editor"), c) the girl, I mostly had to answer them even when I was trying to write my articles.

In such conditions, perhaps it's not surprising if people were sometimes astoundingly rude to each other. Little patches of friendliness occurred - now and then someone would bring croissants from the Italian deli over the road, or offer one another press tickets for something nice. I owe one colleague my only experience to date of the complete Ring Cycle at Covent Garden. Once, however, I dared to suggest that just as there was a rota for 'doing the post' in the evenings, there should also be one for sorting out the morning's delivery (as you'll have gathered, secretaries there were not). One response to this was so nasty that I am not going to attempt to repeat it. As the junior, you can't venture answering back to tell someone he has no business talking to anybody like that.

Then I met a man. A composer, or would-be composer. He sent me a poem on Valentine's Day - an original one, too, and it was beautiful. I was living with someone else, but Mr Composer wouldn't take no for an answer. He used to phone me at work, since he couldn't phone me at home, and although I'd try vainly to get rid of his calls, it didn't go down too well with my cheek-by-jowl superiors, who could never let me do anything, however trivial, without making snide comments. I couldn't nip into the loo to do my mascara, at 6pm before going out for the evening, without Boss being sarcastic about it - listen, mate, you'd have loved it if I'd done it at my desk.

I decided to divest myself of Mr Composer once and for all. I spent a whole lunch break in the phone box opposite the building chucking him, as I didn't want to do it from the office...but he rang me back mid-afternoon. In the office. And he threatened to kill himself. I didn't know whether this was genuine; but if you tell someone to f off and then he jumps under a train, you have to live with that forever. So I didn't; I tried to talk him out of it. Boss, who was living through a protracted midlife crisis, blew his top and the next day effectively told me to get the hell out of the company because I hadn't been listening to him. He wasn't remotely concerned whether a dead composer might have resulted from my listening to him. Nor was he remotely concerned about union procedures for getting rid of troublesome staff. My sister told me I should sue the company for constructive dismissal - looking back, I'd have had a case to do so - but I was so glad to get the hell out of there that that was its own reward.

I've been freelance ever since, and happy as the day is long. After a number of years I took my nice sane violinist husband in to that company to meet the gang. He took one look at the state of the place and wanted to call in the Health and Safety Executive.

Postlude: I went out with Composer for about a year; but then my mother died and two months later he left me for one of his students. I should have listened to Boss in the first place.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

What think you of music exams?

I don't know exactly what went wrong, but I got a terribly nice, polite letter the other day saying that I haven't been accepted as an examiner for the ABRSM.

At first I thought that the slightly vague comments - appreciative of one's musicality and friendliness to the candidates, but concerned about "procedural errors" - were specific criticisms of my 'performance' in my training days. Then I compared notes with a good friend, a composer, who also had a rejection letter. The letters were identical, word for word. Hm.

Not that it's a problem. Quite a relief, in fact, not to face the idea of having to tell some innocent editor, 'sorry, no, I can't go to Verbier next week, I have to go to Bloggingham High School in Scunthorpe to examine 16 Grade I pianists and a prep test trumpet instead'. My composer friend and I did scratch our heads, however, wondering exactly where it was that we didn't fit the ABRSM blueprint. I am somewhat annoyed that I spent four very intense days being 'trained', but I don't remember anyone particularly 'training' me. Instead, they throw you in, let you watch a few on the first days, and then expect you to know how to do it straight away. If you go wrong, sometimes they'll step in and tell you, but by the final day, it seems, it has to be perfect. And if they haven't told you where you went wrong, how do you know?! Also, once or twice I found that I adopted procedures copied from one or other of my 'trainers' , only to be told by the next trainer that what I was doing was incorrect!

Perhaps my inner state, so well concealed (I thought), got through somehow - namely, a suspicion that the whole concept of music exams is, well, kinda flawed. Pros: an exam is a good motivator, something to work towards, something to pull your level up, something to give you a sense of achievement. Cons: you develop a dread of performing because Daddy is going to kill you if you get anything less than a good merit, you have a horror of hitting a single wrong note in case you get marked down for it, and you don't bother learning any scales other than the ones that are set for your particular grade. I can think of plenty more cons, but not a vast number of pros.

And then there's 'Creepy Crawly'. Oh boy. 'Creepy Crawly' is a Grade I piano piece. It's got a jazzy rhythm and some blue notes and it's not meant to go too fast. I reckon it is causing incipient dementia in music examiners all over the world. ALL the candidates play it. Ninety per cent of them play it horribly. About forty per cent of most exam candidates seem to be Grade I Piano. You get the idea.

What's more alarming is that 'Creepy Crawly' was written by someone I knew at university. He was the star of his year, two years ahead of me. He sang marvellous counter-tenor, he played the horn gloriously, he was completely brilliant in every way. Everyone adored him, thought he was going to be the next Andreas Scholl/Denis Brain/Simon Rattle (delete as applicable). So what's he doing now? He's teaching singing at a private school in London - and he wrote 'Creepy Crawly'. I just hope he's made a fortune from it.

My friend says she will now go and write loads of music instead. I told her I'll go and write loads of books. Wondering whether to entitle my next attempt at a novel 'Goodbye Creepy Crawly'...