Wednesday, August 31, 2005


According to the wonderful Drew McManus, 31 August 2005 is Blogday - a chance for bloggers to recommend other bloggers to our readership. Having been tapping away on Blogspot for a year and a half, I'm still amazed that we've invented a uniquely 21st-century medium with astounding international potential. Today alone I've had hits in the UK, US, Canada, Switzerland, South Africa, Morocco, Poland, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Australia and New Zealand. Over the months, regular readers have popped up in the Philippines, Lithuania, Mexico, Argentina, Denmark, Spain, the Czech Republic, Finland, Norway, Sweden and many, many more. Even the occasional hit in Iran, Urugay, Peru, Venezuela, India, Pakistan, Armenia and once (but once only, and my tracker may have made a mistake) Afghanistan. It's something extraordinary.

All my favourite blogs are listed on my blogroll (in impossibly haphazard order, I fear - I WILL put them in alphabetical order one day soon!). I was about to cite a select few, but don't want to upset any of the others, so I'll leave you with a plea to experiment with the list over to the left. To all my fellow bloggers - if you're on that list, it means I love you. Keep up the good writing!

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The naked fiddler

Tom has gone to Berlin for the first leg of an LPO tour that will take in a) Germany, b) Italy and Switzerland, c) Bucharest, Zagreb and one or two other unusual places with long names. He arrived in Berlin this evening. His suitcase didn't. Here's hoping it turns up in time for the concert at the Philharmonie tomorrow, otherwise the Tomcat will have no tails and may have to go on in his birthday suit instead.....

Here's a very small something from the Indy today to provide a little diversion. I promise that the stories are ALL TRUE. Printed version is nice, if you can get hold of one, because they commissioned a fantastic cartoon for it. (No, it doesn't involve any nude violinists.)

Back home, I've just emerged from a snowdrift of book proofs, which I've now given back to my publisher, quaking. That's it. Anything that didn't get changed is going to be on a shelf somewhere for longer than I shall be on this planet. Every time I looked at it, I found something more than needed to be remedied..... Anyway, the jacket proof is wonderful - and all I can do now is sit back and wait. Time to get on with the next one. Theoretically, at least. Next week I'm going to meet Tom & the band in Lucerne for two days (hope it's stopped raining); the following week off to Rome to interview a very special singer; and a few days later a welcome holiday in France will be upon us.

More seriously, we've been massively churned up today by the pictures of New Orleans virtually underwater. Our very deepest sympathies from London to everyone caught up in the devastation brought to the southern states by Hurricane Katrina.

Sunday, August 28, 2005


Simply to let you know that I scrubbed out the Comment facility from the post below because of spam. In future, you'll all have to do Word Verification to leave a comment. Not my fault, just this crazy world we live in...

Oo la la in Edinburgh

This is in today's edition of Scotland On Sunday: my article about the Opera de Tours's production of the musical comedy L'amour masque by Andre Messager & Sascha Guitry. (This is the reason I've been getting interested in Guitry & co recently...). It's at the Edinburgh Festival from 1 to 3 September and I think it sounds fabulous - wish I could be there to hear it. You may need to register at the Scotsman website to get into the article, but it is quick, free and harmless. More info about the show from the EIF website here.

It is extraordinary, the way that one artistic passion can turn out to relate to many others in unsuspected ways. When I set out to write Faure's biography, I had no idea that he would turn out to have connections to one of my favourite writers, Turgenev; or that a ballet of Alain-Fournier's wonderful novel Le Grand Meulnes would have been made to his music (Andrée Howard's La fete etrange - being staged at the Royal Opera House in October); or that his friend Messager would have dedicated to Faure's memory the music he wrote to Guitry's play Deburau which may well have helped to inspire my favourite film Les Enfants du Paradis. Weird, eh? Or simply a symptom of attraction on my part to a particular aesthetic that is shared, in one way or another, between them all? As they say in Russian, 'Bog zniyet...'

Friday, August 26, 2005


This is the indomitable Norman Lebrecht's inspiring account of how he found himself performing the recitation in Schoenberg's 'A Survivor from Warsaw' at Dartington last week.

Every music commentator should take part in a performance now and then and Norman's article helps to show why.

Speaking of stressful performances, we hear this morning that one of Leonidas Kavakos's strings broke during the Berg at the Prom last night and he finished the concerto on the leader's violin. It must take nerves of diamond, never mind steel, to switch fiddles in that piece, of all pieces, in the middle of the Royal Albert Hall, live on BBC Radio. What's more, Andrew Davis had dropped out and Joseph Swensen was drafted in to conduct instead, somewhat late in the day. Tom and I were down at Glyndebourne and missed the fun...

If I feel stressed out by proofreading my novel and trying to catch last-minute inconsistencies - of which there've been plenty - all I have to do is think 'I will never have to recite Schoenberg, or break a string in a Prom' and I feel better INSTANTLY.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Piano man or shaggy dog?

The mystery of the "piano man" has been solved. This is the report in The Guardian.

Turns out it was a bit of a shaggy dog story. He's from Bavaria and the whole thing appears to have been an elaborate hoax. As for the 'piano genius' element - it does seem that that was the result of mental health workers in the UK not being able to tell the difference between a full-fledged concert pianist and someone who can just about pick out a tune from Swan Lake. The report on the TV news last night was gently accompanied by a background account of Chopsticks.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

What a feeling...

I become seriously proud of my husband on an occasion like this. There he was, standing on the stage at the Albert Hall, which was packed to the rafters with music lovers going absolutely nuts over Beethoven 9. Live on BBC TV. Up there with one of the world's great orchestras and Kurt Masur and a wonderful big choir and soloists. What an occasion. In Yiddish, we call my emotion last night 'clibing nachas' - roughly equivalent to basking in reflected glory from one's loved ones, but in truth untranslatable.

The Gubaidulina piece, 'The Light of the End', was stunning. Well worth a webcast listen this week if you didn't catch yesterday's concert in any other way. Full of astonishing imagination and possessed of a rich, instinctive spiritual progression that could only have been articulated through the medium of her own musical language. I'm looking forward to hearing it again in Lucerne during the LPO tour. I normally avoid travelling with the orchestra because of their stressful schedules, but can't resist the idea of two Swiss days in Lucerne! The fact that I don't really like Beethoven 9 is neither here nor there...

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Tonight's Prom...

...will be quite an event It features our very own Tomcat and his orchestra, under their principal conductor, the indomitable Kurt Masur! They will be starting with a piece by Gubaidulina and then doing Beethoven 9th. It's going out live on BBC2 - as well, of course, as Radio 3 and the good old webcast. The LPO Prom is always a slightly bigger deal for my resident fiddler than most other gigs, since it is always the first concert after Glyndebourne - having done nothing but opera for several months, one's suddenly out in the spotlight again. And the Albert Hall is very large. Tonight is a little compounded by the suspicion that he'll be in quite a lot of close shots on the TV, because for the Beethoven he's sitting on the second desk of the Firsts, next to the orchestra's glammest blonde Hungarian, who is bound to attract the cameras!

Tickets are a bit thin on the ground, or so I'm told, but the arena queue will be doing its stuff, as ever. Do come along if you can! Gubaidulina is doing a pre-concert talk at 6pm, which should be fascinating, and Tom assures me that the piece is marvellous and very listenable.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Another legendary Prom

One couldn't get into this one the other day for love or money. Annette Morreau's review (click above) really has it in a nutshell.

I did make it, though, to Barenboim's press conference last week -and have to say I've never before been moved to tears in a press conference before. Barenboim seems to have achieved what nobody else anywhere in the Middle East is able to do: bring young people from different sides together to meet one another during a shared endeavour. It's a grass-roots approach, and probably the only way to make any progress.

Five members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra were there with him; one was a young Palestinian violinist from Ramallah whose description of her endeavours to keep her musical training on the rails was deeply touching. After she'd talked about how she'd had a different teacher almost every year - they'd come in from other countries and then leave - Barenboim beamed: "Yet here she is, playing Mahler 1 in London." Two of the others, one Israeli and one Arab, pointed out that they lived just 40 minutes' drive from one another, yet there was no way they would ever have met, but for this orchestra.

The Goethe Institute has quite a good explanatory article about the orchestra's background.

They will play in Ramallah for the first time on 21st August. This is miraculous in itself. Spain - where the orchestra is based - has provided all the orchestra's youngsters with diplomatic passports for the occasion to make it possible. Barenboim's dream is that one day the orchestra will be permitted to play in every country from which its members are drawn...

I've been privileged to meet and write about a lot of fantastic musicians in the last 15 years, but if I had to pick out the greatest one of all, it has to be Barenboim. I don't believe anyone else on earth could have done what he's done for these young musicians.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

What my work is sometimes like

...when not editing my book. Have just been to Salzburg to interview a great soprano.

Monday 8 August: call from editor offering the job. Sounds fantastic. I haven't been to Salzburg for 10 years. Agree to drop everything and run.

Monday 15 August: leave house 2pm, train to Waterloo, tube to Bank, walk to Liverpool Street, Stansted Express to Stansted Airport. Meet press officer & photographer, stand in check-in queue for 3/4 of an hour with half of eastern Britain off for its summer hols. Fortunately we are not flying BA from Heathrow. 6pm take off into warm evening sun. 8.45pm arrive local time Salzburg, where someone in the sky has left a tap running. We leg it to the terminal building in our light summer sandals. Morose taxi driver takes us to hotel, whence it is too wet to even consider a gentle stroll up to the Mozartplatz. As for the festival, Cecilia Bartoli & Andras Schiff started their recital at 9pm and it is now 9.30pm, so we can't go there either. We spend a pleasant evening in the hotel restaurant eating spaghetti carbonara, then crash out.

Tuesday 16 August: the rain in Salzburg stays mainly on the press trip team. Press officer is taken ill (result of spaghetti carbonara or chilly, wet weather?). Taxi transfer to another hotel at 9am where record company has booked a suite for the day to accommodate photoshoot and interview. Soprano delayed on Austrian country roads by flooding. She eventually turns up looking bright and breezy, however, and next hour or so is in the hands of accomplished make-up and hair artist. I press my nose to wet glass and long to go out for a walk, but even with raincoat and umbrella this weather is seriously nasty and I don't fancy sitting in sodden jeans for the rest of the day. Press officer has to lie down. The 'Festspielhavs' [the hall's lettering boasts an odd 'u'] offers a morning concert at 11am: a typically earnest, heavyweight Salzburg programme full of Mahler songs. Can't handle Mahler at 11am, so remain a 'festspielhavnot'.

Photographer sets up & soprano appears in glorious concert gown looking several million dollars. The morning passes in a sea of raindrops and camera lights. 1pm: soprano is handed over to me and we lunch together in hotel cafe on the top floor, talking about Mozart while gazing at the Salzburg skyline, full of onion-domed churches and a romantic castle, which remains swathed in grey cloud and water. There are indeed mountains out there somewhere, she assures me... Great soprano talks about her repertoire, teaching, new CD and much more and I am immensely inspired by her insights, her intuition and her self-knowledge. At this moment, wet, tiring trip seems entirely worth it: one can learn a great deal from someone like this even if one can't sing!

2.30pm, great soprano goes home. Our plane isn't until 9pm so photographer, ailing press officer and I sit in cafe putting world to rights, wondering whether we can get out for a walk and see something of Salzburg. We decide against it. I wonder whether to text great violinist whose mobile number I have & who is possibly rehearsing nearby for a concert the next day, to see if I can gatecrash his rehearsal. Look at rain & decide against it: who'd keep a mobile on during a rehearsal anyway? Instead, sit in hotel suite all afternoon, trying to keep warm, drinking copious quantities of tea and reading biography of Margot Fonteyn.

6.30pm, stroll down to foyer, check out and ask for a taxi to the airport...

...and find that apparently there are no taxis to be had in the whole of Salzburg and EVERYBODY needs one. Girls at hotel desk ring every Salzburg taxi company on the internet, keep getting wrong numbers & eventually they begin to panic. An aging Austrian in black tie, accompanied by glamorous girl in high heels black suede shoes and waiting for taxi to concert at the Festspielhavs, yells at them and demands repeatedly, and of course counter-productively, whether they've even been trying. Festspielhavs is a gentle ten-minute stroll away, if that. We are aware that even if we'd got our act together earlier and booked taxi in advance, some irate festival-goer would have swiped it from under our suitcases. Traffic outside hotel door is solid. Rain tips out of sky. Panicking hotel girls retreat into Salzburgian intransigence. At 7pm it becomes clear that if we don't get out of there, fast, we may not make the plane. Press officer, who's been white until now, turns grey. Photographer needs a smoke and a pack horse for her gear. I persuade intransigent hotel girl to write down the best way to get to the airport by public transport and persuade the others to venture to nearest bus stop. A few minutes later we are at the Hauptbahnhoff, which naturally boasts a fine rank of waiting, unemployed taxis. Small airport is full of nerdy families with ballistic children waiting for last flight to Stansted.

Sit on plane reading, then stumble across a page about Nureyev that makes me realise one paragraph of my novel is full of nonsense about Russia because it's taking place ten years too late for that period of history; decide that I have to make a particular character ten years older than he is, which could cause severe complications given that I'm proofing and am not supposed to change anything. Spend rest of trip in blind despair wondering how stupid I've been in other parts of book...

10pm descend from plane. 10.50pm, luggage slowly gasps its way onto carousel. 11.10 a bus condescends to take us to car park. Photographer gives me lift to west London, but exit from M11 to North Circular is closed so we almost end up in the Blackwall Tunnel. 12.20 we get to Acton and my knight in shining dinner jacket - the Tomcat, fresh from Glyndebourne - is waiting to collect me for the last leg of the journey. Start, slowly, to feel as if it's summer again. 12.35, home & hit the whisky.

ADDENDUM, 1pm: in today's Indy, my Proms preview about the great violinist I didn't see in Salzburg: Mr Kavakos - newly nicknamed, in our house, The Chocolate Fiddler (=Leonidas chocolates...). He's playing the Berg concerto at the Prom on 25th. Should be incredible.

Saturday, August 13, 2005


Tom & Solti
Originally uploaded by Duchenj.

We can't let it be mid-August without putting up a picture of the cat, so here's the latest. It's a better likeness of Solti than of Tom, but I think they both look cute...

Thursday, August 11, 2005

A few reviews

...of Tuesday. Here's Hilary Finch's write-up in The Times.

And David Fanning in The Telegraph.

Last (for the moment) but not least, Andrew Clements being ever so patronising in The Guardian.

ADDENDUM: FRIDAY 12th, 9.30am: Barry Millington in The Evening Standard says: "...the concerto is ‘worth hearing for its historical interest and also for its slow movement, which is in a different class. Despite its Puccini-like opening, the Andante Semplice takes wing in an unpredictable way and Philippe Graffin, well established as one of the work’s leading interpreters, soared above the fray in rhapsodical flights of extraordinary beauty."

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Tuesday morning

Only one thing to say to Philippe Graffin this morning: "MERDE!!!!"

You can listen to the Prom tonight via the internet from anywhere: here's the link.

Meanwhile... Tom and I are still reeling from yesterday: we went to see 'The Producers'. Now I know where opera houses go wrong: they're not doing this show! It's the best thing I've seen in a theatre since 'Meistersinger'. And I don't think I've laughed so much since I saw the Marx Brothers for the first time. If you are in London or New York and you have only one free evening to do something, then do this! (Unless that evening is in London tonight, in which case you have to come to the Prom...)

Sunday, August 07, 2005


...playing at the Proms for the first time.

Philippe Graffin is doing this on Tuesday. Full details here.

How anyone tackles such a task is simply beyond me. I found it quite scarey enough playing to a nice little roomful of 50 people at the Elgar Birthplace Museum. The Royal Albert Hall can take around 6,000 on a good night. And this should be a good night: the BBC Concert Orchestra in a rather original all-British programme. Philippe plays the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor concerto, which is many decades overdue for a Proms performance. Here's my article from Friday's Indy about "SCT" - there's also a link on the left to my liner notes for his recording on Avie. This is not a dusty rarity. It's a wonderful, wonderful piece. If you're in London, come and cheer him on!

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Ooh la la!

Back from Nice, which lived up to its name. Didn't get much proof-reading done...

Speaking of France, now I'm reading up about Sacha Guitry, for reasons which I'll explain in due course. I'd be very interested to hear from anyone who knows anything more about the following: it seems that this 'French Noel Coward' (should one add 'heterosexual French Noel Coward'?!?) wrote a number of 'comedies musicales' with Andre Messager, the conductor, opera house director and much-underrated composer who as a youth shared a flat with my beloved Monsieur Gabriel in Paris - they'd been students together at the Niedermeyer School and later joined forces to write the most glorious piano duet skit on Wagner's Ring Cycle entitled 'Souvernirs de Bayreuth' (hear it and die laughing!).

One of Messager's last works was a comedy, with Guitry's words, entitled 'Deburau'. It is dedicated to the memory of Gabriel Faure.

When I came across a reference to this, I pulled up short: Deburau was the surname of the hero of 'Les Enfants du Paradis', my favourite film EVER. And Messager's 'comedy' is dedicated to the memory of my favourite composer?!? In 'Les Enfants du Paradis' - made in the forties, during the war - the 19th-century genius mime actor Baptiste Deburau is played by Jean-Louis Barrault and the free-spirited woman he loves, Garance 'comme la fleur', by Arletty.

It seems a film was made of Guitry's comedy 'Deburau' in 1951, using Messager's music (sadly it seems it's now not available on video or DVD). An outline of ir that I found on the internet tells me that we are indeed talking about the same Deburau as 'Les enfants' - but the woman that Deburau loves is none other than La Dame aux Camelias, Marie Duplessis. (Camelias - comme la fleur???)

I know woefully little about Guitry, though now I've ordered some books (including a translation of 'Deburau', which is on its way from the States). What I'd like to know is: a) Did Guitry's play spark the idea for 'Les Enfants du Paradis'? It seems that he knew both Jean-Louis Barrault and Arletty quite well... b) Why was Messager's version dedicated to Faure's memory? Was it merely that Faure had recently died (1924) and this happened to be the next thing that his old friend wrote? Or was there more to it than that? Had Faure had any particular interest in Deburau, the Funambules theatre, the story...? Could the pair of them perhaps have gone to the Funambules and seen the real Deburau together?!?

This kind of thing ZAPS me. Here's the subject of a film that changed my life when I was 14 or so, being linked directly with a composer who has changed my life again and again and is still doing so. It seems uncanny and I need to know more! Any leads would be greatly appreciated!