Monday, November 27, 2006

Long live editors!

While Tom is away, I rent a lot of films on DVD. Yesterday I saw for the first time the 'director's cut' of one of my all-time favourites, Cinema Paradiso, and I was horribly shocked.

! During his return visit to Giancaldo, Salvatore not only finds that Elena is married to that really stupid kid from his class at school, but meets her again because he notices her daughter and follows her home. Then he has a steamy encounter with Elena in the car. And she won't go back to Rome with him, and the whole way they'd parted was a huge mistake though partly Alfredo's fault, because he'd decided that Salvatore had to become a great film director and if he and Elena stayed together, he wouldn't make any films. And her note to him is still pinned to the cinema wall with the invoices, although the cinema has only been shut for 6 years before the pending demolition, but they must nevertheless have last seen each other in the 1950s and the present day is 1980-something......I'm upset - by the implausibility, trivialisation, confusion and more. Whoever told the director that the film would be much stronger without this really, seriously, knew what he/she was doing.

Bravo for editors.

The Morricone score is still wonderful.

Saturday, November 25, 2006


...I've just finished the first draft of my third novel. I thought I'd never get there. Crikey. 540 pages, 145,000 words of...oh dear... well, if I get rid of 25,000 words, ie the length of three and a half reasonable dissertations on Hungarian music, Gypsy fiddlers and why one really shouldn't fall in love with violinists, then maybe I'll have something decent to work with. It's been agony. But now is when the real slog begins.

How weird is this?

A sleepless night found me surfing the internet around 3am [sad, I know]. I was startled to find a classical music forum in which a bunch of gentlemen were having yet another dig at my opinions about Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, expressed on this blog so long ago that I can't even locate it in my archive.

Those opinions were written in the way that blogs tend to be: rapidly and with the occasional strong view [oh, we're not meant to have those, are we?] emphasised in capitals - back then, I was using a browser that wasn't compatible with Blogger's editing features, and I hadn't yet learned how to do bold, italics etc with html code. Neither that post nor anything else in JDCMB was ever intended to be taken as academic gospel and I can't think why anyone would consider it suitable for quotation. Nevertheless, fellow blogger Steve Hicken saw fit to quote it extensively in a lengthy article about the work, twisting my words to make his point (the opposite of mine, of course). That sparked the discussion on the forum, where someone also took me to task about 'laying it on a bit thick' with said capital letters. Hey, chaps, I could throw some of my favourite Hungarian swear words at you, but I'll keep it simple instead: haven't you got anything better to do? I'm not trying to write the New Grove here. And if you have to quote daft stuff like mine, couldn't you have the courtesy to spell my name right? You'll find it at the top of this blog in, oh dear, big letters.

The declaration of love from another gentleman on the same forum was marginally more welcome. Dear sir, thank you, but I'm a married woman.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Hora of horas...

Tom and the LPO are off on tour today - they'll be arriving in Toronto late tonight, then heading for the East Coast of the States (small matters like Carnegie Hall), back on 4 December. So we spent yesterday evening doing what you might expect a fiddler and his wife to do on the last night home before a tour. You guessed it: gawping at Heifetz videos on Youtube. This performance of Dinicu's Hora Staccato is unbelievable:

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Sounds from South Africa

Philippe Graffin is currently in Cape Town coaching the Hout Bay String Project. A report from Jan-Stefan's Kloof Street Blog has some pictures and a brief but touching account of what it's been like. The project's own website has a fuller account of its aims and achievements. Here's an extract:

Our orchestra is a vehicle of social upliftment and change. It allows for fundamental communication between individuals. Our teachers have high standards and give of their best and expect the same of the children. We ask children to attend up to five lessons and rehearsals per week. They practice technical exercises and work at their intonation and interpretation, constantly striving to raise their standard of performance. The children experience adults who are willing to invest time and energy in them. Time and time again we see disruptive and angry children become motivated, disciplined, engaged and joyful individuals. These children then become involved in teaching activities at our Project, sharing their knowledge and encouraging others to progress. Some of our children have come from abused backgrounds or have been involved in violence and crime. Music provides drive, focus, passion and moments of beauty in lives where children are often forced to deal with adult issues like despair and abject poverty.
This is admirable and inspiring indeed: see also the astonishing ongoing activities of Buskaid, founded by Rosemary Nalden in Soweto.

I've recently viewed a DVD of a stunning South African reinterpretation of Carmen, U-Carmen, sung in Xhosa and set in a huge township - a version that transposes and sometimes even strengthens the drama, is wonderfully sung and acted, and proved totally convincing. Go see it

UPDATE, 27 November 11.30pm: Jan-Stefan has posted a report about the concert with Philippe yesterday. Great pics.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Salonen to cross the Pond

So Esa-Pekka Salonen is to be the Philharmonia Orchestra's new principal conductor and 'artistic advisor'! The Guardian broke this story the other day, but it seems that the secret had been so well-kept that a rumour began to go round that it was a hoax. A press release from the orchestra plopped into my in-box yesterday, though, so it's official and presumably true.

The appointment starts with the 08-09 season. It's good to see that London's orchestras are finding top-notch principal conductors with youth, health, high energy and big ideas on their side. The LPO has the stunning thirty-something Vladi Jurowski in place to take over next year from Kurt Masur who, though still occasionally capable of inspirational status, has been growing increasingly, well, elderly; it was time for the Philharmonia to bring in new blood too. Salonen, fresh from Los Angeles, is a fabulous catch for them and I doubt they could have done better.

Is it time to introduce a retirement age for conductors? Not that it can be easy for a distinguished maestro to watch a man half his age take over his job. Christoph von Dohnanyi, the Philharmonia's outgoing conductor, has been gracious enough to accept a title of 'honorary conductor for life' and made some kind remarks about Salonen. Good for him.

MEANWHILE - something completely different. The Guardian ran this piece on celebrity autobiographies yesterday. Guess what? My first novel has already sold more copies than Ashley Cole and David Blunkett's tomes put together. Not that that's such a lot, but nobody gave me 250,000 pounds for it.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Emanuel Hurwitz

Sad today to hear of the death of Emanuel Hurwitz, the inspiring violinist and teacher, aged 87. A good obituary in The Guardian from former Strad editor Anne Inglis: here.

I met Manny a few times: my fiddler duo partner at university was a student of his. We went to his beautiful Finchley home for coaching on various pieces including the Mozart B flat Sonata K454 and the Brahms G major (at 18 one can be arrogant enough to imagine that one can bring off that raw, tender, agonising and unperformable work. I wouldn't dare touch it with a barge-pole now.) It's a long time ago and my memories are not as vivid as they ought to be. But they do leave me with a lingering sensation of discovery, new perspectives and an inspiration that sprang from sound quality, musical exchange - sonatas are chamber music - and seriously hard work. One served the music, not vice-versa. It was a link with a fast-vanishing golden era of musicianship. Whenever I've come into contact with so-called 'golden age' musicians, I've been deeply grateful for the experience and this was no exception.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Why blog?

Norman Lebrecht's piece last week seems to have sparked a good few musical bloggers into some self-examination and reflection on why and how we do this. After all, we don't make money from it (I don't even run banner ads) and no editors are issuing directives.

I don't know about anyone else, but I know, sort of, why I have a blog:

1. I'm fascinated by this exceedingly 21st-century medium. A brand-new way of communicating with people you don't know, and some that you do, in every corner of the globe. I enjoy the more-or-less instant feedback, the freedom, the fluidity of the blogosphere.

2. A great deal of music writing is stuffy, sawdust-dry and elitist (oh yes, I'm using that word that I hate). Blogging is a way to present all kinds of thoughts about music - serious, critical, philosophical, narrative or downright frivolous - in a straightforward, non-stuffy and non-patronising way. And nobody can tell you not to do it (well, they can, but you don't have to listen).

3. It's FUN. If it wasn't, I wouldn't do it.

And now, some wonderful news: CHOCOLATE IS GOOD FOR THE HEART

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Here's the review from the New York Times of Pogorelich playing at the Metropolitan Museum a couple of weeks ago, which I finally got round to reading.

It's very upsetting. The photo is distressing enough - Kojak? - but I can well believe that Mr Tommasini is telling it how it was, since at the last concert I heard Pogorelich give in London, his playing fitted this description with appalling precision. It was a Rachmaninov piano concerto several years ago; I think it was supposed to be No.2, but what emerged was so distorted as to be almost unrecognisable. Yet a recital of his that I heard at London's Royal Festival Hall, probably the better part of 10 years back, was astonishing: so full of colour, nuance and brilliance that it was like watching a Kandinsky in a kaleidoscope.

I interviewed him in 1993, when I was the editor of Classical Piano magazine, as well as encountering him socially a couple of times. For the interview, I was asked to visit him at home in Surrey, where his spacious modern mansion included an exquisite wood-lined music room. He was charming, intelligent and well-informed, and as handsome as his photos (he was every piano student's pin-up). His motto was, more or less, 'no compromise': artistry had to be all or nothing. If I can find the article I'll post it in my permasite archive.

What has gone wrong? His wife, who was his former teacher from Moscow and to whom he seemed utterly devoted, died of cancer some time ago. It looks, from the outside, as if he has never quite found his feet again. Rumours circulated that he was ill and that he had given up performing; and the return journey does not appear promising. Perhaps it would be best if he did indeed bow out gracefully while and if he still can, leaving us with the memories of his artistry at its finest, untainted by this tragedy.

Sunday, November 12, 2006


I've been enjoying reading the Yahoo group devoted to Great Pianists , following a pleasing reference there to this blog the other day. One discussion springs from a review of Pogorelich playing in New York. Members have been responding with horror stories about music critics who arrived for assignments drunk/fell asleep and snored/left early/weren't there at all.

A critic from the local paper in St Nazaire turned up to Le Chant de l'amour triomphant at the Consonances festival. He failed to notice that it had anything whatsoever to do with the Chausson Poeme, presumably because he left before the second half and didn't recognise the extracts Philippe played off-stage during the first. He didn't notice that there was a script. And he spent half the review discussing the physical charms of the young female pianist who performed one solitary five-minute prelude by Chopin. Now, I may of course be biased, having put copious sweat and tears into the writing of that script, but I'd say that doesn't add up to professional reviewing. On the other hand, maybe that's why said critic hasn't quite made it into Le Monde yet.

Further back, I remember the instance of a critic who was sent to review a petite Japanese lady violinist playing a concerto in London. The soloist went sick and was replaced by a tall, broad-shouldered Frenchman with a pony tail down to his waist. The review was of the petite Japanese lady...

And hey, just as some music critics don't go to concerts, some literary critics don't read books. One of them managed to review Rites of Spring without noticing that the main character was a 13-year-old girl named Liffy, and decided, moreover, that I was having a go at the evil phenomenon of career women! I'm a career woman, so found that a bit puzzling. I'm not sure which book she reviewed, but it sure ain't mine.

If you give a bad critic enough rope, sooner or later they'll use it. It's just a shame when they have to hang a good pianist/violinist/writer first.

Saturday, November 11, 2006


Regulars may notice a few little differences today. Blogger has introduced some snazzy and mercifully non-technical design features and I've been having some fun with them instead of getting on with novel-writing. Please bear with me and be prepared for fluidity (= potential disasters) while I try to get it right.

TECHNOTWIT UPDATE: 8.09pm - two steps forward and one step back...thanks for all the positive comments about the new look! I'm now trying to get the comments to show up directly under the posts, as before, following pleas from as far afield as California and Tblisi. Unfortunately, I've pressed every possible button available and nothing seems to do it. Anyone know how? Viola In Vilnius would like to know too. Also, one person is having trouble with comment verification not showing up, but this seems OK on my browser...any tips greatly appreciated...

FURTHER UPDATE, SUNDAY 12 NOVEMBER 11.35am - unfortunately ACD's kind advice hasn't worked and reading the comments still requires an extra click. What's more, Beta has swallowed all my Meta tags and the Page Elements editor spits them out when I try to add them. The new colours are nice enough... but the bad news is that according to Blogger, there's no going back - once you've switched your blog to the new system, you can't change your mind. I should have taken to heart Wonderful Webmaster's recent words: if it ain't broke, don't fix it...

AND ANOTHER ONE: Thanks again to ACD for his second comment - much appreciated. My browser is still up to its old tricks, but maybe this isn't the case for everyone; and if you click on the title of the post, you can then read it and all its comments in one fell swoop.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Hey, that's my man!

Heck, The Guardian's done it Joe Queenan's Classical Music Primer has reached 'E is for English music, F is for FAURE'. Faure, according to Joe, is one of the few 19th century composers 'who wasn't a jerk' and he also says 'anybody who doesn't fall in love with Faure on first hearing has completely wasted his life'. You said it, buddy. I fell in love with Faure half way up the school stairs: the choir was rehearsing the Requiem, I had no idea what it was ...and I wouldn't be here now but for that. (Book still available, incidentally.)

I disagree with a few crucial points in Joe's piece: Faure IS one of the all-time greats, his music is not 'slight', just delicate and subtle, and he doesn't sound remotely like Chopin but does occasionally risk a rather peculiar similarity to, of all people, Elgar (in fact they had the same English patron and the same style of moustache, so the distance isn't as great as one might think).

Other 19th-century non-jerks include Brahms, who was a jolly good bloke if a bit brusque; Schubert, who didn't live long enough to become a jerk; and dear old Mendelssohn, who sounds as adorable as his music.

It ain't what you've got...

Double the usual number of visitors yesterday, following the mensh in the Lebrecht column, so here's a meaty topic to consider, something about which I have a considerable bee in the bonnet.

The other day I had an email from an e-friend on the other side of the world that began 'I know you don't like original instruments, but...'.

Ah, no. Not true. Thing is, it's not the instrument that matters, it's the musicianship. What upsets me is that third-rate interpretations deemed 'historically correct' - whether or not they really are - so often win recommendations ahead of others that may be profound, original and inspired, but happen to be played on a Steinway or a modern-set-up Strad. If a great musician is performing and the spirit shines through, that's what creates exciting music. An instrument, by itself, is really nothing more than a means to an end at best and a curio at worst.

Some absolute geniuses are playing original instruments. I'd go anywhere anytime to hear the fortepianist/harpsichordist Andreas Staier, the counter-tenor Andreas Scholl or the master of classical improvisation Robert Levin. These guys could make magic out of a tin can. (OK, I know Scholl's voice isn't an 'instrument', let alone 'original', but he's an inspirational interpreter of early music and that's the turn-on.)

Violins? More difficult, because producing a fine sound and accurate intonation while using no vibrato, as the 'authenticity' movement still seems to demand, is extremely challenging. How intriguing that in his book, written before little Wolfie was born, Leopold Mozart provides exercises for practising 'tremolato' [= vibrato] that any kid learning the fiddle would recognise. Hard to accept no-vibrato directives as correct when that's staring you in the face. Incidentally, for the total sound-spectrum of all that a violin can do, with vibrato applied as it should be, as an expressive device, albeit not exactly in early music, there's nobody finer than Hungarian Gypsy supremo Roby Lakatos. Meanwhile the best non-vibrato Bach I've heard comes from Ilya Gringolts, who's supposedly still 'modern'.

Perhaps the increasing number of superlative musicians in the early music field, and those beyond who are effectively beating them at their own game, will help to show up the over-celebrated botchers, half-bakers and candle-stick wavers at last.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

We're famous!

A big cheer for Norman Lebrecht, whose piece about classical music blogging in today's Evening Standard and La Scena Musicale turns the eyes of the British capital towards our little corner of the blogosphere and gives JDCMB a particularly nice plug, including Solti, who's purring all the way to the cat-food. Norman does finish by saying that we in cyberspace can't possibly hope to compete with proper newspapers, but I'm sure we can beg to disagree...besides, some of us are happily scribbling in both.

UPDATE, 10.32pm:...and it's not just the British capital. A rush to this blog of new visitors from the US and Canada prove that La Scena is reaching people much further afield. HELLO EVERYONE! CALL IN AGAIN SOON!

FURTHER UPDATE, 11.40pm: It is vital also to read the response posted by 'Pliable' at On An Overgrown Path...which makes it clear that there's more to Norman's piece than might initially meet the eye...

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Monday, November 06, 2006

Donna Anna

My piece about Anna Netrebko has a centrefold in The Independent's arts bit today. Will post a link to the online version as soon as it's available, but you don't get the photos with that.

UPDATE, 7.11.06: it's still not on the Indy site, but my wonderful webmaster has scanned the pages and added them to my archive, here.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Not trying to promote a rival paper, but...

...The Guardian has got hold of all Andras Schiff's lectures at the Wigmore Hall and you can listen to them online here. The Guardian isn't exactly my favourite paper (I'll spare you my views on the Lubianka of Farringdon Road) but occasionally they do turn up trumps with something like this.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Sheffield Saturday

What do 13-year-old Liffy Levy (heroine of 'Rites of Spring'), a rare stuffed bird, a missing baby, a Liverpool detective and a small boy in Glasgow in the 1940s have in common? They were the stars of the five books featured in the Readers' Day in Sheffield last Saturday.

Hodder & Stoughton sponsored the day, so the five of us were all Hodder authors. I spent the train journey up on Friday afternoon feeling distinctly jittery at the prospect of sharing a platform with writers I respect as much as Sophie Hannah (whose psychological thriller 'Little Face' is absolutely brilliant, as is her poetry) and Martin Davies (his first novel 'The Conjuror's Bird' was a Richard and Judy choice and is very beautiful, an expert interweaving of past and present). The others, whom I hadn't read before but am now enjoying very much, were the superb crime writer Margaret Murphy and Robert Douglas, whose memoirs of growing up in Glasgow are completely riveting.

All was well, though, after a curry and a few beers on Friday evening, and we kicked off bright and early on Saturday with a panel discussion, hosted by the fabulous James Nash - a performance poet and ex-boxer - about what books had been important to us as kids. A huge groundswell declared Enid Blyton a top favourite among writers and readers alike, but I was happy to get in a plug for my favourite book of all time, Dodie Smith's 'I Capture the Castle', which I must have read at least 250 times in the last 25 years. It turned out it was Martin Davies's favourite as well, so we had a good laugh about that. The hardest question, though, was 'Which book would you send to Room 101?' and my mind went a bit blank, mainly through deep upset when everyone else said 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin', which I adored... How on earth could I have forgotten about Jeffrey Archer?

Next, we were each put in a room on our own with ten to fifteen audience members who had read our book to discuss it for an hour. My group was lovely, with an age range from late twenties to mid eighties and some interesting opinions to offer. I asked them questions like 'How long do you give Adam and Sasha's marriage after the end of the book?' and they asked me questions like 'How did you think up the Earth Prince?' - and the hour flew by!

A splendid buffet lunch, then a talk between James and an expert editor from Hodder, Alex, who spoke very entertainingly about the whole business. Last but not least, we each talked a bit about our working processes and gave short readings from the books. Performing without having to play a piano - phew! I did the bit where the football goes through the seemed to be enjoyed...

It's wonderful to know that in the 21st century people still love books. The enthusiasm of the audience, the brilliant organisation, the care and attention and love of good writing and fascination about how it's done, all of this was incredibly encouraging. Even in this age of laptops, blogs, Blackberries, instant messaging and iPods, nobody has invented a better entertainment system than the paperback book: cheap, portable, practical, light, no battery, no troubleshooting helpline, no monthly charges and it doesn't disturb anyone else on the train unless you laugh or cry too loudly over the contents.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

More about youtube

Thanks for the concerned messages about my new method of time-wasting: fear not, nothing less than Heifetz will do! Latest find is a whole string of videos of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, which should keep me out of mischief for a bit.

But there's a good point to be made in the comment on the last post about a young violinist being dragged through something she shouldn't have been. Anyone can upload stuff onto this, so they do. I was quite disturbed by the rumours of the 'nightmare' video (which I never saw) of a Russian pianist who happens to be a dear old friend of mine: who would be so vicious as to upload such a thing and what had to be done to get rid of it? And whatever happened to copyright? Some of those films are, well, films. Made by film makers and TV channels. Now, I'd rather be able to spend my morning watching Michelangeli than not watching Michelangeli, and many of those films haven't been made commercially available; but I'm still a bit surprised this site is able to exist.

This morning, when I've finished indulging my taste for dead pianists and fetish fiddlers, I'm off to interview Anna Netrebko. And tonight I've been invited to be part of a discussion on live radio in New York (by phone, sadly) about Sting and Paul McCartney's classical forays. The programme is WNYC's Soundcheck and it goes out at 2pm local time in NY. Yikes.