Monday, August 27, 2007

Gioconda de Vito: centenary of an angel

Gioconda de Vito was my second-ever interviewee, twenty years ago. It was a piece for The Strad to mark her 80th birthday (published in the June 1987 edition); she died seven years later. This summer marks her centenary. I've seen her birthday cited variously as 22 June and 26 July.

I was young and impressionable at the time, but meeting this remarkable violinist remains one of my most treasured memories.

Madame de Vito spoke very little English, but had lived in Britain for decades. Her husband, David Bicknell, had been a producer and executive for EMI; the pair settled in a beautiful stone house on the outskirts of Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, surrounded by countryside and an extensive garden through which a slender river flowed. My interview with her was conducted mainly via David's translation, but after tea she and I took a turn around the garden, during which I met her friends: the local animal population, from flocks of starlings to a family of swans, which she fed from huge cereal bowls on the bank of the stream, as well as squirrels that would eat nuts out of her hand, and some shy roe deer lurking in the wheatfield nearby.

Among the anecdotes that arose were tales of her impossibly early retirement from the violin. She had attended a recital by Cortot when the great pianist was way past his best; the result was a personal resolution not to fall into the trap of continuing too long. She was a deeply religious Catholic, moreover. Having played twice to the Pope, she decided she had reached the peak of her career and that that would be the end of it - even though the Pope himself spent an hour trying to talk her out of abandoning her God-given talent! She spent so long with him that members of her family, waiting to meet her outside, were afraid that she was lost somewhere inside the Vatican. She didn't miss her violin and never doubted that she'd done the right thing.

I'll never forget her eyes, which saw everything and understood life from the heart, language or none. If I ever met an angel in the music world, it was her.

Here is the 1987 article from my archive. And please enjoy her magical Beethoven and the informative film that appeared with it on Youtube only last week.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Wild Oates!

Fantastic piece in today's Independent about one of my favourite authors, Joyce Carol Oates.

"Many writers are sad, bookish people who are comfortable writing. But as a writer you have access to people. It's your job as a mediator to respect those people – not to ridicule them." Forget prizes and adoration from the critics, Joyce Carol Oates knows why she writes. "A novel should extend sympathy," she says. "That is what a writer should try to do."

If you haven't read her yet, try Blonde, her imagining of the life of Marilyn Monroe, or We were the Mulvaneys. Or more or less any one of her other novels (more than 30, and that's just the ones under her own name...).

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Philippe Hirshhorn plays Chausson...

Thanks to good old Youtube, here is a clip of this phenomenal yet not widely recognised Russian violinist playing the Chausson Poeme. Hirshhorn, who died of a brain tumour in 1996 aged 50, is something of a legend in violinistic circles and this playing, along with some perceptive comments from Mischa Maisky, helps to prove why.

Monday, August 20, 2007

A marvel in Manchester

The final evening of the Manchester International Concerto Competition for Young Pianists last Friday was quite an event. With two categories - the 16 and Under and the 22 and Under - the competition had already reached a climax the night before, with four superb youngsters strutting their stuff in Bach and Mozart; but, perhaps ironically, the 22 and Under's strongest impression was left by someone who was also under 16: Jan Lisiecki from Calgary in Canada, who played Chopin's Second Concerto. He's only 12.

Jan took joint second prize with the excellent 18-year-old Jamie Bergin, a student at Chetham's, but much of the buzz focused on him, with grown professional musicians drifting about the cathedral afterwards making remarks like 'touched by God...'. Jan already has a considerable track record, having played 12 times with orchestras including the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, and having performed in a gala concert with Yo-Yo Ma, Manny Ax and Pinchas Zukerman.

Still, first prize went to the right winner: Anja German from Slovenia, who played Beethoven 3 just beautifully. She is 22 and ready for anything. She's studying at the Mozarteum in Salzburg and has also won prizes in the National Competition in Slovenia and the EPTA International Competition for Young Pianists. She wins a series of excellent high-profile engagements around the UK, including London, and the chance to make a CD on the Dunelm label. Child prodigies may be prodigies but they are also children; young Jan deserves time to study and grow up before being plunged into the concert circuit, as he probably will be.

Plaudits too to third prizewinner, 17-year-old Walid El-Yafi, also studying at Chet's, who gave a strong and musical account of Saint-Saens' Third. Bravo to the Manchester Camerata, conducted by Chetham's head of music Stephen Threlfall, navigating four very difficult and exposed works with what must have been limited rehearsal time.

Competition founder Murray McLachlan, head of piano at Chethams', ensured another twist that seems valuable: the jury consisted entirely of concert pianists, an inspiration, he said, from the old days in the 'golden age' of pianism when musicians, rather than pedagogues, critics and others hunting power, were the norm on such panels. Murray wrote an interesting article for Classical Music's 'Soapbox' column a few months back, taking a fresh look at piano competitions, which is reproduced on the competition's website.

The competition has a good roster of backers and media partners and looks set to continue in fine style - and it has steered a clever course that doesn't bring it into headlong collision with the mighty Leeds, serving a different and complementary role in its young contestants' rites of passage. It attracted an extremely international crowd: around us in the packed cathedral we heard Chinese, Russian, Polish, Korean, French, Japanese and more. Hand in hand with the stunning new-look Manchester International Festival, which wants to rival Edinburgh (and may succeed), and the general transformation of Manchester from grimy, industrial, depressing lump to buzzing, happening, modern metropolis, the competition is part of an inspiring north-western renaissance.

Read more about the competition in the Manchester Evening News, here.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

When is opera not opera?

When it's comparable to cycling and prostitution, as this article in today's Observer claims, through an interview with the tenor Endrik Wottrich.

Endrik Wottrich, a popular fixture at the annual Bayreuth festival in Germany, has revealed opera singers are turning to drugs and other stimulants to cope with the pressure from the increasing commercial demands on them. 'No one talks about it, but doping has long been the norm in the music world,' he said in an interview with music critic Axel Bruggemann in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. 'Soloists are taking betablockers in an attempt to control their angst, some tenors take cortisone to ensure their voices reach a high pitch, and alcohol is standard practice.'

There is more, lots more, in the article, which says that Villazon is suffering from depression, that claques are often extortionists and that greedy promoters may be responsible for wrecking their stars' voices with undue pressure...

Saddest of all is that this is news - most people close to the action have taken this beastly stuff for granted for years. And most dare not talk about it.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Igor blimey

Biopic fans are going to have some fun with this: an interview with actress Marina Hands in today's Times (re her new film of Lady Chatterley in French) reveals that she'll be starring in a film about Stravinsky and Coco Chanel:

Having taken a small part in Julian Schnabel’s forthcoming The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Hands is now readying herself to play Coco Chanel in a film that concerns the French fashion icon’s relationship with the composer Igor Stravinsky. “She supported him financially and they had a fascination for each other,” says Hands. Called Coco & Igor, bizarrely it is to be directed by The Exorcist’s William Friedkin, though this is just one of the talking points that has set the French media buzzing. “They all have a point of view [on her] and no one agrees,” she sighs. “I might go to Rome to rehearse, so I don’t feel the pressure!”

Presumably this is the film of the book by Chris Greenhalgh? Come on, Timesy, credit the author when credit is due. Stories don't get there all by themselves.

Last night...

...there was a screw-up which would take too long to explain, but means that anyone trying to listen to the interview wouldn't have been able to...

More about the piano competition very soon, though.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

'Thorn in the flesh' dies at 94

The Russian composer Tikkhon Khrennikov has died at the age of 94, decades after the geniuses he helped to persecute. The Independent's obituary is rather kind to him.

UPDATE: Allan Kozinn in the New York Times is a little less kind.

The truth about Scotland

James MacMillan, one of the finest composers in Britain, never mind just Scotland, has written a fascinating article in today's Guardian about why music has tended to remain a 'black hole' in the soul of his home country.

Scotland's place in the history of European music suffered two near-fatal body blows in 1560 and 1603. The ancient universities of Glasgow and Aberdeen were founded in the 15th century, and music played a vital role. Collegiate chapels cultivated, besides Scottish music, English decorative composition, music by the Burgundian Dufay and Flemish-inspired polyphony. Scottish liturgists travelled to Rome, Paris and the Netherlands, absorbing the fashionable musical traits of the day.

In 1560, the Scottish Reformation stopped this all abruptly. The liturgy became a principal battleground, involving a violent repudiation of the past and of foreign influences. The second blow came with the departure of the Scottish court in 1603. At the very time when aristocratic courts all over Europe were becoming central in sponsoring great composers, Scotland lost the main arena where great music could be created and thrive. The result was an absence from our culture which has damaged the national soul and psyche, and the reverberations of this are still apparent today.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Manchester International Piano Competition kicks off

The semi-finals of the First Manchester International Concerto Competition for Young Pianists, to give it its full name, kicked off yesterday; the finals are on Thursday and Friday.

Organised by Murray McLachlan, head of piano at Chetham's School of Music, the contest's top-notch jury is made up entirely of concert pianists, many of them figures I admire for their sensitivity and musical integrity - Philippe Cassard, Noriko Ogawa, Anton Kuerti, Peter Donohoe, Kathryn Stott and more - and the finals are to take place in Manchester Cathedral, with the Manchester Camerata accompanying the candidates. What's relatively unusual is that the age limit is from 16 to 22 - I'd anticipate that a competition like this will perhaps help to provide invaluable experience for youngsters with their sights set on Tchaikovsky, Chopin or Leeds, occasions on which you definitely don't want to be playing a concerto for the first time. The semifinalists include pianists from the UK, Russia, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Korea, Singapore, Switzerland, France, Norway, Canada and India.

I'm going to the final night: Murray thought a reading from Alicia's Gift might help to entertain and distract everyone while the jury makes up its mind. Since the book is about a young pianist from the Manchester region and features competitions in quite a big way, it's maybe appropriate to some degree...

Second Life, now

The hot news today is that the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic is going to play in 'Second Life' on the internet on 14 September.

Hang on. If soprano Kate Royal is to be represented by an 'avatar', how does that approximate a live concert? If only 100 people can watch, does that really constitute 'reaching a new audience'? And why should anybody want to nip to a virtual online loo? We waste enough time queuing for the damn things in real life. Forgive me, but there's too much I don't understand about the point of this little exercise, so will refer you straight to The Times, which admittedly isn't all that informative for the uninitiated.

The rest of us can stick with the orchestra's beautiful Elgar Violin Concerto recording with Philippe Graffin and Vernon Handley - and look out for another next month, the Cello Concerto with Natalie Clein on EMI.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

This is the LIFE

Welcome to LIFE, St Nazaire. The exterior looks as it always has - this is, after all, the old Nazi submarine base that the Allies never managed to destroy, though they left little standing in the rest of the town. But now St Nazaire has added to the place's usefulness as museum by carving into it a new centre for the experimental arts, featuring Alveole 14, a huge performance space with a back wall that can peel back to open on to the entire harbour...and it is here that my first one-act play, The End of Time, is due to be premiered one month from tomorrow, starring Marie-Christine Barrault. Philippe Graffin, Claire Desert, Raphael Wallfisch and Charles Neidich will play Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time in the second part of the evening. In a special pre-event event, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch will talk about her experiences in the Auschwitz women's orchestra, among other matters, and Philippe and Raphael will play the Duo for violin and cello by Erwin Schulhoff, who was later a prisoner in Terezin. It's the opening concert of the Consonances Festival and the full programme can be viewed here. It continues for a week and features a special focus on Ravel; performers include pianists Pascal Devoyon and Piers Lane, the fabulous Beynon girls (Emily, flute, and Catherine, harp), the Michelangelo Quartet and many more. Info on tickets is here.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Meet the Clarke brothers

Rodney (left) and Andrew Clarke are centre stage in Carmen Jones at the RFH, which I finally got to see on Saturday. As it happens, these sensational siblings are familiar faces from Glyndebourne - and finally they have their chance to shine in central London.

Rodney, a massively tall and very striking baritone, is perfection as Husky Miller (the character formerly known as Escamillo) and Andrew, a high, romantic tenor brimful with charm, plays Joe (Don J) as a repressed mama's boy whose emotions are wrenched out of him in fits of startling violence. He sings the flower song like a dream (and that goes for the original too, which I know because I accompanied him in it in a charity concert a few years ago!). With the gorgeous Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi, born in Soweto and now a south Londoner, as slinky as a cat as superbitch Carmen and a charismatic supporting cast, it's a terrific night out.

I admit, though, to being an old stick-in-the-mud and preferring the original Bizet. Maybe it was something to do with the production - set in Cuba, yet forgetting that Cubans don't have deep south American accents (or, in some cases, perfect English choir school enunciation!), and that you can't actually take a train ("clickety clack, clickety clack," says the quintet) from Havana to Chicago because there's sea in the way. Suspension of disbelief was difficult. Besides, I don't see why Andrew and Rodney and the rest of these superb singers should have had to depend on an all-black show to have the opportunity to make their mark in such a big way. Sherry Boone as Cindy Lou is the best Micaela I've heard in years.

If I ran a record company I'd give the Clarke brothers a contract prontissimo.

PS - the Southbank website for Carmen Jones features an article of mine to introduce the musical in the context of other adaptations of Carmen. Gorgeous pic of Rodney, too.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Strolling along the proms, proms, proms

Tonight at the Proms you can hear (or see, if within reach) a whole evening devoted to the music of Nitin Sawhney, with dance from Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. There's nobody quite like Nitin - he's a natural multiculti, with early musical training covering everything from classical piano to classical Indian and Flamenco; and he has a strong, focused, poetic inner strength that makes his music his own no matter what the external casing is. Should be amazing.

And on Sunday, Gotterdammerung is up for grabs, the last of the Proms' Ring evenings that have spanned the last 3 seasons. The mention of the Walkure evening still sends people into spasms of ecstasy...

My editor has been keeping me busy over this one, so here's the result from today's Indy, which should cause ACD some amusement if he can lay hands on a print copy - it's the Arts & Books Review cover feature, complete with gory-looking Norns, wielding the title SOUND AND FURY. Not my doing, but I can't imagine anything better.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Covent Garden to present UK Korngold premiere

Yes, Die tote Stadt is coming to the Royal Opera House. Not that they're risking trying to stage it themselves; instead they're taking on Willy Decker's production from Salzburg and Vienna. Thanks to Brendan for the tip-off, and to the Unofficial Korngold Website which confirms it and tells us that there will be seven performances, opening on 26 January 2009. Ingo Metzmacher will conduct and the cast is to include Nadia Michael as Marietta, Stephen Gould as Paul and Gerald Finlay as Frank/Pierrot.

Die tote Stadt, as I pointed out in a comment box the other day, has only been performed once before in Britain; in concert; by a non-professional orchestra (the fabulous Kensington Symphony Orchestra and their inspiring, Korngold-friendly conductor Russell Keable). That was a decade ago. Productions? None. This will be the UK staged premiere. I regret that I haven't yet seen this production, but am relieved that they are not taking the one from Zurich a few years ago - with Olaf Baer in high heels and black wings, 'Eurotrash' indeed - or the ghastly thing that was filmed from the Opera du Rhin and that remains the only available DVD of the opera.

Well, folks, it's about time, too. Better late than never.

Read more about the opera in Brendan Carroll's splendid introduction to the New York production, here.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A note of disturbance in Edinburgh

The Times yesterday carried this report, in which the glorious South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masakela, a veteran of the long struggle against Apartheid, expresses alarm about the way that the current South African government appears to be terrified of the power of music. Masakela has written the score for the show Truth in Translation, which is being performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

The virtuoso trumpeter Hugh Masekela claims that many of the talented musicians whose voices became symbols of protest against white domination are finding it hard to get bookings in South Africa because the ruling ANC is “terrified” of music as an agent of change.

...Masekela, 68...argues that mediocrity is being promoted in the arts in South Africa because music and theatre are seen as “catalysts” in the destruction of apartheid, and might equally shake confidence in the present regime.

“The administration of South Africa today are terrified of music. They deny it,” he told The Times. “They know that a musical commentary can put them at a disadvantage. They are not afraid of print and journalists, that is considered freedom of speech, but they are very comfortable with the absence of music.

“I am not bitter. I am disgusted...

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Hitler had a Huberman record...

A report in today's Indy reveals that Adolf Hitler's personal record collection has turned up, in the hands of Alexandra Besymenski, the daughter of a Russian Red Army officer who looted Hitler's bunker in 1945.

And what's in it? Russian music like Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, Chaliapin singing Boris Godunov, a smattering of Jewish musicians like Bronislaw Huberman...(oh yes, and The Flying Dutchman in case you were wondering). While he was forbidding his troops to listen to anything that wasn't German, he was lapping up the stuff himself.

Many of the records are scratched, indicating they were played over and over again while the war that Hitler began cost millions of lives across Europe and the wider world.

"I think my father found it astonishing that millions of Jews and Russians had to die because of the ideology of Hitler and here he was all the time enjoying their art," said Alexandra.

Read the whole thing here...

Wanted: one brave director

So there she was: the radiant Renee Fleming, in a light green gown full of sparkles and trailing a shot-silk scarf, took the stage in the Albert Hall, voice floating through the stratospheres like a golden eagle (UPDATE: Intermezzo has a photo of her, in said dress). Her Berg Seven Early Songs (actually eight - an extra one had been orchestrated for her) were ideally expressive, dark-toned, that voice blending with the sympathetic BBC Phil as a strand of its fabric; and the first Korngold aria, from Die Kathrin, was sweet and touching.

But she was saving the best for last. With the first notes of the great aria 'Ich ging zu ihm' from Das Wunder der Heliane, something remarkable happened. Renee didn't only sing Heliane; she became her. The tragedy, the rapture, the transfiguration - it was all there. I think everyone in my group was moved to tears. The Telegraph today speaks of the aria's 'intense, jaw-dropping beauty'.

Most think Heliane can't be staged (bad libretto, pretentious, weird, etc etc) but I'm getting the feeling that this isn't so. Because the role could have been written for Renee. She has to sing the whole thing, in an opera house. Someone simply has to stage it for her. Isn't there a brave theatre out there that will take it on? And a very brave director? We're already looking forward to the UK concert premiere of the complete opera at the RFH on 21 November (Patricia Racette will sing Heliane there). Now, I think, there's hope.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Korngold latest

Korngold fans must tune in to tonight's Prom, at which Renee Fleming will be singing two marvellous and rarely heard arias from the operas Das Wunder der Heliane and Die Kathrin. They are utterly gorgeous and I reckon there couldn't be a better voice for them. For those with digital TV, the concert will be relayed on BBC4. Failing that, you can hear it live on Radio 3 and on the Listen Again facility for the week ahead.

La Fleming, incidentally, is to be interviewed during the interval and apparently we're being encouraged to ask her questions by email. But despite trawling all the relevant BBC sites, I can't find the appropriate email address (the words 'bbc', 'impenetrable' and 'typical' come to mind, in no particular order) (or maybe I've missed it...if anyone finds the link, please send it...).

Meanwhile, if you want to hear Korngold's chamber music in a live, intense and intimate Korngoldfest, come to Norfolk in September. Norfolk, East Anglia, UK, that is. More info about the West Norfolk Chamber Music Festival can be found at their music society's site, here.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Summer reading...

I've just heard that the redoubtable A.N. Wilson has written a novel about Winifred Wagner's relationship with Hitler. Entitled Winnie and Wolf, it's due for release on 16 August. Here's the synopsis from Amazon:

"Winnie and Wolf" is the story of the extraordinary relationship between Winifred Wagner and Adolf Hitler that took place during the years 1925-40, as seen through the eyes of the secretary at the Wagner house in Bayreuth. Winifred, an English girl, brought up in an orphanage in East Grinstead, married at the age of eighteen to the son of Germany's most controversial genius, is a passionate Germanophile, a Wagnerian dreamer, a Teutonic patriot. In the debacle of the post-Versailles world, the Wagner family hope for the coming, not of a warrior, a fearless Siegfried, but of a Parsifal, a mystic idealist, a redeemer-figure. In 1925, they meet their Parsifal - a wild-eyed Viennese opera-fanatic in a trilby hat, a mac and a badly fitting suit. Hitler has already made a name for himself in some sections of German society through rabble-rousing and street corner speeches. It is Winifred, though, who believes she can really see his poetry. Almost at once they drop formalities and call one another 'Du' rather than 'Sie'. She is Winnie and he is Wolf. Like Winnie, Hitler was an outsider. Like her, he was haunted by the impossibility of reconciling the pursuit of love and the pursuit of power; the ultimate inevitability, if you pursued power, of destruction. Both had known the humiliations of poverty. Both felt angry and excluded by society. Both found each other in an unusual kinship that expressed itself through a love of opera. In A.N. Wilson's most bold and ambitious novel yet, the world of the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany is brilliantly recreated, and forms the backdrop to this incredible bond, which ultimately reveals the remarkable capacity of human beings to deceive themselves.

That should keep us busy on the beach - there's no way I'm waiting for the paperback. Order your copy now...

Wilson has recently reviewed Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for The Times and makes it sound positively Wagnerian. Dumbledore as Wotan, perhaps???

Friday, August 03, 2007

More about the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra

Thanks to 'Pamos' for the alert to this fascinating article by Ed Vuilliamy that appeared in The Observer last weekend. He's been to Venezuela to see the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra in action and meet some of its young players, whose aspirations and whole lives have been transformed by their involvement with music-making.