Saturday, December 29, 2007

He's got plenty of strings

Sounds worth a trip to Leeds in the middle of winter to see the delectable Jonathan Dove's new opera The Adventures of Pinocchio. Richard Morrison in The Times says:
"Tidings of great joy: a Christmas miracle in Leeds! A modern composer has produced a new opera that is funny, poignant, tuneful, spectacular – and, best of all, stunningly conceived for all the family. To find an opera house full of eight-year-olds, held spellbound throughout a show lasting nearly three hours, is rare enough. To find that discerning adults – and yes, even grizzled old critics – are also grinning from ear to ear at the final curtain is pretty well unprecedented.

This must be Jonathan Dove’s finest hour. The Hackney-based composer has produced some entertaining community and youth-orientated shows over the past couple of decades. But with the help of a delightfully droll libretto from his long-time collaborator, Alasdair Middleton, he has turned Carlo Collodi’s classic fairytale into a surreal wonderland of music-theatre that leaves an indelible impression..."

I'm a great fan of Dove, having fallen madly in love with his community opera Tobias and the Angel when it was first performed in a converted church in Islington a few years back; much enjoyed Flight at Glyndebourne, too. It must have been a tall order to write a Pinocchio since every 5-year-old in this country still knows all the original songs, more than 60 years after the film's release. Pinocchio even pipped Korngold's score for The Sea Hawk to the Oscar post. Not much chance of my going north to hear the new opera at the moment as have to administer lemsips to ailing hubby, but with a reception like that perhaps the Dove will wing its way south before long.

More from composer and librettist about the opera in The Guardian, here.

Friday, December 28, 2007

8 reasons to spend Xmas in Paris

1. At Christmas, London dies, but Paris stays alive and has fun. The Metro runs on 25 December and you can buy flowers, a sandwich or a steaming glass of vin chaud if and when you need to.

2. Nobody insists that you spend 25 December cooking or eating turkey, Brussels sprouts and boiled plum pudding that takes three days to digest. Instead, try a little foie gras, chevre, la bûche de Noël (Xmas log-shaped cake)...

3. You can experience some of the greatest wonders of the artistic world. For example, the Monet Waterlilies in the expertly refitted Orangerie.

4. Another was Matthias Goerne singing 'O du mein holder Abendstern'. There were a number of world-class voices on the vast Bastille stage - not all of them covered in red paint (more about this later) - but when Goerne opens his mouth, you're in another world. He has a unique gift for 'innigkeit' - the more quietly and inwardly he sings, the more it pulps your heart.

5. That's before we mention the orchestra and Seiji Ozawa, or the fabulous Eva-Marie Westbroek, let alone the production by Robert Carsen - a radical reinterpretation of Tannhauser which naturally some people didn't like but which I thought worked an absolute treat. A clue: the programme cover showed Manet's 'Dejeuner sur l'herbe'.

6. The easygoing atmosphere in Paris makes Xmas here in the UK look like one big ridiculous shoe-horn designed to stress the population to crazy levels, forcing them to overspend and binge-drink until their livers and bank accounts pack up. Across La Manche, it's not quite such a big deal.

7. The Eurostar from St Pancras to the Gare du Nord now takes only two and a quarter hours.

8. Paris is Paris. Given a choice, why be anywhere else?

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Joyeux noel!

Merry Xmas & happy everything to everyone,

lots of love from me & Tom & Solti.

Back soon.


Xmas alternatives

Impending Xmas always causes a few ripples in musical spheres, mainly lousy 'Messiah' performances. Some of us batten down the hatches even if we love the thing, or the inescapable Nutcracker, or Cinderella ('Italian style' as the ROH bills its current Rossini). Anyway, I promised some alternatives, so for starters here are a few things to do.

Read, in The Independent, about Barenboim's plea for proper musical education;

Read this fascinating article from The Times by Dan Rosenberg, searching out Christmas music traditions from rural Sweden to Venezuela;

Also in The Times, experience Richard Morrison in a bad mood at Cecilia Bartoli's Barbican gig and Hilary Finch telling it like it is re Emmenuelle Haim's conducting of Bach and Handel (The One Where Dessay Fails To Show Up).

Tune into a roster of broadcasts of ballet and opera from Covent Garden on the BBC. We are promised:

Romeo and Juliet with Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta, BBC2, Xmas Day, 4.25pm (I was there at the show. It's glorious! Set your video if you haven't finished your turkey in time.)

Carmen starring Anna-Caterina Antonacci and Jonas Kaufmann - BBC2, Boxing Day, 1.45pm;

La fille du regiment, Pelly production with Dessay and Florez, BBC4, 30 December, 7.30pm. Still the best thing I saw all year.

And, if it floats your boat, The Tales of Beatrix Potter, with the Royal Ballet in animal masks, BBC1, New Year's Eve, 1.15pm.

Or come to Paris to see Tannhauser tomorrow (the strike is over). But what has Tannhauser to do with Christmas, you may ask? Nothing! Hooray!

Friday, December 21, 2007


Today is the Winter Solstice and shortest day of the year, so traditionally (well, two years ago) it became the occasion for our very own virtual music awards ceremony.

Welcome once again to the Cyberposhplace! Please help yourself to a glass of Virtualvintagechampers and the delectable canapes made by our very own Virtualcelebritychef. And now let's have a big round of applause for each and every musician who has touched the hearts of his or her audience during the past 12 months....

Thank you! Quiet, please. Now would the following winners please approach the podium where Sir Georg 'Ginger Stripes' Solti will allow you to stroke his fur coat just this once, and will give you a special prize purr.

Icon of the year: Mstislav Rostropovich, who passed away in April. A hero, an inspiration, and a bloody phenomenal cellist. Without him, the music of the past century wouldn't have taken the shape that it did. Adieu, dear maestro.

Pianists of the year: joint mad props to Marc-Andre Hamelin for his simply staggering recording of Alkan, and Piers Lane, who not only plays like the angel of the Antipodes but has also managed to turn the National Gallery's Myra Hess Day into an annual event. Last but by no means least, a special mention for Pascal Devoyon, whose pages I turned during the Messiaen Visions de l'Amen in St Nazaire. That was quite an experience!

Violinists of the year: Tasmin Little, for an unforgettable performance of Bartok's Solo Sonata a couple of months ago, but also for her gameness and good humour in agreeing to go busking for our Indy feature at just a few hours' notice. Watch out for her very exciting new project in January. And Philippe Graffin, as ever, and not only for commissioning stuff like plays and short stories from me: just hear that tone, that bow arm, those slides! Another interesting project is afoot, too, of which much more next year...

Singer of the year: Juan Diego Florez. What a knockout. What a dreamboat. Especially singing high Cs at the distance of 4 metres (or, even better, across the sofa in the ROH press office interview room).

Youthful artist of the year [NB I disqualify teenagers from this; too many artists are pushed too hard for being too young, so instead...]: the accomplished and adorable cellist Natalie Clein, whose new Elgar recording is happily nothing like Jacqueline du Pre's.

Conductor of the year: Vladimir Jurowski. Yes, again - but there can be no other contender, as far as I'm concerned.

Interviewee of the year: Pinchas Zukerman who declared, tapping my right forefinger, "I always say to my students: 'This is your bank account'." Close seconds: Cecilia Bartoli, Natalie Dessay and Sting (watch this space!).

CD of the year: Terezin, recorded by Anne Sofie von Otter with Bengt Forsberg, Daniel Hope and friends. This is one of the most extraordinary discs that's ever come my way, and the most devastating. Ilse Weber, a young nurse, volunteered to go with the sick children of Terezin to death at Auschwitz so that she could take care of them em route; her songs are the heart of this recording. It's said she sang 'Wiegala' with the children in the gas chamber. The CD also features music by Pavel Haas, Hans Krasa and the solo violin sonata by Erwin Schulhoff, plus some amazing, black-humoured cabaret songs.

Lifetime Achievement Award: British violist Rosemary Nalden, for her work in Soweto with Buskaid. Check back here for a reminder of their glorious appearance at the Proms.

Take a bow, everybody...Thank you. Thank you for your moving, uplifting, inspiring, life-enhancing music-making. You're wonderful. We love you.

And now a few personal highlights of 2007:

Proudest moment: Standing on the RFH platform uttering the words "Welcome to the UK premiere of Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane!".

Next-proudest moments: publication of Alicia's Gift; and writing my first play, A Walk Through the End of Time, and seeing it performed in St Nazaire.

Most affecting moment: Attending the world premiere of Nigel Osborne's opera Differences in Demolitions in Mostar, Bosnia.

Most unfortunate moment: there've been a few, but I have managed not to sue anyone.

Biggest sigh of relief: realising that my dubious language skills had only seriously screwed up on one point in my first-ever French interview, with Ouest-France (I got 'journal' et 'magasin' muddled and the result was a lovely romantic article about how I first met Philippe in a violin shop!)

Personality of the year: Joyce Hatto. In one way or another.

Feline of the year: .....[ouch! Solti, get your teeth out of my ankle!].

Man of the year: Erich Wolfgang Korngold. (Sorry, Tom.)



Boldog születésnapot, Andras!

Happy birthday today to Andras Schiff, in Hungarian or otherwise. Here he is in a magical performance of his compatriot Bela Bartok's Piano Concerto No.3 with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra & Simon Rattle (1997). More of this can be found on Youtube.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

BBC Music Magazine Award shortlists!

The new issue of BBC Music Magazine includes the shortlists for next year's Awards. Visit to see the lot, hear extracts and vote for your favourites.

There are some real gems among them and I suspect the decisions aren't going to be easy. (I remember last year's fun and games on the jury with some pleasure, though it was quite hair-raising at the time! But in case you were wondering, they choose a different panel of reviewers each year.) Many of the people-of-the-moment feature prominently - Natalie Dessay leads in two out of three Opera nominations, La Sonnambula and Il trionfo di Tempo e del Disinganno; Mark Padmore soars forth in a Handel disc with The English Concert under Vocal, which category also includes what would be my personal choice for disc of the year, Anne Sofie von Otter's Terezin. And under Chamber it is nice to see a disc by the Nash Ensemble of quintets by Coleridge-Taylor. Meanwhile all the Orchestrals begin with S - Shostakovich, Saint-Saens and Schumann.

And what's this? The biggest photo in the whole section shows none other than Rustem Hayroudinoff, whose Rachmaninov discs on Chandos do keep being compared favourably to Richter's - once more for this one, "equal even to the greatness of Richter," says David Nice - and whose latest, the Etudes-Tableaux Op.33 & 39, has been shortlisted alongside Mitsuko Uchida's Beethoven 'Hammerklavier' and Steven Isserlis's Bach Cello Suites.

I won't have many fingernails left by the time they make the announcements.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A birthday present from OC

No, you're not on the wrong blog - this is JDCMB. But our dear friend Opera Chic is a dab hand with Photoshop, which JD ain't, and sent me this stunning birthday present last week, inspired by a press release I forwarded to her that was entitled, pricelessly enough, JOHN ELIOT GARDINER RE-OPENS OPERA-COMIQUE IN FRONT OF FRENCH CABINET. (Here in London I have a very nice French cabinet that we bought on E-bay. I think it's walnut wood.) Salut, Maestro Jean Eliot Jardinier! Et merci bien, chere OC!

The serious point, though, is that Paris's historic theatre was indeed reopened by said maestro on 13 December, in front of not a cupboard but probably more politicians than ever set foot inside London's opera houses separately, let alone together. The show was Chabrier's rarely-heard opera bouffe L'Etoile. According to the press release - tragically, I missed the event, being on the wrong side of La Manche - the opera includes "a trio about the use of tickling in foreplay" as well as dealing with the delights of green Chartreuse.

Gardiner and his attendant orchestra and choir are starting a yearly residency at the Opera-Comique and on other occasions will be performing Carmen and Pelleas et Melisande there - both operas which were first seen on that very stage.

Monday, December 17, 2007


Christmas cheer, anyone? The so-called Arts Council is about to undertake the "bloodiest cull in half a century" on England's cultural life. According to The Guardian:
In music, two respected chamber orchestras, the City of London Sinfonia and the London Mozart Players, have been told to brace themselves for the worst.

The word 'Olympics' does not feature in this article, but I don't think it can be far off. Odd to think now that when we first heard the news that London had won the 2012 'Orrific Games, we were actually pleased. Ho ho ho.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Viva Ida!

JD meets Ida Haendel in the green room of the Wigmore Hall. This was one of countless memorable moments during the visit of this doyenne of the violin to the Razumovsky Academy, organised by the inimitable Oleg Kogan, during which she gave masterclasses to the gifted youngsters and performed in their Wigmore Hall concert. She played the Bach Chaconne. Nobody who was there will ever forget it.

Go to the Razumovsky website for my full account of the day and lots more pics.

All the Razumovsky students and young artists are immensely impressive and maybe it's not fair for me to single one out - nevertheless, keep a look-out for the simply staggering talent of Anna-Liisa Bezrodny (left), the Razumovsky Academy's glorious 26-year-old violinist from Estonia. She has one of those all-giving and all-encompassing tones whose white heat can lift you right out of your chair. Hers was the last of the lessons - on the Sibelius concerto - and I've never before seen a masterclass which ended in a great big hug centre stage. Anna-Liisa recently won the Gold Medal at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where she's been studying with Oleg among others. I am pleased, but not surprised, to see that on her Myspace profile she lists, under 'influences', the name 'Hirschhorn'.

Music censorship at the BBC

Yesterday The Independent ran a fascinating article by Spencer Leigh about the censorship of popular music at the BBC between the mid 1930s and 1960s. Here are a few nuggets:

In 1942, the BBC's director of music, Sir Arthur Bliss, along with other luminaries, had written wartime instructions for the committee and had allowed the banning of songs "which are slushy in sentiment"....

...Bliss, as might be expected, was staunchly against tunes borrowed from classical works. The application of Chopin's Fantasie-Impromptu for the melody of "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" prevented it from being played. The instruction led to surprising bans: sometimes whole albums by Liberace, Lawrence Welk and Mantovani were prohibited. The score of Kismet was seen as suspect as it borrowed from Borodin, and so "Baubles, Bangles And Beads" was not played....

...The most unlikely record to slip through the net has to be B Bumble and the Stingers with their 1962 chart-topper, "Nut Rocker". The committee deliberated hard about it and concluded: "This instrumental piece is quite openly a parody of a Tchaikovsky dance tune, is clearly of an ephemeral nature, and in our opinion will not offend reasonable people."

Auntie's little committee appears to have been functioning in a faintly similar vein to Hollywood's Hayes Commission, which wrecked countless film scripts (though not for the sake of eliminating the 'slushy in sentiment').

I wonder whether these files may help to clarify a matter that has split the British musical community for years. A number of composers, some of whom are no longer with us having died in possibly unwarrented obscurity, insisted that their music had been rejected for broadcast by the BBC in the days when William Glock was controller of Radio 3 because it did not toe the establishment line on what was acceptable in new music. Others insist this was not true: no censorship, no party line, just a clever man refusing to broadcast bad music. As far as I'm aware we don't know, yet, what really happened. What's evident is that many composers had fallen foul of something or someone, and had their lives and careers wrecked by it.

Welcome to Little England, as was. Some day the truth will out, one way or another.

For the moment, prurience lives on in the very air breathed in the ivory towers of this green and pleasant land.

I can't help remembering all those critics blustering that Heliane was 'blasphemous' and 'degenerate' - dearie me, it has tunes, it has harmonies, it is intensely emotional and it advocates the divine approval of a loving sexual relationship between a man and a woman. Apparently this makes it horrific, and worth restoring Nazi terminology for. Yet today we're contending with Gangsta Rap glorifying across the airwaves extreme violence both racial and sexual. Maybe awareness of such cultural trends has never got past the college gates, the formal halls, the cellars of vintage Bordeaux. A sense of perspective has gone missing, no?

My high horse is going to pasture for the day now, while I head for the library to look up someone who became virtually the voice of the BBC in a totally different way...

Friday, December 14, 2007

This afternoon

I will be giving a reading from Alicia's Gift at Hampton Hill Library this afternoon at 2.30pm, and talking a bit about why I wrote a book about a child prodigy pianist. Admission free, refreshments provided, further details here.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

mad props to...

Opera Chic: 'Dessay + Duchen = YAY!';

Pliable at the Overgrown Path, following up the fascinating branch line around the gamelan and the work of Colin McPhee, with samples of this extraordinary and highly influential music online;

Erin over at Fugue State, for a lovely drink at the RFH yesterday just after I'd interviewed an awfully famous French pianist about the forthcoming Messiaen Festival, From the Canyons to the Stars, which opens in February. Erin goes to a very game orchestra for late starters in Mile End, which sounds like a lot of fun...but I'm hardly touching my piano at the moment, let alone my violin...

Yes, MY violin. Hey, dudes, you didn't know I had one of those, did you? Well, I do. The violin is my first love and I am a self-confessed fiddle fetishist. Unfortunately I get the fingering muddled above third position, and I can't do vibrato properly. Wobbles,'s not the same thing. I once asked dear hubby if he'd give me some lessons to get me started again. He said yes. Sadly, he thought I was joking.

But my God, I love that instrument when someone plays it like this, or this, or this.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Dessay today

Dark, petite and fiercely intelligent, with a quick, cutting sense of irony, Dessay is anything but a traditional diva. Indeed, she had never intended to become an opera singer at all. "It's not a choice. Opera chose me," she declares. Originally, she wanted to be a ballet dancer. "At 13, I realised that I wasn't gifted enough, and I was disappointed. But I thought, OK, I can go on stage as an actress instead."

Read the rest of my interview with the glorious French soprano Natalie Dessay in today's Independent. She will be singing in Bach's Magnificat and Handel's Dixit Dominus at the Barbican on 17 December, with Le Concert d'Astree and Emmanuelle Haim conducting; she'll be back in London for a recital of Italian operatic arias in January; and we can see her in the Laurent Pelly production of La fille du regiment on TV (with JDF) over Xmas.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

It's my birthday, so...

...if I can't post a last blast of Korngold today, then when can I?! Here is the beginning of the rarely-if-ever-seen Give Us This Night, with the incomparable Jan Kiepura singing his heart out in Sorrento. Enjoy.

In case you were wondering, my birthday present is an Enescu letter from 1947 to add to our autograph collection. We missed a Korngold one on Ebay by 2 seconds.

Speaking of Enescu, who taught Ida Haendel, there will be more very soon about the extraordinary day we spent at the Razumovsky Academy listening to Haendels' masterclasses on Sunday. There was also a surprise in the evening concert.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

RIP Stockhausen

It's the end of an era. Karlheinz Stockhausen, who for decades embodied the very meaning of 'avant-garde', died yesterday aged 79. Yet it's alarming that most people only seem to measure him by his unfortunate comment about 9/11. Whither his legacy? Here's the report from The Guardian.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Red Hedgehog, tomorrow evening

Tomorrow, Saturday 8 December, I'll be at The Red Hedgehog in Highgate to give a reading from 'Alicia's Gift' before a piano recital by Peter Donohoe. North London's new, vibrant and intimate venue for salon-style listening, The Red Hedgehog - named after Brahms's favourite Viennese inn - has a superb concert series and is almost opposite Highgate tube station. Tomorrow Peter will be playing music by Bach arr. Busoni, Liszt, Chopin and Brahms. Reading & book signing at 7pm, concert starts at 8pm. The Red Hedgehog seats just 100, so it's a good idea to book in advance: 020 8348 5050.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Ida Haendel again

UPDATED Thursday 9am: Mad props to my editor at the Independent who agreed to get something about Ida Haendel's London visit into the paper at incredibly short notice. Short and sweet, it's out today.

If anyone wants to read my 1986 article about her from The Strad prior to her Wigmore Hall masterclasses & the Razumovsky Academy concert this Sunday (or even after it) the piece is now in my permasite archive, here.

Happy birthday, Krystian

It's Krystian Zimerman's birthday today. Here he is playing Schubert's G flat major impromptu.

Tres bonne noel to everyone too

So guess where we're spending Xmas this year? And guess which Wagner opera we've booked to go to on Xmas Eve?

C'est comme ca que le biscuit s'emiette (as they probably don't say in France).

Monday, December 03, 2007

In the pink

Occasionally it's good to spend time talking to the kind of person whose words and aura can reconnect us with What It's Really About. Life, music, energy, communication - and all of it embodied in the incandescent tone of his violin (or in this case, below, viola). You come away feeling glad to be alive.

My interview with Pinchas Zukerman will appear in due course in The Strad.