Thursday, January 31, 2008

As if winining all those Gramophone awards wasn't enough...

...ace British pianist Stephen Hough has won first prize in a poetry competition!

Read his beautiful prize poem 'Early Rose' here.

UPDATE: 10 Feb 9am...and read Jeremy Denk's priceless response over at Think Denk here!

What Pierre-Laurent said last

When I interviewed Pierre-Laurent Aimard about Messiaen for yesterday's feature, I also asked him what he would say to encourage someone who'd never heard any before to try it. His response wasn't in the piece as printed, but I think it is beautiful:
“Many qualities can make you love this music. You can be touched by its spirituality, transported by its energy, and moved by its overproportioned dimensions; you can be fascinated by its rhythmical life; you can be seduced by the colours and harmonies which lead you to the borders of timbre; you can be absorbed by the multiplicity of inspiration, whether local to different parts of the planet or historical, ranging from ancient music to recent. In the end, every listener can decide which dimension in this accumulation of experience is for him or her the most important. But certainly this music reflects someone who can invite us to open other dimensions in ourselves, from meditation to ecstasy, and to open our ears and minds to a world made of multiplicity.”

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Look what we can do now!

My article previewing the Messiaen Festival at the South Bank is out in The Independent today. The website has just been revamped and I switched on this morning to discover that not only are sound-clips now included amid the text but Youtube video as well. Have a look at it here. Unfortunately there's no clip from the Quartet for the End of Time, which is central to my article, but we can fix that here - see below...

The festival 'From the Canyons to the Stars' opens at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Saturday 2 February with the Ensemble InterContemporain playing the eponymous piece. On Sunday there's a study day about the Quartet featuring a screening of a new French documentary which I'm told includes interviews with those who were there in Stalag VIIIA; there's a round-table discussion in which I will be participating along with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Jonathan Harvey, Robert Scholl, Christian Poltera and the South Bank's Gillian Moore, and the day will finish with the Nash Ensemble playing the work twice (6pm and 9pm). The festival continues until the end of this year - no kidding - and promises to be London's Messiaen Fest of, so to speak, all time.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Kreisler & Rachmaninov play Grieg

And they win...

This is to mark the anniversary today of Fritz Kreisler's death in 1962. Enjoy.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Après moi le déluge?

News from MIDEM in Cannes as reported in The Times today. This covers pop, but what happens to our side of things?

Just think, some of those opera singers and conductors might be forced to reduce their fees, shock horror.

With CD sales in free fall and legal downloads yet to fill the gap, the music industry has reluctantly embraced the file-sharing technology that threatened to destroy it. Qtrax, a digital service announced today, promises a catalogue of more than 25 million songs that users can download to keep, free and with no limit on the number of tracks.

The service has been endorsed by the very same record companies - including EMI, Universal Music and Warner Music – that have chased file-sharers through the courts in a doomed attempt to prevent piracy. The gamble is that fans will put up with a limited amount of advertising around the Qtrax website’s jukebox in return for authorised use of almost every song available.

Thoughts, folks?

MEANWHILE, the Arts Council has been forced to say 'er, right, maybe that wasn't our best idea' and is promising a reprieve to some of the groups whose funding it wanted to slash for no immediately obvious reason - this may include the London Mozart Players. We haven't yet seen the name City of London Sinfonia on the list, but are hoping that that is simply an oversight on the part of newspapers that don't know what a chamber orchestra is.

ALSO, from comments received on JDCMB recently, it's obvious that certain people in Philadelphia are still ogling beloved Vladi. He's back here this week, conducting at the RFH on Wednesday. Paws off our maestro!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

"People who couldn't even spell classical are into it now"

Yesterday, having been warned off the fiddle concerto at the RFH, I spent a happy evening doing something I don't do often: watching TV. Solti fans may know that BBC2 had a documentary about tigers in India...but what caught me off-guard was a follow-up programme to The Choir, a reality TV series following what happened when a choral conductor named Gareth formed a choir at a school in Northolt, north-west London, trained them up and took them to China to enter an international competition. The cameras returned to see where they all are now, as well as recapping on the series for those who'd missed it, like me.

I ended up in tears.

The kids had prepared two numbers for the competition: 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' and Faure's 'Cantique de Jean Racine'. Faure?! They were stumped. First, the competition stipulated that one song had to be in a foreign language. Secondly, they just didn't see, when they tried it for the first time, how they could sing this.

Leaving aside the issue of why decent, normal schoolkids from multicultural backgrounds in a city that considers itself the capital of Europe should recoil in horror at the notion of using another language - they did it. They fought and grumbled and one stormed out. But they did it. They learned the Cantique, took it to China and sang it from memory. First, they sang it to their mums, who couldn't believe their ears. At the contest, the choir didn't get through to the second round, but they'd had an experience that moved them to bits and will stay with them forever. None of them had had the first notion of classical music before this. They assumed it was 'a bit boring' and not for them.

And the long-term effects? One, the shy Chloe, had found the confidence to sail out of school into a job that involved giving presentations. She'd found she prefers singing classical music to pop - she couldn't put her finger on why, but said "it feels good" (or something like that). One boy who'd never sung before was at college and wanting to form his own band. A lively blonde missed the choir so much that she went out and joined another. A 13-year-old was now singing in his church choir and loving it. And one boy - the one who'd thrown the tantrum - said: "Even people who couldn't spell classical before are into it now."

Tasmin started her Naked Violin project by wondering what it would take to get music through to people. This programme made clear that one thing it takes is opportunity; another is a little effort, on everyone's parts. The rewards for that effort? Immeasureable.

BBC TV now has an 'iplayer' facility, which I hadn't anticipated using...but you can see programmes online for 7 days after they've been screened. So here is this one.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Naked Violin update

Tasmin's Naked Violin has a deservedly glowing review in today's Times. Meanwhile she is happy to report more than 120,000 hits and a terabyte of downloads so far. She assures me that a terabyte is not a species of dinosaur.

Wilhelm Furtwangler...

...was born on 25 January 1886.

Here he is conducting the overture to Wagner's Die Meistersinger in Berlin in 1942, complete with banners.

Worth seeing, too, the Istvan Szabo film based on Ronald Harwood's play Taking Sides, a chilling tale of the victimisation of Furtwangler by a pig-ignorant deNazifying American official after the war (and btw includes a delectable few moments of Rini Shaham singing jazz).

Also would like to refer you to Tony Palmer's documentary The Salzburg Festival: A brief history (it's the better part of three hours long) in which the director interviews Mrs Furtwangler. She recounts that her husband stayed in Germany during the war because it was threatened that if he left, his entire orchestra would be disbanded, drafted and sent to certain death the Front.

Please fasten your seatbelts for an uncomfortable few minutes.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Bravo Barenboim

Fantastic article by Richard Morrison in today's Times about Daniel Barenboim. Read it here.

Sorry about thin blogging this week. one of those weeks.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

RIP Joan Ingpen

Joan Ingpen, founder of the artists' management agency Ingpen & Williams, has died aged 92. Her fascinating obit is in the Independent today.

She founded Ingpen and Williams in 1946 and for 15 years worked to establish a list that included the singers Hans Hotter, Geraint Evans and Joan Sutherland, and the conductors Rudolf Kempe and Georg Solti. When Solti became music director of Covent Garden in 1961, he asked Ingpen to dispose of her agency and join him at the opera house as controller of planning. After some thought, Ingpen accepted, Howard Hartog took over Ingpen and Williams (which is still flourishing today) and the new administrator began to make her mark almost immediately at Covent Garden.

And what has become of the Williams side of the agency, you may ask? Williams, dear readers, was her dog.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Happy birthday, Chausson!

It's Ernest Chausson's birthday (thanks to Wonderful Webmaster for the reminder!) - 153 today - so here, in two parts, is what is for me probably the ultimate interpretation of the Poeme, played by Georges Enescu. Just audio, but that's all you need.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Enlightenment, please?

JDCMB has had an astonishing number of hits today from people in America doing Google searches on JASCHA HEIFETZ BIRTHPLACE.

I've been there. Here it is, above - photographed during my trip to Vilnius, Lithuania, in June 2005. But why is everyone looking for it now? Have I missed something?

UPDATE, Sunday 11.50am: thank you. Mystery solved: I'm informed that it was a crossword puzzle clue! Mad props to whoever set the crossword.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Tomorrow, Saturday 19 January...

On Saturday 19th, tomorrow evening, I will be interviewing the inimitable John Lill about his life, career and strong views on the state of the musical nation in the pre-concert event at the Royal Festival Hall. Kick-off is at 6.15 and admission is free. Come and say hello!

Later in the evening John is playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.1 and the programme also includes Rachmaninov's Second Symphony (to me the aural equivalent of vodka with chocolate). Roberto Minczuk conducts the London Philharmonic.

38 seconds of Toscha Seidel

Mad props to Philippe Graffin for sending us a link to this clip showing the utterly incredible violinist Toscha Seidel playing a few tantalizing seconds of a Brahms Hungarian Dance.

Seidel, whose tone could burn down a house, was a one-time rival of Heifetz in the class of the great (Hungarian) teacher Leopold Auer, but I remember hearing once that Heifetz was considered the tough cookie who could survive a heavy-duty international career and was therefore selected for pushing. The results go without saying. Seidel never emerged from his shadow and ended up in Hollywood, where he performed on the soundtrack to Intermezzo (Ingrid Bergman's debut) and recorded Korngold's Much Ado About Nothing suite with the composer. A discussion about Seidel on, which I've just found, also suggests that he played in a band in Vegas. Oy.

If anyone has access to any more film of Seidel, we slidey violin fans would be forever indebted if you were to post it to Youtube, pleasepleaseplease.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Bewildered of SW14

Puzzled by news of the stand-off between Russia and the UK over, of all things, the British Council. My own contact with this organisation consisted of two green and pleasant years, some while ago, editing a magazine named Soundings which helped to promote British music of all types and was distributed via BC offices around the world. A nicer, more mild-mannered and traditionally British bunch you couldn't hope to find. I believe that the gentleman who then headed the music section eventually left to become a poet.

Perhaps it's just the old schoolyard story: the quiet, sensitive ones are the easiest targets for the bullies...Otherwise, this could very easily become a latter-day Graham Greene novel.

Meanwhile it looks as if the planned exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870–1925 from Moscow and St. Petersburg, will go ahead, opening on 26 January.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Little goes large!

Back from hols, missing the sun...but the limelight isn't far away. It's firmly on Tasmin Little, whose free download The Naked Violin went live on Monday and promptly attracted so many hits that it briefly crashed the server. She's going great guns with 12-13,000 downloads per day, articles in most of the papers and music magazines that count (see mine today in The Independent) and masses of radio and TV coverage coming up too. She'll be live on BBC1 on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday at 9am, talking and playing. Don't miss the music itself - download here!

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Have some Madeira, m'dear...

....ooh, yes please.

Back next week. x

Tasmin's violin goes naked!

Tasmin Little is hitting the headlines by becoming the first musician (to the best of my knowledge) to give away a recording free online. The project is called The Naked Violin. Radiohead, eat your heart out.

She's recorded three contrasting pieces for solo violin by Bach, Ysaye and Paul Patterson and it will be available to listen or download free of charge from her website from next Monday. She sees this as a new way of getting through to people who might never dare to go into a record shop or walk into a concert hall, but mightn't mind pressing a button on a computer and having a listen. There's an important educational element too - the recording is ideal for use in schools and the website is going to include Tasmin's spoken introductions and suggestions that teachers can use to plan lessons around the three different pieces. And of course you can access the recording anywhere there's internet access, whether in swinging London, darkest Peru or among the reindeer in Lapland.

Two contrasting violins are involved: her Guadagnini of 1757 and the 'Regent' Stradivarius. Listen out for the difference between the instruments, decide which you prefer and why, and let her know via the website!

I'm chuffed to learn, furthermore, that the whole thing sprang from our little busking exercise for The Independent last spring. Playing outside Waterloo Station and seeing who stopped, who didn't and who might have if it had been less cold and windy just there - and especially seeing that every child who passed us wanted to stay and watch - got Tazza thinking about why people who might enjoy music don't actually go to hear live performances. She's hoping to follow up the download recording with a rather unusual tour. Coming soon to a teepee near you.

We'll be covering the project at greater length in the Indy very soon, but meanwhile please bookmark her page and dive in for a listen next week. The Guardian has a piece today (though of course they make a political statement out of it).

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Tannhäuser in Paris

I write up Tannhäuser in Paris for the Indy, but what appeared in print was heavily cut. Here is the full version. (You can hear a broadcast of the show on France Musique on 9 February.)

It’s Christmas in Paris, and Venus saunters onto the Bastille stage in the first bars of Wagner’s overture, stark naked. While British audiences were shoehorned into endless Nutcrackers, the French capital hotly anticipated a season highlight in Robert Carsen’s new production of Tannhäuser, the Paris Opera’s first since 1984, which opened on 6 December – but the first performances were semi-staged due to a strike by stagehands. It wasn’t until later that the full monty was unfurled. And it was worth waiting for.

Re-settings of operas that actually work are rare, but the transformation of Tannhäuser into a radical artist creating a scandal succeeds because it enhances the work’s core issues: sex versus spirituality (or prudishness), progressive art versus the establishment. How appropriate, too, for Paris, the city of Manet – whose ‘Dejeuner sur l’herbe’ adorns the programme – and the territory where Tannhäuser caused a comparable scandal in 1861, albeit because the Jockey Club objected to the lack of a ballet in the second act.

The ballet appears, instead, right after the overture, in the Venusberg – the realm of the senses inhabited by the goddess of love – and this time the Jockey Club members wouldn’t have known what had hit them. The nude Venus, Tannhäuser’s model, drapes herself across a mattress while he paints her in a frenzy, aided and abetted by a crowd of male dancers who portray the wild, messy confluence of creativity and sex in an orgy of scarlet paint.

Act II’s song contest is transformed with great aplomb into a painting competition in a posh gallery; the artists’ songs introduce the unveiling of their paintings (which the audience never sees). Symbolism returns for Act III, when the conventional, uptight Elisabeth – who alone understands Tannhäuser’s art but is fatally wounded by his sexual betrayal – takes off her dress, lets down her hair and begins to merge with the image of Venus. Tannhäuser, refused absolution by the Pope, returns from his pilgrimage seeking the Venusberg instead, but now Elisabeth and Venus mingle as he learns to integrate their opposing qualities in his work. And with the final chorus comes Tannhäuser’s salvation: his canvas is hung among the most famous and scandalous nudes in the history of art.

The American heldentenor Stephen Gould is a towering hunk as Tannhäuser, his voice as powerful as his presence. His Elisabeth is Eva-Maria Westbroek, her ‘Dich, teure Halle’ delivered from the front of the stalls with a heart-lifting combination of natural radiance and vocal ease. Exquisite richness of tone from the mezzo-soprano Béatrice Uria-Monzon as Venus and superb performances from Franz-Josef Selig as Hermann and the substantial chorus.

Most unforgettable, though, is Matthias Goerne as Tannhäuser’s friend Wolfram, portraying a generous yet introverted soul tortured by unrequited love for Elisabeth. Goerne’s magical phrasing, charcoal-soft baritone and gut-wrenching inwardness make him unique at the best of times, but it would have been worth the journey to Paris just to hear him sing Wolfram’s Song to the Evening Star. Meanwhile under Seiji Ozawa’s mercurial baton, the orchestral playing was full of élan, and proved unfailingly sensitive to the singers. Christmas crackers for grown-ups don’t come much better than this.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Another fruitless nod for Tod

The British 'honours' system appears a closed book at the best of times and probably ought to be thrown clean out of the window; but while we're stuck with it, it continues to cause controversy. Pliable at the Overgrown Path has an excellent post about the veteran British conductor Vernon Handley, who despite having done more to further the cause of British music than probably anybody else alive is still one of the few older UK conductors to be left without a knighthood. This despite a high-profile campaign a year or two ago at Gramophone with a petition named 'Nod for Tod' (we all call Handley 'Tod' for short).
Talking it through with musician friends who are as annoyed about this as I am, we looked at a list of top British conductors and came to one uncomfortable conclusion. Most of 'em went to Cambridge. Tod didn't (he attended Oxford!).

Quite why Cambridge should produce so many successful conductors is a moot point, because you do not learn how to conduct there.

The big exception to the rule is (Sir) Simon Rattle, the best of the lot, who has left the country.

UPDATE: Friday 4 Jan, 9.15pm - Julian Lloyd Webber had an article in yesterday's Telegraph about why there are so few successful British conductors, arguing that the top jobs here always go to foreigners. He's right. He's also right in saying that it's because young conductors are not properly nurtured here.

I reckon that that also explains why the Cambridge brigade gets on. Given that there is no systematic programme for good, serious, high-level musical education for young children in Britain beyond four or five specialist schools and some well-meaning Saturday joints, and nothing except keen amateurdom is seen as desirable in any case (fine in itself, but not for professionals), a would-be anglomaestro can only fall back on experience gained through personal initiative. In Cambridge, any kid who has the drive to do it can book a chapel, put together a student band, stand in front of them and wave the baton. Bingo: experience. This doesn't make them technically adept. Some have gone on to better training chez Musin or Panula. Others haven't. Look at the pedigrees of our resident orchestras' bosses, Jurowski, Salonen and Gergiev, and don't be surprised that we can't compete.

Tasmin plays La Gitana

Here's a little something to brighten your day: Kreisler, played by Tasmin Little and John Lenehan, with strings attached.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

And mad props to...

...Clive Davis in The Times for giving this blog an extremely kind plug in the new year special round-up entitled '2008: Make me a polymath'. Cheers!

Happy new year!

Happy new year, everyone!

Meet my big event of 2008: Hungarian Dances will be out on 6 March in hardback, then in paperback on 7 August. Expect much celebration on JDCMB featuring Bartok, Dohnanyi, Kodaly, not to mention Brahms, Ravel and a lot of fabulous Gypsy fiddling.

A brand-new recording by Philippe Graffin to complement the novel is currently in the planning stages. Watch this space.