Saturday, August 30, 2008

Howard Jacobson, I <3 you

In today's Indy, columnist Howard Jacobson says everything I would like to say about the f*****g Olympics, only he does so so elegantly that it not only makes me laugh but also makes my heart sing. Honest. Here's an extract:

"I am not blind to the beauty of the body. I have watched film – because my wife made me watch film, wishing me to see what she had seen in the flesh – of Nureyev dancing with Fonteyn. I know sublimity when it's before me. But they shake my soul to its foundations not because they are athletes but because their bodies strive to express what their hearts feel and what their minds almost dare not think. Love, of course, will always make a difference. But so will any narrative when the emotions convey it to the body. In itself the body is nothing: it is what the body serves that makes it noble."

Friday, August 29, 2008

Carmen: best of the lot

Seeing the second-to-last performance of Carmen at Glyndebourne yesterday left me convinced all over again that this opera is a complete no-holds-barred masterpiece. The performance there had grown tremendously since the dress rehearsal: huge assurance and relish from the LPO and conductor Stephane Deneve, and Tania Kross as Carmen was a knockout.

But never mind the melodies, the spectacle and the toreador costumes from Seville, it's the last scene that counts the most; and Glyndebourne just can't quite match the Covent Garden production which, as performed here by Anna-Caterina Antonacci and Jonas Kaufmann, has the most powerful interpretation of it that I've ever been lucky enough to see. Voila.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


A very nice interview re Hungarian Dances from ASWOMAN, a Hungarian online magazine, with many thanks to the lovely Erika Orban! It's in English, btw.

Beware of titles

Especially those proclaiming the death of this, that or the other. Far as I can tell, in this piece from The Times, Stephen Pollard is actually saying that British music is in better shape now, with the likes of James MacMillan and Thomas Ades on board, than it's been for decades.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

O ciel

Mikhail Rudy has written his autobiography, Le Roman d'un pianiste - his 'Russian story', which will be published by Editions du Rocher, France, next week. Few performers are as perfectly au fait with writing as they are with their instruments, but Micha is a notable exception and tells his tale with power and eloquence. Andy Sommer is making a film about him, too, which is due for release in the autumn.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Larking about in the Lakes

Ah, summer in rural England. The Pina Coladas on the beach. The heat and sun thumping down from dawn to dusk. The trays of fresh tropical fruit spread out by the hotel swimming pool. The...

OK, never mind. While we dodged from shelter to shelter (ie pub to concert and back) we pretended that it was autumn and we were students again. The Lakes are probably the most beautiful region of England, replete with walkers, dogs and bunny rabbits, and the Lake District Summer Music festival and summer school, based at the University of Cumbria in Ambleside, makes the most of the lovely venues in the area with concerts in Kendal, Ambleside itself, nearby Windermere and, in the case of the Messiaen project, the Theatre By The Lake in Keswick. The theatre is slightly out of the village and if you turn left and walk for one minute you are indeed on the lake - Derwentwater - which may be the loveliest of all. LDSM is the brainchild of Royal Northern College piano doyenne Renna Kellaway, who has run it for more than 20 years now; it's hard to imagine a more wonderful region in which to celebrate nature and music rolled into one.

Naturally the Lakes are overrun with tourists, so it's hard to get away from the cars, not to mention Peter Rabbit. Beatrix Potter settled there after she made the big time, and the cafe in which I stopped for soup and sandwich during a post-rehearsal stroll on Saturday was piping an audio-book of The Tale of Benjamin Bunny into the ladies' loos. To make the most of the area, you need strong boots, a good raincoat, a dog, a large chunk of Kendal Mint Cake and some very warm socks. You also need a pack of sandwiches, especially if you are giving concerts, because, anywhere in provincial England, it is very difficult to find a square meal after 10pm. I know we are supposed to be part of Europe now, but there are corners of the country to which this news doesn't appear to have penetrated. Like most places outside central London.

I have to say that Sunday evening was one of the most memorable events of my life. If anyone had told me 10 years ago that on 17 August I would be performing my own play with Robert Tear, that it would be created to complement the Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time and that there'd be a team of some of the finest musicians I know playing the music, I think I'd have passed out with shock. We also very much enjoyed our pre-event event in the late afternoon, when festival boss Andrew Lucas interviewed me, Philippe and Charles about music, words and Messiaen, and the lads gave the UK premiere of an early violin and piano piece by Messiaen entitled Fantaisie which has just been published for the first time.

Pictured: top, Philippe, Charles and me by Derwentwater on Sunday afternoon; bottom, Bob and me in the dressing room before the show; middle, the Indian takeaway with which we attempted to solve the sorry-luv-the-kitchen's-closed-now post-concert conundrum when we got back to the campus on Sunday night - left to right, Charles Owen, Philippe Graffin, Hayley Wolfe (who played in the Saturday concert), Oleg Kogan and Chen Halevi. Not certain how the First Aid box got there, but I think we were hoping there might be a corkscrew inside it. The four boys and I shared a student cottage for the weekend. It was an enjoyable team-bonding experience, but being the only female resident I have now renamed the Messiaen work 'Quartet for the End of Time in the Bathroom'.

Sadly I didn't have my camera to hand for the most memorable image of all. After the lads arrived on Friday night, we headed for the pub, as one does, and being a Friday, it was full of very merry young locals. Now, a momentarily unattended cello case is not the commonest of sights in The White Lion in Ambleside, and Oleg's precious Italian instrument quickly attracted two feisty northern lasses who proceeded to drape themselves over it at some interesting angles, then turned the thing on its side, sat astride it and snogged one another. Their boyfriends took photos and promised to put them on Facebook...

It was all a very, very long way from where the Quartet itself started out: in a prisoner-of-war camp, Stalag VIIIA, near Gorlitz in Silesia in January 1941, where Messiaen and his friends performed in temperatures far below freezing, on rickety instruments, wearing what threadbare clothes they had, and clogs. Yet as it turned out, the story was closer to Keswick than we'd imagined. In the box office at the theatre, one of the members of staff is - like the woman in my play - the daughter of a former PoW. Her father was shot down over Germany during the war and was captured and sent to Stalag VIIIB, down the road from Messiaen's camp. We had tea; she showed me his letters, his diary, some photos from the of which was stamped with the mark STALAG VIIIA. Incredible.

My huge and heartfelt thanks to everyone at LDSM and the Theatre who made the event possible, to my wonderful and now very bathroom-bonded quartet friends and to the incomparable Bob Tear. It was the project's first UK airing; but let's hope it will not be the last.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Swanning off to the Lakes

I'm heading for Lake District Summer Music today, where on Sunday Robert Tear and I will perform my play A Walk Through the End of Time in its UK premiere. We're presenting it as a semi-staged rehearsed reading at the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick and in the second half the Messiaen Quartet will be played by Philippe Graffin (violin), Chen Halevi (clarinet), Oleg Kogan (cello) and Charles Owen (piano). At 5pm the same day, also in the theatre, Philippe and I are doing a talk about music, fiction, music&words projects and Hungarian Dances and Philippe and Charles will give the UK premiere of a violin and piano work by Messiaen. The concert in Ambleside on Saturday night features the Razumovsky Ensemble, with Philippe, Chen and Oleg among others, playing the Beethoven Septet and Schubert Octet.

Since summer isn't happening this year in the UK, I am packing a warm jersey and an umbrella.

Back next week.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Magic? What magic?

It's mystifying to sit through the kind of evening that gives contemporary opera a bad name and find that most other people are determined to enjoy it. Maybe that was for the picnics. Peter Eotvos's Love and Other Demons, which received its world premiere at Glyndebourne the other night, has garnered rather good reviews. It also has the distinction of being the first opera Glyndebourne ever commissioned from a non-Brit, and an extra mark for being by a Hungarian; the singing is glorious (Allison Bell and Felicity Palmer particularly), Vladimir and the LPO are on cracking form in the pit and someone had some fun filming the projections.

But...oh heck. First, the persistent 'lento' of the score mentioned by Ed Seckerson in today's Indy is probably a result of the same very basic libretto trap that scuppered Maw's Sophie's Choice and many others: the no-brainer that words take longer to sing than they do to speak. But worse: there could have been drama, and there wasn't. The Exorcist might be the scariest film ever made, but here we had an exorcism which was frankly ridiculous - a few stylised demons in gargoyle masks wandering rather decorously about, a nun smearing red paint on Allison Bell and Nathan Gunn (yes, we do see his pecs and very nice they are) slumping in a deck chair, maybe dead or drugged or asleep. But crucially, lacking musical drama and very short on imagination. It's a missed opportunity.

As for Gabriel Garcia Marquez - there is more magic in one paragraph of Marquez's prose, more richness of imagery and allusion, more imaginative flights of wonder and more magical music in his words, than in the whole opera.

Here are some alternative views from Andrew Clements in The Guardian, Rupert Christiansen in The Telegraph and Andrew Clark in the Financial Times (closest to my response). And here's a fascinating interview with the composer by Fiona Maddocks in The Evening Standard.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

My Top Ten 'Gypsies' in Literature

Over at Guardian Unlimited website you can find my Top Ten Gypsies in Literature from today (mad props to GU for linking to JDCMB!). In case you've landed here by following that link - hello and welcome!

BTW Hungarian Dances is my *third* novel, as the intro says, not my second.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Toxic waste...

Closer to home, in today's Indy the following appears in Deborah Orr's column. Topic: Vanessa-Mae and her mother.

So much for motherly love

Even though she had studied child prodigies for 20 years, Ellen Winner was visibly gobsmacked. The violinist Vanessa-Mae had just announced that her mother, Pamela, had always made her feelings clear."You're special to me," she would regularly tell Vanessa, "only because you play the violin." After a few seconds of understandable indulgence in the flannel of conversational recovery, the psychologist replied: "That's a very hard thing for a child to hear."

The BBC television series The Making of Me has illustrated that whatever field of endeavour a person excels in, the chances are that they achieved their success only because they were utterly remarkable in a number of other respects as well. Vanessa-Mae is remarkable in that she has survived her childhood at all. When she sacked her controlling mother as her manager at the age of 21, Pamela broke off all contact. She has continued to ignore her daughter ever since.

Vanessa-Mae, with some wisdom, said in an interview that her own experience of childhood has left her wary of having babies herself. She fears she would not know when to "stop pushing". How touching and sad. You stop pushing, surely, when you feel those tiny shoulders shrug out, and start encouraging as much as you can from there on in.

When I was assistant editor of Classical Music Magazine, longer ago than I'd like to admit, we all got invited to a little press launch by a lady named Pamela, who was starting a record label to promote her 10-year-old fiddler daughter, Vanessa-Mae. This supposed 'child prodigy' played a bunch of Christmas carols nicely enough on the first release. The label didn't go too far, but it didn't need to: four or five years later, there was the under-16 VM wandering romantically (or not) out of the sea in a wet t-shirt, courtesy of EMI.

I went to a post-concert dinner in Paris sometime in the mid 1990s at which an EMI exec was present, and somehow the topic of VM rolled round. "C'est la mere, n'est-ce pas?" I suggested. "Taisez-vous," came the quiet response - that's "shut the f*** up" to you and me. Ah well, must have been spot-on.

A toxic waste indeed, because mother and daughter's relationship is ruined and a wonderfully talented young girl had her entire direction warped as a result. She's a brave woman to carry on carrying on.

History lessons?

Sod the sore hand, this needs to be typed.

Autumn 1956. While the world watches the Suez Crisis, the Hungarians rise up against the Soviets and declare they want freedom. The Russians hold fire until they're sure everyone else is looking at Egypt, which they are. Then they send in the tanks, declaring that they are going to help their allies in government restore peace to the streets of Budapest. The city is devastated and the buildings bear the scars to this day. The West does nothing. They're busy with Suez, they hadn't really noticed what was going on until it was too late, and in any case the Russians say they're only trying to help. Several thousand people are killed. A democratic election is finally held there in 1990.

Summer 2008. The Olympic Games open in Beijing to an estimated global audience of 4bn. Nobody is looking at South Ossetia, where someone fired first. About a thousand people have been killed in one day. The Russians say the Georgians attacked their peacekeepers. The Georgians say that actually it was the other way round. Here in Britain, we seem more concerned about whether the UK might win an actual medal, if only bronze, in the Olympic judo. The media swallow Russian mouthing-off about how the South Ossetians are loyal to Russia and not Georgia, though the Georgian ambassador explained on the news yesterday that actually nobody could know this because the South Ossetian people had not been asked. Besides, it makes no sense: you ever heard of a majority of people in any European country being primarily loyal to the EU? Would any small country really attack a Kraken like Russia against which it knows it doesn't stand a chance? Is Russia really 'protecting its citizens'?

Of course South Ossetia isn't precisely identical to Hungary 52 years ago...but after all that Hungarian homework, some aspects of this development look unbelievably familiar. But here nobody learns much about that bit of history unless they have to, most people are off on holiday, and anyway they'd rather watch sport in, er, China.

Wake up!

Reports from:
The Independent
The Guardian
The Times

Friday, August 08, 2008

Aw shuks!

Blimey - after a rather fraught day due to hand/wrist trouble, it was evening before I discovered that the Indy has reviewed 'Hungarian Dances'!

Thursday, August 07, 2008

une petite pause

Will be off for a while - not on holiday, but urgently in need of reducing extraneous typing while trying to finish corrections on new manuscript. But if you are within reach of Keswick, come and see us (me, Robert Tear, Philippe Graffin, Chen Halevi, Oleg Kogan and Charles Owen) and our Messiaen project at the Lake District Summer Music Festival on Sunday week, 17 August!

Ciaociao for now...

Sunday, August 03, 2008

...and now hear how a violin can sound when allowed

I stumbled over this while looking for a recording of Leopold Auer on Youtube. Apparently Sir Rog once declared on the radio that this legendary prof who taught Heifetz, Milstein and Elman didn't use vibrato...believe that and you can believe anything, especially when you hear this magical tango from another of his pupils, one Georges Boulanger. I've not come across him before, but he shows exactly what you can do with a violin when you know how. Enjoy.

Norrington 'goes too far'

Big piece in today's Observer, resulting from a furious letter from veteran violinist Raymond Cohen telling it like it is about Roger Norrington's Elgar.

Please pardon my French, but the you-must-not-vibrate-ever-ever-ever movement is a load of utter bollocks. I don't know how people have been duped by it for so long. Has everyone forgotten that Leopold Mozart in his mid-18th-century treatise provides exercises for practising something that any Grade V violin pupil would recognise as vibrato? (Yes, he calls it 'tremolato' instead, so what?) LM complains about the application of indiscriminate 'tremolato' - the implication being that in the mid 18th century string players didn't use no vibrato: they used too much! That does not mean 'you mustn't use any'. Most irritating of all is that audiences who lap it all up in good faith have been swindled.

Apropos de which, has everyone forgotten, too, that the cut-down forces of the misleadingly-named 'authentic' movement in the 1980s coincided beautifully with political funding slashes which meant fewer musicians need be employed?

Enough, already!

Bravo, Raymond, and happy 89th birthday! Now have a listen to this...

UPDATE: Monday 4 August - here's Stephen Pollard's take on the same issue from today's Times.