Saturday, November 29, 2008

I love Lenny

No, not that one (though, I love him too).

This one. This waltz.

Howard Jacobson, one of my favourite columnists, writes this super article today in The Independent about his visit to a Leonard Cohen concert at the O2.

I love this paragraph:
"I like it that he doesn't jig about. Such a change to see someone on a stage, immobile – as still as thought. We have the attention span of children. A thing will interest us only if it sparkles and moves. Madonna, Michael Jackson – people come back from their concerts raving about how well they move as though moving is a virtue in itself. I don't get it. If you want moving ring Pickfords. Leonard Cohen barely stirs, limiting himself to crouching over his microphone into which he whispers with hoarse suggestiveness."

The same is very often true of the finest classical performers: think of Heifetz and Oistrakh on the violin, Barenboim at the piano, etc. The focus is the music. The energy is not dissipated by unnecessary movement and histrionics. It's very much in keeping with Alexander Technique principles: eliminate excess muscular effort and concentrate the energy where it is most needed. In Cohen's case, the voice. In Heifetz's, the instrument in his arms. Each mite of force that goes into extraneous movement is a morsel removed from the core of what the artist is trying to achieve. That is not to advocate stiffness: just concentration and good sense.

I would have liked to go and hear LC too, but it is almost quicker to get to Marseilles from where I live than to the O2, and the great man's Albert Hall gigs were a) ROH prices, b) sold out but for a few restricted view tickets at £55 each. Technically this makes Leonard Cohen into Heifetz and Rolando Villazon at the same time. Not to mention Lorca.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Philippe & Claire on IN TUNE today

Philippe Graffin and Claire Desert will be on BBC Radio 3's IN TUNE today, playing and talking about some of the pieces on the Hungarian Dances CD. Those within bowling distance of Cambridge can go and hear their recital at Kettle's Yard Art Gallery tomorrow, Thursday. I'm told they are on near the start of today's programme, so switch on at 5pm and listen out for a searing violin and some lovely French accents. And stick around to hear the phenomenal tenor Mark Padmore. The programme will be available on Listen Again for a week, for those in the UK.

UPDATE: Link to Listen Again for another 6 days

UPDATE: apologies to our overseas would-be listeners trying to access this broadcast from places like New York and Bucharest - I think Listen Again may only be available in the UK, even in this day and age...

Beautiful times among the Titians

A touching and tender day at the National Gallery for the Dame Myra Hess commemoration. Tasmin Little and Piers Lane (pictured) gave the evening concert, with powerful performances of Elgar and Poulenc; in the middle, Piers performed Hess's arrangement of 'Jesu Joy' which had everyone in tears - not least because he sounded not unlike Hess herself. The Gallery commissioned a new piano piece from Nigel Hess - great-nephew of Dame Myra and an award-winning film composer who wrote, among other things, the score for Ladies in Lavender (including that gorgeous pastiche violin concerto that always leaves everyone wondering what it is and why they don't know it). He produced an 'Improvisation on Jesu, Joy' which Piers played with the same tenderness as the Bach itself. Beautiful - pastel-coloured, nostalgic, heartfelt.

Lunchtime saw an extraordinary performance by the Contiguglia Twins from New York, who played the socks off Howard Ferguson, Schubert and Beethoven. They came to Britain to study with Hess as young boys and played the Schubert Variations on an Original Theme for their Wigmore Hall debut. And... I've heard of identical, but this was quite something. I'm reliably informed that you can tell them apart when you know them well.

Celebrations followed among the Titians. On days like this, listening to world class music in historical surroundings then sipping rather good wine next to iconic Renaissance art, it's great to be a Londoner.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

National Gallery Myra Hess Day

Today is the now-annual Dame Myra Hess Day at the National Gallery here in London. Piers Lane - a Hess 'grand-pupil' via his teacher, the late Yonty Solomon - is artistic director of the event which commemorates Hess's daily lunchtime concerts held in the Gallery during World War II, with music performed in the Barry Rooms where her series took place - though we have the paintings back now.

This year's event also celebrates the vital contribution to that series of her friend Howard Ferguson the composer, whose Partita for Two Pianos will be performed at lunchtime by the Contigulia Brothers from New York, themselves former pupils of Hess. There's a discussion chaired by Piers mid-afternoon, and this evening he and Tasmin Little will play war-scarred violin sonatas by Elgar and Poulenc.

We couldn't have this day without this:

Monday, November 24, 2008

Polling open

Blogger's template has reduced us to ranking the top 10 conductors rather than the top 20, so I have selected those who have received four nominations or more. Please see the poll in the sidebar and get voting!

Please note that you may vote ONLY ONCE and for ONLY ONE CHAP! Polling closes at five to midnight on Sunday 30 November, so we will have the final result first thing next Monday morning.

Richard Hickox, 1948-2008

We're shocked by the news this morning that the conductor Richard Hickox died yesterday of a suspected heart attack.

The music director of Opera Australia, associate guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, founder and music director of the City of London Sinfonia and much more, he was also a great champion of British music. Yesterday he had been in Wales for a recording session, adding to a discography that numbers more than 300 items.

I only met him once or twice socially, but emerged with the impression that he was a heck of a nice guy.

His agent, Stephen Lumsden of Intermusica, says: “The shock of Richard Hickox’s sudden and unexpected death will resonate right around the globe and has robbed the music world of one of its most popular and respected musicians. It also takes away from his beloved family a deeply devoted husband, father, son and brother. Literally thousands of musicians who were touched by his talent, energy and that remarkable generosity of spirit of his will feel that loss as well. Richard never wavered or faltered in his commitment and support for others even when faced with the most daunting challenges. His ability to inspire the best through his passion for the music he conducted created countless memorable performances in the concert hall, on the opera stage and on disc.”

UPDATE: Tributes: The Telegraph; a very touching memoir from Tom Service in The Guardian; producer/broadcaster Tommy Pearson at his blog One More Take. No doubt more to come.
TUESDAY: From The Independent. Stress? (Do not get me started on the effect of stress on musicians' lives and health. This issue needs a whole blog all to itself.)

Friday, November 21, 2008

And some light relief for Friday afternoon

Sebastian sent me this, and it has brightened my day. You don't really need to understand the German to appreciate it, though it's worth noting in advance that this lady's parents are both opera singers......

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Violinists blogging and jogging...

The LPO is currently on tour in Germany and Tom has been asked to write for the official tour blog! The news that their indefatigable concertmaster has put down his violin for long enough to go for a run is some indication that everything must be going well. Tom also has some useful information on how to handle a violin, a bow and a beer glass at the same time.

It's good to have some fun news. Today I heard that the newspaper I write for is shedding a raft of jobs, while my publishers are being sued for libel by the mother of a Misery Memoir author. Oyvevoy.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Double Dutch courage!

Pliable at the Overgrown Path has good news today from our friends in Holland: the culture minister has stepped in to save Concertzender! Pliable suggests that this has not a little to do with the power of blogging to marshal support.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Dutch courage...

...but no happiness: the independent classical radio station Concertzender has been forced off the internet-air. A tragic waste of the passion, energy and commitment that went into its existence. Overgrown Path has a full report here.

Elephants like Elgar

Personally I'm convinced everything started going wrong in the economy when the Bank of England kicked Elgar off the £20 note. But it seems that elephants still like him.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Words & music, shaken or stirred?

OK, so the novel and the CD work side by side, like good friends with independent lives who get together to party. But now they're shacking up: we have some actual Hungarian Dances concert invitations for next year. The concert-of-the-book, invented for the Queen's Gate Terrace event last June, therefore needs rethinking and repointing.

Squeezing a 400-page novel that covers three generations, 80 years and a sackload of characters into extracts totalling about 20-25 minutes out of a 75-min event is not so simple. What works best? Three biggish chunks of reading at the beginning, in the middle and near the end? Or an ongoing exchange of smaller chunks, with nothing longer than about 10 minutes, perhaps assisted by lighting effects to smooth the transitions and provide a modicum of theatricality without my walking backwards and forwards in precarious heels?

Next, how closely need the music match the extracts? It should be easy to work in some pieces like Hejre Kati that aren't directly mentioned in the book; and to shoehorn in Bartok's cameo appearance alongside the Romanian Dances; later, when Rohan plays Tzigane, there can be no substitute. But is it too obvious first to describe someone playing a piece, then play it, and use this as a blueprint throughout? Or is obviousness necessary if we're to get through to a book-clubbish audience as well as existing fiddle fanatics?

The mixing of drinks sometimes requires a good cocktail barista to work the magic. In this case, we want the audience to be stirred without the performers being shaken. Feedback needed, please, from Mr Bond, Ms Moneypenny and anyone who was there on 17 June and has sensible and helpful thoughts on the subject.

Friday, November 14, 2008

What Botox is meant to do

Before my father's untimely death in 1996, one of his last research projects was to explore the use of Botulinum toxin in the treatment of conditions such as muscular dystrophy, focal distonia etc - in which muscles go into spasm and cannot function.

This, as everyone knows, morphed rather grotesquely into Botox, the beauty treatment by which women allow themselves to be injected with a deadly poison in order to straighten out the odd wrinkle. This fantastic article from The Times today, however, proves how worthwhile that research really was: it has given Leon Fleisher the use of his right hand again, after 35 years. Fleisher is the most glorious musician - an artist of true humanity and integrity - and now he has a new lease of life at the piano.

You can hear him at the Wigmore Hall on Sunday afternoon. If you're not within concert-going distance, hear this CD.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Viva Sergei

After reading this depressing tract from Norman re China and notably the rivalry of Yundi Li and Lang Lang, retreat into the pianistic past is all that's possible, especially when seeking evasion tactics from copy-edit of novel. Last night I fell in love with Rachmaninov all over again, thanks to Vladimir and the LPO playing the socks off the Symphonic Dances. So here, for the Dead Pianists Society, is the second movement of Rach's Suite No.2 for two pianos, played by Alexander Goldenweiser and Grigory Ginzburg. Welcome to another world...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

by the way... not even think about posting spam or unwanted adverts to the comments boxes on this blog. I have a comment approval facility, so your efforts will not appear and you are wasting your time. If you wish to advertise on this blog, it will cost you money. The rates are very competitive and you may email me for details.

Sarah Palin's new career: jazz singer

This is brilliant!! Thanks to a very wonderful pianist who sent it to me yesterday with the words "I wish I'd thought of it first..." The musician 'accompanying' La Sarah is New York jazzer Henry Hey. Enjoy. There's more where this comes from, too, so check it out on Youtube.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Meet Boris Giltburg

This is Boris Giltburg, the 24-year-old Russian-Israeli pianist who is making his Southbank Centre recital debut tomorrow night. He is rather wonderful. Listen to this Bach - the fugue from the Chromatic Fantasy And...: deep, well-modulated touch, terrific concentration, intelligent shaping and voicing, and finely paced build of intensity from start to finish.

Since winning the Santander competition in 2002 he's been enjoying high-profile debuts with top orchestras around the usual circuit (eg, the world) and tomorrow he kicks off an ambitious programme at the QEH with nothing less than Beethoven Op.111. You don't tend to do that unless you are going places. The rest of the programme involves Scriabin, Rachmaninov and Schumann.

I will be interviewing him in a pre-concert event at the QEH at 6.15pm, so do come along and meet him. But if you can't, I suspect that there will be many more opportunities to enjoy his playing in future!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Farewell, Miriam Makeba

"Through my music I became this voice and image of Africa and the people without even realising it."

Miriam Makeba, 'Mama Afrika', died this morning, apparently of a heart attack after an anti-Mafia concert in Italy. She was 76.

Her singing was some of the first I ever heard: my late parents, South African anti-apartheid emigres who left the place in the early 1950s, treasured, and frequently played, their LPs of her songs.

This video of her singing 'Under African Skies' with Paul Simon, is not just an excuse to hear one of my favourite numbers from the Graceland album, but also demonstrates how Makeba brought the sounds of South Africa to a universal public and, with them, the awareness of Mandela's imprisonment and the atrocities of life under that odious political system.

She will be much missed, but remembered forever.

Friday, November 07, 2008

I am in Hungarian!

Same book, different worlds... Here - for anyone who is lucky enough to read Magyar fluently - is HUNGARIAN DANCES in Hungarian, translated by Agnes Simonyi and published today by Kossuth Kiado in Budapest. A quick whizz of the catalogue blurb through a translation tool reveals that it speaks of the book's "overwhelming passion", its "mix of civilisations" and "battle against racial prejudice", and I am told that it is going to be advertised on the Budapest subway in a week's time. I always dreamed of such a thing, but never imagined that it would happen in Hungary...My profound thanks to Kossuth for taking this novel as seriously as I hoped it would deserve.

Today, Metropol - the Budapest equivalent of London's Metro - ran this interview with me. English translation promised in due course.

Kozena uncut

I have a piece about Magdalena Kozena in The Independent today. While other writers have grumbled that she can be 'frosty' or gives them 'don't go there' looks on the mention of hubby, I found her utterly charming and adored her sense of humour. And my God, what a voice. Don't miss her new album, which is sensationally gorgeous. As for Sir Simon, well, he persuaded her to sing Mahler sooner than she might have otherwise.

The piece is shorter than my original - I'd thought it would run on Wednesday, the Indy's usual classical feature spot - but I guess it's not every day one's piece gets moved because of the election of the USA's first black president so that is OK by me. Here, comme d'habitude, is the director's cut.


With her dazzling looks and a career trajectory second to none, Magdalena Kozená is surely one of the most glamorous women on the operatic stage. That’s even before she opens her mouth. And when she does – well, you can’t argue with that voice. Melt down an ingot of 40-carat gold, then filter it through a finely trained larynx and the result may resemble her focused, pure, flexible and shining tone.

Yet traditionally, it’s the sopranos who enjoy the most glitzy operatic roles, with the image to match; Kozená is a mezzo-soprano, a ‘fach’ [voice type] that composers all too often relegate to the roles of sisters, young boys and mothers-in-law. Perhaps inside every mezzo-soprano there is a dramatic soprano longing to get out. “Of course, if I were a dramatic soprano there would be some wonderful roles to sing and I’m a bit jealous,” the Czech singer, 35, admits. “But one should be happy with what one’s got.” In her case, that’s not bad: Kozená, who gives a recital in the Barbican’s Great Performers series on Sunday, has got everything.

Four years ago, though, she hit the headlines in another way when it emerged that she and the conductor Sir Simon Rattle were leaving their respective spouses to set up home together. A frenzy of unwelcome media attention followed. Now, though, scandal has subsided into domestic bliss. The pair have settled just outside Berlin (Rattle is the chief conductor and artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic) and have two sons, Jonas, aged three and a half, and Milos, four months. And Kozená, happy with the quieter schedule she has adopted for the sake of her family, seems as warm as her voice, relaxed and very ready to laugh.

Maybe that’s why it’s the national sense of humour that she misses most about her native Czech Republic. “Even if you translate it into another language, it’s never the same, because people abroad don’t have that way of thinking,” she says. “Every time I go back, I feel we laugh at things that nobody would laugh at in Germany where I live, or in England, or anywhere else. Sometimes I laugh and everybody thinks I’m crazy!”

Those high spirits illuminate much of the repertoire she’s bringing to the Barbican, which also features in her new album: Czech songs from Dvorák and Janácek to Petr Eben, entitled Songs My Mother Taught Me. The music also contains a gentle but deep vein of pathos. “Some of these songs are very witty yet sad at the same time,” she says. “I think the melancholy is very Slavic – we have some heartbreaking melodies.”

Much of this can be attributed to the music’s folk roots. In the album’s opening number, an unaccompanied traditional folk song, Kozená adopts a raw-edged, back-to-the-earth timbre rarely heard from her. Is this a new direction, or something that has been lurking all along under her usual refinement? “I think that if you sing this music with too much vibrato or too prettily, it doesn’t sound authentic,” she explains. “I tried to sing it in the way that a folk singer would; you can allow yourself a bit more roughness in your tone, with colours that you couldn’t possibly use in Mozart. Still, there’s not too much repertoire in which you can afford to experiment this way. I wouldn’t do it every day because it can interfere with your technique, but from time to time it’s fun.”

The title, Kozená says, is more than appropriate: “I used to sing this repertoire as a student and some of the songs even as a kid.” Born in Brno, which was the home city of Janácek, she was singing before she could talk: “I don’t remember it, but my mother told me I used to imitate every sound I heard on the television or around me in the street. It was always a big passion.”

Music could have taken her in a different direction: “When I was three, I fell in love with the piano because my kindergarten teacher played extremely well. I decided at once that I was going to be a pianist, and I was very stubborn about it.” Fate intervened when Kozená broke her hand just before her entrance exam for the Brno Conservatory: “I had always sung in children’s choirs, so I decided to enter as a singer instead.” Eventually she studied both, which was unusual. “But singing won, and I am very glad,” she says, twinkling. “I think it was the right decision!”

By that time, she was virtually a professional already. Aged 16, she and a lute-playing friend began to give concerts of renaissance and early baroque music in the historic castles of the Czech Republic. “Sometimes I was criticised by teachers who thought I should just study and not be distracted by giving concerts so young,” she recalls, “but I learned so much from doing this – and that was the moment I decided I wanted to be a singer, not a pianist, and when I began to think I can actually earn my living this way.”

She first steamed up the hearts and minds of music fans internationally when Deutsche Grammophon brought out her album of Bach arias in 1997; she was only 23. After that, she says, “A lot of things seemed to happen at the same time.” The Bach CD went down a storm and as well as winning her an exclusive DG contract it helped her to find a manager. A rewarding creative partnership with the baroque specialist conductor Marc Minkowski was a highlight of those early years: “He’s a very ‘alive’ musician, and passionate about theatre,” she enthuses. “He gave me a lot of work and some extremely interesting projects.”

Today, though, there’s no doubt as to who the most important conductor in Kozená’s life is. “Some people don’t like to work with their spouses,” she remarks. “They prefer to separate professional from personal life. But I think that if you know someone so well, then working with them becomes even easier because you don’t have to discuss things: you just have this knowledge of the person and their music-making and things happen naturally. It’s easier than working with anyone else.” Rattle has also led her towards repertoire she had hesitated to tackle before. “Simon encouraged me to sing Mahler, and I think that was a good choice. I always wanted to, but I was scared that it wasn’t quite the right time. Now I’m singing this repertoire more and more and I feel very happy in it.”

Home life in Berlin is proving more than satisfactory too. “I love Berlin because there is so much green and you can easily be with nature,” she says, “but at the same time you have all the advantages of a big modern city with its culture and concerts. I love nature, and if I had the choice between living in the centre of a city or living on a farm, I would choose the farm every time. But that isn’t practical if you have children who need to go to school, so Berlin is a good compromise.”

With the centenary of Mahler’s death approaching in 2011, there should be much to look forward to from her in this direction, and around the same time there looms the possibility of her debut in the most celebrated of all mezzo roles: Carmen. Meanwhile, next year she will sing the greatest of the ‘trouser’ roles for the first time – Oktavian in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, at the Berlin Staatsoper.

This rich, romantic repertoire is some distance from the baroque and classical sphere where she made her name. Not that she’s abandoned it – her next album will be of operatic arias by Vivaldi – but inevitably over time, she says, the voice moves on. Motherhood has made a difference, physically as well as emotionally. “Going through those hormonal changes, the voice becomes a bit richer, rounder maybe, and stronger too,” she says. “It’s not been as great difference for me as it can be for others, though. Some women go through huge changes after giving birth, they even change their fach [voice type]. Unfortunately,” she jokes, “this didn’t happen to me. I thought that maybe when I had kids I’d become a dramatic soprano! But no…”

She need not worry: her fans love her just as she is, and next year contains innumerable highlights including an artist-in-residence slot at the Lucerne Festival and a project involving staged cantatas at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. And meanwhile, the songs her mother taught her are ready to pass on to the next generation.

Magdalena Kozená sings at the Barbican on 9 November. Box office: 020 7638 8891. Songs My Mother Taught Me is out now on Deutsche Grammophon

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Turn up the volume!

We all burst into tears at 4am London time when the figure rocketed past 270 - the world's most vital and emotive moment since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Bravo, guys, you did it, you elected the first black President of the USA and it looks like you also elected someone who is intelligent, idealistic and convincing. So turn up the volume, sit back and have a good celebrate...

Monday, November 03, 2008

Well, now I've seen it all... today's Grauniad: Germaine Greer, yes GERMAINE GREER, she of The Female Eunuch, defends - wait for it - VIOLA PLAYERS.

I am not joking. She has been exploring paintings of Orpheus. She has picked some viola jokes, albeit not the best ones. She clearly evinces no understanding whatsoever of the balance of sound in an orchestra ("British orchestras generally follow the dictum of Sir Malcolm Sargent, who thought that violas should be seen and not heard, and may have as many as four times as many violins as violas." Like, wow.) And she has had an encounter with the delectable Maxim Rysanov - who admittedly can twist most of us round his little finger within a well-turned single bar of Brahms. Even so, from the author of the afore-mentioned book comes the following description:

"Tall, handsome, dark-eyed, Maxim Rysanov looks Byronic; on stage, he accentuates the look by wearing stove-pipe trousers along with sweeping tails. But it is the thrilling sound he draws from his viola that is the authentic voice of Byron's and Strauss's young hero."

Well, what I can say? You go through years, nay decades, of controversy and celebrity. You write books and inspire new generations of feminists. Yes, you change the world. And then perhaps it just takes one gorgeous guy playing a bowed instrument to change yours all over again. Blimey, guv.

Sunday, November 02, 2008


...and the course is over, apparently successfully so. The only downside, as far as I can see, is that I ate far too many of the chocolate shortbread biscuits that were intended for my students. We'll do it again, but maybe with only one box of those next time. Suggested dates are 24 January and 1 February, but please watch my news page for further details.

Mad props meanwhile to's Richard Gehr (yes, I nearly misread that one too - wishful thinking...) for picking JDCMB as his favourite music site, and to the one and only Opera Chic for the shoutout in her interview with Artsjournal's Life's A Pitch. OC is on a Katherine Jenkins roll at present...

What with one thing and another, I haven't plugged Vladimir Jurowski's Revealing Tchaikovsky festival as much as I should. It's a knockout. Iolanta, with the LPO, Tatiana Monogarova and a similarly luscious cast, moved a number of us to tears - gorgeous, life-affirming and deeply touching. This week, catch the Manfred Symphony with Vlad at the RFH on Wednesday and the Second Piano Concerto and Suite No.3 with Rozhdestvensky & Postnikova on Friday.