Thursday, December 31, 2009

Kissin tells

The JC has news that Evgeny Kissin has written a letter to the BBC accusing it of an anti-Israel bias...a few thoughts, from him and from me

Monday, December 28, 2009

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

About Time, Too

Today The Times took a leaf out of my 'Bog off, Bruckner' idea and got arts figures to pick the classics they hate. Here's a little response.

Monday, December 21, 2009


It's the Winter Solstice and it's time for the annual JDCMB Ginger Stripe Awards Ceremony!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Rodolfo the Red-Nosed Tenor

Piotr Beczala drops out of Boheme opening night half way through. Why do singers never have 'normal' colds, only 'severe' ones?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Nut, cracked

The Baryshnikov Nutcracker from American Ballet Theatre, 1977, starring the man himself with the glorious Gelsey Kirkland. Watch and marvel. Happy Friday Historical Christmas!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

It's All About the Music

How often do you hear opera directors say that? Meet one who does: the marvellous John Copley. Here's my interview with him, via What's On Stage:

Monday, December 14, 2009

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday historical: meet Arthur Rubinstein

Interview with Rubinstein for his 90th birthday, film in 2 parts. Unmissable: an inspirational, marvellous man.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Any Questions?

I'm putting out a call for reader questions - please drop 'em into the comments box at the Standpoint site by Sunday evening and I will do my best to answer them next week. Questions should be polite, reasonable and pertinent, please! and posted to Standpoint via the link, not on Blogger.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Friday, December 04, 2009

Sad stuff,,,and cheering stuff too

The sad stuff involves my two pieces in the Indy this week - a look at Chopin's thoroughly nasty side out today, and a review of the worst piano recital I've heard this year, out yesterday. The cheering stuff involves two great concerts coming up tomorrow in London and Leeds, and a wonderful Friday Historical video showing Cziffra playing Liszt's Gnomenreigen. Personally I'm off to ballet class.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Fun Time?

My pal wrote an article about how someone criticised him for his "self-indulgent" hobby: playing the piano! What is the world coming to? Some angry words, plus a bit about Roger Scruton.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Xmas presents...

If you fancy giving a signed copy of one of my novels as an Xmas present, I can do 'em. Paperbacks of all four available, plus the Hungarian Dances CD and hardbacks of 'Rites of Spring'. Email me for details or tweet to @jessicaduchen ...

Monday, November 30, 2009

Franck, Horszowski and a recording of Tchaikovsky whistling

Links to fascinating material at Stephen Hough's blog featuring the voice of Tchaikovsky and great stuff about the Franck Prelude, Chorale & Fugue, plus my own memories of Horszowski playing it.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Mischa, Jascha, Toscha, Sascha...

Wonderfully indulgent historical violin stuff for a wet Sunday and the anniversary of Korngold's death, with Gershwin attached, lots of Jascha and Toscha and a bit of dear old Fritz, plus a little help from Tanita Tikaram and Philippe Graffin. Ideal sampled with fruity porridge. Utterly my kind of stuff.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Friday Historical: Menuhin plays Brahms

A rare live broadcast from 1943 of Menuhin in the slow movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto. Breathtaking & sublime...

Saturday, November 21, 2009

If you've got it, use it

An e-interview with cellist Robert Cohen about his new series of free podcast interviews with arts movers and shakers.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

"Comply with compliance..."

A few thoughts on this peculiar concept, plus a link to a very good article - and do you remember the time that someone said "f***" on R3??

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"Alt-Classical": is this the future?

Thoughts on the direction of new music as reflected in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's new composers-in-residence, with thanks to Greg Sandow, James MacMillan and Norman Lebrecht, not to mention Riccardo Muti and Sakari Oramo...

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Last Composer Standing

Norman Lebrecht is inviting votes for the living composers most likely still to be performed 50 years from now. Interesting stuff for a number of reasons...and I've added a rogue name to the roster: Kapustin. Read more...

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Driving to Distraction

In which Clive Davis has a problem with speedy Bach, I recall a little Wagner on the M3 and we encounter the unfortunate consequence of forgotten sandwiches on the way home from Macclesfield...

Friday, November 13, 2009

Friday Historical: The Comendian Harmonists

A visit to Germany's greatest pre-war singing troupe, in honour of my mother-in-law, who was born into their world in 1925 and is critically ill at present.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Tchaikovsky Cheers Up

Post re my article about the reassessment of Tchaikovsky in today's Independent...

Saturday, November 07, 2009

"Ochin priatna"

Apparently the Beast from the East likes classical music. Why should this sound so weird?

Friday, November 06, 2009

Moments of Inspiration

Diverse news and inspiration for Friday morning, featuring a link to a profoundly moving story about the healing power of music, some words of wisdom from Lionel Shriver and a rather odd photo from outside a Rite of Spring rehearsal...

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Notes on programme notes

So what do you want from a programme at a concert or opera? A few thoughts on what's wrong and why. Ideas, please, on how to fix it. (Comments at the Standpoint site, please, rather than here - it's good to have one discussion rather than two - thanks!).

Monday, November 02, 2009


November edition of Standpoint includes my article on No Music Day and how our minds affect our listening; and a stunning essay by James Macmillan on music and modernity.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Dilettante's Composer Competition Countdown

An e-interview with Dilettante Music's Digital Composer-in-Residence Competition judge Nico Muhly as the big evening approaches:

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


My colleagues at The Independent on Sunday had some fun with The Emperor's New Clothes - 50 Myths about Modern Britain. So I thought we'd join in & have set out to debunk my 13.5 top musical myths. Trouble is, I keep thinking of more, so watch for updates...

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Friday, October 16, 2009

Magnum opera

Mad props to The Independent which has included my blog in its 25 best music websites roundup today (but without a link!). And a couple of interesting things I spotted at the Royal Opera House last night. More about the performance of Tristan a bit later, when I have managed to get back down from the ceiling.

Monday, October 05, 2009

In this month's Standpoint Magazine... column is about what has become of the 'Russian school' since the fall of communism. Link via my blogpost here:

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Ebene Forever!

Ebene Quartet scoops Record of the Year at Classic FM Gramophone Awards. Nice one!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Speaking of Talks...

I'm giving a talk/reading re Songs of Triumphant Love at East Sheen Library on Thursday evening. Do come along if you can. 7pm for 7.30pm, 1 min from Mortlake Station (SW Trains from Waterloo). East Sheen Library, Sheen Lane Centre, Sheen Lane, London SW14. Love and hugs to all attendees.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday, September 04, 2009

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

JDCMB wins a badge!

We're in another list of the 100 best blogs, this time courtesy of The Daily Reviewer. They kindly sent me a badge - see left! :-)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Sunday, August 02, 2009

JD on TV

I will be on BBC1's Breakfast news tomorrow morning (Monday) live between 8.30 and 9am, along with BBC Music Magazine's editor Oliver Condy, to discuss the Mozart juvenilia that pitched up in Salzburg the other day. Please excuse me while I hurry off to do my hair...

Monday, July 20, 2009

Ring & Creation

I've a piece in today's Independent about Gergiev and the Ring Cycle, at Covent Garden together next week; also a write-up in Standpoint blog today about The Creation at the Proms the other night. And a piece in Standpoint Magazine about The Creation in general, as believe it or not it is my favourite piece of music of all time.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Introducing SONGS

Video from the launch bash for Songs of Triumphant Love. Viewable at Standpoint.

I suppose I ought to apologise for the self-promotion, since I am British (did you know that nobody else gives a damn about such things? It's only Brits who think we're Bad People if we say we've written something). But after all the hard work, I'd quite like people to know that the book exists, and since it is not at the front of Waterstone's, if I don't do something then nobody will ever know. Such is life and the book trade.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Women on Wires

It's been a slow blog week, due to book launch, deadlines and technical glitches, but the underlying theme has been some seriously wired women, including me.

Some extra news for those who are still accessing the posts via JDCMB Original: Songs of Triumphant Love is to be turned into an audio book! This is really good news, not least because the others weren't, and it's an increasingly popular format.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

What Shostakovich did in London

Apparently in 1972 Shostakovich made a rare visit to London for a performance of his Symphony No.15. He had two free evenings. On the first of these, he went to the theatre to see Jesus Christ, Superstar. On the second free evening, he insisted on going to see it again. And said he'd have liked the chance to use some of those instruments. Imagine Shostakovich with an electric guitar... 
The JDCMB social secretary informs me that this was gleaned yesterday at the very lovely celebrations for the wedding of cellist Julian Lloyd Webber to Jiaxin Cheng, formerly principal cellist of the Auckland Chamber Orchestra. Many congratulations to the happy couple!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Solti & SONGS

The now-obligatory picture of One's New Book Together With One's Cat. (I rather love the front cover, although if you've read Hungarian Dances you will guess, correctly, that the novel is less flowery than the image.)

RSS for the new site: please stay logged to JDCMB for now...

Hi all, I'm back. Well, not quite. The site at Standpoint magazine is still being fine-tuned and as yet there's no direct RSS feed for my blog. I have no idea how such things work, but a brief bit of market research via Facebook suggests that you really, really need this, so until they get one up and running there, I will continue to post links here so that at least you'll know the thing exists and you can click straight through to it.

I now have a column in the magazine itself, starting from the July issue, which is out now. I am standing in for their usual columnist, Ian Bostridge. First article is about HAYDN! Read it here.

Here are my blog posts so far:

Introductory post

Mastersingers - from Cardiff to Cohen (on what some of the candidates at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition could learn from Leonard Cohen).

There's nothing like a piano-playing Dame (Arise, Dame Mitsuko!).

Chopin as Prophet - Mikhail Rudy's stage version of The Pianist, in Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre, blows off my socks.

Tribute to a Contemporary Genius - a somewhat ironic heading for a post about what the heck was so great about Michael Jackson?!

Please leave comments on the Standpoint site rather than this one! They are moderated in house, but do appear sooner or later as long as they're not libellous, racist or gratuitously personally insulting.

Please note, too, that the views expressed in my pieces for the Standpoint magazine and website are entirely my own and do not represent those of the magazine or its staff. Please note, likewise, that the views of the other writers therein are entirely their own and have nothing to do with mine.

Monday, June 22, 2009


Dear all,


After 5 happy years at Blogger, where I've been enjoying adjusting seasonal colours and encountering self-reliant-technotwit-dom on a regular basis, I am taking my blog to the new website of STANDPOINT Magazine.

STANDPOINT, which launched in May last year, is an upmarket, intellectual current affairs monthly with a global approach. I will have a monthly music column in the magazine itself, starting from the July issue, where I'm stepping into Ian Bostridge's shoes (!). And I'll be blogging alongside people like legal eagle Joshua Rozenberg and STANDPOINT's editor Daniel Johnson (who covered the fall of the Berlin Wall for the Daily Telegraph), so I suppose I'll have to be on best behaviour for a while. My first two blog posts are up already; the design is being fine-tuned even as I write now; and very soon it should be business as usual.

They have promised me that I can continue JDCMB exactly as before. I only hope they know what they're letting themselves in for.

JDCMB will continue to be visible here on Blogspot so that the archives are readable and the links followable - I won't have the same sidebar space at STANDPOINT. Please feel free to come back and explore whenever you like.

See you there soon!

Friday, June 12, 2009

L'embarquement pour...

I'm off to France with Tom. Here's something suitable to mark the occasion.

A bientot!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

One who got away, and TWO who didn't

Mariangela Vacatello, who won the audience prize at the Cliburn, playing Stravinsky in an early round. The 27-year-old Italian studied at Imola and is a great favourite back home. Here in Britain we can hear her at the Chichester Festival Theatre on 10 July and the Buxton Festival on 13 July. Her semifinal video is a gorgeous performance of the Scriabin Etude for the Left Hand.

Now here's winner Haocheng Zhang in what sounds to me like a jolly impressive Scarbo.

And - after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing involving a mysteriously missing video on Youtube - thanks to Michael Monroe for sending me a link that actually works so we can show Nobuyuji Tsujii playing some of the Hammerklavier:

UPDATE: 5.30pm, Thursday - whatever you thought of the Facts & Arts piece, try this one for nastiness: Benjamin Ivry in The Wall Street Journal, under the title WHAT WAS THE VAN CLIBURN JURY THINKING? I find some of his arguments exceedingly odd - and the Takacs Quartet has not come 'from Hungary' for donkey's years and is in fact half English.

I should warn you quickly, if you are wanting to comment further on any of this, that as of tomorrow afternoon I am OFF until the end of next Thursday and have no intention of straying further from the swimming pool behind our favourite Luberon bed & breakfast than I absolutely have to - and it's in a spot deliciously remote from WiFi. So speak now or temporarily hold your peace!

Van Cliburn competition delivers 'odd couple'

For the first time the Van Cliburn Competition has been won by three Asian candidates: two very young winners sharing the top prize and no 'crystal' (third) prize being awarded. One of the top two was a blind Japanese boy whom some have been calling the 'Susan Boyle' of the piano: Nobuyuki Tsujii, 20, who has been blind since birth. The other, Haocheng Zhang from China, turned 19 during the contest.

Here's a report from Michael Johnson from Facts & Arts, putting most of the situation into a nutshell and including the delicately-expressed information that some of the jurors appear to have voted for their own students, that the contest finished on a 'sour' note, that some felt there was a bias against Russian candidates and that the audience mobbed the Italian finalist Mariangela Vacatello and thought she'd been short-changed. [The Facts & Arts article also alleges that Tsujii is 'mentally handicapped' as well as blind, but as you'll see from the comments this detail is disputed and I am unable to confirm either way, though have found no other references to this condition as yet.]

I dread to think what the music business machine will decide to do with 'Nobu'.

See further updates above!

Monday, June 08, 2009

Yeats for a very sorry morning in Europe

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Kenning the London scene?

I remember, during my long-ago days as editor of the ill-fated Classical Piano magazine, being occasionally accosted by amateur PRs telling me that I was mad to miss a unique opportunity to interview some pianist or other with a name like Victori Eludesmi and that this piece of neglect meant that they could do my job much better than me. I'm not saying they couldn't, of course - assuming you gave them a modicum of literacy - but is insulting people a sensible way to persuade them they should do what you want them to do? Needless to say, Mr Eludesmi eluded me, and everyone else, most satisfactorily and has never been heard of since.

So I've spent the last few hours gasping speechless over the complete idiocy with which a highly distinguished film director has written about what he perceives to be London's musical scene. Meet Ken Russell, providing a guest editorial at

Tommy Pearson has got to this already over at One More Take and I agree with absolutely everything he says [aside - I can't comment on the Britain's Got Talent bit because I couldn't watch the final, I had to wash my hair...].

The tract reads as if Ken has not been to a concert in decades, and has never heard of Valery Gergiev let alone Kurt Masur, Vladimir Jurowski or even Daniel Harding ("accommodating, appeasing, conciliatory, compatible, deferential, negotiable, obsequious, servile, subservient and pusillanimous..." - er, no, Ken, noooooo...).

As for filling concert programmes with B-list Britclassics - aha. Now I understand: what Ken is really trying to do is champion neglected British music, and bring back Klemperer at the same time. But since the first task is difficult and the second impossible, how does his persuasion technique match up?

Well, having slagged off the conductors, he then slags off the orchestras. Since I see daily at close quarters every ounce of the hard work, dedication, anxiety, professionalism, adrenalin and so on that go into concerts by the major London orchestras, I think I'm well-placed to say that his comments are baloney. Sloppy? Lazy?!? Besides, if they're so sloppy, lazy and badly conducted, why does he want them to play the difficult British music he loves in any case?

I have a suggestion: for one of those reality TV shows, Ken and my LPO violinist hubby Tom should switch places. I'd like to see Ken follow for even a fortnight the schedules, pressures and performing standards Tom has lived under for the past 22 years. And no doubt Tom also thinks he could make a damn good musical documentary in which his favourite actresses take off all their clothes.

Champion neglected British music by all means - but not by insulting the very people you'd like to play it!

Friday, June 05, 2009


I'm convinced that our Hungarian friend who took the Barbican by storm last night could play the socks, never mind the red leather trousers, off Znaider, Bell and Mutter combined. There's an image to get the imaginations working...

Sporting those trousers and a diamante-buckled belt, as if the trademark tache wasn't enough to let us know who he was, Roby Lakatos brought on his band, including some very young and phenomenally talented performers, just in front of the LSO. He played the first half unamplified, but what a massive sound he produces - vast and round and as rich as Hungarian venison stew with lashings of goose liver. (The pic is courtesy of the LSO, taken during the rehearsal - no trousers, at least not those ones...)

His cimbalom player, Jeno Lisztes, played his almost-namesake's Hungarian Rhapsody No.21 solo - the damn thing is hard enough when you use 10 fingers, but the cimbalom is rather like playing with two only, and with the notes in odd locations. The roof nearly blew off. One day I will have to share with you an account by Arthur Hartmann of the time Debussy tried to learn the cimbalom. It's priceless. Soon, I promise.

With the programme a mixed bag of lavish Gypsy virtuosity, a couple of solo spots for the orchestra (Strauss Zigeunerbaron Overture and Kodaly Dances of Galanta, well chosen and delicious), a few marvellous jazzy episodes rather a la Hot Club de Budapest, some unutterably incredible fiddle playing and a bit of commercial schlock (Fiddler on the Roof just didn't do it for me in this context, though I love the music), I anticipated an interesting mesh between the Hungarians and the LSO.

Much was more mush than mesh, though. The balance never worked when band & orchestra played together, even when Lakatos & co put on mics in the 2nd half, and I wonder if the very young conductor, Eva Ollikainen, could not perhaps have asked the orchestra to play a tad more quietly now and then. Most people I talked to were great LSO fans yet still wished the orchestra would just go home and give the floor to their guests, full stop.

But full marks of a different kind to the LSO's Maltese leader Carmine Lauri, whom Lakatos took centre stage to share the work that he dubbed, with extreme Hungarian charm, "CsardasMonti" as a duet. Dazzling stuff.

A lot of violinists in the audience were fanning themselves quite hard in the interval with their programmes. Can't blame them - it was a hot night for fiddlers. I hope my programme notes made sense...wrote them while really quite ill...and it is terrifying to walk into a hall and see the editor of Songlines reading your words (he is a Hungarian music expert, to put it mildly). Not sure, what became of the Leo Weiner Divertimento, which either didn't happen or didn't do so in remotely the way I'd anticipated. Suspect the latter.

With encore after encore, a third reprise of Hejre Kati ended the evening after a stunning, exhilarating and rather exhausting three hours. As one friend remarked, I think we all knew exactly what must have happened to Kati by then.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Lakatos is in town tonight!...

...with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican...and I've done their programme notes. Fun! :-) This also means that I finally get to see the guy play live, at long long last.

A bunch of friends are very excited about this too - how else do you get half the violinists of another orchestra to turn up to a concert on their night off? But I also have friends who dislike the commercial turn that Lakatos & co have taken. It depends how purist you want to be. I tend to think that sensational playing is sensational playing, and wonder how the orchestra will keep up with the guys in pieces like this: Cosma's music for Le grand blond (an otherwise forgettable thriller that happens to have a great score). Will report back tomorrow...

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sunny days...

John Metcalf's Endless Song, played there by Ivan Ilic, who is taking the stage at the Wigmore Hall for the first time tomorrow evening. If that isn't relaxing music for a sunny Sunday, I don't know what is. On the other hand, Ivan has a double who tends to turn up winning Wimbledon, so perhaps this is how he winds down before the contest begins.

Tomorrow Roger, um, Ivan, who is American/Serbian living in France, turns his attention to some thornier material, among it Brahms's transcription for left hand alone of the Bach Chaconne, the Chopin Polonaise-Fantaisie, some Debussy Preludes and a bunch of Godowsky's transcriptions of Chopin Etudes (but hey, if you've got it, flaunt it...). You might have caught him on R3's In Tune the other day.

Oh, and he sent me some chocolate from Bordeaux. And not just any old chocolate. This is Lindt, entitled 'A la pointe du Fleur de Sel' - honest, guv, it's choc laced with teeny flecks of sea salt. It is unbelievable. So much so that I am thinking of starting a chocolate blog, in case anybody invents anything even more unbelievable.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Cliburn blog - blimey...

The fur is flying in Fort Worth!

At least, a glance at the heated comments on the Van Cliburn Piano Competition blog shows that people still care about musical standards, musicality and unfair judgments... I haven't been following the contest this time, but am still surprised not only to hear that Lukas Vondracek was knocked out, but that he'd bothered to enter the thing at all. I love the bit in the comments where he suddenly pops up and tells one of the commentators that before she starts judging them all online he'd like to hear her play.

By the way, if any of you read one of my colleagues in the Indy blogs writing "in praise of piano competitions" in which he said that the stories you hear about the nasties are "mainly apocryphal" - no, they aren't. We just aren't allowed to print the bloody truth.

When Erich met Felix

It's Korngold's birthday, and here's an absolute gem of Korngoldiana. This one is Felixiana too - A Dream Comes True, the promotional trailer for Max Reinhardt's A Midsummer Night's Dream from 1936. Chronicling the making of what was then the most expensive film ever created in Hollywood - but careful not to include any of the actual Shakespeare in case it put off the audiences - it contains the only known film of Korngold playing the piano, lashings of Mendelssohn, rare footage of Max Reinhardt himself and the glittering of all the stars at the premiere...


Thursday, May 28, 2009

Felixcitations co-prod...

I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of the documentary on Mendelssohn that is to be the culmination of the series The Birth of British Music on BBC2 on Saturday. I've written about it on my Mendelssohn blog, and you can read the post here. Whether or not Mendelssohn really has anything whatsoever to do with British music, it's a darned good film, great fun and beautifully made, and there are no sporrans in sight, not even in Scotland.

I have just been informed by BBC Blogomaster that one of my fellow composer anniversary bloggers is planning to set off round Scotland dressed as Mendelssohn sometime in June and wants to swop composer blogs for a couple of weeks. As I am bored witless by his usual chap and have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject, and besides am planning to be soaking up a little Provencal sun at the time, I've offered him instead a simple carte blanche to guest-post on Felixcitatons. Poor dear fellow. I reckon that writing about early music for that long is liable to drive anybody a little bit bananas.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

RIP Nicholas Maw

Speaking of British music, one of the best contemporary British composers has just died: Nicholas Maw, whose legacy includes the gargantuan Odyssey and the flawed yet written-from-the-heart opera Sophie's Choice. Here is a fine tribute from Tom Service in The Guardian.

A sporran too far

On a morning like this - sun blazing, birds singing, cat purring - little old England looks gorgeous, even here under the Heathrow flight path. You start to understand what might have attracted three out of the four anniversary composers of 2009 to spend time here, ranging from a little (Haydn) to a lot ("Haendel"). And dear Felix too, wandering around Burnham Beeches with Miss Lind of a weekend.

But is that a good enough reason to have to watch Charlie, the BBC's classical music pet presenter, singing 'Auld Lang Syne' in a kilt, complete with close-up of sporran? If I hadn't just spent the whole of yesterday writing about Haydn, I might have given up. I did learn something new, though: apparently Haydn arranged around 400 Scottish folk songs to a commission from a publisher. Nice ££s. Waste of artistic time, though - just think, we could have had at least 3 more symphonies.

You can watch BBC2's series The Birth of British Music on the BBC iPlayer, here. At least, you can if you're in Britain. Of course I'm thrilled that four big-time composers have been featured on a mainstream BBC TV channel at prime-time, and, sporran or none, the programmes are beautifully made, filmed in the perfect locations and with the music generally well played. There's so little non-dumbed-down classical music on TV that the series is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Or I hope it is.

But...and I'm sticking my neck out here because I do have a BBC Big Four anniversary blog devoted to Mendelssohn, whom I roundly adore. But doesn't it seem the most extraordinary act of cultural arrogance to swoop in on four terrific composers who all have anniversaries this year and decree that what's special about them was that they were the founding fathers of British music? Purcell was the only Brit, and seems to have been a flash in the pan. Indeed, most of the best British music was written much earlier, by the Elizabethans. For Handel, it's a fair point - he did settle here, wrote more good and lasting stuff than any other Brit-based composer of his time, and got everybody singing. Haydn and Mendelssohn were feted to a fabulous degree, and of course deserved every second of that acclaim.

But as far as this country was concerned, these supercomposers had to be adopted as honorary Brits for one very simple reason: there were no decent British composers around. We had to grab the visitors instead.

Beyond encouraging the oratorio tradition (where did that go? Hiawatha? Gerontius? A Child of Our Time? and then... er...) what influence did Britain absorb from these distinguished visitors? What encouragement resulted from their visits for music here? What high-level schooling for musicians was initiated? What regard was granted to gifted composers? What support was made available to get them writing (OK, there's a Mendelssohn Scholarship Foundation, set up by Lind. That's another story, as you know. Anything else?) And where, oh where, were the crowds of eager, idealistic young composers clustering at the great men's feet desperate to absorb their lessons and form their own new musical worlds?

Let's face it: it was a very long time before any Brits began to write world-class music. They all had to fight against their Britishness in one way or another as their backgrounds were more of a hindrance than a help (with the possible exception of RVW who was fortuitously related to Darwin). Elgar was an aberration; so too, to some extent, was Britten. Delius fled to France. Walton was desperate not to have to go back to Oldham and wound up on Ischia. I don't hear much influence from any of the Big Anniversary Four in RVW, Walton, Britten or Coleridge-Taylor (this latter drew more on Dvorak, who did come here but doesn't happen to have an anniversary in 2009).

The 2009 Big Four's lasting influence in Britain is limited to the encouragement of choral singing, which of course is great and wonderful and to be much applauded. To suggest that they were responsible for 'the birth of British music', though, is contrived, insular and really rather daft. It doesn't give us the measure either of their real achievements or of what music in Britain was about then, before or since, and as nobody has mentioned the names William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons or Thomas Tallis (unless they did so after I switched off the programme about Purcell) - well, what can you do.

Four great composers on British soil...and the possibilities of real follow-up and true influence could have been so much greater. The opportunities were squandered, ignored or simply not spotted while the Brits got on with their usual hunting, shooting, fishing, drinking, not putting their daughters on the stage and making sure that nobody got ideas above their station. Other composers faced with British smog, soot, cold, rain, food and philistinism got out as fast as they could, especially poor old Chopin. But...ah, it's Chopin's anniversary next year. More then.

One more point before we open the floodgates: personally, I was born within the sound of Bow Bells, I love Britain and I think London is the greatest city on earth (OK, maybe second to Paris). And I am very fond of British music. That's why I feel so sad that there isn't more of it, why I wish that we had been a more musically productive country through the ages - which would have meant cultivating a more open-minded and less insular mentality - and why I tend to be sceptical about attempts to make more of British music than can rightly be made.

Next week: Mendelssohn hits prime-time Saturday night TV. Fasten your seatbelts.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Solti stars in Falstaff

The first Glyndebourne dress rehearsal of the season, it's Falstaff, and there are cats. Fuzzy ones, but they move. The dominant cat in Act I sits curled up on the bar, and lifts its head when Falstaff tickles its ears. Then gently washes its paws and puts its nose under its tail. Later, it gives someone a sharp nip - very authentic. And it's ginger and white, so it must be Solti! Is it computer-controlled? Or a glove puppet with well-concealed handler? I hasten to add, though, that kitty's presence is not gratuitous - Boito's Shakespeare-derived text carries more than a few feline images, and the cats are ever-present, watching and waiting...

It's bad luck (or something) to review dress rehearsals, so I'll say further only that the production, by Richard Jones, is set in the Forties, last year's Hansel and Gretel are now Meg and Nanetta, Vlad is conducting, the string sections in the pit have been significantly rearranged, the opera is the most f***ing incredible thing Verdi ever wrote in all his long life, and I loved every second of it.

And here's what it's like being an orchestral spouse on such an occasion.

2.30pm Arrive Glyndebourne from train, wheeling erratic new fold-up picnic table. Pitch camp in reasonably sheltered red-brick spot on the terraces because rain is forecast, despite bright sunshine. Tom has a cold and I have dregs of pleurisy, so we must be careful.

3pm Kaffee und kuche in the sun and the wind; walk round lake, marvelling at marvels. Glyndebourne is still there! Glyndebourne is real once again!

4.30pm show begins. From my seat I can see left side of stage. All significant action seems to happen on right, except for ginger cat. Everything sounds and looks wonderful, however, there's bonus of Solti lookalike, and I am amazed all over again that even after hanging out here every summer since 1997, I can still be entranced, absorbed and thrilled by whole damn thing.

6pm-ish Dinner interval. Tell Tom about cat. He's incredulous. Is it perchance really Solti, moonlighting?! We bolt down thermos of soup, supermarket felafel, Greek salad and vaguely nasty ready-canned version of Pimms (me, not Tom, who's got to concentrate) at fold-out table, wrapped in coats and scarves. 10 minutes later everything is gone. Wander to lawns and discover it's significantly warmer down there in the beautiful sunshine with views of green hills, lambikins in the field and a giant, incongruous horse's head sculpture on the grass beyond the ha-ha.

7.20pm We try to investigate train times for going home. There's an 8.50pm train and a 9.50. Nobody seems sure whether there is also a 9.20. Tom instructs me to run for it at the end so we can get early train.

7.30pm I look at cast list and wonder why I'd thought Christopher Purves was a Blue Peter presenter. I must have been iller than I realised.

7.40-ish Second half. Tip-off about a spare seat bang in middle of front row of stalls has sent me scurrying for it. Brilliant spot, but getting out fast at end will be difficult. Frantic gesturing from back of first violin section as Tom sees me and indicates relaxation, no need to run, there's a 9.20 train and we'll get that one. When orchestra begins, I am so close to the sound that I nearly hit the ceiling.

8.30ish conclusion. Shouts, cheers, laughter, delight. I'm high as a kite, but the pain in my side is back, I'm coughing & could use a pain-killer and some sleep.

8.35 I saunter to stage door. The staff minibus is about to leave and we could get on it. Nah, let's relax and get 9.20 train.

8.37 Minibus vanishes over hill. Then news arrives that 9.20 train is fictional and we must get the 9.50. Oh, say other violinists, never mind, let's go to the pub. We hit Glyndebourne staff pub. Halfway through drinks, announcement blares out that last transport for Lewes will leave front of house in 5 mins. We scarper. At front of house, bus is full. House manager assures us there'll be an extra minibus. Spats about whose fault it was that we missed train/came out of pub too early/thought there was a 9.20 train/thought there wouldn't be another bus.

9.15 Arrive Lewes station in minibus. 35 mins til train. Oh, say other violinists, never mind, let's go to the pub. We hit Lewes's Royal Oak pub. Alcohol and crisps flow. Group includes 2 French, a Bulgarian and a Hungarian. Everyone wants to know why a ha-ha is called a ha-ha. The two of us who are English have no idea. Three quarters through drinks, we realise train goes in 5 minutes and scarper.

9.50 Train arrives. Violinists unwrap Polish beer, cheap wine and some very smelly cheese. I keel quietly over in the corner, but these chaps are just getting going and it's only the first night of the season, and not even that because it's a dress rehearsal. Is this what Tom does all summer while I'm innocently scribbling away in my study?!?

11.30pm Arrive home to miaowing Solti, who says it wasn't him on stage, honest, guv, but he wants extra food prontissimo per favore, grazie molto. Wonder how cat has learned Italian.

Midnight. COLLAPSE.

UPDATE: And to get you in the mood, here's the absolutely unbelievably astonishing fugal finale, from Covent Garden starring Bryn Terfel et al:

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Two things to brighten a grey Saturday

First, mad props to Sequenza 21 for a virtuoso tweet feat: IF ALMA MAHLER HAD TWITTERED... If I had an aisle, I'd be rolling in it.

Next, slightly more sober but no less delightful, one for both the Dead Violinists Society and the Hungarian Fix Club: Szigeti plays Hubay's 'The Zephyr', recorded *96 years ago* in 1913, when Szigeti would have been 21 years old. The YouTube poster has included some excellent info about both Hubay and Szigeti, too.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Classical Brits...

Everyone has been reporting on the Classical Brits, but I was at home, coughing, so I refer you to Opera Chic, who has some cool pics of JONAS KAUFMANN (I really AM jealous) as well as Katherine Jenkins holding a fan (no, not that kind of fan - the fluttery, Carmeny kind), Lang Lang with Herbie Hancock (or Herbie Hancock with Lang Lang, depending), Darcy Bussell with KJ (ditto - Darcy is the willowy one) and more, her award for Best Hair going to...Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. Hmm.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


The #operplot results are out, and yrs truly gets a prize, with two winning entries among the top seven.

The full list is up at The Omniscient Mussel now; the winners aren't ranked, but we've been asked to choose our prizes in a random order determined by a Twitter volunteer.

The standard of entries was absolutely astronomical and star judge Danielle de Niese really had her work cut out. She and Miss Mussel deserve very big cups of hot chocolate!

So mine were:

Here’s my castle. Are you afraid? No, I’m going to open all those damn doors! Are you afraid? No, let me in! Who’s that? Oh shit. [Bluebeard]

Dear Don, 1003 women in Spain alone is too many. You’ll be in deep shit when my dad’s ghost gets to you. Go to hell. Love, Anna [Don Giovanni]

I'm tickled pink!!! And rather pleased that it was Duke Bluebeard's Castle and Don Giovanni that made the top list. Bluebeard is extra-special since my Hungarian stuff surfaced, and as for Don Giovanni, I'll never forget the time Tom was in the on-stage band in Graham Vick's very odd production at Glyndebourne...though I won't forget the dead horse either.

My prize is the English National Opera offering: a box for Cosi fan Mr Kiarostami's production, as reported the other day.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Birthday tribute for Fauré

Today is Fauré's birthday and a quick trawl for a suitable present turned up the following astonishing short film from Emile Vuillermoz, made in 1936 - from the same series as the Szymanowski Fontaine d'Arethuse movie we posted a little while ago.

The great French soprano Ninon Vallin (1886-1961) sings Fauré's early mélodie 'Les Berceaux'. The song's narrative of seafarers facing danger while their families left behind is gently yet powerfully visualised.

Happy birthday to 'The Archangel'!

Monday, May 11, 2009

"Could I speak to Mr Heifetz?"

This is priceless...tough love, or something, but certainly proves that Mr H neither minced his words nor lacked a rather deadpan sense of humour. Mad props to ace violinist Philippe Quint for the link.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Solti's Radio 3 debut

Back for a moment - have spent most of day on sofa lapping up R3 Mendelssohn weekend (well, lapping up some of it, and spending the rest thinking about what I would have done differently. I'd have got rid of the creaky stuff on the Early Music Show, which was neither by Felix nor very Felixcitatious, and I'd have encouraged Ivan and Harriet to be less polite about a certain violinist on CD Review).

As I've been behind on Mendelssohn blogging, I decided to catch up by discussing a few tasty tidbits. "FELIX HELPS CHOIRS PROVE THAT THEY ARE THE CAT'S WHISKERS" had arrived from Derbyshire re the Wings project (if you haven't clocked this yet, it's aiming to get massed choirs up and down the country singing 'O for the Wings of a Dove' simultaneously - a sort of Mendelssohnian human chain which may or may not benefit the karma of the planet). Suddenly Blogomaster requested a picture of my cat as illustration.

So Solti is making his Radio 3 blogosphere debut - breaking the unwritten blogosphere rule that you should only post pictures of your cat when he is sitting next to your newly published book (and only post pics of book when accompanied by cute feline).

Friday, May 08, 2009


Apparently I've got pleurisy, so I've had to miss all kinds of wonderful stuff this week. Apologies for absence. At home taking antibiotics and pain-killers. Back in the blogosphere asap.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Sorry state?

Distressing news from English National Opera of a type that's becoming worrying familiar. The Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami was supposed to be coming to London to stage his production of Cosi fan tutte, first seen at the Aix-en-Provence Festival last year, for the company. He has just pulled out - due to UK visa trouble. His British associate producer Elaine Tyler-Hall will take over.

ENO tells me this:

* He found the whole process unduly time consuming and hugely complicated.
* He does not feel he was treated in a respectful way.
* He works freely in both France and Italy and doesn't have these problems to get there.
* The Ambassador did try and intervene at the last minute but by this stage Abbas wasn't prepared to pursue the matter any further.

It takes approximately 30 seconds on Google - hardly rocket science - to discover what a distinguished guy this is. Controversial, influential, the most, alive, all the adjectives are there. He's 68. He was a leading figure in the Iranian New Wave movement in cinema of the 1960s. He's directed more than 40 films and won the Palme d'Or in Cannes for Taste of Cherry. Books have been written about him. 'Could there be a more startling, or intriguing, choice of director for Mozart's Cosi fan tutte?' said The Guardian last year.

Opera Chic had pictures of the production last year, along with the information that he has been refused a visa to the USA before now. But imagine if the petty officialdom in visa-land had decided to treat Ingmar Bergman like filth just because he was Swedish.

Kiarostami has commented: 'I would like to thank John Berry and the rest of the crew at ENO for the understanding and support they have shown in this very complicated but delicate situation. They respected my position and my principles in spite of the obvious fact that it was putting them in a very precarious and disagreeable position. I have to confess that this gives me hope; the world is still a livable place malgre tout....'

The UK hasn't been good at keeping out the real hate-monger extremists in the past, but for the visa system to make life or entry to the UK horrible or impossible for great artists, as they increasingly do (see Sokolov incident), let alone leaving them feeling they are treated 'not in a respectful way', is lamentable, inexcusable and makes me more than slightly ashamed of this little island. It's a sorry state of affairs, in which the state is not sorry.

Having so said, the reviews in Aix were not exactly outright raves - far from it. But that's not the point...

UPDATE: More on the story, from The Independent.

Concert, not catwalk

I have a rather angry piece in the Indy today about the way that the pressure on young female musicians to look good as well as sounding good has gone too far. Here's the Director's Cut. (By the way, I love Sarah, but if you look in the pages of the Indy at articles by Other People, you might stumble upon one of the musicians I had in mind.)

Sarah Chang is resplendent in front of the mirror at the Kruszynska boutique in Knightsbridge. She’s popped in for a concert gown fitting and has donned a fairytale creation of delicate pink and green lace over ivory silk. It’s perfect for Mozart and it looks stunning.

But maybe it is also symptomatic of the way that classical music’s female stars have collided with popular culture. A woman musician can play wonderfully and she can also look good – but what exactly is the top priority these days? The case of Susan Boyle has of course brought this issue into the headlines on an even wider scale.

Half a century ago, most female musicians did not care about their appearance: what mattered was how they sounded. Indeed, a ‘high priestess’ attitude seemed positively encouraged; anything visual was downplayed so that the music could sing out unimpeded.

In the 1940s, the pianist Dame Myra Hess always wore a plain black dress for her concerts. The late Rosalyn Tureck, famed for her Bach, was not amused when a press photographer captured an image of her, in her twenties, focusing on her legs. The Australian pianist Eileen Joyce (who plays Rachmaninov on the soundtrack of the movie Brief Encounter) enjoyed coordinating her dresses with the music she was playing, often changing gown between pieces; then, it caused amusement. Now, though, it’s de rigeur.

Chang, 28, adores high fashion and heels, but insists that her concert clothes shouldn’t be a distraction. “They must be repertoire-appropriate,” she tells me. “When I need a dress for the Brahms Concerto it must be substantial and robust, but if I’m doing a big Carmen concert the dress can be red and hot and fun.”

But has the pressure on young women musicians to look like supermodels gone too far? After all, these women have spent most of their lives practising their instruments for long, lonely hours, devoting themselves tirelessly to the interpretation of great music, making huge personal sacrifices and struggling for recognition. Then they’re judged on how they look. This is patently daft.

Of course the male musicians have worked equally hard, but men of comparable talent can simply don a tux or tails, pop on their glasses, brush a few strands of hair over the bald patch and stride on to a stage without worrying that they don’t look as if they’ve stepped off the pages of a glossy magazine. The music industry loves men who look good, but it’s not a prerequisite for a career. For 21st century women soloists, it seems that a gift for music is just not enough.

Female singers can get away with being overweight – a spare tyre supports the voice. But when did you last see in the world’s top concert halls a woman violin soloist plumper than a size ten, or a bat-winged female pianist under the age of 60? Yet some of today’s greatest musicians are seriously unphotogenic men. Grigory Sokolov, among the finest pianists on earth, is the shape of a Siberian bear. Even Nigel Kennedy is no oil painting. Would women with the equivalent in talent and looks have had the opportunities to shine? We’ll never know, but the speculation is sobering.

Some female musicians might have poorer careers if it were not for their physical beauty. This sounds frivolous, but there’s a darker aspect to it. I’ve attended music festivals (usually run by men) at which the women performers have all been not only gifted but also young, willowy and grateful for concerts. I’ve met female would-be soloists whose hopes of concert engagements following auditions have been dashed when they refused to do certain things beyond playing the music. And I’ve heard interpretations of great concertos by a few well-established women who look fabulous and whose images have been plastered over every music magazine, yet whose questionable musicianship has left me infuriated and incredulous.

To add insult to injury, some of the stuffier critics seem automatically to take against glamorously dressed female soloists. That’s equally iniquitous, because in some cases these musicians really are fabulous, yet find themselves presumed frivolous – again, judged for appearance, not expertise. In that sense, women in music just can’t win: damned by one set of people if they don’t look good, damned by another if they do.

Chang is fortunate: she has it all. But spare a thought for the undiscovered Susan Boyles of classical music who may never be noticed in a world in which the core values have become dangerously and often destructively skewed.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

More #operaplot entries...

In case you were wondering. And yes, I should be working.

#operaplot Love potion...Tristan! Isolde! Isolde! Tristan! Trisolde! Isotan! We're one! Marc! Melot! Ouch! Schopenhauer! Nirvana!

#operaplot He doesn't love me! And he shot his best friend. Wish I hadn't written that letter. I'll marry a prince. Now he loves me? Tough.

#operaplot Cards say death is her lot, but she never loses the plot. She shags Don Jose, then runs away; is she asking for trouble or not?

#operaplot Husband goes to party instead of prison after mix-up with a bat. Wife turns Hungarian to get him back. Blame the champers.

#operaplot Dear Don, 1003 women in Spain alone is too many. You'll be in deep shit when my dad's ghost gets to you. Go to hell. Love, Anna

[UPDATE: Sunday morning. *sigh*...]

#operaplot Therewasagirloftheregiment/ whoseauntieprovedanimpediment/ Shetookheraway,butcalleditaday/ whenToniosaid 'you'rehermum,youmeant'


There's a super article by Michael Haas, brains behind old-Decca's Entartete Musik series, at the OREL Foundation's website. Entitled 'The Challenges Ahead', it explores the problems of perception that surround Schoenberg's lesser-known contemporaries and suggests that we haven't yet learned to recognise individual voices for what they are. He also surveys briefly the impact of 20th-century totalitarian regimes on the music of the day, and on its audiences.

...Confronted with new yet familiar sounding music that is clearly moving away from tonality, artists instinctively refer to the “gold–standard” of Schoenberg and thus assume, for example, that Egon Wellesz and Hanns Eisler must have been less talented Bergs and Weberns, or that Ernst Krenek's twelve–tone opera Karl V was most likely a 'poor man's' Lulu. Few take the time to ponder what these composers did differently and why they felt compelled to modify Schoenberg's ideas. For the listener who demands challenging repertoire, there is still much that remains unexplored. All of these composers, along with several others, did indeed feel that music's progress would inevitably lead away from traditional tonality. Whether their music was the result of haphazard ideas or consisted of scrupulously mapped out serialism or diatonic–sounding serialism — reflecting Eisler's ambition to write “twelve–tone music for the common man” — it becomes apparent that the Second Viennese School offered more than just Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alban Berg. In other words, when we listen to the music of Hanns Eisler, Ernst Krenek or Egon Wellesz, the issue should not be how they are similar to Schoenberg but rather in what ways they differ from him.

Friday, May 01, 2009

IMG Artists boss pleads guilty to fraud. The rest of us tweet operaplots

Jeeeeeez. Anybody think this one deserves a government bailout?

Drew McManus had the story in Adaptistration a couple of weeks ago (when I was down with flu, swine, critics or otherwise) and offers some interesting thoughts on implications for the music business and fees therein.

Meanwhile Norman Lebrecht, who reports on all that in Bloomberg News, is also busy contributing to the deluge of #operaplot entries over at Twitter. Hey, Norman, I thought you weren't supposed to say which opera the plot relates to...

Don't miss the fun! You can find all the entries by doing a search on #operaplot on the Twitter site. UPDATE: The limit was originally 10 per Twitterer, but Miss Omniscient Mussel has just thrown that out and now tweets that we can enter as many as we like. Get creating, folks!

Here are JDCMB's contributions so far. Since I tweeted these, others have started not only squeezing the plots into 140 characters but also turning them into limericks, which I haven't yet tried...

#operaplot Count <3 maid, valet <3 maid, countess <3 count, cherubino <3 everyone. Flowerpot broken, pin lost, chaos, remorse, love we hope.

#operaplot I can sing best. No you can't. Yes I can, cos shoemaker says so, and you're a nasty critic. And I'm GERMAN. Eva's in paradise :-)

#operaplot so why shouldn't I have a toyboy? whaddyamean he'll leave me for a younger model? Go gracefully, me?! Oh heck. Where's the tenor?

#operaplot Help, the snake will kill me! why are you dressed as a bird? OMG I'm in love. Nightmare mother-in-law. Let's find enlightenment.

#operaplot Here's my castle. Are you afraid? No, I'm going to open all those damn doors! Are you afraid? No, let me in! Who's that? Oh shit.

#operaplot Marie's dead. Marietta's alive. Paul thinks Marietta is Marie. Paul has dream. Paul doesn't murder anyone really. Bye-bye Bruges.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Villazon in surgery

Stop press - Rolando Villazon is off for surgery on a cyst on his larynx. Werther in Vienna this May will need a new tenor and forthcoming appearances in Berlin and Hamburg are off. Owch.

A second-hand report from the London International Piano Competition

Meet Bezhod Abduraimov, 18-year-old Uzbekistani winner last night of the London International Piano Competition. A little internet research tells us, among other things, that he has been scooping prizes left, right and centre recently and is studying in Kansas City with Stanislav Ioudenitch.

Alessandro Taverna of Italy won second prize and Andrejs Osokins of Latvia third. I wasn't there (went instead to the Wigmore to hear Razumovsky Ensemble with Philippe and Claire playing Faure G min Piano Quartet, and very wonderful it was), but Tom was playing in the orchestra and arrived home rather excited.

Abduraimov, he says, got a standing ovation for his Prokofiev 3 - for those of you overseas, this is very unusual at the Royal Festival Hall - and seemed "the business". He tells me this: "He had a wonderful attitude from the start - at the rehearsals he seemed very relaxed and was looking forward to the concert. Everything sounded and felt right." And ultimately: "He was amazing!" A friend who attended tells me exactly the same thing.

I found this interview with him in Star Magazine of Kansas City, where he was featured as an 'Emerging Artist' of 2008:



The first thing to get past is the pronunciation of his name.

After that, Behzod Abduraimov seems like any other good-natured 17-year-old. He has a quick wit, an infectious laugh and dark eyes that burn with intensity.

But BECH-zod (with a mildly guttural “ch”) Ab-du-ra-EE-moff is no ordinary kid. He’s one of the most remarkable pianists of his generation.

The Uzbekistan native has been performing on the stage since elementary school.

He’s performed the Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1 with orchestra “like 20 times.”

In recent weeks he sailed to easy victories at two competitions in Texas, most notably the Corpus Christi International Piano Competition.

He could have studied with any teacher in the world but instead of Juilliard or Berlin he decided to study at Park University with Van Cliburn gold medalist and Park professor Stanislav Ioudenitch.

“My whole family played piano,” says the Tashkent native and undergraduate, who learned English lickety-split after arriving here a little more than a year ago.

His family is Muslim, like 88 percent of Uzbekistanis. His mother, Gulsun, taught him and his three siblings piano, starting Behzod at age 5.

His father, Abdurazzak, was a physicist who taught at the university in Tashkent and invented a car that ran on oxygen.

When Behzod was 10, his father died suddenly of a heart attack.

His 11th birthday was on Sept. 11, 2001.

His mother had prepared the traditional lamb pilaf for his birthday dinner. His sister came home suddenly, upset: “Turn on the TV.” The fall of the World Trade Center put a pall on dinner.

There were other twists along the way. He suffered severe food allergies from birth, which caused his skin to break out in oozing rashes for years.

“You can see it in videos of me then. I looked like Quasimodo.”

The reaction was treated successfully, finally, by an herbalist who prescribed a Tibetan herb. Behzod still takes it daily.

He remains a faithful Muslim, praying twice a day and practicing around the clock in the piano studios beneath Park’s Graham Tyler Memorial Chapel.

“Now I’m 17, and it’s time to work.”

His goal is “to show what a composer wanted to say through his music.”

He came to Ioudenitch after a lesson he took with him in Lake Cuomo, Italy. “He found so many interesting things just in the first page,” he says.

Ioudenitch wanted him as a student the minute he heard him play.

“There are millions of performers, good performers with wonderful technique, but not every one communicates this energy,” Ioudenitch says. “Besides his great technique, he really communicates. He has his own ‘face.’ ”

Behzod’s hobbies include Internet video games. He can’t wait for “Grand Theft Auto IV,” which takes place in the city he hopes to live in some day: New York.

“You feel like you’re free in the city to do anything you want,” he says of the game’s therapeutic value.

And 10 years from now?

“I hope I can be a pianist. Not just any pianist. A pianist people need, who can give people something incredible — who can make people happy.”

He will be back to play a concerto with the LPO - always part of the LIPC prize roster - so I shall look forward to hearing him then.

Meanwhile I'd better call the friend I saw on the train into town last night and explain that when I said Tom was playing in a piano competition, I didn't mean he was playing the piano...

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Zimerman at 19 plays Chopin Concerto no. 1

Just found on Youtube. Teenaged Z with Krakow University Orchestra under Jan Krenz, recorded in 1976. This is the slow movement - the rest is out there too. It's the most sublime Chopin I've ever heard, and I've heard quite a lot.

Walt Handelsman 'Worst Side Story'

Apropos de USA, enjoy this 'recession singalong' of a West Side Story remix from award-winning (and marvellously named) Walt Handelsman of Newsday...

Monday, April 27, 2009

Zimerman causes furore with political statements in Disney Hall

Massive fuss in LA after Krystian Zimerman used his recital debut at the Walt Disney Hall to criticise America's foreign policy and to declare that he will never play in the USA again.

About 30 or 40 people in the audience walked out, some shouting obscenities. “Yes,” he answered, “some people when they hear the word military start marching.”

Others remained but booed or yelled for him to shut up and play the piano. But many more cheered. Zimerman responded by saying that America has far finer things to export than the military, and he thanked those who support democracy.

There will always be those who tell musicians to shut up and play their music, including, sometimes, other musicians. Including even Opera Chic, who surprises me by doing so.

Also a lot of people don't have much clue about why America's effect on Poland should be an issue right now. I suggest reading up here (summary: Poland rushes into Iraq on America's exhortation when Germany said no way Jose) - and there's the small matter of America's plans to install a missile defence shield on Polish soil, which many Poles regard as effectively a military occupation and a potential provocation to Russia. Not to mention the economic fallout from America in Poland, for which please refer to Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine...

It sounds as if Krystian had plenty of support. If the world's leading musicians don't make a stand, then who will? I applaud his actions wholeheartedly, and only wish he'd done it a few years earlier.

If any Americans are wondering what they're missing by losing Krystian, just have a look at this review from Seattle which appeared the other day. Update: and this one from the LA concert itself.

Or simply watch this.

As for the various people who are saying "nobody cares what artists think" - that's not correct. They do. Otherwise there wouldn't be so much fuss.

And yes, I'd be pretty cross too if some idiot pulled my Steinway Model D to pieces because the glue smelled funny.

UPDATE, Tuesday 2.20pm: Responses to Zimerman in the press are starting to filter through, so I will update this post as and when, rather than adding extra posts. Here is the first: excellent piece by Tom Service, the Guardian's classical music blogger, saying Zimerman did The Right Thing.

Tuesday, 4pm: Editorial from The Los Angeles Times

Wednesday: Shirin Sadeghi in The Huffington Post: "In this age of vapid celebrity personalities who gurgle amidst a significant burgeoning of global political consciousness, too few of the high profile artists of our world offer anything in the way of honest political awareness. Krystian Zimerman is an exception to be admired. "

And an editorial in The Guardian (the one British newspaper whose editor is an accomplished pianist himself): "Poland has a heritage of patriotic and political pianists that stretches from Chopin himself through the nation's virtuoso post-first-world-war prime minister Jan Paderewski. To that tradition, now add Krystian Zimerman, an exceptional musician - and more."

UPDATE: Fellow piano glory Stephen Hough in the Telegraph blogs on moral decisions re concerts, from Sars to swine flu to this.

UPDATE weekend: my boss in the Independent, headed 'The pianist doth protest too much'. I foresee some discussions when next we meet.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

One thing you won't hear in the UK this week

Vladimir Sofronitsky plays Scriabin's Etude in C sharp minor Op.42 No.5, recorded live in Moscow in 1960. You won't hear playing like this anywhere.

The joy of olbas pastilles

It's Sunday, I am still coughing fit to bust and I still feel c**p. Meanwhile every PR in town is on at me about Please Blog About Our Concert. All right already. Not that I'm behind on paid work after my flu, not that I feel comfortable about coughing my head off through the whole damn lot, but there is certainly plenty good stuff going on this week and if I were superhuman I would go to absolutely everything, but as things are I am just going to cheer on my friends and carry out my pre-concert talk engagement for as long as my olbas pastilles hold out.

Wigmore Hall, 7.30pm: Piers Lane piano recital with Chopin Preludes.

Kings Place, 6.30pm: Philippe Graffin, Claire Desert and soprano Susanne Teufel with 19th-century violin music that shares inspiration with songs, eg Schubert Fantasie in C, Brahms G major sonata with Regenlied and Strauss's Morgen.

Barbican, 7.30pm: Lang Lang solo piano recital. No link, because it's sold out. I recommend either of the above events as a preferable alternative.

TOMORROW & ALL WEEK, 27 April to 2 May
Kings Place: Faure Festival with the Schubert Ensemble of London led by William Howard. As I have mentioned before, Faure is like a London bus: nothing for months, then masses all at once. And this really is masses.

Wigmore Hall, 7.30pm: Philippe and Claire are back, this time with the Razumovsky Ensemble, programme to include works by Ravel, Saint-Saens and the Faure G minor Piano Quartet. See what I mean about the buses?

Royal Festival Hall, 7pm: grand final of the London International Piano Competition. I don't bet on music competitions, as you can imagine, but my money would be on Sasha Grynyuk.

(UPDATE, Monday afternoon: well, Grynyuk didn't make the final. Tom came back from rehearsal today reporting that the standard is astronomical this time; he's hugely impressed with the Latvian candidate, Andrejs Osokins, who's playing Liszt 1. Other 2 finalists are Alessandro Taverna (Italian with cheekbones, Chopin 1) and Behzod Abduraimov (about 18, from Uzbekistan, Prok 3).

Royal Festival Hall, 7.30pm: Angela Hewitt plays the Goldberg Variations. I am interviewing her on stage before the show, 6.15pm.

Cadogan Hall: Tasmin Little plays the rare and precious Karlowicz violin concerto for Polish dignitaries to launch a festival of Polish culture entitled POLSKA! Not a public event, though.

606 Club: superjazzer Gilad Atzmon is joined by special guest Nigel Kennedy in a London Concert for Medical Aid for Palestinians. Thanks to my pal LondonJazz for this one.

Bridgewater Hall, Manchester: Natalie Clein and Kathryn Stott give a cello & piano recital, including the world premiere of a new piece for solo cello that Natalie commissioned from Fyfe Dangerfield of The Guillemots.

Thanks for the halo, folks, and please allow me to go back to my steam bowl now.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

And Decca is being...

RESTRUCTURED. Oh yes, it's not dead, it's just being restructured.

Effectively, there's not much of it left, though it will have a good London figurehead in the form of none other than our friend Paul Moseley, proud owner of Onyx (which he will continue to own). Gramophone has the full story, explaining that Decca is essentially ceasing to be a British-based entity since the backroom stuff is all being merged with DG's operations in Hamburg. The Decca staff as such are being reduced from 20 to 6.

It also points out a certain gentle irony in Paul's appointment: "Moseley is a former Decca executive, though in 2005 founded Onyx Classics, which offers greater flexibility to artists in their relationship with the label – including the artist being able to retain the rights to the recording. Since its launch, it has provided something of a welcome refuge for artists who have found themselves without contracts with the majors (including a few from Decca itself!)."

Furthermore: "The Universal Classics and Jazz label, which focuses on cross-over repertoire, will now also be called Decca, but with different styling – employing the old black logo, as opposed to Decca's newer blue and red. Crossover activities are described as being “organisationally separate” from Decca’s core classical output."

Last but not least, Matthew Cosgrove is going to run Onyx for Paul. Matthew used to be top dog at Warner Classics, then went to Hamburg to run, er, DG.

I'm fond of these guys - they are bright, clever, musical and knowledgeable and they've all done excellent work. Yet, staring out into the spring sunshine, I can see Solti (the cat) in the garden chasing his own tail, and I wonder why it feels like an appropriate comment on the state of the record industry at large...?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

#operaplot rides again!

If you missed it last time, here's your chance: the estimable Omniscient Mussel is running another #operaplot competition via Twitter, this time with prizes in the form of tickets donated by some 20 of the world's best opera houses, and with Danielle de Niese as star judge.

All you need to do is tweet an opera plot in 140 characters with the tag #operaplot between 9am on 27 April and midnight on 3 May. Rules & regs here.

"Opera is drama, so it seemed only right that the contest be re-imagined on a more epic scale," Miss Mussel comments. "Tickets felt like the right prize because while DVDs and CDs are great, opera is all about the live theatre experience."

Oh for some teeth

A few strips of an article I wrote about corruption in music competitions have made it into the Indy today. Most of the piece didn't.

The original would have made your hair stand on end, then curl laughing. The lawyers weren't having it, though. It was all true, nonetheless - I mean, you just couldn't make this stuff up.

Let me tell it like it is: most music competitions *suck*. The outrage they cause among the hapless people they manipulate is phenomenal. The barefaced cheek of certain individuals' behaviour leaves me gasping for adequate words. The psychological damage to gifted young competitors is immeasurable. The public is being cheated - they think that the finest young musicians in the world are being found for them - oh, if only. Yes, a lot of the stories are very funny (the funniest having, of course, been excised from print). And I would laugh harder if they didn't also make me cry.

Nobody has been able to do anything serious to remedy corruption in competitions, for fear of lawsuits. Even if the accusations are true. We have all been rendered toothless.

The various stylistic infelicities in the piece, by the way, are the result of the lawyers' red pen and do not appear in my original. Besides, I never put in the line saying that competitions are one of the best arenas for star-spotting available to whoeveritis. Indeed, I think my actual words were 'please excuse me while I slip out the back way'. As for "Further, there is a juror who adjudicates at contests all over the world and some successful candidates among his students apparently go home wondering what has become of their prize money" - no, they don't. They know exactly where it is, they just pretend, when people ask them, that they don't. My words were that they go home 'slightly cagey about' what has happened to it...

Here's the Facebook group that is mentioned in the piece. And here is a cool petition to sign.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Hungarian Dances at Fiddles on Fire, Kings Place

As the line goes in Shakespeare in Love: "It'll be all right." "How?" "I don't know, it's a mystery." After a day of fully expecting that I would a) lose my voice completely, b) faint, c) both, the concert went wonderfully and a voice came along from somewhere, though I'm not sure it was actually mine. ?! An actress friend informs me that 'adrenalin kills all known germs'. She's right. How? It's a mystery.

But over to Philippe Graffin and Claire Desert: the music was what mattered, and they were *amazing*. If you haven't heard them before, I'd like to invite you over to the 'Listen' page of the Hungarian Dances website where you can hear them play Tzigane and the first of the Bartok Romanian Dances.

Left, the London team after the show - Tom, me, Philippe & Claire in the foyer at Kings Place.

Huge, huge thanks to everybody involved in this delicious treat of a project, to the Folkworks team for making it happen at all, to The Sage Gateshead and Kings Place London, to everyone who turned out and cheered us on, and to both my beloved teams of musicians!

Now I am going straight back to bed.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Richard Nixon: the piano concerto

Thanks to Daniel Finkelstein in The Times for discovering this little gem on Youtube. He asks 'Is this the most ridiculous political video ever?'

Of course, other American politicians have played the joanna too. A few years back, Tom's orchestra was booked for a recording that was marked Top Secret. OMG. Nobody was allowed to know what it was, so very special was it to be... Some opportunists in the band decided to have some fun and put it about that this recording was to be none other than Condoleeza Rice in Mozart piano concertos. Blood pressure levels instantly soared, there were whispers and growls in the ranks and it was only when protest delegations to the directorate and the Musicians' Union were being planned that the perpetrators said: 'Only kidding!'

The recording was actually a nice opera singer singing nice operatic arias very beautifully, so goodness knows what all the fuss was about.

Kings Place concert is tonight, and I'm still coughing. Please excuse me while I go back to my steam bowl.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Let's hear it for the NYO

Lack of print space (I guess) has meant that essentially I've written not one but two pieces about the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, which takes over the day after the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela at the RFH, on Sunday. A tall order, perhaps, but they deserve celebration. They may not be Latin American, but they have their own function to fulfil, and do so with vast flair and passion. (PS: I am seriously p***ed off that I'm missing the entire Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra visit. I've had such a vile flu that today is the first day I've been able to stand up since Monday, and of course our concert on Saturday finishes just 15 mins before theirs begins, on the other side of town. So you will have to look elsewhere for reports on how the week-long residency went.)

Here's the piece that came out in the Indy today. Written after our visit to the band in Durham last Friday.

And here is the piece I wrote before that, including interviews with a couple of the youngsters and the director.

Look out, London: the Venezuelans are coming! The Símon Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela and its conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, have set the musical world ablaze. Its parent organisation, El Sistema, has proved how music can effect societal transformation, plucking children out of the slums, teaching them to play instruments, providing them with new hope for the future. And on stage they’re dynamite. They’re hot, they’re Latin, and they’re on their way here for a week-long residency at the Royal Festival Hall.

The evening after their final London concert, however, you can hear another youth orchestra – very different, yet also overflowing with the palpable thrill of making music. This is the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, founded back in 1948 and still going more than strong.

But El Sistema has had a seismic effect on attitudes to what youth orchestras can achieve, and the NYO’s traditional, goal-centred modus operandi could be in the firing line. Are the Venezuelans galvanising Britain’s top youth orchestra into significant change?

When I was a music student, we all looked up with awe to anyone who had won a place in the mighty NYO. Highly competitive, it accepted the crème-de-la-crème of British talent. Many alumni have found their way to stardom: Sir Simon Rattle, Sir Mark Elder, the composers Judith Weir and Thomas Adès, the trumpeter Alison Balsom, the cellist Guy Johnston – the list could go on and on.

All of this remains true today, but change is in the air. For one thing, the forthcoming Royal Festival Hall performance is, incredibly enough, the first time the NYO has played at London’s premier concert hall for 18 years. This in itself might be a sign that perhaps it was time for the orchestra to take a fresh view on what it does, where and how.

The NYO consists of 160 young musicians aged 13 to 19, Grade VIII standard and upwards, each of whom usually stays for around three years. Budding composers, too, are accepted and encouraged. Top conductors grace its podium – recently Antonio Pappano, Vassily Petrenko and, this Easter, Paul Daniel – and in three intensive residential courses per year in the school holidays the youngsters work hard with these international figures at producing top-notch performances. For most of them, it’s a first taste of what life in a professional orchestra is like, and a chance for close encounters with such seminal works as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Messiaen’s Turangalîla or the gargantuan symphonies of Mahler.

That used to be its whole raison d’être. But, as the orchestra’s recently appointed director, Sarah Alexander, puts it: “I found an incredible vitality here, but it wasn’t really getting out into the world. Now I’m trying to join the NYO to the rest of the world by focusing on how this can be the most inspirational orchestra for young musicians. That raises all sorts of questions.” In other words, it’s no longer enough for the NYO to retreat to rural surroundings for rarified rehearsal: they have to get out there and start communicating their passion and dedication at grassroots level.

She has changed the orchestra’s imagery and presentation language, with ‘vernacular’ programme notes and plenty of opportunities for the members to make their voices heard, and introduced a raft of new associations and residencies. Two are with The Sage, Gateshead, and the Northern Sinfonia, whose principals come in to coach the students; another has begun in London at Southbank Centre. They aim to build up relationships with audiences and younger students, such as The Sage’s Young Sinfonia, for children around Grade VI-VII standard, who might find in the NYO the inspiration to keep their musical efforts going.

Now, instead of only tackling works that allow all 160 members to be on stage together, the orchestra often divides into smaller ensembles to explore contemporary pieces, improvisation and more. The residential courses have begun to feature not only rehearsals, but group work on rhythm, performances by visiting artists and even dance workshops to enhance understanding of pieces such as Ravel’s La Valse. Melanie Rothman, 17, the orchestra’s principal oboe, attended last year’s waltz workshop: “At first some people were quite scared,” she laughs, “but we all really got into it. On the way to the rehearsal afterwards we were dancing around in the road!” Now they’re about to attempt the tango, in preparation for a suite from Thomas Adès’s opera Powder Her Face.

Sarah Alexander is eager to emphasise that most of the players are not from privileged backgrounds: only 3.8 per cent currently attend non-specialist fee-paying schools with no bursary. Overall 32 per cent are at state schools, 30 per cent at specialist music schools and 38 per cent at fee-paying schools, the vast majority of those with music scholarships. It is not so much ‘elitist’ as meritocratic, selecting its members solely by their playing standard, with an average of four applications for every place available.

But the SBYOV youngsters mostly started out in dire poverty. That orchestra literally changes lives. How comparable can the NYO really become? “We have to be clear about our own capacity,” Alexander agrees. “We take 160 people from all over the country, but we haven’t the capacity to go into every primary school in the UK giving the kids instruments, unlike El Sistema in Venezuela. What we can do is advocate the need for that to happen; and we are looking at what our role should be in relation to that grassroots work.” Therefore young people can buy NYO concert tickets for just £5; projects bring local young players to meet the students at their courses; and Alexander wants to develop a sense that the orchestra is a “national team” by programming significant pieces of British contemporary music by composers such as George Benjamin and Thomas Adès.

Michael Foyle, 17, the NYO’s leader – a hugely talented violinist who nevertheless reached the final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year as a pianist – has no doubt about what makes the NYO so special. “Everyone arrives with this unbridled enthusiasm, and when we’re all together, the energy is quite exceptional,” he says. “And because we’re all striving to make the concerts the best they can be, there’s an incredible discipline and focus at the rehearsals.” The combination of those two factors, he feels, is what brings such inspiring results.

The NYO can’t become El Sistema, but it can be inspired by what it stands for. “I think the link between the two orchestras is that we are all so into the music,” Melanie Rothman comments. “Perhaps because they don’t have much else where they come from, they throw their whole selves into it. They don’t play one note without all the feeling they can possibly give.”

So the Venezuelans’ influence is acting as a shot in the arm; the NYO’s task is to pass on that fire-in-the-belly to younger children around the UK who could follow in their footsteps. The results will show long-term. But the possibilities are tremendous, because the NYO’s delight in music-making has always been at the heart of their performances, and still is. They may not be Latin, they may come from suburbs rather than slums, but in a very British way they’re the closest thing to the SBYOV that we have.

The National Youth Orchestra plays at the Royal Festival Hall on 19 April. The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela is in residence there 14-18 April