Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Maurice Jarre dies at 84

The music of Maurice Jarre, who has died aged 84: Lawrence of Arabia, which was among his iconic collaborations with David Lean. It's rather extraordinary, to put it mildly, as the opening titles begin with four and a half minutes of pure music - see above. He composed Dr Zhivago, A Passage to India, Dead Poets Society and many more. It's perhaps a signal of how the status of film music has changed in the past half-century that Jarre's death was reported on BBC TV's Breakfast news yesterday (normally they only talk about such matters as the latest red tape around school dinners).

Full obituaries are appearing around the world. Here is one from the Los Angeles Times, which includes a quote from John Williams: 'According to composer John Williams, Jarre "is to be well remembered for his lasting contribution to film music. His collaboration with director David Lean produced truly enduring music that is beloved by millions, and we all have been enriched by his legacy."'

Over at One More Take, broadcaster/film maker/conductor Tommy Pearson shares his personal memories of Jarre and invites everyone to do likewise.

And here is a full obit from The Guardian. "Music is how I will be remembered," said Jarre. "When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head and that only I can hear."

Monday, March 30, 2009

Meet Kirill Gerstein

That was Kirill Gerstein in Rach 3 with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra and the delectable Dudamel.

Gerstein is my next 'victim'...I mean, my next interviewee... for the International Piano Series. Tomorrow night, he makes his debut in this fabulous sequence of recitals at Southbank Centre, and I'll be doing the pre-concert interview with him, starting at 6.15pm. Do come and hear him: his programme is exciting, dramatic and unusual.

Johann Sebastian Bach: English Suite No.2 in A minor, BWV.807
Sergey Rachmaninov: Variations on a theme of Corelli, Op.42
Fryderyk Chopin: Fantasia in F minor, Op.49
Arnold Schoenberg: 3 Pieces for piano, Op.11
Ferruccio Busoni: Sonatina No.2 for piano
Franz Liszt: Mephisto Waltz No.1

He has a fabulous track record that includes having been a Carnegie Hall Rising Star in 2005-6, projects with Andras Schiff and Steven Isserlis and a piano trio with Kolja Blacher and Clemens Hagen. He became the youngest student ever to enrol at Berklee, aged 14, after a faculty member was amazed by his jazz playing (yes) in Poland. But the classical style seems to have won in the end, with a triumph at the Arthur Rubinstein Competition in 2001. So he's come a long way from his native Voronezh, where he was born in 1979, and looks set to go much further.

Online booking here.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Tweetybirds for Sunday

I haven't quite 'got' it with Twitter as yet (though am pathetically Facebook-addicted). But right now there's a hilarious game going on. Summarise an opera plot in 140 characters and tweet it with the tag #operaplot. I've traced it all back to the brilliant Miss Mussel, who got the ball rolling 2 days ago. Here are a few of the best so far:

Priestess has secret kids. Lover unfaithful. Kill kids? Kill him? Confess to the tribe. Penalty's death. Lover joins her.

Naive geisha carries a tune, carries a torch, carries a child. Can't carry on. Hari-kiris herself.

I'd kill to be Tsar. It's good to be the Tsar. Wait, is D really dead? This is driving me nuts. My son can take over. Dosvedanya.

You ruined my life. Hey, let's drink this. We're in love. Ecstasy! Shit, we're busted. OK, let's just die.

Nothing happens; Mélisande dies.

More where those came from. I'm trying to think of something myself...

OK, how about this?: 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.

Update(I know you're waiting for this one...): #operaplot Marie's dead. Marietta's alive. Paul thinks Marietta is Marie. Paul has dream. Paul doesn't murder anyone really. Bye-bye Bruges.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Villazon drops out of Elisir

Villazon apparently has laryngitis. Opera Chic thinks our Angela maybe knew what she was talking about. Actually it was a little longer ago than 2 weeks - the interview took place in the last week of January. OC says RV is out of 31 March and 4 April, planning to return to the production from 8 April.

It is only five years ago that I heard Villazon for the first time - he was an unknown, singing Rodolfo at Glyndebourne. I was admittedly so busy ogling the gergeurs Nathan Gunn that I didn't pay as much attention to the new Mexican tenor as he deserved. Other than thinking he was a heck of a good actor and that...well, that really is quite a voice. Six months or so later, everything caught fire. It is way, way too soon to have to consider saying goodbye to a sound like that.

So what happened? We can only hazard sensible guesses. Vocal problems can hit any singer, any time. But you need to be very, very resilient emotionally to survive certain things that the music business lands you with. How manufactured was that partnership with Netrebko? I had the impression from talking to her in 2006 that it was jolly real (I checked back in the out-takes from that interview in case there was illumination to be found, but there wasn't, beyond the printed version - this particular conversation was less scintillating than the one with Angela, except, of course, for the diamonds.) But voices are voices, human blood and guts, not steel strings. Muck them about at your peril.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The voice of Bartok (b 25 March 1881)

Today is Bartok's birthday!

Here is a radio interview with him from America in 1944, given during a recital of his music by his wife. He sounds quite ill; by this time he was already suffering from advanced leukaemia and he died about a year and two months later.

Now here he is playing his own Suite Op.14, recorded 1929.

"Somehow I felt now, after a long time of no work, like a man who lies in bed over a long, long period, and finally tries to use his arms and legs, gets on his feet and takes one or two steps. A man like this cannot just suddenly walk up a hill. I, too, gradually grew accustomed to movement: and so in this manner I only produced piano pieces. But even this was something. Because, to be frank, recently I have felt so stupid, so dazed, so empty-headed that I have truly doubted whether I am able to write anything new at all anymore. All the tangled chaos that the musical periodicals vomit thick and fast about the music of today has come to weigh heavily on me: the watchwords linear, horizontal, vertical, objective, impersonal, polyphonic, homophonic, tonal, polytonal, atonal, and the rest; even if one does not concern one’s self with all of it, one still becomes quite dazed when they shout it on our ears so much. ... But now things are all right; you can imagine how pleased I am that at last there will be something new, and something I myself can play, on my own, instead of the eternal Allegro barbaro, A Bit Tipsy and Rumanian Dance."

(Bartók to his second wife, Ditta Pásztory, June 21, 1926, quoted in Tibor Tallián, Béla Bartók, The Man and His Work (Budapest, 1988), 141)

I have found a wonderful online 'Bartok Virtual Exhibition' here. Visit and enjoy!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"Sergei Sergeevich, maybe you will tell our viewers about your work?"

This amazing film footage of Prokofiev plopped into my in-box from Marc-Andre Hamelin, who tells me it's been doing the rounds of pianists' emails for a while. He has also kindly forwarded this translation of the Russian, which was sent to him by Dmitry Rachmanov:

Prokofiev is being asked: "Sergei Sergeevich, maybe you will tell our viewers about your work?"

He replies: "Well, right now I am working on a symphonic suite of waltzes, which will include three waltzes from Cinderella, two waltzes from the War and Peace, and one waltz from the movie score "Lermontov." [The War and Peace] has just been brilliantly produced in Leningrad, where the composer Cheshko (?) made an especially noteworthy appearance as a tenor, giving a superb performance in the role of Pierre Bezukhoff. Besides this suite, I am working on a sonata for violin and piano [no.1 in f minor], upon completion of which I will resume work on the sixth symphony, which I had started last year. I have just completed three suites from the Cinderella ballet and I am now turning the score over to copyists for writing the parts, so that most likely the suites will already be performed at the beginning of the fall season."


Monday, March 23, 2009

On Beauty...

Fascinating debate in The Observer yesterday, springing from a live one at the Royal Geographical Society as to whether Britain has become indifferent to beauty.

I have a few things to add and invite you to do the same...

First, I reckon people in general love beauty. But today's decision-makers and creators in art, architecture, music and more have a narrow idea of what popular beauty constitutes and they don't like it: it is out-dated, being associated with the 18th and 19th centuries. An attitude derived from Socialist Realism has dominated everything from TV to concert-hall design for the last 50 years or more. If and when a semblance of beauty exists, it often seems suspect because it's associated with the wrong kind of politics: those of the first half of the 20th century. Thought process: beauty=conservatism=evil.

This, though, confuses beauty with prettiness. Beauty, genuine beauty, has nothing to do with politics, isn't skin deep and on the surface may not be pretty in the slightest. Personally, I think that beauty is what results when a work of art spirals into more than the sum of its parts, telling us a startling truth about the human condition, mainly through compassion and empathy. I found the film The Lives of Others beautiful, because it carried a powerful message about feeling, suffering and sacrifice. Even Apocalypse Now has a strange and terrifying beauty to it. There's nothing pretty about either film; nor about Salman Rushdie's overwhelming novel Midnight's Children, full of beauty that springs from the power and gleeful originality of the man's virtuoso imagination.

The performing musicians I most admire share qualities that make their playing beautiful: attention to the detail of tone, shape, colour, but most of all to the soul beneath the music. Bashing the hell out of a piano has nothing to do with this (unless a composer has specifically requested it); nor does playing a violin in strict metronomic time with banned vibrato just because it is deemed 'correct'. It's about empathy, intuition, humanity. It's about understanding the composer, the work and and the instrument, about knowing how to bring out the best in all of them.

As for new music, beauty exists, but it is certainly undervalued and bizarrely feared. It was the profound and very unexpected beauty of Gorecki's Third Symphony that made it so popular; of course it was criticised for that. Yet it does contain beauty, wrought by digging deep and opening up a ravine of intense humanity. And James MacMillan's opera The Sacrifice, the little of it I heard, struck me as incredibly beautiful, but certainly not pretty.

Meanwhile we had to have The Minotaur on primetime TV, which probably put a bunch of people off modern opera for life. It wasn't either pretty or beautiful. It was powerful in its way, but noisy, upsetting, and, overall, a jolly nasty experience. Just because something sounds hideous, that doesn't mean it automatically contains beauty; but equally just because The Phantom of the Opera is gentler on the ears, that doesn't make it beautiful either.

It can seem as if everyone is terrified of beauty, but actually what they're frightened of is prettiness, or the version commonly termed "mawkish sentimentality". Even that idea needs to be gently prodded: is there perhaps a danger of going too far the other way, denying any semblance of human feeling for fear of - well, of what? Feeling something? Being thought uncool? Being bullied in the playground for wearing a baseball cap with the peak at the front instead of the back?

So in terror of one potentially twisted emotion, we run a mile from another and desperately espouse its reverse. But the reverse isn't appealing either, so everyone scarpers from that too and the result is...empty chairs.

There's a problem with real beauty: there isn't much because creating it is too damn difficult. Nothing gratuitous is ever really beautiful; nothing that sets out to copy beauty is likely to succeed in reaching us at the gut level on which beauty works its magic. It's an opening of the channels, a freeing of the circulation from specific to universal to mystical. When, with infinite care and compassion, a great artist shows us the humane inner essence of the image or the sound, and we stand back and gasp - that's beauty.

Ideas, folks?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Ice cold in Philly?

Charlotte Higgins wrote in yesterday's Grauniad about the intimations of crisis at the Philadelphia Orchestra. "Though it has an interim music director in Charles Dutoit, it has no permanent holder of that post, nor a chair of trustees, nor an executive director. It has just announced staff and pay cuts, and cancelled a tour to Europe this summer."

Of course the American arts scene faces a harder, faster crumbling under the current economic woes than its European counterpart, being almost wholly dependent on the whims of sponsors and the health of the stock market. Whether Obama's package will help is uncertain. But isn't it the case that the better the management, the better the chance of any organisation, of any kind, to weather the blast? If, as Charlotte says, this orchestra has no music director, no chair of trustees and no executive director, that doesn't appear to put it in a particularly good spot right now. How is it possible for a world-class orchestra like this one to land up rudderless? Better no music director than a bad one (we in London know all about that from the last recession...), but it sounds as if the great Philadelphia Orchestra, Fantasia or none, has more to worry about even than world economics.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Meet Kate Aldrich

Here's a real operatic mezzo-soprano with a heck of a great dramatic voice. Opera Chic today breaks the story that Kate Aldrich from Maine will be opening next season at La Scala Milan in a new production of Carmen.

Her website has some super audio clips - try the gorgeously tragic Chausson Chanson Perpetuelle. When I looked Kate up on YouTube I found two clips, one featuring a ghastly Donizetti duet with an even ghastlier tenor, the other featuring decent music (Benvenuto Cellini) but one of the weirdest productions I've ever seen. She is absolutely terrific in both, but...well, you just have to see this thing. Fasten your seatbelts.

Much too much, much too young...

I have an article about Faryl Smith and prodigy syndrome in today's Independent. For those of you fortunate enough not to have come across her before, she is 13 and has been snapped up by Universal Classics to be the new Charlotte Church/Katharine Jenkins. Yes, her voice is nice enough and sounds more mature than she is. No, it is not a good idea to do what she is doing.

Jessica Duchen

It’s sad when the first thought that strikes one upon encountering a young girl with a beautiful voice is: ‘Oh God, another one’. The girl in question is Faryl Smith, 13, the latest discovery of Britain’s Got Talent. She led the singing at the England-France rugby match in front of more than 82,000 people, and her first CD, Faryl, sold 20,000 copies in its first four days, becoming the fastest-selling ‘classical’ debut album ever.

A confident girl from Kettering, she has a strong mezzo-soprano voice, the personal support of Katherine Jenkins, a recording contract with Universal, and the hearts of the TV-addicted nation desperate for a new pseudo-classical child star; the others keep growing up. The fact that most singers don’t generally find their ‘true’ voice until they are nearly twenty seems negligible: what commands the country’s fickle affections is a kid creating the illusion of, so to speak, premature maturity.

There’s always a buzz when a prodigy emerges and Faryl is no exception. Singing ‘Ave Maria’ on Britain’s Got Talent last year, she stunned everyone with the purity and assurance of her voice. Judge Simon Cowell said that she had sung ‘the best audition I’ve heard in years’. She then caused a sensation by not winning – first prize went to a breakdancer. Universal gave her a contract anyway, reportedly worth £2.3m. In Classic FM Magazine, Faryl commented: “People think when you sign a contract you’re automatically given a barrel of money, but that’s not how it happens. I just let my mum and dad get on with it.”

She’s already being called an ‘opera singer’, though of course she isn’t one – she’s way too young and the tracks on her debut album include Amazing Grace, Danny Boy and Annie’s Song, but no opera whatsoever. Populist interviews proudly declare that she doesn’t listen to classical music. They also report that Faryl’s parents, a health and safety inspector and a hairdresser, were reluctant to let her enter the TV competition in case it would ‘ruin her childhood’.

By now we should be used to stories that begin this way. Youngster emerges, catches attention with youthful appeal, achieves massive success. Half-baked ‘classical’ pretentions are quickly abandoned in favour of mass-market pop, the real classical music world being small, lacking in money and too quality-driven. Sooner or later, the pressures tell in drugs, alcohol, mental problems or family feuds. Some genuine sensations bounce back. Some don’t. History tells us that child prodigies pay for their successes with their souls.

Researching prodigies for my novels Alicia’s Gift and Hungarian Dances, I met numerous youthful performers and read about five times as many. Throughout, there were sorry tales and few happy endings. In my books – Alicia’s Gift concerning a prodigy pianist in the Peak District, and Hungarian Dances tracing the personal cost at which a Gypsy violinist rejects her heritage – I tried to give a compassionate picture of the human dilemmas involved in developing exceptional talent. The reality, though, is often less compassionate than one would like.

Plenty of great classical musicians started out as prodigies, the obvious examples being Mozart and Mendelssohn. The latter, though, seems to be the only prodigy in history whose family had nothing to gain from his status. Mozart’s father was more typical: desperately ambitious, not just for musical glory, but for money. Through the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, prodigies frequently appeared in deprived or persecuted communities in which musical success was viewed as an escape route to a better, safer and wealthier life. The legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz came from the Vilna ghetto; the pianist Cziffra, like my Hungarian Dances heroine Mimi Rácz, from grinding poverty among the Hungarian Gypsies.

Today it’s not necessity that drives the push, but it is sometimes greed. Every prodigy denies having pushy parents. Every parent of a prodigy denies pushing them. Encouraging, yes, they all say; supporting, yes; pushy, no. Nobody likes to think of themselves as pushy, and children are usually inclined to trust their parents. But the fact remains that behind every child basking prematurely in the limelight there is an adult who has put them there. Children cannot and do not do such things all by themselves.

There’s a line – sometimes fine, sometimes less so – between a supportive family and a controlling one, between permitting opportunities and grabbing them, between encouraging talent and exploiting it. Who knows how many equally talented youngsters may be biding their time in ordinary schools? Or how many potential musical marvels never even find their talent, for lack of encouragement or attention? The difference in public prodigydom occurs when someone realises that they can make money. That person is unlikely to be the child.

Over many successful young musicians, especially the girls, there looms an ever-watchful parent – cellist Ofra Harnoy, and violinists Sarah Chang and Hilary Hahn are just three examples. Sometimes the parent takes control of management and even recording production. Pop violinist Vanessa-Mae’s mother founded a record label for her daughter’s recordings when the little violinist was barely ten. In certain cases, terrible family rifts ensue when a girl musician grows up and wants either to take control of things herself, or to hand them over to an experienced music professional.

Boys can seem more resilient than girls, perhaps because they aren’t generally exploited for their looks. Nobody took Daniel Barenboim’s photograph walking out of the sea in a wet t-shirt when he was 14, unlike Vanessa-Mae, nor draped him suggestively over a couch, unlike Harnoy. Today one of Britain’s most exciting talents, the teenaged pianist Benjamin Grosvenor (who won the piano section of the BBC Young Musician of the Year aged 11), is building a serious career slowly and steadily; ditto the clarinettist Julian Bliss, now 19.

But overexposed young men sometimes respond to prodigy childhoods by suffering injury, disillusionment or mental illness just when they should be at the peak of their powers. Maxim Vengerov’s recent defection from the violin is a relatively mild example. Worse was the case of Josef Hassid (1923-1950), a phenomenal violin prodigy who suffered a breakdown at 18 and died after a lobotomy aged 26; and the pianist Terence Judd, winner of the 1978 Tchaikovsky Competition, who leapt to his death at Beachy Head.

It’s not only childhood that is destroyed by the pressures of premature celebrity; a soul is maimed for life. For every prodigy you hear of, there are ten that you don’t, because everything has gone horribly wrong. I’ve met former prodigies who dropped out of their careers after intense psychological misery because they had been shoehorned into music by ambitious parents; fine talents who dried up through inability to cope with adult competition after cosseted childhoods; and some who had encountered sexual demands from those wielding power. Eating disorders, substance abuse, breakdowns and suicide attempts are legion. Look out for the scars on the wrists.

The survivors are brave, often admirable. The Japanese violinist Midori, who was internationally celebrated by 11, now devotes much of her time to education and community work, bringing music to underprivileged children. Barenboim is one of today’s greatest musicians and thinkers. Even Charlotte Church seems to have settled down for now.

One could argue that there is no guarantee of happiness or success for anybody, prodigy or otherwise; that in a tough world, you have to grab the chances while you can; that failing to push a special talent would deny it its opportunities and the world its beauties. Prodigy parents might do well to reflect before accepting the record contract, though. Nobody can emerge wholly unscathed from such a childhood. It isn’t humanly possible.

Launching with ‘Voice of an Angel’, Church started off as a sub-classical babydoll. Moved on to pop music, was then reported as binge-drinking in 2005. Gave up alcohol when she was pregnant with her first child. Now 23 and hosts her own TV show.

The Argentinian-born Barenboim was giving concerts by 11 and quickly became an international star as both pianist and conductor. His dedication to the quality and power of top-notch classical music-making has never faltered. One of today’s most inspirational performers and influential thinkers.

Started off as a classical violinist, promoted by her mother’s record label. Signed by EMI aged 14; notorious publicity shot in wet t-shirt. Turned quickly towards mainstream pop, adding vocals to her albums from 2001. Her website currently lists one upcoming gig, at Westonbirt Arboretum in July.

The Australian child prodigy pianist was much pushed by his ambitious father, but showed signs of mental illness while a student. After first marriage broke down he was institutionalised and underwent treatment for a decade. His story was immortalised in the film Shine.

Monday, March 16, 2009

A note from the land of nod...

So I am at a music festival, staying in a chintzy Victorian b&b, preparing to play the clarinet in a concert. I have not played the clarinet in a while (btw, in real life *never*), but this doesn't appear to worry me too much. The big problem is that my clarinet has vanished. I can't find it anywhere and hesitate between needing my friends' help and not wanting to confess that the darn thing is missing. And my friends aren't inclined to listen, being too busy singing to each other. Then the clarinet turns up in the laundry basket. I am now bothered by the possibility that on stage it will smell of dirty washing. At last I examine the instrument and try to remember how to finger the notes, but...and we are about to walk on stage to give the concert and... time to wake up, gasping with relief.

I popped something about this onto Facebook. So many people started writing back with their own versions of it that I thought we should go public. There's even a Far Side cartoon version, 'The Elephant's Dream', in which the creature sits at a piano on a stage thinking 'What am I doing here? I'm a flautist!' Why do we suffer performance-anxiety dreams? Does anyone ever have a happy performance dream? Is performing so tied up with terror that the two things can't be separated in our unconscious selves?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Felixcitations co-prod: Mendelssohn's Third Piano Concerto

I was delighted to have a good phone chat with the Mendelssohn scholar R. Larry Todd the other day about his reconstruction and completion - using the finale of the Violin Concerto - of Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No.3 in E minor. The full text is viewable over at my BBC Radio 3 Mendelssohn anniversary blog (which you and I know is really called Felixcitations). From there you have to click through to another page to read it because apparently it was too long for a blog. Meanwhile you can hear the inimitable Stephen Hough playing the better-known PC No.1 at the RFH tonight.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


A very different kind of diva: Annie Lennox, who incidentally is a very keen and excellent blogger (the link takes you to her website - there, click on BLOG). She has a voice I really adore when I don't have my strictly-classical hat on (music is music, as someone once said) and besides, she's someone I particularly admire since she is putting her voice, her fame and her energy into supporting areas that desperately need such support, notably HIV/AIDS research. Please explore her site for more details.

I've discovered she has several major qualities in common with the heroine of my next novel, Songs of Triumphant Love...but that can wait until the book comes out...

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

More about Angela

This is EMI's promotional video for the new Gheorghiu/Kaufmann/Pappano Madama Butterfly. The CD has gone straight to no.1 in the classical charts, according to latest press release. As YouTube is about to pull most of its most popular music videos, I thought we could have a quick look at it first.

Now, here are a few bits of my interview with her that didn't make it into the article. The transcript is pretty much as-was (though I've attempted to correct my typos, abbreviations et al). If you read this AND the published feature, you get the complete picture.

(On crying on stage, segueing from the Boheme story in the piece)
"For the applause, it was a standing ovation, but it gives me...because I really put myself there. That’s why. You can say with time you become used to it, you can manage everything in your life. No. I am more sensitive! And open! It can happen. And if you cannot really judge your feelings and everything to know what to do, because you cannot sing when you are crying, even if you are the most perfect actor, you must act, and that’s all! (JD: What about a role like Violetta?) Oh my God! The second act! If I am not controlling myself I can cry all the way from the second act on to the third."

(JD: Tell me about the recording – it’s rare to make a complete studio recording now)
"Yes, in the last years I saw nobody. But I’m the lucky one, if I may say! But the project was almost made 3-4 years ago, and maybe before I record all arias by Puccini, and in the meantime it was of course planned to do it with Tony Pappano because in every recording session, wow, the relationship between us is like a love affair, it’s something perfect, we understand just perfection without speaking – no speaking, just with gesture, looking, and I feel in his eyes and my eyes an awareness of everything ...it’s very good between us this way."

(The unedited version of the Jonas Kaufmann bit)
"We thought to have Alberto because we record a lot of operas with him, but Roberto in that period left EMI and in the same period I needed for a Traviata in the Met a tenor, maybe a new tenor, and my manager gives me a tape of Cecilia Bartoli singing with a tenor, and said he’s singing in Zurich but nobody knows him, just listen. I listened and I said OK – and my manager said trust your instinct. And I said OK, he will be my Alfredo at the Met. So they trust me at the Met to have a nobody...in the meantime I needed here at Covent Garden a tenor for La Rondine because we’d had Roberto and we needed another one, and I said why not this tenor to see how it goes, a smaller role than Traviata. So this happened, I asked him here for La Rondine, they said yes, then they said yes at the Met, here it was very good and at the Met it was a huge successs, and there I said to EMI let’s have Jonas for Butterfly – and everyone said oh my God are you sure, he never recorded. And I said: trust me. It’s like for Roberto, and Tony Pappano – when somebody has an unusual talent I never made a mistake! I have a talent to discover and finally I was right! And I’m happy. And in the meantime he started to record by himself – but it’s not easy to have someone to sing in the studio with someone who never recorded before, it’s a huge challenge for everybody. (JD: I remember hearing his first Strauss Lieder disc and this amazing voice came soaring out...) Yes! So he started his career very late, it’s not a big [age] difference between us, he chose to stay in Zurich & I advised him all the time, basta, finish in Zurich and fly, but it’s your town...and in the end, he listened! (JD: Will you do more performances together?) We have a production here in Covent Garden of Adriana Lecouvreur."

(On how she started and progressed her career, from the Covent Garden Boheme)
"I sang just one Boheme before, for my graduation, but to go from singing one Boheme to singing in Covent Garden, and it’s your international debut - ! But I wanted. And I was very determined. And everything - atmosphere, people around me, I always feel it, I will arrive. Nothing is for me, wow, I am surprised. I was all the time sure because everyone around me was telling me [had complete confidence in me] and they were always making laudation for me – it was all importance, and because I start to sing so early, I sang at 18 my first important concert, Butterfly etc, and so everybody looked at me in a very serious way. I never thought in Covent Garden it would be different from Bucharest, where I had this – wow - my luckiest moment is to have this idea, and my teacher said 'wait a little and your entrance must be in the front door, the most important'. In Covent Garden in was 1991, 92 Vienna, 93 at the Met and the day after an important debut everybody knows you. But I sang then in Covent Garden other roles, but as we see promotion and mass media and everyone knows you, everyone sees you and everybody is speaking about you, and that happened when I made my debut in La Boheme and Georg Solti came to my performance. There he persuaded me to sing Traviata, and because of the story with the BBC, they dropped everything to make live transmission, and all this real story helped me in a way that the day after everybody knows me. So from that moment I try not to disappoint anybody. And it’s not easy. I had a career, I made a lot of things and I think it’s rather important to stay and to stay for many years is very hard, even if people, journalists, critics, they have the right to have another opinion, but for anything in this world the result is what counts, and this is the result!"

(JD: What is your pre-performance ritual?)
"I am doing all the time the make-up. Nobody is working on the maquillage, they are free with me. The only time I work with someone on the maquillage is for photo session or film or television – otherwise, for performances on stage I do my own no matter the style, because I did some maquillage at the conservatory so I know how to do my make-up. It’s very good before the performance, I am not doing the vocalising, I come to the opera house completely prepared, I just put on my costume and go on stage. It’s not necessarily that this is the way – it’s that it’s Angela’s way."

(JD: Since Roberto left EMI, are you still working together so regularly?)
Less, less. The last CD he did Sicialian songs, and we record something together, we record L’amico Fritz for DG, it will be released this year – we did this at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. And we finished out La Rondine at the Met, the premiere was for new year’s day, it was on HD in cinemas all over the world, it was a huge success, but I was suffering because I was very ill! Oh, I was suffering, I was completely kaput! And I took some medicines and everybody around me they helped me, mostly Peter Gelb the director, he said 'whatever happens on stage, there are thousands of people they bought their tickets to see you in Rondine, oh, it’s a disaster, and if something happens I will come immediately and saying to everybody you are the best and we must be with you and you must come again and again and do everything you want, but COME HERE and put on your wig and your costume!' And with all this support I was willing and I said OK, but it was very hard. If you do something badly for an audience at the Met & it’s not just at the Met it’s all over the world...Finally we are human beings. But it was a hard moment for me."

(JD: What will be your highlights for 2009?)
You remind me about highlights, because I spent two weeks recording Butterfly, Jonas came for the last day, and I said to Tony, let’s start with the highlights, and he laughed – 'all the opera is highlights!' And all my work is highlights! So I go to the Met, I have La Rondine, I have a concert in Spain, I have operas in Berlin, I have L’elisir d’amore at the Met, I sing with Rolando I hope everything goes fine [crosses self], I have a new production of Carmen at the Met, I need to finish my new solo recording of Romanian music – you will not recognise me! It’s very interesting."

(JD: So is that of traditional Romanian songs?)
Yes, but I sing them in my way. (JD: We don't know enough Romanian music here in the 'west'...). This is another problem for me, another unfair for culture and politics, because if you’re in my country, and I don’t know about east countries because of the Communists of course, but the world was also in different cultures, because in our culture we learn about your culture, about English and German and French culture, but you – do you think we don’t have the same type of interesting people? We have our poets, our writers, our musicians, our everything. (JD: Enescu...) Of course, but people know him because he decided to live in Paris, but that doesn’t mean he was better than another one who decided to live in Romania! It’s another unfair position. Because people are thinking ah, he’s Romanian, but Romanians, because of the communists, decided to live in another country. But another artist who could not leave the country because of thousands of reasons or because he didn’t want to, he is less interesting, because you don’t know him that means he’s not interesting, he has no value, and this is very unfair! Because of the politics and because of the kind of school training, because it’s very important in school to have general culture, maybe from India and China and Arabic countries, Argentinian, United States, because culture, here is the unfair point, people make the confusion between politics and culture. This is not right – because all of us have the right to discover a genius person, no? We have in Romania geniuses, but we have no reason to discover, so the conclusion is I feel it’s my moment to make a discovery, of my music and my country’s music. I have a Romanian guy who helped me with three musicians from the USA who are doing the orchestration for me, and it sounds modern but also with a completely other type of harmony, because this is the originality, but also because I sing and I hope to make you interested!"

(More about Romania...)
"You know, Russia, Bulgaria and Poland are brothers and sisters, Hungary is related to Finland, and Romania is the only Latin country among them, related to Italy and Spain – we are very different cultures in the same part of Europe, it’s fascinating. (JD [with Hungarian hat on]: I heard Romanians and Hungarians don’t get along...) It’s more legend – more political, not between people and people. And for years Transylvania was this disputed territory, no it’s mine, no it’s ours, so they played ping-pong with it. (JD: Dracula...) No! Dracula is ENGLISH! And because I am Romanian, because of Dracula, someone, some journalist somewhere, of course, didn’t know anything else but Dracula from Romania, so he gave me a nickname, Draculette! And this year I came to the opera house and at the stage door of the Metropolitan Opera House, an American composer, he really goes in a serious way: 'I have the score of an opera for Angela Gheorghiu, named Draculette!' He was serious. And to take the good part of it, we have another composer who starts to write another opera thanks to an English person who gives us our first nickname 'Bonnie and Clyde' – Vladimir Cosma, who wrote for us Marius et Fanny, now he starts to compose for us Bonnie and Clyde! So, you want to play, let’s play! It was sort of funny, so let’s make friends with it! Thank you for the idea! In the meantime I need to be an opera singer. A serious one."

(JD: How did you get along with Marius et Fanny?)
"Perfect – oh, perfect. Vladimir Cosma is originally a Jewish Romanian, all his family are all important musicians – and when I heard he is doing – Roberto told me about Marius et Fanny and he proposed and they got the world speaking – when I spoke to Vladimir I said, Vladimir, wow, you are working on your first opera? And he said yes, but are you interested to sing an opera...Wow, of course! ‘But you never said a modern opera’ – but of course I wanted! It’s a very beautiful opera! First I record Marius et Fanny, then I sang on stage – we recorded in Switzerland – thinking back in that production everyone was French, minus me and the composer, who were Romanian. Marius et Fanny for the French is like a Bible – Marcel Pagnol wrote something, wow, untouchable – well, we dared to touch Marcel Pagnol and the performance and everything related with Marius et Fanny was wow, oh, my emotions, oh, my poor heart, with Roberto and the mondiale premiere to do Marius et Fanny in Marseilles, where they’re like Milano... And they filmed and recorded everything, I was very proud. And I appreciate with Vladimir, he show us everything and we discuss and we give advices relating to an opera singer, because it’s not the same writing music for instruments as for opera singers. For opera singers you need a special culture and a special knowledge because there are some things you cannot do because of the rhythms. So he showed us and we’d say this is good, or make a pause on this note or these words, and the three of us we made a successful opera, voila! And now it was on TV and I start now to try to make other people interested in this opera. It sounds ain the beginning a bit like Bernstein, but in, no offence, a better way; in the second part it is more operatic – wow, it is very dramatic and tragic, and you need a powerful voice to sing it – big emotions, big range, big orchestra. The aria is like Michaela’s aria in Carmen, very big, and hard to sing."

(On Covent Garden and London)
"You know my story with the porters from Covent Garden? One day I finished my performances, I was supposed to sing 5 performances of Pagliacci and there was one performance with another singer, and then the other singer she was ill and they asked me to sing also the last performance. From the opera house we said bye-bye, ciao, see you next year, but then when they saw me again all the porters were so happy that they put money all together and they buy a present for me, I swear. I love them! And it’s very important. I tell to everyone this story – because in an opera house it’s very important that the atmosphere comes from when you open the door. Another story from Covent Garden – I said to one of the machinists, wow, trousers with ‘Royal Opera House’ on you, wow wow! And the day after he brought me trousers with ROH on for me - they made them for me. I swear. I really like the atmosphere in this house. I really like it. And also all the important things for my private life and my profession happens here. Everything is related. And Ioana is here, my daughter, she is English. I like the sound of British accents and I like the sound of English!"

UPDATE, 1.40pm: Mad props to Opera Chic, who's going to town on this one...

Monday, March 09, 2009


Angela Gheorghiu: the WYSIWYG Diva. My interview with her was the Indy's Arts & Books Review cover feature on Friday - delayed posting here because I've been away. Angela defends her cancellations, tells us how she discovered Jonas Kaufmann and lets us in on a startling family secret.

The interview coincides with the release of her new CD of Madama Butterfly, complete - rare these days to find a complete new studio recording of any opera, of course, but with Gherghiu and Kaufmann in the leading roles and Pappano wielding the baton, EMI must be pretty confident that this one will sell by the gallon. In The Sunday Times Hugh Canning, who heard the sessions, wrote a feature about the recording and the 'making of'. My piece is a portrait of the lady herself. There isn't a JDCMB 'director's cut' version of the article - they printed it in its entirety - but there may be a few choice selections to add, which I will do as soon as I've unpacked. (Update: DONE...)

I like her. I really do. Because what you see IS what you get. There is no sense that she's pretending to be something she's not. Some artists switch off the charm when you switch off the voice recorder. Angela is A1 consistent. I can't say whether or not she really is 'the last diva' since we don't yet know what today's desperately spoiled teenagers will be capable of if they take the stage, but I don't need to tell you that she's the ultimate out there at present.

As for the Butterfly, it is basically gorgeous. Angela seems to get under the skin of Cio-Cio San, first decorous and enunciating delicately as the young girl, then letting rip as the tragedy develops. The utterly fabulous Kaufmann, though, rather overshadows her in the love duet...

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Party bag...

We're clearing up now, washing the glasses, keeping Solti out of the last slice of Sachertorte (it isn't good for cats), and it's time to hand out the party bag. (With special thanks to the Verbier Festival...) Enjoy!

An encore? Thank you, Martha and Genya...

Sunday, March 01, 2009

HIGH FIVE: JDCMB celebrates 5th birthday!

JDCMB is 5 years old today! The cake is in the oven and at the cyberposhplace they are chilling the champagne. Meanwhile here's a little retrospective of a few...


JD meets Rostropovich and is offered cello lessons. Then gets stuck in tube.
In praise of analysis, especially Schenker (but what was it I found in the Faure?)
Grigory Sokolov at the QEH: this is what it's all about. (And now he won't come back because some bureaucrat wants to fingerprint him.)
'Orchestral life: the full story.' In which Tom and his friends spill the beans and drink their contact lenses.
The Ultimate Consoling Music: Schubert and the 7/7 aftermath, July 05.
JDF, 4 metres from JD in the Savoy...
The Joyce Hatto story breaks...
Trip to Bosnia, June 07.
An unforgettable night at the Proms with Buskaid & JEG...
November 07 in entirety, containing much Korngold. Now viewable with hindsight.
In which Krystian Zimerman has RFH rolling in the aisles...
JD turns concert manager and hallucinates about Sir Alan Sugar.
Lake District 08: Two strange girls snog each other on Oleg's cello case, Robert is a Tearaway, Charles gets out the first aid box and Jess and Phil do their best to be Messiaenic...
One of my favourite YouTube clips ever: Cziffra plays Liszt.
JDCMB Poll of the Greatest Living Conductors (we may do another soon...am trying to decide between piano & violin....)

Which brings us to Handel. You might get a surprise if you tune into the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 tomorrow.

UPDATE: Huge thanks to all of you who've come to JDCMB's biggest-ever blogoparty! And special thanks to Opera Chic for setting up my date for the evening (in the absence of my husband, who's otherwise occupied at the Lincoln Center). :-)