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.

Monday, April 13, 2009

still off...

I was planning to catch up with everything I've missed writing about today - the Proms in particular - but I've come down with flu, so it'll have to wait. I am in any case so underwhelmed by what I've seen of this year's programme that you're probably not missing much.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

'Hungarian Dances' at Fiddles on Fire, The Sage, Gateshead

Been here, doing this...the most fun I've ever had with anything I've ever written, this blog included - honest, guv. The pictures are from the rehearsals yesterday morning, plus a final one in, er, Pizza Express...

Bradley Creswick's electrifying Gypsy style absolutely brought the house down! You've never seen a Monti Csardas like this one, not even in Budapest... Margaret Fingerhut and our own Tomcat commensurately gave their all on the piano and second violin for the Bartok Duos, and I did my best with the reading (I'm usually happy on stage as long as I don't have to play the piano, but next week I must remember to sit beside, rather than behind, my music stand...). Coloured lighting enhanced the mood, especially blood red for 1956 plus Tzigane. The place was gratifyingly packed and - this being Saturday night in Newcastle-Gateshead, that most characterful and happening of cities, and The Sage being, imho, the finest arts centre in the UK - we had a high old time. Hope everyone enjoyed it as much as we did!

Bob Jones of Classic FM's Arts Daily podcasts recorded an interview with me about the Hungarian Dances projects a couple of weeks ago. It went up on the Classic FM website yesterday and I've now uploaded it to the sidebar podcast box in case anyone wants to listen.

So now we'll catch our breath and prepare for next Saturday's Kings Place concert with the London team, Philippe and Claire.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009


So yesterday we get together for the first rehearsal of the Gateshead team Hungarian Dances concert and I meet the marvellous Bradley Creswick at last. Bradley is the leader of the Northern Sinfonia. Philippe is away in Taiwan from today and therefore couldn't do The Sage concert on Saturday, so their inspired admin decided to undertake a little judicious musical match-making; and sure enough, Bradley has such a way with Gypsy music that my idea of running the programme without applause until the end will happily be a non-starter. Monti's Csardas is the third number...

Then Bradley presents me with a little gift: his well-thumbed copy of my book - which has been signed for me by Roby Lakatos.

It took a few moments for this to sink in. The Northern Sinfonia was on tour in South Korea last week, and who should turn up in the same place at the same time?! Bradley got talking to Roby, and this was the result. It's yet another case of coincidences gone crazy. As is often the way with Hungarian Dances.

If you want to come to the Gateshead gig, please book fast because the only seats still available are on the third level up. Online booking here.

For the 18 April London gig, Kings Place seating is unreserved - online booking here. There's more availability for this one, perhaps because we clash with nothing less than the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela and Dudamel over at the RFH. owch.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Brahms schokoladefest

I knew it was going to be a good night when I arrived at the artists' entrance of the RFH only to find my route blocked by a CHOCOLATE FESTIVAL. A row of tentlets had sprouted along Belvedere Road in the blazing spring sun, buzzing with stall-holders making, selling and eating all things chocolaty - and someone was giving a talk about why chocolate is good for you...

This was followed by the most astonishing performance of the Brahms German Requiem that it has been my pleasure to hear. It was preceded, to my surprise, by the reconstructed Mendelssohn Third Piano Concerto - see my Mendelssohn blog in a day or two for more on that. But the Brahms was one of those performances where the hair rises on the back of the neck and you can't explain it.

The LPO were playing their socks off for their principal guest conductor, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, with the London Philharmonic Choir and last-minute replacement soloists, including the marvellous Elizabeth Watts. The tempi were slow. Extremely slow. Yet everything shone. An extreme 'innigkeit', an inner fervour, the power of transformation again and again from darkness to light, despair to hope, with harps and cellos and flashes of upturned horns, and the searing certainty that Brahms is just the best. And at the end - a silence that lasted at least 25 seconds. The whole thing was absolutely astonishing. The microphones were up, so hopefully it will be preserved on the LPO record label.

I'm still on cloud 99, and this is not because of the chocolate.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Mark Elder calls for musicians to stand together

In an acceptance speech to the Incorporated Society of Musicians, which presented him with its Distinguished Musician Award yesterday, the conductor Mark Elder made some pertinent remarks. Musicians, he said, must be ready to stand together and mount a passionate defence of their art as the credit crunch bites, not to mention the blasted Olympics [that's my adjective, not his]. Below is some of his text. The full text can be read here.

(Please bear in mind that I wasn't there, I've met him only a couple of times and I didn't choose his taxi driver!)

‘Our debt to the next generation is supremely important in these coming years. Before the credit squeeze jumped on us, we were all nervous and apprehensive that the wonderful ‘Olympic dream’ would drain the resources that might otherwise have gone to the arts. Now that the credit squeeze has joined that pressure, it is all the more important to stand together and be prepared to speak out. Not as ‘whinging luvvies’ (as the scribbling profession would have us be called), but as people who stand up for something that they passionately believe in.

‘Thank you all very much for your belief in me and what I do. I will end with a memory that I have of how important it is realise how far into the different corners of the world music can go.

‘One November night in the pouring rain in New York, I eventually managed to get a taxi. I threw myself into it – the traffic was crawling down the Avenue – and I found myself in the company of an enormous Afro-American taxi driver. He was listening on the radio to the BBC Philharmonic playing Korngold’s Sinfonietta. I said to him, “do you like this classical stuff? Do you listen to this often?”

‘“Man,” he said, “it’s the only thing that keeps me sane. If I listened to my music, with all the crap driving I have to witness, I’d go out of my mind and there’d be more road rage than ever.”

‘Isn’t that great? Music can reach into people’s lives in ways that we can’t imagine. All of us here believe in music. We believe in the power that music can give people to change lives, to change our hearts, and we must go on saying that and not be ashamed of it.

‘Who says the English are cold? Who says that they don’t understand musical things? Who says this is the “Land without Music”? They used to in the 19th century, but they sure can’t now.’


Dead violinists society: Zimbalist!

I've never seen any film of Efrem Zimbalist before. Here he is playing the variations from Beethoven's Kreutzer sonata, filmed in 1926. Like Heifetz and Seidel, he was a Russian-born student of Leopold Auer; like them, his sound inhabits a world that is entirely its own, and the tone here comes through with astonishing power, beauty and sensuality, despite having been recorded 84 years ago. Glorious. Hope you love it as much as I do!

There's now so much amazing old-school violin stuff on Youtube that it could keep us happy on JDCMB for a year at least!