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.

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.