Friday, December 31, 2010

...and a special Strauss Friday Historical

...apropos of Johann Strauss for new year, it's Friday and time for historical treats. Here's Miliza Korjus, accompanied by the matchless solo violin playing (on the sound track) of Toscha Seidel, singing Tales of the Vienna Woods in the 1930 film The Great Waltz. After this, all we need is a bit of cut-price bubbly and we're ready to meet 2011 and whatever it may do. "Something so sweet and so dangerous..."


On your marks, get set...

...And they're off! It's a race to the finish between Dudamel with the Berlin Phil on German TV's ARD and Thielemann with the Dresden Staatskapelle on ZDF for the big New Year's Eve musical celebration! Who will win the race for the hearts and minds of the German TV viewers tonight?... Norman Lebrecht has more on this extraordinary contest here.

Can you imagine such a thing taking place on these mild, grey shores? Just picture the competition: say, Jurowski and the LPO on ITV versus Petrenko and the RLPO on Channel 4, and maybe even one of the BBC's own orchestras kicking in with a fresh Straussy confection under Belohlavek on BBC2, the broadcasters falling over themselves to pay most to snaffle the best Blue Danube in the land. (Oh look -- there goes another of those flying pigs -- they're quite common at this time of year...)

We'll have the Vienna Philharmonic concert live from the Musikverein on New Year's Day, as everyone else does -- it's broadcast all over the world and it's one of the few seasonal traditions I really love. In Vienna, if you can't get into the Musikverein, you can join the happy throng on the Rathausplatz for the big screen showing. Nowhere else in the world does new year like Vienna. The rest of us can access the concert on radio and TV almost everywhere.

My late father, who was positively addicted to the old Vienna New Year performances under Willi Boskovsky (the VP's concertmaster for many years), always used to comment that the Viennese players didn't need a conductor at all - they could probably play this repertoire perfectly in their sleep. But since Boskovsky's demise in 1991, the maestroship has been taken by a wide range of different conductors, and the results have been demonstrably different. I loved last year's, with Georges Pretre, who brought the music a deliciously light touch and a gorgeous old-world sensibility.

This year the concert is to be conducted by Franz Welser-Most, whom I last saw in Lucerne a few months back with the Cleveland Orchestra. In certain repertoire he's Frankly Better Than Some these days, having had ample time to grow since his unfortunate stint in London some 20 years back. He got it in the neck then partly, I reckon, for being too young (it's odd to think that nowadays, the younger a conductor is when awarded a top job, the better). FWM admittedly wasn't entirely the best in the business back then -- I don't remember his concerts being any too inspiring -- but still he had a rougher run from the press than he deserved and his continuing artistic trajectory has served to prove this. Different artists develop at different rates: while Petrenko and Nelsons in their twenties can compete at the very highest level, this isn't always the case with other maestri, who need time to mature. Think of them as different types of fine wine... I have it on good authority that Johann Strauss is one of the composers at which FWM is finest, along with Bruckner, so it'll be intriguing to see him in action.

One little point he needs to address, depending on the nature of the Musikverein podium: over in Lucerne, he had a peculiar way of leaning back against the wooden bar that encircled his post at roughly hip height. His tailcoat bunched up against it and developed a little buttocks-shaped overhang, which wasn't necessarily what one wanted to look at in the middle of Ein Heldenleben. Dear Franz, if Vienna's podium is a similar design, please watch out for this -- you don't want that image to be the abiding one left by the vast international broadcast you will be undertaking tomorrow.

Have fun, folks! Have as much fun as you can. Then fasten your seatbelts. This new decade may bring us a bumpy ride and we're going to need all the quick thinking, good humour and originality we can muster.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Urgently needed, some very big celebrities

Anyone got Sir Paul McCartney's phone number? Please tell him his country needs him.

Music education in the UK's state schools is likely to be decimated by a fourfold attack involving local council cutbacks on peripatetic music teachers, the withdrawal of £83.5m from central government earmarked for providing music teaching, the exclusion of music from the subjects eligible for the planned new Baccalaureate and the withdrawal of all government funding for arts degrees.

These cuts are ideologically revolting (giving out the message that music is only for the rich) and furthermore represent a complete reversal of policy - it's not so long since education secretary Michael Gove declared that every child should have the chance to learn a musical instrument. (Not that this reversal should be a surprise given track record of coalition to date). Oh, and whatever happened to the enquiry into the provision of music education that was being headed by Classic FM supremo Darren Henley? Did they even wait for him to present his findings?

But these changes are not yet statutory and in our celebrity-obsessed culture, celebrity musicians could make an impact. Earlier this week, all it took to force a u-turn on the plan to stop Booktrust funding from being withdrawn was hard-hitting, dignified and well-worded intervention from celebrity authors including Philip Pullman and Carl Ann Duffy. And the forces for this were marshalled very fast and very effectively. So there's hope, if the right voices could please step forward swiftly and strongly.

We need Sir Paul. We also need, for starters, Nigel Kennedy, Nicola Benedetti, Sir Simon Rattle, Sir Mark Elder, Valery Gergiev (come on, mate, you're the LSO's principal conductor and you can move mountains everywhere else), Paul Lewis, Tasmin Little, Alfred Brendel, James MacMillan, John Tavener, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber & brother Julian, James Rhodes and definitely Katherine Jenkins. And more are welcome, as many as possible, as big as possible. I hope, of course, that the ISM is already trying to marshal such forces, but they need to do so with the greatest of alacrity.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Oversexed, overplayed and over here...

Yes, it's nearly 2011: the Liszt Bicentenary Year. For my Jan/Feb column in Standpoint I've written about how this astonishing musician is still hideously misrepresented. Here's the link.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


PLEASE DO NOT ADJUST YOUR COMPUTER... It’s the Winter Solstice. It’s the end of 2010. And here at JDCMB, it’s PARTY TIME!

The snowclouds are gathering around the Cyberposhplace. But this being Virtualsville, CyberParkLane is gritted to perfection and we can both enjoy the glittering snow and get from A to B without breaking a leg en route. So no stinting on the glamour, please! I hope you have brought your fake fur and a Trilby. Please step in through the ballroom entrance, leave your snowboots and Yaktrax in the cloackroom and help yourself to some cyberhot-chocolate specially imported from the Café Europejska, Krakow. We’ll be serving borscht, pierogi and poppyseed cake later …

Then please give a special round of applause to our first guests of honour: the first celebrity couple of music, reunited at last in a bicentenary celebration: Robert and Clara Schumann! Clara looks exquisite in pearly silk and Robert is wearing a cravat to match. (We’re hoping Brahms and Joachim may turn up too, but they were last heard of sloping off to hear a Gypsy band in a café, so they may be late.) Happy birthday, Robert, and don’t forget to say hello to... ah, but that’s for later.

First, let’s have a round of applause for every musician who has touched the hearts of his or her audience during the past 12 months.

Thank you...quiet, please. Now, would the following winners please approach the podium where Solti, ensconced upon his traditional silken cushion, will allow you to stroke the ginger stripes and will give you your very own prize purr.

Icon of the year:
Henryk Gorecki, who has passed away aged 76. I first heard his Third Symphony - which really has become “iconic” - through my neighbour’s wall in my first flat: unearthly, haunting, keening sounds that got straight under my skin. I had no idea what it was, but it made a nice change from the noises that used to come in from the flat on the other side… Later I heard the symphony properly. Its beauty and purity has been pathetically maligned since its composer’s recent death, with most people saying everything else he wrote was better. Tough: many of us love the thing. A toast, please, ladies and gentleman, in the Café Europejska chocolate (almost local to the composer but not quite...): here’s to great music that is pure of heart and resonates from soul to soul.

Pianist of the year:
a tie-break between Simon Trpceski and Gabriela Montero has proved…oh. They’re still at it, zipping away at their respective pianos. Simon is accelerating through some dazzling Prokofiev; Gabriela is pulling stardust out of thin air, translating it into spur-of-moment marvels. Each has much to say and everything to give. Both have the energy of three normal people rolled into one. And there’s warmth and communication and charisma -- and insights in every bar. Bravi both.

Violinist of the year:
this choice should be more difficult than it is, but in the event it wasn’t. Please welcome Tasmin Little, for her absolutely gorgeous and deeply moving recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto, with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Andrew Davis (Chandos). Nice one, Tazza!

Singer of the year 
Grüße dich, liebe Herr Jonas Kaufmann. A warm welcome to the Ginger Stripe Awards. Your performance of Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin at the Wigmore Hall made me tweet in German. You are the real deal, and one in many million. Please take very, very good care of yourself, your larynx, your lungs and your heart and soul. I can’t wait to hear what you sing next.

Youthful artist of the year
Let’s hear it for the superduper Nicola Benedetti. At 23 she is more active, expressive, dynamic and devoted to music for the greater good than many musicians twice her age. She may well be the figurehead that the cause of music education is going to need in the nasty years ahead. And there’s no arguing with playing like that, either.

Conductor of the year:
It is a great pleasure to offer this award to Semyon Bychkov, who is by all accounts playing the socks off Tannhäuser at the Royal Opera House at present. I’ve long admired his warmth, intelligence and verve; he scooped Record of the Year at BBC Music Magazine Awards back in the spring and his performances leave long-lasting furrows in the mind for their intensity, focus and sheer beauty.

Interviewee of the year: Please welcome Vladimir Jurowski, even though he is, I guess, my maestro-in-law. I’ve had the good fortune to catch him for a number of different projects this year and from Goethe’s Faust to Mahler’s Jewish side, from darkest Russia to family matters (since I also interviewed his little brother, Dmitri), few others would have come up with so many consistently interesting, well-informed, enlightening and eminently chew-overable responses.

Creative Musical Experience of the year:
For the second year running, this award goes to pianist Mikhail Rudy, who’s been having some fun with Kandinsky. To unearth Kandinsky’s drawings and instructions for the Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition, find the perfect team to animate them and then perform the lot with perfect co-ordination takes quite a bit of oomph, and I hope the impressive results will be snapped up by festivals around the world very quickly.

CD of the year:
For me, Mitsuko Uchida’s CD of Schumann’s Davidsbundlertänze really has no peers as a listening experience for 2010. I thought I’d died and gone to piano heaven. With piano as paintbox and a brain resembling a repository of understanding of culture in the best sense, she creates a multilayered performance in myriad shades that also serves as an x-ray, probing deep into the composer’s subtleties, allusions and troubled depths. Robert, please come and say hello to Mitsuko…ahhh. I can’t hear exactly what he’s saying to her, but there’s a big hug, a bow and a kiss of the hand.

Lifetime Achievement Award: My dear Frédéric, I can’t tell you what a delight it is to see you here in person, your dark-gold hair carefully brushed, your dove-grey suit and white kid gloves as fine as they were when you had them tailored in, uh, 1840 or so. And you are no longer coughing. Your native Poland pushed out the boat for your bicentenary so heavily that I’m surprised they haven’t yet sent out any vodka-filled chocolate with your picture on the front, but now that it is all drawing to a close there’s a sense of nostalgia. That was the Chopin Year that was.

Now Liszt Year lies ahead, so light the touchpaper and stand well back…

Take a bow, everybody...Thank you. Thank you for your moving, uplifting, inspiring, life-enhancing music-making. You’re wonderful. We love you.

And a few personal highlights:

Proudest moment:
Several of these. Prime among them was turning into a Proms TV commentator for a thrilling if terrifying eight minutes -- another treat of that event was the understanding that all those beautiful people on TV look as good as they do because TV stations employ seriously accomplished make-up artists. Then there was the lovely rain-sluiced trawl around Paris for the Fauré Composer of the Week series courtesy of BBC Radio 3. I was also going to say something about mastering the grand jeté en tournant, but I’ve currently got a suspected stress fracture in my foot.

Weirdest moment:
Stuck at the station in Viareggio, shunting back and forth across the tracks with my suitcase, escorted by a variety of handsome Italians in station uniform, yet missing several trains in the process. I was trying to get from Torre del Lago to Verbier by train in the middle of some exceedingly dramatic storms (the saga is here). The weird thing was that I actually made it. Maybe this wasn’t weird. Maybe it was just…Italy.

Quote of the year
Dame Gwyneth Jones: “NEIN!”

Biggest sigh of relief:
Maybe we should have heeded the notice that said DANGER, MOUNTAIN BIKE TRACK, but back in August I reached the road above Verbier safe and sound in company with Boss and Mrs Boss, only to see a bunch of callow youths on said bikes whooshing at about 200mph down the bumpy mountain path on which we’d just been picking our way forward. Blimey, guv - we were lucky.Very big sigh of relief, and comforting onion soup all round.

Guest stars of the year:
The directors and devoted teachers of Al Kamandjati, Ramallah, and the network of Edward Said National Conservatories of Music that against ferocious odds keep music education alive and free in the Palestinian Territories. Now, they know the true meaning of “music for peace”. Read all about them in my article for Classical Music Magazine, here

Feline of the year:
Simon’s Cat, who has made the big time bigtime and got onto CBBC...owwwch! Solti, kitty, you take yourself too seriously. That’s why we can’t make a cartoon about you. You’re always busy being the maestro (mice-tro?)… Anyway, you’re presenting the prizes, aren’t you? Which means you can’t actually…OK…yes, it’s a deal: you shall have fish when we’re home.

Wonderful Webmaster of the Year:
The award always goes to Horst Kolo, who designs and maintains with a patience that few others could muster, now or ever.

Thank you, everyone. Now please relax, keep warm and enjoy the music...

Monday, December 20, 2010

Merry Christmas from my Orchestra-In-Law

The London Philharmonic Orchestra would like to wish you...this! As you'll see, they are a multinational lot, and this effort does not include possible further contributions in Russian, Latvian and Hungarian. Tomcat is the one speaking Danish. Actually he's from Derbyshire.

Please stand by for the annual JDCMB Ginger Stripe Awards, which take place tomorrow...

Friday, December 17, 2010

Rubinstein plays Chopin

This will probably be the last Friday Historical of Chopin Year, so it's a very special one: Arthur Rubinstein plays Chopin's Etude Op.25 No.1 in A flat major in recital in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire. This was in 1960-something. The picture looks older, the sound seems newer and the playing is a sliver of timeless wonder. I'm not sure that Chopin could be any more perfect.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A sop to our consciences...

Here's my piece from today's Independent on the iniquities of musical organisations that promote themselves with the concept of peace. "If we accept "music for peace" as the panacea of all evils, we are selling short not only everything that music can achieve, which is prodigious, but also the nature of peace itself."

(Update, 23 Dec: the "Quartet for Peace" points out that the four instruments it comprises were actually crafted by the Cape Town-based luthier Brian Lisus. Apologies for misidentification.)

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Spot of Brahms in the Balkans

Just back from tour with the LPO to Istanbul, Skopje and Sofia. Read all about it...and I hope to upload more pics later on.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Giving .1

Here are my top 5 Xmas pressies. Some are predictable, but others less so. No.1 is especially valuable, but you need to do it *this week*.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Triple Treating

A new show, Rain Dance, from W11 Opera, Cinderella from Matthew Bourne at his best, and a new Nutcracker coming up soon from English National Ballet: who says there's nothing out there but the Messiah?

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Great Gate of Kiev, by Kandinsky

This is what I went to see in Paris the other day: astonishing evening of live music and living Kandinsky courtesy of Micha Rudy and the Cite de la Musique...