Friday, January 28, 2011

"Albert, your timing is very relative today..."

To Albert Einstein, music was more than merely the greatest source of happiness in life... Find out why in my feature for today's Independent about Jack Liebeck and Professor Brian Foster's music-and-physics night, The Music of the Spheres, which I think contains a few good reasons why schools should teach kids to play musical instruments.

They're presenting it at St John's Smith Square on 4 February and tonight at the Leeds College of Music. And drawing together music, science and the arts is the very heart of Jack's excellent Oxford May Music festival, of which more, I hope, in due course:

Here are some more great amateur violinists from history (and elsewhere)...

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
Jefferson, the ‘Philosopher of Democracy’, third president of the USA (1801-09) and principal author of the Declaration of Independence, said that music was “the passion of my soul” and “an enjoyment, the deprivation of which . . . cannot be calculated”. His accomplishment on the violin helped to see off lesser rivals for his future wife’s affection.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867)
The French painter, while studying at the Académie Royale de Peinture, Sculpture et Architecture in Toulouse, spent three years playing second violin in the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse. He continued playing as an amateur for the rest of his long life, sparking the expression “Le violon d’Ingres” (meaning “hobby”).

Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977)
From age 16, Chaplin practised the violin several hours a day. He was left-handed and his violin was set up back-to-front to accommodate this. “I had great ambitions to be a concert artist,” he recalled, “but…I could never achieve excellence, so I gave it up.” He often composed theme songs for his films. Friends included the violinist Isaac Stern and Albert Einstein.

Paul Klee (1879-1940)
The Swiss artist followed an early career as a violinist, playing in the Bernische Musikgesellschaft while at school. His paintings are deeply influenced by music and he introduced to art expressions such as ‘polyphony’ and ‘rhythm’. He knew Schoenberg and Bartók personally, but, like Einstein, believed Bach and Mozart the epitome of musical abstraction.

Sherlock Holmes
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective uses his violin much as Einstein used his: to retreat into a mental space from which he can emerge refreshed and with crystallised perspective on the mystery he is trying to solve. It is a more salubrious pastime than his other retreat: injecting cocaine.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Elvis lives?

The healthy-sized audience that gathered at Kings Place yesterday for the opening night of the Hungarian Liszt festival (and Hungarian it was - I only heard two or three other people speaking English) arrived with high expectations of the brilliant young violinist Barnabas Kelemen and his duo partner Gergely Boganyi. But I'm not sure any of us anticipated the discovery that Elvis is alive, well and playing the violin. Kelemen strode on stage sporting the hair, the sideburns, the charisma and a slightly incongruous Chinese silk jacket; alongside him, Boganyi was long-legged, long-fingered and long-haired, clad in a shiny silver suit. They were quite a duo before they'd even begun.

This recital began literally where others end, plunging into the Bartok Romanian Dances with all the energy and earthy passion of musicians who have already warmed to their task and need no moment to test the water or coax in their audience. Instead, they just grabbed us. And there's no arguing with musicianship like this. Kelemen is a full-on virtuoso and makes no bones about it: his sound is huge, almost too big for KP, not invariably beautiful, but bursting with personality. Yet what struck me at every turn was the musical intelligence behind the charismatic showman: in the four Liszt pieces, he and Boganyi slid elegantly into that metaphysical soundscape between water and sky so characteristic of Liszt at his most spiritually removed, especially alive to the chilling and lonely visions of La Lugubre Gondola; the Romance Oubliee, too, was as delicate and elusive as anyone could hope.

Perhaps the biggest test of all was the Faure A major Sonata, which might seem an odd companion piece for the Hungaryfest, but bears traces of Liszt's influence via that of Saint-Saens, certainly in its fiendish piano part (I've played it rather a lot, struggling with the sensation I was doing the dog-paddle up an Olympic swimming pool). Boganyi made it sound all but effortless. I'm told that this admirable, clear-toned and sensitive pianist gave the complete solo works of Chopin last year at the Budapest Palace of Culture, in two days flat.

Mercifully lacking any English preconceptions that Faure should be pretty, floaty and over-refined, they really went for it. The work is pure passion, a wonderful, optimistic, sensual love-song for Marianne Viardot (Faure kept writing to her of "our sonata" during their brief engagement, and this was it). But being truly passionate doesn't mean bashing the hell out of something - quite the reverse - and it was the way Kelemen spun the melodies that impressed so much, shaping the drawn-out phrases with lines as long as Proustian sentences; and the variety of colours and shades of expression he is able to conjure, with varied vibrato and all-giving bow (plenty of flying horsehair). In the glitter of that nearly-an-optical-illusion scherzo, each pizzicato had a different shade of meaning. No repeated phrase was the same twice; no automatic pilot, thanks very much. Each moment lived, breathed and spoke. Faure's glorious elan shone in the sunshine, taking the sky and revelling in its breathtaking beauty.

As if that wasn't enough, Kelemen and Boganyi picked the Sarasate Zigeunerweisen by way of encore. First, Kelemen told us first about his famous Gypsy violinist grandfather, who died before Barnabas was born but has been captured on film (we've featured him before on JDCMB, but here he is again in case you missed it!). "There's one style we haven't played yet," said Kelemen, "the Gypsy style. I hope you all like Gypsy style..." Kelemen's grandpa would have been proud of the dash and devil-may-care daring with which Zigeunerweisen zoomed through Kings Place, some of it right on the edge of possibility in terms of speed. No safety net; no need for one.

Kelemen is one of very few violinists who can embody the ideal meeting of the Gypsy and Classical styles, understanding both from the inside and bringing out the best of both worlds. And not because of his "blood", but because of his musicianship. Though I do remember reading somewhere that Elvis had some Roma extraction too...

Catch him again on Saturday, playing Bartok's Violin Concerto No.1 at the RFH with...the LPO and Jurowski.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Action, please

A few fabulous musical events this week and next, all of which deserve that elusive thing called an audience but, being at Kings Place, are not as yet assured of having one. I reckon music-lovers just haven't clocked yet that this terrific venue exists -- it's not in a place where you can exactly bump into it. Get on your hiking boots and balaclavas and head for Kings Cross:

Today til Saturday: BIG HUNGARIAN LISZT BICENTENARY FESTIVAL with ace fiddler Barnabas Kelemen, Dezso Ranki & Edit Klukon who will play the Faust Symphony on 2 pianos, brilliant clear-toned pianist Denes Varjon, the Joyful Company of Singers and many more. Barnanas is first up this evening, and there's a pre-concert talk by Karl Lutchmeyer. But please ignore the note online saying that Barnabas is playing Liszt's 'finest violin sonatas' - you're right, there aren't any - he is actually playing Liszt's own violin version of some great piano pieces. And Bartok Romanian Dances and First Rhapsody & Faure's Sonata No.1. Full programme here.

Next week: TASMIN LITTLE AND FRIENDS in 'VIOLIN JOURNEYS'. Tazza, John Lenehan, Piers Lane, Paul Watkins, David Le Page and more in a fiddletastic whirl, plus mesmerism, masterclasses and Messiaen. (Infuriatingly, I am going to be elsewhere next week, but if I wasn't, I'd be there.) Here is Tasmin's sneak preview podcast.

BUT even if you do nothing else today, please read this inspirational and impassioned speech by the fabulous author Philip Pullman about the perniciously stupid, absolutely misguided current plans to close down our libraries.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Leap of Faith, aka Mozart from Daniel Ben Pienaar

OK, I know this animation isn't exactly JDCMB usual style. But I want you to hear the piano playing on the soundtrack. Currently it is all I can find on Youtube of Daniel Ben Pienaar playing the Mozart piano sonatas.  

Pas mal, hein? I've recently been sent the complete set to review -- it is just out on Avie Records, though the above video suggests that bits have maybe been floating around Magnatune for a while -- and as a whole it's the most fresh, vital, intelligent, inspiring Mozart playing I have heard in literally years.

If you enjoyed my post 'Let's hear it for.. the Mozart Piano Sonatas', then you'll love this recording. Daniel Ben plays the C minor Fantasy and Sonata as if it has stepped straight out of Don Giovanni. The sicilienne slow movement of the early F major sonata is as raw, painful and amazing as that of the big A major piano concerto or Pamina's 'Ach, ich fuhls..'. There's brilliance aplenty, too, as you can hear above. But essentially DBP (as a growing circle of pianophile admirers call him) meets the sonatas head on, throws out all the silly received opinion crap about them being tinkly salon pieces or rarified only-for-fortepianos early stuff, and embraces them as the full-on, every inch WAM, works of genius that they really are. I'm far from being the only critic who loved them: he's been highly praised in The Sunday Times and Gramophone as well, for starters. Get the album here.

So where has DBP been all our lives? I first came across him some while ago when he was recording Bach -- his Goldberg Variations is again among the richest, most thoughtful and provocative accounts of the work I've come across -- and I know he lives somewhere in London and teaches at the Royal Academy of Music, whose principal, Jonathan Freeman-Atwood, is the producer of the Mozart set and has recorded trumpet and piano works with him. He is South African and won the big competition in Pretoria a while back. He has also recorded more Bach, Orlando Gibbons (yes, on the modern grand, and jolly good it sounds) and lots of Schubert.

But that animation isn't so silly. In recording all the Mozart sonatas, and not being afraid to make his own very personal and profound statement with them, DBP has indeed taken a leap of faith. He has the air of an artist who will take a plunge from a high tower and sprout wings at the crucial moment. In the week of Mozart's birthday, I'd like to suggest that perhaps this set will be those wings.

Speaking of wings, those who tweet might like to know that there'll be a Mozart party on Twitter on the birthday itself, Thursday 27 Jan. Use the hashtag #mozartchat ... see you there.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Friday Historical: Menuhin and Kentner play Schubert

There is nobody like Schubert. There was nobody like Menuhin. There was no pianist like Kentner. So, just because we can, just for the sake of incredible music and musicianship, here they are. For the rest of the recording, click through the video to Youtube and you should find the other three parts pop up in sequence.

A Magical Musical Tour at Southbank Centre

Here's my piece from today's Independent: meet Olly Coates, artist-in-residence at Southbank Centre and "curator" of the Harmonic Series. All you have to do, for a fiver, is pitch up by the box office at 7.45pm on the appointed day and Olly will lead you to a surprise space for a weird and wonderful mix of magical new sounds. No.1 is on 30 January with pieces by, amongst others, Michel Van Der Aa, Zemlinsky, Mara Carlyle and, with Streetwise Opera, Emily Hall's The Nightingale and the Rose. But where? Dunno. See you there.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Curiouser and Curiouser!

I couldn't interview Tchaikovsky about Swan Lake, but had a great time talking to Joby Talbot, who's written the first full-length original score commissioned for a new ballet at Covent Garden in 20 years. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland opens on 2 March and sounds, well, curiouser and curiouser. Joby tells me about writing a waltz that is like "Johann Strauss gone bananas" and what the White Rabbit will have in common with the Great Gonzo. All here in today's Independent.

Pity we went to print before I could grab @LondonBallerina Lauren Cuthbertson's latest tweets from rehearsals (she's dancing Alice on opening night), which involve the Duchess, a frying pan and a foot - hers. "Lesson learnt.... dont get your foot hit by a pan if you wanna get on point any day soon :(" and then "it wasnt hot.... the duchess did it in the kitchen scene!! Booooo!!!!" The Duchess is being danced by one Simon Russell Beale. Off with his head?

Here's the video trailer at the ROH site. There's more info, too, in a section aptly entitled READ ME. And here is the site for booking.

Monday, January 17, 2011

For tree's a jolly good fellow

Why doesn't Beethoven's 'Pastoral' Symphony get played more often? Last night it was the climax of the Budapest Festival Orchestra's big Hungarian EU Presidency London concert and proved one of the most heartwarmingly delicious musical experiences you can have with a full orchestra. And instead of a rostrum, a tree - quite a tall one - appeared on stage in front of Ivan Fischer, the leaves high enough not to block his view of the players and vice-versa.

The players themselves popped up in odd places: the first flute, oboe and clarinet in tandem with the front desks of the cellos and violas, the second woodwind dispersed amongst the back desks of the strings. The double basses arranged as a wall along the back of the platform (a placing I always love: it gives a wonderfully solid grounding to the whole sound). The first violin entry in the fifth movement was played by the leader alone; and all the way through a sort of beatific stream of joy seemed to envelop the whole lot of them. No detail escaped Fischer's eye and ear; perfect clarity made the piece shine as if it was chamber music -- yes, I know it's a cliche, but hey, that's how it was -- and every so often you'd catch yourself thinking, "blimey, Beethoven really is the best, innit...".

It was indeed Beethoven at his best, and the Hungarians at theirs. When else, I wondered, have I sat beaming and transported to a better plane all the way through a piece of music like this? It used to happen with the old Takacs Quartet, in the Gabor Takacs-Nagy days. It happens frequently at Andras Schiff's performances, especially chamber music, but I seem to remember it at his St Matthew Passion with the Philharmonia some years ago too. It was definitely the case listening to Gabor Takacs-Nagy conducting the Elgar Introduction and Allegro in Verbier. Yes, it has something to do with the Hungarian musical tradition: all-giving, all-consuming passion, concentration, pride, rigour and fun, rolled up into one fabulous musical palacsinta...

Haydn's 'Oxford' Symphony -- written not all that long before the Beethoven -- was the opener, again filled with attention to detail, yet inhabiting rather a different world, one very much of 18th-century grace and elegance. Then came Birthday Boy Ferenc, in the persona of Stephen Hough: perhaps the perfect Lisztian, he stormed, dreamed and philosophised the First Piano Concerto into something much more worthwhile than it often seems. The terrific Anglo-Hungarian mix of Hough and Fischer took the work seriously and met it on its own terms, to dramatically colourful effect. Hough gave us the shortest, quietest Liszt encore you could imagine, and at the end the BFO added a Brahms Hungarian Dance (the one that segues with utter glee into the last section of 'Hejre Kati') and the Strauss Peasant Polka, in which the Hungarian-dancing orchestra started singing too. Result: audience on feet, yelling. Everyone happy. Time to party.

Upstairs, the wine flowed and the mini cherry strudels virtually evaporated the minute they appeared. The Hungarian chargee d'affaires explained that Hungary is basing its sixth-month presidency on the notion of Strong Europe; jokes were made about the placing of the storm before one can emerge into the sunny uplands of the fifth movement; many pan-European, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Liszt fans were making friends and we all sang happy birthday to Ed Vaizey's mother, led by the evening's maestro himself (pictured left, with your blogger).

There will be a terrific Hungarian Liszt festival at Kings Place next week, from 26th to 29th Jan, featuring some amazing artists including violinist Barnabas Kelemen, pianist Denes Varjon and a folk group... Check the programme here and do come along. But more on this very soon...

As for the Hungaryfurore... The latest development is that Andras Schiff has expressed the view that he is now completely persona-non-grata in his native land and thinks he may never play there again. But meanwhile, Hungarian friends here with their fingers on the pulse of the media law issue have told me that the English translation of the legal pages in question is about to be presented to the EU powers-that-be and that if its contents do not meet with EU approval it will be changed accordingly. It may be worth remembering, at this juncture, that that is exactly what the EU is really for. Time to add Beethoven 9 to Beethoven 6? Complete, I hope, with tree.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Boldog évfordulót, Liszt Ferenc...

That's "Happy Anniversary, Franz Liszt", to you and me. It's the big Hungarian shebang at the Royal Festival Hall tonight. The Budapest Festival Orchestra and its founder and music director Ivan Fischer are here to play Haydn, Liszt and Beethoven; the Hungarian president, culture minister and a raft of ambassadors will be in attendance; the soloist in birthday boy Liszt's Piano Concerto No.1 will be our UK piano top-dog, the one and only Stephen Hough. It promises to be quite a night. If there are any tickets left, get one here.

I've done an interview with Fischer re tonight which is out now in this week's Jewish Chronicle. It doesn't seem to have hit the website yet, though, so I am reproducing it here. First, here is the orchestra with Fischer back in 1998, performing the Mozart Requiem in Heroes Square, Budapest, marking the BFO's 25th anniversary and given in memory of the victims of the 1956 Revolution.

If you go to the Royal Festival Hall this Sunday, listen out for a lot of Hungarian around the foyers. Speakers of this fearsomely complex language will be out in force: 16 January marks the London launch of both the Hungarian presidency of the EU and the 2011 bicentenary year of that Hungarian-born musical legend, Franz Liszt.

The Budapest Festival Orchestra will mark the event in a special concert of music by Haydn, Beethoven and Liszt himself. On the podium will be its founding director, the Hungarian-Jewish conductor Ivan Fischer.

Fischer is an undersung genius of the podium: he is among the most inspiring conductors in the world, yet one who has not entirely gained the universal recognition his musicianship deserves. Despite having held distinguished posts with orchestras in the US and western Europe, Fischer has always elected to return to his native Budapest, which has remained off the beaten musical track relative to Vienna and Berlin, although it boasts a magnificent cultural tradition and is home to the groundbreaking, influential and egalitarian system of musical training devised by Zoltán Kodály.

The combined Liszt bicentenary and Hungarian EU presidency represents an exceptional opportunity for the country to boost its international and cultural profile. “It will not change anything in Hungary,” Ivan Fischer comments, “but it may change the perception in other countries about Hungary. The country has a very rich culture and a very troubled present situation.”

That is all too true. In the financial meltdown that began in 2008, Hungary, its currency plummeting and unemployment rising, was on the edge of bankruptcy. Having enjoyed a boom in property and film-making (it offers strong financial incentives for foreign film-makers), it has been hard hit by the crash. Last year its notorious far-right, openly racist Jobbik Party won 47 seats in the 386-seat Hungarian parliament.

Fischer, though Jewish himself, takes a pragmatic view of this: he elects to use music as a positive and inspiring symbol of enduring humanity. “The situation is uncomfortable,” he acknowledges, “but our concerts with the Budapest Festival Orchestra are important to many people there, including the 100,000 Jews in Budapest. There is growing nationalism and racism in Hungary, with hatred against the Gypsy community. One needs to stand up against these tendencies. There are also great people there.”

Fischer was born into a musical Hungarian-Jewish family in Budapest in 1951; his elder brother, Adam, is also a celebrated conductor, currently music director of the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. His earliest memories include the experience of the 1956 uprising, crushed brutally by Soviet forces while the world’s attention was diverted towards the Suez Crisis.

“I was five years old,” he recalls, “and I remember that we had to go to the cellar because of the shelling by tanks. The air pressure broke our windows upstairs. It was very cold until we found somebody to repair the glass.” Fischer nevertheless recalls childhood in 1950s-60s Budapest as “fun” and his musical studies progressed rapidly, encompassing piano, violin, cello and composition.

Later he studied conducting in Vienna with Hans Swarowsky and subsequently Nikolaus Harnoncourt, whose influence on him was prodigious. Still, his big break took place right here in the UK, where he won the Rupert Foundation conducting competition in 1976. This opened doors to guest conducting with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra, with which he undertook a world tour in 1982.

His posts have included principal conductorships with prestigious international orchestras, most recently that of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC, and he has been showered with honours: Gramophone’s Artist of the Year, Hungary’s Kossuth Prize, the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in France, and the Crystal Award from the World Economic Forum in recognition of his services to help international cultural relations.

His family background is remarkably similar to that of Mahler: both had ancestors who were shopkeepers in the Tatra mountains. One of Fischer’s great-grandmothers, though, studied the piano with Franz Liszt himself. “When he wanted to convey the proper rhythm for a Viennese waltz, he danced with her all over the classroom!” Fischer recounts.

The concert on 16 January will include Liszt’s Piano Concerto No.1 with the British pianist Stephen Hough as soloist. Among the most famous of Liszt’s orchestral works, it represents the tip of the Lisztian iceberg that the bicentenary hopes to address -- for this sometimes controversial composer is still substantially misunderstood today.

“Liszt was an innovator, a pioneer,” says Fischer. “Some of his works are underrated because the main value, in his day, was the novelty.” This could sound paradoxical, but Fischer has a point: with hindsight, the original impact of such innovation is lost. “It seems less interesting today, 200 years later.” This is a valuable opportunity to reassess a composer whose works often paved the way for the iconoclastic musical developments of the early 20th century.

Fischer founded the Budapest Festival Orchestra in 1983. Despite being in demand everywhere from the Israel Philharmonic to the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, nurturing the BFO has remained his number one priority. The orchestra’s repute has grown incrementally and together they have brought Budapest some superb initiatives designed to widen the audience, with Cocoa Concerts for children, Surprise Concerts in which the programme is not advertised in advance, and One Forint Concerts in which Fischer talks about the music from the podium.

But the biggest innovation remains the BFO itself. A New York Times review has described the orchestra’s “dark, full sound” and “appealing energy that seems to flow from a combination of bottom-up and top-down leadership”. It is an ensemble of indubitably Hungarian character, playing with fabulous passion and conviction as well as absolute musical rigour.

“My main interest has been to create an orchestra of artists who are emotionally involved and creative,” Fischer says. “With some orchestras music-making feels like working and I think it should be playing. It is good that we use the word “play” for playing an instrument.” He is planning to cut back on his guest conducting, he adds: “I would like to stop completely in a few years and concentrate on my own orchestras.”

Fischer is also a composer, and this is where his fascination with his Jewish roots is most strongly reflected. “I compose sometimes,” he says modestly, “usually simple, tonal, vocal works. Many of them have Yiddish texts. This is because I fear that without compositions this language may be forgotten in a few hundred years. Others should also compose in Yiddish.”

Two of his Yiddish choral works for women’s choir, Sait gesund and A nay kleyd, were commissioned by Dutch television; and his most celebrated work is Eine Deutsch-Jiddische Kantate (A German-Yiddish Cantata), which has been performed in several European countries and the US, though has yet to be heard in the UK.

On Sunday the BFO can show us exactly what joys their country’s admirable music-making can deliver. But in a climate in which culture is under assault by funding cutbacks across Europe and the States, does Fischer feel that music and its audiences can continue to thrive? He does indeed. “Music will always survive,” he says simply. “It is essential to people. I am not worried.”

Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, 16 January. Box office: 0844 875 0073
[From the Jewish Chronicle, 14.1.11]

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Amine & Hamza: Sounds of Tunisia

When Tom was on his way to Washington DC with the orchestra in 2008, he spotted a fellow passenger in the immigration queue carrying an instrument case that could only contain an oud. He bounced up to say hello and Amine M'Raihi was only too delighted to find someone who recognised this historic and beautiful Arabic instrument and wanted to know more. He and his brother, Hamza, who plays the kanun -- a type of zither -- were in fact on their way to perform at the Kennedy Center.

The brothers come from Tunisia and enjoy a successful international career as a duo; they have made seven CDs and play both together and in larger ensembles that mingle their characteristically north African sounds with jazz and modern influences. Extraordinarily enough, they are also studying medicine in Krakow.  We visited them there in the snow in 2009 and loved spending time in their warm, sparkly, astute company. They are wonderful, creative, sensitive musicians. More about them from Virtual Womex, here.

Today, given the developments in their homeland, I wanted to play the above song -- appropriately named 'Challenge' -- to let them know we are thinking of them and all the people of Tunisia.

Further reading: over at On An Overgrown  Path, Pliable has a fascinating thread devoted to the music of Tunisia.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Musical phoenix: the piano recital!

Here's my piece from today's Independent about how the piano recital is constantly rejuvenated by rugged individualists of one sort or another, from Glenn Gould to James Rhodes. Plus a selection of the best youngsters to watch out for.

Please have a listen to this wonderful young Armenian girl, Nareh Arghamanyan. I hadn't come across her before, but had a timely tip-off from a pianophile pal who says she has been creating quite a buzz across the Pond. Here she is playing Debussy in the Montreal competition 2008 in which she took first prize.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Musicians speak out about Hungary

Sometimes, someone has to speak out. More and more frequently, it is the musicians, artists and writers who do so.

Just look at what is happening in Hungary. A new law threatens to muzzle the media; racist, xenophobic and homophobic attitudes are taking a powerful hold; and who leads the way to protest? Musicians. Yesterday the conductor Adam Fischer, who resigned his post at the Hungarian State Opera in anger at the increasingly heavy-handed influence of the government, raised the issues in Brussels, along with a group of Hungarian authors and artists.

Hungary now holds the EU presidency. Andras Schiff wrote an eloquent letter to the Washington Post a couple of weeks ago (here is the original link, but I am pasting the letter in below):

Hungary's E.U. role questioned

Saturday, January 1, 2011; 5:50 PM
Congratulations for the Dec. 26 editorial "The Putinization of Hungary." Vladimir Putin's Russia is not a member of the European Union; Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Hungary is. This formidable institution is not only a business and trade organization, it also claims to represent common European values. In view of the latter, is Hungary ready and worthy to take on the presidency of the community, as it was scheduled to do Saturday?
The latest news is indeed alarming. Tolerance levels are extremely low. Racism, discrimination against the Roma, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, chauvinism and reactionary nationalism - these symptoms are deeply worrying. They evoke memories that we have hoped were long forgotten. Many people are scared.
The latest media laws are just the last link in a sequence of shocking events. Many of these concern the arts. The E.U. presidency is an honor and responsibility. The E.U. and the United States must keep an eye on Hungary. The E.U. must set the standard for member countries. We must guard and respect our common values.
Andras Schiff, Florence, Italy
The writer, who was born in Hungary, is a concert pianist.
The racist nature of the Internet attacks directed at him since then prove his point.

And now the big London Hungarian concert is nearly upon us: the Budapest Festival Orchestra with its conductor Ivan Fischer (brother of Adam) is performing a major gig at the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday to launch both the Hungarian EU presidency and the Liszt bicentenary. It's one of the greatest orchestras on earth; Fischer is an inspirational musician and is Jewish himself (I've just written a piece about him for the JC, plugging this very concert). Hungarian dignitaries aplenty will be there.

Hungary, the country of Liszt, Bartok and Kodaly, has possibly the best, most egalitarian musical tradition of all, one that represents quite the reverse of the political and societal attitudes that are on the rise there. So it is only right that today's great musical performers should use their fame as a platform to protest against these ugly, disgraceful elements. Hungary can and should do better.

Here's a pertinent report from The Independent today. 

UPDATE: Who will confront the hatred in Hungary? asks Nick Cohen (The Guardian)

In praise of Bartok

A good strong puff for beloved Bartok, in today's Independent. I did spend a bit of time in the first draft trying to explain how Bartok went into a revolving door behind Stravinsky and came out in front, but it was a little, well, a bit, um... The Philharmonia, Takacs and co have a veritable feast lined up, anyway, and it's going to be amazing. As for Hungary, once again, its music holds the alter-ego of the place: its spirit at its very, very best. More of that shortly.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Meet Sophie Bevan

Here's my piece from today's Independent about the terrific young British soprano Sophie Bevan -- and her family of 60 (SIXTY) singing Bevans! We also discuss her Wigmore Hall recital debut tonight, her appearance there next week with the Classical Opera Company, why she hates competitions and why she didn't want to be the next Charlotte Church.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Let's hear it for... the Mozart piano sonatas

In case you hadn't already noticed, BBC Radio 3 is playing every note that Mozart ever wrote, to the best of all our humble knowledge. It's taking 12 days and the initial concept did not precisely make me reach for the "on" switch (I can't listen to music while I write in any case). But today is Piano Day: the Mozart Piano Sonatas are centre stage, thanks not least to the brilliant Leon McCawley and it seems high time for a bit of defence for these astonishing and oft-maligned works.

Now, the curse of received opinion and false tradition works against music of every era. Baroque: precious and vibrato-less. Mendelssohn: shallow. Schumann: mad. Liszt: loud and vulgar. Faure: difficult, austere and drippy. Korngold: Hollywood schmaltz. Cage: random and unemotive. And Mozart piano sonatas: written for fortepianos, designed for home-based amateurs in the salons, therefore insignificant and tinkly. Musicians too often come to the music they play with little more knowledge of the context, truths and texts than such poisonous preconceptions (at least two of the above were notions originally put about by the Nazis, yet have seemingly entered universal knee-jerk-reaction consciousness). Recordings are imitated unthinkingly and thus false traditions build.

Look a little deeper, look into the text itself and take on board what you find. It may not be what you expect.

The Mozart piano sonatas are glorious works. Stop the tinkling, stop the Jane Austen images: the composer of the great C minor Fantasy and Sonata, the frenetic and pre-Schubertian A minor K310, the dazazling F major K533/494 gave us Don Giovanni, Le nozze di Figaro and Die Zauberflote. He created those incredible string quintets, 27 inspired and beloved piano concertos, the Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, and, for heaven's sake, most of the greatest Requiem ever written. So how are his piano sonatas tinkly and insignificant? Strip away the fear of incorrect phrasing, the academic insistence on articulation from a treatise or two and the idea that you cannot so much as touch a pedal while playing them; immerse yourself in the operas, the orchestral works, the choral music. Then come back to the sonatas and plunge in. The colour, fantasy and imagination you can then find is immeasurable. Take the F major sonata above: try it after hearing Figaro and you can find comparable characters in the sonata: the bubbling Susanna, the grand and angry Count, the rebellious pranks of Figaro, the yearning Countess. Place the C minor work alongside Don Giovanni and you find the Don's blazing reckoning within it.

I used to attend the lectures of Hans Keller at Dartington in the early 1980s -- he was already ill by then, but I will never forget his talk entitled Today's Musicless Musician. In his young day, he said, recordings were harder to come by, but music students went out of their way to learn not only the full repertoire of their own instrument, but the composers' vital works in other genres. And the idea that anyone could play the late Beethoven sonatas without knowing the late string quartets or the Ninth Symphony was simply unthinkable. You cannot understand the true spirit of a composer from one work alone. Some tried to argue back: can't every work speak for itself? But he had just given them the answer: it can't, not if you want to do it artistic justice. And if you think it can, you're showing up nothing but your own laziness.(Hans Keller also wrote very eloquently about football, btw. There's now a Facebook group devoted to memories of him.)

R3 will be (I hope) making today's broadcast available on the Listen Again website for UK residents, but in case you miss it or are not on the shores of this green and pleasant land, here is someone they won't be playing: Dinu Lipatti, in the slow movement of the A minor Sonata.

Monday, January 03, 2011

A really new beginning

Over the Xmas hols, while everyone was away, news popped into my in-box about the launch on New Year's Eve of the first full-scale Palestinian symphony orchestra to hit the boards since the band that later became the Israel Philharmonic. I only hope the concerts did take place as planned. Having not heard anything to the contrary, I thought I'd run the following... The pictures were taken when we visited the West Bank last April.

Only an immensely ambitious ensemble would begin its inaugural concert with music by the late György Ligeti. But the Palestine National Orchestra has nothing to lose: it is already perhaps the most audacious new orchestra in the world.

Holding its first public concert on New Year’s Eve in Ramallah, and, remarkably, following this with performances in Jerusalem and Haifa on consecutive days, the PNO is the first Palestinian symphony orchestra of professional musicians to be launched since the orchestra that later became the Israel Philharmonic back in 1948. Its opening programmes were to feature, alongside Ligeti, Mozart and Beethoven, music by two Palestinian composers, Sharbel Dalal and Salvador Arnita, the latter a former organist from Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The PNO is the natural consequence of a groundswell of interest in western classical music that has developed in the Palestinian Territories over the past 15 to 20 years. It is the initiative of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music which, since being founded in 1993, has grown into a network of music schools that teach both western and Middle Eastern musical instruments and styles, with centres in Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and more in the planning stages. 

To say that music has come to represent the life blood of the Palestinians might be an exaggeration, but not by much. When I went to the West Bank a few months ago with my husband, who brought his violin, we visited the ESNCM in Bethlehem -- a little town that bears scant resemblance to the Christmas carol, being neither still nor dreamless. There Jalil Elias, the Bethlehem ESNCM director, described the organisation’s mission in no uncertain terms.

“We teach music to give the children here a new mentality and a new life and we teach them to let them breathe,” Elias declares. “It’s our philosophy, it’s how we can let the Palestinian people, through music, find peace for themselves. We believe that music is one voice for everyone, all over the world. It doesn’t matter if we are Japanese, French, English, Italian or whatever: a soul is a soul. Politics is full of lies, but when you play music like Mozart or Beethoven, you play from your depths and from your feelings and from your fingers and your touch and your heart – it’s truth, not lies.”

The ESNCM offers music tuition to thousands of children, 75 per cent of them on full scholarship, and via an outreach programme to those in impoverished villages and refugee camps. Its flagship is the Palestine Youth Orchestra, founded in 2004, which is made up of young musicians aged from 12 to 26. And Bethlehem’s conservatory is now building a state-of-the-art new home with a concert hall, a music library, 17 classrooms and plentiful studios, due to open in 2011.

In Ramallah I visited the independent music school Al Kamandjati (in Arabic ‘The violinist’), run by the violist Ramzi Aburedwan. Born and raised in a refugee camp, Aburedwan first held a musical instrument in his hands when he was 14 and attended a children’s workshop held by a visiting musician.

“I had always dreamed about playing music but I never expected to touch an instrument,” Aburedwan says. “It was always a far-away dream because of the lack of opportunity, and I was from a poor family that could not afford music lessons.” He went on to win scholarships to study in the US and France, but never lost sight of his goal to return to his homeland and bring music education to children there. Al Kamandjati opened in 2005 with a group of visiting teachers, a motley collection of donated instruments and 20 students. Now, says Aburedwan, the latter number around 500.

The Barenboim-Said Foundation (distinct from the ESNCM, which is also named in honour of the Palestinian writer Edward Said) is yet another a powerful force in music education, centering on Ramallah where it has established an international team of teachers and seeks to make the study of western classical music part of everyday life. Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, though, does not attract universal praise: to some it represents a false image when seen alongside the realities on the ground. “It’s another world,” says Aburedwan. “Playing in the best halls in the world has nothing to do with what’s going on here.” 

Undeniably, given the realities of daily life in the Palestinian Territories, the PNO is launching against all odds. Ferocious logistics are involved in putting on any concert in this region, especially if it requires the transport of a large number of people of assorted backgrounds, residences and permits; journeys through the Palestinian territories are liable to be interrupted for unpredictable lengths of time by armed checkpoints, while the Palestinian populace is subjected to a labyrinthine system of regulations affecting, among other things, entry permissions, number plates, segregated roads (some are reserved for Israelis and settlers only) and the Separation Wall.

But nothing could make clearer the pivotal role of music in maintaining the Palestinian sense of dignity and identity than the establishment of this orchestra. Its opening series is an international affair under the baton of the Swiss conductor Baldur Brönnimann, with the Palestinian-Japanese soprano Mariam Tamari as soloist. The orchestral players include both Palestinian musicians and classical performers of many backgrounds who have visited the Palestinian territories to teach. If it can succeed, its message of hope for the year ahead should speak out loud and clear.

(Were you there? Have you heard about how the concerts went? If so, please write in and tell us.)

UPDATE: Violinist Simon Hewitt Jones writes in to say that actually another symphony orchestra launched in Ramallah just a couple of weeks earlier! This is the Ramallah Orchestra, founded by Ramzi Aburedwan himself, with Al Kamandjati. Simon joined them at their first concert to perform Monti's Czardas. You gotta love the way that the spirit of artistic competition is flourishing so strongly over there. See article here.

Saturday, January 01, 2011



And here, on 1.1.11, are a selection of 7 Top Reasons to Welcome 2011:

1. Last night our home was the unexpected host of a proposal and subsequent engagement at midnight. CONGRATULATIONS, RUSTEM AND DANIELA! With you around, who needs Wills & Kate? And a huge Mazel Tov to my beautiful Ozzie cousin Mandi and her bridegroom Dean, who tied the knot in sunny Sydney the other day. May 2011 be a year of weddings!

2. Hugh Canning has named the London Philharmonic as Best Orchestra of 2010 in his Sunday Times Best & Worst of the Year. Bravo, orchestra-in-law!

3. The New Year's Day Concert from Vienna was full of Liszty Czardasy stuff and there will be lots and lots and LOTS more to look forward to in the Liszt Bicentenary.

4. Some really good people got New Year Honours, including MBEs for the admirable and energetic Simon and Pamela Majaro of the Cavatina Trust, an OBE for composer Colin Matthews and a CBE for composer/presenter Howard Goodall. Best of all, there's a Damehood for the glorious Felicity Palmer, mezzo gloriosa.

Admittedly, as Michael White points out in the Telegraph, the precise ranking may be disputable. Still, it is good to see anyone in classical music receiving due recognition at the moment. (By the way, we're still waiting for Dame Tasmin. I don't know how these things work, but it's scandalous that our leading British violin soloist has never been awarded any official honour whatsoever.)

5. Glyndebourne is doing Meistersinger this summer, with Vladimir Jurowski conducting and David McVicar directing. Roll over, Bayreuth...

6. I have some terrific projects on the go. For now, let's just say that they may pop up in such diverse locations as San Francisco, Australia, France, Suffolk and the Middle East.

JDCMB housekeeping has taken place in the sidebar and involves weekly links to interesting musical Youtube channels, plus a shameless plug via which you may advertise here, take part in a writing course, etcetera, etcetera.

7. Katie Fforde this morning tweeted the adorable idea that we are now living in the Elevenses. Here's to honey for all!

Happy New Year, folks, with lots of love from me, the Tomcat and Solti.