Thursday, April 28, 2011

Watch with Mother for composer of Royal Wedding work....

It's been a closely-guarded secret, that Royal Wedding music, and on the whole it's very best-of-British. Well, British, anyway. According to BBC Breakfast today, we're promised Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Britten (!), and Kate is walking up the aisle to the strains of Parry's utterly execrable I was Glad. The London Chamber Orchestra will be doing the honours - more of them soon, I hope... but meanwhile the breaking news is that a work by a little-known Welsh composer, Paul Mealor, 35, has been chosen for performance on the big day alongside all the pomp and circumstance.

The piece, Ubi caritas, was premiered last year at St Andrew's University, meeting place of the happy twain, and will be performed by the choirs of Westminster Abbey and Her Majesty's Chapel Royal, conducted by James O'Donnell. Paul says: “I was thrilled to hear that HRH Prince William of Wales had chosen my music for his wedding. How humbling it is for me to know that Prince William and Catherine will celebrate the beginning of their lives together with my music. The ceremony is going to be, without a doubt, the most emotionally intense and exhilarating hour of my life.’’    

After making the poor guy keep all the excitement under wraps until now, you'd think that the least they could do was make sure he's in the abbey to hear his piece. But no. He's apparently planning to be at home in Wales, watching on telly with his mum. I can't help wondering if he was even invited. Shall we hazard a guess?

About Paul: he studied composition privately from an early age with John Pickard, at the University of York with Nicola LeFanu (1994-2002) and in Copenhagen with Hans Abrahamsen (1998-99). Since 2003 he has taught at the University of Aberdeen, where he is currently Reader in Composition, and has held visiting professorships in composition at institutions in Scandinavia and the United States.

Update: the full list of music for the Royal Wedding is now online at the official site, here. John Rutter has been commissioned to write a brand-new anthem, there'll be a piece by Peter Maxwell Davies who's Master of the Queen's Music, and the happy couple will exit to Walton's 'Crown Imperial', followed by the Widor Toccata and a spot of Elgar. And much more.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Seeing Pina

I hadn't seen a 3-D movie since the deep sea extravaganza at the Imax where we all tried to catch the fish in front of our eyes. It was fun, but what exactly was the point? 3-D is not 3-D: it's the illusion of it, an evocation of being there when we are not. So, attending Wim Wenders's Pina, it's hard to avoid cynicism when the screen instructs us to don our special glasses. Yet Pina's own words tell us within the first few minutes that dance is an evocation of experience. So, too, are words. All we can do is...evoke. Now it begins to make sense, and the magic is ready to start.

But wouldn't Pina be just as magical without the 3-D? I suspect it would, because the beauty of Wenders's filming has never let us down before and certainly doesn't do so now. Pina is indeed an evocation: Pina Bausch herself died almost two years ago and this is no documentary, since Wenders tells us nothing of her life or career. Instead he lets her choreography, her dancers and her company's home surroundings of Wuppertal pay tribute through image and only the sparest of words.

The dance rarely stops. Thanks to the 3-D we seem to be on stage amongst the dancers during Bausch's devastating choreography of The Rite of Spring, or riding on the odd dangling Wuppertal monorail to witness a little street theatre: one dancer wears donkey ears while another gets up to all manner of peculiar things with a pillow. Sometimes muslin curtains waft in front of our noses; at other moments we nearly feel the autumn leaves blowing out of the screen, or seem to smell the water that flies around the stage in the dazzling, magnificent and fabulously funny Full Moon.

Pina Bausch is glimpsed in existing film, for little more than seconds. Her dancers each pay a brief and beautiful tribute to her - they are an international crowd of many different shapes, sizes and ages, unified by their devotion to Bausch and her dance style. The latter may look wild, free and zany, but is phenomenally demanding: it requires incredible control, an all-giving and all-taking matter in which if you lose your sense of humour you will quickly be lost too. This is dance as the ultimate human expression, able to travel from high comedy to tragedy and insanity within two blinks: every millimetre of finger or toe contains the very essence of emotion. Marius Petipa, eat your heart out.

Bausch was an artist ahead of her time - it is only now, and largely thanks to this movie, that a wider public appears to be waking up to her astounding work. It has taken a cinematic legend to send her mainstream - and if the 3-D is a gimmick, it's a good one, well-handled and more appropriate than some of us expected. Wenders's poetic touch is assured, luminous; you can go in knowing nothing of Bausch and still come out moved. The dancers' devotion to her and her work says it all. Amazing how two-dimensional Finchley Road appeared on exit.

The film's website has all the background information one might wish for, here. Meanwhile, perhaps we need filmmakers of genius to transform performance art of all types for this still-new century.

"Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost..."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Padding more around Vaughan Williams and Ravel

In case you missed this little treat about the friendship of Vaughan Williams and Ravel in The Independent on Friday, here it is again, very mildly tweaked, to trail Mark Padmore's concert with Roger Vignoles and the excellent young Navarra Quartet tomorrow night at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The Navarras' CDs, btw, are well worth a listen - I've thoroughly enjoyed them when reviewing for Classic FM Magazine. And I don't need to introduce you to Mark, I'm sure - but here he is anyway, singing the beginning of RVW's On Wenlock Edge (with pianist Simon Lepper and the Royal String Quartet). And just see if it doesn't sound a tad more Ravellish when you've read the article...

Jessica Duchen

At the outset of the 20th century, a transformation was about to take place in British music. Long dominated by German influences and newly interested in folk songs, British composers began to discover France. And in 1907 Ralph Vaughan Williams went to Paris to take lessons with Maurice Ravel: a composer several years his junior, yet one whose music – sinuous, detailed and highly individual – proved an irresistible attraction to a young man who declared himself afflicted by “French fever”.

The influence of Ravel on Vaughan Williams, and the long friendship between the two, is the basis of a fascinating concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall by the celebrated tenor Mark Padmore next week, with the Navarra String Quartet and the pianist Roger Vignoles. The concert, says Padmore, offers a musical “conversation” between the two composers: “It’s like visiting an exhibition of Picasso and Matisse together, so you can see the points where their ideas coincide,” he says.

Ravel and Vaughan Williams were first introduced to each other by the music critic Michel Dimitri Calvocoressi; soon afterwards, the Englishman – a great-nephew of Darwin and a descendant of the Wedgewood family – decamped to Paris for three months of study. As Padmore says, “Vaughan Williams decided he needed a bit of French polish.”

The beginning, though, was anything but auspicious. Vaughan Williams later recalled: “When I had shown [Ravel] some of my work he said that for my first lessons I had better ‘write a little Minuet in the style of Mozart’. I saw at once that it was time to act promptly, so I said in my best French, ‘Look here, I have given up my time, my work, my friends and my career to come here and learn from you and I am not going to write ‘a little Minuet in the style of Mozart.’ ”

Ravel seems to have responded positively to being stood up to; besides, Vaughan Williams, at 35, was hardly a beginner. Soon the English composer was writing to Calvocoressi thanking him for the introduction to “the man who is exactly what I’m looking for. As far as I know my own faults, he hit on them exactly and is telling me to do exactly what I half feel in my mind I ought to do – but it just wanted saying.”

Ravel’s motto, Vaughan Williams noted, was “complex but never complicated”. The lightness of touch he advocated was a far cry from the blandishments of Sir Hubert Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford, Vaughan Williams’s main teachers at Cambridge University and the Royal College of Music, who had steeped him in Beethoven string quartets and the English choral tradition. “The heavy contrapuntal Teutonic manner,” he discovered, to his delight, “was not necessary”.

On Wenlock Edge, Vaughan Williams’s song cycle at the centre of Padmore’s programme, may seem quintessentially English, setting evocative poetry by AE Houseman. But on closer examination, Ravel’s stamp is everywhere in it. “There’s an impressionistic style to the writing, like the sweeping winds of the first movement, or the way that bells are depicted in ‘Bredon Hill’, and it sounds less folksong-like than much of Vaughan Williams’s earlier music,” says Padmore. The transparency of the textures and the pared-away clarity of line about the melodies were also new to Vaughan Williams and highly Ravellian. Ravel championed the work, organising its French premiere in 1912 and playing the piano part himself.

The year after Vaughan Williams’s time in Paris, Ravel came to London to stay with him in his home in Cheyne Walk. Ursula Vaughan Williams later remembered her husband describing Ravel as a charming and sometimes very surprising house-guest: “Ralph enjoyed taking him sight-seeing and was fascinated to find that he liked English food...It appeared that steak and kidney pudding with stout at Waterloo Station was Ravel’s idea of pleasurably lunching out,” she wrote.

But several years later, world events conspired to create a stronger tie between the works of Ravel and Vaughan Williams than either could have envisaged. With the outbreak of World War I, both composers enlisted for active service. The traumas of that time were often reflected by a deep, unsettling chill in their music in later years.

Vaughan Williams served in the Field Ambulance Service of the Royal Army Medical Corps and later in the Royal Garrison Artillery. His experiences of trench warfare in France in 1916 – he was a stretcher-bearer evacuating the wounded from Neuville St Vaast in hellish conditions – left him profoundly shaken. Here he conceived a work whose misleading title, A Pastoral Symphony, belied its true nature.

“It’s really wartime music – a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night with the ambulance wagon at Ecoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was a wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset – it’s not really lambkins frisking at all as most people take for granted,” he explained.

Ravel had hoped to join the Air Force, but ended up driving an ambulance. “For several months I have been at the front, at the part which has seen the most action,” he wrote to Vaughan Williams. “I went through some moving experiences...enough to amaze me that I am still alive.” During the war he experienced an additional tragedy, the death of his mother. His own health suffered: he contracted dysentery and was operated on. Afterwards, he composed virtually nothing for three years, but worked frenetically when he finally resumed. Each movement of his piano suite Le tombeau de Couperin is dedicated to the memory of a fallen comrade – as necessary and cathartic an exercise for him as A Pastoral Symphony was for his English friend.

Recovering his physical health, he wrote to Vaughan Williams: “It is now my morale that must be cared for and I don’t know how to do it... Won’t you be coming to Paris soon? I would be very happy to see you after so many terrible years.” The memory of war stayed with Ravel: the tramp of marching boots seems to haunt his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (1929-30) while the supposed tribute to the world of old Vienna, La Valse, which he started well before 1914, was transformed after 1918 into a veritable dance of death. 
But oddly, it was Ravel’s mother who may have held the true key to the affinity between the two composers. “She was from the Basque region,” Padmore says, “and Ravel recalled her singing folksongs to him.” We don’t usually think of Ravel as a folksong-influenced composer – unlike Vaughan Williams, who spent much time researching traditional English music with his friend Gustav Holst, and loved to employ its musical language in his works. “But it’s clear that Ravel did have an interestin folksong,” Padmore insists, “and I think it influenced the way he approached word-setting, as it did with Vaughan Williams.” 
Ravel died in 1937; Vaughan Williams outlived him by 21 years, becoming the grand old man of British music and being awarded the Order of Merit. The two might have been linked by a natural andprogressing affinity, but Vaughan Williams always remained, as Ravel said, the only one of his pupils who did not write music that sounded too much like Ravel. Perhaps Ravel’s greatest gift to Vaughan Williams was the courage to be himself.
Mark Padmore and friends perform Ravel and Vaughan Williams in Southbank Centre’s International Chamber Music Series, Queen Elizabeth Hall on 27 April. Box office: 0844 875 0073

Friday, April 22, 2011

How NOT to get coverage for your concert, part 2

Part The Second... More top tips straight from the horse's mouth, a.k.a. desk of JDCMB. Best tip of all is provided by Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers at the end... Tomorrow we'll have the best of your tips - there've been a few. HAPPY EASTER & ENJOY THE SUNSHINE!

13. Do not... choose anodyne titles. Some extremely good organisations perhaps fail to attract media interest because their names/titles are so bland, general and lacking in statement-creation that they sound unbelievably boring, even if the content ought to prove otherwise.

14. Do not...try to cultivate a 'friendship' with a critic imagining that they'll give you good reviews. A true friend will tell you exactly what he/she thinks. And you mightn't like it and you might be upset. So might they. Chances are they'll have seen straight through you long before then in any case.

15. Do not... have a conversation that goes like this: "Darling, how are you? I was so worried! I saw your note saying you were off sick and didn't want calls, I hope you're feeling better?...Oh, I'm sorry - you need more time? Well, at least it's sunny, and oh, by the way, we've got a concert on Thursday, if you fancied coming along - not to review it, of course, purely for a nice evening out...our soprano is really amazing, she has a fantastic story to tell about how she sang Isolde the night her dog died...but I only called to see how you were...." (Yeah, right...). If a journalist ever claims to be off sick, they mean it. Most of us are freelance and can't afford to take 'sickies'. And if we say "please don't call for three weeks," we won't like it if you do.

16. Do to address someone by name, or fail to say 'please'. Old-fashioned? Yes, but there's a reason people used to do these things. "People give concert: consider feature or review" goes straight to SPAM because it's no way to accost a hack in her own home.

17. Do not...take anyone or anything for granted, and do not regard yourself as entitled to anything at any time. (Actually, this applies to all of us, no matter our profession. A principle for living.)

18. Do indiscreet. If you slept with anyone in order to get that concert, make sure nobody ever finds out (eg, check that he doesn't buy all his girlfriends the same hat; and make sure you hide his Christmas cards). If you are indiscreet you might indeed end up with coverage. The wrong kind of coverage. Possibly in the wrong kind of newspaper.

19. Do not... offer press tickets to someone who lives in another country unless you're also willing to pay their travel and accommodation. Otherwise, see point #10. in yesterday's post.

20. Do not... send impersonal notes saying "I'd be grateful for any publicity for the attached...". Of course you would be. So would everyone else who's trying to publicise their stuff. You're asking for free help, remember. If you're that grateful, buy an advert. And don't be surprised if someone rings you up wanting to sell you one.

21. Do not...misuse social networking. Facebook, Twitter, etc are great for spreading the word about what you're doing, making new friends, staying in touch etc - but they're not appropriate for direct personal approaches re coverage. Don't be surprised if jaunty tweets saying "hey! revu mi konzert 2nite" get short shrift.

22. Do not...betray the fact that you know sod-all about the music you're trying to sell. Did I ever tell you about the 1980s record company exec - newly employed, from a background in an unrelated industry - who'd suddenly learned Tchaikovsky was gay and started talking to a roomful of hard-bitten, traditionally-minded music critics about how he was 'developing some Tchaikovsky concepts'?

23. Do not...write furious letters if you get coverage and it's bad. Shit happens. And it happens to everyone at some point. Once a review is out, it's out and unless it contains actual libel (contentious point, that) there's not a lot you can do about it. Thing is, probably nobody will remember it in any case, assuming they even saw it. Get your revenge by doing something utterly marvellous next time. Remember, once your brilliant career is well established worldwide, that reviewer will look really stupid.

24. Do not...underestimate the role played in all this by plain - old - good - luck.

Now, here's what Fred, Ginger & Jerome Kern say...

...and look how they end up:

Thursday, April 21, 2011

How NOT to get coverage for your concert, part 1

Musicians often write to me asking "how to get coverage" for their concerts. After however-many-years in the music business, even if I can't suggest a foolproof way to do certain things, I sure as hell know a thing or two about how not to do them. So here, in two parts of 12 each, are the top 24 ways NOT to get your concert covered in the media. I'm providing this information because, dear musicians, I love you, I want to help you and it is all for your own good...

1. Do not... send out no invitations, no press releases, no social media, no posters, no advertising. You think that if you build it, they will come? Not if you don't tell them about it, they won't.

2. Do not... send out invitations, press releases, et al, four days in advance telling everyone to 'save the date'. Chances are they'll be booked up. You need to save your own date. So get on the case at least two months ahead.

3. Do not... phone a list of journalists and say "Who do you write for?" Do your research. It's easy - all you need is internet access...

4. Do your press releases as file attachments. Always, always paste them into the main body of the message. If your targets see only "People Give Concert, please read attached", nine out of ten will move straight on to the next of their 700 messages without reading anything at all.

5. Do not... aggressively badger editors about what a staggeringly wonderful opportunity they are missing by not reviewing your concert/interviewing you. They are offered approximately 6009 similar staggeringly wonderful opportunities every day.

6. Do editors dissecting the infelicities of their latest leading article and telling them you can do their job better than they can. They will not love you for it. Besides, if you could do it better than them, you'd be doing it already.

7. Do not...fight the fact that if there's no 'story' then there's no story. To stand a chance of competing in today's climate, you need one. Playing wonderfully is a prerequisite: we imagine fondly that you would not be playing at the Wigmore Hall, Southbank Centre or The Sage if you couldn't. So make the most of the story you have and don't whinge about how tragic it is that such things are necessary. Go with it, not against it. If you don't have a story, it's a chance to go and create a good one.

8. Do not...forget that the arts are the creative industries, so you need to be creative. For instance, every young pianist has a list of accolades as long as both arms, but there's a limit to the number of times anyone can listen to (let alone cover) a programme of Bach, Beethoven, the Schumann Symphonic Etudes and the Liszt B minor Sonata and/or Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit without losing the will to live. Play something interesting - Kapustin or Messiaen or whatever; plan a programme around an unusual theme or a historic strand; or make an amazing transcription of your own...

9. Do not...emotionally  blackmail your targets. However worthy your event, covering letters that twist thumbscrews will meet a dim response from stressed-out hacks.

10. Do not... waste other people's time and your own. Choose the right targets. You know the old joke about the musician who went into a shop and asked to buy a violin? "You're a viola player, aren't you?" said the shopkeeper. "Yes - how did you know?" said the surprised musician. "Well, this is a shoe shop..." If you ask classical music journalists to cover your pop gigs, or vice-versa, you are the viola player of PR.

11. Do an evangelist: those are best confined to the St Matthew Passion. If someone does not have the taste for what you're offering, insisting that you can convert them to it is not a great way forward. Find someone favourably disposed instead.

12. Do not...put your apostrophes in the wrong place. Please. Read Eats Shoots and Leaves if you're not sure. DO make sure your spelling, grammar and punctuation are correct. And, come to think of it, your facts...


Wednesday, April 20, 2011


We are giving my play A WALK THROUGH THE END OF TIME as a rehearsed reading at East Sheen Library, Sheen Lane, London SW14, on 5 May at 7.30pm. The library is about 1 min walk from Mortlake Station (20-ish mins from Waterloo on South West Trains). Do join us! Find more details here:

Monday, April 18, 2011

Holst: the Director's Cut

Here's the extended version of my article last week in which I interview Tony Palmer about his stunning and lavishly musical new film Holst: In the Bleak Midwinter. Don't miss the broadcast on Easter Sunday, BBC4 - and watch out for the Hungarians of the Savaria Orchestra with Tamas Vasary, playing The Planets for the very first time. They seem possessed by it.

But first, here's an extract of Holst's Hymn of Jesus. I sang in it once at Dartington about 100 years ago and, dear reader, I didn't know what had hit me. At the time I considered myself a young woman who was out of step with English matters musical and avoided anything remotely religious like the proverbial choose-your-preferred-infectious-disease. I'd never heard of Theosophy and wasn't too sure that 'mysticism' wasn't something you saw when you looked down a microscope. Whoops. Just listen to this... (Btw, in case your were wondering, I still avoid religion whenever possible - just not where music is concerned.)

Jessica Duchen

Gustav Holst’s The Planets is one of the best-known pieces of classical music ever written by a British composer. How strange, then, that we know so little of the composer’s other music – or, for that matter, of the composer himself. But Tony Palmer’s new full-length film about him, In the Bleak Midwinter – due for screening on BBC4 on Easter Sunday – contains more than a few startling revelations about this apparently quiet and enigmatic figure.

First, it turns out that The Planets originally had nothing to do with planets at all. And the composer whose melody (from “Jupiter”) became the patriotic hymn “I Vow to Thee, My Country” loathed those words because they were, according to Palmer, “the opposite of what he believed”. Holst was a passionate socialist, allying himself during World War I with a “red priest” in Essex who once pinned to the church door a note announcing “prayers at noon for the victims of Imperial aggression”.

Palmer first became interested in Holst when the composer Benjamin Britten told him, during a 1967 interview, that he owed Holst a great deal in terms of influence. And it was in the library of Britten’s Aldeburgh home, The Red House, that Palmer eventually viewed letters from Holst that proved his attitude to “I Vow to Thee”. Looking at manuscripts of The Planets in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, he was able to see that the title, subtitles and names of planets were afterthoughts to an existing piece. As for Holst’s political convictions, as with the rest, the information had always existed, he says – but nobody had yet added it all up, recognised the heart of the matter and made the sum of it public.

The Planets’ first moniker, Palmer says, was simply Seven Large Pieces for Orchestra. Subtitles were added later, and the title “The Bringer of War” only became “Mars” later still. To Holst the “Bringer of War” meant something quite different: Palmer suggests that this extraordinary music depicts the mechanised, industrial capitalism which Holst saw as an impersonal machine threatening to crush humanity beneath its relentless wheels, bringing the horror of war as its inevitable companion. While the exact date of its composition is disputed, it’s thought to be spring 1914 – making it, with hindsight, a work of alarming prescience.

But the central spur of the planned Seven Large Pieces for Orchestra was neither astrological nor political: it was Theosophy. This pantheistic spirituality pioneered by Helena Blavatsky was immensely popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, influencing figures as diverse as the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, the artist Paul Gauguin and the poet WB Yeats. It drew on eastern philosophies, notably Buddhism and Indian spiritual traditions; and Holst was involved in it enough to learn Sanskrit. Many of his works have an intense eastern flavour, including the three-part suite Beni Mora, his Four Hymns from the Rig Veda and the operas Savitri and Sita. The work that became The Planets was conceived as a mystical journey of the evolving spirit: “The Bringer of War” symbolises the lowest level, while “The Mystic”, which became “Neptune”, is the highest.

Holst makes his own place in the journey clear: he worked his name into the music as a driving motif in “The Magician” (“Uranus”). The notes GSAH in German notation (in English notation G-E flat-A-B) stand for “Gustav Holst”. It’s peculiarly touching to think of this otherwise unconfident little man recognising, deep down, that as a composer he was a magician as well.

His heritage was anything but British. He was born in 1874 in Cheltenham to a family of German descent (not Swedish, as has often been stated) that had immigrated to Britain from Riga, then a part of Russia, where they owned property. The Holst name carried an aristocratic ‘von’, which their ancestors had bought from the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. At the time of World War I, Holst had to pay to get rid of the title by deed poll.

Sickly and short-sighted, Holst suffered all his life with neuritis, which affected his right hand and arm so much that he could barely hold a pen. Composing in his music room at St Paul’s Girls’ School, where he taught for many years, he would sometimes strap the pen to his finger in order to be able to write. At other times, he enlisted the help of a young teacher and a student to take down his musical notation and play it back to him at the piano. The room was kept as warm as possible, since heat eased the neuritis. This was also why as a young man he lived briefly in Algiers, whence he rode his bicycle into the Sahara Desert.

But Palmer says it was only when he visited Thaxted in Essex and saw the church to which Holst gravitated on spotting the red flag inside that the puzzle of the composer’s life really began to make sense. “He clearly had very strong socialist sympathies,” Palmer says. “He conducted the Hammersmith Socialist Choir, he taught at Morley College, which was set up specifically to bring education to the working classes, and St Paul’s Girls’ School was doing something similar in a way, by bringing education to girls who had been denied it before.”

Holst delivered copies of the Socialist Worker from his bicycle around Thaxted and developed a strong friendship with the Christian Socialist vicar, Conrad Noel, who flew the red flag and the green one of Sinn Fein side by side and encouraged Morris dancing in church as a form of worship. Holst’s outlook did not extend to pacifism: he volunteered for army work during World War I, but was turned down, partly because of his poor health, but largely because of his German name.

He always remained something of an outsider. While his friend Vaughan Williams – a relative of Charles Darwin – benefitted from fine connections, Holst had no such advantages. He lived quietly in a cottage by the river in Barnes; he made his living by teaching and composed at weekends from nine to five. His marriage was less than happy and ill health plagued him. He was convinced, furthermore, that he was a failure – indeed, the only time he ever heard The Planets played by an orchestra was in an “open rehearsal” paid for by Balfour Gardiner, a wealthy composer and conductor. Holst died aged 59, after an operation for a “duodenal ulcer”; the illness was probably stomach cancer. His only daughter, Imogen, who died in 1984, spent much of her life struggling to keep his legacy alive.

The Planets has more than flourished since then, along with his St Paul’s Suite and the famous Christmas carol In the Bleak Midwinter. Why so little else? “Partly it’s the overfamiliarity of The Planets,” says Palmer. “We know it so well that we think that’s what Holst is. But there are other reasons. He had a variety of different publishers, not just one, so it was never in anyone’s interests to promote him. He wasn’t well off, and there wasn’t the machine of patrons and protectors around him that composers like Vaughan Williams and Britten enjoyed. He never had anyone to help him at all.”

Palmer’s film has tackled not just the neglect of Holst’s other music, but the ennui of The Planets too: for the musical extracts from it, Palmer worked with the Savaria Orchestra and the conductor Tamás Vásary in Hungary. The musicians had never played it before and gave a completely fresh performance straight from the gut, as Palmer had hoped. They obey Holst’s instructions to the letter, taking his own marked tempi – often much faster than we’re used to – and using wooden rather than coated sticks to strike the timpani in “Mars”. The effect is overwhelming. “At the end the timpanist asked me if she was loud enough,” says Palmer, who’d felt “pinned to the wall” by the orchestra’s intensity. “She certainly was! But she added, ‘I just played what it said in the score.’ And that’s what Holst wanted.”

Palmer’s film tells a moving tale, illustrated with swathes of Holst’s startlingly original music. Perhaps it can turn around, at last, the fortunes of British music’s most unlikely hero. If so, it’s not a minute too soon.

Holst: In the Bleak Midwinter, directed by Tony Palmer, is on BBC4 on Easter Sunday

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Philadelphia Story

That was the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1949, with Eugene Ormandy, in Birmingham, rehearsing a spot of Brahms. Blimey. That, people, is one heck of a great orchestra.

Fast forward to yesterday, when the board of the Philadelphia Orchestra yesterday voted for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The Philadelphia Orchestra is one of the finest orchestras in America, hence the world, and its budget for this season, $46m, sounds kind of huge from little old London. So what's gone wrong? The New York Times has the most informative article I've yet seen, explaining it all.

The news comes only a week or two after the strike at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra was (mercifully) resolved, while orchestras are folding in Syracuse and Hawaii, and while the shenanigans in Brazil around a maestro of mythic-sized arrogance should not bear acceptance by any member of the musical community anywhere in the world.

It's further proof (you'd think we'd have enough by now, but it seems not) that purely private funding is no way to ensure the thriving life of a national treasure: philanthropy and endowments are fair-weather friends. There've been management problems in Philadelphia before now, as the NYT piece shows, but we should take all of it as a timely warning and learn never to rely solely on one means of garnering lolly for anything.

But still, allowing an orchestra like Philadelphia to go bust is like letting the National Gallery do likewise. A great orchestra, like a great gallery, is a showcase - a living showcase - for the wonders created by human beings over the centuries. They remind us we're people, that we have brains and that we have souls and they inspire us to become more than our ancestral apes could ever have dreamed. In a gallery, you walk and look. In a concert, you sit and listen. Breughel or Bach, Titian or Tchaikovsky, Monet or Mozart - you decide.

Art belongs to everyone, folks. It knows nothing about our personal circumstances. Just because you don't have any dosh it doesn't mean you are not entitled to experience the best artistry that humankind has to offer - or, if your natural talent allows, the right to acquire the skills to create it yourself. And don't you ever forget it.

So sit and listen to this: the Philadelphia Orchestra in its glory days, an American orchestra under its Hungarian-born conductor Eugene Ormandy, playing English music. Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. And if you can't play it (I'm told some readers outside the UK can't), try the extract of Scheherazade from 1978 below.

UPDATE: Peter Dobrin's Philadelphia-based blog has frequent updates on the situation. UK readers may find it intriguing to look at the comments he receives and note the difference in mindset between some American concert-goers and our own. I'm glad to say I've never once heard anyone in the Royal Festival Hall grumble about young people getting cut-price seats.

Friday, April 15, 2011

London Philharmonic scoops Olympics recording

Uh, that's what those mystery sessions on the schedule were. We wondered. Bit late. And it's a bit ironic, too, since Tomcat is a kind of national anthems boffin and is forever searching out peculiar places with loony tunes to strut about and fool us with. But the sessions are in amongst a bunch of other stuff and they didn't need all the violins, so he decided not to do them. DANG.

Here's the story as told by the BBC website:

London Philharmonic to record Olympic nation anthems

The London Philharmonic Orchestra is to record the national anthems of all 205 countries participating in the 2012 Olympics. 

Composer, conductor and cellist Philip Sheppard will take charge of the recordings, which will be played at the medal and welcoming ceremonies.

Recording starts in May at London's Abbey Road Studios.
It will take the musicians at least 50 recording hours over six days to finish the project.
Mr Sheppard said he hopes working at the iconic studios will help "creativity".
He has been working on the anthems since October, to make each one sound "unified".
Each anthem had to be up to a minute in duration and Mr Sheppard said it was a challenge to condense them.
"Uruguay is about six-and-a-half minutes long, so there comes a point where one has to chop it down, without offending the country in question," he told the BBC.
"But Uganda is only nine bars, so I had to come up with a way of making it last longer without it being repetitive."
London 2012 chairman and two-time Olympic champion Lord Coe said: "The playing of anthems at victory ceremonies is one of the most emotive parts of any Games and it was an incredible moment for me at the Moscow and Los Angeles Games.

Palmer does Holst

Don't miss Tony Palmer's grand-scale exploration of Gustav Holst's life and work, In the Bleak Midwinter, to be screened on BBC4 on Easter Sunday and released on DVD the next day. Apart from the revelations about his nature and beliefs which are outlined in my piece about the film in today's Independent (read it here), it contains extracts from The Planets - which, wouldn't you know it, wasn't originally about planets at all - played by the Savaria Orchestra from Hungary, conducted by Tamas Vasary. The orchestra apparently used to be the Hungarian State Somethingorother - it moved cities and changed its name - and they'd never played a note of good old 'Mars' before. Frankly, my dears, you've never heard anything like what they do with it. Tony says he felt "pinned to the wall" by their intensity. And all they're playing is...exactly what Holst asked for in the score. The article has been somewhat chopped, so I may run the Director's Cut here at some stage.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Mark Padmore and the sausages

A tenner for a tenor from washmedia on Vimeo.

Apparently our superduper British tenor Mark Padmore costs the same as a bag of flour, a train ticket (depends where and how far in advance you book) or... 4lb of sausages. Seems like the Britten Sinfonia, which has invented an inspired form of crowd-funding entitled 'A Tenner for a Tenor', are maybe not aware that we're all supposed to measure our food weights in kilos these days. (Something to do with the EU, don't ask me. I'm cool with either. Vegetarian, though.)

Anyway, sausages aside, the scheme is designed to raise money to commission a new work for marvellous Mark from jolly-good Jonathan Dove. It's going to be premiered in a year's time and broadcast on BBC R3. Since our local Waitrose is selling Lindt chocolate Easter trinkets for a terrifying £5 each and I think Mark and Jonathan together are an awful lot better than two bunnies, I'm going to contribute. Are you? More details from Britten Sinfonia here.

Afterwards, I'll have to grill them about the experience...

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What's in the party bag?

It was time for an away-day by a north London canal yesterday as we were treated to lunch and the annual BBC Music Magazine Awards ceremony at Kings Place. The music industry was in a remarkably good mood, all things considered, and there were some great prizes to celebrate. Record of the Year went to Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet on LSO Live, with the doughty band headed by Big Valery. Not that he was there - but subleader and chairman Lennox McKenzie had a good story about how VG phoned him five minutes before they were due onstage in Vilnius, and said "I'm here..." "Where?" "Look up..." And over went an incoming plane...

The person who was there to present them with the award, though, was Prokofiev's grandson, "Nonclassical" musician Gabriel Prokofiev. Something about his face is... a chip off the old block. Just look at Grandpa.... It was a really nice thing to do and made everyone very happy.

It was a good day for "best of British" admirers, with wins for a disc of David Matthews's symphonies, Purcell's The Fairy Queen from Glyndebourne on DVD, and so forth. But Russians other than Prokofiev were also well represented: Alexander Melnikov took the instrumental award for his Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues, and the chamber music award went to violinist Vadim Repin and pianist Nikolai Lugansky for their disc of Franck and co (left) - the boys themselves couldn't make it to Kings Cross, but sent in a wonderful thank-you video in which accents and aspects alike were absolutely worthy of Creature Comforts. The France-based label Harmonia Mundi scooped no fewer than three awards. I was sitting next to them and by the end we had to be careful not to kick the glassware. Felicitations, mes amis - vraiment un good haul and jolly well deserved.

You can see the full list of winners and watch the awards ceremony online by clicking here.

Now, dear reader, when you attend an awards ceremony, you get a party bag when you leave. So what's in the BBC Music Mag Awards goody trawl? The magazine, naturellement- in which you can read, among other things, my Composer of the Month article about Dvorak. Next, a couple of the discs - not sure if we all got the same ones, but in my bag were the Bach Motets conducted by Masaki Suzuki and the debut disc prize CD (which I've heard, reviewed elsewhere and gave 3 stars out of 5). Next: a glossy copy of BBC Gardens Illustrated, a bag of Kettle Chips, a pocket-sized bar of Green & Black's white chocolate (...all gone!) and a packet of grow-your-own tomato seeds. I'm sure there's a metaphor in the tomato seeds. If I find it, I'll let you know.

Huge thanks to Olly Condy and his brilliant team for a lovely day, and all best wishes to Daniel Jaffe, the magazine's erstwhile reviews editor, who is leaving now to write a big biography of Gustav Holst.

Hitting the high pitches

Ever wondered what the ladies of the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra do in their spare time? Ace Munich fiddler Corinna Desch got out her video camera...

It's part of a video competition in which you can choose your favourite team. To vote for these orchestral Rhine maidens, click here:

Monday, April 11, 2011


It's the best piece of news I've heard from the recording industry in yonks: Decca has announced that it has signed Benjamin Grosvenor, the 18-year-old British pianist, to an exclusive contract. It's not a moment too soon. Benjamin is one of the finest talents I have ever come across, bar none: a pianist whose musical instincts are so profound, so natural and so right-sounding that he leaves you wondering why not everyone else plays like that too.

He is the first British pianist to be signed to Decca in 40 years (their last ones were Clifford Curzon, Moura Lympany and Peter Katin) and their youngest artist in history. He'll be making his first Decca disc this spring and it will be released in July, featuring Chopin's Four Scherzi, Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit and short works by Chopin and Liszt. He's still studying at the Royal Academy with Christopher Elton, but the country's never forgotten his astonishing performance, aged 11, in the final of the 2004 BBC Young Musician of the Year competition (when Nicola Benedetti won - and rightly so, as 11 is just too young!), or the insights offered in the TV programme Imagine that was devoted to him soon afterwards. Now he has, literally, come of age. Here's the article I wrote about him in The Independent last year.

Nice one, Decca. Hang in there, Benjamin.

Paul Moseley, Managing Director of Decca Classics says:
'This is an enormously significant moment for Decca. As a British company proud of its heritage what could be more satisfying than making this agreement with the most exceptional British pianist to emerge in decades?  Benjamin has evolved from a child prodigy to become an artist of extraordinary imagination and flair. Above all, he has a sound that is all his own.  The time is now right for this major new step in what will certainly be a long and very successful career. We are thrilled to be part of that and look forward to many landmark projects together.'

Benjamin Grosvenor says:
'I am very pleased and excited to sign this deal with Decca. It is a great honour to be asked to record for a company with such an illustrious history and which has recorded so many of the musicians that I admire. I am very much looking forward to getting into the studio to record such wonderful repertoire.'

Benjamin is a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist and here he is under their auspices playing Chopin...

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Daddy Florez wows the world

It would have been a dream evening even without the announcement, but in the interval of Le Comte Ory last night, broadcast and cinecast all over the planet, Juan Diego Florez told us that his son, Leandro, was born just 35 minutes before curtain-up. JDF offers the following information on his website:

Our son Leandro was born today, April 9th 2011, at 12:22 New York time, with 3.77 kg (8 pounds 5 ounces) and 53.34 cms (21 inches). We thank all fans around the world for your good wishes 
Julia and Juan Diego

Leandro was born at their New York apartment, in water; a natural unmedicated birth. Juan Diego received the baby and placed him on Julia's chest. Then Juan Diego had to rush to the Metropolitan Opera House for his Comte Ory performance, which began at 13:00. The performance was broadcast in cinemas around the world, and although he had a sleepless night, the performance was a success.

As for Le Comte Ory, it's a piece of such whimsical Franco-Italian perfection that it's hard to believe the Met has never EVER done it before. I caught it on Radio 3 from the comfort of my study as the local cinecast was sold out and I had fond hopes - which foundered at once, of course - of continuing to write while listening. The singing was way too good for that. The story is as silly as all the pictures of Florez dressed as a nun suggest, but the three leading roles, Countess Adele, Comte Ory and the page Isolier, sound dazzlingly impressive at the best of times. And when they're respectively Diana Damrau, JDF and Joyce DiDonato, who could ask for anything more? 

Comic opera generally gets far less credit than serious, but personally I'd pick Ory over Trovatore any day, any year. It's more difficult to write (and perform) good comedy than wonky melodrama - even that Hollywood screenwriting guru Robert McKee says that comedy is the hardest thing - and though the Ory story isn't precisely subtle, Rossini paints it with the lightest of musical brushes. Several times it spills over into pure genius and it's never less than joyous. The three-in-a-bed-romp, as the Sun might have called the last trio, sounds as pure as can be: one of those all-too-brief ensembles that can hold you rapt, outside and beyond time, with scrunchy harmonies worthy of Mozart on a good day. On stage just then, Adele thinks Ory is a nun, Ory thinks Isolier is Adele, and Isolier is a trouser-role so is conveniently masculine and feminine at the same time, so...well, work it out. They are all saved by the bell.

Here's the coda to the trio:

The Met has been remarkably slow on the uptake with this one, and thank goodness Florez, 38, is doing it so visibly now; that high tenor lead cries out for him (so to speak). Glyndebourne gave a terrific production as long ago as 1997, and it's on video, with the lovely Annick Massis as Adele. ENO staged it back in the 1970s; I don't remember who sang, but I do remember my father - an oddly severe character with a secret penchant for Carry On films - positively rolling in the aisles. 

If you're within reach of the Curzon Mayfair, you can dash in for the 'encore' showing this morning at 11.30. But it was perfect just as it was here last night, audio only, on the airwaves, and I'm happy to stick with the memory. That's how we learn to stop worrying and love bel canto. Meanwhile the proud papa - interviewed by Renee Fleming in the interval, said he was ecstatically happy and sent love messages over the airwaves first to Julia, then to Peru, then the rest of South America, then the blighted Japan... 

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Super Shoutouts from the Stratosphere... Music for All #6

The morning after the night before...Fiona Maddocks in The Guardian is the first review I've seen of the big Barenboim bonanza at Tate Modern last night. 


The standing ovation began before Daniel Barenboim had played a note. On Friday night, to a crowd of about 1,100 who only learned of this impromptu free concert three days earlier, the legendary pianist celebrated more than 60 years since his performing debut with a quixotic recital in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall. If Barenboim wanted, as he said, to drag the classics "out of the ivory tower", where at least he might be guaranteed a good acoustic, he succeeded. The sound was not dissimilar to a public swimming pool, but everyone listened attentively and no one minded.
"Quite frankly I was tickled at the idea of playing here," he said, interrupting his all-Chopin programme with his characteristically fluent chat and sharp humour. "What would you like me to play? A polonaise? A waltz?" he challenged. "Bach," replied one brave soul. "Bach? I am here to play Chopin. I will play his Minute Waltz. Is that okay?" ...
Read the rest here... 

Barenboim had strong words to offer about the importance of state funding for music education, too. Fiona reports:
"Music is part of life, music is part of culture," he said. "Governments should put money into teaching music to all, from the kindergarten on." This urgent cry was also heard at the influential Salzburg Global Seminar on music this week.

His interview with the BBC's Will Gompertz is headlined CLASSICAL MUSIC FOR ALL

[Barenboim] says there should be a "radical change of the education system", so that "children don't just learn literature, biology, geography and history at school, but you also learn music". Because, he thinks, "through music you get over many obstacles you have in daily, normal daily life outside music".
And, he added, if people are to get something out of classical music they need to put something in:
"There's no point in telling people just go there it's so simple it will happen. That's also not true, it's not a good way. I think that people need to know that to get something out of classical music they have to really want to go there and open their ears. And really concentrate and listen and then they will really get a lot out of it." ...
"...[F]ind a new public and wanted to find the people that are curious. The people that maybe feel they don't know enough about music and don't dare to come into contact with it. And maybe through this kind of action they will. Maybe they will come. In the end curiosity is the most important because if you are curious you will acquire the knowledge that you might not have presently."

The Salzburg Global Seminar, mentioned above and co-chaired by Sir Nicholas Kenyon and Sarah Lutman from Minnesota's St  Paul Chamber Orchestra, ran earlier this week and carried the title The Transformative Power of Music. The roster of participants included many distinguished musicians, academics and big-time arts administrators. I can't see any politicians on the list, though. Here is some more information about the seminar; I hope this doughty collection of people are able to move the message forward. Some of the questions they are asking are:
When and how has music played a role in social and political change? How has music raised awareness of social injustices? How can music bridge cultural differences? How can music help to unleash the talents of marginalized youth? What role can new technologies play in this process? What contributions can music make to peace-building and reconciliation efforts? And, finally, how can we maximize these positive impacts of music? 
These are fine questions. Now we need some answers, fast, and a way to get the message home to the decision makers in government. 
In America, the marvellous Kevin Spacey has been speaking to Congress, making the case for greater funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. Read about it in the Huffington Post. I imagine the chance of him succeeding are limited, given that American snottiness towards the arts is almost as extreme as that in the UK, but at least he has tried. Here a bunch of our finest actors including Sam West and Penelope Wilton went to Downing Street this week to deliver a petition. We hear that David Cameron wasn't even there. 

As for the commentators who heap scorn on the arts - sometimes even if they are devoted attendees or even critics - SHAME ON YOU! Dan Rebellato has a good go at them in his Theatre Blog, here

Nicholas Daniel, oboist extraordinaire and one of my contributors to SHOUT OUT! this week, emailed this morning to tell me that the summer courses for the Bedfordshire Youth Orchestra have just been cancelled. "We are all gutted," he says.

My husband, Tom, who's been in the first violins of the London Philharmonic for nearly 25 years, probably wouldn't have been there at all if he hadn't got the bug for orchestral playing by attending his county youth orchestras and especially their summer courses. As we've mentioned here before, few British string players get jobs in the top British symphony orchestras today: the applicants who tend to play best usually come from countries where there are stronger systems for free music education for a wider range of children at a younger age, where ambition is encouraged, and where scorn is not poured on the talented ("Well, you're hardly going to be Yehudi Menuhin, are you," said a schoolteacher to Tom back in 1970 or so, a teacher who had never heard either Menuhin or little Tommy). The exceptions tend to be the ones whose exceptional inner determination can override all that and sustain them despite what often feels like no support from anywhere or anyone. I can promise you that I've never met anybody on this earth more determined than my good old Tomcat.

His family was not musical; he came from a one-horse town in the Midlands where only one or two other children were learning the violin; then he studied in Manchester with a violin teacher who couldn't play - as it happens, a Hungarian who'd been injured escaping in 1956 and no longer had the use of one hand. And it was only thanks to the county youth orchestras in Staffordshire and Cheshire that he met a peer group who inspired him and gave him the necessary ambition to push himself to a new level. - among them, a then-youthful fiddler who ended up as concertmaster of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.
You may say: fine, if those opportunities weren't open to him, he'd have done something else and what does that matter? Perhaps he'd have been a doctor (two siblings are medics), a tour guide (he's good at languages, not that anyone encouraged him with that either) or a PR executive (he's good with people and organising things). But it does matter. The point is, he had a choice. Music was his passion and he knew it would be his life. Are we to face a future for the UK where a young person with that talent and that passion finds that they can choose any profession they like except the one they really want, because its necessary foundations are scorned by an establishment that doesn't understand it? 

Don't let it happen, people. Don't let our children, grandchildren, nephews and great-nieces/nephews be turned into machines, denied the chances of expression, discovery, creativity and fulfillment through understanding that distinguish human beings from animals. We have minds, we have souls - yes, we do - and we use them. It doesn't cost very much and it brings extraordinary returns, both measurable and - more valuably - immeasurable.

To say that future generations may not have that choice because we can't afford it is stupid. And will land society with an awful lot of trouble when that generation grows up disaffected - and realises what we've done to it; what we had, what we could have had had we made the effort, and what we needlessly threw away at the stroke of a politician's pen.

Catch up with this week's Shout Out! Music Education for All:
No. 1: Tasmin Little, Barry Douglas and Julian Lloyd Webber;
No. 2: James Rhodes, Errollyn Wallen and Nick van Bloss;
No. 3: Paul Lewis, Nicholas Daniel and Eos Chater;
No. 4: Margaret Fingerhut and Leon McCawley;
No. 5: Clemency Burton-Hill and Philip Sheppard.