Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Road to Jericho #1

If you haven't already met them, then meet my friends Fifth Quadrant and Dal'Ouna. Fifth Quadrant is a go-ahead young British chamber ensemble featuring, amongst others, Simon Hewitt Jones and Drew Balch (left, photo by Ian Dingle). Dal'Ouna, from Ramallah, is an ensemble of Palestinian musicians led by Ramzi Aburedwan, director of the inspirational music school Al Kamandjati (=The Violinist). The Road to Jericho brings both ensembles together for joint concerts and projects with young musicians in Britain and the Palestinian Territories. This week they're working in Snape with Aldeburgh Young Musicians and tomorrow I'm off there to see how it's all going. More shortly about the forthcoming evening with all of them that opens the Spitalfields Festival.

This Saturday afternoon, 4 June, at 3pm, please come and join us at the Mosaic Rooms, Earl's Court, for a discussion about music-making and musical education in the Palestinian Territories. Simon is planning to webcast the debate live at the Road to Jericho website - and possibly right here on JDCMB as well (assuming he can conquer my technotwitdom). I'll be chairing a panel discussion featuring Simon, Ramzi and the filmmaker, broadcaster and author Dennis Marks, and we'll be inviting questions from our live audience and also our virtual audience via Twitter. Admission is free (though donations are welcome) and there'll be refreshments and a short performance by Dal'Ouna. Watch this space for more details!

Here is a little something to whet the appetite: this is one of the pieces I wrote following my trip to the West Bank in the week of the ash cloud a year ago - when I met one of the most musical kids I've ever seen in my life.


Foot-stamping, boot-tramping,
Mood to dance! A time to dance!
Mood to dance! A time to dance!
Stamp and jump, and keep the beat,
Dabke dance, we need to dance!

Bare the floor and bare the window
Cracked the floor and blank the window
Linked the arms and dark the hair,
Themed by scarves, and teamed by dance
Mood to dance! A time to dance!

Teenaged boys don’t dance in England,
But here they’re men in dance and drive,
Dance their life and dance their soul,
Dance their team and dance their dream -

But where’s the music? We have none,
Blank the floor and bare the window
Jump and stamp, the music’s blank.
And there in a corner sits the guest:
A western violinist.

…“Play us something so we can dance!
…Play us something that sounds Arabic!”
…But the violinist stands helpless,
…He can’t play anything but Mozart and Tchaikovsky…

Issa calls the need to dance,
Issa leads the time to dance,
Issa’s burning up with dance,
Issa’s music lives within
And Issa’s mind will find a way.

Bare the floor and blank the windows
But music’s in the mobile phone!
Rig it up and blast the windows!
Tape it up and stamp the floor!
Damn the fiddle and stream the music,
Mood to dance! A time to dance!
Energy will find its way.
The violinist taps a toe,
The violin will learn to play.

© Jessica Duchen, 2010

Brava, Anna Caterina!

That was the astonishing and absolutely unique Anna Caterina Antonacci, in Carmen (at the Opera Comique - that opera's birthplace - with John Eliot Gardiner conducting and Andrew Richards as Don Jose). My interview with her, conducted in the unlikely setting of a pub just off Borough High Street when she was in London for Berlioz's La mort de Cleopatre, is the cover feature in the new issue of Opera News in the US, just out now. I believe she is the nearest thing we have today to Pauline Viardot, of whose voice Alfred de Musset wrote: "It is the same timbre, clear, resonant, audacious … at the same time so harsh and so sweet, which produces an impression similar to the taste of a wild fruit."

Here's the feature. Enjoy.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Balsom soothes and sizzles!

My interview with the lovely and brilliant Alison Balsom is in today's Independent.

She has some strong words, too, that can go under our JDCMB Music for All banner - hopefully a cause of the type she will espouse as a patron of the new Mayor's Fund for music scholarships, which was launched by Boris Johnson a few weeks ago. Alas, the first paragraph below hit the cutting room floor at the paper, but here it is, plus some:

“What worries me greatly is the lack of value put onto arts education,” she says. “Because it doesn’t lead directly to a well-paying job, people think it should be cut from schools. I think this is a travesty! I do earn my living through music, but learning music as a child taught me so much more. It taught me to be a rounded person. It helped with self-discipline, it taught me about working with other people, it’s a way of expressing myself and of organising my thoughts. If I hadn’t had that, I don’t know how I’d have developed those parts of my brain. And I’d never have started to play if I hadn’t had access to heavily subsidised lessons. Music should be available to everybody, not just to people who can afford it.”

“Since I’ve had Charlie [her 14-month-old son] it’s become even clearer to me that even very young children have an instinctive response to music,” she adds. “It’s like a fast track into their brains. It’s so obvious. How can we ignore that? To lose that connection would be a dangerous thing for our culture.” Helpfully, Charlie toddles by, singing to himself.

It will take figureheads like Balsom to bring the cause to the fore – and at least she is there to try. “I want to get that message across,” she says. “But often people are more interested in the Armani dresses and the diamonds. And the fact that I’m a female trumpet player.”  
Here she is at the Last Night of the Proms two years ago, with a spot of Piazzolla...

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Happy Birthday, EWK

It's Korngold's birthday (114). I'm afraid I'm currently laid up with something bronchial and can neither stop coughing nor think straight, so without further ado, here's 'Ich ging zu ihm' from Das Wunder der Heliane, recorded in 1928 by its original interpreter, Lotte Lehmann. Enjoy.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Should Strads be played?

One of the best-preserved Stradivarius violins in existence, the 'Lady Blunt' of 1721, is about to come up for auction. The auction house Tarisio has announced that the violin will be included in their online sale on 20 June. It's currently owned by the Nippon Music Foundation of Japan. All proceeds will go to the Nippon Foundation's Northeastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Relief Fund. This violin, named after one of its former owners, Lady Anne Blunt, who was Lord Byron's granddaughter, was bought by the NMF in 2008 for over $10m.

The press release quotes Christopher Reuning of Reuning & Son Violins in Boston, praising the instrument's exceptional nature: “Rarely does a Stradivarius of this quality in such pristine condition and with such significant historical provenance come up for sale. It still shows the tool-marks and brushstrokes of Stradivari.” Jason Price, director of Tarisio, says that the instrument is the violin "equivalent of da Vinci's Mona Lisa or Michelangelo's David."

If you have some spare millions sitting about and you won't already have spent them at Sotheby's on the Mahler 3rd first edition, the Mendelssohn watercolour or the nude pics of Britten and Pears, there could be worse purchases than this to consider.

As a pleasant side-effect, you could enable a great violinist to play a great instrument: in the list of illustrious owners of this violin, the names of any actual musicians are conspicuous by their absence. On the other hand - is that why the instrument is as well preserved as it is? Very probably, yes. The less wear and tear there is from playing an instrument, the more you can tell about the original craftsmanship that went into its making. After some 300 years, we're still trying to understand the secret magic of Antonio Stradivari  The new owner of the 'Lady Blunt' will need to weigh up the pros and cons of sound versus legacy.

Personally, I believe passionately that great violins should be played by great violinists; it is painful to see a Strad hanging in a glass case, the voice for which it was created silenced apparently forever. But clearly it's a debate that has two sides. Currently there's an amazing exhibition of musical instruments at the Horniman Museum in south-east London and I had a very interesting chat with one of its curators, Bradley Strauchan, just before it opened in March. It’s amazing how much you can learn from a 19th-century French horn, she told me. 

Side by side in the exhibition, 'The Art of Harmony', sit two instruments once owned by Giovanni Puzzi. A lynchpin musical impresario in London in the Victorian era, he was also the Paganini of the horn, easily able to transcend the unfortunate Italian slang meaning of his name: “stinky”. His horns are reunited here probably for the first time since his death in 1876. One belongs to the Horniman, the other to the Victoria and Albert Museum. 

In the bell of the latter instrument, lavish decoration in green lacquer has worn away exactly at the spots on which Puzzi placed his hand to shape the pitch of his notes. This horn has a tale to tell of its owner’s technique (we can even learn that he was right-handed), his distinguished and wealthy status (such decoration didn't come cheap) and the precious place the instrument held in his family history. The musician’s grandson gave it to the V&A in 1926; nobody had played it but Puzzi himself. 

The horns in the Horniman are typical of the fascinating and exquisitely made instruments on show here. We have three years to beat a path to Forest Hill to see them, for this relatively small museum is thinking big. When the V&A’s musical instrument galleries were closed last year, an outcry followed among musicians, music-lovers and all admirers of instruments as historic objets d’art. This was, after all, the first publicly displayed collection of its kind in the country and remained one of the most prized. So the arrival in south-east London of 35 items from the V&A, on extended loan, represents a welcome venture to keep them in the public eye.
The V&A’s instruments provide an intriguing counterpoint to the Horniman's own, which were chosen by Frederick Horniman himself with utterly different aims. The juxtaposition highlights the contrast in mission between the two very Victorian gentlemen responsible for building up the collections. And, situated in the south London hills not far from the Crystal Palace, the museum – Horniman’s former home ­– was within a stone’s throw of one of the most important shopping grounds for instrument collectors, who flocked to its Great Exhibition of 1851 and bought up whatever they could. Horniman, though, accumulated the bulk of his collections – musical instruments and well beyond – during his international peregrinations as a wealthy tea merchant.
“In his whole collection, the emphasis was on eclecticism,” says Strauchen. Horniman was an obsessive collector of artefacts from around the world and especially of natural history; the museum is also home to a quantity of collected butterflies and a magnificent stuffed walrus. “When it first opened, the museum was about entertainment, spectacle and fun -- the grounds would be open, there’d be brass bands, firework displays and balloons ascending.
“Horniman was a Quaker,” she adds, “and very much in keeping with his Quaker ethos he felt a great responsibility to share his material fortune with others and provide the community with access to these things that they might not otherwise be able to see. For him, the Victorian didactic element, the desire to teach, the desire to share, was almost a moral imperative. The musical instruments in his collection, from all over the world, show his interest in music’s anthropological element, focusing on how they were used by musicians and what the social role of music was.”
Carl Engel, on the other hand, was employed by the V&A to build their own collection of instruments with an emphasis on design and craftsmanship. Engel, a German-born pioneer of organology (the study of musical instruments), was the perfect choice for the job. “He had a wonderful eye,” says Strauchen. “The V&A was set up expressly to help British designers and manufacturers to compete on an international basis, and the instrument collection was no exception. Here, it’s as if the two collections and their different purposes have been brought into dialogue with each other.”
The highlights are plentiful. Besides Puzzi’s horns, there is a chance to see Rossini’s oboe; Renaissance viols with exquisitely carved scrolls; an octagonal recorder carved out of ivory; long-abandoned models of instrument such as the viola d’amore and the baryton. Intricately decorated harpsichords and an exquisite oboe bell from 17th-century Holland bear witness to the aesthetic value that was placed on creations of that time. And there is a Stradivarius violin, made in 1699 and part of the V&A’s collection since 1937. It's the first time, says Strauchen, that the Horniman has had a Strad under its roof.
Plenty of violinists would be itching to get hold of that Strad. But it and its fellow exhibits are there for a good reason: leaving them untouched, says Strauchen, is the only way we can continue to gather detailed information from them about how they were made and the techniques that were used to play them. Still, she can’t help seeing both viewpoints. “As a horn player myself, there would be nothing more tempting than to take Puzzi’s horn into a quiet room for a few hours and play it!” she admits. So far she has managed to resist. 

What do you think? Let them be played, or leave them alone?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Another little coup for the in-laws

It's always funny when I hear what's going on at the LPO before the Tomcat does, but this news is very nice: the London Philharmonic has just snaffled Nicholas Collon to be its new assistant conductor. From the autumn season, Nicholas will be the lucky lad who gets to shadow Vlad 'the Impaler' Jurowski, and he will conduct a number of LPO concerts and pre-concert events himself. Twitter addicts have probably found him already, but in case not, follow him at @nicholascollon. Maybe he can persuade Vladimir to tweet too.

Currently in charge of the brilliant Aurora Orchestra, which won the RPS Award for Best Ensemble the other week, Nicholas has already made an impressive mark on the musical scene here. He's dynamic, creative, articulate and has one absolute prerequisite for a gifted young 21st-century conductor: seriously curly hair.

See also the similarly hirsute Ilyich Rivas, and Robin Ticciati...

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

For sale: Britten in the buff

A tip-off from Alex Ross about some of the treasures on sale in Sotheby's next Music and Continental Books and Manuscripts sale has revealed that Lot no.223 includes "Six Unpublished Photographs of the Naked Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears". They were taken in 1939 on Long Island and apparently show the composer swimming with Aaron Copland and others. I wish this was a more exciting prospect, but...well, just look at him. No wonder he didn't want to stick around in the UK to fight the Nazis. (Has anybody got one of the deshabillé Franz Liszt, by any chance...?)

But the auction is well worth exploring if you've got a five-figure sum or two to spare. It's offering, amongst much else, some valuable letters from Chopin to the cellist Auguste Franchomme, some pages of manuscript of Strauss's Capriccio and a first edition score of Mahler's Third Symphony with corrections in the composer's own hand (someone must have thought the double anniversary a jolly good moment for this to go under the auctioneer's hammer - and its estimated sales figure is between 100,000 and 150,000. Norman is curious too...). Still, after browsing the splendid online catalogue, I would spend my fantasy ££££s on Mendelssohn's characterful watercolour painting of the Amalfi coast. The Italian Symphony made visible? Have a dekko - it's Lot 303.

The auction is taking place in London on 8 June.

Musik und Fussball...

A quick update from our friends in Munich: the doughty Damenfußballmannschaft des Bayerischen Staatsorchesters has scooped first prize in that competition for Brigitte Magazine - partly thanks, I don't doubt, to the helpful viewing and voting of JDCMB readers! :-)

The Bavarian State Opera Orchestra Women's Football Team cites as its colours 'Bordeaux - Champagne' and as its mascot 'Maestro Kent Nagano'. It is now the proud winner of a van worth some E29,000. Stats tell me that the triumphant video by fab fiddler Corinna Desch, recently featured on JDCMB here, has been one of our most popular posts this year. In case you missed it, here it is again:

Below, the team manifesto. If you need to translate it, go and listen to Jonas Kaufmann singing Die schoene Muellerin and you may come out, as I once did, mysteriously fluent in German for approximately 56 minutes. But in case Jonas is stuck in the volcanic ash in Iceland, I can tell you that among the team's answers are: Worst place to be: In the orchestra pit next to the piccolo; and Our dream: a tournament with many teams from orchestras, women and men!

Wir kicken, weil...
wir lieber Tore als Takte zählen.
Frauenfußball ist...
große Oper!
Darin sind wir unschlagbar
große Töne spucken!
Das sagen unsere Gegner
welche Gegner?
Nach einem Sieg...
ab in den Biergarten!
Niederlagen bedeuten...
welche Niederlagen?
Der schlimmste Platz
im Orchestergraben vor der Piccoloflöte
Die beste Stimmung
beim Schlussapplaus
Darüber sprechen wir in der Umkleidekabine
wir können nicht mehr sprechen- wir haben einfach alles gegeben!
Unser Traum
ein Fußballturnier mit ganz vielen Orchester- Damen- Mannschaften
Warum wir das leidenschaftlichste Team sind...
Leidenschaft ist unsere Berufung!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Music for All: latest from the ISM

This is the latest news from the Incorporated Society of Musicians re their lobbying of the government to include music in the English Baccalaureate.

Musicians tell minister: Baccalaureate harming music in schools
ISM continues lobbying government to change policy

Young people in England may soon find it difficult or even impossible to study music at GCSE level if the Government continues to belittle music in its performance tables, according to the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM), the representative body for music professionals.

The Government’s English Baccalaureate proposals rank schools by attainment in a small selection of subjects, including geography, history and Latin but currently exclude other challenging and enriching academic subjects such as music and religious education.

In a letter to Nick Gibb MP, Schools Minister, and the Education Select Committee, the ISM’s Chief Executive Deborah Annetts said:

‘Fifty-six per cent of our members in a position to comment have already noticed music being squeezed out of their schools.’

The ISM also drew attention to Cambridge University entry guidelines which put music among the highest subject rankings. 

One teacher – wishing to remain anonymous – has also reported that as a result of music being left out of English Baccalaureate league tables, the head teacher has stopped music being offered at GCSE level and is even cutting it back for younger pupils.

Another teacher has reported that the uptake in music is ‘down by around 20-30% on last year.’

Deborah Annetts added:

‘These proposals are having a direct impact on music in schools. The Government must listen to the Henley Review of Music Education, which they themselves commissioned, and include music in the English Baccalaureate.

‘Without music GCSE being given the weighting it deserves, our cultural and creative economy will be put at risk, and young people who want to be involved in the music sector will have their efforts hampered.

‘The Government is setting England up for an almighty shock in the future if they continue this policy – let alone the impact it is already having on young people who want to study music.’

Notes to editors
1. The Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) is the UK’s professional body for musicians and music teachers. We champion the importance of music and protect the rights of those working within music through a range of services, campaigns, support and practical advice.
2. The ISM recently commissioned a YouGov poll which found that 97% of adults who expressed an opinion think that music should be taught in schools (don’t know/ neither agree nor disagree responses removed).
3. Trinity College, University of Cambridge entry guidelines: http://www.trin.cam.ac.uk/index.php?pageid=604

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Rapture Day: Die Meistersinger von Glyndebourne

While American evangelicals were preparing for those with the right kind of beliefs to be swept up in a 'rapture' to heaven, Glyndebourne offered something rather similar - yet fortuitously real - to its own beticketed denizens: the opening night of its biggest-ever endeavour, the house's very first go at Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. It's Wagner's heftiest and sunniest, a sort of benign brontosaurus of an opera that starts at 3pm and doesn't clock out until shortly before 10pm. After the great success of the first Glynditz Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, expectations ran high. I attended the dress rehearsal, but had to be good and keep shtum until today was over... (Picture right: half an hour before the show, by Tomcat.)

David McVicar excels at productions that are deeply rooted in the characters (as all fine productions should be) and appear naturalistic thanks to their wealth of detail. No exception, this. What is exceptional, though, is its sheer, fabulous, irresistible visual gorgeousness, for which very many more than three cheers go to designer Vicki Mortimer. The production and design centre the action firmly in the time and the town: we're in the era of Wagner's childhood, the early 19th century, but Nuremberg is still medieval and you feel you're walking into it and meeting the inhabitants. (Among the inhabitants you meet, btw, is the lovely Martha Jurowski, Vladimir's teenage daughter. Look out for her in the crowd...)

The basic shell is the arches and pillars of the church in which Eva and Walther eyeball one another at the beginning. The church is filled with vast murals; the full congregation with restive apprentices and well-behaved burghers' children, is in the background. We have Walther's viewpoint, the outsider looking in, hesitantly approaching in the hope of joining this prosperous yet rather volatile community. Walther is the first of several isolated, outsider-ish characters - the others turning out to be Beckmesser and Sachs himself. The second act takes place around a statue and fountain, with the carved wooden balconies of Pogner's house and Sachs's on opposite sides. But it's the third that is most revealing of all.

The final scene in the meadow, with fire-eaters on stilts and huge numbers of jugglers, singers, dancers and actors bustling around a wooden pavilion, drew amazed applause from a thrilled dress-rehearsal crowd of friends and family, something that doesn't happen too often (we're a hardened old lot, us). But in the scene before that, we're in Sachs's house. His excellently messy desk is that of a poet, a creative - piled haphazardly with books and papers. In the centre of the room is a portrait of his deceased wife and children, covered with a curtain that he removes briefly, then replaces. Furniture is stored in heaps, as if it has sat there ever since the deaths of those in the painting, however long ago that may be. We're not only in his house, but in his head.

Meistersinger is an overwhelming work, of course, but it can have thankless elements: Hans Sachs and his apprentice, David, are the only truly rounded characters, though the deliciously odious Beckmesser is close behind. It's too easy for Eva to slip into cardboardy cuteness and for Walther to be one of those doltish Wagnerian tenors with more brawn than brain - though admittedly he needs brawn to get through the role at all. One operatic friend of mine remarks that Walther reduces most tenors, by the time they reach the Prize Song, to sounding as if they've been "gargling with hydrochloric acid".

But McVicar has solved most of the potential awkwardnesses of staging with one phenomenal explosive device. It is: Gerald Finley as Hans Sachs.

Some surprise went around when the casting was initially announced: surely Finley would be too youthful, too lightweight, not quite Terfel-ish enough? Ahaa - but stupendous as Terfel was last year at WNO and the Proms, this concept is something quite different. First of all, not only does Finley, in his debut in the role, convince us that it's a piece of cake, but his voice is  utterly, phenomenally beautiful. With the quality of the tone, the phrasing, the enunciation and the sense of character, Finley's Sachs is possessed by poetry from start to finish. I can't imagine a greater one. (Read a very good interview with him about the role from Musical Criticism, here.)

It's the inner conflicts of Sachs and Eva (the lyrical Anna Gabler) that drive the drama. This exceedingly handsome Sachs - Finley is one of the world's finest Don Giovannis, remember - is still in devastated widowerhood and part of him loathes his own attraction to Eva; this makes it perfectly plausible that Eva too has a divided heart, with a crush on Sachs that's still relatively fresh. Instead of teasing him about possibly winning her hand in the contest, you feel that a good two-thirds of her would genuinely like him to do so. So if Walther is a bit of a dolt - or in this case, a drip - it helps, rather than hinders the drama, leaving enough room in Eva's emotions for Sachs too. The gangly Marco Jentzsch does a reasonable job as Walther, but if this Sachs were to participate in the contest, the baritone would sing the tenor off the stage, fin.

What about Beckmesser - the critic Eduard Hanslick in disguise, say some? He's an interesting creation: clearly an outsider, more somberly dressed and darker haired than the rest - but with hirsute style strongly suggestive of pictures of Wagner himself. Still, he does a shrug at the end of Act 1 that makes one wonder if McVicar is succumbing to the "Beckmesser is an anti-Semitic caricature" line of thought. If so, though, the point isn't overstated. Thereafter he's more Buster Keaton than Shylock - and the episode in which he invades Sachs' house and steals the Prize Song is hilariously akin to Simon's Cat (the "Sticky Tape" film...). Bravo to Johannes Martin Kränzle, another brilliant voice and fine actor, and to the doughty Rachel Masters, accompanying him from the pit on the Celtic harp.

More singers to single out are Alastair Miles as Pogner, Michaela Selinger as Magdalene and Mats Almgren as the Night Watchman. And the chorus is a knockout. McVicar has chosen the period in which Wagner's psyche would have been first formed, and there are plenty of children on stage: maybe one of those small 19th-century boys could grow up to be Big Richard himself? And with Sachs musing upon the origins of all the repressed anger, once again in the context of 19th-century Bavaria there's a sense that Wagner may have been a little more perceptive than we usually give him credit for.

There's one big clanger: the choreography. In such a true-to-life, detailed, historically convincing production, if the dances don't match, it really jars. This choreography works against rather than with the music and looks like a rough mashup of line dancing, disco moves and pelvic thrusts that seem to say 'oooh-aarrgh-look-at-us-earthy-townsfolk'. Please ditch and rethink before the revival.

Down t'pit, Vladimir Jurowski, tackling his very first Meistersinger too, has picked an unusual way to deal with Big Orchestra in Smallish House syndrome. For many quieter, dialogue-based episodes, he cuts the orchestral sections down considerably - in the case of the first violins, to just six players. It so happens that Tom is no.5 and the increased stress levels have induced the consumption of far too much chocolate, so I'll leave it to everyone else to remark upon whether or not the tactic works.

There's no excuse not to see the show, sold out though it is: it's being cinecast on 26 June to cinemas all over the country (and, intriguingly, to the Science Museum). Plus The Guardian will be live-streaming it online.

Here's the one and only Stephen Fry talking about the opera in the Glyndebourne organ room at the show.

And one final image: this was the opera John Christie always longed to stage. After 83 years, his dream has been realised at last. We can't quite believe it. But it's true.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Meet Ruth Waterman

Here's my interview from this weeks' JC with a wonderful violinist whose work I've been enjoying for a long time: http://thejc.com/arts/music/49238/the-woman-putting-feeling-back-bach. Don't miss her CD of Bach's complete sonatas and partitas, out now on Meridian.

Meanwhile, it's a beautiful morning, not a cloud in the sky, and Glyndebourne opens tonight - well, this afternoon - with its first-ever production of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, the opera that John Christie used to dream of putting on when he founded Glyndebourne back in the 1930s. The organ room was a bit small for such a vast opera, so they just sang extracts then. Today it's the full monty, with Glyndebourne's biggest-ever chorus, David McVicar directing, Vladimir Jurowski conducting and Gerald Finlay as Hans Sachs. Try for returns. From down t'pit, Tomcat nodded wisely when I pointed out that someone in America says today is Judgement Day.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Hooray for Sir Hubert!

I've been having some fun with Sir Hubert Parry this week. Rarely has a composer needed more urgently to be rescued from his fans. Come over to the Indy and see what he was really like. Mightn't be what you think.

Here's a little bonus: an extract from a letter home penned by a certain of Parry's students, one Donald Francis Tovey: “Dr Parry came into the examination room, talked to Sir John Stainer and tipped me a wink. Most people look austere in a cap and gown. Dr Parry looks positively rakish!” 

I'd post some of his music here, but I'd have to listen to a lot of it to choose something good, so I shall let you do the hunting yourselves instead. At least I can promise you that he was a really good bloke, and we Brits love really good blokes, even if they're awfully amateurish about writing music. Blame his mother-in-law. 

Must dash now - am off to the wilds of south-east London to see a lady about a trumpet.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Speaking of national anthems...

My orchestra-in-law, minus Tomcat, has been busy ploughing through recording sessions involving 30 national anthems a day, specially arranged for next year's Olympic Games by Philip Sheppard. The Telegraph has a fun interview with him on the topic (they say he looks like Nick Clegg...but that probably has more to do with the Telegraph than with Philip, to judge from the photo). The whole thing puts me in mind of one of Tomcat's favourite Misspent Youth In Denmark stories...

As a younger Tomkitten, JDCMB's right-hand violinist lived in the land of Forbrydelsen for five years: his first orchestral job was with the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra. In 1982, with a little splinter band that specialised in Viennese waltzes and the like, he went on tour to Greenland to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of Eric the Red. This was a very big deal in Greenland: the Queen of Denmark was going and the national anthem had to be played. The library apparently contained some wonderful old books of the things from times gone by, so one day the orchestra in rehearsal amused itself by playing through some theme tunes of nations that no longer exist, but might still have cats named after them.

Unfortunately, come the concert, some kind of mix-up took place. The Queen arrived, everyone stood up and the band began to play...the Swedish national anthem. Her Majesty, who'd turned up in Greenland national costume complete with those enormous knitted socks, was decidedly not amused. The Pythonesque perplexment made the front of their local newspaper back home. Nobody ever really worked out what went wrong. Was it a conspiracy or a plain old c***-up? Nearly 30 years on, we are none the wiser.

Given this history, I can hardly blame him for not taking part in the sessions.

Monday, May 16, 2011

"This house believes WHAT?"

The other day the Cambridge Union played host to a superstar debate on the topic "This house believes that classical music is irrelevant to the youth of today". It was a glorified launch for a new charity, but with Stephen Fry speaking against a DJ named Kissy Sell Out, it drew plenty of attention. I sent along my special Cambridge correspondent to report for JDCMB. Being young, she's much better placed than I am to comment in any case. Please welcome, fresh from her third-year studies at Peterhouse, HANNAH BOHM-DUCHEN.

“This House Believes That Classical Music Is Irrelevant To Today’s Youth”

This debate, held at the Cambridge Union on 12 May to a full house, marked the launch of a new charity called Vocal Futures, the brainchild of Suzi Digby (Lady Eatwell) OBE; and has been streamed online, a first for the Cambridge Union Society. Stephen Fry, Ivan Hewett, chief music critic for the Daily Telegraph, and Hugo Hickson, third year philosophy student at Gonville & Caius College, opposed the motion. Supporting the motion we heard BBC Radio One DJ Kissy Sell Out, Greg Sandow, composer, critic and artist-in-residence at University of Maryland School of Music and Joe Bates, classical music editor of The Tab, and music student at Gonville & Caius College.

“Stephen Fry, what a boring name compared to Kissy Sell Out”, commented the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Today Show on the morning prior to the event at the Cambridge Union. The comment exemplified one of the principal arguments running through the debate: the relative accessibility of popular as opposed to classical music. Kissy Sell Out: it’s a catchy name and clearly part of a marketing ploy. Again and again, the immediate gratification and sense of collective fun engendered by popular music was pitted against classical music as seemingly inaccessible, less spontaneous, and divorced from a collective, youthful culture.

Joe Bates, the student speaker proposing the motion, emphasized the exclusivity of classical music throughout history, arguing that listening to classical music today gives preference to the products of a historical élite over the products of contemporary culture. The next student speaker, Hugo Hickson, arguing for the opposition, stated that great classical music has eternal relevance and stands outside time, as does any great work of art, for example Shakespeare’s plays or the Greek Tragedies.

Kissy Sell Out, for the proposition, demanded that music be instantly accessible and asserted that the very names given to classical music illustrate their divorce from popular culture, revealing his own prejudices when he joked about a name of a classical work: “Number … of Number …. of Hogwarts … ” The lack of interactivity in classical music, he suggested, could be illustrated by the contrast between the responses of audiences at concerts of classical music, and concerts of popular music. Kissy also stressed the importance of musical genres in fostering a sense of belonging , and here, once again, classical music was presented as an élitist art form.

Ivan Hewett, for the opposition, finally addressed the problematic nature of the term ‘irrelevant’. Unfortunately, such crucial questioning was put to one side and not pushed further than initial speculation. Hewett also cast doubt on whether ‘today’s youth’ could easily be distinguished from ‘yesterday’s youth’; proposed that beauty was, necessarily, the quintessence of the irrelevant; and highlighted the universality of the themes evoked by classical music.

Greg Sandow drew on his experience of teaching at the Juilliard School to support the motion. He stated that there was a reduced interest in classical music courses, and that the strict regulations inherent in the forms of classical music could suppress potential creativity, and run counter to our impulse to do as we wish. Sandow suggested that the potential irrelevance of classical music was not limited solely to ‘today’s youth’, but was also associated with racial, ethnic, and cultural divides. Again, it was stated that the greatest obstacle to an appreciation of classical music was its association with entitlement and privilege.

Lady Gaga went to the Juilliard School, and Stephen Fry was quick to point this out, countering the claim that a classical training could restrict an impulse to “do as we wish”. Fry was also keen to make clear that a hierarchical approach to music was unnecessary. Real snobbery, Fry suggested, comes from fans of those genres of music that have been deemed “cool”. Further, the fustiness of the world of classical music was called into question: Beethoven and Mozart, after all, were far from being members of an élite.

It was sad, Fry mooted, that people are not taught how to listen. Listening requires time, and there is a general avoidance of anything that is “beguilingly complicated”. A concerto, he pointed out, was an argument between an individual instrument and an orchestra: a dynamic interchange between the individual and the state, and the highest calling, embodying love, hope, triumph and magnificence. Fry claimed that it was pure lack of imagination and artistic creativity that could keep one from enjoying classical music, and that “if you don’t have the imagination to blow the dust off the wigs then you don’t deserve any music”.

Lord Eatwell summed up for the proposition. Tongue-in-cheek, he claimed that modern classical music has borne little fruit, and that recycling remnants of past compositions points towards the conclusion that an art that doesn’t grow is dead.

Suzi Digby’s closing words for the opposition stressed that pop music is relevant because one can easily see oneself in it, and argued that since the appeal of classical music is beyond logic, and “speaks to the soul”, everyone should be able to relate and interact with such music. Further, Digby was adamant that it is the stuffy pretentiousness of the performance of most classical music that made it irrelevant to today’s youth, and that this was what has to change.

The opposition won the debate by a wide margin. There were 365 ‘Noes’, 57 ‘Ayes’, and 88 abstentions.

Somewhere with another type of demographic, the result could undoubtedly have been rather different. Since one can only decide whether something is irrelevant if one has engaged with it, this genre surely has to become more accessible if young people are to have the opportunity to decide for themselves whether or not the classical genre “speaks to their souls”. Classical music requires patience, and touches complex emotions. Although one should beware of generalizing about “today’s youth”, patience and sensitivity to complex emotional experiences are not generally central to the lives of young people – but they should be. Perhaps the Haydn String Quartet No.1 in B Flat Major, played on the Today Show, should be relabelled, echoing the title of Kissy Sell Out’s new track: ‘Eternal’.

It is of course also simplistic to generalize about all classical music: some classical works are of course much more accessible than others. The radio station Classic FM, for example, blatantly selects pieces that are easy on the ear. Yet it is surely the very complexity of classical music which provides its interest. The ongoing relevance of any music depends on the quality and inventiveness of that music: we still listen to music by the Beatles or by John Coltrane. Classical music, moreover, sometimes spills over into popular culture. Hovis and Néscafé adverts have graced us with Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, and one would be hard pressed to find a ‘youth of today’ for whom these items did not brighten their ‘morning mood’. If Hovis and Néscafé reckon that classical music is relevant, so should we.
Hannah Bohm-Duchen

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The ultimate Eurovision: Richard Wagner

Around 11pm yesterday, Richmond-upon-Thames was the scene of some strange nocturnal activity, besides the usual gaggles of drunken, semi-naked, apparently cloned teenagers. Along George Street towards the bus stops wandered small groups of dazed and bedazzled pensioners, many of them humming quietly, all of them wearing an expression that suggested they'd been at an ashram retreat and emerged with an altered sense of consciousness. The source? The Met Opera cinecast of Die Walkure.

I was lucky to be there at all, as our local Curzon sold out months ago - some friends had a spare ticket and called in the morning, so I dropped everything and ran. (I was one of just three or four under-60s in the place.) Of all the Wagner operas, this one is my favourite: its passions are the most convincing, its dilemmas the most interesting and its level of inspiration the most consistent. As you know, I have my doubts about opera in the cinema - too many tonsils - but with the prospect of Kaufmann, Westbroek, Terfel and Voigt in the Robert LePage new production...

It wasn't the tonsils that caused the problem - or even the occasional droplets of drool that came across too clearly on the big screen - but the volume. This was cinema volume, flattening out the dynamics at the uppermost level. Across a very big evening of Wagner this can leave you feeling assaulted. Just a notch down would have spared our heads and done the singers more favours - it is hard to get any idea of subtlety or variety of tone. Perhaps in future cinecasts this can be somehow addressed. But apart from that...

It's total surrender. How does one person, one bumptious little 19th-century man, create a work of art like this? How is it possible? Witness Die Walkure - especially in a performance like this - and you're left in no doubt that the potential of a human being is many thousands of times greater than we're usually allowed to believe, let alone aim towards ourselves. He creates a state of enhanced reality, a true raising of consciousness, a natural high that I'd defy any drug to match (not that I've tried any, but with Wagner around, who needs to?). Beside it everything else sounds...so small, so silly, such a waste of time.

Eurovision? You want Eurovision singing? Then see Wagner on screens in every country. Hear Eva-Maria Westbroek singing for The Netherlands as Sieglinde. Hear Bryn Terfel, fresh out of Wales, as the ultimate Wotan - the most powerful operatic performance I've ever seen, bar none. Hear Jonas Kaufmann compete for Germany in an oak-strong, desperate, tender Siegmund. And Deborah Voigt with her shining scimitar of a light-catching voice, flying through the high notes... And there is no need for anybody to win or lose.

Every argument is pallid beside this. All those fine words dissecting every word Wagner ever wrote, all those trendy debates about whether classical music is 'relevant', all the politically correct stuff, social engineering, box-ticking and dumbing-down - forget the lot. Just hear Die Walkure.

This is why we need music. This is the real thing. This is what it's all about. Showing us what a human being can truly achieve and share with others. Talk about Nietzsche if you like, talk about man and superman and Also sprach Zarathustra, but Wagner proves that something superhuman can come from humanity. And if it can, then it should. Don't tell me that anyone who can't hear it or doesn't 'get' it isn't missing out. Yes, they are. Wagner wanted this music to be for everyone. He wanted to reach the widest possible audience because he knew he had something vital to give them. He's still giving.

Down from the cloud, it's possible to dissect things a little more. Robert LePage's production hits many nails fair and square. Keeping a 'traditional' approach to the drama - naturalistic and rather prehistoric, complete with armour for Wotan and the Valkyries - does make the whole thing more engaging and believable than most tricksy updatings can. The set is extraordinary: a string of vast, tall panels, apparently weighing about 45 tons, according to the interval info, on pivots that shift, rotate and transform: they are a forest, a roof, a mountain and even the Valkyries' horses, dipping and plunging in the Ride: the girls dismount by sliding.

But the coup de grace is the final image of the sleeping Brunnhilde on her rock, watched from afar by Wotan: everything swings around until she is upside down, high up, a perspective evoking the sense that we're directly above her, looking down into the flames while rising into the sky with Wotan. My companions thought it might be a trick with a doll rather than the real Deborah Voigt, but if it was, it worked - the possibility never occurred to me. And if it was Voigt - she's brave. Have a look at the slide show of images from the New York Times.

We can pick holes, if you like. Voigt isn't the ideal Brunnhilde - at least not yet - though she may become one. Her middle voice isn't as strong as her high register, as she admitted herself in the interval interviews, with Placido Domingo and Joyce DiDonato as reporters, no less (they'll have Alan Titchmarsh out of a job if they're not careful). But it's her first run in the role - rare to be perfect first go - and in terms of personality and a strongly characterised tone, she more than carried it off. There were occasional things that we saw that we wouldn't have noticed on stage: moments when things get stuck, fail to cooperate or drip spectacularly. And the show started about 40 minutes late due, apparently, to 'machine malfunction'. We were glad to hear in the interval that this was stage machinery, not something inside James Levine, who looked unable to stand without support and didn't go up on stage for a bow. He has now pulled out of pretty much everything but this performance. A few raggedy bits in the orchestral playing, but only a few, in an opera in which scary amounts of stuff can go wrong, given half a chance.

Holes aside, this was the show of a lifetime. People speak of an aeons-gone 'golden age' of operatic singing, but I can only feel grateful to be alive to hear these guys. Terfel's Wotan is utterly superhuman, consumed with self-loathing and conflicting loyalties and with a voice that is a force of much more than mere nature. The way he kills Hunding took the wind out of everyone's sails. One word - "Geeeeeeeeh!" - and the character falls back as if struck in the stomach by a twelve-ton demolition ball. It will be a long, long time before anyone else can match the impact of Terfel's performance.

Westbroek is having one incredible year - first Anna Nicole, now this - and Sieglinde's ecstatic final blessing of Brunnhilde, wild and transported with joy, left us wondering whether it is she, in due course, who will become the next great Brunnhilde. Kaufmann, for all his assertions in his interval interview that he doesn't want to be a Wagner singer and nothing else, is going to be hard-pressed to escape more Wagner roles, so magnificent is his Siegmund. He has a German textual advantage, along with the fact that he was literally born into this music: in the interview, he recalled the days when as a small boy he sat at the piano beside his grandfather who was happily bashing through the piano scores of The Ring. Stephanie Blythe's Fricka was another huge success (in every respect) - every inch a match for Terfel's Wotan, she's a mezzo of glory.

Back to earth now. Let's slide down the Valkyrie horses...and get out to the shops before they sell out of rhubarb. Our fridge is mysteriously working again. Perhaps the energy generated in the cinema last night was enough to power everything up for miles around.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

After the outage...

Our host site was down all yesterday and there's a lot to catch up on now. (Is the John Lewis warranty system also powered by Blogger? Today their system is down...as I know because our fridge is bust...)

First, the 'Classic Brits'. Whatever you think about their abandonment of those two little letters '-al', they had a handful of really good winners the other night. Best of all, Tasmin Little won the Critic's Award for her CD of the Elgar Violin Concerto (on Chandos). As you will know, dear readers, she also got a JDCMB Ginger Stripe Award for it last winter solstice. The disc is seriously, highly recommended. And since other awards went to Tony Pappano and Alison Balsom, things can't be quite so dreadful and doom-laden without those two little letters as many would have us think.

Next, James MacMillan's new chamber opera, Clemency. Fascinating to hear this so soon after the Berlioz Damnation of Faust, since it proves that less really can be more. A co-commission between the ROH, the Britten Sinfonia and Scottish Opera, it's spare, concentrated, highly characterised, and packs an extraordinary number of difficult questions into just 45 minutes of music. My review is in The Independent.

Over in Hungary, JDCMB favourite conductor Iván Fischer has given a warm endorsement to JDCMB other favourite conductor, Gábor Takács-Nagy, who has just been appointed principal guest conductor of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. The news comes via the lucky old Manchester Camerata, where Gabor takes over as principal conductor in the season ahead. Iván says: "There will be a very important change in the life of the BFO from next season onwards. Gábor Takács-Nagy, who was our former concert master, has been nominated Principal Guest Conductor of the orchestra. There are many conductors in the world who can get orchestras to play together but there are very few who can profoundly inspire. Gábor Takács-Nagy is one of them."

TODAY there's a live cinecast from The Met of Die Walkure starring Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund. Coming soon to a cinema near you, but if you can't get in there are a few 'encore' showings tomorrow and even Monday. Oh, and it also stars Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde, Bryn Terfel as Wotan and Eva-Maria Westbroek (aka Anna Nicole) as Sieglinde. Playbill Arts has 20 Questions with Jonas Kaufmann, in which our tenor says rather charmingly that "every composer has weak und strong points". Intermezzo disapproves of his admission that he likes Dire Straits.

Faure fans who play the piano will be very glad to see Roy Howat's spanking new Urtext edition of Glorious Gabriel's Beautiful Barcarolles, all 13 of them, clearly and readably presented by Peters Edition and correcting all manner of mistakes, misreadings and misapprehensions that apparently crept into earlier publications. Roy's Faure editions have been arriving thick and fast over the past - well, probably a decade, come to think of it - and they're evidently a labour of love. This one may well tempt me back to the piano for a long-overdue wallow. Read more about it here.

And last but absolutely not least, my interview with the lovely South African soprano Pumeza Matshikiza was in The Independent yesterday. Pumeza grew up in the townships of the Cape Town area in the last decade of apartheid. Next week she'll be singing at the Wigmore Hall in a showcase concert of the Classical Opera Company, and will be doing a duet with white South African soprano Sarah-Jane Brandon. That wouldn't have been possible in South Africa a couple of decades ago. Go hear them.

Now, about that fridge...

Thursday, May 12, 2011

It's Fauré's birthday

It is. Amazingly enough, it is also Massenet's birthday. But I heard an awful lot of Massenet yesterday, so here is my main man, the glorious Gabriel: Christian Ferras plays the Berceuse.

Love you, Gabriel Fauré. Love you too, Christian Ferras - dear, doomed, tragic violin genius. How I wonder what you were thinking when you played this.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Once upon a time...

Once upon a time...there was a music journalist who loved beautiful voices. She thought there was something miraculous to the way a great singing voice can exist quite by accident in any part of the world, given the appropriate training and development. So when she found that one especially great tenor voice was shortlisted for a major prize, she thought she must really go to the awards dinner, just in case he won, turned up and sang. But she held out little hope, because he was, after all, a very busy person and was currently on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

But - imagine her amazement! Another fine tenor suddenly developed a frog in his throat at an opera house nearby, and his understudy was off on a golfing holiday. Someone had to be found who knew that major role, and quickly. It so happened that the great tenor had booked some rest time before a Very Big Show, but he was technically free and beside his Very Big Show the role in London was a stuck der kuche. So he hopped on a plane, and when the awards dinner team realised he was on his way they rushed a fast car over to the airport to kidnap him and bring him to the RealLifePoshPlace for the awards dinner. 

At the dinner the journalist found herself seated [note: SEATED. not: SAT] next to him. He accepted his award with gratitude. They talked all evening, he taught her some vital words in his language and then he invited her for a glass of champagne in his dressing room after the show the next night. And said 'Do bring your husband'...

NO - NO - NO - that's just a fairy-story. Except for the grammar lesson. But last night we all had a cracking good time at the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards at the VeryPoshRealPlace aka The Dorchester. The industry donned its glad rags and gave prizes to some truly wonderful musicians who deserved every inch of them and more. And I'd like to thank whoever the kind person was who decided to put me on Ivan Fischer's table entirely surrounded by Hungarians and next to my good friend from the Hungarian Cultural Centre.

Imogen Cooper presented the prizes, with Katie Dereham and Andrew MacGregor doing the announcements. And playwright Mark Ravenhill, whose translation of L'incoronazione di Poppea is currently on at the King's Head, made a superb speech. In days gone by, the RPS dinner speech was often Whingeville Incorporated, a chance for a leading figure to lambast the government/the BBC/the radio stations/the world for not being all it/they should be. No longer. Mark compared the current approach of arts organisations to 'a luxury airline lounge with an access policy' and pointed out the anomalies of this. 'Let's get out of the airline lounge - and fly!' Now we just have to work out how.

It was also a particularly good night for composers, with honorary membership of the RPS presented to George Benjamin and more honours for Lachenmann, Dillon and Ferneyhough.

You can read the full shortlists and more about the winners on the RPS site, here. Meanwhile...

Here are the prizes.

Conductor: As you'll have guessed, Ivan Fischer. Who is marvellous, magical and glorious. I can't wait to hear the Budapest Festival Orchestra Prom (2 Sept) where he'll be conducting Liszt, Mahler and a bunch of surprises to be chosen at the last moment by the audience itself.

Chamber music and song (this was the jury I was privileged to be on): the Takacs Quartet for their Beethoven cycle in 2009-10. Unfortunately they couldn't join us as they are currently touring down under, but they sent a lovely video message.

Audience Development: ENO for Access all Arias - free membership for students and under-30s, plus Punchdrunk in the warehouse.

Chamber-scale Composition: Brian Ferneyhough for his String Quartet no.6.

Concert Series and Festivals: Southbank Centre for the Helmut Lachenmann weekend.

Education: Sing Up. We were treated to a performance by the children of St Mary's Primary School who sang very, very well and did all the choreography too. Sing Up may not be star-ridden, but it's probably the most important award of the evening because this fabulous initiative has introduced quality singing to millions of children in English primary schools for the first time and has become the envy of Europe and beyond. If the government does not continue to fund it after 2012 then they'd be even stupider than they currently look and would deserve to be [insert execution method of choice].

Ensemble: Aurora Orchestra, who have achieved wonders, joyous music making and a real niche in just five years. Very nice to meet their conductor Nicholas Collon and to see Olly Coates, the excellent young cellist whom I interviewed a few months ago. These bright, articulate, fired-up young men and their generation are the people who are going to bring new ideas and new thinking to the music world in the next couple of decades - watch them!

Creative Communication: BBC4's Opera Italia series, presented to Tony Pappano in person. Is Tony the most human and approachable and communicative conductor Covent Garden has ever had, perhaps?

Singer: Susan Bickley. What an ovation she got, too. 'A consummate artist' said the citation, and we couldn't agree more!

Young Artist: Alina Ibragimova. At 25, she's a shooting star, busily fulfilling the promise that her Sibelius concerto showed when she was 16 - my jaw hit the floor listening to her then. More power to her elbows.

Large-Scale Composition: James Dillon for Nine Rivers, 'for its sheer ambition and the consistency of creative thought sustaining it'. The extract that was played was completely mesmerising and I am itching to hear the rest of it. This man has a phenomenal sonic imagination and my resolution for the evening was to explore much more of his music.

Opera and Music Theatre: The ROH for Tannhauser. Which I flipping well missed. Hopefully they'll do a revival.

Instrumentalist. Leon Fleisher. Hooray! Not just a great pianist with an extraordinary journey through incapacity and back again, but a humane, deep-thinking, fabulous musician from the heart of what it's all about. Wish he could have been there in person.

Egézségedre! And there will be an awards broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0112czv

John Gilhooly, Chairman of the Royal Philharmonic Society commented:
“The Royal Philharmonic Society Music Awards are able to respond to the zeitgeist, but prefer to set the agenda.  They reward serious, imaginative projects which broaden the understanding and enjoyment of music and trumpet the outstanding brilliance of distinguished musicians, composers and young artists at the very top of their game.  There is much to be said for intellectual rigour in a time when serious ideas can often struggle to get a hearing.  The RPS is committed to creating a vibrant future for classical music through a careful, rigorous and artistically bold approach – something which is mirrored in the work of all tonight’s winners.”

Roger Wright, Controller, BBC Radio 3 and Director, BBC Proms commented:
“This set of awards is a celebration of the classical music world, not least the value of live music and new work. I am delighted by the recognition given to James Dillon, a composer who has long been supported by both Radio 3 and the Proms. Live music is at the heart of Radio 3 and our recent announcement of the groundbreaking schedule of live music every week night on Radio 3 is just one example of our shared values with the Royal Philharmonic Society and our desire to share live performances with millions of our listener.”

Please join the Royal Philharmonic Society - you can do so HERE.

Last but not least, here's Ivan again, with the BFO, doing a Hungarian Dance in, er, Chinese.

Monday, May 09, 2011


Here you go. My Faust review for the Independent.

English National Opera, 6 May 2011

Review by Jessica Duchen (for The Independent)

Poor old Berlioz. The moment Terry Gilliam was announced as director
of this new ENO staging, it was obvious that the composer would
scarcely get a look in, at least in advance. It’s the first venture
into opera (in a co-production with De Vlaamse Opera, Antwerp) for the
former Monty Python animator and director of such legendary movies as
Brazil, Twelve Monkeys and The Fisher King. The question, of course,
was: could this operatic novice deliver in a field where so many other
film supremos have fallen flat on their faces?

Well, in certain ways Berlioz doesn’t get a look in in the finished
version either, since Gilliam has elected to take us through a journey
through German history, all the way from Romanticism – the red-haired
Faust himself is straight out of that famed Caspar David Friedrich
painting – to…you guessed it, Marguerite rises to heaven from
Auschwitz. It’s not so much Monty Python as The Producers, so full is
the show of camp, dancing, exercising Nazis. Springtime for Terry and
Berlioz, anyone? But Python fans will be glad to know that close to
the start we do get a glimpse of something much resembling the Knights
that say Ni.

Berlioz’s Faust is a challenge at the best of times – it’s not even
opera, strictly speaking, but in the composer’s terminology a ‘légende
dramatique’, part cantata, part opera and possibly as ill-suited to
the stage as Goethe’s ‘closet drama’ (a deliberately unstageable play)
that inspired it. But Berlioz, Gilliam and the character of
Mephistopheles, the devil, have two great things in common: a vast
imagination and a sense of unbounded mischief that means breaking all
the rules, including ‘avoid cliché’; Gilliam seems to have elected to
do the latter so spectacularly that it floors everyone anyway. At
least sometimes.

When it doesn’t work, it really doesn’t work. After all, the Nazis had
nothing whatsoever to do with Berlioz, who wrote this magnificent work
back in 1846, let alone Goethe. Yet the best moments are stunning.
Having spent most of the first half thinking “When are we ever going
to grow up and get past putting the Nazis into  opera?” by the end of
the evening this critic was shaken and profoundly moved.

All credit to ENO for pulling it off. It’s a phenomenally slick,
complex show of many components and brilliant theatrical effects:
Faust and Mephisto’s motorbike ride to the gates of hell, dodging
“birds” that are aircraft dropping bombs, Faust’s entry to – and exit
from – hell itself, and the chilling transformation in Act I of the
songs of the Rat and the Flea into anti-Semitic cabaret horrors. And
there’s a brilliant moment at which Gilliam literally turns back time:
the precision of its execution alone would have been astounding even
if it hadn’t happened to work conceptually.

Gilliam’s not-so-secret weapons are his Mephistopheles, Christopher
Purves at his  most charismatic, infallible and infinitely nuanced;
and, as Marguerite Oppenheim (yes, really), the glorious Christine
Rice, whose rich yet pure mezzo - and aching calls of ‘Alas’ as she is
herded into the cattle truck - suits this music to perfection. Peter
Hoare as Faust performed strongly in the first act, though the start
of Act II found him suffering in the high notes and somewhat losing
his stride for a short while thereafter. The orchestra and chorus were
on fabulous form under Ed Gardner’s baton.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Goethe and Werther

It's been a week here of French Opera Based On Goethe, with Covent Garden's Werther and ENO's The Damnation of Faust opening within 24 hours of each other. I'll post a link as soon as my review of the latter is available on the website. Meanwhile here's the feature-length version of my 'Observations' piece about Werther. Plus a little sample of Massenet at his dusky, sexy best.

I'll be at the performance on Wednesday night. The question everyone's too scared to ask is 'Can Villazon still sing?' Ed Seckerson says he can and does. But the only samples of him in Werther on Youtube date back a few years and are kind of distressing at times, so for now here is, uh, someone else.

Jules Massenet’s opera Werther is opening at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. And, looking at its origins, it seems amazing that this morbid, sugary and really rather French creation should be the chief stage version of Goethe’s searing novella The Sorrows of Young Werther. The book was written when the great German poet was only 24 and it was first published as early as 1774. Mozart was 18 at the time, Beethoven a toddler and Schubert not yet born. Goethe revised the book in 1787. But Massenet’s opera did not appear until over a century later, in 1892.

I’ve been hunting for earlier operatic adaptations of Goethe’s story and so far have drawn a blank. It’s possible that the novella, which was based on Goethe’s own experience of unrequited love and bore an uncanny parallel with the suicide of a friend, may have scared composers away. It was a scandal-ridden bestseller that sparked a fashion craze, revolutionary concerns and a spate of copycat suicides; several authorities banned it. Perhaps it was just too famous, too dangerous, too enticing. It could no more have been turned into an opera in its own time than could Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Goethe’s tale describes the passion of a young poet for the pragmatic Charlotte. His love seems unrequited; she marries another man; finally Werther shoots himself. The book is terse and spare; its most emotional passages are swathes of translated poetry supposedly by Ossian, mirroring Werther’s turbulent feelings as he reads it aloud to Charlotte. He resolves to die not because Charlotte does not love him, but because it turns out, too late, that she does.

The story looks perfect for adaptation by a German romantic – Schubert, Schumann, Weber or Mendelssohn; and Brahms requested that his Piano Quartet in C minor should be published with an illustration of Werther on its cover. Yet all these composers missed the chance to create an opera that did justice to the author.

Massenet (1842-1912) finally muscled in where his peers feared to tread. Beside Goethe’s original, his version can look desperately sentimental: Werther dies by inches in Charlotte’s arms while the tragedy is offset by anodyne Christmas scenes for kiddiwinks. Nevertheless, parts of Werther remain peculiarly magical. Massenet was famed for his expert orchestration, and the opera owes much to this:  the hero has his own soundworld, darkly translucent, replete with harp and low strings, and his aria ‘Pourquoi me reveiller?’ is a serious showstopper.

Highly successful in his day, Massenet wrote as many as 25 operas; aged 36, he became the youngest member ever elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts. He knew exactly how to pander to the public. Debussy described his situation pithily: “His brethren could not easily forgive Massenet this power of pleasing which, strictly speaking, is a gift. His is a delightful kind of fame, the secret envy of many of those great artists who can only warm their hands at the somewhat pallid flame provided by the approbation of the elect.”

As a professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire, Massenet coached fine youngsters including Ernest Chausson and Charles Koechlin. But eventually, with the rise of more forward-thinking musicians including Debussy himself, Ravel and ultimately Messiaen, the sepia glow of such romanticism faded substantially from view.

Werther, though, has a secret weapon: it is a glorious vehicle for a star tenor. Recently, new high-profile performers have aided its resuscitation, notably Jonas Kaufmann. Now, at the ROH, Rolando Villazón is to take the title role, after a chequered period of vocal problems that has seen him testing an alternative career as TV presenter and talent show judge. The Mexican singer is a passionate performer who pours heart and soul into music and acting alike. All eyes will be on him in the hope he can rise to the challenge of this mysteriously mesmerising work.

Werther opens at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 5 May. Box office: 020 7304 4000

[AFTERTHOUGHT, Sunday 11.35: HAS anyone ever made an opera out of Lady Chatterley's Lover? If not, could it work? *sounds of brain-cogs whirring...*]