Tuesday, June 28, 2011

RIP Herbert Eisner (23 June 1921 - 28 June 2011)

Tom's father passed away peacefully this morning, having made it to his 90th birthday a few days ago. He was a very remarkable man and I feel lucky to have been his daughter-in-law.

Herbert was a physicist whose field of expertise was explosions in confined spaces; he became head of the Safety in Mines Research Establishment in Derbyshire and was often to be seen on TV as a commentator on issues such as the King's Cross fire and trouble in the Channel Tunnel. He was born in Berlin and escaped the Nazis when he was sent to boarding school in Buxton at the age of 15 - little suspecting he'd spend most of his life in the same town - though not before attending the 1936 Olympic Games, where he and his family saw Jesse Owen win his race. Apparently the Nazis ceased persecution of the Jews for the Olympics' duration so that the world wouldn't see what was going on.

Herbert's aunt, Lotte Eisner, was a film historian who wrote a biography of Fritz Lang and in the 1920s was great friends with Leni Riefenstahl. One day around 1926 Leni called Lotte and invited her to tea, saying "There's someone very special I want you to meet - his name is Adolf Hitler." Lotte refused to go. Later she wrote in her autobiography that she regretted this decision. She wished she'd gone to tea, and taken along a revolver.

Despite his successful career as a scientist, Herbert was also an extremely fine writer. His mother was a close friend of Bertolt Brecht and as a child Herbert was dandled on the great author's knee. He wrote better in English than most native English speakers and was runner-up to Muriel Spark in a short story competition run by the Observer in the 1950s. The story was about Der Rosenkavalier. He later wrote several plays that were presented on Radio 4, a couple of children's books and a TV play in which Susan Hampshire starred - tragically the BBC did not keep the film...

Herbert's grandfather's used to play cards with Richard Strauss. So in Herbert's honour, here is the composer conducting his own Ein Heldenleben, with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1944. By the time this was recorded Herbert was 22: he'd been interned as an "enemy alien" in the Isle of Man, then joined the British army and been posted to India. Due to his German origins he changed his name to Evans while in the military, and his comrades used to call him Taffy. This despite the fact that he had a strong German accent right up to his birthday the other day, when we saw him for the last time.

In his own quiet way, he certainly had a hero's life.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Flashmob in the British Museum

What does a flashmob do when it gets inside the British Museum? Why, naturally they sing Thomas Tallis's 40-part motet Spem in alium. The British Renaissance masterpiece took BM visitors and staff by surprise yesterday around 5pm. Apparently the security guards did some frantic conferring, but enjoyed the music far too much to stop the importunate singers.

Conductor Katie Hawks, who masterminded the event, said: "It was amazing singing such an incredible piece in such a special place. Perhaps it might remind our silent museums that music is very much part of enlightenment... Lots of people were bowled over by the experience."

Here's what happened (sound quality's not brilliant, but you get the idea):

Khatia's Faustian Dream

"Listening to Khatia Buniatishvili is like watching a high-wire artist with no safety net. She divides audiences because she takes so many risks, sometimes choosing tempi which prove impossible or volumes that send the piano out of tune. But her more lyrical playing is peerless; increased discipline will make her into an extraordinary musician." (JD in the Indy, Jan 2011)

Buniatishvili, 23 and from Georgia, is currently on the Borlotti-Buitoni Trust's Young Artists programme plus BBC New Generation Artists and will be giving a solo lunchtime recital in this year's Proms.

Without further comment I'd like to offer you this short film she has made re the Liszt B minor Sonata. Discuss.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

And in the news today...

* Glyndebourne is filming Die Meistersinger this afternoon and it will be webcast live and free on The Guardian's website. It's also to be shown in the Science Museum in South Kensington. Stephen Moss will be doing a live Meisterblog and tweets are invited, as on the first night, with the hashtag #diemeistertweeter. There's a treasure-trove of supporting articles and webcasts on the site. Details of the streaming, interview with Vlad etc, here.

* In similar vein, Norman Lebrecht makes the point in today's Telegraph that all of a sudden the issue of access, access, access is no longer relevant. We have access, thanks to webcasts, cinecasts and the Big Screens, and apparently this, our very own wet and soggy island, is where the future of opera is being carved. (Discuss...)

He also had a high old time at the ENO's new Nico Muhly opera Two Boys, which I had not initially planned to attend. Had it been sold as a "Susan Bickley is Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect" opera (as every man and his cat has been saying that it is since the premiere on Friday), I'd have booked in at once. But from the marketing it sounded like a niche thing that was fashioned for young gay blokes who live online; therefore it mightn't be interesting for married, female, 40-something technotwits... There shouldn't be a problem getting in, though. When I checked the website on Thursday to see if there were seats left for Monday, the place was less than half full. If all is well up north (we have difficult family issues at present), I may go. Alternatively I might catch up with DVDs of another wonderful woman detective: Brenda Blethyn as Vera in the ITV series based on the absolutely brilliant Geordie detective novels by Ann Cleeves, if said DVDs are yet available.

* This morning @MalteseTenor Joseph Calleja was on the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1, singing 'E lucevan le stelle'. Michael Gove, our education minister - currently trying to avert a strike by teachers this week - was listening from the sofa, where he'd been trying to say he wasn't really intending to exhort parents to strike-break. He applauded enthusiastically... Feel the power, Micks. Let the people hear the music. Let the people learn music, too, at school. Music for all, please: right here, right now.

Speaking of opera and the internet, Calleja shared my blog on his Facebook fan page the other day. Aw shuks. Can you imagine a world in which Richard Tauber had internet access?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Psst - want a legal high?

If so, sit back and turn up the volume. Listen to Joseph Calleja singing 'E lucevan le stelle' from Tosca (on Youtube, below). Then imagine being just four metres away from him as he does so. That, dear reader, is how I was privileged to spend my lunchtime. If they're going to crack down on 'legal highs', as some newspapers are reporting today, then what are they going to do about tenors?

Calleja has grown up: the Maltese falcon is flying. I heard his first CD some years ago - bel canto arias in what seemed a pleasing, light, precise voice. So I wasn't prepared for what hit us today when Decca put on a showcase half-hour performance by him in the Royal Opera House's crush room, to preview his new album 'The Maltese Tenor'. At about 32, he's not a slender, tender tenor type, but instead a big, bullish, walking soundbox imbued with roaring charisma. By the time he'd finished his programme, mostly Verdi and Puccini, I reckon the entire gathering was head over heels in love. Afterwards the chat was mostly about how unbelievably lucky we felt to be there to hear such an artist at all, let alone at such close quarters. And we all want to go and see him in Malta, his homeland, where he has just founded a new festival.

This is a major, major star in the making. If he's coming to a stage near you soon, you don't just want a ticket; you need one, fast. And you can follow him on Twitter at @MalteseTenor. Hope you love him as much as we did.

SOLIDARITY - and why Hans Sachs was right

The LPO and Vladimir Jurowski, filmed at Glyndebourne and introduced by Martin the Chairman, play 'Solider of Orange' in solidarity with our arts friends in the Netherlands, where culture is being threatened with excision by a government that's crucially propped up by Geert Wilders and his far-right "Freedom Party". Orchestras around the world are moving to show their solidarity. The anthem is an underground song from the Second World War. On the stage you can glimpse the Meistersinger set.

It's time to ditch the universal shudder, by the way, at the words of Hans Sachs about the vitality of German art. He is not prefiguring the Nazis when he declares that even if Germany were to be under foreign rule, the German people will still have their great art. He is saying that art is what keeps a nation's sense of identity alive. He is right. The opera is set in Germany and Sachs was a German poet - so of course he's talking about German art. But it is true for every nation and every culture and it is something we forget at our peril. An artistic output of which a country can be proud - great art that shows individuals giving the best of their own spirits to everyone else - takes years, decades, centuries to build. But it can be destroyed overnight. Shame on Wilders and those philistine thugs.

Meeting some Prince Charmings

I had a merry old time meeting Prince Charming last week. Actually, two Prince Charmings. First, the ace British mezzo Alice Coote, who plays the P.C. in Massenet's Cendrillon to the Cinderella of Joyce DiDonato at the Royal Opera House, opening next week. In today's Independent, she talks to me about duetting with another mezzo, how the great Brigitte Fassbaender helped her to get up and running, and why singing is a matter of ups and downs. Sometimes both at once.

My other P.C. is the American tenor James Valenti, who has sung with Gheorghiu and Netrebko and is soon to be plastered all over the world's cinemas in 3D as Pinkerton in the ROH's Madama Butterfly - not the most princely or charming of roles, admittedly. Here's the short-and-sweet interview in the Observations section of the Indy's Arts & Books today. The show opens tomorrow. (Apologies to the wonderful couple at Garsington the other day who gently corrected us over our picnic. "It's not a show. It's an opera...")

But a nice little addendum is that when I dropped in after the rehearsal, James was still feeling astonished to find himself in the same dressing room at the ROH used by such luminaries as Ben Heppner, Jonas Kaufmann and Simon Keenlyside. He says he took a photo of the list on the door and put it on Facebook: "Part of me’s still this kid from New Jersey! What am I doing here?" 

It turns out, too, that the soprano stepping in at short notice for the ailing Patricia Racette, who would have been Butterfly, is Kristine Opolais - aka Mrs Andris Nelsons as of 29 April. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Roll over, Amadeus?

Is this how Mozart really died? A musical thriller landed on my desk the other week. In Mozart's Last Aria, by Matt Rees, the sleuth is Nannerl Mozart; the death she's investigating is that of her beloved brother. It's a cracking read. Matt, based in Jerusalem, is a well-established crime fiction author and a former foreign correspondent who covered, amongst other things, the second Intifada on location. Why, then, did he want to write a detective story on ground that had already been so powerfully claimed by Peter Shaffer? I asked him for an e-interview... First, here's the trailer:

JD: Matt, what made you want to write a detective story about Mozart's death? Especially after 'Amadeus' has had the market cornered for so many years?

MR: Peter Schaffer’s great play was written in the late Seventies. Milos Forman filmed it in the early Eighties. Which is getting to be rather a long time ago (though as I prepare to turn 44, I’d rather not admit that…) In turn, Schaffer’s play was a reworking of an old piece by Pushkin, which Mussorgsky later used as the basis for an opera. Yet there’s a great deal of new historical research on Mozart which gives tantalizing hints about his possible death and the reasons behind it – including the secret police infiltration of the Masons, of which Wolfgang was a leading member, and even his involvement in espionage. The Pushkin-Schaffer idea is based on a single confession of murder Salieri made – and later recanted – in a madhouse. I wanted to use this new historical research to come up with a new story about Mozart’s death. I certainly think readers have a deep fascination with Mozart which will make them open to a reexamination of the story of his demise. Most of all, I wanted to put his relationship with his sister Nannerl – the narrator of my novel – at the heart of the story. It was she who gave me the idea for the book, when I visited St. Gilgen, her little village in the Salzkammergut, the mountains near Salzburg. I saw an image of her in which she looked exactly like her brother. Naturally, that got my crime fiction juices bubbling…

JD: Do you think this really is what happened to Mozart?

MR: I do. When I put together all the latest historical research, I found it pointed toward the very thing that happens in my novel. Even research which at first contravenes my theory – such as the medical evidence that Mozart died of progressive kidney failure – turns out to be consistent with the effects of the way I have him dying. Certainly my reading of The Magic Flute adds, for me, another element of evidence which, when you put it together with the philosophy Mozart espoused in his letters, is very compelling. Of course, my novel is fiction and it’s my theory – not my absolute contention – that Mozart died this way. I hope that readers will find the novel generates their own ideas about what might truly have happened and that it’ll also make them look again at the music Mozart wrote in the shadow of sudden death. I heard all that great music – The Magic Flute, the Requiem, etc. – as if for the first time once I looked into the new historical research. I hope readers will have that experience too.

JD: How do you feel about taking liberties with real historical figures - eg (without giving the plot away) one character who is dramatically murdered in the course of the story, but in reality lived a long and distinguished life?

MR: I made sure that all the major characters – figures like Nannerl, Wolfgang’s wife Constanze, Baron Swieten, Police Minister Pergen – conformed to historical fact in the way the novel plays out. But I decided I could play with some of the minor characters, given that this is a novel. In the case of the fellow to which you refer, he did end up with a distinguished position, but as far as I can tell he remained a perpetual rogue (for which I rather admire him) and would entirely have approved of my misusing him.

JD: You decided to base the book's structure on the Mozart Piano Sonata
in A minor - can you tell us a little more about why and how you did this? How problematic was it? Did it bother you that it might interfere with the genre's structural demands? How well do you feel it works?

MR: The A minor sonata is a response to a death. Mozart was in Paris on tour with his mother when she died. He wrote the sonata there. It has the disturbance of loss in its opening movement, then it examines that loss in the second, contemplative movement, and it resolves the loss in the final movement. That very much mirrors the structure of a crime novel. The “murder” followed by the investigation, and finally the revelation of what truly lay behind the killing. The primary function of using this sonata for the book, in terms of the writing, was that I was able to create a mood in my head as a I wrote. When I was writing the early part of the book, the jarring first movement was running in my head. The same with the other movements as the book progressed. It gave an energy to the writing with which I believe I was able to imbue the story. I got the idea from a concert pianist friend who said she visualizes a particular colour when she plays a particular piece of music, thus bringing herself to an emotional state matching the music. She isn’t just tapping on the right keys. So I tried it and I found it gave me a strong emotional connection to what I was writing – and maintaining that connection is much of the battle for a novelist, who has to write every day for months. It can’t just be inspiration; you need a repeatable technique you can tap into every day.

JD: Please tell us something about how you researched the book? And did you encounter resistance/skepticism/snobbery towards the idea from any quarters while so doing?

MR: As a writer of four previous crime novels, I’m accustomed to the snobbery of people who think (without ever reading any crime novels) that this isn’t literature. But I did wonder if there’d be an additional element here, in that classical musicians might doubt the project’s ability to represent the complexity of the music. However, the musicians I approached to help me write about the music allowed me to examine their performance process and to discuss performance during Mozart’s period. Now I like to think that’s because I’m such a winning, intelligent fellow, but I also expect that it’s because Mozart is such an absorbing subject for anyone with an interest in music or history that any doubts about the book’s supposed genre were immediately overcome.

My research also included learning the piano, which helped me get inside the structure of Wolfgang’s music, and listening to Mozart, Mozart, Mozart. Neither of these things was a hardship. Nor was repeated visits to Vienna, Salzburg, and the mountains nearby, where Mozart’s sister lived her married life.

As for potential resistance: researching my Palestinian novels was much more troublesome. People used to threaten me and hold guns on me in Nablus and Gaza. Classical music historians are softies in comparison.

JD: Do you have a musical background yourself? And do you think you'll return to the world of music for future novels?

MR: I play very little classical music, though I did re-learn piano to write this novel. I had lessons as a child, but I gave up the piano in favour of guitar as a teenager. I’ve played in a number of rock and alternative bands. When I lived in New York, I was a regular at CBGB’s, where I trod the same boards as The Police, Blondie and Elvis Costello. This has proved to me that I’m rather a mediocre musician, which only makes me more fascinated with Mozart who….wasn’t. The book I just delivered to my publisher is about the mysterious end of the great Italian artist Caravaggio, so I’m staying with the idea of historical mysteries about artists. I do think there’ll be more music in my forthcoming novels and I have a couple of mysterious stories concerning great composers in mind. They were fairly unpredictable types, and that makes them just right for crime fiction.

JD: Last, just one little thing that confused me: the title! I kept waiting for there to be a 'last aria', but the crucial piece is a piano sonata...did someone change your title for you?

MR: Aha, but the Mozart of the book’s title isn’t Wolfgang! It’s Nannerl, his sister – although we don’t know that at first. And so, without giving away the ending, I’ll say that the aria that’s heard in the Epilogue is the one to which the book’s title refers. You’re right that publishers do like to change titles and several of my books have been published under titles I didn’t initially choose. But in this case Mozart’s Last Aria is the title I used almost from the start.

Monday, June 20, 2011

"Mitsuko Uchida played for this milk"

 In this weekend's news:

Valentina Nafornita from Moldova won BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, though there was much stronger support on Twitter for Olesya Petrova and Andrei Bondarenko ("the name's Bond...arenko, Andrei Bondarenko...") for the performances yesterday. Valentina may have excelled in earlier rounds, and scooped the audience prize as well. But in the final she showed a lack of stamina and uncertain intonation. Nevertheless, she is thin, pretty, young and saleable. We wonder why anyone bothered with the singing.

'Max', aka Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of the Queen's Music, has called for fines to be imposed on audience members whose phones go off during performances. As I can report that the LPO fines its players £5 a pop if a phone rings in rehearsal and £20 in a concert, we don't see why the audience should be exempt. It works. In 15 years I've only heard one orchestral phone jangle during full flood. Go get 'em, Max!

In Moscow, the Tchaikovsky Competition is in full swing. Barry Douglas, piano supremo and jury boss - himself a former winner - is tweeting updates. Follow him at @wbarrydouglas.

Here, I'm off for my first visit to Garsington Opera's new home at Wormsley near High Wycombe this afternoon. Yes, dear reader, I am attending a real, live baroque opera - a little-known job by good old Vivaldi. More of that anon.

And finally... welcome to Konzertmilch Dortmund. Perhaps this could only happen in Germany, where classical music is still daily bread...

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Brahms for Father's Day

Father's Day is sad for those of us who've lost our dads. But it's also a beautiful reason to play you, in my Dad's memory, part of his favourite symphony. Dad, who died of cancer in 1996 aged 67, used to spend many happy hours in his armchair on Sunday afternoons listening to different recordings of this work and comparing them. If anyone in the family should have been a music critic, it was him. So here are Wilhelm Furtwangler and the Vienna Philharmonic in 1945 in Brahms's Symphony No.2. This is the first installment - for the rest, click through to Youtube and follow the links. I'm off to find my hanky.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Roocroft rides again

My interview with Amanda Roocroft is in The Independent today. In the Royal Opera House's Peter Grimes, opening next week - a revival of Willy Decker's production - she's singing Ellen Orford to Ben Heppner's Grimes, with Andrew Davis conducting. Here's the director's cut, following a spot of Mozart: 'Ah, guarda, sorella' from Cosi fan tutte, with Rosa Mannion and John Eliot Gardiner.

After a long rehearsal for Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, preparing for opening night at the Royal Opera House, AmandaRoocroft seems to have enough energy to start the day all over again. At 45 she is the UK’s top lyric-dramatic soprano; and she’s a sassy northerner at heart, mother of three enthusiastic young football fans. You take her as you find her: with a practical black jacket, killer heels and a crucifix glittering at her throat, all topped with a radiant smile, what you see is what you get. 

Not everything is simple and straightforward where Roocroft is concerned, though. Several years ago, she nearly gave up singing altogether. 

“I wasn’t enjoying it any more,” Roocroft says. “I was too afraid and too self-critical.” She kept going, “because I had to earn money and fulfil contracts,” but at one point her performance as Janacek’s Jenufa at English National Opera looked as if it might be her last role – even though her interpretation won her an Olivier Award. “Being a perfectionist can be a curse,” she admits. “You beat yourself up constantly over the one or two notes you missed and that can wipe out the rewards of the whole evening.” 

Working through some challenging years has left her stronger and happier. “I changed my singing teacher, I sorted my home life out and I believe my baptism was a big part of it,” she says.  “I found a church that offered a loving, safe and accepting environment for me beyond my job, just as a human being who wants to live a good life. And I learned to love difficult times, because you know that you’re going to learn from them.” 

Feeling nurtured and comforted by her faith made all the difference, she says. “It had felt literally as if my voice, my ability to communicate, had been taken away from me. But then, because I felt more relaxed, I could sing – and feeling comfortable with my singing, I started enjoying it again.” Eventually she decided: “I’m lucky! I’m not going to start wishing for what I’ve not got; I’m going to celebrate what I have.”

Roocroft first fell in love with singing and acting when she was a child, growing up in Coppull in Lancashire. “My mum trained as a pianist, then stopped to have her family,” she says. “But in those days everyone sang: there were choirs, competitions and festivals, so she played for them and I always heard her. I learned the piano and the cornet and I played in a brass band.” But it was singing that attracted her most: “I never stopped wanting to do it and it was always classical music – I didn’t want to be the next Britney Spears.” 

She hit the headlines in her early twenties after graduating from the Royal Northern College of Music. She won a slew of important prizes and countless critical plaudits. The Royal Opera House booked her to sing Pamina in Die Zauberflöte when she was only 25 and thereafter engaged her every season for over a decade; and she made a high-profile debut CD with the London Philharmonic under Franz Welser-Möst, released by EMI in 1995. 

Maybe it was almost too much, too young: after the adulation came a backlash. “There was a huge furore those first few years,” Roocroft agrees. “There was this attitude: ‘Who does she think she is, when there are singers around with 20 years more experience?’ I don’t understand the youngsters on The X Factor who want to be famous and want to be in Hello magazine. That wasn’t my intention. I wanted to be respected within my peer group. I didn’t want to be famous, I didn’t want to be rich, I just wanted to sing and I wanted people to think it was great to work with me.”

Last year Roocroft made a triumphant return to ENO, playing the extraordinary role of Emilia Marty in Janácek’s The Makropoulos Case: a heroine who has cheated death for three centuries. “It was great – I got to be bad!” Roocroft grins, with relish. As a blonde lyric soprano, inevitably she used to find herself singing too many “good little girl” heroines. 

Her role as Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes is utterly different. The story, based on the poem by George Crabbe and set on the Suffolk coast where Britten lived, describes the hounding to death of a fisherman whom the locals of the Borough suspect of abusing his apprentices – though nothing is proven against him. Ellen befriends him. 

“The opera’s about that mob mentality,” says Roocroft, “showing what the human race is capable of: that blind hatred, that ability to ruin somebody’s life – in this case to cause a man to commit suicide.” Grimes is an ‘outsider’; Ellen, too, is from beyond the Borough and is held at arms’ length by the community: “The ‘Borough’ views her with suspicion – but standing by Grimes, she has chosen this path. I love her because she’s so strong, strong-minded and strong-willed.” She’s sung Ellen before, but this will be the first time at the ROH. And there’s an extra element for her to enjoy: Grimes’s unfortunate apprentice will be played by her youngest son: “He auditioned like everyone else and earned the part himself.” 

A few months ago Roocroft took the apparently modest step – though in classical terms it’s still rather radical – of talking to the audience during her recital at the hallowed Wigmore Hall, bastion of the highest-level chamber music and Lieder. “I was so anxious to do my best,” she says. “I’d done the same recital in Wigan and because they wanted me to talk – it’s a different set-up there – they loved it. I loved it too and I thought: seriously, why should this be different because it’s in London at the Wigmore Hall? Why can’t I talk to the audience?” 

She tried it, and was pleased to find that only critics objected. “I think it puts the audience at ease, and it certainly put me at ease. I think of pop stars: wouldn’t it be fabulous to go on stage knowing people are there to see you, that we’re all friends together and we’re going to have a really good party? That was the attitude I wanted to take out there, but it was something I definitely lost 20 years ago. It’s kind of beaten out of you. It’s nice to come back and say ‘Look! Isn’t this great?’”

Autumn will bring her back to Janácek: Katya Kabanova at Welsh National Opera. There’s a CD ahead, too: Roocroft has woven songs by composers as diverse as Schubert, Schoenberg and Kurt Weill into an operatic-style story for recital purposes and is planning to record it. Meanwhile she’s looking forward to her debut in one of her vocal fach’s pinnacles: the role of the Marschallin in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier at ENO. The character is an unhappily married aristocrat who gracefully gives up her much younger lover to a girl his own age – but Roocroft has other ideas. “Maybe at the end she should run off with the guy that cleans the pool!” she laughs. “That’s the Marschallin I see: a feisty woman who likes sex.” 

Finding God certainly hasn’t diminished the twinkle in Roocroft’s eye: “It seems to be in my nature to swim against the tide,” she admits. “But I know that come the revolution I’m going to do the Marschallin in a different way – and I’m going to talk at the Wigmore Hall.”

Peter Grimes, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, from 21 June. Box office: 020 7304 4000

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

'Rolls-Royce voice' in Cardiff

It's the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition again, and the preliminary rounds are being screened on BBC4 each evening this week, with other broadcasts on BBC Radio 3. I tuned in yesterday in time to hear what the commentators referred to as a 'Rolls-Royce of a voice': the Russian mezzo Olesya Petrova. Dear reader, her singing blew my socks off.

Apart from the fact that it must take guts to sing Saint-Saens' 'Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix' in front of the great Marilyn Horne (who's on the jury), this was one incredible artist with one vast crimson rose of a voice. She scooped the prize of the evening and though there were several other fine performances in the programme, she seemed in a class of her own.

The broadcast from last night is on BBC iPlayer, and here is the Saint-Saens from the contest website. But iPlayer isn't available outside the UK, and I'm not sure about the website either, so I've had a hunt on Youtube and found this from Vienna a couple of years ago. It's an aria from Tchaikovsky's The Maid of Orleans. Enjoy.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Nemorini X 2 for Danni's dazzling Donizetti

Wet, wet, wet. We nearly drowned at Glyndebourne on Sunday - so much for the drought - but I had quite a treat, being assigned to review L'elisir d'amore (photos by Bill Cooper/Glyndebourne): http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/reviews/lrsquoelisir-drsquoamore-glyndebourne-lewes-2297043.html

It's hard to believe this was Danielle de Niese's first Adina - she doesn't half hold the stage, seemed to relish every coloratura whoosh, twirl and ping, and even made the taming of this shrew into a reasonably palatable and believable tale. She's not only a tremendous singer, but a born performer in every respect.

I really have some problems with this production, though, and wouldn't mind explaining why at more length. And now I can also offer you two tenors for the price of one...

The relationship between Adina and Nemorino is beautifully staged, but to counterbalance that dramatically you also need to believe that she could be intending to go off with Belcore. I mean, come on, she nearly marries the guy. She even gets a wedding dress. And in this 1930s take he's a Blackshirt, so the situation shouldn't be all that funny. But that relationship is staged more or less as a comedy revue and tends to be subsumed in all the fussy goings-on around - which rarely stop and, while occasionally amusing, do leave you wishing they'd just keep still even for five seconds (Nemorino does 'Una furtiva lagrima' alone and in comparative quietude beside the water pump. That's about it.) As for Dulcamara's phenomenally annoying mute, tattooed sidekick - what is he for? What's he doing, miming childbirth and other such fun and games? Why? Perhaps some wire extracted from the innards of the recreated authentic fortepiano in the pit would sort him out.

So, what happened to Stephen Costello? He was off with a sore throat and apparently had been poorly for a while. UPDATE: He has just dropped me a line saying this is the first time in his career he's ever had to cancel. I blame our British summertime...certainly on Sunday the best place a singer with a sore throat could possibly be was: tucked up somewhere warm and dry with a steam bowl.

I heard him at the dress rehearsal, though missed the first night (below, Costello as Nemorino, with Danni as Adina). Do have a read of this interview with him.

We expected him not to "sing out" for the dress, but if that wasn't singing out, and he wasn't feeling well, you wonder what it's like when he's on top form. He's an all-out, in-yer-face romantic lyric tenor: big sound, lots of overtones and undertones, bags of character and a predilection for that mannerism that starts a note some way under and swoops up to target, producing an Italian-broken-heart sound-effect while so doing. The trick is pleasingly Golden Age-ish, though it felt over-used. Glyndebourne is a small house, of course, but in this setting Costello's tone, throat problem notwithstanding, comes over as big and reasonably tough - a sound that might be more at home in Verdi than Donizetti, though in scale, projection and vibrato his seemed a more seamless match with Danni's voice than was Lee's lighter, slenderer instrument. Of the two, Costello won in 'Una furtiva lagrima', by a breath-control whisker; Lee won for charm and purity of style. Costello is to sing Alfredo at Covent Garden next season; that should suit him down to the ground. Watch that space. I reckon we'll be hearing a good bit more of both of them in the years ahead.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Puffing Hough!

Tonight I'm interviewing Stephen Hough on stage at the hallowed Wigmore Hall after his recital. Very excited about this. Do please come & join us:
Stephen is opening the recital with Beethoven's 'Moonlight' Sonata, followed by the premiere of his own Sonata for Piano, 'Broken Branches'. After the interval he'll play two Scriabin sonatas, followed by the mighty Liszt Sonata in B minor. After that we'll be discussing Stephen's life, work and compositions - don't be too surprised if the issue of blogging rears up at some point! If possible and practical we may try to take some audience questions, so if you are itching to ask something, please come and sit at the front so you're easily visible and audible. Finally The Prince Consort will give the world premiere of Stephen's Other Love Songs, an ensemble song cycle conceived as a companion piece to Brahms's Liebeslieder Walzer and hence not containing any waltzes. Read about his Sonata on his blog, here.
Copies of the Sonata score will be on sale in the foyer, so if you want to follow it while Stephen plays, you'll be able to.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Today & Tomorrow

Please come and say hello today and tomorrow:

1. Today it's The Road to Jericho at Spitalfields Festival opening night! We're at Shoreditch Church. I'll be introducing the work of those amazing Aldeburgh Young Musicians in the 6pm pre-concert event and will read one of my poemy things. At 7.30pm Fifth Quadrant and Dal'Ouna perform a Dvorak Quartet, traditional Palestinian music and the world premiere of Who is my Neighbour? by Antony Pitts, composed specially for both groups and the R2J project.

2. Tomorrow the one and only Stephen Hough is at the Wigmore Hall & will perform some of his own music. I'm interviewing him on stage afterwards and the post-concert event will also contain a world premiere of one of his vocal works!

Meanwhile, enjoy "When Scott Walker met Poulenc" in today's Indy, and in Cocteau Voices at the Linbury Studio ROH from Friday. Gotta run now, busy day ahead...

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

"This is not music!" Viola heckler raises hell

UPDATE: There's much more going around now about this story & you can see Mr Zaslav's explanation of his protest, as well as some thoughtful commentary, at conductor Kenneth Woods' blog, here: http://kennethwoods.net/blog1/2011/06/08/avoiding-amplification/. The reason for the 'heckling'  was in fact one of my own favourite bugbears: the amplification level. In Mr Zaslav's position, I'd have done exactly the same. Excessive noise absolutely is painful and can cause us permanent damage - and we value our hearing. I refuse to go into a situation where the decibels are beyond tolerable; it hurts & it's not worth the potential consequences.

If you don't like the music, how far will you go to say so? This astonishing story from the blog Music vs Theater by Brian M. Rosen (which I found thanks to a tweet from Toby Deller) is kind of extreme. 

Is there a point at which les bourgeois grow sick of avant-garde composers wanting to épater them and decide to jolly well say so? After all, shocking the middle classes out of their supposed smug complacency has been one of the key driving forces of new art for around a century. In response, maybe just not buying tickets is no longer enough...

It turns out that the heckler wasn't even a smug bourgeois, but a respected musician, viola player and former member of a seriously wonderful string quartet. See what happened here: http://blog.musicvstheater.com/2011/06/06/violagate-mini-riot-erupts-during-piece-for-viola-and-electronics/

Still, I'm not sure the poor old performer need really have smashed his own viola in response. 

Monday, June 06, 2011


Happy Birthday to someone who is often voted World's Greatest Living Pianist - and who, from what I've seen, probably is. Martha Argerich turned 70 yesterday. And back in February a call from Olly Condy at BBC Music Magazine assigned me the prize task of interviewing her for a cover feature, or trying to.

Martha and interviews are a bit of a contradiction in terms - she doesn't like them, and I don't blame her. I imagine she has enough to contend with already, without silly journos pitching up asking her how many hours a day she practises. Anyway, they dispatched me to Rome to trail her, clutching BlackBerry to report in case of emergency...

Rome should be a favourite destination, but sadly isn't - it can feel as if everyone is out to rip you off, from taxis that won't do the fixed-rate trip from the airport because you're staying just outside the city walls, to restaurants that overcharge, then say there was a misprint in the menu. (Amazing how the 'trickle-down effect' works perfectly in politics and morals, but not cashflow - but that's another matter...) The bonus, though, was that in one day I met not one great pianist I hadn't talked to before, but two. After the concert I was having my camomile tea in the hotel and in walked Alfred Brendel.

And Martha? I got the interview - with a little help from the lovely Yannick Nezet-Seguin, who fortuitously was conducting and knows me from the LPO, of which he's principal guest conductor. And after I explained to Martha in a preliminary chat post-rehearsal that I trained as a pianist myself, but stopped because I couldn't stand the nerves, the great Argerich became the kindest person in all Italy.
I'll never forget sitting just about underneath the piano while she rehearsed Prokofiev 3 - the sounds that came out of it were elemental, the sort of music you imagine that a mountain range or a wide, wise ocean would produce, could it play the piano. But there is absolute method to the 'Argerich sound'...

The interview is in BBC Music Magazine's June edition, which came out a few weeks ago. Get at a copy via this link: http://www.classical-music.com/issue/june-2011


Sunday, June 05, 2011

...And a return to THE APPRENTICE!

It so happens that the house in the latest series of The Apprentice is on my jogging route up to Richmond Park... And suddenly I'm back in the board room and Siralun is saying:


(Above: part of Dal'Ouna in action: Dimitri the oud player, Oday the singer and Drew Balch the violist perform after the talk)

[The Qattan Foundation, Earl's Court. Siralun, flanked by Nick and Karen, faces Jess, Simon, Ramzi and Drew]

Siralun: Morning, all. Your task today is to solve one of the biggest problems in the world, through music. You have three days to put on a discussion and make use of the latest technology to convey it to the widest possible audience. Off you go."
All of us: Yes, Siralun...

[The House, Aldeburgh. Half past midnight. Frantic clicking of BlackBerry keys (Jess) and tapping of iPad (Simon).]

Drew: You know, those kids today were just amazing. They're real young artists, not just schoolchildren.
Simon: Damn, the internet connection's gone again!
Jess: I keep getting messages saying everyone's away. How are we going to raise an audience?
Drew: Doesn't matter, because the task's really about the webcast.
Jess: How does this webcast thing work, anyway?
Simon: Oh, it's easy, you just point the computer and press 'start'.
Jess (feeling abruptly old): Oh, er, right...I see...gulp...

[Thursday, 7am. Beethoven's Violin Concerto rings gently out of the dining room through a practice mute. Jess looks in.]

Jess (embarrassed): Sorry to bother you, Simon, but have you got any idea how to work this shower?
Simon (putting down violin): Oh, it's easy...Look, you just turn this switch, and bingo.
Jess: Er, right. Thought I'd tried that. Never mind...
Simon: We're going to get some coffee and croissants at the beach for ten minutes. Come and join us?

[8am. The beach. Brilliant morning sun due east. Pebbles crunch underfoot. Jess, munching croissant and enjoying cappuccino, can't find the lads anywhere. Might have been sensible to wear my glasses.]

The sea on the pebbles: Ahhhhhh...shhhhhhhh....Ahhhhhh....shhhhhhhh....
Jess: This place is unbelievable. But how do we get anyone to come to our debate the day after bloody tomorrow?
The sea: Ahhhhh.....shhhhhh....Ahhhhhh.....shhhhhhh....

[Back at house, everyone has finished their croissants and coffee already. Message pings into BlackBerry]
Jess: Hooray! Dennis can join our panel on Saturday!
Drew: My fiancee will be there. And Cassandra, and all of Dal'Ouna.
Jess: I managed to make a Facebook event and we've had several yesses and three whole maybes.
Simon: It's a real pain not having internet access...er, Jess, when you get home, please could you have a look at this TO DO list... (shows Points 1 to 8 on iPad). It's very easy, you just...
Jess: Er, right, yes...

[Saturday, 1.30pm, Earl's Court Station]

Jess (wheeling an elegant purple shopping trolley): Sorry I'm late! Bloody District Line.
Simon (carrying suitcase, computer carrier, violin case, suit carrier, iPad and iPhone): Could you nip to Sainsbury's and get the refreshments? I've got to go and set up the webcast...

[Sainsbury's, Earl's Court. Jess meets the Automatic Checkout and unloads stuff at the side, not wishing to use plastic carrier bags but to place everything straight into elegant purple shopping trolley, which is what it's for]

Automatic Checkout: Please place item in bagging area.
Jess: So if I put the trolley on the bagging area...
Automatic Checkout: Checking weight of item... PLEASE CALL ASSISTANCE.
Assistant: Madam, you need to take the trolley off the bagging area, then place the item you've just scanned on the bagging area, or the machine thinks you've gone.
Jess: It thinks?
Automatic Checkout: Please place item in bagging area.
Saturday Afternoon Queue: Tsk tsk tsk tsk...
Jess: *%$%$^£&;*!*)!*&""!???///
[ten minutes later]
Automatic Checkout: You have successfully completed your purchase. Thank you for shopping at Sainsbury's.
Jess: At least I have enough HobNobs to feed an army...

[The venue. Big room: an art gallery with beautiful tall windows, elegant lighting and paintings - an exhibition by a young Palestinian artist who now lives in Venice. Small room: boardroom redolent of Siralun himself, with a big heavy table.]

Jess: We should use the gallery.
Simon: We should use the boardroom. That's what we did last time.
Jess: But the gallery is beautiful and the music might be better in there...
[Simon rushes upstairs to change into suitable shirt. Jess and Cassandra arrange the gallery with plenty of chairs and fold-out trestle tables, plus loads of HobNobs, brownies and drinks in the kitchen.]
Artist: Marhaba! How come the lighting's changed on my exhibition?
Simon: Look, I can't get the WiFi connection to connect, but in the boardroom there's a fixed connection so we'll have to go in there.
Dennis: Hello! Where'd you like me to be?
Simon: Dennis! Great to see you...just a minute...we're fighting the technology...it's easy, really....
[Jess and Cassandra decommission the gallery and set up boardroom instead.]
Artist: Can I have my lighting back now, please?
Simon: Jess, your laptop's connection's disappeared, can you please get it working again, I have to talk to Ramzi quickly...
Jess: You want me to fix a computer?!?
Simon: Yes, yes, it's easy....
[3.05pm. Webcast delayed. Three guests have arrived.]
Jess: Welcome, please come in and have a Hobnob...

[3.20pm We have lift-off. Simon has an iPad, an iPhone and my laptop open on the table. I clutch my doughty BlackBerry]
Simon: Hello, everyone, and thanks for watching! Please send us your questions on Twitter...
Dennis: So, Ramzi, tell us about Al Kamandjati? And what do you hope to achieve with the Road to Jericho project?
Ramzi: Music can be a form of revolution. Revolution does not have to be about throwing stones. Revolution is inside us. We cannot wait for change from outside, because it won't happen. We have to make the changes in ourselves...
Dennis: Can music help with achieving resolution or reconciliation?
Ramzi: Well, you can't have reconciliation unless you actually solve the problem first.
Dennis: Have you talked to Barenboim about all this?
Ramzi: I played for several years in the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, and yes, we discussed. Barenboim's parents were piano teachers in Argentina. He said that when he was a child, he therefore thought everyone who came to the house was there to play the piano. He thought the whole world played the piano. I grew up in a refugee camp where there was continual conflict with the soldiers, and for most of my childhood, I thought the whole world was like this - in continual conflict.
Dennis: So that was your normality?
Ramzi: Exactly. Then after the Oslo Accord, some musicians and music teachers who had left the country were allowed to return and that was when I discovered music and had the chance to learn the viola... We used, before 1948, to have a thriving musical culture. That was virtually destroyed. Now we are rebuilding it.
Simon by email to several friends: *Please* send us some questions by Twitter!
Clemency, by Twitter: Ramzi, what is the single biggest obstacle you face?
Ramzi: We'd need a whole extra hour for that one...
Pal in America, by email: I've never tweeted before! Can I send questions by Twitter without an account?
Jess, Blackberrying under the table: Email me your questions and I'll tweet them for you...
[Pal in America sends 3 questions. Jess tweets them, then gestures frantically with BlackBerry at Simon at the other end of the panel, hoping webcast won't notice. Meanwhile the laptop has switched itself off.]

Dennis: Ramzi, you're inspirational. We've learned a lot today. Now, we have some music from Dal'Ouna.
[The group switches places with the panel and perform three gorgeous Arabic songs with two ouds, percussion and viola obbligato. Left to right: Ibrahim, Dimitri, Oday, Drew, Ramzi.]
Simon, aside, to Jess: Actually, what we need is someone to run the digital side, take down the tweets and pass the chairperson a piece of paper with the questions.
Jess: Did you say...a PIECE OF PAPER?!?

[5pm. Mingling over wine, juice, brownies, tortilla crisps and HobNobs. We have far too many HobNobs and not quite enough wine.]
Simon: Er, we need to be out of the building in ten minutes.
Jess: Please, someone, eat the HobNobs?
Ramzi and co:  Shukran! Ma'a salama! We're off to see Big Ben!

[Sunday morning, 9am. The Boardroom. Simon and Jess wait anxiously on the black leather sofas.]
Secretary: You can go through to the Boardroom now.
Siralun: Well, well, well. That was a pretty pickle, wasn't it? And you sure as hell didn't bring peace to the Middle East.
Jess: Music can't bring peace, Siralun. But it can make people happier. It can show people - especially children - living under impossible conditions that there are beautiful things in life too. That's a good start.We can only do what little we can...
Simon: Siralun, I think we did commendably, under some very difficult circumstances and constraints of time, geography, internet connections and so forth.
Siralun: Jess, Simon knew the space and you didn't. He said 'We should use the boardroom' and you still went ahead and set up the gallery. You started the webcast 15 minutes late because of that. People were wondering what was going on.
Jess: No, Siralun, the set-up didn't take even two minutes as everyone mucked in. We started late because we couldn't get the computer connection up and running.
Siralun: But you didn't listen to the Project Manager.
Simon: That was the least of the problems. The technology really is easy, Siralun, when it works - but...
Siralun: Ah yes. Technology. Jess, is there one single piece of technology on the face of Planet Earth that you are actually capable of using without totally screwing up?
Jess: Well, my generation is the very last that just wasn't born into it, and...
Siralun: Your generation? Don't make me laugh. I've met grandmothers in their ninth decade who are better at working things than you are.
Jess: I'm a creative, Siralun!
Siralun (highly sarcastic): With all that that implies. Here's one piece of creativity neither of you thought of using: a good old-fashioned piece of paper and a pencil. Why didn't you?
Simon and Jess: Er. Um. The technology's easy, really, but...
Siralun: Jess, you're responsible for this - even pencil and paper seem to be beyond the reach of your birdbrained understanding.
Jess: I'm a technotwit, Siralun, and I've never pretended to be anything else. Personally I think this task was a great success. We had the most fascinating talk and viewers tuned into the webcast from as far afield as Rome and Oklahoma.
Siralun: Oklahoma? Oh, what a beautiful morning. Jess (points finger), you're fired!

Sunday. Back in sunny Sheen, I'm going jogging once I've finished this blogpost. I might take a different route today.

Catch Fifth Quadrant, Dal'Ouna and the Aldeburgh Young Musicians in The Road to Jericho on the opening night of the Spitalfields Festival at Shoreditch Church on Friday 10 June. I'm introducing the pre-concert event at 6pm. And in the main concert, as well as traditional Arabic music and a Dvorak string quartet, the guys will be giving the world premiere of Who is my Neighbour? by Antony Pitts, written especially for the project.

We had a lot of fun yesterday. Dennis chaired the meeting wonderfully and drew out the best that Ramzi and Simon had to say; my "prose poem" about things we don't know we do know seems to have gone down rather well; the music from Dal'Ouna was breathtakingly beautiful and performed straight from the heart; and the webcast, miraculously enough, worked. Quite a palava doing it all in just a few days, though. Huge thanks to Dennis Marks, the Qattan Foundation, and the long-suffering artist Mohammed Joha whose exhibition is called Dreams in Black and White, and a big bravi to all the musicians involved!

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Debate and webcast today...

Don't forget The Road to Jericho London debate & webcast at 3pm today. If you can join us, we're here: http://www.mosaicrooms.org/how-to-find-us but if you can't, you can access the webcast by going here and following the video link: http://www.roadtojericho.com and you can submit questions via Twitter using the hashtag #R2J - see you there!

If I can work the technology, I might even be able to run the webcast right here on JDCMB. Simon says it's easy..........

Friday, June 03, 2011

Aldeburgh dreams

My interview with one of my very favourite singers is in today's Independent: meet Angelika Kirchschlager ahead of her first-ever trip to Aldeburgh. http://ind.pn/lHqNtj.

It so happens that I was there yesterday...

That was the beach about 24 hours before I wrote this blogpost... Two minutes in this extraordinary little place and you can start to wonder why you bother staying in London. The air! The sea! The sky! The croissants! (yes, all mod cons, thanks.) Of course, on a day as beautiful as that it's easy to forget what the winter is like - but I can safely say I didn't really want to go home.

I went up to visit the Aldeburgh Young Musicians at Snape. The Britten-Pears buildings around the Maltings have been transformed into the type of space that just hungers for bright, creative youngsters to bound in and start making music. The Aldeburgh Young Musicians programme started about three years ago and chooses a number of gifted kids aged from 10 to 18 from all over East Anglia: they arrive at every possible opportunity to take workshops, write music and play it together. Aldeburgh takes them on board not as kids, but as young artists - and in this buzzing and beautiful atmosphere, they're flourishing.

This week the Road to Jericho boys are on board - Fifth Quadrant from London and Dal'Ouna from Ramallah, working together on instruments eastern and western. I watched a brilliant drumming workshop, led by Ramzi Aburedwan (pictured above, pointing). Ramzi gets the energy flowing and everyone is drawn in... until the drums almost play them, instead of the other way around. Earlier I gatecrashed a rehearsal of a piece that one boy had just written that day and which he conducted so clearly that several professional maestri of my acquaintance could usefully have watched him too. Might the ghosts of Britten and Pears have been lurking in a corner and smiling to see the spirit of music living on in this dedicated and passionate new generation? It's quite possible that Britten's most important legacy will turn out to be not his music (or at least, not just that), but the ongoing, lasting influence on Britain's musical life of Aldeburgh and Snape.

The kitchen produced a delicious Middle Eastern meal with couscous specially for the occasion; we watched a French documentary about the founding of Al Kamandjati; and yesterday morning I found myself sitting beside Ramzi in the studio, reading out the words of the Balfour Declaration of 1917. The fact that Ramzi and I, with our contrasted backgrounds, can sit and share and discuss the transformative effects of music has to say something about the nature of those transformative effects. If we can do that - a Palestinian who grew up in a refugee camp and a 'nice Jewish girl' from north London, who happen to share one big faith, that of music - then so, one hopes, can others.

Join us tomorrow at the Mosaic Rooms tomorrow at 3pm, where we'll be talking about all that and more together with Fifth Quadrant violinist Simon Hewitt Jones and film-maker and author Dennis Marks. There'll be chocolate hobnobs. http://www.mosaicrooms.org/how-to-find-us/