Monday, January 30, 2012

Gold stars for this silver rose

If you only do one thing in London over the next few weeks, make it this: go and see Der Rosenkavalier at ENO.

The opening night on Saturday...where to start? The dream-team cast? OK, Amanda Roocroft is The Marschallin for the first time - not that you would guess for a moment she had not been born singing this music. Roocroft is one of the finest actresses in British opera right now - look at her awards for all that Janacek. She can effortlessly evoke the charming, open-hearted aristocrat on the one hand, and, lurking just beneath the surface, a self-destructive woman whose fear of losing her beloved young lover leads her to chase him away; act I's conclusion leaves her cradling a cushion in despair. Sarah Connolly is everyone's perfect Octavian: glowing, dashing, her voice as silvery as her armour (and those of us who follow her updates on Facebook were extra-pleased to see her as she'd been stuck on a motionless train with points failure for half the afternoon).

Sophie Bevan as Sophie

But perhaps most stunning of all was the debut of Sophie Bevan as Sophie (above, pic by Clive Barda). A star is born? You can't argue with the goose-bumps: you can't always explain them, but you know them when they happen. The moment Sophie opened her mouth, it was clear that she is no common-or-garden girl soprano, but one with potential to reach some very special places indeed. At no point while she sang did one have to glance at the surtitles; every word was clear as the proverbial bell, and every twist of character projected with relish. The voice - pure, flexible, snowy and effortlessly voluminous when required - never faltered; and the magical moments following the presentation of the rose as Sophie and Octavian fall in love made us all fall in love too. The audience went mad for her. I can't wait to hear what she does next.

Nor can you argue with John Tomlinson as the odious Ochs. Some of us feel that the opera contains too much Ochs and too little outrage over his ghastliness (the programme notes said that Strauss makes us like Ochs, but actually no, he doesn't) - but 'John Tom' is so convincing that what one remembers is a) the 18th-century setting would have condemned him to the guillotine had Strauss and Hofmannsthal not shifted the action to Vienna instead of Paris, and b) the world premiere, in 1911, took place only six years before the Russian revolution. Rosenkavalier as social commentary for its own time and maybe for ours too... Meanwhile, so involved was the singer with his role that in the scene with the attorney he turned physically scarlet with anger.

David McVicar's direction of a production as opulently golden as its music is typically astute and detailed - probing, questioning and poetic. For instance, why doesn't Octavian dressed as Mariandel slip out of the boudoir to escape Ochs's attentions? Because the mystery doors in the wall are so mysterious that he can't work out how to get them open. And the last gesture of Octavian towards the departing Marie-Therese before turning back to Sophie sparks an idea that we may not have seen the last of that affair after all...while young Mohamed the page boy has a crush of his own to pursue after curtain-down.

Down t'pit, Ed Gardner was working a magic of his own. This was a shimmering, generous, expansive Rosenkavalier - running to 4 hrs 10 mins, it was 25 mins longer than the theatre's estimate - but not a second of it was excessive. The music had room to breathe, grow and smoulder. Super violin solos from leader Janice Graham and some very lovely woodwind playing.

I have only two complaints. First of all, fine though the diction of the singers was, this opera's entire musical world is so bound up with flow of the German language that in English it just sounds all wrong. That's nobody's fault. I imagine the translation could have been more inspiring, but perhaps it would be a losing battle in any case. The other issue is that the set scarcely changes from scene to scene - without differentiation between the Marschallin's olde-worlde palace and the Faninal's new-build house, half the matter of class distinction, which is such an overriding theme, can't help but be somewhat submerged. Still, sets cost money; and, quite honestly, this cast could have performed in concert alone and still convinced us every step of the way.

Runs to 27 February. I wanna go again!

Photos here:

Friday, January 27, 2012

Friday Historical for Mozart's Birthday, plus some news

First of all, I'm delighted to announce that I have "a new gig", contributing to The Spectator Arts Blog. My first piece is out today and it's a look at six of the best young opera singers I've come across in the last year or so. First up is Sophie Bevan, who will be singing her namesake in Der Rosenkavalier for ENO from Saturday. And five more budding superstars... Read it here.

And it's Mozart's birthday, and it's Friday, so here is some Friday Historical Mozart: the first movement of the Concerto for Three Pianos, with Sir Georg Solti (conducting and playing), Daniel Barenboim and Andras Schiff, and the English Chamber Orchestra. Happy 256th birthday to our darling Wolferl!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

PAAVO BERGLUND, April 14 1929 - January 25 2012

Sad news today that the Finnish conductor Paavo Berglund has died at the age of 82. I heard him many times and will long remember his strange, elf-like figure presiding over intense and alert Tchaikovsky and especially revelatory accounts of Sibelius symphonies.

Below is his official biography. And [UPDATE] an obituary from The Telegraph here.

Paavo Berglund has over a long time been associated with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra in his native Finland. He has been Principal Conductor of the Stockholm Philharmonic (1987 - 1991) and of the Royal Orchestra in Copenhagen (1993 - 1996). 
In England where he was Principal Conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra from 1972 - 1979 he works closely with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and toured Europe with the BBC Symphony, the Royal Philharmonic and the Philharmonia Orchestra. 
He conducted many of Europeans most renowned orchestras including Berlin Philharmonic, Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig, Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Russian National Orchestra, Tonhalle Orchestra Zürich, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Orchestre National de France. He closely works with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe; with the latter he performed all symphonies of Sibelius at the Helsinki Festival. 
In North America he worked with the Minnesota, Baltimore and St. Louis Orchestras, Boston Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Pittsburgh Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, National Symphony Orchestra Washington and Cleveland Orchestra. 
Paavo Berglund repeatedly recorded the complete Sibelius symphonies: for EMI with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and a third time with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe for Finlandia/Warner Bros. With the Royal Danish Orchestra he recorded all symphonies of Nielsen for BMG/RCA Victor Red Seal and, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 and the Overture “1812” for BMG/Classic FM. 
Among the many honours his recordings received is a "Grammy" award nomination for his EMI world premiere recording of Sibelius' Kullervo symphony; the recording of the Nielsen symphonies was awarded the "Diapason d'Or". His distinguished discography also includes works of Shostakovich, Smetana and Dvorák. 

UPDATE: The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra's PR has sent through this tribute from the players:

“Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra is sad to hear of the loss of its Conductor Emeritus Paavo Berglund, its Principal Conductor from 1972-1979.  Berglund’s performances and recordings of Sibelius with the BSO are legendary and his death was announced as the Orchestra played Sibelius Symphony No.5   with Kirill Karabits, who himself worked with Paavo in Budapest. The music parts used by the Orchestra are the ones used by Paavo himself, and the Orchestra dedicated its concert last night in Cheltenham, and its concert tonight at Portsmouth Guildhall (27 January 2012), to his memory.
"Roger Preston, Co Principal Cello, who worked with Paavo on many occasions, said ‘Anyone who played with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in Kerimäki Church, Finland, as part of the BSO’s 1981 tour will tell that it was a truly unforgettable experience.  On this tour we played all the Sibelius Symphonies, with Paavo on spectacular form. Many of Paavo’s comments, criticisms and demands are as fresh in my mind as though it were only yesterday. He remains, for me, one of the best, if not the best conductor that I have ever played for, and I am so grateful to have caught the latter days of Paavo’s extraordinarily fruitful relationship with the BSO.’”

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sergei Polunin jumps ship

And just as we were wondering if men in ballet are upwardly mobile... the Royal Ballet puts out a statement saying that Sergei Polunin has resigned with immediate effect. I interviewed him in the autumn for The Independent and sensed he was champing at the bit, so I'm not wholly surprised - though hadn't expected him to jump ship quite this soon, given the prominence the company was according him. Well, he's off. No reasons have been stated for his resignation, thus far (and I hope it's nothing to do with the tattoos).

The news is causing quite some shock in the dance-loving Twitterverse, and the words "with immediate effect" are startling and somewhat dramatic. He is, of course, in that programme at Sadler's Wells, as I reported this morning, and speculation is rife as to where he will go from here. A number of performances will have to be recast, including a worldwide cinema relay of Romeo and Juliet scheduled for March.

Here's the statement from Monica Mason just issued by the ROH:

This has obviously come as a huge shock, Sergei is a wonderful dancer and I have enjoyed watching him tremendously, both on stage and in the studio, over the past few years.  I wish him every success in the future.

Marvellous men?

They're upwardly mobile, this lot. Get down to Sadler's Wells from Friday and see some seriously amazing dancers - Men in Motion, starring Ivan Putrov (who's put the evening together), Sergei Polunin and balletic friends from the Bolshoi, the Mariinsky, ENB and more. My article about the show is in today's Independent. 

I also have a little e-interview with Ivan Putrov himself...

JD: Do you think that male dancers are starting to eclipse female ones when it comes to international stardom? If so, why might that be happening?

IP: The word "Eclipse" sounds very much utopian. I wouldn't say eclipse, the male and female are always present and it is down to personality not gender how a dancer is perceived by the audiences and the media. I believe in the last century the man has gained a different status in the Ballet Theatre- equal to the female. We can say that Nijinsky is the first superstar 'celebrity' male dancer in our late post romantic world of dance. Because of that 'novelty' at the time, it has attracted more attention and so it might seem at first that the male was going to eclipse the female.

JD: It seems to me that the range of emotional expression that choreographers explore with male dancers has vastly increased over the past two or three decades. Do you agree? If so, how would you account for it? 

IP: JJ Noverre comes to my mind. He has talked in his time not only of the state of the dance theatre at that time and before, but he could foresee what is to come. He said that dance will catch her sister arts in a dramatic development. That's what is happening. He knew. But what's next?!

JD: How did you choose the ballets for this programme? Were you perhaps seeking to reflect that range of possibility, as well as a century of choreography for men?

IP: I dreamt of them.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Debussy's bustin' out all over

Here we's the Debussy anniversary! A grand 150 years since the birth of (almost) everyone's favourite French composer, a figure without whom the entire face of 20th-century music would have been utterly different. I've written two relevant pieces which are both out today.

First, here's my interview with Michael Tilson Thomas from this week's JC. The American conductor is presiding over the LSO's Debussy series which starts next week. His family background is truly fascinating, though: the American Yiddish theatre proved a rich and radical field for artistic development of many kinds, including his.

And here, from The Independent, is an interview with the lovely Noriko Ogawa, who is doing a Debussy festival in Manchester with the BBC Philharmonic, opening tonight. The influence of Japanese culture - 'Japanoiserie', at any rate - on Debussy was vital; and in return, his music has made a major impact on the Japanese composers of today. The piece has been somewhat chopped, though, so below is the director's cut. Plus a video interview with Noriko from Cardiff, recorded last summer.

Jessica Duchen

In 1862 Claude Debussy was born in Paris: the biggest musical celebrations of 2012 will mark his 150th anniversary. ‘Reflections on Debussy’, a major new festival based at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, promises to be one of the most unusual takes on this seminal French composer and his legacy. It unites past and present, Europe and Asia, and a pianist and orchestra who, having been caught up in Japan’s devastating earthquake, are lucky to be here at all.

On 11 March 2011 the Japanese pianist Noriko Ogawa was waiting for a train in Tokyo when the platform began to shake under her feet. At the same moment, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, on tour in Japan, was travelling in a bus, which was crossing a bridge. Miraculously, they all escaped unscathed. Now they are working together, exploring the links between Debussy and Japanese culture.

The links are more serendipitous than one might imagine. “It was in the year of Debussy’s birth, 1862, that a group of 30-40 Japanese diplomats came to Europe for the first time,” Ogawa points out. “They would have been wearing full traditional regalia, complete with swords, and they must have looked incredibly exotic to the populations of Paris and London.” In those days, Japan was still “closed”, mysterious to the outside world, more distant even than India and China. And as the century progressed, a vogue for Japanese culture swept through France, carrying Debussy with it.

Ogawa suggests that Debussy had a natural affinity with deep underlying qualities in Japanese art, especially the ukiyo-e “Floating World” woodblock prints by artists such as Hokusai and Hiroshige. They likewise made a profound impact on western artists of successive generations – first Manet and Monet, later Gauguin, Lautrec and Matisse.

“Japanese art then used a very deformed perspective,” Ogawa points out. “Artists picked out the aspects they wanted to emphasise. For instance, if a man is looking furious in one Floating World picture, his face is much bigger than the rest of his body – just to reinforce the sense that he is angry.” It is not a vast step from there to the fantastical perspectives of Symbolism, a movement absorbed in subjective, dreamlike and suggestive atmospheres rather than literal images. Debussy associated himself with this artistic movement more than any other.

The cover picture on the first printed copies of his orchestral work La Mer – effectively a kind of sea symphony – is Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanegawa. “It brings out the strength of the sea, exaggerating this rather than being perfect like a photograph,” says Ogawa. “That deliberate deformation of perspective creates a stronger impression. Debussy does this, too, in his music. He broke all the rules!”
Other pieces by Debussy seem to share the formality, restraint and concision of Japanese art. 

“You need a strong sense of control on the keyboard to play Debussy,” says Ogawa. “You can’t be overemotional or drown yourself in it; you have to be objective and keep searching for the right quality and beauty of sound. It’s the opposite of Brahms and Beethoven’s rock-solid Germanic music. After the incredibly emotional Romantic era, Debussy opens the window to let the fresh air in.” 

The most Japanese of his works, she suggests, is ‘Poissons d’or’, the final piano piece from Images, Book II – directly inspired by exquisitely wrought images on a Japanese lacquer cabinet depicting koi carp.

Debussy’s fondness for Japanese culture was first sparked at the Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair) in Paris in 1889; there, too, he encountered the music of the Indonesian gamelan, which also made a deep impression on him. He never travelled to the Far East, but his entire personality predisposed him to the absorption of influences rich and strange. Debussy, whom some considered Bohemian and non-conformist and whose personal life encompassed some very public scandals, was sensitive to a remarkable degree. His unceasingly enquiring mind allowed him to draw on innumerable sources for his music: everything was fair game, from the poems of Baudelaire to the novels of Dickens, from the drawings of Arthur Rackham to circus performances by acrobats. Perhaps his affinity for Japanese art was innate, or perhaps there was even more to it: “It’s almost as if he was able to tune in to its wavelength, like a radio,” says Ogawa.

Highlights she has devised for ‘Reflections on Debussy’ include a traditional Japanese tea ceremony before she performs the composer’s Etudes for piano, and a flower ceremony before the Préludes; and the series also features works by the late Toru Takemitsu and a younger Japanese composer, Yoshihiro Kanno, who were both profoundly influenced by Debussy’s musical language.

Ogawa has commissioned a set of three piano pieces from Kanno, each of which involves a different traditional Japanese percussion instrument. For instance, A Particle of Water employs Myochin Hibashi chopsticks: these are manufactured by a craftsman from the 54th generation of a family that once made swords for Samurai warriors and are constructed from the same metal as those legendary weapons. Ogawa couldn’t resist adding Chopsticks itself to the programme, though.  

Joking aside, though, the festival is part of her post-earthquake therapy. Born and brought up in Japan, she thought she was used to earthquakes, but this one was different: “The horizontal movement told us that this was something much stronger,” she recalls. “It went on for 90 seconds, which is really long. After that the electricity went off, everything shut down and in the north of the country the tsunami arrived very quickly. People there lost everything – homes, businesses, livelihoods – in just half an hour.”

Dazed, confused, and convinced that Japan was facing apocalypse, she lost interest in playing the piano until she decided to go to America and give a fundraising concert to help the victims. So far, she has raised more than £21,000 for the British Red Cross’s aid to Japan; and additionally she has organised the design of some greeting cards – involving black cats, pianos and Debussy, who used to frequent a club named Le Chat Noir – which she sells at her concerts to benefit the Japan Society.

“There are still aftershocks even now,” she says. “But I don’t want to talk about disastrous things too much, because people are trying to be positive. I’d just like to offer something that people will enjoy, feeling at the same time they’re doing something to help.”

The intuitive Debussy could well have approved.

Reflections on Debussy begins on 20 January at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester. Box Office: 0161 907 9000

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Tragedy of the musician hero on Costa Concordia

A Hungarian violinist, Sandor Féher (38), was among those who lost their lives on the cruise ship Costa Concordia, which ran aground on rocks off the Tuscan shore on Friday. The Guardian reports:
"One of the bodies found on the vessel was identified on Wednesday as Sandor Feher, 38, a Hungarian violinist who worked on board and was last seen helping crying children into life jackets before returning to his cabin to get his violin."
I think I have found him on Youtube. Sandor Féher, from Budapest, was looking for a teaching job out of Hungary. He posted a short film about himself and his work to assist with his quest. Here is the video, by way of tribute to his bravery and selflessness. It features Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen. Further tributes are already being posted on the Youtube page.

According to the same report, the death toll from the disaster stands at 11, with 21 people still unaccounted for.

If you have not already heard that phone call between the coastguard and the captain, it is available on The Guardian's website, here. The coastguard orders the captain to get back on board the ship to provide correct information and to help people. Interesting thoughts on the topic here.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Schubert to the Max

The ace violist Maxim Rysanov sent me this after the Schubert post went up yesterday. In his project 'Looking for Schubert' he's setting out to find the right piece of new music to complete a Schubert album. He invites composers to send in a work 6-8 minutes long for viola and string orchestra, inspired by our beloved Franz. Quite a novel way to go about things, this. Here he is to explain further.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Why Schubert?

There are a few pieces of music that I try not to hear too often, since they are so powerful they keep me up at night. Most of them are by Schubert. I went to hear one of them yesterday: the E flat piano trio. If you want to be awake and haunted at 3am, look no further than its second movement.

Why Schubert?

...Schubert, as you know, is most famous for his songs. His musical language is completely intermingled with the flow of language, poetry and ideas. This comes through his instrumental works as well as his Lieder, perhaps contributing to their sense of ultra-communication in the soul-to-soul sense. He appeals not only to our sonic imagination but our linguistic and literary one too, yet by-passing words to give only the impact of their unwritten message. The E flat trio's second movement feels at times like a fugitive from Winterreise, but its grand-scale structure is not shackled by strophic verse. The emotional content is there, but free to grow and develop at "heavenly length" (Schumann's term, originally describing the Ninth Symphony).

...The myth goes that from the age of about 25 Schubert, diagnosed with syphilis, knew that he was going to die young, and that this awareness fed the tortured side of his works. It's dubious. He made it to 31, but did not in fact die from that horrible, degenerative illness, but something else, possibly contracted from eating some bad fish. In his last letter to his brother, he asked for a copy of a James Fenimore Cooper novel. He thought he was going to be in bed for a while, reading, recovering - not imminently pushing up the Viennese daisies. And yet the speed at which he dashed off searing, visionary, humane masterpieces such as this trio, the String Quintet, the last three piano sonatas, the great string quartets like the D minor 'Death and the Maiden' and the ahead-of-its-time G major, the Ninth Symphony, SchwanengesangWinterreise - it positively beggars belief, enhancing the impression that Schubert, like Keats, had fears that he might "cease to be, Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain..."

It may well be true that the long walks he was prescribed - apparently to build up his strength in resistance to the syphilis - could account for the walking rhythms he chose so often, as in this trio, Winterreise's 'Gute nacht', the C minor Impromptu, the Ninth Symphony's second movement. Whether or not he could predict his own death, he could certainly see a future blighted by a then-incurable venereal disease: this passionate and sensitive young man, who loved life so intensely and was both compelled and disgusted by its seamy, venal side, would never be able to have a loving relationship without passing on that illness to his partner (let's avoid the "was Schubert gay?" question for the moment, because the end result is the same where syphilis is concerned). Known to his friends as "Little Mushroom", he was not in any case hunk of the century: short, plump, bespectacled. You can still see his glasses in a case in the birthplace museum in Vienna. They are tiny with round lenses, one of which is cracked. It's an oddly heartbreaking exhibit.

...In Schubert, the major tonality is more tragic than the minor. It is the way he switches between them that rips at our innards. What is he doing? What is he saying? Recognition of darkness turns to acceptance of it, maybe. Or to seeing the beauty beyond it. Or to welcoming it. Or to extending compassion to everyone for it, with a wry smile through the tears. I believe that in the change from minor to major he is not only recognising the darkness and transforming it, but empathising with both sides of it, and with us all: in that switch, for Schubert, lies the essence of the human condition.

...Schubert is a matter of pure emotion, introverted but also universal. Against today's backdrop we need his message more than ever. As you'll have noticed, we're in a time of extremism and mass hysteria: a time of whipped-up, maliciously manipulated finger-pointing, witch-hunts, pointless and irrational victimisation (the real nasties mostly get away with blue murder while our attention is diverted by trivia). Against such a dim, dumb background, Schubert remains the voice of balanced humanity at its most sensitive, facing up to its own nature with supreme honesty. After the 7/7 bomb attacks in London in 2005, someone asked me to suggest consoling music; I picked Schubert as the ultimate. I think at that point it was the slow movement of his other piano trio, the B flat. Now, though, we need the E flat.

...I know I've pointed out before the way that Schubert could pack more emotional truth into a four-minute song that certain composers of very expensive symphonies manage to say in an hour and a quarter. But when he does do "heavenly length" there is a point to it. Did you know that if you count the bars of the first movement of the Sonata in B flat D960, including the repeat and its first-time linking passage, there are the same number in the exposition up to the double bar as there are in the rest of the movement? Whatever this may or may not tell us, it says that he knew what he was doing; he was not wielding out-of-control, sprawling structures, something of which he's sometimes been accused. There was self-awareness in that length; it was deliberate.

...I love the fact that we owe Schubert to Schumann, Liszt, Mendelssohn and Brahms. Schumann went to Schubert's brother's house and unearthed manuscripts including the Ninth Symphony. Mendelssohn conducted it. Brahms edited some of the piano music for publication, refusing to take a credit for his work. Liszt transcribed some of the songs and made them well known by performing them in his recitals. Their own music is full of his influence. And of course, without Schubert's influence we wouldn't have had Mahler (though to me, Schubert is worth ten of him. Don't shoot.).

...Schubert brings us back to purity, truth and tenderness. Amid the mayhem, don't forget to listen.

(UPDATE: Entartetemusik is somewhat exercised about my last line. Try the beginning of my piece as well as the end? The bit about how this music keeps you awake and haunted at 3am?)

Friday, January 13, 2012

Friday Historical: Messiaen talks about Debussy

This is a special treat for anyone who came to the showcase evening for our Messiaen project The End of Time on Monday (and for everyone else too). Footage from Olivier Messiaen's analysis class at the Paris Conservatoire. The great composer talks to his students about the work that he often referred to as the most profound influence upon his own music: Debussy's opera Pelléas et Mélisande.

Monday, by the way, went really rather well. We had the most fabulous evening. My profound and profuse thanks to our hosts, Bob and Elizabeth Boas; the six expert performers, actors and musicians alike; and the indomitable Yvonne Evans, who made it all happen. It may have been the first 'real' London performance of my play, but I hope it won't be the last.

Hannibal hits the high notes... plus the Monty Python of music, a mountaineering composer and a brand-new piece by Brahms

"I thought I'd end up in the steelworks in Port Talbot for the rest of my life," says Sir Anthony Hopkins. Is he the most open and straightforward person I've ever interviewed? Certainly one of them. And it was rather touching to hear that familiar voice speaking to me from Los Angeles, and to realise that his own, natural accent remains distinctly Welsh. As you'll know by now, Classic FM is bringing out an album of music by Hopkins. Today my interview with him about it is in The Independent. Read it here.

More light reading for Friday morning: I have an interview with the fantabulous and very funny pianist Jonathan Biss in the JC this week, which is here.

And back at the Indy, we meet the young Italian composer who went up a mountain to create a tune with a view...

That should hopefully entertain you over your coffee. And here's a bonus: a "new" Brahms piano piece has turned up in America and is to have its world premiere on BBC Radio 3 on Music Matters, 21 January, played by Andras Schiff. Christopher Hogwood apparently stumbled upon the work which looking through a collection of manuscripts in the US that had once belonged to the director of music at Göttingen University. The piece, a complete Albumblatt about two minutes long, was written in 1853 when our Johannes was all of 20 - the year he met Schumann and Clara for the first time. Perhaps it would have been amongst the pieces he performed to them on that first visit in Dusseldorf. It is apparently an early version of what became the trio section of the scherzo in Brahms's Horn Trio. The Guardian has more on this, here.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Paranoid androids?

I spent a fascinating morning today at the Royal College of Music talking to postgraduate students, together with inspirational and entrepreneurial academic David Bahanovich and the one and only Gabriel Prokofiev. We covered topics ranging from Gabriel's innovative Non-Classical club nights to what the greatest musicians have in common - energy? dedication? more?; and from why "person gives concert" is not a story, to why you really need to understand, in today's music business, how digital media and social networking function or else risk being torpedoed. And much more.

It's wonderful, in 2012, to walk into the RCM and see devoted and brilliant young people who are on fire with the love of music and ready to spend their lives in its service. But also very worrying, because I don't know what in the world is going to happen to the RCM - or the other British music colleges - after the government removes all their support. Or am I being a paranoid android? After all, British music students can still hop on a plane to Denmark and study there free of charge (though they may need a different range of vocabulary from that of The Killing and Borgen). But I want to see top-notch, open-minded, free-spirited music colleges here in the Big Smoke, a city buzzing with creativity and diverse music-making every moment of every day, where young musicians could be nurtured without having to burden themselves with impossible debt. A college education should be free to those talented enough to pursue it. When we stop investing in education, we smother the future. It's that simple.

Speaking of creativity, David told me, en passant, about the pianist Christopher O'Riley's runaway success in the US with piano transcriptions of Radiohead, which apparently help to attract people to his recitals who might be under the age of 50 and sometimes sport interesting haircuts. Christopher's programmes might have a first half of, for instance, Janacek and Bartok, and a second half of Radiohead song covers. I hadn't heard the transcriptions before, so thought I'd check them out. Here's Paranoid Android: in this context, not so very far away from mainstream American minimalism, perhaps. Contemporary music: a convergence?

Friday, January 06, 2012

Accolade for Alan

Dr Alan Walker, whose three-volume biography of Franz Liszt is now the definitive text on last year's bicentenary supremo, has been awarded a top honour by the Government of the Republic of Hungary: the Knight's Cross of the Order of Merit. It was announced, we hear, before the end of Liszt year (and before the new constitution in Hungary, which came into force the other day, dropped the word 'Republic'). Walker, professor emeritus of music at McMaster University, is also the biographer of Hans von Bulow, the conductor and Liszt's pre-Wagner son-in-law, and The Death of Liszt, based on the diary of Liszt's pupil Lina Schmalhausen. He will be bestowed with his award on 17 January at the Hungarian Embassy in Ottawa.

Accolades for books of this excellence are few and far between and goodness knows it is well deserved. But I imagine it won't be long before someone says he ought to consider refusing the award in protest at the current turn of political events in Hungary. This brings home the point that we ought to have more recognition for excellence in musical scholarship from cultural and governmental bodies a bit closer to home.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Ivan Fischer on the future of the symphony orchestra

I just found Ivan Fischer's video blog on the Budapest Festival Orchestra's website. Here he talks about the future of the symphony orchestra - and reveals in a few succinct sentences exactly what he thinks of 'crossover' and why.

While Hungary's political and economic situation goes through what looks increasingly like hell and high water don't forget why it matters everywhere else. Let's hope that this towering musical tradition, with its purity, clear-sightedness and intensity of purpose, won't be subsumed by yet another destructive ideological steamroller. The riches of that tradition are exemplified today by Fischer and his brother Adam, Andras Schiff, Gabor Takacs-Nagy and many, many more.

A year ago Andras Schiff alerted everyone to the Hungarian political situation with a letter to the Washington Post. But of course a lot of people said what they usually say when musicians talk about politics, to the effect of "shut up and play the piano", and now he doubts he will ever return to his native land. This is extremely unfortunate, because he was right and he should have been listened to - but the opportunity to make a bigger stand early enough was effectively lost. The truth in the overview of such situations can often be astutely commented upon by those who are outside it - people who care, but whose interests are not vested - and as great musicians tend to be intelligent, passionate people whose gifts have earned them a world stage, sometimes we really ought to take some notice of what they say.

In Senegal, another world-renowned musician, Youssou N'Dour, is running for president.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Inspiration? Try the shower

The Guardian has a fantastic spread at the moment in which some leading creative artists - writers, artists, musicians, choreographers, etc - talk about how and where they find the inspiration that drives them. I particularly like the very concise concluding section by Wayne McGregor. Read the whole thing here.

A couple of late additions from JDCMB:

* Hot water. I get my best ideas in the shower. No explanation.

* Read lots of history and biography. The past is full of stories so outlandish that you couldn't make them up. So is the present, of course...

Any more tips, anyone?

Monday, January 02, 2012

Cracking the O2 Nut

Rewind to Millennium year. Tony Blair's government has decided to leave us as its legacy the most magnificent flexible performance space in Europe. Audiences of many thousands can flock to the east London riverside to see rock concerts, ballets, operas, superstar lectures and big-screen spectaculars, to name but a few possibilities. The Proms consider relocating in order to treble the audience size and improve the sound quality. The seats are comfortable, the acoustics state-of-the-art and adaptable to any occasion, the sightlines carefully considered at all levels. The foyers are warm, pleasantly designed, friendly and welcoming, the food outlets offer - besides pizza, or fish and chips - falafel and organic salads, home-made chocolate cake and fresh juices. Soon no visit to London would be complete without a trip to the People's Palace of the Arts.

Instead...they built the Millennium Dome. A great spawling shell containing...emptiness. Think of the length of time it took to decide what to do with the damn thing. Think of the cost, dear readers. Think of the waste. Then think how different it could have been if only they'd decided to build it as a proper venue in the first place.

I trotted off to the Dome last week. It's now comfortable enough in its adopted skin as the O2, but still - what a missed opportunity it is. It doesn't feel only 12 years old: it has all the atmosphere of a miserable 1960s relic, with stairs that look as if they've been exported from the old Swiss Cottage swimming baths, and an all-pervasive smell of beer and burgers.

But the Birmingham Royal Ballet's production of The Nutcracker was of course the purpose of the visit. And whoosh - two bars of Tchaikovsky and the entire O2 was transported to dreamland in one swoop. It was absolute magic from start to finish. If this Nutcracker can transcend that venue, then it can do anything.

Here's my review, for The Independent. (Not sure if it has already appeared in the paper - it isn't online yet.)

Balletic bravura, dazzling transformation scenes, a giant flying goose – Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker has become a national favourite. Still, with so many different Nutcracker stagings grinding away this Christmas, especially in London, bringing it to the gaping spaces of the O2 had to be something of a gamble, and not only because of the challenge of selling enough seats. Can its dream magic survive the transition from traditional theatre to an outsize arena with popcorn and eat-in-your-seat pizza?

It also had to survive an unfortunate late addition to the line-up: Joe McElderry crooning three Christmas carols in hideous, sickly arrangements. Goodness knows why he was there. But as soon as the show got underway, the spell created by Tchaikovsky and BRB’s expertise spun its joys unhindered on the sizeable stage.

Moving this complex showpiece to a space that neither it nor the company had inhabited before must have been a gargantuan task, yet glitches were few and far between – just a little over-enthusiasm with the dry ice for the battle of the rats, perhaps. A large screen brought us the welcome option of close-ups, the amplification of the orchestra was unintrusive, and best of all, the superb cast seemed to rise to the evening’s demands by bringing out any extra percentage of energy they might conceivably keep in reserve.

In Peter Wright’s Nutcracker – his own choreography rubbing shoulders with Lev Ivanov’s and some by Vincent Redmon – the momentum of demanding dance scarcely lets up. The party scene brings us three generations of a family happily taking turns on the ballroom floor, from the excellent children to some lovely vignettes for David Morse and the great Marion Tait as the grandparents. Our heroine, Clara, is barely off stage in either act, although when she is finally transformed into the Sugar Plum Fairy for the great pas de deux, it’s another dancer who takes over. Rather like bringing out Wayne Rooney for the penalty shootouts.

Still, Clara has plenty to do already, and Laëtitia Lo Sardo joyously captured the adolescent girl’s voyage of discovery as she balances on the cusp of womanhood. Her Nutcracker Prince was the dashing César Morales, Robert Parker conjured a flamboyant magician-uncle Drosselmeyer, and the unshakeable Nao Sakuma as the Sugar Plum Fairy offered a tranche of ideal classical control.

Did it work? The ultimate verdict must come from the many children in the audience – for in the interval, through those soulless, stadium-style foyers, virtually every little girl was dancing. That’ll be a ‘yes’.

Sunday, January 01, 2012


Greetings from here:

Let's hope that 2012 will be a sane, peaceful, successful, smooth, kind and reasonable year - rather than anything resembling the past one. Don't forget to listen to the New Year's Day Concert from Vienna. This year it is conducted by the mighty Mariss Jansons. For UK listeners, it's on BBC Radio 3 at 10.15am and BBC2 at 11.15, with another showing on BBC4 this evening.