Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Guest post for NORMBLOG about Turgenev and Fauré

Warmest thanks to the one and only Norman Geras for inviting me to contribute to the 'Writer's Choice' series on his site, Normblog. I've paid a return visit to Ivan Turgenev, his links with Gabriel Fauré and the masterpiece novella First Love. It's here.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Barenboim - from podium to stadium

Here's my review for The Independent of the last night of Barenboim & the WEDO's Beethoven cycle, head to head with the Olympic opening ceremony. And eagle-eyed viewers still awake at about 12.45am may have noticed the maestro carrying the Olympic flag into the stadium in a posse of eight great humanitarian figures.  http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/reviews/prom-18-barenboimwesteastern-divan-orchestra-royal-albert-hall-7984509.html

It was a difficult night to award a star rating - but eventually I felt that the sense of occasion and the power of the music-making deserved this 5-er. It was only a couple of the solo singers who didn't, and that may not be their fault: one was a late replacement and, besides, they may all have been fazed by their placement alongside the choir, having to sing clean across the orchestra.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Nicky Benedetti takes Korngold viral

Nicola Benedetti's forthcoming disc The Silver Violin centres on the Korngold Violin Concerto. But just listen to the beginning of this video: that is, of course, the Lute Song from Die tote Stadt, followed by the Pierrot Tanzlied... How delicious it is to see our EWK enjoying this kind of exposure.

When I talked to Nicky for the disc's booklet notes, she told me that she thought Korngold had gone viral. Critics might not be supportive of the concerto, she remarked, but violinists are: they just adore playing it, and she's no exception. Having lain ignored for decades, the concerto is now easily accessible via the internet, and violinists can pick up on one another's repertoire choices at the click of a mouse. Bingo: suddenly enough recordings of the work exist for a 'Building a Library' about it on R3.

Meanwhile, I hope this blog has this week offered proof that it is perfectly possible, and perfectly OK, to like both Korngold and Boulez.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Once more unto the Boulez, dear friends...

Here's my review for The Independent of last night's Prom: Barenboim & the WEDO again, and they're just getting better and better. As is the Boulez. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/reviews/prom-13-daniel-barenboimmichael-barenboimwesteastern-divan-orchestra-royal-albert-hall-7976111.html

And a little more of my interview with the violinist Michael Barenboim is up now at Sinifini Music. He must have nerves of steel to hold that stage alone - it was quite a tour de force.

This Prom is being televised on Friday at 7.30pm on BBC4 - at which point Barenboim & co will probably still be in full swing with the Ninth inside the hall, a short concert with an early start so that we can all get home to watch the Olympic opening ceremony. Some of us might find the WEDO a bit more interesting than 70 sheep in a stadium, but... hey ho.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Hungarian Dances goes to Buxton

Blazing sunshine, teeming crowds in the Pavilion Gardens, a brass band whiling away the afternoon, cupcakes galore and a crowd of delighted festival-goers - Buxton in its festive spirit, a rare and wonderful Buxton, and a very welcoming one. Above, the Hungarian Dances Concert team outside the Pavilion: pianist Margaret Fingerhut, JD and Bradley Creswick, the violin's answer to Bradley Wiggins. Enormous thanks to Stephen Barlow, Glyn Foley, Jeff and all the festival team, the AA for rescuing Bradley from a glitch on the A1, and whoever it was who sorted out the weather - it was truly a day to remember.

If you were there and you need some info or you want a CD or a book (I regret to say I underestimated demand and didn't bring enough), here are the vitalstatistics:

You can order Hungarian Dances on Amazon.co.uk in paperback, hardback, Kindle e-book or large print. You can also get it in Dutch or Hungarian, and I'm promised that the Romanian edition (!) should be out soon.

A CD to accompany the book was specially recorded a few years ago by the brilliant French violin and piano team Philippe Graffin and Claire Desert. It's available on Onyx Classics, on disc or download. Get it here. The music for the book is all credit to Philippe, who not only dreamed up the idea, but found the perfect piece to represent the fictional concerto in the novel (it's the Dohnanyi that opens the programme).

There's much more info on all of this, plus some nice reviews and a few yummy Hungarian recipes at our designated HUNGARIAN DANCES website, here.

And last, but not least, if you want to book us for a Hungarian Dances concert, drop us a line. Yesterday's programme is 75 mins of music and reading with no interval, and there's also a full evening version in two halves. Apart from anything else, it is great fun. Featured works include Dohnanyi's Andante rubato alla zingaresca, Ravel's Tzigane, Vecsey's Valse Triste, Bartok's Romanian Dances, Hubay's Hejre Kati and Monti's Csardas, among others.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Guess who I fell in love with yesterday?

Yes, it's Pierre Boulez. Hearing his Derive 2 at the Barenboim/WEDO Prom somehow resembled discovering a new deep-sea creature that cast radical new light on all our assumptions of what marine life really is. I was riveted from start to finish. Its weaving of countless ideas, its progression of entirely aural and nonspecific narrative, its amazing colours (what a collection of instruments!), all conspire to challenge one's ideas of what music is, what it means and how we listen to it.

I'm holding the fort, more or less, with the Indy's classical reviews this week - Michael and Ed are both on their travels. Here's my write-up of last night.

Obviously not everyone is going to agree about the Boulez, which is as long as, or longer than, a big romantic symphony and requires a heap of concentration. So, for a way in, try reading Tom Service's brilliant introduction to the man and his music; and then catch the concert on the BBC iPlayer (UK only) here.

[photo by Clive Barda]

Friday, July 20, 2012

HUNGARIAN DANCES, Buxton Festival on Sunday

If you're anywhere near the Peak District this weekend, do come along to our Hungarian Dances Concert of the Novel at the Buxton Festival.

I read extracts of my novel, and the fabulous duo of violinist Bradley Creswick (leader of the Northern Sinfonia) and pianist Margaret Fingerhut perform all the appropriate pieces by the likes of Dohnanyi, Bartok, Hubay, Ravel & co, not forgetting Monti's Czardas and Dinicu's The Lark. We're at the Pavilion Arts Centre, kick-off is at 1.30pm and the concert is 75 mins straight through. We love this programme and hope that you will too!

Book online here.

Aldeburgh World Orchestra prepares for debut

The musical powerhouse based in Britten's home townlet, Aldeburgh, has a brand-new venture especially for the Olympics. The Aldeburgh World Orchestra, which is coming to the Proms later this month, consists of young professional musicians from 34 different countries, all of whom auditioned on...Youtube. I talked to its organisers and its concertmaster, Avigail Bushakevitz from South Africa, to see what was cooking, and how. Read all about it here.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Götterdammerung at Longborough

Wagner in the Cotswolds? Well, whyever not? Can-do attitudes aren't all that widespread at present anywhere else, so I trotted off to Longborough Festival Opera to see their latest Ring Cycle installment - and found myself moved to tears, something that doesn't often happen to me in Götterdammerung. At various other performances in the past I've longed for das Ende... At this one, I could have listened to the whole thing all over again right away. Because Longborough has a conductor whom I suspect may be the best-kept secret in the Wagnerian world, a lead soprano who can hold her own with the world's finest and an expert supporting cast - a cut-down scale doesn't mean compromising on quality. Here's my full review from the Independent.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

An interview with Barenboim & Son

I've been talking to Daniel Barenboim and his violinist son, Michael, about their burgeoning dynasty. They're respectively conductor and concertmaster of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which will be all but taking over the Proms from this Friday to next.

Read it all in today's Independent, here.

Here they are in the Schubert 'Trout' Quintet first movement, with an ensemble from the WED - Daniel Barenboim (piano), Michael Barenboim (violin), Orhan Celebi (viola), Kyril Zlotnikov (cello), Nabil Shehata (double bass). Enjoy.

Monday, July 16, 2012

How to be a nice audience

A thought-provoking article by Andrew Mellor for The New Statesman's blog today has an eloquent go at the exclusivity of audiences at classical concerts. Some of which rather ties in with my post last week on the trouble with sponsorship.

Let's be fair about this. The world inside the concert hall reflects the world outside it. No wonder it's not too happy a picture. For orchestras, venues, opera companies etc, adverts in programmes are a vital source of income. If they carry ads for private schools, that's not because it's necessarily what they choose editorially, so to speak, but because that's where the money is. That placement is an indication of a major problem in society, not merely at concerts.

Ditto, some people at a concert will know a lot, a little, or something about the music they hear; others will know nothing. In an ideal world, the latter wouldn't take others' knowledge as a personal slight, but might try reading the programme or attending the pre-concert talk; and the orchestra/opera house etc, for their part, would make an effort to help them by providing good, readable, informative and entertaining notes and/or talks. But this isn't exactly an ideal world and the reality, too, is a reflection of a divided society, which is further hampered all round by chips on shoulders. (Will McDonalds have a monopoly on those at the Olympics?)

I have a few very basic suggestions in my top ten about how to help create a nice atmosphere at a concert, including words of advice for all strata:

How to be a nice audience

1. Be friendly. Smile at people on your way in and out of the hall. Say hello to your neighbour when they sit down. Chat a bit. Talk about the weather if you must, or ask them where they're from or how they like the performance. If they know more about the music than you do, ask them for the information you feel you lack. If you know more about it than they do, you might find out tactfully if there's anything they want to know that you can help with. And if someone speaks to you, don't instantly assume they are stark raving mad or have evil intent, unless either fact is obvious.

2. Don't talk while the music's on. If people are quiet, it's because they're there to listen, not because they're being snobby and superior. Listening to music is why people go to concerts. So if someone makes a noise, it's the equivalent of going to an art exhibition and jumping up and down in front of a Monet or Rembrandt making BOOGABOOGA signs. Nobody is out to intimidate you or infringe your human rights if they ask for quiet - it just makes sense that if you are stopping someone from enjoying the music, they won't be pleased. It's a communal activity and requires communal good sense. And switch off your phone.

3. Try to keep clapping for the end of an entire piece. But if people around you clap between movements, remember that it's an indication of enthusiasm and don't be horrid about it.

4. Take a shower, use deodorant and wear clean clothes. Being stuck adjacent to someone with poor personal hygiene for the duration of a concert is enough to put anyone off the environment for life. This is my single biggest bugbear about audiences, by the way.

5. If you're a sponsor and you want to have a reception, do try to book a private room rather than fencing off part of the bar with a sign saying PRIVATE RECEPTION and letting the rest of the audience stare at you resentfully while forking out ££s for their own drinks. It's kinder, it doesn't infringe on public space, and people will generally assume that if you're a sponsor you can afford it.

6. Music may be the food of love, but please don't snog while the music's on. It's really distracting for the people behind you. And if music is, alternatively, the love of food - please wait until the interval before eating your sarnies. See point 2.

7. If you're worried because you don't know anything about the music, then Google or Spotify it a day or two before the concert. It's easy. A plethora of information is available at the click of your mouse. As you'll already know if you're reading this blog.

8. If you do know a little about the music, please don't turn to your partner exchanging meaningful looks every time the soloist hits a wrong note. That's the kind of thing that can make the insecure feel more insecure because they don't know what's going on. Besides, the performer may have other qualities to offer - like depth, insight and beauty that aren't marred by the occasional fluff - and you might be missing them!

9. If you really think the musical crowd seem snotty, snobbish and entitled, you ain't seen nothing yet. Just try an exhibition private view at a major gallery.

10. Stop worrying about all this extraneous stuff. Just relax and listen to the music. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Musicians against playing for free at the Olympics: latest update

The news story I wrote for Classical Music Magazine about the pay, or lack of it, for musicians at the the Olympics is here: http://www.rhinegold.co.uk/magazines/classical_music/news/classical_music_news_story.asp?id=1480

The story has been taken up by Sonia Poulton at the Daily Mail. Rare for musicians to find a tabloid trumpeting on their behalf, and it's probably some indication of the widespread strength of feeling on the subject. Very good piece. Read it here.

The Facebook group now has nearly 11,000 members and rising. 

After talking to several of the Facebook group's movers and shakers as well as the ISM and LOCOG itself, here's what I think is happening: a genuine case of absolute cluelessness in the non-musical population about what musicians do. Some suggest that it's something to do with the way everything seems to happen as if by magic for amateurs on TV shows like Britain's Got Talent. But I think it's much more than that. This attitude has been prevalent in Britain for decades, indeed probably centuries.

There needs to be a national campaign - preferably involving schools, colleges, mainstream TV, tabloids and popular radio stations - to show everyone exactly what is involved in becoming a musician and remaining one. Not celebrities trying to conduct in three weeks. Not just the little angels of BBC Young Musician. Something that eavesdrops on the endless hours of practising, the stress of auditions, the anguish of disappointment, the aches and pains and anxieties, and all the rest of it. Oh yes, and the misunderstandings and the insults (intentional or not), and the school bullies (which is where it all begins)... And also the rewards and the standing ovations and the joy of giving a really fabulous performance - in other words, why we do it at all and why, given the choice, most musicians just wouldn't do anything else. Until that's understood by a lot more people, nothing will change.

In the meantime, signing the petition about LOCOG is a good start: http://www.change.org/petitions/locog-ensure-the-payment-of-arts-practitioners-performing-for-olympic-events

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Le nozze di Chico?

Supposing the Marx Brothers had got hold of The Marriage of Figaro? It would have been perfect for them: Groucho as the Count, Chico as Figaro and Harpo as Cherubino, aided and abetted by Margaret Dumont as Marcellina and Kitty Carlisle as Susanna. Of course, they didn't. Yet...just look at this poster for A Night at the Opera. There's Susanna on the left, the Count behind her, Figaro taking her hand, Cherubino dreaming alongside...

It's no coincidence. The Marx Brothers, Fawlty Towers and The Marriage of Figaro all share the same root: Commedia dell'Arte. The Count, Basil and Groucho could be seen as derivatives of Pantalone, Chico and Figaro as Harlequin or Pulcinella, Susanna and Polly as Columbine, Harpo and Cherubino as Pierrot, while Fawlty Towers's Manuel is straight from the 'Zanni' character - the immigrant worker - and Sybil is, in certain ways, not all that far from Mozart's Countess...

It's perhaps one of the strengths of Glyndebourne's much-vaunted new production of Le nozze di Figaro, directed by Michael Grandage, that through a series of apparently zany juxtapositions it makes clear the archetypal, timeless nature of its drama - and the connections it leaves in the brain keep clicking into place for days afterwards.

It's a tad startling at first. The scene outside the mansion that accompanies the overture is relatively timeless - hustle, bustle, cleaning and gardening - and it's only when the Count and Countess swing into view inside a magnificent red vintage sportscar that we twig we're in the sixties or early seventies. The sets throughout are so Sevillian that they could be the Alcazar itself (pictured, left - almost certainly the model for the final scene in the garden...)

A medieval Moorish palace; 18th-century music on period instruments; action in an era in which menswear was seriously naff. Yet Grandage focuses intensely on the relationships and their nuances - which could have been taking place five centuries ago or last week. We live, we die, but the nature of love doesn't change. Strange how such an apparently post-modern approach with supposedly clashing eras delivers this indication so much better than the old Glyndebourne production by Graham Vick, apparently set in a rehearsal studio and now often referred to as "the one with the radiators". The stumbling block is, of course, the 'droit du seigneur' - all we can do about that is suspend disbelief.

The highlight of a fine cast was in many ways Sally Matthews's Countess. Her voice and her artistry just keep on growing. Now, equipped with considerable amplitude, a wider vibrato and terrific emotional intensity, she sounds almost Violetta-eque (though there's no actual sign of her singing Traviata any time soon). Lydia Teuscher's ideal Susanna ran her a close second, becoming better and better as the evening went by. Luxury casting, too, for Marcellina - Anne Murray, no less; and Don Basilio - Alan Oke, who despite popping up to fabulous effect in everything from Mozart to Anna Nicole, remains a bizarrely well-kept secret on the British opera scene. He should be better recognised as the consummate star he is, for his warm tenor tones, his magnificent acting and the best diction on stage.

Plaudits all round to the remaining cast, and if the Count appeared unconvincing from time to time, that was not the fault of the excellent Norwegian baritone Audun Iversen, but more that his costuming made it difficult to take him seriously.

At the helm was Robin Ticciati, crown prince of Glyndebourne - he takes over in two years' time when Vladimir Jurowski moves on to pastures new. Young he may be, but this was a thoroughly personal statement. The tempi are characterful and not too fast; there's enough space around the rhythms to hear everything fully; and from time to time the whole ensemble combined to produce a few moments of quiet and radiant tenderness: true Mozart magic.

The OAE did everyone proud, though I can't help wondering whether the decision to play at a pitch of A=430 is all that useful. It may have been the nature of the wind instruments of the correct time and place, but it isn't necessarily the nature of singers of today. During the recitatives, several of them were starting to drift up the teeniest notch, during the unaccompanied passages, towards the level to which they are presumably more accustomed, especially in the early part of the opera (it settled as the work progressed). Perhaps there are now apps to help singers to prepare with tweaked tuning, but you can't practise your recits with a bog-standard piano if everything has to be a quarter-tone flat. If the woodwind sounded truly revelatory, that would be another matter. But they don't.

On balance, then, a beautiful and fascinating evening in which the marriage of Figaro to this legendary tradition adds an enriching dimension. I'm going to clock off now, because otherwise we are going to end up matching the Ring Cycle characters with Fawlty and Harpo and co, and then goodness knows what will happen.

Saturday, July 07, 2012


They open on Friday 13th and they have to hold their own against nothing less than the Olympics. Can they do it?

You bet they can. Here's my Proms preview, cover feature for the 'Radar' section of today's Independent:

Friday, July 06, 2012

Music + Art = Magic?

Spent Wednesday morning at the preview of the new exhibition From Paris: A Taste for Impressionism at the Royal Academy of Arts, talking to the curator MaryAnne Stevens and the French conductor Fabien Gabel about the correlation of music and art in the Impressionist era, and why it was that it took about 20 years for composers to cotton on. Then we had a go at matching some of the paintings with appropriate music...Above, Degas's Dancers in a Studio; an exercise in form and perspective made up of images of preparation. Debussy Etudes?

Results are up now on the new and still developing music portal intriguingly entitled Sinfini, which word seems to suggest an infinite symphony of sins... In reality, though, the site is clean, enthusiastic and friendly, while the most sinful thing about this assignment is probably Duparc's gorgeous setting of Leconte de Lisle. The exibition, at the RAA's Sackler Wing, opens tomorrow.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Musicians against playing for free at the Olympics

A Facebook group, Musicians Against Playing for Free at the Olympics, has been started by Ashley Slater (formerly of Loose Tubes). Ashley says:

Musicians are being asked to play at peripheral Olympic events for free 'for the exposure'.

This is simply unacceptable and I feel we should withdraw our participation.

Sign the petition:


LondonJazz has run the full text of an engagement letter to participating musicians (which he says has appeared elsewhere in the public domain). It has to be read to be believed.

Peter Bacon at The Jazz Breakfast doesn't mince his words on the subject, either. Read him here.

The ISM has a further platform for support: http://www.ism.org/news/article/pay_our_musicians

The short message is that it's vital to make a stance now about the attitude towards musicians of this huge and powerful organisation, because it pushes performers not to the status of liveried servants, 18th-century style (and there's plenty of that elsewhere), but to that of slaves. And if the Olympics get away with it, others will think they have carte blanche to follow suit.