Friday, August 31, 2012

Korngold tops ALL MUSIC bestseller list on Amazon!

So now, thanks to that daft Sun interview and maybe a bit of BBC Breakfast too, Nicky Benedetti's CD The Silver Violin has zoomed up to be the top bestseller out of absolutely everything in Amazon's music section. And what's on it? KORNGOLD.

Other nice, mostly film-associated stuff too, of course, but she has included two transcriptions from Die tote Stadt - Marietta's Lute Song and the Pierrot Tanzlied - and the EWK Violin Concerto is the centre of it all and inspired the disc, and I should know because Nicky told me so when I was doing the booklet notes. Go get it.

Happy Birthday, Alma

Alma Schindler/Mahler/Gropius/Werfel was born on this day in 1879. As her first husband did not exactly encourage her compositional activities, her beautiful songs have never been as well known as they deserve to be. Here is Thomas Hampson singing the top-notch Die stille Stadt, on a poem by Richard Dehmel.

Meanwhile, don't miss Gustav's Symphony No.6 at the Proms on Sunday: the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra is here, with Riccardo Chailly at their helm. Book here.

For those requiring a little bit of do-lighten-up-there-Gus, here is another tribute to Alma - from Tom Lehrer.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Phwoar! Meet the new tenor, Ivor Hardcastle!

There's been an almighty rumpus about an article in the Scottish Sun (which I'd thought a contradiction in terms after my last holiday up there) about Nicky Benedetti, who happens to be an attractive young woman as well as a brilliant violinist and a bright, idealistic mover and shaker in the field of music education. It was a heap of sexist claptrap and innuendo. Nicky later tweeted that it just made her laugh. Probably the worst thing that can happen is that a few more people might tune in to see her on Last Night of the Proms.

But it struck me that while men get away with writing that kind of junk about women, supposing the tables were turned? What would happen were the journalist to be female, the object of attraction male?


 Phwoar, what pecs. Get a dekko at the new singing sensation from willieful Wales, Ivor Hardcastle. 

Opera's hottest bit of beefcake, he stands six foot four in his stockinged feet (not that he wears stockings, natch) and - well, the tenor tones may sing, but those pecs speak volumes.

He grew up in the Valleys. His mother encouraged him to start developing his gifts incredibly early on. "She says I began to sing long before I could talk," says Hardcastle, 30. 

Virtuous Classics signed him to an exclusive recording deal as soon as they spotted him down the gym. "Sure, I like to work out, but singing's my vocation," he says. It was going to be a 5-CD deal, but was reduced to 3 after the sound engineer heard him sing.

So how many hours a day does he work out - I mean, vocalise? "Well, I've just enrolled in university to take a degree in astrophysics," the hunky hound declares, "so I kind of fit it in around that." Yes, I bet you do.

His favourite operatic roles are the ones where he doesn't have to get into a character or a costume. Things like Nes Sun Dormer from Puccini's Turandot by Puccini, or traditional sacred songs like Hallelujah, also to be heard on a Leonard Cohen album. 

"Nobody wants all the boring bits like recitatertives," he points out.

Bad news for drooling dames: he's just moved in with his childhood sweetheart. One, two, three: AHHHH. 

Can we hope he'll dump her? Doesn't look that way to me. "Ceri's the best thing that ever happened to me," he says. "She's an angel. And she goes off like a skyrocket." 

All right, don't rub it in.

*** Before you get all interested in the new singing sensation from Wales, btw, Ivor Hardcastle is 500 per cent fiction. I'm thinking of making him the hero of my next novel, Fifty-Seven Varieties of Tenor.

Salzburg: I am a Festspielhave

I'm just back from the Salzburg Festival, where I heard more amazing singers within 72 hours than you'd believe possible. Three very different operas from three different centuries, each focused on war, actual or between the sexes - usually both. My review-proper will be in Opera Now magazine. In the meantime, here's a little taste of the trip.

Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Die Soldaten proved perhaps opera's most devastating experience: an all-out tour-de-force, assaulting senses and emotions alike. Good to see TV cameras there last Sunday, as this production is a great achievement that requires preservation on film; nothing, though, can really capture the impact of experiencing it live, from a seat almost beneath the largest of several outsize tam-tams. This opera musters every last shred of force available to an orchestra, a cast, a lead soprano (the magnificent Laura Aikin), a conductor (heroic Ingo Metzmacher) and the human ear itself to get across its message: the horrors that these military men foist upon the hapless Marie, and the failure of a variety of parents to prevent it. The composer took his own life in 1970. Books on Zimmermann are in short supply, and there seems to be nothing in English, but Alex Ross provides some valuable insights here.

Other question-marks hang over Carmen. Updated to Franco's Spain, it starred Magdalena Kozena as a red-haired firebrand partnered first of all by her husband, Sir Simon Rattle, in the pit, and secondly by Jonas Kaufmann, whose Don Jose was a puzzling matter possibly determined by directorial decisions rather than tenorial ones.

Finally, Handel's Giulio Cesare, with Andreas Scholl as Julius, Cecilia Bartoli as Cleopatra, Anne Sofie von Otter Cornelia and Philippe Jaroussky Sesto. These people know how to Handel you. A perturbing moment towards the end when one reckoned that the Salzburg Festival and all those great singers should know better than to put drinks on a piano. But otherwise...these guys and GFH together moved me to tears several times - Cornelia's first aria, the duet for her and Sesto, Cleo's 'Piangerai' - and left me at the end of five hours almost ready to beg for more. Gulp.

Inside the venues: phenomenal music-making, imaginative productions (some more than others) and world-class performances. The setting: mountain scenery, evening dresses, outsize jewellery, facelifts, sponsors' parties, pre-show drinkies choice of Moet on one side of the road or Taittinger on the other.

And the Festspielhave? In case you haven't seen all this before, the Festspielhaus bears Roman-style lettering above the door, declaring it the 'Festspielhavs'. This is where the Festspielhaves go in. The promenade of the audience around the champagne stalls often attracts onlookers. Those are the Festspielhavenots.

Pretentious though it may look, it's not all snob value. On my second and third evenings my neighbours were enthusiasts who were there on their own purely for love of music and interest in theatre. One was a retired lady from west of Paris, the other a mechanic from the Salzkammergut. And there is kindness aboard, too. Exiting Die Soldaten, I was brolliless in a downpour that put Salzburg's famous Schnurlregen to shame. A Californian lady festival-goer spotted me and offered to share her umbrella across the bridge. That's never happened en route to Waterloo Station. (Below: the view of the Castle from the interval crowd outside the Felsenreitschule. The dog is a Festspielhavenot.)

The atmosphere has changed a little since my last visit, some 20 years ago. Back then, almost every shop window bore a poster showing one or more of the musical stars visiting the town. The buses carried advertisements proudly welcoming Maurizio Pollini and Krystian Zimerman to Salzburg. The record shops were full to busting. Today? The sides of the buses plug designer outlets and free parking. I only spotted one record shop in town, and it specialised in world music. Zimerman's recital had been cancelled due to illness (Leif Ove Andsnes replaced him). Sponsor logos are plastered everywhere - gone are the graceful days of discretion in philanthropy (though it's nice of Nestle to provide Kit-Kats for the journalists in the media centre). And a gaping division is all too evident between the down-at-heel atmosphere on the outskirts of town and around the station, and the dripping-with-gold-and-designer-shops historic centre. The one thing that hasn't changed is the number of tourists and the amount of Mozartkugeln on sale.

A more welcome addition is a big screen in the Domplatz that relayed Die Soldaten live on Sunday, and on other evenings showed film of operas from festivals gone by. And I may have missed a trick by not taking the Sound of Music tour bus - apparently you all sing 'Doe, a Deer' and there's a quiz to win a packet of Edelweiss seeds. But the way time panned out, it was a choice of that or a jog along the river, and the latter won. Had to burn off some of that chocolate.

Check the November issue of Opera Now for my detailed review of the three performances.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Exclusive: JD meets Augustin Dumay #2

Last Monday we talked to Augustin Dumay about his violin playing and especially his megaduo with Maria João Pires. But that’s only one side of his musical life. Having taken up the baton some while ago – not least, thanks to the encouragement of Karajan – he’s now music director of both the Royal Chamber Orchestra of Wallonie and the Kansai Philharmonic in Osaka, Japan. 

It’s easy to be cynical about fine soloists taking to the podium, but Dumay’s latest CD with his Japanese orchestra (for Onyx) of little-known works by Saint-Saëns banished any such thoughts within minutes of landing on my desk. 

It’s a delight from start to finish. It includes an exquisite double concerto for violin and cello entitled La muse et le poète, in which Dumay is the violinist and Pavel Gomziakov the cellist; but the most substantial work is the Symphony No.1, written when the composer, aged about 20, was less wet behind the ears than his tender years might suggest. He was an exceptional prodigy, a polymath and acquainted with all manner of the musical great and good – “He knows everything, but lacks inexperience,” commented Berlioz – and the symphony shows that he certainly lacked nothing by way of ambition.

“It’s a fantastic piece,” Dumay enthuses. “I don’t understand why it is never played! Until now there were only two recordings of it – one conducted by Georges Prêtre and another, many years ago, with Jean Martinon. But only these.” With luck, his own recording will help win the symphony new friends, for this music is packed with inventiveness and charm, drawn together with fabulous lightness of touch: “There’s some spirit in this piece very close to Mendelssohn,” Dumay agrees. “And the orchestration is masterful, including a saxophone. The last movement is enormous, requiring 125 musicians.”

Here is the second movement...

 French Romanticism is stuffed full of gems that are lucky to be aired once a decade. Yet my complaint that we don’t hear enough of them in Britain draws a knowing glint from Dumay’s eye. He suggests that English conductors have done more for French music in recent times than the French themselves. “John Eliot Gardiner, for instance, has have done a lot of work in this field, and because he loves French music he was for a long time the boss of Lyon Opera. He has done fantastic work in Vienna with French music, too, including Chabrier. Or think of Colin Davis and Berlioz. French music is very lucky – if Gardiner and Davis weren’t there, French music wouldn’t have these fabulous recordings. Merci, l’Angleterre!” 

Dumay’s Brussels home is close to the exceptional music school in which he is in charge of the violin department: the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel. If Europe has an answer to the Curtis Institute, this small and extremely “elite” school is it. “I have seven violinists working in this school,” says Dumay, “and some of them have won first prize in the Sibelius Competition, first prize in the Yehudi Menuhin Competition, and a second prize of the Tchaikovsky Competition.” The intake is extremely international, with students hailing from South Korea, Australia, Russia and more. 

The school has existed for a long time, he adds: “Queen Elisabeth of Belgium founded it with David Oistrakh in the Soviet model,” he explains, “because they saw together in the Queen Elisabeth Competition, when Oistrakh won first prize, that there were so many Russian players, but very few French or English, and they thought something had to be done.” After the queen and the violinist had both passed away, however, the school rather vanished from view, “until five years ago we came back to its original project. They invited José van Dam to head the singers, they invited the Artemis Quartet to do the chamber music, and me, and the new model is now getting there. 

“It’s not only a school with music education to a very high level; it’s also a place where people’s careers can be helped, because the Queen Elisabeth Chapel organises each year at least 250 concerts. We have some collaboration with organisations like the Aix-en-Provence Festival, Radio France, the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and for the singers the Opéra de la Monnaie, Opéra de Paris, and now Covent Garden. And they do some recordings. We look at the integration of very, very talented young people with building a career. 

“What can be terrible for young musicians now is that when they have a prize in a competition or they are starting their careers, they have no help and they feel absolutely lost. We try to make for them a good bridge between their education, a competition prize and their future life. This is not so easy today, but I think it’s very interesting. It is possible because the school is very small and it’s privately funded. The sponsors are giving money because they’re going to see some successes in competitions – but in a sense this is good because it means everybody has to be productive.”

Dumay says he is no fan of competitions and regards them, like so many musicians, as a type of necessary evil. Nevertheless, he does take part in juries: “The president of the Queen Elisabeth Competition once came to see me after a concert and asked me to be on the jury. I told him that I think competitions are anti-music. But he convinced me, saying first that Radu Lupu had told him exactly the same thing; and secondly, that we need on competition juries some people who hate competitions, because maybe like that we can change the nature of competitions!”

Such contests are often accused of conspiring against individuality in performance – and this is in itself a more extensive problem that bothers Dumay. Really, he suggests, it’s a by-product of globalisation. “My idea was always that what is important for a musician is individuality. I still think that. But now with globalisation, my view is a little different, because now if we don’t have ‘schools’, if we don’t have individuality in education, the world will be like a big minestrone. 

“A few years ago, if I was listening to a violinist, I was able to tell within five or six seconds whether it was Heifetz, Szigeti, Menuhin. Now it’s more difficult. This is because of globalisation. Globalisation has brought a lot of good things. But for individuality in art, it could create a problem in the future. Already today it’s begun: now it’s very difficult to make an immediate identification of a sound, of phrasing, of a school, of a cultural environment. All this is really mixed. And this is dangerous for music. 

“Why? Because, as the great conductor Sergiu Celibidache used to say, in the future we will get a Coca-Cola sound: very nice, lots of sugar, but no character. Or just one character – because one character is no character. If we continue in this direction, in future the Vienna Philharmonic will sound the same as the Philadelphia Orchestra. We do not go to a concert in Philadelphia to listen to a mix of orchestral sounds; we want to listen to the Philadelphia sound.  And we want to listen to the Vienna Philharmonic sound and their phrasing and articulations in Mozart.”

Sometimes, though, I have the impression that the musical scenes of France and England scarcely mingle at all. Why is it that so many fine French musicians scarcely ever play in the UK? The French stars who are well-known in Britain are often virtually ignored at home, while those who have made the big time in Paris rarely do so to the same degree in London. Dumay is not an exception. 

“I think it’s sometimes circumstances,” he says with a shrug. “And also it’s very close, but it’s another world! I think there are three ways to play in London. Either you are a superstar; or you are very young and people want something that is new for the marketing; or you live in London. It’s very simple: I am not in any of these three situations.” He is recording in London with Pires in the autumn, but has no plans for concerts here until next season. Meanwhile, of course, he is in the US a great deal, and will soon record with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Germany, Japan, China and France itself are equally welcoming. “But under the circumstances, maybe I will spend the last part of my life in London,” he muses. 

I suggest he’d be homesick – the grass is always greener – and besides, these cultural clashes are a great deal older than the Channel Tunnel. Still, who knows? Dumay’s attitude is old-school in many ways; his playing, too, is traditional in the best sense, in terms of style and taste, motivation and rigour. One of the up-sides of globalisation is that today it is easier for us all to connect with such musicianship – wherever it happens to be.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Bonjour, Maestro...

This summer, this man's music changed my life. Just been to Lucerne to see him. I haven't much to add to this photo other than: watch this space.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Exclusive: JD meets Augustin Dumay #1

Meet Augustin Dumay? May do in August...and here we are.

Back in the mid 1980s, when I first fell in love with Fauré, I bought a boxed-set recording of the composer’s complete chamber music played by a group of exciting young French musicians. They performed these revelatory works with more colour than ineffability, and with more spirit, passion and sheer imagination than the British at that time tended to permit the composer. Wearing out the LPs day after day, I absorbed not only the language of Fauré, but also the style of this aesthetic – the colour, the flair, the variety of tone. The violinist was Augustin Dumay.

Since then there’s been a lot of water under the bridge – and a tunnel under the English Channel. You can get from central London to central Brussels, where Dumay now lives, in about two hours. I've loved his playing for nearly 30 years, so it seemed high time that I had a good violinish talk with him. So I've just been to meet him at his family home, a graceful Art Nouveau-style townhouse on a hill with a view right across the Belgian capital, where he is now in charge of the violin class at the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel, the city’s answer to the Curtis Institute of Music in the US.

There was a good excuse, admittedly – a new recording on which he conducts and performs some all-too-rare masterpieces by Saint-Saëns. Still, Dumay – gangly gait and blazing gaze as strong as ever, and his trademark long hair somewhat, though not excessively, tamed – may have been a little startled by the long list of questions I wanted to throw at him. At 62, he’s a busy man, sought after not just as a violinist, but as a conductor, top-level teacher and competition juror; there’s even a film about him by the distinguished director Gérard Corbiau, Augustin Dumay – Laisser un trace dans la coeur, due out soon on DVD. So we’re splitting this interview in two: today, we look at the violin, his training and his partnership with Maria Joao Pires; in the next instalment, conducting, teaching, competitions and a few thoughts about life, the universe and globalisation.

First things first: the formative influences that have helped to make him the violinist he is. The ‘Ysaÿe School’ is very different from the full-on, huge-sound-first impression created by the Russian and American traditions; and here lies much of the appeal of Dumay’s playing, those qualities that make him so distinctive. It’s about imagination, colour, subtlety and a way of making a note ring with shaded significance, the way a Lieder singer might inflect a syllable according to its meaning and the timbre of its vowel.

But Dumay has an intriguing combination of traditions to offer. While he was growing up in Paris (where his father was a lawyer, his mother a cellist and painter), his original mentor was none other than Nathan Milstein, as Russian-school as Russian can be.

“My education was really mixed from the beginning,” he explains. “My first teacher was working a lot with the Russian technique for violin and just after that I met Nathan Milstein, who was a main influence from the Russian school. After I had worked with him for five or six years, when he was living between Paris and London, he was moving to America and he told me, ‘You know, I am leaving, I will be always very happy to see you and we continue to have contact – but because you are very young, you need someone who is able to work with you day after day. My friend Arthur Grumiaux is in Brussels and he is able to do that.’ This is how I was able to come from the Russian technique to the Franco-Belgian tradition. I think this is a very interesting mix.

“Grumiaux [pictured left] was coming straight from the tradition of Ysaÿe. But he was someone who would not speak a lot – you had always to ask him a lot of things. He was timid, very sensitive, and very often I had to ask him, ‘But what do you think about this?’ – like a child, always asking...”

The different approaches of Milstein and Grumiaux proved complementary, healthily so for the hungry young Dumay. “It was the obsession of Milstein to be free, physically so. Nothing must be blocked, everything must be absolutely flexible and released in terms of muscles, in terms of attitude with the violin. Grumiaux was more classical, and very strict in terms of musical conception: he was focused on the classical style. For him this was very, very important. I was young, I was a little crazy and I was very passionate – I wanted to be very expressive. Grumiaux would always say: ‘Quiet, quiet...we have to put things in the right place.’ After, when the things can be in the right place, this is the classical spirit. Then we can be as crazy as we want!”

A further, more unlikely mentor awaited, through whom Dumay hit the headlines in earnest. The violinist, by then in his mid twenties, was building a career steadily and had attracted the attention of EMI France. While recording the Brahms sonatas for them, he headed for the engineer’s room to listen back to some takes – only to discover Herbert von Karajan there, listening too. “He was in the studio by chance, doing the post-production for an opera he was recording. And it was very good because if I’d known before that he would be there, I would have been nervous, but I was not.”

Karajan promptly invited Dumay to play with him the following week in a big Paris concert with the Berlin Philharmonic. “This was making a horrible disorganisation of the concert programme and all the organisers were furious,” Dumay adds, with some glee. But Karajan was Karajan: what he said went. Dumay played. The rest we know.

Karajan is long gone now, but there’s one especially vital ongoing presence in Dumay’s musical life: his long-time duo partner, the Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires. Before heading to Brussels I caught up with some of the articles that have been written about the violinist in the past few years. In one, he and Pires describe the supposedly stormy process of recording Beethoven sonatas together. They are so different, they have such terrible fights, there are threats, the sparks fly... I put this to Dumay. He confides, twinkling across the coffee pot: “It’s not true!”

Gosh – as a journalist you have to be really careful with musicians. Sometimes they like to beat you at your own game. “I don’t understand why, but after this recording some people, I don’t know who, wanted to present things in a very original way about the difference between us,” says Dumay. “They want to focus on this difference. Sure, when we work we have a different view of the music – but this is always true for everybody. And this is what is interesting in chamber music, or in the rapport of conductors with soloists: with each person it’s different. If we are a photocopy of each others’ ideas, it is not interesting at all. It is no more the case with Maria João than anyone else, indeed maybe less so. But some people want to present it like this. I told them: it’s not true, this. And Maria João told me, ‘Well, if that’s what they want, then OK, we can give this to them! It’s not important. What’s important is what’s on the tape.’”

He and Pires inevitably invite the phrase ‘the odd couple’: Dumay towering, fair, all long limbs and locks, Pires tiny and dark, hair shorn gamine-style, a sparrow-like Piaf of the piano. They first met at a festival, Dumay relates, where he was scheduled to perform two concerts with her. “Beforehand, I thought: Maria João, you are a great artist, but we are so different, physically different as well – it’s a shock! – and I am not sure it’s possible. And after ten minutes of rehearsal we stopped and we said to each other: ‘We will play together all our life.’ Because immediately it was something extraordinary.” Over the years, the pair have recorded not only the complete Beethoven sonatas but also works by Brahms, Mozart, Franck, Debussy and many more, plus larger-scale chamber music including the Schumann Piano Quintet (with violinist Renaud Capuçon, violist Gerard Caussé and cellist Jian Wang). Later in 2012 they will be returning to the studio with a selection of six more Mozart sonatas.

Their time has had its ups and downs. They were an off-stage couple too, for a short while; and later Pires made an attempt to scale down her quantity of concerts and move to Brazil to start a music school for underprivileged children. Now, though, Dumay says that she is soon moving to Brussels to join the teaching staff of the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel alongside him. At one point in her thirties, he adds, she tried to give up the piano altogether – to the point that she sold her instrument. Eventually, though, the philanthropist Paul Sacher (to whom composers from Bartok to Boulez have paid lavish musical tribute) heard that she was missing her music, but could no longer afford to buy another instrument. “Her doorbell rang and there was a piano mover with a Steinway, asking where the space was to put it, saying it was a delivery from Mr Sacher...”

Their performances and recordings display first of all a dialogue between two deep-thinking artists at the height of their powers - yet they are more besides. Dumay and Pires together form a musical entity in and of itself, one with magnetism, magic and musical insight that never ceases. Their Franck Sonata (right) had me in a state of total surrender within minutes. It is good to hear that there is plenty more to look forward to from this most dynamic of duos.

But what about Fauré? I tell Dumay I love that complete chamber music set – but it turns out that he doesn’t. “I want to do it again,” he declares, “because I was very young then. In Fauré, you have pieces that are so different, in opposition – for instance, if you compare the first violin sonata to the second, it’s not the same world. When you are young you have more attraction to the light part, and less to the sombre. Now I am more interested by this darker part of Fauré, which you can see in the Trio, the Violin Sonata No.2, the Piano Quintet No.2, these fabulous late pieces. In the first recording, I played the first and second violin sonatas too much in the same light.”

He’s serious about this re-recording: “I was supposed to do it last year, but it was not possible because it was so full of concerts, and when I record I need a lot of time. I need to play the piece a lot of times just before, and for organisation it’s very complicated. Recording something is very serious for me – after all, I will not do three recordings of Fauré pieces, this will be the last one, and the last one has to be specific. It’s a lot of work...”

Stand by for the second part of the JDCMB Augustin Dumay interview, coming up soon. Meanwhile, enjoy listening to him and Maria Joao Pires playing the Beethoven 'Kreutzer' Sonata:

Friday, August 17, 2012

Grosvenor gets animated

I know I've already made you sit and watch video stuff this morning, but I really can't resist this.

Friday Historical: Cage and Cunningham

This interview with those long-time partners and collaborators John Cage and Merce Cunningham - composer with choreographer - is about half an hour long. Make yourselves comfortable. Enjoy. And don't miss the John Cage centenary Prom tonight:

Thursday, August 16, 2012

"Heifetz Face"

Yesterday I mentioned the syndrome of "Heifetz Face" - the directing of energy into the music rather than into emoting or histrionics. It doesn't mean the performer demonstrates nothing at all of his/her ongoing musical response, just that he/she keeps it to a minimum and the music speaks for itself - often rather well. Here are a few examples of it.

Heifetz himself, of course:

Daniel Barenboim:

Yuja Wang:

And here is the opposite.

Lots of different ways of doing things, of course. It's all part of life's rich tapestry.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Benjamin goes for gold

The Prom was packed out last night for Benjamin Grosvenor's performance of the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No.2. "HEAVE!" shouts the arena as the piano lid goes up. "HO!" responds the gallery. Then the leader of the Royal Phil presses the A for the orchestra to tune up and everyone claps and claps and claps.

Now, different leaders respond to this little Proms tradition in different ways. Last year, the concertmaster of the Budapest Festival Orchestra had a field day on encountering it and looked ready to continue with an impromptu piano recital. Duncan, though, kept his back firmly turned upon the audience and stayed put. Perhaps he was trying to make the note heard amid the din. Could it be that it was, er, drowned out?

The concerto opens, as you know, with a cadenza - that florid, organ-like toccata that leads into the far-flinging first subject (which was kindly donated to the composer on request by his star pupil, one Gabriel Fauré, who'd dreamed it up for a Tantum Ergo he'd left unfinished). Then in came the orchestra...about an eighth-tone sharper than the piano.

Benjamin went for gold, unperturbed by the hit-and-miss noises going on around him. The best is the enemy of the good, and of the vaguely OK. It is, even more, the enemy of the seriously naff. Amid a rigid, why-bother-with-rubato accompaniment (come on, Maestro Dutoit, it's not illegal to let your hair down), abysmal intonation and all the usual balance problems of the RAH, the pianist's voice shone out as a sliver of truth: genuine, unsullied 100-carat musicality. The work's ferocious technical challenges flew past as though effortless - the concerto's popularity and the catchiness of its tunes somehow mean that its exposed writing, chock-full of finger-whirling yet melodic passagework, is not always appreciated. He took the closing tarantella at a terrific lick, and the gorgeous central scherzo barely touched the ground.

Though sporting a scarlet shirt, Benjamin isn't an overt showman - he has a modest air and no pretentions. Instead, the energy of his virtuosity goes where it needs to, straight into the piano. You use your ears first to appreciate it, and so you should. I sometimes call this syndrome 'Heifetz Face'. That great violinist gave away nothing in his facial expression and indulged in no physical histrionics while performing. He stood and delivered, highly concentrated, directing the energy into the music - and what came out sounded perfect. A lot of the finest musicians do something similar. Visit your local Alexander Technique teacher for a fuller explanation about the channelling of physical energy.

I can't help foreseeing a day - 15 years ahead, perhaps? - when Benjamin might wish to put together an orchestra of his own and start directing from the keyboard. Last year at the Proms, too, he had to perform with a sort of golf handicap in the form of a boxed-in conductor ill at ease with the romantic rhetoric and grand gestures of the work in question (that was Liszt No.2 - and Liszt was a prime influence on Saint-Saëns). And yesterday, once again, it was down to the encore - Godowsky's transcription of 'The Swan' from Saint-Saëns's Carnival of the Animals - to show what the pianist can really do in terms of limpid ebb and flow, songful, natural voicing and flowering musical instinct. It was pure magic.

Benjamin's half-hour of world-class pianism was sandwiched between a rarely heard Delius orchestral work, Paris: The Song of a Great City (pleasant, curious, rather forgettable) and a performance of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony so crass that several times I thanked heaven that I didn't have to review it for the paper. I am through with being nice to poor old orchestras because they're doing their best under difficult circumstances and all that. I've heard the RPO do a lot better than this on many occasions, so I know they can. Cringeing in the back row, I wished they would.

This wasn't a happy night for Team GB in the orchestral world. Up at the Edinburgh Festival, the LPO's Usher Hall concert - an ambitious bells-themed programme with Vlad at the helm - was cancelled at the last moment due to a massive power failure (Edinburgh's, not theirs). They spent a relaxing evening in the pub.

Monday, August 13, 2012

London 2012: A few things we can learn from the Olympic Games...

This was the fortnight in which Britain learned the value of clibing nachas. One of those all-but-untranslatable Yiddish phrases, its meaning is somewhere in between "taking pleasure in your family's achievements" and "basking in reflected glory". When you feel you're part of the success of something, even when it's someone else's success. (see left.)

I mean, it was amazing, wasn't it? After all the buss and fother, after all the warnings about impossible transport and raised prices and overcrowding and 'get ahead of the Games' (to which I flippin'well listened, and went on holiday, and missed half the fun), after the security debacle and the certainty that no way could the UK ever be organised enough to put on the greatest show on did. And pulled in in third place on the medals chart. How did that happen? World-class achievement in sport has much in common with other world-class achievements, so what can we learn from it?

1. Success takes damn hard work. We celebrated people pushing themselves to be extraordinary. We celebrated people being exceptional, and training for years to become exceptional. All the building of the Olympic Park, all the planning, all the peripheries, that took hard work too. Finally the hard work paid off, and everyone could share in it and clibe nachas.

2. Success takes investment. How did the UK get from one paltry medal in Atlanta 16 years ago to third place in the world? By investing in training. About £250m - mostly from the National Lottery - was thrown at the training of our athletes. The "treat 'em mean and keep 'em keen" attitude that's usually levelled at the arts in the UK didn't apply - because it is, of course, bollocks. True, money without good management solves little, but without financial investment you're nowhere. Now can we please have a reversal of the ongoing disinvestment in our wider education and culture? Otherwise we'll be back at the bottom in everything else.

3. Success takes dedication and sacrifice from the artists/athletes involved, but also from their families. Much was made by the BBC TV presenters of how the athletes' families have given their all to support their youngsters; so, too, the fact that the families were overjoyed to see their loved ones in Olympic action (ie, they were clibing nachas). Now, if a child is gifted at music and his/her parents put immense energy into helping him/her along and then take pleasure in the results, someone inevitably accuses them of being "pushy" or stopping their son/daughter from having a "normal childhood". Why the distinction? Sport and music alike require an early start, in every sense. It may be possible without familial support, but it's a heck of a lot harder. For instance, if your dad won't get up at 5am to drive you to the ice-rink/swimming pool/practice room for a few hours of training before school, but others' dads do, the others will be ahead of you and you won't make the grade.

4. Success needs moral support. The importance of this has been underestimated. Who could have had better moral support than the Team GB athletes this past fortnight? It's in the air we've breathed here in London: everyone has been rooting for them, cheering them on, and when people believe in you so much it's like a big fluffy trampoline that helps you to bounce higher, take off and fly.

Our arts practitioners don't usually meet that kind of moral support. In music particularly, we have to fight and fight and fight and FIGHT just for the teeniest glimmer of recognition that what we do does not happen by magic, but takes the same kind of graft that an athlete puts in. Without moral support from families, schools, colleges, arts managements and indeed the country, performers - who are only human - have to throw more energy into surviving emotionally without it, energy that could have been better directed at the task itself. It's difficult already, and lack of moral support makes it more difficult. That's why they need us all to clibe nachas.

5. Elitism shmelitism. There's nothing more elite than the training required for a gifted individual to become the best. But without an "elite" training - high quality, full-on, time-consuming and, yes, probably quite expensive - people do not generally rise to become the best. Yet we're all interdependent. Without the people who prove they are the best at what they do, the rest of us become demoralised, because lack of world-class success reflects on our country and our society as a whole. We need the gifted and successful to pull us all up to a better level. That's what clibing nachas does for the ones doing the clibing.

6. One person's success brightens the lives of everyone who partakes in it. There've been a great many tears shed this fortnight as Jess Ennis and her team-mates showed the stuff they're made of. I mean, if I can be touched by all this - I'm one of many who was put off sports by school PE, and my enthusiasm as viewer rarely stretches further than Wimbledon - then anybody can. And just think of the joy, emotion and insight that music brings us, via those who excel at it. That's what it's for, for goodness' sake. To stir us to great emotions, to catapult us above the everyday. To make the world feel like a better place. See the point above about us all being interdependent.

7. You reap what you sow. The more you put in, the more you get out. But you do have to put in enough to begin with. Billions went into the London 2012 Olympic Games. What came out of it has been priceless.

8. Musical Olympics don't really exist - but where they sort of do, Team GB needs to get on board. If there's an equivalent, it's still the big competitions - eg, the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. These are not an end in themselves for their entrants, but a beginning, a launching pad - which, in a way, makes them all the more vital. The latest Tchaikovsky Competition, in which ace pianist Daniil Trifonov shot to international stardom, attracted not a single British entrant, let alone a medallist. British musicians do not often win international competitions and we have to face the fact that that is probably because other countries take musical training more seriously, invest more money in it and do so much earlier in youngsters' lives. It's easy to say "but we have some great teachers", etc, but the facts demonstrated in the international context tell the true story. Stripping state funding from our music colleges - along with all the other arts and humanities higher education courses in England - will make the situation worse. The lesson of the Olympics is not just that we should invest more in training for sport because all of a sudden we're good at it. It's that we should invest in education and training for many, many other things so we can become equally good at those.

9. From now on, we need to appreciate real ability instead of quick-fix, appearance-driven dross. In sport, this is relatively easy because you can see who's crossed the finish line first. In music it's more difficult, because assessment is about taste, personal judgment and, unfortunately, being well informed enough to know how to assess what you're hearing. Hopefully, though, the Olympics have shown up the vacuity of manufactured "stars" and the notion that you can be famous without being able to do anything. With any luck, this might produce a shift in national awareness of how we're too often fooled by rubbish. Despite all the hype about sponsors, branding and exclusivity, nobody can force us to eat hamburgers, swallow fizzy drinks, buy diamonds or download a particular recording. If we're in charge of our own brains, we don't have to be taken in. Interestingly, exercise can help this. Be inspired: go running. It helps you think.

10. Apart from a little Elgar at the start of both, and a surprise appearance by Daniel Barenboim, carrying a corner of the Olympic flag, there wasn't a lot of classical music in the London 2012 opening and closing ceremonies. And a lot of the pop singers were out of tune. What we learned, though, is that the real classics of British music in the 20th century are mostly by the Beatles. See point 8.

11. So who's on Music Team GB? Here's one of our truest golds. You can hear him at the Prom tomorrow, playing Saint-Saens's Piano Concerto No.2. This interview is a promotional thing for his new CD of that concerto, Ravel's G major and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. Go, Benjamin, go!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Our own local Olympian

Back from summer holiday just in time to give a big cheer for the extremely cheering London 2012 Olympic Games and offer a special tribute to our own local Olympian, Mortlake station-master Daniel Opoku.

Daniel carried the torch in the relay on 22 July from Erith to Bexley - then, he says, handing it on to Lennox Lewis - and he's the winner of three national awards for public service. He even puts in an appearance, by name, in my Rites of Spring, something that's noted on the station poster celebrating his participation in the relay. Were there an Olympic race for kindness, helpfulness, taking pride in your work and brightening the day of everyone you see, this man would take gold. He has become a local hero simply by being A  Wonderful Person.

Here's what South West Trains says about him:
Daniel Opoku has worked for South West Trains for 17 years and was put forward to participate as a torchbearer because of his passion and commitment to customer service. Daniel Opoku, commented: “Being a part of the global showcase is very exciting as the Olympics is the biggest sporting event in the world. I feel jubilant about being put forward to participate in this historic event and have been walking and jogging in Erith to prepare for the big day.”
As well as helping customers plan their journeys, making announcements and maintaining the ticket machines at his station, Daniel Opoku knows many of his customers by name and thrives on giving his customers a warm welcome. Over the years, Daniel Opoku has received a number of prestigious accolades for his outstanding customer service skills; National Railways Employee of the Year (2000), Personality of the Year (2000) and Frontline Customer Service Professional of the Year (2008) are just three examples.
And here's a recommendation for anyone in or visiting London who wants to sample the city's best scenic views: a handy new guidebook to some capital vistas has just been published. It's Skyline London, written by Blue Badge guide Caroline Dale. I've lived in London all my life, but there are spectacular views in this book that I've never seen before, and as soon as the crowds calm down a bit I'll be off to sample some. Caroline shows you where to go for the best ones and presents an expert explanation of what you see when you get there. Plus plenty of photographs and maps to whet the appetite. Skyline London is available from Amazon, here.