Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Four things to mark the year ending

Here are a few bits and pieces to decorate the brown paper wrapping around 2013 as we stowe it on the "done" shelf. (Right: Viv & I finish Alicia's Gift at St Mary's, Perivale, the other week.)

JDCMB's Top 10 Posts of 2013

Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman Conductor. The most-viewed post on JDCMB EVER.      
Jonas Kaufmann and the Holy Grail. JK sings Parsifal live on the big screen from the Met.     
 Ten things that make no difference whatsoever to music, and things that do. A bit of fun.

 Guardian publishes Roscoe’s correspondence with Gregson. Historic sex abuse scandal at RNCM.        
Some breaking news that’s Rattling around. Is Rattle taking over the LSO? Still not confirmed, btw. 

 Jonas Kaufmann, swamped with red roses. A jolly wonderful evening of arias at the RFH.          
JD meets Calixto Bieito. My interview with the "bad boy of opera".       
 Statement from Gergiev. The maestro's response to matters relating to Russian anti-gay legislation.

Why The Rest Is Noise festival will change concert-going forever. And it will. It will.              
Beethoven: Strength, Inspiration, Revolution! My pre-concert talk for the CBSO involving Beethoven and Rosa Parks on the bus.              

New Year Honours

This year they include the Order of Merit for Sir Simon Rattle. NB, this is the highest you can go, to the best of my knowledge. There are only ever 24 OMs at any one time and musicians do not often reach these ranks, though Yehudi Menuhin did. It's a vital mark of respect not only for Sir Simon but for the standing of the art of music and it is therefore a jolly important move.
There's also a Companion of Honour for Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, CBEs for Stephen Hough and for opera director John Copley, a DBE for Colette Bowe (chair of the ABRSM), and OBEs for the CEO of ENO Loretta Tomasi, the CEO of the Musicians' Benevolent Fund David Sulkin, and Gillian Humphries, founder of the Concordia Foundation. Marios Papadopoulos, founder of Oxford Philomusica, gets the MBE. Katherine Jenkins has been awarded an OBE too (make of that what you like). In dance, there's a DBE for choreographer Gillian Lynne and a CBE for the glorious Carlos Acosta.

Statistics re women composers prove some points...

A contact at the ISM has rooted out some more sobering statistics regarding the standing of women composers in Europe. These figures, he says, come from a "women in music European cultural programme pamphlet" and they read as follows:

"51.32% of the European population is female but 90% of European music institutions are directed by men.

"Nearly 40% of European Composers and Creators of Music are women but less than 4% of their production is programmed by publicly funded organisations."

This issue is NOT going to go away.

And one final thought for the year...
...from the astonishing Dame Fanny Waterman, whom I went to visit in Leeds a couple of days ago: the best riposte I've ever heard to the problem of "well, the audience likes it". "The audience liked it too," she remarked, "when they chopped Marie-Antoinette's head off."

 Tomorrow is another day...

Monday, December 30, 2013

Andras Schiff goes gold

This was the moment on 21 December when Andras Schiff was presented with the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society at the Wigmore Hall. Receiving it makes him the successor to such figures as Rubinstein, Horowitz, Curzon and only a scant handful of other tip-tip-tip-top pianists. He had just given a remarkable recital consisting of Bach's Goldberg Variations in the first half and Beethoven's Diabelli Variations in the second. It was his 60th birthday that very day.

The citation is inspiring and his response touching, humble and rather heart-rending. He went on to play a short piece written in memory of his mother, Klara Schiff, by his teacher from Budapest, Gyorgy Kurtag, who has also been presented with the RPS's Gold Medal this month. The RPS has been celebrating its own bicentenary this year, as it happens, and the bust of Beethoven is on the stage in memory of the Society's commissioning of his Ninth Symphony.

Saturday, December 28, 2013


Hello...nose over the parapet to mention that I'm presenting Saturday Classics on BBC Radio 3 today, 2pm. It's a programme of tributes to just a few of the many great musicians who've died this year. Includes Henri Dutilleux, John Tavener, Regina Resnik, Marie-Claire Alain, Van Cliburn, Janos Starker, among others...not a comprehensive list, but a varied and hopefully rather fascinating line-up. You can listen online here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b014kyc5. Enjoy.

Saturday, December 21, 2013


The doors to our cyberposhplace are wide open, though the entrance hall is currently full of abandoned umbrellas. Please come in out of the rain for the 2013 JDCMB Ginger Stripe Awards: the annual Winter Solstice event at which we traditionally have a virtualkneesup to celebrate the glorious music-making that's taken place in the past year. We present our very own cyberawards, aided and abetted by Solti of the Ginger Stripes, with no prejudice or proviso other than that each comes straight from the heart.

The entire banquet is gluten-free and you can have the finest virtual mulled wine, vintage cyberchampers or the world's yummiest hot chocolate beamed in from Denmark (see 2011) - or all three, since they are, of course, devoid of calories. I hope you've donned your best cyberbling to jolly proceedings along. It may be wet and windy out there, but inside we have the joy of friendship, the scent of virtualcinnamon and unlimited quantities of seasonal good cheer. When you've hung up your coat, please pop over to Gretel, the Good Witch of the South West, who will annoint you with virtualfairydust and offer you a synaesthesia biscuit.

Now, will you welcome, please, our guests of honour. This is a controversial invitation and already I can hear mutterings at the back, but they're here anyway: Richard and Cosima Wagner have come from CyberBayreuth to join the party. It's not that we forgive you - either of you - for what you wrote, or said, or did. But this is a time for reconciliation. Richard, your music has not precisely changed my life, but it has certainly changed my world...you know what I mean, don't you? Of course you do. Your Parsifal has been the greatest thing that happened to me this year: more than an opera, more than a music drama, more even than gesamtkunstwerk, it's a form of spiritual awakening. Even for an atheist. Thank you for your music, Richard, and, er, thanks to both of you for agreeing to star in my play. 

Who's that? Oh...dearie dear...Giuseppe and Benjy are in the corner, doing the muttering. I knew somebody was. Come on over, chaps, and let's celebrate you all together. What an anniversary year this has been... Let's hear it one last time for VERDI and BRITTEN! And a round of applause for every musician who has touched the hearts of his or her audience during the past 12 months.

Now, now, quiet please... Would the following winners kindly approach the platform, where Solti, ensconced upon his silken cushion, will let you stroke the ginger stripes and will give you your special prize purr.

Icon of the Year: Sir Colin Davis, whom I only met a couple of times, but miss, now that he has left us, as if he were a member of my family. He was the first conductor I ever saw, as a child, and among many joys over the years I particularly cherish what he did with the Elgar Violin Concerto, accompanying Nikolaj Znaider, in 2010. Early in 2012 he gave me one of the most outspoken interviews I've ever had the pleasure of writing up. Thank you, Sir Colin, for everything you did for our sacred art.

Pianist of the Year: A special award, this time, for my concert partner Viv McLean, who has been doing such a glorious job of the Alicia's Gift performances that we can't possibly give the prize to anyone else. Viv, you are exceptional: your energy is something oddly transcendent. Like our Alicia, "you know what it is to be in a state of grace, even if you don't realise that you do..." I sit beside your piano every time and I can see, hear and feel this, clear as Chopin. It's a privilege to share a stage with you. Thank you for an extraordinary autumn tour - and looking forward to more next year!

Violinist of the Year: Please step forward, Barnabas Kelemen. You just won a Gramophone Award [left], but there's no law against you winning the Ginger Stripes too. Your Bartok Sonatas recording with Zoltan Kocsis is an absolute scorcher and when you and your wife Katalin Kokas played the duos at those awards, everyone knew that you could reach a rare, remarkable level of insight and communication. Now that you've been signed up by Hazard Chase we look forward to hearing you many, many, many more times in the near future. Gratulalok!

Singers of the Year: Naturally, the first is Jonas Kaufmann. Parsifal from the Met; Don Carlo twice, once in London, once in Munich; a glorious evening at the Royal Festival Hall; and that Wagner CD with the most delectable Wesendonck Lieder you could hope to hear. It's not only Solti who purrs when his voice fills the air. And please welcome the simply divine Joyce DiDonato, whose glorious technique, effortless tone, unbelievable virtuosity and bolts-of-lightning charisma have been blazing through London in the form of La Donna del Lago at Covent Garden and at the Last Night of the Proms (btw, dear Joyce, please can I snaffle that Vivienne Westwood frock when you've finished with it?)

Conductor of the Year: Marin Alsop, of course. Marin, you are not the first woman conductor in the world, nor the only one - see my startlingly  famous list - but you have managed to make that crucial step to near-universal recognition, becoming symbol, role-model and triumphant trailblazer. But it wasn't only great to see you conduct the Last Night of the Proms; more to the point, you did such a glorious job with the Bernstein Chichester Psalms that some of us were moved to tears. Thank you for all that you mean to us, and brava bravissima!

Series of the Year: Please welcome, from the Southbank Centre, artistic director Jude Kelly and head of classical music Gillian Moore. This was the year of The Rest is Noise - the most exciting year I can ever remember experiencing at a venue to which I've been going on average at least once a week for a quarter of a century. Restoring the idea of narrative and context to enhance understanding of modern/contemporary music, the series went right through the 20th and 21st-to-date centuries, bringing together speakers, films, participatory events, concerts, listening guidance sessions and much more through 13 themed weekends that packed newcomers into the halls. The website holds a remarkable archive of the talks for all to hear.

At John Adams's bright-blazing El Nino the other night, which concluded the festival, it was revealed that the LPO audience figures never went below 1800 for any of the TRIN concerts, even the most challenging - and even though Jude remarked that they'd been warned there were only 700 people in any major city who would go to contemporary music. The vision and trailblazing confidence that Jude and Gillian have brought to The Rest is Noise has categorically disproved that. I believe concert life will never be quite the same again. Thank you, Jude and Gillian! More, please!!

Youthful Artist of the Year: From the nearer reaches of north-west London, here is the adorable violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen, whose first two recordings, respectively on the Champs Hill and Signum, labels show a developing performer of innate musicality and inspiration, as well as an excellent communicator of the joy of music-making. Looking forward to hearing you heaps more in the years ahead.

Artist of the Year: Dear maestro, Andras Schiff, it is your 60th birthday today. I can't quite believe this. I still think of you as 28... It has been a remarkable privilege to watch and listen as your musicianship has grown and grown and kept growing with the decades; and to interview you about so many fascinating topics, musical and otherwise (a little memento, left, of our latest, at the Beethovenfest in Bonn). And you're as irrepressible as ever. I know you have to leave our cyberposhplace pdq because tonight you're playing the Goldberg Variations in the first half of your big birthday concert at the Wigmore Hall and the Diabelli Variations in the second half. Your purr will therefore be delivered to the Wigmore's stage door.

Lifetime Achievement Award: Please step forward, Roger Wright, head of the BBC Proms and Radio 3, for bringing us the best Ring cycle in the world, and the most egalitarian, for £5 a pop(era) - and all that other Wagner too. (And for programming the Korngold Symphony!) The BBC gets a lot of stick these days - some justified, some not - and in this day and age I think we need to be reminded sometimes of how bloody lucky we are to have such a thing as the Proms at all.

Colleagues of the Year: Hooray for David Le Page, Bradley Creswick, Margaret Fingerhut and Anthony Hewitt, who have been my much-loved, ever-inspiring, on-stage partners for the Hungarian Dances concerts this year - alongside Viv McLean, of course, who's already got the piano prize. And thank you a thousand times to the entire Seven Star Productions crew: "Five stars is not enough"... The amazing Yvonne Evans and her team, complete with those yummy "synaesthesia biscuits", themed canapes and copious marshmallows! Cheers, applause, hugs and fairy dust to you all.

Interviewee of the Year: There is only one Angela Gheorghiu. Blimey, guv.

Opera of the Year: Daniel Barenboim's utterly incredible Wagner Ring cycle at the Proms. It is being rebroadcast on R3 over Christmas, btw, and therefore should, I think, be available to listen to on the iPlayer for 7 days thereafter.

Ballet of the Year: Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in Giselle with the Mikhailovsky Ballet back in March. They were utterly aflame: probably the greatest dancers I've ever had the good fortune to see. Spassiba balshoy, both!

Stuffed Turkey: Die Fledermaus at ENO. Dearie, dearie, dear.

And a few personal highlights:

Proudest moment: Premiere of my play Sins of the Fathers at the Orange Tree Theatre under the auspices of the International Wimbledon Music Festival, on 24 November. I never thought I'd write a fantastical comedy about Wagner, but there we are, it happened and it seemed to go over OK.

Weirdest moment: Quite a few contenders for this, provided by...well, three or four very different people, some of whom play the piano, some of whom sing and some of whom don't. Let's leave it there.

Quote of the Year: "What you went through with us is something which I never dreamt of and I never thought it would be possible..." - Daniel Barenboim thanks the Promenaders at the end of the Ring Cycle. (His whole speech is here.)

Biggest Sigh of Relief: Probably the one upon completing my Chopin Ballades survey for Radio 3's Building a Library a few weeks back - comparing 35 different recordings ranging across 83 years. You can download the podcast here. (Scroll to 30 November.)

Wonderful Webmaster of the Year: Step up, please, Horst Kolo, as always. Thank you for putting up with me and thank you for keeping www.jessicaduchen.co.uk running and updated! Glad to see that you are now making a website for a very special violinist friend, too. (Watch this space.)

Feline of the Year: Bravo, Solti. Keep up the good work - you're the best cat on earth. >^.,.^<

Thank you, everyone! And now, sit back, have another glass and let Jonas sing for us, accompanied by Christian Thielemann and the Dresden Staatskapelle. I will leave you with one last piece of news: >>>NEXT SUMMER WE ARE GOING TO BAYREUTH FOR THE FIRST TIME...

Season's Greetings to everyone! Take it away, Jonas...

Friday, December 20, 2013

Party season...

Happy seasonal everything, folks - and don't forget to log on tomorrow for the annual JDCMB GINGER STRIPE AWARDS! Meanwhile, it's that time of year and we went to a marvellous party...

Thursday, December 19, 2013

JDCMB Guest Post: George Jackson on the music of Julie von Webenau

Please welcome to JDCMB the young British conductor George Jackson, who has been delving into the music of a fascinating and all-but-forgotten composer, Julie von Webenau (1813-1887). She was, incidentally, the dedicatee of Schumann's Humoresque, Op.20.

'Frag den Mond': Julia von Webenau's 'New' Orchestral Song Cycle

Edward Elgar's instruction to the London Symphony Orchestra during the famous 1931 Abbey Road session is an invaluable aid to a young musician: 'Play this tune as though you've never heard it before'.  Navigating the halls of the 'repertoire' museum is always controversial, particularly as a young conductor working with orchestras who have developed a culture of playing certain music long before you were even born.  Aside from a deep passion for new music, my solution has been to rediscover old 'treasures' and assume the joy and responsibility of sharing them with the world.

The culture of birthday celebration in concert programming is rife, and this year's BWV trilogy (no, not Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, but Britten-Wagner-Verdi, of course) has brought a lot of music to a wider audience. My attention was recently drawn to a lesser-known guest at the birthday party: Julia Baroni-Cavalcabò, better known during her days in mid-19th century Vienna as Julie von Webenau. The rather modest Grove entry places her on the musical map, as a student of Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart and a close friend of Robert Schumann. Webenau's compositional canon extends to a series character pieces for solo piano (à la Schumann) and a noteworthy selection of lieder: the latter - which are musical gems - are of special interest to conductors and singers. 

Continuing my pursuit of this forgotten character, I ended up negotiating a collaboration with Gesine Schröder, music theory professor at Vienna's University for Music and Performing Arts. We commissioned a series of Vienna-based composers to orchestrate several of Webenau's lieder, to be premiered by the Akademisches Symphonie Orchester (ASO) Wien, where I was principal conductor last season.

The four songs that we chose - from a very long shortlist - represent an important step in German text setting in the middle of the 19th century, and are certainly worthy of further study: Ludwig Bechstein (the same poet who inspired Mahler's own text for ' Das klagende Lied'), Johan Nepomuk Vogl (a great Schubert collaborator), Hermann Kletke (a poet often set by Schumann), and Robert Reinick (responsible for the libretto of Schumann's Genoveva).          

Terz Magazine described the song cycle as a work that should 'place a great composer into the limelight in a situation which, as with many of her colleagues, the gender aesthetics of the 19th century forced them to be forgotten'.  Without wishing to go into the obvious issues of gender (not least in Vienna both in the 19th century and beyond, but, as Jessica herself points out here, 'women composers are still climbing the Eiger', not least at this year's British Composer Awards): Julie von Webenau's music is stunning, enhanced by a unifying marriage to the gorgeous texts she chooses, and offering a differently-tinged perspective of the German romantic art song.  I hope that my conducting colleagues, singers, musicologists and cultural commentators alike will take note and explore this rich terra incognita in years to come.

Here is Julie von Webenau's Warum, to a text by Ludwig Bechstein, sung by Wolfgang Stefan Schwaiger with the Akademisches Symphonie Orchester Wien conducted by George.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Friday, December 13, 2013

Parsifal: A Love Story?

Angela Denoke as Kundry & Simon O'Neill as Parsifal. Photos: Clive Barda

Yesterday I mentioned that the Royal Opera's new Parsifal, directed by Stephen Langridge, seemed rather a curate's egg as cooked by Heston Blumenthal. But the more one thinks about it, the deeper it goes. What follows contains spoilers aplenty, so if you don't want to know the results, look away now.

Langridge's concept is startling, thought-provoking and at times extremely disturbing. It is a very contemporary interpretation, some of which works, some of which doesn't, and some of which seems better after you've had 36+ hours to digest it.

First of all, take the giant cube that occupies the centre of the stage. The first impression is that this is infelicitous design - it resembles a set of Portaloos, or alternatively an outsized SAD lamp (goodness knows our knights need one). More to the point, the hammy gestured flashbacks enacted within it (see image below) are unnecessary distractions and add little of discernible value to the whole, while making it necessary for the real action to take place on the peripheries of the stage.

But wait. Our friend Pliable at Overgrown Path has pointed out that the cube has resonances from Islam. There's another image here... The set design, furthermore, places the holy spring at the back of the stage in a rectangular tub bearing no small resemblance to a mosque's howz for ritual purification.

So are these Grail Knights a kind of Wagnerian Al Qaida? As they send four initiates out into the world in woolly hats, armed with pistols, at the end of the Grail ceremony, it seems not entirely impossible. What's certain is that at the heart of this ceremony lies something dark and desperate. At its outset, in a ritual motion, the knights take knives and spear their own hands.

The ailing Amfortas, bound to the cult/temple/whatever-it-is by his father's demand, doesn't want to carry out the Grail ceremony and begs not to have to do it. The question, though, is always why? Isn't lifting the Holy Grail a beautiful thing to do? Not here - because the Grail is a young boy, and Amfortas has to slash his stomach. No wonder he doesn't want to do it. The boy then passes out and is carried in a classic pieta tableau around the knights, who reach out towards him. But when he comes round, he sits on a bench wrapped in a sheet, ignored and alone, apparently no longer of any significance. Parsifal alone rushes to sit beside him; a look passes between them. This also makes sense - for what inspires human compassion as much as a child abandoned, wounded and suffering? It's the discovery of compassion that transforms the 'Pure Fool'.

The question "why?" appears to be a powerful driving force. Why is Kundry going to such lengths to cure Amfortas when she was responsible for his initial downfall? Simple: she loves him. He loves her too, but his terrible wound has come between them. And at the end, Amfortas cured, Kundry redeemed, they walk off hand in hand, away from the cult/temple/whatever-it-is to live happily ever after. Parsifal has saved Amfortas so that he can live and love and be a whole man. Parsifal opens the Grail shrine to find that the Grail - who was there earlier, a bit older than he was in Act I - has disappeared. Parsifal follows suit, walking away and exiting at the back. Job done. True Grail revealed: it is human love.

At least, I think that is what's going on. It could perhaps use a little more clarification. I may have got it completely wrong, but it's been a process of elimination: if that isn't what's happening, then what is? Pass.

The single biggest problem with the notion - which is beautiful in itself - is that while it can, with some effort, be extrapolated from Wagner's original meanings (insofar as any of us really understand them), it doesn't dovetail easily with other issues, notably that of Kundry. An astonishing character, the constantly reincarnated female version of the Wandering Jew mingled with Mary Magdalene and Venus, Kundry is released from her curse by Parsifal: not only the curse of tearlessness, but that of deathlessness. Usually she finds her rest at the opera's conclusion. Here, she may find true love, but the effect is still to diminish her significance.

Since seeing the performance I've been looking at the Royal Opera House's reactions page and found a fascinating post interpreting the production via profoundly Christian symbolism and the eucharistic litury. Scroll down and read; it's the one by Richard Davey. It makes a huge amount of sense and is wholly different from my take. Perhaps this Parsifal will be "read" in a unique and personal way by everyone who experiences it - rather like those psychological tests where you see images in an ink blot that reflect your own mind. Then it becomes fascinating on a whole new level.

So, the performances. Gerald Finley stole the show as Amfortas, in no uncertain terms. Heartbreaking, all-encompassing, impassioned, incandescent, desperately moving. Rene Pape's Gurnemanz is a true classic, but at this performance he seemed short of his best; and Angela Denoke's much-praised Kundry unfortunately went somewhat off the rails in Act II, losing control of intonation and struggling for the high notes. She was absolutely fine in Act III, but we spent part of the interval wondering whether an understudy might have to sing from a wing. Simon O'Neill's Parsifal grew from harsh-toned callow youth in Act I, breaking his own bow on realising his guilt at killing the swan, to steely, determined redeemer with voice to match. Willard White smouldered as Klingsor - the first time one might wish for an evil magician to have a bit more to do. Chorus and orchestra were on blistering form, with Tony Pappano leading an account that was sumptuously coloured, full of tension and concentrated beauty.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

ENO goes to the cinema, finally

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. After a few years of resistance to the craze for live opera relays to the cinema, ENO has at last stepped aboard the bandwagon. From February you'll be able to see some of their productions at your local - starting with Peter Grimes starring Stuart Skelton, and subsequently the director Terry Gilliam's return visit to Berlioz, his new staging of Benvenuto Cellini. Expect five or six per season from next September. It seems they're finally convinced that it will widen their audience rather than dilute it. Hooray.

Below is the press release.

(If you were expecting a review of the Royal Opera's Parsifal from me this morning, I have to ask you to be a little patient - I am still digesting something resembling a curate's egg cooked by Heston Blumenthal...)

English National Opera (ENO) and AltiveMedia have today (Thursday 12 December) launched ENO Screen – a partnership to broadcast ENO’s unique theatrical productions to 300 cinemas across the UK and Ireland and selected cinemas worldwide, extending the opportunity to see the most innovative contemporary opera in the world to audiences around the world.
ENO Screen will begin with live screenings of David Alden’s award-winning production of Britten’s Peter Grimes, starring Stuart Skelton as the ostracised fisherman, on 23 February 2014 and the new production of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, based on the colourful life of the 16th century Italian goldsmith and sculptor, directed by Monty Python legend Terry Gilliam in June. From autumn 2014, live screenings will extend to five or six productions a season.
Speaking of the new venture, ENO Artistic Director John Berry said: “ENO's entry into cinemas will be as distinctive as our live work in the theatre, creating a truly cinematic experience. Our productions are already seen worldwide in more than 30 cities and I believe that the cinema broadcasts will enable many more people to enjoy the excitement and passion of ENO’s work and will encourage those visiting London to come to the theatre and see an ENO opera first hand.
“We have thought hard about whether to expand our activities into cinema and I believe in AltiveMedia we have now found the right partner to capture and promote ENO’s unique artistic personality in an exciting and dynamic way.
Peter Grimes is a definitive work in ENO's history and has proven to be one of our trail-blazing productions of recent years. It’s a wonderful way to launch this new initiative so close to Benjamin Britten's centenary year.”
Craig Shurn, Managing Director of AltiveMedia, said: “We have a first class technical and creative team who will ensure this will be an amazing spectacle that shows off ENO at its very best.
“We felt that the opera offering in cinemas was incomplete without ENO’s unique take, so we’re delighted to be working with ENO to bring the most innovative, stunning productions of their type to the big screen. We’ll be reaching out to those who already love opera and to people who have never tried it before, helping to build on the growing demand for this kind of quality entertainment.”
ENO Screen broadcasts will be produced by Serpent Productions, led by MTV award-winning director and Grammy award nominee Andy Morahan and Producer Dione Orrom.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Christmas cracker? OAE strikes Offenbach

Here's a little piece I wrote for the Indy about Offenbach and his long-lost operatic extravaganza Fantasio, which the OAE is performing (its British premiere, btw) on Sunday at the Royal Festival Hall. I can't go because it is Alicia's Gift in Hampstead that night, but I'm pleased to say that the show is being recorded for Opera Rara. The one and only Sarah Connolly sings the title role. Looking forward to hearing it...

The fate of Jacques Offenbach’s Fantasio seems bizarre – if not quite as bizarre as the opera itself. Recently unearthed and published, having not been seen since 1927, it is about to enjoy its British premiere in a concert performance and recording for Opera Rara by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and an all-star cast. The hope is that it may emerge as a neglected masterpiece that can shed new light on its composer. 

Admittedly this Offenbach is off-the-wall. Fantasio, an idealistic young student, loves a princess who is meant to marry a prince. To disrupt her wedding plans he disguises himself as the court jester, who has just died. It’s a peculiar premise, signalling a comic opera with a melancholy slant under the surface; but Offenbach could never escape his own bent for the quirky, the naughty and the magical.
Best known for having written the world’s most famous cancan, the composer is popular for his effervescent operettas – especially La belle Hélène and Orphée aux enfers – yet he dreamed of a career in serious music drama. Only one such work by him is in the repertoire today: Les contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann). For all its darkness it, too, remains as fantastical a piece as has ever graced a stage. 

The British mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, who takes the title role, describes Fantasio as “a convoluted, barmy farce. It’s a bit like The Wizard of Oz,” she adds. “It has that fantasy element to it, with cardboard cut-out characters – almost a Disneyesque feel. It is an ironic piece, though; it’s not to be taken at face value.” She affirms, too, that its nuttiness is worth it for the music: “It’s absolutely beautiful and the orchestration is very delicate. It feels like the sun coming out.” 

The story is based on an 1866 play by Alfred de Musset that had not been much of a success; and the odds were stacked even further against Offenbach’s adaptation when it was first aired at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1872. Offenbach – a German-born composer living and working in France – had been much attacked in the press during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and national sensitivities continued to run high after France’s defeat. If he hoped Fantasio would be a way to fight back, he was disappointed; the theatre curtailed the opening run after only ten performances. Saddened, Offenbach recycled some of its themes in Les contes d’Hoffmann

But if anyone wonders why Offenbach was so devoted to this opera, they would not have to look far. Fantasio is a “bitter clown”, the archetypal comedian weeping behind his pranks. It seems that Offenbach had found therein a character after his own heart.  

Fantasio, Royal Festival Hall, 15 December. Box office: 0844 875 0073

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Women composers are still climbing the Eiger

I was so angry about last week's all-male final results for the British Composer Awards that I called up my editor at the Independent and wrote this: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/features/dont-always-let-male-composers-call-the-tune-8994084.html

Honest to goodness, I thought there'd been more progress. The PRS for Music Foundation started a special fund called Women Make Music to help support new works by women composers. The Proms have been relatively heroic, likewise the Britten Sinfonia, and next year's Cheltenham Festival is apparently scheduling 14 premieres with eight by women. So why do these awards matter?

Well, the big awards make it into the news. They're a vital shop-window onto the world of classical music. They reach attention that day-to-day musical activities do not. And they create the wider public impression of what this little corner of the cultural world is all about.

And besides, women are writing good music. The latest Pulitzer Prize winner in the US is Caroline Shaw, who is 30 and the youngest composer ever to be awarded it: read about her here in the New York Times.

But here is more on the US situation, from New Music Box - a very good read.

There've been messages about my article from a variety of people insisting they've never encountered any prejudice towards women composers. But I think the problem is more insidious than the notion of a bunch of men sitting around a table saying "What, women write music? Mwahahahaha!"

The worrying statistics I quote in my piece show that something is going wrong at a much earlier stage. It's a matter of how deeply and unconsciously embedded in our culture is the idea that composers are mainly male and those who happen to be women are the exception. It goes back to the school system, home listening, radio and TV, training and profoundly ingrained expectation. There's nothing obviously and deliberately discriminatory about it, as far as we know - it's just that this is what people expect. And that's why it is so difficult to change. Some people have been pointing out that the UK's class system is more a problem than the gender one - most composers are from middle-class backgrounds and are privately educated - I'd suggest that it is all part of the same thing.

Monday, December 09, 2013

"Sacred space" syndrome

Or...an afternoon at St Mary's, Perivale. 

We used to hear a fair bit about the concept of a "sacred space": a place that builds up an atmosphere over years, decades, centuries - and that transmits this special energy to people who enter it and breathe it in.

I well remember reading a particularly beautiful book by lutenist Anthony Rooley which went into this idea in some depth and discussed the question of what it adds to musical performance. The short answer was "a lot". The epitome of this sacred space, if I remember right, was Dartington Hall.

In recent years - at least since the financial crash - the notion of something sacred has become inordinately tied to associations with fundamentalism (in many forms) and the question of experiencing something perhaps "psychic" or "esoteric" has become somehow old-hat new-age.

Fortunately for us, though, these matters don't cease to exist just because we stop taking notice of them.

In the past week, I've encountered two manifestations of sacred-space energy in musical performance. One was at St Bartholemew the Great - probably the most beautiful church in London, part of which dates back to 1123. Last week Peters Edition held its Christmas concert in there, candle-lit and featuring a cappella contemporary choral pieces from Britain and the Baltics, performed by the choirs VOCES8 and Lumina. Such composers featured as Morten Lauridsen, Vytautas Miskinis (from Lithuania), Eriks Ešenvalds (from Latvia), Alexander Levine (Russian-born British resident), our own Roxanna Panufnik and a fine organ piece by Judith Bingham. Anyone who thinks that beauty in music is dead should have been there. Some of the pieces were breathtaking in their use of original harmonic language and sonic imagination that - especially in the case of Ešenvalds's The Long Road - could stretch our consciousness out towards the most unexpected of developments, blending tradition with absolute originality. In the audience, it was magic.

Then yesterday Viv McLean and I went to perform Alicia's Gift at St Mary's, Perivale, and got more than we bargained for. Pictured above, Viv warming up...

St Mary's is a tiny 12th-century wooden church tucked away behind a west London golf course and the A40 just north of Ealing. For the past few years Hugh Mather - a retired medic and devoted pianist himself - has been running a concert series here. The place seats about 80 and admission is free; the audience can give a donation at the end if they wish. It's small, white, wooden-beamed, with 15th-century brasses in the floor stones protected by a carpet; and the platform area is currently dominated by a small but excellent Yamaha and a large and lovely Christmas tree. It is a comfortable, intimate space for a performance; speaking without a microphone is no worry, and the exchange between us in the cosiness of the space made unifying the two mediums of words and music remarkably easy.

But then, sitting close to the piano while Viv played Rhapsody in Blue, I noticed something extraordinary taking place. It is hard to describe, but I think some might call it "grace". It's a feeling of being suspended within the flow of time and space and breathing something lighter and purer than oxygen. A form of happiness, perhaps. Joy in its purest form: motionless and light and lacking in any worldly element. It resembles the state of a very good meditation session, yet it's spontaneous, not striven for;  something that lands on you, and you accept it because it feels so astonishing. And it is definitely to do with the space, because I've only experienced anything like it a few times before, and always in places that contain deep resonances and/or long-rooted dedications. Jerusalem, Lincoln Cathedral, that kind of place. And, yes, St Bartholemew the Great.

I told Hugh about this impression and he remarks that prayers have been said in that church for 800 years, "around 30 generations in which people have assembled there in good times and bad, and the accumulated spirituality soaked into the walls".

Incidentally, I'm supposedly an atheist. You can be as cynical as you like, but that doesn't change the fact that these things happen sometimes.

Anyway, the audience seemed to love the concert, we had a completely adorable day and it was lovely to finish the show and be greeted, heading off stage, with a nice cup of steaming hot tea.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Jingles all the way

I'm on my Amati Soapbox howling about Christmas jingles et al today - but also about a ray of hope emanating from the Southbank, named John Adams. http://www.amati.com/articles/1049-jingling-all-the-way-to-the-bank.html

Meanwhile, it's ALICIA'S GIFT at St Mary's, Perivale, this afternoon, starring Viv McLean and me. 3pm start, but it's free admission, first-come first-served, so get there early to get in!

Friday, December 06, 2013

In memoriam Mandela: a recording that couldn't have been made without him

We were fortunate to have such a figure as Nelson Mandela in the world at all. Today everyone on social media seems to have found a pertinent quote from him - each one chosen in a way that is extremely personal to the chooser. Each one is an inspiration in itself. (Tomorrow the Indy will publish a special souvenir edition in his memory, btw.)

Instead of a quote, here's an incident.

Ten years ago the violinist Philippe Graffin went to Johannesburg to record the gorgeous violin concerto by Samuel Coleridge Taylor with the Johannesburg Philharmonic. It was an event that could never have existed without Nelson Mandela: a mixed-race South African organisation, performing a work by a composer half British, half African. This is the end of the first movement and the whole of the second movement. (Get the whole recording.) And here - from the first month of JDCMB - is why this means such a lot to me, then and now. http://jessicamusic.blogspot.co.uk/2004/03/coleridge-taylor-and-south-africa.html

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Happy Birthday to the Ballades champion

If you heard my BBC Radio 3 Building a Library on the Chopin 4 Ballades the other day, you'll know that we ended up with three top choices: Krystian Zimerman (recorded c1988), Alfred Cortot (1929) and Sviatoslav Richter (1960). It's Krystian Zimerman's birthday today, as luck would have it, so here he is in the surprise wild card of the four: the heart-warming poem that is the A flat Ballade No.3.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, KRYSTIAN, wherever you may be!

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

British Composer Awards 2013 go to... 14 men and NO women

"Major Strasse has been shot. Round up the usual suspects..."

Now, this is in no way to derogate the life-force that is Harrison Birtwistle (it's taken me a long time to become a fan, but I am one now). Nor is it to derogate George Benjamin, James MacMillan, Colin Matthews or any of the exciting "9 new winners", their hard work or their fine compositions. But HOW IS IT POSSIBLE IN 2013 THAT 14 MEN GET PRIZES AND THERE IS NOT ONE WOMAN IN THE LINE-UP?

(This post has been updated since yesterday. There are 13 categories, all of them won by men. In fact one of the winning works is a joint effort, which means that 14 men, not 13, are in the lineup.)

This proves more than ever that it is time for an all-women prize for classical music. Women are achieving great things in this field - but they are not being adequately recognised for it. This time we need more than a list. We need action and we need it now.

Besides, if part of the point of these awards is to help "a composer and their work become more widely recognised" - frankly, Sir Harry is up there and he doesn't need one. The award to him is not so much Casablanca as Groundhog Day.

Here is part of the self-congratulatory press release that accompanies this pathetic outcome.

British Composer Awards 2013


The British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (BASCA) tonight announced the winners in 13 categories of the 2013 British Composer Awards in a ceremony at London’s Goldsmiths' Hall. Of the 13 categories, nine were awarded to new winners.

Six of the winners are completely new to the British Composer Awards, having never even been on the shortlist before this year: Nigel Clarke, Matthew Martin, Ed Baxter/Chris Weaver, Peter McGarr and Toshio Hosokawa.

Nigel Clarke's Cornet Concerto, Mysteries of the Horizon was the winner of the Wind Band or Brass Band category and is a spellbinding work based upon four paintings by the Belgian artist René Margritte. Matthew Martin's innovative I Saw the Lord, written for Daniel Cook and St Davids Cathedral Choir won the Liturgical category while Ed Baxter and Chris Weaver's No Such Object, a major sound art work performed using bespoke hand made electrical equipment that premiered in August 2012 at Arthur's Seat, won the Sonic Art category.

Peter McGarr's Dry Stone Walls of Yorkshire, written for CoMA London Ensemble won the Making Music Award and Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa received the International Award for his orchestral work Woven Dreams.

British Composer Awards Committee Chairman, Sarah Rodgers, said: "One of the achievements BASCA is particularly proud of is that the British Composers Awards, year on year, brings to light rising composers and supports them in taking the next step in their careers. The broadcast and other media exposure we are able to offer, together with commissions and collaborations, all contribute to helping a composer and their work become more widely recognised."

Sir Harrison Birtwistle, who won his fifth British Composer Award for Gigue Machine in the Instrumental Solo or Duo category, became the most shortlisted and winning composer in BCA history. Birtwistle’s previous awards include both the Orchestral and Choral awards in 2005, the Instrumental Solo or Duo award for Crowd in 2007 and the Orchestral category in 2012 for Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Gigue Machine, for solo piano, was written for Nicolas Hodges and is a remarkably complex, virtuosic work described by Birtwistle as “mimicking a fantasia in two parts”, one resonant, the other staccato.

Joseph Phibbs, George Benjamin, John Surman and James Redwood, are all first-time winners although each has received previous nominations. Phibbs' Rivers to the Sea, commissioned for the 18th birthday celebrations of The Anvil, Basingstoke, won the Orchestral category while George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, which played to sold-out audiences and admiring notices at the Royal Opera House in March this year, won the Stage Works category. John Surman's Lifelines, a groundbreaking work marrying contemporary jazz with the traditional male voice choir was the winner of the Contemporary Jazz Composition category while James Redwood's massive work for 250 young musicians from six diverse ensembles Pass The Torch, An Olympic Symphony, received the Community or Educational Project Award.

Guy Fletcher, Chairman of PRS for Music, said:“Tonight’s new generation of British composers has been truly impressive and I am excited to see such breadth of talent and creativity on the winners’ shortlist. The British Composer Awards provide a vital showcase for music that is part of our cultural fabric and enjoyed the world over. PRS for Music is proud to sponsor such an important event.”

Colin Matthews, James MacMillan and Brian Elias all received Awards for the second time. Matthews, who won the Vocal category in 2012 for No Man's Land this year took the Chamber Award with his String Quartet No. 4, written for the Elias String Quartet. James MacMillan's Since it was the day of Preparation…, for bass, chorus and ensemble which tells the story of the Resurrection was the winner in the Choral category while Brian Elias received the Vocal Award for Electra Mourns, a work for mezzo soprano, solo cor anglais and String Orchestra that premiered at the Proms in 2012.

The Awards ceremony opened with a performance of Rodrigo Barbosa Camacho's work, American Candy - What the hell is Yellow no. 6?!? for viola - winner of the 4th Student Competition at the British Composer Awards - performed by Sarah-Jane Bradley.

Roger Wright, Controller, BBC Radio 3 & Director, BBC Proms said, “Congratulations to all the winners of this year’s 2013 BCA awards. As the home of classical music, and one of the most significant commissioners of new music, BBC Radio 3 is delighted once again to cover this important event for our millions of listeners.”

The British Composer Awards are presented by BASCA and sponsored by PRS for Music. In association with BBC Radio 3 providing exclusive broadcast coverage of the Awards on Saturday 7 December.