Saturday, November 30, 2013

Stephen Langridge talks about Parsifal

The Royal Opera House's new production of Parsifal opens in three-quarters of an hour. I'm not going until 11th, but can't will be my 4th Parsifal of this year. I simply couldn't stand the thing when I first heard it. Yet now the piece has got under my skin the way no opera has since Die Zauberflote. So it was intriguing to be presented with the chance to ask its  director, Stephen Langridge, a few big questions in an e-chat...(This is a long version of a short piece for the Indy.)

JD: What does it mean to you personally to be directing Parsifal?

SL: I first saw Parsifal in the Hans Jürgen Syberberg film version as a teenager, and loved it… but in my twenties I really fell out with the piece (loathed it), and only in the last few years have I returned to it. But even when I hated it I was always aware of its enormity and importance. Now I find myself moved by its simple humanity and complex almost desperate scrabble for spiritual meaning in life.

JD: Please tell us something about what you're doing with it in this new production?

SL: There are a couple of clear developments the piece which emerge from a close consideration of the story’s background and when you take the characters seriously as people rather than symbolic representations of an idea. One is the effort to effect a paradigm shift – to move from a world ofschadenfreude, cruel mocking laughter at another’s suffering, to one of mitleid, compassion. The other is from a hierarchical, closed and exclusive spiritual community, to an uncovered Grail, where each person must make their own connection with the numinous. These ideas are on one level, simple, but Wagner is not simplistic, and he forces us to experience very dark twists and turns on the journey. Our attempt is to tell a clear story, but to allow the piece to keep its mystery: to find recognizable humanity in the characters, but also to keep the magic of the myth.

JD: Many opera-lovers (myself included) feel that Parsifal is itself a kind of Holy Grail... What are its biggest challenges, excitements and dangers for you as director? Do you see it as in any way a story for our times?

SL: Parsifal is like the Holy Grail if you are ever tempted to think that there is a perfect way to do it, which will be forever relevant. Its philosophy and even its narrative are slippery, contradictory, intangible. It is a huge piece - not just in terms of length - through which there are probably as many journeys available as there are people to engage with it. As a director I suppose the main thing is not to be overwhelmed by its performance history, but to listen openly as if for the first time, to focus on the human moments that resonate and move us. Is it a story for our own times? Yes – but perhaps this could be a definition of any masterpiece, when a piece’s multifaceted complexity reveals itself anew to each generation.

JD: Wagner has become desperately associated with the Nazis and anti-Semitism. How can we best deal with this today?

SL: Wagner was anti-Semitic, and he wrote and said poisonous things. But I think he composed beyond his bigotry, plunging instinctively into deep myth structure. I don’t think that we need to present his operas to comment on his horrible views. If I felt that was all that was going on in Parsifal, I wouldn’t direct it. It’s right to continue to examine and expose Wagner’s views and behavior, and to wonder at this same man being able to compose such sublime music, and to dedicate his last work to the idea of human compassion. In the stark contradiction sits flawed humanity.

Parsifal, Royal Opera House, from 2 December. Box office: 020 7304 4000

And here is a video preview in which Gerald Finley talks about singing the role of Amfortas.

My R3 Chopin Ballades podcast

If you missed my Building a Library today, comparing recordings of Chopin's 4 Ballades on BBC Radio 3's CD Review, you can download it as a podcast here:


Friday, November 29, 2013

Tomorrow on Radio 3...

Tomorrow morning my Building a Library on the Chopin 4 Ballades is on BBC Radio 3 at about 9.30am. I may live-tweet it. Or I may hide. Haven't decided yet.

After the Wagner play last Sunday, another Alicia's Gift two nights ago, getting an iPhone yesterday and trying to learn how it works (a decision that has taken, um, 5 years) and generally trying to stay on top of everything, I'm knackered. So...time for some wonderful ballet.

I've often wondered why the Chopin Ballades haven't been choreographed more often - apart from the obvious challenges for the pianist in residence, they would seem a gift to the world's great dance dramatists, wouldn't they? Until now I'd only found Jerome Robbins's The Concert with its marvellous Butterfly dance for the Third Ballade....but John Neumeier has created La Dame aux Camélias to Chopin, and here are Sylvie Guillem and Nicholas Le Riche working absolute wonders with a pas de deux to the great G minor Ballade No.1 - sexy, doomed and devastating. (Ne tirer pas sur le pianiste...)

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Exciting young conductor signs with Percius

This is the space to watch that I mentioned yesterday...

Percius, the artists' management company headed by John Willan, has signed up Gad Kadosh, a young French-Israeli conductor with whom I was much impressed at Bernard Haitink's Lucerne masterclasses a couple of years ago and who was also in that sought-after selection for the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition this year. I'm told we can look forward to his UK debut in 2015.

Here's his biog from the Percius website.

Gad Kadosh is a young, intensely engaging Israeli conductor with a keen musical mind. Currently working as second Kapellmeister and assistant conductor at Theater Heidelberg, Gad received the first prize in the MDR Conducting Competition (MDR Symphony Orchestra, Leipzig), in 2011. He was then selected by Bernard Haitink as one of seven candidates to take part in his 2012 Conducting Masterclass in Lucerne with the Lucerne Festival Strings.
Journalist Jessica Duchen writes: I first encountered Gad Kadosh at Bernard Haitink’s Lucerne Festival Academy masterclasses and was immediately impressed with his sensitivity, intelligence and intense musicality. When he took the podium the music seemed to flow naturally out of the orchestra; he allowed the piece to speak for itself. I hope we will hear a lot more of him in the future.”
Gad studied piano performance at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music in Tel-Aviv University and was awarded scholarships from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. He went on to study conducting with Vag Papian in Israel, Lutz Köhler in Berlin and Martin Hoff in Weimar. Prior to his position in Heidelberg Gad worked as Solorepetitor and Assistant Conductor at the Theater für Niedersachsen in Hildesheim.
In Heidelberg and at Winterthur he has conducted Tosca (Puccini) and Die Fledemaus (Strauss), and in Hildesheim works such as Don Pasquale (Donizetti), Eugene Onegin (Tchaikovsky), Das Land des Lächelns (Lehár) and Ein Walzertraum (Oscar Straus). Whilst Classical and Romantic repertoire form the core of his current oeuvre Gad has worked with young composers and conducted contemporary repertoire; he has directed ensembles such as Klangzeitort and Zafraan in Berlin, and conducted Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot (Maxwell Davies) and Arlecchino (Ferruccio Busoni).
Future appearances include performances of Cosi fan Tutte (Mozart), Die Fledermaus (Strauss), Rumor (Christian Jost), Babar, der kleine Elephant (Poulenc), Ifigenia in Tauride (Traetta), Un ballo in maschera (Verdi) and his debut at Longborough Festival Opera in 2015.

Monday, November 25, 2013

SINS Sunday!

The world premiere rehearsed reading of my new play about Wagner, Sins of the Fathers seems to have gone down pretty well yesterday at the Orange Tree. The audience laughed a lot, the actors seemed to be enjoying it (I think) and the performance zipped by and I got a jolly nice round of applause too, and it was all a bit wonderful. Our fabulous cast was Sarah Gabriel (Vicky/Cosima), John Sessions (Wagner) and Jeremy Child (Frank/Liszt).

A few pics from the rehearsal, complete with a reasonably idiomatic piano score of Tristan und Isolde and the magic bottle of Chateau Tristan 1865...

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A soapbox and an orange tree

A weekend full of anniversaries kicks off with a new weekly "soapbox" slot, which the stringed instrument dealers have asked me to write. They've even drawn me standing on one!

You can read my first Soapbox tract here. It's about Great Britten, of course.

And so tomorrow it is the world premiere, as rehearsed reading, of my new play Sins of the Fathers, about Wagner, Liszt and Cosima, at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond. Info here. Call the box office for returns.

What does a playwright do all day once the thing is written and delivered? Well, I've been hunting for candle glue, preparing some labels for the bottle of magic wine and sourcing Wagner's dressing gown. Social media proved worth its weight in gold where the latter was concerned: an appeal on Facebook ("Urgent: need a silk dressing gown for Wagner, must fit John Sessions") has produced a friend - the real sort, not only the Facebooky sort - who inherited an antique silk red paisley number from her great-uncle that fits the bill to perfection. Now we just have to find the right something for Liszt to wear. A cravat should do the trick.

From this anniversary line-up, Verdi is missing. Only one thing for it: over to Jonas...

Friday, November 22, 2013

Cheers for BB

It's you-know-who's birthday today. I wanted to find something to post that is out of the ordinary, but close to my heart. So I've hunted down some video - from the Teatro Real, Madrid - of The Little Sweep, the children's opera that involves major audience participation in some wonderful mass songs. I had a recording of this when I was about 8 and it's one of the things that first turned me on to music. I think I wore out the LP. I still think it's a masterpiece, though the emotional content - the story of a Victorian chimney sweep boy - is even more upsetting now than it seemed then.

It is, as far as I can tell, hardly ever performed today - at least, not in the UK. Talk about BB going international. The dialogue here is in Spanish, and the singing in English, without much sense of diction, but if you don't know the music, these two videos - the very beginning and the very end - will give you a taste of it.

Have a good Britten Weekend, wherever you are. I am missing the fun as I'm a little preoccupied right now with the world premiere of my new play on Sunday afternoon at the Orange Tree Theatre. It's about Wagner.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

What do conductors do, anyway?

I'm sure the answers to that question are many and varied. But here's one for the mix: some of them write books. I've put a few million-dollar questions to Lev Parikian, who together with Barrington Orwell has written a singularly sparkly volume, Waving, Not Drowning, about the mysterious art of the musical maestro - with tongue located in cheek.

Lev is, of course, a conductor himself; he specialises in galvanising into action a range of enthusiastic amateur orchestras. Who better to tell us what's really going on on that podium? And a few words, too, about the women conductors' issue...

JD: Lev, what made you want to write a book about conducting?

LP: There are plenty of serious books about conducting, and quite right too, for it is a serious matter. But I felt there was scope for a less earnest approach that would nevertheless contain, as one reviewer put it, "truth within the comic camouflage”.
Waving, Not Drowning started as a series of articles for Classical Music magazine highlighting some of the more mockable aspects of the noble art of conducting (and it is a noble art, although we are a more mockable breed than most, if only we realised it). From these frivolous drivellings emerged the idea for a book which I hoped would amuse, entertain and enlighten in equal measure. Whether or not it does any of those three things, it kept me harmlessly occupied and off the internet for a few months, so that’s no bad thing.

JD: So tell us...what does a conductor really do, and how?

LP: Aagh, you’ve gone for the impossible questions first. It’s tempting to say 'ask me again in thirty years', but I'm not sure I'll have an answer even then.
So here goes...

What do they do? They enable a group of musicians to give the best performance available to them of any piece of music.

How do they do it? That's more difficult, because there are as many ways of conducting as there are conductors. But pick a few from the following: gestures, psychology, words, force of personality, ears (or "listening skill solutions” as we probably have to say nowadays), intimate knowledge of the music, intellect, experience, hard work, metaphors, similes, analogies, mime, encouragement, cajoling, threats, amusing anecdotes just before the break, telepathy, magic dust, did I say hard work? I’m sure I’ve missed a few out.

I think conducting is often done with the ears  – the conductor is the person on the stage best placed to hear the music, so has the responsibility for shaping the balance. But they also need to be able to engage all the musicians so that each one of them feels they are contributing to the whole – that’s where the psychology comes in. And of course an ability not only to pick (and transmit) the best tempo but also to convey the character of the music with gesture alone is a great plus. As the incomparable Professor Etwas Ruhiger (profiled in Chapter 5 of Waving, Not Drowning) put it: “If music iss like hippopotamus, do not be condectink like cherbil."

JD: Why do you think there is such a mystique around the profession of conducting? Is it justified?
LP: The mystique of the conductor is understandable – he or she is the only person on stage who makes no sound (there are some exceptions...), yet is the first to receive the plaudits. And the parallels with wizards are all too obvious: the wand, the air of mystery, the ‘look at me’ aura.
But the fact remains that without musicians, the conductor is just an idiot waving his or her arms around. Controversial statement alert: a lot of the time, the players can get on just fine without conductors. Part of the skill of conducting lies, I think, in recognising when you’re needed and knowing what to do about it (which is a different matter entirely). 

JD: What would be your response to the "Oh, conductors just wave their arms around" viewpoint?

LP: I’d reply by saying that it depends on the conductor. Then I’d invite whoever said it to come and have a go themselves and have a chat afterwards.

JD: What, for you, are the best things about being a conductor? And the worst things?

LP: The best – when you know you’ve helped a group of musicians play better; the worst – when you know that you’ve made them play worse.

JD:  As you know, I've been pretty involved in the issue of women conductors, or lack of them. How can we encourage more women to become conductors, and help those that already exist to get a fair hearing?

LP: Challenge those who disagree with or ignore the idea of women conductors. Go on challenging them. Don’t give up until all talk of “women conductors” has disappeared and we talk only about “conductors”.

This interview with Mei-Ann Chen seems to me to exemplify a positive and constructive approach from an obviously extravagantly talented and motivated conductor:

Waving, Not Drowning - paperback (Amazon)
Waving, Not Drowning - Kindle edition (Amazon)

Monday, November 18, 2013

Listen to this only if you're feeling strong

This is Terence Judd in a live performance from 1978 of Scriabin's Etude Op.42 no.5. By the end of the following year, this brilliant young British pianist, winner of the 1978 Tchaikovsky Competition, was dead. His body was found under Beachy Head, a notorious cliff by the sea in Sussex, where he was assumed to have taken his own life. He was 22 years old.

A few years ago I met his sister, Diana, and interviewed her about him. He had had a severe nervous breakdown several years earlier, she recounted: "He spent several months in a terrible place, in north London, having electric shock treatment and more. He used to think that he was Jesus Christ, and he would tell me that he would go into space and get a planet for me." (Read the rest here.)

The Scriabin Etude above is only about three and a half minutes long, but it is a harrowing thing to listen to. You need to feel strong to withstand the opening up therein of a soul in crisis.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

My tricky waltz with Wagner

I've written an article for The Independent about creating my new play, SINS OF THE FATHERS, which is premiered next Sunday in the International Wimbledon Music Festival at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond. In brief: how do you write a play about somebody you can't stand?

Incidentally, the only way I could get started was by thinking: "Well, what would Woody Allen have done?"...

Cast for our performance:
VICKY/COSIMA: Sarah Gabriel
FRANK/LISZT: Jeremy Child
WAGNER: John Sessions

Friday, November 15, 2013

Hold on to your's the R3 Girls

It's BBC Children in Need again and Radio 3 is pitting girls against boys as their competitive star turn. So here are the girls. Singers are Ruby Hughes, Clara Mouriz, Charlotte Trepess, Elizabeth Watts and Kitty Whately, with the ladies of the BBC Philharmonic and The Halle conducted by Sian Edwards. And look out for special guests in the ranks: violinist Tasmin Little and pianist Kathryn Stott. (Why not a woman composer too? As for Pudsey Bear - we don't know about that...)

Happy Friday. I am chopping a script, and it hurts. Cuts are a vicious matter. I'm wondering if this is how our prime minister feels sometimes.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Woman of the Future

Brava bravissima to the young Romanian pianist Alexandra Dariescu, who has just won the Woman of the Future Award.

Alexandra says: "This evening we celebrated women, equality between genders and an internationally cherished Romania, a country that makes me proud. I was the only non Brit in the Arts and Culture category and it gives the hugest of honours to announce that I was awarded the Woman of the Future Award, becoming an Ambassador for classical music. It's an exciting time for women all over the world and a huge step for us, strong, united and because we can!"

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

TONIGHT: Alicia's Gift goes to Leighton House

Tonight: we are delighted that Alicia's Gift: The Concert of the Novel will be presented by the Kensington & Chelsea Music Society at Leighton House Museum, 12 Holland Park Road
London W14 8LZ. It's an amazing venue, the former home of Lord Leighton and his art collection, where east meets west...

Kick-off is 7.30pm and Viv and I, much encouraged by Saturday's successful outing (unexpectedly alongside a Mighty Wurlitzer), are looking forward to it immensely. Enormous thanks to the doughty Peter Thomas and the enthusiasm of KCMS for this project. I read; Viv plays Chopin, Falla, Debussy, Ravel, Granados, Messiaen and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue; and we finish with eine kleine piano duet...

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A tribute to John Tavener (1944-2013)

Here is my short but heartfelt tribute to John Tavener, who died today at the age of 69, greatly mourned.

How improvising can change your brain

Fascinating stuff, this. Above, Gabriela Montero improvises on the Goldberg Variations theme. I've always listened to her (and many others) and wondered "How does she do that?" Now Neuroscience 2013, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, has released some information about what improvising can do for the brain, and vice-versa...

(Apologies for simply running the press release. Am short of time at present.)

To Change Your Brain: Improvise, Improvise, and Improvise Some More
With practice, specific brain circuits are strengthen and music flows

Brain circuits involved in musical improvisation are shaped by systematic training, suggest a new study presented at Neuroscience 2013, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and the world’s largest source of emerging news about brain science and health.

Researchers also found that more experienced improvisers show higher connectivity between three major regions of the brain’s frontal lobe while improvising. This suggests that the generation of meaningful music during improvisation can become highly automated —performed with little conscious attention, reported lead author Ana Pinho, MS, of the Karolinska Institutet.

“Our research explored whether the brain can be trained to achieve greater proficiency in improvisation,” Pinho said. “The lower activity in frontal brain regions that we saw in trained improvisers is interesting, and one could speculate that it is related to the feeling of ‘flow.’ This is the feeling that many musicians report feeling during improvisation – when music comes without conscious thought or effort.”

Improvisational training entails the acquisition of long-term stores of musical patterns and cognitive strategies to aid in their expressive, skillful combination. To test brain activity during improvisation, researchers worked with 39 pianists with a wide range of both classical piano training and training in jazz improvisation. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which images blood flow in different parts of the brain.

While the pianists improvised for brief periods on a 12-key MRI compatible piano keyboard, researchers tracked activity in the frontal lobe. More experienced improvisers showed a combination of higher connectivity and lower overall regional activity during improvisation. Higher connectivity also reflected extensive reorganization of functional connections within the regions of the frontal lobe that control motion.

According to the researchers, the extensive connectivity within the frontal lobe of experienced improvisers may allow the musicians to seamlessly generate meaningful re-combinations of music.

“This study raises interesting questions for future research, including how and to what extent creative behaviors can be learned and automated,” said Pinho.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Remembrance Sunday rarity

This is the astonishing Elegy for Strings 'In Memoriam Rupert Brooke' by Frederick Septimus Kelly, the brilliant Australian pianist and composer who survived Gallipoli only to meet his death at the Somme.

An Olympic rowing champion in 1908, he was a sometime pupil of Donald Francis Tovey at Oxford and was close to the young Jelly d'Aranyi, who hoped to marry him. The Sonata he wrote for her on his way back to Britain from Gallipoli - having composed it in his head while in the trenches - was unearthed and performed a couple of years ago by the Australian violinist Chris Latham and turned out to be a carefree, sunny sort of work. The same cannot be said for the Elegy, which is not many miles in mood from Vaughan Williams's Tallis Fantasia.

Please listen, enjoy and think.

Saturday, November 09, 2013


I've been having some fun with the connections between Gypsy music and classical, with the help of such individuals as Jascha Heifetz, Grigoras Dinicu, Ginette Neveu and Roby Lakatos...and the result is up on the Sinfini site now. Enjoy.

Speaking of connections, a friend asked me how she could subscribe to JDCMB by email, since she doesn't do Facebook or Twitter. I didn't know, so I've been finding out, and now I've put a "Subscribe by email" box in the sidebar. If you sign up to this, you'll automatically receive a message whenever I publish a new post. I hope this is a useful new way to connect.

Premiere of ALICIA'S GIFT is tonight at the Musical Museum, Kew Bridge. Next up, Kensington & Chelsea Music Society at Leighton House, Wednesday evening. I narrate the story from my novel about a child prodigy pianist and her talent's effect on her family. Viv plays Chopin, Debussy, Granados, Gershwin, Ravel...and I need to practise glissandi. Please connect by coming to say hi afterwards if you're there.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Friday historical: Fritz Wunderlich sings Tamino

Last night left me convinced (as if I needed convincing) that this is the most beautiful aria for tenor ever composed. What a good excuse to listen to Fritz Wunderlich singing it.

McBurney's Mozart is a Flute for our times

Before we get down to business with Simon McBurney's production of The Magic Flute, here's 2 1/2p about opera in translation. The raison d'etre of ENO is to perform opera in the vernacular. But London today is such a cosmopolitan city that the concept is starting to look outdated. Yesterday The Magic Flute was in English; but the main language in the foyer seemed to be Hungarian.

That was because the holder of ENO's Mackerras Conducting Fellowship was on the podium for a performance for the first time: Gergely Madaras, 28, from Budapest. He has been working at ENO alongside Ed Gardner, being mentored and nurtured. Perhaps The Magic Flute isn't an ideal debut opera - but his conducting was full of vim and whoosh, extremely alive, well-balanced and tender-hearted. It took a little while to "settle" - there were one or two little disagreements over tempo between pit and stage, and a few moments needed a tad more time to breathe. But that will go, in due course, and on the whole Madaras seems a careful accompanist and a fine, full-spirited musician. I look forward to hearing more of him.

So to Flute - a production on which many expectations hang, since it replaces Nicholas Hytner's classic of 25 years or more. It could scarcely be more different. And it could scarcely be more enchanting, more contemporary, more inspired. Flute has been my most-loved opera since childhood, yet I found things in it yesterday that I've never seen or heard before, in the best possible way.

It has been described as the most demanding production ENO has yet staged. Sometimes its effects are stunning: the writhing snake that attacks Tamino is filmed and projected around him; and during the trials the prince and princess swim through a mid-air, hand-drawn spiral, as if starring in Titanic (above). The Temple of Reason emerges from a shelf of giant books; their pages become Papageno's fluttering birds, wielded by 14 actors (below). The Queen of the Night - confined for much of the show to a wheelchair - sings amid a breathing, trembling aura of stars. Moreover, much action takes place on a platform that swings, dips and tips, leaving the singers to balance, pace, slide when necessary and, of course, sing some jolly demanding music throughout - which they managed without the merest flinch.

McBurney was new to opera when he directed the massively successful A Dog's Heart for ENO a few years ago; this is his first classic. A fascinating interview in The Guardian makes the following suggestion: "I take the audience from darkness to light, to make us evolve, to end mystification and embrace reason and rationality. That, as I understand it, is what the opera is about."

It is indeed, and McBurney's staging makes its message one for today, "relevant" in a way that is revelatory and profound rather than contrived. Indeed, we've rarely needed that message as much as we do now. It's as if Mozart himself is speaking to us as spiritual leader, as prophet.

The opera has been divested of its racism and as much of its sexism as possible, and - dare I say - is the better for it. The world that the characters move in is profoundly dangerous, riven by war, delusion, superstition; the plea is for wisdom, love, enlightenment. Everything feels here and now; the crisis of humanity of which Sarastro speaks is our own; everything seems real, the more apparently illogical the truer to life - and, moreover, true to the timeless heart of Mozart's vision.

[Dear Simon, please will you do Parsifal next, then the Ring cycle? Lots of love, Jess x.] 

In this process of "becoming"; everyone evolves, not only Tamino in his quest for initiation or Pamina in her growth from projected image - literally shining onto Tamino's heart while he sings his great aria - to mature and devoted woman. The magic instruments are played by members of the orchestra, the flautist walking on stage to stand alongside Tamino, the magic bells rendered on a keyboard from a corner of the pit where Papageno can interact suitably (the orchestra is raised so that it is just a notch below the stage).

But Papageno gradually learns to play them himself. Unpacking his parcel of food and wine, he creates a row of bottles which he empties - and in one case, er, fills - to reach the right pitch, and uses them to accompany the start of 'Ein mädchen oder weibchen'. "My old friend Chateauneuf du Pape..." he quips, then wonders if his "friend"'s family is present. Sure enough, inside the basket he finds more bottles. "Ahh, here's Auntie Angela and Uncle Roberto. Better keep those two apart!" - with which he places them at either end of the row. (Apologies to my neighbours in the theatre - I may have squawked...) Anyhow, by the time we get to 'Klinge, glöckchen, klinge', Papageno can tickle the ivories perfectly well and the keyboard player, striding on stage to be his sidekick, is put out to find her services aren't required.

Major plaudits to a terrific cast. Ben Johnson is a superb Tamino - his voice better suited to this role than it was to Alfredo in La Traviata - open-toned, focused and deeply musical. Devon Guthrie's feisty, heart-breaking Pamina matched him turn for turn. Roland Wood's Papageno - from Blackburn? - was a delight. McBurney has him carting a ladder around and from time to time he climbs it to escape something that alarms him, as if fleeing from a mouse. The introduction of a cuckoo noise into his first aria is naughty and rather delicious. James Creswell is an ideal Sarastro and Cornelia Götz a mostly strong Queen of the Night - and I love it that she is redeemed at the conclusion. Pamina doesn't often get her mother back.

Just one other perennial bugbear. The orchestra plays in that contemporary, standardised, "listen!-we-play-18th-century-music-without-vibrato" sound that always has been at odds with that of the human voice, and will always remain so.

In 100 years' time, assuming anyone still remembers who Mozart was, some scholar, assuming scholars still exist, may undertake a research project, assuming research still exists, about The Magic Flute. Of course they will be shocked to see the long hushed-up original text. But where the music is concerned, they might try a daring experiment: have the strings play with vibrato, just once, just to see what happens. And they will be astonished by how beautiful it sounds. And they will look at our generations' reasons for stopping the vibrato. And they will laugh.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

RIP Bernard Roberts (1933-2013)

This week the music world mourns one of Britain's best-loved pianists, Bernard Roberts, who has died at the age of 80. He was an infectiously lively and colourful performer, a brilliant and sensitive chamber musician (we used to hear him often in his trio with Manoug Parikian and Amaryllis Fleming), and a sought-after teacher, not least for his energetic masterclasses. Here is a vivid obituary from the Telegraph.

I well remember taking part in one that he gave at Dartington in 1984. He didn't like my Schubert, but I didn't want to play it the way he wanted me to (oh, youth...). He wanted some flexibility and a bit of up-tempo for a modicum of oomph. He was right. The trouble was that everything he told me was the diametric opposite of what my teacher at the time had said, which can be muddling if you're a teenager. He had explained, of course, in the nicest, most positive way, but I was upset and spent a good while pondering his advice, my own reaction and the underlying causes. I think it was as a direct result of that encounter that I decided to leave the teacher I was with and find someone less dogged and dogmatic, and ultimately ended up with the amazing Joan Havill.

Here he is playing the last movement of Beethoven's Op.109. Listen to that tone.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Invitation to drinks & books on Friday

JDCMB readers are warmly invited to a drinks party on Friday at Houben's Bookshop, 2 Church Court, Richmond (about 5 mins from Richmond station) to mark the start of the ALICIA'S GIFT Concert tour-ette. 6.30pm-7.30pm and copies of the book will be on sale, as will concert tickets. Space is limited, so please call to book your place! 020 8940 1055 or 07889 399 862. 

A concert trailer is here, with Viv McLean playing Rhapsody in Blue:

Gubaidulina speaks

As The Rest is Noise at Southbank Centre reached the 1970s, the composer Sofia Gubaidulina arrived to talk to us about spirituality in music. With Dr Marina Frolova-Walker from Cambridge to translate for her, this living legend spoke not only of those times but current ones as well; and she articulated some deep-seated truths about composition and culture that I suspect many of us sense but could scarcely express so well. Today, Gubaidulina said, is the most dangerous time humanity has ever faced, because we are facing "the global impoverishment of the human soul". We are in danger of losing the most human part of ourselves.

Art, she suggested, is always spiritual, because it springs from the subconscious, intuitive part of the mind. It reconnects us with a higher power, the higher part of our own spirit. This also serves as a moral force: she suggested that those who have lost touch with this aspect of art/culture exist without the knowledge of humanity's sensible limits, and she added that she sees such people around her all the time. Art, however, can be our "salvation".

As the space for the quiet, intuitive, spiritual self is eaten up by the ever-increasing flow of technology, information and the superficial part of the intellect, so that aspect of ourselves reduces until we risk losing it altogether. And that is what's dangerous. Along with the fact that art cannot exist without support, which means there must be people/organisations who believe in it enough to provide that support, if it is to survive...

The talk should in due course be available to listen to on the TRIN website and I'll post a link when it is up. Read more about Gubaidulina in this wonderful interview, and don't miss her violin concerto, 'Offertorium', which is to be performed on Wednesday night at the RFH, along with three works by Arvo Pärt.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Sizzling Vespers at ROH

A last-minute invitation to the Royal Opera House's Great Big Verdi Bicentenary Production yesterday was more than welcome. Yet it conspired with blocked local train lines and slow rush-hour tubes to ensure that I arrived a hair's breadth before curtain up for an opera I didn't know, without having had time to read the story.

What a marvellous way to listen. You wouldn't look up the plot before attending a film, would you? If someone gave you a programme containing a synopsis, indeed, you might be cross. You'd call it a 'spoiler'. OK, some operas are so convoluted that we might need a little help. After our 20th Marriage of Figaro, we might have unravelled the plot enough to have some idea of what's going on. But in the era of surtitles, and of certain directors who actually know how to tell a good story when they get the chance, do we still need advance briefing? The only giveaway, in this state of blissful ignorance at a grand-scale, nearly-four-hour romantic roller-roaster, was knowing that the finish time would be 9.50pm. If hero and heroine start singing happy wedding songs at 9.20pm, you can bet your bottom dollar it's all going to go horribly wrong.

Robert McKee, Hollywood screenwriting story guru par excellence, might be impressed with certain part of this plot. Who could imagine a greater conflict for our young hero, Henri? He is a rebel; he discovers his father is the local dictator; and he has to choose between his newly discovered instinctive feel for his dad, aka Guy de Montfort, and the rebel duchess whom he loves, Helene. Montfort wants to kill Helene, having already killed her brother, but after Henri cracks and obediently calls him "mon pere", he changes his mind and insists that she and Henri marry. Yet the leader of the rebels, Procida - vengeful after the psychologically muddled Henri has betrayed him - declares that their wedding bells will be the signal to unleash a massacre. All of this takes place against background conflict of occupation, wanton cruelty and simmering revolt.

Stefan Herheim's production contains a few absolute masterstrokes. In the prologue, a ballet class is in progress. Soldiers burst in, taunt the girls, abduct them. Montfort chooses one and commits violent rape. The act is witnessed by the ballet master, powerless to help his dancer. He is Procida and becomes the rebel leader after years in exile - and you know exactly where he found his motivation. The rape victim demonstrates to her attacker what is about to happen: evoked in ballet, we see the pregnancy, the baby, the mother and child. The little boy will become Henri. Ballet is a vital part of the storytelling throughout, representing Henri's mother and her appalling history as a vital presence while the action progresses. The details are superb: for instance it's clear that the ballet girls in the crowd recognise, love and respect Procida for his original incarnation in their own world. And we see, on Procida's return to his studio, exactly how the rape of his dancer has become equated in his mind with the rape of his country.

The designs by Philipp Fürhofer are big, bold, convincing. Michael Volle as Montfort virtually stole the show; Bryan Hymel - the current high-register, French-conversant tenor du jour - was often beautiful in tone, but a little underpowered and, as actor, slightly wooden within a drama where so much was detailed and realistic. Lianna Haroutounian (replacing Marina "Popsy" Poplavskaya), matched him well; again, a voice that is basically gorgeous and has much character and distinction, yet perhaps not quite large enough in such a vast-scale opera. Erwin Schrott as Procida seethed, fumed and loomed - though personally I wouldn't have chosen to bring him on in a dress at that particular moment in the last act (and another touch that proved uncomfortable was Helene's cradling - and others' footballing - of her brother's severed head). Throughout, Pappano's conducting existed in technicolour, full of razor-blade edginess and Mediterranean warmth.

As for Verdi in French - it sounds even weirder, if that's possible, than Verdi in English. But it is authentic, so... what was needed was better diction from most of the cast other than Hymel. And despite all the ballet - no actual ballet. There's around half an hour of designated ballet music in this opera and there was to have been a major collaboration on this between Royal Opera, Royal Ballet and Royal Danish Ballet. But thanks to some operatic goings-on behind the scenes some months ago, the whole thing went ballet-up. It's fine dramatically as it is, of course - probably better - but still a pity to lose that.

There are reasons, one suspects, why the opera is not presented more often: it is vintage Verdi in many ways, but the music is more generic and less distinguished than such works as Otello, Rigoletto or Falstaff, while tenors who can pull off the role of Henri are few and far between. Hymel is a godsend, in that respect. This production, despite a few inevitable flaws, seems set to become a classic that will be remembered for many years to come.