Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Speaking of women conductors...

...a lot of us did just that on Saturday, in a discussion that formed part of the Women of the World Festival at Southbank Centre. A sizeable and spirited group was convened from all corners of the classical music business, including a number of women conductors, composers, performers, writers, directors, educators and more. It was especially wonderful to have Marin Alsop with us. Helen Wallace has written up the event on the BBC Music Magazine website: http://www.classical-music.com/blog/why-arent-there-more-women-conductors-jude-kelly-leads-discussion-southbank-centre

Karita Mattila: Power from Start to Finnish...

Meet my latest interviewee: the astonishing Karita Mattila. "The Finnish Venus" needs no introduction except for this:


 
(A short version of this interview appeared in The Independent on 26 October. Karita Mattila sings Marie in Berg's Wozzeck at the Royal Opera House, opening 31 October.)
 
Karita Mattila is not eight feet tall, but such is the force of her presence and her voice that she almost seems it. At 53, the soprano nicknamed "the Finnish Venus" is among today's most powerful operatic stars, not only vocally, but also as a visceral actress. When she performed the final scene from Strauss's Salome at the Royal Festival Hall recently, a mesmerised audience lived the princess's horror-laden sensuality almost as voraciously as she did.
It is no wonder that opera directors often play to her strengths. “Because I’m such a physical person, they find a physical way for me to serve the character,” she says. “I understand singing, too, as a physical process, so it becomes fascinating to put those things together.”
A farmer’s daughter from rural Finland, whose career launched when she won the 1983 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, she has grown as an artist and kept on growing. The increasing range of her pure-yet-soul-shattering voice has brought thrilling new roles within her grasp. She began as a classic Mozartian. Now she is singing Marie in Berg’s Wozzeck for the first time, at the Royal Opera House: next year she is doing her first Ariadne auf Naxos and Schoenberg’s Erwartung, while Sieglinde in Wagner’s Die Walküre and the Kostelnicka in Jenufa by Janacek are in view.
She prepares her roles rigorously: “I try to do my homework,” she declares. “I think it would be an impossibility for me to go on stage and try to do a part without knowing who the character is. In a nutshell, I feel I can’t use my instrument in full if I don’t understand the dramatic background. It’s not just learning your part and knowing the story; you read and you listen to all the material you can get these days. I think it’s wonderful we have everything in the Internet – you can read all kinds of analysis. Then you go to the rehearsals and hope that the director and the conductor are well prepared too – which,” she adds darkly, “is not always the case.”
You wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of this lady. “I work hard before I come to rehearsals, so I’m quite demanding towards the others,” she says. “I demand so much of myself because I know my level and it’s very hard for me to reach it, so I’m expecting everyone else to do their homework too. I’m sure there are directors or conductors who think I’m a piece of work. But you know, I am the most willing tool – if I am convinced that the person who is about to direct me or conduct knows what they are doing.”

Despite that, she insists she has only ever walked out once for anything but health reasons: “It was a concert, a performance of Strauss’s Four Last Songs. The conductor not only mocked me in front of the whole orchestra, but tried to blackmail me into doing something that it had been agreed I wouldn’t do, a recording on the morning of the performance. At first I thought, ‘Oh, he sounds like my father’ and didn’t walk out – but I realised I could not be at the mercy of a conductor whose goal is not the music, but a personal putting-down.” It was a traumatic moment. “Luckily I was old enough and experienced enough to come to terms with the idea that those kind of fossils, those kind of dinosaurs, still exist. And they will soon be dead.”
She pinpoints a few key moments that inspired her and opened up new vistas: “When I did my first Fidelio with Jürgen Flimm directing, at the Met in New York, I went out of the first rehearsal determined that I was going to cut my hair and dye it brown!” Leonore in Fidelio is desperately misunderstood too often, she insists: “Flimm made her this wonderful woman, so moving, so bright, so brave. But there are so many chauvinist directors -  maybe it’s this patriarchal society, that the directors are in their own prison with their ideas! I remember reading such crap analyses written by such men, who didn’t have a clue about Fidelio. There were even women who thought ‘Leonore is so ruthless’!” Now Mattila is on fire: “As if you wouldn’t be ruthless when your husband is in jail and it’s up to you to save him! Any woman in love with her husband would do anything for that!”
Many might modestly put enduring success down to good fortune, but Mattila insists that it’s plain hard work. “My big film idol, Jeremy Irons, once said in an interview that the people who succeed are the ones who work a little harder. They put a little more of themselves into things, they make more sacrifices and they don’t even think about it. That’s exactly how I feel. Yes, you have to be lucky, and I’ve been lucky to be in the right place at the right time and to have the type of voice that I have – but luck alone wouldn’t have got me to the place I’m in now. I’m proud of this wonderful life.”

Friday, October 25, 2013

WQXR takes up fanfare for the uncommon woman conductor

I've just taken part in a discussion for WQXR's programme Conducting Business on the topic of women conductors, together with Emmanuelle Haim, artists manager Charlotte Lee and the station's presenter Naomi Lewin. It feels a bit weird to speak on New York radio from the comfort of my study (cat confined to kitchen to avoid him inadvertently making his NY debut) - anyway, it was an interesting talk with some fascinating perspectives emerging. Here is the article on the website, and the resulting podcast is embedded below.


Thursday, October 24, 2013

Solti statue for Budapest


The Ferenc Liszt Academy in Budapest, which is currently enjoying celebrations of its reopening after a major refurbishment, has put up a symbolic statue of Sir Georg Solti, an alumnus of the place. In the picture, Lady Valerie Solti is on the podium at the unveiling. More info here, in Hungarian. Solti studied at the Liszt Academy with Bartok, Dohnanyi and Kodaly, among others.

Google Translate says, rather touchingly: "...fulfillment of an old dream that the name of Sir Georg Solti takes up a small restaurant in the academy." I'm not sure that's quite what it means, but the great man might have enjoyed that. 

Meanwhile, back to Brum for the second of my Mendelssohn talks. Today's topic: Mendelssohn, Queen Victoria and more... Kick-off at 1pm in the Birmingham Town Hall. At 2.15pm the CBSO plays the symphonies nos 1 and 3 and the Piano Concerto No.2 with Martin Helmchen. Ed Gardner conducts.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Felix is back...

I'm preoccupied with Felix Mendelssohn at the moment. Right now, am between the first two of three pre-concert talks that I'm giving for the CBSO's Mendelssohn symphonies series, which is being conducted by Ed Gardner, and the glories of the music seem endless - galvanising, thrilling, visceral, quicksilver. There's nobody like Felix. Yet I'm still gnashing teeth with frustration over the way that those old slanders keep getting repeated and repeated and repeated, often by people who ought to know better.

The view of Felix as glib and shallow needs to be scotched once and for all. It comes from Wagner, who was finding reasons to damn the Jewish-born composer with rootless-Cosmopolitan syndrome. Poor old Felix was excoriated on the one hand by certain Jewish lobbies for having abandoned his faith - like he had much choice, as his parents converted and had him baptised when he was about six years old; and condemned on the other hand by anti-Semitic musicologists for the sake of it.

Glib, nothing. He was a perfectionist; he took years to polish up some of his smoothest-sounding works, among them the 'Italian Symphony' and the Violin Concerto. Even the Octet, that utterly perfect masterpiece, didn't emerge that was first go when Felix was 16, as is often thought. Yes, he was lucky, privileged, well-educated, deeply cultured; yes, he was a favourite of Queen Victoria; no, he was not spoiled, nor was he immune to suffering, as the Jenny Lind story has proved.

In my talk the other day, on Saturday afternoon, I suggested that Mendelssohn is, as Peter Maxwell Davies has called him, "the Prophet of Light": the ultimate enlightened musician, grandson of Moses Mendelssohn - philosopher father of the Jewish Enlightenment - in every way, a man and musician who reconciled apparently conflicting ideas as if they barely existed. Thus he's the shining beacon that proves to us that such a thing is possible.

Come along to Birmingham Town Hall on Thursday at 1pm for the next episode, in which I'll be looking at Mendelssohn and Victorian Britain - from the very stage on which he conducted the world premiere of Elijah. Ed and the orchestra will perform a wonderful programme including the 'Scottish' Symphony and the Piano Concerto No.2, with Martin Helmchen - another work written specially for premiere in Birmingham.

Meanwhile, have a listen to the Ebene Quartet's marvellous recording of the Mendelssohn siblings, Felix and Fanny. Anyone who needs reminding that Mendelssohn was as prone to crises of the soul as anybody who ever lived simply needs to hear the F minor Quartet. End of story.


Friday, October 18, 2013

A trailer for the ALICIA'S GIFT concert



Here is my Alicia's Gift Concert partner, Viv McLean, playing Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, which will feature in our programme in a big way. This was at the gorgeous 12th-century church of St Mary's, Perivale, where the tireless Hugh Mather runs an exceptional concert series - Viv is a regular there. Enjoy.

Alicia's Gift will be at St Mary's on 8 December, but don't forget we kick off on 9 November at the Musical Museum, Brentford, with Kensington & Chelsea Music Society to follow on 13 November, Vernon Ellis's Queen's Gate Terrace salon on 27th, and finally before Xmas a performance for our North London fans at Burgh House, Hampstead, on 15 December.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Benjamin Grosvenor at the Wigmore Hall - review

My review of Benjamin Grosvenor's astonishing recital on Monday night, for International Piano Magazine. Contains names I do not throw around without seriously good reason.

http://www.rhinegold.co.uk/magazines/international_piano/news/int_piano_news_story.asp?id=1873

The concert went out live on BBC Radio 3 and is available to listen to on the iPlayer for the rest of the week: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03cnd6y

Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

More precious than rubies

Who can find a virtuous woman? And what does "virtue" mean? I had a fascinating talk with Fiona Shaw, who is directing Britten's The Rape of Lucretia for Glyndebourne Touring Opera. The first night is on Saturday and the cast includes Kate Valentine and Allan Clayton/Andrew Dickinson as the Choruses, Claudia Huckle as Lucretia and Duncan Rock as Tarquinius, among others. Part of the interview appeared in The Independent the other day, and here is the director's cut...




Fiona Shaw is worried about our view of “virtuous” women of stage, page and history. Earlier this year, the renowned Irish actress and director took the role of the Virgin Mary on Broadway; but the production, Colm Tóibín’s play The Testament of Mary, sparked protests outside the theatre by members of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.

“Who is the Virgin Mary? We discovered her to be a mother very angry about her son being crucified,” Shaw says. “But apparently it is sacrilege to suggest that a ‘virtuous’ woman is more interesting than the bland version that’s been handed down to us.”

This is a concept more than pertinent to Shaw’s latest project: she is staging Britten’s chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia for Glyndebourne Touring Opera. Its storyline is outwardly simple, but the emotions behind it are anything but; and its final attempt to extrapolate meaning from tragedy heightens its ambiguities. 

The story is based on a Roman legend that has been reinterpreted in many forms over the centuries. The army officers have tested their wives’ fidelity in their absence; only Lucretia, wife of the general Collatinus, has emerged untainted. This provokes jealousy among the soldiers whose spouses have strayed. To test her virtue, or indeed to prove it, the prince Tarquinius visits Lucretia’s house by night and eventually rapes her. When Collatinus returns he places no blame on his devastated wife; but rather than live under such a shadow, she takes her own life. 

“What is virtue?” Shaw demands. “It’s interesting that we meet Lucretia when she is at her most frustrated and fed up, with her husband away. ‘Virtue’ is nothing to do with not being frustrated, or with not having another glass of wine because you want to stay up; after all, it’s also virtuous to want to be awake because you can’t bear to go to bed without your husband. That doesn’t come in any guise of prudery. Lucretia’s an immediate person, not a saint.” The central role is sung by the mezzo-soprano Claudia Huckle, who will, Shaw says, give a “feisty” interpretation.

The opera, which was premiered at Glyndebourne itself in 1946, must have been shocking in its day, when rape was very much a taboo subject. “I find it quite shocking still,” Shaw remarks. “It’s painful, what is being exposed, and the music is so brilliantly constructed that you feel pierced by it. It leaves Mozart standing, some of it.”

Nevertheless, the composer – famously homosexual in an era when this was still illegal – was not always at his best when creating female characters. His finest are often motherly figures, like the Governess in The Turn of the Screw; but his Queen Elizabeth I in Gloriana never becomes as real as the eponymous heroes of Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, outsiders amid hostile societies that reject their troubled or non-conforming visions of life. Lucretia is often regarded as his one truly convincing heroine; and Britten and his librettist, the poet Ronald Duncan, provide her with a wealth of concealed or unconscious depths, desires and conflicts. 

“Britten is so good at dealing with the most complex issue: what is it to have secret desires and be punished for it?” Shaw says. She has no doubt that in the opera the rape is precisely that: Lucretia refuses Tarquinius at every turn, is ultimately forced, and the act drives her to suicide. Yet there is still a suggestion of an attraction to him, upon which she refuses to let herself act. “What a hell to be put through: to be forced to do something that your moral sense would make you not do, but your instinct would desire you to do. In that way, with that double twist, the opera is nearer to a Greek tragedy than anything else. At the end she tells us the she knows the consequences of living now, admitting to desire – not to acting on desire, but to having desire – would be a blemish on her marriage. So she’s the most honourable person – and the opera throws a little light on a very dark part of our psyches.

“Britten is looking under the stone and seeing the muddy waters that lie beneath us all, maybe beneath morality itself,” she continues. “The Greeks were very good at this – but the notion of Christianity is that Jesus looked with compassion at us, but our sin is to be human, is to be flawed, is to have these contradictory feelings and try to deal with them. Lucretia is the most upright person. She is at home, passive, she made no action – but somewhere her secret desire came to her in the night. And she resisted. And yet it ruined her marriage. That’s the tragedy of it.” 

Britten adds a male and female ‘chorus’, who watch and comment on the action throughout; Shaw says that in the new production they are a present-day couple whose marriage is suffering and who work through their own issues by observing Lucretia’s story. The opera’s Christian element is articulated in their bleak yet compassionate postlude: “Is it all?” they ask.

She has introduced a further twist still: “I want it to be about the destruction of a family, not only a couple.” Lucretia and Collatinus therefore have a small daughter, an eight-year-old who witnesses the horror of her mother’s death: “It’s to do with the continuity of children; the consequences for the next generation are worth showing.” 

Lucretia, in Shaw’s opinion, is “up there with the classics,” as she declares. “It’s explores that terribly deep psychic schism that’s in us and it’s a brave and beautiful opera. Humans in it are not all terrible; Tarquinius is not a baddy and Lucretia is not a goody. That’s the beauty of opera: it allows you to meditate on the complexity of our choices. I think it’s fantastic that Britten writes so much about that. The chilly unease that he brings to most of his work is to do with the fact that the major chord of society’s vision of itself is not his experience.” 

Is Britten, then, his own outsider, that “different” figure at the heart of most of his operas? “Yes,” says Shaw. “But we all are.”

The Rape of Lucretia, Glyndebourne Touring Opera, from 19 October. Tour dates and booking online: http://glyndebourne.com/production/rape-of-lucretia-tour-2013

Fiona has also written a 'director's diary' which is out in The Guardian today.





Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Watch Julian Jacobson's Beethoven Marathon live today!

Assuming this works, you should be able to watch Julian Jacobson's extraordinary undertaking today - all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas in one day - in the livestream below, starting at 9.15am London time. (If for any reason it doesn't work, here is a link to one that should.) To donate to Julian's chosen charities, WaterAid and The Connection at St Martin's, please click here. And if you missed the original post, read it here.

Break a leg, Julian!

Watch live streaming video from marathonman at livestream.com

Monday, October 14, 2013

My autumn & winter schedule

Here are some dates for your diaries, fresh from my writing desk: a brand-new words&music concert, a brand-new play, more HUNGARIAN DANCES. Please come along! (The info is also in the sidebar, but certain people are telling me to put it somewhere more prominent...)

ALICIA'S GIFT: THE CONCERT OF THE NOVEL - new!

Starring Viv McLean (piano) (left) & Jessica Duchen (narrator).

A concert adaptation of my novel, lifting the lid on the world of a child prodigy pianist trying to grow up. Music includes Chopin, Debussy, Ravel, Viv's famous performance of Rhapsody in Blue, and a little surprise to end (clue: I have to practise...). News story in International Piano, here.

World premiere: 9 November, Musical Museum, Kew Bridge.To book tickets, call Houben's Bookshop, Richmond-upon-Thames, 020 8940 1055 or Yvonne Evans, 07889 399862. Ticket price includes a tour of the museum's amazing collection plus a glass of bubbly.

13 November, Kensington & Chelsea Music Society

27 November, Vernon Ellis Foundation, 49 Queen's Gate Terrace, SW7. Info from Yvonne: 07889 399862.

8 December, St Mary's, Perivale

15 December, Burgh House, Hampstead, NW3. Tickets from Yvonne: 07889 399862.

18 January, Soirees at Breinton, Woking


SINS OF THE FATHERS - new!

World premiere of my first full-length play, exploring the relationships of Wagner, Liszt and Cosima: rehearsed reading starring John Sessions (right) and Sarah Gabriel. 24 November, Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond-upon-Thames. Part of the International Wimbledon Music Festival. NB - the performance is sold out, but please watch for returns/standing room!


HUNGARIAN DANCES: THE CONCERT OF THE NOVEL

A dazzling journey in words and music through the 20th century, following the story of Mimi, a Hungarian Gypsy violinist who becomes a famous classical soloist, but at a terrible personal price... Works by Bartok, Dohnanyi, Brahms, Ravel, etc.

27 October, 7.45pm, Teesside Music Society.
Bradley Creswick (violin), Margaret Fingerhut (piano), Jessica Duchen (narrator). (Team pictured left)

27 January 2014, Hungarian Cultural Centre, Covent Garden
David Le Page (violin), Viv McLean (piano), Jessica Duchen (narrator). Special performance for International Holocaust Memorial Day.

2 March 2014, St Mary's, Perivale: again, Dave, Viv & muggins.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Marathon man and the Beethoven challenge

He says himself, "It's basically bananas". Nevertheless, the pianist Julian Jacobson is about to play all 32 Beethoven sonatas in one day. From memory. For charity. On Tuesday 15 October 2013, 9.15am – 10pm at St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London. The aim is to raise money for WaterAid and St Martin-in-the-Fields’ ‘The Connection at St Martin’s’ that gives crisis grants to people in need across the UK.  You can make a donation here. 

The whole day is being live-streamed on the Internet, and (drumroll) I hope that you will be able to watch it right here on JDCMB. (This assumes that I can get the technology to work.)

What's without doubt is that Julian's a brave man. I asked him some questions...




JD: Julian, you're playing all the 32 Beethoven sonatas in one day, from memory?!? How and why did you cook up this extraordinary idea?

JJ: Thanks Jessica. Well, it's actually my third marathon - and it will almost certainly be my last! By around 2001 I had done five complete cycles over the normal seven or eight concerts (once over ten, as they were lunchtimes), from memory except that I sometimes used the score for the "Hammerklavier". One day the idea suddenly came to me: "I wonder if it's actually possible to do them all in a day..." I counted up the timings and found that, by omitting most of the exposition repeats, it was just about manageable. And from then on the idea wouldn't let me go. 

I thought I'd do it just once, and that was in St James's Piccadilly in October 2003, for WaterAid as this time. A Beethoven lover, Mr Tom Glaser, was at that performance and booked me for a repeat performance in 2004 at the Harrow Arts Centre. And I thought that would be that, and I remember driving back down to London yelling to my companion "Hooray, never again!". But a couple of years ago I began to wonder if I had it in me to do it one more time, as a tenth anniversary and because I'm 65 this year! So here we are.

In 2003 I used the score just for the "Hammerklavier"; in 2004 I did the lot from memory as I intend to this time. It's not even that I particularly adhere to the custom of playing from memory, either for myself or certainly for anyone else (except that one's students still have to do it, poor things), but it doesn't seem quite like a real marathon performance if I just put the books up there and read through them all. And there IS something of the "stunt" about it, I'm very aware of that, some musicians think it's not really a serious venture at all, and I insist that it's for charity. Though of course I will play it all to my best ability!  

JD: What do you think is the single most difficult thing about it?

JJ: Keeping going! Not losing concentration, avoiding thinking what I have already played or am going to play, Monitoring hands and back to ensure they hold out.

JD: Any special favourites among the sonatas? 

JJ: Op 101. Then some overlooked gems like Op.79. The "Appassionata" remains permanently sublime.  

JD: How long has it taken you to learn them all and how have you been preparing for the big day? 

JJ: I claim to be the only Beethoven pianist - if I may call myself that - who learnt the "Moonlight" and "Pathétique" at the age of 45! I would never learn the popular pieces in the first part of my life. I hatched the idea around 1989, by which time I'd played perhaps 12 of them. Firstly I learnt the "Hammerklavier" and played it at Dartington, as I felt there was no point in even considering a Beethoven cycle until I had that under my belt, or at least vaguely attached to the buckles. (I had already done op 101, 109, 110 and 111). Then I put the idea on ice till I got my job as Head of Keyboard Studies at the Welsh College in 1992. At that point, with the security of a salary, I planned an initial couple of cycles and spent the whole summer vacation of 1994 learning all the rest.

Preparing for the big day: impossible to know how to do it really! Mainly I've been going through them all in decreasing time spans, so I started around six months ago to re-study every one, then worked through them all again in a few weeks, then over about ten days, and now just in four days. A short while ago I stopped listening to any other pianists, and indeed to most other music, in order to concentrate entirely on my own performances "right or wrong".

JD: Tell us a little about the charities you've chosen to support.

JJ: I'm a long-term supporter of WaterAid: firstly I love the work they do, as water is such a fundamental need and it is something we can actually do something about, and then it is a very well run charity that I feel happy about giving extra support to. The Connection does vital work among the homeless and I've been impressed by the care and thought that goes into their activities and projects, also by the dignity with which they treat the people they are helping. It's a homegrown charity, whereas WaterAid is largely active in the third world, so they complement each other nicely.

JD: And there's a live stream on the Internet? How do you feel about that?

JJ: Apprehensive! And that I will try to put it out of my mind. The point is to increase the amount of money for the charities.

JD: Anything else you'd like to tell us about the task ahead?

JJ: Well, I really won't do it again! I mean, it's basically bananas. I've had fantastic support from friends and family. A few people have said they'll come for the whole day to follow Beethoven's progress throughout the 32 sonatas and that's a nice thought. And, when it comes down to it, the fundamental thing is that the music is immeasurably great and wonderful: Beethoven had such creativity and he never repeated himself (as he was well aware). Whatever I feel about the marathon aspect, I love the music, and every sonata, every movement, has given me intense pleasure to re-study.

Here is Julian's donations page again. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Protecting music education: a vital message from the ISM


The ISM has emailed today with the following message. Please support their call!   

Take action now to protect music education
Thank you for supporting the Protect Music Education campaign.
We still don’t know for certain whether or not funding for music education hubs in England will continue after 2015.
Whilst the schools budget has been protected from cuts, the Education Services Grant is to be cut by £200 million: that’s almost four times what the Government will be spending on music education by 2015!
We have asked the Government to confirm their continued support for music education; whatever the reply, we need as many people as possible ready to fight to protect music education.
 
Here is what you can do to help today:
 
1. Tell us why music education matters to you
With more than 30 music organisations now backing the campaign, from the Music Industries Association through to NMC recordings and Conservatoires UK we now want to hear what you have to say!
Each organisation has contributed approximately 100 words on the importance of music education and we want you to do the same - all you need to do is tell us why music education matters to you by using the forum on our petition page.
For some inspiration, our newest supporters, Yorkshire Music Education Service said:
'The inspirational work done by music educators across the country transforms the lives of young people every day. The effect of music on personal development is phenomenal - it promotes dedication and teamwork, and can provide a lifetime of enjoyment. It is essential that ring-fenced funding to support high quality music education is retained - without it, access will be diminished and our society will be poorer for it.'
We now want to hear why music education matters to you!
 
2. Tell others about the campaign
As well as telling us about the importance of music education, you can also encourage others to sign up. Ask your pupils, parents, friends, family and colleagues to sign up to the campaign today.
And you can tweet about the campaign and tell people about it on Facebook using the #protectmusic campaign hash tag.
 
Thank you again for your support. Please spread the word about the campaign as wide as you can. Together we can make an impact on Government policy and ensure that music education is protected for the generations to come.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Women conductors: encore furore

In an excoriating piece for the NPR blog, Anastasia Tsioulcas shreds the latest sexist remarks against women conductors - which include comments by the head of the Paris Conservatoire, for heaven's sake - and says that women in the classical music industry must start speaking up in earnest. Read it here.

You might like to know that my Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman Conductor has had more hits than any other post on JDCMB ever, in nearly a decade, and still rising.

Speaking isn't enough. We have to do something. Here is my idea from about a year ago. I still think it's a good one. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/features/sexism-with-strings-attached-8197972.html?origin=internalSearch

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Verdi bicentenary: Anja Harteros and Jonas Kaufmann in Don Carlo



It's Verdi's bicentenary today and as everyone is choosing their favourite bits, here is one of mine. I've been lucky enough to hear these two in this opera twice this year - once at Covent Garden, once in Munich. Life in music just doesn't get any better than that.



Monday, October 07, 2013

The post-war world and the Darmstadt effect

I've spent the weekend at The Rest is Noise at the Southbank, hoping to learn something about the post-war years and Darmstadt. I'm sure I'm not the only one who's found this the single most tricky patch of 20th-century music history, and I reckoned that if this panoply of talks, films and concerts wasn't going to sort that out for me, then nothing would.

I got a lot more than I bargained for.



It's not every day you have the chance to hear things from the horse's mouth, and the horses in question were Schoenberg's daughter, Nuria Schoenberg-Nono, and the composer Helmut Lachenmann. The event started a little late; it was such a beautiful day that they'd decided to walk over to the South Bank together.

Lachenmann expressed an objection to the part of the book-behind-the-series devoted to the so-called Darmstadt School. First, he says, it doesn't mention Bruno Maderna. But moreover, he insisted that the aura of myths and fear and domination that in contemporary music seem to surround the name Darmstadt are just that: myths. Probably based on a couple of things that Boulez might have said once, a long time ago. Stockhausen annointed the saviour of the future of music? Boulez the dominant force? Only one type of music can be allowed? Rubbish. Stockhausen was one of many people with many contrasting ideas. The place was filled with composers whose ideas were fundamentally different from one another, he declared, recalling, too, perfectly civilised discussions between Cage and Nono. How myths are built, what they consist of, what they do to our perception - these all need more consideration.

Nuria Schoenberg-Nono recalled her father's concern (NB he died in 1951) about the trend towards analysing serialist technique ahead of concern for expression, since he considered his music expressive. Asked (by muggins, who was tired of only blokes asking the questions) what she thought he'd have made of the musical world today, she said she has never tried to get inside the minds of either her father or her husband, but she does think that the standards of performance now have risen so much that a work such as his piano concerto or violin concerto can by played like music, rather than as a technical struggle.



But what constitutes expressiveness in music anyway? Lachenmann cast powerful perspective on this. (I personally don't agree with him about Rachmaninov - the idea that R is sentimental is a myth in the opposite direction - but never mind that for now...). Essentially, he suggested that emotional response lies in the listener, not the music itself. He says that a composer doesn't write to express his/her own emotion - you are not crying while you write, as you are in a ferment of creative activity. Any emotion involved comes from the person listening. The import is in the message, not the way it is conveyed. As an example, he said, if you tell someone, "Your father is dead," you don't fill those four words with huge expressive import. You say it without emotion. The person receiving the message will respond with feeling of their own. 

(This explains to me exactly why I loathe so much the exaggerated interpretations of certain of today's terribly successful performers. They get in the way of the music's message. I could name a few, but this is probably not the moment.)

One gentleman in the audience shared his own memories of Darmstadt and remarked that in contrast to a summer school in the States, the food at the German organisation was absolutely terrible and gave him very bad poisoning once. If the food had been better, he said, the whole history of music might have been altered thenceforth. Nuria pointed out that in the post-war years there wasn't very much food in Germany, and recalled an incident in which a sack of potatoes was delivered to Darmstadt, yet the person in charge of catering had never seen a sack of potatoes before, so cooked them without washing them.

There's the rub: the effect of the war. We know, in theory, that the association of marching rhythms with Nazi jackboots, the use of Wagner, Bruckner and Beethoven in Goebbels's propaganda, the building of a sense of supremacy through these great romantic masterpieces, all that was seared into the minds of the young people who saw it happening around them, in some cases lost their families, in some cases were forced to take part in the horrors themselves. But do we really feel, and empathise with, how deep that psychological shock went? It's a Clockwork Orange effect, perhaps; and within a terrible void, for the great creative voices like Stravinsky and Bartok had left Europe, while potential newcomers had in some cases been killed (think of Gideon Klein). If a fresh start had to be made, you can see why.

It sounds strange, it sounds oversimplified, but a sense of empathy was what emerged, above all, from this extraordinary couple of days. A film about Ligeti (made in 1993) told of the composer's family's fate in World War II - his father and brother were killed, his mother returned unexpectedly having survived a concentration camp - though said nothing about what happened in that time to Ligeti (pictured, right) himself. We heard from Tom Service - whose pre-concert talk before Gruppen yesterday contained the single clearest and most succinct explanation of electronic music that I've ever heard - about Stockhausen's background: his father, drafted into the German army, died somewhere in Hungary; his mother, mentally ill, was confined to an asylum, but there left to die by the Nazi regime.

We heard nothing from anybody, though, of Bernd Alois Zimmermann, surely one of the most violent and compelling voices of that era, who committed suicide in the 1960s - or if we did, I missed it. It's impossible to take in everything since so many different events are going on at once, but the website is a fabulous resource as many of the talks are posted on it after the event. Explore here.

Talks around the era included matters of DNA and also the CIA (which some say funded Darmstadt - I missed this one too, but want to read the book - Note, update this morning, Ian Pace tells me that he has explored the issue thoroughly and found it to be yet another myth). The historian Donald Sassoon spoke on literary heroes and villains, notably those of Ian Fleming's James Bond books. My former sister-in-law, the art historian Monica Bohm-Duchen, gave a Bites talk about the art created by inmates of concentration camps and subsequently by others in response to the Holocaust. And the desperation, horror and nihilism of Rosselini's film Germany, Year Zero - shot in the ruins of Berlin after the war, following a 12-year-old boy's efforts to survive and feed his family - perhaps gave us the clearest insights of all into the forces that shaped these minds.

And now and then, a revelation of sorts emerges from the correlations of different artforms. How strange that those Bond villains, over the years, whether influenced or not by the Cold War, are not  politically motivated but instead represent self-interest, greed and big, soulless business versus the individual; how bizarre that both a Soviet book and an American one could trace almost the same outline of the same journey; and how intriguing that fundamentally opposed musical systems - the ultra-control of Boulez versus the chance operations of John Cage - can produce, for the listener, music that seems to inhabit the self-same aesthetic. How extraordinary that the iconoclast par excellence, Stockhausen himself, is still part of a tradition of larger-than-life German visionary composers and was inspired to create Gruppen by the sight of the Alps. (And how many times has my OH protested against my discomfort with Bruckner by saying "But it's the music of the Alps!" - yet had he been there last night, instead of on tour in Vienna, he'd probably have fled the volume of noise inside the hall).

Our cultural world is not flat. If you travel round it far enough in one direction, you arrive at the same point you'd have reached if you'd gone the other way.

Add to this some extraordinary concerts. Members of the Aurora Orchestra were at the helm on Saturday night for Stockhausen and Boulez, with pianist Nicolas Hodges and percussionist Colin Currie interacting with electronics for all they were worth in Kontakte, following the strange, aural-3D spatial effect of Gesang der Jünglinge - the odd matter of attending a live concert to listen to something non-live is another issue, of course. Boulez's Le marteau sans maitre - like Stockhausen the visionary - seemed strangely in tradition too, that of French music's attention to timbre, instrumentation, detail and delicacy. 

On Sunday afternoon we heard astonishing percussion playing from students of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, performing Xenakis and Cage; and the weekend culminated in Stockhausen's Gruppen - three orchestras, one on stage, two to the sides of the RFH auditorium - with the "traditional" (I quote) two performances of the piece framing the evening on either side of more delicacy and detail, this time from Nono. Is the journey from Monteverdi and Gabrieli's antiphonies in San Marco to Stockhausen's in the RFH as great as we might think? 

The thoughts provoked by these days, the intensity of the information intake and the social whirl - old friends and new, with everyone wanting to share their impressions - will not, as you'll have gathered, fit into a single blogpost. This is a beginning, not an end; a chance for further exploration and a great deal more chewing in the months and years ahead. As for today, I don't think I'll be listening to anything at all.


Thursday, October 03, 2013

Alexei Sultanov plays Tchaikovsky's 'October'



An exquisite performance of 'October' from The Seasons by Tchaikovsky, performed by the late Alexei Sultanov.

This loss of this young Russian pianist was one of the great tragedies of the music world in recent years. He was the winner of the Van Cliburn Competition in 1989, aged only 19, and died in 2005 at only 35. His full story is here.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

When is a bat not a bat?

When it's a turkey. Here's my review of the new Die Fledermaus at ENO.
http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/reviews/opera-review-die-fledermaus--english-national-opera-london-coliseum-8852067.html

Odd that Bieito's thought-provoking Fidelio was booed and this one wasn't, though the applause was little more than "well done for trying".

We may need a moratorium on jackboots at the opera. Terry Gilliam got away with it in The Damnation of Faust because of the general brilliance of the whole; and The Passenger, by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, was the real thing and couldn't do without them - though notably failed to sell. But in Die Fledermaus? This is getting silly. Next time someone brings gratuitous Nazis into an opera production, I might just stand up in the auditorium and start singing 'Springtime for Hitler'...

There's a serious point to this. If productions fill up with Nazis the minute anything is German or Austrian, it is lazy thinking and becomes a cliche. And if Nazis are reduced to a cliche on the operatic stage, it devalues the horrors that they (and other fascist/totalitarian regimes) have perpetrated. It devalues their victims. Enough, already.