Sunday, August 31, 2014

"It's got to be obsessive." Meet Mark-Anthony Turnage

I went to see Mark-Anthony Turnage the other week to talk to him about the revival of Anna Nicole that is to open the Royal Opera House's new season (11 Sept). Article is in the Independent now and the uncut version is below. First, a taster: the PARTAY scene with the amazing team of Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole and Gerald Finley as Howard Stern... 

One more thought: isn't it also high time someone staged his earlier opera The Silver Tassie again? 

The premiere of Anna Nicole by Mark-Anthony Turnage, in 2011, was unlike any other the Royal Opera House has experienced. The foyer was plastered with images of the soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole Smith, complete with supersized fake breasts; and on the stage’s red velvet curtains the initials for the Queen, ER II, were replaced with “AnR”. This startling transformation of empty celebrity into high art is back to open the Royal Opera House’s new season on 11 September, with a special performance for an audience of students.

Turnage himself is all for this latter idea. “I think it’s fantastic,” he says. “I feel it’s part of a genuine effort by Covent Garden to get a wider audience in – they really want to make a difference.” Still, he has no idea how the work will go over with this youthful crowd: “I hope they’ll see it as a comic piece with a tragic end. But it’s quite likely that none of them, mostly aged between 18 and 26, will have heard of Anna Nicole Smith,” he remarks.

The eponymous heroine, to remind you, built a career as model and TV presenter after having her breasts surgically enhanced to vast proportions. She married an octogenarian billionaire, but was excluded from his will, lost her son to drugs and died of an overdose aged 39 in 2007. The court cases around her have rumbled on into recent weeks.

Still, it is the archetypal “fallen woman” resonances of her tale that well suit the genre of opera. “I think you can get too obsessed with the idea that it’s a story that relates to today,” says Turnage. “We were after a story that’s universal. Relevance – so what? If it dates, it dates. This time I won’t read the reviews.”

Anna Nicole was a hit with some for Turnage’s gritty, jazzy, sometimes heartbreakingly beautiful score and its snarky libretto by Richard Thomas (of Jerry Springer: The Opera). Others, considering the subject too trashy for an opera house, couldn’t abide it. For its composer, creating it was both agony and ecstasy.

“I found it very hard to write,” he says. The difficulty was the comedy: “It’s so hard to make people laugh!” He says he relied strongly on Thomas’s skill and experience with that side of it, adding, “All the miserable, angsty, lyrical stuff – that’s much easier for me.”

Controversy still surrounds the work: several opera houses in the US have demurred from staging it because of its bad language. But at 54 Turnage is no stranger to controversy. He shot to fame in his late twenties when his first opera, Greek, established him as the “bad boy” of British new music. While modernism and serialism were still excessively dominant forces, he drew vital influences from popular idioms, which was considered highly rebellious; and much was made in the press of his Essex background and his passion for football. “I’d played it up,” he admits, “and it hasn’t done me any harm.”

More fuss emerged in 2010 when his orchestral work for the Proms, Hammered Out, proved to have rather a lot in common with Beyoncé’s "Single Ladies". The imitation was a sincere form of flattery, plus a musical gift for his son, who liked the song; but eventually, Turnage says, “I paid 50 per cent to Beyoncé. I’d handled it really badly,” he reflects. “I should have come clean about it from the start.” His biggest regret, though, seems to be that he did not get to meet the R&B star.

His penchant for popular idioms may not have endeared Turnage to musical establishment organisations that give annual awards; incredibly, his only prizes are for his opera The Silver Tassie, which scooped an Olivier Award and a South Bank Award in 2000. Nevertheless, he has a strong following among both public and musicians, constantly garnering an impressive string of international commissions at the highest level, with orchestras including the New York Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic. The premiere takes place in Flanders, in October, of Passchendaele, a work commemorating World War I; further highlights ahead include another opera for Covent Garden, planned for 2020.

“People say I’m prolific,” Turnage remarks. “Well, I’ve got a lot of kids, so I’ve got to write a lot of music. I’m not writing to be indulgent, I’m writing to provide for my family.” He has four children aged between 18 and three, from two ex-marriages. Composers, he acknowledges, can be difficult to live with: “You can become so focused on work that you can be a pain in the arse. I think I’ve learned how to switch off.” Today he lives alone in a compact north London flat where his desk companions are busts of Beethoven and Brahms and, on his computer, an exceptionally scary photograph of Stravinsky.

“People do find composing hard and they do struggle,” he says. “But that struggle, the pain of it, is also very attractive to me, very engaging. If we’re not totally bound up in this strange world we’re in in composition, then something’s wrong. It’s got to be obsessive.”

Anna Nicole, Royal Opera House, London, from 11 September. Box office: 020 7304 4000

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Undersung heroines: a way to sing them

After yesterday's little bit of awardish news, a few of us tweeps are starting a #fantasticfemales hashtag to help keep great female achievers in our sights, and yours. We're aiming to tweet about five fantastic females per day each. Please retweet us or tweet your own contributions. And the more men who join in, the better! It's about celebration, after all. Nothing more, nothing less.

Here are my first five: 

1. , medieval musician extraordinaire
2. Fanny Mendelssohn: the composer who never gave up, despite brother's best efforts
3. Claudia Muzio (1889-1936), one of the all-time great Italian singers. Hear this:
4. Gioconda de Vito, the amazing violinist who stopped her career at its height because she did not want her playing to deteriorate
5. Clara Haskil, pianist supreme: dogged all her life by ill health & nerves, but an interpreter of genius


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Gramophone Awards - for blokes

Wonderful list of winners for this year's Gramophone Awards. All top-quality stuff, including such luminaries as Jonas Kaufmann, Mahan Esfahani, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Arcadi Volodos, Iestyn Davies, Riccardo Chailly...

Oh, and, er, all the composers and conductors and instrumentalists are blokes. Great guys. Amazing musicians. Phenomenal talents, the very best in the business. But still, all blokes.

Plus ça change.

Now, there are some fabulous women involved in the line-up. George Benjamin's opera Written on Skin features the soprano Barbara Hannigan and director Katie Mitchell; there are female singers, of necessity, in the likes of the Ravel double bill from Glyndebourne, the Mozart Requiem and (I think) Marenzio's Madrigals; and the Pavel Haas String Quartet does have one female member. Plenty of women in the orchestras, choruses and so forth. But still, we hope there might even be some proud women included among the actual front-runners accepting the awards on the platform - not just another row of men in suits?

A few key awards remain to be announced on the day, e.g. Recording of the Year, Artist of the Year, Young Artist of the Year, Lifetime Achievement Award and Outstanding Achievement, etc, so hope remains. Shall we venture to hold our breath this time?

This is not to denigrate any of the winners - all deserve enormous congratulations and fulsome applause. But the issue needs addressing. If the Gramophone Awards are for men, we need some other music awards that are for women.

Full list here.

Budapest Festival Orchestra - more!

I've reviewed the second of the Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer Proms for The Arts Desk. Two Brahms symphonies, five stars.
About 10 minutes into the Brahms Third Symphony I wanted to check a name in the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s programme. I dared to turn a page. Bad idea. Such preternatural stillness had settled over the sold-out Royal Albert Hall that the gesture could probably have been spotted from the balcony. A motionless, virtually breathless audience is a rarity even at the Proms, where quality of listening is venerated; still, to hold around 6000 people quite so rapt with attention is an extraordinary skill in orchestra and conductor. But then, the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Iván Fischer are no ordinary visitors...
Read the whole thing here.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Must great conductors be control freaks?

After the first of two Proms by the Budapest Festival Orchestra, last night at the RAH, I'm pondering about what a great conductor can teach us about how to run things. Because running things, in general, is not the strong point of the planet right now. As you know, institutions of all kinds are mired in hesitation, disagreement, argument, ideology, trumped-up fears re political correctness, and so forth - a situation that puts our ideals and long-established triumphs (like the NHS and the BBC) in jeopardy. We need some life lessons from music: when it works as wonderfully as this, why does it do so? What are they doing right? What general principles can we extrapolate from that that might give us a helping hand somewhere else?

There is no other orchestra that I run to hear, whatever they're doing, wherever they're doing it. With the Budapest Festival Orchestra I don't look at the programme; I just go. Because it'll be fantastic. And they've never let me down yet. Their founder and conductor, Iván Fischer, has a mesmerising platform presence, like Kastschai the magician, and a feel for both the bigger picture and minute detail that is many cuts above your average concert experience.

Yesterday at the Proms the BFO and Fischer performed a mixed programme of central European fizzy treats - Brahms Hungarian Dances, Strauss waltzes and gallops, a Dvorák Legend and the Kodály Dances of Galanta - alongside possibly the best account of the Schubert 'Unfinished' Symphony I've ever heard. Within the dances, every phrase was filled with ideas, meaning, the essence of its existence drawn out: try the razor-smooth, heart-melting arch in The Blue Danube (the Danube is much more beautiful and much bluer in Budapest than it is in Vienna, btw), or the perfectly poised rubato in the Hungarian dances - true rubato, a delicious lingering and spirited catch-up, time robbed and regained.

The Schubert was dark as night, with hushed tremolandi through which one held one's breath and soft solos peering over the edge of the emotional ravine. Each section of the orchestra is so unified that it sounds like one super-instrument, whether the double-basses - ranged in a row along and above the back of the orchestra, providing a wonderful solid foundation for the sound - or the most delicate of first violin sections, poised in the long notes of the second movement as if hanging suspended in outer space (a notorious bow-shake moment, but not a hint of that here). They even went on to play the fragment of scherzo that Schubert left behind - fascinating indeed, though it proved to be an idea that doesn't share the quality of the existing movements and was possibly abandoned for a good reason.

The control was absolute, as if Fischer were a pianist, playing the ensemble the way a deep-thinking virtuoso would the finest Steinway. The BFO seems to be Orchestra Fischer in the way that the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is Orchestra Barenboim: an ensemble so finely attuned to its conductor that every flicker of thought is noted and responded to, the understanding entire and unanimous. When tiny things did go wrong, as happened perhaps once or twice (possibly thanks to the awkward acoustic on the RAH stage, which can take some getting used to), it was audible because everything else was, to put it bluntly, perfect.

Now, this sort of near-perfection doesn't happen by itself. This is a conductor in utter control of every last detail. Only by being, essentially, a control freak can a musician achieve this degree of finesse and unanimity. Take the true greats, like Carlos Kleiber: those who have seen his scores tell me that they are minutely annotated, with phenomenal detail and exactitude. Take Debussy's manuscripts: to create that glorious whole, full of colours and atmosphere, takes vast and analytical precision during creation.

So to do something worthwhile, to say something worth saying, to put across the message that is worth hearing, takes two things: the vision to create it, and the control to make it happen. A great conductor, therefore, is of necessity a visionary control-freak. A benign and hopefully enlightened dictator. One who works his players very, very hard - with players who are willing to work as hard as that. It can't be otherwise if you want the results to be as good as what we heard last night.

More than one conductor has said to me in interviews, when I've asked them about this aspect of their profession, that the idea of a democratic model in musical interpretation just doesn't work. I still hope someone will come along and prove them wrong - later this autumn I'm hoping to visit Spira Mirabilis in Italy, for example, to see how they have built their alternative model.

But until someone can prove otherwise, the evidence is that great interpretations come from musicians of genius, and that if such a figure is to get his/her message through an orchestra, he/she has to persuade the players to give, and to surrender.

I think that is what happens in the BFO. Of course, it is also unique in another respect: its players are mostly Hungarian and share a specific background and training with one another and with Fischer. (There seems to be one exception: a name in the brass section that can only be Irish.) This is the exact opposite of an organisation such as the World Orchestra for whatever-it-is - somehow I can't buy into the Peace thing right now - which now and then brings together players from all over the world who do not usually work together, with end results that can be exciting one-offs in their own way. The BFO, by contrast, is as tight an ensemble as a top string quartet. The two approaches are like the proverbial chalk and cheese.

Conductors of Fischer's calibre do not grow on trees, of course, and he is one of just a handful of living conductors whom I, personally, would run to hear at every possible opportunity (the others are Barenboim, Jansons, Nelsons and Rattle). But can these visionary, galvanising, strong-willed characters set a model for world leadership? Dictators in politics tend to be a very bad thing indeed, because they are rarely benign, rarely functioning as they do for the sake of something greater than themselves. Our maestri have (we hope) the composer's interest at heart, rather than those of their wealthy cronies or crooked party donors - yes, you have to please the sponsors when you're off the platform, and don't we know it, but once you are doing your job, that must be left aside. If you are performing great music, you won't be cornered into using your own strength to push someone else's dubious agenda when actually in the flow of your artistic creation. There's room on the concert platform for visionary thinking and the realising of its finest dreams. We could use something similar on the world stage too: leaders with altruistic vision and control-freakery to devote to making it a reality.

Dream on... But meanwhile, come and hear the BFO and Fischer tonight, when their second Prom involves Brahms's third and fourth symphonies.

You can hear last night's Prom on the iPlayer here for four weeks: (part one) and (part two)

And here is the Proms Plus talk in which Petroc Trelawny hosts a discussion of the current cultural situation in Hungary, which is not a pretty tale.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The ice-bucket comes to opera...

My latest interviewee tried to sing his way out of the ALS ice-bucket challenge - did his pals agree? The Times of Malta (clue to identity there) has the story and video here. Our tenorial hero's three next nominees include Bryn Terfel...

With all of this going on, don't be too surprised if there's a sudden spurt of opera singers succumbing to chills.

Pianophiles, do not miss this one...

The legendary Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov has been filmed in recital for the first time in ten years, at the Berlin Philharmonie. The concert, including impromptus and Klavierstücke by Schubert and the Beethoven 'Hammerklavier' Sonata, is available to watch exclusively on starting from today.

Above, a taster: sounds like it is not exactly your average piano recital. But it wouldn't be and couldn't be. Sokolov is occasionally compared to his mentor, Gilels - but in fact he is a one-off. I've never heard an artist like him, before or since, and as he won't come to Britain because of our crazy requirements for a working visa (after all, why should he bother coming here when he can go elsewhere more easily?) this chance to see him in action is valuable indeed.

La Nina: no words are enough

My interview with the great Nina Stemme is in today's Independent, trailing her appearance as Salome at the Proms on Saturday night. Because last year she was there to do the Ring cycle and words just weren't enough, either for us or for her.

As Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Ring cycle at last summer’s Proms, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, she had London at her feet; one critic commented that her final scene in Götterdämmerung “flooded out into the auditorium in an unending stream of perfection. No one who heard it will ever forget it.” How did it feel to her? “I had to use my breath, but it was breathtaking,” she quips. “But I don’t have words to describe it, because it is music, and no expression is imaginative enough.”.....

Read the whole thing here. 

And here's a taster of her Salome from the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockhom, filmed last December. Fasten your seatbelts.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Schubert's Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

Ever wondered why we don't hear Schubert's operas more often? Occasional extracts, recorded by the likes of Jonas Kaufmann and Christian Gerhaher, prove that within them there is some vintage Franzi music; now and then, too, an enterprising company in Germany or Austria sees fit to give Fierrabras or Alfonso und Estrella a peer over the parapet, though this is rare. Too many operas are let down by their lousy libretti, and Schubert's, sadly, are no exception. But the music, the music...

Now, though, Kammeroper München has a brand-new Schubert opera for us: nothing less than the story of Kasper Hauser.

Please have a little listen to this:

The story is much older than the Werner Herzog film, of course: the 19th-century legend of a child who appeared as if from nowhere in a village square, unable to talk; on gaining the power of speech, he proved a wunderkind in terms of intelligence and, possibly, prophecy.

But true enough, the scenario is not one that the composer picked for himself. The librettist Dominik Wilgenbus and the composer and arranger Alexander Krampe have this summer transformed Kasper Hauser into an opera, with music drawn from extracts of Schubert: the operas, the early Lieder and more. It is having its world premiere run now and until 13 September at Schloss Nymphenburg in Munich: full details here.

More info from the Süddeutsche Zeitung here, and an interview (German) with Alexander Krampe from Merkur here.

And if you're wondering about the calibre of Schubert's operatic music in general, just try this.

Meanwhile on these shores we need to get back to blogging PDQ. Solti was always here to help me along with encouraging purrs, and I reckon he wouldn't have wanted everything to come to a standstill now that he has gone.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

RIP SOLTI (1 September 1999 - 19 August 2014)

Today we bade farewell to the best cat in the world. Solti - Sir Georg for short - has been our beloved companion through the roller-coaster of the last 15 years. Life won't be the same without him.

We're trying to think of all the good times we shared with the animal who was named after Tom's favourite conductor and lived up to the original Solti's reputation more than any feline should be able to. He was an indefatigable optimist and I reckon he shared with the great Hungarian maestro the motto "NEVER GIVE UP".

He had a passion for Wagner: he'd always come in, sit down and purr, paws tucked under, ears at the ready, especially if it was one of "his own" recordings. He was also a happy, if unbidden, assistant to my piano CD reviewing: he hated bangers and would vote with his paws at the sound of a nasty player.

On one occasion my editor from Hodder came to dinner; Solti bounced in through the cat flap carrying a live mouse, which he deposited proudly at her feet to thank her. As mouser, he was keen, but not obsessive; scrunched-up silver foil would do equally well for a game of pawball. The only time he ever brought me two mice on the same day was on my 40th birthday.

He would join in all goings-on at home and wasn't above invading our occasional house concerts, especially Viv McLean and Sue Porrett in Divine Fire in which he miaowed his approval half the way through. Having developed a call that could be heard through the violin and piano being played together, he used to make his presence felt during phone interviews to far-flung (and other) places and has therefore miaowed at pianists in Argentina, conductors in Russia, composers in Barnes, opera singers in Germany and violinists in Vienna, to hint at but a few.

He'd welcome us home, curled up on the doormat, or meet us at the corner of the cul-de-sac for a quick dash back to his territory. He loved the sun, the hotter the better, despite his lavish fur coat; but he also loved to sit in shelter on the porch and watch the rain. Indeed, he liked to go out in foul weather, get completely drenched, then come charging in, demanding to be dried - the cat equivalent of going to the salon. He kept me company through countless lonely patches of orchestral absences.

Of course he would preside over our annual Ginger Stripe Awards here on JDCMB every 21 December. As these events were often attended by the likes of Mendelssohn, Wagner and the Schumanns, I see no reason why he should not continue to do so, from the silken cushion in the sky.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has sponsored his cat-food in the past couple of years. Your enthusiasm, faith and kindness has been enormously appreciated and those sponsorships that still stand are still, of course, up in the sidebar in the appropriate spot, which will remain the Solti Sponsorship scheme in his honour (though now you might like to sponsor my chocolate supply instead - and I am going to need plenty of it).

Solti died today after a short illness, but he will live forever in our hearts. I am leaving his blog, Paws for Thought, online as a tribute.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Tomorrow: Alicia's Gift at CHETHAM'S, MANCHESTER

I'm off to Manchester tomorrow to do an ALICIA'S GIFT concert-of-the-novel at Chetham's International Summer School and Festival for Pianists. I'll be working for the first time with the one and only Murray McLachlan (left), Chet's head of piano as well as founder and director of the course, and possibly the most energetic, determined and tireless person I've ever met. We intend sparks to fly!

The programme is a little different from usual and will include, besides Chopin and Ravel, some extra Debussy and a jolly impressive chunk of Prokofiev's Seventh Sonata. Please come and join us if you're in the area. The concert is at 7pm and lasts about an hour. Full details here. I will also be giving a little introduction to book and concert at 5pm, with a Q&A.

Friday, August 15, 2014

A Bayreuth virgin: the afterglow...

The second part of my Bayreuth blog is out now at In it, I explain I'm furious that so many negative preconceptions conspired to put me off going to this place for my first several decades - when if I'd ignored the lot of them I could have been enjoying the most incredible musical experiences known to mankind aeons ago. Read the whole thing here. 

Below, a few more snaps...

Wagner, feeling blue:

Richard and Cosima's grave:

Grave of Marke, the Newfoundland dog, close by:

The current state of Wagner's home, the Villa Wahnfried (apparently they are building what promises to be a very impressive basement museum):

And the curtain call...

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Guess where I've been?

Where Big Ritchie is everywhere...

...and the silliest productions get the most extraordinary musical performances...

...and the most distinguished father-in-law in history is relegated firmly to second place, although his native land takes trouble to decorate his grave as appropriate...

Yes, it was my first trip to Bayreuth. I've written for Sinfini on how I felt about going there beforehand and am checking back in again for a report on the reality of it. Here is part one of BAYREUTH VIRGIN: my personal prelude to Tannhäuser. Part two will be out soon...

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Pure magic

Hello and temporary ciaociao from very rainy Bavaria. I'm still on hols, but would love everyone to hear Benjamin Grosvenor's enchanting new CD, 'Dances', right now, this minute. My review for is just out.
...and you can get a copy here: