Friday, November 28, 2014

TOMORROW on Radio 3 'CD Review'

Off to BBC Broadcasting House bright and early tomorrow morning (Saturday 29th) to take part in Radio 3's 'CD Review'. I'll be in discussion with presenter Andrew McGregor and the distinguished pianist Roger Vignoles, featuring a round-up of five new piano discs. We'll be on about 10.15am - live in the studio!

The discs we are discussing are:

Bach: English Suites Nos 1, 3 and 5
Piotr Anderszewski

Bach: French Overture, Italian Concerto, Aria Variata, Concerto in D minor after Marcello (it's the Oboe Concerto)
Vladimir Ashkenazy

Beethoven: Sonatas Op.106 (Hammerklavier) and Op. 27 No.2 (Moonlight), plus two pieces from The Ruins of Athens trsc A.Bax
Alessio Bax

Haydn: Piano Sonatas No 59 in E flat major, No.38 in F major, No.47 in B minor, No.39 in D major
Denis Kozhukhin

Beethoven: Piano Sonata in G major, Op.31 No.3; 'Eroica' Variations
Schubert: 16 German Dances from Op.33; 'Wanderer' Fantasy
Aaron Pilsan

Do tune in. There's some good 'uns.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Speaking of women in music... is the video of the conference about inequalities in classical music, held at King's College, London, a few weeks ago. The panel includes academics Christina Scharf and Anna Bull, conductor Alice Farnham, Beverley Mason and myself, and the music is provided by an extraordinary young musician whom you should hear if you haven't already, Ayanna Witter-Johnson - cellist, singer, composer and more. Her song about her mother was so touching that it had us all in pieces. Under the title "What lies beneath?" we each spoke on the topic of inequality as we have perceived, researched or experienced it and offer some thoughts about what to do about it.

Meanwhile, there is some sign that the groundswell of consciousness-raising on this topic is having an effect on programming, and sometimes in the most positive and interesting ways. Next year's Brighton Early Music Festival is presenting the first opera ever written by a woman - La liberazione di Ruggiero, by Francesca Caccini. They're getting it crowd-funded and you can support their efforts here. Meanwhile the London Festival of Baroque Music (formerly the Lufthansa Festival) is also doing Caccini and Barbara Strozzi, alongside lads like Monteverdi and Rameau.

Saturday, November 22, 2014


John Adams's The Gospel According to the Other Mary opened in its first-ever full staging at ENO last night. I was mesmerised and mind-blown. Here's  my review... 

There is something extraordinary about seeing a composer taking a bow for a really fantastic new(ish) piece in front of a standing ovation. It doesn't happen very often, and when it does, it's a privilege to be there.

Dear ENO, why, oh WHY were the dancers not honoured with biographies in the programmes? A lot of us are really cross about this. They were marvellous. They deserve equal billing.

Anyhow, go and see it. There are only 5 more performances. Book here.

And here's an introduction on film.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Robeson rides again

The glad news that Steve McQueen is making a film about Paul Robeson is inspiring a good look at who this legendary singer, actor and activist really was, and what he did, and what America did to him. I've written this, for the Independent - out today.

This is a recording of him performing and talking to the Welsh miners - many thanks to Peter Tregear for sending it my way.

And here he is singing Sarastro's aria - transposed down!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Exploring John Ogdon, tonight

This evening at the Richmond-upon-Thames Literature Festival I'm interviewing John Ogdon's biographer, Charles Beauclerk, about his tour-de-force book Piano Man. You may remember we did a similar event a couple of months ago at the Hampstead and Highgate Literary Festival - it went so well that we're reuniting. The event is TONIGHT at York House, Twickenham. Starts 7pm, lasts about an hour, and Charles will be doing a book signing afterwards.

Here is a taster of Ogdon's utter genius. This is rare film of him playing part of Liszt's Dante Sonata. (The opening announcements, by the way, are the kind of thing that one senses many critics of BBC Radio 3 would like to hear restored to today's airwaves.)

Friday, November 14, 2014

Jonas Kaufmann, Lang Lang, Bambi and a beard


This was the performance by Jonas Kaufmann & Lang Lang at the BAMBI awards in Berlin yesterday. JK sings 'Dein ist mein ganzes Herz' with LL at the piano; first time they've worked together. The latter gives a very fast, but rather invigorating, Mozart Turkish Rondo first. Jonas is sporting a beard, over which the jury is currently out, but he's in astonishing voice. Happy Friday, everyone.

Some very special visitors...

The BBC has given a prime TV slot - 8pm on Sunday evening, BBC4 - to a new documentary about an actual orchestra. This isn't any old orchestra, though: it is the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra from Congo, or rather the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste. The film follows its formation, development and journey to London to perform at the Royal Festival Hall in spring 2014 and is narrated by its own players. Do tune in. And if you can't, you'll be able to find it on the iPlayer for 30 days afterwards, here.

Here is a taster to brighten up your day on this very rainy Friday...
(Apologies - this video is only available in the UK. Hopefully that also applies to today's weather.)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Ricki & Cosi meet Gilbert & Sullivan

Can't resist it. If you're not into cute kitten videos, look away now.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Remembrance: Jelly d'Arányi plays FS Kelly

The young violinist Jelly d'Arányi - sometime muse to Ravel, Bartók and even the ageing Elgar - was much in love with the gifted Australian musician FS Kelly, some 12 years her senior. Born in Sydney, educated at Eton and Oxford, he was also an Olympic gold medallist in 1908 for his supreme skill at rowing. Jelly met him through one of his teachers, who was also her oldest and dearest friend in Britain, Donald Francis Tovey; thereafter she often played duos with him. During WWI Kelly survived Gallipoli, where he composed a violin sonata for her. A short period of leave brought him back to Britain for r&r; then in 1916 he was sent to the Somme and never returned. Jelly kept John Singer Sargent's drawing of him on her piano for the rest of her life.

For today, Remembrance Day in the WW1 centenary year, here is a rare recording of Jelly playing his Serenade Op.7, with Ethel Hobday at the piano. Listening to it today in memory of all those caught up in the horrors of those years - and the generation of their loved ones who were left behind, as Jelly was, to live with their memories alone.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Tomorrow: meet SEVEN fascinating composers who happen to be women

I am very excited about this event tomorrow afternoon. BASCA (the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Arrangers) has drafted me in to be a Dimbleby to a panel of no fewer than seven composers, all female, each born in a different decade, to compare - so to speak - notes. A more exciting, versatile, intriguing group one couldn't imagine. It's a rare chance to get them all into the same room, round a table, to tell it like it is. They are:

Betty Roe
Nicola LeFanu
Judith Bingham
Shirley J Thompson
Mira Calix
Cheryl Frances-Hoad
Dani Howard

The discussion takes place at the Jermyn Street Theatre at 1pm (finishing shortly before 3pm) and you can book on Eventbrite via the BASCA site, here.

This is a real one-off, so do please try and join us! Here's the info off the BASCA page...

Women In Classical Music

Jermyn Street Theatre
16b Jermyn Street - London
Map data ©2014 Google
Women In Classical MusicDate/Time
Date(s) - 11/11/2014
1:00 pm - 2:50 pm

jessicaduchenClassical music journalist and author, Jessica Duchen, will interview seven female composers of classical music in the intimate setting of the Jermyn Street Theatre.

  • Betty Roe MBE, Professor Nicola LeFanu, Judith Bingham, Dr Shirley J. Thompson, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Mira Calix and Dani Howard will be sharing their life and work experiences.

Jessica will delve into each composers’ working experiences, as well as their inspirations, to discover what it means to be a female composer in a traditionally male-dominated area of music. If you have a question for the composer(s), you should ask in advance by email to
Ticket price (excluding booking fee)
  • BASCA member: £9.50
  • Non member: £12.00
  • (Students of BASCA’s Academic Supporters: £7.50)
***** BIOGRAPHIES *****
BettyRoe1Betty Roe’s versatility has enabled her to build a highly successful career as a composer, musician, singer, conductor and teacher. She studied piano and cello at the Royal Academy of Music as a Junior Exhibitioner and Senior Student (GRSM) where she gained LRAM, ARCM and FTCL Diplomas.
In 1970 Betty founded Thames Publishing with her late husband, John Bishop. As well as her own extensive list of works, Thames has published many English composers, of both contemporary and historical interest.
Betty was elected an Associate of the RAM in 1991 and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1993. In January 2011, Betty was awarded an MBE for her services to classical music and composition.
NicolaLeFanu1Professor Nicola LeFanu has composed around one hundred works which have been widely played, broadcast and recorded. Her catalogue includes a number of works for strings, and chamber music for a variety of mediums, often including voice. She has a particular affinity for vocal music and has composed eight operas, which have been staged in UK, Ireland and USA. Her new opera, ‘Tokaido Road, A Journey after Hiroshige,’ was premiered at the Cheltenham Festival, July 6, 2014.
She is active in many aspects of the musical profession, as composer, teacher, director etc. From 1994-2008 she was Professor of Music at the University of York.
She was born in England in 1947 to Irish parents; her mother was the composer Elizabeth Maconchy. LeFanu studied at Oxford, RCM and, as a Harkness Fellow, at Harvard.
JudithBinghamBorn in Nottingham in 1952, and raised in Mansfield and Sheffield, Judith Bingham began composing as a small child, and then studied composing and singing at the Royal Academy of Music in London. She was awarded the Principal’s prize in 1971, and six years later the BBC Young Composer award. Recent composition prizes include: the Barlow Prize for a cappella music in 2004, two British Composer Awards in 2004 (choral and liturgical) one in 2006 (choral) and the instrumental award in 2008.
Judith Bingham was a member of the BBC Singers for many years, and between 2004 and 2009 she was their ‘Composer in Association’, during which time she wrote a series of choral works. Several of these were for the BBC Singers, but there were also pieces for other professional, amateur and collegiate choirs, including Salt in the Blood, written for the BBC Symphony Chorus to perform at the 1995 Proms.
In 2007 she was made a Fellow of the Royal School of Church Music for distinguished services to church music.
ShirleyJThompsonThe music of composer Shirley J. Thompson is performed and screened worldwide and often described as “beautiful and powerful” (Le Figaro). A visionary artist and cultural activist, Thompson is the first woman in Europe to have composed and conducted a symphony within the last 40 years.
Her work, ‘New Nation Rising, A 21st Century Symphony’ performed and recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, was originally commissioned for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002. The concept was latterly assumed as a framework for the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony. She has also composed extensively for TV/film, theatre, dance and opera production.
Shirley J. Thompson is Reader in Composition and Performance at the University of Westminster and has served for over 10 years on several national arts institutions, including the Arts Council of Great Britain. She is a member of BASCA’s Classical Executive Committee and has been named in the Evening Standard’s ‘Power List of Britain’s Top 100 Most Influential Black People in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015’.
works-30-cover-rgb-Cheryl Frances-Hoad was born in Essex in 1980 and received her musical education at the Yehudi Menuhin School, Gonville and Caius College (University of Cambridge) and Kings College London. She was Music Fellow at Rambert Dance from 2012 – 2013, and from 2010-12 was the first DARE Cultural Fellow in the Opera Related Arts in association with Opera North and the University of Leeds. Cheryl won the BBC Young Composer Competition in 1996 at the age of 15 and since then her works have garnered numerous prizes and awards, including the Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize (UK, 2007), the Sun River Composition Prize (China, 2007), The International String Orchestra Composition Competition (Malta, 2006), The Bliss Prize (UK, 2002), the first Robert Helps International Composition Prize (University of Florida, 2005), the Mendelssohn Scholarship (UK, 2002) and the Cambridge Composer’s Competition (UK, 2001).
Most recently in 2011 Cheryl was awarded a PRS Women Make Music award to write a new brass quintet for Onyx Brass, which was toured around the UK as part of the 2011/12 Music in the Round season.
MiraCalix1Mira Calix is an award winning composer, artist and performer based in the United Kingdom. She is signed to Warp Records, on which she has released five albums.  Although her earlier music is almost exclusively electronic in nature, in more recent years, she has incorporated classical orchestration into her work for installation pieces, film soundtracks, theatre and opera. Mira has been commissioned to write new works for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic-Ensemble 10/10, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Aldeburgh Festival,Bang On A Can, London Sinfonietta, Opera North and The Manchester International Festival amongst others.
In the autumn of 2009 she won a British Composer Award for her composition, ‘My Secret Heart’. The installation, commissioned by Streetwise Opera, and featuring the voices of a 100 strong choir, was also the recipient of a Royal Philharmonic Society Award in 2009 and was a finalist in the arts category of the National Lottery Award in 2010. Mira is currently working on a collaboration with artist Conrad Shawcross and a large scale cross media installation to premiere at the Sydney Festival 2015.
Dani-HowardDani Howard is a scholar at the Royal College of Music, London, supported by a Douglas and Hilda Simmonds Award and the Henry Wood Trust. She has had her compositions performed internationally in Europe and Asia in prestigious concert venues including the Royal Academy of Arts, National Gallery, St. Martin in the Fields and Cyberport HK among others. Recent commissions include a work for solo percussion for performance in the BBC Young Musician of the Year Percussion Final and a fanfare for large brass ensemble for the RCM Graduation Ceremony.
Most recently Dani won third place in the International Antonin Dvorak Composition Competition Junior Category in Prague, and was awarded winner of the Sound:Vision Competition presented by the Royal Philharmonic Society (RPS) and IdeasTap. Dani has developed a keen interest in percussion writing, and a working relationship with the RCM percussion department led to the premiere of Introspection for 24 percussionists in May 2013. Earlier this year she was commissioned to write a Percussion Octet which was performed on tour in Basel, Switzerland. Throughout 2014 she has had two compositions aired on BBC Radio 3, and one televised on BBC Channel 4.

[** BASCA reserves the right to cancel this event at any stage, if deemed necessary in its opinion, and if circumstances arise outside of its control. We also reserve the right to alter or change the programme and line-up without prior notification.] 
Photographer credits: Lisa & Darren Coleman / Patrick Douglas Hamilton / Andreea Tufescu Photography

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Masterclass with a legend

Professor Andrzej Jasinski visits the Chopin Society. Photos by Marek Ostas

The other night I was fortunate enough to be drafted in by the Chopin Society as interviewer for a very special evening at Steinway's with Professor Andrzej Jasinski from Katowice, the former teacher of Krystian Zimerman and president of the jury at the Chopin Competition these past several sessions. First he played us some vivid Mozart and Chopin; then we discussed all manner of things; after that, he taught two gifted students including Mishka Rushdie Momen (top left), who has appeared on the Andrew Marr Show (amongst other accolades) and is in the final of the Dudley International Piano Competition next week.

Prof Jasinski's energy, charm and insights seemed boundless. I found myself marvelling at the mystery and complexity of the process by which music must travel from the composer via the brain and into the hands. Controlling the articulation, the professor demonstrated, is vital in order to inject a communicative, speaking sound into every turn of phrase, indeed every note.

We covered numerous topics in the interview. Prof Jasinski reminisced about a day sometime in the mid 1960s when he was assistant in Katowice to a great professor who had met Brahms...and called Jasinski asking him to teach a small boy from nearby Zabrze who needed a younger teacher. The lad's name was, of course, Krystian Zimerman. It was several years later that Jasinksi realised exactly how special his charge was: aged about 13, Krystian was asked to play Rhapsody in Blue with an orchestra, learned it in three weeks and did a great job. But to nurture such a talent, Jasinski added, you must go slowly, step by step; and he lauded his star pupil's parents for not pushing him into the limelight too early.

It's also not every day you get to ask an expert of this magnitude what the key might be to playing Chopin's mazurkas - and find a response that is so practical, solid and detailed. First of all, he promises that you don't actually have to be Polish to get the hang of them, pointing out the excellent playing of Fou Ts'ong. Next, look at the score! The indications show you where to sustain a note, where it is staccato and where an enhanced mark tells you it's more than a staccato: a jump. But a jump only in the melodic line, not the left hand as well.

The professor finished our discussion by demonstrating Chopin's closeness to Mozart. Arthur Rubinstein, he remarked, used to say that you should play Chopin like Mozart and Mozart like Chopin. He took lines of Chopin and added Mozartian accompaniments, for example turning the Fantasie-Impromptu into Rondo alls Turca as if by magic. In the masterclasses that followed, Mishka played the Polonaise-Fantasie, which to Jasinski is full of Chopin's feelings for his native Poland: conflict, fear, happy memories, the pounding of horses' hooves in battle and ultimately optimism for the future.

At discussions afterwards, I was just reflecting upon the way that a life in music can keep someone so young and energetic (the professor is 78, but followed an intense schedule of masterclasses in the various London conservatoires through his visit this week), when I met someone from the audience who was still teaching piano aged 91 - she was a former pupil of Gina Bachauer. This on top of having just received an advance copy of a CD that captures Menahem Pressler's 90th birthday concert with the Quatuor Ebène in Paris (Dvorak Quintet, Schubert 'Trout', etc) that overflows with joy in music-making.

Philip Glass may advocate yoga and vegetarianism as a secret to long life and good health, and I'm sure those help. But if you want to stay young: be a musician.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Friday historical: Prokofiev plays Prokofiev

My warmest thanks to Mark Ainley and his excellent site & Facebook updates The Piano Files for alerting us to this recording of Sergei Prokofiev as piano soloist in his own Piano Concerto No.3, with the LSO conducted by Piero Coppola. Recorded in 1932, the sound quality is incredibly good and the style is fascinating.

This is music from the horse's mouth: Prokofiev's playing glitters, glimmers and meshes with the orchestra's textures; his touch is light, singing, clear and unfussy, he never hammers at the piano and he duets wonderfully with the orchestral solo instruments. He plays in long lines, the figurations delineating extended flows and spirals. Listen, too, to the strings' portamenti. This is "authentic" style for Prokofiev, remember. Enjoy!

Diversity: a plea for thinking outside the box-tick

I've been chewing over the matter of diversity and wondering whether the music industry's efforts have worked at anything more than box-ticking levels. Here are a few thoughts, which I've stewed in an article for

Basically, I think we need to a) update our thinking on what "diversity" really means, and b) recognise that superficial action on the issue can only go a certain distance without better back-up from the society we live in.

In the article I point out that in 17 years of "diversity" very little has shifted, and very little can shift without truly joined-up thinking on what is trying to be achieved, and how, and why. It is going to take a lot longer to make that change because these matters have to be instilled in the family, in early education and in our work ethics and values system. We need to be thinking long-term. And in the end it all comes down to politics.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Glass more than half full

I met Philip Glass while he was here for rehearsals of The Trial. Now he's off on the road around the UK. Head in the Bhagavad Gita, feet firmly on the ground (or possibly the other way round, given that he does yoga every day, presumably complete with headstands).

Here he tells me why he still tours, why yoga is so important to him and how the composers of the future will make a living.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Composer poll: the reckoning

Last week I put up a list of 12 living British composers so that you could vote for your favourite. Then I was awake all night remembering the ones I'd not put in, so I put up a second list. Polling is now closed. Here are the top three places in each of the two lists:


1. Harrison Birtwistle, with 25% of the votes.
2. Thomas Ades, with 18 %.
3. Peter Maxwell Davies, with 10%.


1. James MacMillan, with 27 %.
2. Oliver Knussen, with 24 %.
3. Mark-Anthony Turnage, with 11%.

There we go, then. Thanks to everyone who voted!

In case you were wondering: the first list consisted of six men and six women. The second list was slightly less even, with just four women out of 12. In list 1, Judith Weir pulled in in fourth place, with 8% of the vote. 

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Five alternatives to Mrs Bach

The fuss over the Mrs Bach and the cello suites film is getting up my nose, and not in a good way. Of course it makes a good story. But do we really need more tales about women in music who didn't really do things, when there are so many who did, provenly so, but are not recognised for it?

When women musicians make it onto the silver screen, they tend to be there for the wrong reasons: for writing their man's music, which they clearly didn't; for having married Schumann; for being sister to an irritating prodigy (take a bow, Nannerl), or for people having released recordings under their name that they didn't actually make (three cheers for Ms Hatto?).

Still, the film studios clearly prefer the fanciful, so here are a few ideas for my next novel...

Cosima Wagner: true author of Parsifal?
1. An EU directive enforces the opening of the last Bayreuth archive. It reveals that Cosima wrote Parsifal.

2. Beethoven was great at the piano, but wanted everyone to think he could write for the orchestra as well. He paid a very accomplished lady to write nine symphonies for him and planted references to an "Immortal Beloved" in his letters to throw everyone off the scent.

3.  Emma Bardac's letters emerge from the Bibliothèque National explaining that she was not only lover to Fauré and wife to Debussy, but put them both through certain kinds of intimate therapy that unleashed suppressed emotions in their music.

4. Jenny Lind turns out to have inspired not only Felix Mendelssohn with great passion, but Fanny Mendelssohn as well.

5. Tchaikovsky's remains are disinterred for research into whether he was poisoned. The coffin contains the skeleton of a woman.

...Meanwhile I'm off to Presteigne for a lovely Alicia's Gift concert with piano darling Viv McLean at the Assembly Rooms, tomorrow (2 Nov) at 3pm. Do come along if you're in the area. Info here.