Saturday, July 26, 2014

Barenboim: a Chopin recital

...And while I continued to hunt for Barenboim playing Schubert, after I found the two-pianos trailer with Argerich, I then found him in a sensational Chopin recital from Warsaw in Chopin year, 2010.

Listen to the way Barenboim seems to orchestrate at the piano; the range of colour he can draw from the instrument, as if controlling woodwinds and string sections; the way he builds a sense of narrative and allows absolute logic to meld with on-stage spontaneity - e.g. in the "Heroic" Polonaise and the Minute Waltz. And the sheer scruff-of-the-neck way that his musicianship can grab you and command you to listen to the whole concert even when you thought you'd just dip in and hear the F minor Fantasy before getting back to everything else you were meant to be doing today...

I'm off for a spot of summer opera hopping soon - encompassing Monteverdi, Verdi and my first-ever trip to Bayreuth - so I'll shut up now and let the music do the speaking.

How Arab and Jewish musicians have been united in Nazareth

Fantastic article in The Guardian by Maya Jaggi about a project that seems to offer a vision of hope even at a time like this. Please read. http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/jul/25/polyphony-conservatory-nazareth-arab-jewish-orchestra

Friday, July 25, 2014

Friday historical-to-be: Barenboim and Argerich in duo

I was hunting for film of Daniel Barenboim playing Schubert, when I came across this trailer for a new release featuring him and Martha Argerich playing works for piano duet and two pianos. Schubert, Mozart and The Rite of Spring, no less, recorded live at the Philharmonie in Berlin. This isn't historical yet, but it's a history-worthy occasion.

Barenboim, meanwhile, has written the only wise and constructive article I've yet read about the horrifying conflagration in Gaza. Here it is. Please read.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

More good news! This time, music education

It's in short supply out there in the wider world, but in the UK's musical sphere, hot on the heels of Judith Weir's official appointment up top comes more good news. Protect Music Education says that their efforts have secured a £18m increase in funding for the country's "music hubs" for 2015/16, totalling£75m. Led by the Incorporated Society of Musicians, 134 musical organisations have been involved in Protect Music Education and their tireless campaigning has borne fruit.

And now, hot on the heels of that news, comes a further triumph: the government has backed down on its ghastly plan to recommend that local authorities cut back their funding for music education. Here is an extract from the government statement:




And here is a link to the govt's press release: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/more-funding-to-help-thousands-of-extra-children-enjoy-music

Protect Music Education continues to campaign for firm funding commitments from all the political parties. 

In a nice footnote, they suggest that we all share pictures of our celebrations of the news on social media with hashtags #protectmusic and #musiced. Cheers!

Great news for two wonderful composers, who happen to be women

As of this morning, Judith Weir is officially Master of the Queen's Music. She is off to Buckingham Palace today for an audience with HM.

She is also launching a blog, which you can follow from her website.

Here's Tom Service's interview with her about what she plans to do with the post. 

Meanwhile, here is my interview from today's Independent with another marvellous British composer: the one and only Errollyn Wallen. Her new opera Anon is a very contemporary adaptation of Manon...and was partly inspired by her own experience of nearly getting murdered when travelling around Europe in her teens. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/features/errollyn-wallens-anon-manon-lescaut-for-the-21st-century-9619708.html


Apropos of women in classical music, I am delighted to have been invited to join the board of the Ambache Charitable Trust, which awards grants to organisations and individuals for projects that involve the performance of music by women. The aim is "to raise the profile of women composers by funding people who promote their music to the widest possible circle". As it was recently revealed (via the PRS for Music Foundation) that only 7.8 per cent of its income for composers goes to those who happen to be female, I hope you can see how necessary such initiatives remain even today. More information about it on the website, here.

UPDATE: Here is a vital piece (via Sinfinimusic.com) by Susanna Eastburn regarding the shortage of women composers and what we can do about it. Includes some pretty shocking statistics.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Wedges - of several kinds

The thin end of one wedge is webcasting. I was supposed to be in Verbier now. Long boring story about storms, leaks and missed planes. I was planning to hear a tetralogy of my piano gods, and more, but am running after builders instead. Gutted to be missing Ferenc Rados and Grigory Sokolov - the latter still the man I regard as the greatest living pianist, and tragically one we will not hear in the UK any time soon (I understand he refuses to go through the visa rigmaroles that we require). But the good news - if wedgy - is that the concerts these past two nights featuring respectively Martha Argerich and Stephen Kovacevich are available to watch online at Medici TV and tonight's recital by Daniil Trifonov will be webcast live as well. Starts at 6pm. So that's a bit of a comfort. Sokolov, as far as I know, is not due for the webcast line-up.

To cheer myself up for lack of mountains, I took myself off to the Wigmore Hall instead last night to hear the adorable Simon Trpceski in recital. One shouldn't complain about missing a festival elsewhere when there is so much great music to hear right here on the doorstep, and Simon didn't disappoint. His recital of Brahms, Ravel and Poulenc was a marvellous treat and I ended up reviewing it for The Arts Desk, so here is the link.

Last but by no means least, it has come to my attention that some very fine new music at the Proms is being sequestered away on its own website - "an exclusive iPlayer New Music Collection" - rather than enjoying a TV broadcast with proud trumpeting to the nation as a whole, even if the rest of those programmes will indeed be televised. I made an enquiry and received this back:
As you know we're constantly evolving the way we cover the Proms - from the introduction of the newly themed strands on TV through to increased online and Iplayer collections in an ever multi-platform world.  This year we are exploring new ways of curating and presenting the filmed performances across the season with  more Proms than ever before available online, both audio and visual.
 As part of this, and new for 2014,  we are creating an exclusive iPlayer New Music Collection, celebrating all the new music filmed across Proms 2014, bringing it together in one place for our audience with context provided by special filmed introductions by Tom Service. We will be showing the performance of Roxanna Panufnik's Three Paths To Peace in this collection and Jonathan Dove's Gaia piece in this collection. Both pieces will be available on iPlayer as soon as possible after the performance (we hope within a few days) - and will be available to view for longer for the first time, for a special 30 days, giving them access to a wider audience. We will be pointing our audience towards the New Music Collection from all our other platforms, including Proms Extra as soon as they are live...the Proms Extra iPlayer Collection,  and our TV broadcasts.

So apparently it is A GOOD THING that we CAN see good, accessible, listenable, beautiful new music AT ALL, isn't it. Wedge, end, thin.

Shouldn't the BBC be championing British composers to the rooftops? Did someone, somewhere, perhaps consider that the poor old wider public is too stupid to appreciate contemporary music on TV, however enjoyable and downright pertinent it is? Hiding it from wider view sends out an oddly mixed message from an institution that prides itself on supporting today's composers with plentiful commissions. I would put up a link to that "exclusive iPlayer New Music Collection" - only I can't find it.

Roxanna Panufnik's piece about peace opens tonight's Prom. It is the first time her music has been played at the Proms and it's long overdue. Listen live on Radio 3.


Saturday, July 19, 2014

This is Jonas Kaufmann's next CD and look what's on it...



A note for the Kaufmaniacs: this little box of delights is due out in September, we hear, and features Viennese and German operetta-plus.

Du bist die Welt für mich will also enjoy a 2015 concert tour...but not to the UK, which is a crying shame. I would conjecture that this might be a poor reflection on how our tub-thumping tabloids affect British taste in music ("Germany 1930s, eew!"). Is it possible that the delights of Lehár, Kálmán, Tauber, Benatzky, etc, and, er, Korngold - and yes, there is Korngold (Marietta's Lute Song) - are still perceived as too hard a sell in Blighty for promoters to risk it? No matter that Jonas only has to step into a hall for it to fill on the spot. Many people would be glad to hear him sing the Heathrow flight arrivals.

Incidentally, for anyone who does indeed hesitate over music they think is "Germany 1930s, eew," a number of the composers on this CD were actually Jewish. And their origins include Hungary, the Czech/Slovak regions, Vienna and more.

The tour - next April and May - will go around Germany plus Vienna, Lucerne and Paris. Full details on his site.

For the utter and total Kaufmaniacs, here is the full track listing (from the Sony Music Spanish site, which for some reason is the only place I can find it). The red highlighting is mine.

Tenor: Jonas Kaufmann
Soprano: Julia Kleiter
Orquesta: Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin
Director: Jochen Rieder
1. FRANZ LEHÁR (1870–1948)
Girls Were Made to Love and Kiss (Gern hab’ ich die Frau’n geküsst)
from Paganini
Text: Alan Patrick Herbert & Harry Dexter
2. You Are My Heart’s Delight (Dein ist mein ganzes Herz!)
from Das Land des Lächelns
The Land of Smiles • Le Pays du sourire
Text: Harry Graham
3. RICHARD TAUBER (1891–1948)
Du bist die Welt für mich
from Der singende Traum
Text: Ernst Maríschka
Arrangement: Andreas N. Tarkmann
4. FRANZ LEHÁR
My Little Nest of Heavenly Blue (Hab’ ein blaues Himmelbett)
from Frasquita
Text: Sigmund Spaeth
5. ROBERT STOLZ (1880–1975)
Im Traum hast du mir alles erlaubt
from Liebeskommando
Text: Robert Gilbert / Armin L. Robinson
Arrangement: Andreas N. Tarkmann
6. EMMERICH KÁLMÁN (1882–1953)
Grüß mir mein Wien
from Gräfin Mariza
Text: Julius Brammer & Alfred Grünwald
7. WERNER RICHARD HEYMANN (1896–1961)
Irgendwo auf der Welt
from Ein Blonder Traum
Text: Robert Gilbert & Werner Richard Heymann
Arrangement: Andreas N. Tarkmann
8. HANS MAY (1886–1958)
My Song Goes Round the World (Ein Lied geht um die Welt)
Text: Jimmy Kennedy
Arrangement: Andreas N. Tarkmann
9. FRANZ LEHÁR
Freunde, das Leben ist lebenswert!
from Giuditta
Text: Paul Knepler & Fritz Löhner-Beda
10. PAUL ABRAHAM (1892–1960)
Reich mir zum Abschied noch einmal die Hände
from Viktoria und ihr Husar
Text: Alfred Grünwald & Fritz Löhner-Beda
Reconstruction: Matthias Grimminger & Henning Hagedorn
11. RALPH BENATZKY (1884–1957)
It Would Be Wonderful Indeed (Es muss was Wunderbares sein)
from Im weißen Rössl
The White Horse Inn • L’Auberge du Cheval-Blanc
Text: Harry Graham
Arrangement: Matthias Grimminger & Henning Hagedorn
12. PAUL ABRAHAM
Diwanpüppchen
from Die Blume von Hawaii
Text: Emmerich Földes, Alfred Grünwald & Fritz Löhner-Beda
Reconstruction: Matthias Grimminger & Henning Hagedorn
13. ROBERT STOLZ
Don’t Ask Me Why (Das Lied ist aus)
Text: Joe Young
Arrangement: Andreas N. Tarkmann
14. MISCHA SPOLIANSKY (1898–1985)
Heute Nacht oder nie
from Das Lied einer Nacht
Text: Marcellus Schiffer
Arrangement: Andreas N. Tarkmann
15. EDUARD KÜNNEKE (1885–1953)
Das Lied vom Leben des Schrenk
from Die große Sünderin
Text: Katharina Stoll & Herman Roemmer
16. ERICH WOLFGANG KORNGOLD (1897–1957)
Glück, das mir verblieb
from Die tote Stadt
Text: Paul Schott

17. FRANZ LEHÁR
Je t’ai donné mon cœur (Dein ist mein ganzes Herz!)
from Das Land des Lächelns
Text: André Mauprey & Jean Marietti

Friday, July 18, 2014

Dvorák's The Jacobin in Buxton, aka When Viktor Laszlo Went Home....


In a gloriously sunny Buxton for our Alicia's Gift concert the other day, I took the opportunity to catch The Jacobin, a little-known opera by Dvorák that the doughty festival director Stephen Barlow, the conductor, had somehow, somewhere, found and resuscitated. Here he is, with director Stephen Unwin, talking about it and how it all happened:



Result? An absolute joy - indeed with a great, warm heart. This is Dvorák in Slavonic Dances mode, glittery and foot-tappy and soulful, with a touching family twist and a subplot that was almost surreal in its clash of two worlds.

The opera ostensibly takes place in the wake of the French Revolution. Bohus and his wife Julie have come home to his Czech village, where his father is the Count. But the Count has heard, on the grapevine, that Bohus has joined up with Paris's revolutionaries and become a Jacobin, and that he intends to stir up revolution at home. Hence he's disowned him and is about to make his nephew, the evil Adolf (yes, really), heir to the title instead. He blames Julie for leading Bohus astray. Of course, he has got everything wrong: Bohus is a seriously good bloke who wants to save the people from oppression.

Cue Bohus's former music master, Mr Benda (yes, really - though no relation), who is trying to marry his daughter, Terinka, off to the corrupt, pompous but "important" Filip, steward to Adolf and the Count - but she's in love with Jiri, the only guy in the village who has a decent tenor voice. The Bendas take in Bohus and Julie, convinced that they are authentic Czechs when they sing a gorgeous duet about the wonderful music of their homeland. Meanwhile Mr Benda has written a cantata for the Count, who is about to hand over power to Adolf. The choir is rehearsing - and along come two nasty policemen to press-gang Jiri into the army, ordered by Filip to get him out of the way. "You can't do that," says Mr Benda. "He's my lead tenor! Don't you know how rare good tenors are?" And no way is he going to let them take Jiri. (This is priceless.)

The final act features a poignant scene where the two elderly men, the Count and Mr Benda, recall their long association, the days when Bohus was a small boy and Mr Benda taught him piano every day, and the Count still loved Mr Benda's music. Now the Count's beloved harp-playing wife has died, Bohus has gone and all is lost. Mr Benda is trying to pave the way for Bohus and Julie's return, but the Count will not listen. Julie must win him over herself. She plays the harp and sings the lullaby with which Bohus's mother used to sing him to sleep. The Count melts, Adolf's plot is revealed just in time, the Count finds himself surrounded by long-lost family and adoring grandchildren, and they all live happily ever after.

The production by Stephen Unwin was beautifully done, simple and sweet, with some very special qualities - the choir rehearsal with the kids mucking about, or the moment when Mr Benda reaches out to the Count and very, very slowly dares to touch his shoulder. As a whole it reminded me of something...First of all, the Count is a dead ringer for Dvorák himself. But beyond that, the costumes, the stances, the story, updated to the 1930s, seemed closer to home. Just a minute....

It's Casablanca, the sequel! 'Everybody comes to Dvorák's', perhaps....

Imagine that Viktor Laszlo and Ilse have gone home to his Czech village. Julie is blonde and elegantly dressed, with hat à la Ingrid Bergman. Filip is the spitting image of Louis - the corrupt policeman played by Claude Rains - and Adolf is just like Major Strasser. Music as consolation, support and evocation is constantly present - and it is Julie who plays it again, her song evoking the long-lost happy days that the Count - an odd and older version, perhaps, of Rick - has left far behind. So similar were they that I kept expecting the excellent Nicholas Folwell, as Filip, to say 'Round up the usual suspects' and Bohus, baritone Nicholas Lester, to stir up a Czech equivalent of the Marseillaise. There is even an Yvonne and her barman, of sorts, in Terinka and Jiri.

Terinka was a superb Anna Patalong, Anne Sophie Duprels a fulsome-toned Julie, and as Mr Benda we were delighted to see and hear Bonaventura Bottone, whom I used to see in everything at ENO but hadn't heard for years. The Count was a larger-than-life Andrew Greenan - on the grapevine I heard a story that he had stepped in at the last moment and learned the role in three days, which, assuming it's true, we would never have guessed. Stephen Barlow conducted with huge flair and energy (can't we have him at ENO sometime soon, please? He'd have got my vote to be their new music director, had I had such a vote.)

And full marks to the Buxton Opera House (see above), a Matcham theatre that feels like a miniature version of our own Coliseum, even sporting a turquoise curtain, which is what the Coli had before they refurbished it and it all went red. The opera was sung in English, too. A reasonable enough decision, under the circumstances - though Czech is a particularly awkward language for which to reset the rhythms and I would very much have liked to get my own hands on the translation to give it some finer tweaks. That is a very small caveat indeed. Basically: it's wonderful.


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Little at Large: why our busking day changed Tasmin's life

Over at Independent Towers there's a certain pride in this piece. A few years back, when Josh Bell did his famous busking-in-the-Washington-CD-subway experiment, the arts ed called me and said how about we ask Tasmin Little to have a try.

We did; she was, by some miracle, in town and free; and I went along with a notebook and a photographer to document the fun. But what came out was a revelation. It resulted in a light-bulb moment for Tasmin that literally changed her life.

As Tasmin approaches her 20th appearance at the Proms - she is playing the Moeran Violin Concerto on 25 July - I asked her to tell all. here's the full story in today's Independent.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Xander Parish, the Russian ballet star from Hull

I've been talking to a clutch (so to speak) of particularly fabulous interviewees of late and here is the first of them: Xander Parish, the only British dancer ever to have joined the great Mariinsky Ballet of St Petersburg. In today's Independent he tells me how it all happened. It's probably not so long since I'd have spotted him and his mates in our local Waitrose, which is populated on Saturdays by the White Lodge kids hunting out some well-deserved treats. Just look at him now.

Xander dances Romeo, Prince Siegfried and Apollo with the Mariinsky at Covent Garden in a few weeks' time. Dates are at the end of the Indy piece.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Buxton Festival TOMORROW

Viv and I are giving the first performance of our new coffee-concert version of the ALICIA'S GIFT show at the Buxton Festival, Pavilion Arts Centre, tomorrow at 12 noon. The story is set in Buxton, so effectively we are taking it him! Do join us if you're in the area! Repertoire includes Chopin, Debussy, Granados, Ravel and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, which is Viv's party piece and quite an experience in his wonderful hands. And...the sun is shining! http://www.buxtonfestival.co.uk/music-series/alicias-gift-concert/

Meanwhile I am very much looking forward to hearing Dvorak's The Jacobin at the Buxton Opera House tonight, conducted by festival director Stephen Barlow. Off to Euston shortly...

Monday, July 14, 2014

Summer reading: a list for music-lovers

I'm in the middle of a major summer runaround at present - and the single most important thing to take along when you are dealing with planes, trains and so forth is a good book, whether paper or electronic. Here are a few suggestions for what to pop on your iPad if you fancy a good read that involves musicians and other artistic animals...

ASTONISH ME
By Maggie Shipstead (Harper Collins)
A ballet novel to cherish, this delicious multi-generation story features writing that flies. Shipstead's style can make your heart sing; and even if you are not into dance, you could still love the book for its metaphorical powers and its liveliness of atmosphere. One might think that there are too many clichés and coincidences - the Russian defector, the tangled web of relationships, the twist that you can probably see coming from the beginning - but Maggie Shipstead's touch is so light, her command of detail so vivid and realistic, and the way she adds layer after layer to our understanding of the characters so convincing and compassionate that her writing quashes every doubt. Weeks after reading it, I could still imagine any of the characters wandering into the room and speaking to me.


STRINGS ATTACHED: ONE TOUCH TEACHER AND THE ART OF PERFECTION
By Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky (Simon & Schuster)
I've reviewed this at more length for Sinfini.com, but suffice it to say that anyone who has ever wondered about the value of "tough love" teaching needs to read this book, and fast. Written jointly by the daughter and ex-pupil of "Mr K", a supposedly terrifying Ukrainian cello teacher in the US, it's a heartrending memoir in which the vital nature of self-discipline as a tool for life is to the fore. Learning music here means learning rigour, high standards, self-criticism, determination and resilience; and while music brings life skills, life brings a need for music as sustenance in times of desperation and, indeed, tragedy. These are points of which we all require reminding as a matter of urgency. It's hard to imagine that cause being better served.


ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE
By Clemency Burton-Hill (Headline Review)
Our favourite Radio 3 presenter turns her skills to her second novel, which is not musical per se but does, deliciously, feature someone named Wagner sacking someone named Bernstein in Chapter 2. It's a strong and sensitive slalom of a story that tackles the thorny matter of Israel and the Palestinian territories by way of the relationship between two young New Yorkers whose romantic involvement brings them into conflict with each other's respective backgrounds. The book morphs from apparent chick-lit in its first half to Middle Eastern thriller in the second; Burton-Hill makes the point about love and peace without lecturing, and I believe she has found a way to show some very real situations without upsetting anybody, too. These days that takes a lot of doing.


Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Two happy birthdays!

Two musicians I feel very lucky to know are both celebrating birthdays today. Have a listen to celebrate.

First, here is my very special colleague Philippe Graffin, the poetic and creative French violinist, in a track from the album Hungarian Dances, recorded in 2008 and inspired by my novel of the same title.  Claire Désert is the pianist. This is the enchanting Marche miniature viennoise by Fritz Kreisler - OK, not Hungarian at all, but huge fun and gorgeously played. (Onyx)



The second very happy birthday goes to British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, who's turning all of 22 this sunny Tuesday. He has a new album out soon, a delicious mixed programme celebrating dance all the way from Bach to Boogie-Woogie (that marvellous etude by Morton Gould). Tip: make sure that when you get it you download the "deluxe" version so that you also have the bonus tracks. They include possibly the most stunning performance of Liszt's Gnomenreigen that you or anyone else will ever hear in this day and age. Since it's not out yet, here's his Ravel 'Ondine' from Gaspard de la Nuit. (Decca)




Monday, July 07, 2014

What does it mean to be an artist?

I had a note the other week from a hip-hop songwriter/rapper in the US, Anthony Tomaz, asking me to have a look at his story. I don't cover much rap, as you've probably noticed - it's never been my cuppa - but this film from Fuse News touched me very strongly.

Most of Anthony's family seems to have been jailed; he was homeless in New York for two years; but now he has a recording contract. He suggests that his music saved him. And he talks in this video about the way he is always writing, wherever he is, anytime and all the time - the way the sounds and words grip him and demand expression comes over unmistakably.

What does it mean to be an artist? Exactly this. Your medium, whether it's microtonality or minimalism, rap or Rachaminov, news or novels, takes hold of you and insists you make it real. You therefore learn how to do it and develop your ability to the utmost, or you feel you're letting down more than only yourself.

It's never easy to explain this to anyone who hasn't experienced it and thinks you should shut up and get a proper job. (I had a Twitter message yesterday from a gentleman who thinks I'd be a good traffic warden, but it turned out this had something to do with women in uniform...er, right...)

But the concept of the creative artist is not dead, despite the 21st century's best efforts to kill it, because it is a human phenomenon that stays with us and can keep us on the rails, or restore us to them when we've fallen off.

I said to Anthony that I would run his story, because it's an inspiration and he is an artist. Nothing stops him from making music. Here it is.




Saturday, July 05, 2014

A landmark year for the Proms?

Here is my preview, from the Radar section of today's Independent, about this year's Proms.  Enjoy...




On 18 July the Royal Albert Hall opens its doors for the annual BBC Promenade Concerts, know simply as The Proms: two months of world-class classical music at which standing places cost just £5 a pop. There is nothing else quite like it – either here or abroad. Once you’ve experienced the queues of ‘promenaders’ snaking down Prince Consort Road with sandwich boxes and comfy shoes, sampled the relaxed but excited atmosphere inside the hall and witnessed evenings as thrilling as last year’s Ring cycle – when thousands listened rapt to Wagner’s gigantic tetralogy at the feet of the conductor Daniel Barenboim – chances are you’ll be hooked too.

The 2014 Proms nevertheless marks the end of an era: Roger Wright, director of the Proms for seven years and controller of BBC Radio 3 since 1998, now ends his tenure as both. His successors – the role is to be split – have yet to be appointed.

The news of Wright’s departure broke in a startling way, with an announcement from Aldeburgh Music (the umbrella organisation behind the Aldeburgh Festival and more) that he is to become their new Chief Executive. The very day after this was revealed, there came a BBC announcement that Bob Shennan, controller of Radio 2, is being appointed as overall director of music right across the BBC. The timing struck many as intriguing. Restructuring is inevitable at the BBC in the current climate, but no one with as fine a track record as Wright’s is likely to be too happy if someone else is brought in over his or her head. Meanwhile, whoever takes over Wright’s roles will undoubtedly have to implement funding cuts and deal with whatever may emerge from the new licence fee settlement in 2016.

Wright bids farewell to the Proms after the opening night. “Elgar’s The Kingdom will be the last music I hear as Proms director,” he says. “I’m sad to be leaving the team, of course, but to have had the fun of working with them, and knowing the Proms are in such safe hands, is terrific.”

He does not mince his words, though, over uncertainties in the future: “The Proms has been singled out for reinvestment, so I think there’s a real understanding of their importance, right at the top of the organisation,” he says, “but the biggest question is the future of the BBC funding overall. We don’t know what the licence fee settlement is going to be in 2016-17 onwards. You can’t separate out the future of anything to do with the BBC from those decisions. That’s a question that’s going to arrive very quickly indeed.”

Music lovers not only in Britain but around the world are hoping against hope that that recognition of the Proms’ significance will survive such changes. For generations of music-lovers summer without the Proms has been as unthinkable as Halloween without pumpkins or Christmas without carols. This year marks the series’ 120th anniversary; it has been run by the BBC since 1927 and resident at the Royal Albert Hall since 1941. And it is not as if the BBC has not made a huge effort to extend its reach. Indeed, never before has the Proms been quite as accessible as it is now.

If you can’t get there in person, not only is every concert broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, but also there are plentiful TV broadcasts and a plethora of online facilities to let you enjoy the performances by a dizzying range of musicians: from the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle to the Pet Shop Boys. The latter are creating a new work for orchestra and electronics that pays tribute to Alan Turing, the Bletchley Park computer pioneer who took his own life 60 years ago after a 1952 conviction for homosexual activity destroyed both his personal life and his career. A posthumous royal pardon was granted to him last December. 

There is much to live up at the Proms – especially after the last two years. In 2012 it was absorbed into the Cultural Olympiad and featured some extraordinary moments – whether the arrival of the British athletes at the festivities of the Last Night, or Barenboim walking into the Olympic opening ceremony as one of eight great humanitarian figures carrying the Olympic flag, straight from conducting a Prom.

Last year’s Wagner bicentenary season included concert performances of no fewer than seven of his operas, featuring starry casts that could turn the priciest festivals green with envy. And the Last Night proved a landmark, headed for the first time by a woman conductor, Marin Alsop, her podium festooned with pink balloons. That occasion was double-edged since, as Alsop pointed out in her speech, it was hard to believe such “firsts” were still waiting to happen.

Staging these festivals involved both vision and chutzpah, and paid off handsomely in terms of audience figures: last year’s average attendance was 93% and 57 of 75 main concerts sold out completely. But without quite such special events to raise the roof, can this year’s programme match that success?

The agenda contains just about enough celebration to keep the mood upbeat. The 150th anniversary of Richard Strauss’s birth is marked with three of the composer’s finest operas: Salome, featuring the Swedish star soprano Nina Stemme (last year’s Ring cycle Brünnhilde), followed 24 hours later by Elektra, in which Strauss creates the ultimate in hair-raising musical Expressionism. Earlier in the season, Glyndebourne brings in the cast and crew of its controversial production of Der Rosenkavalier for a semi-staged concert performance.

The World Cup has not necessarily sparked this year’s focus on international orchestras from sometimes surprising places (and will probably have been quietly forgotten by opening night). Still, a record number of them are converging on London, many demonstrating the rapidly burgeoning interest in western classical music in developing countries. Therefore alongside heavyweight visitors such as the Berlin Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, a number of ensembles are making their first-ever visits to the Proms, among them orchestras from Turkey, Iceland, China, South Korea, Lapland, Australia and Qatar.

The latter is a case in point. The Qatar Philharmonic has existed for only seven years and its music director is Han-Na Chang, the former cello prodigy and protegée of Mstislav Rostropovich, who has reinvented herself as a force to be reckoned with on the podium. The orchestra, Chang says, includes musicians of some 30 different nationalities; and its mission statement includes assisting Qatar “on its journey from carbon economy to knowledge economy by unlocking human potential”. Their Prom will include a work by the Iranian-born composer Behzad Ranjbaran. “The musicians are incredibly excited – it’s such a privilege for us to be making our Proms debut,” Chang says.

Ironically, she remarks that “the women conductors issue” was scarcely mentioned when she took up her post; in a country where the orchestral field is so new, western traditional notions of the dominant male maestro have not had a chance to become ingrained. She is one of four women conductors at this year’s Proms, along with Sian Edwards, Rebecca Miller and a return visit from Alsop – not a lot, but a gentle shift in the right direction.

Women are relatively well represented among this year’s composers, notably with a Proms debut for Roxanna Panufnik, a new BBC commission by Judith Weir, London premieres for Sally Beamish and Helen Grime and works by Unsuk Chin and Dobrinka Tabakova. Not least, a late-night Prom is devoted to an appearance by the singer-songwriter Laura Mvula, who has crossed all boundaries with apparent ease. Parity for women composers and conductors remains a long way off, but these are noteworthy steps nonetheless.

Commemoration rather than celebration is the order of the day where the music of World War I is concerned. The tragedy of war has inspired numerous musical masterpieces and the Proms, besides scheduling some of the most famous, such as Britten’s War Requiem, is also airing rare gems such as the Elegy for Strings In Memoriam Rupert Brooke by the Australian composer FS Kelly, who died at the Battle of the Somme, and songs by the much-loved poet and composer Ivor Gurney. One Prom is themed around War Horse, with a visit from the National Theatre’s Handspring Puppets.

British music has long been an enthusiasm of Wright’s and beyond the works associated with World War I there is plenty of it to enjoy, including the Violin Concerto by E J Moeran, a surprise recent hit in the classical charts. The range of UK composers extends from Elgar and Walton to the gritty modernism of Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, both turning 80 this year.

It has not escaped the notice of the Twitterverse, though, that what the BBC Proms seems to celebrate above all this year is – well, the BBC. Quite a few events draw upon the broadcaster’s wider brand, including a Sports Prom and a CBeebies Prom offering the under-fives early experience in concert-going. Traditionalists have, predictably, been snorting about such things – to say nothing of the bile that still greets the occasional presence of pop musicians in the country’s premier classical festival.

Contrary to those critical of apparent self-aggrandisement in the BBC brand, Wright says that he sees the trend as “hugely positive” in terms of reaching new audiences. “After all,” he points out, “it’s the BBC licence fee payer who pays for the Proms. The range of the audience becomes greater and greater the more we can play in to the Proms reaching different audiences. The Sports Prom is a great example: for a Prom to be live on R5 Live for the first time is a really big deal, as is the late night Battle of the Bands – looking back to the Swing era of the 1930s-40s – which is on Radio 2. It’s always been the agenda to reach new audiences for classical music. That’s absolutely what the Proms do.”

For the moment, it’s time to put any anxiety about the future aside and get ready to enjoy the music. All you need to enjoy the Proms is open ears, an open mind and comfortable shoes.

BBC Promenade Concerts, Royal Albert Hall, opening 18 July. Box office: 0845 401 5040



TOP 15 PROMS CHOICES

Prom 1, 18 July, 7.30pm: Elgar, The Kingdom
BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, BBC National Chorus of Wales, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Erin Wall (soprano), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Staples (tenor), Christopher Purves (bass-baritone).
Elgar’s biblical oratorio gets the Proms season off to a celestial start in the grand manner.

Prom 4, 20 July, 7.30pm: World Orchestra for Peace, Valery Gergiev (conductor). This designated UNESCO Concert for Peace involves a Proms debut for British composer Roxanna Panufnik, music from Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten and Mahler’s Symphony No.6.

Prom 8, 23 July, 10.15pm: Pet Shop Boys, BBC Singers, BBC Concert Orchestra, Dominic Wheeler (conductor). Featuring world premiere of A Man for the Future, a tribute to Alan Turing by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe.

Prom 10, 25 July, 7.30pm: BBC Philharmonic, Juanjo Mena (conductor), Tasmin Little (violin). A British programme featuring Walton’s Variations on a Theme by Hindemith, Moeran’s Violin Concerto, the London premiere of David Horne’s Daedalus in Flight and Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

Prom 16, 29 July, 6.30pm: Borustan Istanbul Philharmonic, Sascha Goetzel (conductor), Daniel Hope (violin). Turkey’s leading orchestra in its Proms debut, including the world premiere of the new Violin Concerto by Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of Sergei).

Prom 21, 2 August, 7.30pm: Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, featuring the John Wilson Orchestra conducted by John Wilson. The fizz of this classic musical should build on the success of musicals at the Proms in past years.

Prom 33, 10 August, 7.45pm: National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Edward Gardner (conductor), Louis Schwizgebel (piano). The UK’s finest youth orchestra in a dazzling programme of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Birtwistle and Lutoslawski, with the dynamic Ed Gardner on the podium and rising star pianist Louis Schwizgebel as soloist.

Prom 42, 17 August, 7.30pm: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Manze (conductor), Allan Clayton (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone). A World War I tribute programme featuring music by Rudi Stephan, Butterworth, Vaughan Williams and the searingly beautiful Elegy for strings, in memoriam Rupert Brooke by FS Kelly.

Prom 46, 20 August, 7.30pm: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Barenboim returns to the Proms with his famous orchestra that brings together Arabic and Israeli musicians. Along with music by Mozart and Ravel they perform the UK premieres of works by Kareem Roustom and Ayal Adler.

Proms 52 and 53, 25 (7.30pm) and 26 August (7pm): Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer (conductor). The sleek, sophisticated and fresh-thinking Budapest ensemble return for two Proms: a mixed programme including Schubert, Dvorák and Kodály, and the next night an all-Brahms concert.

Proms 58 and 59, 30 and 31 August (7.30pm): Strauss opera weekend - Salome and Elektra. Nina Stemme stars as Salome, with the Deutsche Oper Berlin and conductor Donald Runnicles. For Elektra the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Semyon Bychkov are joined by a cast including Christine Goerke in the title role, Johan Reuter and Dame Felicity Palmer.

Proms Chamber Music 7, 1 September, 1pm, Cadogan Hall: Benjamin Grosvenor (piano). The gifted young British pianist performs music by Chopin, Mompou, Ravel and Gounod/Liszt, and the world premiere of Judith Weir’s new BBC commission Day Break Shadows Flee.

Prom 66, 6 September, 7pm: Berliner Philharmoniker, Berlin Radio Choir, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Mark Padmore (tenor), Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Camilla Tilling (soprano), Magdalena Kozena (mezzo-soprano), Topi Lehtipuu (tenor), Eric Owens (bass). An all-star performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion.

Prom 67, 7 September, 3.30pm. Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, Han-Na Chang (conductor), Denis Matsuev (piano). The phenomenally gifted Han-Na Chang, cellist turned conductor, is at the helm for this young orchestra’s Proms debut, featuring music by Behzad Ranjbaran, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky.

Prom 74, 11 September, 10.15pm. Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright joins forces with the Britten Sinfonia and conductor Johannes Debus for a late-night Prom of his own brand of ‘baroque pop’













Friday, July 04, 2014

Just in: Fallen? Aber nein!



This is the cast of La Traviata at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich tonight (NB, in the interval) as Germany progresses to the semi-final of the World Cup. "Something I've never, ever witnessed at Glyndebourne," says my spy.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Longborough Festival Opera: TOSCA

This is my review of lovely Longborough's terrific Tosca for the Independent. Four stars.  




Among the UK’s country house opera destinations, Longborough stands out as possibly the most audacious, unlikely and lovable. Near Moreton-in-Marsh in the Cotswolds (beware: sat-nav black holes), it was founded as Banks Fee Opera in 1991 by its owners Martin and Lizzie Graham, Wagner devotees who have converted a barn into a Palladian-fronted theatre; last year it became the first privately-funded opera house in the country to stage Wagner’s complete Ring cycle, a magnificent effort duly recognised with a nomination for a Royal Philharmonic Society Award.

This year’s festival got off to a flying start with Puccini’s Tosca. As with the Ring, the production proves that wacky concepts and costly sets are not necessary to create compelling drama. Take a row of pillars that can suggest church, palazzo and fortress, some steep slopes to be fallen down or jumped off, and a billow of dry ice; add a few very fine singers; and we have lift-off.

Richard Studer’s direction and designs hint at the Mussolini era without labouring the point. Rather than relying on spectacle, the entire drama is focused on the opera’s toxic love triangle of diva, artist activist and malign dictator, portrayed respectively by the soprano Lee Bisset, the tenor Adriano Graziani and the baritone Simon Thorpe; the characters emerge as very believable people caught up in events for which none of them are cut out.
Bisset’s Tosca – as she reflects in her aria ‘Vissi d’arte’ – really has lived for art and love; she is naïve enough not to suspect at first that her lover Cavaradossi is being tortured. She wants a quiet life with the man she loves; instead, faced with blackmail and rape, she first considers suicide, then turns murderer. She finds her weapon embedded in a loaf of bread – and afterwards wipes off the blood and puts it back.

Musically there are thrills aplenty. Bisset’s soaring soprano inhabits the full gamut of the role’s expressive possibilities: she has fabulous power at the top of her considerable range and her beauty of tone carries her from flirtation to fury, desire to despair. Graziani’s tenor is a fine match for her voice; his performance warmed as the evening went by, glorying in roof-raising high notes and culminating in a no-holds-barred account of ‘E lucevan le stelle’.

Thorpe’s Scarpia does not quite echo them in terms of vocal power, but his character is convincing: physically imposing, but psychologically weak, this dictator is a pathetic bully boy who does his dirty work by proxy. In the pit, the conductor Jonathan Lyness keeps the pace gripping and the score’s drama paramount. 

The set’s rather cumbersome mix of steps and rakes, the cut-down orchestration and chorus, and some slightly ropey amplification – notably for Act III’s offstage shepherd boy and the Act I finale’s pre-recorded canon effects – are a tad problematic. Otherwise, it is a thoroughly enjoyable occasion.

The 2014 festival continues with Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Handel’s Rinaldo. Next year: Tristan und Isolde.