Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Going Sober for October

I've just signed up to GO SOBER FOR OCTOBER, the charity initiative raising funds for Macmillan Cancer Support. My mother, father and sister all died of cancer within six years and during this traumatic time the support provided by Macmillan's specialist nurses was simply incredible. I don't know where we would have been without them.

So to help raise some cash and awareness, many of us have already elected to join this scheme. It's healthy, it doesn't involve getting on a bike or running unconscionable distances in the rain - and if you bear in mind that I am a >journalist<, you will recognise that it's not as much of a doddle as it sounds.

You can help in many ways. You can sponsor me (page here) or you can join in.

WE HAVE NOW FORMED TEAM JDCMB. All you need to do is sign up as an individual here, and then add yourself to our team effort here.


And remember - we start TOMORROW. Not a drop until 1 November. Go for it.

Thanks so much,
JD x

Monday, September 29, 2014

THE TRIF IS BACK!


Tomorrow night Daniil Trifonov is making his Royal Festival Hall recital debut - and if you're in London or within easyish reach of it, you need to get there. 

His programme is:

Johann Sebastian Bach: Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV.542 arr. Liszt for piano
Ludwig Van Beethoven: Sonata in C minor, Op.111
Interval
Franz Liszt: 12 Etudes d'exécution transcendante, S.139


Now, it has been drawn to my attention that this concert hasn't sold terrifically well, and this, dear concert-goers, seems absurd. What's the matter? Have you already committed yourselves to another gig - perhaps Behzod Abduraimov's piano recital at the Wigmore Hall (in which case we forgive you, because a clash of this magnitude isn't your fault and should be preventable in an ideal pianophile's world). Or do you perhaps consider that Liszt's complete set of 12 Transcendental Etudes is a bit much, a bit niche or a bit too, well, Liszty? 

Is admitting to enjoying Liszt, perhaps, still a little like the guilty pleasure of laughing at the opera? Have you ever really heard these things? If they are played by a pianist who knows how to put them over as the 11-dimensional masterpieces they are - and to do so, he/she needs a totally transcendental technique, as the composer suggests - then they can shine out among the greatest piano works of the 19th century. 

Here is No.11, the desperately sexy Harmonies du soir, played by one of the Lisztians I love the most, Louis Kentner:



Daniil is 23 and one of the most fascinating artists I've had the pleasure of hearing and meeting. (Here's my impression of his QEH recital in 2012 and you can read my recent interview with him in Pianist magazine - order the back issue here.) He reminds me of a lion cub with big paws: already an astounding creature, but one who visibly has the potential to grow and grow and keep on growing. Last time I looked forward to a 23-year-old pianist's RFH recital so much, it was 1980 and the artist in question was Krystian Zimerman. (I was 14.)

Book here. Do it now. And remember, at the concert: Try Phone Off.

Marvellous Melissa rises to Manon

The young Belfast-born ballerina Melissa Hamilton of the Royal Ballet is making her debut as Manon in a couple of weeks' time. I had a lovely talk with her for the Independent (out today, here), but it's been rather truncated, so here's the "Director's Cut".





Blessed with long, powerful legs, beautifully fluid arms and an opened-out, all-giving style of expression, the young Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton has been compared to “Charlize Theron in pointe shoes”. Now she is preparing for a crucial debut on 13 October as Manon in Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet of the same name – possibly her biggest challenge to date. British-born female principals have been in short supply in the company of late (the sparkly Lauren Cuthbertson is currently the only one), so hopes run high for the future of 26-year-old Hamilton from Northern Ireland, whose official ranking is “first soloist”.

Hamilton’s delicate looks belie her ferocious strength, both physical and mental. She started her training in earnest only at 16 – many others attend vocational schools from 11 – and it is her sheer single-minded determination that has enabled her to make up for lost time. 

Growing up in Dromore, near Belfast, she took ballet lessons as a hobby, until attending a summer course in Scotland when she was 13 opened her eyes to the possibility of dancing full time. “In Northern Ireland it was virtually unheard of to become a professional dancer,” she says. “My parents knew nothing about the ballet world, so it was difficult for them to advise me. That course showed me that if you want to be a ballerina you can’t just do one lesson a week. I had so much to learn.”

Her father and mother, respectively a builders’ merchant and a teacher, persuaded her to complete her GCSEs first, keen for her to have “an education to fall back on”. Still, the drive to dance remained; and though rejected by the Royal Ballet School, Hamilton won a scholarship to the Elmhurst School of Dance in Birmingham. 

There the full extent of her disadvantage as a late starter struck home. She says she felt constantly discouraged and after a year she was advised to abandon her dream altogether. Fortunately, fate seems to have had other ideas. The husband and wife team Irek and Masha Mukhamedov, former stars of the Bolshoi Ballet, arrived at the school as teachers and spotted her potential. After a year, they left for Irek to become director of the Greek National Opera Ballet; aged 17, Hamilton elected to decamp solo to Athens for intensive one-to-one coaching with Masha. 

Melissa Hamilton, photo by Bill Cooper
It might have seemed a leap of faith, but Hamilton says it was a no-brainer. “I didn’t see the point of staying somewhere where you’re trying to convince people,” she comments. “It probably looked impulsive, but I went with my gut instinct. I think when something’s right, then as human beings we know it.” Private study with Masha Mukhamedov was utterly different from anything she had experienced until then: “It was more than a teacher-pupil set up; it was more as if she was the mentor and I became a product. She was creating me, just as much as I wanted to be there. We found each other completely and it worked.”

It certainly did. After winning the Youth America Grand Prix in 2007, Hamilton was offered a contract with American Ballet Theatre, yet her overriding dream was to join the Royal Ballet in London. She sent a DVD to the company’s director, Monica Mason, and was invited to take class with them. A place in the corps de ballet was soon hers. 

She rose through the ranks via that same focused determination to work, work, work. “I lived in a little bubble in Covent Garden,” she says, “and in the summer I’d only take one week off, then go back to the studio and practise on my own.” 

About six months ago, though, she began to feel that something had to change if she was to move on to another level. “Sometimes if you want something so badly you become your own worst enemy,” she says. “I’ve often tried to make things work instead of letting them happen. Now I’m learning to let go. 

“I realised that my friends’ lives had changed, but mine hadn’t. I felt I couldn’t keep living the way I’d lived until then.” She moved to a leafy part of north London, near some of her friends and with her new home went a new attitude: she decided to stop “fighting”.

“I think my whole initial work life has been a fight,” she says. “I’ve never hidden that it was a struggle. It was. It was hard. It was traumatic to a certain extent. From the get-go I was fighting against people who said I couldn’t do it. You get into a routine of thinking this is just the way it is – but it doesn’t need to be like that.

“I felt I was holding myself back, because I was still het up about living like I should be living, rather than living in the moment and appreciating everything that happened to me fully. It has been one of the most liberating experiences of my life: I’m able to live right now, rather than thinking constantly of the end goal. It’s a much more pleasing way to be.”

This, she says, is why she feels ready at last to tackle the tragic heroine of MacMillan’s ballet, based on Abbé Prévost’s novel Manon Lescaut. “You need to have had a certain amount of experience both on and off stage to do this role well,” she says. “Now I’m at a point in my own life where I’m ready to grasp Manon.” 

Melissa Hamilton in Raven Girl,
photo by Johan Persson
Torn between true love for the Chevalier des Grieux and the lure of filthy lucre, Manon makes all the wrong choices and is destroyed by them. “I think she’s in genuinely in love, but ultimately she loves herself more,” says Hamilton. “Des Grieux gives himself completely, yet she tires of it because there’s no game, nothing to keep her fighting to get it. She needs to be adored and draped in jewels to make her feel something. That’s her ultimate destruction – she can’t be content, she constantly wants and needs.” 

Her des Grieux is the Royal Ballet’s Canadian star Matthew Golding, who joined the company in February (and if Hamilton resembles Charlize Theron, Golding looks uncannily like Brad Pitt). The pair have already danced Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet DGV together, but Manon will be their first major appearance as a partnership. “We’re finding each other as people and as characters, building something together, which is very exciting,” Hamilton enthuses.

Now her horizons are broadening in other ways. She has begun to love travelling; and a recent visit to Barcelona brought her to the studio of the sculptor Lorenzo Quinn, with whom she is hoping to develop a collaboration. Invitations to appear abroad as a guest artist “seem to be popping up,” she says; and recently she has become the insurance company Allianz’s cultural ambassador to Northern Ireland. With their backing she hopes to find ways of raising awareness of and access to ballet there, whether touring with colleagues or setting up courses or masterclasses. 

“It seems a shame that if you want a career in ballet, you have to leave the country,” she remarks. “The public in Northern Ireland doesn’t know that a girl from there is now dancing with the Royal Ballet. I think that’s sad, because you should be able to feel some sense of pride that someone’s done that.

“I’d like to develop ways to help young dancers have an easier path into ballet than I had,” she adds. “It’s a wonderful world that so many people don’t even know exists. If I can bring that back to Northern Ireland, then it’s an honour.”


Manon, Royal Ballet, from 26 September. Melissa Hamilton dances on 13 October. Box office: 020 7304 4000




Saturday, September 27, 2014

Leonard Cohen tells us about a few lasting values...



This octogenarian popstar - essentially, a performance poet with musical knobs on - just gets better and better and better. In this song, 'Slow', from Popular Problems, his magnificent latest album, we find the words: "I always liked it slow, I never liked it fast; with you it's got to go, with me it's got to last."

I think we could take some cues from this song to describe the values of our own corner of the music world.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Muti, melodrama and mayhem...

My piece about the context of Muti's resignation from Rome:
http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/features/riccardo-mutis-resignation-does-italy-have-an-opera-problem-9751757.html

I wonder if [>irony font<] the culture of chaos in the Italian opera world is so deeply embedded that things just wouldn't be the same there without it... [>/irony font<].

Nevertheless, this kind of mess doesn't really help anybody. Come on, guys. Drama belongs on the stage, not off it.

(New York could note that as well right now.)

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

PANUFNIK 100 AND RISING


The centenary of the great Polish composer Sir Andrzej Panufnik is being celebrated across the UK on his birthday, i.e. tomorrow (indeed, all this week; and indeed, all this season). At Symphony Hall Birmingham, the CBSO is performing his Piano Concerto, with Peter Donohoe as soloist, and perhaps his most celebrated work, the Symphony No.2, 'Sinfonia Elegiaca'. To start the evening, I will be presenting a pre-concert interview with Panufnik's daughter, the composer Roxanna Panufnik, to offer an intimate memoir of Andrzej's life and his influence on her own work. Panufnik was chief conductor of the CBSO at one time, so we are particularly thrilled that his music is under the spotlight at "his" orchestra. Please join us at 6.15pm tomorrow! Info and booking here. 

Meanwhile, Panufnik senior is composer of the week on BBC Radio 3; the LSO will be holding a Discovery Afternoon at St Luke's devoted to his work on 19 October (and performing his music in Katowice, Poland, with Tony Pappano conducting); and there is a Panufnik Day at Kings Place on 30 November entitled Panufnik 100: A Family Celebration, including several different performances and films (this one among them).

Here, by way of taster, is his Violin Concerto, just because it happens to be a favourite of mine.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Prokofiev needs your help

Gabriel Prokofiev - grandson of Sergei and a terrific composer and groundbreaking figure in his own right - asks for our input in a new book project about the alternative classical scene. Please jump in!


'We Break Strings'
Is a book of photos, interviews & essays charting the rise of the alternative classical music scene in London.

This 144-page, high-quality book is the first time that the contemporary classical scene in London has been properly investigated in a single printed document. Photographer Dimitri Djuric's photos give a unique insight into the London scene, and writer/blogger Thom Andrewes remarkably thoughtful and thorough text investigates the social, cultural and aesthetic implications of the scene.
Thom spent months interviewing many of the people involved, and Dimitri spent over 2 years photographing events. Thom was very careful to get a really balanced and wide view of the scene; so that the book reveals the amazing diversity of approaches that are been taken to presenting classical music in new ways.

Please visit the kickstarted page to find out more about the project & support it:

Classical music rarely gets the printed visual representation that other genres of music & art-forms get, and having witnessed how much this 'alternative' classical scene has grown over the last ten years - it feels like the right time to share this growing new movement in contemporary classical music in a visual form, and I think this book will really help get more people interested in the music & the scene.

We have launched the Kickstarter project in order to fund the printing of the book. But, we've been very generous with the Kickstarter 'rewards', and on Kickstarter you can actually buy the book in advance for less that it will cost once it is officially released in November. But, you are welcome to donate more to the cause if you wish, and we also have bigger rewards such as exclusive prints from the book, and guest-passes to Nonclassical events…

Please pass on this email & the kickstarter link to everyone you know - it's a unique chance to discover more about a significant new development in classical music - and we still need to raise much more funds to cover all the costs.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

FILM OF FAURÉ, 1913

I just came across the site of Cmusic.org, which here posts 14 rare bits of footage of some early 20th-century composers and conductors of note (Saint-Saëns and Shostakovich among them). While recordings exist of Fauré playing his own music, I've never before seen actual film of my beloved Monsieur Gabriel, aka The Archangel, and got quite choked up on viewing this.

He slightly resembles an elderly, nervous and rather unwell Charlie Chaplin. In fact this was 1913, 11 years before his death; he would have been about 68. One can't help suspecting he was in the process of smoking himself into his grave. But look at those twinkly eyes.




Friday, September 19, 2014

Better together


Scotland has decided to stay after all, which is nice. Above, a picture of me and Murray McLachlan finishing the Alicia's Gift concert at Chetham's last month with clear proof that a Scot and an Englishperson can cooperate rather beautifully when given half a chance. Murray hails originally from Aberdeen and is now head of piano at Chet's.

Speaking of Alicia's Gift, the first of several for the new season finds me reunited with Viv McLean this Sunday at 4pm at Westminster Cathedral Hall, courtesy of the Chopin Society. We're very honoured to be part of such a distinguished series - and are looking forward, additionally, to the wonderful tea that habitually follows these recitals. Do please come along and join us. Info and tickets here. (and more about the book here.)

By way of a taster, here's Viv playing Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, which features in the programme alongside the likes of Chopin, Granados, Falla, Debussy and Ravel.





Thursday, September 18, 2014

How Ealing Studios predicted Britain's breakaway state

Here in sunny London we don't get a say in the future of our own country after today's Scottish referendum on independence, so I thought we'd relax and have a laugh while we wait for them to get their act together. Here's how the Ealing Studios predicted a breakaway state within the UK back in 1949. The score, incidentally, is by the fabulous Georges Auric.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

No tittering at Anna Nicole

Went to Anna Nicole last night at the Royal Opera House, and took with me an American friend who was seeing it for the first time. She thought Richard Thomas's libretto was brilliant, which it is, and she laughed at the jokes, of which there are many.

At the start of the interval, the besuited guy in front of us turned round and told her to stop laughing.

Problem: this opera is meant to be funny.

The librettist would have been overjoyed to get such a positive reaction (elsewhere in the house sharp intakes of breath could be heard around some of the filthier lines). So would the composer. So would the performers; there's nothing worse than uttering something that's meant to be hilarious and eliciting...well, polite silence.

Meanwhile the management is doing its best to open up access and encourage wider appreciation of its artforms. Nobody I know in the echelons of musical performers and creators is remotely stuffy or elitist; everyone, but everyone, wants the audience to enjoy their work. The whole music world is falling over backwards trying to open itself up to bigger, broader audiences.

But frankly, if other opera-goers won't let people laugh at the jokes, what hope is there? All that effort - straight down the drain. Deity-of-choice [to quote the opera], help us all.

This incident is a nice little supplement to the time a critic was spotted telling off a small African-American child in the RFH (remember that?) and the occasion on which another one told me and my niece to stop laughing at a Prom - the incident being a pianist who as his post-concerto encore played a fugue on a Lady Gaga song, and my niece was the only one of us who actually knew what it was. If I've personally encountered such situations three times in just a few years - and I am press, for goodness sake - then I shudder to think what other people are being subjected to out there.

My friend, incidentally, comes from Detroit, which is one reason she laughed so much - for her, the portrayal of the background to Anna Nicole's trailer-trash early life rings all too true. Now she lives in Berlin and is one of the more vital movers-and-shakers in the classical music world. She sees it as her mission to help find ways for this industry to move ahead in new directions, a forum where the community of music-makers around the world can work together to create an innovative, forward-looking future. Her organisation is called Classical:NEXT. Bring it on.

[UPDATE: For those who are still not sure what Anna Nicole is all about, here is a preview from the ROH. It's a tragicomedy by Mark-Anthony Turnage, based on the true story of Anna Nicole Smith. The end is desperately sad, but the first half is full of wit and wordplay. The librettist Richard Thomas also wrote Jerry Springer: The Opera]

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Orchestra calls for more women composers



The Britten Sinfonia has issued a heartening call for more women composers to step up and enter its Opus2015 competition. Currently in its third year, the scheme offers unpublished composers the chance to win a professional commission for a new work to be played in the orchestra's At Lunch series. But now the orchestra has noted that so far only 15 per cent of the applications have come from women composers - and they'd like some more, please.

Opportunities like this don't grow on trees, so all aspiring composers - both gals and guys - could do worse than get that show on the road and enter the contest! Deadline is 17 October.

Full details here.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Discussing John Ogdon

Quick reminder for pianophile friends in the north London area that today at the Hampstead & Highgate Literary Festival I am in discussion with the author Charles Beauclerk about PIANO MAN, his excellent biography of John Ogdon. The venue is Anna Pavlova's former home, now the LJCC - Ivy House, North End Road, London NW11 - and we start at 3.30pm. We'll talk for an hour and Charles will be signing copies of the book afterwards. Do join us if you're free. Details here.

And here is a reminder of what it's all about: a recital that Ogdon gave at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire in 1976.




Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Helter-Skelton!

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/features/stuart-skelton-rising-to-the-challenge-of-otello-9722095.html
Here's my piece from today's Independent about the fab Heldentenot Stuart Skelton, who stars as Otello at ENO's opening night on Saturday. He tells me about his path to the top, the challenges of Otello and why he and ENO feel the love...

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Smile, please!

Meet Gabor Takács-Nagy, the inspirational secret weapon behind an ongoing transformation of ethos at the Manchester Camerata. If you're a fan of the Takács Quartet, you know Gabor already - he was its original first violin and it remains named after him long after he moved from the violin (due to an injury) to coaching and conducting. The Manchester Camerata's new season launches on 19 and 20 September with Nicky Benedetti as soloist in a little something by Vivaldi...and the starting point for the orchestra's self-reinvention is simpler than you might expect. As Gabor says: smile...and be ready to fall in love.

JD: Gabor, please tell us something about what “drives” you musically? I’ve heard you as violinist, conductor and teacher and I’d love to know what your ideals are and what qualities you think are vital in a musical performance.

GTN: The most important thing is to manipulate the emotions of the listeners (as Leopold Mozart wrote in 1756 – sending to them spiritual messages which are behind every note and phrase). In the score we find dead notes; we have to bring them alive. In other words, the composer feels an emotion or atmosphere and finds the notes for them; we performers find the (dead)  notes on paper and have to find the spiritual values behind each of them. This is fascinating and is what drives me – I am not a genius but hopefully have antennas to them. There is an Indian saying: 'You are as rich as much as you give.'  A musical performance, which is an emotional strip-tease, is nothing other than sharing and giving emotions and spirits.

JD: How did you come to join the Manchester Camerata? What is special about them, for you? What are your plans for the new season with them? And how would you like to develop your work with them in the longer-term future?

GTN: In 2008, Bob Riley, CEO of Manchester Camerata, invited me to conduct the new year’s concert and I felt a big affinity with the orchestra. They are very nice people and very good musicians and I knew immediately that we could make music as I just described . I‘d like to use fewer gestures in future performances and rehearsals and also to talk less because now we understand each other more and more. The mutual trust and confidence in each other could be even higher, which means we could be even more creative in the future.

JD: When the orchestra says that they wish to “redefine what an orchestra can do” - what do you feel this means? How would you like to see the orchestras of the future - or, indeed, the present - operating?

GTN: When I asked my young daughters if they like concerts of classical music, they answered, “No, because the music is nice but both the musicians and public are very stiff”. I had to agree with them. We have to be more communicative, open and emotional on stage, otherwise we will lose the next generation. Some years ago, I began presenting the pieces to the public and it makes the atmosphere more human and relaxed for both orchestra and public.

JD: The conductor Iván Fischer recently said (in an interview with The Times) that he thinks the traditional symphony orchestra model can last only another few decades, if that. What do you think he meant by this? Do you agree? How will things change?

GTN: I agree with Iván – if we don’t change drastically, we could lose the next generation.  We have to reform many things, but still manage to avoid circus-like activities.

JD: How is the musical scene of Hungary at the moment? Why is the place home to such a special tradition of musicianship - and does this still exist?

GTN: The Hungarian music scene is very alive: we have lots of brilliant musicians and the public loves classical music. The tickets are getting more expensive for an average wage but there are many free events as well. I hope the country will get stronger economically, which will help cultural activities. I do not know exactly what the secret could be of the special tradition of musicianship – one thing is true, though, which is that the Hungarians are very emotional with extremes of mood that can change abruptly. This is very useful for music-making!

JD: How can we best attract and excite new audiences with classical music in a world that seems so ignorant of it and resistant to the idea of it?

GTN: With exciting, emotional, colourful performances and with smiling faces from the stage. Classical musicians, especially in orchestras, can look far too serious. One of the reasons is the fear of making small mistakes which the public doesn’t hear anyway! It’s a long story.

JD: Please would you name a few of your favourite pieces?

GTN: My favourite piece is always the one I am working on (most of the time). If you study a masterpiece and get closer to it, sooner or later you will fall in love with it. During the performance, this love can be the generator for our energy and enthusiasm.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

St Matthew and St Mark?

It was one of the hottest tickets in town yesterday: the semi-staged performance at the Proms of the Bach St Matthew Passion with the Berlin Philharmonic, Sir Simon Rattle conducting, direction by Peter Sellars. Add to this the Berlin Radio Choir, singing from memory, an all-star cast and a packed Albert Hall that was ready for anything...

Well, almost anything. We were not quite ready for the utterly devastating performance that Mark Padmore gave as the Evangelist. In Sellars' concept - sometimes convincing, sometimes less so - the Evangelist carries everything, experiencing the emotions and traumas of each character, supporting them, leading them, suffering in their place. Christ - the astounding Christian Gerhaher - is a distant figure, seated above the orchestra and outside the action through the first half, then entirely off stage for his scant few phrases in the second. The Evangelist lives the drama and is its focal point. The beauty, nuancing, clarity and stillness of Padmore's voice would have been enough to carry the night on its own, but his every move magnetised us and convinced us that he felt every anguish, every burden and every lash. If the British music business had not already given him a virtual sainthood by repute, they certainly should now. (Gerhaher, of course, is just as magical, but has frustratingly little to sing.)

The staging has its ups and downs, many of them literal. A lot of rushing around is involved and sometimes one wished they'd keep still for a few minutes. Yet some extraordinary images unfolded that also enhanced the music at a profound level, notably through the interaction of the instrumental soloists with the singers, moments that carried a plethora of meanings. Sometimes the players seemed to represent the soul, the conscience or the better self; perhaps even God, or Bach in place of God? Magdalena Kozena sang 'Erbarme dich' kneeling at the feet of her violinist; Camilla Tilling in 'Aus liebe will mein Heiland sterben' stood in close quartet with her oboists and flautist; Emmanuel Pahud, no less, beside her right shoulder. Tenor Topi Lehtipuu stretched up towards an unattainable oboist in the organ inset; bass Eric Owens appeared to pray for mercy before a vengeful virtuoso fiddler. 

Rattle's tempi were largely very brisk, sometimes too much so - occasionally I longed for an old-school influence to bring back a little more time for breath, contemplation and refulgence, since some of the intricate instrumental writing whooshed by to somewhat unsettling effect. But the magic was there all the same and the moments of stillness stood out all the better. The episode that brings the whole work together is (I feel) the final bass aria, 'Mache dich mein Herze rein' - here he understands, accepts and transcends all that has gone before. If that doesn't do its job, nothing does. It worked. 

My personal frustration with the staging is mostly due to the sonic impact, as it entails much clonking about and some directional echoes which are the fault of the RAH's acoustic, not the performers. Still, there's much to chew over: the presence, or lack of it, of Jesus himself (we might ask: is he real?), those intimate dialogues between singers and instrumentalists, that soul-searing performance by Padmore. 

Would less be more? We can feel the suffering in the music; we don't need to see it. The spiritual catharsis of this work, like Parsifal's, is perhaps better internalised if there is not too much to observe and assess: that process puts us outside ourselves, switches on our objective brain and mutes the intuitive, emotional plane that's necessary for the full cumulative effect to reach us. (Btw, I am not religious in any way, shape or form; yet perhaps that makes the spiritual dimensions of Bach and Wagner all the more meaningful.)

What seemed at the time a long, hot evening now haunts for its ineffable beauty, its deeply human quest for meaning and its all-consuming, tour-de-force performances. 

In the foyer I spotted the head of the LSO, who may or may not have been clutching a metaphorical butterfly net. 

Saturday, September 06, 2014

In which your blogger nearly dances with the Royal Ballet...


Your Cinderella put on her ballet hat the other day and went to the ball. Well, a gala at Claridge's. The Royal Academy of Dance celebrated the 60th anniversary of its most prestigious award, the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award, by holding a fundraising dinner at which the prize was handed over to an entire company for the first time, rather than just one individual: namely, the Royal Ballet. Darcey Bussell, president of the RAD, is in the photo above, giving the award to RB director Kevin O'Hare.

The evening, complete with a glittery auction, raised about £65,000 towards the creation of a new bursary scheme to help young dancers from all over the world to enter the RAD's Genée International Ballet Competition. A talent for dance, like that for music, is no respecter of geography or bank accounts. In these straitened times this kind of support has become more crucial than ever to ensure that gifted youngsters do not miss out on opportunities due to financial disadvantage. The Genée is one of the biggest: its former medallists have frequently gone on to very distinguished careers, including RB stars Steven McRae and Lauren Cuthbertson (pictured right as Juliet). More info about the new bursary scheme will be revealed in time for next year's competition.

This got me thinking. I do wonder if some of the top musical competitions could consider starting a similar scheme for young instrumentalists. Not everyone can afford to travel to Moscow, Fort Worth or Leeds. Independent schemes like the Solti Foundation offer grants for young musicians for such purposes, but why should the most famous and well-heeled of contests not offer means-tested bursaries to gifted entrants who couldn't otherwise afford to go?

Meanwhile, it was quite a night. The exquisite Art Deco ballroom of this most fantastical of swanky London hotels was chock-full of the ballet world's great and good. And if you're me, dear reader, thinking back to the starry-eyed schoolkid who used to run up to the back of the amphitheatre on every possible occasion, this meant a lot more than Christmas come early.

I had some wonderful chats during the course of the evening with luminaries past and present: Lesley Collier, for example, who was the one I loved best when I was 13 and had never met before - she now coaches the principal dancers. Darcey Bussell talked into my voice recorder about the occasion and about her championship of dance for all; and over dinner I encountered, among others, Philip Mosley, a brilliant Puck, who was the original model for Billy Elliot, and the Canadian premier danseur Matthew Golding, who joined the company earlier this year and happens to be a dead ringer for Brad Pitt.

My fairy godmother was the RAD's press office, my pumpkin was South West Trains and I did not lose a shoe. There was dancing - the fun, after-dinner kind, to Abba and Michael Jackson and suchlike. If I'd only had the guts, I could have danced with the Royal Ballet...

Watch this space for more news of exciting initiatives - this one and others too - designed to support talented young dancers and more. The autumn promises much.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Jonas Kaufmann talks about...



...his lovely new disc.

I just want to add a few things. I love this stuff. It is very close to our hearts here at JDCMB, not least because some of these songs were associated with the Comedian Harmonists, that remarkable singing ensemble - pop group, indeed - who rose to fame in risqué 1920s Berlin, but were destroyed by the Third Reich since half the members were Jewish.

They all escaped the Nazi era, fortunately, but were scattered to the corners of the globe and never sang together again. One baritone with a gorgeously warm voice became a synagogue cantor. We stumbled across some reissued recordings ten or fifteen years ago and when we took them to my father-in-law - who was born in Berlin in 1921 and left forever in 1936, settling in Buxton - he still knew all the songs from memory and sang along, a faraway look in his eye...

There is also, as previously noted, some Korngold on this CD: the Lute Song from Die tote Stadt - but it's not on the trailer, so we'll just have to wait.

I'll leave you with this nice dose of Kaufmania as I am now off to meet some cats. This is not a euphemism.

Monday, September 01, 2014

September: some gigs and a song

Hello, it's September. How did that happen?!

Here are a few things I'm doing this month: do come along if you're in the vicinity of any of them!

14 September, 3.30pm:
HAMPSTEAD AND HIGHGATE LITERARY FESTIVAL: JOHN OGDON. I interview Ogdon's biographer Charles Beauclerk about the life and work of the troubled musical genius. LJCC, Ivy House, North End Road, Golders Green, London NW11.

21 September, 4pm:
ALICIA'S GIFT, the Concert of the Novel. Viv McLean (piano), me (narrator). Chopin Society, London, Westminster Cathedral Hall.

24 September, 6.15pm
PANUFNIK CENTENARY Pre-Concert Talk at the CBSO, Symphony Hall, Birmingham. I interview Sir Andrzej Panufnik's daughter, composer Roxanna Panufnik, about the life, legacy and influence of her father and his music. Concert includes A.Panufnik's Piano Concerto (with Peter Donohoe) and Sinfonia Elegiaca. 


September is one of the most beautiful months of the year. Here is its eponymous song by this year's top anniversary man, Richard Strauss, from Four Last Songs. The soprano is Nina Stemme, and it's the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Tony Pappano. 

I am sick as the proverbial parrot about having missed Nina's Salome at the Proms on Saturday night. I was in Salzburg to interview a VIPianist and was travelling back at the time. Apparently it was totally sensational and you can hear it on the iPlayer here: click on Listen Again, even if you haven't listened before.