Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Join us at Classical:NEXT for this!

Gearing up for the cutting-edge trade fair Classical:NEXT, which this year is being held in Rotterdam at De Doelen. It runs 20-23 May. On 21 May at 3.30pm I'm chairing a "network meeting" on the topic of gender equality in the music world, under the title "Music to our ears?".

We have three fabulous speakers: Gillian Moore, head of music at the Southbank Centre; Susanna Eastburn, chief executive of Sound and Music; and Vanessa Reed, chief executive of the PRS for Music Foundation. I'll be asking each of them to say a few words on the issue from their perspective, then we'll discuss it a bit, then open up to the floor for discussion en masse. It's the perfect chance to compare notes with our colleagues from all over the globe - male as well as female, please (it is your equality too!). Do put the session in your diaries if you're coming along to Rotterdam. We have 45 minutes - but with any luck, that'll just be the start.

Pleased to say that the course at Morley College for young women conductors has also found its way onto the list of 21 nominees for Classical:NEXT's Innovation Award, which will be presented during the fair.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Bashing and boring? The Chopin Competition 2015: a juror's words...

Professor Andrzej Jasinski. Photo by Marek Ostas
The preliminary rounds of the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw have been and gone. Three Brits are through to the contest proper: Ashley Fripp, Kausikan Rajeshkumar and Alexander Ullman. In addition, Dinara Klinton of Ukraine, who has been studying at the Royal College of Music, is admitted to the competition without tackling the preliminaries; and RCM student  Hin-Yat Tsang of China is through too. The full list of 84 pianists can be found here.

Professor Andrzej Jasinski, who is a member of the jury, has been talking to the Chopin Society about the story so far, and here's what he has to say on the Soc's Facebook page:

"Yes,they have emerged! I am pleased to say that in my notes I put the letter "W" against the names of three potential prizewinners. This was an interesting round. Compared to previous editions the standard was very mixed.   
"What surprised me was that a good number of participants sent in excellent DVD's, whereas their live performances turned out to be disappointing. Some applied too much physical strength, ignoring the potential of the piano and the ears of the listeners. Then there were those whose playing was quite simply boring enough to put the audience to sleep.
"Fortunately there were also artistic personalities who combined truly exquisite piano playing with Chopin's aesthetic. To see that someone applies technical skills to a higher purpose rather than in order to show-off makes one very happy. 
"Another ingredient which will be needed in the finals is luck: a competition is different to a normal concert. It's a very stressful environment, the desire to do well creates a lot of pressure. One of the ways of relieving it is to have positive attitude. Each time I'm asked about it, I always say: Try to win the 1st prize. Express what you really feel and be spontaneous. 
"But in the end accept the verdict of the jury. Nothing ends with winning or losing one competition. The real competition is your life afterwards. It will decide your place as an artist in society at large"."Fortunately there were also artistic personalities who combined truly exquisite piano playing with Chopin's aesthetic. To see that someone applies technical skills to a higher purpose rather than in order to show-off makes one very happy. 
"Another ingredient which will be needed in the finals is luck: a competition is different to a normal concert. It's a very stressful environment, the desire to do well creates a lot of pressure. One of the ways of relieving it is to have positive attitude. Each time I'm asked about it, I always say: Try to win the 1st prize. Express what you really feel and be spontaneous. 
"But in the end accept the verdict of the jury. Nothing ends with winning or losing one competition. The real competition is your life afterwards. It will decide your place as an artist in society at large".

Thursday, April 23, 2015

More on ENO & British opera

Further to my post this morning, in which I grumbled about the lack of British operas beyond G&S in the new ENO season, I've got some more depressing information. I'm reliably informed that the company was planning to put on a major work by an important living British composer, but that this had to be abandoned at an advanced stage - because of the funding cuts. As you'll remember, the ACE slashed ENO's grant by a shocking 29 per cent and removed it from the national portfolio. And so they can't do a big piece by a big Brit. This seems to me very much like the ACE shooting itself in both feet at the same time.

I'd also like to make it clear that ENO has a terrific track record of supporting British music - just a few of its recent productions have included Vaughan Williams's Pilgrim's Progress, plenty of great Britten but especially that amazing Peter Grimes, the triumph of Julian Anderson's Thebans, and the premiere this month of Tansy Davies's Between Worlds. The list could continue. It's precisely because of that track record that I find it so disappointing that there isn't anything to match it in 2015-16. New opera commissioned from Ryan Wigglesworth is due in 2017.

Find your voices?

The announcement of ENO's new season got off to a slightly flummoxed start yesterday at a press conference in which questions from the floor were short-circuited before they could begin. There was a determined speech from artistic director John Berry about leaving the past behind and looking to the future; a thoughtful and convincing defence of opera in English from the incoming music director Mark Wigglesworth; a few words from the acting CEO Cressida Pollock; and a short introductory film that began with blood being daubed upon someone's forehead, whether on or off I'm not sure. Then we were ushered out for tea and questions in corners. Berry was mobbed; the wonderful Wigglesworth was left hovering. Innovations for the season include price reductions on 50 per cent of tickets - some 60,000 seats priced at £20 or under - and a new partnership with Streetwise Opera, which works closely with vulnerable adults and community groups; and, of course, the new music director.

It's a fine spread of repertoire, beginning with a revival of The Magic Flute and featuring new productions of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov, La forza del destino directed by Calixto Bieito, Glass's Akhnaten from Phelim McDermott, a new Boheme with Benedict Andrews in the driving seat and, best of all, a new Tristan (more of which in a moment). Revivals include Jenufa, The Mikado, Madam Butterfly, The Barber of Seville and an import of Opera North's Norma.

In a new season in which 88 per cent of the singers and conductors are either British, British trained or British resident, the 12 per cent who are not have attracted rather a lot of attention. Putting aside the reasons for which some people might consider this such a bad thing (mainly because I'm not sure what they are) I'm more curious about the match of operatic repertoire with the sort of voices that might be booked to sing in it, and how those voices come into being in the first place.

For me, the season highlight is the new Tristan and Isolde, in June 2016, to be conducted by Ed Gardner, designed by Anish Kapoor, directed by Daniel Kramer and starring Stuart Skelton (Australian) and Heidi Melton (American). Please forgive me if I'm missing something, but I would pretty much kill to hear Skelton sing Tristan and I don't give a four-x about where he comes from. Karen Cargill is Brangane and Matthew Rose King Marke, besides Gardner back in the pit, so it's not like no Brits are represented.

Besides, why should it be a bad thing to hear Xian Zhang conducting, or the glorious Corinne Winters as Mimi in La Boheme, or to explore the ever-controversial Bieito's concept for Forza (it's set, we're told, in the Spanish Civil War and features brilliant Rinat Shaham, liberated from her serial Carmens, as the mezzo-soprano who takes on that crazy war aria)? Opera is an international art. It always was, it always will be - deity-of-choice willing.

There are unquestionably some fine British singers who could take those roles. It's just that there don't appear to be very many of them. Longborough has been enjoying the voices of two remarkable British spinto-dramatic sopranos, Lee Bisset and Rachel Nicholls, in their Wagner productions; both are singing Isolde there this summer. I was lucky enough to hear a lovely young soprano with Wagnerian leanings, Lauren Fielder, in the Royal Northern College of Music's Gold Medal Competition last year, but she is still in her twenties and may not be ready for a full-blown Isolde for a while.

Ditto Ed Lyon and David Butt Philip, two notable and fantastic emerging voices, but ones who maybe could use more years under the belt before tackling a vocal marathon of that ilk, if indeed they ever grow to suit it. Longborough's Tristans are Peter Wedd (who had a fine impact as Lohengrin at WNO a couple of years ago) and Neal Cooper, whose uncle was apparently a heavyweight boxing champion. But to take on a whole run of Tristan in the biggest theatre in London, a singer has to be (a) ready, (b) willing and (c) free at the right time. Longborough is another story: a theatre that seats a modest 500-or-so, with a covered pit not quite a-la-Bayreuth and a reduced orchestra, puts less potential strain on the voice.

Dramatic-voiced singers don't grow on trees and not many appear to be growing in our indigenous woodland just now. A huge proportion of the advanced students - indeed, postgrads in general - in our conservatoires are from overseas. Meanwhile, young singers going through school and university are likely to be honed in the good old British choral tradition. This entails a pure, streamlined and rather small sound, with passion quelled in favour of spirituality and individuality in favour of blendability. It takes a very long time for a singer to get this tradition out of his/her system (usually 'his', because that's how the choirs are set up). Many British tenors seem to have started out this way, whether as boy choristers or choral scholars at Oxbridge.

Note that the really great British Wagnerites don't have that background. Bryn Terfel spent his childhood in farm gear rather than a cassock; Sir John Tomlinson was never exactly a choirboy type, training as a construction engineer before turning to singing at 21. Most of the other UK nationals who made a serious name in this repertoire are female - Anne Evans, Gwyneth Jones, Jane Eaglen...Today Catherine Foster, who sings leading Wagner roles at Bayreuth yet remains virtually unknown in her native UK, was a nurse and midwife for some 15 years before switching to music.

We do need more opportunities for young British singers, but we can't expect them to appear as if by magic, or to suit every opera that comes their way - and besides, having done our level best at conservatoire level to attract fine students from overseas to our expensive UK training, we can't then shut them out when it comes to professional engagements. And why should opera-lovers be denied the chance to hear singers such as Melton and Skelton just because they're not British? Perhaps we need to look at the entire picture of how our singers are raised and trained.

Back at ENO, more worth worrying about is the shortage of actual British repertoire in the new season. Beyond the ever-popular Gilbert and Sullivan, there's no other opera by a UK composer in the schedule. Not a Britten, a Delius, a Tippett. a Birtwistle, a Turnage, an Ades, an anything. If there really is an omission in the season, that is the one to grumble about. It's not like there's nothing out there to choose. If ENO is to continue to hold its own as British International Opera they could do worse than consistently support actual British music.

[update, 1.42pm: please see my post here for more on the British music programming - the situation is unfortunately worse than we thought...]

Here's Skelton in an extract from Britten's Peter Grimes.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Long live King Roger!

Karol Szymanowski's operatic masterpiece is coming up at the Royal Opera House next week, and not a moment too soon. My God, what an impossibly gorgeous score it is. I nearly died of joy the first time I heard it. So I had a chat with its director, Kasper Holten - and wasn't sorry to hear about his passion for early 20th-century opera, or the fact that one of his happiest experiences to date was with Korngold's Die tote Stadt (his production, for the Finnish National Opera, is on DVD).

Tony Pappano conducts, the wonderful Mariusz Kwiecień is the King, Georgia Jarman is Queen Roxana and the production opens 1 May. NB the live streaming on the Internet on 16 May.

Here's my piece from today's Independent.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Dinosaurs, brainwashing and bunkum...

The other day I came across the expression "Music shouldn't be a Museum Culture" just once too often. I've got out my Amati Soapbox to explain why I think this clichéd phrase is a daft bit of pernicious brainwashing idiocy... http://magazine.amati.com/149-comment/comment-dinosaurs-brainwashing-bunkum.html

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A big step up for...

...the brilliant young British-Australian conductor, Jessica Cottis, who has just been signed up for general management by Inverne Price. This is a Very Good Thing. Official info below.

If by their pedigree shall you judge a young conductor, Jessica Cottis is set to do great things. She has recently finished her tenure as Assistant Conductor at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, first to Vladimir Ashkenazy and then to David Robertson, and previously she has assisted Donald Runnicles at the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Charles Dutoit with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas with the San Francisco Symphony. Before all of which, the Royal Academy of Music graduate was taught by Sir Colin Davis. In the light of such undoubted talent and musical intelligence, Inverne Price Music Consultancy is delighted to announce that they have signed Jessica Cottis for general management.

Hailed as a "fast-rising star" by Jessica Duchen in the UK's Classical Music Magazine, "one of the big hopes for change" by the Sydney Morning Herald and as one of The Independent's "next generation" of five conductors making their mark in Britain (a list that put Cottis in the company of Robin Ticciati and Daniel Harding), the Scottish-Australian maestra is racking up the impressive credits expected from conductors of her calibre. She has given high-profile performances with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the Queensland Symphony (where she returns later this month with soloist Sarah Chang), BBC Scottish Symphony, London Philharmonic, BBC Philharmonic, New Zealand Symphony, Bit20 Ensemble, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales; Scottish Opera, the Edinburgh Festival, the Aldeburgh Festival and elsewhere. Yet amidst all of the Mozart and Beethoven and her beloved Richard Strauss, Cottis always looks to find time for her passion projects away from the well-trodden paths.

These include conducting an all female composers programme in Cardiff for International Women's Day and the Women Of The World Orchestra at London's Royal Festival Hall, founding London's Bloomsbury Opera, championing the music of her native Australia and bringing contemporary music into the spotlight. This last led to one of her career breakthroughs, the hugely successful premiere of James Dillon's Nine Rivers cycle with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Les Percussions de Strasbourg - an event that The Guardian called "unquestionably the most significant new-music event in Britain this year." In 2014, she conducted a new work by Peter Maxwell Davies  for the opening of the restored organ at London's Royal Festival Hall. Most recently, Cottis was appointed Principal Conductor of the new Scotland-based ensemble, the Glasgow New Music Expedition.

"I am obsessed with great music, whether new or old, symphonic or opera," she says, "and as much as anything, conducting the music of our own time guides us to discover anew the relevance, excitement and sense of adventure of the music of the past. So that Mozart and Berlioz and Wagner and the rest become again the music of the present."

Cottis's talent as a communicator has been welcomed by broadcasters. She has  appeared on various programs, including as conducting mentor to presenter Jenni Murray on a Radio "Woman's Hour" special (BBC Radio 4) and in a similar capacity to DJ Trevor Nelson in BBC Two Television's series "Maestro at the Opera". She has broadcast on the subjects of Brahms and of Verdi, both for Radio 4.

Ahead of her coming engagement at the Queensland Symphony - other forthcoming engagements include the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and a return to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra - she was asked to write a feature for Australia's Limelight magazine on today's "golden age" for Australian composers, which can be read here. And you can watch Cottis conduct the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at her new YouTube channel.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Between Worlds: the premiere

I reviewed ENO's world premiere last night of Between Worlds, Tansy Davies's new opera with librettist Nick Drake on the awe-inspiring topic of 9/11. The piece? Quite a lot of problems where different aspects were at odds with each other, but some of us wept anyway. The performance? Superb. My review is in The Arts Desk, here (£).

Now Tchaikovsky announces contestants

Hot on the heels of Leeds, Moscow has declared its participants for this year's Tchaikovsky Competition. In four categories - piano (61 accepted), violin (50), cello (49), voice (40 male, 39 female) - there are only two from the UK, and they are both pianists: Oleksandr Grynyuk and Alexander Ullman (who is indeed going for 'the triple'). Quite a few non-UK nationals are studying here, though, including, we're told, six at the RCM.

Among the female singers, all but nine of 39 are Russian. Your grasp of cyrillic, though, has to be rather good to determine exactly who they are. I find it somewhat unsettling to log in to the site to read the list, only to discover that Russian contestants are listed in cyrillic lettering, along with one from Belarus and one from Moldova. Everyone else is in our plain old usual alphabet. Honest, guv. Have a look.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Lucky at Leeds?

The Leeds International Piano Competition, which takes place this August and September, has announced the 79 pianists who have been selected from more than 300 applicants to take part. While numbers are overwhelmingly dominated by musicians from the Far East, there's also a relatively strong showing from home, with four UK contestants and a fair number of others who are studying at this country's conservatoires. Ashley Fripp. Alexander Ullman and Yuanfan Yang are set for a very busy autumn as they are also off to the Chopin Competition. Will any go to Moscow too and try for what one might call The Triple?

Interesting to see some rather well established names on the Leeds list, though. While Yuanfan Yang is the best-known to British audiences, having entered the BBC Young Musician of the Year twice and won the piano section the second time, Lukas Vondracek has a strong career already and Vitaly Pisarenko, who's playing soon for the Keyboard Trust, has some fairly astonishing reviews to his name. Alexander Panfilov was an impressive gold medal winner at the RNCM in June. Constanza Principe from Italy has been studying at the Royal Academy of Music, while Pisarenko and Ullman, along with Tamila Samindjanova, Samson Tsoy and Pietro Gatto are or were all at the Royal College.

The full list is on the Leeds site, here.

Meanwhile on the jury, this is supposedly Dame Fanny Waterman's last competition. The founder of the Leeds, she has just turned 95. Full list of jury here.

Dear TV crews, please can we have the old format and see the WHOLE FINAL, LIVE, this time? Like we used to in the days when the likes of Mitsuko Uchida, András Schiff and Peter Donohoe were competing? The Cardiff Singer of the World is now a BBC effort and some of us pianophiles think that Leeds ought to be as well. It does make a difference. It really does.

Here's a clip of Federico Colli's winning Beethoven last time. Only a clip. From the very end.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

BBC Music Magazine Awards: playing of integrity and passion

The BBC Music Magazine Awards took over Kings Place the other night and offered an evening that would in old-fashioned pop-psychology terms have been termed a "warm fuzzy". It was Leif Ove Andsnes's birthday, for starters, and he didn't only walk off with the Concerto Award, but also with Recording of the Year for his recording with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra of Beethoven concertos nos 2 and 4.

Accepting the prize, the Norwegian superstar - who, we're told, is now one of the country's biggest exports - explained that he had had to postpone the recording because at the time it turned out that his wife was having their twins three months early; they remained in hospital for two months. But all is well, the recording took place at a later point - and he says he is delighted with the results both of the recording and of the twins. Tony Pappano was there to present his prize, then sat down at the piano and struck up Happy Birthday. So now pretty much the entire UK music business can say it has sung with Tony Pappano.

It was a fine night for keyboard players, all in all. Benjamin Grosvenor won the Instrumental for his gorgeous album 'Dances'. Mahan Esfahani was Newcomer of the Year for his CPE Bach Sonatas (with his old record label, Hyperion) and he was there to perform a fabulous example from it on the harpsichord - as well as delivering an impassioned tribute to the inspiration he'd received as a lad listening to the playing of the person who presented his prize, Trevor Pinnock. And the inimitable Oliver Condy, editor of BBC Music Magazine, initiated the whole evening by telling us a story about the time he had to perform the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony in Cambridge recently and the digital organ malfunctioned...let's just say that Hoffnung could not have bettered this account.

The one person who nearly succeeded, if on video, was the pianist Alexander Melnikov, whose recording of Beethoven trios with Isabelle Faust and Jean-Guihen Queyras won the Chamber Award. "A lot of jokes probably begin with 'A Frenchman, a German and a Russian decide to play trios together'..." he began in the most deadpan of tones...

In person once more, we were treated to a performance of one of Elgar's Sea Pictures by the amazing Sarah Connolly in tribute to her recording of these plus The Dream of Gerontius with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sir Andrew Davies that scooped the Choral Award. Opera went to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg from Glyndebourne, with Gerald Finley as Hans Sachs and Vladimir Jurowski conducting; DVD was for Being Traviata, with Natalie Dessay in rehearsal; and vocal went to Joyce DiDonato for her 'Stella di Napoli' album. Premiere award was for Unsuk Chin's concertos respectively for cello, piano and sheng, and Orchestral was the late Claudio Abbado's Bruckner 9 with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.

You can see the full list of winners and shortlisted discs, and listen to extracts, here.

Can't think of a single thing to argue with, really, so let's raise a glass, or a coffee (depending at what time you're reading this) to a roster of wonderful winners - devoted musicians every one of them, who deserve what little celebration this crazy world can give them. At a time when other pianists seem mired in controversy - Valentina Lisitsa being dropped from Toronto for political reasons, Gabriela Montero desperate to reveal the corruption of Venezuela and Khatia Buniatishvili causing fuss by bothering to respond to an iffy review - while we can't separate music and politics, because one never can, we can at least keep celebrating the music  first of all. Because if it wasn't for music, these would be grim times. Music can carry us to a better world. Here's hoping it always will.

Here's Benjamin.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Pianist lands a dream job

Piers Lane. Photo: (c) Keith Saunders
And the dream job lands a great guy. The Australian pianist Piers Lane has been announced as the new artistic director of the Sydney International Piano Competition. 

It's a fine and respected event in one of the contest world's most gorgeous cities, inaugurated in 1977 by its founder Claire Dan, founder of the Cladan Cultural Exchange Institute. The finals take place in the concert hall of the Sydney Opera House.

Lane won the prize for Best Australian Pianist at its inaugural competition and was on the jury in 2004; besides being an ever-popular presence on the concert platform he is artistic director of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville and has spearheaded in London the annual Myra Hess Day at the National Gallery.

He is a sought-after adjudicator, a tireless treasure-trove raider in the rare repertoire department, and a recording artist whose discs for Hyperion are a constant delight. He's also a thoroughly lovely bloke and a man of integrity. The world of music competitions needs such people.

Maybe Leeds has missed a trick by letting him slip through the net to the other side of the world.

Update - here's an interview Piers gave to the ABC re his appointment.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

JD meets...Louis de Bernières

I took a writer whose books I adore to lunch at Claridge's a few weeks back. My Editor's Lunch with Louis de Bernières has just gone live at The Amati Magazine and in it the author tells me about the lavish role that music plays in his life and work. And we hear about the new book that's coming out in July - his biggest in a decade. Read the interview here...

Monday, April 06, 2015

Watching Matthew Bourne in rehearsal...

Zizi Strallen rehearsing as Lana. Photo: (c) Micha Theiner
I trekked off to Three Mills Studios the other week to watch Matthew Bourne's company rehearsing the long-awaited revival of The Car Man and depict him in action... the resulting piece is in The Independent today, here.

By the way, part of the score for this roller-coaster Carmen adaptation are based on the Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin’s reworking for strings and percussion of highlights from the original, augmented with further arrangements by Terry Davies. Shchedrin made his version originally for his wife, Maya Plisetskaya, at the Bolshoi in the sixties; she was keen to dance the role of Carmen. Apparently she asked Shostakovich first, but the great Dmitri demurred. And Bourne says that he asked Shchedrin if he'd be interested in expanding the original. "He said something like 'Couldn't you play it backwards?', so I guess he wasn't," he remarks. Expanding the score was his first project with Terry Davies, he adds, and happily they have been working together ever since.

Shchedrin might well feel that he has had quite enough of Carmen: so quirky, fresh, convincing and useful is this suite that it has been taken up by ballet companies the world over. Carlos Acosta is planning a new version too. 

Last year was all about Manon; this year it's Carmen. I've just written an article about a fascinating play sparked by the idea of a singer who seems doomed to play Carmen over and over and over and over again. Should be out soon. 

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Farewell, Dennis Marks (1948 - 2015)

Dennis Marks in Budapest, 2000 (Photo: BBC)
The music business is in shock at the news that Dennis Marks, former head of BBC Music and one-time general director of English National Opera, has died of leukaemia at the age of 66. Dennis was a dear friend and deeply supportive in times of trouble, besides being a true polymath with a massive inner library of cultural knowledge and apparently endless spheres of interest. Having not seen him around his usual haunts in some time, I had blithely assumed he was busy writing a book or some radio scripts. Alas, this can't have been the case. All our thoughts and love go to his widow, Sally Groves.

One of my favourite memories of Dennis dates from my launch bash for Songs of Triumphant Love in 2009. After a drinks party in Daunt Books, Marylebone High Street, a bunch of us sloped off for an Italian meal nearby. It was August and Glyndebourne was in full swing; there my husband had made friends with Adriana Kucerova and Jennifer Holloway, who were starring in a spot of Humperdinck, and they turned up to the do and joined us for dinner. At the long table, Dennis chose us all some tasty Sicilian red wine, then phoned home and declared: "I'm in Strada with Hansel and Gretel."

Here is a fine obituary from the Telegraph. 

Swanhunter rides again

Wonderful talk the other week with Jonathan Dove about Swanhunter, which Opera North is currently doing at the ROH Linbury and is touring until 3 May. I love Jonathan's music, which manages to be engaging, original, interesting, compelling and atmospheric rolled into one, and it's always a joy to talk to him about his work. Not everything has gone into the paper, so here is the director's cut.

Being a contemporary classical composer can be an insecure business for some. But, it seems, not for Jonathan Dove, whom I catch for a chat just before he heads off to Hawaii, where one of his numerous operas is being staged. “I’m having rather an annus mirabilis,” he declares, mildly incredulous. Closer to home, his one-act chamber opera Swanhunter is coming to London for the first time: Opera North, which commissioned it, brings a new co-production with the theatre company The Wrong Crowd to the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio on 2 April. And this is just the beginning. 

“I like to feel useful,” Dove explains as we ponder the secret of his success. “And opera is something I like to share.” This at least partly accounts for his quantity of stage works for schools, families and community participation; they have included The Adventures of Pinocchio, The Enchanted Pig, and Tobias and the Angel, to name just a few, many of them received by audiences and critics alike with near rapture. Dove’s style is lyrical, fresh and, above all, genuine; he says he finds the matter of introducing young audiences to opera an inspiring challenge. “But whatever you do in that respect, Benjamin Britten always got there first,” he acknowledges, nodding to the prevailing influence of such works as Britten’s Noye’s Fludde and The Little Sweep.

After studying composition with Robin Holloway, Dove (now 55) learned the processes of opera from the inside, working as repetiteur, arranger and outreach animateur. “I first started to get excited about opera in my twenties, when I was playing the piano for rehearsals,” he says, “and before I started writing my own pieces I used to reorchestrate great operas like Wagner’s Ring cycle and Rossini’s La Cenerentola for what was then Birmingham Touring Opera. The idea was to take opera on the road. There’d be a bunch of us in a van, going around the country playing Rossini operas in sports centres. Opera can have a whole existence outside the opera house – you don’t have to have a proscenium arch and a full symphony orchestra, though it’s very exciting when you do.”

He wrote Swanhunter for Opera North in 2009: “The brief was to create something based on an idea of the north,” he says, “something for young people – the target audience is ages eight to 12 – and therefore not too long; and something that could be easily toured.” His regular collaborator, the librettist Alasdair Middleton, began the process by researching Nordic myths and homing in on the ancient Finnish folk-epic of the Kalevala.

Its hero, Lemminkäinen, must accomplish a set of apparently impossible tasks in order to win a beautiful bride: he must hunt the Devil’s elk and shoot the swan that swims around Tuonela, the isle of the dead. But he is killed and his body dismembered and thrown into the river. His mother fishes out the pieces, reassembles them and sings him back to life.

“It was that idea – that a mother might sing her son back to life – which stuck in my mind and wouldn’t go away,” says Dove. “It seemed an extraordinary and wonderful theme for an opera, especially one that might introduce the artform to some of the audience. It’s a story that celebrates the power of song as something magical, something that can heal and revivify.” 

This is the same story that inspired Sibelius’s Lemminkainnen Suite, its best-known extract being ‘The Swan of Tuonela’. But when Dove turns to the Swan, far from Sibelius’s dark-hued cor anglais solo, he begins its song “stratospherically high,” as he says, “descending in a cascade of harp ripples. Once I saw a child put his hands over his ears! It’s unearthly, and for people who are mainly used to hearing the human voice singing through amplification it can be interesting to see people producing these sounds without any mechanical assistance. As this will be some young people’s introduction to opera I want them to hear some of the extraordinary things the human voice can do.” 

Dove’s busy year intensifies in summer, when his enormously successful opera Flight, created in 1998 for Glyndebourne, comes to Holland Park Opera in the latest of its numerous incarnations; it has travelled the world from the US to Germany to Australia. “It was a life-changing piece for me to write,” Dove remarks. “I did what I’ve always tried to do, which is to write the piece I wanted to see. But I didn’t know whether anybody else would want to see it. It’s incredibly gratifying that it turned out they did.”  

And just as gratifying is the prospect of Sir Simon Rattle conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in Dove’s brand-new opera for children, The Monster in the Maze, in July. If this isn’t an annis mirabilis, I don’t know what is.

Swanhunter, ROH Linbury Studio Theatre, from 2 April, then touring until 3 May. Box office: 020 7304 4000

Thursday, April 02, 2015

9/11 comes to ENO

I had a wonderful talk with the composer Tansy Davies, whose first opera Between Worlds brings a profound take on the Twin Towers attack to the stage of the Barbican, in a co-commission between this centre and ENO. Its world premiere is on 11 April. My piece is in the Independent, here.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Symphony Hall to be shifted to London

Is this to be Orfulkoff Symphony Hall, City of London?
Photo: Craig Holmes

In a strange yet possibly inspired twist to the saga of the new venue for Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, is to be shifted brick by brick to London.

Rattle's campaigning for a state-of-the-art concert hall during his years with the CBSO resulted in the construction of what many consider to be the UK's finest of its kind. But now, as Birmingham City Council struggles against budget cuts that have already rendered its splendid new library openable only in restricted hours, selling Symphony Hall to London appears to kill many birds with one concrete block. Rattle and the LSO get the use of Symphony Hall's fabulous acoustic and magnificent interior; the cost to London will be lower than commissioning a brand-new design and buying new materials; Birmingham City Council gets the money from selling off arguably its finest asset; and everybody is happy, with the possible exception of the CBSO.

It is thought that the tab for much of this will be met by a massive donation from the philanthropic pharmaceutical oligarch Ivan Orfulkoff, whose firm will later gain further promotion by offering audiences attending events free manuka honey lozenges. The hall will, obviously, be renamed after the man who has given so much to support its arrival in the capital. It is expected that Orfulkoff Symphony Hall will open its doors to the public in time for Rattle's first concert as LSO music director.