Wednesday, July 29, 2015

On holiday

My holiday, however, involves a Jonas-and-Kristine fix in Munich on Friday night and Tristan at Bayreuth on Sunday. So I might end up writing something about some of it, wifi willing. Failing that, I leave you with this...

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Cheering up with the Wonderland Blues

Before all that rain started, we spent a gorgeous afternoon at Opera Holland Park, under the leaves in the Yucca Lawn groves, watching Will Todd's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It's on until 1 August, so assuming we're clear of the rain, do try and catch a show.

It's one of those rare delights that holds little kids riveted, yet their parents equally so: a sassy adaptation of the characters and elements of the story, plus an eclectic take on the music with everything from gospel through a hint of zany modernism to something edging towards Somewhere Over the Rainbow (and try the Wonderland Blues above, starring the larger-than-life Keel Watson as the Caterpillar and super Fflur Wyn as Alice).

Wonders in Aliceland. Photo by Alex Brenner

The sets are dotted around in different spots beneath the trees; your ticket is a cushion and you take it with you to sit on on the ground, moving around between scenes. Full marks to the orchestra - known as the Alice Band - for shifting too, and to the cast for marshalling us all into the right places at the right time.

And in this environment, after a while even the most hardened critic/opera fan begins to shake off the old encrustations of cynicism and overwork grumpiness and...well, if you're surrounded by entranced four-year-olds, eventually you begin to feel like one yourself. And you discover anew that 'opera' scrubs up as enormous fun: a good story well told, through top-notch music and singing and movement and drama and costumes, all live in front of you. What a refreshing and welcome joy with which to see in the rest of the summer.

This show, incidentally, has legs. Though OHP commissioned it two years ago, it's travelling excellently and will be at the Linbury in November. A CD (as above) is now available too. More info about cast, performance dates, etc, here.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Glamour time - are we listening or looking?

I took part in a discussion for the US radio station WQXR's programme Conducting Business about playing the glamour card in classical music. Have a listen above.

More info here.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Farewell to a wonderful clarinettist

The clarinettist John McCaw, always known personally as Jack, has died at the age of 96. He lived opposite us.

We had no idea, when we moved to our house back in the last century, that he was there. Virtually every clarinettist I've come across since then had at some point been to our street for lessons with him. He was principal clarinet successively of the Philharmonia and of the London Philharmonic, many years ago (and would always watch with much amusement as Tom zoomed out of our front door with instrument case and raincoat to catch the train to Glyndebourne). He was well known as a soloist, and made the recording above of the Nielsen and Mozart concertos with the New Philharmonia and Raymond Leppard in, I believe, a single day.

He can be heard in innumerable recordings, including, if I remember rightly, the Elgar Cello Concerto with du Pré, Barenboim and the LPO (1967), the Nielsen Symphony No.5 conducted by Jascha Horenstein and apparently with Placido Domingo singing 'La vita e inferno' from La forza del destino. In 1977 he played the Mozart Concerto at the Proms with the Philharmonia under Riccardo Muti. He also championed the works of Joseph Holbrooke.

Jack was born in New Zealand at the very end of the First World War and came to live in the UK a few years after the end of the Second, when he was about 30. He and his wife, Ann, a pianist, had lived in their house for more than 50 years.

He was a vivid, sparky character with an unfailing wit, a great deal of charm and, we hear, little patience for nonsense from conductors. He was meticulous, house-proud and a keen gardener. Even when he was over 90 we would see him on a step-ladder with an electric saw, trimming his hedge into a perfect oblong.

For friends and former pupils wishing to attend his funeral, I am told that it will be at Mortlake Crematorium on Tuesday 28 July at 4pm.

We will miss him very, very much.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

What killed Erich Wolfgang Korngold?

Michael Haas, author of the book Forbidden Music - about the generation of Jewish composers murdered, obliterated or exiled by the Nazis - was curator at the Jewish Museum in Vienna of a fabulous exhibition about Julius and Erich Wolfgang Korngold several years ago. He has now posted on a very substantial essay entitled The False Myths and True Genius of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, lavishly illustrated with both visual and aural material.

It is wonderfully written and the story emerges powerfully with all its complex, baffling and ultimately tragic elements in sharp relief. Did Korngold die too young because of the stress caused by his own sense of "irrelevance"?

Do give it a read. And a listen.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Meet Operalia winner Lise Davidsen

Last night the Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen scooped first prize (women) in Placido Domingo's Operalia competition, held this year at the Royal Opera House, London. The men's prize went to Ioan Hotea of Romania.

Here is Lise in Strauss's 'Ruhe, meine Seele':

And Norwegian/Danish speakers can enjoy an interview with her here; and more Strauss (from Ariadne) a little way in.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Pinch me - I'm doing a concert with Peter Donohoe

I can't quite get my head around this one, but Peter Donohoe has invited me to his festival in Fishguard to give a performance of the Alicia's Gift concert with him, week after next.

Repertoire will be tweaked as appropriate - the Scriabin Sonata No.5 will have the party-piece spot in the second half. There's the Ravel duet to conclude, though, so, yeah, I have to play a duet with this guy whose playing I have admired enormously ever since hearing him on the radio for the first time as a teenager, so it is a scary if also thrilling prospect. Last year when I was in Moscow I heard Peter play Rach 3 at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, with that same Scriabin as an encore - a stunning, unforgettable concert.

Alicia's Gift is on Tuesday week, 28 July, at St Peter's Church, Goodwick, at 2pm. More here. 

Here is Peter playing Rach 3 at the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1982...

Friday, July 17, 2015

None shall sleep listening to this

Trailer for Jonas Kaufmann's new album of Puccini. What other singer could possibly promote a new album with a recording of Caruso and get away with it?

Resistance is pointless. Turn up the volume and wallow.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Rare Terence Judd footage from Tchaikovsky Competition 1978

This is rare footage - apparently now viewable for the first time since the year it was filmed - of Terence Judd, the young British pianist who took his own life a year after winning fourth prize in the 1978 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition. Here he is playing in the prizewinners' concert. Please listen, remember, think.

Thanks to Angelo Villani (who incidentally has made target for his own recording) for bringing it to my attention.

Programme with timings:

01:28 - Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue no. 15, op. 87
06:36 - Scriabin Etude op. 42 no. 5
10:58 - Ravel Miroirs, La Vallée des cloches
17:45 - Barber Piano Sonata in E-flat minor, op. 26, Fuga: Allegro con spirito
23:27 - Liszt La Campanella

RIP Alan Curtis

Last night we heard of the sudden death of the musicologist, baroque revival pioneer, harpsichordist and conductor Alan Curtis at home in Italy at the age of 81. To say that the music world is in mourning is not saying enough.

I am feeling shell-shocked because I had an email from him only three days ago. I was interviewing him about a major project he was preparing for a tour of Australia - a pasticcio opera, the first that he had composed himself - and he sounded full of enthusiasm, vigour and humour, looking forward with joy to what would have been his first visit to Australia, where he was going to work with a group of fine young musicians.

He will be sorely, sorely missed.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Et bien, mes amis...

Today is Bastille Day - hence known, phonetically, as Le Cat-orze Juillet. And it happens to be Ricki and Cosi's birthday. My kittens are already 1 year old.

Mostly they get along. Sometimes they don't. Sometimes Ricki steals Cosi's food. Sometimes she washes his ears for him. And sometimes they have boxing matches.

So here is a little French song starring two French cats to celebrate. (If you're not into cats and humour, please just log off.)

Monday, July 13, 2015

What can orchestras learn from André Rieu?

Please don't choke on your muesli - the above was the title of a particularly lively session at Classical:NEXT a couple of months ago, featuring two brilliant, provocative and stirring speakers - Mark Pemberton from the Association of British Orchestras and Claire Mera-Nelson from Trinity Laban College. Such was the smell of utter distaste and the sight of desperate squirming in the conference room that I felt I just had to write something about it. The resulting piece was in the Independent a few weeks back, but here it is again just in case.

And surely the least we could do is have a Simon Rattle souvenir mug?

For many music lovers, André Rieu, the Dutch violinist and so-called modern Waltz King, is an irresistible attraction. He and his orchestra, performing light, tuneful classics and crossover – are not only about music, but also showbiz. They often top the classical recording charts. And they’re loved, loved, loved.

Except in hardcore classical music circles, that is. If you want to see a roomful of those administrators squirm, show them a Rieu performance and ask what the orchestral world might learn from his runaway success.

That’s what happened at the trade fair and think-tank Classical:NEXT, held recently in Rotterdam, during a session exploring business models for orchestras, led by Claire Mera-Nelson, director of music at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, and Mark Pemberton, director of the Association of British Orchestras. Still, nobody could help noticing one thing about Rieu and co: the audience. People of all ages having a great evening out, maybe dancing, singing along, cheering freely, visibly feeling welcome and happy.

Rieu, the charismatic focal point, talks to them, introduces his music and musicians, ceaselessly communicates with his public. And they keep coming back for more. Every aspect and every second of the show contributes to that experience.

André Rieu Teddy Bear - from the Waltz King's merchandise shop
 The violinist and leader as cult personality is a notion that goes back at least to the 18th century; arguably, all Rieu has done is reboot it for the 21st. Why, then, the resistance? It’s that old chestnut – art versus entertainment. These terms have long seemed mutually exclusive. Must they always remain so? Could attendances be increased and orchestras’ incomes be lifted by taking a leaf or two out of Rieu’s modus operandi?

This doesn’t mean copying his style, but noting the way he achieves his aims from behind the scenes. “Rieu’s concerts are filmed with multiple cameras,” Claire Mera-Nelson points out, “and most of them are on the audience. They then analyse the reactions in minute detail. If something doesn’t play well with the audience, they never repeat it.” Rieu’s success is all about setting out to understand his audience and making sure he gives them a good time.

The UK’s orchestras have become comparatively good at inventing innovative ways to attract different attendees and shake up concert formats; earning money is more vital for them than for those in European countries that still offer more sizeable state subsidies. Yet even now you’ll notice some orchestral musicians slouch on to the platform apparently with little understanding that they are performers the minute they’re on stage. That’s just one basic mistake that Rieu’s players don’t make. For the crucial two-way energy between performers and audience to ignite, the very least the latter needs is a smile of acknowledgement from the former.

Moreover, the audience’s experience does not begin with the first note of music. It starts as soon as they arrive at the hall – and it’s then that you need a sense of occasion, a welcoming ambience, ease and efficiency of finding refreshments, cloakrooms and loos, comfortable seating both inside the hall and in the foyers, and much more besides. Rieu’s audiences wave flags, sport merchandise and participate by purchasing these – either online or presumably at the event – thus acquiring a sort of personal stake in the goings on. It might look like tat, but its effect goes oddly deeper. You mightn’t want to wave a flag in a Mahler symphony, of course, but if the LSO were to start selling Simon Rattle mugs when he becomes music director, I’d happily take one home.

Instead, UK concert venues often exude the enervating, impersonal ambience of railway stations or conference centres. Even regulars dislike this, so how offputting must it be to newcomers? I don’t mind admitting that I attend some venues with a sinking heart on every occasion, however marvellous the performances they host. And art-focused orchestras and concert halls could address all these matters without sacrificing a jot of musical integrity.

The biggest names – Daniel Barenboim, Simon Rattle or Jonas Kaufmann – will always sell out. But such stars are few in number; the rest of the time, to create that great night out that keeps people coming back, matters beyond musical substance must contribute to making the audience feel welcome, happy and part of the event.

“The atmosphere, the welcome, the whole package is what we’re offering as ‘entertainment’,” Mark Pemberton points out. “You have to focus on the audience. We so often focus on the art – yet we are so dependent on the people who go to hear us play! What are we doing for them? It’s time for marketing departments to look at the qualitative aspects of their experience.”

This issue is not going to go away. Today musicians have such intense competition for people’s leisure time that unless they understand what works – and do a bit more of it – punters may vote with their feet. Those wanting a head start must find new ways to know their audience, and know them well.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Open air spectaculars - or muddy field gigs?

Hope you enjoyed that all-star Munich outdoor opera concert t'other day. I've been having a chuckle over Amanda Holloway's piece over at about the highs and lows of summer spectaculars, from "extreme page-turning" to dive-bombing herons, so delved into my archive to find something I wrote for the Independent a few years ago on a similar topic. As the clouds are gathering today, it seems worth rerunning.

At the Waldbuhne, of course, they seem to have a way of getting it right, sparklers and all...but closer to home, it's low-flying Smarties and birdshit in the harp...

......What could be nicer than a classical summer spectacular? To the audience, it’s the perfect night out: take some friends, a picnic and a bottle of wine and enjoy some beautiful music in the leafy open air. Maybe the evening will finish with a thrilling firework display. But be warned: the duck noises you hear during the slow movement of the symphony may not actually emerge from a duck. It could just as easily be a disgruntled musician lurking behind the scenes with a quack machine, bent on sabotage.

At their best, outdoor summer concerts are fun for everybody, including the musicians in the orchestra. At their worst, though, the conditions in which the players have to operate, combined with awkward journeys, long, difficult programmes often catastrophically under-rehearsed, all for payment that’s little better than an insult, can mean that disgruntlement is the best they can hope for. A “rank-and-file” musician is usually paid a flat fee of £80 for such a day, including the performance, one three-hour rehearsal and the time it takes to travel to often out-of-the-way venues. These concerts are known in the profession as “muddy field gigs”. But the freelance musicians I spoke to were so anxious about complaining of the way they’re treated that they asked me to change their names, citing the risk that “we might never work again”.

The biggest hazard – which will come as no surprise – is the British “summer” weather. We’ve all shivered our way through such concerts under umbrellas. Jane, a harpist, recounts, “You spend a lot of time leaping around after the sheets of your music as it blows away! One time it rained so hard that a lake formed in front of the stage and outside buses were turning over in the mud.” Michael, a violinist, recounts stories of driving rain across the platform during Rossini’s William Tell Overture (“Never had the storm music seemed so appropriate!”) and doing gigs “wearing long-johns and jeans under my concert suit”.

Jane faces all kinds of extra problems in transporting her instrument: harps are large, expensive and heavy. “I always try to drive the harp up to the stage’s back entrance and once I drove over the central power cable and all the electricity went off! I often have to be towed back to the road afterwards because otherwise I get stuck in the mud with the car wheels going round and round. And if you’re on a beach you have to watch out for the tides.” Worse, “a few weeks ago a bird shat on my harp. Right into the mechanism. It’s almost impossible to clean it out.”

Indignities don’t only come from birds. One violinist recalled a “Last Night of the Proms” programme during which his valuable Italian instrument was damaged by some flying Smarties from the audience. Another musician had just experienced an outdoor concert in the north of England at which an excessively jingoistic presenter, clad in Union Jack outfit and hat, had found it amusing “not only to make quips slagging off ‘frogs’ but also to pick out members of the orchestra to humiliate. He was saying to the audience things like, ‘This is Mary, she got her roots done just in time for this evening’ or ‘This is Lizzie, she’s pregnant – ooh, we know what you’ve been doing!’ Nobody ever asks if a presenter peddling racist attitudes and personal insults is OK with us and there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it.”

So much for the compères – what about the star turns? A big-name singer earns thousands or upwards for a big outdoor gig, while the orchestra plays for peanuts. That’s fine, says Jane – as long as those soloists really can sing. “I did a concert with one famous singer who actually couldn’t. He’d had to have some of the music transposed down because he couldn’t reach the high notes. We started off laughing, but by the end he was so bad, and being paid so much, that it stopped being funny. He was kind to us in the band, but at one point in the rehearsal he declared, ‘Sorry, I’ve got some technical problems,’ and the first horn called out, ‘We all know that, mate!’”

All the players were keen to stress that “muddy field gigs” can be useful and, on a good day, enjoyable. They’re an excellent way for young musicians to jump in the deep end, learn the repertoire and perform it on minimal rehearsal (“after which anything seems easy,” comments one musician). “You never know which the good gigs are going to be,” Michael remarks. “The ones that sound the most glamorous are frequently the worst, while ones that you might think will be dubious can be wonderful experiences. One of my best was a free local authority gig near Huntingdon with a little chamber orchestra. It was cold, but we had the most fabulous show. That was because the conductor, John Wilson, was terrific. He insisted on us using loads of vibrato to get a big, fat, Hollywood tone – it sounded fantastic, it was great music-making and the audience loved it.”

Sometimes, though, it’s just too much to take. “Once we were in a big park at the end of the season when the weather was chilly,” Michael recounts, “and it was a bad date all the way through. There was a generator the size of a lorry churning out diesel fumes right next to the stage. We had a huge programme, almost three hours of music, including ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ which sounded ludicrous on a tiny orchestra with virtually no rehearsal. I was sitting on the inside third desk [row] of the first violins and the lighting strip stopped just in front of us so my desk partner and I couldn’t read our music and we got colder and colder – lighting helps to keep you warm.  As the evening went on, my desk partner became more and more furious. And at the end, in the 1812 Overture, the fireworks were right next to us and when one huge one went off beside us, he just lost it. In front of 6,000 people. He stood up in the middle of the piece, got his fiddle case out from under his chair, wiped down his violin and bow meticulously with a cloth, put them away, jumped off the stage and went home! Afterwards he thought he’d be sacked. But he’d had such a terrible evening and been so angry about it that the management didn’t dare go near him.”

But these highly trained, accomplished and dedicated musicians agree that the worst indignity of all is that audiences will come to a concert like this and assume that “that’s what classical music is”. “Some outdoor concerts are good,” says Jane. “But usually you turn up, you freeze, you have only a top-and-tail rehearsal, there’ll be a bad soloist who’s married to the director, and it’s amplified so you don’t know what it really sounds like. These concerts are part of our job, they’re good experience, people enjoy them and we shouldn’t be too precious about them. It’s a fun evening. But surely not at the price of people thinking that that’s all there is to classical music?”

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Dante's piano inferno: three days to go

The pianist Angelo Villani, an astonishing Australian-Italian artist based in London who's featured strongly in these posts before, is raising funds for his debut album. It's a superb programme based around Dante's Inferno, featuring Liszt's Dante Sonata, Angelo's own transcription of Dido's Lament from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, some rare music by Hans von Bülow, and a fantasia on Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, uniting keyboard versions by Bülow, Liszt and Angelo himself. I've written his sleeve notes.

Angelo's burgeoning career was cut short in his teens by an injury to his right hand (karate is to blame). After 25 years and consultations with hundreds of specialists, he has been able to resume playing and his comeback began in 2012 with a debut recital at St James Piccadilly. This will be his first CD.

He's now found 77 per cent of the cash he needs, but with three days left, there's still a good bit to go...please help him!

Here's his Kickstarter page.

Proms are upon us

I've written a vaguely grumpy piece for the Independent about why this year's Proms programme feels just that bit meh. I've only done this because I love the Proms and I want them to be purrfect.

Let's just explore the business about the Proms' new music on TV a little more, as a lady from the press office has sent me a lot of information.

The Proms contains no fewer than 30 pieces of music that are receiving world, European, UK or London premieres. This is an admirable count and one would expect them to be proud of it and wish to relay those works to the widest possible audience on TV.

Last year several composers of my acquaintance were utterly shell-shocked to discover that while the Proms in which their music was being done were to be televised, their pieces had been cut from the TV broadcast and moved to a designated area for new music online. At this year's Proms press launch, Edward Blakeman was challenged about this and he offered a robust defence of "curating" Proms for the TV audience (the concept of "curating" is maybe a topic for another time).

Apparently this year 16 pieces of music will be filmed for online only, but just three of those are new works. Apparently I am therefore off the mark to say that "certain pieces of music that are filmed will be viewable online only".

The three new works that will be filmed but not televised are by John Woolrich, Tansy Davies and Luca Francesconi. (So: certain pieces of music that are filmed will be viewable online only.)

The full TV schedule for the Proms is online here.

Here is how new music from the Proms on TV will look:

New music really is an important part of the Proms television offer across BBC Two, BBC Four, CBBC and online this year. New commissions by Gary Carpenter (world premiere of BBC commission Dadaville) and Eleanor Alberga (world premiere of Arise, Athena!) feature in the live First and Last Night TV broadcasts on BBC Two. New music is also broadcast within BBC Four’s weekly curated programmes on Thursday, Friday and Sunday evenings throughout the festival including: a concerto and recital series on Thursday evenings which will devote an episode to the world premiere of HK Gruber’sInto the open… and also feature the world premiere of Hugh Wood’s BBC commission Epithalamium; a series on Friday evenings featuring European premieres of works by Jonathan Newman and Eric Whitacre; and an 8-part symphony series presented by Sir Mark Elder and Katie Derham on Sunday evenings which will devote 5 episodes to 20th century music, 2 episodes to new symphonic works (the first Proms performance of Brett Dean’s Pastoral Symphony and the world premiere of James Macmillan’s BBC commission, Symphony No. 4) and the world premiere of Anna Meredith’s BBC commission Smatter Hauler. The London premiere of Anna Meredith’s Connect It will also be included in the broadcast of the Ten Pieces Prom on CBBC.

So, it looks as if around a third of the new/newish pieces will find their way onto our TV screens in one form or another, which is good news. Thanks, chaps.

Friday, July 10, 2015

ENO loses its head

ENO's Benvenuto Cellini, directed by Terry Gilliam
ENO is to lose its head. The company announced this morning that John Berry is stepping down after 20 years with the company, ten of them as artistic director. It seems that his departure will take effect with the close of this season, since Berry says he intends to spend the summer "deciding on my next role".

ENO has been in financial trouble for a very long time. It's both a tragic and ridiculous situation, and one with roots that go back way further than Berry's directorship. And it's a crying shame. London is a huge European capital, with a population forecast to rise to 10 million sooner rather than later, and it deserves at least two opera houses of world quality - which is what ENO has been of late, troubles aside. The audience exists, but it must be maintained. The will has to exist too. The will has, indeed, existed until now. Will it continue?

Those who for some mysterious reason would like to see it turn into a middle-of-the-road theatre offering middle-of-the-road productions of ever-popular hits might be rubbing their hands with gleeful hope. Those of us who love cutting-edge productions, the taking of risks, the soaring of artistic standards and the pushing out of repertoire boundaries are not so happy. Yes, some productions have been more successful than others and there've been a few turkeys - but the same is true round the corner at Covent Garden, which is funded to another tune altogether.

Without Berry we might never have had such stupendous efforts as Martinu's Giulietta - a gorgeous opera and Richard Jones production to match - which didn't sell, but shouldn't have been missed for the world. We wouldn't have had Weinberg's The Passenger. We wouldn't have had that now-classic Peter Grimes. We wouldn't have had the glorious Jones production of Meistersingers coming to London from its Welsh origins, or the David McVicar all-UK-star Rosenkavalier - two of the best evenings I've ever had at any opera house anywhere in the world. And we wouldn't have had Terry Gilliam's Berliozes. I rest my case.

If change is needed at ENO - and, sadly, it seems that it is - that change has to be in its pricing policies, the way it sells itself, and maybe the pressing ahead of creative outreach and education work, a field in which it is sometimes perceived to be lagging behind. Artistically, dear ENO, keep your vision and ambition. Please keep believing that where there's a will, there's a way.

Anthony Whitworth-Jones, who is heading the board's artistic committee, is one of the most experienced people in the business, with both Glyndebourne and Garsington long under his belt; one senses a safe pair of hands in which confidence can be placed, and this can only be a good thing. Good luck to you all.

A treat from Munich

Grab a coffee, let in the sunshine and enjoy this Jonas Plus fix from Munich's Königsplatz, which took place a couple of weeks ago on 27 June. With Kaufmann, Anna Netrebko, Ildar Abdrazakov, Thomas Hampson and the Janacek Philharmonic of Ostrava conducted by Claudio Vandelli.

Not so long now until I'm off to Munich myself for the annual end of the opera festival rapidly followed by a little excursion to another part of Bavaria where there's a Wagner it's good to get in the mood for the summer from underneath a heap of work, nice though the work is.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

"Self-taught" is not the panacea you think

The other day I went to Cambridge and had a fascinating chat with Stephen Layton, the inspirational director of Trinity College Choir. Layton is one of those rare people who not only lives for music, but whom you can't help seeing does so. You see it in the way his face illuminates as he talks about the composers he loves to perform - whether it's Byrd, Purcell or Eriks Esenvalds - and the disarming sincerity with which he recalls his own start in musical life: he came from a council estate background and found that music "gives me something to live for". He won a scholarship to Eton, came to King's Cambridge as organ scholar, and the rest is history.

We got talking about how many of the best-known British conductors come out of Cambridge. Some musicians of my acquaintance are cynical about this. They think it's the old boys' network that ensures the career advancement. Now, I can't be sure how much of a role that does play. But one thing is clear. Cambridge University is (or used to be - I hope it still is) a melting pot of multi-talented people. If you have the gumption to get an orchestra together and conduct it, you can do so. Nobody will help you, but the raw material will be there: students to recruit to your band, chapels to perform in, halls to hire if you raise the money, college bars in which to put up posters. If you step up, take the initiative and make it happen, you can ensure that you have more opportunities to stand in front of an actual orchestra and perform than many conservatory conducting students will ever get. You won't find any conducting lessons in the music faculty - you might as well be studying languages, medicine or anthropology - but you might have the chance to teach yourself by learning on the job the hard way.

And for some, indeed for most of us, that experience will teach you the things you never forget. You learn to teach yourself by being forced to work out, from within, how it's done.

Some of the best instrumental teachers will leave their students with this attitude and the analytical ability to keep working it out for themselves long after they have finished their formal studies. (That was how I tackled, in my thirties, pieces of piano music I wouldn't have been able to get near as a student. You work out what the problem is, what you need to be able to do, and how to practise in such a way that it becomes physically possible.)

So, to some degree, all musicians need to be "self-taught", because a musical career is an ongoing process in which if you don't keep moving forwards, you move backwards. If you work hard in a systematic way, you'll improve. If you don't, your abilities will ossify. And this is true at any and every age.

But let's face it: you will probably also have some advantage in terms of technique if you have actually had some formal tuition (and this goes for conductors too).

Therefore the fuss attending one young competitor of the Tchaikovsky Competition has reached a point where it risks being seriously misunderstood.

Articles have been appearing saying that Lucas Debargue, fourth prize winner, is "self-taught". Even though his biography makes it perfectly clear that he went to the Paris Conservatoire. It seems he was a late starter: taking up piano from 11 (as opposed to 3), and serious music studies from 20 (not 12). That's not quite the same thing.

It's dangerous to overplay the "self-taught" card because, sad to say, a large part of the British public thinks music happens by magic. That it's something for "fun". That it doesn't take hard work to be good at it. That if you want your kids to have music in their lives as something to enjoy, they don't have to practise every day (despite the fact that it'll be a lot more fun in the end if they can play decently). They seem to believe, too, that if you by-pass all the traditional channels but follow your dream in any case, you'll be bound to come out as some kind of genius. That traditional studies are somehow bad and the inspiration of the moment is good, indeed is everything.

Britain's got canine talent
Pardon my French, but this is bollocks. Britain's Got Talent probably has a lot to answer for, but please note: it was won by a dog.

It bothers me, too, that this attitude is something that might somehow give governments carte blanche to cut funding for music education.

There are people, for sure, who can indeed make some headway on raw talent. But music does not happen by magic. Music happens, for the vast majority of people wishing to make it, by hard graft, long hours of solitary slog, gritty determination and personal sacrifice. Yes, you can teach yourself and many important lessons will be learned that way. But "self-taught" does not mean miracles. "Self-taught" means you did that work, but maybe you did more of it on your own than others might - and maybe you'd have done even better if you'd had good tuition from the get-go. By all means, praise a wonderful young pianist with a slightly unconventional approach. But please don't mistake it for a miracle.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

7/7 - the 10th anniversary

It is ten years since the London tube and bus bombings of 7/7. 52 people were murdered in the attacks, and hundreds were injured.

That day I was supposed to go to the Hampton Court Flower Show with a friend. We didn't make it. Instead, I was at home trying to get hold of Tom, who had gone to a rehearsal at the south bank, and various musician friends who were on their way to the Guildhall, the Royal College and probably the airport.

I remember the sense of unreality that accompanied the fright until their texts pinged back to me. And, much, much worse, the grim, appalling news by email later that told me that a young executive from Rhinegold Publishing (where I worked for eight years and which produces Classical Music Magazine, Opera Now, Music Teacher, and the piano magazine I used to edit) had been killed at Edgware Road on her way to work. Her name was Jenny Nicholson.

A group of friends led by the violinist Philippe Graffin had a concert the following night at the Wigmore Hall and I had to get on the tube to go home from it. And forced myself down that escalator knowing that if I didn't do it then, I would probably never do it again, and it's very difficult to live in London if you can't face getting on the tube, and that a bunch of criminal thugs were not going to scare me into missing that performance, no siree. At the start of the second half, Philippe thanked the audience for coming out to the concert. An audience member called right back: "Thank you for playing for us!" Here's the account from the time...

Some of the musicians came over for dinner the following week and we listened to Schubert. This seemed the ultimate consoling music. I think it remains so.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Edward Gardner bows out

Photos both by Richard Hubert Smith

Yesterday Edward Gardner took his final bow as music director of English National Opera after the last night of The Queen of Spades.

The new incumbent, Mark Wigglesworth, steps up in the new season. We love Mark too, but we are going to miss Ed like the blazes. I have no doubt that the brightest of brilliant futures awaits this thrilling, charismatic and galvanisingly energetic musician. The good news is he's coming back to do Tristan & Isolde next year.

ENO sent out a range of pictures from the event. Below, John Berry, flanked by the orchestra, bids farewell to Ed. I hope the figures high above them are not representatives of Arts Council England.