Monday, November 30, 2015

Dear JDCMB readers, please get to know this piece

This is the Geistervariationen - literally, 'Ghost Variations' - by Robert Schumann, written at the end of his compositional life just before his incarceration in the asylum at Endenich. Please familiarise yourselves with it. If you read JDCMB regularly, you're going to be hearing a lot more about it in 2016.

The heavenly performance above is by Grigory Sokolov.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sibelian surprises

So, review from Friday night continued: Susanna Mälkki conducted Sibelius 1 in the second half (after Beatrice Rana's glorious playing in the Prokofiev Second Piano Concerto in the first).

Susanna Mälkki. Photo: Simon Fowler
About halfway through I opened my programme to check something. I was wondering if it might be a different version of this symphony - an early draft, or perhaps an unknown revision? - because I was hearing things that I'd simply never noticed before. But no, it was Sibelius 1 through and through; it's just that Mälkki (who is herself Finnish, was principal cello in the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra for several years, and studied conducting with Jorma Panula) took an approach that was light years away from the heavy-duty baked sponge pudding that we so often chew through in this work. All manner of detail became audible; the tempi didn't hang about, because they don't need to; and the pacing of the energy worked a small miracle in the finale.

Sibelius's First Symphony is often, very often, compared to Tchaikovsky - and certainly there are similarities. But Tchaikovsky, well performed, can pay tribute to that composer's passion for Mozart; and here, too, one became aware of the music's classical-era roots: the taut organisation of the four movements, the light-footedness of the lightning bolts near the start, or the timpani-led scherzo. I can't remember how many times I've heard the slow(ish) movement played as a dirge dragging its way through snowy darkness as if it's got frostbite, or the said scherzo thundering along like a herd of elephants. Not necessary; and not so for Mälkki.

The rhythms danced through that scherzo, the energy let the music fly rather than sticking its soles to the ice, and in general the up-tempo approach kept everyone on their toes - while some details that in other hands are blurred emerged sparklingly clear with spot-on ensemble from the good ol' LPO. The finale's big tune is so often milked for every last shred of intensity from its first appearance; instead, it came out warm, strong and dignified, but didn't let rip until the music had built convincingly up to its ultimate appearance third time around, when Mälkki let it go straight for the jugular. This made absolute sense, as well as a superb shape.

But above all, one could hear the layers of texture that make the symphony shimmer from within: the throbbing cross-rhythms at the bottom of the orchestra, destabilising anything that might even consider becoming four-square; the florid harp details lending unexpected glimmers in different cross-rhythms against that Big Tune.

This wasn't a Deeply Tragic View of Life or a Violently Romantic Vision Plunging Into Permafrost Gloom. This was a thrilling first step into the symphonic world by a composer who was going to break extraordinary new ground and was already well on his way. Brava, Mälkki: it was like hearing the piece for the first time.

She has recently been appointed principal conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic and starts there in the 16/17 season. They're on to a very, very good thing. Meanwhile, here's hoping she comes back soon.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and you can hear it on the iPlayer for another 28 days, here.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Beatrice Rana: A Star is Born

Meet the 23-year-old pianist from Puglia who is sweeping to stardom. She's on the latest cover of PIANIST magazine (my interview with her is inside) and last night she took the RFH by storm in her concerto debut there, playing Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No.2 - one of the darkest and most emotionally daunting in the repertoire.

Beatrice met its challenges with seemingly effortless virtuosity. She caught an ideal mix of intense expression and mercurial modernism, rising cool-headed to the challenges of the giant cadenzas and the perpetuum mobile scherzo. Fine rhythm, grace, elegance and huge reserves of fire all had their place in this performance, which brought the house down and sparked a vivacious Bach encore (the Gigue from the B flat major Partita).

I was amazed, talking to her for the interview, that she was so young. She's mature beyond her years, ferociously intelligent and mentally well organised. She went to a high school in her native Lecce, Puglia, that specialised in science. Question: if you weren't a pianist, what would you be? Answer: Space Woman! I'd love to be an astronaut or an astrophysicist. Her parents are both pianists, her sister a cellist and her grandparents makers of that fabulous strong south Italian red wine that she remarks is "not for aperetif!" And she says her dog tends to leave the room if she's not playing well.

Last year she entered the Van Cliburn Competition because she wanted to see if she could "upgrade" her career. She duly downloaded silver medal and the audiences' hearts and now she has recorded the Prokofiev, along with Tchaikovsky 1, with Tony Pappano conducting, for Warner Classics. It's a stunner. After last night, I can only urge you to go and catch her if she comes to a hall near you.

Last night's concert was conducted by Susanna Mälkki, of whom more later on...

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Music Into Words, 2 February 2016

Delighted to have been invited to join the panel for this interesting evening, devised and presented by pianist, teacher and writer Frances Wilson (who blogs as The Cross-Eyed Pianist). It takes place in the Court Room of the Senate House, London, 2 Feb, 7pm. Tickets are £5, and it's free to students. Further details and booking here.

Is writing about music really like "dancing about architecture"?
An event exploring the wide variety of writing about classical music today
Concert and opera reviews, academic writing, music journalism, programme notes, blogging and musicians who write about music
  • Guest speakers - including author and music journalist Jessica Duchen, academic, writer and blogger Dr Mark Berry (Royal Holloway, University of London), blogger Simon Brackenborough (who blogs as Corymbus), and The Guardian's Imogen Tilden.
  • Q&A and discussion session 
  • Networking opportunity
Tuesday 2nd February 2016

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Arts funding cuts would be a "false economy" - Osborne

There've been some surprises of the better kind in the chancellor George Osborne's autumn statement. Here's what he said about the arts today.

Please note, the small print that follows in the days after these "good news" statements often contain other surprises: how the ACE will decide to divvy up its allocation remains to be seen. Peter Bazalgette, Chair of the ACE, has apparently described the funding settlement as "astonishing" (according to the BBC's arts correspondent Will Gompertz).
Britain’s not just brilliant at science. It’s brilliant at culture too.
One of the best investments we can make as a nation is in our extraordinary arts, museums, heritage, media and sport.
£1 billion a year in grants adds a quarter of a trillion pounds to our economy – not a bad return. So deep cuts in the small budget of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport are a false economy.
Its core administration budget will fall by 20%, but I am increasing the cash that will go to the Arts Council, our national museums and galleries.
We’ll keep free museum entry – and look at a new tax credit to support their exhibitions and I will help UK Sport, which has been living on diminishing reserves, with a 29% increase in their budget – we’re going for gold in Rio and Tokyo.
The Right Honourable Member for Hull West and Hessle has personally asked me to support his city’s year of culture – and I am happy to do so.
The money for Hull is all part of a package for the Northern Powerhouse which includes funding the iconic new Factory Manchester and the Great Exhibition of the North. In Scotland, we will support the world famous Burrell Collection.
While here in London we’ll help the British Museum, the Science Museum, and the V&A move their collections out of storage and on display.
And we will fund the exciting plans for a major new home for the Royal College of Arts in Battersea.
And we’re increasing the funding for the BBC World Service, so British values of freedom and free expression are heard around the world.
And all of this can be achieved without raiding the Big Lottery Fund as some feared. It will continue to support the work of hundreds of small charities across Britain.

Here is the DCMS's response to the statement, which all looks pretty positive. It points out: "Less than 1 per cent of total government expenditure goes to culture, media and sport; sectors which account for almost a sixth of the UK economy." It does not contain one word about a new concert hall, which is also interesting.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Smells like opera?

Scented on the horizon: a new Cav & Pag at the ROH, opening on 3 December complete with passion, murder, incense and...baking?! My piece is in the Indy today.

Damiano Michieletto rehearses Paglicacci. Photo: Catherine Ashmore
This was a lot of fun to write and I am only sorry to have missed recently a cookery opera (Lee Hoiby's Bon Appetit) in which mezzo-soprano Emma Curtis baked a gluten-free chocolate cake on stage and the audience could eat it afterwards. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Hall of mirrors?

The results of the feasibility study into the mooted new concert hall in the City of London are due out, I hear, (two months late) on Wednesday.

In case you missed it when the whole thing began back in February, here's a piece I wrote over at The Amati Magazine, wondering whether the project is a) a political football, or b) a vanity project, or c) the results of remotely joined up thinking about the needs of London's cultural life, or music education, or d) an attempt to kill off the Southbank (presumably together with all its ensembles - has the LSO ever quite forgotten that murderous 'superorchestra' plan?), or... what exactly? We need a hall, but we don't need it at any price.
...How ironic that some of the people behind this ambitious, “mostly” privately-funded new project should be the very same that effectively killed plans to transform the Southbank Centre into an more attractive, state-of-the-art location.
Is this hall not a hall? Is it a political football, intended to prove the worth of private finance over public and therefore of right-wing attitudes over left?
Conspiracy theories aside, what’s certain is that, far beyond the Square Mile, budget cuts to local authorities – necessitated by Osborne’s austerity policies – are threatening music tuition for thousands of children around the country who cannot afford to pay for private lessons...
Read the whole thing here. 

But many things have changed since February - above all, this past week. In the light of the terrorist attacks in Paris and the current outcry over the projected gigantic cuts to policing here, the idea that a new concert hall costing in the region of several hundred million pounds could be given a significant injection of government money to get it underway would perhaps not be guaranteed to go down exceedingly well with the general public.

And with costs doubtless spiralling, where is the money really going to come from? What chance that the lifeblood of government funding might be sucked out, vampirically, from other arts organisations in London in order to build a super vanity project?

Let's see what happens on Wednesday. I wouldn't rule anything out. The only thing that can usually be guaranteed where British governments and the arts are concerned is that sometime, somewhere, somehow, there'll probably be an almighty cockup.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The virgin Mikado

Richard Suart as the Lord High Executioner, doing his Little List. Photo: Sarah Lee

Confession time, folks. I have never seen The Mikado before. OK, maybe the first half on TV when I was about ten, but no more. Indeed, I have never even been to a professional performance of a Gilbert & Sullivan. A depressing am-dram Iolanthe about 30 years ago served as ferocious deterrent and our school performance of The Pirates of Penzance hadn't helped set up a positive impression, especially not when the big co-ed up the road was doing the St Matthew Passion and we, in the  Ladies' Seminary complete with lacrosse sticks, were stuck lumping through a G&S in which there are in fact only two female roles.

But G&S is - well, if you're fond of clever words (tick) and great tunes (tick) and desperately silly stories that nevertheless have a nugget or two of gold at their core (tick), and you love things that look pretty on stage (Jonathan Miller's production for ENO is simply gorgeous, darlings), and some really good singing too (tick), then what's not to like? The Miller production has been boomeranging back and back and back to the Coliseum since 1986, clocking up nearly 200 performances. Last night the man himself was there and went on stage to take a bow; the devoted audience gave him a standing ovation.

The words are indeed clever. Favourite lines include the idea that if you're going to masquerade as a Second Trombone, "you have to take the consequences". The Lord High Executioner's Little List of contemporary cruelties knocks the spots off Have I Got News For You and included on this occasion a fine predictive-rhyme swipe at our prime minister (hint: the word we heard was "dig" and we can imagine what would have followed...), alongside various demolitions of Nicola Sturgeon, Jeremy Corbyn and anything that remains of the Lib Dems.

The tunes are fabadabadoo. After all, I even conscripted one of them for kitten purposes a year ago.

The Jonathan Miller production has precious little to do with Japan, but that is true of the piece itself; so the black-and-white art deco approach complete with tap-dancing waiters and Yum-Yum looking strikingly like Ginger Rogers is all fine with all of us. The press info tells us it is supposed to be an English seaside hotel of the 1930s, but to me that idea says "miserable depression-era burned toast" - this stage set more resembles the Savoy, as well it might.

The nuggets of gold at the heart of the story? First of all, who could resist the ultra-romantic idea - delivered, of course, with irony aplenty - that it is better to enjoy one scant month of marriage to your true love and then die than never to wed her/him at all? Then there's the Lord High Executioner who finally reveals that he's so soft-hearted he couldn't even kill a bluebottle. And the one person who does have a chance to "soliloquise" with an aria all alone on stage is Katisha, the much-maligned Older Woman, who is the only character with a modicum of rounding out and a few specks of actual wisdom, which in this particular La-La Land is in short supply.

Singing is brilliant: Mary Bevan as Yum-Yum and Anthony Gregory as Nanki-Poo were ideal casting, Graeme Danby as Pooh-Bah was wonderfully convincing and Robert Lloyd managed the extra weight as the eponymous Mikado magnificently. Richard Suart's Lord High Executioner and Yvonne Howard's Katisha both seemed to be having the time of their lives.

So what's not to like? Why did I come out feeling "OK, been there, done that, would buy the t-shirt if there were one, but I don't have to see it again"? The evening felt very, very long and it didn't fly and sparkle and do that champagne-bubble thing that you want from operetta. And it wasn't just because in this day and age all the beheading jokes felt a bit close to the bone [sorry]. It felt like a half-open prosecco that's been in the fridge too long without a stopper. Tempi were often a little sluggish, except when they inadvertently galloped; several singers seemed to be trying to push things along, except on the occasions - including 'Three Little Maids' - when they had to step on it a bit to keep up. If only operas had previews to play themselves in, like theatre...

I have that feeling, which I had also over Jonas Kaufmann's Berlin album, that lightness of touch is fast becoming a lost art. Light music needs to be...lightly handled. Any screenwriter will tell you that comedy is the hardest thing of all to pull off - as will most actors - as it is all about timing. It is bloody difficult to do it well. And I am starting to wish that ENO would not throw its fine young conductors in at the deep end, getting them to do things like The Magic Flute, Die Fledermaus and, indeed, this for their debuts. Fergus Macleod, the incumbent Mackerras Fellow young conductor, whose house debut this was, is a highly gifted young maestro and I look forward to hearing him many more times in the future, in different, less niche repertoire.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

'West Bank Story': A message of hope through music, laughter and film

A friend alerted me yesterday to this 2005 film written by Ari Sandel and Kim Ray. It's a 20-minute West Side Story spoof, set in two rival fast-food restaurants, one Israeli, one Palestinian: David and Fatima fall in love and determine to find a way to resolve their families' differences.

At first, given the world situation, I hesitated to post it here. Then I realised that that very hesitation was the best reason to do so. More than ever we need messages of hope, however unlikely hope and peace may seem at the moment, and the powers of music, laughter and love are a good combination to create one. All credits go to

Ari Sandel was born in the US to an Israeli father and American mother. He studied Islam, Judaism and the History of the Middle East at college and has travelled extensively throughout the region. In the interview on the film's Youtube page, he says:
"I sometimes get remarks about the film being too simplistic and that it does not accurately show the suffering of any one side. I agree, it IS simplistic because it has to be in order to be a comedy. This film is not meant to be a learning tool for the situation in the Middle East. It is not an historical explanation, or a political solution on screen. It is a movie about HOPE and PEACE and that is it. It is meant to counteract the multitudes of negative documentaries and news reports that, while very informative, usually seem to be skewed to one side and ALWAYS leave the viewer feeling like this conflict will go on forever. I truly believe that peace between Israelis and Arabs will be achieved and don't believe it is a hopeless endeavor. We wanted to make a film that would convey that feeling." (More here)

Friday, November 20, 2015

Distraction time: are we too nice?

Mulling over the online papers with coffee just now, I came across the punchiest, most to-the-point, one-star CD review I've seen in a while. It's of Kylie Minogue's Christmas album and The Guardian's Tim Jonze says: "Spare a thought for the music critic this Christmas, for whom the festive season is not 'the most wonderful time of the year', but a whole new circle of hell. Even listened to while off your knockers on sherry, Kylie Christmas is a confusing package...delivered with all the joie de vivre of a Sainsbury's advert..."

Read the whole thing here.

Reviewing classical recordings is arguably a different dish of sardines. We have the impression, in our corner, that Christmas pop albums are in any case going to be cynically manufactured tat designed to induce emotional blackmail on the shopping mall sound system, the sort of crooning that makes people spend, spend, spend, if only to get away faster from the noise. Or that they consist simply of famous names singing popular Xmas numbers to shift stock and get the tills ringing, and never mind what it sounds like because the job is to fill space in stockings and under trees and probably no one will actually play it.

Classical recordings, though, are difficult to make: if you're a classical musician, there's nowhere to hide the shortcomings of your technique or your artistry. Those of us who slogged away in practice rooms for years on end never quite lose the memory of the effort involved in learning, perfecting (??) and performing a piece of great music. It's demanding to do, it's satisfying to be able to do it, and if people hear and like it, so much the better. Therefore when CDs plop onto the desk for review, and you don't think they're terribly good, you might feel honour bound to give them the benefit of the doubt - usually in the form of two stars instead of one, or sometimes even three stars instead of two - because you know that to make even a 'meh' sort of recording probably takes a lifetime of hard work and dedication.

But there are times when it sticks in the gorge nonetheless. A very few of the piano discs that have crossed my computer in the past couple of years have been so dreadful that when offered the same artist's next album to review, I've said 'thanks, but no thanks'. Because what sells, and who sells, is not always the same thing as what and who can offer worthwhile musical insight, colouristic control of the sound, sophistication, variety of technique and, overall, a satisfying, communicative and justifiable listening experience for the buyer of the disc. The saddest thing is that some knowledgeable music lovers are still being bamboozled into thinking x, y or z is the greatest thing since sliced bread, because he/she records for a good company or happens to have some pretty photographs (this can apply no matter the artist's gender).

But you know something? Even the worst of them has probably been through hell and high water for the sake of his/her art.

There you are at your desk, charged with describing a recording so people can make up their minds whether or not to buy it. And you can think, without trying too hard, of 50 pianists who deserve the chance to have made that recording for that company instead and could have done it 100 times better. And you think, "Didn't anybody listen to this before letting it out there?" Or maybe: "How did this person get to be where he/she is anyway? How is that even possible?"

And then you dig for some mitigating qualities and give it two stars instead of one, or three stars instead of two, because it's a really, really difficult piece to play and they deserve credit for sheer chutzpah, or something like that, because you might picture to yourself the childhood lost to intensive practising, the terror of the competitions, the frustration of trying and trying and trying and getting nowhere, but keeping on trying because he/she has never trained to do anything else, and then the big break - however it may have arrived - and the opportunity seized with both hands and both feet too in case it never returns, and the probably messed-up private life, and the pressures from the industry as someone realises this disc can sell and starts to milk the artist and the industry for all they're worth, which in this day and age may not be much but can be too much in any case, and you wonder what will happen to them, after all that, when eventually the next hot young thing arrives and they're middle-aged and overweight and the work dries up.

Yet the playing on the CD is still not much good.

Are we too nice?

Next time: my top choices for really good discs to buy your music-loving friends for Christmas, and please note that they'll have nothing seasonal to say at all.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Pondering quietude

As someone prone, as you know, to talking and writing too much, I'm struck somewhat dumb in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. There's a flood of commentary already and I don't particularly want to add to it, other than registering horror at some of the responses - whether it's world leaders rushing in where angels fear to tread and doing exactly what the terrorists want them to do, or the Republican state governors in the US who are refusing to let any refugees in, or the Daily Fail printing a cartoon that appears to liken refugees to rats, echoing anti-Semitic cartoons of the 1930s (NB, they have the freedom to print these things and we also have the freedom to be openly disgusted by them without advocating murder), or...the list could go on. I'm not wholly convinced we have leaders in possession of the necessary wisdom to handle this.

Personally I always remember my parents telling me, when I was a scared child (in 1970s London, where there were frequent IRA bomb threats) not to be afraid, and not to stop doing the things I do, because that is what terrorists want. Even so, yesterday I felt so wobbly about my husband going off on tour today that I stayed home for an evening instead of going to a concert I very much wished to attend (Andras Schiff's recital at the Wimbledon Festival).

We could ponder, instead, the necessity of quietude. Quiet time for reflection. The ability to stop and think and let the dust settle. The ability to take time to consider every aspect of something before rushing to action and possibly getting it wrong. Call it mindfulness if you must, but it's very valuable and, in these noisy days, underrated.

If in doubt, and if music helps quietude - if that's not a contradiction in terms - listen to Bach.

Here is my favourite Bach cantata. It was one of Brahms's favourites too, as it turns out.

Monday, November 16, 2015

A tribute to Paris by Boris Giltburg

The pianist Boris Giltburg has released on his website recordings of two Chaconnes in tribute to the Paris attacks. One is the famous Bach D minor work in its transcription by Busoni and was recorded in central Paris about six months ago. The other is by Sofia Gubaidulina and Boris says he recorded it at home last night.

Boris introduces them with an article explaining his decision and quoting Leonard Bernstein's words: "This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before." He writes:
"A chaconne is a funeral dance of Spanish origin, which several classical composers have turned to in order to express their thoughts on death. The first one, by Sofia Gubaidulina, written in 1962, is for me all about non-acceptance of death; it's searing, raging, furious, full of anger which I perceive as righteous, anger at a death which is unjust, untimely, wrong..."
Read the rest of his article and hear the Bach on Boris's site here. Meanwhile, here's his Gubaidulina.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Sound of Colours: the Paris Opera in motion

I was already planning to run this trailer for Mikhail Rudy's new animation and live music project The Sound of Colours before the Paris tragedy happened. He recently performed it at the Philharmonie in Paris, where a gigantic exhibition of Chagall's theatre work is in progress until the end of January.

The animation is of the Chagall murals in Paris's Opéra Garnier and while the music involved - mainly piano transcriptions of orchestral music - extends from Gluck's 'Dance of the Blessed Spirits' to the 'Liebestod' from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, the trailer shows us Ravel's La valse.

Ravel wrote La valse in 1919-1920 in the aftermath of World War I. It feels - whether or not he intended it to be read this way - as if he's portraying the old world of the 19th century, led by the emblematic Viennese waltz, whirling itself into a vortex, the apocalypse of World Wars I and II (he died in 1937, so did not live to see the latter; but I wonder sometimes whether in due course history will come to see the two as indivisible).

Viewed now, it's unsettling to say the least.

Come to the Wimbledon International Music Festival on 26 November and experience the UK premiere.

As a JDCMB reader you can still get a special rate on this evening, and Matthew Trusler and Ashley Wass's Wonderland concert on Saturday 21st  too, by using the code JESS10 when you book.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Friday, November 13, 2015

Benjamin, Fry and Fisch

Stephen Fry, Benjamin Grosvenor, Ascher Fisch. Photo: Benjamin Grosvenor's Facebook page

Benjamin Grosvenor seems to be having a whale of a time in his first tour of Australia. Above, here is the 23-year-old British pianist with conductor Ascher Fisch (right) and a surprise guest, Stephen Fry (left). After a mutual friend put them in touch, Stephen invited Benjamin to his one-man show on Wednesday and Benjamin returned the invitation, asking the popular British comedian and writer to his rehearsal with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on Thursday.

Benjamin has already been to Sydney and Adelaide, is in Geelong today and Melbourne tomorrow. Lovely interview with him in the Sydney Morning Herald can be read here.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Booking is now OPEN for OUR WIGMORE HALL GIG

A tastefully sepia adaptation of Alicia's Gift's cover
Thrilling stuff for me and my wonderful pianist colleague Viv McLean: we are performing ALICIA'S GIFT: THE CONCERT OF THE NOVEL at the mighty and marvellous Wigmore Hall, on 20 February at 2pm. You can find all the programme details and online booking here.

The seriously scary thing about this is that the final number in the concert is actually a duet, so this means I have to play the piano in the bloomin' Wigmore Hall and even if it is three minutes of slow and gorgeous Ravel it's still...a bit terrifying. But hey.

This version of the concert lasts one hour and it will be followed at 3.30pm by a panel discussion, which I'll chair, on the topic of child prodigies - which is what the novel is all about. On our panel are Murray McLachlan, head of keyboard at Chetham's School of Music; Michelle Castelletti, artistic director of the Royal Northern College of Music; and Guy Johnston, cellist par excellence, who was something of a child prodigy himself. Book for the panel discussion here.

Alicia's Gift explores what the presence of a child prodigy can do to a family, and what a misguided family can do to a child prodigy's talent. And that is not always a pretty or painless tale. The novel is therefore not suitable for children, but the concert (mostly) is, and has often been enjoyed by those aged 10 upwards.

Alicia's Gift is published by Hodder and can be found as an e-book or paperback here.

Here's what's in the concert...

  • Viv McLean  piano
  • Jessica Duchen  narrator
Author Jessica Duchen and pianist Viv McLean unite to tell the story of a child prodigy pianist trying to grow up, exploring her talent’s effect on her family and her family’s effect on her talent. 
Jessica’s readings from her novel Alicia’s Gift alternate with Viv’s performances of the relevant music to create a compelling joint narrative in words and music.
    • Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849)
          • Ballade No. 3 in A flat major Op. 47
    • Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
        • Estampes
          • Jardins sous la pluie
    • Fryderyk Chopin
          • Etude in C minor Op. 25 No. 12
    • Enrique Granados (1867-1916)
        • Goyescas
          • Quejas, o La maja y el ruiseñor
    • George Gershwin (1898-1937)
          • Rhapsody in Blue
    • Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
          • Sonatine
        • Ma mère l'oye
          • Le jardin féerique. Lent et grave

    Wednesday, November 11, 2015

    Tonight: A fundraising concert for UNICEF Syria Children's Appeal

    Conductor Nicolas Nebout is heading a fundraising concert tonight at St James Piccadilly in aid of UNICEF's Syria Children's Appeal. Please come along if you can, or donate to the charity at the links below.

    Nicolas says:

    "We will perform Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, Mahler's Kindertotenlieder with the internationally renowned British mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, and a world premiere by award-winning Syrian composer Malek Jandali - all profits going to UNICEF.

    "It will be an inspiring evening for all involved and I hope this event will be an opportunity to unite the classical music community in the UK behind this important cause! People can show their support on social media with hashtag #MusiciansForSyria. "

    Tuesday, November 10, 2015

    Verdi's Guernica: The Force of Destiny at ENO

    Calixto Bieito's hotly awaited (by some of us) new staging of Verdi's The Force of Destiny opened last night at ENO. I've reviewed it for the recently expanded reviews section of The Critics' Circle website and you can read it here.

    Picasso's Guernica
    Mine is one of the more enthusiastic write-ups doing the rounds this morning (except for The Standard, which gives it 5 stars. Mine is starless - hooray! - but would have given 4 had that been necessary. The Guardian also gives it 4).

    So, confession time. I've never got along with Forza. I've seen it a few times and always found it overblown, implausible, ghastly and ridiculous by turns. Last night, though, I was thoroughly absorbed and deeply moved. Perhaps because I am a sceptic about the piece and therefore don't have my own fixed ideas of what I want from it (other than Jonas Kaufmann as the tenor, please) (I went to see him do it in Munich once, but he was off sick), I found Bieito's updating to the Spanish Civil War worked pretty well, on the whole.

    Sunday, November 08, 2015

    Remembrance Sunday: astonishing music from the WWI years

    Looking for music for Remembrance Sunday - and especially music by Frederick Septimus Kelly - I was blown away by this short film from violinist Guillaume Sutre and pianist Steven Vanhauwaert. It concerns the CD of music from the World War I era that they have recently recorded for Editions Hortus - the first volume of Hortus's WWI series. I wrote the sleeve notes for one of the other albums - the one of left-hand piano concertos including Korngold's - and am much impressed by the research, creativity and quality of the recordings I've heard.

    The sonata by Georges Antoine sounds utterly marvellous and as well as impressive music by Pfitzner and Lili Boulanger there's a substantial chunk too of the sonata that Kelly wrote for Jelly d'Arányi - or 'von Arányi', as he wrote it on the manuscript (the family, who were living in England by then, had to Frenchify their German-sounding title soon afterwards).

    We will remember them...

    Saturday, November 07, 2015

    May the Forza be with Calixto Bieito

    ENO's new production of La forza del destino - OK, The Force of Destiny - opens on Monday. I had an interview with its director, the ever-controversial Calixto Bieito, the other day which I think (hope) should be out in the Independent today. 

    To get us in the mood for what promises to be an immense interpretation of this epic-scale Verdi masterpiece, here's an extract of a very different one - the production by Martin Kušej from the Bavarian State Opera, starring Anja Harteros as Leonora. This is "Pace, pace, mio dio" from the start of the final scene. Not because Bieito's will be anything like this. Simply because I was fortunate enough to see Harteros perform this in Munich and thought she was one of the greatest sopranos I've ever heard in my life, most of all in this aria. (The cast at ENO includes Tamara Wilson as Leonora, Gwyn Hughes Jones as Alvaro, Anthony Michaels-Moore as Carlo and Rinat Shaham as Preziosilla, and Mark Wigglesworth conducts.)

    Calixto Bieito is directing The Force of Destiny. Those words might strike terror into the hearts of any opera-lovers who like their Verdi presented as it might have been in the 1950s, with quaint costumes and park-and-bark stances. Bieito, who has been likened to radical film directors such as Quentin Tarantino or Pedro Almodovár, could not be further from that approach if he tried. 

    Opera forums have been buzzing with the pros and cons of his take on Puccini’s Turandot, which recently opened at Northern Ireland Opera in Belfast, set not in ancient fairy-tale China, but in a doll factory in the communist era. Among his other productions have been a cannibalistic Parsifal and a Matrix-like Fidelio – and while much has been controversial, his contemporary production of Carmen has been enjoying enormous success in opera houses all over the world for some 15 years. But for Bieito, The Force of Destiny may prove to be a special test. 

    “For me this is a very personal show,” says the soft-spoken and self-confessedly melancholic Spanish director, who is 52. He has not tackled it before: “I was offered it, but I said no. I felt that for this I had to be much more mature than I was 15 or 20 years ago. I think this is a good moment to do it – but the music has been with me for a long, long time.” 

    La forza del destino, to give its original Italian title, is a marathon three-and-half hour epic. Two star-crossed lovers, Leonora and Don Alvaro, attempt to elope, but Alvaro accidentally shoots Leonora’s father when he intercepts them. Her brother Carlo seeks revenge and the lovers try to escape: Leonora becomes a hermit, courtesy of fanatical local priests, while Alvaro joins the army under an assumed name and encounters Carlo, also in disguise, at war. A series of impossible-sounding coincidences leads, inevitably, to tragedy.

    The plot is sometimes dismissed as confused – indeed, the opera used to be considered “cursed” – yet it is based on a Spanish classic, Don Álvaro; o La Fuerza del sino (1835), by Duque de Rivas, the play credited with initiating romanticism in Spain. “The text is extremely familiar to me because it belongs to Spanish culture and it’s obligatory in school. I read it for the first time when I was maybe 12 years old,” Bieito says. 

    It is not so much a crazy opera, he adds, as an opera about insanity: “It’s related to the themes of the romantic period and the time of Verdi. It’s related to religion, fanaticism, nationalism, anger and revenge. In this opera, the family is the mirror of the war and the war is the mirror of the family. There’s a sentence I like very much, written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: ‘Civil war is not war but a disease. The enemy is internal, people fighting themselves.’ And I think that this piece is about three people who are fighting themselves all the time.” 

    “The piece in that sense is a kind of oratorio in chiaroscuro for the family,” he says. “Finally forgiveness and the goodness of the people is very important. In this opera the problem is the hate, the anger, the revenge, the blood of the family that provokes an explosion.” The eponymous force of destiny, he suggests, is in the genes. 

    He has set his production in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War, an era that has strong personal significance for him. He grew up in Miranda de Ebro, north-eastern Spain, not far from Guernica. “It came as a shock when I saw for the first time Picasso’s Guernica,” he says, “because I went to Guernica many times in my childhood. Guernica was the first time the Germans were bombing a city not with military objectives, but just bombing the people.” That was 1937; the Luftwaffe attacked Guernica to support General Franco against the Basque government. 

    “It was only I went to university after many years that I discovered that the biggest concentration camp in the south of Europe was in my city,” he recounts. “Nobody talked about this. In the 1940s the boss of the concentration camp was a German general, but in the civil war for sure it was a Spanish one.” The camp was only closed in 1947.

    His grandmother had lived through the civil war: “A lot of images in this show come from the stories my grandmother told me about that time, in a very simple, very honest way,” he says. In this imagery, walls are crucial: “They reflect the houses of the imaginary Guernica in my mind: the walls that keep the memories of the bombs, of the people who have died, the people who are weeping, and the refugees.” 

    This production was planned some two years ago, before the current civil war in Syria provoked some European countries into erecting walls to keep out today’s refugees. “There are refugees in the show for sure,” says Bieito, “those who went to the Spanish border to escape to France, but in the end went to the Germans’ concentration camps. It was a big tragedy.”

    Opening at ENO on 9 November, ENO’s staging is a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where it will form Bieito’s house debut, in 2017-18; and with the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto, another first for him. Is this take-up in new territories perhaps a sign that the world is readier to accept the extreme darkness and intensity of the Bieito vision, that people are willing to look beyond old preconceptions that he wants to shock or horrify us? 

    “I have never tried to horrify or shock,” Bieito says. “I’m trying to be honest with myself – and I feel privileged to express myself with the music of a fantastic composer and with the text of a wonderful writer. Everything is interpretation. All opera, all art is interpretation. I have been reading a book by Edvard Munch, the painter, in which he says that an artist must open his heart to express himself. I think – in a humble way, a simple way – that’s what I am doing.”

    The Force of Destiny, English National Opera, London Coliseum, opens 9 November. Box office: 020 7845 9300

    Thursday, November 05, 2015

    Let's make an opera - for Garsington!

    My opera-writing partner, Roxanna Panufnik. Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell
    It's all official now, so I can tell you at last: Garsington Opera has commissioned a new opera from Roxanna Panufnik and I am writing the libretto. It's called Silver Birch. It's a "People's Opera". It is to be performed on Garsington's main stage as part of the 2017 festival and will be directed by Karen Gillingham and conducted by Douglas Boyd, Garsington's music director.

    What's a "people's opera", you may ask? It's an opera for absolutely everyone, whether on the stage or in the audience. The cast is led by 5 principal professional opera singers. Then there are two child soloists, an adult chorus of local people, Garsington Youth Opera, a youth dance company, and a primary school-age chorus, an orchestra of 17 professionals and 20 young instrumentalists too. There'll be around 150 participants! And the story is designed to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, from 8 to 108.

    We held devising workshops, led by the incredibly dynamic Karen, in which schoolchildren and members of the local population joined us to explore the theme of war and its impact on families, as well as the significance to them of World War 1. Both the character and poetry of Siegfried Sassoon will play an important role within the piece, connecting the ongoing World War 1 commemorations with modern-day warfare. 

    The story is original, multifaceted and informed by some very personal research we've undertaken, involving interviews with members of Sassoon's family plus advisers from today's military and ex-military personnel, our principal consultant having served on the frontline in Iraq. 

    It's been a whole new way of working for me and I've loved every moment of it. I hope you'll love the results too. As they say, watch this space.

    More here...

    Wednesday, November 04, 2015

    Women in music: positive action works

    I've got a piece in the new edition of Classical Music Magazine, responding to one last month by Alexandra Coghlan.

    Here's Alexandra's piece, in which she asserts that women in music are being spotlighted for all the wrong reasons.

    Here's mine, pointing out the inconvenient truth that sometimes affirmative action works...

    In the late 1980s, my generation emerged from college believing we could have it all. We imagined the battle for ‘Women’s Lib’ had been won and we would be its beneficiaries. We thought that if we tried to put in place conditions for discrimination and prejudice to disappear, they would, by some kind of natural, progressive evolution. Ever since, we’ve been finding out how wrong we were.
    That applies throughout society, of course, and classical music is no exception. With Suffragette receiving top billing in the cinemas as I write, it’s clear that there is a preoccupation with these issues in the world around us right now – and with good reason...
    Read the whole thing here. (I'm happy to say that even if Alexandra and I may disagree, we're good friends and colleagues and we applaud each other's right to speak up.)
    Meanwhile, if you were in any doubt that positive action can effect change, just take a look at the Lucerne Festival. Yes, mighty Lucerne; Lucerne the wealthy and beautiful; historical Lucerne, founded to counter Bayreuth and Salzburg beyond the Third Reich's reach; Lucerne where Wagner wrote Tristan, has announced that in 2016 its theme is "Prima Donna": a focus on women artists. And it is going to feature ELEVEN (11) conductors who are female, at the helm of top orchestras from around the world. 
    Emmanuelle Haim, who will conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in Lucerne.
    Photo: Simon Fowler, (c) Warner Classics

    Marin Alsop will make her Lucerne debut with the São Paolo Symphony Orchestra. Barbara Hannigan is to conduct the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Susanna Mälkki will conduct the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra in the world premiere of a new work by Olga Neuwirth, who is composer in residence. A "day of adventure" [sic] brings in the conductors Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla, Anu Tali, Maria Schneider, and Konstantia Gourzi. And Emmanuelle Haim, the French baroque suprema, is to take the podium for the Vienna Philharmonic, which as we all know isn't exactly renowned for the number of women it admits to its ranks. (Well, renowned for exactly that. Because there are so few.) 
    And in case you were in any doubt, there are plenty of men around as well. Riccardo Chailly, recently appointed music director of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, will conduct opening night, which is Mahler's Symphony No.8.
    The risk of the "prima donna" focus, of course, can be summarised as "been there, done that, bought the t shirt". It's a super celebration, but what one wants is consistency: equality of opportunity that becomes normal and ultimately unremarkable because it is so accepted. The fact that Lucerne is doing this means that all the activism, the articles, the general "noise" about women in music is having an impact in the places it matters. The long-term effect, though, needs to be different. Lucerne is offering a chance for the movers and shakers of the music world to sample the excellence of great artists who happen to be female. We'd like them then to win enduring opportunities as a result. Things can't just go back to business as usual. 
    Bravo, Lucerne, for biting the bullet and sounding the trumpet. And I look forward very much to seeing how Emmanuelle gets along with the Viennas. 

    Tuesday, November 03, 2015

    Taking it to the Maxim...

    Vengerov 2
    ...or taking the Maxim to the Editor's Lunch, in this case. My interview with the very vibrant Vengerov is out now at The Amati Magazine. We went to The Gilbert Scott brasserie at St Pancras and enjoyed quite a lavish Sunday roast. Read the whole thing here.

    Vengerov took a break of several years from the violin, following an injury to his shoulder; but during his time out he turned himself into a conductor, studying in Moscow with Yuri Simonov. On his return to the Wigmore platform in April 2012, he performed a programme of Bach, Handel and Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata. 
    His playing emerged as fiery, burnished and characterful as ever – yet subtly different, too.‘I think it has changed only for the better,’ Vengerov says. ‘I was refreshed and I could use the knowledge of my new job as a conductor. I implemented a lot of things I learned from conducting to the violin business. I even rebuilt my technique based on this knowledge. 
    ‘I think my rhythm became better, in some ways – because as a conductor you have to have great rhythm,’ he adds. ‘As a soloist you sometimes don’t realise: you just go along with the flow and everyone has to follow you! But I think now my phrasing and colouring are sharper, more precise, more differentiated. Before that it was more instinctive. Today it’s more conscious, and yet I use the freedom that I had before.’ ....

    Monday, November 02, 2015

    A new castle for Lars Vogt

    Guilty passion no.1 for a Londoner: loving a place up north. I have a sneaky, enduring and increasing fondness for Newcastle-upon-Tyne and its nearby Northumbrian coast. I first went there as a student and was transfixed by the silver sands, the ruined castles on the horizon, the sea-bound causeway to Holy Island, Lindisfarne; and the city itself is a treat, full of soaring Victoriana and great-arching, east-coast skies. Moreover, it reminds me a little of Budapest, with Newcastle on one side of the Tyne and Gateshead on the other. Add to that possibly the best-designed arts centre in the entire country in the form of The Sage.

    The Sage (left) at sunset over the Tyne, seen from the Millennium Bridge. Photo: JD

    So the chance the other day to zip up the east coast mainline to visit the Royal Northern Sinfonia and its newly incumbent music director, Lars Vogt, came as a welcome treat. Taking over from Thomas Zehetmair is no small order for this superb musician - and in choosing him the RNS seems to have been seeking an artist of similar type to Zehetmair, a fine soloist who is becoming adept on the podium as well and enjoys, sometimes, doing both at once.

    Coincidentally, Vogt just reached a whole new audience when some problems with falling music in a recent concert went viral a couple of weeks ago, making his page-turner abruptly world famous...

    Vogt, who's in his forties and hails from Rhineland Germany (though his current base is Berlin), first shot to prominence in a rather different way, winning second prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition back in the early 1990s; he and Simon Rattle, who was conducting the concertos, seem to have 'clicked' at once and Rattle invited him to make recordings soon afterwards. He is a peerless chamber music pianist, his closest collaborator being no less a violinist than Christian Tetzlaff; and his latest solo recording, of the Bach Goldberg Variations, has been a runaway success, refulgent with tenderness. His sheer affection for the music and its many facets shines out - and is shown to marvellous effect in the works of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

    Therefore, on Friday I found myself listening to the best Mozart D minor Piano Concerto performance I've encountered in a long while. It is far from a favourite work of mine, especially as it is programmed so often that many [possibly still better] Mozart piano concertos are left in its shadow
    (K453? K482? K491? Come on, people, there are 27 of these beauts...). Vogt first of all treated it as chamber music; secondly, he kept the second movement flowing and poised - it can be a disaster if it's allowed to sag, since it is so repetitive - and when Mozart flings D minor out of the window in the finale and reverts to humorous high-jinks, rather than shying away from the teasing triad figure in the coda and underplaying it, Vogt milked it deliciously. Humour and humanity are part and parcel of vintage Mozart, and this was a real joy.

    Lars Vogt. Photo: Neda Navaee
    Vogt is still refining his technique as conductor - he's certainly not conventional in podium aspect - but the crucial question is whether or not he is able to infuse the performance with the authentic spirit of the composer as well as he can on the piano. Early in his career, he developed a strong reputation for his playing of Haydn piano sonatas, so would this be carried through into the symphonies? Haydn's Symphony No.103, the 'Drumroll', left no doubt that it is.

    Citing among his influences Gardiner and Norrington, yet leaving aside three-line whips on vibrato, Vogt focuses on long lines and vocal, eloquently articulated phrasing; a fine feel for tempo, balance and humour add much heart and soul to the effect and his terrific double-act with leader Bradley Creswick in the violin solo variation in the second movement drew a laugh from the audience - something we should indeed be allowed in Haydn. The two big works were ushered in respectively by Beethoven's Overture 'The Creatures of Prometheus' and Webern's Langsamer Satz - a tender glance forward to a later Vienna.

    The RNS has introduced a new idea this season: after sitting as usual for the first half of the concert, most of the orchestra (with the obvious exceptions of cellos and basses) dispensed with their chairs for the second half. This, I sense, has its pros and cons; on the one hand there's more freedom of movement for each player, which some feel is reflected in the sound; but on the other, with considerable differences in height between desk partners, it can't be easy to get the music stands at the right level for everyone, and it probably doesn't do people's backs much good. It will be interesting to see whether they stick with it and whether the freeing-up effect is great enough to justify the necessary compromises. My personal impression was that they sounded so good in any case that the lily was perhaps being gilded. But a "suck it and see" attitude  to new ideas is more than slightly healthy.

    You can read my full interview with Lars when it comes out in the new year - more of that anon.

    Sunday, November 01, 2015

    Barenboim calls to the world to help Syrian refugees

    Daniel Barenboim, speaking to reporters ahead of conducting a concert by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at the United Nations in Geneva last night, called on the world to do more to help refugees from the Syrian civil war. 
    "Europe alone can't deal with (the) Syrian refugees...the rest of the world has to participate," he said. "The Arab world should also take Syrian refugees."
    Millions have been displaced in Syria since the conflict began about four years ago. Two million have gone to Turkey, more than one million to Lebanon and 630,000 to Jordan, according to UN figures, while more than 700,000 have come to Europe.

    Barenboim's own family came to Argentina as refugees from Russian pogroms against the Jewish community in the late 19th century. In Argentina today, he said, there are three Syrian communities, respectively Muslim, Christian and Jewish: "All of them would be happy to give a land to the refugees," he said.

    Maestro Barenboim, who holds both Israeli and Palestinian passports, also spoke about the current intensification of violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories. "In Jerusalem the problem is really complex," he said. "The moment has come for the UN to put pressure on to solve the conflict."

    At yesterday's Concert for the Understanding of Civilisation and Human Rights, given at the invitation of the UN Director General and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Barenboim and the WEDO performed the last three Mozart symphonies for an audience which included the UN Ban Ki-Moon. The WEDO website says that broadcast details for the performance will soon be announced.

    Barenboim was designated a United Nation Messenger for Peace in 2007.