Thursday, March 31, 2016

Film development for the Pianist of Willesden Lane

A few months ago I interviewed the amazing Mona Golabek, whose one-woman show The Pianist of Willesden Lane was subsequently a smash hit at the St James Theatre. The pianist turned actress tells the story of her mother, Lisa Jura, who after travelling from Vienna to Britain on the Kindertransport, which saved her from the Nazis, pursued her dream of becoming a pianist despite all. (The piece is here.) Now news has arrived that the book on which Mona's show was based, The Children of Willesden Lane, written by Mona with Lee Cohen, is up for movie development at BBC Films. Watch this space.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Hearing the Ottomans in London: a guest post by Professor Rachel Beckles Willson

Musician and researcher Rachel Beckles Willson, Professor of Music at Royal Holloway, University of London, is about to launch a new project tracing the different musical traditions in which this exquisite instrument plays a central role, and the stories of migration that go with it. I asked her to tell us all about it... JD

Hearing the Ottomans in London

“So tell me, which singer does she aspire to be?”
“Almost all the famous singers. But always with the same voice, the same makam, and interpreted in exactly the same way.”
“That means she is a true original! It’s solved. Unique and new. Pay attention here! I mean new, new in capital letters! For when it’s a matter of the new, there’s no need for any other talent. Now we need only choose which direction to take: folk music or classical Turkish music, or folk music with a hint of alafranga, or perhaps alafranga with a hint of folk?” (The Time Regulation Institute, trans. Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, Penguin Books 2013.)

Rachel Beckles Willson (oud) and Nilufar Habibian (quanun) in concert

Music threads through the novels of Ahmed Hamdi Tanpinar in a tapestry of love, ambition, nostalgia and ambivalence. For a society newly ruled by clocks, radios, and popular song from Europe, what use were Ottoman repertoire and classical modes (makam)? Tanpinar’s protagonist bemoans his sister-in-law’s disregard for tradition (‘she knows nothing about music’) whereas his friend dismisses it: ‘Today who would ever think of trying to distinguish the Isfahan from the Acemasiran?, he asks.

While in Europe, classical music institutions flourished beyond the collapse of empire following WWI, in Ataturk’s Turkey, the centuries-old repertoire of the Ottoman courts and dervish houses was sidelined in favour of music that could embody the new Republic. In Greece the situation was similar: the focus fell on music that could express essentially European qualities of the modern state.

But the last decades of the 20th century saw a new growth of interest in Ottoman music, and public support emerged as well. So much so, in fact, that one can now study classical Ottoman repertories in Turkey, Greece, Germany, Holland, France and beyond. There are printed scores, recordings, theory books, teachers… and of course there are many concert performances.

On 13 April, one of London’s most beautiful salons, Music at 22 Mansfield Street, is hosting an evening of Ottoman classical music.

The concert will begin with some of the earliest Ottoman pieces of all, several of which are attributed to Persian musicians at the court of Selim I (1512-1520). We draw the music from scores prepared by Wojciech Bobowski (1610-1675), a Polish slave-musician and translator who converted to Islam and took the name Ali Ufki; and Dimitrie Cantemir (1673–1723), the Moldavian Prince, musician and man of letters who lived in exile in Constantinople from 1687 to 1710. Their scores and other remarkable notated sources reveal the continuous development of Ottoman musical styles from around 1630 right through to the present day.

Our programme then moves on into the late 19th century and shifts south to present the tradition in the Egyptian Nahda (Renaissance). We exchange kemencheh for violin to demonstrate the flamboyant Arabization that was part of that development. We also present Egyptian settings of Andalusian poetry, muwashshahat, along with a range of more recent music from Turkey, Armenia and Iraq.

At the heart of the concert is the oud, which is the predecessor of the European lute and reminds us of Europe’s debt to Al Andalus, the Muslim rule of southern Spain, Portugal and parts of France 711-1492. The oud itself is still played throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and increasingly widely in Europe and North America. I first discovered it by chance while I was researching western style music education among Arab communities of Palestine and Israel. I was increasingly captivated by the sound of the oud, its beauty, and by the way it could transform a social event, triggering laughter, song or tears – or all three of these.

I bought an oud in East Jerusalem, hoping my Arab friends would play it when visiting me back in London. But I found myself trying to play myself, initially grappling with the Iraqi tradition, then slipping into the music of Egypt, Turkey and Crete. A couple of years further on I started to integrate oud with my professional life, drawing it into undergraduate teaching and research. Gradually I’ve found myself performing in public again, many years after leaving my career as a pianist behind.

In the London concert on 13 April I am joined by several brilliant musicians (their origins combine Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Lebanon, Palestine and Turkey) to launch a website that is part of my current research []. The website illustrates how ouds can be keys to unlocking stories of migration, and how they offer us fresh perspectives on the ever-changing relationships between Europe, Asia, and North America. The UK’s oldest oud was sent as a gift from the Khedive of Egypt to the South Kensington Museum in 1867. But Europe’s oldest surviving oud probably arrived in Brussels from Alexandria 28 years earlier, ordered by a Belgian researcher.

Several writers will be contributing to, so there will be stories from a range of places and in a range of voices. Please visit to watch the project develop. More details about the concert will be posted there shortly.

13 April 2016, 19.30 (welcome drinks served from 19.00).
22 Mansfield Street, London W1G 9NR.
All the artists are giving their services free, ticket prices cover costs only.
Welcome drink and concert: £20 (students and under-18s £10)
Welcome drink and concert, drinks and canapés after: £30 (students and under-18s £20) Book by email – boas22m AT

Rachel Beckles Willson

Monday, March 28, 2016

Listening to different spaces

A hard-hitting interview with the composer Olga Neuwirth has appeared in VAN magazine in which the distinguished composer tears the patriarchal structures of the classical music world into little bits and pieces. (The interview took place in November last year and has been translated, in what the magazine says is abridged form.)

It is also fairly horrific to discover that on one occasion an opera commission together with the author Elfriede Jelinek was cancelled, and the reasons Neuwirth alleges were behind this. Jelinek subsequently won the Nobel Prize for literature.

Here's a taste of Neuwirth's work: this piece is all about listening to different spaces...

Neuwirth also asks in this interview where those people who now speak up against sexism in the industry were 25 years ago, when she'd already started doing so.

That got me thinking. Where were we? Why are we late starters? Why were we listening to different spaces then?

Well, some of us were pretty young and green, for a start. I was in a junior post, learning how magazines were put together. I got my first music journalism job on The Strad when I was 24 and I had not the first clue about the structures and traditions of the music business. I was resistant to the notion that music was a business at all. Until a year earlier I'd spent three to five hours a day practising the piano, and I was still licking wounds that resulted from that dreamectomy. My mother had cancer and her illness hung over our family like a sword of Damocles. I had other preoccupations, too, as one does at 25, and was basically trying to find my feet, do my job and learn my way around the industry in which I'd landed.

My elder sister was the family feminist and activist. She was a lecturer in French history and politics, at that time at Bath University (she subsequently moved to Sussex). Although she sometimes berated me for my head-in-the-clouds devotion to music, I somehow imbibed the sensation that feminism was her patch and that should I turn in that direction I would never in a thousand years be able to live up to her standards and her expectations.

I'd found the male-dominated aspects of my university sometimes unpleasant, arrogant and intimidating, but I was there and determined to do my own thing - or so I thought. Actually I buried ideas of composition lessons within three weeks of going "up", having spotted how unwelcome a girl composer would be... but the crucial point is that it didn't occur to me that one could challenge this. Surely one didn't need to, not in 1985?!? A woman was prime minister: that proved a woman could now do anything. Ours was the first generation that thought we could have it all. Even so, I did not experience a single lesson with a woman at that university in three years. Unless I'm very much mistaken, the only women teaching in that music faculty were one ethnomusicologist and a brilliant composer (a Schoenberg expert) who was doing a doctorate. It was just how it was. I certainly had daydreams of sneaking down to the faculty by night and spraying on some graffiti, or smashing a window or two, but a) that was for other reasons, and b) I'd never have dared.

Still, I think the sorry underlying truth was probably the syndrome I see in many young women today. They've made it, so why can't others? What's the problem? I am fairly sure that at 25 that's how I must have seen things. It never occurred to me that I'd be overlooked because I was a woman; I applied for jobs and got them, so pas de problème...

What happened? I spent 20 more years in the business. My sister died of cancer, aged 45, and I realised that life is short, short, short. I began writing for the Independent. If I'd approached a national newspaper wanting to write about sexism in the music industry as an importunate upstart of 25, I reckon I'd have been laughed out of town. Then I interviewed Pierre Boulez. He said you can't sit in front of a situation you see is wrong without wanting to do something to change it, and I realised he was right. It wasn't long after that that I found myself sitting in front of something that I felt was very wrong and I decided to do something at least to raise awareness of it, because now I could.

The floodgates of consciousness have opened all around us now and it has been heartening to see the industry's decision-makers responding: festivals from baroque to contemporary programming music by women, International Women's Day taken very seriously on Radio 3 (now we need to address the rest of the year too), the launching of awards for women in the creative industries under the auspices of the Southbank Centre's WOW festival. The argument has widened to consider diversity as a whole, and necessarily so. Chineke! has got off to a flying start, and now Sound and Music is taking direct action to address the lack of diversity in new music "because it's 2016" - here's what they're doing and how and why.

Of course Neuwirth is right: it would have been good if more people had spoken up 25 years ago. But we can't change the past. With any luck, though, we can make some impact upon the present and future.

(Meanwhile, anyone who still requires proof of the ugly nature of misogyny in the music world need only go to the reader comments thread following a Slipped Disc post about Khatia Buniatishvili - some of the views expressed below the line are nauseating. I'm not linking to it - find it yourself if you wish.)

Sunday, March 27, 2016

A home in music: Streetwise Opera does the Passion

Don't miss this on BBC4 this evening at 7pm. The Sixteen joined forces with Streetwise Opera, the charity that works with the UK's homeless, to stage Bach's St Matthew Passion in Campfield Market, Manchester, last night, directed by Penny Woolcock. They introduce it in this film for The Guardian, and while the BBC is screening a one-hour version tonight you can see the whole premiere on the G's site from Monday.

"The whole of civilisation is founded on art," one of the homeless participants reminds us.

Do stop it with the "sweet"...

I've reviewed Anna Beer's book Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music for today's Sunday Times. It's a great read, exploring the lives and times of eight remarkable people who were significant both to their day and beyond: Francesca Caccini, Barbara Strozzi, Marianna Martines, Clara Schumann, Fanny Hensel, Lili Boulanger and Elizabeth Maconchy. The whole review is here. (There's a paywall. Which, let's face it, is probably the only way forward.)

The only thing I really didn't like was the title: "sweet airs" is exactly the sort of nonsense that women who compose have had to face across century after century and not far off "tinkling prettily" (a term I've seen applied to two very different composers whose works, had they been by men, would probably have been lauded instead for their Bergian expressivity or their contrapuntal rigour). Perhaps in this case it was picked for irony...

Friday, March 25, 2016

And meanwhile, it's Bartók's birthday

Here is Sir András Schiff talking about Bartók, whose birthday is today.

The music shall continue. Great art is eternal...

A farewell to the home pages

The Independent produces its last print edition tomorrow. Many unknown quantities remain regarding the future - as I'm a mere freelancer I work from home and I know nothing, but a great many superb journalists are losing their jobs and/or their columns, there's been a roaring silence thus far concerning future arts coverage and let's say I'm not holding my breath regarding classical music articles.

So here's what's probably my last piece, barring some miracle, and I'm glad to say it's a Glyndebourne preview. They've got an absolute peach of a season coming up and I enjoyed a lovely chat with Gus Christie - but it has to be noted that if you want a top-price seat for Meistersinger it'll cost rather a lot.

My heart is with my friends and colleagues today, editors, writers and columnists, people at the very top of their profession who in some cases have devoted almost their entire working lives to that newspaper and never ceased trying to make it the best in the business. I'm proud to have worked with you for 12 years and I am going to miss you very, very much.

Over and out.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

In which footy fans try opera...

The irrepressible Michael Volpe, head of Opera Holland Park, has made a little film, available on BBC Arts, about what happened when he took some fellow Chelsea fans for their first-ever experience of opera, specifically La traviata.
Some remarkable things began to happen quite early in the journey, not only to them...

First thoughts on the first Culture White Paper in 50 years...

The government has published its first White Paper on Culture for more than 50 years, only the second one ever, and it is full of good stuff. Unfortunately, an adequate resemblance of its contents to the picture on the ground has thus far passed me by.

There are BME children playing violins on the cover, a trendy stakeholder hashtag #OurCulture, quotes from Shakespeare, strong words about inclusiveness, an insistence that every child should have the opportunity to encounter culture both in and out of school. There is, too, a thing called 'GREAT Britain' which seeks to increase the UK's 'soft power' in the world in general, through the impact and repute of its cultural life. Culture is the third most important concern for those wishing to visit the UK, it seems (only 17% of people cited the weather as an attraction), and the figures of its worth to the economy are writ large, in pink.

The good news is that a reasonably convincing attempt has been made to quantify the true value of culture - to the economy, to society, to people's quality of life, to our health, to the country's world standing and more. It's a difficult thing to pull off, but they have managed it, and done so with clarity, if not with a huge amount of detail as to how they intend to achieve their objectives, beyond working with the right people and organisations in such areas as diversity and devolution.

It is brilliant to see this being recognised at government level. But what is said, and what actually happens, still seem dangerously at odds. Try this, re public libraries:

Public libraries are an important part of our local communities. The Leadership for Libraries Taskforce was established in 2015 by the government and the Local Government Association. Its objectives are to support collaboration, best practice and development across England’s public library service. 

Oh yes? Did you know that several hundred public libraries have been forced to close in the past 5 years? Have a look...

The single biggest problem we're facing here, I think, is a lack of joined-up thinking. You can't make something happen by waving a lordly hand and saying "Make It So". It's fine to trumpet high ideals, but you cannot simultaneously cash-starve the local authorities that you expect to deliver them. They also have to take care of the elderly and the sick, organise rubbish collections, collect parking fines and find enough places in schools for local children, among other tasks. Many of them have been forced to slash their arts budgets because they simply can't afford them any more. For instance, an orchestra on tour or playing in residencies up and down the country may find that when once they were guaranteed a fee for a local appearance, instead they have been asked to share the risk with the local authority that runs the hall in question, and some are now being asked to shoulder all the risk if they want to keep playing there. Which they can't. And local authorities are closing libraries because they can't afford to keep them going.

A spirited response has come in from Deborah Annetts, chief executive of the Incorporated Society of Musicians. She, too, has homed in on the gulf between ideal and reality - in particular, where provision of music in schools is concerned, and where intellectual property issues need to be to the fore. She says:

‘We are delighted to see the Government re-state its real commitment to music and the wider cultural sector. It is clear that Ed Vaizey and the wider Department really understand the importance of the creative industries to our economic success; something also recognised by the Chancellor George Osbourne.
‘We particularly welcome the recognition that there is a need for “facilities that allow artists to develop and create new work”, something that will be of critical importance in supporting new composers and performers.
‘We are however concerned that this White Paper stands in isolation from the wider ecology of the cultural sector. The absence of a commitment around creators’ rights and intellectual property – something that lies at the heart of our profession – is particularly notable.
‘Likewise, the investment in music education hubs and the Mayor’s Music Fund in London continues to be welcome, but music delivered as part of the curriculum in our schools is increasingly under pressure. With a newEnglish Baccalaureate (EBacc) replacing theold EBacc, the future of the arts subjects in schools and in the classroom is at risk. This is where the skills and talent pipeline of the future come from, the entrepreneurs, micro and small businesses of the future and it is an enormous cause for concern for the future of the creative industries.

No doubt a lot more responses will be turning up before very long.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Finnish National Opera's chief conductor steps in to Glyndebourne's Meistersinger

Glyndebourne has drafted in the German conductor Michael Güttler to take over Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg from the indisposed Robin Ticciati. Hailing originally from Dresden, he is principal conductor of Finnish National Opera, where he has recently performed the same work. He'll be along to start rehearsals next week. More about him here.

Enquiries usually come too late

ENO: sink or swim?

The meltdown facing ENO at the moment is disgraceful. No artistic director has yet been appointed. Mark Wigglesworth has elected to walk away from his music directorship at the end of this season - having made clear that he believed maintaining a full-time company was absolutely fundamental, he probably felt he had no choice after the chorus deal was reached last week. In a resignation letter sent to musicians, he made this clearer still: "The company is evolving into something I do not recognise..."

In an article last month, he declared:

The Arts Council’s recent decision to cut ENO’s subsidy by £5m a year and the financial crisis that that has created demands that we rethink and reassess what we do and how we do it. How we respond to this challenge will determine our future success. I believe a fresh approach will fail if it compromises the company’s experience and expertise. Without the commitment, sense of ownership, love, and pride of the people who are the essence of ENO artistically, we have no right to ask for any curiosity, loyalty, or passion from our audience. ENO’s identity as a team defines its past and will be its greatest asset in protecting its future. Cutting the core of the company – musicians and technicians alike - would damage it irreparably.

The company is left, therefore, effectively without artistic leadership and in the hands consultants. The confusion beyond is...confused. One extra bit of trouble is that now Wigglesworth himself is being blamed for adding to it. It has to be said that a strong resignation statement from him throwing the whole filthy business wide open would have been handy, but has not been forthcoming. It wouldn't be surprising if some agreement has been reached that obliges him to do no such thing. (Arts organisations out of their depth are better than you might expect at muzzling those who know too much.)

Wigglesworth is a fine musician and a sensitive, thoughtful, principled person. What ENO actually needed in that job this season was an absolute bruiser.

But all this takes the focus away from the real problem, which was the original, punitive slashing of the ACE grant by 29 per cent. How was any company supposed to survive that intact?

The Magic Flute (pictured above in ENO's inspired production by Simon McBurney) shows a couple undergoing trial by fire and water, protected by their love for one another, their seeking after wisdom and the magic of their music-making. This is ENO's Magic Flute moment. If it can emerge, swimming rather than sinking, it will be stronger than ever. The difference is that in The Magic Flute the people subjecting Tamino and Pamina to the trials do want them to succeed.

If ENO were to fold, it would be a stain of dishonour upon British cultural life. ENO was, and still should be, the People's Opera. If it is murdered, there will need to be a post-mortem. Many of us would demand a public enquiry into its fate. That would come too late. We need it now, while the company can still be saved. We need to keep the big picture, first and foremost. The single most important thing is that the bean-counters cannot be permitted to sacrifice a company that at its finest is a national treasure and that reminds us at every performance of the best and most beautiful things of which human beings are capable.

(Here is a little light reading about management consultants.)

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Disaster at ENO: Wigglesworth has resigned

A press release from Mark Wigglesworth's PR has just hit my in-box bearing the following information. Wigglesworth seemed to be the only good thing that had happened to ENO of late and I am very worried indeed that his departure spells the beginning of worse times still. 

Mark Wigglesworth has today resigned as Music Director of English National Opera, effective from the end of the current season. He will continue to honour his contractual commitments as a conductor and looks forward to continuing to work with the wonderful musicians of ENO.

Mark Wigglesworth is not commenting further at this time.

A statement from ENO says:

We regret to confirm that Mark Wigglesworth feels unable to continue as Music Director despite the best efforts of the Board and Senior Management to persuade him to remain. We are disappointed that he will not be staying to lead the artistic forces through this particularly challenging period. 
Mark has agreed to complete this season as Music Director including conducting Jenufa and to return as a guest conductor for two scheduled productions in the 2016/17 season. Mark is a world class conductor and we look forward to welcoming him back as guest conductor in future years. 

Ghost Variations: the world premiere

Viv McLean, JD, David Le Page and the HCC's director Eszter Pataki

David Le Page, Viv McLean and I gave the first-ever performance of our new concert, Ghost Variations, based on my forthcoming novel, last night at the Hungarian Cultural Centre in Covent Garden. It's a gorgeous venue - as you'll see from the pics - and we felt very thrilled to be part of their Monday Musical Soirée season. Moreover, a packed house and the huge enthusiasm of the audience proved most encouraging.

The concert traces the story of the great Hungarian violinist Jelly d'Arányi and her rediscovery of the Schumann Violin Concerto, mingling shortened extracts of the novel with some explanatory links and, of course, the music that she used to play. We feel this is a words&music programme with a difference - because without the music, there wouldn't have been any words at all. Dave and Viv played works including the Bartók Romanian Dances, extracts from the Mendelssohn and Schumann violin concertos, Ravel's Tzigane, Hubay's Hejre Kati, Schumann's Violin Sonata in A minor and the theme from the Geistervariationen...

Afterwards: time for some Hungarian wine

Enormous thanks to the HCC for an unforgettable evening! Meanwhile: this concert programme really works, so is now available for booking. Happy to say it is supremely well suited to festivals and music clubs: it's 100 per cent accessible due to its storytelling nature, the words and the music are 100 per cent integrated, and the story has the added benefit of being based on real events.

The novel will be published in the summer. You can still get your name into it as patron if you pre-order it via Unbound.

Cressida speaks

Cressida Pollock, head of English National Opera, has written a piece for today's Independent about the current crisis and how she's tackling it. Well, more why she is tackling it than how...the one definite policy that emerges is a conviction that the Coliseum has to remain at the heart of ENO's work, and vice-versa. That's a start, I guess.
I am often asked if I am an “opera buff”. By the standards of the world in which I now work, I am not (although perhaps in 10 years I might make a claim!). But many of the people who make up our audience today are not “opera buffs”, and nor should they be. Our audience members have so many choices in what to do with an evening – to watch a series on Netflix, to meet friends for dinner, to go to a late night at a museum, or to one of the hundreds of live performances on each night in this city. We should not take their time, or money, for granted. It is our task to persuade them of three things – that opera is the most exciting art form of all, that seeing it live is an incomparable experience and that ENO is where they should see it. 
Happy reading...

[Update] You may find more illuminating information in The Arts Desk's piece talking to members of the exceedingly beleaguered and very wonderful chorus, here.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Iván Fischer on the magic of Hungarian-style music-making

Here's my interview with the magician at the helm of the Budapest Festival Orchestra (and, of course, the Konzerthaus of Berlin, and more...). It's in today's Independent. Iván Fischer is one of the few truly creative musicians I've had the good fortune to meet: he makes me realise what a rare quality creative thought really is in certain strata of this business. Boulez was the only person I've met whose brain worked in a similar continual whoosh of new thinking - though I liked Fischer's evocation of Bernstein as an ideal. I am looking forward enormously to hearing them do The Magic Flute on 10 May (RFH).

As you know, the Independent is closing its print operations on 26 March. I have one more piece to run before that. After that I may have a little more time on my hands for other things, because if anybody is going to need me they certainly haven't said so yet.

Anyway, what I'm sure some nice person out there will term our Second-Last Gasp was an interview I've been wanting to do for years. There's more of it and I'll upload a Director's Cut as soon as I have a moment. Meanwhile, enjoy...

Friday, March 18, 2016

X-ratings at the opera?

There's been something of a furore - or at least a few raised eyebrows - since the Royal Opera House sent round an email to ticket holders warning of graphic sex and violence (though not necessarily at the same moment) in the forthcoming new production of Lucia di Lammermoor, directed by Katie Mitchell. There's also been an "unsuitable for children under 12" message re Boris Godunov. As Fiona Maddocks points out in The Guardian, this is potentially a slippery slope: art, a mind-broadening process, should not be delivered with apologies.

Natalie Dessay as Lucia at the Met, NY, 2011

So, does opera need: a) raised expectations of theatrical staging, b) a suitability ratings system akin to that of cinema, and/or c) a whole new approach for a new century?

First of all, why are expectations of operatic productions so low? Many opera-goers are familiar with the works they are about to hear and are likely to know the stories. Lucia is about a woman who is forced into marriage with a man she doesn't love and on their wedding night goes mad and kills him before dropping dead herself. That is pretty bloody violent. If a film director such as Quentin Tarantino tackled such a tale, and you went to the cinema to see it, you'd be fairly astonished if all that happened was that Lucia sang a nice coloratura passage accompanied by a flute and then mysteriously keeled over.

Katie Mitchell, one of today's most brilliant theatre directors, is known for her ruthless, forensic interrogation of character and drama (I've just done a big interview with her for the American magazine Opera News, which will be out soon and explores all of this) and if you only want crinolines and ringlets you probably don't go to her productions. Yet crinolines and ringlets, in dramatic terms, can be awfully boring - unless handled by an exceptional director who can bring such matters to life through evocation of character and nuance.

Operatic music and the stories it illustrates are of necessity extreme - opera at its finest reaches the moments of human experience in which words become inadequate and only music can capture the emotion at hand. (Tosca: "Vissi d'arte". Wotan's Farewell. The Countess in Figaro. And so on.) Why are expectations, then, so leery of extremity?

Rigoletto: Planet of the Apes (Munich, 2007)
First, because that was probably how opera was staged for decades and decades, until someone realised it was theatre. Secondly, because unfortunately a good deal of so-called "Regietheater" really is disappointing. I contend that that is not inherently because it is Regietheater; it is perfectly possible for radical productions to be convincing, insightful and strikingly imaginative while remaining perfectly in tune with the opera's content. Yet I once asked Joseph Calleja what had been the most ridiculous thing he'd ever had to do on stage and he promptly responded: "Singing the Duke of Mantua in a monkey suit".

Next question: is it time to introduce mandatory "suitability" ratings for opera productions? We have them for cinema, so why not opera as well? It would, however, be up to each theatre to assess its own roster - but there's no reason why every opera should be suitable for children no matter what story it tells. Besides, just imagine: Lucia di Lammermoor is X-rated and teenagers try to smuggle themselves in as a badge of honour...

This system would mean no need for grovelly, late-notice, apologies-in-advance and no refunds. People would know a bit about what they're signing up for from the start and that is fine. You don't go to a Tarantino movie expecting soft-focus romanticism. And you don't expect that from Katie Mitchell either.

Anyway, I'm more worried about this production's conductor, whose Robert le Diable was so dull that it made an iffy opera pretty much intolerable. Perhaps he'll be more comfortable with Donizetti.

When I went to Budapest last week I interviewed a very different conductor, Iván Fischer, about his glorious Budapest Festival Orchestra and especially his semi-staged production of The Magic Flute, which is coming to London soon. His idea is to explore "organic, integrated opera" which brings the drama and the music together - the latter having to be performed dramatically, the former being scaled down somewhat. Fischer, one of the most genuinely creative minds on the podium at present, drew heavy criticism for a venture into this when he brought one to Edinburgh, but his idea is well worth exploring. His take on it is that for 40 years now there has been a polarisation between stage and pit: the former expected to be radical and innovative, the latter expected to be deeply conservative (with "original instruments" et al). This polarisation has become a trope, a cliché effectively, and besides it doesn't always make for a satisfying overall experience. It's time, he says, to try something new. More about this when the feature comes out. I find his analysis cogent and agree with him that it is time to look for a new way forward, rather than just chugging along in the same old tramlines.

And meanwhile I can't wait to see what Katie Mitchell has done with Lucia di Lammermoor. It opens on 7 April.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Chopin Competition winner's London debut

In case you missed my review the other day of Seong-Jin Cho's London debut recital at St John's Smith Square, here it is - it's in The Arts Desk, which allows plenty of space to get one's teeth into some detail. Overall, I was enormously impressed with his sensitivity, his gorgeous tone and control of its nuances, his ability to find the 'big picture', and above all with the marvellous sonic sculpture he created in the Funeral March. (The Arts Desk lets you read a certain number of things free, but thereafter there is a modest charge.)

Cho's debut recording on DG also well worth a listen [right].

Taster of concert review:
...he can find a world of meaning within one quiet note, or spin a melodic line with a pianistic voice ranging from full-throated open clarity to a hushed “covered” tone that wouldn’t disgrace a top Lieder singer. The final recitative-like moment in the F minor Fantasy, before the music dissolves into its last soft whirlpool, hung in the air like a spectre – you hardly dared breathe.
Whole thing is here.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Ticciati is out of Glyndebourne's Meistersinger

Sad news from Glyndebourne that its music director, Robin Ticciati, has had to withdraw from conducting Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at this summer's festival. He is recovering from surgery from a herniated disc in his back.

Robin says:
I’m incredibly disappointed to have to withdraw from what would have been my first ever Wagner opera. I was so looking forward to being reunited with David McVicar for the production and would like to wish the company all the best as they start rehearsals. It is my great wish to continue with my second engagement at this summer’s Festival, Béatrice et Bénédict; I’ve been advised that this is a realistic prospect and my attention is focused on achieving a swift recovery to fulfil this.”
They'll announce a replacement conductor "in due course".

Monday, March 14, 2016

Farewell, Max

"Max". Photo: BBC Media Centre

Peter Maxwell Davies has died at the age of 81. He was a powerful, trenchant, inspiring, gritty, determined, high-spirited, outspoken, eloquent, humorous, startling, original, fabulous, push-the-boat-out composer of our times. He will be desperately and profoundly missed.

Farewell, Max. We loved you very much and you have touched our lives deeply. You live on in your music.

Biography from Intermusica:
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies CH CBE (1934–2016)
It is with deep sadness that we announce the death of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, at the age of 81.
One of the foremost composers of our time, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies made a profound contribution to musical history in the UK and beyond through his wide-ranging and prolific output.
Recognised as a successor to the avant-garde generation of Ligeti, Lutosławski, Berio and Xenakis, as well as a composer of a distinctly British hue, Sir Peter’s output embraces every conceivable classical genre from symphonies and concertos to opera, music theatre, ballet, film, choral and more.
He was also an experienced conductor, holding the position of Associate Conductor/Composer at both the BBC Philharmonic and Royal Philharmonic orchestras for 10 years, and guest-conducting orchestras such as the San Francisco Symphony, Leipzig Gewandhaus and Philharmonia. He enjoyed a particularly close relationship with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra as Composer Laureate.
Born in Salford, Lancashire on 8 September 1934, Sir Peter attended Royal Manchester College of Music (now Royal Northern College of Music) where he was part of the so-called Manchester School with contemporaries Harrison Birtwistle, John Ogdon, Elgar Howarth, Richard Hall and Alexander Goehr. He later secured a Fellowship at Princeton where he studied with Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt. The 1960s were an especially formative decade, establishing him as a leading contemporary musical figure.
In 1971 Sir Peter moved to the Orkney Islands, the place which would be his home for the rest of his life. The landscape and culture had a deep impact on his music and in 1977 he founded the St Magnus Festival, an annual event with Orkney residents at its heart.
Sir Peter had a lifelong commitment to community outreach and education, writing much music for young people; his children’s operaThe Hogboon will receive its world premiere in June 2016 with Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO at the Barbican. His keen sense of social responsibility was threaded through many of his works, touching on major issues such as war, the environment and politics.
Sir Peter held the post of Master of the Queen’s Music from 2004–2014. He was knighted in 1987 and made a Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour in the New Year 2014 Honours List. In February 2016, Sir Peter was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal, the highest accolade the society can bestow, in recognition of outstanding musicianship.
Max (to all who knew him) passed away of leukaemia on 14 March 2016 at his home in Orkney. Our thoughts are with his loved ones at this time.

Friday, March 11, 2016

First glimpse of Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins

Meryl Streep's forthcoming new movie about Florence Foster Jenkins looks simply glorious. See the official trailer above.

But why this story, why now? Strangely, it may represent a very current phenomenon of celebrating people who are determined to do something, but do it badly. Perhaps even celebrating the self-deluded. This makes for "heartwarming" tales such as the excellent Victoria Wood TV drama about Joyce Hatto, about the extent of love that will indulge such fantasies, about following your dreams no matter what, about getting your own back on all those nasty, nasty professionals. Great stories, but a very weird trend. (The real Joyce Hatto incident was less heartwarming. It was a disgrace on the music industry, and a tragedy for her.)

Where does this tendency come from? The TV "talent" show? The concept of "crossover", which over the years has packaged up various people who sing rather badly, on the grounds of marketability/accessiblity/audience-doesn't-know-any-better? Inverted snobbery against, or jealousy of, the really good? Or are we a self-deluding society?

Oh come on, it's just harmless fun, isn't it? People have enjoyed freak shows since the beginning of time, haven't they?... Except now this extends through all manner of supposed disciplines. Highly gifted professionals who have given their whole lives to the study and perfection of an art, craft or skill stand by helplessly as the ignorant-and-proud-of-it run roughshod over them, aided and abetted by internet mobs. I suspect it won't be until we have a US president who follows this same pattern that we realise how dangerous it is.

Nevertheless, I can't wait to see this film. It's out in May.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Menuhin: a protégé speaks

This year marks the centenary of one of the 20th century's most extraordinary musicians: Yehudi Menuhin. A plethora of events and recordings surround this anniversary and in yesterday's Independent I had a piece exploring his legacy - essentially, how his pioneering creativity changed the musical world. It's here:

The violinist Daniel Hope, who was a protégé of Menuhin from the word go - his mother was the great man's PA - has made a new CD paying tribute to his mentor, and I have an e-interview with him to discuss it. Daniel talks about the perfectionism and iron will that underpinned Menuhin's heavenly musicianship - and tells us about the time his father left Menuhin's violin on a plane.

JD: Daniel, Yehudi Menuhin strikes me as not merely a musician, but a great humanitarian and, in many ways, a visionary whose preoccupations with bringing music to the people, training young musicians and collaborating with other genres seemed ahead of his time. Please can you tell us something about the various different ways in which he inspired you?

DH: Menuhin taught me that being an artist is more than just playing your instrument as well as you can. He believed that music had a strong social aspect and that musicians should use it to help others. Of the many wonderful organizations that he created or inspired, I think Live Music Now is the most impressive. Yehudi created LMN in 1977, and the organization works with a very diverse range of people that rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to experience live music - some of whom are very disadvantaged. They often face difficulties in communicating, cut off from the joy and pleasures of participating and sharing with others. LMN's approach to overcoming these barriers is very simple: talented young musicians are given the chance to gather early and essential performance experience, by sharing it in a social context, for example playing in hospitals, retirement homes or for children who are mentally or physically handicapped. LMN now has branches all over Europe: in Germany, where I often give fundraising concerts for them and am on their Honorary Committee, there are 20 branches alone giving over 5000 concerts a year. Worldwide LMN has reached more than 2 million people, with over 50,000 participatory performances for people with special needs.  

JD: What sort of a person was he? Do you have any favourite memories of him or anecdotes about him in daily life (rather than playing/teaching)?

DH: There was a magic about Menuhin and his aura as a musician was inspiring. Though physically of small stature he had a majestic charisma on stage. For a gentle man he was never ever satisfied he got things as good as he wished. He had a habit of turning and staring at the soloist’s fingers during cadenzas. So it was that in the summer of 1998, I was playing Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante with Philip Dukes on the viola. Menuhin was conducting when, without warning, he turned and fixed his eyes on Philip’s left hand - even his baton stopped.  He leaned over and got so close to Philip that the poor fellow blanched. He was watching Philip so raptly we wondered if he’d forget to turn back to the orchestra at the end of the cadenza, and only at the very last moment did he do so. 

Along with gentleness that nonetheless masked an iron will, Selbst bei größeren Zwischenfällen war Menuhins Humor unerschöpflich.Menuhin's humour was inexhaustible. On one occasion my father was entrusted with taking his priceless Guarneri del Gesù, a violin made in 1742 and known as the ‘Lord Wilton’, on an Alitalia flight to Rome. Menuhin was at the front of the plane and went straight to the VIP room.  When we got to passport control at Fiumicino airport, I asked my father where the violin was. My father looked at me with shock and came out with an expletive. He had left the violin in the baggage compartment on the plane. He ran like an Olympic sprinter back onto the runway and up the stairs of the aircraft - (you could do that in those days). When Yehudi heard about the incident, he giggled like a little boy. Thanks to some kind carabinieri he got his violin back after a tense half hour – tense for my father, anyway. 

JD: I understand he experienced a difficult patch, after his prodigy days were over, during which he virtually had to retrain his technique - can you shed any light on what happened to him and why, and how his playing after this compared to the recordings he made before?

DH: I think like many child prodigies, Menuhin reached a stage in his life where he began to question his astonishing talent. What had seemed entirely natural to him until that point suddenly became a struggle. From what he told me, this seems to have been compounded by emotional problems in his private life and the exhaustion of playing literally hundreds of concerts for the allied troops during the war. He did indeed teach himself to play the violin again, but this ‘crisis’ also led to a new journey of discovery on so many levels: yoga, Indian music with his collaboration with Ravi Shankar and a peace of mind which grounded him as a human being for the rest of his life.

JD: How would you describe his legacy?

DH: One of the greatest violinists of all time, and by far the most vocal classical musician of the 20th century.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Southbank Centre to launch WOW Awards for Women in the Creative Industries

Two or three years ago I wrote my first Cross Article about the sexism inherent in the classical music world and suggested we should have a new award - as there is in literature - for women in this industry. Now the Soutbank Centre is going a step further than that. To coincide with the WOW Women of the World Festival, and International Women's Day yesterday (which annoyingly I had to miss, any likely Budapest version having been in Hungarian), the Southbank is announcing the launch of the first-ever awards for Women in the Creative Industries.

Music forms one little part of this. I hope that the achievements of women in classical music will be recognised in full in future awards, and that as one of the smaller corners of the creative industries this vital and ever more active sphere will not be entirely marginalised. I think there's been a lot of progress since that initial Cross Article. It seems to me that scales - so to speak - have fallen from some eyes (though there's always room and time for more to glitter down). There's been an awakening, and with increased awareness some increased action has come about, from such institutions as BBC Radio 3, the Cheltenham Festival, two important early music festivals last year - Brighton and London - and now the BBC Young Musician of the Year, which has made the inspired choice of the composer Dobrinka Tabakova to be chair of its jury for 2016. Even Pembroke College, Cambridge, is putting up a picture of its alumna Emma Johnson, the clarinettist - the first time it has ever commissioned a portrait of a woman in 650 years. 

Here's to much more celebration. I was looking for a "three cheers" video to post, but the only one that falls roughly within the remit of a classical music blog is an extract of HMS Pinafore that begins with three cheers and proceeds with a pompous man singing about being a captain, with a chorus interjecting "And we are his sisters and his cousins and his aunts..."

So instead, over to the Southbank to explain the awards.



Today Southbank Centre launches WOW Creative Industries Awards, the first ever awards to honour women who are leading the way across the creative industries.
Julia Peyton-Jones, Director, Serpentine Galleries and Paulette Randall, Theatre and Television Director and Playwright are honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award and Bryony Kimmings, Live Artist, Playwright and Director will receive a Bold Moves Award.
The awards, which will be presented annually at Southbank Centre’s WOW- Women of the World festival, will recognise significant achievements made by women in the arts, tech, music, film, games, media, fashion and advertising.

The three inaugural awards are presented by Southbank Centre Artistic Director Jude Kelly CBE at today’s Women in Creative Industries Day and will be followed by a call for submissions ahead of the first full awards ceremony at WOW-Women of the World festival 2017.

Founder of the WOW Creative Industries Awards and the WOW Women of the World festival, Southbank Centre Artistic Director,  Jude Kelly CBE said:

“I am launching the WOW Creative Industries Awards to recognise how pivotal women have been in making the sector as strong as it is today. Through our Women in Creative Industries Day we strive to bring recognition to the role women play in the creative industries and address challenges women face in reaching their creative goals. I believe these awards will help us reflect on the risks individual women have taken to push the arts, digital, music, film, fashion, games, media and advertising sectors forwards and encourage women who are passionate about carving their own creative path to pursue their dreams.”

Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy Ed Vaizey MP said:

“Congratulations to Julia Peyton-Jones and Paulette Randall on their outstanding efforts being recognised with the Lifetime Achievement Award, and also to Bryony Kimmings for her valuable contribution to the arts.
"I hope that the WOW Creative Industries Awards will help inspire the next generation of female entrepreneurs, artists, designers, coders and writers to pursue their dreams. The UK is home to so much talent in our thriving creative industries, but we can’t forget how much we still need to do to eradicate the barriers many still face when trying to achieve their goals.”

Julia Peyton-Jones, Director of Serpentine Galleries, said:

“I am very proud to be the recipient of the inaugural Women of the World Lifetime Achievement Award. International Women’s Day and occasions such as WOW serve as both an opportunity to celebrate women’s achievements and also as a reminder that there is still much to do. Equality is not yet a given and we need to be on the barricades for as long as it takes.”

Bryony Kimmings, Live Artist, Playwright and Director and winner of the Bold Moves Award said:

“I feel very humbled by this award. I often feel I exist at the peripheries of art forms and that being an activist often annoys people, it's bloody great to be told that being bold is a good thing... It makes you want to go even bolder!”

Paulette Randall, Theatre and Television Director and Playwright, said:

“I'm very honoured to receive this award. Working in the arts is not the easy option, it takes courage and determination to succeed. These awards send a signal to women who have a creative passion that if they work hard it can be possible to realise their ambition and I want them to hold on to that.”

The WOW Women in Creative Industries Day is part of Southbank Centre’s week long 6th WOW- Women of the World festival. The day is an opportunity for men and women working across the creative industries to discuss how to achieve gender equality in the sector and a chance to celebrate some of the important improvements that have taken place over the last year.

WOW Women in Creative Industries Day will include appearances from Alice Bah-Kuhnke, Swedish Minister of Culture and Democracy and Louise Jury, Director of Communications & Strategy at the Creative Industries Federation, Maria Eagle MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and Damian Collins MP, Chair of the Conservative Arts and Creative Industries Network and previously a member of the Select Committee for Culture, Media, Sport and the Olympics. There will be speeches from Kate Mosse OBE, international bestselling author and Co-Founder and Chair of the Board of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, Lucy Crompton-Reid, CEO of Wikimedia, Amali de Alwis, CEO of Code First: Girls, Caroline Norbury MBE, founding Chief Executive of Creative England, Melanie Eusebe, award winning business expert and founder and chair of the Black British Business Awards, Sue Hoyle OBE, Director of the Clore Leadership Programme, Mira Kaushik OBE, Director of South Asian dance company Akademi and Zoe Whitley, Curator, Contemporary British Art at Tate Britain and Curator International Art at Tate Modern.  
For the complete London WOW 2016 programme, visit