Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Così, cosà...

...it's a wonderful word, tra-la-la-la [=> Marx Brothers]. Meanwhile, the ambiguity of the great Così fan tutte is laid on with the proverbial trowel at Covent Garden. I've reviewed it here for the Critics' Circle reviews site. And found it...a bit così-cosà.

Just to add, though: it has had a lingering aftertaste. The music has stayed with me in a way that it rarely has before - the sheer sublimity of it. And whenever I run into to someone else who also saw and heard it that night, they say more or less the same thing. They come out thinking, as I did, "My God, I love Mozart so much..." - which means that someone is doing something very much right, and probably on the conductor's podium. Thank you , Semyon Bychkov!


The music of Così is so sublime it’s a difficult show to ruin. However often a production flies in scenery during the most beautiful passages – I could have lived without the brightly-lit cinema frame descending from the heavens in the middle of ‘Soave sia il vento’ – Mozart transcends everything. In this new production, the Royal Opera House debut of the German director Jan Philipp Gloger, that’s just as well. 

Two young couples arrive at the front of the stalls as the cast of an 18th-century opera (Così fan tutte?) take their curtain calls during the overture. One of that cast, our Don Alfonso, whisks the two boys up to the stage and makes a bet with them that he can prove their beloveds – selfie-snapping and hard-drinking girls – are unfaithful. Don Alfonso transforms into a movie director and the young people act, and act some more while scenes morph around them: a wartime farewell under a station clock, a bar in which the cynical Despina, devoid of morals and goodwill, shakes the cocktails, and a Garden of Eden with green plastic snake (aha: temptation! No, really?)...

Read the rest here.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A new piano festival for London!

Meet Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen: two glorious pianists who have been working together for many happy years. An established duo of this kind, celebrated as an entity in itself, is still relatively rare. And now the pair have added another string to their bow: they have founded three days of pianistic feasting under the simple yet splendid heading London Piano Festival. Highlights include a lecture on Liszt by Alfred Brendel with Dénes Várjon at the piano, Kathryn Stott in French repertoire, jazz from Julian Joseph, Charles and Katya in a two-piano recital culminating in Rachmaninoff's Suite No.1, and much more besides.

But why aren't there more piano festivals around anyway? When the Institut Français founded its own It's All About Piano a few years back, I couldn't help wondering why it was the first such event in the UK's piano-filled capital. Now we have that one in South Kensington for spring and this one at Kings Place coming up fast for 7-9 October, with exciting plans for future years too. I asked Charles and Katya to tell us more about it... (All photos: Sim Canetty-Clarke.)

JD: How and why did you conceive the idea of starting a piano festival? 

KA: Charles and I had an idea of starting a piano festival a few years back after a wonderfully positive visit to the New Ross Piano Festival in Ireland. There are so many chamber music festivals in the world, but piano festivals are relatively rare. London has many exciting piano events to offer, but none of its major concert halls presents a single intensely focused festival devoted exclusively to the piano, at least not until now! The idea came from our friendship and love of the instrument. The possibilities of repertoire are endless, and of course the piano is versatile like no other instrument – it can imitate the human voice, various instruments and even the full orchestra.

 JD: How did you decide on who and what to programme? And why at Kings Place?

CO: For this first festival, we decided to focus on artists, all of whom we admire and know personally, people we could pick up the phone to or email directly. Both Kathryn Stott and Noriko Ogawa took part in the New Ross festival where the four of us became a bit of a gang. They are both irrepressible musicians and wonderful personalities! Ashley Wass is an artist we both value highly and the same can be said for our fellow Guildhall professors Lucy Parham, Ronan O’Hora and Martin Roscoe. We are both fortunate to have received inspiration through coaching sessions with Stephen Kovacevich and of course Alfred Brendel remains the ultimate iconic figure in today’s piano world, now sharing his insights through the spoken word.

When it came to deciding upon repertoire, each pianist was encouraged to choose the repertoire with which they feel a special connection. For example, Kathryn Stott will play a signature all-French programme linked by the luminous tonality of F sharp. The epic Two Piano Gala has been deliberately created to avoid the most famous duo works to give audiences a new encounter on many unexpected 20th-century treasures.

As for the choice of Kings Place, we both love their two vibrant concert halls and super contemporary feel, set in the most buzzing and regenerated area imaginable. We’ve played there as a duo and in solo recitals since the venue first opened in 2008. The two resident Steinway pianos are both stunners and as North Londoners, the halls are walking distance from our respective homes!

JD: You're both busy performers, together and separately! How have you dealt with all the organising?

KA: Starting a new festival is a great and exciting idea, but the reality is you never really know the challenges that are waiting for you until you start the work. Charles and I had to learn some totally new skills as organizers and it has been difficult and demanding at times - we are still learning! But also rewarding when you see the results. It's really great to have each other as we try to divide the work. Often one of us might be away or really busy with concerts and that's when friendship and understanding come in handy!

JD: Have you had to fundraise to deal with the cost? What has that been like?

CO: Indeed, we have organized fundraising events and been generously supported by a number of companies, and individuals. Approaching people for funds is my least favourite part of the festival process, but it is a necessary evil that anyone involved in the Arts and many other walks of life has to accept.

JD: What are you most looking forward to?

KA: Of course we look forward to every single event at our festival as each was carefully created with various themes in mind. But perhaps the one we most look forward to is the Two Piano Gala on Saturday 8 October. It has an unusual format, not the usual two halves concert, but a three-part event.

Seven fantastic pianists are taking part and the repertoire is all 20th century music. The programme will start with a serious Busoni work and continues on with Debussy and Rachmaninov culminating with a selection of fun, exciting pieces by Milhaud, Piazzolla and Grainger. There is also a newly commissioned work by Nico Muhly, Fast Patterns, which is highly virtuosic, obsessive and minimalist in style. The evening will be a true celebration of the instrument.

JD: Can we hope that it will become an annual event?

CO: Indeed you can! Plans are already underway for the 2017 London Piano Festival to include a strong Russian flavor in terms of pianists and their repertoire.

JD: To end, how about some anthem-like words from you both about why the piano and its repertoire deserves to be celebrated? 

CO & KA: The sheer depth of tonal beauty that a great piano possesses, mirrored by the incomparable range, variety and beauty of its repertoire is always a cause for celebration. Which other single instrument, apart from the mighty cathedral organ, can truly encompass such a spectrum of emotions, textures and dynamic range whilst retaining a truly magical singing tone?

Full programme and booking here.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

They are going to measure artistic quality. Seriously.

Most perturbed by the revelation that Arts Council England is planning "to impose quantitative measures of artistic quality" upon its National Portfolio Organisations. Here is more information about it on the ACE website.

Here is a clear and detailed report in Arts Professionalhttp://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/news/arts-council-impose-quantitative-measures-arts-quality

The scheme so far has apparently cost more than £700k, and the ACE is said to be pressing ahead with it despite concerns, following the pilot scheme, that it's not guaranteed to deliver in an entirely satisfactory way...

So how is this going to work? ACE site provides us with this.

The core quality metrics
Self, peer and public:
  • Concept: it was an interesting idea
  • Presentation: it was well produced and presented
  • Distinctiveness: it was different from things I’ve experienced before
  • Challenge: it was thought-provoking
  • Captivation: it was absorbing and held my attention
  • Enthusiasm: I would come to something like this again
  • Local impact: it is important that it's happening here
  • Relevance: it has something to say about the world in which we live
  • Rigour: it was well thought through and put together
Self and peer only:
  • Originality: it was ground-breaking
  • Risk: the artists/curators really challenged themselves
  • Excellence: it is one of the best examples of its type that I have seen

Some of these points make more sense in some areas of the performing arts than in others; it would, one surmises, be iffy to apply them en masse not only to theatre and cinema but also to opera and ballet both traditional and contemporary, and to concerts of classical music. One size doesn't fit all. It never did and it never will. 

It's tempting to wonder if this is an unintended consequence of the continuing reduction of space for professional critical assessments of artistic work in the national press - now so marginalised that the majority of cultural work never receives any newspaper assessment at all. The notion of public reviews - the 'everyone is a critic' stance - seems to be progressively devaluing the concept of the alternative: this is because consensus is so rare that once you pass a certain number of reviews everything ends up, on a scale of one to five, averaging around three because some like it, some don't, everyone takes a different view for a different reason and nobody really trusts what other people say in any case. 

This in itself should demonstrate how problematic it is to assess artistic quality in a generalised way.

Let's try out the Core Quality Metrics on an actual classical concert...

Yulianna Avdeeva. Photo: C. Schneider
It so happens that the most recent event I've been to was the debut recital at the Wigmore Hall the other night of Yulianna Avdeeva, the young Russian pianist who won first prize at the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 2010 - the year Daniil Trifonov pulled in in third place. Instead of a review, here is an assessment of the evening according to Core Quality Metrics.

CONCEPT: it was an interesting idea
Of course it's interesting to have the winner of the Chopin Competition make her Wigmore debut six years after the event. She is an extremely fine artist and should be far better known than she is.

PRESENTATION: it was well produced and presented
Find me anything at the Wigmore Hall that isn't well produced and presented? It's the Ritz of concert halls. Such things are never in doubt. As for Yulianna, she is a consummate professional, at ease on the stage and in complete control at every turn. (Presentation? I don't know where she got her pewter-coloured shot-silk jacket, but I'd like one too.) 

DISTINCTIVENESS: it was different from things I've experienced before
Yes, because I haven't previously heard Yulianna Avdeeva give a recital at the Wigmore Hall. I'm not sure I've heard those exact pieces played in that exact succession before either. But others might say: well, it's a piano recital, so it's not all that different. To those who love going to piano recitals, it was different for the above reasons. To the non-pianophile bureaucrat, though, would this risk raising puzzlement?

CHALLENGE: it was thought-provoking
That depends purely on the individual listener. Some might experience provoked thoughts such as: here is Bach's English Suite No.2 being played on the modern piano with absolute clarity, great conviction, beautiful rhythmic sense, exquisite sound quality and enthralling virtuosity, so what price those who think it's the wrong instrument, and do those people still even exist? And: here is Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No.8, written towards the end of World War II: it is a massive, nearly symphonic work, full of colour, deeply original and fantastically difficult to perform, and Yulianna is so at one with it and its idiom that she's making me imagine that I am in Moscow looking at Russian modernist art by the likes of Malevich and Goncharova. 

I hope this is what they mean by 'thought-provoking', but it's quite hard to tell. 

CAPTIVATION: it was absorbing and held my attention
Yup. See above.

ENTHUSIASM: I would come to something like this again
Yup. You bet.

LOCAL IMPACT: it's important that it's happening here
We're going round in circles now. Yes, it is important that Yulianna, a top-class musician with a growing international profile, should have a Wigmore Hall debut, here in central London, and that our discerning audience should have a chance to hear her. See above.

RELEVANCE: it has something to say about the world in which we live
This can only mean what you want it to mean. The concert says that people still adore listening to Bach, Chopin and Prokofiev, that some young pianists are as good as ever at playing them, and that the Wigmore Hall is one of the best places to go to listen to them. But what of the mindsets with which people approach this topic? What do we want an artistic event to say about the world in which we live? 

Again, to standardise that expectation would be an unpleasant development. If I come out of the concert without any particular thoughts about the world in which we live, but having had a really great evening nonetheless, isn't that my prerogative as a member of the public? Some people go to arts events precisely to escape having to think about the world in which we live for a couple of blessed hours.

This recital brings us great music, wonderfully played, and people love that. This really ought to be enough. It doesn't tell us whether or not Southern Trains are still on strike, or whether it's a good thing if the third runway at Heathrow gets built, or what's going on now in Syria, and it shouldn't have to do so to be 'relevant'. Music connects people to one another across time and space - listening to Chopin we're in a way communing with the soul of a human being who died in 1849, and the souls of everyone who has played or listened to his music since then. That tells us something about ourselves as human beings at our best, and perhaps that is one of the many things that music is for. Can we hope that this registers as valuable in this 'core quality metric'?

RIGOUR: it was well thought through and put together.

Self and peer only (including this because it's there):

ORIGINALITY: it was ground-breaking
In the sense that it was Yulianna playing in a venue that is new to her, and that venue hosting her for the first time, I guess that's a yes. In terms of musical content, not necessarily; but I don't really care because I enjoyed it so much.

RISK: the artist really challenged herself
And how. People forget what an enormous feat of accomplishment it is to play extremely complex music to a world-class level for a discerning public for about two hours. (Besides, she's hardly going to sit up there and play Chopsticks, is she.)

EXCELLENCE: it was one of the best examples of its type that I have seen
It was bloody excellent. But if every piano recital I attend has to be "one of the best examples of its type that I have seen", I think that would be a problematic way to assess them. This one was indeed top-quality artistry. But I've previously attended plenty of piano recitals that have been most enjoyable, not necessarily "one of the best" of all, yet still worth giving, worth listening to and worth loving. 

Core Quality Metrics as a measurement technique, then, seems a mixed bag. The bits that work would work anyway. The bits that don't work probably never will. And everything, but everything, depends on how the criteria are applied, and by whom, to what - and to which ends, with what effect.

For the moment, one has to try to set aside the unpleasant visions that a quango's "one size fits all" policy conjures up, with all our instinctive shudders about Stalin, Kafka and Orwell, and hope that this latest bizarre algorithmic development may somehow be able to do more good than harm. I can't say I'm holding my breath.

Friday, September 16, 2016

When Steven met Schumann...

Steven Isserlis is one of those infuriating musicians who writes as well as he plays. His latest book is just out and it is a revisiting of Schumann's Advice to Young Musicians, as tweaked for the 21st century (published by Faber & Faber). I went to talk to him about it - and also about his new recording of the Brahms Double and original version of the Op.8 Trio plus the slow movement of the Schumann Violin Concerto arranged by Benjamin Britten (yes, really), with Joshua Bell. Feature is out now in this week's JC and here's a taster.

....The question remains whether today's younger generation can share the attitude that music is something sacred, as he and Schumann both advocate. "It's not a sport," Isserlis declares. "I say it in the book and I've said it many times: music is not a sport and it should be taught as a mixture of religion and science. You find out as much as you possibly can about it and approach it with respect. You don't make it a vehicle for impressing people and showing off. 

"Actually I think the new generation has this outlook still more, at least among violinists and cellists," he adds. "They really respect the music. I think we went through a bad phase about 20-30 years ago. But those in their late teens and early twenties today seem to have a much better attitude and are emerging much more rounded as musicians."

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Pianophiles: Martha alert!

Psst, pianophile friends: did you know that Martha Argerich is playing the Schumann Piano Concerto at the Royal Albert Hall on Monday? Well, she is. Get there.

It's part of a very special concert: the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's 70th anniversary gala. Their principal conductor, Charles Dutoit, will be on the podium for most of it and Pinchas Zukerman, the principal guest conductor, will also star in the Bruch Violin Concerto which I think he is directing from the violin. The programme is topped and tailed by the Rossini Overture to William Tell and the Stravinsky Firebird suite. Details and booking here.

I was lucky enough to interview Charles Dutoit for an RPO preview film about the concert and his long history of working with this orchestra, so here it is.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Proms to World: We're still us

Here are some pics from the Last Night of the Proms: Juan Diego Flórez serenading Paddington Bear - Britain's beloved fictional character is from Darkest Peru, remember - and (above) singing 'Rule, Britannia' dressed as arguably the Last King of the Incas, with Sakari Oramo holding the fort from the podium and a plethora of different international flags happily rubbing colours together throughout the arena. Photo credits: all BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

You know something? If we hadn't known about Brexit, we wouldn't have guessed it was (supposedly) happening. If we hadn't read in the right-wing press that nasty Remainers were printing EU flags to stir up trouble, we would have thought there were just as many other-nation flags around, including EU ones, as there usually are at the LNOP (and I've not seen or heard about any trouble at all - the notion that some pro-EU riot would happen seems to have been fictional, not that the Leave camp is known for making things up...). 

And if we thought that the UK has turned overnight into a vicious, small-minded, xenophobic nation bent on economic suicide for the sake of keeping out foreigners, we should think again. There are those elements here, as everywhere; and there have been some vile incidents of hate crime around the country, which could possibly have been stirred up by the Brexiters' rhetoric during the campaign. But it's not the whole picture - far, far from it. 

Because what the LNOP tells us is that at heart we're the same as we always were: a bit bonkers, zany humoured, welcoming, and loving a big party with a noisy communal singsong. Sakari (who as you know is Finnish) made a beautiful speech about the deeply magical power of music to transcend petty differences and unite us in our shared humanity. Ultimately the entire spectacle rather revived hope and faith in London's ability to remain the splendid multicultural melting pot as which it has flourished these past decades. 

As for 'Rule, Britannia', you don't have to sing it if you're watching at home, but if nobody can hear you, you can always consider some alternative words such as: 'Rule, Britannia! Britannia waives the rules...Britons have been led astray by self-serving fools'.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Guest Post: An opera that really is for the young...

In a lively guest post for JDCMB, young conductor Gaetano Lo Coco explains why his Rossini Festival is putting on The Barber of Seville on Monday, at Cadogan Hall, in possibly the youngest performance ever. And why Rossini would have loved it, having been only 23 when he created this tip-top favourite.

A Guest Post by Gaetano Lo Coco

Gioachino Rossini was 23 years old when he wrote The Barber of Seville. This is perhaps the most precocious feat of operatic composition in the history of music. It is one of the masterpieces of opera buffa, a complex, ironic and theatrically explosive work written, rehearsed and premièred in under three weeks. At the heart of its brilliance is the fact that it is a perpetually young opera that can allow itself to take a benign – even joyful – look on the grimy society that it represents. 

This is what the Rossini 2016 Young Artists‘ Festival production of The Barber at Cadogan Hall (Monday 12 September) tries to bring to life: our original 1950s staging of the opera with sets and costumes inspired by the Italy of Fellini and De Sica contrasts the self-interested, corrupt society of the opera against the pure optimism that runs through the work. We feel a real affinity to the opera and a commitment to this vision because everyone on our team (from orchestral players to singers and designers) is extremely young – between 20 and 25 more or less – and so just about the same age as the composer when he wrote the piece exactly 200 years ago!

There is a lot to be said about a composer’s age and the spirit of his opera – and it is almost always true for the greats that they are unmistakably themselves almost from the very beginning: Rossini’s first masterpiece, Tancredi, written when he was just 19 years old, has all the marks of his mature style (the crescendi, the powerful use of rhythms, especially overlapping rhythms as the excitement builds in the score). Bellini is unendingly melodic even from Adelson e Salvini (his very first opera, written at 24) and the glorious, mature Capuleti e Montecchi came only 5 years later. The orchestration and the elegance of Bastien und Bastienne, composed by Mozart at 12, is a miracle. But there is something more profound than the seeds of a mature style present in the works of young composers: it is an unsullied sense of beauty and comedy, and a belief in music as a benign force over the machinations of society. 

Verdi’s Falstaff, the direct descendant of Barbiere in the Italian tradition, was the composer’s last opera and written when he was near 80. It makes for a fascinating comparison with Rossini’s opera: at the end of The Barber, Dr Bartolo, who has seen his life ruined in the course of a disastrous day, forgives Figaro, the Count and Rosina when they allow him to keep Rosina’s dowry, and the final chorus toasts “amore e fede eterna” (love and eternal faith). At the end of Falstaff, in which the protagonist, like Bartolo, has been mocked, humiliated and crushed in the course of the day, the final chorus is quite different and ends with the memorable phrase: “ma ride ben chi ride la risata final” (he who laughs last laughs longest). Falstaff is a comedy full of the bitterness of age, both in its plot but also in its actual music: Verdi recycles and mocks his own style repeatedly in the course of the opera (there are subversive references to Aida, Ballo in Maschera and Otello in the piece) as we imagine the composer looking back at his own career and at the opera-going public that abandoned him in favour of new music, like Wagner’s. Hence Falstaff’s line, almost straight from Verdi’s own mouth: “Ogni sorta di gente dozzinale mi beffa e se ne gloria; pur, senza me, costor con tanta boria non avrebbero un briciol di sale” (all kinds of cheap people mock me and feel glorious about it, and yet without me, these haughty people wouldn’t even have a single grain of salt in their lives). 

In stark contrast, Rossini, at the beginning of his career and with the world ahead of him at the première of The Barber in 1816, mocks the operatic institution in the most benign of ways: when Bartolo is told of a new opera called “L’Inutil Precauzione” (the Barber’s subtitle), he replies: “Un dramma? Bella cosa! Sarà al solito un dramma semiserio; un lungo, malinconico, noioso, poetico strambotto. Barbaro gusto! Secolo corrotto!” (A drama? So you call it! It will as usual be a semi-serious piece, a long, melancholic, boring, poetic piece of nonsense. What barbaric taste! What a corrupt century!). Verdi’s and Rossini’s are two completely different kinds of cynicism: one of old age, another of youth; one wise, the other naive; one at heart pessimistic, the other optimistic. This, perhaps, is the beginning of an approach to a young composer’s opera.

Join us on Monday 12 September at Cadogan Hall for a Barber of Seville bursting with the optimism of its 23-year-old composer, performed by a cast of rising opera stars just as young!   

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Ghost Variations is out!

The e-book of Ghost Variations has been published.

It's a very weird feeling, since the book has been part of my life for some five years and has seen me through many not-so-liquorice all-sorts of life. If it is about Jelly d'Arányi saving a concerto (sort of), and it saving her (almost), they've also saved my sanity on several occasions. This week may be the start of the book's life as an actual book, but it's also, in some ways, the end of an era.

The crowd-funding was enormous fun - and several subscribers have already told me that they feel part of the process as a result, which is heartening. Unbound have been simply wonderful to work with: the editing excellent, the cover design the best I've ever had and the sense of support and good sense unfailing. My heartfelt thanks to the whole team - and to everyone who signed up to contribute with such enthusiasm. And, of course, to the many individuals who have helped, advised, pointed, talked, been interviewed, read, emailed and corrected my Hungarian along the way.

If you subscribed to it, you should have received an email with the links to your download. Other would-be readers can buy the e-book from Unbound now for £5, or hang on for the paperback which will soon be available for pre-ordering from Amazon (as will the ebook) for general release on 20 Sept.

Meanwhile, do come and celebrate with me, David Le Page and Viv McLean at St Mary's Perivale tonight - no books on sale yet, but a real jamboree of a violin&piano words&music concert. The next ones are on 4 Oct at 22 Mansfield Street, 18 Oct at Leighton House, and 3 November at the Old Sorting Office, Barnes.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Chineke! Riding high at the RFH

Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello), Kevin John Edusei (conductor) and the Chineke! Orchestra.
Photo: Belinda Lawley/Southbank Centre

It's hard enough to put an ordinary orchestra together... so just imagine the effort involved in assembling the magnificent crew that took the stage at the Royal Festival Hall last night for the climax of the Southbank's Africa Utopia festival. Chineke! - the brainchild of double-bass suprema Chi-chi Nwanoku - is Europe's first all-BME symphony orchestra and is designed a) to celebrate the talent of its members and b) to show the rest of us that not all faces on the concert platform need to be white or Far Eastern. The atmosphere of the RFH's foyers, too, was transformed; warm, relaxed, smiley people of every shape, size and colour were there, enjoying the festive programming, foyer events and the food market outside, and the hall itself was packed.

The Chineke! players come from all over the world. They range from young students of the Purcell School and Birmingham Conservatoire to such luminaries as leader Ann-Estelle Médouze, concertmaster of the Orchestre Nationale de l'Ile de France, the lead trumpet of the Met in New York, the violist of the Fine Arts Quartet, the stupendous flautist Eric Lamb, British cellist and educator Desmond Neysmith, principal second violin Samson Diamond who started with Buskaid in Soweto, and of course Chi-chi herself. Charlotte Barbour-Condini, a BBC Young Musician finalist as a recorder player, is here playing the violin.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason.
Photo: Belinda Lawley/Southbank Centre
Several members of the multitalented Kanneh-Mason family are aboard too, including the current Young Musician of the Year, Sheku the cellist; when he wasn't out front, making his RFH debut in the Haydn Cello Concerto, he was back in the middle of the cello section, giving his all.

Despite this disparate nature, even if the ensemble can't always be perfect, there were moments of absolute magic where a section began to play virtually as one instrument, notably the first violins. The conductor, Kevin John Edusei, a young competition winner and now chief conductor of the Münchner Symphoniker, offered clarity, swing and masses of positive and unifying energy.

The evening got off to a flying start with Sibelius's Finlandia. Odd choice? Not so: along came the chorus of Cape Town Opera, which has been performing its Mandela Trilogy in the festival and, ranked up the aisles, they transformed the big tune into a stirring anthem with nice, up-to-the-minute, inclusive words. It would be easy to pick holes in that idea (the cited flora sounded a tad Alpine) - but my goodness, I was right in among them in an aisle seat, and my own background is South African; my late parents left in the '50s and my father refused to go back until Apartheid was brought down, and I thought of how much this evening would have meant to them, and I cried.

Next, a transformation to the 18th century: the three-part Overture to L'amant anonyme by Joseph Boulogne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges: expert violinist, fencer and favourite of Marie-Antoinette. It's a piece of much charm and the Chineke strings, with Isata Kanneh-Mason at the harpsichord, brought it lilt, warmth and bounce.

Sheku was centre stage for the Haydn concerto and again one had the sense of history in the making. With virtuoso aplomb as cool as the proverbial cucumber punch, a splendid, pure and focused sound and a genuine, smiling stage presence, the 17-year-old cellist is going places, musically mature beyond his years - his encore, Bloch's Abodah in Sheku's own arrangement, was deeply reflective and moving. He had a hero's welcome, and deservedly so.

And to close, the Dvorák "New World" Symphony - a piece I realise one doesn't hear often enough because it, like so many other outright masterpieces (Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, Mozart's Piano Concerto No.21, Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No.2, etc), has been siphoned off into "popular classics" evenings and therefore often shunned by the bigwigs. But these pieces are popular because they are fabulous works, and I have a special soft spot for Dvorák 9 because it was the first symphony I ever heard live, at the good old RFH when I was 7 years old. So it's always a treat. The drive, passion and blazing beauty of sound that Chineke and Edusei brought it warmed us from head to foot and even if I sometimes missed perhaps an earthier, wilder, more mystical-magical quality in it, each bar nevertheless had its thrills. The audience clapped between movements, a few people went out or came in, and you know something? It was fine.

It does seem extraordinary, of course, that in proud multi-cultural London, in the 21st century, it still has to be proved that a BME orchestra can a) exist and b) play every bit as well as anyone else. But if that is what it takes to wake people up, make them see, think and respond, then that's what it takes. We have to do what it takes. And it's fabulous, and it's working.

Above all, this concert showed us all what absolute rubbish it is to think that music could be anything but for everybody. All these divisions - race, colour, creed, nationality, "relevance" - are imposed by us, not by the music, and do nothing but limit people. Music transcends the lot.

Bravi, Chineke! Brava, Chi-chi! And bravo, Sheku - we will be seeing much, much more of you.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

When thinking tanks

A recent Twitter exchange about the number of music blogs that have thrown in the towel got me thinking about why. I know I'm not posting at quite the rate I was in e.g. 07-08. But things change: in the world, in the virtual world and in yourself. In 2004, when I launched JDCMB on a whim, many other blogs were starting up. We were full of optimism: the Internet was a brave new world and we were excited about trying to make something wonderful out of it.

Unfortunately we reckoned without the pernicious effects of two vital points: 1. Anonymity, 2. Giving Things Away For Free. Twelve years on, the first can make people's lives a misery. It has contributed to the extreme polarising and poisoning of public debate, all the way from the comments "below the line" to presidential elections. The second is threatening our ability to make a living. And we have to face up to the fact that we've contributed to this ourselves, simply because it is so thrilling to be able to reach the reader right away, at the touch of one button. That hurts.

So what is stopping us blogging?
1. Trolls. I switched off the comments boxes a long time ago. Luckily we can have good discussions on Facebook, where people have to say who they really are.
2. Disillusion. Big one, as you'll see above.
3. Priorities. Big one too. I'm 12 years older than I was and, to coin a phrase, I'm looking at work-life balance.
4. Time. There's ever less of it.
5. Making a living. Necessary. I rather envy those older writers who have the luxuries of time and, I hope, a pension.
6. Anxiety, stress and what's now sometimes termed "overwhelm". Modern ailments, but real.
7. Watching your profession, which was thriving and perfectly viable when you went into it 25-30 years ago, shrinking around us year by year. (See 6.)
8. Brexit. WT actual F? (See 6.)
9. Rise of fascistic leanings in countries far and near. (See 6.)
10. Wanting to do something that lasts, in an ephemeral world. Blogging is very ephemeral. (It's also addictive, so probably won't go away entirely.)

If the blogosphere were a street of cafes, I guess mine would be the one that's been around for longer than some others, but maybe hasn't been painted for a few years. There's a fence outside and signs saying Beware of the Cats. There's a bookshop, magazines to leaf through, and a noticeboard about our concerts. I'm not open all hours; just a few days a week. But core customers come back because they like the ambience and the food. If I'm cooking, I try to create nourishing, organic fare. The cafe hasn't been forced out by the big chains, the high-sugar model, or the IEDs occasionally left under the windows, because it and its customers are cool about keeping on doing their own thing and not sweating the small stuff too often. Beyond the fence, as some neighbours close down, others move in with new recipes and interesting, fresh flavours.

In the musical blogosphere, matters have evolved. Our expectations perhaps need reassessing, since the discourse tends to go round and round in circles. For example, we know that classical music is not by nature "elitist" - after all, that word was scarcely used in musical contexts before the late 20th century - but everyone has a different explanation for problems arising in this sphere and many have agendas of their own to explore. No one area has a monopoly on needing to be "fixed"; everything is related; there aren't any simple solutions. Classracegendereconomicstalentslogpushyparentseducationschoolscashgovernmentamateursculturedifferencesplaygroundbulliesclothingclappingmobilephonestvcrispsdrinkssnobberyinvertedsnobberyhallscarparkspromsstreaming, and much more, all exist at once. What's really needed - to explore the whole lot together in real depth, in the context of the big, exciting, messy collisions of contemporary society - requires not so much a blog as a book around the length of the Chilcot Report.

Sometimes the discourse does make an effect. Today The Observer declared that there are plenty of women conductors around and that to suggest otherwise is an outdated view. (I'm not entirely convinced the problem is definitely fixed now, forever, and forever more, but we've certainly gone a good way.) It's a fine example of a case in which yelling loudly has helped to do some good: waking people up, making them think, see, then do something.

But meanwhile, certain other powerful ideals - music for peace, music for social change - haven't worked quite so well. Music is great, but it demonstrably does not bring actual peace. Music can keep kids off the streets in challenging places; so can sport and good schooling. Music can do wonderful things for young people's development, powers of concentration and school results; yet governments still don't want to give it adequate support and encouragement, despite all its benefits. From the other side, the behaviour of certain members of the profession can occasionally leave you wondering whether the benefits of musical study really are all that substantial. Some musicians I know are among the most excellent human beings in the world. Others aren't. That's true of many other professions as well.

Yet while we argue, the one thing that doesn't need to be fixed is the music itself; it just goes on being wonderful, and more and more fabulous musicians keep emerging into the light. Perhaps we just need to shut up and listen to some.

Friday, September 02, 2016

A novel approach...

Very grateful to the excellent Andrew Morris at The Devil's Trill blog for doing this e-interview with me about the umms and ahhs of turning history into fiction. It was interesting to try and articulate my thoughts on the process, as I hadn't particularly tried before. The questions we explored include: where do you start? And where do you stop? What's comfortable and what isn't? And how did a Swedish-French supermodel prove that it was time to stop the research?


If you're a subscriber waiting for your copy of Ghost Variations, we're nearly there. Just a teensy bit of last-minute snagging today. It will be with you soon! Everyone else will be able to pre-order the paperback or e-book from online bookstores sometime next week and general release is slated for 20 September.