It's been a roller-coaster year, to say the least, and my most-read posts reflect many of the ups and downs we've been riding together. Here goes.
1. April Fool's Day - "SHOCK: Top London Orchestra will Relocate to Germany"
Honest to goodness, this little quip on Brexit and Hamburg's fab new hall is JDCMB's highest-scoring post ever. I'm still finding people who believed it, London Hamburger Orchestra and all... perhaps this is some statement about our gullibility and the power of fake news. But I did think that 1 April was the one day of the year on which people would actually trouble to evaluate the truth or otherwise of what they were reading. Hmm.
2. The Cello Hurricane
Of all musical icons, Jacqueline du Pré is the one who never loses her power. My memories of the October she died plus the Q&A with the film-maker Christopher Nupen about his latest documentary about her won a great many readers.
The soulmates in question are Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin, whose two-piano concert at the Wigmore Hall was a big highlight of the year. Delighted that my review of a thoroughly pianophiliac evening proved so popular.
I'm afraid I pinched that title from another critic via Twitter - and I was using it simply because poor old Jonas Kaufmann had to give his role debut as Otello on the climatically hottest night of the year. Extreme heat in central London is not much fun - humid, polluted, draining - and I don't know how anybody managed to sing anything at all. Still, it was a memorable performance.
5. 'Quick Reminder'
This was where I explained that No.1 was an April Fool's joke, in case people didn't get it, as it seemed they didn't. Though it was my fifth most popular post, only a small proportion of those who read No.1 also read this, so maybe there are still people wandering around believing in the imminent creation of the London Hamburger Orchestra.
6. Farewell Hvorostovsky
One of the tragic losses to the musical world this year: the great baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky passed away aged only 55.
7. Meaty Hamlet
Brett Dean's new opera based on Hamlet was a massive hit and justifiably so. I reviewed it here.
9. Westminster (Meditation)
The attack on Westminster Bridge wasa terrible and deeply troubling event. This was a small tribute to its victims and to my home city and all its paradoxes, aided and abetted by Eric Coates.
10. Rattle's Big Night
Last but by no means least, another landmark concert: Sir Simon Rattle's first night as music director of the LSO, featuring four major pieces of British contemporary music plus the Enigma Variations.
Thank you, dear readers, for your attention and enthusiasm. Let's seize fate by the throat in 2018!
A massive thank you to all the patrons who have so kindly supported JDCMB's GoFundMe campaign, in which I am attempting to build up JDCMB and increase the "content", which means spending more time on it. Blogging is, of course, unpaid and it is only through your generosity that I can continue writing JDCMB to the level that I would like. I promised in the GoFundMe manifesto to present a list of patrons at the end of this year. Here it is.
THANK YOU ALL VERY MUCH FOR YOUR GENEROSITY AND FOR THE MORAL SUPPORT YOU PROVIDE!
It's sometimes crossed my mind that if we took even half the energy and resources that went on researching offbeat baroque repertoire and "authentic" presentation and put it into new music instead, some rather exciting, up-to-the-minute music-making might result. And at last, here comes something that mingles the two: Baroque on the Edge, which takes place at LSO St Luke's in early January, under the direction of Lindsay Kemp and Lucy Bending. Lindsay, formerly artistic director of the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music and the London Festival of Baroque Music, has written a thought-provoking guest post for us about what they're attempting, and how, and why. Enjoy! JD
THE NEW SHOCK OF THE OLD
Lindsay Kemp wonders if there has to be
only one way to programme baroque music
Is baroque music about composers or
performers? Is what counts the notes as written down or what an inspired
musician can make of them? And is it about context – by which I mean historical context – or about 200-300-year-old
music serving as raw material for anyone to play with and make contemporary, as
if it were a folk song or a jazz standard?
Well of course there are no rules in this
matter, though you could be forgiven for thinking so from the way some people
talk. But while all of the above are certainly valid, I think it’s fair to say
that most festivals that set out to devote themselves to baroque music tend to start
out from the composers/written notes/historical point of view. I know that’s
true of the ones I’ve been involved in over the years, principally the
Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music and its successor the London Festival of
Baroque Music, in which for ten years I had enormous fun building around themes
which, however widely they might have ranged and however virtuosic and/or
imaginative the musicians I found to realise them, emerged in the first
instance from a historical understanding of the music they contained.
Joanna MacGregor Photo: baroqueattheedge.co.uk
Nothing wrong with that. Few would deny that
it is the ‘historically informed’ approach to baroque music that has brought so
much of it back into the light with such vitality and understanding over the
last fifty years. But as I was preparing to step down from LFBM last May, I got
to wondering how it would be if one were to plan a baroque music festival from
the other direction, as it were. What if instead of concentrating on being
historically aware and obsessing on when a piece of music was written, or who
or what it was written for, I could find a way of celebrating what it actually is, what its inner lights are, shining unfiltered
through the centuries to illuminate any musician of talent and imagination?
What if we were to have a ‘no-rules’ baroque music festival? Thus was Baroque
at the Edge born.
If it sounds like a dismissal of everything
the early music movement stands for, it certainly isn’t intended to be. I’ve
been a ‘believer’ in it ever since my teens, and my own experience of the kind
of performer who tends to be drawn to it has taught me that there are plenty of
them with the open minds, requisite skills in improvisation and flair for
intimate communication with an audience that make them natural and free
interpreters of baroque music. I’ve invited some of them to the inaugural Baroque
at the Edge: Paolo Pandolfo, the gamba genius who can compel you to silence with
a piece of Marais but also deliver an entire programme of gripping improvisations
that effortlessly blend the baroque with the whatever else comes into his head,
be it jazz or The Beatles; Thomas Dunford, who plays Dowland with heart-melting
beauty while also merging minds and styles with Persian percussion-master
Keyvan Chemirani; and violinist Bjarte Eike, who can play a Biber Sonata with the
best of them and yet channel his upbringing in rural Norway into folk-fiddling mixes
and atmospheric contemporary creations in the company of jazz pianist and
composer Jon Balke.
'Breaking the Rules', Gerald Kyd (centre) as Gersualdo with the Marian Consort Photo: Robin Mitchell for the Lammermuir Festival
In addition, however, I wanted to find a
context for baroque masterpieces among the music of our own time, which is why
the festival opens with a recital by one of the most adventurous of all today’s
pianists, Joanna MacGregor, who will set pieces by Rameau, Daquin, Couperin, Pachelbel,
Byrd and Purcell among works by Messiaen, Birtwistle, Gubaidulina and Glass.
Another concert will see young recorder virtuoso Tabea Debus and lute-player
Alex MacCartney putting music by Telemann alongside companion pieces specially
commissioned from Colin Matthews, Laura Bowler and
Fumiko Miyachi. And finally, the festival seemed a perfect setting for the
London premiere of Clare Norburn’s highly acclaimed concert-drama Breaking the Rules, which visits Carlo
Gesualdo (played by actor Gerald Kyd) on the last dark night of his life, with
music from The Marian Consort ramping up the tension.
I think Baroque at the Edge may well be
the first festival to set out specifically to explore this approach, and my hope
is that it will appeal to people who know their baroque music and admire many
of these artists already, as well as attract a new audience of curious-minded
listeners for whom genres and conventions are less important than the way the
music actually sounds, and how it can feed the act of musical creation in front
of their eyes. That’s got to be worth a go hasn’t it?
‘Baroque at the Edge’ runs from 5-7
January 2018 at LSO St Luke’s in London.
Two less than Christmassy pieces of news in music journalism have arrived within a matter of weeks. One is that the Ham & High - more than just a local paper for Hampstead & Highgate - is dropping classical music coverage. The other is that the Birmingham Post would be too, except that its critic of 48 years, the highly respected Christopher Morley, has agreed to keep writing for it without payment.
I don't need to tell you that this is sad. You know that. You also know, because it's plain logic, that if a newspaper pays some of its writers, then it should pay them all. A national newspaper well known to me stopped paying its critics too for a bit (someday I'll fill you in on that over a drink) and although we hear it has since rethought, it probably won't be the last.
If publicity is oxygen, classical music is allowed less and less of it - for reasons best known to higher-up editors whose eyes are most likely trained on clickbait and advertising revenue. This is boring for readers, bad for musicians and hopeless for an art that has been largely wiped from mainstream exposure and discussion - except when a conductor is misconducting himself or everyone is counting the women in the Vienna Philharmonic New Year's Concert.
Evidently diversification is needed. In the absence of paying sites, a good few unpaid ones have sprung up - most of them founded for idealistic reasons, namely to keep providing that oxygen for the arts and the high-quality reading ("content" schmontent) that music-lovers want and need. Does that mean that a newspaper with wealthy owners, read by many thousands, is justified in not paying its writers? Of course it doesn't. The two things are not even comparable.
But I fear it might be used as an excuse. I hate to say it, since obviously I write this blog, but possibly those of us who provide free reading matter are part of the problem. This isn't a comfortable thought.
Most of us started blogging because we're writers, and writers like to write and find audiences, and blogging is the easiest way there has ever been to do that. Some of us started the moment this medium was invented and quickly got "high" on its possibilities. Now I suspect that with the reducing of professional outlets, audiences are following us to our own sites (when I last checked the stats for JDCMB, they'd more than trebled since summer 2016).
In some ways this makes the field "democratic". The audience becomes the editor. If you don't like a blog, for whatever reason, then you don't read it. If you don't like below-the-line comments, you don't read those either, and music blogs are equally prone to that brand of hideousness (which is why I got rid of the comment facility from JDCMB - we still have non-anonymous discussions, on Facebook). But people still have to make a living, so eventually the most active blogs will end up being written by those who have independent means or pensions, or who are lucky enough not to need more than four hours sleep a night.
Many of us, JDCMB included, have therefore started a "support this blog" facility on crowdfunding sites such as GoFundMe, Patreon and elsewhere. If you like a blog, then please don't just read it: support it. Perhaps the central blogging host sites will eventually provide a way to put up a paywall. Until then, crowdfunding will have to do.
And meanwhile, newspapers that pay some of their writers should pay all their writers, and pay them properly.
If you've been following my Twitter or Facebook posts this autumn you'll know that for a while my life was taken over by Beethoven. BBC Music Magazine asked me to do a 'Building a Library' feature about the 'Hammerklavier' Sonata and I discovered there were more than 50 to hear, recorded over a period of some 70 years, and these including only recordings that are currently in print and available in the catalogue. Before long it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to be listening to one of the greatest piano works ever written seven times a day.
It's been an extraordinarily instructive experience and if you've never tried doing anything like this, whether professionally or just for fun, I recommend it (it's also a lot easier to do it now if you subscribe to a well-stocked streaming service). I've done plenty in the past, but this was different. This was Beethoven's biggest and most ambitious sonata and everyone will read something different into it, none of it insignificant. The question is, how do those performing and recording it view it and what do they do to bring it to us?
Two major problems were crystallising by the end of Day 2. First of all, have you ever heard someone say of the 'Hammerklavier' "I admire it, of course, but I don't love it...". I've heard this so many times that I've come to the conclusion it's just something that people think they're meant to say about the piece. What's not to love? Love it? I adore it!
What's not to love, possibly, is that it is so bloody difficult to play. There's that first movement metronome mark, minim=138. Can you imagine how many excuses people come up with to justify not even attempting it? Blimey, guv - let's trust and revere Beethoven, but not if it doesn't suit us... Have a think about the background harmonic rhythm in the first movement, then wonder why it soon seems draggy if it doesn't go at at least a good lickety-split. Czerny said that it simply takes "assiduous practice". But even harder is to sustain the tension in the long adagio, and then have enough energy left to whirl your way up the mountain of the nearest thing Beethoven wrote to a grosse Fuge for piano.
The second problem is that all too often I felt we weren't listening to Beethoven. We were listening to our attitude to Beethoven. Playing that is reverential, or that wraps every note in cotton wool because it's sacrosanct, or that just plays faithfully what's on the page without presuming to add one jot of personality. Playing that is terribly, terribly nice. The 'Hammerklavier' is many things, but nice it ain't. I can forgive anyone for being intimidated by it, but not for bowing and scraping to it as they play. By the end of Day 4 I wanted nothing more or less than a recording that would make me feel I was listening to Beethoven himself at the piano, the dragon awaking.
I found one.
BBC Music Magazine asks for the format of a) background to the work, b) one overall winner, c) three runners-up, d) one to avoid. I expected it to be much more difficult to chose the top recording, but it was startlingly easy. The runners-up were much harder, as the number of recordings that are really excellent, by pianists alive or dead, is enormous. The list of "ones to avoid" could also, sadly, have been huge, so I decided to pick a recording by someone who is safely dead and can't be upset.
Really, though, I do have to do a bit of bowing and scraping too: I absolutely take off my hat to anybody who can play the 'Hammerklavier' at all, let alone plumb its depths and bring it to life.
So who's the winner? You'll have to buy the January issue of BBC Music Magazine to read the full article, but I can give you a few hammerklaviclues:
-- He is American and very much alive
-- He is not playing a modern piano
-- His dad would have been extremely proud.
Charles Dutoit conducting the NHK Orchestra in Japan, 2001. Photo: bbc.co.uk
Yesterday afternoon I switched on my computer camera to record some thoughts about the unmasking of sexual predators in the classical music world. I began by reflecting that allegations are extremely difficult to prove unless you were under the bed or hiding in the cupboard at the time; and if people don't speak up about their experiences on the record, unmasking can only be hearsay - this, apparently, was why an otherwise hard-hitting news piece on BBC TV the other day focused on the pop world, but did not include any classical musicians. But I never posted the video because just then the news broke that four women have come forward alleging misconduct by another conductor, this time the veteran maestro Charles Dutoit.
This particularly matters here in London, because Dutoit is principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra confirmed it would be speaking to Dutoit whenever possible but said it had received no complaints or claims of inappropriate behaviour relating to his work with the Orchestra. It said: “Based on the information available to us, these allegations were issued without reaction from Mr Dutoit and, to the best of our knowledge, the claimants have initiated no formal legal proceedings.
“Nonetheless, we take this matter very seriously and we will be monitoring the situation closely.” It added: "As a leading international ensemble, the RPO is committed to the highest standards of ethical behaviour, which it expects from everyone that works with the Orchestra. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra takes very seriously its responsibility to maintain a safe working environment."
The orchestra has since released another statement including the information that "Following media allegations...the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) and Dutoit have jointly agreed to release him from his forthcoming concert obligations with the orchestra in the immediate future". It adds: "...the RPO believes that the truth of the matter should be determined by the legal process. The immediate action taken by the RPO and Charles Dutoit allows time for a clear picture to be established. Charles Dutoit needs to be given a fair opportunity to seek legal advice and contest these accusations."
This obviously puts the RPO in a very difficult position. And the trouble is that the RPO is used to being in awkward positions; it seems deeply unfortunate that it should now have to deal with this as well.
I love the RPO very much. It was the first orchestra I ever heard as a child, the one largely responsible for turning me on to music in the first place - I well remember my first visit to the RFH, aged 7, to hear the RPO under Rudolf Kempe. I've followed its fortunes with interest and though one might often been saddened at the way it's been sidelined in terms of public subsidy, I've also been thoroughly impressed by how it has handled the challenges of our changing times.
Over the years this orchestra, founded by Sir Thomas Beecham, has turned its financial disadvantage into a special niche, reliant upon on its own flexibility, creativity and entrepreneurship. It has numerous residencies in parts of the country to which the other big orchestras rarely go, and its community and education department, RPO Resound, is truly inspiring. Witness, for instance, its Strokestra programme in which the musicians work with patients recovering from strokes.
The orchestra balances all this with extensive commercial activities, playing for video games, 'classical extravaganza' concerts and so forth. Even so, there's often some sense of struggle, not least because the local authorities' arts funding on which the RPO residencies depend have been slashed too in recent years. Through all of this they maintain playing inherently as fine as any of the better-funded organisations. The end results are naturally affected by who's on the podium, how much rehearsal time there is and how knackered the players are, but all the London orchestras are equally full of fabulous musicians.
One can appreciate that the last thing the RPO would want now is a scandal, the upheaval of possibly losing its principal conductor, and the associated issues that would then surround scheduling, costs, PR and more. They have a long-standing relationship with Dutoit and he has brought much to them in terms of artistry, not least Martha Argerich (the RPO birthday concert last year with Argerich and Zukerman was just wonderful). And these accusations don't involve the RPO itself at all. But no British orchestra can afford to have its brand tainted for long and for the sake of the audience, which in the RPO's case is especially wide and diverse, it's important that they do the right thing. They have the trust of a big public. They need to keep that trust.
And that's why the whole unmasking matters in general: because of the audience.
On my non-posted video I wanted to say that music belongs to all of us equally. Music makes no distinctions: it can bypass every division to go straight to the heart. Its force is primarily emotional and that's why it's so vital, so cathartic, so profoundly communicative. The better it is performed, the better this works, and that's why we need the best performers to be out there playing it. Music-lovers deserve the best and in order for the best musicians to come through, their abilities need to be judged solely on their merits. This is precisely why we have to fight racism, sexism, sexual manipulation, greed and inequality of opportunity: in order to reach a real meritocracy, one that rests on nothing but musical results that are not skewed by prejudice, predators or power-hunger. We'll end up with better music-making.
What once went no longer goes. The Canadian music journalist Natasha Gauthier wrote about Dutoit making a move on her 22 years ago and it seems that nobody batted an eyelid. But Kate Maltby - the journalist whose testimony has just brought down the deputy prime minister - put it well in a TV interview yesterday in which she declared that she spoke up about Damian Green because she wants to change the culture in which sexual misconduct has been tolerated. We shouldn't have to put up with it. She's right.
Greetings, dear friends! Welcome to the good old cyberposhplace. First, please open your bags for a security check...[BLEEP] thanks...and please give your name to my assistant over at the table, who'll put your details into the system and issue you with a pass, and...
Just kidding. This is cyberspace and it's cyberxmas at JDCMB. Come on in, have a virtualcocktail and let's party!
Those of you who've hung around the blog for a while will know by now that every year on the winter solstice, 21 December, we have a virtualbash to say thank you to everyone who has been part of our lives in music over the past twelvemonth. A selection of award-winners, chosen simply by me with the aid of my furry friends Ricki and Cosi, receive a special shout-out and a purr. This year the party will soon be swinging to big-band music, including some from Bernstein's musicals - we're looking forward to this particular centenary with unusual enthusiasm - and under the rainbow glitterball you'll spot great musicians dancing the night away (yes, in cyberspace all those classical musicians who say they can't dance might let their hair down for once).
The Ginger Stripe Awards, conceived under the reign of the late and much-missed Solti (who was of course ginger), has been transformed into the Chocolate Silver Awards since our two beautiful silver and chocolate-silver Somali cats Ricki and Cosi padded in three years ago. There've been ups and downs, naturally, since the inaugural awards in 2005. One year we were in exile in Denmark. Last year my mother-in-law had just died and we sat in the lounge with cocoa. This year, though, I think we all deserve a treat.
Brexit-schmexit notwithstanding, 2017 has been, incredibly, my best year ever. Not one, not two, but three of the creative projects I've loved the most have come to fruition; all of them have been beyond my wildest dreams in one way or another. Silver Birch in particular was a highlight not just of 2017 but of - if it doesn't sound too pretentious - my life...
Quiet, please! We're ready. First, let's have a huge round of applause for each and every musician who has touched the hearts of his/her audience this year. You're wonderful. You help make life worth living. We love you. Thank you, thank you, thank you for all your inspirational artistry.
Now, would the following winners please approach the dais where Ricki and Cosi - who have been amply plied with fish to discourage them from charging off round the room chasing each other's tails - are ensconced on their silken cushions. They will let you stroke their wonderful fur (they specially like behind-the-ears and under-the-chin rubs) and will give you a special prize purr.
ICON OF THE YEAR
Photo: Sheila Rock/Warner Classics
Mostly Icons of the Year are dead. This one is alive, kicking and rattling. Please welcome Sir Simon, who's arrived in London at long last and is simply lighting things up.
He walks on stage and the sun comes out and everyone smiles. He programmes an entire evening of difficult British contemporary music, everyone plays like a dream and the hall is (almost) full. He does Bernstein's Wonderful Town and gets the whole LSO second violin section doing the conga and finishes with much of the audience dancing in the aisles. The brass section raises the roof. The violins go nuts on the G string. I've not had as much fun in a concert hall in half a century. The fresh air comes whooshing into the Barbican (no mean feat amid the concrete) and the bleary-eyed ghost of under-rehearsed Russian monoliths past is forever exorcised. And if anyone can get a fine new hall built, even if we'd really prefer it in a different location, it's him. A big hug, Sir Simon, and please stick around for years and years and years.
INSTRUMENTALIST OF THE YEAR
Dariescu (real) + animation (digital projection) = magic.
Photo: (c) Mark Allen
Alexandra Dariescu has made her mark this year in numerous ways. This charismatic Romanian pianist has stood out for not only playing the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2, but following it in the same concert by playing the solo for Brief Encounter on the big screen with live music; for not only playing Dinu Lipatti's exquisite and terribly demanding Concertino, but playing the Grieg Concerto in the same concert. And for not only playing the most hair-raising transcriptions of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker (Grainger, Pletnev, many more), but performing them with a ballerina in live interaction with digital animation, aiming to attract new audiences and inspire children to think big and follow their dreams. Indeed her The Nutcracker and I reinvents the whole performance experience. She has imagination and vision, but also the drive and determination to turn those visions into reality and the musicianship and pianism to make that reality convincing. I was thrilled when she asked me to write the Nutcracker-Pianist story for her accompanying CD, on which the daredevil TV presenter Lindsey Russell reads the script, but frankly after that premiere, plus that amazing Lipatti the other week, she'd have got the prize anyway.
SINGER OF THE YEAR
Kaufmann as Otello.
Photo: (c) ROH, Catherine Ashmore
I'll own up: Otello is an opera I admire, but don't like very much. I don't like the distortion of Shakespeare into an Italian religious frenzy, I don't like Desdemona's mimsy lack of personality and I don't like the way Otello just succumbs to Iago's ministrations, going nuts almost at once - as he often does. But at the Royal Opera House, for once it all made sense. Keith Warner's direction and Jonas Kaufmann's careful pacing made the character convincing, and the singing, not being molto con belto, drew one in to the psychological drama. I'll reiterate my genuine, considered and honest account of a performance I appreciated: this was the most complex and satisfying interpretation of the role that I've personally yet seen, and to the gentleman who sniped that that was a "drool", I'll just say: bollocks. Our Singer of the Year is Jonas Kaufmann, so there.
YOUTHFUL ARTISTS OF THE YEAR
One of the nicest things about getting older is that you realise you've been hearing Gloom, Doom and Despair for decades, yet you're seeing fabulous young musicians of a new generation coming forward with talent by the gazillions, with creativity, initiative, understanding, musicality and all the rest, and you realise there is hope for the future. Therefore this is the most important 'award category' of all.
If you came to our concert at Burgh House a few weeks ago, you met the two winners of this year's Youthful Artists award. Please welcome:
Jack Pepper. Jack, 18, is a composer, writer, songwriter and would-be broadcaster. He sent me an article on spec earlier this year and it was so good that I whizzed it onto JDCMB. Since then he's contributed more articles, lucidly argued and beautifully written. I was hoping he might become our youth correspondent - but it seems I'm not the only one eager to snap him up into the music industry. We'll be hearing a lot more of him soon - watch that space! Gabriella Teychenné. Gabriella, 24, is a conductor and in the past few months she has been serving as assistant to Vladimir Jurowski for several projects at the RFH and to Barbara Hannigan on tour with Berg's Lulu Suite and more. She seems to have been making some waves around Europe in the process and her terrific intelligence, clarity, musicality and focus promise much for her future activities.
Bravi both and thank you!
ARTIST OF THE YEAR
Photo: Hiromichi Yamamoto/DGG
That joyous moment when your inbox goes PING and there's a message from DG asking you to do the booklet notes for Krystian Zimerman's first solo recording in a quarter of a century, which means spending a whole afternoon asking him questions about Schubert. We grabbed a morning as well to talk about Bernstein and Rattle, an interview which appeared in BBC Music Magazine in the December issue to trail the LSO concert the other day (where in the event, he managed to give a sensational performance of 'The Age of Anxiety' despite suffering a cough so severe he should probably have been in hospital). I don't need to tell you why Zimerman is a peerless glory at the piano: you can hear the evidence any time you like. If you haven't yet encountered the CD of the Schubert sonatas D959 and D960, do yourself a favour and hear it.
AND ONE STUFFED TURKEY
I haven't seen any real disasters this year, thank goodness, so this particular award goes instead to a gentleman who's been described to me as "world famous in Bavaria", who had always been warm and friendly before. He invited us to stay a night at his house - then disinvited us at one day's notice when we mentioned a dietary issue relating to a medical condition. That was fun.
And some personal highlights:
Roxanna Panufnik and muggins at the second night of our opera Silver Birch. Rain didn't stop play...
The world premiere of Silver Birch at Garsington Opera is not just the proudest moment of the year for me, but my proudest of any to date. Thank you for making it real, dear Garsington, Roxanna, Karen, Dougie, the whole cast - all 180 of you - and of course, Jay Wheeler.
I've also been overjoyed by the Ghost Variations concerts and my work with David Le Page and Viv McLean. Indeed, I've discovered that my "happy place" is...on stage with them. Thank you, my dearest colleagues - we've had a ball! Next concert is 2 January at Lampeter House, near Narberth, Wales.
More pride: seeing Alexandra Dariescu's The Nutcracker and I come to life the other day. See above, but having written the story for the CD is an enormous joy.
There've been a few - there always are. Most 2017 weirdnesses involve daft social media misunderstandings on a Comedy of Errors level, the unmasking of a supposed pal as a Brexit bot, the polarising of old friends into impossible political directions (if you voted to strip us of our right to live and work in 27 other countries, you can't seriously expect anyone to forgive that), and the blank uncertainty caused by the idiocy of Brexit which makes it impossible for anybody to plan ahead - in an industry that depends on forward planning.
On a lighter note, a very weird moment was the JDCMB April Fool's Day post about how after Brexit the LPO would move to the Elbphilharmonie and change its name to the London Hamburger Orchestra. This was a joke. J-O-K-E. I'd thought it was obviously a joke - 1 April, Hamburger, oh come on, guys... But it had the highest readership of any post here, like, evahh, and I'm still coming across people who believed it. Oy.
'Weird' is perhaps not the best word to describe the unmasking of serial sexual abusers in the music industry. James Levine was the first, but it's likely there will be more. If 'hearing rumours forever' amounts to 'knowing', then several are just waiting to go up in smoke. Of course it doesn't amount to 'knowing', but I wonder what next year will bring. There's nastiness, for sure. But I hope that the end result will be that people will be able to develop their artistry and their careers without fear of sexual manipulation, that those with power will learn to resist the temptation to be ruled by that power, and that we'll have a music industry with less exploitation, greater integrity, greater respect, greater diversity and greater openness and positivity. An atmosphere of fear, intimidation and aggression benefits nobody - and the listeners least of all.
Have a fantastic Christmas/Festive Season, everyone, and thank you for being part of JDCMB! And now, "before the fiddlers have fled, before they ask us to pay the bill, while we still have the chance, let's face the music and dance...".
Alex has made a CD version of the project - but since you can't put digital animation on a CD, she wanted a narration, a scripted version to replace the visuals. So she asked me to write it for her.
The story also appears in the CD booklet, with the digital animations by Yeast Culture translated into illustrations by Adam Smith. The script has been recorded by the TV presenter Lindsey Russell (I haven't heard it yet - hopefully will soon!). Release date is 27 April on Signum Records, and there may be advance copies floating around at Milton Court this evening.
The project reimagines the classic ballet's tale of Clara and the Nutcracker Prince with Alex herself as the main character, a little girl longing to fulfil her dream of becoming a pianist. Alex plays extracts from Tchaikovsky's ballet music in transcriptions by luminaries including Mikhail Pletnev and Percy Grainger, and the ballerina Desirée Ballantyne performs the role of Clara, interacting on stage with digitally animated characters.
Alex conceived The Nutcracker and I as an alternative performance format in the hope of attracting audiences who mightn't normally think of attending a piano recital. It has sparked a huge amount of interest. Tonight's premiere at 6pm sold out in one day when they announced it, and demand was such that they've added a repeat performance at 8pm. They'll be taking it on tour in 2018.
I'm thrilled to have had a small part in this. It's been a huge amount of fun and we hope everyone is going to love it - and that we can inspire you and, crucially, your children to think big and dare to dream!
Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No.2, 'The Age of Anxiety', isn't so much a symphony as a piano concerto-stroke-tone-poem. Based on WH Auden's poem of the same title, exploring the overnight musings of a group of strangers in a New York bar, it includes a set of vivid variations, a jazzy movement 'The Masque' in which piano and percussion interact with intricate bedazzlement and a final, glorious sunrise in which you can almost see the dawn light glinting off the Empire State Building.
The real puzzle is why this piece is done so infrequently. Glad to say that that is changing tonight, as Krystian Zimerman and Sir Simon Rattle present it in an all-Bernstein concert with the LSO, alongside Wonderful Town.
In case you missed my interview with Zimerman in the December edition of BBC Music Magazine, here's a taster of what he said about this piece and why he's playing it.
....Touring the Brahms Second Concerto [with Leonard Bernstein],
Zimerman recalls: “We were having lunch one day and he asked me about his own
music. When I told him I had played his Symphony No.2, he was amazed and said,
‘How come I didn’t know?’. I said, ‘You never asked!’”
Naturally, numerous performances followed:
“Each time was completely different. That was a special feature of his music
making: he was always totally honest, so the smallest thing that changed his
emotional construction immediately found its way into his interpretations. So there
was not really a Bernstein interpretation – it was done ad hoc in the
performance, to the extent that it was impossible to rehearse! He could make dramatic
changes on stage. That’s something I have never experienced with any other
conductor, this degree of courage and daring.” Scary, perhaps? Zimerman smiles:
Returning to the symphony this year fulfills
a promise he made to Bernstein: “He asked me: ‘Will you play this piece with me
when I’m 100?’. And that’s why I’m playing it now, because I realised two years
ago that he’d be 100. It’s a great piece. It’s so much fun. And it’s so much
like him, with all the freshness and flexibility and craziness of his
Last time Zimerman played this piece in London, with Bernstein himself, it was 1986 (see video above). But now an Age of Anxiety is upon us in earnest - whether it's 52, 2017, or anything else of the totally unreasonable and largely unhinged world of today. I'd love to see what Auden and Bernstein would make of things now.
Some personal recommendations for literaromusical gifts this Christmas - though please note, this is a personal selection so there may be quite a few others that I've missed. Listed here in no particular order. Enjoy.
What made Wagner into Wagner? What drove him? Who was he, really, and what fuelled that gigantic ego - without which, let's face it, he wouldn't have been able to write such humongously ambitious music-dramas? Simon Callow, who wrote and performed a one-man Wagner show in the composer's bicentenary year of 2013, here dives into the agonies and the ecstasies of what it must have been like to be the great man. Putting aside the title's side-swipe at Leni Riefensthal and the 1936 Olympics, the book is a suitably lavish read, stuffed full of fabulous wordy, over-the-top descriptions, which you have to just sit back and enjoy.
And the other great opera composer is here too. Hot on the heels of his volumes on Mozart, Beethoven and Johann Strauss, Suchet turns his attention to the life and prickly personality of Giuseppe Verdi, aka The Bear of Busseto. The dramas onstage are so intense that we sometimes forget that for their creator there was plenty off-stage as well, some of it desperately tragic (he lost his young wife and two children in the space of two years) - and that despite the status he achieved as national hero, Verdi tended to cover his own tracks and keep himself to himself. Suchet brings this elusive, deeply private individual to life - as much as anybody has ever been able to.
Presenter and broadcaster Clemency Burton Hill is one of our finest and most eloquent advocates for classical music in the wider world, and the fast-rising popularity of this book is testimony to her communicative gifts. The personal tragedies that spurred her into writing it have played a part, but so has the simple and excellent concept: one piece of music to listen to for every day of the year. And it's not all basic, obvious repertoire, either - there's plenty to discover, a good representation of composers who are women, a thousand-year timespan and friendly but never patronising contextualisation. Applause aplenty.
A book about Van Cliburn? Wait a few decades and along come two almost at once. Isacoff's detailed and beautifully written volume arrived this year hot on the heels of Nigel Cliff's very readable but more journalistic Moscow Nights, which came out in autumn 2016. Isacoff traces the forces that shaped - and later destroyed - the great American pianist, symbol of the Cold War as he triumphed at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958, with their facets political, musical and personal: the KGB, the smothering mothering (he speculates as to whether Rildia Bee Cliburn was not just "the wind that filled his sails" but also "the albatross that sank him"), and the consuming force of musical genius itself.
A thorough, elegant, academic exploration of what it's like to work in the classical music field today, looking at the effects of turning an art into a business or indeed, a saleable commodity, the persistence of racial and gender inequalities and the nature of entrepreneurship in the profession. This needed writing, to put it mildly, and it needs reading, absorbing and acting-upon, too. But I have to recommend it as an e-book because the hardback is, sorry to say, priced at £105, which is perhaps a little optimistic.
Schenkerian analysis fans, this is for you. Schenker sceptics, this is for you too. If you'll permit me a quick rant, Schenkerian analysis is being much maligned by a generation put off by the idea that he's old-fashioned, that he deals with dead white tonal composers (like, er, Mozart and Beethoven) and by, frankly, appalling teaching that distorts what he's all about. But two people have convinced me that Schenker is fascinating and fertile ground through which to discover the inner workings of the greatest music. One is Murray Perahia. The other is the author of this book, Eric Wen, who is currently a professor at the Juilliard School in New York. While others might leave you lost in the forest, he steers the safari truck through examples from Schubert, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Bach, Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven with a sort of virtuoso clarity and an infectious, unquenchable enthusiasm. (I use some principles of Schenker in my occasional creative writing workshops - it works rather well for books too.)