Sunday, October 22, 2017

This week...

This is one busy week.

MONDAY. It's this:

You'll find me and the fabulous musicians David Le Page (violin) and Viv McLean (piano) at the Crazy Coqs, Brasserie Zédel, Sherwood Street (just off Piccadilly Circus), with the words&music story of Jelly d'Arányi and the Schumann Violin Concerto, starting 7pm. Music includes Bartók, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Kelly, Ravel, Hubay and, uh, Schumann... Book here:

TUESDAY and FRIDAY. I'm honoured to be serving on the jury of the London Bach Singing Competition. We have the semi-finals on Tuesday evening and the final on Friday, both at St George's, Hanover Square. After the first round the other day, I can promise you we've found some simply glorious voices and we're looking forward to hearing ten of them again in the semis, singing recitatives and arias from the St Matthew and St John Passions. Four will go through to the final. Both these rounds are open to the public, so do join us for a spot of Bachian glory. Details of the events and names of the semi-finalists are now up, here.

WEDNESDAY So, Wednesday is looking a bit packed... I'm very excited to be going on BBC Radio 3's In Tune, where Katie Derham will be interviewing me about Ghost Variations and the Schumann Concerto, ahead of our Artrix Bromsgrove performance (3 Nov) and Burgh House Hampstead (19 Nov). Straight out of Broadcasting House, I must leg it to Cadogan Hall, where I'll be doing a spot of actor interviewing about Mozart and Salieri for the London Chamber Orchestra's concert, which culminates in the Mozart Requiem. Christopher Warren-Green conducts. Booking here.

SATURDAY Off to Leipzig for the first time ever, to see all sorts of amazing things relating to Bach, Mendelssohn, Schumann and maybe even Wagner...

I also have to write a feature and some sleeve notes. So I'm now off to have a quick nap.

Friday, October 20, 2017

A Schumann podcast

Serendipity! The London Philharmonic is playing the Schumann Violin Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall on 8 November (soloist: Patricia Kopatchinskaya, conductor: Alain Altinoglu) and then touring it to Antwerp, Vienna and around Germany. They asked me to record a podcast about Ghost Variations, the concerto and its astonishing history, and the result is up now at their site, and also below.

Before that, you could come and hear David Le Page, Viv McLean and me bringing the story to life in the more intimate setting of the Crazy Coqs, Brasserie Zédel, on Monday evening (23 October, 7pm).

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The cello hurricane

Photo: from
Watching the sky turn to lurid mustard yesterday as I made my way home from the Women of the Year Lunch, I couldn't help remembering what happened 30 years ago, the night of the now legendary 1987 storm (which would probably be dubbed "Hurricane Higgins" or suchlike now).

15 October was my father's birthday and to celebrate we all went to the Barbican to hear Simon Rattle conduct the Strauss Four Last Songs, sung by Maria Ewing. Coming home - in those days it was not unreasonable to take the car to the Barbican - we fought through the driving rain, rising wind and fearsome traffic jams.

I woke around 5am to a noise like a jet engine revving up and the house shuddering under us; outside, clouds were scudding at double pace across a tobacco-coloured sky. In the morning everyone in the street was outside staring up at their roofs, asking each other whether for insurance purposes this counted as an Act of God. (That was the only time I ever saw our next-door neighbours actually speak to my parents.) That day I was due to go back to Cambridge to begin a last-minute  one-year postgrad course, but trains and roads alike were impassable.

Solution: go a few days later instead. After unpacking, I went off to look for a violinist friend in another college. I found him in the junior common room, alone in front of the TV, sitting absolutely motionless. The room was filled with Elgar and on the screen was Jacqueline du Pré. That moment, I knew she was dead.

I think the image of Jacqueline du Pré found its way to a special place in all our hearts, something that's unique for each of us. For me, she virtually conflated, very early on, with my older sister, who as a teenager had amazing pre-Raphaelite golden-brown hair and played the cello. As horrific irony would have it, she, too, died young, at 45 (of ovarian cancer). Moreover, though I never set eyes on du Pré except on the TV, she was never far away. She and Barenboim lived in Pilgrim's Lane, about 15 mins walk from our place, and the house where the pair first met and played chamber music was the very house where in the late '70s-early '80s I used to go for my piano lessons every weekend. And Christopher Nupen's beautiful films of her, which helped to seal her status as musical icon, were somehow embedded in my psyche as an example of all the fun, warmth and glory that music-making could be. (Here's a piece I wrote about her for The Independent in January 05.)

To mark this 30th anniversary of her death, Nupen has created a new tribute to her, an hour-long documentary called Jacqueline du Pré: A Gift Beyond Words, which will be on BBC4 on Sunday. I asked him to tell us a little about the process and what du Pré means to him all these years on.

JD: What is different about this film from your previous versions?

CN: The difference between this film and the five which we made with her during her lifetime, is that this one is neither a portrait film, nor a performance film.  Instead, it is a tribute to mark the 30th anniversary of Jackie’s death and a reflection on her enduring legacy.

All the material of Jackie herself has been seen before but it is seen here in a different context —  and 30 years later.  Both of those things make a difference to what comes off the screen from the same footage.

JD: What qualities about Jackie stand out most in your memory?

CN: Her most distinguishing quality is her incorruptible honesty, both in her life and in her music: total, clear, unassuming, unmistakable.  Those who knew her best describe different aspects of it in the film.  Daniel Barenboim calls her an unequalled musical conversationalist. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, in smiling recollection, calls it an unequalled directness.  Pinchas Zukerman, who made breathtaking music with her, calls it pure genius, a word that one can seldom use of performers. Vladimir Ashkenazy uses the same big word and Zubin Mehta calls it pure instinct.

JD: Any favourite memory you would pick out?

CN: These exceptional characteristics are what made her inimitable and so memorable. She was also gifted with a capacity to surprise us which accompanied her like her shadow. I remember her reaction to our film of The Ghost Trio when she saw it for the first time.  I thought we had failed to bring it up to the level which the Trio had achieved at a concert in Oxford and I said so before the screening started.  As soon as it ended, with no pause at all — and no politesse, Jackie announced, flatly, “You are wrong.  On the film one can see what’s going on and it adds another dimension to the music.” I learned one of the most important lessons of my career from that moment.

JD: Has your perspective on her changed over time?

CN: The magics that she made in the sounds that she drew from her cello have not changed at all with the years.  Age does not weary them.  On the other hand much has changed in the perceptions of the world at large.

There are very few performing musicians in the entire history of Western music whose reputations have risen steadily from the time of their deaths but Jacqueline du Pré is one of those precious few.

In a recent survey by Belgian Television in connection with the Queen Elisabeth of the Belgian’s Cello Competition, Jackie was voted one of the three greatest cellists of all time. The Belgian cellists voted for Mstislav Rostropovich, Jacqueline du  Pré and Pablo Casals – in that order. That would not have happened during her lifetime because the world is slow to acknowledge greatness and Jackie died too young.

JD: What do you think young musicians could learn from Jackie today?

CN: I suggest listening  to her playing with an open mind and a generous heart.  Then listen to what Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the others say about her honesty and her directness— not to imitate but to help find their own individual voice.

Christopher Nupen's Jacqueline du Pré: A Gift Beyond Words is on BBC4 on Sunday 22 October at 8pm, then on the iPlayer for a month afterwards

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Monday, October 16, 2017

Mountain/water - where east and west meet

Many years ago, when I was a student, there was one (1) composer in the music faculty who happened to be a woman. She was preparing her PhD at the time. She was a live wire - a ferociously intelligent Argentinian who had left her home country after the 1976 coup - and a rare, shining example to us toiling undergraduates. Her name was Silvina Milstein. I'm delighted to support her forthcoming premiere at King's College London on Tuesday with this guest post from Silvina herself,  now a professor at King's, in which she reflects on the great value to today's composers of consistent, long-term artistic engagement with their work from conductors and performers - in this case, Odaline de la Martinez and her ensemble Lontano. Please note, tickets for the concert are FREE, but should be booked in advance at the links below. JD

Silvina Milstein
Silvina Milstein was born in Buenos Aires in 1956. After the Argentinian military coup of 1976 she emigrated to Britain. At Glasgow University her composition teachers were Judith Weir and Lyell Cresswell, and at Cambridge University she studied with Alexander Goehr.  In the late eighties she held fellowships at Jesus College and King's College (Cambridge), and is currently a professor of music at King's College London.

In addition to composing Silvina has a distinguished career as a teacher and scholar.  Her book Arnold Schoenberg: notes, sets, forms was published by Cambridge University Press.

She has received commissions from leading ensembles and the BBC.  A selection of her chamber works has been recorded by Lontano conducted by Odaline de la Martinez and issued by lorelt.  Several of her most recent pieces for large chamber ensemble --tigres azules (London Sinfonietta and Ensemble Modern), surrounded by distance (London Sinfonietta) and de oro y sombra (Birmingham Contemporary Music Group)-- were premiered under Oliver Knussen.

Here you can view an illustrated lecture that she gave in 2012 about her compositional processes, which includes excerpts of her music.

BCMG and Oliver Knudsen rehearse her de oro y sombra

Silvina Milstein writes:

On 18 October the ensemble Lontano conducted by Odaline de la Martinez will premiere my Shan Shui (mountain/water) for nine instruments alongside works by George Benjamin, Ed Nesbit and Rob Keeley, at the Great Hall, King's College London, WC2R 2LS, as part of the Arts & Humanities Festival 2017.

It has been said that the shan shui style of Chinese painting goes against the common definition of what a painting is: it refutes colour, light and shadow and personal brush work. 

"Shan shui painting is not an open window for the viewer's eye, it is an object for the viewer's mind, it is more like a vehicle of philosophy."

"The Western mind appears to work in straight lines; the Oriental, in wonderful curves and circles," wrote Lafcadio Hearn, the late 19th-century writer of Greek and Irish descent, strongly anchored in American literature, and fascinated by French and Eastern cultures, who married a samurai's daughter, took Japanese citizenship, and became a Buddhist practitioner. 

Paradoxically in the 1960s, Lafcadio Hearn's retelling of several Japanese ghost-stories became the source of Masaki Koyabashi's film Kwaidan, featuring a sound-track by Toru Takemitsu, whose music brings together traditional Japanese and contemporary European art music. Treading on the footsteps of these intercultural encounters, diachronic "shadowings", and transpositions between art forms, my Shan Shui plays around with notions of time and imagery from films by Kenji Mizoguchi and Kaneto Shindo.

Shan Shui is part of a long string of works that I have written for Lontano over the past three decades: Of lavender light and cristales y susurros have been included in my first LORELT CD, while the septet ochre, umber and burnt sienna, and the two trios with harp (and your sound lingered on in lion and rocks and a thousand golden bells in the breeze), as well as Shan Shui will be part of a new double-CD to be released in early 2018. 

This type of long-term artistic engagement and substantial support is at the core of what makes Odaline de la Martinez’s commitment to the music of women composers so uniquely precious. By presenting several of my pieces together in concerts and CD, it effectively addresses a crucial difficulty often encountered by composers in the current concert-programming climate.

Not only has this approach allowed me to undertake ambitious and often rather bold projects (such as a work scored for two double basses and harp), but more importantly has offered me platforms for the presentation of my work as groups of pieces with common compositional concerns, like renderings of a mountain from many sides, under different lights, and at different scales. On this occasion, Dominic Saunders will perform the recently revised version of my Piano Phantasy after Mozart K475 written in 1992.

My pre-concert talk will introduce Shan Shui placing it in the context of my earlier compositions and its sources of inspiration in contemplative Chinese landscapes and Japanese cinematography (room SWB21 in the Music Department, King’s College London, Strand, WC2R 2LS, at 16:45). All attendees are invited to a drink-reception before the concert. 

Entrance to the talk, reception, and concert is free, but tickets should be booked from the following site:

Sunday, October 15, 2017

One for the Kaufmaniacs

I've just been watching the Andrew Marr Show, in which some government twonk has been banging on about how his colleagues in power ought to sound more optimistic about Brexit.

It's one of those New Age lispings from the '90s that if you believe in something hard enough, you make it magically come true. You turn it into a little rhyme known as an 'affirmation' and you sit in your room every morning and every evening repeating it and repeating it and eventually bingo, there it is on your pretty-patterned life plate. Only problem is that beyond your room you might find yourself up against other people believing in other things, or even those peculiar phenomena known as realities.

So I've fled in disgust and found you a trailer for the Jonas Kaufmann documentary to help cheer up anyone who needs a smile right now. See above.

John Bridcut's film, Jonas Kaufmann: Tenor for the Ages is on BBC4 at 9pm tonight. Don't miss it. You might learn a little more about what was going on through those two tempestuous years from Last Night of the Proms to Otello. The latter involved a last-minute sprint back to the dressing-room to fetch a forgotten sword - just after the opera had begun. The former involved Union Jack boxer shorts and we might just hear how he got them. (Well, we do hear. I'm not telling.) The good news is that the film will be on iPlayer for a month, so you can watch it online as many times as you like.

The broadcast is followed at 10.30pm by the showing of Otello itself, filmed at the Royal Opera House in June. Why such an event gets confined to BBC4 at dead of a Sunday night is actually beyond me. Perhaps the action is somehow, somewhere, considered too nasty, too tragic and too Italian [despite being by Shakespeare] to foist upon that relentlessly optimistic Brexiteering UK public? After all, optimism fixes everything, dunnit? [irony font applies]. Otello just wasn't optimistic enough when Iago began to pour the poison of doubt and jealousy into his ear. He could have won if he'd been optimistic, no?

Or is it more that he swallowed a heap of lies fed systematically to him by someone he trusted but shouldn't have? Lies that induced him to murder and suicide? Is that just too close to the bone?

Time was when Jonas Kaufmann singing one of Verdi's greatest roles would be primetime fare for mainstream channels, probably on a holiday or special occasion moment. If you're going to have an opera season, as the BBC is, why not really have an opera season? Why squirrel it away? What a missed opportunity. How very unoptimistic.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

What do you think of the Schumann Violin Concerto?

Although it's only just over a week to go until the first of our Ghost Variations concerts for the autumn, I have to admit I'm no nearer to the answer to the million-dollar question about the Schumann Violin Concerto that everybody asks me: "so, look, does it really show signs that he was losing his mind, or what...?"

So I thought I'd ask you. There's a poll in the sidebar, just above my welcome notice. Please place your vote and we'll collect the final tally on the morning of 24 October, the day after our Live at Zédel concert.

Ghost Variations concerts in the next five weeks are:

Monday 23 October, 7pm, Crazy Coqs, Brasserie Zédel, just off Piccadilly Circus. Book here.

Friday 3 November, 7.30pm, Artrix Arts Centre, Bromsgrove. Book here.

Sunday 19 November, 6.30pm, Burgh House, Hampstead, London NW3. Book here. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Showbiz without a safety net

You know how to make a critic feel really, seriously bad? Write to her the moment her review is published and tell her you did that entire performance with an infection in your finger that had made it swell up so much that you couldn’t fit it between the notes. A couple of weeks ago I went to review Hershey Felder’s one-man show Our Great Tchaikovsky at the Other Palace Theatre…and about 10 minutes after I published the write-up, there pinged in a message from the man himself... Contrite, I went to see him last Friday to hear about how he creates his composer-focused performances – and about what he was going through on press night.

Silver birch: Felder as Tchaikovsky
We’re in Tchaikovsky’s house in Klin. The stage set that evokes it, anyway. Felder takes the piano stool and talks to me almost the same way that he performs, expressing himself on the piano as much as in words. He is soft-spoken when not acting, but tenacious and determined as anyone must be when creating theatre pieces in which he both acts and plays the piano – in the Tchaikovsky one, almost continuously for an hour and 40 minutes – and performing them eight times a week.

“I arrived on the Sunday, and someone’s luggage got caught on this finger, ripped the nail in half and dug all the way into my finger,” Felder explains. “So I didn’t play for two days, but when I started that week of performances, because I put pressure on it, it got worse and started to swell. Tchaikovsky is awkward as it is, but I was in so much pain – every time I was between two black notes I couldn’t fit.”

Bandages didn’t help much, ice made it worse and Felder tried changing his technique and his fingering in order to accommodate the problem: “The pain was massive and I had to play with flat fingers rather than my usual technique.” Flat fingers worked for Horowitz, he adds, but his own experience was slightly less happy. Then, 15 minutes before the start on press night, “the whole thing broke open and there was blood all over the keys.” It seems nothing short of miraculous that he was able to go ahead with that performance all.

Felder grew up in Canada in a family in which both sides were Holocaust survivors – his background mingles Russian, Polish and Hungarian strands. “My Hungarian grandmother survived because she was standing in line for a train when a little boy came up to her and told her to play dead next time she saw a pile of bodies,” he recounts. Her family, having survived the war, then escaped at the time of the Revolution in 1956.

Felder, fascinated by golden-age pianists such as Busoni and Moritz Rosenthal, studied at Juilliard with Jerome Lowenthal (who had studied with Cortot, among others). He was set on the idea of a career performing and composing, and made his debut in London playing Rhapsody in Blue at the Queen Elizabeth Hall when he was 19. But then, delving into his family history in Poland, he was exploring Chopin heritage too and came across a piano that belonged to the composer. The insights it brought him into how Chopin must have played, he says, set him thinking about how to create a performance to explore the matter. “But everyone said: ‘Chopping? Who’s heard of Chopping? Nobody will come! Do someone everyone’s heard of. Do Cole Porter...’”

He didn’t want to do Cole Porter. “But I saw how the audience responded to the music when I played Rhapsody in Blue. Next thing I know, I’m telling the story of Gershwin. I didn’t think there would be a business in story-telling. But there is. There really is. Today people come to me from all over the world for help in creating similar shows.” Among them was Mona Golabek, whose memoir The Pianist of Willesden Lane was a smash hit here in London and has now been optioned for a film.

Defying the nay-sayers, Felder pressed ahead with more composer productions. His Bernstein show brought him a new friendship with an unexpected new admirer, the great pianist Byron Janis (who is now 89). He did do Chopin – and people did go. Ditto Beethoven, Liszt and Irving Berlin. The Liszt production, devised for the composer's bicentenary a few years back, focused on his support for Wagner, asking the crucial question, according to Felder, "If you know someone is going to turn out bad, do you support him anyway?" - a philosophical argument that set some audiences raging, but pushed the concept behind the show onto a new and vital level. 

We nearly got his Irving Berlin in London this time, but four weeks before opening night, Felder says, he was so disillusioned with developments in Trump’s America that he switched to do his recently premiered Tchaikovsky instead. “I felt I couldn’t come to London and sing ‘God Bless America’ after they pardoned Arpaio,” he declares.

Our Great Tchaikovsky doesn’t shirk difficult politics. “It’s ostensibly about Tchaikovsky,” Felder says, “but actually it’s about propaganda, about erasing who Tchaikovsky was, what Russia is doing now and how this threatens Americans in various communities on a daily basis. It scares the hell out of me.” But in the panorama of Tchaikovsky’s life, the story is relevant without effort, lavishly complemented by digital animations that project across the setting of Klin images of animals grazing in birch forests, images that transform from mountains to dancers to swans, and New York in the snow (for The Nutcracker, dreamed up there when Tchaikovsky visited to open Carnegie Hall). “The show evokes an era,” says Felder, “and that era is Russia in the late 19th century.”

Rest assured that Felder is one heck of a terrific pianist, with sensitive and colourful touch, and flair to spare. Yet if you’re battling an infected finger plus a difficult acoustic (the Other Palace Theatre is extremely dry), what to do? A true pro presses on, and Felder is as total a pro as you would find anywhere on the globe. There’s no business like showbusiness, as someone once said, and for a one-man show there’s no understudy, no backup, no safety net. Now that he’s better, I might make a return visit.

Friday, October 06, 2017

The mind behind the cough

Diagram from Wikipedia
Last night I went to the London Piano Festival concert and in the middle of the Rachmaninov I felt the first warning signs. Like most other people in London, the PM included, I've had a lurgy. It's gone, but left lingering dregs in the form of a tickly but persistent and "productive" cough. Nothing that Vocalzone pastilles can't sort out, I thought, heading off to Kings Place. And all was well until 2/3 of the way through Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva's splendid performance: in the Rachmaninov Suite No.2's Romance, the bug decided it was time to get me. Just after friends and I had spent half the interval grumbling about people coughing.

It starts with a soft sensation like cat-fur brushing against one tonsil. Perhaps a quiet 'hem-hem' will clear it. No...The cat fur is pressing and now feels more like a brush-bristle. A needle. It's agony, all down the right side of my neck. I put my coat over my mouth and cough as quietly as humanly possible. Did you know that if you stifle a cough in material it helps muffle it, but if you put your hand over your mouth it just amplifies the noise? Take note, dear friends... Yet the cough remains. And I can't cough properly, especially not in this bit. Oh, come on, Jess, it's not like you're the PM...

But...oh help. Oh gawd. What to do? I can scarcely take a breath. My eyes are watering. On stage Charles and Katya are in Rachmaninov Heaven and everybody around me is blissing out. If I get up and run for the door, won't that cause more disturbance than coughing? But I can't cough either. What's more, if I pick up my handbag and start rustling around for my Vocalzone under the tissues, Oystercard, lipstick, Ghost Variations flyers and change that fell out of my purse, that'll cause impossible disturbance too... But I can't cough. What would my friends say? What would my neighbours say? What about the other press?

Won't it be over soon? Won't it pass? Won't this movement, at least, end, and then I can attack the bag for a pastille? I thought the suite was quite short, but it seems not - this movement has turned interminable. Rachmaninov will make sure it goes on forever and forever more. And far from being gentle and romantic, it's eating me alive.

By now something inside my throat is shivering like violin vibrato and my eyes are streaming so much that it must be wrecking my make-up (upside: maybe everyone will think the music moved me to tears...) My whole body is shaking. I try to control it, but slowly the whole of Kings Place seems to be tipping slowly over to the right. Is this real? Is it all psychological? Is this every worst experience of my whole life coming back to destroy me, in the middle of a piano festival? Is this what it's like to have a breakdown? They're going to have to carry me out in a heap of melted hopelessness.

The movement ends. There's a second or two of silence. I can hear the cough sweets screaming at me from the bottom of the bag. In a moment...but Charles and Katya catch one another's eye over their pianos, hands raised, motionless. And they plunge straight into the finale.

Suffice it to say that this morning I'm alive and well. I wonder if every other concert-cougher feels as I do when that happens to them. Rather cruelly, I hope so, because it really does disturb the music. I managed to muffle mine, despite personal suffering. So you can, too. Remember: use material, not your hand, and never leave home without a cough sweet.

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