Tuesday, February 21, 2017

How to mark International Women's Day. Not.



What do you notice about this programme?

• It's taking place on 8 March and the poster says it's a special concert "From Haydn to Piazzolla, to mark International Women's Day..."
• It consists of music entirely by men.
• It is led by a male violinist/conductor.
• The orchestra is all-male, unless there are some players whose names aren't listed here, since on the website picture I can see maybe two or three amid the massed players.
• The music includes "Hymn to Beauty" and some sexy tangos. [Just what we always wanted, yes?]

Beggars belief, really. Anyway, I'll be at the Southbank for the Women of the World Festival, in which events include Strength in Song - Women in Opera, a lively exploration of the power of the female singing voice, with some of ENO's brightest young singers...




Friday, February 17, 2017

"The tragedies of thousands of years ago are the tragedies of today"


The splendid composer Nicola LeFanu introduces her major new piece The Crimson Bird, which will have its world premiere tonight at the Barbican, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov and soprano Rachel Nicholls as soloist. The work was commissioned under the Royal Philharmonic Society's Elgar Bursary. It's on BBC Radio 3 and the iPlayer thereafter - don't miss it! You can listen to Nicola's introduction here. The concert kickstarts the celebrations of her 70th birthday, which will continue through 2017.


The Crimson Bird sees LeFanu collaborate with poet John Fuller, who also wrote the libretto for the composer's 2011 chamber opera Dream Hunter. Fuller's work also forms the basis of The Crimson Bird's libretto, whose text has been adapted from his poem 'Siege'. 'Siege' examines the bond between mother and son as it is tested within an environment of war and terror - 'When death is the work of hands, Anyone may be a murderer or a hero. Which is it that you claim?' In The Crimson Bird, LeFanu brings Fuller's text to life by making use of her extensive experience of writing for the voice in the eight operas she has composed.
Speaking on The Crimson Bird, LeFanu said,
"In its exploration of love, fear and death, 'Siege' has a universal scope that speaks to human experience throughout time. Coverage from conflict zones under siege fill our TV screens every day. A mother sees her son caught up in the conflicts raging around her country. Is he a hero or a murderer? Composing for the BBCSO and the dramatic soprano Rachel Nicholls, I had a marvellous opportunity to explore these perennial issues."
 

Valentine for a favourite film


Having not previously experienced one of the talkies-with-live-music events that have become so popular since digital technology enabled them to exist, I went to see Brief Encounter with real-time Rachmaninoff at the Royal Festival Hall the other night. Digital transformation involves the careful stripping out of the music while leaving the voices in place; it's so detailed that 60 seconds takes a day to do. Striking the balance in the hall between the volume of the soundtrack and the live music isn't easy either, but the effect is so absorbing and compelling that we can forgive the occasional "what did she say?" for the gorgeous horn-playing or clarinet solo that might mask a couple of seconds.

Alexandra Dariescu with a creation of her own.
Photo: BBC Music Magazine
And jolly lovely it was, y'know... First we had the complete Piano Concerto No.2 with soloist Alexandra Dariescu making her debut at the hall and with the LPO. She offered a near-ideal balance of heart and head, with plenty of excitement and lyricism matched by beautiful tone, intelligent voicing and excellent musical narrative even without that of Noel Coward. And as Eileen Joyce, the legendary Australian pianist for the original film, used to do, she even changed her dress in the interval. Dirk Brossé conducted with reasonable attentiveness. It's no small feat to play the whole concerto in a "real" interpretation and follow it immediately with bleeding chunks, timing determined by (I guess) a click-track, and everyone rose to the task magnificently.

Celia Johnson's daughter, the actress Lucy Fleming, introduced the evening, telling us about her mother's memories of the filming: the cold early mornings at the station pervaded by the smell of the fish train from Aberdeen; the enormous challenge of playing a role that involves large tracts of silence with a narration over the top; and Noel Coward's absolute insistence, when others tried to demur from using that concerto, that nothing could happen without the Rachmaninoff - that Laura's character is circumscribed by the facts that "she changes her library book at Boots, she eats at the Kardomah and she listens to Rachmaninoff"...

Of course! Where would we be without Rachmaninoff? The music creates perhaps 85 per cent of the film's emotional world. The little town it shows us, otherwise, is cold, small, mean. Everything is based in deadened routine: putting on the wireless, picking up the embroidery or the Times Crossword, the Thursday ritual of going into Milford, chatting to acquaintances you can't stand and who haven't an interesting thought in their heads, going to the cinema no matter what's on, laughing at the Mighty Wurlitzer, and then the cup of tea at the station where the staff never say hello even though they see you every single Thursday and try to make life a little bit harder for you because it's their job (Beryl swings her keys at Laura with such relish). The one sign of passion is Alec's devotion to his work in preventive medicine; as he describes it Laura falls for him, perhaps because she has never seen anyone express such aliveness before.

We never really know Alec, though, or Laura either: only the tip of the iceberg, plus their eyes. Laura is Celia Johnson's eyes and Rachmaninoff. Everything in the movie happens at a tangent - the shadows of Alec and Laura in the station underpass, the chilly stone bridges, the snide and hypocritical "friends", and even Laura's impossibly cute kids are filmed from off-beat angles. ("My birthday's in June and there aren't any pantomimes in June," says little Margaret in expert plummy tones. Apparently the little girl was actually Celia Johnson's niece.)

Only the Rachmaninoff is direct. And we love it and we weep because there is so much love in there, being squashed to extinction by that ghastly, two-faced provincialism and hypocrisy that Coward captures to perfection. Remember, Coward was gay and homosexuality was illegal. The whole thing is an analogy of illicit love, with its truth spark buried deep.

Odd to think that that world-in-black-and-white represents to some the sort of nostalgia that's sparked the ludicrous prospect of Brexit. Love will go away from us forever on the 5.43pm train and we will never get it back because we're worried about what other people will think if we try. What could be more British than that?

Dated? Not necessarily. Quite a few people, not least in the orchestra, were seeing that film for the first time and it won a lot of new friends.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

79 years ago today...

Jelly d'Arányi, portrait by Charles Geoffroy-Dechaume

...On 16 February 1938, Jelly d'Arányi gave the UK premiere of the Schumann Violin Concerto at the Queen's Hall, London. That event is the climax of Ghost Variations - so for the occasion, here for a reblog is my piece for the Women Writers, Women's Books website the other day, not so much about why I started writing that novel, but why I finished it, which was another matter altogether...


Finding the Pearl: Why I wrote Ghost Variations

Why do you start to write a book? Perhaps more than that, why do you finish it? There are enough books in the world already: why do you need to add yours?

The reason I started Ghost Variations is not the same reason I finished it. I can’t count the number of times I nearly gave up, or rewrote bleeding chunks, or chucked them out, or how often issues outside nearly scuppered the whole thing.

Its initial impulse was several-fold. I wanted to try writing a historical novel, as my former ones were mostly contemporary. Besides, it seemed a good idea at the time…

When I first came across the story of Jelly (pronounced “Yély”) d’Arányi and her discovery of the Schumann Violin Concerto in the 1930s, it seemed impossibly far-fetched. A few years ago, researching my third novel, Hungarian Dances, which centred on a musical family from Budapest, I’d got hold of an out-of-print biography of this revered Hungarian violinist and her musician sisters. I found more than I’d expected. Namely, a chapter entitled “The Truth About the Schumann Concerto”. I read it with increasing incredulity.

The Schumann is the least known and most mysterious of German romantic violin concertos. It was the composer’s last orchestral work: soon after its completion he suffered a nervous breakdown, attempted suicide, then spent the last two years of his life in an asylum. After his death, his widow, Clara, decided the concerto betrayed signs of his illness and left it unpublished. Joseph Joachim, the violinist for whom it was written, kept the manuscript; his heirs deposited it in the Prussian State Library, embargoed for 100 years.

Then in 1933 Joachim’s great-niece – Jelly d’Arányi – claimed to have received a message through a Ouija board ostensibly from the spirit of Schumann, asking her to find the concerto and perform it. Her enquiries alerted others to the fact that there was something interesting lurking in that library. Schumann’s daughter was furious and insisted the concerto must never be performed. Nobody could override her directive…except people who cared nothing for niceties. The Nazis’ Department for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, run by Goebbels, found a use for it: having banned music by Jewish composers, including the popular Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, they decided to take the Schumann themselves and launch it as a symbol: a great Aryan concerto by a great German Aryan composer.

Complicating things further, the work’s new publishers sent a photostat to the young American virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin, asking his opinion. He fell in love with it and wanted to give the premiere himself. The unfortunate d’Arányi found herself in a three-way race to perform the work, while Europe was hurtling towards war.

It seemed a good story, but it needed to be more than that to make its telling worthwhile. And I felt that it was indeed more than that. The confluence between the situations of the heroine, her target and her world coalesced into a single key image: a tipping point, poised on the cliff edge, reaching for a last chance of redemption. Jelly d’Arányi, for whom composers including Bartók, Ravel and Vaughan Williams had created masterpieces, could feel her glory days slipping away; the concerto was written when Schumann was descending into madness; and when the work came to light, the world was sliding into fascism and the vortex towards cataclysmic war and the Holocaust.

I started the first draft in 2011. My mother-in-law, who escaped Nazi Germany aged 13 on the Kindertransport and never saw her parents and brother again, asked what I was writing. A historical novel, I told her. She asked when it was set. When I said the 1930s, she laughed. To her, that wasn’t historical at all.

Three years earlier we’d experienced a kind of modern-day 1929: the financial crash of 2008. Structures and certainties were crumbling. Witch-hunts were on the rise. People were frightened and insecure, taking out their alarm on those less powerful than themselves whom they considered had fallen out of line. After half the first draft was done, a period of intense stress rendered me unable to write a word for six months. I’ll spare you the gory details, and of course the outcome could have been worse, but it has caused a long-term health issue.

I kept trying to get back to the book, but it progressed only in fits and starts. I’d set about it without a contract as I didn’t want deadlines or directives, but this meant no advance, nor any certainty of publication. With my immune system apparently AWOL I then lost half of 2014 too, this time to something that turned out to be whooping cough.

Yet to give up, to shove the manuscript into the bottom drawer and forget about it, was unthinkable: you’re not beaten unless you allow yourself to be. I hunkered down and got on with it as best I could.

And one day in summer 2015, tired of the continual hold-ups, I decided to send the draft to Unbound, a new-look publisher that works via crowdfunding. It came highly recommended by several journalist colleagues. Once they agree to take you on, you pitch your project to potential readers. If you reach the crowdfunding target, they publish the book.

A few months later, having all but forgotten about the submission, I received a message saying they would take Ghost Variations. We launched the crowdfunding in January 2016. To my astonishment it made target in 12 days. Maybe the story rang some bells, because it wasn’t only people I knew who were jumping on board.

Soon I was working round the clock to chisel the novel into publishable shape. My editor gently pointed out that I’d paid plenty of attention to the rise of fascism in Germany, but not said much about what was happening in England, where our heroine Jelly d’Arányi lived. Indeed, the sporadic way in which I’d written the book had left a black hole of grand proportions, waiting for Oswald Mosley to fill it.

I looked up 1930s Daily Mail headlines and articles by Lord Rothermere. This was the country in which my parents-in-law had arrived as teenaged Jewish refugees with German names and accents. Because of that press-stirred hysteria about “floods” of such refugees, my mother-in-law’s parents and brother were refused visas, meaning they were trapped in Berlin, and were murdered in a concentration camp.

Meanwhile our television screens were filled with images of boatloads of people from today’s conflict zones sinking and drowning in the Mediterranean while our own western governments slammed the doors shut upon them. In June Britain voted to leave the EU. Nobody absorbed in research on the 1930s could view this as anything but a calamity of historic proportions. Over the Atlantic, the notion of Donald Trump as potential US president was derided, yet I’d been reading that Hitler himself was at first regarded as a joke by many who believed that an unstable, deluded fantasist could never take power.

When I first began Ghost Variations I had no idea it would be as relevant as it has turned out. Its delays were frustrating. But perhaps 2016 was its moment after all, because this year brought us our own tipping point. We’re no longer on the cliff edge: we’ve tipped and we’re falling.

I’ve learned a lot through writing Ghost Variations, so here are my lessons in a nutshell. First, if you want to write about the inconvenient truths of today, sometimes it’s better not to hold up a direct mirror. Instead, refract the light you want to shed. Shine it through a prism of a past parallel, or a sci-fi or fantasy world. Good historical fiction doesn’t only concern the past.

Next, that question publishers and agents always ask – “But what’s it about?” – is slightly misphrased. It means: “What are you really trying to say?” A “good story” isn’t enough. There has to be a pearl in your oyster, something special for the reader to extrapolate. Writing a book takes a lot of work, and the financial rewards are not huge even if you are successful. At some point you might need to reassure yourself you have a good reason for doing it at all. Your clinching point is that reason, so make sure it’s there.

I think – or hope – that Ghost Variations holds a positive message despite the times it portrays. I hope it shows there were, and there will be, people who see through lies, moral corruption and mortal danger and stand by higher principles. We’ve come through times of turmoil before; and despite huge, tragic sacrifices and horrors beyond comprehension, still people keep trying to do the right thing. There will be heroes and heroines, there will be life and there will be love. And maybe there is even a chance that in some unsuspected dimension love can last forever. Maybe that’s why I wrote this book.





Ghost Variations at Unbound: https://unbound.com/books/ghost-variations

Beethoven to bike to




On Valentine's Day, Alexander Panfilov, winner of the 2015 Hastings International Piano Competition, switched images with the regular inhabitants of The Source, the local skateboard and biker park, which happens to be the largest underground skate part in the world. He provided a spot of music for them to work out to, wearing a hoodie. The bikers wore bow ties. And it was daredevil energy all round. The piano had also been on location all day, with everyone encouraged to come and play it. Above, a taste of the action - and the cool-as-cucumber pianist seems unfazed by the apparent likelihood that a biker might land inside the piano at any moment.

HIPCC director Frank Wibaut said: “I once organised a similar event in Australia, where classical musicians came together with young athletes and while both groups came from completely different spheres they were able to understand the dedication and hours of practice that each put into their particular discipline. I think we’ll see a similar understanding in Hastings.” (More here.)

The Hastings International Piano Competition 2017 takes place next week, starting on 23 February, with finals on 3 and 4 March accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Follow the action here.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Less cheering...


Eric Halfvarson, Karita Mattila, Jonas Kaufmann, Tony Pappano & the LSO
take a bow the other night. Now it's curtains...

Oh dear. The Kaufmann Residency has come to an untimely end. Jonas has bronchitis and the concert including the 'Four Last Songs' tonight has been cancelled. Or at least postponed - the Barbican says it will be rescheduled in due course.

So there we are. That's it from London's Kaufmann Central. The discount tent has been packed away, the thermos of tea drained and the last sarnies will presumably keep a day or two in the fridge. We were very lucky to hear that glorious recital last week and the delirious thrill of Die Walküre Act I, so probably we shouldn't be greedy.

We wish Jonas the speediest of recoveries. The offer of chicken soup still stands.

Friday, February 10, 2017

A post to cheer up the Kaufmaniacs... #kaufmannresidency

Oh dear. Jonas Kaufmann cancelled his conversation session at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama today, citing a cold and apologising for disappointing the public. We wish him a speedy recovery and hope to see him for some Strauss specials on Monday. Meanwhile, for the Kaufmaniacs who'd taken the day off specially to go along this afternoon, here are some cheering bits and pieces. Grab a glass of something nice and sit back...

HOW I DISCOVERED JONAS
This recording was the first time I ever heard Jonas's voice and I have never forgotten it. I knew nothing about him, had never even heard his name, and was sent his Strauss album to review, and out came this...voice. Blimey, guv....



WORDS OF WISDOM
Here are some choice quotes from my interview with him exactly three years ago, for BBC Music Magazine. It was February 2014 in New York, it was sodding freeeezing, the snow was piled six and a half feet high around the sidewalks and I turned up in a thick jumper, a hat that wrecks my hair and snow boots. He was rehearsing Werther intensively, but looked fresh as the proverbial daisy. We talked mainly about Winterreise. Also...

JK: “One of the key ingredients to make an audience suffer with you, feel with you, to make things credible and look and sound natural is that you must really believe in it. You need to fill up these wonderful compositions with sense, meaning and genuine emotion.

“I always refer to Herbert von Karajan’s words when he said that what we’re seeking as musicians is ‘controlled ecstasy’. The world around you – including yourself – has to believe that you are a hundred per cent this other person and only when this happens is it something real. But it’s a game, and at the beginning you don’t know how far you can go before you lose control.


“This feeling of almost flying, of almost convincing yourself you’re this other person, that’s what makes this job so exciting – and also in the end so easy, because since you ‘are’ that person, all the words you are singing or saying make total sense.”


WAAAGNER
Better? Let's have some appropriately Wintersturmerish Wagner, with thanks to the excellent quality of Medici.tv...


AND A SPOT OF LEHÁR WITH PLÁCIDO
If this next one doesn't work, nothing will! Come on, SMILE....


HOT TODDY
Last but not least, here is my dad's hot toddy recipe. Should dispel a cold in moments.

1 measure brandy (more if necessary)
A spoon of apricot jam, to taste (or alternative flavour, or honey)
A slice of lemon

Put ingredients into a mug. Fill with hot water. Stir well. Enjoy while listening to Meistersinger.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

The Wagner Evening #kaufmannresidency

Jonas Kaufmann in recital the other night. Photo: Alastair Muir/Barbican

State of being in the Discount Tent EC1 last night post-Walküre Act I: shaking a bit, hyperventilating slightly and maybe in need of a little lie-down, toast and a nice cup of camomile tea. But even the most soothing of brews doesn't cleanse that music from your system. Nothing new about saying Wagner is like a drug, but you can feel it physically in your bloodstream. It's a substance that burns you up from within via myriad points of white heat and you sense it endowing you with superhuman powers such as flight, or at least the ability to walk upside down on the ceiling. Coming down again is the difficult part.

We'll go back to that later, but first you probably want to know what the performance was like.

After opening with the Tristan und Isolde prelude, with Wagner's own concert ending (he tacks on the end of the Liebestod), Tony Pappano kept a tight rein and concentrated atmospheres in the orchestra for the Wesendonck Lieder, which Jonas Kaufmann - as far as we know, the only tenor singing them in this day and age - approached with every iota of the expertise he brought to his recital the other night. Colour, character, control, sophisticated phrasing, poised emotional content: this was a mesmerisingly beautiful interpretation, and one in which he somehow created the illusion, especially in the closing 'Träume', that he became the poetry - as if he had turned into Mathilde Wesendonck. Watching him return to his own self as the applause began was like witnessing some strange metamorphosis controlled by an invisible, internal Tarnhelm.

You'd think this demanding song cycle was enough for a singer who's recently returned after months off sick, but the second half was of course devoted to the whole of Act I of Die Walküre. A few things to consider at this point. First, Kaufmann's voice has always been about quality, not volume: never the biggest voice in the world, but simply the most beautiful and intelligent one. Also, when Bayreuth was designed for the Ring cycle, Wagner's idea was to keep the orchestra level down, with a sunken pit, so that the singers wouldn't have to yell to be heard. Last night, our Siegmund was flanked by two giant voices: as Sieglinde, Karita Mattila and as Hunding Erik Halfvarson. They stood where singers stand in concert performances: beside the conductor, at one with the orchestra. In that context Kaufmann's voice sounded like a gleaming gemstone within the entire diadem of sound-colours. But Mattila and Halfvarson (who of course hadn't sung the whole of the Wesendonck Lieder beforehand) put on the tiara and went surfing over the soundwaves.

Mattila, her tone full of complex, honeyed herbiness in the lower registers and rays of blinding sunlight at the top, seemed ecstatic, losing herself in the music and the role. Kaufmann's Siegmund was a bitter fighter on the run, filled with character and contained power, gradually regaining his passion for life and love and unleashing the full glory at full tilt when it was needed. Halfvarson proved a Hunding in whose house you'd be very afraid to stay, his towering stage presence and magnificent bass galvanising more acting contact than there had been hitherto. Pappano conducted like a man possessed, pacing the energy up to and beyond fever pitch; and one special hero is the LSO itself, but perhaps especially the cello section and its principal, Tim Hugh, who made incandescent gorgeousness out of his solos. The whole thing left even slightly-anxious-about-it people like me longing desperately for Rattle Hall to be built and give them a world-class acoustic with real shine and bloom... And yet the total effect, give or take these quibbles, was mind-blowing.

Heading back to the Tent I bumped into a friend and we said: "Great, so what time does Act II start?"

I'll never forget the first time I heard Die Walküre. I was 25 and working as assistant editor at Classical Music Magazine. Covent Garden was staging the Ring cycle and when my boss discovered I'd never seen it he said I must join him on his press tickets. I went with some trepidation; I had never even heard Act I of Die Walküre before, because I wasn't allowed Wagner, because HITLER. I remember coming out of the opera house in exactly the state above. Twenty-five years later and I know the piece really well, yet it still does that to me. Just imagine the first-timer impact.

So look. I have faced the Wagner-and-Hitler question again and again, and thought it through ad infinitum. The issue is difficult, it's painful, it's complex and for years I felt that avoiding this music was totally justified on historical grounds. Yet it has got to the point now where I could almost feel I was swindled. I was denied, then denied myself, this consciousness-altering musical marvel, this view from the summit of summits, because of Hitler. But that lets Hitler win. Now we must reclaim the music. The greatest music in the world - and this is some of it - should belong to us all. Nobody should be denied the experience of any form of great art because someone, somewhere, is telling them "this isn't for you".


Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Valentine joys up the road


Not Jonas this time, but a quick shout-out for our friends up the road at the wonderful Ealing Music and Film Valentine Festival, bringing a lively lookout to west London from tomorrow until Monday. Here's their line-up. 

A few highlights:

  • Thursday 9th February evening: English Chamber Orchestra and Tenebrae Choir, conducted by Nigel Short, perform Mozart’s Requiem at Weston Hall 
  • Friday 10th February evening: English Youth Orchestra and Martin James Bartlett perform Tchaikovsky & Mahler at St Barnabas Church 
  • Saturday 11th February: evening: Ealing Symphony Orchestra perform a selection of film music at St Barnabas Church 
  • Sunday 12th February afternoon: The Tippett Quartet and Julian Gallant perform a chamber music concert including Haydn and Brahms at St Mary’s Church

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Black magic #kaufmannresidency

Back on stage! 

The one problem with recitals by Jonas Kaufmann is the absolute scrum at the ladies' loos. The Barbican's facilities are confusing because there are two entrances, one at either end, and sometimes there is one queue, usually two and occasionally three. During last night's interval they brought in ushers to do a spot of crowd-control.

The fans were out in force and for good reason. This concert by Kaufmann and "his" glorious pianist Helmut Deutsch kicked off the Barbican's Kaufmann Residency, four events between last night and 13 February. It was also the charismatic German tenor's first recital in many months, marking his return to performance with Deutsch after his lengthy period of recovery from a haematoma on a vocal cord (his first return to the stage was as Lohengrin in Paris, just two weeks ago). It must have been a relief to many that he was there at all. A slight air of tension hung over the auditorium as the beginning was slightly delayed and an unspoken anxiety of the "er, is he OK?" variety seemed to shiver through the waiting rows.

He was. And he started by thanking everyone for coming along, which got a laugh - many people booked their tickets a year ago and Kaufmaniacs have flown in from all over the world. He then explained that the iPad on its stand was there because this was his first recital in a while and it was simply to make sure he didn't make any any any mistakes. This introduction was to be one of the few light moments of the evening: the artists had selected a programme of dark, disturbing repertoire, the type that excavates the soul and holds it up for forensic examination. Kaufmann's depth of tone and actorly intelligence suits this repertoire exceptionally well. He is, as ever, the ideal tenor for those who really prefer baritones.

Deutsch and Kaufmann: a peerless partnership
Let's hear it for Helmut Deutsch, whose long and distinguished career as pianist, Lieder specialist and teacher seems to have reached its apogee in his work with Kaufmann. This musical magic is utterly a joint effort - and what singer could be so lucky as to have a pianist partner (don't even think about calling him an "accompanist") whose tone is so radiant, whose dynamics are so ideally judged, whose creation of atmosphere is simply peerless and whose support is ideal at every turn. If Kaufmann is Margot Fonteyn, then Deutsch is Rudolf Nureyev, lifting him effortlessly, letting him shine, while remaining a dazzling artist in his own right - though Deutsch is probably a bit more self-effacing about it than Nureyev might have been. The two together become more than the sum of their parts, the partnership a living entity in its own right.

Schumann's Kerner Lieder Op.35 was perhaps the closest set he ever composed to Schubert's Schwanengesang. A sequence of songs rather than a cycle, they are united by the poet Justinus Kerner's undertow of threat and despair: often composer and poet fuse to a degree that it is impossible to be certain whether Schumann is delving into Kerner to craft the poet's essence in music, or whether he has perhaps found in Kerner the perfect means to capture his own. He was much under the influence of Schubert at the time and Schubertian hints surface occasionally in the music: a Rosamunde rhythm in 'Wanderlied', subtle switches between major and minor in 'Erstes Grün' - and not so subtle ones in the set's showstopper 'Stille Tränen'. The final three songs, beginning with that, are united, too, by the rhythm of the text; Schumann makes the last two essentially into one, reiterating a questioning, lost-sounding figure with a cumulative effect that can be deeply unsettling. "Why are you so ill?...Nature heals me, but man will not let me rest," says Kerner. Schumann's likely syphilis? Schubert's? (And can one help but reflect that the music business may have put rather a lot of pressure on our performer of late?) In the final song, 'Alte Laute', the poet says he is trapped in a bad dream from which only an angel can wake him; and right now so is the world, and for a few moments the musicians on stage and their audience were entirely as one.

Kaufmann's core strengths are many, but two were of special value here. One is his quietness: reserving the big, open notes for special moments alone, his eloquence is as soft and dark as mink. It combines with that other magic ingredient, expert storytelling, to the effect that instead of going out to the audience by projecting at full tilt, he makes us go to him, creating an atmosphere of mesmerising intimacy that seems to shrink the hall. Every word and phrase has character and meaning, each song a base shade of voice colour specific to its needs; such is Kaufmann's ability to inhabit the music's secret spaces that you would understand the poet and composer's message even if you couldn't hear the words, though you always can. Control is vital, and the pacing that goes with it: the long build-up from near-whisper to full-on belt-out beauty in 'Stille Tränen' hit home. Kaufmann is a supremely controlled singer; in the partnership of head and heart, it's the head in the driving seat all the way, with the perfect understanding of how to prompt our hearts.

It's difficult to understand why Henri Duparc's mélodies are not performed in every song recital everywhere in the world, or why he might ever be considered obscure or somehow difficult. The French composer, a friend and contemporary of Fauré's, offers a heady synthesis of sensuality and seamless poise, the music bathed in luminous colour. Deutsch found the light within the richly written textures and Kaufmann the subtle lines and shaping: 'Phidylé' is allowed to sleep undisturbed in a radiant dream until the poet anticipates her kiss with a renewed power, 'Le manoir de Rosamonde' is terse, frightening and verging on the tragic as the poet flees the dog-bite of love and leaves its land undiscovered, and the set is framed with two Baudelaire poems about distant dwellings - 'L'invitation au voyage' and 'La vie antérieure', each evoking an idyllic landscape that is simultaneously within the soul.

A fan presents Kaufmann with a bouquet at the end
Finally to Britten, and if you don't know the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, it's time you did. Britten's settings in Italian, written in America during WW2, prove as expert as his English operas, and while this was a chance for Kaufmann to show his stylish Italian alter-ego, he also showed us how Britten's sensitivity was in its element in those moments of self-discovery, rising from the subconscious to catch the artist off guard, faced with the pain of his own passions. Britten's style occasionally can almost resemble Prokofiev here, especially in the third song, 'Veggio co'bei vostri occhi un dolce lume', which could have stepped out of a slow-motion dream-vision ballet; and Kaufmann again excelled in mezzo voce reflection, narrative and revelation, with heroics saved for when they were most needed, such as the final song, 'Spirto ben nato' - noble soul. Yes, exactly: this singing, this partnership, is noble soul incarnate, in its finest sense - happily, undimmed despite all.

One encore - Strauss's 'Nichts' - but there's plenty more to look forward to in the week ahead, which culminates in that composer's Four Last Songs.

And a good interview with Kaufmann in the Sunday Times, by Lynn Barber, here.


Saturday, February 04, 2017

We need some boys who can sing and dance, please

Alert from Garsington Opera, which is recruiting for Silver Birch, the new "people's opera" by Roxanna Panufnik for which I've written the libretto. We need some boys aged 14-22 whose voices have broken and who can sing or dance. Auditions on 9 March. Performances in July.


We also need:
• some young instrumental players to participate in the orchestra alongside the pros;
• ten members of the armed forces to join the adult chorus;
• four very good child singers to play and understudy the crucial roles of Chloe (aged 9) and Leo (aged 11)

Please see Garsington's info for further details and contact Julian if you'd like to audition. And if you want to see the result, put 28, 29, 30 July in your diaries.

Ravel Museum throws out Dutoit and Argerich

The Belvedere Museum Maurice Ravel. Photo: Ravel Foundation website
Le Figaro has carried an extraordinary report alleging that the Belvedere Museum Maurice Ravel - the composer's former home at Montfort-l'Amaury - has been abruptly closed, following "several incidents". These included, last week, having the police throw out two visitors...who happened to be Charles Dutoit and Martha Argerich.

This is a rough translation of the Figaro article:
"Officially, according to the site of the town hall, [the closure was] due to water damage. In fact, according to our information, the door lock was immediately changed.
"A few hours earlier, on 1 February, one of the mayor's deputies orally thanked and dismissed Mrs Claude Moreau, a friend of conductors from all over the world who had been visiting Ravel's house for three decades. Thousands of letters from all over the world signed by the most important personalities in the world of music attest to the excellence of her services to make the Belvedere not a mere museum but a warm home where it is almost expected that Maurice Ravel returns unexpectedly.
"A few days earlier, on Friday, January 27, two world leaders in music, Charles Dutoit, conductor and Ravel's pianist Martha Argerich, came to visit the Belvedere and were surprised to see the municipal police arrive at the museum.
"A deputy, close to the mayor, furious at having seen them take a picture inside the museum (which the sign does not prohibit) had told the police that a burglary was in progress. Instead of unrolling the red carpet like any other municipality would have done to these exceptional musicians, they were expelled manu militari from the premises.
"These last events add to a long list of dysfunctions. Absence of smoke detectors, burglar alarm not connected to the gendarmerie or a private security station, banning shooting of a small film notified to the very prestigious Chicago orchestra (very shocked, its management protested to the American Embassy Of Paris), ban of filming for the teams of France Television when broke the case of Bolero last year.
[the entry of Bolero into the public domain is a whole other story... - JD]
"Contacted this Friday morning by Le Figaro, the mayor of Montfort-l'Amaury, manager of the museum did not wish to answer. The owner of the place is the RMN, Réunion des Musées Nationaux-Grand Palais. Since last spring, the management of the RMN is worried about the disappearance of movable property and archives of the Ravel museum. Contacted by us this Friday morning, the RNM management specifies that "the custody and management of Ravel's house and its museum have been transferred to the commune of Montfort l'Amaury since 1971 under a 99-year long lease" . Moreover, "this museum, labelled "Musée de France"in 2003, is subject to the scientific and technical control of the Ministry of Culture". What if "Belvedere-gate" was just beginning?"
Terrible to think that this gem of a museum, a place of pilgrimage for so many musicians and music-lovers from all over the world, could be shut down because of what looks like infighting, bureaucracy  and misunderstanding of its cultural significance.

UPDATE: I have corrected a few small but crucial points in the translation above. 'Remercie' in this context means not only 'thanked' but 'dismissed'. So Claude Moreau has effectively been fired. It would appear that the most likely aim of all this is to downgrade the museum. Previously open every day, its hours have already been reduced to weekends plus special arrangements for special visitors by prior appointment during the week. These have to be cleared with the town hall, which according to my source has allegedly refused some requests. Without the attention of Mme Moreau, the museum's future does not look bright.

Another update: For a range of wonderful photos of the place from BBC Radio 3's Sara Mohr-Pietsch, follow this link...

Friday, February 03, 2017

Welcome to Kaufmann Central!



He's back. Presented the other day with the Special 'Victoires de la mystique classique' Award in France, Jonas Kaufmann sang Rota's 'Parla più piano' (aka The Godfather) at the ceremony. This was it.

Now is the winter when my discount tent is pitched on the concrete outside the Barbican Centre. In these grim times we need something to look forward to, and if you happen to be a "Kaufmaniac" the ultimate thing to look forward to is about to happen, right here in sunny London.

Jonas Kaufmann is presented with the Special 'Victories de la musique classique' award in Paris. Photo: Edouard Brane

'Der Jonas' is coming to town for The Kaufmann Residency at the Barbican Centre. Between tomorrow (4 Feb) and Monday week (13th) he is giving three concerts and an open interview. Some of his fans here have been nail-biting a little over the past months while he has been off, recovering from what was apparently a hematoma on a vocal cord. The pessimists among us wondered if the residency would actually go ahead.

The other week, though, Kaufmann made a triumphant return to the stage in Paris as Lohengrin, and there's no sign of fading ambition. A new recording is coming out shortly (UK release in April), in which he sings the whole of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. And in case you haven't heard, news is out that a concert performance of Tristan Act II is planned for New York in April 2018. One hopes that may indicate the ultimate Wagner tenor role sidling gently into the repertoire...

He gave an interview to Paris Match talking about his return to the stage, saying that everything is going rather well.

Vous dites avoir eu encore des soucis de santé. Comment allez-vous ?
Je vais très bien maintenant, ma voix aussi. On a déjà fait des répétitions, tout est impeccable, grâce au temps de repos imposé. Mais ça a été un moment difficile à passer pour moi, d’autant que je ne suis pas quelqu’un de très patient. J’aime vraiment agir, prendre tout en main. Et j’étais là à attendre, sans avoir la possibilité d’accélérer les choses. Personne ne pouvait me dire si ça durerait deux semaines, un mois, deux mois… En quatre mois, l’hématome s’est résorbé. Tout est redevenu normal, les conditions sont donc idéales. Ce n’était pas mon premier choix de recommencer avec “Lohengrin”, même si j’ai déjà tenu le rôle plusieurs fois. Je connais cette production que j’aime beaucoup. Avec cette orchestration de Philippe [Jordan], j’étais sûr qu’il n’y aurait pas de risque. Donc, je suis très content.

Anyway, back to London. Here's what's happening. Everything is sold out, but do try for returns.

4 Feb: Recital with pianist Helmut Deutsch

Schumann Kerner Lieder, Op 35
Duparc
‘L´invitation au voyage’ 
‘Phidylé’ 
‘Le manoir de Rosemonde’ 
‘Chanson triste’ 
‘La vie antérieure’
Britten Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Op 22


8 Feb: Wagner

Wagner Prelude to Tristan und Isolde
Wesendock 
Lieder
Act I from Die WalküreJonas Kaufmann tenor
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Antonio Pappano 
conductor
Karita Mattila soprano
Eric Halfvarson bass


10 Feb, 2pm, Milton Court: In Conversation

Jonas Kaufmann in conversation with young singers at Milton Court. 

Jonas Kaufmann talks to and works with aspiring singers from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama: an unprecedented chance to witness a master-musician discussing the practicalities and fundamentals of his craft in the informal atmosphere of Milton Court.


13 Feb: Strauss, Elgar, Korngold

The Four Last Songs. Yes, they're originally for soprano. Yes, that's just fine. And yes, the programme opens with Korngold's Schuaspiel Overture, which I have never before heard live and certainly not in London, and this requires its own pre-breakfast celebratory somersault.

Korngold Schauspiel OvertureStrauss Symphonic Interlude from Intermezzo, Träumerei am Kamin
Strauss
‘Ruhe meine Seele’
‘Freundliche Vision’ 
‘Befreit’ 
‘Heimliche Aufforderung’
Elgar In the SouthStrauss Four Last SongsJonas Kaufmann tenor
BBC Symphony Orchestra

I am intending to go to the whole lot. For the duration, JDCMB is becoming KAUFMANN CENTRAL. I'll be reviewing the performances, reporting on the conversation and keeping the Kaufmaniacs up to speed on how it's all going. Yes, it's escapism. Yes, I need that and so do a lot of us.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Women conductors: a "provocation"



The Association of British Orchestras has been shaking things up this year and nowhere more so than in the matter of female conductors. James Murphy, managing director of the Southbank Sinfonia, gave a presentation on the issue. 

James tells me: "I’ve had the good fortune to collaborate with a number of fantastic conductors, among them some brilliant women. It’s baffled me (and them) that some of them have not had the same breaks as men, and why our industry seems to be strangely reticent to try and achieve a little more balance in terms of the opportunities each get. I was roused by Alice Farnham’s course established in 2013 and, since then, our players have been part of the workshops she runs. But too often I’ve heard people in the sector imply that her doing that excuses them of doing anything themselves, and I decided to ask the Association of British Orchestras if we could focus on this at a future conference. I got my chance last week where, sandwiched between Chi-chi Nwanoku and Hannah Kendall speaking powerfully about other diversity and inclusion issues, I was granted ten minutes at this year’s conference to share my thoughts on the issue. I chose to do this as a volley of images projected from Powerpoint with some commentary from me as they rolled by. It seemed to go very well, and so I’ve now made a digital version of it so more people can see it online."

Here it is, above. Please have a listen, and a look at those statistics. James nails the chief issues head-on. And you know what? It's good to hear them from a bloke. 

The conference was apparently referring quite copiously to my little list, as James does here - a reference resource with names, brief summaries and web links about women conductors that I published in September 2013 - but it is much need of updating after three and a half years, so do get in touch if there's someone you'd like to add. 

And meanwhile, over in the US, there's this...