If you've been reading JDCMB for a while, you'll know that TODAY'S THE DAY. It's the Winter Solstice, which means it's time for our very own virtual awards ceremony, in which we take a lighthearted look back at the year's peaks and plunges, while Ricki (chocolate silver) and Cosi (silver) present our winners with a special prize purr and let them stroke their luxuriant fur.
Please come in. Welcome to the CyperPoshPlace!
No need to stand on ceremony here. All are welcome. No tickets are checked, no charges made for the cloakroom, and the CyberBubbly, being virtual, is limitless, free to all and won't make you drunk. Just the right degree of pleasantly tipsy, if you so wish.
It's been a...well, I can't remember a year quite like this one. It's tense. Everyone is anxious and exhausted and we still don't know what the heck is going to happen to us all, let alone the music business, in three months' time. We, dear world, are the proud owners of a government that currently seems determined to throw us all over a cliff, below which there are food shortages, medicine shortages, island gridlock, troops on the streets, mass unemployment and a violent economic crash, just to prove that 'Brexit' can be done - when actually it can't. It's like trying to take the vodka out of the martini after it's been shaken and stirred. Good countries do occasionally go mad and learn horrific lessons in the worst possible way. We can't be certain that that's not happening to us now.
Message in a bottle: Britain calling. HELP! Please send chocolate. [PING. yesterday I went to Brussels on Eurostar. Stopped here en route home.]
Right. Now that that's out of the way, let's PARTAAY like it's 2006!
Have a drink, enjoy our cybercanapes, meet and greet the great and famous of many countries and all centuries who have come to celebrate with us. Here's Ludwig, with Josephine on his arm - at last. Here's Anna Magdalena, pulling a grumbling Johann Sebastian away from his work. Over there Robert Schumann is giving Steven Isserlis a hug, and Fryderyk Chopin, holding a flat parcel about the size of a mazurka manuscript, is asking if anyone's seen Alan Walker arriving, please, because he has a gift for him. I personally am going up to embrace Gabriel Fauré before we do anything else... merci, mon cher Monsieur Gabriel, et grand bisous! The rainbow glitter balls are spinning, gold bit-lets are dropping from the ceiling and Ricki and Cosi are ensconced upon their silken cushions, ready to present the prizes.
Quiet, please! Thank you... 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.
The first prize, though, goes to Ricki himself.
BEST CAT: RICKI
Because of everything that happened this year, the very best was that Ricki survived. In April he came down with a terrible infection: pyothorax, which turned into sepsis. We had to rush him to an animal hospital near Luton Airport and nobody really thought he was going to live. He was in there for a week and a half and we had twice-daily reports - some hopeful, others less so, several times asking if we wanted to grant permission for him to be put down if in the night he took a terrible turn for the worse. It was agony. Ricki is the sweetest-natured cat in the whole world, he's my personal most-special-cat-ever, and he wasn't even four years old. Against all the odds, by some miracle, he pulled through. He's now bouncing happily around doing megapurrs and chasing his own tail when he's not chasing his sister or mellowing out on the armchair in my study while I work.
NB: One person wasn't too happy about this: Cosi, whose nose promised to be thoroughly out of joint. She was furious when he came home and she no longer had Sole Cat status. This prize has involved some serious trade-offs including copious quantities of fish.
ICON OF THE YEAR
It's got to be Leonard Bernstein. The year's been bookended by super-Bernstein: Wonderful Town and 'The Age of Anxiety' with Simon Rattle and the LSO back in January was the most fun I've ever had without joining in a conga. Wonderful Town went wonderfully to town. Bravi. And the other weekend I adored hearing Candide live again - one of my big favourites, for all its flaws.
And what an injection of energy this centenary has been: bursting out all over with glorious tunes, snarky, sparkly lyrics, dazzling drama and the musical world's most enormous heart. Here's Lenny himself, with the incomparable Christa Ludwig and castanets, a long way from Rovko-Gubernya - the superbly cutting celebration of internationalism, from Candide.
SINGER OF THE YEAR
Sarah Connolly at the centre of the Brexit protest Photo: EFE (from Las Provincias.es)
Step forward, please, Dame Sarah Connolly! You have been a searing firebrand of inspiration to us all, throwing your weight into anti-Brexit campaigning, and offering a Fricka in the Covent Garden Ring cycle whose power and magnetism makes the whole story turn upon her intervention. Thank you for your glorious singing.
Here's a mesmerising aria from Handel's Ariodante.
ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF THE YEAR
Hello and welcome, dear Kathryn Stott! What a privilege it was to be part of your Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville this summer. (OK, it was winter there, but it sure didn't feel like it.) Being up close in an intensely programmed week of musical festivities that run for round about 12 hours every day, one gets to see how things work, and I soon realised there's nothing you can't do. You put together a programme of glorious variety and dazzling diversity, played a phenomenal range of chamber music under extraordinary pressure, kept cheerful and social and even went paddling at the tropical island concert [above]. Saying Brava Bravissima is not enough. I note that Ricki and Cosi are both letting you do their tummy fur, which is very special and not often permitted.
Come on, play us some Fauré. You know you want to. I have him here in person, ready to cheer you on.
INSTRUMENTALIST OF THE YEAR
Photo: Sasha Gusov
This award goes to Boris Giltburg, partly because I'm furious to have missed two of his recitals this year for different reasons. There's a glut of glorious piano playing out there are the moment, but only a handful of musicians to whose recordings I find I have to listen flat out on the floor with the volume right up and sod what the neighbours think. (Actually, that's not fair, because we have wonderful neighbours.)
After I commented on this, thinking that it was more characteristic behaviour for heavy metal fans, Boris sent me a tweet saying he's a bit of a metal-head himself and recommending some tracks for me to try. I tried Metallica. I loved it. (Yes, there's a genre specially for people who seek all-out-intense virtuoso musical experiences and have long curly hair.) Step up to the podium, please, Boris!
YOUTHFUL ARTIST OF THE YEAR
Fatma Said Photo: from BBC website
Just listen to this Brahms song from the incredible young Egyptian soprano Fatma Said, currently one of the BBC New Generation Artists. What more could I say?! Welcome a thousand times, Fatma!
ARTIST OF THE YEAR
Step up, my wonderful composer colleague and collaborator-in-chief, Roxanna Panufnik, who has been flying high this year, which contained her half-century celebrations. What a joy it was to see her bring the houses down at the Proms and Symphony Hall, with music that is growing, deepening, daring more and more. (You can hear our next joint effort in Baltimore in March, by the way, under the batons of Marin Alsop and Valentina Peleggi...)
Here's Roxanna's 'Unending Love', from her latest album Celestial Bird, sung by Ex Cathedra
AND ONE STUFFED TURKEY
An orchestral director who was in favour of Brexit, despite running an orchestra that depends on carnet-free, visa-free touring and includes members from some 22 nationalities, most of them European. He may have changed his mind for all I know, but it's a bit bloody late now. For shame.
Sharing a stage with Roderick Williams, Siobhan Stagg and the Goldner String Quartet among other wonderful musicians in Australia, for Being Mrs Bach, is something I'll remember all my life with great joy and slight disbelief that it really happened. But it did, and it was great.
I've been working on more librettos since Silver Birch and am delighted with the new youth opera that Paul Fincham and I are writing. It is scheduled for Garsington on 2 August 2019 and it's an adaptation and updating of Wilde's The Happy Prince – to The Happy Princess. Paul has been working in the City for a few decades, but after winning an award for his first film score, he's ditched the day job to get back to his first vocation. In his Cambridge days he was music director of the Footlights, working with the likes of Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie, and I can promise a few very persistent ear-worms are finding their way into the new piece.
More pieces with Roxanna are also in the pipeline, and so is one with another well-established composer whom I greatly admire, but we can't announce it just yet.
I can say, though, that writing librettos is my favourite thing in the whole world and if I'd realised this 20 years ago I'd just have done that to the exclusion of as much as possible else. It's a task that is creative and collaborative - there's nothing lonely about it. It blends words and music to the ultimate degree. And it culminates in a live musical experience so you see people actually responding and you feel the vibration in the theatre. I love love love love love it.
Last but by no means least, Odette made target in June and the next few months were devoted to getting it ready for publication. It's out now, and flying. The blog tour this past week has produced some reviews that collectively show that the book does what I wanted it to do, and after 26 years, it's wonderful to see people enjoying it.
There are always a few, and 2018 was no exception.
There was the time my husband challenged Norman Lebrecht to a duel after the celebrated Slipped Disc blogger took issue with some of the decisions made during the Radio 4 Women's Hour Power List. Glad to say the cats prevented piss-takes at dawn.
There was the other night. For some reason we thought it would be clever to go to Iceland in the dead of winter to see the Northern Lights. We reckoned without the fact that other sightseeing has to be done in the few scant existing daylight hours, and that late-night excursions looking for the Aurora involve standing around for hours in sub-zero temperatures, and we both got sick. We did see the Northern Lights, though - sort of. A kind of grey misty effect on the horizon, with some sparky, starry things jumping about within it. Here's my photo of it.
Otherwise...the whole year's been a bit weird, and I fear the next will be more so.
Good luck, everyone, and solidarity. Let's pull together and try to stop this disaster while we still can. And don't forget the chocolate.
I have flipping' well missed his big birthday concert on Monday at the Wigmore Hall - which included appearances by Simon Keenlyside, András Schiff, Radu Lupu, Ferenc Rados, Josh Bell and Connie Shih - because for some reason we'd thought it would be a good idea to go to Iceland in the middle of December to try and see the Northern Lights... As my Dad used to say, one lives and learns.
Anyway, it was a wonderful excuse to pop up to north London the other week and interview Steven himself. We talked about music, books, cellos, Rabbi Moses Isserles, Schumann, Fauré, Bloch, the perils of curly hair and the Marx Brothers, among much else. You can read the whole thing in the JC, here.
And here's one select story.
His Twitter account makes lively reading, full of hair-raising stories about his travels with his cello. “I was on a Japanese airline, business class — very nice — and I asked the stewardess if she could help make up the bed,” he recounts. “I thought she said: ‘Are you sexy?’ It took me a minute to work out that ‘Yes, I’m in 6C…’”
Here he is in a spot of Fauré": the Romance in A major, Op.69, with pianist Pascal Devoyon.
Vladimir Jurowski's recording of Swan Lake in its original 1877 version - before Drigo got his paws on the score - is an absolute stunner, out now on Pentatone Classics. The State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia 'Evgeny Svetlanov' offers sleek, intense playing, the sound quality is excellent and in Jurowski's hands the dramatic climaxes become utterly hair-raising, almost Wagnerian in their magic and majesty. And in the box there's even a set of instructions for how to fold your own Origami swan.
Swan Lake is the inspiration behind my new book, Odette,in which the ballet's heroine meets the present day head-on. This week Odette has been on a 'blog tour' which has found it termed 'enchanting', 'magical' and 'absolutely unique' (for which I'm extremely grateful and happy.)
I'm delighted to say that Pentatone is offering a copy of Jurowski's splendid Swan Lake recording for our JDCMB Christmas Competition. This is your chance to win a double prize: the CD and a paperback copy of Odette.
For a chance to win, simply answer the following question and email your response to: email@example.com before Christmas Eve, 24 December 2018.
QUESTION:Which ballerina danced the role of Odette/Odile in the world premiere of Swan Lake, at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, on 4 March 1877?
I will put all the correct entries into a hat and the one to be drawn out wins the prize. The winner will be notified by email. The prize will be dispatched when the post office reopens after Christmas.
Don't forget that you can see Swan Lake itself on BBC4 TV on Christmas Day at 7pm. It's the Royal Ballet's gorgeous new production and stars Marianela Nunez and Vadim Muntagirov. More details here.
Much fuss has been caused in the choral world these past few days by a suggestion from Lesley Garrett that it's high time all-male choirs were abolished. Some defenders of the great English choral tradition, in which these have featured since forever, have been up in arms. Others lean strongly towards providing equal opportunities for girls to sing, because at the moment they still miss out, and have done for centuries.
I was somewhat amused by a press release that landed in my in-box the other day in which a famous choral conductor vaunted the importance of keeping choirs all-male, saying - without irony - that boys would lose opportunities to make music if they admit girls (um, what does he think has been happening to women all this time?) and that the choir is defined by its people, after which he lists a number of highly distinguished personages going back to the 19th century, who are of course all men. My instinct is to cheer on Lesley Garrett's opinion. At the same time, though, I know it is really not as simple as perhaps we'd like.
What solutions could we present? One is that every institution that has a boys' choir should also start one for girls - indeed, many have already done so. But Anna Lapwood, a choral conductor and director of music at Pembroke College, Cambridge, has another suggestion. Here's a guest post from her on the topic. JD
The choir of Pembroke College, Cambridge conducted by Anna Lapwood sing Eric Whitacre's Lux Aurumque
I consider myself an advocate for gender equality and for encouraging young woman in choral music. I was the first female Organ Scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford; I was part of an all-male choir; I saw how far we had to go before we could achieve equality.
However, I also eavesdropped on the unique dynamic of an all-male choir. What I saw was mutual respect and support; an environment where the back row understood what it was like to be a chorister, and helped them through it.
Having set up a girls’ choir at Pembroke College, I’ve observed the wonderful dynamic that comes from an all-female choir too: not only the shared singing, but a shared understanding of getting your ears pierced for the first time, or braces, or periods. A girls’ choir like ours, or the choirs at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge and Merton College, Oxford, provide an opportunity for a non-linear educational experience, in which children seven years apart can come together to make music. This is unique, and it’s important.
I have worked with numerous treble lines made up of boys; I have watched them perform as professional musicians to thousands of people without batting an eyelid. I’ve also watched them turn into quivering messes when they’re talking to a girl they fancy. The issue, in my mind, is not one of the sound of the voices; the voices of young boys and girls are both wonderful, and should be celebrated. The issue is one of social implications.
Research has shown that boys sing better in an all-male environment, in which it is totally normal to love singing, and do it every day. I fear that if we were to mix the treble line, the boys would lose confidence.
Choral conductor Suzi Digby did an experiment several years ago, creating two parallel after-school classes. One was mixed with 12 girls and 12 boys, and the other was all boys. At the end of two years, both groups had grown to have over 40 singers, and yet there were only two boys left in the mixed class. It’s not a huge step from boys losing confidence to giving up entirely.
Anna Lapwood conducting the girl choristers at Pembroke
Losing boy choristers completely is something I feel would be a great loss for both the choral world and the wider world of classical music. The education of a chorister is gruelling; in addition to the busy life of a school child, he or she is expected to rehearse every morning and sing Evensong almost every day.
It is this education that produces the lay-clerks of tomorrow, and more recently-formed girls’ choirs are now providing this opportunity for females; daily familiarity with the rhythm and repertoire of choral worship is one of the most important aspects of a chorister’s education.
If, as has been suggested, girls were to sing half the services in a place such as King’s, this education would be diluted for both the boys and the girls. We’ve made huge progress in the past 20 years, creating more and more opportunities for girls in choral music, and yet we’ve still not achieved equality. In my mind, there is only one way to do this: a choir needs to be set up with an all-female treble line, singing with male and female lower parts. This would be a choir where girls would sing six services a week; a choir where girls would receive the full educational scholarship of a chorister. This would be a step towards equality.
I have absolutely no doubt that we need to generate more opportunities for girls in choral music. However, these opportunities should be in addition to the ones available to boys, not a call to abolish all-male choirs altogether.
Last week I went north of the river to interview Steven Isserlis about a certain big birthday he has this month, to be celebrated with some close friends on stage at the Wigmore Hall (and more, of course - results in the JC soon). On my way out, I met another Isserlis going in: Steven's son, Gabriel. A few weeks ago Gabriel launched a new scheme called Tutti to help musicians find rehearsal space when and where they need it. Given the headache that such things cause - even finding somewhere to practise the piano can turn into a student's worst nightmare, as I well remember - this seems an absolutely inspired idea. It functions like Airbnb: those with space can sign up to offer it and musicians who need it can sign up to book in. The crucial thing at the moment is: if you have a space to offer musicians, please sign up NOW, using the links below. Here's Gabriel himself to tell us more about it, after an energising Schumann treat from dad and Dénes Várjon.
My family have been in music for generations. I like to say that before I learned English, I learned the language of music. I have always been surrounded by music: at home, on family holidays, my family even performed chamber music as part of our Christmas celebrations.
However, as much joy as music brings, I was always very aware of the less wonderful side of it: the challenges it produces for people who dive in full time. After a brief decade, trying to escape the music in my blood, I gave in and returned, albeit from a different angle. During that time, I had trained in visual arts, audio engineering, and programming, and decided to combine my knowledge and passions into one.
I spent over a year analysing the different issues that plague musicians, listening to my friends and family talk about all the frustrations they experience. Throughout that time, a number of key issues were most apparent but only one of them sparked a twinkle in every eye when I shared my potential solution: “AirBnB for Rehearsal Spaces.” That simple idea has grown into Tutti and has so much potential ahead of it – we’re just getting started.
We just launched our very first version a few weeks ago: beta.tutti.space and we have already had a couple bookings come through. We just need people to list their spaces if interested. No one can book your space without your approval – if a musician attempts to book your space, you will be notified immediately and have 3 days to accept or reject the request. If you list your space before 2019, we will provide a photographer to come round to your venue and take quality photos, free of charge. Go to beta.tutti.space and click “List a Space” in the top right, or email firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions/need any help.
I’ve just had a terrific Skype chat with the young Russian violinist Alena Baeva, ahead of her London debut at the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday. She and I have a little Schumann-related project together in June in Oxford and it’s splendid to get to know her. Here she is, talking about her turbulent background in central Asia, her first-rate musical training, her passion for historical recordings and all we can learn from them, and a few particularly wonderful concertos…
JD: Alena, you’ve recently been playing a very special piece in Katowice to mark 100 years of Polish independence…
AB: It was a major event for me because I’d wanted to play the Karlowicz Concerto for a long time. It’s hardly played anywhere but Poland, which is a pity because it’s a great piece. It’s quite difficult! Someone brought it for me to play in a masterclass in Poland and I was fascinated. I’m happy we did it this summer.
JD: Where are you from and where did you grow up?
AB: That’s the most difficult question! I can’t say one place I’m from. I was born in Kyrgistan, by chance because my parents’ parents were sent to work there - they were sent to random places in the Soviet Union. I lived in my grandmother’s small house with a garden the first five years, which was a very happy time. Then civil war broke there and I remember we were hiding underneath the storage in the basement. I don’t remember many things about it, but my dad, when there was the first possibility to take a plane, he sent us to Almaty in Kazakhstan because his mother lived there at the time. We came to her because we had no other place to live and we were there for another five years. I started to learn the violin there.
Almaty is a very special place for me, because I was at an important age when you start to discover the world around you. People there are so warm, so nice and so kind. I missed this a lot when we moved to Moscow when I was 10. The violin was going so well and I needed some education to go and study somewhere so my parents chose Moscow because of great Soviet school of playing. I entered the Central Music School, which was a big contrast. Moscow is somehow more than a metropolis.
JD: Who was your main teacher?
AB: I was studying from the age of 10 with Eduard Grach, an accomplished violin player and student of Yampolsky – a great, great school. I continued studying with him at the Moscow Conservatory, so it was for 12 years! When I was 16-17, I started to seek some other ideas and influences too. It was thanks to Mstislav Rostropovich, who supported talented children in Moscow. He had a foundation and he sent me to Paris to study. This was a whole big change because it was too late to enter the Conservatoire, but his French friends organised private lessons. I lived in the house of his good friends who are fantastic people and became my French family. It was so enriching just to be with them and discover this great country and great culture. I was staying several months of the year and it was in Chartres, a fantastic place with a rose garden, just in front of the cathedral - a dream! Now I appreciate it even more than I did before.
I had lessons there with Boris Garlitsky, a Russian violinist who had moved more than 20 years before to Europe and became a very European style of musician - it was so helpful to study Mozart and Brahms with him. It was such a change from old-style Russian School teaching with big sound, big vibrato and big emotion all the time. It was quite opposite, what I learned from Boris, so that was very important for me. And going to concerts and exhibitions, I fell in love with everything French! I connected to the French language and the French style of life - they can enjoy life so well, better than many people…
JD: And you’ve settled eventually in Luxembourg?
AB: I really wanted to move to a French-speaking place! So I ended up here eight years ago. It’s easy to remember because it was three weeks before giving birth to my daughter. I didn’t really care about what was a good moment to move, I just kept going! She is eight now and my son is ten. It’s a very good base - calm, beautiful, central and efficient. The airport and train station are very close, especially compared to Moscow, where the way to the airport takes longer than the flight!
JD: Which violinists have you most admired?
AB: It was changing all the time, I had my favourites every month! Most things I discovered on CDs at the time because there was no Youtube and not many people used to come to play concerts in Moscow. I remember my father presented me with a Michael Rabin box of CDs: that was fantastic - he’s not as known as he deserved to be. I was in love with Menuhin for a long time. And what is most important, I think, is the variety of expression, the different languages performers and composers speak to us: it’s impossible to be stuck with something. Like life itself, it continues and changes.
JD: You’re quite a recording buff?
AB: I am lucky to know a great collector of old 78s in Paris who happens to be my ex-uncle-in-law. He’s a fantastic person and every time I go to Paris I try to see him and listen because there are such treasures, unknown and unpublished recordings. One of many impressions I had was from the Casals Festival in Prades: a live performance of Christian Ferras playing Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in the church and you can hear a thunderstorm outside. The C major fugue – I never heard anything like that on the violin!
JD: This Wednesday, 5 December, you have your debut with the LPO and Vladimir Jurowski, playing Tchaikovsky...
AB: I’m so much looking forward to that! I learned the concerto when I was 14 and since then I have played it regularly, as it is one of the best concertos ever written for violinists, one of the most masterful and perfect pieces. With Vladimir Jurowski it’s a very special story because we met first several years ago when we worked on the Strauss concerto, which was v interesting. Then we played Tchaikovsky in Moscow and we had three hours of rehearsal with orchestra which is itself a luxury, but especially for this concerto and the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra. It was the way only Vladimir can make it: totally different way than what I was doing before, and it was incredible to feel these new connections which make the phrases and the whole mood sound totally different. I like very much his idea of this concerto, which is that it’s not so heavy, as stuffed and middle of 20thcentury in style. It’s closer to Mendelssohn. That’s exactly what I feel about this piece too - it’s very light. The second movement is very intimate, but not going too deep. It all finds resolution in the tempos we take & the accents we try to make. So I very much look forward to discovering it with LPO.
JD: What’s your violin?
AB: A Guarneri del Gesù, a wonderful instrument of 1738, and it’s a whole new world to discover. It’s very interesting to see how much you can observe and learn from the instrument - I still don’t understand how that works. I was playing a modern instrument previously, also a wonderful instrument which got lots of compliments and I really enjoyed playing it. But the Guarneri somehow has something bigger. It’s really a mystery how time and the violinists who have played it before do change it. This violin was discovered relatively recently and has not had many owners, but still it’s very rich. It is lent to me by a private sponsor who wished to stay anonymous - he’s a fantastic person and I’m grateful to get to know him.
AB: His playing is very special for me. We were in the conservatory studying at almost the same time and for our first sonata together he suggested Beethoven No. 10, one of the most complex sonatas ever written! I learned so much from him, first of all because he’s a great musician and for a teenage violinist when we started to play it was very important, because violinists especially in the early years are obsessed with practising and have to invest so much time… so this was a whole new world. We’ve played together for more than 12 years already.
JD: In June, you and I are working together - hooray! We’re doing a concert with the Oxford Philharmonic called The Ghosts of War, in which I’ll narrate the story of Jelly d’Arányi and you are the soloist in the Schumann Violin Concerto. Tell us about the concerto - what’s it like to perform? How do people respond to it?
AB: Since I first played the Schumann, I’ve tried to schedule it everywhere I can, which was not as simple as with Tchaikovsky! But I’m playing it several times before Oxford and I’m very much looking forward to that.
The most common answer when I suggest programming the concerto is ‘Oh, the public doesn’t like it so much’… but that’s absolutely not true, because also important is the way it’s played, because it is so personal and so intimate.
There are some most precious moments in the concerto - the second movement I adore, and going up to the third movement, it’s absolute magic. I think the fact that it’s not being accepted as it deserves to be is just because it’s not being heard much. That’s the only reason. It can be difficult to find the balance with the tempi, but it is possible. I’m convinced that at that time performances involved much more natural changes of rubato and a much more natural flow which makes much more sense in the finale and in Schumann in general. Of course he was improvising a lot, but I don’t think we should consider his pieces improvisations, especially the later ones: it’s very well thought and well shaped music, and he managed to find such a spare means of expression to express so much emotion. It’s a miracle.
JD: The metronome marks are quite controversial…
AB: The finale makes sense when you swing it a little bit. Obviously it’s a polonaise, but it makes most sense when you don’t play it too strictly, in terms of movement. And of course I think it should be natural: if something is written unplayable, you can take it and bring sense to it, and that’s how I’m trying to manage this concerto. I think the tempi should be taken into consideration, but you can also change the tempo within the movement. If you listen to how Auer played this melody of Tchaikovsky… the old recordings were so much more free - it was like talking, like a conversation. I also heard a CD included in a book called How to Play Brahms, which had recordings of Brahms symphonies, the same excerpts with the same Berlin orchestra every 10 years - from the 1910s, 20s, 30s, 40s, and it’s absolutely shocking how much it changed. The early recordings had a flow like a flock of birds flying - it’s hypnotising, this feeling of time. Gradually over the decades it was more and more squared within time and slowed down. This can give us a thought about how to better play it. And before, the composers were so much more open to the performers…
JD: Alena, thank you so much for making time to talk. See you on Wednesday, and toitoitoi!
In today's Sunday Times I've rounded up six of the best classical music books of the year. Somehow 2018 was a bumper year for big, fat, beautiful ones - I've been ploughing through massive tomes on such figures as Chopin, Schumann, Debussy, Boulez, Handel and much more. I don't mind telling you that my top choices are headed by Alan Walker's magisterial new biography of Chopin. The other five cover a spread of different music, topics and approaches. I am very sorry that I had to leave out at least four others that really deserve inclusion. For some reason, it is not often that so many significant not-purely-academic and not-schlock books about classical music emerge in one year, and I hope this signals the fact that there's a real demand out there for fantastic writing on the subject.
The new book arrived by van yesterday: a sleek plum-purple volume with white feathers and broken glass around gold lettering on the front cover. Still can't quite believe it's real. (Nor, from the look of them, could the cats - but they were more interested in playing with the cardboard box when I'd emptied it.)
ODETTE in numbers:
1 - beloved Tchaikovsky ballet
1 - rather off-the-wall idea
4 - main characters: Mitzi Fairweather, her brother Harry, her landlord Robert, and Odette herself
2 - scary birds
1 - imaginary town named Cygnford, vaguely modelled on Cambridge
26 - years to write
1002(approx) - revisions over those 26 years
153 - supporting patrons via Unbound
72,000 or so - words
Lost count of - publishers who turned it down saying, 'ooh, it's a bit quirky for us'
Not going to tell you - age I was when I started it and age I am now
50:50 - proportion of relief to terror now that it's done.
Some years back Roxanna Panufnik was asked to write a choral work mixing the Latin Mass with a selection of Estonian poems. The result was Tallinn Mass: Dance of Life, in which the Latin Mass movements were interspersed with Estonian poems. Her big dream thereafter was to create a Polish equivalent. Now it's here, and its title is Faithful Journey. The piece is the latest in a massive year for her - no better way to celebrate her half-century - so I asked her a few questions about it, and you can hear an extract and preview in the CBSO video above. The oratorio is a co-commission from the CBSO and the Polish Radio Orchestra and had its world premiere earlier this month in Katowice. It will be heard for the first time in the UK at Symphony Hall Birmingham on 21 November, with soprano Mary Bevan and the CBSO and Chorus conducted by Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla (her first concert back from maternity leave). I'll be off to hear it. Roxanna writes:
2018 could not pass without my marking it in the most significant way I could. I wanted to celebrate both the centenary of Poland’s becoming an Independent State and my own first half century of life with a meaningful tribute to my Anglo-Polish roots. Hence, this oratorio – settings of some of Poland’s finest poets of the last hundred years, in Polish and English, framing a Latin Mass and incorporating traditional Polish folk music and its sometimes soulful, sometimes quirky, elements. Over the summer of 2017 I listened to five hundred and thirty-eight tracks of Polish folk music and you will hear my very favourite eight in this piece.
I have chosen a Polish poem to represent an historical moment from each decade of the last century, with the final one looking, with hope, to the future with a prayer for peace.
Because I am half English and half Polish (physically and legally, having been given Polish Citizenship in 2017) all the poems are performed in both languages simultaneously – the soprano soloist singing in one language and the choir accompanying her with key words from the other. The Mass text remains in universal Latin.
RP: It's an oratorio, marking a centenary of Poland’s re-Independence after WWI. JD: How did the commission come about? RP: The concept was my idea (modelled on something similar I did for Tallinn Philharmonic when Tallinn was European Capital of Culture). I also wanted to do something really profound and significant to mark my half centenary this year and my new Polish citizenship. JD: What does the title signify? RP: It’s taken from the last poem “Save me, Guide me, faithful Journey” but I think beautifully sums up the journey of faith (religious and secular) driving Poles through tumultuous times. JD: I know the piece is deeply meaningful to you and you’ve been wanting to write such a work for a long time. Did that emotional weight, the sense of e.g. “here’s my dream piece, finally going onto the page...” affect you at all when you were actually writing the music? RP: I spent so long researching the texts and the Polish folk music that once I started writing it felt very organic and every part of my heart and soul has gone into this. JD: You’ve set the words of the Latin Mass many times before. Do you have somehow to "clear out” the echoes of the others in order to create a new version? If so, how do you do that? RP: Because I was starting with Polish folk songs for the Mass part I don’t need to “eject” any previous music I’d written! JD:How close do you feel to the Poland’s musical culture and how is that reflected in this work? RP: Poles express themselves culturally through 110% emotion - that’s me, too! JD: Your father’s escape from Communist Poland was very dramatic and dangerous, and its echoes must have had a major impact on you as you grew up - could you tell us something about that, please? Is there a sense of coming full circle now, or is it more a matter of fresh perspective from 2018 with the Brexit negotiations in, er, the state they're in. RP: I didn’t really understand what he had gone through, when I was a child, and it’s only in recent years when I’ve had my own children that I’ve really begun to be able to imagine what it must be like trying to look after vulnerable loved ones in times of great danger. When ever I am scared of something, I think about his courage - and it rubs off on me. JD: How did you choose the texts for Faithful Journey? RP: I worked with two translators who had worked extensively with Polish poetry - we discussed what I wanted from each poem (which depicts a historical or atmospheric moment in time, each decade since 1918) and they’d source poems for me to choose from. JD: The Polish language is rather challenging [Faithful Journey is sung in Latin, Polish and English, sometimes the latter two simultaneously]. How have you dealt with it? RP: Well, I speak a little and therefore have a headstart with pronunciation and prosody - I had hoped it would help my grasp of its impossible grammar but I’m still waiting…! JD: This has been quite a year for you: this piece, the Last Night of the Proms commission, the CD ‘Celestial Bird’ being received with open arms, and of course the after-echoes of Silver Birch (Garsington Opera, 2017). Where to next? RP: Bed - I’m exhausted! But it has been brilliant and my next ambition is to write a full-length EPIC opera!
Faithful Journey by Roxanna Panufnik is at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, on Wednesday 21 November. Tickets here. Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light - an extract from Roxanna's piece for the Last Night of the Proms
Today, as Theresa May unveils her Brexit deal at cabinet and rumours of a likely no-confidence vote are running rife, Dame Sarah Connolly, the great British mezzo-soprano - the Fricka to end all Frickas in the Royal Opera's Ring cycle this autumn - has sent me her powerful thoughts about Brexit, the UK's pitiful government and the implications for the music business and, in particular, music education in this country. She puts forward persuasive and, to me, indubitable reasons for a new People's Vote to save us from Brexit. I personally consider Brexit the single biggest act of mendacious folly perpetrated by a state against its own people in a European nation since the building of the Berlin Wall, so I am absolutely delighted to run this important piece. It's strong stuff. Get yourself a stiff brandy and read every wise, furious word. JD
Why we stand to lose our leading place on the world stage
“Fuck Business” he said. Presumably Boris Johnson meant all business, including the one I’m in? The one that brings in £4.4 billion in music revenues. The one that is being devalued by the government’s education department by dismissing all arts subjects from EBACC. The one where Russell Group universities claim Arts A levels are not facilitating subjects for general application to university. The one that earns the UK many of the greatest acting, singing, dancing, artistic accolades in the world.
We desperately need a People’s Vote with remaining in the EU an option on the ballot paper and No Deal not an option, as we stand to lose our leading place on the world stage. The next generation here in the UK is in real danger of being excluded from working, living and studying abroad. While many of us train in the UK at our world class conservatoires, many thousands of American and foreign students are no longer coming to study here which will have a severe impact on the institutions. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-45398634
It doesn’t take a genius therefore to see that with our dwindling arts education and lack of uptake of foreign students, the work opportunities for musicians within the UK will be much lower than it is already. So we need work in Europe and have done happily for decades, until now.
The business of freelancing is complex and is indeed being shafted by those with little interest in, or knowledge of how this process in Europe actually happens. Our world class orchestras also look to European touring for income stream and profile raising, with the added benefit that they are brilliant ambassadors for Britain. Visa restrictions and complex paperwork will endanger this business stream. The idea of a monetised artists’ visa based on income is hugely discriminatory. We are regressing instead of progressing as I believe working visas put up physical, financial and psychological barriers which would skew the great European collaboration in the arts where our contribution is very significant.
GF Handel: as international as it gets.
Born in Germany, settled in England,
composer of Italian operas and French overtures. Picture by Benedikt Kobel
We singers are a slightly different breed as our instruments are inside us (!) but we depend upon consistently good vocal, physical and mental health. We spend a lot of time standing on chilly train station platforms at all hours and in air-conditioned airports so we often fall prey to colds and coughs. Eleventh hour stand-ins are very common in many industries including classical music, especially within Europe. The vast majority of musicians are freelancers, used to packing their instruments and heading off, sometimes at very short notice to all corners of the world. A few years ago, I stood in at a moment’s notice for Mahler’s Second Symphony in Leipzig for the opening of the famous Gewandhaus orchestra’s Mahler festival. My agent phoned me to say that the great maestro Riccardo Chailly had asked for me to come immediately to Leipzig and replace the ailing singer. It was a really big honour which had me checking flights within a minute, but if paperwork and visa issues had been a problem then like many American singers, I wouldn’t even have been considered, because visas cover specific jobs that need prior notification. At least they do when we work in America. In hindsight, to have missed out on this opportunity would have been a great loss to my career. I have returned many times and it has helped build my reputation in Germany and everywhere else in Europe since this concert was globally live-streamed and recorded for DVD. Boris’s irresponsible callous insult made me very afraid as well as mortified. The business of the arts is already under siege here in the UK with arts education being axed and local authorities unable to ring fence money for Music Hubs. In Europe, my musical colleagues cannot understand the monumental self-harm we are inflicting upon ourselves. British homegrown art and artists are hugely appreciated in Europe, and I notice that knowledge and arts education in general is in a healthier state in Europe by comparison.
You, dear reader may not care for music or any form of the arts in particular and may struggle to find empathy for us given that one in five people live in poverty in the UK, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Indeed the Musician’s Union says only 13% of full-time musicians can expect to earn more than £16k, yet this government expects artists to earn possibly double that before earning the right to acquire an EU visa. The vile experience of queueing at 8am on the pavement in all weathers outside the American Embassy for a work permit every time I get a contract in the US (every application costs me and the arts organisation hiring me hundreds of pounds) is not something anyone would choose to do, in order to work in Europe. I also have to hand over my passport for at least two weeks while it is processed. Can you imagine the logistical nightmare of this happening to a busy orchestra, a theatre or dance troupe, a choir, a film crew, etc? I remember the time before we had rights to work in Europe when often the complications resulted in lost opportunities. What about the EHIC? If you haven’t used one, or don’t even know about it like David Davis, https://jonworth.eu/brexit-european-health-insurance-card-ehic-known-unknowns/ and are pro Brexit, why are you slicing away vital privileges?
So the whole of the pipeline of all our business in Europe is challenged existentially by Brexit, but the people making decisions/deals will not see the consequences immediately. It will take a generation to fix it if they do not ameliorate the situation by placing appropriate priority on Arts Education in early and middle years...seeing and believing in the holistic impacts and benefits it has on our future generations and business prospects. And by the way, not just practising artists, but also the talent coming up for Arts Administration will be compromised.
What about related businesses that will suffer? -- Computer Gaming (all the music for that and creativity which is huge at present in the UK) -- Advertising (jingles and creatives) -- Marketing -- Film Music (Huge...we will be outpriced)
As I mentioned earlier, our future British talent is massively at risk by this government’s short-sighted lack of investment in arts education and creating barriers. I’m worried that arts organisations in Europe will not bother hiring young inexperienced singers due to the extra paperwork and cost and vice versa. My years as a fledgling singer with Philippe Herreweghe, arguably the greatest conductor of Bach’s music, in Belgium and Holland and with William Christie, the much celebrated Baroque Opera harpsichordist and conductor, in Paris has underpinned all that I now bring to Baroque opera performance. Would their managers have taken a chance with an unknown Brit like me if such obstacles stood in their way? Most orchestras are barely making a profit, so can we all afford to pay for visas each time we have contracts abroad? But what about musicians and artists joining UK based international arts festivals like WOMAD or in Edinburgh or Glyndebourne? Those who bring to our shores “unique ways of looking at things” (Daniel Barenboim, music director of the Berlin State Opera and Berlin Staatskapelle).
Our integration with European language and culture is integral to who we are as musicians and singers, and as British Europeans. The same can be said for anyone whose work is closely allied to European countries. The speech given at the 2017 BBC Proms by Daniel Barenboim was visionary and extremely important. Here are several quotes. “There is not enough education about whom we are, what is a human being, and how is he to relate to others of the same kind. The musical profession is the only one that is not national. No German musician will tell you he will only play Brahms, Schumann and Beethoven. This isolation and nationalism in its narrowest sense is something very dangerous. Europe is a place for diverse culture, for different cultures, different ways of looking at things and can only be done with education.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PmBDKk6YlF0&t=3s
Shared culture through education: Daniel Barenboim Photo: Paul Schirnhofer / DG
To counter some of the hideous xenophobia currently being given free rein of expression, my own experience of cultural diversity from visiting musicians is this: they enrich our lives, expand our musical horizons, appeal to the heart and inspire the soul to seek more of the same, and by doing so, we accept and know each other more willingly, almost by stealth. This is what Daniel Barenboim is getting at: understanding through education and enriching shared culture. Jacob Rees Mogg was rightly lambasted by Sir Nicholas Hytner for misunderstanding how the German composer Georg Friedrich Händel was permitted to work in England claiming he didn’t need a passport to come here, (they didn’t exist) but he omitted to mention that an Act of Parliament was passed in 1727 allowing Händel to earn a salary as a composer for George I. Was this ignorance or malicious omission? Either is depressing but both are practiced by Brexiter politicians with alarming regularity. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2018/oct/12/brexit-is-black-cloud-for-uk-arts-says-nicholas-hytner-national-theatre Händel was one of the first true Europeans: born in Germany, worked in Italy and London, wrote Italian operas and French overtures. (see illustration. The drawing is by Benedikt Kobel.)
Remaining a member of the EU means that we will continue to grow as a nation, offering the next generation easier and free exchange of ideas for the next generation of performers, scientists, managers, writers, parents, teachers and all those who benefit our economy and respect in the world. It’s time to think again. We need a People’s Vote with remaining in the EU an option on the ballot paper and No Deal not an option, in order to stop a gross act of self harm on the cultural and economic pulse of this nation.
Dame Sarah Connolly CBE, Doc.h.c Nottingham Trent University, FRSA, FRCM, is a mezzo-soprano was made a Dame in 2017 for services to music. sarah-connolly.co.uk