Sunday, July 15, 2018

'Silver Birch' is in the SWAP'ra Gala!



I've done an interview for SWAP'ra, the new charity which aims to change the opera world to make it more user-friendly, all round, for women and parents.

Support for Women And Parents in Opera will be holding an inaugural gala concert at Opera Holland Park on 31 July consisting of extracts from operas famous and less so, in which all the performers and directors are female (though some of the composers, like Mozart and Strauss, were blokes...). Much to our delight, they're also including a scene from Roxanna Panufnik's and my Silver Birch - Anna's aria, in which she tells her son Jack that she will never let him risk his life. Helen Sherman plays our heroine and our original director, Karen Gillingham, will stage it. To my intense frustration, I won't be there. I have no objection to visiting Australia this summer, but I'm sorry to miss Silver Birch's first extract to be performed in London.

The full gala line-up is here. Do go along - there's treat upon treat upon treat, culminating with the Trio from Der Rosenkavalier starring Janis Kelly, Diana Montague and Mary Bevan, conducted by Jessica Cottis. Booking here.


Taster of my interview is below, and there are lots of other hard-hitting, tell-it-like-it-is interviews with the stars of the gala on the SWAP'ra website.

So many of the staple operas and repertoire are stories and music written by men. Why do you think this is, and do you think that a composer’s/librettist’s gender has any bearing on the kind of music she/he writes?

Much of this is historic. Let’s not forget that at present we are celebrating only 100 years of any British women having had the right to vote! Most of the world’s staple diet of opera is older than that; inevitably, women were not often able to be part of the creative teams as their fathers had to have accorded them a suitable musical education and their husbands had to permit their continuation of career (yuck) (but some did, and hooray for them). Plenty of works by women are crying out for rediscovery and they are now starting to be noticed. If more women composers are to be explored and resuscitated, it will also take the involvement of opera’s administrative framework to find, champion and stage them. It’s easier to get audiences into well-known pieces (though Silver Birch was totally sold out ☺ ) and it’s easy for operatic organisations to be…well, maybe a little bit lazy in this regard.

Does a composer/librettist’s gender have any bearing on the music? No. To prove it, try listening blind. I heard some songs recently by a composer named Poldowski and was impressed by their invention, their tremendous energy, their vivid colours and their beauty, and wondered why I’d never heard of him before. Then I looked him up. Turns out he was a she. ‘Poldowski’ was the pseudonym of Irène Wieniawska, later Lady Dean Paul, daughter of Henryk Wieniawski. She’s amazing.


SWAP’ra Supporting Women and Parents in Opera – was established in response to a collective frustration with the unconscious gender bias in the industry. The ultimate aim is to foster an environment in which a female CEO, Music Director, Artistic Director, Conductor, Composer or Librettist is no longer noteworthy.
The founders – Sophie Gilpin, Ella Marchment, Anna Patalong, Madeleine Pierard, and Kitty Whately – will address the gender imbalance in opera by encouraging best practice strategies for diversity and inclusivity, and effect industry-wide positive change by working to dismantle barriers for women and parents in leadership positions and senior artistic roles. Acting in an advisory capacity, SWAP’ra will work alongside a range of organisations to develop projects and schemes to further support or nurture female artistic talent.
Funds raised by this inaugural SWAP’ra gala will enable the organisation to make significant change in the industry. For more information, please visit the website: www.swap-ra.org

Friday, July 13, 2018

Slippery storytelling

Lauren Zolezzi as Nuria, Grant Doyle as Enric
Photo: Julian Guidera

I've been twice to see The Skating Rink at Garsington, the new opera they have commissioned from composer David Sawer and librettist Rory Mullarkey. Reviewing it is not my plan, as I'm a bit close to the place since Silver Birch last year and have some more projects in the pipeline, including a new piece for the Youth Company with composer Paul Fincham for 2019. I can say, though, that I found it enormously impressive, often very beautiful - the skating music and the snowy conclusion in particular - and, on balance, touching and engaging, more so than certain other highly-lauded recent operas I could mention. I hope it will have a long and happy life in the opera houses of many companies and countries hereafter.

If there's a problem, though, it's the narrative style and I suspect that might account for some of the reviews that found it a bit, er, icy. The opera is based on a novel by Roberto Bolano, set on the Costa Brava, in which the same story - the murder of an unfortunate down-and-out singer, Carmen - is told through the different eyes of several implicitly unreliable narrators. As it unfolds, we build up a picture of the hierarchies involved and the way that love, supposedly a private matter, can impact upon the fates of others. "Love is a rebel bird," says Carmen - well, she would, wouldn't she? The clinching image at the conclusion shows us what the ice rink really is: a better world, away from all that squalor and distress, where perhaps we could all be our happiest and best selves.

Yet preserving the novel's approach creates a special set of problems. First of all, each narrator tells his story in the past tense, while it is being acted in front of us. So, when the body of Susan Bickley as Carmen is lying on stage in a "thick black sea" of blood, our narrator tells us: "It was the singer". He could have run to her, tried to wake her, described how he feels - the shock, the pity, the terror - but no. He just tells us who it was, but we already know because we can see her. You get my drift.

Meanwhile, characters with whom we've engaged early on - Gaspar, the drifting would-be poet (Sam Furness, on splendiferous form) and his passion for the unfortunate addict Caridad (equally splendid Claire Wild), begin at the centre of our world and fade to the edges; Remo Moran (excellent Ben Edquist) gives his viewpoint, yet is never quite sympathetic or rounded out; and our real hero, Enric, does not emerge until the second half.

I'm concerned about this first of all because I'm not sure how you'd get around any of this when fashioning a piece out of a story told in that structure, but also because my Bach show for Townsville (on 1 August) is basically narrated as a flashback so that I don't have to convince anyone that I'm 20 at the beginning. On the other hand, nobody gets murdered (even though I have my doubts about Bach's quackish eye surgeon, John Taylor of London...). One wants it to be convincing, but how much does the past tense interfere when your audience is living the drama in the present? We'll see.

The opera's finest moments are when the narration has stopped and the action enters both real time and inner worlds. Enric's dream of skating, with an ungainly double in the same brown suit and pink shirt sliding about on the rink to the manner born, is sweet and touching; the party scene in which the mayor, Pilar (an imperious Louise Winter) rumbles Enric's embezzlement of funds for the rink while they dance raises the temperature in a valuable way.

The performance is absolutely top-notch, with wonderful contributions from the whole cast: Susan Bickley is outstanding as singer-turned-down-and-out Carmen, Alan Oke (come on, chaps, this guy should have national treasure status!) as her whispering, drawling, howling lover, Rookie, and Grant Doyle as Enric, the plump official whose life - and occasionally figure - is turned upside-down by his love for the Olympic skater Nuria Mari (a convincing joint performance by Alice Poggio as the skating Nuria and Lauren Zolezzi as the singing one). Garry Walker conducts an orchestra stuffed with interesting sounds including a Chilean charango, soprano saxophone and euphonium, plus an off-stage marching band.

But for me, the most touching thing of all was to see, among the onstage silent extras - a chorus that never sings - several very familiar faces from Silver Birch. David, who was the Warden at the beginning and walked the dog in the army desert scene (hey, Skating Rink company, didn't you find a role for Sam's Labrador, Poppy?); Bev, who came into our production among our hard-won military recruits; and Sheila, who had fallen on hard times, had never imagined she'd set foot on a stage and found that being part of the adult community chorus helped her turn her life around. How wonderful that they are back for more!

Some tickets remain for the final two performances - do go if you can. It's beautiful and haunting.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Hysteria: a guest post

Delighted to give the floor today to the BAFTA-award winning composer Jocelyn Pook, who tells us about Hysteria: A Song Cycle for Singer and Psychiatrist which premieres this Saturday 14 July at 7.30pm at Hoxton Hall (tickets here). Fasten your seatbelt: this is strong stuff.


Jocelyn Pook
Photo: Zoran S Pejic

I am fascinated by the power of the mind, the power of thought and the power of emotion to trigger a chemical reaction in the body. It is a point where the unconscious takes over and the body reacts of its own volition with a physical symptom.

So when the Wellcome Trust asked 10 artists including me to respond to the subject of Hysteria and psychosomatic disorders, it sparked 2 years of research resulting in the premiere this Saturday of my new work Hysteria:  A Song Cycle for Singer and Psychiatrist. Our brief from the Wellcome Trust was to pair up with a medical professional and I was lucky to work with the French psychiatrist Dr Stephanie Courtade. Stephanie has an unusually open, compassionate, humorous and perhaps at times unorthodox approach. As a result it was a fascinating process for me, resulting in the work occasionally veering off into quite unexpected directions.

I am constantly surprised by how many people around me have been afflicted by these conversion disorders.  Hysteria is an irksome and outdated term previously a preserve of female disorders in the 19th century, yet now it is no longer considered a medical condition. Many of these ailments, if not necessarily critical, can however be debilitating. I wanted to find out whether hair turning white overnight was apocryphal or based on evidence.  

I came across cases of outbreaks of severe eczema during an unhappy love affair, something which had never affected that person before or subsequently. A friend’s grandfather’s hair fell out overnight during a a breakdown as a young man, which in those days was never talked about and became a family secret. A woman suffered from panic attacks to the point that she lost the ability to swallow liquid. There was a violinist I had known since youth orchestra, who became plagued by a  psychosomatic pain in her solar plexis whenever she performed in an orchestra and resulted in her changing career entirely. Every time she picked up the violin, the pain returned though it never does when she sings. And I did discover a case of a 12-year old girl whose hair turned white overnight when her mother died. At times, I have feel like a fly on a wall at a therapist’s studio.
  
The body speaks in so many different ways. As Stephanie says, “the body is like the stage for the drama and theatre play of the mind.” These examples are from men too, though the balance in this work is weighted unconsciously to more female voices.   

Hysteria’s long gestation was preceded by two earlier works linked to mental illness, making latest installment Part 3 of a Trilogy. It started with Hearing Voices inspired by protest literature from patients incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals and in particular my great aunt’s notes during more than 25 years lost in an “asylum” as they were then known. Part 2 was Anxiety Fanfare, a choral work which also explores the sometimes funny side of anxiety and the use of humour as a kind of survival mechanism. 

Like Hearing VoicesHysteria will also be a multi-media project. So many of my works start with the primary sources - the witnesses from the front line.  It’s their testimonies, which form the kernel of all three works. Often the cadence and rhythm of a patient’s own recorded voice morphs into the voice of vocalist Melanie Pappenheim. The performance is not a load of crazy grimacing and shrieking, but deals with the more private moments of pain. I wanted this idea to be reflected in the music and performance, in a way that feels true to our experiences and observations. It was important for me to show people in a state where they aren’t completely broken.  

I have also incorporated many of Dr Stephanie Courtade’s insights about the medical profession, including her own experiences as a patient on the couch with a particularly unsympathetic psychiatrist. The common use now within the medical of profession of referring to patients as “service users”, seems particularly impersonal even if liberating them from illness. 

I feel immensely privileged that so many people have shared such intimate experiences with me – feel a responsibility to them. I still have so much material that I would still like to use, so I don’t know whether this is the finished piece.   


The UK film premiere of The Wife for which Jocelyn Pook wrote the filmscore, will be premiered at Somerset House on 9 August before going on general release on 28 September. Memorial, based on the poem by Alice Oswald with music by Jocelyn Pook comes to Barbican Theatre 27-30 September.  


Monday, July 09, 2018

Problems with Pélléas

It's always interesting to read bad reviews, even if one cringes while so doing. But those that have attended the new Pélléas et Mélisande at Glyndebourne have come with such a dose of vinegar that it makes one super-curious to see whether they're justified, and it's always hard to believe that they could be.

Oh dear.

Das Wunder der Heliane meets the ghost of Pélléas?
Photo: Glyndebourne Productions Ltd, by Richard Hubert Smith

Perhaps Stefan Herheim's concept would play better in central Europe or Scandinavia, where productions are often more heavily dramaturged [yes, I know, no such word] than is usually the case here, and where audiences have arguably grown to expect controversy on stage plus abstruse references laid on with the trowel. And perhaps the setting of Glyndebourne's Organ Room - recreated with useful additions such as concertina-folding organ pipes and sliding walls - would have played better if habitual Glyndebourne patrons had not seen umpteen other productions of other operas also set within Glyndebourne itself, to the point that this jumps aboard the most massive of local clichés.

It is nevertheless a valid starting point: the action takes place in a grand, dark, oppressive old house/castle and, as my companion for the evening remarked, how many of us have not wandered through such a place and wondered what secrets it is hiding in its past? (Or is Herheim trying to tell us something about the age-old secrets of Glyndebourne? I sincerely hope not.) Perhaps part of the idea is about the Christies staging dramatics in their organ room. But what is inexcusable is to have Debussy's final bars obscured by audience laughter as actors clad as present-day Glyndebourne punters wander onto the stage, looking around. No. Just no.

Everyone seems to be blinding each other. Yes, the text makes ample reference to blindness, but nothing in this text is literal: must it be spelled out to that degree? If there is a benefit to the storytelling, it's eluded me thus far. And Golaud, Pélléas and Yniold all frantically mime painting on empty easels. Yes, Debussy was a contemporary of the great Impressionist painters, but that doesn't make this appropriate, insightful or comprehensible, even if perhaps excusable.

What's with the Christ-like figure that appears in the middle of the organ, just as Arkel tells Mélisande she must issue in a new era...with a sheep draped over its shoulders? Sacramental imagery, says a Twitter contact. Yes, we get that (and Herheim changes Yniold's shepherd into a priest), even if we don't necessarily get its point - but the bottom line is that it looks completely ridiculous and everyone laughed, and you don't want that to happen in the middle of Pélléas.

Or maybe you do...and that would be worse, because it means you are not taking the work on its own terms or presenting your audience with something conceived in its true spirit, in which case why should we go? Moreover, having Golaud rape his own son/daughter Yniold is a major misjudgment in a scene that is upsetting enough as Debussy and Maeterlinck created it - and leaves Pélléas novices seriously confused ("But why does he do that?" "Well, actually, he doesn't...").

Nevertheless, there's a sprinkling of wonderful ideas too. Mélisande is portrayed (by the excellent Christina Gansch) as a complete pre-Raphaelite beauty, overwhelming in her seductive presence, and she seems to have healing powers; also, she recoils when Golaud faces her with his sword presented as a cross. There's always a mystery about her; no reason she shouldn't be at least partly supernatural. Golaud (a tour de force from Christopher Purves) is a violent psychopath, as destroyed by his own malady as any Otello. Pelléas is under-characterised, though mostly well sung by John Chest. The division of body and soul for Mélisande at the start of the final scene works nicely, as does having the ghost of Pélléas lurking around, waiting for her to join him – though I'm not sure why he has to run her through with a sword when she's about to snuff it in any case. Some of these images come over more as Das Wunder der Heliane than Pélléas, and I can't really think of two more different operas.

As you'll have gathered, a lot of visual ideas are crammed in here, layer upon layer upon layer. Yet Debussy's music is so subtle, so delicate, so hinted-at, that it's completely overpowered by the on-stage shenanigans. By the end one feels exhausted by all the "WTF now?" moments, and might be longing for the privilege of hearing a concert performance instead – preferably with Robin Ticciati conducting it every bit as beautifully, intelligently and ineffably as he does here.

In the past few years Ticciati has had to take some time off for a back operation, which has somewhat disrupted his tenure as Glyndebourne's music director. But in that time, he has been reinventing his whole approach to conducting (as he told me in an interview last year) - and now the results are becoming more and more interesting. Something in him has deepened and darkened and opened out. I'm getting the impression that we may have here a very significant musician indeed, someone who has further to go interpretatively than some of the supposedly glitzier, more superficially exciting podium presences. I hope I'm still around to see where he is in 25 years' time.

Nina Stemme as Kundry, with ex-equine friend
Photo: Ruth Walz

Concert performances, meanwhile, have a lot going for them. I spent yesterday afternoon and evening holed up with the webcast of Parsifal from the Bavarian State Opera, this being the first summer in a number of years that I'm not going physically to Munich. (Hallelujah, medals and science prizes galore, please, to whoever created the technology that makes webcasts possible and quality sound available on the computer.) What a musical treat: Kirill Petrenko on fire with spiritual joy in the pit, the orchestra playing the living daylights out of the piece, Nina Stemme the most astounding Kundry - and Kundry the most astounding Nina Stemme - that I've yet had the joy of hearing, Christian Gerhaher a dream of an Amfortas, Rene Pape channelling Gurnemanz in person, and Jonas Kaufmann tracing Parsifal's growth and strength incrementally, with That Voice. The production, by Pierre Audi, is strong, straightforward and clear, never confused or confusing. The Grail is meat in act I and music itself at the end of act 3: we are saved by art alone. Bravi. But the visual art is by the great Georg Baselitz and though many images are effective, at other times one just has to look the other way. A concert performance would solve that in one fell swoop. This probably sounds uncharacteristically philistine, so blame the heat if you like.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Have some Rachmaninov? Don't mind if I do...

Boris Giltburg had a free evening in London. So he called Stewart French and asked him to film him playing Rachmaninov's Op.39 Etudes-Tableaux overnight. Well, whyever not? Here's the result, which he's just sent me, and there's a blogpost at Gramophone that tells the story.

Thank you, Boris! Sitting down for a good wallow...

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Fit for purpose

What is fit for purpose in the UK at the moment? Not a lot, but I've found one thing that is. It's a national treasure of a concert hall - in an Essex village state school.

Saffron Hall
Photo: Graham Turner
I'm talking about Saffron Hall, of course, named after its location, not the donor who put up the money to build it - that person, with rare grace, preferred to stay anonymous. And if you go through Saffron Walden, you wouldn't expect to find this venue there. An almost too-adorable antique town in not-too-flat-yet East Anglian countryside, beyond the great house of Audley End, it's a setting in which you'd be less surprised to find a haunted hotel (at the Cross-Keys Inn the ghost of a Civil War soldier is said to walk the corridors, while Cromwell's mistress supposedly lurks in a bedroom) than a shiny four-year-old concert venue haunted by the likes of Maxim Vengerov and Mats Lidström. The good news is that the two notions aren't incompatible.

The hall, in case you haven't seen it yet, seats around 800 and has a wide, shiny, wooden interior with a narrow balcony section that runs all the way round the sides and behind the stage. The acoustic ('tunable') is warm and blooming, ample and resonant. The audience seems still to be in a honeymoon with it - a community blessed with a big asset and the chance to hear Vengerov and friends play right on their doorstep - and it was great to see lots of children in the ranks. The school setting helps. I learned during the course of the evening that the place used not even to offer Music A Level (a tragically increasing situation nowadays), but that music for its pupils and beyond is now thriving thanks to the exemplar of the hall and the world-class events it hosts.

This should be a model for anyone to follow if and when they want to build a new hall: for goodness' sake, embed it in its community. Put it where children will feed it with their energy and enthusiasm and be fed its art in turn. Put it where its audience will be happy, where they will be there to support it, prioritise it and take pride in it. This is high art for everyone and that's exactly what we need, right here and right now. For too long we've fetishised concert halls as a tool of regeneration - sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, and if it does it takes decades - or decided they must multitask as conference venues. It's the kiss of death. You end up with soulless creations in places nobody really wants to go. Try multitasking them within community schools instead. You might be surprised.

Maximum violinist: Maxim Vengerov
And we got a wonderful surprise last night. Maxim Vengerov and friends from the Soloists of the Oxford Philharmonic joined forces for a delicious programme of varied chamber line-ups. First, Brahms violin and piano music with Marios Papadopoulos - more often found on the orchestra's podium - becoming an empathetic duo partner to Vengerov in the D minor Sonata, following an up-tempo, soaring account of the 'FAE' Scherzo. In these days of exaggeration and over-interpretation, Vengerov is a breath of fresh air: he eschews such intrusive trends. He plays that violin with a perfect tone that one can drink up like honeyed mead. He polishes it to the nth degree and displays it without a hint of fuss. He makes all of this look phenomenally easy and natural, which heaven knows it's not.

The second part was a rarely-heard two-movement String Sextet by Borodin and then the Mendelssohn Octet, and here we had a chance to hear some of the Oxford Philharmonic's lead string players. My, oh, my, look who's here: only a line-up to match any top-notch international chamber ensemble and probably beat them on their own turf. Violinists Natalia Lomeiko, Anna-Liisa Bezrodny and Yury Zhislin. Violists Garfield Jackson and Jonathan Barritt. Cellists Mats Lidström and Peter Adams. They're all among the best on the scene, whether established soloists or long-standing members of great string quartets, and with Vengerov as first violin they produced an Octet to remember, almost symphonic in scale (it's amazing how much noise can come out of just eight instruments) and wonderfully conversational. We don't need reminding that it's a masterpiece, but it's a perennial joy to be reunited with Mendelssohn's extraordinary fount of high energy, bowling along as if he simply can't get the ideas down on paper fast enough, so richly do they flow. This was a Maserati of a Mendelssohn rather than a wispy, elfin job, and I had the impression the performers were enjoying every note as much as we were.

I'm quite embarrassed to admit I had no idea any of them were with the Oxford Phil, although in some cases I've known and followed their careers for decades. Perhaps the problem with the word 'Oxford' is that you are conditioned to hearing it alongside another word: 'University'. This is, emphatically, not necessary.

You can hear the same concert tonight at Cheltenham Town Hall if you are lucky enough to be in the area.

Fit for purpose: music, musicians, hall and everything about them. Not fit for purpose: the UK's infrastructure.

I was offered a ticket and a lift to/from Saffron Walden by a friend in the music business who lives near me and has a car. We set off from Hammersmith at 3.30pm. An hour and a quarter later we'd reached...Kilburn. Because if you're sitting in Wood Lane you can't get across the A40 because the traffic blocks the junction and you're basically stuffed. Somehow we found the A1M via somewhere near my old school up in Stanmore, and then there was a smash, with ambulances rushing up the hard shoulder, so we sat there for a while too, and eventually we turned off, pootled across some golden cornfields and adorable countryside near Cambridge, along twisty little lanes, past calendar-worthy old houses, and arrived for supper at the 15th-century Cross-Keys Inn (no ghosts on display) a cool almost-three-hours after setting out. Made the concert in the nick of time.

The thing about going anywhere in the UK to review a concert is that you have to go, and in my unfortunate experience neither roads nor trains can be relied upon to get you anywhere at the time you need to be there. This has always been bad, but it's getting worse and heaven alone knows how things are going to function after the B word happens, in a country seemingly hell-bent on national suicide.

When the revolution comes, and it may, I'll head for Essex and hide under the piano in Saffron Hall. Because this place gives me hope in what remains of our humanity.


Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Concerto rising: Errollyn Wallen's new piece for Kosmos

Today violinist Harriet Mackenzie takes the floor to tell us about the new concerto for violin, viola and accordion [yes, really] that the fabulous Errollyn Wallen has composed for her Kosmos Ensemble. It's about to have its UK premiere at the Festival of Chichester.

If you can't get there, you can still hear the concerto: here's a video of its world premiere performance at the Jersey Liberation Festival in May, with Harriet on violin, Meg Hamilton on viola and Milos Milojevic on accordion. The Jersey Chamber Orchestra is conducted by Eamonn Dougan.
JD

Kosmos performing in Brunel's Thames Tunnel Shaft in London


NEW WORLDS: A guest post by Harriet Mackenzie



It’s not every day you get a concerto written for violin, viola and accordion - in fact, this may well be the first ever - and when you throw in the fact that we asked Errollyn to include spaces for improvisation and to include vastly different styles, both hallmarks of Kosmos, it probably is an adventure worth writing about!

Not every new concerto starts with a Zen Buddhist saying, and I can’t grandly say that this one did. Not exactly. But there is a Zen Buddhist phrase that I have been trying to get to grips with lately - “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!”. A superficial understanding of this seems to be: "If you believe you are on the road to enlightenment and you meet the Buddha then you must kill him, as once you think you have reached or understood enlightenment, you are no longer in the path of attaining it".

Somehow, I am also reminded of one of my dear violin teachers saying: "Once you are satisfied, then you are dead."  The nirvana is in the process, not necessarily a final destination. The urge to strive, to try, to improve, to be in the moment (the ubiquitous 'mindfulness' which has infiltrated newspapers and dinner-party conversations of late), to constantly be moving the goalposts,  seems to be a necessary aspect of being an artist, or even perhaps, a human.

Harriet Mackenzie in Jersey
Certainly, I feel as if I am constantly shifting the comfortable ground beneath my feet and Kosmos has been part of that. It was created as a madcap, personal moving of goalposts for myself and my fellow members - Meg Hamilton (viola player extraordinaire, winner of the prestigious Millennium Award and a renowned specialist in Jewish music) and Milos Milivojevic (one of the finest accordionists working today, winner of the Derek Butler prize contested by all the Music Academies in London, who couples his classical training with the Balkan music that flows in his veins). We all had our areas of expertise - for me, of course, that is classical - and we all wanted to stretch our creative muscles, to bring our ‘own’ areas together and see what would emerge from the collision. Personally, as a classical musician I had never improvised. Suddenly I found myself on stage, without any sheet music, regularly playing our own works, arrangements and improvisations where classical meets composition meets roots music meets world music. I was deliriously happy and terrified in equal measure. When the lights dim and the audience is waiting expectantly, there is nothing quite like the frisson of composing in real time in front of a discerning crowd. And the more we performed together, the more music we discovered and explored, the more a rich landscape opened before my eyes and ears.

When we came up with the idea of a 'Kosmos concerto', the first composer that sprang to mind was Errollyn Wallen. I have admired many of Errollyn's works - her cello concerto (written for Matt Sharpe), the percussion concerto (written for Colin Currie), her song cycle. Errollyn has a diverse musical palette. She has written acclaimed operas, concertos, chamber music and is fascinated by world music styles and jazz. She is also a great singer herself and in lots of ways she breaks boundaries (not least as the first black woman to be commissioned by the BBC Proms). So we approached her, asking - as if the job of writing a concerto for these particular forces was not unusual enough! - that she include the ethos of the group, so some form of world music influence and some form of improvisation.

Errollyn Wallen
This of course is a concerto, so we have the additional element of an orchestra. Adding those elements with all the orchestral players alongside, who necessarily have to know what they are doing at all times and be in perfect synchronisation, is complex and not a little daunting. But in a good way.

Errollyn took this all upon herself and has written us a truly unique work. There are jazz influences, a Venezuelan 'Joropo' rubs shoulders with a Byzantine Chant. There is not only improvisation, but at some point the orchestra, soloists and conductor all have to sing. That is something I have certainly never had to do in any of the other concertos I have performed!

So, and in no small part thanks to Errollyn, the Buddha yet lives! We are still on a path, with horizons uncertain. This piece had its world premiere in Jersey in May, but every performance of this concerto will be different and we hope that the UK premiere at Chichester Cathedral goes well. More than ‘goes well’, in fact - there are times when everything seems to hum and sing with the energy of the world, and when all the elements of Kosmos come together and we have great material such as that Errollyn has written for us it can be a kind of musical nirvana. And you feel - I believe athletes call it ‘in the zone’.

As well as my own journey in search of that elusive musical Buddha whom I must hope never to find (and kill), I hope that audiences are also on their own journeys, opening their hearts and ears to new sounds and experiences without prejudice. And should any of us find that Buddha, let’s not kill him. Let’s embrace him, and then change direction and carry on travelling, striving, looking, exploring, searching for new experiences, as I will too.  


Kosmos perform Errollyn Wallen's Triple Concerto at the Festival of Chichester, Chichester Cathedral, 5th July, 7.30pm, with the Worthing Symphony Orchestra and John Gibbons conducting. www.kosmosensemble.com

Harriet Mackenzie’s most recent recording was “21st Century Violin Concertos” (five world premiere recordings), with the English Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Woods (Avie).

By way of encore, here's The Lark Ascending as you've never heard it before...

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Angelo Villani: I've got a little Liszt...

There could be worse inspirations for a pianist than Vladimir Horowitz. As the pianist Angelo Villani prepares for his first London recital in five years, he's written us a guest post about how the legendary Russian has lit the way to an approach that respects the score and composer while also finding a spontaneity that recreates the music anew in every performance. Do come and hear him play Chopin, Mozart, Bach and, of course, a little Liszt - actually, quite a lot - at the Royal Overseas League next week, 5 July. JD


Angelo in action
Photo: Bronac McNeill

Angelo Villani writes:

This July will be my first public recital in London for five years, so it’s an understatement to say I am excited. In the past, my repertoire has been principally centred around Liszt, as well as my own transcriptions, but for this next concert, alongside Chopin, I will be playing a smattering of Bach and Mozart for the very first time. My supporters are curious as to how I plan to approach these composers. 

Since my teens, I have listened to great pianists, like Horowitz, who came to Mozart late in his life. He didn’t play a huge amount of Mozart, but he played him magnificently. Horowitz came from an operatic perspective that was not wholly conventional, and it ties in with how I feel about finding nuances and a sense of colour, which forms its own boundaries and its own cohesion and wholeness. His playing is very inspired. And inspiring. It’s emotive and personal, and changes with every performance. That’s what I am looking for, too. 

Like period dramas, music shows us something of that time, but they also hold a mirror up to ourselves, showing us the human condition. We will always be drawn to Shakespeare, for example, and this year is the 200thanniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. They speak to us as we are essentially the same humans. The customs and manners have changed, which is what we see in these dramas. We see the way they behave is different, but what they feel inside, that humanity, really hasn’t changed a lot. People still search for love and truth. 

For me, in whatever I play, it’s a question of expression. With Mozart I am not looking for any of that classical form of correctness. I believe that can be achieved, that sense of style, when one taps into what Wagner referred to as melos. Being in the moment. It’s very telling, and it’s derived from his ideas on conducting. Approaching all music, one has to find that sense of being in the moment and finding the right mood, and let that carry through. It creates its own structure and sense of scale and for me it’s very important to do that in an organic way, although it’s difficult to achieve.

When we talk about classical music, we’re using an umbrella term for a lot of music that blossomed from the Renaissance up until present day. We have Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and then Moderns, Avant-garde and beyond, to what we have now. It’s good for people to understand that music can greatly reflect its epoch, but at the same time for the artist to be able to exploit the humane characteristics of the music, and to bring out its soulfulness and inherent humanity, they need to transcend barriers of classification. A lot of music can express these very personal human emotions that don’t necessarily come from the Romantic era. For me, when I played my transcription of Purcell’s Dido’s Lament, it opened a door for me to hear the Mozart D minor Fantasy and the Bach Siciliano in a completely different way because it reminded me, all of a sudden, that this music is heart-breaking and has its own pain, even though the way it is structured, its simplicity, is very much a Baroque style. It’s like a small etching or a pencil drawing, but with incredible and very poignant detail. So it drew me to these pieces in a way I wasn’t necessarily aware of when I was younger. 

I’m sometimes asked what my motivation is for altering the score. I don’t do it that often, but it largely happens with Liszt, who was unique in this respect as his works were not always a finished product in the same sense as Chopin or Mozart, where everything was crystallized. He comes from a very Beethovenian line of thinking. Liszt tended to improvise and he kept re-writing the same pieces, not really knowing what would be the final result. His music relied a lot on the performer, who infused a good deal of their own personal take on it, especially the endings. So, I am always at ease with the idea: "Well, what would the composer do to take it beyond what they have arrived at?" Because music is a transitory experience, when a composer writes a piece down on paper, it’s still in transition until the performer brings it to life. I don’t think it’s a finite work, and we do have to respect that these great composers improvised. Chopin used to improvise a lot of the ornaments in his music, and his students said he never played his music in the same way twice. So even he changed things. They were ornaments, but it was essential for him to be able to change them. With Liszt, it was a malleability in his sense of texture and sound, which was more orchestral. 
AV



Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Zukerman: "We need peace. Stop this occupation."

Pinchas Zukerman
Photo from rpo.co.uk

Pinchas Zukerman, who's at the RPO this week for his own summer festival (lots of Mozart, Haydn and Mendelssohn), is, as ever, an inspiration. I had his recording of the Mendelssohn concerto when I was a kid and loved it so much I nearly wore out the LP. I talked to him the other week for a 70th Birthday interview for the JC, and frankly, it's not every day that a top Israeli musician will speak out in this way. Sometimes it takes a figure like Pinchas Zukerman to say this, and to say it somewhere it will be heard. Born in Israel in 1948, he's only a couple of months younger than the state itself and his voice demands to be heard.

Here's a taster and you can read the whole thing here.

“After 70 years,” declares Zukerman, “we need peace.
“I come from there, I was born there, I have a passport, I have an identity, I’m an Israeli of Jewish faith. We have Israelis of non-Jewish faith, many, many denominations. We need to experiment with all denominations a little bit better on the human side and give them a little more respect.   
“The government of Israel should really look itself in the mirror every day and say: ‘Show respect, for God’s sake!’ Stop doing what you’re doing and just talk to them. 
“After 70 years now, we need a piece of paper that calls for peace. I don’t care if you call it two states, three states, four states — we need peace. We need something that says: ‘I respect you as my neighbour. Let’s sit down, then, and start talking about it on equal grounds.’ 
“You’ve got to stop this occupation: it is wrong. It is wrong for the people who live there. That doesn’t mean that one will have this and the other will have that. Just let’s have one document that calls for peace signing or a peace treaty of some sort: the place could just blossom no end. These are extraordinary peoples that live there. 
“I hope I could still see and experience this in my lifetime: that I could be in Arab countries, not just Jordan and Egypt, but many others, where I could play. There are some fantastic talents from the Arab world whom I have met over the years in Canada, in America, in London and so on — I would like to see that in Tel Aviv. And we in turn could go to places in the Arab world and play and enjoy our art form that we are so blessed to have. It’s time. Seventy years is enough!” 

Friday, June 22, 2018

Glyndebourne calling

Ever heard an opera at Glyndebourne written by a woman? I haven't. OK, maybe I missed one, but still. Hopefully that's about to change. Glyndebourne recently built and cultivated a gorgeous, fragrant rose garden. Now it can cultivate a special musical sphere too. Please form an orderly queue for this terrific opportunity. (We ladies are accustomed to queuing, as most opera houses will attest.)

They built a rose garden. They can build a new repertoire too.


GLYNDEBOURNE WRITES:

Glyndebourne’s commitment to nurturing musical talent and thus securing the future of opera for coming generations has long been at the heart of the organisation. Today we are announcing two new schemes to further support young artists.


Balancing the Score: supporting female composers is a new development scheme exclusively for female composers. It will offer up to four women the chance to spend two years immersed in life at Glyndebourne, attending rehearsals and meeting professional opera makers and performers. Participants will be introduced to commissioning opportunities at Glyndebourne and development opportunities with high profile partners such as the London Philharmonic Orchestra.


The announcement comes at a time of growing awareness of the under-representation of female composers in classical music. In February the BBC Proms announced that it would give half of its new commissions to women by 2022, and a new BBC series starts tonight in which presenter Danielle de Niese will shine a light on forgotten female composers from history.


Lucy Perry, Head of Education at Glyndebourne, said: ‘Glyndebourne is a proud and committed commissioner of new opera and, like many of our peers, we are concerned about the under-representation of female composers in classical music. With this new programme we can do our bit towards tackling that issue by offering practical support to female composers who aspire to write opera.’


Along with the chance to immerse themselves in the work of a world-class opera house, the successful candidates will receive an annual bursary of £2,000 to cover expenses and time spent at Glyndebourne during the part-time residency.


Applications for Balancing the Score open today at glyndebourne.com to female composers of any age. The closing date is Friday 17 August 2018 and interviews will be held on Wednesday 24 October.


Also announced today, and to mark this 50th anniversary year of the Glyndebourne Tour, is a new development scheme for young orchestral players called On the Road. Young professional instrumentalists will be invited to join the Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra as it travels the country, to gain their first professional operatic experience. The players will participate on an equal footing with other members of the orchestra and will be paid for their participation.


The new scheme extends the Tour’s cornerstone commitment to nurturing young talent. Among the internationally acclaimed artists whose performances with Glyndebourne Tour helped establish their careers are Robin Ticciati, Jakub Hrůša, Ivor Bolton, Louis Langrée, John Tomlinson, Sarah Connolly, Gerald Finley, Emma Bell, Alfie Boe, Roberto Alagna, Edward Gardner and Kate Royal.


Steven Naylor, Director of Artistic Administration, said: ‘This scheme is designed to offer newly graduated players real-world professional work experience over a concentrated three-month period by putting them straight in at the deep end – the fastest way to learn!’


In its first year, the scheme will offer places to 9 players. In future years applications will be invited online for players of a selected number of instruments.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Exciting news

I'm delighted to be able to report that my next novel, provisionally entitled Meeting Odette, will be published sooner than I'd expected. Not Christmas 2019, but December 2018. Please don't buy your Christmas presents too early: this book is intended to be a good stocking-filler at the very least. You can pre-order/pledge for one copy or many at the Unbound website here.

It has taken me 26 years to reach this point with it, so you'll understand it gets top priority.

There'll be a lot of very intense work between now and publication, as it's not exactly far off in the grand scheme of things. In the meantime I have numerous existing commitments including the Australia visit, plus words for some choral works and a youth opera for Garsington 2019 with the composer Paul Fincham.

Therefore, just as news comes through that JDCMB has been ranked #6 in the Top Ten Best UK Classical Music Blogs on the Planet (yeah, I know, I know...), I have to reinforce the current point of its existence:

I write what I can, when I can, if and when I have something to say. And that's it. My intention of building it up through reader subscriptions has not proved as viable as I'd hoped under its current set-up, though I am deeply grateful to everyone who so kindly contributed to A Year for JDCMB and value your support, both emotional and moral, very much indeed.

I will be writing a diary for JDCMB while I'm at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville in July and August, because that will be fun. I won't be doing any interviews specially for the blog in the meantime, though, and I won't be accepting any pitches. I'll just try and post nice stuff when I can. If you enjoy my writing, please read my books. They are all listed in the sidebar.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Secrets, lies and Star Wars

Curious to see whether Na'ama Zisser's Mamzer Bastard actually deserved the vicious drubbing to which other critics have subjected it, I trekked off to the Hackney Empire yesterday for the final performance. The short answer is that it was pretty impressive. This is largely because it has two important qualities that no amount of editing could add and that many other, better-reviewed contemporary operas are lacking: emotional authenticity and a heart.

Edward Hyde and Collin Shay as Yoel, boy and man.
Photo: Stephen Cummiskey/ROH

Mamzer Bastard is an original story by librettists Rachel C Zisser and Samantha Newton. The theme of inheritance and continuity - of names, of traditions and ultimately of traumas - is central. Set in the Hasidic Jewish community of New York, it takes places on the night of the citywide blackout in July 1977. A young man, Yoel, meets a stranger in the darkness, a familiar-looking older individual who describes himself as nothing but a ghost, and shares the name of Yoel.

It turns out that he is Yoel's mother's first husband. Esther married him in Poland. Then came the war, she escaped to America and he was thought to have died in a concentration camp. He survived, came to the US to seek her and finally discovered that, believing him dead, she had married someone else. Her new husband, Menashe, is Yoel's father - but Esther at the last moment named Yoel after her original husband (and implicitly true love) instead. Young Yoel knew nothing of this. Nobody knows, yet the trauma is there and tangible: Menashe bullies his son continually, worried that he might not be his own child; Esther is tetchy and het-up; the relationships are all under constant strain. The effect on Yoel is deep-seated insecurity and a stammer.

Now Yoel realises that the other Yoel's existence means that he, the young man, is a 'mamzer' - inadvertently illegitimate, because under Jewish law Esther's former marriage is still valid, invalidating the later one, which would convey illegitimacy on his own marriage, his children, his grandchildren. Don't tell, the other Yoel advises. No one will know. "I will know," Yoel says. But he goes home and goes through with getting married. The last thing we hear is the wedding, off stage. If this conclusion might risk looking like a cop-out to some, it is actually anything but. It is an implied devastation of the future. It means that Yoel must carry it all on himself. That the next generation will be left to uncover his secrets. The trauma will continue.

These things happened - many, many times - and the Zisser family team has conveyed them with an inner conviction that has genuine power. In so doing, Na'ama has created some fine roles: Yoel is a counter-tenor, an excellent Collin Shay, and the flashbacks to his childhood memories are portrayed wonderfully by a boy soprano, Edward Hyde. Esther is that rare creation, a big role for an older mezzo-soprano, Gundula Hintz in full Susan Bickley mode; and the bullying Menashe (Robert Burt) has his own moments of anguish as he desperately hunts for his son in the chaotic streets of the blacked-out city. The first Yoel is sung by Steven Page, heart-rending as far as the character goes - on the one hand, he is a shadowy figure whom we don't get to know well enough, but on the other hand, neither does our Yoel. And there's another character: the synagogue cantor, David, sung by the real cantor Netanel Hershtik from the Hampton Synagogue in the US, punctuating the action with existing cantorial music.

In the pit, conductor Jessica Cottis commands a tight ship with 12 players from the Aurora Orchestra. The whole is slightly amplified, which I doubt added much to the effect for me in the sixth row - I don't much like amplification in opera unless absolutely necessary - but perhaps it would have made words more immediate for those further back or higher up. The direction by Jay Scheib involves live camera: a cinematographer, Paulina Jurzec, shadows the performers close to and her filming is projected onto a huge wall so that we see the emotions up close. A technical issue, though, means that there's a small time delay between the sound of the singing and the projection, just enough to upset the mouths/words coordination and prove bothersome (though it's no worse than you often find on Youtube). No interval: good for the audience, but it sounded, by the end, as if some of the singers could have used a midway break to recuperate.

Yes, some tightening up wouldn't hurt; the staging would have been better if the filmed coordination of image and voices had been precise and if the cinematographer had worn black sleeves to make her less conspicuous. Some of the repetitions of text are overused; and a little more variety of pace in the music would be a good thing, as - like every other new opera I hear - the whole thing walks along without much changing (when writing Silver Birch Roxanna and I tried to build in lots of variety in tempo because this is a major bug-bear for us both). But Zisser's sound world is far from standard-issue modernism: it is distinctive for its keening strings in quarter-tones, off-centre effects that destabilise the scene as if from within the characters themselves; electronics are seamlessly integrated, uncompromising chunky chords measure out emotions to match, and resonant percussive effects create chilling auras of sound. Above all, there's urgent human warmth at the core of it.

Na'ama Zisser, incidentally, is 29 and has an impressive track-record of commissions in a big range of genres. Her 'doctoral composer in residence' post at the Guildhall was previously held by Philip Venables, who produced 4.48 Psychosis while there. Rachel C Zisser and Samantha Newton normally work together in film scripts - and Na'ama has previously written a 'horror opera' with Newton.

It's possible, of course, that Mamzer Bastard is simply too niche, too bizarre a world for some Londoners. The alienation from modern life of the Hasidic community is shown when Yoel relates his experience of attempting to go to the cinema. "Star Wars or Annie Hall?" asks the ticket girl, a recorded voice. "One's scary, the other's funny." He has never heard of Star Wars. He goes in, expecting guidance, and doesn't find any (he'd have found Annie Hall much more helpful, but there we go...). But alienation can work two ways. The ongoing impact of Holocaust traumas is by no means exclusive to the Hasidic community; it creates fault-lines in almost every Jewish family in one way or another. If you are familiar with this environment to any degree, you'll recognise elements of it all too clearly. If you're not, though, it could be a steep learning curve.

Let's say I am predisposed in some ways to be sympathetic to this opera because my ancestors shared that world. There but for the grace of God go I. And some Yiddish words I haven't heard in years jumped out and made me smile. I realise this may mean I struggled less with the setting and felt more at ease with the work than perhaps others might. The audience was mostly Jewish - that doesn't make the work 'outreach', as one commentator sniped, but it does mean that it reached an audience that other operas might not. At the same time, it would be nice if that world could also be shown to those who are not part of it, and might emerge understanding it a little bit better.

We have to face up to the fact that the music world of the UK is rooted heavily in the Anglican church. Choir, organ and early music therefore have a natural home here and the most eminent people in the business tend to have had a grounding in that sphere. I remember well that as a Jewish music student in Cambridge, I felt very much a minority; if you don't want to go into a chorus and sing about Jesus, you're on your own. The English choral tradition has produced some glorious music and musicians, but it is also, inevitably, quite limiting; and if that is your world from the start, you may not be encouraged to start looking beyond it until it is, let's say, a bit late. On the other hand, none of that has ever stopped me from loving the Fauré Requiem, the Missa Solemnis, the St Matthew Passion or hundreds of Bach cantatas. Open-mindedness could work two ways, too, given half a chance.

By the way, I have not yet seen any other reviews of Mamzer Bastard by critics who happen to be female.

Yes, Mamzer Bastard has some weaknesses and needs a few tweaks, but it's far from the unmitigated disaster that some would have us believe. You could make cuts, direct it differently and not use amplification. No amount of tweaking, though, can add a heart to a work if it doesn't have one from the start, and this opera does. Unlike many.

Friday, June 15, 2018

My holiday job...


Hello, Townsville! from Jessica Duchen on Vimeo.

I'm off to the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville, Far North Queensland, in late July, where I'll be presenting my new narrated concert Being Mrs Bach, specially commissioned for the event by artistic director Kathryn Stott. My colleagues on stage will include Siobhan Stagg, Roderick Williams, Guy Johnston, the Goldner String Quartet and many more, and it's kind of thrilling. I'll also be giving a talk about women composers for the Winterschool and writing copious quantities of words about the experience of attending the festival.

The other day I spent a happy few hours in the National Theatre's costume hire warehouse, trying on 18th-century garb. I did find something in which I could actually breathe, which was a good start. I hope it'll work. No, it will not be anything like Lucy Worsley. Yes, I really hope we can do some version of it in the UK too.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Who is the Mamzer Bastard?

Had a fantastic interview with the composer Na'ama Zisser and librettists Rachel C Zisser and Samantha Newton about their new opera, Mamzer Bastard, which is opening at the Hackney Empire tonight under the auspices of the Royal Opera House and Guildhall School of Music and Drama (where Na'ama is doctoral composer in residence). Rachel and Sam are a writing team who normally do horror movies; Na'ama set out to incorporate cantorial music of the Hasidic tradition into her score. It should prove a pretty extraordinary mix. You can read the whole thing in the JC here.

Na'ama Zisser
Taster (from the middle....)
Mamzer Bastard is no horror story, but its filmic qualities are evident as Rachel describes it. The action takes place in New York on 13 July 1977, the night of one of the biggest blackouts in the city’s history. A young man from the Orthodox Jewish community is to get married the next day. Unsure that he is ready, he decides to escape and finds himself lost in the darkened streets of the city, where he is nearly murdered. A stranger saves his life, asking in recompense only that he returns to his family and the wedding. “The more the young man learns about the stranger,” says Rachel, “the more he realises how little he knows about himself.” 
“Mamzer” translates almost as “bastard”, but more precisely as a person born from a relationship forbidden within Jewish religious law. According to Rachel, the story relates, tangentially, to deep roots within the Zisser family. “My aunt had a story that she told me when I was a child, and I’ve been trying to write it in one form or another ever since,” she says. 
“At five or six years old, she was with her father when he ran into an old friend from before the Holocaust, who said ‘How nice to see you  and this is your little daughter?’ He replied, in Yiddish, thinking my aunt couldn’t understand: ‘Yes, but she’s not the original one, she’s not the first…’. My aunt was haunted afterwards: ‘Who is the original me?’ 
“When she was 17-18, her father went to testify at one of the Nuremburg trials. He came back with a document of his testimony against one of the Nazis. My grandmother didn’t want her children to know that our grandfather had had another family before the war, so she hid the document  and my aunt found it. It was the first time she learned that he had a daughter and a son before her, so she understood finally why she was not the first. I think the presence of a life that has not been lived is very much part of this opera.”
Mamzer Bastard is at the Hackney Empire tonight, tomorrow and Sunday, conducted by Jessica Cottis. Booking here.