Sunday, May 27, 2018

Liza Ferschtman: Remembering Philippe Hirschhorn

Liza Ferschtman
Photo: Marco Borggreve
I had a lovely interview with the Dutch violinist Liza Ferschtman the other week (official version available to read in this week's JC) - she will be in London to play Bernstein's Serenade at Cadogan Hall with the Brussels Philharmonic on Thursday 31 May. Her recording of it - and the Korngold Violin Concerto - is highly recommended. During our conversation, I learned that her family was close to the absolute legend of a violinist that was Philippe Hirschhorn. Her father was the cellist of the Glinka Quartet until they left Russia in the late 1970s, her mother was a pianist, and she grew up in the Netherlands with fellow emigré Hirschhorn virtually as honorary uncle. 

Hirschhorn, born in the USSR, won the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, and later settled in the Netherlands - but his career ended tragically, with his death from a brain tumour aged only 50. His sound burned one up like no other.

There was more to say than I could put in the article, so here are some more of Liza's memories.

"For a while, Philippe played second violin in my father's quartet because he loved playing second - it involved less pressure and beautiful inner voicing. My parents both went to the same famous school in Moscow as he did - the Central Music School, for elementary and high school together, and Philippe came there when he was 13. They met then, in the same class. But he was expelled for misbehaviour after about a year - he was burning piano keys and being a bit of a rowdy kid. But, as later in life, at the same time everyone was a little bit in love with him: there was a very devilish-and-angelic thing about him. 

He left the USSR already in the mid 1970s and my parents were aware of that, so when they emigrated they picked up contact again and became very close friends. The practical situation was also that he from the early 80s used to teach in Utrecht, round the corner from where we lived, so every weekend when he’d teach he’d stay with us. From as long as I can remember, he’d just be there, practically every weekend, so I always played for him. Sometimes he’d arrive on Friday and I’d be home but my parents weren’t, and he’d say 'OK, play me something...' 

"He was not  a particularly pedagogical teacher then - he was still playing a lot himself and he had no idea how to teach children at all. But I distinctly remember I would play something and he wouldn’t necessarily know how to explain something, but he would play it for me on my tiny violin and it would sound incredible! So I'd have that example - the he would give the violin back to me and say 'OK, I’m going to smoke a cigarette now, you can deal with that...'! 

"A little later, in my my mid teens, I would play more regularly and more seriously for him. In the last two years he was unable to play any more himself. They didn’t know what it was for ages. He had neurological failure in his fingers, so they were trying all kinds of physiotherapy, but it was being caused by a brain tumour. Finally they discovered that and operated and he was fine for a short while. Then it came back. 

"But when he started to teach me more seriously, there were some very crucial moments. I remember playing a little Kreisler piece, Tambourin chinois or something, with my mother and there was a modulation where something turns suddenly from minor to major quite suddenly. I remember distinctly that he complimented me - or dissed my mother a little bit! - by saying 'Look, she [Liza] got that colour change much better!' But pointing out to me, he was so sensitive to shifting colour - he was the one who taught me what happens at the end of a note, how to make a diminuendo, how to really change something: this awareness of sound at the end of a note, how things shouldn’t die. It’s almost a vocal thing, actually. Those seem tiny little things, but they became so important to me, about how to produce sound and how to listen. 

"I won a youth competition when I was 14 and there was a video - and then there was a TV programme in which I had to play the same piece. He would watch both videos and point out to me why something worked or didn’t work in one or the other, not so much things you could put your finger on, but something about tension. And it’s important that someone points it out to you when you’re young, because you become much more sensitive to it and aware of it. 

"Still to this day, I’ve been fortunate enough not to have lost too many people and he is still the biggest loss we have had in our family circle. As I said, everyone was always in love with him a little bit. It’s 22 years ago that he died, but he’s still so much in the forefront in my family. I have so many pictures of him in my violin case. I called him my uncle, but he was much more than that." 

Here is Liza playing the Beethoven 'Kreutzer' Sonata with pianist Julien Quentin. Occasionally - very occasionally - I come across a musician who looks a bit like me and plays exactly as I'd have wanted to had I been any remote use as violinist, and I wonder if Liza might be a long-lost soul-sister. Don't miss her Bernstein if you're in London (book here).

Friday, May 25, 2018

Some real lessons in love and violence

Barbara Hannigan as Isabel, Stéphane Degout as The King, Gyula Orendt as Gaveston
Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

There has been a great deal of fuss this week, courtesy of questionable decisions at the Philadelphia Orchestra, about 'respecting the sanctity of the concert hall' (Read Philip Gentry's piece here.) Just the tired old standard defence against anyone objecting to decisions made by performers/managers that are...questionable – designed simply to silence those who disagree. It's saddening to see Yannick say 'Musicians are not men and women of words', as most of the ones I know bloody well are.

My latest evening at the Royal Opera House has left me wondering why anyone would consider there's anything resembling 'sanctity' in any performance house – I won't say 'any more' because it probably was never there.

Last night I went with a friend to see the new George Benjamin opera Lessons in Love and Violence. We sat in the amphitheatre - clear overview, great sound. It's also rather hot and airless and the seats, though 20th-century, are designed for 19th rather than 21st-century people, so you're very up-close-and-personal with your neighbours. None of this encourages an atmosphere of 'sanctity'.

Five minutes before curtain up, we were reading Martin Crimp's synopsis, wondering how far the opera relates to Christopher Marlowe's Edward II, when the couple to my right started having a massive row, fighting over some conversation that must have taken place just beforehand. When one voice was raised, the other shushed, which was a pity because it was getting interesting. He was demanding that she take something back and that they never discuss it again. She wasn't having any. Eventually he said, "We should just go". She didn't want to just go. She wanted to hear the opera. Then the lights went down, at which point the man shoved the woman's cardigan - which he'd gallantly been holding - back onto her lap, then went clambering over everyone's knees to the exit, just as the music began. What followed on stage was not exactly the thing to see or hear when you're having a bust-up of this magnitude, so one could hardly blame her for following suit at the halfway pause. At such moments, one can well understand, a house of performance is not a place of sanctity. It's a trap.

Then, about half an hour in, the couple on my companion's left started having a massive row too. She was checking her phone. He was telling her she shouldn't. He was right. She responded by becoming awfully upset. Tissues were produced. Maybe she didn't realise the performance house was a place of sanctity where you shouldn't get out your mobile. Did you know: If your light goes on, the whole theatre can see you and point, including the people performing, if they're so minded? This, of course, is nothing new. Most performances these days are liberally sprinkled with the tears of those who can't stay off their phones for two minutes, let alone 85.

Sanctity shmanctity.

What of the opera? It is wonderfully written: imaginative, concise, focused, clear. You could hear every word. The orchestration is magical, lit with fresh and inventive percussive effects and flickers of woodwind and brass. The pacing is varied, surprising, masterly: the most memorable section possibly the death scene, in which the King "experiences death" in absolute stillness and rapt quiet. There is no red-hot poker. The performers - Stéphane Degout as The King, Barbara Hannigan as Isabel and a magnificent line-up supporting - could not have been better. And yet there was startlingly little about the action that could make us begin to be interested in what was going on, and the staging, directed by Katie Mitchell (whom I usually admire) with designs by Vicki Mortimer, seemed stylised and confusing: a giant bed faced by rows of empty chairs, people trooping in and out even without much to do, and some soothing tanks of tropical fish.

If someone decides to create an opera out of Marlowe's Edward II, fine - but this adaptation fell somewhat short. Isabel becomes a one-dimensional figure despite Hannigan's best efforts: pure opera-woman cliché, a devious being with frustrated sexual appetite and characterless children. Contemporary sideswipes - issues over playing music while the country falls apart, or Trumpy-style references to "Dead Man Mortimer" which called to mind "Crooked Hillary" - feel slightly incongruous and unnecessary, especially as there wasn't one lead character anyone could reasonably relate to. Except I do want to know what happened to Felicity the Cat (brought in in a scarily familiar-looking carrier-box), whose deluded owner is brutally murdered: perhaps she got to eat some of the fish later... On the whole, admirable though the score is, I regret to say I'm with the critic who remarked that he was quite pleased to exit at the end in search of a burrito.

The true drama was in the audience – along with the real lessons in love and violence. All the world's a stage.

Play to your strengths

Planning to spend the bank holiday weekend catching up on a spot of practising?...well, if you're anything like me, you may be wondering where to start. I sit and stare at my books of Beethoven, Debussy and Schumann, feeling stumped before playing a note by the decision of which piece to pick and why. Brush up an old one or learn something new? Try something I know (well, think) I can still manage, or something that will force me to learn a new technical trick? Or what? Fortunately I've asked pianist, teacher and maker of anthologies Melanie Spanswick for a guest post and she says: play to your strengths. Here's the post explaining why. JD

Playing to your strengths
A guest post by Melanie Spanswick

Piano students working towards a graded piano exam, a diploma, a competition, a concert or any type of performance always want to know if the repertoire they have selected offers an eclectic programme. Is their choice of composers, piano pieces and range of styles and genres, suitably complimentary? The more discerning student also questions whether their selected repertoire actually suits their playing and, more importantly, showcases their technique and musicianship as it stands at present. 

This last point is arguably most crucial. As pianists, we may have a firm view of our ‘ideal’ programme. It probably consists of several favourite pieces, topped off with a couple that we always meant to learn. And then there’s that one piece which we know will really challenge our technique, but which we feel might be a good addition to the programme to help us ‘improve’ our playing. We hope this will provide the necessary incentive, guiding us through the inevitable sticky practice sessions and lengthy preparation time. Piano playing is a complex task and without the inclusion of interesting music, reaching that pianist goal might seem a tad unrealistic. 
When selecting a programme, there are numerous factors to consider, but the most vital is this: always play to your strengths. Programming is a very personal choice; it can be a lengthy process, and one totally dependent on a pupil’s ability right now. Any public performance (and I put an exam in this category, despite performing for one or two examiners) requires a certain level of mastery; preferably, complete mastery. A pupil must not only be confident with the technical demands of each work, but they must be able to deliver those pieces under pressure, succinctly and with panache, flair and a musical understanding. It’s not possible to do this if pieces are slightly beyond their capabilities or out of their comfort zone. This may seem obvious, but as an examiner, adjudicator, and teacher, I observe this issue on a regular basis. If your desire is to improve or work on technique, by all means do so via technical studies, exercises, scales, arpeggios or even within the confines of specific repertoire (and with the careful guidance of an expert teacher), but learn the necessary technique before actually attempting to perform the repertoire that requires it. And never expose your weaknesses in public – performance is a chance to show off!
Melanie Spanswick
Photo: Sally Olsen
When choosing repertoire, aim to discover a wide variety of music, and try to play or study works by a whole gamut of composers. This isn’t to say that you must doggedly learn everything by all the major composers, but you do need to have sampled a fair amount (or at least listened and examined the scores), so that you have formed opinions on styles and genres, and have discovered works which you feel will exhibit your pianistic talents. Observe how your favoured composers write for the instrument, and compare this with your particular skill set. 
You may be a whizz at contrapuntal textures, in which case you’ll want to focus on J S Bach and some of his Baroque contemporaries, perhaps building a programme around one of his extended works such as the Italian Concertoor an English Suite. You may like to pair such a piece with a Shostakovich Prelude and Fugueor other works featuring counterpoint by Hindemith (from Ludus Tonalis,for example). Equally, the preludes and fugues by Mendelssohn or a fugue by Saint-Saëns, might be interesting offerings too. By homing in on this style and a fairly narrow band of composers, you will unearth a programme which plays to your strengths whilst also offering a balanced selection. 
Similarly, those who excel at rapid, complicated passagework will want to build their programmes accordingly. They may choose to spotlight Scarlatti, Mozart, Haydn, Mendelssohn, or many other such composers. It’s possible to add a couple of Twentieth or Twenty-first century works into the mix, whose style also exemplifies these qualities. A useful tactic to apply before making a final decision on a programme, is to categorise composers according to their most prolific technical elements (this is also an absorbing exercise). You can then explore those composers and works which resonate with your skill set. 
I would hope a piano teacher would discuss programming in detail; this is one reason why it’s a good idea to be able to talk frankly with your tutor. If you don’t resonate with their suggestions, you must feel free to say so, and they should guide you to an acceptable solution, but all within your current standard of playing. 
When helping students select a programme, I try to encourage them to seek a comfortable, attainable selection; one which they will be happy to work on for a few months. Most pupils enjoy learning a Classical sonata, and as this is standard repertoire, I think it’s a prerequisite. Such a work can be juxtaposed with several modern or contemporary choices. I am keen to introduce new pieces to students, and they generally relish traversing lesser-known works. This happy marriage can result in accomplishing a higher level of technical and musical prowess.  
In my recent two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). I present works of many different musical styles. Whilst choosing these works, I was mindful to select a balance of pieces that would not only give pianists the opportunity to play to their strengths and show off their skills set, but also explore pieces that might technically challenge them. And, to this end, each piece is prefaced with technical and musical information on how to actually learn it. 
Whenever and wherever your next performance opportunity presents itself, take time to think about what you want to play and whether that piece is suitable for your current pianistic skill. When you adopt this mind set, your playing will almost certainly transform and you’ll become a much more confident pianist. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

What price 'success'? A guest post by violinist Tatiana Berman

The violinist and artist Tatiana Berman is one of three musicians featured in Forte, a new documentary by American filmmaker David Donnelly exploring the notion of 'success' through the eyes of three female musicians - all of them strong personalities pursuing their dreams. Using classical music as an example, the film looks at the societal expectations women face today as private and professional individuals. 

To fund it, they've got a  Kickstarter campaign, which has just three more days to run. Please support them here! 

Below is the trailer and a guest post from Tatiana about her own experiences...

The Journey of the Female Soloist
by Tatiana Berman

To become a professional soloist, you have to start young. For me, it was five. My mother and father were musicians, so naturally I wanted to play. At 14, I was accepted into the Menuhin school, one of the most prestigious music schools in the world, on a full scholarship. My mother had passed away unexpectedly two years earlier, so making the decision to leave my father and younger sister wasn’t easy. I didn’t speak English, but I knew it was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. While in school, I had many incredible experiences including solo performances with orchestras in London and Switzerland. I also had the privilege of working with the late Lord Yehudi Menuhin and performing the Bach Double for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace when I was just 17.
At 18 I was awarded the prestigious Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Scholarship to the Royal College of Music. Since my scholarship only covered tuition I had a strong incentive to win the prize at competitions — I was playing to survive. After winning some of those awards things started to happen and my career looked promising. That is until I met someone at the young age of 21, and suddenly my priority to start a family outweighed my career ambitions. It’s not unusual for a young soloist, fresh on the international circuit, to perform 100 concerts a year; however, that lifestyle is not conducive to starting a family, especially if you’re a woman.
I was confident in my ability, but if you’re a soloist, the reality is that your career is a chess game, one you have to be completely determined to win. You have to impress the right people. Mostly the male-dominated world of conductors, who a lot of the time are still the decision makers. You also have to devote a ridiculous amount of time practicing and developing your fan base on social media. It takes complete dedication, the right connections, monetary investment, and pure luck to be at the right place at the right time. You are also pressured to play the “right” repertoire for a long time before you are free to do what you really want. Over the years, I had seen so many of my colleagues become “successful” by industry standards. However, there were countless brilliant musicians who were simply overlooked or didn’t know how to play the game, and in their complete state of devastation they simply gave up on their dreams. But if we take a closer look, is there any evidence of a correlation between that industry stamp of approval and real happiness? Perhaps not.
Fast forward to 2018. I am the mother of three beautiful girls, living in the most unexpected of destinations; Cincinnati, Ohio. The Constella Festival, which I founded in 2011, wrapped its seventh season this year. I’ve worked really hard at this festival, and it’s allowed me to do innovative things. It became a platform to experiment with different artistic mediums. Constella was among the first festivals to present multi-dimensional programming that included digital and visual art, music, film, and dance. We’ve presented over 60 world premieres, and most recently developed a program that attracts a new type of audience, which is not your typical classical music crowd. (
I think of all those talented musicians who didn’t keep going because they didn’t fit into the traditional mold of success, but the world needs musicians now more than ever. It’s time for more of us to make our own rules and to let our passion fuel innovation and entrepreneurship within our cherished genre. Classical music is an industry with a lot of tradition, but that doesn’t mean we have to live and die by those traditions. Everyone, especially women, must have the confidence to create their own definition of success, and design lives that don’t force us to choose between personal dreams and professional ones. Despite an all or nothing culture, there can be a happy medium.  
Tatiana Berman is a violinist and artist. She is one of the stars in the upcoming documentary Forte which tells the story of three strong women pursuing their dreams. You can support the film by contributing to its Kickstarter campaign here. Rewards include tickets to the world premiere in New York, private screenings, art prints, copies of the original score, and autographed posters. Film screenings can be donated to a school of your choice. The campaign ends on May 25th.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Ute Lemper's Songs for Eternity

Ute Lemper is in London tomorrow to present an extraordinary and heartbreaking project at JW3. Songs for Eternity is a programme of songs from the ghettos and concentration camps of the Nazi era. I talked to her about it the other week and you can read the full interview in The JC, here.

And here's why she says this devastating repertoire is so important for us to hear, right here, right now.
“People are saying racist things that they should never say, advertising intolerance and reactionary nationalism. Thousands of people have been displaced because they are not born with the privilege of freedom, peace, education and religious freedom. They fear for their lives in the middle of genocide and war  yet these people are often not even let in because of the fear of terrorism. Many thousands of innocent people are rejected, sitting in front of barbed wires or in immigration rooms, or simply being sent back. I feel broken-hearted when I see this, and the way the population rejects the responsibility to take care of others in a world that we have created of unbalanced wealth and education.”
Tickets here. 

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Sunday, May 20, 2018

The day after the day before

Jonas Kaufmann, Jochen Rieder, BBCSO.
Photo: Mark Allen/Barbican
It's possibly some measure of my current distraction - with libretto, deadlines, nephew's wedding the other day and an ongoing situation with a very sick cat - that I completely forgot Jonas Kaufmann was coming to London to do the Strauss Four Last Songs, until the Barbican press office sent me an email saying, in effect, '...but don't you want tickets?'. So after Meghan and Harry had walked up the aisle - and so, in Harrogate, had our nephew and his own American bride, and so, in Cambridge, had Guy Johnston and Ali Digby (huge congratulations to music's loveliest new couple!) - and the sun shone and the Rev Michael Curry had wowed a rather startled congregation with his reminder of the powers of love and fire, off we headed for the City to see what the tenor of this event would be like.

One question that always applies at such concerts is: what else goes into the programme? Kaufmann's friendly conductor, Jochen Rieder, wielded the BBC Symphony Orchestra baton over a selection including Elgar's In the South, the second symphonic interlude from Strauss's Intermezzo and, to open, a work that I frankly thought I would never hear played live: Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Schauspiel Overture, written when he was 14. [Update: I am reminded that the CBSO did it a few years back and I missed it...] The drama in question has never been definitively identified: his adored Shakespeare is likely, and while The Tempest and The Winter's Tale have been suggested, Twelfth Night - as stated by his notorious critic father, Julius - is possibly the most convincing idea, given the bittersweet tone of the music, plus the mix of high spirits and big, generous tunes. But it's possible, too, that it's a non-specific concert overture and as such, it functions jolly nicely.

This Viennese gemütlichkeit, the expansive expression, the Klimt-like glistening of the orchestration, seemed to puzzle the Barbican every bit as much as the gospel choir inside St George's Chapel, Windsor, had earlier struck some churlish online wedding observers as "inappropriate". Of course, it wasn't - the bride is American and it represented her background. In the Barbican, Korngold was a Strauss disciple, so it was perfectly appropriate too. My dream is that one day the English will "get" Korngold. They still don't. It may be a long wait.

Kaufmann presented four Strauss songs in the first half - 'Ruhe, meine Seele', 'Freundliche Vision', 'Befreit' and 'Heimliche Aufforderung' - and the Four Last Songs in the second. I'm preoccupied with Lieder right now because I'm doing a comparative review of a certain song-cycle by Schumann and have been listening to dozens of recordings, day in and day out (Kaufmann has not recorded this cycle, so isn't in the survey). The ideal singer, in my personal view, blends tone, nuances of meaning and diction into one - it's amazing how often the balance between these elements is skewed. In this respect Kaufmann is an absolute master. What we heard last night, essentially, was a supremely intelligent, beautiful and detailed Lieder recital. But whether the orchestra bore responsibility (enough rehearsal? One wonders...), or the loud and muddy acoustic of the hall, or whatever, Kaufmann's tone - never huge in any case - blended into the textures rather than soaring above it.

You shouldn't go to a Kaufmann concert expecting ear-splitting volume, any more than you should go to his Otello expecting him suddenly to morph into Jon Vickers. He likes to sing softly. He goes for colour, nuance, text, intimacy - and these Strauss numbers are mostly not molto con belto-appropriate. Could any listener witness a fine performance of 'Befreit' and emerge unshredded? In this poem by Richard Dehmel, a man speaks to his dying wife of the joys they have experienced together and recognises the time ahead when she will be 'released' and he will see her only in his dreams. So, no, you cannot expect a singer to whack this out at high volume. You need some sensitivity from the orchestra. Or you need Helmut Deutsch at the piano instead.

Here's what Kaufmann said to me about the question of volume when I interviewed him a few years ago for BBC Music Magazine:

"I think you can touch the audience more with a soft sound than you can with any big note. I think you can impress people with big notes, but you can really move them and touch them with the soft ones. You need to have both. Even in the heavy Wagnerian repertory, no big note seems to be big if there isn’t a soft note as well. If everything is just shouted it’s not impressive – after five minutes you’re thinking 'we’ve heard that already'. When people are in misery, when people are suffering, you tell it with a soft voice – there are self-confessions and all these things, it doesn’t get shouted, it comes out naturally."

So, did the Four Last Songs work? In terms of pure artistry, of the mix of line and text and meaning, then yes, absolutely, with 'Im Abendrot' the finest of all: subtle, mystical, transformative. But can you get used to the sound of a baritonal tenor in these songs, instead of a soprano whose tone soars and slices through the textures? Kaufmann's didn't. He blended with the orchestra as if he were another instrument among them. In short, it was beautiful, it was a worthwhile experiment, but sopranos can probably rest assured they won't be losing these songs too often to their male rivals.

And one encore: 'Morgen', in which the orchestra was quiet enough and that soft, shining, intense Straussian beauty could reach everybody. Heaven at last.

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Monday, May 14, 2018

Young Musicians All

Lauren Zhang plays Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto with the CBSO in the BBC Young Musician final
Photo: Greg Milner

Coinciding with yesterday's apparently stunning final of this year's BBC Young Musicians Competition, oboist Nicholas Daniel and a magnificent roster of fellow past winners - Nicky Benedetti, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Natalie Clein, Guy Johnston and many more - have launched a plea for music lessons to be available free of charge to every primary school pupil in the country.

The BBC YMoY is 40 this year and has helped to inspire several generations of young people to love music and want to play it. This (along with so much else in the UK at present) is desperately under threat. 

Here's some of the letter:

"....despite some brilliant schemes, we are all deeply concerned that instrumental music learning is being left to decay in many British schools to the point that it could seriously damage the future of music here and jeopardise British music’s hard won worldwide reputation.
"Today, we are launching a campaign for every primary school child to be taught to play an instrument, at no cost to them or their families. It is crucial to restore music’s rightful place in children’s lives, not only with all the clear social and educational benefits, but showing them the joy of making and sharing music. We are especially concerned that this should be a universal right. This is an opportunity to show the world that we care about music’s future and its beneficial impact on our children.
"Musical life in the London Borough of Newham could be one example, with their excellent Every Child A Musician scheme. The programme gifts all of their primary school children a free instrument to keep and teaches them how to read and play music in weekly lessons. This at no cost to the children or their families.
"We believe that every child deserves to enjoy the benefits of Ecam and other excellent schemes, and their widespread adoption would alleviate many of our current concerns about the future of music in this country..."
Meanwhile 16-year-old pianist Lauren Zhang from Birmingham swept to victory at yesterday's final, playing Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No.2. It's not a piece you expect to pitch up in a competition final - dark, intense, tragic, as well as phenomenally challenging in technical terms - and everyone I know who heard this performance was blown away. I managed to miss it and will catch it on the much-blessed iPlayer - you can too, here.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Observing Pauline Viardot

Last week I had a call from The Observer to ask me to stand in for their absent critics Fiona Maddocks and Stephen Pritchard, which was both a surprise and an honour.

It looked like a quiet patch at first - just too early for the premiere of Lessons in Love and Violence - but closer examination revealed two concerts that couldn't have been more 'up my street' if they'd tried. One was the shooting-star French soprano Sabine Devieilhe at the Wigmore lunchtime concert in a programme based around the salons of Pauline Viardot, who happens to be a long-standing obsession of mine. The other was billed as a TED Talk with music: Cambridge history professor Sir Christopher Clark joined Brett Dean and the City of London Sinfonia for an evening of Beethovenian exploration at the shiny new QEH. Due to circumstances beyond my control, it was my first trip there since the hall reopened - and gosh, it's good! (And it really does smell like a shoe shop.)

And here's one of my favourite Pauline Viardot songs, Die Sterne, sung in French by Isabel Pfefferkorn with cellist Romana Kaiser and pianist Anna Reichert. I think Viardot's songs are the equal of any in her salon, and a good bit better than some. Devieilhe sang the best-known number, Hai Luli, and one of the Chopin mazurka adaptations, Aime-moi - the latter is a bit of a masterclass in why it's best to write words first and music afterwards - but there's a wealth of fantastic music sitting there, waiting to be explored.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Truly Philharmonic

If you've been wondering where I am... My beloved cat Ricki has been desperately ill. He is just home after 10 days in vet hospital and we're feeding him a lot of fish to build up his strength. I've been preoccupied, sleepless and unmotivated for blogging. Meanwhile, though, the Royal Philharmonic Music Awards are coming up next week, and the wonderful Rosemary Johnson is stepping down as executive director. I was keen to offer a tribute to her, so can only send my profuse thanks to Jack Pepper, our youth correspondent, who has written what follows. (This is a longer version of a piece which has appeared in the BBC Music Magazine website.) JD

A tribute to Rosemary Johnson, by Jack Pepper

Starting out in the classical music world is never easy. Commissions lead to commissions, performances to further performances, but this relies on an initial opportunity to get you started. There is no flame without a spark. In December 2017, one very notable inspiration in classical music, someone who has sparked many a career – the Executive Director of the Royal Philharmonic Society (RPS), Rosemary Johnson – announced that she will be standing down from her position.

Rosemary Johnson has led the commissioning organisation and music charity for 20 years, supporting over 100 young musicians annually through commissions, conducting schemes and bursaries. Rosie has overseen the incredible transformation of the Society from a small London-focused organisation into a nationwide community of music-lovers. 

It has become one of the pre-eminent forces for change in the classical world, not least through the annual RPS Music Awards, a ceremony that Rosie has placed at the forefront of the Society’s work. The Awards recognise the greatest achievements in live performance over the previous year, and Rosie’s determined and passionate leadership has ensured the accolades are among the most respected in the world. Since she took charge of the organisation in 1998, RPS Award winners have included pianists Stephen Hough and Maurizio Pollini, conductors Daniel Barenboim and Antonio Pappano, and singers Sarah Connolly and Roderick Williams. The list of winners reads like a who’s-who of classical music, and Rosie has played an enormous part in creating this. Clearly much-loved by the industry, every professional musician I have come across has smiled at the mention of her name. Her legacy is the enhanced reputation and voice given to classical musicians, and what a legacy that is to leave. 

The RPS has been one of the great starting points in my musical career, co-commissioning a composition of mine with Classic FM for the station’s 25thbirthday. Without a platform, without momentum and without the motivation this all brings, it would be profoundly more difficult to launch a musical career. 

I remember feeling rather daunted when, at a photo shoot at Classic FM’s studios in London, I was informed that ‘the Executive Director of the Royal Philharmonic Society will be arriving shortly’. There’s something about the long job title, as well as an organisation with such an illustrious history, that suggested a level of distance. The word ‘Society’ so often seems to evoke a rather sober meeting of serious-minded traditionalists, talking about doing things whilst not doing them. 

But the RPS is far from this. Rosie was the greatest advert for classical music from the moment we met. Here was someone who was willing to take risks, try new ideas, and who always wanted young musicians to feel supported as they made their first steps into the profession. This genuine support of their musicians is made clear by one fact; I learnt with surprise that a member of the RPS team attends every premiere of their commissions. What better way to make a young composer feel appreciated?

In promoting the work of new voices, Rosie has kept to the greatest traditions of the RPS. Founded in 1813, it was originally intended to encourage instrumental concerts in London at a time when no permanent orchestras or chamber concerts existed in the capital. With five permanent home-based orchestras, 21st-century London is a global music hub. At the centre of the city’s classical music scene is the RPS. 

Commissioning new works has long been at the heart of the organisation. The Society famously commissioned Beethoven to compose his Symphony No. 9, as well as Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony. Today, the RPS remains dedicated to the development of new composers, having commissioned 170 new pieces since 2000. Throughout the entire 20thcentury, the RPS commissioned just 16 new works.

Despite having a permanent staff that you could count on one hand alone, Rosie has given young musicians like me the opportunity to get our voices heard for the very first time. What some musical heavyweights would see as a risk, Rosie sees as an exciting opportunity. The classical world needs more people like her.

At a time when some question the future of classical music, Rosie is determined to make a difference. Where others comment on a situation, Rosie is busy getting stuck in. Perhaps most worthy of recognition is her deeply-held conviction that classical music deserves to be celebrated, that this is a genre we are right to feel proud of. This love of music is its greatest possible advert. It seems ironic that one of the key figures driving the RPS Awards has herself yet to be fully recognised. 

The RPS points out that the word ‘philharmonic’ describes a person or institution that is ‘music-loving’. With her extensive support of young musicians, her open-mindedness in considering new ideas, and her dedication to raising the profile of classical music, Rosie Johnson is undoubtedly ‘music-loving’. She is philharmonic in the greatest sense.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Nutcracking open

Alexandra Dariescu's virtual-reality piano recital ballet marvel The Nutcracker and I is off on a world tour soon, taking in China, Romania, Belgium, Germany, Austria (four performances in Vienna's Konzerthaus), Sweden, Australia and the UK (including, among others, the London Piano Festival and the Ryedale Festival). Above, the Trepak, with Alex at the piano and ballerina Amy Drew meeting some rather special friends. Full tour dates here.

Last year Alex decided to record a CD of the complete music - some of the arrangements have been specially commissioned for the project - with a souvenir booklet, targeted at the young audience she hopes will be attracted to experience a piano recital for the first time. But you can't put virtual reality into audio or she needed a text version of the story. I was more than thrilled when she asked me to oblige. The script, recorded by Blue Peter presenter Lindsey Russell, has been very cleverly woven into the music (it works even better than I'd imagined) and the CD was released yesterday on the Signum label. You can get hold of it here.

(If you enjoy this, you might also enjoy my other, somewhat longer piece of Tchaikovskian magical realism, Meeting Odette...

Wednesday, April 25, 2018


...I'm off to Glasgow to give a pre-concert talk about Chopin for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Concert Hall. Curtain-raiser for a gorgeous programme bookended by Smetana and Dvorák, and in the middle David Kadouch is the soloist for Chopin's Piano Concerto No.2. Matthias Pintscher conducts. I'll be telling the story of the young Chopin, the significance in his life and output of his 'Second' Piano Concerto (inverted commas used for a good reason there) and the various elements that went into forming his style then, and which would stay with him for the rest of his life. The talk starts at 6.45pm and the concert is at 7.30pm, broadcast live on Radio 3. More details here. It is actually, embarrassingly, more years than I'd care to admit since I last went to Scotland at all, and I'm looking forward to revisiting this vibrant metropolis, if all too briefly.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch to address the Wigmore Hall

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch
It's rare for any concert in hall in London, except the eclectic Southbank Centre, to present anything with overtly political overtones. So all credit to John Gilhooly at the Wigmore. Watching the cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, 92 and a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, address the Bundestag in Berlin a few months ago, he decided she must give the address to London as well, in English - from the stage of his hall. She will speak about her own experiences and the importance of learning from one of the darkest moments of human history.

The event, on 8 July at 3pm, will also feature her son Raphael Wallfisch (cello) and John York (piano) in music Bloch, Ravel and Korngold. It will be live streamed on the Wigmore Hall website.

Gilhooly says:

“After I saw Anita Lasker-Wallfisch's address to the Bundestag, I felt it had to be heard in London, so I invited her to give the address in English at Wigmore Hall. As a non-Jewish leader working in the arts, I feel it’s necessary to give a public platform wherever possible to highlight the dangers of anti-Semitism, and I am puzzled as to why other non-Jewish voices have yet to speak out. After all, the Jewish diaspora has done so much for this country, in the arts, sciences, politics, medicine and not least philanthropy. Anita’s words are so important to hear, as history has shown, time and again, that where anti-Semitism, racism and extreme views are on the rise, dark times are usually never far behind. Combined with powerful and appropriate music, this very special event is presented as a timely lesson for all generations and creeds.”

Having heard her speak several times before, including an interview I did with her on stage at the ROH Linbury Studio, I can promise you that you need to hear this, and be there if you possibly can.

Booking here.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Proms news: Roxanna rules the airwaves!

It's the Proms launch today and the great news is that the Last Night commission goes to our very own Roxanna Panufnik!

Roxanna rules the waves

She is writing a choral piece, Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light, for the combined forces of the BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Singers involving a poem by the World War I poet Isaac Rosenberg and lines from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.

Today's tension is reduced, of course, by the fact that the whole programme went online at 7am, so there will be no repeat of the little adrenaline rush that accompanied the opening of the nice fat brochure at the press briefing, let alone of the time I teared up there on seeing the words KORNGOLD SYMPHONY on a Proms page for the first time ever. Everyone is tweeting their highlights and I've had a quick zip through the website to see what jumps out. No doubt I will have missed plenty, so please forgive me if your favourite concert does not appear in this post...

For opening night there is another new commission, this time from Anna Meredith: Five Telegrams occupies the whole second half of the first Prom, exploring communications from the front line of World War I, involving chorus, orchestra, projections and youth choir, in collaboration with 59 Productions. Indeed, it's a season in which the Proms sets out its stall for the celebration of female as well as male composers, with 24 featured across the two-month season. It does seem extraordinary to think that amid more than 90 concerts, 24 female composers is still really a lot... Eight are world premieres from composers receiving their first BBC commissions, including a piece by the splendid Laura Mvula and one by Bushra El-Turk. Tansy Davies's 9/11 opera Between Worlds is represented by the world premiere of a new orchestral suite from it, entitled What Did We See? Among the longer-established names are electronic stars Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram, and there are pieces by Dame Ethel Smyth, Thea Musgrave - celebrating her 90th birthday - and Lili Boulanger (the centenary of her terribly early death is this year).

Women conductors? Some. Not a lot. Karina Canellakis conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Sian Edwards conducts the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra's Resound Ensemble in a "relaxed" Prom (explanation on site). Marin Alsop is here to work with a 'Proms Scratch Orchestra' in which amateur musicians can come and join in Shostakovich 5 with the BBC Concert Orchestra. The website kindly advises you to bring your own instrument unless you are a percussionist.

BIG stuff, which works so well in this setting and atmosphere, is laid on almost with the proverbial trowel. Mahler Symphony No.8. Messiaen's Turangalîla (with pianist Angela Hewitt). There's Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, from Glyndebourne; the Strauss Alpine Symphony, BBC Scottish/Volkov; the Brahms German Requiem, conducted by Richard Farnes. The LSO and Rattle do Ravel, with Mrs Rattle, Magdalena Kožena, singing. The LPO and Orozco-Estrada have the Verdi Requiem, notably with rising superstar Lise Davidsen (soprano). John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique presents an all-Berlioz programme, with Joyce DiDonato, among others. The Aurora Orchestra is playing Shostakovich 9 from memory. And there's a singalong for everyone, folksongs from Britain and Ireland - you can sign up to join in from 22 June.

Speaking of anniversaries, Bernstein gets a very thorough bonanza, the highlights including both West Side Story and On the Town, each with no less than the glorious John Wilson and his John Wilson Orchestra. Yes please.

One attractive innovation seems such an obvious idea that you can't help wondering why they haven't done it before: a concert focusing on the BBC Young Musicians of the year and the past, with a splendid cavalcade of winners and finalists from Sheku Kanneh-Mason to Nicholas Daniel and Nicola Benedetti and many more. Jess Gillam also gets to play in the Last Night.

Visiting orchestras: nice to see the National Youth Orchestra present with George Benjamin conducting an eclectic programme, and Proms favourites Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra on a return visit. The Berlin Phil is the biggest name, with Kirill Petrenko, and good on them for programming Schmidt's Symphony No.4 in one of their two concerts; and the Boston Symphony is hot on its heels, with Andris Nelsons and, not least, Mahler 3. The World Orchestra for Peace is back too, after a longish break, this time with a conductor less controversial than the last one and extremely fine, namely Donald Runnicles, playing Beethoven 9, Britten and a new piece by Ēriks Ešenvalds. The Bergen Philharmonic is here with Edward Gardner, the Rotterdam Phil with Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and the Estonian Festival Orchestra performs Arvo Pärt. The Minnesota Orchestra offers Bernstein and Ives, with conductor Osmo Vänskä. Teodor Currentzis and his Musica Aeterna make their Proms debut in an all-Beethoven programme, which will be - um - interesting. Best of all, the Budapest Festival Orchestra is back, with Iván Fischer, performing Bartók, Enescu and Mahler's Fourth.

More premieres - there are 42 in all: new works by Philip Venables, Rolf Wallin, Per Nørgård and a bunch of pieces commissioned from composers including Uri Caine and Mark-Anthony Turnage to complement Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, courtesy of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra.

Late-night Proms are often special highlights and this year we can look forward to Sir András Schiff playing the second book of Bach's 48 Preludes and Fugues. There's a concert exploring the sounds of New York City, one by members of the Buena Vista Social Club, and a visit from the Grammy-winning Senegalese singer Youssou Ndour. More ventures beyond classical include the rising jazz star Jacob Collier and oud virtuoso Joseph Tawadros. The National Youth Jazz Orchestra tackles Rhapsody in Blue, with Benjamin Grosvenor at the piano.

But there's nothing pop, nothing I can spot that would raise the hackles and headlines we normally start seeing in the tabloids around now. Perhaps they're worried about people dying of shock upon noticing the name of a pop group in a classical series? As one might say, plus ça change...except it could be that they're now rolling over and accepting that it's not worth the buss and fother.

Among pianists there are no big surprises - Yuja Wang, Khatia Buniatishvili, Louis Lortie, Bertrand Chamayou and Paul Lewis are there, and Seong-Jin Cho makes his Proms debut. Among singers, over at Cadogan Hall Dame Sarah Connolly makes her Proms recital debut. And watch out also for the wonderful Wallis Giunta singing some Bernstein. There are also talks to enjoy from writers including Sebastian Faulks, Salley Vickers, Patricia Duncker and many more.

The whole season kicks off with Vaughan Willliams's Towards the Unknown Region, a title which is kind of apposite at the moment. Can the Proms lift us, even briefly, above the morass of lies, corruption, greed, incompetence and stupidity that has driven this country into the mess it's currently facing? I bloody hope so. Two months of wall-to-wall musical relief will be very welcome.

If you can't get there, then as always everything's on the radio and a lot is on TV and computer.

Quick verdict: does what it says on the tin. A good, solid, enjoyable and interesting Proms season that does everything the Proms ought to do, without rocking the boat.

Pay your money and take your choice here.

Enjoy JDCMB? Your support, at any level, is warmly welcomed here...

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

If music be the food of love...when do we eat?

This is a perennial issue among those who spend more evenings at concerts or other performances than not. You need to eat. But when do you ever have time?

It's a more widespread problem than we like to admit. I remember interviewing a much bigger-time critic than I am and asking what the most challenging thing about this job is. Reply? "Working out when to eat. I've never cracked it."

Here is an extreme example, more extreme than usual. But frankly, usual is pretty odd too.

The other night I found myself in a position I'd never dreamed of. (Well... OK, yeah, I dreamed. Who wouldn't?) But there we were, the Silver Birch team from Garsington, glammed up in our silks, velvets and black tie, converging around 5.30pm in the Chandos Pub for our big evening as a finalist candidate for the International Opera Awards a few doors up at the London Coliseum. I've had nice things happen to me over the years, but never before been a member of a team in the running for anything like the "Toscars" (as it's affectionately nicknamed by the cognoscenti).

Of course, I knew as soon as I looked at my ticket that we hadn't won. The Coli is London's biggest theatre, and from row G of the dress circle it would take about half an hour to walk all the way down to the spotlit stairs to the stage, depending on the height of your heels. Sure enough, the Education and Outreach category was the first to be announced, and it went to...Opera Holland Park – which, incidentally, more than absolutely deserved it.

That was about ten minutes in, after the chorus of the Opera Awards Foundation bursary young singers had set off the proceedings with "Wach auf!" from Meistersinger, magnificently wrong-footing those who'd been preparing to stand up for the national anthem (a Your Highness was present). Final curtain was three hours later.

I'd had some soup and a sarnie before leaving home at about 4.45pm. This being London, distances are large and trains not always reliable, so you have to leave plenty of time for the journey. And this is what happens, time and again - if a more extreme version, as the awards started at 7pm and we were partying in the pub first.

• If you eat a "proper meal" at lunchtime, you fall asleep (at least, I do).
• If you try to eat a proper meal at 4.30pm, you're not usually hungry.
• If you try and eat in the pub, you can't talk to anyone because your mouth is full, and there wasn't really room in our little gathering.
• You can't sit in the Coli with your sarnies munching your way through the Toscars, especially not when Teresa Berganza walks in to collect her Lifetime Achievement Award and the whole place goes absolutely bananas.
• The interval is 20 mins and you visit the loo, bump into people and try to find the water jug in the bar.  You could queue up and see if they have crisps, but that would take forever and you'd have to down them so fast you might cough on the crumbs, which, needless to say, must be avoided. You could munch a sarnie somewhere, if you'd remembered to bring one, but even then you'd probably want to maintain your dignity and do it outside, and it was pouring with rain.
• More Toscars. Touching acceptance speeches from Brett Dean for his fabulous Hamlet, and from sopranos Malin Byström (Female Singer of the Year) and Pretty Yende (who won the Readers' Award). The intriguing sight of Serge Dorny, whose Opéra de Lyon won Opera Company of the Year 2017, presenting the prize for 2018 to the Bayerische Staatsoper, where he's shortly to take over as Indendant himself. And splendid performances from several stars including Young Artist of the Year Wallis Giunta singing Orlofsky's aria from Die Fledermaus in full-on Cabaret style with top hat, blazing presence and razor-edged diction. But you don't really want your stomach to start rumbling...

Wallis Giunta in a spot of Rossini - you don't want stomach rumbles when this lady starts to sing.

You can apply a policy of eating 'little and often', which is my usual solution. You should never leave home without a sandwich or a muesli bar or a banana. But there you are at the Toscars, and as the end of the third hour approaches you're feeling worse than light-headed.

What do you do?

• You can try and blag your way into the after-party - apparently there were vegetable crisps.
• You can go to the QEH and crash the Chineke!/reopening party, but there might not be vegetable crisps.
• Or you can leg it to the 22:33 home and thence to the tin of baked beans in the cupboard that you can hear calling your name.

The beans won.

We are possibly in a state of national cultural denial over people's need to eat. I've even been to weddings where the champagne has flowed...over a few dotted-around bowls of cheesy wotsits. Concerts and theatres usually start at 7.30pm, leaving you not quite enough time beforehand unless you can get away from your desk early, while making finishing time rather late to fit in a meal and the train home, or the other way round, without causing nightmares via heavy stomach and headache before bedtime. An 8pm start might give you time to eat, but then cause anxiety if you have a long journey ahead. A 7pm start usually indicates a substantial programme rather than an early finish - except sometimes on Sundays, which is always good, because we are also in a state of national cultural denial about people having actually  to go anywhere by train on a Sunday.

My survival tips:

• Always take a sandwich with you, or at least a muesli bar.
• Don't forget this.
• Don't have alcohol if you're at a do where there's plenty of drinks but no eats – unless you have remembered your sandwich and there's time to eat it.
• Pace yourself. Try to have several nights in per week, and cook a really good meal with wholesome ingredients and heaps of vegetables. Your health matters and so does your family's.
• Remember: if you do take your sarnie, then you can also crash whatever after-party is appropriate without fear of passing out.
• If everyone else is good at pretending to rise above it all and travel to higher realms, then let them. It's your stomach. Take responsibility. Take back contr...oh, whatever.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Positively brilliant

Last night the Queen Elizabeth Hall reopened in grand style with a performance by Chineke! which by all accounts raised the new roof high indeed. I couldn't be there because I had to go to something else (of which more shortly), but I'm pleased to offer an insider's view of what it was like to be part of that concert - because my husband was playing in it. He is, as you know, usually in the London Philharmonic. And my gosh, he had a good time. Over to Tom...

Chineke! with conductor Anthony Parnther (Tom is at the back on the left)
Photo: Mark Allen

So, my dear, some people were apparently quite surprised to see you playing in Chineke! But you are of an ethnic minority, technically - please explain?

Tom aged 24
One of the main misconceptions of Chineke! is that only black musicians may play in it; the mission statement clearly says “ The organisation aims to be a catalyst for change, realising existing diversity targets within the industry by increasing the representation of BME musicians in British and European orchestras.” I am sure anyone strongly believing in this, as I do, would be most welcome to participate, as either a performer or indeed as a financial sponsor.

I also feel a link with Africa: in my youth I was blessed with a splendid Afro haircut – my father used to say that I resembled the US activist Angela Davis... Obviously this stems from my Jewish roots. Going back thousands of years the Jews were undoubtedly descended from Africa. Hence my frizzy hair!

Chineke! players come from all over the world and are performers at the top of their game. Tell us about who some of your colleagues were? 

Tom with leader Tai Murray
Tai Murray, the orchestra’s leader is a truly marvellous violinist. At the age of 9 she debuted with the Chicago S.O. She has made a stunning recording of the Ysaÿe solo sonatas.
Mariam Adam, the first clarinet, has worked with Yo-Yo Ma, played as a soloist at Carnegie Hall, and is now based in France.
Samson Diamond, originally from Soweto, is now in demand everywhere as a freelance orchestral player.
Mandhira de Saram is the leader of the Ligeti quartet.
I loved the internationality of the orchestra. At least seven of the members are either born or based in Germany and Austria; from time to time I had to pinch myself – are we in London or Berlin?!

What it was like for you all to integrate into one orchestra? How is it different from playing in your usual orchestra?

I felt welcomed and very much at home from the start – musically it felt very similar to the high standard of the LPO.

What was the atmosphere like in the rehearsals and the concert?

At the start of the week I hardly knew anyone, and vice-versa. I must admit to enjoying that. I suppose after 32 years in the LPO, perhaps we know each other too well…
The big difference is that everyone is in Chineke! because they passionately want to be there – as opposed to simply doing “the day job” to which you are so accustomed, however good that may be.

Chi-chi Nwanoku
What did you enjoy most about it?

Feeling that together we had achieved something really special by playing exceptionally well. As a musician, that is always the most important aspect. I think Chi-chi Nwanoku can be extremely proud of what she has created here!

What’s the refurbished QEH like?

You might not guess it from looking at the place from the other side of the river, but it is really wonderful. I played in it a lot 12 years ago when the RFH was being refurbished, and it is transformed. The stage is now much more comfortable and spacious and as it is wider, going clean from side to side of the hall, the acoustic is even better. The wood looks beautiful and shiny and warms up the hall. The foyer is big and welcoming and much more user-friendly. Well done, Southbank Centre – it’s money well spent!

What do you “take away” from this experience?

I love the sheer positiveness of Chineke!. When I really enjoy a concert, I want to shout from the top of the tallest building and tell the world. It’s depressing if you know full well an orchestra has done a wonderful concert, you say “that was great” and some cynic chooses to reply, “Was it?” Last night after the performance all my colleagues in Chineke! were enthusing about the great concert. Their wonderful inspiration is going to make me even more determined to enjoy the rest of my career!

You can hear the concert, which was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, on the iPlayer, here.