Sunday, September 23, 2018

Ten things to learn from Das Rheingold in Brexit Island


The Ring cycle is about to begin at Covent Garden, and yesterday a friend kindly invited me to the dress rehearsal of Das Rheingold. Operas that feel pertinent to the world at large are rare animals in this stressed-out era, but the timeless issues that percolate through Wagner's two-hours-40-mins-no-break prelude couldn't be more relevant if they tried, despite concerning gods, giants, Nibelungs, Rhinemaidens, shape-shifting and a cursed ring, and Keith Warner's production makes much of this. So here are ten things our Brexity politicians (some of whom are known to adore Wagner) can learn from it.

Bloodied, worried and clinging to power: Bryn Terfel as Wotan in 2012
Photo: Clive Barda/ROH
1. Do not piss off giants. They are bigger than you and they can take hostages. You are overestimating your own power.

2. Do not break your promises. It's called cheating. Giants don't appreciate it, especially when they've given you a massive contribution to your world in good faith, building you a nice new palace and all.

3. So (see 2), don't go into an agreement with the express intention of reneging on the deal afterwards.

4. We are who we are through treaties and agreements. (This line is in the libretto and appears in large letters on the subtitle screen.) Don't ever forget it. Everything in our lives is underpinned by legal documents, treaties and agreements - from certificates for birth, marriage and even death to, er, who runs the railways. Lose the treaties and agreements and nothing works any more.

5. When diplomacy isn't working, because you're not a very good diplomat (see 1-4), you need to think creatively. Say a Nibelung has the ring of power and is causing havoc and sadism in the underworld: how are you going to outwit him? You might need help. Be careful who you choose for this exercise: make sure it is the cleverest person in your gang (not the bloody joker) and one whom everyone knows not to mess with, because it would be playing with fire.

6. Never under-write the roles of your under-goddesses. You may find that your very best contributor to your project only has a bit-part. If all you do with her is put her up for kidnap by the giants, you are guilty of sexist negligence. Think of everything she could do if given the chance.

7. What the heck are you doing putting your wife's sister up for ransom anyway? Especially when none of you can survive without the food she grows. Think things through properly before making rash moves.

8. Beware of the dragon. It's a humdinger. You need a real Heldentenor to deal with it, and you don't currently have one. So don't provoke it.

9. Love is more important than power. If you stop caring about people for the sake of building up your own wealth, it's going to end badly. Never forget: today's dragon is tomorrow's kidnapped toad.

10. A giant will not balk at killing his brother for the ring of power. And the one doing the murdering will probably be the one in the top hat.

Beg, borrow or steal a ticket. 

The first cycle opens on Monday 24 September and for Das Rheingold the cast includes John Lundgren as Wotan, Johannes Martin Kränzle as Alberich, Sarah Connolly as Fricka, Alan Oke as Loge, Lise Davidsen as Freya, Günther Groissböck as Fasolt and Brindley Sherrratt as Fafner. Tony Pappano conducts. http://www.roh.org.uk/about/the-ring

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Two hats, one post

Rattle, milking it. (Photo: LSO)
Critic's hat for the day here: I reviewed Simon Rattle, Janine Jansen & the LSO for The Arts Desk last night, but perhaps the most moving thing of all was Rattle's farewell speech for Lennox Mackenzie, who's retiring after an LSO career spanning nearly four decades. Read the whole thing here.

Other hat: on Tuesday 25 September Tom and I are giving a concert together in North Yorkshire - at All Saints' Church, Kirby Hill. Tom plays solo Bach, Beethoven and other things. I'm reading some of my prose-poems. The concert is named after one of them, VOLCANIC ASH, and is built around what happened to us when we were trapped by closed air space somewhere you mightn't want to be trapped - with themes including identity, history, trauma and brainwash. Yorkshire friends, if you like the sound of this, do join us. To book, please call 01423 326284 or 01423 323774.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Are symphonies from memory bad news for pianists?


Aurora plays from memory. (Photo: auroraorchestra.com)

If you want music to lift you clean out of your chair, go and hear the Aurora Orchestra play a symphony from memory.

The opening concert of their season, on Sunday afternoon, entitled Smoke and Mirrors, found them at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, delivering a theatrically staged event – in the first half of which, through clouds of dry ice, the brilliant singer Marcus Farnsworth travelled from Schubert's Der Wanderer to HK Gruber's Frankenstein!!. A narrated link described an erupting volcano, the skies that it darkened in 1816 and some glimpses of Mary Shelley and friends writing ghost stories by the lake. This storytelling's ability to immerse us in the world and the legacy of early romanticism proved vivid and atmospheric; Aurora has Kate Wakeling as writer in residence, and I assume she penned this dramatic casing. (You can find her work in their season programme - not marketing blurb but actual short stories, literary and most attractive.)

All this was tremendous fun. No musician escaped this little production of Frankenstein!! without having to don a silly hat or find a hobby horse ogling at her, and conductor Nicholas Collon had to turn into Superman, with cloak and red lycra underpants. Frankenstein!!, if you haven't heard it, is a bit like Kurt Weill mixed with Monty Python on speed. It's totally wonderful and completely bonkers.

But after the interval came Aurora's famous speciality, a symphony performed from memory, and it was Beethoven's Fifth. Whatever this concert's conceptual presentation, this was the absolute real deal.

Do you think you know this piece? You might find yourself reassessing that notion at such a performance. Even the arrangement of the orchestral forces is theatrical - the contrabassoon entering after the slow movement to sit with the double basses, and the piccolo standing prominently beside the timpani, her interjections in the finale all the more noticeable as a result. The finale is all Handel and Haydn to begin - this was a composer who surely knew his Zadok the Priest and his Creation's Sunrise episode - with a hefty dose of Mozart's Papageno in the coda, which is one big Haydneque joke (the never-ending movement idea later taken up by Dudley Moore, of course). The slow movement - to which Collon brought a lot of con moto, increasing the challenges for the already virtuosic string players - is a close sibling of the variations in the Appassionata, Op. 109 and Op. 111 piano sonatas, the note-values dividing more and more. 

Should one have noticed all this before? Assuredly yes (if you're a critic, at least). The thing is, when one aspect of what you're hearing makes you hear something in a new way, the brain starts connecting in new ways too, and you start questioning and listening differently and noticing all manner of things that you might simply have taken for granted.

No chance of taking anything for granted with this lot. The whole thing flew. At the end the packed audience - young, on average, and maybe not just because this was 4pm on a Sunday afternoon - got up and yelled. Aurora hasn't only pushed the envelope. It's an orchestral rock star.

My question is: if these were the self-same musicians, knowing the music every bit as well, but sitting down and using the music, would it sound the same? Unless we make them do that, one  can't say, of course. I've long been a little bit skeptical about all this, mainly because I was a pianist myself and pianists have been cursed with the necessity of memorisation since the beginning of piano-time, or at least since Clara Schumann and Liszt. No wonder people tend to think we are nutty and antisocial - we are always busy, stressing out something chronic in the practice rooms, trying to learn things from memory! In recent years, more and more pianists have started to think life is just too short and have been playing from a score, often on an iPad, and I've been fully in favour of this. Because they're right: life IS too short...

And yet...


If you've ever played in an orchestra, can you imagine learning a whole symphony from memory, standing up (unless you're a cello, bass or that contrabassoon), interacting with your fellow musicians, having to concentrate even more than you would be at the best of times, having to know not only what you are playing but what everyone else is playing too and how it all fits together, and being able to see everyone else because you're not having to stare at the music? I can only imagine what a certain orchestra I know well would say if asked to do all this, and I reckon it wouldn't be a pretty form of words. But these results are transformative. There's an equality between sections, a sense of everyone interacting the way they would in chamber music. It's not only a question of breathing as one entity, becoming one big animal with lots of paws, as a great symphony orchestra with top conductor can. It's a level of concentration and communication that pulls in the audience to be part of it too.

Pianist with music and iPad. (photo: cmuse.org)
So what are the implications for pianists? If you're playing solo, then there's only one of you and you don't have to choose between staring at the music or indulging in actual interaction with your colleagues and the conductor. If you're playing Bach fugues or Messiaen or Ligeti and suchlike, I wouldn't blame you one little bit for plumping for the old iPad. It won't serve as a barrier between you and anyone else and it will ease your mind and your nerves, which can only be a good thing. 

But the big irony is that for pianists, the convention is to memorise solo works and play chamber music from the score (indeed, the pianist is usually the only one who has the full score in front of him/her). While the set-up of the chamber music circuit would probably make this idea deeply impractical, I can't help thinking it should be the other way around. It's in chamber music that memorisation would be most useful to all concerned, facilitating that interaction. That's not to say it doesn't work as things are. It's just that in an ideal world.....

Well, we don't have an ideal world, in any way, shape or form. But Aurora shows that with enough vision, ambition and determination, transformative experiences are still possible. Bravi tutti.




Friday, September 14, 2018

Being joyous, outside parliament?

In these febrile times, I think it takes some courage to march around Westminster singing and playing the Ode to Joy. This is precisely what two brave Simons - baritone Simon Wallfisch and violinist Simon Hewitt Jones - and their friends have been doing on a regular basis for months and months and months. They are spreading togetherness and, well, joy, they say, to help heal this divided nation.

Given the grim future that's at stake for every one of us if the government pushes ahead with "hard Brexit", we should all go and join in!

Thursday, September 13, 2018

In Dicte's Denmark, the music's not so noir...

Aarhus Cathedral, with blue sky and bicycles

You may know, if you've ever looked at my profile, that I'm a Nordic Noir addict. And it so happens that Denmark – Aarhus in particular (the city of Dicte) – has long represented a home from home for me and Tom. His first job was with the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra, several decades ago, and he still goes back to play with them from time to time. I’ve just been there with him for a week and took in a hefty dose of vitamin D in that extraordinary Scandinavian sunlight. And I could hardly help soaking up an atmosphere that is so pleasant, so relaxed and so kind of wholesomethat it shows up, in no uncertain terms, just how batty things have become here in Brexit Island.

For instance, the Danes have no problem creating lanes in which their many cyclists can function without being squashed by lorries or running down pedestrians. It’s not rocket science. Nor, it seems, do they have any trouble building concert halls. The Musikhuset’s latest addition, about ten years ago, along with wonderful facilities for the (fee-less) conservatoire, boasts a splendid acoustic, a compact shoebox design and plenty of space backstage, complete with lovely Danish-design wooden floors throughout. 

Rooftops with Town Hall bell tower
I arrived just in time for the opening of the Aarhus Festival: a jamboree of music for all, street art, food, exhibitions, yoga, kids’ events et al, that takes over the town centre for ten days every September. One little proviso: I have to recommend that if you go for the festival and you value your sleep, try staying somewhere a bit out of town. We were dead centre, and an Irish band singing ‘Old Macdonald had a farm, ee-ei-ee-ei-oh’ at 1.30am wasn’t quite what we’d had in mind. 

But over at the Musikhuset it was a different story. The Aarhus Symphony Orchestra had joined forces with the festival and the Elbphilharmonie Summer Festival for some concerts with the American singer and composer Shara Nova, and as the festival’s curtain-raiser they presented a special performance attended by Queen Margrethe of Denmark, who gave a speech to declare the festival open. 

You can imagine the buss and fother that would have ensued at an event like this in London. In Aarhus, no problem. There was a little extra security. The smiley, extrovert monarch spoke from the podium with jokes and no notes. Shara Nova gave her all in Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Seven Deadly Sinsand some songs of her own, with the sympathetic conductor Andreas Delfs keeping a hand on the balance and vivid instrumental colour. Some people who don’t usually like ‘crossover’ declared themselves delighted by the whole thing – muggins included, very moved by Shara’s empowering, self-aware, open-hearted songs.  


With Shara Nova and Delfs, the Aarhus team had just become the first Danish orchestra to play at the Elbphilharmonie – and the recent signing of Leif Segerstam as principal guest conductor is another bright feather in their cap. As things are clearly on the up, I took the chance to talk to the CEO, Kristian Rahbek Knudsen, about how, in his two years in post, he has been pulling out all the stops to put the orchestra firmly onto the international map.

The opening concert for the Queen, he tells me, means a tremendous amount to the orchestra – as did the unusual excursion across to northern Germany the previous week. “It was a fantastic experience for everyone to play for a sold-out Elbphilharmonie,” he says. As for the royal concert, “This is the gala opening of the Aarhus Festival, but it’s also a chance to reach an audience of invited guests who might not normally come to our concerts: a chance to reach a lot of decision-makers and potential sponsors, and of course to mark that the orchestra is a significant player in the cultural life of the city and region.” 

Kristian Rahbek Knudsen
If you haven’t been to Aarhus, you mightn’t have heard the orchestra live before: they have hardly toured in years. “They have been concentrating on playing some very good concerts here in our hall, but now we are making it an orchestra for the entire city,” Knudsen explains. “We’ve been doing a lot of outdoor events, not just preaching to the converted. But we’re doing that through high-quality programming. 

“For instance I’m generally not a fan of the crossover genre, because too often you’re adapting material for a symphony orchestra and it’s never quite there, but what I love about Shara Nova is that she’s a composer in her own right: we’re playing full-blown compositions by her for a symphony orchestra. The genre is more towards the popular, but her compositions are brilliantly done. That’s what ties this programme together.” 

And taking Weill to Germany – wasn’t that coals to Newcastle? “We knew it would be challenging for Hamburg to take an American to sing Weill with Brecht lyrics in English in Germany with a Danish orchestra, but I think it worked tremendously well. It’s always fun to be a little naughty with programming!”

Other symptoms of Knudsen’s shake-it-up approach are one-hour Saturday afternoon concerts that are deeply family friendly, equally attractive for children, the evening-avoiding elderly and the parents in between. Education is at the heart of Knudsen’s aims: as part of the European Capital of Culture projects in 2017, the orchestra “adopted” all new babies in the city, sending parents an app full of music, and sending players out to give infant-friendly community concerts for them. About a thousand families took up the offer, says Knudsen, and the aim here is to follow the children with music up to school; and after that, every schoolchild in the city has the opportunity to hear the orchestra twice during his or her school days. Essentially the orchestra should travel with them until their education is complete.  

As for new forums for performance, the orchestra recently played at a heavy metal festival, performing music from cartoons and computer games - “We had an audience of 20,000 headbanging heavy-metal fans – they are traditionally nerdy and intellectual, with a lot of niche interests, including an overlap with the audience for computer games, and it was a huge success.” But the vital thing, he insists, is never to compromise on the standards: “We’re working on new formats and howwe present things, but we never go into dumbing down what we present.”

Musikhuset - interior (photo: CFMøller.com)
The orchestra seems to be finding itself working a bit harder than usual. “But when I took over, I had the distinct impression there was a huge appetite among the musicians to bring the orchestra out and create a much bigger awareness of its activities within the city,” says Knudsen. “We’ve also started up a fundraising initiative based on the UK/US model, and the musicians are queuing up to come and play for these sponsors. It’s something we needed to do.”

This is despite the fact that the organisation receives 80 per cent of its funding from the public purse – half from the government, half from the town. “We now have a suggestion from the Ministry of Culture to increase our funding for the next four years, through a dialogue we’ve had with the minister and a lot of key politicians in parliament trying to explain our situation,” Knudsen says. 

I wonder how to halt the bright green tint that is creeping over my skin with envy at the thought of the continual financial struggles of UK orchestras - which, let’s face it, aren’t going to get easier any time soon. 

Yet Denmark does need to fundraise. “I think it’s important to have a third revenue stream, besides public funding and our ticketing income, that is a solid fundraising operation,” says Knudsen. “Every cultural institution needs one now and it’s a good way of creating a buffer against any potential cuts.” Already he has seen results: “We’ve been very lucky. For the first time a local foundation is sponsoring the full costs of two chairs for the orchestras, and Leif Segerstam’s post as principal guest conductor has been partly funded by a charitable foundation as well.”

Segerstam. (Photo: auroramusic.se)

Pulling Segerstam aboard for three years seems a significant coup, alongside the recent contractual renewal of Aarhus’s well-liked chief conductor Marc Soustrot, also for three years. “Segerstam is legendary in many ways, and infamous!” Knudsen acknowledges. “But we had him here last year and it was a great experience. It’s going to be really exciting. We’re planning to do some live recordings while he’s here: there are several composers he’s never done on disc before so we’ll see if we can create some exciting live recordings out of that.” One of his hopes is that in due course the orchestra will be able to create an app on which subscribers can listen to its beautifully high-tech recordings.

“I would like the orchestra to be a force to be reckoned with,” he declares. “Aarhus is the second city in Denmark. If you look at second cities in the rest of Scandinavia, they all have internationally significant orchestras and I think we should be the same here.” Effectively, then, they want to be the Bergen Philharmonic of Denmark? “Certainly – and I think that is perfectly within reach.” 

Could we learn something from Knudsen’s ambitions back in the bigger but more beleagured UK? (UK population: 65m. Denmark: 5m.) Is it perhaps easier for a city the size Aarhus to build up its civic relationships with its flagship orchestra than would be the case in the competitive, stressed-out UK capital? “You couldn’t reach all the schoolchildren in London - but you could try,” Knudsen insists. “You could go some of the way. It’s important to see the orchestras as educators and builders of culture. The LSO has been very successful with that and I’d love to see more funding allocated by the British government to support such activities.”

Personally I’d like to see more funding allocated by the British government to anything that is not Brexit. “It’s a worrying prospect for the British orchestras in general, what’s going to happen,” Knudsen agrees. “I think there are ways to work around it, but it’s going to be disruptive. I can’t see anything positive coming out of it, and I think this is becoming clearer to the British public.”

Knudsen is well placed to judge: he lives in Cambridge and divides his time between England and Denmark. His wife is a neuroscientist based at the university and Knudsen himself was formerly a fellow there in chemistry. “I’ve lived in the UK for 15-16 years, so it’s home,” he says. “After my time in Cambridge I was doing a lot of work in business consultancy and I was wondering what the next step should be when someone pointed out this position. I was born in Aarhus, it’s my native town and I’d played the violin in the orchestra while I was studying – so I thought this could be a wonderful way to combine my various activities.”


A stroll by the Kategatt on Denmark's east coast
In forthright Scandinavian style, Knudsen remarks that when he came into the job, the orchestra was in “a bit of a pickle”, following years of consecutive cuts and a funding crisis. “The orchestra was burdened by a big debt. In 2017 we managed to generate a surplus and pay off that debt in one year, when it had been foreseen that we should do it over 10 years. Being debt-free is wonderful, and we are aiming to be on budget this year.” The increased audience during the European Capital of Culture year helped, he adds, and he has reduced certain costs, using fewer extra players. “But we’re trying to secure the orchestra’s long-term financial future and its position in the city, and I think we have reached that point.”

So how does he do it? “I think dialogue is important, explaining to decision makers what an orchestra does,” he says. “There has been a tendency in Denmark that the way of communicating has been angry shoutouts in newspapers telling the politicians how incompetent and stupid they are – and that’s not very useful! You can get a long way by having good and constructive dialogue with politicians, to explain what we do and what the benefits of it are. And we are taken seriously.”

Hallelujah...

The next step, though, is to create a wider, international awareness of both the orchestra and Aarhus itself, and what an attractive place it is to live. Are you a good orchestral player looking for a strong orchestra, a pleasing environment and a wonderful Scandinavian attitude to family life? Come and get it. Even the language is not as difficult as it might sound. Tom insists that it’s just like English, only 1000 years out of date (yes, I know, I know…).

“We offer a good salary, it’s a full-time, contract job, and it’s a perfect place to live and raise a family. You can afford nice, big accommodation, which would be impossible in London” says Knudsen. Harsh, but true. “We have four-hour rehearsals [UK orchestras usually do six hours per day] and it’s a fairly benign workload. I’ve seen how hard people work in London and it’s amazing.” 

Indeed, Danish society is set up to facilitate a work-life balance that’s fast becoming impossible in the UK. “I’ve seen so many of my female colleagues in UK giving up their careers to have children,” says Knudsen. “In Denmark you can have children and have a career. We have the infrastructure for it. 

“We’re going to hire more musicians and we have an international blend of players already. We welcome good players from all over the world to join us.”

Ready to audition? Please form an orderly queue. 




Sunday, September 09, 2018

Last Night of the Proms: musical magic among the blue berets

Roxanna Panufnik takes a bow. Photo: Chris Christodoulou/BBC

Well, we needn't have worried. What usually happens at the Last Night of the Proms happened again: differences are put aside, all are welcomed in with flag of whatever hue, and there's one great big jamboree of a musical party, where we get to join in. A few years back (2013, I think, was the last time I was there) it struck me that what actually matters in those audience songs is not the content, but the fact that we're all there and singing together, and singing with the professionals and the orchestra and, in this case, Gerald Finley and Sir Andrew Davis. Nothing brings people together like singing. Goodness knows why, but it's true and you can feel it, palpably.

It was a big night. Roxanna Panufnik's beautiful and very atmospheric new Proms commission, Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light, had its world premiere; saxophonist Jess Gillam must surely have shot to superstardom, music poring from every cell; Finley held the stage as only he can; and Davis looked as if he was back in situ after one day, not 18 years. 


Taster:
Outside the Royal Albert Hall blue-bereted devotees were handing out free EU flags. A great many people accepted them, while die-hards with the Union Jack looked on askance and muttered. But inside, all differences were firmly put aside: every flag under the sun was out for the Last Night party, along with the glitter poppers, an inflatable parrot and a model kangaroo.  On the podium, a familiar figure: Sir Andrew Davis, long-ago emeritus conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, owning the night again after some 18 years away, but as much at ease as if he’d tackled the job only yesterday. And his cavalcade of music celebrated the old, the new and, if not quite the borrowed, then certainly the blue – Stanford’s The Blue Bird, enjoying rare, richly deserved prominence. ..

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Last Night and some alternative words...

I'm off to the Last Night of the Proms, mainly because I think it's going to be fun (?) to write about it, this year of all years.
When I last went, in 2013, I found that one of the jingo-songs stuck in the craw somewhat - I love Jerusalem, but not Land of Hope and Glory. I mean, come on, even Elgar didn't love Land of Hope and Glory. So, as I like making up words, I made some up. Join in if you feel the same. (This is strictly tongue-in-cheek, by the way - just a bit of fun - and anyway, if I make up words, you can too.)
 
I love Edward Elgar, he's the man for me
He's our greatest composer, as tonight we see.
He grew up in Malvern, he was quite self-taught,
Then he made the big time, as is right he ought.
Then he made the big time, as is right he ought.
Let us sing of Elgar, let his soul fly free,
Let our song reach to heaven, wherein he may be;
Wider still and wider shall our message sound:
Music lasts forever, let this song shine out
Music lasts forever, let this song shine out!

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

What are you doing on Sunday?

Composer Lili Boulanger

Asking because those of you who are as exercised as I am about the proper recognition of music that's written by women might like to join this splendid initiative from Heather Roche and the Southbank Centre. They're having a Wikipedia Edit-a-thon on Sunday 2 September, with the aim of adding more female composers to the site's database. Annoyingly, I will be away in Denmark then, having an actual holiday (cloning urgently required). 

Here's what they say:
If you're in London, grab your laptop and come and join us at the The Royal Festival Hall, where we'll provide support and socialising for fledgling editors. Or: set your laptop up and participate remotely; we'll be live streaming the event via Facebook and tweeting throughout the day with the hashtag #ComposingWikipedia.  
Currently, only 17% of Wikipedia's entries about people are about women and only 10% of Wikipedia's contributing editors are women. Creating a Wikipedia entry is a simple and effective way to raise the profile of a composer. It's also not difficult to do: Wikipedia has become easy to use with a Visual Editor and lots of clear resources.  
If you'd like to sign up, please visit this link.

Pictured above, Lili Boulanger, one of the composers whose music is currently receiving wide acclaim and recognition in part thanks to this ongoing upswing of consciousness - a full century after her untimely death.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Dinner with Shura Cherkassky

Thanks, everyone, for your warm response to my post last weekend about Knightsbridge. In it I mentioned en passant that back in about 1992 a friend and I took Shura Cherkassky out to dinner at the Russian restaurant Borscht'n'Tears, and this has caused something between amazement and amusement, so I thought we'd better have a follow-up. In 1993 I was editing Classical Piano magazine (will give you the full story of that little exercise some day) and for one of the earliest issues I seized the chance to interview the almost-uninterviewable Cherkassky and put him on the front cover.

Somehow this interview has survived intact on my computer, so here it is. Fresh from the last century, other worlds, other mindsets - much missed. From Classical Piano, 1993...



He loves the hottest sun, the most exotic travel and spur-of-the-moment inspiration. And he would rather go to a nightclub than sit and talk about music. Jessica Duchen meets the 82-year-old Shura Cherkassky


Shortly after his much-celebrated 80th birthday a couple of years ago, Shura Cherkassky, a legend in his own lifetime, apparently walked into his agent's office and inquired, "Do you think my career's going all right?"

Cherkassky is never one to become complacent. And he never stops seeking fresh stimulation in life. It is not only his unpredictable, even eccentric, but always astonishing musicality that has made him legendary. Interviewers have been known to dread the prospect of tackling him, and one photographer refused to try again after the maestro nodded off during a session.

"I get bored," shrugs Cherkassky, at home in the small London hotel apartment he has rented for decades. "I have no patience for anything. Why don't I have my own flat? The answer is simple: because I have no patience. If I had a place of my own I would feel very isolated. I like to have people around, even if I hardly say hello to anyone – just that they're there. And if I need anything I just pick up the phone and ask the porter to get it. There is a restaurant. What would I do with my own place? A housekeeper would leave me because I keep the rooms too hot. I'm even difficult to go on holiday with because I like blazing sun. Most people can't stand it.'

Even the grand piano is rented: "Everything is rented. I don't care for possessions, it's too much of an obligation. Because I never know, I may leave on the spur of the moment and go somewhere. Really at heart I'm a gypsy. I like adventures. I get easily bored with ordinary things.' So how does a man with such abnormal impatience learn such a vast repertoire of music? "Ah, that's different – for my work I have abnormal patience," explains Cherkassky.



His great passion is travel. And his favourite country? "Thailand. I love Thailand. I love the Thai people – they always want to please you, and they never laugh at you, they only laugh with you. There is no country like it, none, none! I'd go there for a holiday any time except August when it rains. When I come back to Europe, to Italy or Greece, I'm bored. I like mystery, I like the orient very much.

"Why do I live in London? It's the centre of the world – it's civilised, it's comfortable. I don't take advantage of London, though, and there are so many wonderful theatres. But I don't know many interesting people here. I like interesting people, the people who attract me most are the ones who travel, who discover things.'

Quite apart from going on holiday, Shura Cherkassky has a schedule of engagements and tours which would be tough for anyone, let alone somebody of his years. But he is in the peak of health: "I never touch a drop of alcohol," is his explanation. "It's like an obsession, even if something is cooked in alcohol and it has evaporated, I won't touch it. And I don't smoke. Meat? Yes, I eat meat, but not too much – fish is better than meat."

The physically tiring thing for him, he says, is the constant round of backstage handshakes. "People always come backstage and they talk about their families, they say, 'Oh, my daughter plays the piano...'. It's boring. People say 'Come round and talk about music'. They don't say 'Would you like to see the town, go to a nightclub?' They think someone who plays Beethoven and Bach wouldn't be interested to go to a nightclub!'

Cherkassky agrees he has a reputation for being a musical eccentric. "Some people who go to my concerts say I can play the next night like a different pianist – not better or worse, just different. I never know how I'm going to play. I'm very unpredictable, they say. Yes, I am. And if you ask me why, I don't know. On the spur of the moment I can suddenly decide I'm going to make a diminuendo here. I used to shock people but I don't do that now because it's very bad. But I do some very odd things. The critics don't always like it, but the audience likes it. If I play too straight, the critics would give better reviews, but the audience would be less enthusiastic. The answer to it all is you have to be yourself."



He has never taught, nor does he enjoy listening to young pianists who want to play for him. "I'm too frank, and I can't say to their face that they will never make any good. Because you can tell, even if they're 11 years old you can tell immediately. And I couldn't teach, I wouldn't know what to say. I have no patience for anything. Have you ever been to Asia?..." Steered back to the subject of teaching, Cherkassky comments he thinks most performers do not make good teachers, "because you take it all out on yourself, you have no more energy to give."

Needless to say, he has no patience for recording studios either. "I don't have the inspiration to go into a studio and sit there and wait for a red light and a green light – I'm not very good at it. I'm self-conscious that I may make a mistake and have to repeat it over again." Most of the recordings that are now being issued are from live concerts, as encouraged by the late and much missed producer Peter Wadland, who worked closely with Cherkassky. Decca's discs from Carnegie Hall are a good example, though again Cherkassky is critical: "I didn't like the Chopin sonatas, but to my surprise the CD magazine gave me a rave review. But the encores, the short pieces, those are very good – Sinding Rustle of Spring, Moszkowski waltzes, just short pieces.' He reflects. "And Tchaikovsky's own arrangement of 'None but the Lonely Heart' – of that I'm very proud.'

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Lenny's Credo



It is Leonard Bernstein's centenary today. Above, the conclusion of his lecture series in 1973, in which as his 'credo' he predicts a new and wonderful musical era of eclecticism rooted in tonality. 45 years on, it seems he was right (though heaven knows we have other problems to contend with now that he probably couldn't foresee). Many of his lectures can be viewed online and I urge you to look them up: he was a musical communicator without compare.

The unanswered question? "I no longer know what the question was," he says, "but I do know the answer. And the answer is: yes."

And here's some music.



Friday, August 24, 2018

A palinka of a Prom

Joszef Lendvay (son) and Joszef Csoci Lendvai (father) in full flight with Fischer & the BFO
Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou
I reviewed last night's Budapest Festival Orchestra Prom for The Arts Desk: Brahms, Liszt and Lisztes! Wonderful to see the audience pretty much eating out of the hands of some real Gypsy violins and the phenomenal cimbalomist Jenö Lisztes, to say nothing of Iván Fischer's heavenly Brahms. And as a show of unity and strength in contemporary Hungarian context, it couldn't be bettered. Read the whole thing here: https://theartsdesk.com/classical-music/prom-55-lisztes-lendvai-lendvay-budapest-festival-orchestra-fischer-review-unity-and

Thursday, August 23, 2018

AGED 9-21? AUDITION FOR OUR NEW OPERA!

The cat is out of the bag! I'm writing a new youth opera for Garsington 2019 with the composer Paul Fincham and the company is now announcing the auditions, which will be held on 15 September.

So if you are or know a young person aged 9-21 who likes singing and stagecraft, send 'em our way, please. Details on Garsington's site here.

The opera is THE HAPPY PRINCESS, an updated adaptation of that ever-popular Oscar Wilde story, The Happy Prince [NB, the Garsington site currently says Andersen, but it isn't]. We hope it will be touching, fun, 'relevant' and full of beautiful new music by Paul. I've been having way too much fun doing the words.

Read about Paul and the audition plans here.


Monday, August 20, 2018

Knightsbridge March



The other day I went to interview a wonderful young musician in order to write the booklet notes for his next disc. We had an hour to talk about a very great composer, the challenges he poses, the eternal appeal he holds. The musician in question lives in Germany and was staying in a hotel in Knightsbridge, so I trotted off to the tube and got off at a stop I visit perhaps once every two years, if that. I wasn't quite prepared for what I found up at street level.

Start your week with the Eric Coates 'Knightsbridge March', above. It'll put you in a better mood than what follows, beneath. Because Knightsbridge is not like that now.

What and who exactly is Knightsbridge 2018 for? When I was a kid (OK, a long time ago, but not that long, surely?) it was a place we'd sometimes go to for fun on a Saturday afternoon or a day off in the school holidays. We'd park the car in a side-street and wander through the Harrods sale or the food hall, where my dad might buy matjes herrings or some sponge biscuits, and my mum might throw her hands up in horror at the tastelessness of its fake-Egyptian decor and the ostentatious displays of wealth on show. We might walk up the main streets looking out for an affordable shop in which to trace a good bargain on something useful like a smart raincoat or winter boots. I'd been to Knightsbridge, too, on a couple of dinner dates in the 1990s - one occasion that was a date date in a beautiful brasserie that I've never seen again, and once with a friend who worked for a music management company: we took the octogenarian Shura Cherkassky out to Boscht'n'Tears, a Russian restaurant that had apparently been a flourishing institution in the 1960s. That was an evening I'll never forget...about 25 years ago.

You know those designer shops in airports where the logo is huge, the clothes are literally chained up and there's nobody inside? That's Knightsbridge today, only it has knobs on. Sloane Street is a parade of fancy names - Prada, Zegna, Gucci, et al - and it's not as if you'd dare to go in if you're a normal kind of working journalist in your jeans and cardigan because there are what look like actual bouncers, never mind a security lookout, on the door. Anyway, why would you go in? The shoes are hideous: I surveyed some cream-coloured patent leather ultra-high heels with what looked like receipt spikes for heels, wide ugly-pink ribbons to tie them on and the label's logo in huge letters all over the back. Why would anybody want to wear those? How much might they cost? These places don't put prices in the windows. Who are these shops for? What are they for? What is the earthly use of them?

This was a Saturday afternoon, in August, when London is teeming with tourists. There weren't that many here, other than a large tour party of French students looking into the windows and laughing fit to bust. Some other interesting languages and accents did go past me, including Russian and Arabic. Occasional groups of women - mothers and daughters in some cases, ferocious people in heels in others - wore expressions of boredom, ennui and get-outa-my-way. A few clusters of youngish men in dark clothes, talking hard but doing nothing in particular, strode past: my guess would be chauffeurs off duty, or security bods in disguise. There was no traffic to speak of, except a few long, low vehicles in shiny black and gold zooming up and down making their engines roar for the heck of it. Who are the people who do that? What's the matter with them? Haven't they got anything better to do? If you'd watched McMafia, you'd have had the distinct feeling you were on its set and you'd have expected a film crew to turn up any moment. It didn't. This shit is real. This shit is happening in my city.

My musician and I wandered out to look for somewhere to sit quietly and talk music. The hotel had a posh restaurant, but no quiet place to get a cuppa. There was nothing, but nothing, on the main road. Eventually we went into Harvey Nichols - a shop that used to be pleasant and browsable with one's sister back c1995 (I even had Karina and Lindy going to 'Harvey Nicks' for a fun girls' outing in Hungarian Dances, written in 2006-7 - I doubt either of them would bother now). Everything is so beautifully presented in there that it's scary even to approach a garment to look at a label; you can't help thinking how excellent it would be if that amount of aesthetic care, expertise and money were to be put instead into the presentation of concert halls, theatres, colleges and schools.

We ended up in a coffee bar in the basement and did the interview. Yesterday afternoon I transcribed it and ended up with a splitting headache as I tried to disentangle my soft-spoken interviewee's words from the more than usually hideous thumping, wailing, deafening electro-pop music that blared out over us throughout.

The vacuity, the emptiness, the arrogance, the ostentation, the prices, the soul-deadening noise... What a place to talk piano concertos. My musician spoke gently, shyly, about the joy this music always brings him when he plays it, about the incredible, colourful range of emotions it contains, about how he and the conductor first met. And eventually I delivered him back to his parents at the hotel, and zipped back to the tube station. On the way home I stopped at the supermarket, where a young Romanian sells The Big Issue at the door and the well-heeled donate boxes of cornflakes or tins of spaghetti to the food bank collection point on the way to the car park, and picking out my fish and salad for supper I found myself wondering exactly how much money is being laundered though London these days and what will happen to places like Knightsbridge when we leave the EU, as I fear we really will next year (unfortunately I have no confidence in our politicians' competence to stop the madness before it's too late).

Meanwhile, there's this: many people in the British capital who have jobs can't afford to eat. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/workers-jobs-food-banks-money-afford-cost-living-a8494311.html

After our inevitable crash-out Brexit, when the medicine can't get to us and people start dying, there may well be a revolution. And then I will be pleased I saw Knightsbridge in 2018, because soon it won't exist any more. I'll remember, to tell new generations, what unchecked greed did to a once beautiful city. And then I'll listen to my young musician's recording, with all its sensitivity, humanity and communicative, poetic beauty, and I'll remember that that's why we went into music in the first place. The music will last and while we have it, God willing, our souls will stay intact.


Sunday, August 19, 2018

'Editorial Development': a view from the cat-tree

[This is a shared post with my Odette "shed" update page at Unbound, so if you've subscribed to the book, it will probably pop into your inbox soon...]

The other day I growled to my husband, "This book is driving me mad." He gave a shrug: "They always do." After 20 years, it's water off a violinist's back, and he retreats happily to practise his Paganini. Upstairs, though, I am in the middle of what is elegantly termed 'Editorial Development', but is, to me, the inevitable part of writing a book that is a bit like being skinned alive. The outer covering is pulled off and every bone, every vein, the entire network of connective tissue and nerve-endings, are under microscopic scrutiny. 

My editor has done a wonderful job with the manucript. She has been kind, encouraging, firm and to the point. She's homed in on issues that I sort of know about, but might not have focused on so clearly: for instance, I tend to speed up towards the end of a story, and that's not a bad thing, but it is not good if you press the accelerator pedal down so hard that the countryside blurs and your passengers can't see the thing they came out with you to see in the first place. Ghost Variations arrived back from its editor 14,000 words shorter. Odette has pinged in with an encouragement to make it 5,000 words longer.

Above all, she has made a point which I know that the legendary Robert McKee, the Hollywood screenwriting guru, would applaud: the stranger the story's world, the more its internal existence has to be consistent and convincing. 

This week I've been at my desk for long hours (and will be for this next week too, I expect), still trying to shake off the sore throat and annoying cough I picked up on the plane coming back from Australia, and attempting to make sense of a 70,000 manuscript in which the central premise does not and never will make any sense, and is not supposed to, but everything else has to be a hundred per cent watertight.

This probably sounds nuts, but I promise it's a crucial part of the whole Writer's Technique malarkey. For instance, I am asking you to accept a story in which one of the main characters is transformed into a swan during daylight hours and has been living under a spell for 166 years. But that means under no circumstances can I ask you also to accept that she could be blown 8000 miles from Siberia to the east of England in a single day. Not even the most extreme hurricane-force wind could do that. When I first drafted Odette, back in 1992, we had no internet, you'd have to go to a library full of good encyclopedias in order to check your details, and I had no idea how far it was from Cambridge/Norwich/Cygnford to Novosibirsk, let alone Irkutsk. Now it takes about 15 seconds to find out on Google Maps. 

In fact that wasn't something my editor picked up; but she did point out much else, and when you start noticing and questioning such things, you then start noticing and quesitoning others as well. And that's when you start checking facts on the internet, even though the basic facts - e.g., your heroine is 185 years old and her enchanter is probably about 200 - are totally, utterly impossible. 

I think this may be one reason it's called "magical realism". 

Next, I read the whole thing aloud. To the cat. Our old cat, Solti, used to detest being read to. After about two sentences he'd pad in and start meowing at me continuously. I never knew whether this meant "I wanna join in" or "Shut the **** up!" (The same is currently true for Madame Cosima and Tom's violin practice...) Ricki (pictured right) who has designated himself "my" cat, while Cosi is "Tom's", is much more patient. He'll sprawl in his top bunk and watch the birds in the apple tree while being read a nice, very long story, and only really responds if I happen to have used the word "suppertime".

Whatever he thinks of it, it's an incredibly useful thing for me to do. Again, it's the laboratory microscope of the Writer's Technique malarkey. If you read aloud, you read every word. You hear things - and if you are into music, this means you are aurally motivated and hearing things will offer insights that simply seeing them can sometimes miss (especially if you're trying to look at them afresh after 26 years). You notice images that are repeated too often, or phrases you've over-used, or daft clichés that stick out like a sore thumb [see what I did there?]. You feel the passages that jar, rubbing at your skin like mosquito bites. And you notice the bits that probably go on too long because you start wanting to check Facebook while you're reading them. Time to make judicious use of the 'delete' button. 

So, that's where we are in 'Editorial Development'. Now you know the painful truth, and I'm going back in to tackle the next 100 pages. Wish me luck and have a lovely Sunday. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Discovered: the 'holy grail' of piano recordings?



Mark Ainley of The Piano Files has just revealed the discovery and imminent release of something utterly extraordinary. A 'live' - i.e., non-commercial/studio - recording of Sergei Rachmaninoff playing his own music has long been considered by some to be the 'holy grail' for historical piano aficionados. Against all the odds, one has finally turned up.

It dates from 1940 and on it you can even hear Rachmaninoff singing along and speaking to his colleague Eugene Ormandy while playing. Marston Records will be releasing it in as part of a 3-CD set of the great pianist-composer's non-commercial recordings on 4 September.

Above, a taster video compiled by Mark. He says:

"I am delighted to share this announcement of the discovery and imminent release of one of the most astounding historical piano recordings that I believe has ever been discovered - one that I don't think anyone could have imagined existing. 
"For years there has been conjecture about a 'live' recording of Sergei Rachmaninoff at the piano - and what has recently been located is completely different than what might have been expected, yet also beyond what anyone could have imagined, and I anticipate that all piano fans and Rachmaninoff admirers will be thrilled at this phenomenal discovery. 
"...The playing is I believe the finest that exists of the legendary pianist-composer, so incredibly mesmerizing and intoxicating in its beauty, with magnificent refinement and exuberance, that I find it to be on a whole other plane from everything we have heard of him before."

Marston Records, introducing the video, says:
Rachmaninoff Plays Symphonic Dances: Newly Discovered 1940 Recording is a three-CD set which highlights Sergei Rachmaninoff at the piano playing his Symphonic Dances Op.45.   At a private gathering with conductor Eugene Ormandy, Rachmaninoff demonstrated just how he wanted his new orchestral work Symphonic Dances to be performed, playing a single-piano reduction of the score for a single piano while singing and given spoken commentary to Ormandy, to whom the work was dedicated and who would premiere it two weeks later.  The recently discovered recording of Rachmaninoff at the keyboard is presented twice in this set: first edited to conform to the score, and again just as the occasion unfolded, with Rachmaninoff jumping from place to place as he demonstrates, comments, and sings. The playing throughout is absolutely phenomenal - some of the greatest, if not *the* greatest, that exists of Rachmaninoff on record. Additional performances of Rachmaninoff’s works are also included, and the voluminous booklet includes an insightful essay by Richard Taruskin, author of the Oxford History of Western Music. Further essays include A Musician's Reaction, in which Jorge Bolet's pupil Ira Levin discusses this performance in the context of live vs. studio recordings, and a lengthy Note From the Producers about the recordings in this volume.   Other performers whom Rachmaninoff admired are included in this set: pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch in his stupendous 1946 BBC broadcast of the Paganini Rhapsody (from newly obtained source material in superb sound), mezzo soprano Nadezhda Plevitskaya, and conductors Adrian Boult, Dmitri Mitropoulos, Eugene Ormandy, and Leopold Stokowski.  Every known non-commercial recording of Rachmaninoff, including the important Bell Laboratories recording (a six-minute excerpt) of Rachmaninoff playing during a 1931 recital, is also featured - the 1931 performance featuring excerpts of Ballades by Brahms and Liszt that are absolutely mesmerizing.   “It is with tremendous pride that I release Rachmaninoff Plays Symphonic Dances.  I feel this is one of the most important achievements of my career.” - Ward Marston

Monday, August 13, 2018

Long flight lurgy

I haven't disappeared into the outback with my Anna Magdalena costume, promise. Got home last Wednesday morning from Hong Kong, suitcases intact this time. Trotted off to Oval to return 18th-century dress on Thursday - encountering, en route, someone so like the actor character in Odette that I thought maybe he was real after all (this is a frequent occurrence with my books: I invent characters, then find I meet them later).

And then: struck down with the Long Flight Lurgy. I don't know if there is any truth in the idea that the recirculating cabin air supply increases your likelihood of picking up germs that other passengers are breathing out, or if it's the 15-degree drop in temperature, but one way or another I'm down and out today and the wild sunshine of northern Australia feels like a very, very long way off.

Back soon. Holing myself up in the study with an opera DVD to review, lemsip and nose drops.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

AFCM#6: Being Anna Magdalena

It’s done! The premiere of Being Mrs Bach was yesterday at 5pm and it simply flew by. It’s almost impossible to sum it up...but the great reward, when you’ve dreamed up a project and you can see it in your mind’s eye, and then months later that image actually becomes reality and does what you want it to do - that’s a good feeling.




The original commission for Being Mrs Bach came through last summer from Kathy Stott and Tom and I took off to Leipzig to experience Bach’s environment as far as humanly possible. The trip made a big difference to the story, because there is information at the Thomaskirche, the Bach Museum and the city museum in the Town Hall that provides colour and authenticity that would not have been available to me from the comfort of my bookshelves. Anna Magdalena’s tragedy was that she gave her whole life to Bach and her family, only to find, first, that she could no longer sing - women were not allowed to sing in public in Leipzig - and then, after JSB’s death, she and her youngest daughter were left reliant on charity as, for some reason, the other children gave her little support. In 1894, when Bach’s body was exhumed so that scientists could measure his skull, hers was left behind. By the time he was reburied in pride of place in the Thomaskirche in 1950, anything that remained of Anna Magdalena had probably been blasted to pieces by allied bombing.

How to choose the right pieces from Bach’s gigantic output to include in the show was, to put it mildly, mind-boggling - especially with such an eclectic roster of astounding musicians available to take part. But as soon as Kathy let me know who my singers could be, things began to fall into place. The chance to persuade Roddy Williams to sing ‘Mache Dich’ from the St Matthew Passion to finish the show seemed almost too good to be true, and he kindly agreed to sing ‘Hat man nicht mit seinen Kinder’ from the Coffee Cantata as well. The glorious soprano Siobhan Stagg sang ‘Bist du bei mir’ - such a favourite of mine that we had it at our wedding. (You may have seen Roddy and Siobhan as Papageno and Pamina in The Magic Flute at the Royal Opera House last year....).




The Goldner Quartet are in residence - who better to tackle the legendary Unfinished Fugue of The Art of Fugue? The effect is devastating: this magnificent complexity unfurling in phase after phase suddenly peters out into silence with a few final notes on the viola. Daniel de Borah contributed not only two splendid solos - the chunky, good-natured E flat Prelude and Fugue from Book 2 of the 48 and the ubiquitous Minuet in G, beautifully embellished on its repeat - but also accompanied Siobhan and joined the Winterschool’s very accomplished student quartet and bassist Kees Boersma in the ensemble for ‘Mache Dich’. Guy Johnston played the first movement of the C major Cello Suite, just as Anna Magdalena remembers how she made fair copies, put in all the bowings and used to imagine that one day someone might find those pages in her handwriting and wonder if she wrote them herself... ;).

Funnily enough, the single most complicated part of the process was setting up the stage. We wanted everyone there all the way through for ease of running - we only had an hour - and it can be hard to tell in advance what will fit and what won’t. Solutions were found, lighting was planned, and everyone made valuable contributions to the placements and the flow.

And to judge from the audience reaction, I think it went pretty well.

It’ll be a wrench to say goodbye to Anna Magdalena and return her dress to the costume store, but I hope she may simply be awaiting a resurrection of her own, should any more concert halls or festivals fancy meeting her.

Onwards...and today I am giving the Winterschool a lecture about eight - or nine - wonderful composers across the ages who happen(ed) to be female.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

AFCM#5: Of trumpets, sheng and whales



Pity the group of youngsters in their little motor-boat and sea-kayaks who turned up for a nice, private swim on the deserted beaches of Orpheus Island. Just as they were getting their towels out, in pulled a Sealink seacat and disgorged about 200 festival-goers and a bunch of musicians carrying some very peculiar contraptions, which they proceeded to unpack and play.

Two trumpets, a clarinet with golden keys, a rose-gold flute, a pearl-inlaid bandoneon and an extraordinary Chinese sheng took up residence for about an hour, surrounded by ecstatic music-lovers who stood, sat, lay, or knelt at their feet, or went into the water and stayed there to enjoy the performances from the cool comfort of lapping crystal-clear shallows. Tine Thing Helseth and her new husband Sebastian opened proceedings, walking out of the waves and up onto the sand as they played a Norwegian wedding march (they got married in May and are just back from honeymoon). Wu Tong performed on a Chinese flute sitting on a high rock, a la Pan, and later mesmerised us all with his Sheng playing - an amazing, colourful piece we assumed must be a sophisticated new composition of his own. Later he told us he was improvising. Pru Davis played Debussy’s Syrinx, Julian Bliss an unaccompanied contemporary virtuoso piece that sounded like Messiaen (but wasn’t), and JP Jofre, after some solos, joined him to finish with Piazzolla’s Libertango.

The sun lowered towards the waters on the horizon, Katya went swimming, Lars fell asleep and Anna Magdalena Bach deeply regretted leaving her swimsuit behind, but had a good paddle nonetheless. Artistic director Kathy, meanwhile, had the look of a pianist who’d landed the best job on the planet, and I rather think she has.



I had a fascinating chat with Wu Tong on the boat: he showed me how the Sheng works. I may have described it as a kind of “bagpipe”, but it really isn’t. It’s a mouth organ. Literally. It’s a collection of pipes, in a round cluster, played by blowing with fingering as appropriate - a sort of mix of accordion, clarinet and church organ rolled into one astounding instrument about the size of a trumpet. It is immensely sophisticated and the lack of anything entirely similar in western music is rather striking - though Wu Tong tells me it may have had a bearing on the development of the organ in Europe, far predating its invention. Sample it and him here: https://youtu.be/mybsLx7RyIo.

On the return journey the excursion turned into a sunset cruise, albeit a slightly choppy one, and we took a detour to look for whales. The light dimmed, the planets brightened above, we could see the Milky Way from the upper deck, as well as Venus and Mars (which is closer to the Earth than at any time for ?xx years), and the starlight dappled the bouncing waves...until just as the last of the day was fading, a jet of water blew into the air nearby, a stampede to starboard nearly capsized us and a baby humpback whale and its mummy were there, ready to put on a display for us since they knew full well we couldn’t infringe their copyright by filming in the night. They danced under the surface, with smooth, dark backs curving above now and then, and let fly with joyous blowhole fountains, hopefully egged on by the oohs and ahhs aboard.



I don’t know whose bright idea it was to create a music festival in such a place, but frankly...I’d like to send them some chocolate.

Loads more photos on Instagram (my account is jessica.duchen). And now I am off to make final preparations for Being Mrs Bach, which is at 5pm TODAY at the Townsville Civic Theatre. Til later...