Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Dubai or not Dubai, that is the question

When the composer Joanna Marsh moved to Dubai, she found her whole perspective shifting towards life, music and more. She has just written a new piece to mark the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage in Britain, with a libretto by David Pountney - Pearl of Freedom, being premiered at St John's Smith Square tomorrow - and I was keen to get her to tell us a bit more about writing on a feminist topic from the Middle East. Here's our e-interview.

Joanna Marsh in Dubai.
Both photos from joannamarsh.co.uk
JD: What prompted you to write a piece about Emily Davison in particular? And how did this opportunity come your way?

JM: Emily Davison was actually part of the brief. Rupert Gough, (the current Director of Choral Music Royal Holloway, University of London) came to a performance of mine last May and mentioned that they were planning to commission a piece to coincide with the anniversary of the Representation of the People Act as Emily Davison was an alumna of the college. He asked whether I was interested.

JD: Your librettist is David Pountney - what was it like to work with him? Please could you describe the collaborative process?

JM: This is the second piece I’ve worked on with David and it felt completely different to the last one. We had a few conversations about which were the best research materials were, I sent him a book or two that I had come across and we looked through various films and bits of footage footage. He came up with the idea of using the extracts of diaries, news reports and anecdotes to recount the events leading up to the Epsom Derby of 1913 with very little, if anything, invented. There was a huge amount of material to choose from. Most of our discussions were about what could be cut without great loss. It was all very calm and considered.  

Not so the piece before which was the first time I worked with David, on My Beautiful Camel. This was a wacky comedy set in Dubai; a story I had devised with the new Dubai Opera house in mind. His libretto was a triumph of wit and humour and his experience of a lifetime in opera meant that the structure was great and did all the right things. (That has been a great bonus of working with David actually; he is brilliant on what will and won’t work dramatically). However there was quite a lot of toing and froing over the characters and their behaviour; what they would or wouldn’t be likely to do or say in the UAE etc. And there were a few really rude words that I kept trying to edge out but he wanted to keep in. He did eventually agree to dial down some of the sweariness but I felt weirdly square having those conversations. Swearing wasn’t really an issue with the Emily Davison piece!

JD: Musically, how have you approached the project? What were the biggest challenges in it for you? And has it developed/extended/changed the way you compose at all, and if so, how?

JM: From conversations I have had with colleagues I think most, if not all, composers sit there at the beginning of the composition process trying to remember how to begin. The process feels oddly unfamiliar every time. I find it very similar to a chess game. You start with an opening gambit and a rough idea of what might follow but you can’t see all that far ahead. The landscape can change in an instant as you realize you need to follow up on certain ideas and leave aside others you had thought might work. But having eight episodes of text in front of me was helpful with Pearl of Wisdom. It was visible on hard copy where the moments of greatest intensity needed to be, where the momentum had to build or relax. The conundrum was how to create a piece that felt musically balanced.

Every piece provides its own learning process: you are saying something you have not said before, it is always new terrain.

JD: How does the work fit in to your output in general - for instance, are feminist topics recurrent for you, or is this the first time you’ve tackled one?

JM: I haven’t worked on a piece with a specifically feminist topic before. The only piece I have written with political overtones was The Tower, for choir and brass, which was about the Burj Khalifa. I had just arrived in Dubai and felt ambivalent towards the place at that time. The Burj was only half constructed and something about its vast, monolithic hulk drew to mind the former greatest tower of the Arab world, the Tower of Babel.

For the text I made an amalgamation of different sources that recounted the construction of Tower of Babel by slaves in their thousands. Some of the texts were rather hard hitting, for instance one spoke of a woman having to give birth and keep on working at the same time.

JD: How did you come to be based in Dubai and how do you feel about living there?

JM: I wasn’t keen to move to Dubai. When my husband was approached for a job out there I thought that visiting might be good ‘interview’ practice’, i.e. I was up for a trip with him to look round. But when he was offered the job I was a bit shocked. Terribly naïve of me! On top of that, many friends were suggesting it was not an advisable move for a composer. But I bit the bullet and tagged along, telling myself it would only be for a few years, maybe three, max.

But out in Dubai life immediately felt quieter and less internally pressurizing, as if I was away the ‘rat race’. There was a sudden expansion of my world, both geographically and internally. From a distance I felt like an onlooker on classical music scene and realized how profoundly I was grateful for it. I was no longer concerned about how I might fit into it, any preoccupations like that were removed as irrelevant. I just focused on my writing and that was freeing.

JD: What perspective does Middle East life give you on societal attitudes towards women and especially towards women in music?

JM: Everything shifted in my head when I learned Arabic. Up to that point I felt that Arab culture was an exotic side-show that friends who came to visit might be interested in seeing. I felt very detached from it. But the language is completely tied up in the culture and by learning it you turn the handle of the door and walk in to people’s lives rather than tapping on the window and waving from the outside. I found a real appetite for learning and threw myself into situations which I would formerly have found a bit disconcerting. I remember one day getting really frustrated by my speed of learning and went off banging on all the doors of our road to find someone willing to let me practice on them. I found Rula (from Jordan) now one of my best friends. Our conversations swing around between Arabic and English, full of the usual neighbourly gossip and life plans.

The majority of older Arab women across the Middle East are beholden to the males in their family, fathers or husbands with expectations that to us look like something out of the 1950s. But interestingly, there is a new generation in the Gulf who have been educated in the West, particularly in America and Britain. They retain their respect for their society’s traditions but have a broader perspective. Young Emirati women in particular have real drive and aspiration, and the city supports them with programmes designed to accelerate their career development. They are demographic that is moving forward with the greatest momentum. I am sure we will see significant social change in the Gulf over the next 10 years because of this.

Arguably the two most influential Middle Eastern artists of all time are women, Umm Kalthoum (Egypt) and Fayrouz (Lebanon). They are loved and respected over the whole of the Arab world. The language of Middle Eastern music interests me increasingly. I haven’t used it in my own music before as it felt like cultural appropriation but I am toying with the idea of borrowing a few idioms for a piece I am writing later this year.

JD: Do you think Dubai will become a more important centre for musical life in the years ahead?

JM: Now that there is a venue, the Dubai Opera, Dubai has a presence in the classical touring scene. That has already changed the perception of the place with a strong message that the programming now caters for an aware and educated public, (for example bringing BBC Proms to the Middle East). There has been classical programming in the UAE before, for example at the Abu Dhabi festival which is only an hour’s drive from Dubai, but Dubai has not generally reflected the programming you might find in a major Western concert hall. An iconic venue sends out a strong message but the fact that 1000 people will attend a concert in Dubai given by the BBC Singers suggests that there is a hunger for quality.

JD: The issue of gender equality in art music has become gigantic these past few years. Do you think we’re seeing a sea-change in the climate at last?

JM: It looks that way and that certainly gladdens my heart.  I have noticed a lot of noise on social media and I have been seeing posts on this from friends in the music business. But I only tend to fly back to England for premieres and spend some time during the summer when schools are on holiday so it’s difficult to get the true temperature on this issue.

My own issues with working as a composer over the last ten years have been specific to the difficulty of being a composer based in a country with no classical music tradition. The fact that I am a woman is incidental and actually hasn’t really made any difference to my work in Dubai.

JD: Any other forthcoming events you'd like to mention?

JM: I have a residency at Sidney Sussex Cambridge and the college choir is recording some of my choral music in March for release in October 2018 on Resonus. The disk will include pieces for Fretwork who are accompanying a few of the choral works.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Brexit and the Arts: no. 1 in the List of Shame

...oh, look.

It's our very own London Philharmonic Orchestra, whose Australian CEO, Tim Walker, is quoted in a Telegraph article extolling the "opportunity for orchestras to escape EU red tape and re-engage with the world". 

What the actual ****?

Here, in the interests of balance, is a report from the ISM corporate members' Brexit round table discussion, exploring some of the concerns at stake, including the potential loss of flexible travel, the potential loss of opportunities for higher education, the increase in bureaucracy for Brits working abroad and the general, bewildered impression overseas that Britain has lost its mind.
Plus more from its #freemovecreate here: https://www.ism.org/news/parliamentary-committee-backs-flexible-travel-for-the-creative-industries-post-brexit

And here is the ABO report on the implications of Brexit for UK orchestras, which contains a great deal of very important reading. http://abo.org.uk/media/128619/ABO-Brexit-report.pdf

I have some questions for Tim next time I see him - but, things being as they are, it's all in the open, so here goes.

-- There's nothing wrong with being positive and looking for opportunities. I value your optimistic stance. But I would like to know to what extent the Torygraph has taken your words and twisted them to fit its own world view - and to what extent it has not.

-- What is the management doing to support the EU citizens who are long-standing members of the orchestra, given the current bargaining-chip status foisted upon them by our government? You have members from Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Hungary, Latvia, Spain, Ireland, Sweden and Bulgaria. How do you think they'd feel if they thought you, their own CEO, were part of the movement that is making life so traumatic for EU citizens in Britain now?

-- The orchestra has long been going to China almost annually, so how exactly is this part of your brave new Brexit world?

-- How is the orchestra going to manage the costs and bureaucracy of customs when transporting its equipment if we get a hard Brexit that forces us to leave the Customs Union? This will mean more red tape in Europe, not less - as has been roundly proven many times in the past 19 months. And will the LPO lorry not be stuck on the M20 outside Dover for days in each direction, with all the other truckers?

-- In the same field, costs will be higher. Government coffers will be depleted as the City workers who can longer function here depart, taking with them the tax revenues they'd have provided. This will keep public investment at rockbottom for many years to come and in the arts the chances of your public grant increasing are frankly zilch. You'll need to fund all this from elsewhere. I do hope you're on the case?

-- How are you going to replace lost sponsorship from European organisations? We have heard rumours that a planned recording recently fell through because a sponsor decided not to stump up for a British orchestra.

-- How are you going to persuade a world-class conductor to come here and take over from Vladimir Jurowski when he goes, knowing their earnings will be worth so much less outside Brexit Island?

-- How are you going to continue to attract and retain such fine players? You will lose the interest and enthusiasm of the best young European orchestral musicians, who won't have the automatic right to come and work here. While we appreciate that there are many good foreign players in the orchestra from the Far East and America, the chances are that in the long term, standards will fall as fewer players will be applying to join.

-- Conditions for the musicians are already quite poor compared to those in mainland Europe. And most of the younger recruits can't afford to live in London; they spend much time and energy commuting from Lewes, Tonbridge and the like. How can you ever improve their lot if all that revenue disappears?

-- How are you going to replace the bums-on-seats that will fall victim to economic uncertainty and the lack of business confidence? In the end you need your audience. Numbers are already down this season; it appears that people are not buying anything in the way of optional extras, since Brexit has devalued the pound and sparked inflation with which earnings do not keep pace.

-- You have done much for this orchestra in artistic terms over the years. It's currently in better shape than I have ever heard it (with the one exception of Solti's Mahler 5 in 1988). You've facilitated Jurowski's leadership and taken excellent risks with programming. You've made the LPO, with Jurowski, into currently the best orchestra in London. All this achievement risks being squandered in the slag-heap of division that Brexit has sparked. Why? Why throw it all away?!?

-- In this article you do not categorically say you voted for Brexit, but neither do you categorically deny it. Did you, or did you not, vote to strip your UK members of their automatic right to live and work in 27 other European countries? If you did, do you believe they and their families will ever forgive you?

Marin takes Vienna

Marin Alsop's selfie from the Last Night of the Proms
Heartening news this morning that Marin Alsop has been appointed chief conductor of the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. Vienna, despite all the glories of its musical history, has never exactly been renowned for the heights of its progressive gender egalitarianism, so this announcement carries some extra heft. She'll be taking over from Cornelius Meister and will assume the post on 1 September 2019 for an initial three years - and will, of course, be the orchestra's first female chief conductor.

Now we need more splendid conductors who happen to be female to be elevated to prominent posts, where they will be worth their weight in gold both as role models for the future and as musicians in their own right and their orchestras'. Incidentally, there may well be some London orchestra jobs up for grabs in the next few years - one of them appears to have a vacancy right now - and the opportunity will be staring them in the face. Let's hope a manager or two has the foresight to approach the right person.

Jude Kelly, as you know, is leaving Southbank Centre to concentrate her energies on WOW - the Women of the World Festival. In a thoughtful interview with the Guardian the other day, she said it's not enough to be a feminist: you have to do something.

To that end, I've done something very small that I hope will be reasonably useful: I've added a sidebar section here on JDCMB devoted to resources for women in the music world. You can use this as a one-stop-shop to click through to sources of funding like the PRS Foundation's Women Make Music and the Ambache Charitable Trust, courses like RPS Women Conductors, projects like Dallas Opera's Women Conductors Institute and more. I'm on the lookout for links to add, so if you know of one that ought to be there please send it my way, preferably via Facebook or Twitter. This is about organisations that can offer support and development to many, rather than individual artists' websites. But you'll also find there a link to my Women Conductors List (it runs to well over 100 names and sites) and that is always open to updating with individual names. Thanks very much for taking a look.

Thanks, too, for the powerful response to yesterday's shoulder post. I now have recommendations of at least 10 different osteopaths!

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Sunday, January 28, 2018

Shouldering the pain

I've done something unspeakable to my shoulder. It may be a delayed reaction to the return journey from Johannesburg last week, with bad seat position overnight plus some ungainly moves with a heavy suitcase at Heathrow. Yesterday I spent in a fog of agony and the strongest over-the-counter painkillers Superdrug could provide, thanks to which I managed to attend a wonderful performance of Das Rheingold by the LPO/Jurowski at the Festival Hall, but without much brainpower to respond.

Friends have been kindly suggesting all manner of treatments, but I'm hesitating. That's because the very word "chiropractor" brings back a whopper of a memory from my college days: my sorry year and a half trying to recover from tennis elbow as a music student, in a university that should have known better, in a town that loathed its students on principle.

It's struck me recently - notably in the Hammerklavier project and the Korngold Violin Concerto - that sometimes we don't play the music that's there. Instead, we play our attitude to it, or what we think the right attitude is. It doesn't often do musical expression much good. That's how we get "Beethoven's Hammerklavier: I Respect It But I Don't Love It" performances, as well as deeply destructive "Korngold Is Hollywood Which Is Sentimental, So Let's Add Sugar" recordings. In both cases, the notion could not be further from the composer's intentions. We're not playing Beethoven or Korngold. We're playing our preconceptions about them. Which obviously is a rather rubbish thing to do.

Why is that relevant to sore arms? Well, it shows how our minds sometimes work. It becomes relevant when the attitude being expressed in professional performance is not to a piece of music, but to a person, and the issue is not playing a concerto or sonata, but treating a medical condition. What follows is not to denigrate the thousands of excellent, devoted and disinterested health workers who look after us all in difficult conditions day and night. It is one experience that occurred 30 years ago. I don't know how widespread such experiences are - but it seems unlikely that I'm the only person who ever encountered such a situation.

The correlation of physical to mental health - and, indeed, mental attitude - is powerful and merits the deeper investigation it has received in recent years, but it seems to be still much misunderstood. And it can work both ways. Blame the physical alone and you may miss a psychological component. But any tendency to blame the mind first and foremost would risk missing very real physical issues. In the year and a half I spent trying to recover from my tennis elbow - 1986-87 - I also came down with glandular fever. The first reaction from every practitioner I consulted in that town was that "it's all in the mind". I don't know how they'd reached that conclusion when all I'd said was that I was a second-year music student, I had a sore throat and a chronic fever and my arm hurt. They sent me to the university counselling service. I sat there saying I had a sore throat and a chronic fever and my arm hurt.

If you are a music student in a place notorious for its privilege, where everyone outside those walls - including, it appeared, some GPs and some 'alternative' practitioners - expect those from the university to roll in being entitled and stuck-up, it can be very difficult to get past this expectation. They don't see the actual person. They may not even see the injury. They see what they expect to see.

I tried the Sports Injuries Unit. Yes, there are designated hospital units for people who've sustained injuries pursuing a physical activity such as sport and they'll take remarkably good care of you if you've been playing rugby or rowing or whatever. But for a painful case of tennis elbow acquired through over-assiduous practising of the Chopin 'Revolutionary' Etude, you'd be shoved in a corner with a grudging ice-pack and some slightly ineffectual ultrasound, with tut-tutting because you haven't just injured yourself that day, you've been suffering for weeks (while you tried to get appointments for some treatment), and that's not really in their remit. The psychological message delivered with that ice-pack, surrounded by big chaps with "Football Is Life" t-shirts, is roughly: sports are good and a nice hobby, so we'll support that, but what do you mean music is your life? "I got my sprain playing centre forward. What about you?" "Playing Chopin." "Yer wot?" (The Eighties were a more polite decade than the present one, even at their most objectionable.)

Then I tried a chiropractor. I found myself facing a huge bloke from Yorkshire with a face like bacon and hands like beefsteaks, who said it was all in my neck - and proceeded to make certain that it would be. He should have been a butcher. I've never experienced, before or since, such pain at the hands of another human being (and I know I'm lucky in this respect), let alone someone who charged money for inflicting it. I remember coming out of that session dizzy and nauseous, knocking on the door of the nearest friend in the nearest college and almost passing out on her floor. Perhaps he was a rogue or a quack, I don't know, but I will never, ever try a chiropractor again.

Back in London for the holidays, I went to the family GP who'd known me since I was born. He did a blood test - which the university town GP hadn't done before sending me for counselling - and it revealed a virus of the glandular fever type. For that, there's not much you can do except take fever-reducing pain-killers and rest up with herbal tea. He prescribed anti-inflammatory pills for the arm, which helped a bit, if temporarily, and suggested a cortisone injection. I declined because a violinist in our circle of friends had had a cortisone injection in her arm for a similar problems: a mistake was made and she was left unable to play at all. But through our family GP I should probably have accepted it. I've had cortisone injections since then, carefully prepared by disinterested medical professionals with scans etc, for other problems that cleared up instantly as a result.

Still at home, I tried acupuncture next, doing a reasonable imitation of a porcupine splayed out on a table unable to free itself of its spines. They said it wouldn't hurt. It did. They said it wouldn't bruise. It did: I came out with a plum-and-charcoal-coloured hand. They said it would rebalance the energy to make the pain better. It made it worse. I've often been assured of the wonders of acupuncture since then, by some eminent musicians whose problems have been cured by it, but I think I'll give it a miss.

One day I went into a chemist to look at various on-the-shelf remedies in case I'd missed something. In a little book called 'Homeopathy for the Family' I found a recommendation for "pains in ligaments". I don't actually believe in homeopathy, but as I'd tried almost everything else, I thought I'd give it a whirl. I bought a little bottle of tiny white pills, which cost about £1.50. Two weeks later I was better.

I'm not recommending homeopathy, though. It hasn't worked for me for anything else since. I think the difference here was that at this stage I wasn't putting myself in the hands of people who, due to an institutional loathing of young people who dared to study music and play the piano, had quite possibly set out to make our conditions worse. Such an idea was absolutely unthinkable at the time. But looking back, I can't help wondering if that was the actuality behind the scenes.

My heart goes out to musicians who are suffering physical injuries and navigating minefields as they seek a solution. Today, three decades on from my experiences, the understanding of music as a physical pursuit that can give rise to physical injuries has been transformed and institutions such as the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine, Help Musicians UK, the ISM and the Musicians' Union, as well as the conservatoires themselves, are brilliantly organised and supportive if you are unlucky enough to need treatment, advice, counselling or financial aid for time off. But it's sobering to think that after 30 years, I am still angry about what happened to me then.

Meanwhile, I don't know what I've done to my shoulder, but I am leaving it to voltarol and co-codamol for a few days and will avoid heavy lifting for a week or two. At least now I don't have to practise the 'Revolutionary' Study.

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Saturday, January 27, 2018

Sounds of Silence - a guest post for Holocaust Memorial Day, by Jack Pepper

It's Holocaust Memorial Day and our occasional Youth Correspondent, Jack Pepper, has sent me an article for the occasion. When many of us feel lost for words even today, facing such horror, Jack (who's 18) has encapsulated the pain of these memories most eloquently. Over to him...

Sounds of Silence
Jack Pepper

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day and we should reflect on the tragic loss of musical talent amongst the millions who were slaughtered – a loss that amounts to more than a statistic

Having visited Auschwitz-Birkenau myself, it became clear that we can never truly comprehend what happened there. Although we musicians are eager to speak of the undeniable power of music to heal and bring hope, our art could do little to ultimately save the lives of so many talented musicians in the Holocaust. That is perhaps what makes it so shocking. The Nazi machine did not care for expression, talent, potential or individuals. Music is perhaps the ultimate expression of our humanity – an “outburst of the soul”, as Delius put it – and so it seems to me symbolic that even music could not truly act against what happened. Music is the strongest form of expression, something which touches people of all cultures and backgrounds; it is a sign of the monstrosity of the Holocaust that even music was powerless to prove to the perpetrators that their victims were normal human beings. When music fails, emotion has failed. The “soul” has been suppressed.

For Holocaust Memorial Day, 27 January – the day that Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated – it is right that we reflect upon the individual stories of those who were so cruelly taken away. The Holocaust aimed to dehumanise Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, Poles and the disabled. In a 21st-century democracy that respects the freedom of individuality, we remember those killed in the Holocaust not as a vast number, not as a statistic, but as individual human beings.

A human being like Viktor Ullmann. Killed in Auschwitz in October 1944, Ullmann’s work could not escape his circumstances. His chamber opera, Der Kaiser von Atlantis, was also called The Abdication of Death; the plot describes how death has been overworked, and chooses to go on strike. Sections of the libretto were written on the back of deportation lists to Auschwitz.

A human being like Alma Rosé. The niece of Gustav Mahler and the daughter of violinist Arnold Rosé, for ten months Alma was placed in charge of the women’s orchestra at Auschwitz. When she first conducted the ensemble, the average age of its players was just 19: one year older than me. Rosé insisted on the highest possible standards of performance, rehearsing the orchestra for ten hours daily. Justifying such hours was not difficult: “If we don’t play well, we’ll go to the gas”, said Rosé. She died in April 1944. The orchestra was disbanded by October.

A human being like Pavel Haas. Composing whilst working in his father’s shoemaking business before the War, Haas received the Smetana Foundation Award for his opera, Šarlatán (The Charlatan). For this work, Haas collaborated with a German writer, which – since he was a Jewish composer – had been forbidden by the Nuremberg Laws. To avoid difficulties, Haas changed the German-sounding name of the opera’s main character to its Czech equivalent. After its premiere in 1938, the opera was not performed on stage again until 1998. Having been interned in Theresienstadt, Nazi propaganda films showed Haas taking a bow after inmates had performed one of his operas; having been filmed for this propaganda, Haas was taken to Auschwitz. According to conductor Karel Ančerl, who was sent to Auschwitz with Haas but survived beyond the War, upon arriving at the camp both musicians stood side by side. Ančerl was about to be selected to go to the gas chambers, and at that moment Haas coughed. As a result, Haas was selected instead.

A human being like Robert Dauber, who was just 23 years old when he died of typhoid in Dachau. Unlike Ullmann’s chamber opera, many of the works Dauber completed whilst imprisoned make little or no reference to his position in a camp. Music, presumably, was an escape. 

Gideon Klein
Photo: Orel Foundation
A human being like Gideon Klein, who had been forced to abandon his plans to study at university once the Nazis had closed off higher education to Jews in Czechoslovakia. He gave his manuscripts to his partner in the camp shortly before his death, a poignant example of how music can so quickly become a memorial, a testament to an entire life of work. 

A human being like Carlo Taube, who before the War had made a living playing the piano in cafes in Vienna and Prague. He, his wife and his child were all deported to Auschwitz in the autumn of 1944. None of them survived.

These were all real people. They had such lives ahead; Ullmann had studied with Schoenberg, Haas with Janáček, Taube with Busoni. Imagine what the musical world would be like without the teachers; no Schoenberg, Janáček or Busoni. Nobody knows who their pupils could have gone on to become. An entire future was destroyed, numerous possibilities denied. Their stories are far more than a list of anecdotes for an article, far more than a shocking statistic. These were all real people.
Perhaps most disturbing is that the perpetrators enjoyed music too. Hitler famously idolised the work of Wagner, whilst Maria Mandel - the SS Officer who created the Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz and who is believed to have been complicit in over 500,000 deaths - particularly favoured Madame Butterfly. Shockingly, the perpetrators were all real people, too.

There are many stories that shock a modern-day reader, we who are used to (and perhaps take for granted) the comforts and luxuries of modern life. This Holocaust Memorial Day, we should remember the individuals behind the statistics – the human stories the Nazis sought to destroy – and, in doing so, we ensure that the aims of the Holocaust are never realised. Seeking to destroy the humanity of the prisoners, instead the humanity was only magnified. The existence of music in such desperate circumstances proves that, despite the evil, somewhere there was decency. Emotion. Empathy. Although music could not prevent such savagery, its existence reminds us that despite chaos, killing and suffering, some people, somewhere, maintain a flicker of humanity.  

Friday, January 26, 2018


If you're around north London on 10 February, please join me and my fellow musical Unbounders Tot Taylor (author, The Story of John Nightly, and record producer extraordinaire), Lev Parikian (author, Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear?, and conductor) and Miranda Gold (author, Starlings and A Small, Dark Quiet) to discuss those glittering, magical realms in which music and literature intersect. MAP Studio Café, 45 Grafton Road, London NW5 3DU. Tickets: 020 7916 0545.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Tchaikovsky wears Prada

I'm back from my travels and have hit the ground running - notably to the Barbican last night for a stunning concert by the Filarmonica della Scala and Riccardo Chailly with Benjamin Grosvenor as piano soloist, and this morning to Cobham to give a coffee-talk in the library (hence only posting this mid-afternoon).

I've reviewed the Milanese concert for The Arts Desk:

Chailly at La Scala.
Photo: Brescia e Amisano, Teatro della Scala
You could probably guess from the assembling audience that the orchestra making its Barbican debut last night came from Milan. That many mink coats rarely congregate in a London concert hall. And under the baton of Riccardo Chailly, its music director, the Filarmonica della Scala – vastly more than the house band of Italy’s most famous opera house – delivered an evening of luxurious sophistication, dressing over-familiar repertoire in haute couture that made some otherwise much-maligned masterpieces shine out like Cinderella on her way to the ball...

Read the rest here.  And I promise never, ever to grumble about Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony again.

More Tchaikovsky: if you're following my Swan Lakeian progress, you'll enjoy an article which was absolute treat for me to write. For the Royal Opera House Magazine I visited the Royal Ballet offices and talked to director Kevin O'Hare, choreographer Liam Scarlett and designer John Macfarlane about the new production of the ballet, the first the company has created for around 30 years. They've now put the piece on the website, so here it is.

Marianela Nuñez & Vadim Muntagirov in their new Swan Lake costumes
Photo: Bill Cooper, (c) ROH 2017
Challenges for a ballet company can scarcely be greater than staging a new production of Swan Lake. It’s everyone’s idea of the perfect classical ballet, almost ubiquitously familiar, along with its glorious Tchaikovsky score, and perhaps the bigger the ballet company, the bigger the challenge becomes. Now The Royal Ballet is about to unveil an ambitious new version of the story of Prince Siegfried and Odette, the doomed swan princess, from choreographer Liam Scarlett – its first for 30 years. 
‘We want it to feel like a big, opulent Swan Lake that could only be by The Royal Ballet,’ says The Royal Ballet’s director Kevin O’Hare. The corps de ballet of swans will wear tutus, not the longskirted dresses they were previously assigned – another feature that hints at the classic status O’Hare is hoping for. ‘I think everyone deserves a chance to take a fresh look at the great classics,’ he comments. ‘Of course there’s an emotional wrench in saying goodbye to Anthony Dowell’s production, as so many of our dancers have grown up on it or performed in it as children. But it’s important to refresh things every so often. This production has been a long time in the making and we’re very excited about it.’...
The rest is here.

And meanwhile the funding for Meeting Odette has now reached a very hopeful 59 per cent thanks to some extraordinarily generous pledges this week for which I am profoundly grateful (you can, of course, place your own pledge here and help to make the book happen).

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Heading south

I'm off for a bit, but may post some sunny pictures if time and technology allow. In the meantime, dear readers, you might enjoy reading Ghost Variations, if you haven't already, and I'd love it if you'd take a peek at my next novel, a 21st-century Christmas fairytale provisionally entitled Meeting Odette, which is currently about half way towards its funding target at the brilliant Unbound. The basic pledges start at £10 for the ebook, but higher levels include a musical or literary consultation with me about your work, a Swan Lake-themed lunch party, and various other goodies along the way. All patrons will be listed in every edition of the book and, naturally, you also earn my undying and eternal gratitude.

By the way, you may think subscriptions are a novel way to publish books, but the system is in fact pretty old. I am currently ploughing through Jan Swafford's magnificent 1000+-page biography of Beethoven and only last night I was reading about how the composer funded the publication of his Missa Solemnis by seeking subscriptions from wealthy patrons, which today would be regarded as a classic act of crowdfunding. In return for what we'd call their "pledge" they would receive a "reward" of a signed copy of the score. The technology has changed, but the principle hasn't (plus, of course, I'm not Beethoven, but I don't mind his endorsement for the method). Huge, huge, HUGE thanks to everyone who has so kindly supported the book thus far!

Happy reading and see you soon.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Roar of the cannon

Long read ahead. Get a cuppa.

The other day I went to Pembrokeshire to do a Ghost Variations concert with Viv and Dave, and came back to discover that an intriguing Twitter discussion had been taking place about what's now known as 'the canon': aka standard concert repertoire. I'd missed the chat, so have been mulling over some of the points involving the music we hear in our concert halls, the notion of greatness, the value judgments on what is worth hearing and what is not, the judgments people pass on one another over having the "wrong" personal taste in music, and how we can change these matters effectively to make the concert world more inclusive.

One of the nicer things about reaching middle age is that one can develop a healthy perspective on change. It may look as if "we" worship great composers as deities (I'm not convinced we do, actually), that great music that is performed a lot is an immovable mountain range. As if nothing can invade those mountains if it is not perceived to be as good as the 'Hammerklavier' et al, and as if it's got that way because people in charge are determined to keep out anyone who is not a dead white male. But it ain't necessarily so. It's not immovable. It's not impossible to change things. It's quite doable, actually - we just have to wake up and do it.

If I look back on the musical world of my teens and student days, the "canon" has changed - sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse - and it is all to do with changing attitudes, outlooks that morph into different states according to the world around us. Here are a few things that were definitely going on in the early 1980s when I was a teenage piano student and heading for Cambridge.

At the piano we faced paradoxes. Anything that was not "pure" was out. Transcriptions? Heaven help us! The only person I remember getting away with a Liszt transcription at the Royal Festival Hall was Daniel Barenboim, who played the 'Liebestod' as an encore sometime in the late 1970s. I tried to be suitably aghast that a great artist had devoted time to practising such a horror, until my piano teacher, who knew him, gently told me that probably he hadn't: being Barenboim, he could just look at it and know it. The point here was that I was about 13 and what the heck did I know? Nothing. I was just parroting attitudes I'd been absorbing by osmosis from people around me and, probably, Radio 3, which was on in the house from morning til night. Yet remove transcriptions, remove Liszt except the B minor Sonata which was a Serious Work In Sonata Form, and you lose a great biteful of the 19th century.

Meanwhile, learning Bach was vital. Bach holds the core of the technique a pianist needs - physical and mental - to play anything. But back then you weren't allowed to perform it. If you did, you were playing it on the Wrong Instrument. The "authenticists" would string you up by your guts if you weren't careful.

As for contemporary music - a few doughty souls played some, but thereby hung a whole sackful of problems. You could tackle Boulez, but it might take you ten years to learn the Second Sonata, or there was Stockhausen and Cage, but they were a little bit scary too, and chances were that your teachers wouldn't know what to do with them, let alone put stones and stuff inside the piano to "prepare" it, so they probably wouldn't set them; or you could play the Messiaen Vingt Regards or the bird pieces, but they just weren't enormously trendy. I learned one of the Vingt Regards, as it happens, for my BMus recital - we had to prepare a full-length programme and the examiners would ask for half of it about a week before. From my list they chose Beethoven, Chopin and Debussy. Leaving behind Bach (of course), Schumann, Fauré and the most challenging thing I'd ever learned in my life, the Messiaen 'Premier communion de la Vierge'. Ligeti hadn't yet written his Etudes, not Philip Glass his, and I had a friend who wanted to do her thesis on Steve Reich and had to fight the faculty for the right to do so. It's so long ago that I can't remember whether or not she won.

Those were the days in which the arrogant public-schoolboy first-years would stride around the faculty declaring "Prokofiev's rubbish" before photocopying their nether equipment (this was before mobile phones), and if you dared to think Rachmaninoff was any good you'd be laughed out of town (another problem back in the piano studio in London). You'd also be laughed out of town if you preferred Pablo Casals to Nikolaus Harnoncourt, or if you were a woman and you wanted to compose music. Oh yes indeed.

And historical inevitability determined that if you did want to compose music, you could only write serialism - or, once again, you'd be laughed out of town. Historical inevitability had a lot to answer for.

What everyone forgot about historical inevitability was that time moves forward. It only ever moves forward. It does not and cannot move backwards, however much certain groups would like it to, and neither does it stand still. The historical inevitability of historical inevitability is that historical inevitability as a concept was bound to become obsolete.

Things change. But they only change when we change them.

One thing that changed because people changed it was the nature of orchestral programming - and not always for the better. A large swathe of music that used to appear regularly in concert programmes has vanished. When did you last hear Mozart's Symphony No.29 in an orchestral concert? Haydn's No.102? Schumann's Second, Beethoven's First, Schubert's Third, a Bach Suite? There is a vast wealth of repertoire that is assumed to be in the "canon" - being by dead white men - that is of sterling quality but is hardly ever played because thinking has changed. Somehow the notion has got a grip on us that this music has to be played by only period-instrument specialists. It's one way to hear them, sure. But how did it ever become the only way?

It's become a problem, because it's pushed that repertoire into a ghetto, where it's in danger of gradually disappearing from view altogether. Now it needs to be brought out and given a good scrub-down for the 21st century. It may take Simon Rattle himself to change this and bring these fabulous pieces back into the concert hall where they belong. I once asked for a piano score of The Magic Flute for my birthday so that I could play it myself - I'd given up hope of ever hearing a performance of it again that was listenable. But I recently watched on the Digital Concert Hall Rattle's concert of the last three Mozart symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic and it was heaven. Now hope springs eternal.

There's nothing wrong with playing Mozart, Haydn, Schubert etc on original instruments, of course. It's an admirable thing to do, fascinating and educational at best. But it should never have happened at the expense of playing them on anything else. Why not? Because the audience misses out. Because the larger audiences plod dutifully to yet more Mahler, yet more Shostakovich, another anniversary of X, Y or Z, and they no longer know Schubert 3. Authenticity, as I recently commented in my 'Hammerklavier' piece, is in the soul. No amount of original instruments will help you if that isn't the case. And if it is, then the instrument doesn't really matter.

Today playing Bach's Goldberg Variations is a badge of honour for any pianist. Rachmaninoff is adored the world over, as he always was, but he is also appreciated as a composer of splendid technique. Liszt transcriptions pop up regularly. And nobody I run into these days could possibly consider Prokofiev rubbish, because it patently isn't. How had people ended up thinking that way? They'd been taught to. They're trying to please parents, teachers, peer groups, etc, often by trotting out opinion that they don't even realise is "received".

Change happens because people make it happen. Musicians make it happen, by having the courage of their convictions. In the case of the period-instrument movement, and the Women Can't Compose people, this did, I'm afraid, involve in the 1980s a certain amount of bullying, which is what I consider was done to me and my friends in the Cambridge music faculty in one way or another. But out in the wider world, it wasn't necessarily so. A small handful of pianists went right on playing Bach on the piano and simply ignored the critics and the handwringing. They have won. The beneficiaries are the audience and the next generation. If you've missed Beatrice Rana playing the Goldberg Variations, don't miss it any longer - you're denying yourself a whopper of a treat.

More changes. When I did my dissertation in 1987 almost nobody had heard of Korngold except my supervisor, Dr Puffett, who had a brain the size of both the Americas, and the person who introduced me to Korngold's music, Eric Wen, who did too. Today Die tote Stadt is becoming standard opera repertoire almost everywhere except Britain. And the Violin Concerto is much played because violinists hear it, love it and want to play it.

Likewise, nobody had heard of Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, Hans Gál, Miklos Rozsa, Mieczyslaw Weinberg and many more. A whole generation of composers that was murdered or driven into exile by the Nazis. Devoted musicians and researchers have thrown their energy and resources into resuscitating this music and those voices are now starting to be heard in earnest. Recognising that some who turned to film music did so not out of choice but necessity, to save their own and their families' lives, has been an important part of this, because having escaped racial persecution, those exiles soon found their work buried alive because they were writing The Wrong Things. Film music? Gasp! Insupportable!! Oh please. Otherwise they'd be dead. Did anybody bother to notice?

The current wave of composers-buried-alive to emerge are women. Not only those writing today, but those appearing out of history. Francesca Caccini. Fanny Mendelssohn. Pauline Viardot. Lili Boulanger. Rebecca Clarke. Louise Farrenc - and these are the better-known names. Indeed, just the other day, I heard someone talking about Farrenc with the remark "Of course, she's known...", which was a startling but fantastic piece of news to me. But how many of us have heard the music of Grace Williams? How much do you know by Elizabeth Maconchy? Get out and hear some - it is simply wonderful. Just think about it: why should we have to go to Mahler 2 yet again, listening through the angst for new nuances, when we could be discovering all of this? People are making change happen - people like the Southbank Centre, like Radio 3, like Bangor University (the conference in September was terrific and full of all-but-unknown musical marvels). And the music will win through because it is good. And it will stay with us, with people wondering "Where has this been all my life?"

What about the issue of racial diversity? There is nothing, but nothing, to stop great violinists from learning the concerto by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the African-British composer who worked himself into an early grave in Croydon in 1912. It's an absolute beauty. Philippe Graffin recorded it ten years ago, in Johannesburg. Tasmin Little has recorded it. Others have too. It needn't be a rarity. If you don't think it's as good as the Bruch, fine, but so what? That doesn't mean we wouldn't enjoy it. And you might get a surprise. You might find that actually it is as good as the Bruch. You just didn't expect it to be.

Meanwhile, heard anything by the Chevalier de Saint-Georges? Tremendous stuff. Influenced Mozart. Today Errollyn Wallen is one of the finest composers in Britain and her music should be totally mainstream. These are just the three most obvious names - imagine the amount of music out there waiting to be played, heard and enjoyed. And this, too, is starting to change - but only because people woke up and did something about it. Chi-chi Nwanoku has created the Chineke! orchestra and Chineke for Change foundation. The Kanneh-Mason family has captured the hearts of British music-lovers - don't miss cellist Sheku's debut album, which is coming out this month.

And perhaps the thing to question is not the "greatness" of the music of "dead white men" - nobody is going to take Beethoven away from me, thanks very much - but to remember to look at things in context, with healthy perspective, with curiosity and an open mind, without blinkers. And not to remove that music, but to add to it. Not to say "No, but..." but "Yes, and...". Not to regard long-established "greatness" as a prerequisite for exploring music - I mean, Beethoven's early piano sonatas are great music, but they're almost never played in concert because people assume the late ones are greater (when did you last hear Op.31 No.3? It's amazing!).

The whole issue of expectation, of music competitions, of ambitious teachers, of commercial power, all these things have a big role to play in what becomes standard repertoire, what promoters think they can sell. That needs a piece to itself. Everything is connected, though - every level of what makes the musical world turn has a profound effect on every other level...

So the "canon" is not an immovable feast. But it does take some effort to shift it. Things can and do change, when there's the will for it. What happens now will be change for our own time. In 20 years things may look very different, and they'll be changing again, assuming humanity still exists.

Thanks very much and have a nice weekend.

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