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


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.

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...