Sunday, October 28, 2018

Turgenev's 200th

Ivan Turgenev
I learned, a little late, that today is the bicentenary of one of the writers I love best: Ivan Turgenev. (Some give the date as '9 November new style', though; take your pick.)

He's perhaps the quieter, undersung hero of Russian literature, sometimes submerged under the tidal waves of Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky and the rest. Yet to encounter his novella First Love is to find a work so perfect that it encapsulates an ideal story structure before anyone thought there was any such thing, and - perhaps more importantly - there is not one spare paragraph in it. I once attempted to abridge it for reading with music and it simply couldn't be done. Remove any tiny element and the edifice is wrecked.

Ballet-lovers are - as so often with rare music and literature - better informed than many of us. A Month in the Country is probably seen more often in Frederick Ashton's beautiful Chopin-filled interpretation than as Turgenev's original play, at least in the UK.

It's highly autobiographical, of course. Turgenev spent most of his adult life in thrall to the great singer Pauline Viardot, who was married to a distinguished theatre director 20 years her senior, and the play reflects Turgenev's sense of frustration and depression as the more-or-less resident 'admirer', watching helplessly as she is seduced by someone else. [I am sure I read somewhere that the younger man in the story who arrives and causes havoc had some basis in Charles Gounod... but I can't immediately lay my hands on the right book to check this.]

Viardot was a protegée of George Sand, friend of Chopin, sometime pupil of Liszt, sister of Maria Malibran and inspirer of music ranging from Meyerbeer and Berlioz to Saint-Saëns, Brahms (the Alto Rhapsody) and - at a bit of a tangent - Bizet. She was of course a fabulous composer as well and Turgenev wrote her three operetta libretti. He also wrote a libretto for Brahms, which - dang - was never set. Saint-Saëns brought the young Fauré to her salon where he fell in love with her third daughter, Marianne, and spent four formative years amid this extraordinary milieu.

Turgenev was fond of Fauré and helped to persuade Marianne to accept his proposal - only to have her dump him three months later, scared away, apparently, by the young composer's passionate intensity. Fauré spoke touchingly of Turgenev later in life, remarking that whenever he read his prose, it was as if he could hear the author's gentle voice again.

Several years after finishing my Fauré biography, I read, for other reasons, a story I hadn't come across before by Turgenev: The Song of Triumphant Love. This was the fantastical, Renaissance-set tale that inspired Chausson to create his Poème. It was written several years after Fauré and Marianne split up. And there, in the story, were two figures who seemed, in terms of their character, very, very familiar. I spent some time delving into this, convinced I'd stumbled upon something that nobody had spotted since Turgenev himself (though one can never be sure, naturally), and exploring whether it was plausible he had based these characters on Fauré and Marianne. It was eminently plausible, as things turned out...

The article that resulted was published in The Strad, together with an exploration of the Poème itself by Philippe Graffin. It's on my website, so here it is again in tribute to this glorious writer and his circle. Enjoy.

(I also borrowed the title for a novel - not about them, but a present-day story inspired to some extent by them.)

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Never give up...

My Top 10 ODETTE FAQs...

Q: Ooh, Odette? The World War II spy? Or Proust?
J: Er, no. Swan Lake.

Q: The Tchaikovsky ballet? So did you go to Russia to research it?
J: Actually, the book's set in a university town in East Anglia in 2018.

Q: So it's, like, real fiction?
J: Well, one of the main characters turns into a swan every day, so, yep.

Q: How did you get the idea?
J: I had this recurring dream about looking for my Swan Lake book, and it was never there, so I thought I might write it...

Q: Maybe I should get it for my 9-yr-old daughter. She's mad about ballet.
J: Well, it's not really suitable for 9-yr-olds, and there's no actual ballet in it.

Q: If there's no ballet, what's it about?
J: Outsiders. How we treat them. How they respond to us. How we change each others' lives. How much responsibility do we have to look after other people?  

Q: And it's for which age group?
J: Adults, though could probably be enjoyed by the young adult market.

Q: But who's it aimed at?
J: Anyone who fancies crossing Swan Lake with Bridget Jones and A Christmas Carol. Some will 'get' it, some won't, and that's fine. [Evoke Marmite HERE if desired.]

Q: How come it took you 26 years?
J: I started it in 1992 and have been rewriting and updating it ever since. Maybe it just needed the right publisher - one who didn't mind dealing with something not quite like anything else out there. For 25 years they all minded a lot. Meanwhile other things came along, first Korngold, then Fauré, then the Independent; and life happened, as it tends to, so I was dealing with three cancer deaths in my immediate family, trying to keep my head above the freelance waters, then getting married, moving house, and writing four other novels on contract, plus Ghost Variations, which itself took 5 years while more life happened... And finally Unbound said, 'Great, bring it on.'

Q: But why did you keep trying?
J: I couldn't let go of it. I couldn't just leave it there. There's something in that book that holds all I wanted to be and say before my parents and sister were ill and dying and before the domino effect that had on daily existence. It contains something that's innocent and hopeful and human. And finally I want to get it back in some way, or at least find I didn't entirely lose all of it in the onslaught. It's changed over the years, of course, on every rewrite, but the essence of that search is still there. As Solti would have said: never give up.

And meanwhile...
Dear friends, if you would like to support ODETTE, you have just 3 DAYS LEFT. To get your name onto the patrons' list, please sign up before the end of 28 October. Publication date is 29 November, in time for Christmas. At Unbound you can pre-order by pledging for a paperback, a digital copy, or good deals for two copies or five, or other special offers.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Plastic shmashtic

I just photographed the packaging of my latest assignment

While I'm writing this, I ought to be writing a CD review. Yes, my copy for BBC Music Magazine is late. Why? Because yesterday I spent so long picking and scratching and scrubbing at the plastic wrapping on the CD I have to review, trying to get the damn stuff off, that I found myself virtually shaking with rage and had to go and make a nice cup of tea to calm down, and then the phone rang, and then the plastic was still on the bloody disc, and...

OK, OK, I exaggerate. In fact, my copy is late because I am still agonising over what to say about the recording's content. But I do wonder: what is the earthly use of wrapping CD boxes in clear plastic which then has to be removed and, crucially, "thrown away"?

Given the state of my study bin, I can't imagine the state of CD-wrapper landfill sites. Add to that the amount of the stuff that results from a single trip to the supermarket - plastic packaging, sometimes several layers of it, around everything from apples to avocados, from gluten-free biscuits to cat food - and the situation becomes ludicrous, because it is so unnecessary, and so desperately damaging.

This business with the CD wrappers has been going on for as long as CDs have existed - so 35-odd years. I don't think much of the so-called 'jewel cases' either - rarely does one enter the house via the post unbroken, and the little teeth that hold the middle of the disc in place have a way of breaking off and falling under the desk, where your hoover's 'crevice nozzle' might pick them up if you're lucky, and you have to hope they don't jam up the machine's mechanism on their way in. They end up in the same landfill, I expect, but inside a hoover bag.

We don't need this. What's the answer? Streaming doesn't pay the right people enough yet - though the new copyright directive may help - so is not as sustainable a solution as we'd like. But there are different ways of designing and making CD covers. Some companies have been finding alternatives for quite a while, but not enough of them. Plain, recyclable, non-plastic cardboard and paper would be a good solution - just like the old LP sleeves with the inner, paper jacket around the record. I've been wondering for years why this hasn't made a comeback in smaller form. If you need to ensure the thing is closed, there are means to do that too: a spot of glue; a pretty red ribbon; a length of decorative but tough string. (Any cat will tell you that a cardboard box takes a lot of beating - to say nothing of string, of course).

Dear record companies, please ensure you make some progress on this sooner rather than later.

Now I must return to that CD review and try to say something tactful about the tenor. Over and out.

Update: for more on why we must phase out plastic, read Gaby Hinsliff here.

Friday, October 19, 2018


Tomorrow, Saturday, in central London, the biggest anti-Brexit march ever is taking place. Starting at noon in Park Lane and ending with a rally in Parliament Square. People are coming in from all over the country to be part of it.

Some friends have said to me "I'm not going because it won't make any difference and they won't listen to us...". To which I can only respond: I understand, but that is not a reason not to go. Everyone who can go needs to be there. A million+ people on the streets of central London yelling that we want to save our youngsters' futures, and our own, can't go wholly unremarked by the rest of the world - though the only people who seem not to understand how desperately dangerous the current situation is are our own government.

Think about it. At present, the Northern Ireland boundary issue looks insurmountable, given the different directions the various pressure groups (DUP, 'ERG' etc) are pulling Theresa May. The chances of a "No Deal" Brexit are growing every day. If that happens and we crash out on 29 March, what happens?

-- The entire network of EU legislation that underpins how everything in this country connects to everywhere else in Europe ceases functioning.

-- Therefore: planes grounded, Eurostar grounded, massive lorry tailbacks at the ports, rotting produce, food and medicine shortages to follow.

-- The cost of matters such as visas, 'carnets' for travelling orchestras/bands, importing, exporting, transporting, everything, will go up.

-- The pound will crash and we won't be able to afford to go to Europe even if we want to.

-- Businesses will not be able to bear the extra costs and will start going bust quite soon.

-- People will lose their jobs.

-- Unemployment will soar and social security costs with it, while the exchequer takings plummet.

-- We lose all our financial input from the EU, which helps to support the poorest regions of the UK, which are some of the poorest in the whole of Europe.

-- The rest of the world, which thinks correctly that we are insane, will carry on without us. We won't be able to compete because a) we will be at a financial disadvantage, to put it mildly, and b) we are just too much trouble. Jobs for musicians in, for instance, European orchestras won't actually be closed to us, but if we need work permits to take them up, it will be very much easier for them to choose someone from one of the 27 members states if possible.

-- By the same token, we won't be able to attract top talent to the UK - because why would anyone want to come here?

-- Any business that relies on rapid transport time without travel red tape is going to be up shit creek without a paddle, opera included.

-- They are stealing our rights. Ending freedom of movement means ending OUR freedom of movement.

There is NO mandate for this. The vote was gerrymandered so that the people most affected by it were not able to vote (Brits living in Europe). We don't need to remind you of the lies and cheating of the Leave campaign. Many Leave voters of the older generation have died since 2016. Many young people have reached voting age and are aghast at the wholesale excision of their futures. Britain does not favour Brexit.

Britain would, actually, quite like not to fall apart in six months' time.

If you don't care about this, what the heck will you care about? Be there! Join us!

Please march with us!

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Finding Stanford: the road to victory

You know...when you go to the Last Night of the Proms and fall abruptly in love with a composer you know of, but don't know well, wonder where he (in this case) has been all your life, and then someone offers you a guest post by the world expert on that composer about a rare work that's he's just unearthed and edited? It is with great delight that I welcome Professor Jeremy Dibble to JDCMB with his chronicle of preparing Charles Villiers Stanford's Mass Via Victrix 1914-1918, Op.173 - the composer's personal response to the First World War - for its world premiere complete performance on 27 October. The concert will be recorded for broadcast on BBC R3 later, and a commercial recording is in the works for next year. Thank you, Professor Dibble! JD

Stanford’s Mass ‘Via Victrix 1914-1918’ Op. 173 

A guest post by Professor Jeremy Dibble

Born in Dublin in 1852, Charles Villiers Stanford was born into a community of brilliant Anglo-Irishmen in the mid-nineteenth century. A student of classics and an organ scholar at Cambridge, he was mentored by Sterndale Bennett and Joseph Joachim which led to further musical training in Leipzig and Berlin. An apprenticeship in the organ lofts of St Patrick’s and Christ Church Cathedrals in Dublin were also formatively important for his appointment as organist of Trinity College, Cambridge, a position he held from 1873 until 1892.

Stanford’s great originality as a composer of church music undoubtedly owes much to this time. But by the time he was appointed Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music in 1883, he was already the accomplished author of an opera performed in Hannover, two symphonies, chamber music, choral music and songs, and by 1888, when he became Professor of Music at Cambridge, he had composed two further operas, his ‘Irish’ Symphony Op. 28 (much admired by Hans Richter) and an oratorio for the 1885 Birmingham Festival.

After resigning from Trinity in 1892 he was able to concentrate on his commitments as a teacher and conductor. In London he directed the Bach Choir, and later, in Leeds, the Philharmonic Society. From 1901 until 1910 he was the artistic director of the Leeds Festival for which he wrote many of his best choral works including the Songs of the Sea Op. 91 (1904), the Stabat Mater Op. 96 (1907) and the Songs of the Fleet Op. 117 (1910).

Although we tend to associate Stanford with choral music, and particularly with works written for the Anglican liturgy, he was an extraordinarily versatile composer across a wide range of musical genres – indeed, his greatest aspiration was to be a successful composer of opera, though, beset with disappointments, this hope largely eluded him.

During the First World War Stanford found himself in straitened financial circumstances and this situation did not improve after the war was over. In need of work and royalties, he gained some income from the composition of anthems, and music for the piano and organ. His large-scale works were, however, turned down by publishers who were more receptive to a new generation of British composers. Among these items were two fine string quartets, the tone poem A Song of Agincourt Op. 168 , the Violin Concerto No. 2 Op. 162, the Piano Concerto No. 3 Op. 171, the Concert Piece for Organ and Orchestra Op. 181 and the Mass ‘Via Victrix 1914-1918’ Op. 173.

I have known of the Mass ‘Via Victrix’ for many years and became familiar with its pages while carrying out research for my book on Stanford (published in 2002). Boosey published the vocal score; this was part of the normal process for choral works. The publishers would reap their profits from the sale of multiple vocal scores, but the full score, far too expensive to publish, would be available usually in a copyist’s hand.

One of the major obstacles which prevented the performance of the Mass in the past is that no orchestral parts existed. Stanford directed a performance of the ‘Gloria’ movement of the Mass at a concert in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge on 15 June 1920 in a concert of music by Cambridge composers (which included music by Cyril Rootham, Vaughan Williams, Charles Wood, Alan Gray, Hubert Parry (on whom was conferred an Hon. Mus.D in 1883), E. W. Naylor, in honour of the newly-installed Chancellor and music-lover, Arthur Balfour, 1st Earl of Balfour. The concert was also attended by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, Austen Chamberlain (Chancellor of the Exchequer) and Lord Robert Cecil, one of the architects of the League of Nations. The performance of the ‘Gloria’ may have had an auspicious audience, but it was only with organ.

Stanford around 1887
Stanford died in March 1924 and so never heard the Mass performed complete as the concert work he envisaged with orchestra. When Adrian Partington expressed an interest in BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales performing the work (on 27 October the soloists are soprano Kiandra Howarth, contralto Jess Dandy, tenor Ruairi Bowen and bass Gareth Brynmor John) to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War, I mentioned that it would be necessary to make a performing score of the work from the autograph manuscript now in the British Library.

When this was agreed with the BBC, I undertook the making up of a modern performing edition, using both the manuscript and the published vocal score, ironing out inconsistencies and variants, mistranspositions, missing accidentals, as well as artistic details which changed between the orchestration of the work and the publication of the vocal score – a change of harmony here, an alteration in underlay there.

Over the years I have become familiar with many of Stanford’s autographs and, as one becomes accustomed to the style of handwriting and notation, one feels carried along by the hand of genius, a brilliant architect and orchestrator - a master of his craft. Stanford produced a substantial corpus of choral works of varying proportions and across a range of choral genres. We have still to acquaint ourselves with his two major oratorios for Birmingham – The Three Holy Children Op. 22 (1885) and Eden Op. 40 (1891) and there are still works such as the Elegiac Ode Op. 21 (1884), The Voyage of Maeldune Op. 34 (1889) and the Choral Overture Ave Atque Vale Op. 114 (1908) which I am sure will reveal new seams of gold in Stanford’s remarkable imagination when it comes to the setting of voices.

Among the pillars of his output, however, are undoubtedly the Requiem Op. 63 which he wrote for Birmingham in 1897 (which Stanford played privately for Elgar when the two were friends in Malvern) and the Te Deum Op. 66 of 1898 which he wrote for the Leeds Festival. Both use forces of four soloists and combine Stanford’s flair for symphonic music with his love and instinct for the theatre.

Deploying these same forces, and with even greater operatic verve, Stanford composed his Stabat Mater for the Leeds Festival in 1907, a work of extraordinary theatrical vividness in which the theology and emotions of the Christian faith are shaped into a compelling opera-manchée. Perhaps aware of the awesome worldly challenge of writing a work to commemorate the end of the First World War, Stanford turned to the immutable text of the five movements of the ordinary of the mass as a means of expressing a range of universal emotions – the thanksgiving for victory, relief for those who had been spared, the sense of sacrifice, and the memory of those who had died (as articulated in the mass’s dedication ‘Transiuerunt per ignem et aquam et eduxisti in refrigerium’ [here Stanford was probably quoting from Psalm 66 v. 12 [KJV] - “We went through fire and water, but thou broughtest us out into a wealthy place.”)

Each movement was conceived on a symphonic scale using the same forces as the Requiem, Te Deum and Stabat Mater. The Kyrie is deeply melancholy, in the manner of a funeral cortège. The two most extended movements – the Gloria and the Credo – are highly dramatic in their changes of mood and tempo while the Sanctus (a slow movement) is a tripartite structure with the Benedictus at its centre.

The Agnus Dei, a solemn tribute to those who sacrificed their lives, builds on the drama of the Requiem in that it is essentially a Funeral March. At the beginning of the movement, the music of the Kyrie is recalled, but the original cortège music is replaced by a moving threnody for solo soprano with viola obbligato. This forms the outer sections of a ternary form whose dramatic funeral march for orchestra alone constitutes the ‘trio’. The closing ‘Dona nobis pacem’ incorporates an allusion to the final bars of the ‘Gloria’, though, before the celestial coda – a translucent suffusion of F major – the soprano soloist’s dramatic reiteration of ‘Agnus Dei’ on the Neapolitan (again in the manner of opera) comes as a fervent supplication to the world in the name of peace.

The BBCNOW and chorus in Hoddinott Hall
Photo: Kirsten McTernan

The Mass ‘Via Victrix 1914-1918’ occupies a unique place in Stanford’s output in that it makes conscious reference to an earlier work. Not one normally given to the quotation of his own music, he evidently felt that the powerful sense of redemption expressed in the mass’s dedication and in his Stabat Mater justified the quotation of the ‘redemption’ theme from the latter (the ‘redemption’ theme is first presented as the second subject of the overture) in both the Credo (at the point of Christ’s burial) and the Benedictus (where it functions as a cantus firmus in a contemporary interpretation of the eighteenth-century chorale prelude). Stanford’s Mass, along with his Requiem, are in fact rare examples of British concert masses (in contradistinction to liturgical settings by Stanford, Vaughan Williams, Darke, Howells and others). 

Ethel Smyth’s somewhat elongated Mass in D of 1891 lies at the vanguard of the few settings there are in the repertoire, but Stanford’s Mass ‘Via Victrix’ is surely one of the finest indigenous examples couched in the tradition of the nineteenth-century symphonic genre (comparable with those of Beethoven, Hummel, Rossini, Puccini, Bruckner, and Dvořák).

However, as a ‘war’ mass, it occupies an even rarer position in British music of the twentieth century and predates the hybrid works of John Fould’s A War Requiem (1919-1921) and Benjamin Britten’s A War Requiem (1961-2) which use the text of the Requiem Mass together with poetry from other sources.

And what of the future for Stanford’s mass? Though it is undoubtedly a personal response to the First World War, there is no reason, given the neutral and more universal nature of the genre, why it could not serve as a piece for other solemn occasions, particularly at the time of the Armistice. Moreover, as a symphonic concert mass, it contains music of a high order which could easily stand alone on its own musical terms.

My hope is also, that, with the prospect of a commercial recording on the Lyrita label for release in 2019, the mass will take on a new life after a century of neglect and that it will contribute yet further to our fuller comprehension and appreciation of one of this country’s most brilliant and versatile composers.

 © Jeremy Dibble 2018

BBC National Orchestra of Wales perform the first complete performance of Stanford’s Mass Via Victrix on 27 October at BBC Hoddinott Hall, conducted by Adrian Partington. It will also be recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in early November. Booking here.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Voyaging around my father

Today would have been my father's 90th birthday. Instead, he has been dead for over 22 years. This is his obituary, by his colleague in neuropathology, Professor Francesco Scaravilli. 

My parents, Leo and Myra - very, very young.

I don't think I'd be doing what I'm doing now if he hadn't personally ensured that I had such a thorough musical education. However fine your teachers at school - assuming you were lucky enough to enjoy any music tuition there at all - nothing could have replaced the steeping in matters musical that I received at home. Here, to commemorate his birthday, are the top 10 things I learned from him.

1. He and Mum didn't only march me off to piano and violin lessons: they helped me practise, and Dad in particular. I remember the torture of sitting at the back of the first violins on Sunday mornings in the Jewish Youth Orchestra (yes, really) for a term or two, trying desperately to read my way through Dvorák's Symphony No.8. It was hopeless. It's bloody difficult and I was about 13 and doing my Grade VI, and I love the sound of a violin beautifully played, but I never got along too well with doing it myself - I'd turn oddly muddled above 3rd position and couldn't work out which fingering did what on which string, plus the high frequencies used to do my head in.

Dad shut himself in the study with me, a music stand and the violin part. He didn't play the violin, but he did play the piano well and knew how to practise systematically. And we slogged away, slow bit by slow bit, over and over again, gradually increasing, and it was utter torture and misery, but at the end of the session I could actually play the first page. I can't remember whether I still could by the next Sunday, but I dropped violin lessons for a couple of years not long afterwards.

2. My school was a tube ride away, so it was a 6.40am alarm clock every day. Radio 3 used to begin broadcasting at about the same time back then - was it 6.30am? 7am? - and the first thing Dad did in the morning was to switch on the radio in the dining room. He'd often drop me at the station on his way to work and the radio would be on in the car too.

So by the time I was on the platform at Finchley Road I'd likely have heard the equivalent of a whole concert. First thing on a Wednesday, perhaps something like Mozart's Symphony No.29,  Rossini's Petite messe solennelle, a quick slice of Stravinsky, and a Beethoven overture, going by in rapid succession. If you're fortunate enough to have a musically retentive brain, this is how you learn the repertoire. And occasionally there'd be some incredible piano playing. Who's that? Maurizio Pollini? Wow! Martha Argerich? Isn't she amazing? And listen to that, this new young pianist who just won the Chopin Competition, what did you say his name was - Krystian Zimerman? Let's go and hear him when he plays in London next year.

Yes, the radio was on all the time, playing music round the clock, and I soaked it up like the proverbial sponge. And occasionally I'd find Dad in his favourite chair, wrapped in a rug, listening over and over again to the same piece of music. He'd sit there comparing all his recordings of Brahms's Second Symphony, just for fun. Building a Library missed a fine potential contributor.

3. If you know your way well around the chamber music scene in London, you'll know that at the Conway Hall in Red Lion Square there are chamber concerts early on Sunday evenings. Dad used to go to the lot. When I was about 8, he started taking me along. Sometimes I was bored, sometimes I loved them. But that's where I must have heard most of the string quartets by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert before the age of 14, and I also remember the Ravel String Quartet, which I adored, and the Introduction and Allegro (I think Marisa Robles was playing the harp). Borodin 2 enchanted me and once I think we heard a four-hands concert by the pianists Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow, who became firm favourites of my mum's. Sometimes it was cold in there and often I was the youngest person by about 40 years, but life wouldn't have been the same without it.

And opera. It took me longer to get to grips with opera because there were no surtitles in those days, but I will never forget going to Count Ory at ENO and Dad virtually rolling in the aisles, weeping with laughter.

4. I remember my first orchestral concert, when I must have been about 8: the Royal Philharmonic conducted by Rudolf Kempe, with Miriam Fried the violin soloist. They played the Berlioz 'Roman Carnival' Overture, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (I think) and the Dvorák 'New World' Symphony and I spent a lot of time staring at the flautist (Susan Milan!) and wondering how she could stand the noise sitting in front of the brass like that. For a couple of weeks before the concert Dad taught me the music. We listened to it all on LPs and he showed me how to follow the scores. Myth-scotching moment: reading music is very easy to learn when you're a child. I learned when I started piano lessons, age 4. It is not elitist, it is not particularly complicated and all you need is someone to show you how it works when you're young enough not to have swallowed the rubbish other people spout about it.

Please note, it was a Sunday afternoon, so there was no school or work, and we could actually go to a proper concert like this. Not 'children's concerts' - the very small me would certainly have turned my nose up at any such notion ("Hello there, children! Are we all having lots of fun today?" ugh.)

This plan seems such a no-brainer to me when concert organisations wonder how to get in younger punters that I often wonder what planet they're on. You want your concerts attended by families, with working-age parents, children, even grandparents who mightn't like late evenings? Do concerts on Sunday afternoons! Simples.

5. Exams. Oh my God, exams. Well, I had to do them, and I think that may be what gave me nerve complexes about performing. These days I will happily stand up and speak to a concert hall of 500 people without a quiver, but just don't ever make me play the bloody piano... But Dad was kind. He would ferry me there and back, put up with my nerves – "Don't make such a matzoh-pudding of it!" he'd say – and when it was all over we'd go to a record shop and I'd choose the ones I wanted. Not even that could quite erase the memory of standing in the ladies' room somewhere in the RCM soaking my hands in a basin of hot water, which was the only warm-up available. I still shudder every time I go in there.

6. Music lessons. For years and years and years, Dad would ferry me to my piano lessons and usually sat outside in the car while I was being put through my paces. He must have had the patience of an angel. Because he also ferried me to violin lessons until I fell out with the instrument.

Occasionally he was rewarded with a surprise. My piano teacher for about eight years was Patsy Toh, the Chinese pianist who lived with her husband Fou Ts'ong in Hampstead and later Islington. In the first house, Patsy had a teaching studio upstairs while the big Steinways were downstairs. One day, when I was about 10 or 11, I arrived on Saturday afternoon to hear some sublime Schubert emanating from behind that closed door. "That's Richter in there, practising," Patsy whispered to me. I'd sort of heard of Richter and I knew Dad would be impressed. I hurried out to the car, where he was sitting listening to Radio 3, and said "Dad, Richter's in there." I never saw him run as fast as that again. While I was doing Hanon and Grade Whatever upstairs, the great Russian continued his world of Schubert beneath and I think Dad sat in the hall with his ear to the door.

7. I once tried to refuse to go back to university, because I hated the music course and pretty much everything about the place. (Actually I wanted to go and study piano in New York.) I think I was virtually manhandled into the back of the car with my suitcase and bags of books and files and shoehorned into the bedsit on Jesus Lane. I had tendinitis, glandular fever, fear and loathing. Many years on, I think it's good I stayed, because I got a very decent degree plus a one-year postgrad thing, I know how to write a fugue (for what that's worth), and it is definitely healthy, on principle, to stick with your creative projects and finish them properly. He made me do that and it's something I insist upon to this day - hence Odette, finished at last after 26 years. I do regret not going and studying piano in New York, but that's another issue.

8. There were certain things Dad used to do that I don't think anybody else would have dared try. He was a quiet, unassuming personality. He was rather shy, and definitely chary of British society traditions. But if someone was in trouble, he would step in and try to find a solution. Once we had a close friend who had lived in Britain for many years, gone back to his native USA, and then returned to the UK a year or two later to take up a new job. Unfortunately, the company he was to work for had screwed up his work permit, so he arrived at Heathrow without it and they promptly wanted to deport him. He owned a small flat in the middle of London and was renting it out - to someone who was a high-level civil servant. Dad took it upon himself to get the phone number of this important gentleman, call him and ask him to intervene. Although this didn't sort the whole situation, which was the result of a singularly incompetent company, it meant our friend was not confined to an airport cell, but was permitted to stay at our house until such time as. (Happy ending: friend got the necessary permit and job, eventually.)

9. The more I hear about the Vilna Gaon, an ancestor of sorts according to family legend, the more like Dad he sounds. He was a leading figure in the Jewish Enlightenment in Lithuania, not a rabbi but a kind of Talmudic sage, a wise man who led by principle and writing and example. He was, as I understand it, a polymath with a wide knowledge base ranging from science to music, and his thinking was the opposite of the mystical Chassidic approach (which is kind of happy-clappy-feel-it-in-your-bones). Academic exactitude, logical argument and realistic precision were uppermost and if that seems antithetical to the idea of religion, I think he was one of the few people, perhaps along with Moses Mendelssohn, who showed that it didn't need to be. We need more of this characteristically Enlightenment thinking today and less of the believing-in-gut-reaction-alone stuff because, frankly, look where the recent vogue for that has got us.

10. I miss him. Admittedly, Count Ory aside, he could be strict, rather joyless (as teenagers we weren't allowed short skirts or make-up - my sister defied both, but I didn't - and pop music was banned at home to the point that I even used to watch Crackerjack with the sound turned right down, and when my brother gave me a Glenn Miller LP for my 18th birthday, it was radical.) But where would I have been without him? Anything I have done, anything I am, anything that has worked in my life, I owe to him. And I miss him like the blazes, every day still, after 22 years. He has two grandchildren who remember him, but probably not all that well, and two younger grandsons he never met, but who resemble him, one in capacity for scientific application and the other, littlest one, in an instinctive musical overflow.

It seems so unfair that he should have been taken from us all so early. He could still have been here now.

Thank you, Dad. Today we should have been celebrating your big birthday. We will do so and hope you can see us raise a glass to you tonight.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

London Piano Festival: one plus one equals a hundred

Charles Owen & Katya Apekisheva. Photo: Viktor Erik Emanuel
I had a whale of a time at the London Piano Festival opening last night, trying to puzzle out what makes the duo of Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen quite so special. It's just one of those crazy things: even if there's an argument that they are such different pianists that together they have a kaleidoscopic range at their disposal, there's also something magical about the chemistry. What's more, Kings Place has a new Steinway and it sounds pretty bloody marvellous. I''ve reviewed the concert for The Arts Desk. Read the whole thing here.

Can't help remembering my hideous experience on last year's opening night when I got the cough from hell in the middle of the Rachmaninov Suite No.2. Blissful breathing this time. phew.

Lots more LPF to go: Konstantin Lifschitz tonight, Leszek Możdżar tomorrow, on Saturday a full afternoon and evening of Paul Roberts Debussy lecture recital, Pavel Kolesnikov and a two-piano gala bringing in Margaret Fingerhut, Stephen Kovacevich and Samson Tsoy, and finally Alexandra Dariescu, ballerina and virtual reality for The Nutcracker and I on Sunday afternoon.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

In praise of Barbara Strozzi

Tomorrow evening I'm doing a pre-concert talk with Franck-Emmanuel Comte, conductor of the French baroque ensemble Le Concert d'Hostel-Dieu who are performing at the Institut Français in South Kensington. Above, you can hear an extract from the concert: Heather Newhouse sings Barbara Stozzi's L'Eraclito amoroso. Within just a few bars, the centuries collapse: every woman has been through this experience; each one of us can identify with every note. (Incidentally, in this video interpretation there is also a very wonderful cat.)

Like her compatriot Monteverdi, and her teacher, Cavalli, one gains the impression that there is nothing Strozzi will stop at in her music to bring out the ultimate degree of emotional expression. The unusual thing is that here is a woman writing music about a woman's raw, impassioned, devastating experience, in the 17th century. Monteverdi and others wrote of women's lost loves, and very effectively (try this), but there's an edge to Strozzi's lament which seems to rise from the depths of the soul - and unlike Monteverdi's Ninfa, she's unobserved by men calling her 'Miserella'.

Strozzi was termed "the most prolific composer - man or woman - of printed secular music in Venice" of her day. A poet as well as a composer, and a mother of four, she remained unmarried; she was the mistress of a patron of the arts who was the father of three of the children. Jealous contemporaries said she was a courtesan and the one famous portrait of her shows her with one breast exposed. The reality seems to have been that she was a phenomenally gifted artist who had been encouraged and well educated in music by her father, the librettist Giulio Strozzi. She was supposedly adopted, but most likely the illegitimate daughter of Strozzi and a family servant. An 'outsider', therefore, in terms of social position and artistic inclination, she forged a remarkable and individual path as a musician, with enormous tenacity.

Tomorrow's concert explores not only Strozzi, but also the French composer Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre and Strozzi's similarly prolific compatriot Antonia Bembo, also a pupil of Cavalli. Heather Newhouse sings, the cellist is Benoît Morel and Franck-Emmanuel Comte is at the harpsichord. Our talk is at 6.30pm and the concert at 7.30pm. More details and booking here. 

Monday, October 01, 2018

"Salome, dear, not in the fridge"

Allison Cook as Salome, with placcy bag
Photo: Catherine Ashmore

As I slunk homewards from ENO's opening night, a friend on Twitter kindly sent me the above headline. It's from an anthology of winning entries to competitions in The New Statesman, edited by Arthur Marshall, and cheered me up somewhat.

Not that ENO's Salome would have needed to worry, because there wasn't much evidence of a severed head at all: just a placcy bag that for all we know might have contained a large cauliflower. One's cynical side considers it's probably cheaper than constructing a replica head of Jokanaan.

I love good reinterpretations of operas. Like science fiction or magical realism (in which I've been learning a thing or two recently), they need to create consistent worlds, to make sense within those worlds and, if stretching disbelief, make us believe one big thing by getting the small things right. The denouement has to be stunning, too, to make everyone feel they have suspended that disbelief for a good reason.

Under the circumstances, a radical feminist interpretation of Strauss's Salome should be eminently possible, especially with such a fine actress as Allison Cook in the title role. The story contains plenty of potential: a young woman, her sexuality awakened, frustrated, abused and finally twisted beyond redemption, is destroyed by men's attitudes to her - brutal religious fundamentalism on one hand and the incestuous lust of her stepfather on the other.

But if that was what was going on in Adena Jacobs' production, it didn't quite work. Herod is an almost pantomime Father Christmas - red and white cape over a gold vest and bare legs - bringing Salome jewels wrapped in big bright parcels with bows on. Jokanaan is first revealed wearing pink stilettos. There's a lot of pink, à la Anna Nicole, but including a decapitated pink horse, suspended upside-down spilling entrails that turn out to be pink and purple flowers. There's a lot of blood around, meanwhile, but it's pink too. In the midst of this, Salome is good at yoga, but leaves the heavy-duty moves to four lookalikes, also clad in black bikini bottoms and blonde wigs, who help out with the Dance of the Seven Veils. ("Twerking," my companion mused. "So 2013.") And there's a lot of sexuality, whether the self-pleasuring of the lookalikes, or what happens when the close-up live film projection of Jokanaan's mouth is turned on its side and begins to resemble something else, with teeth.

Some might object to all of this on principle; conversely, a lot of people seemed to enjoy it very much. I have no problem with the components (with the exception of the dead horse, which reminds me of Graham Vick's Glyndebourne Don Giovanni from last century and therefore seems derivative, and besides, I can't bear it when bad things happen to animals). But I'd like to know whether it really adds up to more than the sum of its, um, parts. I found no particular revelations within it and three days later I'm still musing over exactly what insights we were supposed to gain.

Strauss keeps right on being Strauss and sometimes all one could do was listen, because Martyn Brabbins was working such high-octane intensity with the ENO Orchestra that they swept all before them. The magical, lustrous scoring shone out, the pacing magnificently managed. David Soar's charismatic Jokanaan had his moments, but at other times the range sounded too high for him; Cook's Salome, too, offered a lower voice than suits the role's stratospheres. Supporting roles were all excellently sung. Michael Colvin as Herod gave a fine performance despite the Santa Claus coat, and Susan Bickley's Herodias - dignified and still at the centre of the whole - was perhaps the best of all the many ideas.

Go and see it for yourself, if you can. It's certainly a memorable evening.