Thursday, July 18, 2019

A message from Dame Sarah Connolly

Wishing Sarah swift and safe treatment and the speediest of recoveries. Please see her message below.

Dame Sarah Connolly writes:
Last month, I had an unwelcome birthday present: breast cancer. Like so many women afflicted with this disease, I will face whatever is coming as best I can. Imminent surgery means I must withdraw from ENO’s ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’ and ‘L’enfance du Christ’ at the BBC Proms. I hope, however, to fulfil all my other concert and recording commitments over the coming months. I’d like to thank ENO and the BBC Proms for their kindness and understanding, and I look forward to working with them both in the near future."

Thursday, July 04, 2019

One woman, three harps and a very long journey

The Australian Festival of Chamber Music kicks off again in a few weeks' time and though I am sick as the proverbial parrot at not going (I was there a year ago for Being Mrs Bach) I'm only too happy to thump the drum for this marvellous, sunny, eclectic jamboree complete with tropical skies, ice cream galore and even humpback whales to watch.

Several performers besides the artistic director, Kathy Stott, are travelling over from the UK and one of them is the extraordinary harpist Ruth Wall, who's setting out from Land's End with two of her three harps and meeting another one there. I had a super chat with her yesterday... First, here she is with partner Graham Fitkin, as FITKINWALL:

From her home near Land’s End in Cornwall, Ruth Wall has a longer journey even than most others to Townsville, Far North Queensland. But then, she is used to long spans, musical as well as physical. Her repertoire ranges from the 13thcentury to the cutting edge of present-day new works. Her partner is the composer Graham Fitkin and the pair collaborate as the duo FitkinWall. She’s toured with Goldfrapp, been involved with sound installations and theatrical productions - not least the aerial theatre company Ockham’s Razor - and she makes musical arrangements and transcriptions of her own. And she composes. 

This multifaceted career began with her training in Scotland: “I grew up in the Highlands and I had a great harp teacher who was from the classical sphere - but there’s a great folk tradition up there and she taught me a lot of traditional music, so I had a mixture of both,” Wall says. 

“In my twenties I was introduced to early harps by a friend in Scotland who makes them, so I started getting interested in the Renaissance bray harp. I just heard it and thought I’ve got toplay this instrument.” What’s so special about it? “It's like a sitar but with knobs on: a big, huge range and a really big, buzzy sound. 

“The same friend, Bill Taylor, introduced me to the Gaelic wire-strung harp as well and that was love at first hearing. I was excited by those two instruments, even though I knew it would take more than a decade to learn them properly.” 

She’s not exaggerating: “Especially the wire-strung harp - it’s as different as you can get from playing a concert harp. It’s almost as different as playing the tuba! You need to have nails; you’re in literally the opposite hand position from the concert harp; the string intervals are tiny; it’s strung with metal; and you have to stop every note as well as play them. So it’s a very complex little instrument – but very beautiful.”

Transporting them from Penzance to Townsville is no laughing matter. “Kathy [Stott] and her team have organised for my bray harp and wire-strung harp to be picked up, so they’re going to be out of my hands from next Monday,” says Wall, “and I won’t see them again until 22 July, so it’s a long gap and I’ve never had that before. As for the concert harp, they’re renting one for me in Australia so that’s another new thing: to play really virtuosic music on a harp I’ve not played before. I’m trying not to worry about it because there’s nothing I can do about it! 

“The two that are being flown out get held hostage in Brisbane for a week. I’ll have to detune them and then tune them up gradually after I arrive. It’s always a little bit heart-in-mouth when there’s a long journey. Even if you fly with them and carry them yourself, it can be difficult - I’ve had a hole in the harp before now. Hopefully everything will be good and nothing will happen…”

Wall is taking part in no fewer than 12 festival events, playing a range of music that would make most other musicians sweat at the very thought. “You’ll hear some very “harpy” French repertoire, including Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro and Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp - those are the biggest pieces for the concert harp. Then I’m playing with Wu Man, the Pipa player: more like a folk piece in style, based on traditional Chinese music. I’ve made an arrangement of that and have been transcribing it in detail, which takes a long time, but is great fun. 

“Then I’m working with Lotte Betts-Dean, the singer, on an Irish piece called 'My Lagan Love' and a Dowland song, ‘Flow my Tears’, which I've arranged. On the Bray harp I’ll be playing some early music from the 13thcentury by Machaut, and on the wire-strung harp quite a long piece that I wrote myself, Pibroch Patterns based on classical bagpipe music from the Highlands.” Bagpipes? There are some similarities in sounds and techniques, Wall: says: “The bagpipes have a long drone which is similar in sound to the wire-strung harp’s one. As for the music, it’s difficult to know for sure because not a lot of traditional Highland music was written down - it’s an aural tradition. But there are little bits which one can catch that are connected with music of that time.”

The festival will be keeping Wall extremely busy, but she is thrilled to be collaborating with so many different musicians, most of them for the first time. “I just love working with other people,” she says. “The harp can be a lonely instrument, unless you play in orchestra, which I don’t. I’m looking forward to playing with all these musicians - Lotte and Wu Man and the Goldner String Quartet and more!” 

She knows the climate may prove a tad challenging for the instruments: “Harps really don’t like changes in temperature, humidity, etc - and in particular the wire-strung harp goes out of tune wildly and is very difficult to restring if anything goes wrong, so I just have to hope and pray that nothing happens! But I know what to expect. It’s going to be challenging. There won’t be a lot of free time and I’m going to be doing a lot of tuning.”

Nevertheless, it’s a fantastic chance to evangelise for an instrument that is as ubiquitous in imagery as it is rare in practice, and as beautiful as it is challenging to play. I used to have a yen to learn the harp myself, but my parents weren’t having any, I remark. “You should learn!” Wall enthuses. “It’s never too late…”

If JDCMB changes its name someday to “Harping On” - well, you’ll know what happened. 

Meanwhile, you can find Ruth's line-up of AFCM performances here.

Photos via

Wednesday, July 03, 2019


Ever thine, ever mine, ever us.

Beethoven to his 'Immortal Beloved' - and the source of our title, EVER US, for the new work that Roxanna Panufnik is writing for the Rundfunkchor Berlin and nine visiting choirs from all over the world, from Lebanon to the US to South Africa, to be premiered on 1 May 2020 in the great Berlin Philharmonie itself.

I have fashioned the libretto for this work out of Beethoven's own writings and those of the authors he loved, among them Goethe, Schiller, Kant, Tiedge and Sturm - and we follow him through his love of nature, his passion for liberty, deep despair, hopeless love and eventual transcendence. After it, we hear the finale of his Ninth Symphony (no pressure, then...).

This concert brings representatives from many corners of the globe together to celebrate our unity in humanity. We are...ever us. Ever together. Ever thine, ever mine, ever us.

When you see British representatives of the "Brexit Party" in the EU parliament physically turning their backs on the Ode to Joy, it is not in our name and represents us in no way. People declare themselves embarrassed by this heinous incident. I don't think 'embarrassed' is a strong enough word. It is more accurate to say we are revolted, furious, and determined to counter it in every way we can.

"When will there come a day when there are only people?" Beethoven wrote to a friend who was travelling to Russia, where the composer knew he would be depressed by the desperate social divisions he saw. "Only people": not nobles and serfs. "Only people": undivided. Today we must stand together against the perversion of our homeland by the Brexiter wreckers.

We are... Ever together. Ever thine, ever mine, ever us.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Meet lifelong composer Erika Fox. Her first CD is out today. She is 82.

This is one of my favourite interview assignments ever, just out in The JC. Erika Fox, who escaped Anschluss Vienna as a toddler with her mother, and has struggled all her life to follow her musical vocation, tells me her story. The first-ever commercial recording of her music is released today on the NMC label.

Erika Fox
Photo: Tim Fox

Erika Fox’s coffee mug is emblazoned with the title of HG Wells’s The Invisible Man. One can’t help noticing, because this extraordinary composer has for too long been an almost invisible woman. Today, her first-ever commercial CD is released, featuring a selection of her chamber works. She is 82.
Musical cognoscenti reacted with horrified astonishment to the realisation that Fox’s music has not previously been recorded. Its style is tough yet mesmerising, highly individual, with a strong undertow of unsettling emotion. “Some people have said it’s challenging, but because it’s mine, I don’t think of it that way,” Fox remarks. “To me it’s ordinary. It’s what I do.”
She lives in west London in a house overflowing with books and music, her home on and off for decades. Her music is much like her upfront personality — warm, perceptive and forthright, with a refreshing dislike of “pussyfooting around”. But it has also been nurtured with many difficult and painful memories...

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Goodyear rising

Absolutely thrilled to present a Q&A with the American composer and pianist Stewart Goodyear, who's in London today (QEH), Basingstoke tomorrowSymphony Hall, Birmingham, on Saturday and the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, on Sunday to perform his own suite Callaloo with the Chineke! orchestra. We talk inspiration, celebration, composition and golden ages...

Stewart Goodyear: part of a new golden age of composer-pianists?

He's also the soloist on a new album featuring the work alongside Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, which will be out on 7 July (Orchid Classics). It's conducted by Wayne Marshall. Here's a taster - which takes me right back to the day, around two decades ago, when Wayne performed the solo piano part with the LPO under Kurt, though, he and Stewart seem in much greater harmony!). JD

JD: Stewart, welcome to JDCMB! Please tell us about Callaloo: what is the story behind it? What inspired you to write it? And what can listeners expect from it?

SG: I always wanted to write a work that paid homage to my Trinidadian background. My suite for piano and orchestra, Callaloo, was composed in 2016, two years after I first experienced Carnival in Trinidad. At that festival, I was exposed to gorgeous Calypso music for two weeks straight, riveted every second. My dream was to showcase the music of my heritage in a classical work.

The suite is in five movements, each a musical depiction of various parts of the Carnival. The finale is a wild Soca, a high-tempo Calypso that compels the listener to jump up and throw away inhibitions. 
The work is a joyous celebration of life, of people coming together....Listeners can expect their bodies to inadvertently move to the music!

JD: What’s it been like to work with Chineke? What does this orchestra mean to you?

SG: I love every moment of working with the musicians of Chineke! All members are passionate and committed to their art, and strive for the very best in musicianship. The representation of people of all races and colours performing music that they love, and are passionate about, is a statement that is very much needed in the classical world. 

JD: Please tell us about your own background. How and where did you start learning the piano (and/or composition)? Who most encouraged and inspired you? And what do you regard as the most important landmarks in your career to date?

SG: I come from a very musically eclectic background...My father, who died a month before I was born, left a legacy of LPs ranging from the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Ravi Shankar, and the symphonies of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Hearing those later artists made me desire to have a close affinity to classical music...I was drawn to that music more than any other. 

There are so many people I will be eternally grateful for. A few I will mention: so much thanks, love and gratitude to my mother who believed in me and supported me from the very start, my piano teachers at both the Curtis Institute of Music and the Juilliard School, and Jennifer Higdon for supporting my composition, Matthew Trusler and the team of Orchid Classics, Stephen Carpenter, Chi-chi Nwanoku and the musicians of Chineke!

I have been fortunate to work with wonderful music teachers, hear incredible musicians in concert and on recordings, and work with fantastic people throughout my career. Some of the landmarks of my career have been fulfilling my dream of recording the complete Beethoven piano sonatas and concerti, composing 3 piano concerti and various other compositions, and recording Callaloo with Chineke!

Stewart plays his own 'Baby Shark' Fugue

JD: Have you always composed as well as being a pianist, or is this a new departure for you? How do you manage the combination of two musical activities in the practical sense? And what are you composing next?

SG: I have always had equal passions of becoming both a concert pianist and a composer. Being a lover of music history, I have been enthralled by the works of composer/performers like Beethoven, Liszt and Rachmaninov to name only a few. Composition has become a part of my life since I was 8 years old, and musical ideas flow through me wherever I I always travel with manuscript paper!

I have just composed a cello concerto which will be performed Rachel Mercer and the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa next season, and future projects include a piano quintet in honour of the Beethoven year 2020.

JD: Do you think there’s a resurgence taking place in the tradition of the composer-pianist that was so prevalent in the 19th century and early 20th? How do you feel about this idea?

SG:I truly hope that this tradition becomes the norm, and I am very excited by the resurgence of this practice, with composer-pianists like Thomas Ades, Daniil Trifonov, Stephen Hough and others. I believe nurturing a new generation of composer-performers will bring the classical music art form to a new Renaissance and golden age.

JD: Do you think the classical music world is making progress in the matter of diversity and equality? What would make the biggest difference, in your view, to the possibility of establishing this balance?

SG: The classical music world is beginning to take notice that many musicians of all colours are celebrating their love of this music without the fear of boundaries or walls. There are still ways to go for the classical music world to make progress in the matter of diversity and equality, but those ways are now being discussed, which is a positive step forward. I think the solution for true equality lies with how classical music programs are structured: Instead of boxing composers by race and sex, include them on programs where they are equal to the composers established already through history. As French, Russian and Italian composers are celebrated equally to German and Austrian composers in concerts, composers of every colour and background should be just as celebrated. Classical music will then be a truly relevant art form embraced by all demographics.

Monday, June 10, 2019

The glory that is Gershwin

Say what you like about Porgy and Bess - flawed drama, tricky pacing, etc - but you can't get away from the incredible music George Gershwin wrote for it. After years and years in which there's been nothing of this work on a UK stage, this was my second in about four months: on Saturday I went to review Grange Park Opera's new production for The Arts Desk and loved it to bits. And there is a lot for which to thank Cape Town University's Opera School and Cape Town Opera itself.

Slightly weird acoustic effects in the round theatre that is GPO's latest home - a story much told elsewhere - but the surrounding gardens are almost impossibly gorgeous. And a special shout-out to the cakes in the croquet lawn marquee, which are some of the best gluten-free jobs I've yet encountered.

A less emotionally discomfiting place to see Porgy and Bess than a British country house opera has yet to be invented... but as I've mentioned in the review, if you go, you do know what you're getting into. Just take a deep breath and enjoy the music.

Musa Ngqungwana as Porgy at Grange Park Opera
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
If you go to a British country house opera to see a work about an addict and a cripple in a poverty-stricken Deep South tenement, you do so knowing that the contrast between stage and garden marquee will be extreme. Seeing Gershwin’s Porgy and Bessat Grange Park Opera was never going to be a comfortable experience. But “no use complainin’ ” – it is a splendid show in surroundings that are almost too pretty to be true.   
Porgy and Bess is, at the best of times, an odd, hybrid drama with deep-seated problems of pacing and more. A heartbreaking story (by Edwin DuBose Heyward based on his 1925 novel), with some masterly touches and immortal songs, it never wholly escapes Gershwin’s more usual habitat of Broadway. Jean-Pierre van der Spuy’s production homes in on the conflict of good and evil in the religion-driven community of Catfish Row, virtually battling over the soul of poor Bess...
Read the rest here.

Friday, June 07, 2019

Grounded? A guest post by Hugo Ticciati

Hugo Ticciati and O/Modernt's new album From the Ground Up: The Chaconne explores ideas of mindfulness in music and the meaning of the "ground" in every sense. Here's a guest post by Hugo (yes, he is Robin's brother, in case you wondered) and a little taster to go with it. If you're lucky enough to be in Sweden next week, you can also enjoy their festival Mis/Reading Beethoven in the country's oldest rococo theatre, Confidencen (14-19 June). Over to Hugo...

O/Modernt’s new album, From the Ground Up: The Chaconne, presents an exhilarating mix of variations on the chaconne theme, underpinned by links between ground basses as musical starting points and breath as the ground of our being, themes explored below by Hugo Ticciati

When I am asked about the role mindfulness plays in my practicing life as a musician my response circles around the two pillars of breath and repetition. As such, the question is particularly relevant to O/Modernt’s new album From the Ground Up: The Chaconne: a sonic exploration of both repetition and breath.

The simple act of breathing invokes a rhythmic ebb and flow while the compelling repetition of ground basses invites the listener into a very particular musical zone. In traditional works built on a ground bass, the primary objective of the opening measures is to firmly establish the ground, making both performer and listener fully aware of its shape. As the work progresses, however, the ground recedes until it becomes an element in the background – almost autonomic, like breathing – whose purpose is to provide us with a kind of stabilising terra firma. At that point we can respond more to the filigree, the captivating musical overlay that’s built on the repeating bass. 

Depending on the style of music and the performance, we can then be coaxed into shifting our focus – sometimes responding to the overlay more or less exclusively, and at other times listening to the ongoing bass line with renewed appreciation. This is a similar process that takes place when repeating a mantra – each repetition taking you deeper into the words, into your breath, while simultaneously leading to an expansion of your awareness. Can the repeating ground bass be experienced as a mantra of musical mindfulness?

With a little semantic play on the word ‘Ground’, I ‘misread’ in the liner notes Heidegger’s aphorism ground means being – being means ground to include a third term: ground means breath means being – breath is the ground of our being. For me the word‘ground’ invariably refers to the ground of our being and to questions about authenticity and identity: Who are we? How are we as individuals grounded? As in many contemplative disciplinesI believe becoming more aware of the involuntary mechanism of breathing facilitates a profound awareness of the present moment and as suchis a way of becoming more grounded: a sense of identity through repetition that can readily be transferred to the role played by the repetitions of musical ground basses. The focus of the album is therefore as much on the idea of being grounded as it is on the ground bass in music. 

The varied mixes and juxtapositions of works on the album are intended to make us more alive to aspects of music that we might normally remain unaware of, living as we do in an overcrowded aural landscape that’s all too often saturated with music that isn’t really meant to be heard at all. O/Modernt, Swedish for ‘Un/Modern’ was born from a desire to explore how musics from different epochs and geographical locations can come together, intertwine and enrich one another. 

So with the ground bass and breath as our repetitive guides, we begin a journey from early vocal and instrumental works from Italy and Spain, where the chaconne (originally a sexy South American dance) made its European debut; making our way through Bach’s Ciacconafrom the Partita in D minor (BWV 1004) and contemporary works, including Inside One Breath, a new piece by Johannes Marmén that takes the dynamics of breathing as its subject; and finally reinventing ourselves to remixed and looped grounds by Purcell, overlaid with Sam West’s readings from Shakespeare and Baba Israel’s extemporised beat poetry. Three improvisations, GroundBreath and Being– showcasing the art of harmonic singing – weave together the continuous heterogeneity of the story.

I encourage you to embrace the musical frictions as they breathe new life into works from other times and places, not as exotica or manifestations of bygone eras but as expressions of the present. With John Cage, let us ‘invent the past, revise the future’ and breathe the present. 

Hugo Ticciati

Monday, May 27, 2019

I'm on Radio 3 In Tune today

Radio klaxon: I'm on BBC Radio 3's 'In Tune' today to preview the Ghosts of War concert in Oxford on Saturday. Talking to Tom Service about Jelly, Kelly, Schumann and Bartók. With Jelly d'Arányi as heroine, the concert moves from the death of her beloved FS Kelly at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 through her traumatic discovery of the Schumann Violin Concerto in the 1930s, its composer's incipient descent into madness, and the work's conscription for propaganda purposes by Goebbels, to the Concerto for Orchestra that Bartók wrote in exile, years after creating both his sonatas for violin and piano for Jelly, with whom he was infatuated at the time.

It's a good escape from all these politics. It's about tragedy, waste, madness and the rise of fascism.

And breathe.

Here's my review at The Arts Desk of the last of Benjamin Grosvenor's 3 Barbican concerts, last night at Milton Court with the Doric Quartet. Last time's was so spectacularly wonderful that I found myself quite disappointed... just imagine Keir Starmer on piano, Dominic Grieve on cello and as first violin Jeremy Corbyn?!?

Saturday, May 25, 2019

And breathe...

It's very hard to "sweat the small stuff" in the musical world when the country's trapped down a rabbit hole.

Fidelio: great opera for young ears, courtesy of Die Zeit
In some ways, out there it's business as usual: Jonas has cancelled a month of performances in Paris, everyone's off to garden opera with a picnic basket and a thermal blanket, and from the look of next year's seasons we are all going to know Fidelio backwards by the time we hit Beethoven's actual 250th birthday.

And there's some good news around: at the Philharmonia, Santtu-Matias Rouvali, a 33-year-old Finn, has been named as successor to Esa-Pekka Salonen as principal conductor. At Decca, soprano Lise Davidsen and pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason both have debut discs on the way. Chandos is about to celebrate its 40th birthday, the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards do still exist but have shifted to November, and International Piano Magazine has gone monthly.

In other ways, there are a few tectonic plates on the move. I've just finished reading Robert Harris's Pompeii, a spectacular historical thriller about the explosion of Vesuvius. It begins with the deaths of some sensitive fish as their water supply is contaminated by something sulphurous, source unknown. I'm smelling sulphur now, and I suspect it's rising from the giant ravine between Arts Council England and the Department for Education. One organisation is demanding diversity and "relevance" (to what, and who decides?). Cutbacks at the other mean that musical education at grassroots level is disappearing at a rate of knots from more and more schools; indeed, the latest report has found a 37% reduction in the number of young people taking music A level. Joined-up thinking, anyone? You can't have it both ways. If you want music to be diverse, you have to offer good, workable, effective musical education to all, otherwise it's not going to happen and nothing our orchestras try to do can fix it in a month of Sundays.

Where are those fish? The Philharmonia's CEO, Helen Sprott, has resigned after just two years in post. Elsewhere, I'm hearing rumblings on the grapevine about other high-level resignations that are making me wonder what exactly is going on. While we're busy being bloody terrified that a new prime minister will push us off the no-deal cliff in October out of sheer hubris, everything else slides off the radar, and this is dangerous.

I've been keeping busy. The Happy Princess, the new youth opera for Garsington by composer Paul Fincham for which I've written the libretto, is shaping up and sounding terrific. I went to watch the youth companies rehearsing last weekend and it's amazing to see their enthusiasm, their willingness to work as hard as Karen Gillingham, our powerhouse director, wants them to, and they can pack a tremendous punch with their singing. Lovely to note lots of familiar faces from Silver Birch, though in two years some of them have grown so much that I had to blink. Meanwhile I'm working on a big choral piece with Roxanna Panufnik for the Beethoven Anniversary, to be performed next year at the Berlin Philharmonie by the Berlin Rundfunkchor and nine visiting choirs from all over the world. And I'm about to take the plunge with another novel - this time in similar vein to Ghost Variations, though I need a bit of courage to do it.

The Oxford 'Ghosts of War' concert starring violinist Alena Baeva and conductors Hannah Schneider and Marios Papadopoulos is next Saturday - please come if you're within shooting distance - and on 16 June I'm doing a pre-concert talk with Steven Isserlis at the Wigmore Hall about the Fauré String Quartet and the Schumann Geistervariationen and Violin Concerto, which is a rare combination and, if your musical enthusiasms are anything like mine, a wonderful treat.

The central figure of my new book is a real-life 19th-century woman, blessed with extraordinary energy, vision and determination, who despairs over the "dull wits" that surround her. She knows her country could have become the most advanced and sophisticated in the whole of Europe, but for the fact that those who hold the power and the money don't have the requisite intelligence or imagination to make it happen. But she keeps trying, and so will we. I look forward to introducing her to you properly in due course. There are so many wonderful things to do, so many new and interesting ways to communicate the wonders of music, which is human creativity at its very best - if only we keep finding the energy and don't give up.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Ghosts of War

Tracing the path from FS Kelly's death in the Battle of the Somme, through the rediscovery of the Schumann Violin Concerto on the eve of World War II, to the exile into which that tragic conflict threw so many composers including Bartók: the concert The Ghosts of War is one of my dream events made real. It's been built around my book Ghost Variations and the story of Jelly d'Arányi, who was deeply connected with not only the concerto but also the other two composers. On 1 June I'm narrating the concert for the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra in Oxford Town Hall, with the conductors Marios Papadopoulos and Hannah Schneider (who will do the Kelly) and the stunning Russian violinist Alena Baeva as soloist in the Schumann. I do hope you can join us! Booking here.

Here's some more about the concert and the personalities behind the pieces, to help whet the appetite...


Jelly d'Arányi in the 1920s. Portrait by Charles Geoffroy-Dechaume

From the death of composer Frederick Septimus Kelly in the Battle of the Somme, through the bizarre rediscovery of Schumann’s long-suppressed Violin Concerto on the eve of World War II to music that Bela Bartók composed in exile in 1940, this concert traces the inter-war years through the extraordinary figure of the great Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi (the heroine of my novel Ghost Variations, which inspired the programme). 

One of the most significant musicians of her day, muse to such composers as Ravel, Szymanowski, Holst, Vaughan Williams and Bartók, d’Arányi was born in Budapest in 1893 and in her heyday premiered many seminal new pieces of music. But in 1933 she claimed to have received spirit messages purporting to be from the composer Robert Schumann, asking her to find and play his long-neglected Violin Concerto. In her quest to find this work, which had never been published, d’Arányi found herself trapped in a race against the Nazi regime’s Department of Propaganda, which wanted to conscript the newly discovered concerto for its own purposes. The concerto’s rebirth was almost as traumatic a tale as its birth; it had been Schumann’s last orchestral work before the mental collapse that led to his hospitalisation and death. Its modern premiere was eventually presented in November 1937 in front of Hitler and Goebbels. D’Arányi gave its UK premiere at the Queen’s Hall, London, in February 1938.

Flanking the concerto are works by two of the most significant figures in d’Arányi’s life. Frederick Septimus Kelly was described by d’Arányi’s family as “her only fiancé” (if in the French sense of 'suitor' or 'boyfriend' rather than 'intended'...): a highly talented Australian composer and pianist, he studied at Eton and Oxford and frequently met the d’Arányi sisters to rehearse and perform chamber music. On the outbreak of World War I he became an officer and survived Gallipoli, composing a violin sonata for d’Arányi while there. His most famous work, however, is the exquisitely beautiful Elegy in Memoriam Rupert Brooke, written in tribute to the poet, who was a close friend and died in 1915. Kelly met his own tragic death at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. D’Arányi kept his portrait on her piano for the rest of her life - even though there was no sign that Kelly had ever actually returned her feelings. 

Jelly plays Kelly

Bela Bartók was close to the d’Arányi family in Budapest before they moved to Britain: as a young man he was frequently at their home to give piano lessons to their middle sister, Hortense. He was enraptured first by the eldest of the three, Adila (herself an eminent violinist under her married name, Adila Fachiri); but later, when the youngest, Jelly, grew up, she became a crucial inspiration. For her he composed his two impassioned sonatas for violin and piano, which she premiered with him in London respectively in 1922 and 1923. This time the unrequited love was his.

After the outbreak of World War II, Bartók left Hungary and spent his last years in America, where he had to struggle for acceptance and survival. In exile, he composed his magnificent Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned by the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who conducted its premiere in 1944. Despite the distance of several thousand miles, the work seems to overflow with the energy, lyrical beauty and exotic colours of Bartók’s - and d’Arányi’s - native Budapest, the dazzling rhythms of the Hungarian language and the soulful, rhapsodic qualities so characteristic of Hungarian folk music. 

The Schumann Violin Concerto’s modern rediscovery seems highly symbolic. D’Arányi’s career was on the brink, tipping from greatness to decline in a combination of physical and psychological pressures; the work is by a composer about to experience a catastrophic breakdown; and it was revived for a world poised on the cliff edge, ready to tumble into the madness of fascism and war. Yet the concerto’s Polonaise finale carries a message of hope that bore a startling relevance to those times and to the future. It was a story crying out to be told, especially in a world that can seem once again to be on the brink of madness. In Ghost Variations I wanted to pay tribute to these great musicians, but also to capture the resonance that their world carries for our own.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Brainstaves: a string quartet on a mission

The Ligeti Quartet is presenting a programme at Kings Place tomorrow that's so extraordinary I just had to ask them how it works. This is string quartet work with a mission, a whole new concept for a new century. This concert is called 'Consciousness' and involves a collaboration with the neuroscientist and composer Cliff Kerr, using the musicians' brain activity to generate music. The works by Ruth Crawford Seeger, Shiva Feshareki and Lutosławski all connect to the theme in ways of their own; in particular, Feshareki's quartet Venus/Zoreh is a planetary journey with a difference. The concert is part of Kings Place's astonishing Venus Unwrapped series. First violinist Mandhira de Saram has agreed to answer some of my questions...

JD: What inspired this programme and how have you chosen the pieces for it? 

MDS: Like most ensembles, we put an inordinate amount of thought into programming - we want to make sure that programmes are always challenging, thought-provoking, but (hopefully) with some sense of fun. After all we have a lot of fun planning them although we agonise and argue over details. Often our programmes are built around a particular piece or concept or around around a few pieces which we love performing. 

This programme, Consciousness, was inspired by discussions with neuroscientist and composer Cliff Kerr over a year ago about using our actual brain activity to generate music. We realised that some of our favourite pieces would show different ways in which composers as well as we, as performers, approach awareness and responsiveness, shared consciousness. Shiva spent a long time with us leading meditative exercises as an essential preparation for her piece. In fact, we found that after working with Shiva for just a short time, we became more aware whilst performing other repertoire too in terms of our receptivity to sound, noise, texture and our shared consciousness as a string quartet. 

Ruth Crawford's string quartet, and especially the third movement, uses as its compositional base an extremely new and unique (for the time - 1931!) sound world. Composers are still exploring the same techniques and concepts - her ideas were so new and meaningful that they are ageless! The dense writing in her music requires us to be totally 'in tune' with each other - a huge amount of rehearsal goes into preparing this music even though the piece is very short. 

In contrast to the condensed miniatures which make up Crawford's work, Lutosławski's only string quartet (both Crawford and Lutoslawski wrote only one work in this form) is a long work, which uses some aleatoric devices, but carefully controlled and calculated so that the outcome is always the same - like a chess grandmaster who has foreseen all possible moves. The result is that the performers feel they are playing in a quasi-improvisatory style, feeding off and interacting with each other, but in fact we are always within a grid of cues and meticulously worked out 'mobiles' or episodic material. 

The Ligeti Quartet perform on the Thames Estuary

JD: How does Cliff Kerr’s piece Brainstaves for string quartet and EEGs actually work? It’s difficult for a prospective audience to imagine what is going on when someone is 'using brain activity in real time to generate creative aspects of the music’ - please could you explain the technical side of it? 

Cliff Kerr
MDS: This is what Cliff says: "When musicians improvise, their brains create musical ideas, which are translated into muscle commands, sent along the spinal cord to the muscles, and then these muscle movements make music. But what if you were able to read the music directly from the brain? The concept behind Brainstaves is to use EEG headsets to record the electrical activity of the performers' brains, allowing the score for the piece to be generated in real time. The challenge here is twofold: to be scientifically accurate enough to do justice to the brain's bubbling activity, and to be musically sensible enough to keep the audience from reaching for their earplugs. To solve this, I created a structural and harmonic environment that is static, but within which each individual note is determined by mapping the amount of brain activity in different frequency bands onto a statistical distribution. The result is effectively an improvisation between the performers and their own brains - an exploration of the wild, wacky, and perhaps wonderful signals that are transmitted within, and between, our brains."

MDS: We are still working on the piece every day - it is certainly a collaborative process, three-way: Cliff, the LQ and our brains. That is not taking into account getting to grips with the tech - for example, the EEG headsets to a long time to get working in a way Cliff could actually use for composing a piece (the ones we have are actually to be used with a meditation app!). Over the next few days we will be developing the piece further and also using it as the basis for our workshops with Hearing Impaired children, an ACE funded project. The exciting (and stressful!) aspect of this piece is that we will always be sight-reading, even though we will have a sense of what the music might be like through pre-generated or fully composed examples. We have yet to experience how our brain activity might change during an actual performance as opposed to simulating this experience in rehearsals or workshop sessions. Perhaps we are in for a surprise, but, I know that Cliff (like Lutoslawski did in his quartet) has controlled parameters so that the feedback loop is always predictable in most ways, certainly in its sound-world and rhythm, even though individual notes change. 

JD: What’s most exciting to you about creating new music by linking with a scientific process in this way? 

MDS: This is something which is certainly stimulating, and more than anything generates even more ideas for compositions and collaborations. In fact, I think working with a scientist and the process of collaborating on a piece inspires a lot of non-scientific ideas, which I guess is the idea. We always want to find new concepts, sounds, techniques and ways of creating. The novelty and inventiveness which is needed to make this work is in itself important research. Scientists and composers sometimes work in similar ways and most often the process is as important as the result. For us, we would hope that between Cliff's and our own musical knowledge, the piece produced would be artistically successful, but the work we had to do to get there is as important to us as it will hopefully give us a model for developing further such collaborations. 

JD: Please tell us more about Shiva Feshareki’s ‘Venus/Zohreh’ - and how come you were touring planetariums? How does the music relate to the planets? 

Shiva Feshareki, winner of a British Composer Award 2017
Photo: Mark Allen
MDS: The planetarium tour came about as the Ligeti Quartet, Sam Bordoli and Sound UK wanted to commission a new 'Planets' as a homage to Holst's piece. By complete chance, we realised that the 100th anniversary of Holst's planets would coincide with this project. So we commissioned a diverse range of composers from different musical backgrounds, selected a planet for them and paired them with a scientist who is an expert in their particular planet. Shiva and Dr Philippa Mason brainstormed and looked at data together, as did the other composer-scientist pairings. The idea was that each Planet would be inspired by science rather than Astrology, as in Holst's Planets.

Shiva's programme note: VENUS/ZOHREH is one exponential crescendo in volume, intensity, speed, and pitch exposure. Within this expansion a rich array of direct expression is exposed. The piece was composed using a variety of techniques such as plotting pitches, dynamics, duration, and rhythmic ideas as graphic shapes, that together create one overarching shape. The realisation of the composition draws on deep listening exercises that bring together other physical elements related to sound such as movement and space.
After collaboration with the Venus expert and geologist Dr Philippa Mason, the composition was crafted using the same methods as used to extrapolate information about Venus through what we know about Earth. The emotional journey behind the piece is inspired by my mother Zohreh. Zohreh in the Persian language translates to Venus, or the Morning Star. Therefore, the scientific journey behind the composition is forged through the collaboration with Dr Mason, and the spiritual journey is from my mother Zohreh. These energies combine to create VENUS/ZOHREH.

This piece is dedicated to my mother Zohreh as well as Envision: a planetary mission to Venus which aims to measure the rate and nature of geological activity and its influence on atmospheric chemistry. The piece was commissioned by Sound UK for the Ligeti Quartet.

Other composers approached their planets in different ways.  For example, Mira Calix literally translated geological data into notes, Richard Bullen concentrated on the 4 moons of Jupiter, Laurence Crane the 'iciness' of Neptune etc. All were hugely inspired by their meetings with experts on their planets. 

JD: What most appeals to you in the music of Ruth Crawford Seeger and Witold Lutosławski?

Ruth Crawford Seeger
MDS: Ruth Crawford (this piece was written before she married Charles Seeger) is a landmark piece of music, probably one of the earliest examples of writing a string quartet using this kind of modernist language. The piece is so tightly constructed, full of expression as well as fun and absolutely amazing to play even though it is technically challenging. The third movement especially is groundbreaking - a crescendo of rising cross-swells which arrives at a climax and quickly descends and dies down. A few days ago in rehearsal we were thinking that the effect created in all 4 movements is like a backwards tape! But written a decade before tape was actually invented!

The Lutosławski requires a very different kind of quartet mentality. Whereas the Crawford requires that we are absolutely synchronised, the Lutosławski allows us at least a sense of freedom even though he has in fact calculated outcomes so carefully that the piece always sounds the same. The composer did not want the players to see a full score for the piece (I have to admit, that when we first learned it, we did cheat), The effect of this is that when we do actually play together, and this is indicated in the individual parts, it feels amazing to play into that string quartet sounds, and then we drift away again. 

JD:  How do you see the current upsurge of interest in music by women? Do you think it can transform our musical landscape? 

MDS: It is high time that diversity is embraced in classical music (and in any other discipline). It is quite obvious that we have in no way reached a point where women are commissioned as much as men. It should not be considered a vogue or trend but something that should have always happened, a mistake which is now being corrected. in order for there to be equality, we need to redress the balance perhaps more in favour of women and minorities before finding a real balance. We aim for a 50:50 balance in our programmes and actively seek out composers to commission. 

JD: The Ligeti Quartet is doing some truly fascinating programmes - do you see yourselves as an ensemble with a mission? What would be your mission statement? 

MDS: We certainly do have a mission! The music we commission and perform, we feel, is thought provoking. We try to programme in ways which challenges the audience to listen actively, find connections, images, stories and engage with what we, the performers are doing - in fact, encouraging the audience to make some of the same kind of decisions and choices that we make when interpreting a piece. It is a three way interaction between composer, performers and audience (sometimes four-way if we consider the space/acoustic) I guess our mission is to invite as many people as possible to enjoy the music we love with us and to defy those who feel that new and challenging music has no meaning. Music is constantly evolving and we enjoy being a part of this.

Ligeti Quartet: 'Consciousness', Kings Place, 9 May. Booking here:

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Music and politics don't mix, right? Wrong.

Three cheers for Rhinegold and Classical Music Magazine, now home to a new podcast entitled Music Plus, hosted by music journalist and human rights activist Chris Gunness. Chris used to work for the UN in the Middle East, but he is now back in the UK and interviewing the musicians who burn to change the world. Music Plus focuses on the role that classical music can play in social justice and also supports the magazine's efforts to inform and educate re mental health for musicians. 

Among Chris's interviewees to date are the pianist Gabriela Montero, who speaks powerfully about the situation in her native Venezuela; Chineke! founder Chichi Nwanoku; Mark Wigglesworth on the responsibilities of the conductor, and much more besides. Do have a listen. In the meantime, I wanted to interview Chris himself about why he does what he does – and why classical music has lagged so far behind its potential in this invaluable field. JD

Gabriela Montero: free improvisation on Venezuela

JD: Chris, congratulations on this splendid new series and thanks for talking to us. First of all, why do you think a podcast about music and social justice is necessary? What do you hope it will achieve?

CG: I created the Music Plus Podcast because classical music and social responsibility have come of age. After years or retreating from society, classical music, at last, is re-engaging with issues of social justice; and I wanted both to showcase the work of classical musicians who are passionate about making our world a more just place and also to encourage others in the industry to do more. 

Pop music has been promoting the rights of the most disadvantaged for decades. I attended the Live Aid concert in Wembley Stadium in 1985 which was watched by 40 per cent of the world’s population and which raised billions to combat starvation in Ethiopia. Look at the black musicians who provided the sound track for the American civil rights movement. 

By contrast – and despite notable examples -- classical music is only now beginning to look more seriously at its social responsibilities; and the truth is that although it’s easy to ridicule elitist musical institutions, many of those in the UK today are doing transformative work with some of the most disadvantaged communities in the country. I wanted to highlight this, while at the same time, pricking the consciences of those who should be doing more. 

It’s also been important for me to draw in younger audiences and to show them that classical music resonates with their ideals of a better world.  And already youth audiences are listening in.

JD: I don’t know of any other initiative quite like this. Have we in the music world been too slow to wake up to the potential for a stronger role for music within society?

CG: The answer to your question is a triple fortissimo, resounding YES. Music is deeply embedded in our lives at all levels and there is massive potential for classical music to create change within our society; on a personal level with music therapy for example, but also at a societal level.  My interview with Chi-chi Nwanoku, who founded “Chineke!”, Europe’s first majority black and minority ethnic orchestra, highlights this beautifully. 

Chi-chi has broken down barriers and destroyed stereotypes, drawing in younger more diverse audiences, transforming the classical music landscape forever. It is this sort of cutting-edge work that I feature. Certainly there’s no other podcast that showcases world class musicians with a burning sense of social justice. And by the way, the podcast also supports a campaign by Classical Music Magazine to promote mental health in the classical music industry:

The Chineke! Chamber Players in part of Schubert's 'Trout' Quintet

JD: Tell us something about your line-up so far. Why have you chosen these particular interviewees? 

CG: Beyond Chi-chi, I interviewed Mark Wigglesworth on the responsibilities of the conductor, both within musical institutions and in society more broadly; Gabriela Montero – Amnesty International’s first Honorary Consul -- on the role of music in promoting human rights; James Rose, the world’s first professional conductor with cerebral palsy on disability and stigma; Julian Lloyd-Webber on universal music education and Dr Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey who recently brought to the UK the Afghan Women’s Orchestra, surely the world’s bravest ensemble, who were attacked by a suicide bomber simply for playing. These are all musicians, passionate about social justice and whose work is ground-breaking and inspirational.  

JD: You’re a musician, but you worked for the UN in the Middle East. Tell us about your path into that - and back from it? What have your experiences there have shown you and what do you hope to do with that knowledge now?

CG: I decided to work with refugees in the Middle East because after 23 years in the BBC writing about social justice, I wanted to go and do it! When you work with people who’ve been robbed of everything – their land, the property, their history – when you work with communities who are forgotten and marginalised, you begin to think deeply about those things that bind us, the common humanity that unites us. You search for and hold tight to those things that can bring joy and a sense of values amid the most terrible loss. Music and all it engenders is one of those things and I hope that each and every edition of the Music Plus Podcast illustrates this in one way or another.

 The Afghan Women's Orchestra perform in Zürich

JD: “Music and politics don’t mix” - your thoughts on this little maxim, please?

CG: It’s demonstrably wrong. We know that music was an integral element of public life in ancient societies and music has been an element of the political order throughout human history; think of Protestant and Catholic music during the Reformation; think of music and nationalism in the nineteenth century; think of the musical conversation between Shostakovich and Stalin! Music has always moulded society and vice versa. 

Moreover, music retreats from society at its peril: it will be condemned to irrelevance. Conversely society is impoverished when music and musicians retreat; they bring so much richness. That’s why I am delighted that classical musicians are re-engaging and why I believe the time is ripe for a podcast that focuses on how classical music is transforming our communities.  

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

"We start with a completely blank slate"

Charlotte Bray
Photo: (c) Nicholas Dawkes

Charlotte Bray's brand-new Triple Concerto, modelled after Beethoven's, is being premiered next week. A triple concerto is such an extraordinary format that one might wonder why there aren't more around. Well, maybe someone needs to commission them...  That someone, on this occasion, is the Investec International Music Festival in Surrey,  for the Sitkovetsky Trio - Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin), Wu Qian (piano) and Isang Enders (cello). I asked Qian, co-artistic director of the festival, to tell us more about the new piece - and about why it is SO important, and rewarding, to commission and perform new music in general. JD

JD: Why did you want to commission a Triple Concerto in particular?

WQ: This is something that we as a trio wanted to do for a long time. Apart from the Beethoven there are very few triple concertos which are in the mainstream repertoire and we wanted to play a small part in rectifying that. Most of the piano trio groups that exist today often perform as soloists with orchestras and so we really hope that this new concerto will be embraced for many years to come by as many musicians as possible. I was also incredibly thrilled when this opportunity came through the Investec International Music Festival. We felt that there was no better way to celebrate our 10th anniversary than by making our first festival commission and we were thrilled when Charlotte Bray accepted to write the new work. As an arts organisation we feel it is our responsibility not only to programme the music of the past, but also make a mark on the future and we are very excited that we have managed to bring this project to life.

Isang Enders plays Charlotte Bray's 'Suya Dalmak' for cello and tape (general rehearsal)

JD: What are the big challenges that this format presents - for performer and composer?

WQ: I think that writing for piano trio is less a challenge and more an opportunity. The possibilities are wonderfully vast because of the different natures of the three instruments and also the dual roles that each one plays in a trio. The piano trio formation is unique because it encourages the players to be both soloists and chamber musicians at the same time. In one moment you must breathe as a singular organism and in another, a leading voice can rise above the others and soar individually. Adding an orchestra to this already very varied colour palette only encourages more textures and opportunities to create a unique sound world, so we are very excited to see what Charlotte has done and can’t wait to hear it ourselves for the first time.

The Sitkovetsky Trio

JD: Why did you choose to commission Charlotte Bray? What qualities most attract you to her music?

WQ: Charlotte is someone whom we had thought about for some time as a composer that we would like to work with. Initially we considered to ask her to write a new trio for us, but when the conversation turned to a possible concerto commission, we didn’t hesitate to contact her. We loved her Cello Concerto that was premiered at the BBC Proms and we thought she would be the perfect person to ask. Charlotte has a unique voice amongst today’s composers with a very personal language that we find fascinating.

JD: What role do the performers play in the compositional process? Have you and your trio worked with her on the concerto, made suggestions about matters such as technique, balance, etc?

WQ: We know many musicians that like to be very hands-on with the compositional process, making suggestions and being very specific about what they want the piece to be like. In our case, when we talked to Charlotte about our thoughts for the piece, she came up with a brilliant idea to use tiny cells of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto and to have the piece grow organically out of them. We thought it was a wonderful suggestion to make a link between the two concertos as it almost seems symbolic to have a new triple concerto sprout its roots from the one great Triple Concerto written in the 19th Century. That’s where Charlotte’s idea for the title 'Germinate' came from and we were so happy with it that we left Charlotte to it and tried not to interfere. The only thing that we mentioned was how we wanted to make sure that all of our instruments have a chance to sing, as we want to show the vocal quality of our instruments as well as the rhythmic.

The Sitkovetsky Trio plays the finale of the Ravel Trio at last year's Investec International Music Festival

JD: In what way is performing brand-new music different from performing standard repertoire? What are typically the different challenges and rewards for you as performers? 

WQ: Well, most importantly, we have a direct line to the composer where we can ask exactly what he or she had in mind in places where you are not sure about something. That is an incredible advantage. You can’t imagine how much time is spent in rehearsals discussing whether Schubert wrote an accent or an diminuendo, or the flexibility of Brahms’ tempos, which have always been a talking point. Also, there is the possibility for working through and possibly making changes if something is not working practically, or if something doesn’t sound as convincing as it should be. And, of course, bringing the piece to life for the first time is simultaneously the hardest challenge and the biggest reward. We start with a completely blank slate, no recordings to be influenced by, no “traditions” to observe or at least contemplate: just the musicians doing their best to give the most convincing interpretation possible.

JD: What would you say to those people who are still scared of contemporary music about why it’s important to keep commissioning new works?

WQ: I have found from experience that if you are performing for an audience who have never heard classical music before, very often a piece of extremely contemporary music might touch and connect with them more than a work of Mozart or Beethoven, so this just shows hoe powerful the impact of new music can be. Sometimes one feels that the experienced public comes to the concert already prepared to love Beethoven because they know how it sounds, so they are excited to hear a masterpiece that they already know. At the same time, they might be a little apprehensive about an unknown work that they haven't heard before. I would say: leave any preconceptions at the door and just listen to the piece as if you are hearing music for the first time. Whether you are moved and excited, or completely unfulfilled, at least you give the piece a fair try. 

The audience's role in the life of a new piece cannot be underestimated and, as we have already talked about, it is extremely important to commission new works. That is how we can secure music’s legacy for the next 300 years. So many musicians over the last 100 years have contributed to the incredible growth of repertoire that is now considered standard and mainstream and we must help that continue. At the same time, a new piece needs the chance for many performances, not just one, so this is something that I feel is extremely important to cultivate: a relationship between the artists, composers and concert hall promoters to continue to support the piece after the first performance so that it has a long life! That is the only way that the piece will end up in the mainstream repertoire.

Investec International Music Festival website: