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...


THE GHOSTS OF WAR


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. 

https://oxfordphil.com/events/128153638/the-ghosts-of-war-2019-06-01

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: https://www.kingsplace.co.uk/whats-on/classical/ligeti-quartet-consciousness/

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: http://iimf.co.uk/

Monday, April 29, 2019

5 lessons from three busy days

Whatever we do, we can learn something. In any situation, principles can be extrapolated that are valuable for the future. I've had three Very Busy Days during which I learned certain things I'd love to share with you. On Friday I was adjudicating a Schumann piano competition at Trinity Laban Conservatoire. On Saturday Viv, Fenella and I performed the Odette concert at St Mary's Perivale, and yesterday I went to Market Harborough to do a pre-concert talk about Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time for the Harborough Concerts series. Here are my life lessons about music that resulted.



1. About music competitions. Whether you are trying to compare five different instruments and five different musicians playing pieces from across several centuries, or three pianists playing one composer on the same instrument, someone is always going to say "apples and oranges" and they are right. You are never comparing like with like - unless, of course, everyone plays exactly the same piece, and even then you're not comparing like with like because different players will have different strengths and weaknesses. One is not always, or only, "better" than another. In many ways, the idea of competition is therefore completely impossible to apply to music. But we have competitions and they are a useful way for young musicians to train up for the pressures that attend a musical career. Therefore, perhaps the best thing we can do is try to see them as handy experience for the competitors and a chance for the audience to hear gifted youngsters on the up - rather than a be-all and end-all Olympian contest.

2. About concert venues. Most concert-halls-in-chief are too big and lack atmosphere. It's possible that the single nicest way to experience music is to be up close and personal (though with just enough distance not to be deafened). There is a great deal to be said for an intimate venue with a special atmosphere of its own, packed with local fans and friends, able to give everyone a sociable cuppa or glass of something after the performance and make a really personal and social occasion out of a performance. You only need a massive hall for big orchestral and choral works. For smaller-scale music, something the size of the Wigmore or Kings Place is perfect; and you may find that your local church or historical property with music festival associations is replete with possibility.

3. About technology. The Odette concert was live streamed and afterwards I saw social media posts from people who'd tuned in from Sweden and Italy. I'm finding it as hard to get my head around this capability as I did the first time I set eyes on a miraculous invention called the Fax Machine in 1988. What? You can send documents around the world on a phone line? This has now become 40 years ago only the BBC could broadcast a filmed concert live. Now a 12th-century church behind the A40 can do it at the touch of a few buttons! 

If anyone in Brexit Britain really believes in turning the clock back to 1973, this is just one example of why that little notion is never going to work in 1m years. Because now we can do livestreaming, and you can't switch this all off again just because you want to live in 1973. The rest of the world won't stop to let us indulge that silly fantasy. Twenty-first-century technology is here to stay. This is not 1973; it's 2019. Get real and get over it before it's too late.

4. Of course you don't need to "know about music" in order to enjoy it, but sometimes it helps if you do know something, depending on what the music is. Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time may be a case in point. Yesterday I gave a 20-minute introduction to it, explaining the extraordinary background and circumstances of its composition, and talking through the meanings and some of the workings of each movement. This series, presented in the Market Harborough Methodist Church, has a devoted audience - violinist and artistic director David Le Page and the Harborough Collective have built up a strong following that seems to trust them implicitly and will come along to hear anything they do, which is an ideal in itself and utterly wonderful - so there was a strong turnout for a complex piece by Messiaen on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Afterwards I lost count of the people who came up to say that the talk had made a big difference to their appreciation of the music because now they could contextualise it and knew something of what was going on and why. (The next concert in the series includes Shostakovich, Mahler and Schnittke.)

5. Apropos of this, it now occurs to me that most of us who regularly declare that you don't need to know anything about music in order to enjoy it - and I often have in the past - actually can't be sure this is true, because we usually do know something about it, however little, and we can't know what it is like really to know nothing, because we cannot unlearn what we've learned. This might make us pause and reflect for a moment. My experiences this weekend [and it applies to the Odette concert too, because it's full of stuff about Tchaikovsky and why he wrote so many violin solos in Swan Lake] suggest that audiences like to feel informed and maybe to learn something along the way. [See also: massive success of The Rest is Noise, Southbank Centre 2013.] I'm still convinced that you don't need to know anything about some kinds of music to enjoy it. But is it perhaps possible that if you do become informed, you might enjoy it even more? Unpopular opinion, I know - but give it a whirl.



Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Curveball

It's Groundhog Day: everyone is dissing the Proms. Every year the same thing happens: the niche interests complain that their particular Thing isn't there, or is not there enough, there aren't ever enough women composers or conductors or musical figureheads of colour, and there'll be a couple of not-strictly-classical concerts to which the reactionaries, er, react. There is a lot of standard fare from decent orchestras, with famous pieces; some see this as padding, others might recognise that tickets have to be sold now and then.

Dissing the Proms is a sort of annual tradition, like cheese-racing or dancing round the maypole. We don't wholly interrogate the deeper reasons for why we're doing it, or what the context really is, or what the realities might be of programming a magnificent summer of concerts that truly can please everybody (i.e., there goes another of those flying pigs over Kensington Gardens). The fact is that we simply don't know how lucky we are to have them. And in the meantime, our eye is off the ball. The ball is: what happens the rest of the year. Beside this, the Proms measure up very, very well.

Lili Boulanger: the only deceased woman composer being played by a top London orchestra next season
(Photo from Seattle Symphony Orchestra website)

Here's a bit of context by way of a curveball. I've just looked through next season's programmes for the LPO, Philharmonia  and LSO to see what they're doing, or not, in the department of female conductors and composers. (Disclaimer: I haven't been through the seasons of every single orchestra in the country because I don't have time and neither do you, and we already know about wonderful Mirga in Birmingham. I've chosen these three orchestras because they are the capital's chief musical flagships.)

The LPO has ONE (1) piece by a woman in the ENTIRETY of its London season 19-20. It is by Kaija Saariaho. They have TWO (2) female conductors - Marin Alsop and Susanna Mälkki.

The Philharmonia is doing very slightly better. It is having THREE (3) concerts featuring composers who happen to be female: Lili Boulanger, Helena Tulve and Augusta Read Thomas, with a whole programme of the Music of Today series devoted to the last of these. There are FOUR (4) female conductors: Elim Chan, Shi-Yeon Sung, Xian Zhang and Joana Carneiro. Lili Boulanger is the only deceased woman composer being played by a top London orchestra next season.

The LSO is including pieces by THREE (3) composers who are female: Emily Howard, Elizabeth Ogonek and Kaija Saariaho. Among conductors, they score more highly, with FIVE (5) - yes, that many. We encounter Nathalie Stutzman, Elim Chan, Karina Canellakis and Susanna Mälkki, plus Emmanuelle Haïm conducting a baroque chamber orchestra incarnation at Milton Court.

And believe it or not, this lamentable total from the lot of them is progress. I hate to say it, but had we not been making such a fuss these past years, even such extraordinarily pathetic paucity of recognition for the talents of musicians who happen to be women would not now be taking place at all. Beside this, the Proms look positively angelic.

Susanna Mälkki conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in Sibelius 2:


I have not even touched upon the matter of BAME representation. The LPO has Ravi Shankar's opera, which is nice, and Sheku Kanneh-Mason is playing Elgar with them. The LSO is having a Gospel concert and is also welcoming Wynton Marsalis. Otherwise: ?

Here's a little anecdote about unconscious bias. On Monday night I went to Chineke's concert for Stephen Lawrence Day. They played, among other things, the beautiful Elegy: In Memoriam Stephen Lawrence by the black British composer Philip Herbert, in which 18 string players each represent a year of the murdered teenager's life. It is profoundly moving and in terms of style sounds a little bit like Barber's Adagio, but a lot more like Vaughan Williams. And what is the unconscious bias? It is that this surprised me. I discovered that I had not expected it to sound so English. And I was not pleased with my own expectations. I learned something. The trouble with unconscious biases is that they are unconscious. You don't know they're happening to you until one of them trips you up. I thought I was aware, or "woke" or whatever you want to call it. Was I heck. If this can happen to me, it can happen to you too, and it needs to happen to some musical decision-makers who were not at this concert.

Here's a performance of it from one of their earlier concerts:



The LPO and Philharmonia are both due new principal conductors in the early years of the next decade when their admirable, long-serving ones - Vladimir Jurowski and Esa-Pekka Salonen - move on to pastures new. These matters depend on circumstance, availability, money and much else. We'll all have our own views on who it ought to be. I can think of at least one person who should be under consideration, indeed who should be pursued around the world from Helsinki to California until she is persuaded. I have not the slightest idea who will actually be chosen and I am not party to any discussions at either orchestra. However, I am half tempted to go to a bookmaker's and put money on at least one of these two high-profile appointments being a British man (white) educated at public school and Cambridge. This is not a criticism per se, because he might be musically excellent, he might a totally lovely person whom everyone there adores, he might be an eloquent figurehead for the organisation and in the grand scheme of things he might indeed be a superb appointment. But why should it be so simple to guess? It's high time our orchestras started to be at least a little bit braver.

Avril Coleridge-Taylor
(photo from Wikipedia)

If the Proms can programme ten female historical composers, and moreover the splendid Chineke can go to the trouble of unearthing music by Avril Coleridge-Taylor (daughter of Samuel) and finding that it is really, really good (which it is - they played her Sussex Landscapes on Monday and it was wonderful, gorgeously orchestrated, rather Pucciniesque), then you'd think the bigger, better resourced orchestras could do likewise. And if it is still impossible for one of the UK capital's top orchestras to consider appointing a woman as principal conductor, then it's time for some very serious thought about who is doing what, how and why.

News came through recently from the ACE that they are planning to fund not quality, but relevance. Not the greatest prospect, admittedly - relevant to what, and for whom, and who decides? - but this may in the end force the issue. And the issue has to be forced, or else it will never move at all.







Thursday, April 18, 2019

Festival of Sunshine

One of my highlights of 2018 was my trip to the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville, Far North Queensland. The pianist Kathryn Stott was in her first year as artistic director and we all had a ball: an absolute bonanza of music, companionship, sunshine, palm trees, whale-watching and seriously amazing seafood. But a few months later, parts of Townsville were devastated by floods. As AFCM gears up again towards the 2019 festival, I spoke to Kathy about what happened and how AFCM can help to make Townsville shine again.





How are things in Townsville after the floods? 

The floods were terrible. On the surface now you don’t see much sign of it - on the Strand the lovely palm trees are still there and everything looks OK, but someone told me that more than 2000 homes have been condemned. There were several deaths, and I know of some people who were ill with a “flood disease”. And one person said they weren’t frightened of floods, but of being eaten by a crocodile. It’s important that people know it’s been serious, because once it is no longer in the news it’s quickly forgotten, but some people have really been struggling. 

The festival brings about AUS$8m into the economy and my dream now for the festival is that we will put Townsville on the map again for positive reasons. There’s a hashtag, #TownsvilleShines - you often see it on social media: it needs to shine again. People have really been through the mill. Among our volunteers everybody had a story or knew someone who had lost everything… I’ve never before been so close to people who’ve been involved in a disaster like that, and you just want to bring some positive news. What better way than music, and bringing people to Townsville to support it?

 
Kathryn Stott on the Strand at Townsville


Now that you’ve got your feet under the AFCM, desk, what have you learned, how do you feel about last year and how do you want to build on last year’s festival? 

The AFCM takes up more than half my life. I was totally thrilled with last year’s - I couldn’t have hoped for it to go any better. There’s some trepidation coming into a scenario like that, especially with someone like Piers Lane as my predecessor, who’d been there for so long. People get used to things and it’s an extremely loyal audience - so if you throw in any curveballs, you never quite know how they’re going to come off. 

What thrilled me was that after two days I was relaxed, I knew it was going well and audience members started coming up to me to say they were enjoying themselves. But actually the support of the musicians I had was amazing. They all knew that it was my first festival and it was important to get it right. And the way they bonded together was beyond belief. It’s nice now to see some of them working together, having met there for the first time: some new musical relationships have been established. 

I learned that I don’t want to play as much as I did. I probably will still end up playing too much, but I did learn my lesson! Nothing went wrong, but I was exhausted by the end. And you realise what has to happen to make this festival work - I was staggered to see how many hours the volunteers put in, and to understand what people are giving up in order for us to do what we do. Of course there are always lessons to be learned, but all in all I was super-happy with it.


What do you have in store for your audience this year?

It’s a wonderful spread of pieces from the 13thcentury to the present day, and it’s fairly full-on! There are some really unusual flavours, which is what I enjoy most - I don’t want it to be what you can hear everywhere else. One person came up to me and said: ‘Thank you for programming some music we just never hear’! 

We are trying to bring over artists who are extraordinarily versatile and bring something special to the festival’s big table. For instance, the 13th-century reference involves our harpist, Ruth Wall. We’ve borrowed a concert harp for her - we found one in Townsville, incredibly the same make that she uses - but I also wanted her to play some small harps: a bray harp and a lever wire-strung harp and we’re flying them over; she’ll be able to do extra things in the festival because they’re easy to move around. She’ll play music from the 13thcentury to a piece by Graham Fitkin, who’s her partner, for harp and quartet, with the Goldner String Quartet. And you might find her playing Goldfrapp or some trendy band… 

Then we have Roberto Carillo-Garcia: he’s principal double bass in the Halle but also plays the gamba and the guitar, so he will definitely be the most overworked person in the festival! He’s coming over with his wife Rachael Clegg, who’s a fantastic oboist. There’s Wu Man, the amazing Pipa player, who is bringing an amazing piece by Tan Dun, among much else. The violinist Liza Ferschtman is coming from Holland - usually she’s busy running her own Delft Festival in July and August, but fortunately this year she’s taken a sabbatical. From London we have the pianist Charles Owen, who I think will have a good time here, and we have a number of Australian artists including Arcadia Winds and both the Goldner and the Australian String Quartets and the brilliant young Australian mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts-Dean has taken on a very wide range of different repertoire. That’s just to name a few! (Full list of artists here.)


 Are you having a festival “theme”?

Themes are tricky because you can get boxed in quite easily; it’s difficult to sustain a theme over 30 events and suit everybody. Still, I’ve come up with the theme of ‘Origins’ - which means lots of different things in this context. Some things are obvious, such as nationalistic music like Janácek and Smetana, Dvorák Slavonic Dances, Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies and so on. Themes and variations are next, since the theme is the origin of the variations. Then there’s music that’s been transcribed; and quite a few pieces with fascinating stories behind them. A colleague suggested the Vierne Piano Quintet: his son, Jacques, was executed at 17 after things went badly wrong in World War I, and he wrote this as a result. 

There’s also a mini theme of piano trios, including a few blockbusters - Tchaikovsky’s trio written in response to Nikolai Rubinstein’s death, and Rachmaninov’s in response to Tchaikovsky’s death. Alongside these are some mini-trios, with a twist: Tori de Clare is a thriller writer and she’s created a story to link several of these - Schubert, Sibelius, etc - in real time; so we’ll start at 9.30 at night, someone will narrate the story, it will be interspersed with the music and should finish exactly on 10.30 - so hopefully no one will break a string or want to retune… 

All in all, there’s an interesting mix of artists who know each other and some who don’t, some who are making their festival debuts and some who’ve never been to Australia before. You can never predict exactly how it will turn out, but I’m happy with the way it looks. I’ve listened to every piece and I think I’ve got the right combination of people playing the right works. You can’t do much more than that! 


Last year I loved the Winterschool and the family events - more of these, I hope?

The family concerts might look predictable at first glance, with Poulenc’s Babar the Elephant, which I totally adore, and Stravinsky’s Firebird, which Ashley Wass and Matthew Trusler have arranged. But both will involve extensive community activities, so we’ll have interactive visuals and we’ve got people building sets, local dance schools are involved, and there are some little actors. It’s nice to build up this side of the activities, otherwise it’s just piano and narrator - I want more going on! The Winterschool is going from strength to strength and the fantastic Pavel Fischer is in charge once more.


Who’s this year’s composer in residence?

In the past they’ve been well-established, names everyone knows in Australia and further afield. But last year the percussionist Claire Edwards brought a piece by a young composer called Connor D’Netto, who came to London to do his Masters. I went to meet him – and I thought let’s have a change and invite a young, emerging composer. He had to have enough material, though - so we’ve got him a commission to write a quartet for the Goldners. I’ve just been working on a piece called Tracesfor cello and piano, which is difficult but I’m really enjoying it, and there’s a piece for viola and electronics; about five pieces through which we will hear how his style is moving and developing. Purely by chance he’s from Brisbane, so people in Townsville are thrilled that he’s a Queensland boy.


I see you’ve broadened out the baroque evening?

We’re having two baroque concerts. The first is Baroque around the Clock, in which a Dowland song rubs shoulders with Thomas Adès’s Darkness Visible which is based on it, and a piece by Ligeti in is amongst everything: it’s a real mixture of eras, but all based on baroque themes. Then the evening features Vivaldi concertos with ensembles made from the Goldner and Australian String Quartets. We’ve got a harpsichord this year and Roberto on his gamba, so that all worked out, and there’s some Monteverdi - and for Bach fans, the Italian Concerto.


You’ve recently been in Australia, promoting this year’s festival. How did it go? 

It was a whirlwind! This was my first-ever publicity tour, and I did 11 flights, six cities and one interview after another. No concerts, though, because I’m on my concert sabbatical. I played five minutes here and there with someone else, but that’s literally all since the end of August. That’s why my social media posts recently have all been about my spaniel, Archie. 


Last but by no means least, how have you enjoyed your sabbatical?

It’s been really good, because usually the need to practise is something that hangs over me all the time. So for a few months I didn’t touch the piano. I closed the lid and thought “if I want it, it’s there…” - but actually I’ve been quite happy. I started slowly again after Christmas, and now there’ll be a build-up...


Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Notre Dame: an organic tribute



UPDATED, 2pm: Miraculous news indeed from Paris: the great organ is UNTOUCHED. It is unusable because of soot and dust, but it is structurally intact. From Europe 1:


Laurent Prades, régisseur du patrimoine intérieur de Notre-Dame de Paris, a passé la nuit à sortir des œuvres de la cathédrale pour les sauver des flammes. Sur Europe 1, il rassure quant à l'état des orgues.EXCLUSIFSous la toiture éventrée de Notre-Dame de Paris reposaient des centaines d'œuvres magistrales, historiques, inestimables. Dans quel état sont-elles aujourd'hui, après le terrible incendie qui a dévasté lundi soir la cathédrale ? Et notamment l'immense orgue principal, dont certains tuyaux dataient du 15ème siècle. En exclusivité sur Europe 1 mardi, Laurent Prades, régisseur du patrimoine intérieur de Notre-Dame de Paris, a apporté des informations rassurantes.
"Pas une goutte d'eau". "Le grand orgue n'a absolument pas été touché, si ce n'est qu'il est très empoussiéré. Mais il n'a pas pris une seule goutte d'eau. Il a pris de la suie et de la poussière, donc il est totalement inutilisable. Mais rien n'a brûlé, rien n'a fondu",assure-t-il à Europe 1. Quant au deuxième orgue, utilisé quotidiennement et situé dans le chœur, "il a été copieusement arrosé (par les lances à incendie), mais c'était pour préserver les stalles du 18ème siècle (les rangées de sièges, liés les uns aux autres et alignés le long des murs du chœur de la cathédrale, ndlr) qui sont juste en dessous."



The musical legacy of Notre Dame de Paris extends back as far as the history of music itself. That the cathedral is still standing at all after yesterday's inferno seems little short of miraculous - though of course it is actually thanks to the tireless efforts of the city's firefighters: four hundred of them risked their lives during this task and one has been seriously injured.

Notre Dame's Cavaillé-Coll organ was inaugurated in 1868 and built using pipes from the previous instrument - which originates far earlier than the French Revolution, from which it bears some scars. Indeed, early mentions of the organ go back to 1357, and François Thierry constructed a new one in 1730-33, which was then renovated and extended by Cliquot in the 1780s before Cavaillé-Coll transformed it 80 years later. Successive restorations and reworkings have taken place across the intervening years, translating the instrument's power according to the capabilities of modern technology; most recently, in 2010-14, Bertrand Cattiaux and Pascal Quoirin gave it an overhaul which included a new computer traction. It still has 33 pipes from the pre-Revolution instrument and around 50 by Cavaillé-Coll.

In tribute, here it is, played by its current organist Olivier Latry, in Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor.



You can see a fascinating film about the organ featuring Latry, at this link.

This article has been revised since this morning, following the revelation of the good news about the organ.

(Photo above from Wikipedia)