Friday, September 13, 2019

CLARA AT 200

Clara Schumann. Portrait by Granger [who also painted Beethoven]

It's a source of surprise and delight that the single biggest anniversary being celebrated this year is that of Clara Schumann, whose 200th birthday falls today. At last Clara's full significance as a musical titan in her own right is being recognised - as composer of some excellent pieces, as the most important pianist of her time other than Liszt and Chopin, as professor, and as mentor and guide.

Besides, it's not only the strident middle-aged women of the business like me who are yelling about her. Some of the best young pianists and violinists around have taken up her cause and are championing her works, along with singers who are discovering her excellent output of Lieder. Over in Leipzig, the museum in the house where Robert and Clara lived when they were first married is reopening today after a refurbishment and Isata Kanneh-Mason is performing there. Leipzig is holding a year-long festival to celebrate its musical daughter's anniversary and there's a big Gewandhaus concert with Nelsons tonight and also tomorrow night to mark the occasion. And there is a lot more, far too much to list here, because there's something else I want to show you today.

This is a little musicological/narrative digression. First, listen to this: it's what happened when the Romanian pianist Alexandra Dariescu found a special way to introduce the Clara Schumann Piano Concerto to an unsuspecting audience just the other day, playing its slow movement as an encore at the George Enescu Festival in Bucharest - aided and abetted by the lead cellist of the Orchestre National de France.



Now... this work has its ups and downs and the slow movement is definitely an up. But it is much more significant than that. This work demonstrates that Clara's presence and influence are so inextricably embedded in our musical consciousness that most of us didn't even know it was there. Have a listen to this song by Robert Schumann, 'An Anna II'. Though it was published posthumously, it's an early work, written in 1828, at which point Clara would have been nine. She started writing her concerto when she was 13, i.e. 1832.



Sound a little bit familiar after the concerto slow movement? Next, try the Aria from Robert's Piano Sonata No.1 in F sharp minor.



This work dates from 1833-35 and is entitled: "Pianoforte Sonata, dedicated to Clara from Florestan and Eusebius" (as you know, those were Robert's joint pseudonyms of contrasting personalities).

So there is an exchange going on here. It seems very much as if Robert wrote the song; then the teenage prodigy Clara wrote the concerto; and by the time three more years had elapsed she had grown from famous little girl into starry young woman, she and Robert had fallen in love and now Robert returned to the song and turned it into the Aria from the sonata, dedicated to her. At least, this is how it looks. Could it be that Clara, who started composing as a child, had invented it for a piano piece already? Robert did not move to Leipzig until 1830 to take lessons with Clara's father Friedrich Wieck, but he had met and had lessons with him before doing so - he didn't arrive sight unseen. Who got there first? And does it matter? Perhaps it doesn't... but did the teenage Clara perhaps declare her love first - through taking the song for the Piano Concerto? And is this what set the pattern for Robert taking bits of Clara's piano pieces to embed within his own in an ideal of musical unity (the opening of Davidsbündlertänze being a case in point, but far from the only one)?

The first mention Clara makes of her feelings for Schumann in her diary refers to her sorrow and jealousy at seeing him with his then fiancée Ernestine von Fricken, and finding herself inevitably on the sidelines. She was about 11 or 12 then. Anyone who has ever had a first desperate crush, deemed unrequited at the time, would know exactly what the confused young girl was going through. Was her Piano Concerto her first musical message to him - and one that inadvertently opened the floodgates, not just emotionally but musically too?

And now, my friends, try this. Which other piano concerto from the Schumann circles features a cello solo in its slow movement? The melody is different, but the concept comes from guess where... For historical interest, here is Van Cliburn performing in Moscow with Kirill Kondrashin conducting the Moscow Philharmonic.



I leave you to make any further inferences yourself.

UPDATE – more musical trails, this time from Beethoven to the Schumanns, over at my IMMORTAL updates at Unbound: https://unbound.com/books/immortal/updates/beethoven-and-robert-and-clara-schumann (I do updates there every Friday. Progress on the book is good. Do come and have a peek.)


To support IMMORTAL, please click here.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Beethoven 250 kicks off in Bonn



It's never too early to start an anniversary celebration the size of Beethoven's 250th, and today at the Beethovenhaus in Bonn (which the best composer museum in the whole world, incidentally) the Universal Classics labels launched their plans for the occasion.

There's plenty to look forward to, including a new set of the symphonies performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Andris Nelsons, and a new Complete Edition involving 188 CDs, plus three Blu-ray Audio and two DVDs. A carnival of famous musical faces are on board, extending to some world premieres of works inspired by the Diabelli Variations are in the offing. Recordings old (Böhm, Kleiber, Bernstein etc) and new (Pollini, Ólafsson, Goerne) are all scrubbed up and ready to go.

The partnership with the Beethovenhaus looks inspiring, too. The museum has been closed for refurbishing - an enthusiastic plan of mine to go there a couple of weeks ago expired when I checked the website - but the newly anniversary-ready exhibition is to open on 14 September.

Meanwhile, I'm happy that for my Beethoven novel-in-the-works, Immortal, Universal has kindly donated two sets of four classic recordings each from the Decca and DG labels as pledge rewards for the crowdfunding campaign at Unbound. The first bundle has already been snapped up! One set still remains, though, and includes recordings by the Takács Quartet, Maurizio Pollini and the Vienna Philharmonic under Karl Böhm and Carlos Kleiber. And of course you get a signed copy of the book too. Find more about it here (scroll down the pledge levels to find it).

One thing is certain in these uncertain days: we are going to be hearing a heck of a lot of Beethoven between now and the end of next year: his actual 250th anniversary falls in December 2020. I'm sure there will be the usual complaints and sighs and sniping about anniversary overkill, but this time I really don't care. Beethoven is the best of the lot and we need his indomitable strength more than ever. Bring him on!


Friday, August 30, 2019

Leadership for a new century: a guest post by Lidiya Yankovskaya

On 1 September the Refugee Orchestra Project makes its London debut under its founder and conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya, who is also music director of Chicago Opera Theater. I am delighted to welcome Lidiya to JDCMB with a guest post on several vital subjects: shaping new opera for the new century, the importance of developing a plurality of voices, the evolving role of the conductor, and "shut up and play" syndrome - the erroneous exclusion of the arts from political engagement, when their participation is more necessary than ever. Do try and catch the Refugee Orchestra Project at LSO St Luke's on Sunday. JD




ON MUSICAL LEADERSHIP IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Lidiya Yankovskaya


At Lowell House in July. Photo: Jill Steinberg


In recent years, the classical music industry has come under fire for failing to evolve into the 21st century. As the only woman Music Director of a multimillion-dollar opera company in the United States, the founder of Refugee Orchestra Project, and a frequent guest conductor with musical organizations across the U.S., I spend a great deal of time thinking about the state of our industry. I believe we are moving through a critical period of reinvention and resurgence for our field.We can maximize the opportunities before us and move our art form forward if we embrace new models that inspire individuals and institutions to become catalysts for change.

I recently wrote a series of articles examining musical leadership in the 21st century. I would like to share a few thoughts with you here, and I hope you will be sufficiently intrigued to follow the links to NewMusicBoxfor the complete pieces.

Shaping The Operatic Cannon for the 21st century

Composing an opera is among the most challenging of artistic undertakings. In addition to being masters of shaping sound, opera composers must be exceptionally skilled at writing for the voice, impeccable at setting text, and in full command of large-scale form. Just as importantly, they must be people of the theater—actors and stage directors—able to shape dramatic timing, impetus, subtext, and flow seamlessly through music. Furthermore, opera composers must understand the operatic creative process—the enormous collaborative mechanism essential for the work to reach the stage successfully. For the rare composer who manages to come by all the necessary knowledge and skill, understanding the business side of opera poses another hurdle—writing a great work is not enough to ensure it is performed. In the end, many qualified composers are disillusioned, and others not ready for the challenge find no opportunities to develop the necessary tools.

Given the exceptionally high level of training necessary for operatic composition, how do we ensure that limitation of opportunity does not hinder a diverse pool of creators? While we are moving in the right direction, I believe that professional opera companies and leaders within the field can take a more active role in cultivating the next generation of opera librettists and, more specifically, opera composers. We owe it to ourselves, to future generations, and to this new canon.

Opera’s strength throughout the form’s history has been in its ability to unite the arts in an effort to tell powerful, moving stories...we can do much better—we can develop the composers of the future by providing them with the tools necessary for success.



Working to Create A Plurality of Voices within Classical Music
Research has repeatedly demonstrated that a diverse group of employees and leaders creates more successful – and profitable – companies. Studies within the corporate world have shown that a business model enriched by a variety of outlooks and experience can capitalize on more creative ideas, a deeper understanding of a wider range of consumers, and the introduction of new problem-solving methods. However, the traditional classical music industry faces a particular challenge: our model is largely built on finding individuals who can fit within an existing structure—musicians with particular technical skills, adhering to very specific stylistic conventions. This often means that musicians coming from outside an established training background must fold themselves into existing practices. As a result, rather than encouraging new ideas—as might be the case in a typical business model—non-conformist behavior is discouraged.
The need for a plurality of voices within our field has become dire. If we do not begin to represent our communities and the world around us, our institutions cannot continue to evolve. As organizations across the nation attempt to deal with this issue, many continue to face roadblocks, despite incremental efforts. How do we break the cycle and move the culture of classical music into the 21st century?
No single action will be enough. However, if each one of us takes ownership of these issues, committing ourselves—intentionally—to a diverse industry on every level, we can make a difference. Symphonic and operatic performance are examples of revolutionary artistic achievement. If we actively choose to work, again and again, to create plurality within our art form, we can ensure that this momentous artistry has the widest reach possible, and continues to captivate audiences through relatable, relevant and meaningful experiences. 

Homogeneity will alienate us from our constituents and push us into elitist obscurity. Plurality, on the other hand, has the potential to build a lasting link between creators, artists, producers, and audiences, ensuring that the awesome power of our art form persistently resonates across all social, cultural, economic, regional—human–boundaries, allowing music to fully embody its greatest strength—the ability to unify.



Photo by Jill Steinberg

The Catalyst-Conductor: Conductors as Musical Leaders for The 21stCentury
Our society has become increasingly characterized by its “gig economies”—short-term work, often defined by the worker herself. Recent studies have predicted the gig economy will represent 43% of the workforce by 2020. With the gig economy comes any number of difficulties, as modern workers are often compelled to be entrepreneurs, self-starters, self-motivators, and creators.
Conductors are no different. Indeed, they are well-positioned to take advantage of this new economic order, and many are already doing so, with outstanding results.
In addition to their traditional duties within established institutions, an increasing number of conductors run independent organizations, launch musical and civic initiatives, serve as catalysts for the development of new work, and use their positions to cross disciplinary boundaries. In bypassing institutional gatekeepers, these conductors have brought relevance, vitality, and an expanding number of previously unrepresented voices into the field. Indeed, the dynamic new “catalyst-conductor” could help bring the revitalization that the classical music industry so desperately seeks.
Those who embark on this path can foster creativity and collaboration, open doors that may otherwise remain closed, increase the number of voices represented, and ultimately move classical music toward a more viable future.



“Shut up and Play” – Musicians as Activists in The 21stCentury

Amid the current proliferation of nativism across the industrialized world, musicians are uniquely positioned to convey the following simple message that we should all, as artists, understand: no matter who you are, where you are from, how much money you have, or what language you speak, you have inherent worth. 

We know this because we live it, every day. Musicians come from, and interact with, people from all walks of life. In our career trajectories, we often start at the very bottom of the economic ladder, barely able to make ends meet. Gradually, most move into the middle class and a small number go well beyond and join higher economic brackets. We go to dinners with donors who are the richest of the rich and then partake in outreach programs with the most at-need in our communities. Our work crosses linguistic barriers and we regularly interact with people from myriad cultures. We often travel to remote corners of the world to share our craft. We find ourselves performing at symposiums thrown by the intellectuals of academia as well as crossover pop-culture events. We work in schools, and most of us have taught people from across the cultural spectrum. We are given a unique window into the world and are provided the opportunity to escape our own echo chambers, whatever those may be. 

If the recognition of every human being’s inherent value is political, then the creation and performance of classical music is irrevocably political. It is important for all of us to remember this, and to remind others—the next time we are presented with the opportunity to do so.



Russian-American conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya is a fiercely committed advocate for Russian masterpieces, operatic rarities, and contemporary works on the leading edge of classical music. Her strength as an innovative and multi-faceted collaborator has brought together the worlds of puppetry, robotics, circus arts, symphonic repertoire, and opera onstage, and recently united the classical music traditions of India and the West at the United Nations. Lidiya’s experiences as a refugee inspired her to found the Refugee Orchestra Project, which proclaims the cultural and societal relevance of refugees through music, and has brought that message to hundreds of thousands of listeners around the world. This Sunday, 1 September, ROP will make their UK debut at LSO St Luke’s in a fundraiser concert for Refugee Action.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Sizzling new works draw full houses at last

SO heartening to attend two Proms within a week that included a) world premieres and b) full houses. Here's my write-up of last night's new works from Jonathan Dove and Dieter Ammann, alongside Beethoven 9, in The Arts Desk. Taster below. And a PS: I seriously did not envy the page-turner her job.

Andreas Haefliger (and his beleaguered page-turner) stay cool in Ammann's new concerto
Time was, not long ago, when the very word “premiere” was enough to ensure a sizeable smattering of red plush holes in the Royal Albert Hall audience. It seemed people did not want to risk attending new works for fear they would sound ghastly. Any artform depends for its lifeblood on strong new creations and an audience for them; so it is excellent that this concert was the second in a matter of days in which the place was packed out for a Prom including brand-new pieces. In a time of welcome diversity of styles and approaches, are music-lovers finally becoming curious, even eager, to hear the best of what today’s composers have to offer? I hope so - because otherwise it would mean everyone was only there for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony yet again.
This programme included two world premieres. Jonathan Dove's We Are One Fire is a 90th anniversary celebration for the BBC Symphony Chorus, inspired by the message of humanity in Schiller’s Ode to Joy and drawing on the idea that, in the composer’s words, “20th-century archaeology showed us that we are all indeed brothers and sisters”...

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Korngoldarama at Bard Summerscape

My report from my trip to the Korngold and his World festival at Bard Summerscape is now up at The Arts Desk, so here is a taster and a few more photos.




There could be no greater gift to any festival director than Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Where the exploration of his life, times and contemporaries are concerned, this composer is a veritable Spaghetti Junction for different strands of genre, development and fates. 


One of the most remarkable child prodigy composers in history, Korngold was the son of the music critic Julius Korngold. He studied with Zemlinsky (on Mahler’s advice) and enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame; his opera Die tote Stadt, premiered when he was 20, was a smash hit in the 1920s. Desperation to escape his father’s monstrous control-freakery also led him to work for some years in operetta. 

The stage is set for our symposium
With the Nazis’ rise to power he was fortunate, being Jewish, to move to Hollywood; he later credited Warner Brothers with saving his life and those of his family. He wrote relatively few film scores, but won two Oscars and was largely responsible for creating the sound that was long considered typical “film music” - the truth, of course, is not that Korngold sounds like film music, but that film music sounds like Korngold. In 1950, though, he attempted a comeback in Vienna, only to find that not only was his presence an unwelcome reminder of a shameful past era, but that his style was considered an anachronism. 

JD with Michael Haas, author of Forbidden Music,
creator of Decca's Entartete Musik series and
fellow panellist at the festival

He died aged only 60 in Hollywood, believing himself forgotten. In the past few decades, changing times and evolving attitudes have allowed his distinctive voice with its emotional and melodic largesse to be fully appreciated on its own terms - often for the first time.

The Fisher Center at Bard, designed by Frank Gehry
Mix together the child prodigy years, the melting pot of influences; the splices of the serious and the ‘light’; the fading 19thcentury and horrifying development of the 20th; and the worlds of Mahler’s Vienna, 1940s Hollywood and shattered post-war Europe. There’s enough material to keep any festival going for probably a year...


A treasured souvenir - thank you to Michael Sirotta!

Friday, August 16, 2019

Proms firsts!

I'm seriously behind here on all the summer activities. I've been to the wonderful Tuscan music festival Incontri in Terra di Siena and Bard Summerscape's 'Korngold and his World' and a few Proms, but have so many stories and experiences to "process" that I've not written any designated blogposts about them yet. You can read my review of Incontri here (though you will probably need a subscription to do so): https://theartsdesk.com/classical-music/theartsdesk-incontri-terra-di-siena-galloping-concertos-and-stravinsky-starlight

Anyway, here's the power-trio of Errollyn Wallen, Elim Chan and Catriona Morison who lit up the Royal Albert Hall at last night's Prom (my report for The Arts Desk): https://theartsdesk.com/classical-music/prom-39-morison-bbcnow-chan-review-night-inspiring-firsts


Taster:
A clever programme, a vivid premiere, a Proms debut for an exciting young conductor and the first appearance there by Catriona Morison since she won the 2017 Cardiff Singer of the World: all this provided grist to the mill for a sold-out Prom that was more than the sum of its impressive parts. 

Elim Chan, who won the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition (the first woman to do so) in 2014, was on the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’s podium for pieces themed around the sea and pictures. The 33-year-old conductor from Hong Kong is a tiny, pleasingly charismatic figure – offering ideas that were not only sizable but often inspiring, even in repertoire that otherwise could sometimes seem too well worn for its own good. 

Romanticism was the musical land that historical performance forgot, at least until recently. Designated researchers have been delving into real 19th-century styles of late, and if you think it has nothing to do with rigid rhythm, you’re right. What’s emerging instead is the sort of flexible and intense characterisation that Chan brought to Mendelssohn’s Overture ‘The Hebrides’. This was long-lined musical thinking, the softest moments replete with a hushed glow, sometimes slowing to a rapt stillness, and the vigorous episodes ratcheted up the tempo, balancing them out...

Read the rest here.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Happy Princess and a happy composer

On Friday the Garsington Opera Youth Companies are giving the world premiere of The Happy Princess, a new opera written especially for them by composer Paul Fincham and librettist me. It's based on Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince, but reimagined, updated and somewhat tweaked, and it involves around 80 young people and the soprano Lara-Marie Müller (whom you may have seen as Esmeralda in Garsington's smash-hit production of The Bartered Bride earlier in the summer). I asked Paul: "How was it for you?". We're off to the dress rehearsal shortly...




Rehearsing the factory scene...
Photo: Julian Guidera


PAUL FINCHAM WRITES:

However hard we might try to shape our lives, ultimately so much depends on random happenings. The genesis of The Happy Princess, my first opera and the most significant commission to date in my second career as a composer, is no exception.

I was introduced by Marina Abel Smith to Karen Gillingham who runs the Learning and Participation division at Garsington; she and I met and she then connected me with Jess. 

Jess and I found we had a lot in common (about life as well as music). Jess listened to some of the music I had composed over the last few years and then suggested that she put forward a pitch to Karen for us to write a youth opera based on Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince. There was some initial discussion about writing a 20 minute piece, everything went quiet for a while and then out of the blue, whilst I was at a wedding reception in Delhi(!), an e mail popped up confirming the commission for a performance of a 60-minute youth opera for the main stage at Garsington in summer 2019.  

Deep breath. I had never written an opera (at least not since a rock opera when I was a schoolboy). I had recently taken up composing again after a break of some 30 years, put together a CD of short, intimate pieces recorded in my home studio, delivered a film score for a successful low/micro-budget feature film and written a Christmas carol for the London Philharmonic Choir.  


But writing an opera - setting the text for around 80 singers making up three choirs and a professional soprano as well as arranging the score for an eight-piece band....How would I do that?......But what an enthralling opportunity to work with what many regard as the leading Learning and Participation division in the country.


JD: What’s been the most challenging thing(s) about the project for you?

PF: There are around half a dozen set pieces for chorus, which I would say are my comfort zone (I have sung in the London Philharmonic Choir for over 30 years and there is probably no better training for composing for choir than singing in one!). More challenging were the exchanges between the soloists, which in a Mozart opera would be recitative. These are often quite sparsely scored, but deceptively difficult to write. Quite a bit of this material ended up on the cutting room floor, in some cases more than once (my “bin” folder for the project seems quite crowded!). 

I should add that the necessary process of mastering the computer software for the vocal score and full score, almost from scratch, was quite some challenge (and a sincere thank you to the clever folk at Dorico for their patient support throughout).


What are the most exciting and rewarding aspects of it?

I entirely endorse Britten’s mantra that composers should not occupy ivory towers. Ultimately the most rewarding aspect of writing The Happy Princesshas been working with Jess and with the creative team at Garsington and then finally (it seemed a long time after I started writing it) witnessing it all being drawn together under the conductor, Jonathan Swinard, leading up to the premiere - which is of course the most exciting aspect of all!


Lara being fitted with a prototype 
of her Princess costume
Photo: Julian Guidera
What have you learned through writing the opera that you maybe didn’t expect to learn?

I learnt that writing an opera is (like writing a film score) as much as anything about collaboration: first and foremost, of course, with the librettist, but alongside that with the production team, which at every level provided insightful feedback throughout the process. That brought home to me the paramount importance of respecting text and narrative: every bar you write must be faithful to the drama. From start to finish virtually everything I wrote evolved. Only one set piece (the simple love duet for the Princess and the Swallow in scene 9) survives in exactly the form in which it began. By the time I penned the last notes of the opera I felt I was in a different space from where I had started.


What do you like most about working with a youth company?

Enthusiasm, excitement, energy!


What do you hope to write next? 

Whilst writing HP I kept my head down, writing a score for a short film and taking on one other small commission to compose a wedding anthem – which, unbelievably, is being performed on the same day as the premiere of HP by a choir comprising singers from the Glyndebourne Opera chorus!

What next? I will likely go wherever it takes me - I would like to write another feature film score, I certainly aim to write more choral music, possibly another Christmas carol. I finished HP feeling elated but pretty drained; it felt as though it had been in my in tray a long time (it was around 15 months from start to finish, including orchestration).   

But if someone calls me on Saturday and asks whether I’d consider writing another youth opera…I am pretty sure I know what the answer would be. And of course I would love to work with you again - though I understand you're in demand! [thanks :) jd]


THE HAPPY PRINCESS world premiere is at Garsington Opera on Friday 2 August, directed by Karen Gillingham and conducted by Jonathan Swinard






Tuesday, July 30, 2019

IMMORTAL: my new Beethoven novel, coming soon...





Dear friends and supporters,
If you enjoyed the historical musical mystery of Ghost Variations, you'll love - I hope - my new book currently in the works.
For the past few years I've been reading obsessively about Ludwig van Beethoven's 'Immortal Beloved' - the unnamed addressee of an impassioned love letter that he wrote in July 1812. Supposedly nobody knows exactly who she was, though there have been many theories. Yet when you start looking, you find things... 
Was this woman's identity anything but immortal? Was she deliberately wiped from history by a family terrified of scandal? Was her tragedy - and Beethoven's - perhaps even greater than we thought? I believe so.
While obscure biographies and some terrible translations lurk on dusty shelves, I wanted to present this book as a novel for its roller-coaster emotions, its vivid characters, its you-couldn't-make-it-up plot - and the mulifarious possibilities offered by an unreliable narrator.
The music is ever-present, the piano sonatas most of all: for that is how the majority of Beethoven's admirers would have known him best, through playing his works at the piano, orchestral performances being relatively rare events. The piano sonatas contain, too, some crucial clues - though you'll have to read the book to find out what they are.
I have returned to Unbound for several reasons: first, a publisher in the hand is worth ten in the Writers and Artists Yearbook, especially when there's a topical anniversary to catch, just 23 months away. Secondly, they have done a brilliant job on 'Ghost Variations' and 'Odette' and I trust them completely. And finally - it's fun! I've cooked up a range of rewards at different levels to tempt you in, starting at just £10 for the e-book and a thank-you in the patrons list. But above that you can order an early-bird discount paperback, or two, or five; come with us to hear Vladimir Jurowski conduct the Symphony No.1 at the Royal Festival Hall; attend the launch party (we love launch parties!); sponsor a character and receive a special thank-you on a separate page; or simply make a donation of any amount you like to help turn this project into reality. More rewards are on the way, too, so watch for updates.
On the IMMORTAL page you will find a synopsis, an extract from the book, the complete pledge list, and a video in which I introduce the project and, er, attempt to play Op.111. 
I do hope you will wish to become part of the IMMORTAL family. Your moral support will be crucial as I plough on with the writing. And knowing that you're waiting eagerly for the results is the best spur of them all.
Thank you so much - and here's the link. https://unbound.com/books/immortal/
Love and best wishes,
Jessica

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Eton Riverside

An old Etonian is taking over: a middle-aged white bloke with lots of charm, appointed by a tiny number of people, without any say from more than 99% of those over whom he'll wield life-changing power.

A familiar story, no? But while the newspapers are preoccupied, understandably, with the old Etonian heading into Downing Street, another alumnus of the school has scooped another head position over the Thames: Edward Gardner, who has been signed up by the London Philharmonic Orchestra to be its new chief conductor. (Told you so.) He only has school, not university, in common with Boris Johnson, as he went to Cambridge, not Oxford. Oxford produces politicians. Cambridge produces conductors, which is way preferable, depending on your point of view.

Edward Gardner
photo: Ben Ealovega

As music director of ENO, Ed wielded the baton for some glorious operatic performances - his Meistersinger, The Flying Dutchman, Rosenkavalier and more were among my most memorable trips to the Coliseum. He has proved his mettle time and again in the great choral works like the Verdi Requiem, Tippett's A Child of Our Time and, at his Bergen Philharmonic, Schoenberg's Gurrelieder. Unlike the pifflepaffle exponent who has got the keys to the country, Ed can start his own new post with every expectation that he will rise to the challenge ahead with great aplomb and convince us all that he was the right person to install there.

The appointment of an English conductor at Brexit time says much. The LPO's CEO Tim Walker, from Australia, has been interviewed in the past appearing to be in favour of Brexit. Hopefully he's woken up to the mistake now, but if he hasn't, he soon will, and with Boris Johnson in No. 10 it's a bit late in any case. So, one can't help speculating on the reasons for this choice. Much as I like Ed and unfailingly enjoy his performances, I personally was still hoping they would appoint an equally deserving conductor who happened to be female - ideally Susanna Mälkki or Karina Canellakis (whom I'm told the orchestra adored and who got rave reviews for her concert with them last year). This could have sent out a positive, inclusive, adventurous, positive message and ushered in an exciting new era...

Is it a question of the changing face of orchestras? A presentation of "best of British" being perceived as requiring a British figurehead in some way? I doubt it. My hunch is that with the ACE funding priorities changing radically, and a likely crash in public finances once we've actually departed the EU (lots of jobs will be lost and tax revenues will plummet), the issue of fundraising is soon going to be even more important - at a time, too, when Britain's image internationally will be badly tarnished; they already think we're mad, and with good reason. International support is going to be absolutely vital and it's possible that a different cohort of donors will have to be magicked into the fold. This would indicate a move to a more American-style approach in which the principal conductor is a lynchpin for, essentially, schmoozing. Ed's personal charm would stand him, and them, in good stead under such circumstances.

The bottom line with any principal conductor appointment, though, has got to be musical chemistry. An orchestra is a living organism made up of a large number of expert performers and the relationship between it and its principal conductor is like a marriage (I know this is a cliché, but it happens to be true. If you want some insight into how this all works, I recommend Tom Service's book Music as Alchemy: Journeys with Great Conductors and their Orchestras.) The best conductor on the face of the planet cannot ever be the ideal person for every single orchestra that sits in front of him - just as not every Strad is the right instrument for every single violinist. Things work, or they don't. They can develop. They can change. They can grow. They can grow together. But the essential match does have to be right.

With some irony, I realise I experimented with a blind-date review format for a concert by the LPO under Ed's baton at Snape a little while ago, here.
Imagine a spouse who is used to - and loves - long, deep, intense conversations, in which each word is controlled with immense precision and the underlying philosophy must be considered at every moment...suddenly taking a walk with someone who laces up his boots, links his arm through hers and points out the dramas among passers by, the green parrots flying about and the sun sparkling on the water and says "great, so what do you want for lunch?"
This is an orchestra that still, in 2019, carries the pride and the sound quality that was shaped by Klaus Tennstedt's Mahler. After a long stint with Vladimir Jurowski - who by the time he leaves in 2021 will have been its longest-serving chief conductor ever - there is nothing that it cannot do or play or adapt to. There may be cliques, personality clashes and petty fights off-stage, but that's equally true in every company and every orchestra (what is the matter with our orchestras - why on earth do some of them not have HR managers?). When it comes to the concert, though, they pull together every time. The one thing they have to rely on is their artistic reputation which, aside from a teeny blip arising from a crazy political situation in the early '90s, has been an unblemished record in the top rank. The orchestra of Tennstedt, Haitink, Solti, Masur and Jurowski wants to stay international.

Orchestra politics the world over, meanwhile, are notoriously thorny and often, as I watch from a safe distance, seem more than a bit daft. There can be threats, excuses, twists, slipperiness and high dudgeon that would once have been news. But now most of the press don't give a flying f*** because they've got bigger things to worry about, and the only journalists so far who do think this appointment is a story have been very positive. But when the CBSO musicians (and chorus, audience and critics - !) are able to help choose their own music directors - and they do keep on just picking unknowns like Andris Nelsons and Mirga Grazynite-Tyla and turning them into megastars - frankly London musicians get very little say in the equivalent situation. This still puzzles me, because those are the people who have to create that chemistry. I do think that leaving them so little input can store up trouble.

Ed has a chance to win over any nay-sayers - they are bound, after all, to exist for anyone appointed to this type of position anywhere - and prove that the management has got it right. I gladly cheer him on as he takes up the post and I look forward to many fresh, exciting concerts - with sun sparkling on the water of the Thames.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Possums! It's time for the Australian Festival of Chamber Music

Wish you were here? So do I.

Hello, Possums! I have some good festival trips this summer, but they will have to be seriously incredible in order to match this time last year, when we headed off to Australia for one of the best chamber music festivals in the world. You might have followed my posts here, as I was being a sort of reporter-in-residence for them, and I've been trying to keep up with the eclectic, exploratory, delicious goings-on ever since. As it's hardly stopped raining in London this summer, Townsville in winter is an altogether brighter prospect. If you're going - lucky you!

Here's a taste of what you can expect when the action kicks off at the end of this week.



Artistic director Kathryn Stott has assembled a tremendous line-up of colleagues, ranging from fellow pianists like Charles Owen and Timothy Young to harpist Ruth Wall (interviewed here the other week), Chinese pipa player Wu Man and the amazing Roberto Carrillo-Garcia who plays the double bass, the classical guitar AND the viola da gamba. The doughty Goldner String Quartet rubs shoulders with fellow Australians of Arcadia Winds, the Ensemble Liaison and several splendid actors; musicians from America, Moldova, the Netherlands, Germany, Canada and the Czech Republic are all due to swan in to Townsville; as for the repertoire, you'd be hard pressed to find a programme quite as international as this anywhere else.


Kathy Stott in Townsville

And what other festival would both begin and end with the music of Eric Coates? Mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts-Dean begins the opening night festivities with his Bird Songs at Eventide and the concert continues, in true AFCM fashion, with as many artists as possible throwing their hat into the performance ring in music by Graham Fitkin, Bright Sheng, Françaix and Fauré. Over the course of the festival the repertoire ranges from the 13th century to the present day, notably with world premieres of works by the composer-in-residence, Connor D'Netto from Brisbane. 'Baroque around the Clock' crams 400 years into one big evening. Some startling multi-piano arrangements are likely to give Kathy, Charles, Tim and Aura Go a run for their money and the final evening extravaganza closes with a special arrangement by Roderick Williams of Coates's 'Sleepy Lagoon' for all the festival artists to join in.

Concert on Orpheus Island last year

Events take place from morning til night, most days opening with Kathy Stott's Concert Conversations in which she interviews a group of musicians, each of whom then performs too. There will be chances to hear masterclasses with young people from the festival's Winterschool, which is directed again by the inspirational Pavel Fischer; an amazing day out on Orpheus Island with a special outdoor concert on the beach (last year we saw whales at dusk on the way back); Kathy choosing her Magnetic Island Discs in a special "day off" on the closest tropical island to Townsville; and there are late-night concerts in the bar...

You can find the entire programme here. And now, after combing through it all, I'm green with envy. (Actually I'm on my way to Italy - more of which very soon...).


Friday, July 19, 2019

Just how sexist is 'The Magic Flute'?

Scottish Opera asked me to write a piece for the programme of their production of The Magic Flute earlier this year. How sexist is it, really? There's been a lot of discussion about this, to put it mildly, so with SO's permission here is my article. Warning: it may not say what you think it's going to say. In either direction.



Julia Sitkovetsky as The Queen of the Night in Scottish Opera's production
All photos: Ken Dundas



Charges of sexism and prejudice flutter like outsize daddy-longlegs craneflies around the bright beacon of Mozart’s penultimate opera. Emanuel Schikaneder’s text - some of it - positively glitters with disparaging comments about women’s gossiping, weakness and pride. A woman must be led by a man, says the supposedly wise Sarastro. The villain-in-chief is a powerful woman – and she is vanquished. Why, then, would I still want to take Die Zauberflöte to my Desert Island in preference to almost any other piece of music, despite my supposedly feminist credentials? 

Our simplistic, reductive responses today tend to prove we haven’t evolved upwards from the Enlightenment era as much as we possibly should have. It’s problematic at best - and at worst, futile - to judge an 18th-century work by 21st-century values. Besides, the women in this enchanted Enlightenment singspiel merit a subtler, more nuanced and more thorough exploration. They are deeply bound up with the work’s structure, its symbolism, its balance, quirkiness and unexpectedness, to say nothing of its overall message about love, wisdom and enlightenment. 

The chief problem is that the source of that wisdom - Sarastro and his order of priests - is also the source of the sexist assumptions that furnish the script. Entering the Temple represents the getting of wisdom; part of this, Tamino learns, is not listening to women’s supposedly empty-headed chitterchatter. Worse, as the opera progresses, the feminine becomes associated with the forces of night and darkness, in opposition to the blaze of sunlight that brings enlightenment. 


Pamina in supplication to Sarastro...

Or so it seems. This is only part of the opera’s philosophic outlook – and it is continually subverted or positively contradicted by other elements of the drama. In the bigger picture of the magical, symbolic world Mozart and Schikaneder create, the duality of male/female, darkness/light is essential, because this, the implication goes, is how we and our world become complete. The one defines the other: without darkness, there can be no light. The opera’s mysterious unity in duality mirrors the priests’ evocation of Isis and Osiris, respectively the ancient Egyptian goddess and her brother-husband, who, let’s remember, are venerated in this temple together. 

This lends symmetry to the characters. Papageno must find a Papagena, as lively and earthy as he is; Tamino and Pamina, seekers both, are soulmates. The Queen of the Night and Sarastro form a third couple, only this time opposites in both philosophy and voice type. But they function as a pair because they want the same thing: each wishes to save Pamina from the other. There’s symmetry, too, between the groups of opposites: the spiritual questing of the prince and princess finds a merry counterpart in the copious wining, dining and planned large family of the Papagenos, while the Three Ladies who tempt Tamino and Papageno with chattering are offset by the Three Boys who light the way with wisdom. Monostatos, a wild card, could be the exception that proves the rule.

Moreover, there are women in the temple. Besides the solemn choruses for men alone, Mozart also provides full choruses in both acts including sopranos and altos. This poses a conceptual challenge to any director; widely differing solutions can be found. In Netia Jones’s staging for Garsington, the females scuttle around submissively in grey headdresses resembling those of The Handmaid’s Tale. In Simon McBurney’s for English National Opera, the women are in business dress, matching the men: perhaps here, too, the masculine has its feminine counterpart. 

Within this set-up, Mozart and Schikaneder overturn expectations time and again, with plot twists that would be hard to swallow if the characters did not - mostly - defy the fairytale-like setting by seeming so wonderfully real. The Three Ladies become harridans spreading fake news in Act II, but in Act I they save Tamino from the serpent, lust after the handsome stranger, bicker amongst themselves, then do the honourable thing and leave him in peace. Monostatos tries twice to rape Pamina, but even he receives a sympathetic aria, railing against the way others reject him for the colour of his skin. This opera’s racist element is even worse than its sexism, but these days Monostatos can usually be reconceptualised with imaginative staging and surtitling.

I'm not sure what's happening here, but it looks amazing

What of the Queen of the Night, the villain of the piece? She starts off as the most sympathetic of characters: a mother whose daughter has been kidnapped and who is desperate to rescue her. What’s more, it is she who provides the magic flute itself, and Papageno’s bells; and Mozart furnishes her with two of his most astonishing arias (designed for his virtuoso soprano sister-in-law, Josepha Weber). Sarastro has cruel words for Pamina about her, accusing the Queen of pride; if you think he’s calling her a “stupid woman”, you’re not wrong. Still, she does want to kill him. The blunt reversal of opinion that Tamino encounters as soon as he arrives at the temple – and the unquestionably sexist reasons for this provided first by the Speaker and then Sarastro – is therefore far from proven as correct. Today an increasing number of productions depict the Queen pardoned at the end and reunited with Pamina.

The most ardent contradiction of the opera’s sexist element is Pamina herself. Contrast her with Tamino. He can seem oddly passive. First the Ladies have to save him from the serpent; next he obeys the Queen of the Night; then he decides he got everything wrong and obeys Sarastro instead. But it is Pamina who makes the brave, independent decisions: to seek her freedom; to reject Monostatos’s advances, despite death threats; refusing to commit murder, however forceful her mother’s demand; and she would certainly have the gumption to take her own life were it not for the intervention of the Three Boys. She is supportive to Papageno - she even sings an abstracted love duet with him. And it is she who tells Tamino that his magic flute will protect them, and she who voluntarily stands by him and undergoes the life-threatening trials – not because she has to, but because she chooses to. Ultimately she is initiated into the Order alongside him. 

Now, the Masonic references in Die Zauberflöte are reputedly so lavish that theories existed that the Freemasons murdered Mozart in revenge for revealing their secrets. This notion has been debunked. But as far as I’m aware, the Freemasons still do not admit women, even in 2019. And what, in wider society, of equal pay and equal boardroom presence? Don’t get me started. Perhaps we shouldn’t judge Mozart and Schikaneder too harshly when their vision is more progressive than the organisation that inspired them, and when our world still has so much to remedy. 

This opera ultimately suggests that the path of wisdom is open to everybody, if we are willing to learn our life lessons the hard way. And in the end it is about love. A devoted couple undergoes ferocious attack by the elements; the joint powers of their love and their music see them through. Emerging, they sing together, as equals. If that isn’t the ideal partnership - for any persuasion of human relationship - then I don’t know what is. 

A few sexist priests can’t take that away from us. Yes, there is sexism aplenty in Die Zauberflöte. But that is no reason not to let this work’s heavenly music and message of love and wisdom into our lives – my Desert Island included.