Monday, November 11, 2019

ODETTE AND TCHAIKOVSKY

Dear all, please come to the Barnes Music Society at the OSO, Barnes Pond, London SW13 this Wednesday, 13 November 2019 (7.30pm) for this:

ODETTE: A CELEBRATION OF SWAN LAKE
A narrated concert

Fenella Humphreys (violin)
Viv McLean (piano)
Jessica Duchen (author/narrator)


“Enthralling…an unpredictable and original voice and a dazzling perceptiveness” -- Joanna Lumley

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet score for Swan Lakecasts a powerful spell over generation after generation. It has had innumerable reimaginings and retellings, balletic and otherwise. The latest is author and music critic Jessica Duchen’s magical-realist novel Odette, in which the enchanted swan princess meets 21st-century Britain. 

This remarkable narrated concert mingles selected readings from the book with the story behind Tchaikovsky’s creation ofSwan Lakeand its passionate, tragic inspirations. Award-winning, ballet-loving British violinist Fenella Humphreys embraces the great violin solos with which Tchaikovsky embroidered his score, as well as the closely related Violin Concerto; pianist Viv McLean evokes the influence of Chopin and Liszt on Tchaikovsky; and there’s plenty of humour, with works by Saint-Saëns and Gershwin. Share the enchantment through this joyous celebration of a beloved ballet, its composer, its fairy tale and what they can mean to us today.




THE MUSIC
Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake – Introduction
Saint-Saëns: Danse macabre
Liszt arr. Achron: Liebestraum No.3
Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake – Odette’s Solo
Gershwin: The Man I Love
Chopin: Polonaise-Fantaisie 
Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake – White Swan Pas de Deux
Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake – Adagio from the Black Swan Pas de Deux
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major - finale



FENELLA HUMPHREYS - VIOLIN

Winner of the 2018 BBC Music Magazine Instrumental Award, violinist Fenella Humphreys enjoys a busy career combining chamber music and solo work. Her playing has been described in the press as ‘amazing’ (The Scotsman) and ‘a wonder’ (IRR). 

A champion of new and unknown music, a number of eminent British composers have written for Fenella, including a set of 6 new solo violin works by composers including Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Sally Beamish and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. She has been fortunate to record these over 2 critically acclaimed CDs for Champs Hill Records, both chosen by BBC Music Magazine as Instrumental disc of the month with 5 Star reviews, and the second also picked as Editor’s Choice in Gramophone Magazine.  

Described on BBC Radio 3’s Record Review as an ‘absolutely exquisite album’, Fenella’s new CD, ‘So Many Stars’ with Nicola Eimer has just come out on Stone Records. Summer 2019 sees the release of Max Richter’s Four Seasons Recomposed on Rubicon Classics. Her teachers have included Sidney Griller CBE, Itzhak Rashkovsky, Ida Bieler and David Takeno, studying at the Purcell School, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and the Robert-Schumann-Hochschule in Düsseldorf graduating with the highest attainable marks. 



VIV MCLEAN - PIANO

Viv McLean won First Prize at the 2002 Maria Canals International Piano Competition in Barcelona and has performed in all the major venues in the UK, as well as throughout Europe, Japan, Australia and the USA. He has performed concertos with orchestras such as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, English Chamber Orchestra, Halle Orchestra, BBC Concert Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra, Sinfonia Viva, Orchestra of the Swan and the Northern Chamber Orchestra under the baton of such conductors as Daniel Harding, Wayne Marshall, Christopher Warren-Green, Owain Arwell Hughes, Carl Davis and Marvin Hamlisch. 

Viv plays regularly with the Adderbury Ensemble and has also collaborated with groups such as the Leopold String Trio, Ensemble 360, the Ysaÿe Quartet, the Sacconi String Quartet and members of the Allegri and Tippett Quartets. Viv has appeared at festivals including the International Beethoven Festival in Bonn, the Festival des Saintes in France, Vinterfestspill i Bergstaden in Norway and the Cheltenham International Festival in the UK. He has recorded for labels such as Sony Classical Japan, Naxos, Nimbus, RPO Records and future releases include a Gershwin cd for ICSM Records. Viv has also recorded regularly for BBC Radio 3 as well as for radio in Germany, France, Australia, Norway and Poland.

“ Viv McLean revealed extraordinary originality, superb simplicity, and muscles of steel hidden by fingers of velvet. He plays with the genius one finds in those who know how to forget themselves, naturally placing themselves at the right point to meet the music, this mystery of the moment.” Le Monde (Paris)


JESSICA DUCHEN - AUTHOR/NARRATOR

Jessica Duchen's novels have gathered a loyal fan-base and wide acclaim. Odette, published by Unbound in November 2018, is her sixth, but has occupied her for over 26 years. Ghost Variations(Unbound, 2016) was Book of the Month in BBC Music Magazine and was John Suchet’s Christmas Choice for the Daily Mail's Best Reads of 2016 ("A thrilling read" - John Suchet). 

Jessica grew up in London, read music at Cambridge and has devoted much of her career to music journalism, with 12 years as music critic for The Independent. Her work has also appeared in BBC Music Magazine, The Sunday Times and The Guardian, among others. She was the librettist of Silver Birchby composer Roxanna Panufnik, commissioned by Garsington Opera and shortlisted for an International Opera Award in 2018, and she works frequently with Panufnik on texts for choral works. 

Her further output includes biographies of the composers Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Gabriel Fauré, her popular classical music blog JDCMB, and the play A Walk through the End of Time

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Is Beethoven actually trying to kill me?

I spent last week in Vienna, on the Beethoven trail for my new book, IMMORTAL; what follows is my Letter from Vienna for the Unbound 'shed', which is emailed to all the book's supporters. It's both substantial and quite interesting (I think), so I wanted to bring it to you here too. Delighted to say that the funding is all in place, but if you would like to be part of the IMMORTAL family, be thanked in print, pre-order your copy and receive regular updates on progress, you still can, here.



I came home from Vienna on Friday evening sick as the proverbial dog and barking like one. I was already unwell when I set off the previous Sunday; charging around the city, trying to see everything, walking about 7 miles a day during a nasty cold snap, did me so little good that I wondered if Beethoven is trying to kill me. 
Nevertheless, it was worth every second, because this trip will radically transform the atmosphere of IMMORTAL. Seeing what's available of the pleasant yet very plain apartments that the composer lived in, then visiting the former residences of his princely patrons in a grand city centre where palace piles up next to baroque palace, hammers home the desperately divided nature of that society. Among his chief supporters, Prince Kinsky's extravaganza is phenomenally OTT; Prince Lobkowitz's odd corner block is rather more tasteful (it is now the Theatre Museum, which is handy); and those are just two examples, neither of them the most extreme. 
The fascinating thing about research trips is that what you learn is never quite what you were looking for. One of my most startling impressions was that for tourism purposes, Beethoven is nowhere to be heard (seen, yes; heard, no.) Wherever you find a touristy concert in a church or palace, they are playing... Mozart. Occasionally Haydn, sometimes even Schubert. But Beethoven? Dearie dear - you have to go to the Musikverein or the Konzerthaus to listen to his music. You won't stumble upon it in the street. Nobody touting for tourists' business near the Hofburg is going to say to you "Psst, wanna hear some Beethoven?"
So is he too difficult? Too demanding? Too German? Too...foreign? Beethoven was indeed a foreigner in Vienna. He was an immigrant; he arrived as a student and never went back to Bonn. If not exactly a refugee, he was certainly reluctant to go home after Napoleon invaded the Rhineland (even though Napoleon was his hero for a while). The Brunswick sisters were similarly outsiders. Vienna would have been as foreign to them, from Hungary, as it was to Beethoven. 
Much is intact; much is not. Beethoven's longest place of residence, the Pasqualati House, is high on a hillock beside what used to be the city walls; he would have gazed out over the Glacis and the Prater towards the Vienna Woods from the top floor flat. Today you see only Vienna University, constructed directly opposite some decades later. Josephine's house, the Palais that her first husband built and where she lived on and off for the rest of her life, is long gone, demolished in the late 19th century. On its site you can now find a McDonald's.
But if you walk through the back streets, you come across lanes little changed since the 18th century; straight, well-proportioned channels lined with elegant buildings and occasionally opening onto a cobbled square beside an ancient church. In one such location you discover what used to be the university, run by the Jesuits in Beethoven's time; today it is the Austrian Academy of Sciences. "Beethoven? Oh, you'll want the first floor," says a remarkably relaxed gatekeeper. "It's open, just go in." And there, in what's now a ballroom and lecture theatre, equipped with state of the art AV equipment, is the room in which Beethoven premiered his Symphony No.7 - and in which a gala performance of The Creation was held in the presence of the elderly Haydn himself. There Beethoven broke through the crowds to kneel at his old professor's feet (and not before time).

One could not help noticing that these are some massively significant occasions in the history of music - yet there was nobody else around. I didn't even know, previously, that this place existed. 
Vienna is a layer cake of a city, its historical strata spreading one on top of the other. Century piles after century. The reason I haven't seen the Beethoven sites before is that whenever I've been there I've been looking for Korngold or Mahler or Johann Strauss, or celebrating new year waltzing round the Rathausplatz. My souvenir this time? A Klimt umbrella. Beethoven is subsumed, in a way, beneath everyone he influenced.
The place has its advantages - including a fantastic, easy-to-use public transport system and two of the world's best concert halls - but also its drawbacks. For instance, my specific annoying dietary problem is easier to solve even in Hungary than it is here (honest, guv, in Budapest I found a gluten-free bakery on Andrássy Boulevard). Eventually I came across a vegetarian buffet on the Schottenring that had a good selection, but I've never before eaten so many beans in three days. Otherwise it's tafelspitz or risotto; occasionally a gf cake if you're very lucky. 
Now I am back and setting to work not only on my target of finishing the first draft before Christmas, but also the remedial updating necessitated by the insights of this past week. My feet are covered in blisters, I'm coughing something chronic and I need to sleep for a fortnight, but fortunately writing takes place indoors. If Beethoven is trying to kill me, he hasn't succeeded. At least, not yet.


If you've enjoyed this post, please consider supporting my work in progress: IMMORTAL, a novel in which Beethoven is a crucial character. Please visit its page at Unbound for further details.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Far from the Home I Love



The wonderful pianist Margaret Fingerhut is busy with a huge charity tour at the moment, entitled Far from the Home I Love. She is raising money for refugee charities, in particular for City of Sanctuary and the West London Synagogue's Asylum Seeker Drop-In Centre, and so far her year-long tour of the UK has raised £60,000 out of a target of £88,000. Please come along and support her in the weeks ahead! 

Five concerts remain:
Oct 28 - Oxford
Oct 30 - Durham
Nov 01 - Ripon
Nov 03 - London
Nov 06 - Sheffield

Margaret writes:

“My ancestors settled here from the Ukraine, Poland and Ireland, so I have always been acutely aware of the plight of refugees and asylum seekers, never more so than today, given the climate of increasing hatred, intolerance and hostility to ‘others’. 

I wanted to find some unique way of raising awareness as well as funds for UK refugees, so I was very excited to come up with this idea. It struck me that the landscape of classical music would be very different if composers had not been allowed to migrate. Many of the world’s best-loved composers had to move from their homeland, either because of war or fear of persecution, or they simply migrated for their work.
I have picked all the pieces for their association with the theme of migration, exile and homesickness. However, I have designed the programme to be by no means just sad! The music I have chosen is also uplifting, happy, even humorous, as well as emotional, dramatic, heroic and virtuoso. 

I’m especially thrilled to have commissioned a new piece ‘Memories from my Land’ by the Kurdish composer, Moutaz Arian. This beautiful and and haunting piece has also now been released as a single track download, with all the proceeds going to City of Sanctuary UK. It can be downloaded on Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon or Google”. 

Here's the full programme:

Handel (1685-1759)                           Minuet in G minor
Haydn (1732-1809)                            Sonata No.38 in F, Hob.XVI/23
-  Moderato, Adagio, Presto
Grieg (1843-1907)                              Three Lyric Pieces: 
-  Solitary Traveller, Homesickness, Homeward
Francis Pott (b.1957)                          Farewell to Hirta
Rachmaninov (1873-1943)                 Two Etudes-Tableaux from Op.39
-  No.8 in D minor, No.9 in D
    INTERVAL 
Moutaz Arian (b.1983)                       Memories from my Land (This commission has been
generously supported by Rob & Sara Lucas)
Hans Gal (1890-1987)                                    Two Preludes from Op.65
Prokofiev (1891-1953)                       Two Pieces from Romeo and Juliet:
-  The Montagues and Capulets, Romeo bids Juliet Farewell
Chopin (1810-1849)                            Polonaise in A flat Op. 53


Monday, October 21, 2019

The triumph of Mahler

Saturday was a day I shall remember for a very long time. When strange things connect, when music does what it was meant to do, when people from all parts of life reach new heights and new meanings come together and you realise that over the years melodies converge: we all need each other more than ever. 

Even today it's hard to know where to begin, but here it is - from the flame of a single candle in Wells Cathedral to the tsunami of energy and light that is Mahler's Symphony No.2 at its best.

Inside Wells Cathedral

I was in Wells for its Festival of Literature. Having arrived the night before (and massive thanks to the festival and its representatives for such a warm and hospitable welcome!), I started the day with a visit to the cathedral, which I had virtually to myself. It's an awe-inspiring place, with proportions, geometry and grace that are exceptional even among its magnificent peers in York, Salisbury, Lincoln et al. It was silent, rapt, atmospheric. I lit a candle. I have not ever been much into religion, prayer or belief, but the state of things at present has strange effects: perhaps a little focus, some valiant intent, some deeply held hope can make a difference. On a more mundane plane, at the market afterwards, I availed myself of a big shiny spider brooch à la Lady Hale. One unintended consequence of The Brexs**t Show is that I've developed a whole new admiration for lawyers.

My assignment in the festival was to be interviewer to Jane Glover about her book Handel in London. It's a beautiful and fascinating volume (I reviewed it for the Sunday Times when it came out last year) and brings 18th-century London to vivid life. Some of the most interesting aspects of our discussion, though, were about the man himself: who was Handel? How do you get, well, a handle on him? Few letters exist; some famous anecdotes may be apocryphal; some may have been misinterpreted. Jane is convinced that when he threatened to throw Francesca Cuzzoni out of the window it was simply a joke to defuse a dangerous prima donna situation. The key, she suggests, is in the music and perhaps can be found most keenly in L'allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato - which ends with a quiet contemplation at the fireside. Perhaps at the end of a long day, he liked to go home, shut the door and gaze quietly into the flames. 

Jurowski rehearsing Mahler with the LPO
Meanwhile in London, the flames were metaphorical as more than a million people took to the streets to surround parliament and shout against Brexit. Wells is in Somerset, a good hike from London via Bath, and I didn't get back until about 5pm, so annoyingly missed the midday march and most of the action - but the atmosphere upon arrival was uplifting nonetheless. To see the number of blue-and-yellow berets and flags and placards and smiling protestors brought the feeling that one could breathe, that the clouds had lifted and that all hope has not yet been crushed. I've been gorging on the reports and videos. Who knows if it will make a difference; if it does not, dark times lie ahead; once that slippery slope begins, its end point cannot be predicted. Some of my musician friends, acting as canaries in the UK coal mine, departed several years ago for more open-minded shores and have scarcely been seen since. I can't blame them. More will doubtless follow. 

A discussion yesterday found a family member describing Brexit as a "category error", which is why it can never work: you are trying to impose one narrative onto a framework that is not designed for it and cannot hold it. Oddly enough, this is how too many opera productions seem to be at present; comedies handled with the weight of a Mahlerian mallet (Orpheus in the Underworld), or by all accounts a blingy and ludicrous staging of Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus, which is emphatically not a comedy. I wonder if this is symptomatic.

At the South Bank, I slunk into Tom's rehearsal for the Mahler 'Resurrection' Symphony. There in the choir seats was Dame Sarah Connolly, singing the mezzo solos. She is undergoing treatment for breast cancer, but spent the afternoon on the march singing choruses from Carmen, Beethoven 9 and (I hope) "Bollocks to Brexit" with a group from the Royal Opera, then came to rehearsal and performance singing with a dignity and eloquence that had to be heard to be believed. 

The concert was one in a million, or would have been were it not the third in close succession conducted by Vladimir Jurowski that was on this level and left me lost for words. All of life was here: the darkness and the dread, the elegant and ironic grace, the sardonic yowls, the deep, rapt spirit of nature, the blinding blaze of redemption. 

The LPO, Jurowski and Sarah Connolly in rehearsal
Recently I interviewed the artist Mat Collishaw - one of the Young British Artist generation, who's working on a fascinating musical project. He made an impact on me by stating something that should perhaps be obvious, but is not: namely, that without darkness, beauty loses its meaning. He tries to bring both into his artwork, which is often, or usually, an extraordinary mix of beauty and horror. (Explore his works here.)

Occasionally someone says something that changes how you experience art, or even life. My best example was Boulez, who said in our interview that you can't just stand in front of something you can see is wrong and do nothing. This is the next mind-bender. Both statements seem no-brainers when you think back over them later, which must be why they have such an effect: because do we truly think about such things? Do we articulate them to ourselves clearly enough? Can we understand them and assimilate their principles if we don't? Here's a moment when everything comes into focus, when you know there is a lesson that is meant for you, now, right here. You sense the idea crawl on the back of your neck, burrow into your innards: you need this message. 

"Gravity and grace," said Mat. And listening to Vladimir's Mahler, how right his words seemed. I've grumbled in the past about Mahler performances that lacked adequate darkness. Here was one that said "You want it darker?" and went there - all the better to rise to the heavens at the end. And my God, it was overwhelming. The playing was taut, furious, unified, exultant; Sarah Connolly and Sofia Fomina as soloists; the LPO Choir and London Youth Choir giving everything. The audience was on its feet within seconds of the final chord, yelling. Backstage, conversation was difficult because everybody's breath had been so totally removed that nobody could find the right words. Many were in tears, some of the orchestra included. And Marina Mahler, the composer's granddaughter, was there. 

After the Mahler
The orchestra's journey to the stratospheres has been remarkable to experience; perhaps, faced with the imminent departure of Vladimir to Munich in 2021, they've now realised what they currently have on the podium. But this Mahler, the Tchaikovsky Pathétique the other week and, in between, the Strauss Alpine Symphony have been a trilogy the like of which we see and hear all too rarely in the grand scheme of things. (The question arises: if more music-making held this degree of excellence and meaning, would we appreciate it so much...? hmm.)

Vladimir's journey, too, has been a saga of building, experimenting, exploring, deepening, widening and now flowering on uppermost branches. As for Sarah: my heart is in pieces over her indomitable stance, her dignity and determination and the way she channels the lot into her singing. Jane remarked in out talk in Wells that Handel would have adored a singer such as Sarah Connolly. Seconded. I know too many people who are suffering from this appalling illness at present (its latest victim is the wonderful journalist Deborah Orr) - a terrifying scourge on women, often of our age group. Please send all your energy, your healing, your hope and your determination to Sarah as she embarks on a new journey, through chemotherapy.

At this level, music becomes a matter of life and death; nothing is ever "just a piece of music", but now we know how and why not. And that's what music is for. Without its role as ultimate catharsis, reaching the heart directly, beyond words, beyond sight, beyond intellect, it loses its power. Without darkness there is no light. 


Update, 22 Oct: I am mightily embarrassed to realise that originally I didn't mention the other piece in the programme: Colin Matthews, 'Metamorphosis' from Renewal. It's a glistening, intense setting of Ovid, burrowing into the text's exploration of the world in a constant state of flux. It was performed at the start of the concert and led straight into the Mahler. Even if it was the latter that produced the sensation of Total Overwhelm, it was the Ovid that I later copied out into my "commonplace book" and that actually encapsulates much of my feeling about the symbolic lessons of this evening as articulated above.

If you've enjoyed this post, please consider supporting my work in progress: IMMORTAL, a novel in which Beethoven is a rather crucial character. Please visit its page at Unbound for further details.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Underwhelmed in the Underworld

Mary Bevan as Eurydice and Alan Oke as John Styx in ENO's Orpheus in the Underworld,
supposedly a comic operetta
Photo: Bill Knight/The Arts Desk

It takes quite a dreadful evening at a fundamentally misconceived operetta production to make real life seem fun at the moment. But my goodness, I was glad to get out of this show at the end. ENO has well and truly gone to hell this time. I am giving up on British opera houses trying to do operetta - and suspect the Birtwistle Orpheus will be more fun than this.

My full review of a production that was better designed and performed than it deserved to be is now up at The Arts Desk.

Maybe British opera houses just don’t get operetta. Without wit, lightness and snappy pace, and instead cudgelling us with desperate relevance, the frothiest works crash to earth stone cold dead. There have been disasters elsewhere, too, though ENO is the chief culprit, and (after a miserable Merry Widowand a fearful Fledermaus) this one is the nail in the coffenbach. If you think that’s a bad joke, wait til you hear the ones on stage...

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Jurowski's Tchaikovsky

Another opening, another LPO show - except that this wasn't. I'm still reeling from the brickbat impact of Vladimir Jurowski's Tchaikovsky 'Pathétique'. It was almost like hearing the work for the first time.

One of the advantages of getting older is that you have been lucky enough to watch things, people, orchestras and artists growing. I still remember the day around 20 years ago when startling news spread around Glyndebourne that a 20-something Russian conductor had been appointed as music director and everyone said "Vladimir Jurowski? Who?"

Vladimir Jurowski.
Photo: Drew Kelley
By the time Jurowski leaves the LPO in 2021 to be music director of the Bavarian State Opera, he will have become the orchestra's longest-serving principal conductor, having been in place since 2007. Over the years I've interviewed him a number of times and observed his musicianship expanding year upon year. When he took up the post, I remember Tom mentioning that he'd said he wanted to transform the LPO into a truly great orchestra (this allegedly irked some of them, because they thought they already were - but actually there were weak links in those days). Now they have reached that level. I doubt they have ever sounded better than they did yesterday: absolutely unified, breathing as one, everything as intent and focused as the core of steel on the podium.

Jurowski's technique is quite the opposite of the "windmill", "Ketchup Kid" or "flailing octopus" approach one sometimes encounters in certain other conductors. There is something Zen about him: he has long sought a special form of almost preternatural concentration, a central force of stillness and exactitude. I have the impression that yesterday realised fully the vision he has been working towards all these years.

They started on the Pathétique together in 2005 and I've heard them perform it several times. It was always good; now it's the north face of a musical Eiger. Its backbone of strength and dignity is everything. There's no sentiment or slush, but urgent, philosophical eloquence. There's no for-effects push-me-pull-you, but the breathlike  flexibility of true rubato if and when required, and magisterial pacing of the work's grand structures and long lines. The march is as terrifying as a million-strong, empty-eyed totalitarian rally. There's no depression, but authentic tragedy in the finale, and the cellos and basses finally subside like red-eyed demons into their pit of darkness. The effect is shattering.

I don't think there is a way to solve the clapping-after-the-march problem. They've performed it on tour around the world and Tom says the only place where that didn't happen was Hong Kong. This march-to-the-scaffold and its devil-imp clarinet (note to self: investigate Tchaikovsky's view of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique) should really have been enough to stun everyone into horrified silence.

The concert opened with a tribute to the late Oliver Knussen in the form of his delicate, glimmering orchestrations of some Scriabin piano miniatures, and continued with a vivid, well argued and cool-headed account of the Britten Violin Concerto with the splendid Julia Fischer as soloist. The evening was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and you can hear it on the iPlayer for a month here. 

Jurowski will be a very, very difficult act to follow. And my goodness, he will be missed.


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.