Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Tribute to Tasmin Little

Tasmin Little
Photo: Paul Mitchell

Last week Tasmin Little, one of the UK's top violin soloists, announced that she has decided to 'hang up her concert gown' in 2020. Plenty to do, she says, but no more concerts. Here's the story from The Strad.

A flood of tributes has been pouring in and I'm adding to that. But I can't deny that here the news initially came as a shock. It so happens that Tasmin is one of my oldest and dearest friends. We're the same age and got to know each other when we were 17 - long before I had any notion I'd become a journalist. She is the first of our circle - possibly the first of any of my immediate 'peer group' - to hint at the word 'retire'. Not that she's said 'retire' as such - her website says that she will be 'ending her concert career' - but effectively this means retiring from the stage. It pulls one up short: whaddaya mean, 'retire'? We're only 17...aren't we? Heavens. Does time really go this fast?

Oh, yes. It does. And for any international classical soloist it goes faster still. A glance at a random selection of appropriate Twitter feeds will be enough to prove that musicians probably spend more time in airports than they do on the concert platform, that the matter of playing an instrument is highly physical, that the continual round of jet-lag, adrenaline and performance pressure demands great resilience in addition to evident talent.

I decided at the age of 23 to face the fact that I wasn't cut out for a piano career, and though I missed it at first, I've never doubted that stopping then was the right thing to do. Years on, I don't know how anyone does it at all.

I don't blame Tasmin one bit for wanting a change and I have the utmost respect for her decision, which can't have been easy. She is making the choice in a manner that is objective, in control and powered by self-knowledge. And I know she will excel at whatever she turns her hand to next - she has so much to give.

She is also in good company. My second-ever interviewee, when I was 21, was the great Italian violinist Gioconda de Vito. She was turning 80 and I went to talk to her for The Strad. She lived in Rickmansworth in a house surrounded by a beautiful garden full of birds and animals, and her husband translated for her since she had never learned to speak fluent English. She had retired in her fifties at the peak of her career. She played to the Pope. Then decided things couldn't get any better than that. She'd heard a late recital by the elderly Alfred Cortot, a car-crash full of wrong notes, and did not want to follow his example. So she stopped. I was intrigued: didn't she miss it? She didn't. At 21 I was incredulous. Several decades later, I understand it a lot better.

Tasmin has weathered everything magnificently, her zest for life and fun and music sparkling out of that Guadagnini, lighting up with joy and positivity every hall and every room she enters. She is one of the most extraordinarily consistent individuals I've been lucky enough to know: pure gold all the way through.

A lively interview from The Violin Channel

Tasmin and I met for the first time at a private recital by a mutual pianist friend at my (and the friend's) piano teacher's house. It was December 1983. I'd just done A levels, was having what was then called a 'year out' (the term 'gap yaar' was yet to be devised) and was learning to drive. Tasmin had reached the final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year the previous year; now she was fresh out of the Menuhin School, going to the Guildhall, and wanted driving lessons too. It turned out we lived near each other, so she called me the next day to ask for my driving teacher's number and to invite me round for supper.

I was enchanted by the Littles. Tasmin is from a gloriously theatrical family. Her father is the actor George Little, whose splendid performances I enjoyed very much - in particular the one-man show he wrote, Paradise Garden, about growing up during the war in Bradford, culminating with the revelation of local boy Frederick Delius's music on the radio... Charismatic, funny and warm, he was an irresistible presence and Tasmin learned much about public presentation from him, as well as how to turn pre-performance adrenaline to advantage. Jilly, her mother, is just as sunny, extrovert and full of good humour. They could scarcely have been more different from my own parents, who were quiet, academic and somewhat shy, tending to keep themselves to themselves, whether by accident or design.

Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending at the Proms in 1995, conducted by Andrew Davis

Living a longish tube ride from my school, I'd been friendly with a circle of girls from another part of the suburbs altogether and did too little socialising out of hours. But to find a friend down the road - well, that was a first. Even today, one of my favourite memories of Tasmin is the time, one afternoon not long after that, she invited me along to a masterclass at the Purcell Room in which she was playing to Michel Schwalbé, the leader of the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan. I was on the edge of my seat, soaking up all that was going on (he was quite a personality - that's another story). Afterwards we sloped off to unwind. We hopped on the Bakerloo Line to Piccadilly Circus, wandered through Chinatown and feasted royally on red bean buns. Afterwards we went back to my house, where my mum tried to give us a nice healthy supper, but could we eat? Er...

Over the years, friends sometimes vanish. New study environments, moves of house, demanding jobs, marriages, children and so forth, or simply growing apart - everything conspires against keeping in touch. But Tasmin never vanished. She went to study in Canada with Lorand Fenyves, but she always took the trouble to write letters. While I was away at university, she wrote letters (and anyway I wasn't too happy there and used to zip home whenever I could). If one has no kids (I haven't) it can be tricky keeping up with friends who do have them because often their other friends with children are prioritised, quite understandably so. That was never the case here. We followed each others' ups and downs over the years - and we both had plenty - even though life took us in very different directions. I basically sit at home with my husband and cats, writing. She travels the world with her violin, while also bringing up her two wonderful kids. I named the baby who arrives at the end of my first novel Rites of Spring after Tasmin's daughter.

Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata with Andrey Gugnin at the Sydney International Piano Competition. Andrey went on to win first prize.

I could fill this blog with memories of Tasmin. One that particularly stands out is the time I invited her to go busking at Waterloo as an experiment for The Independent, following Joshua Bell's example in Washington DC. That was an eye-opener for us both and sparked her idea to create the Naked Violin project - free access to a solo recording and plenty of information about it on the internet, which back then was groundbreaking, accompanied by a high quotient of outreach work in schools, shopping malls, oil rigs, homeless shelters and more.

Well before that, there was the time she played the Korngold Concerto in Manchester, about eight months pregnant. Later, Carnegie Hall with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic - Tom and I flew there to hear and cheer her and we all went for cocktails at the Rainbow Room. The Proms - lots of them, but especially the Ligeti Concerto with Rattle. I think that was the evening a mobile phone went off a few bars into The Rite of Spring and Rattle stopped and gave the audience a bit of a tirade about it. It's thanks to Tasmin that I got to know Roxanna Panufnik, Piers Lane and a whole galaxy of other marvellous people. And I'll always cherish the countless times we and our little group of friends who meet for lunch every few months have found ourselves falling off our chairs with laughter together, sometimes in rather nice restaurants, to everyone else's amusement.

Those memories will continue to build, but the sound of her playing, at least publicly, will soon have to rely on her recordings for preservation. Fortunately there are plenty of them, and the newest is coming out in February - recorded with the pianist John Lenehan, it's of music by fantastic composers who happen to have been women: Clara Schumann, Dame Ethel Smyth and Amy Beach (more info here from the Chandos website).

Here's a promotional video for it from Chandos:

In the meantime, we still have a year and a half to enjoy the remaining concerts.

Brava bravissima, Tasmin - and more power to your elbow!

Friday, January 25, 2019

Learn the violin with Nicola Benedetti

Bravo to Nicola Benedetti, who on Tuesday launches a series of Youtube presentations for would-be young (and less young) violinists and their teachers. She is also launching a charitable foundation focused on music education. Above, the first, introductory video. In The Times, applause from Richard Morrison. Below, Nicky's own intro to the intro. Splendid when fine musicians decide to share their expertise, and especially when the musician in question is as natural and charismatic a communicator as Nicky. More power to her elbow!

Nicky writes:

I have some news which I am super excited to share with you all. Over the coming year, I intend to expand my commitment to the education of young people and the supporting of music teachers by establishing a charitable organisation. The Benedetti Foundation plans to focus on providing enrichment, inspiration and variation to the UK’s education system and communities. The ambition is to carry out a series of orchestra-based weekend workshops, designed to address, in equal part, the needs of young musicians and teachers. Today, however, I have launched a new online series of educational videos called “With Nicky” that intends to provide information, guidance, and support for young musicians throughout their musical and personal development. The content of these videos will become an integral part of the work of the Benedetti Foundation, and will also provide useful information for teachers looking to support their work with new ideas. “With Nicky” will eventually cover a broad range of questions and themes, but naturally these first videos focus on the violin. Phase one of the series will be released every Tuesday at midday GMT on my YouTube channel starting on Tuesday 29 January and will enable young people and teachers to connect with me on a more regular basis. The videos will cover topics including: ï Back to Basics ï Develop your Sound ï Vibrato ï Talking about Thumbs ï Practice ï Motivations and Inspirations ï Investigating Intonation The first video released today is an introduction to the series. Subscribe to the channel and activate notifications. I meet so many fantastic young musicians and teachers across the world and yearn for more regular interaction with all of them. It is tough to practice, it’s difficult to stay motivated and to know the best way forward. I have had the huge fortune in my life of being exposed to some of the world’s greatest violin and music teachers, and I want to make as much of the information available to as many people as possible. More on Tuesday 29 January at midday. If you have any questions, then we’d love to hear from you! The videos have been generously supported by ESTA UK, MiSST – The Andrew Lloyd Webber Programme, and Oasby Music Group and I am very grateful for their support. Huge thanks to our media partners Classic FM, The Strad, The Violin Channel and WQXR who will be sharing the videos with their audiences each week when released.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Pianists to battle it out in Hastings

The Hastings International Piano Competition held a launch reception in the House of Commons last night, thanks to the town's MP, one Amber Rudd, aka the Work and Pensions Secretary, who agreed to host the event. Pleased to hear her voicing support for a contest and festival that, she said, helps to bring classical music to local people who may never have encountered it before in their home environment, giving them the chance to experience the best music in the world on their own doorstep.

Amber Rudd introduces the competition.
photo: JD

I can't help remembering that Ghost Variations begins with Jelly d'Arányi playing the Brahms Violin Concerto in Hastings in 1933. Adrian Boult, no less, stepped in to conduct when the intended conductor went down with appendicitis. And the concert was reviewed [luckily for novelists doing research] in The Times. Those, as one might say, were the days. World-class music-making used to be absolutely standard fare in Hastings and similar towns, less than 100 years ago.

The piano competition certainly has the wind in its sails, with a new biennial plan intended to beef up the offer each time, the Royal Philharmonic aboard with a five-year deal, and a valuable line of alumni who have gone on to win top prizes at other contests, notably the Van Cliburn. More power to its elbow, and to the many elbows of its gifted competitors.

Nevertheless, one would dearly have liked to ask a few public questions. For instance: what assurance could our host give that over Brexit the concerns of the cultural industries - worth billions to the exchequer - have been heard, let alone listened to? What future is there for young British pianists robbed of their international competitiveness? After all, if e.g. Pollini goes sick and someone is needed to play Beethoven at the last minute, they won't choose someone from a country that demands paperwork for the privilege if a different soloist in another European country can jump on a train and be there in two ticks. How will young musicians ever afford to live in Britain if they have to be earning £30k before being admitted? Those kinds of things. But of course, this was a celebration rather than a press launch and question time was there none. Not that there's anything much happening in the House of Commons at the moment, joked our host.

Entering the House of Commons is an illuminating experience. The atmosphere resembles a cross between Westminster Abbey, a gentlemen's club (posh sort, not lap dancing), Hampton Court and a public school, plus a strong dose of Hogwarts. Corridor walls are lined with images of battle showing troops carrying St George's flags. There are plentiful statues, all of men (at least the ones I went past were), mostly in 17th-18th century wigs. It's an ageing rabbit warren, a draughty, sprawling complex full, I'm sure, of ghosts and it's quite disorienting; on emerging afterwards, I knew where I'd been but had to take a minute to work out where I was, at least in relation to the nearest tube. You can see how it's possible for the occupants of this building to become detached from the reality of London around them, let alone the rest of the UK.

Across the room, one person braver than I am had come along wearing an EU flag. My contribution was restricted to a yellow BOLLOCKS TO BREXIT sticker that's still on the back of my phone from the march in October and shows itself whenever I raise the object to take a photo. 

The competition takes place in about a month's time and focuses on concertos. If you're a local, you're in for a major treat. Do go. Details here:

Friday, January 18, 2019

Musical inspiration and where to find it

What spurs a new piece of music into existence? Where do composers find their inspiration? Here is a wonderful insight from someone who knows all about it. 

Stephen Johnson's extremely moving How Shostakovich Changed My Mind was one of my Books of the Year for the Sunday Times, so it was a particular joy that he wrote a couple of weeks ago to tell me about his new Clarinet Quintet, 'Angel's Arc', which receives its world premiere next Thursday. At the time I was in South Africa, cuddling lion cubs and so forth, which made writing something myself a bit tricky. Fortunately Stephen - author, journalist and composer - was only too happy to pen us a guest post. Here he reveals how the piece took shape in his imagination, with a range of vivid and varied references that mirrors his splendid book - from the literary and the biblical to the natural, the emotional and even the feline. 

Enjoy. And do go and hear his new quintet if you can - full performance listings are at the end of the article. JD

A rainbow snapped during the first rehearsal of Angel's Arc. Photo: Kate Johnson

Angel's Arc

A guest post by Stephen Johnson

It was a cat who inspired my orchestral piece Behemoth Dances: the pistol-packing, chandelier-swinging cat-demon Behemoth from Mikhail Bulgakov's wild, terrifying, utterly magical novel The Master and Margarita.And in a different, slightly more oblique way it was a cat who set my Clarinet Quintet, Angel's Arc, in motion. 

Two years ago, my wife Kate and I lost our much-loved Agatha, a tiny ginger female cat of immense character, who had a way of charming round even resolute cat-haters. Our wise vet, Amanda - who put Agatha very tenderly to sleep in her favourite spot in our garden, on a heartbreakingly beautiful summer morning - told us afterwards that in her experience the loss of a beloved pet often released feelings of grief connected with other important losses. So it was with Agatha's parting. I felt keenly the loss of my father-in-law, Harold Jones, a remarkable old-fashioned rural rector with some very un-old-fashioned views and a generous, loving heart. I'd lost my aunt, Elizabeth (Betty) Johnson, nearly twenty years earlier, but now I felt her absence more than ever, and wished terribly that she could have witnessed the emergence of Behemoth Dancesinto the light. I also realised with new intensity just how much both these two people had stood in loco parentis, and how privileged I had been to have them in my life.

Then along came Andrew Jamieson, the IMG impresario who, in a magnificent leap of faith, had arranged the Moscow and UK performances of Behemoth Dancesafter hearing just three minutes of it in a horrible computer playback version. He suggested that I might follow it up with a clarinet quintet - he already had Emma Johnson and the Carducci Quartet in mind. I leapt at the chance: I loved the clarinet, and the two glorious quintets Mozart had Brahms had written for it. But where was the seminal musical idea? 

Playing around on the piano it struck me that I could make a kind of Schumann/Shostakovich-style cipher out of the letters of Agatha's name: with Te (sol fa) representing B, plus H from German notation, it gave A-G-A-B-B-A - a chant-like motif very like the haunting plainsong phrase 'Lux aeterna' I'd used in Behemoth Dances. Suddenly a host of ideas began to flow from that tiny motif. Fascinatingly, as with Behemoth, the shape of the whole thing seemed fairly clear from the start: beginning, middle and end were quite distinct. But the title, and with it the emotional character, took a little while to emerge from the mist - almost literally, as there is something very mist-like about the hushed opening pages: lots of natural string harmonics and clarinet echo tones. 

As I worked on what was at first simply my 'Clarinet Quintet', I found that memories of the West Pennine moors, and their surrounding woodlands and lakes, were flooding into mind. As a teenager I'd loved those moors with a fierce passion, and I walked and cycled them energetically. The wildest expanse of moorland bore the striking name Anglezarke, and I remember someone (it might have been a teacher) telling me that it derived from the Flemish words 'Angel's Arc', or 'Ark' - the story was that it was given this name centuries earlier by Protestant refugees fleeing persecution in the Spanish Netherlands. Almost certainly this was nonsense: my place-name dictionary gives the derivation as from the Norse 'Anlaf's hill-pasture'. But at the time I could hardly have cared less, nor would I have been terribly interested if I'd been told that my favourite line from the Book of Psalms, 'I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills', was a mistranslation. What has dull fact to do with poetry - especially when poetic fantasy is one of the few precious things that helps you to find your way emotionally? And as this poetic idea was now helping me find my way musically, here surely was my title: Angel's Arc.  

Once I'd embraced that title, and the images that came inevitably with it, vivid memories of Harold and Betty followed. Harold's favourite line from the Anglican Communion Service, 'Lift up your hearts', along with the response, 'We lift them up to the Lord', morphed in my mind with the idea of looking up to the hills for help: both found their way into the score. 

As for Betty, I'd noted quotations from, or allusions to, symphonies I'd adored as a teenager emerging quite spontaneously as I wrote: Walton One, Bruckner Nine, Mahler Six. And then it hit me: it was Betty who'd given me the scores of all three symphonies as birthday presents. I still have them, battered, dog-eared and irreplaceable. Here then were keys to the emotional significance of this music - for me at least. There is grief in this music, but also gratitude. It's a close-run thing, but in the end I think gratitude wins: gratitude to Betty, to Harold (whom I also have to thank for Kate), to Andrew Jamieson, who made these three performances happen, to the friend-sponsors who gave their financial support, Fiona Costa, Peggy Czyzak-Dannenbaum and Irina Knaster, and to those wonderful hills - and to whoever or whatever made them. Angel's Arcis my hymn of thanks. 

Stephen Johnson

Emma Johnson, clarinet
Carducci String Quartet (based in Cheltenham)


Brahms – Clarinet Quintet (35 mins, 1891)
Johnson – Clarinet Quintet, Angel's Arc(14 – 15 mins, 2018)
Mozart – Clarinet Quintet (30 mins, 1789)

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Not new year resolutions

The Apothecary's Rose, from my garden. It should work magic, if I only knew how.

I decided not to make any new year resolutions because they're expected to be gloriously positive and, as you'll know from yesterday's Mood Ludwig, that's not where I am right now.

So I'm not going to do it. Not going to think about practising the piano and then not do it. Not going to decide not to eat chocolate. Not going to promise myself to go running three times a week. Not going to stop procrastinating - you can't teach a middle-aged catwoman new tricks. And I'm not going to not post as many cat pictures. So I'm not going to pledge to do anything except be myself to the best of my ability. 

Current mood: KAPUSTIN

Here is the annual reminder of what JDCMB is and isn't.

Darlings, a very warm welcome to all readers, whoever and wherever you may be. JDCMB is Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. It's a relatively random and succinctly spontaneous collection of content involving words and music. 

I'm a writer with a musical training (academic/piano). In my twenties and early thirties I held jobs on music magazines, including spearheading the creation of the UK's first independent piano magazine. Later I was with The Independent as a music journalist and critic for 12 years. Now I juggle different kinds of writing: novels, librettos, articles, reviews, programme notes and more. I often give pre-concert talks and also present narrated concerts, often based on my novels (you'll find upcoming the dates in the sidebar). I enjoy the adventure of these different activities, and others besides: it keeps me on my toes, or at least my fingertips. And JDCMB is blog.

Things you might think you know about JD: I'm pro-feminism and anti-Brexit; I have cats; I'm married to a violinist; I've written biographies of Korngold and Fauré; my latest novels are Ghost Variations (about Jelly d'Arányi and the Schumann Violin Concerto) and Odette (swan-girl).

Things you might not know: I'm an absolute, total, utter piano nerd. I adore historical recordings, especially slidey violins. I love a massive range of music including Boulez, Bartók, Beethoven, Bach, Barbara Strozzi. I have a 'thing' about Hungarian musical traditions. I go to a lot of opera, ballet and orchestras, but my favourite pieces are mostly chamber music. I have some great roses in the garden.

JDCMB has:
• News, reviews, interviews, occasional select guest posts, think-pieces, personal experiences/memories/chronicles.
• Values about music, art, quality, equality, passion. I believe everybody deserves to have great music, art and creativity in their lives.
• A feminist slant, because people are people are people, but the music business and related fields (actually, most fields) still often treat women as second-class citizens. There's been good progress recently, but not enough.
• English English. I'm in London, UK, so please don't expect American spellings.
• An internationalist outlook. Music is an international art and depends on its internationalism for its very existence. 
• Bollocks to Brexit.
• A personal slant.
• Irony and sarcasm, so please be prepared.

JDCMB doesn't have:
• Sexism, racism or other prejudices.
• Porn.
• Comments boxes. For discussions, please come over to Facebook - I put all the links on my author page and we have some lively chats, but you do have to say who you are.
• Pro-Brexit writing.
• Conspiracy theories.
• Personal attacks.
• Pop music. I've nothing against it, but I don't cover it, because I do other stuff.

If you want coverage on JDCMB:
• I receive a lot of requests, but even with the best will in the world, I can't do it all.
• Stats tell me that what you respond to the most, darling readers, is strong, personal think-pieces. So the slant for 2019 will be towards this.
• Advice for PRs:  a) Please don't approach me about "classically trained crossover" artists. Yes, I once interviewed Bocelli. That doesn't mean I like crossover. It just means my editor wanted a piece and I was curious. b) Please try not to start your emails by saying "My name is...". Nine times out of ten I'll already know that's your name because it's in your email address.