Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Happy birthday, Dame Emma Kirkby - here's a podcast

I was very lucky to record this podcast interview with Dame Emma Kirkby at the Wigmore. The much-loved British soprano, doyenne of "early music", is giving a special 70th Birthday concert tomorrow with a super roster of guest artists. Happy birthday, Dame Emma, and have a wonderful time! Meanwhile, here's the podcast from the Wigmore Hall site.

And, of course, some music - what better than Mozart's 'Exsultate, jubilate'?

Monday, February 25, 2019

Watch: Trusting the music within you

Above, conductor Monica Buckland gives a TED talk about the whole point of conducting, from the basics to the fingertips, and what we can all learn from the process even if we're not actual musicians. Translating physical gestures into music, and drawing out the music that's within us all, in real life as much as on the concert platform. This is conducting as empowerment. Enjoy!

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Quand notre Wigmore Hall fait Boum!

Sometimes surprising things crop up when you're writing programme notes.

Catch the amazing Marc-André Hamelin on 10 March at the Wigmore Hall in a programme of...Schumann, Chopin, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Fauré and six transcriptions of Charles Trenet songs made by a mysterious piano-playing 'Mr Nobody' in the 1950s - an era in which playing popular music was so frowned upon that the pianist-transcriber elected not to reveal that his name was actually Alexis Weissenberg.

Hamelin heard the Mr Nobody recording and, not knowing if the arrangement had ever been written down, transcribed it all himself from the audio. He recorded it on a Hyperion CD called 'In a State of Jazz'.

Much later, Weissenberg's daughter sent him some scans of the original manuscript, but it didn't always match the recording. Now both versions have been published together.

You'll need to come to the Wigmore Hall on 10 March to read the rest and hear Hamelin in action. Meanwhile, enjoy a spot of Boum! above...

Bouking here.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

In which all paths lead to Beethoven 7

I've been reading an interesting book, which I'm reviewing for BBC Music Magazine. It's Good Music: What It Is and Who Gets to Decide, by the American academic John J Sheinbaum. Among many things it does is to articulate a shake-up in the deep-seated ways we tend to think about the music we listen to. Is the idea of "greatness" all-encompassing in our musical judgments? If so, why? Does it have to be? Do we listen to music because it is empirically "great" in some way - or because we think it is because others have judged it to be? And not to other things because they are...not? It's a chewy, academic read, but deep within the texts and analyses are some intriguing ideas and a good few home truths. It's got me thinking...

Good Music


Good Music

320 pages | 2 halftones, 25 musical examples, 8 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2019
Over the past two centuries Western culture has largely valorized a particular kind of “good” music—highly serious, wondrously deep, stylistically authentic, heroically created, and strikingly original—and, at the same time, has marginalized music that does not live up to those ideals.

In Good Music, John J. Sheinbaum explores these traditional models for valuing music. By engaging examples such as Handel oratorios, Beethoven and Mahler symphonies, jazz improvisations, Bruce Springsteen, and prog rock, he argues that metaphors of perfection do justice to neither the perceived strengths nor the assumed weaknesses of the music in question. Instead, he proposes an alternative model of appreciation where abstract notions of virtue need not dictate our understanding. Good music can, with pride, be playful rather than serious, diverse rather than unified, engaging to both body and mind, in dialogue with manifold styles and genres, and collaborative to the core. We can widen the scope of what music we value and reconsider the conventional rituals surrounding it, while retaining the joys of making music, listening closely, and caring passionately.

The same could be said of how we listen to performers. Is hero-worship the only way forward? What about collaboration? Do we have to listen to a performer only because he or she is "the best"? Is the whole idea of "greatness" a hangover from 19th-century thought processes in which the god-given gift was a cause for marvel and we had, post-Liszt, to sit in worshipful attendance?

It's good to question things. It's great. It's essential. We should never simply accept a status quo because it's a status quo - it's only by probing interrogation that we can work out what the heck is going on inside our own heads, as well as in the world around us. Then, maybe, just maybe, we can make some progress.

My starting point today, though, is Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, because it's my personal nomination for Greatest Symphony Ever. I adore its every note. And it's thought, by most and sundry, to be great...

There's a paradox to solve, meanwhile. On the one hand, if greatness is not a criterion for listening to someone or something, how do we decide what to hear? We could eliminate all the artists who indulge in individual behaviour we disapprove of. We might look, for example, for dead composers who lived a blameless life, maintaining in the 18th or 19th centuries all the standards we expect in the 21st - no extra-marital affairs, no lying or cheating, donating half your income to charity, adopting as many stray dogs as you can fit into your home, no holidays (or just non-extravagant camping), being a wonderful mum or dad or wanting to be one, supporting mild, centrishly-progressive politics, standing up heroically to extremism and enduring great torment for the sake of the Truth. Er, you get the idea. We would have very, very quiet concert halls. Though actually, we might hear some Beethoven, who had high principles and massive struggles and if he didn't always get things right, it was not for want of trying. We'd hear a lot of... his Symphony No.7 in particular because it has no political connotations and isn't programmatic and always resists any and all attempts to make it hackneyed, because it's an absolutely great piece.

That method is not much of a solution. We'd be very bored very quickly. What about performers? Here it's already not always "greatness" that determines who is heard the most, or applauded the most. Other matters often decide who gets the concerts (but let's not go there just now). If it's up to us to choose, we might pick others to listen to, for other reasons. Some of my favourite memories of piano recitals involve intimate performances of really interesting repertoire by performers known to a niche public, but little further - an all-Fauré recital by the marvellous Grant Johannesen at St John's Smith Square springs to mind, for example. I'd say that was 'great' playing. So it is about greatness, but not always greatness in the widely assumed forms.

But there's no doubt about it when you do hear a really great performance. I heard one last week - Benjamin Grosvenor playing Chopin's Piano Concerto No.1 in its chamber form, with the Doric Quartet - reviewed in The Arts Desk. And certain orchestral concerts have stayed with me for decades: Solti's Mahler 5, for instance, back in the late 1980s (mind-blowing to my student self), or Rattle conducting Debussy's La mer with the Berlin Philharmonic. And Andris Nelsons in Birmingham conducting...Beethoven's Symphony No.7.

Once you've heard such a performance, it sets the bar high. Most of us want to seek out "great" performances because of how we find ourselves responding to them. They set our blood afire, our pulse racing, our imagination spinning, our emotions atingle, and they leave us glad to be alive and thrilled that we could experience this. And if, having experienced that, you then hear something that doesn't do it, you might leave thinking "why bother?".

Do we have to apply the "why bother" scenario to repertoire too? If we did, it would be...boring. Wouldn't it? Some pieces of music I've heard so often that I literally don't mind if I don't encounter them again for 20 years (Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony tops the list, even though I adore Tchaikovsky). The notion that "greatness is everything" seems to have struck out, for far too long, composers of a second or even third rank who wrote music that is interesting, moving, worthwhile, but just not quite as good as ...Beethoven 7. Korngold's Violin Concerto wasn't performed in the UK until about 1984 and it's become a concert favourite not because it's as great as Beethoven 7 (not even I would suggest that), but because it is nevertheless beautiful and fun, violinists love playing it and audiences enjoy listening to it. Plain old enjoyment has a place.

Speaking of enjoyment, just have a look at, and listen to, what Kirill Petrenko can do with...Beethoven 7 at the great Berlin Philharmonic.

Back to Korngold for a moment. We had to be familiar with that concerto before it could catch on, not to mention dealing with the Hollywood stereotyping that worked against it for so many years. Familiarity has a huge place in what we think we know, if that doesn't sound too paradoxical - and sadly, so does prejudice ("film music is second rate", "ballet music is piffling", "Mendelssohn is too glib", etc), though few like to admit this.

Moreover, take our friend Mikolajus Čiurlionis. I went to Birmingham last Saturday to hear Mirga conduct The Sea (I haven't reviewed it because the artist Norman Perryman is a very old friend and I have one of his paintings; indeed, the background image on this blog is his doing). But I can't help noticing that apparently part of the puzzled reactions that have drifted around in that concert's wake was the unfamiliarity of this tone poem. Most people there had never heard it before. OK, so it was the UK premiere.

This Čiurlionis piece is not difficult listening, though. It's much of its time: there's a pantheistic, nature-worship side to it, a hint of Strauss in Alpine Symphony mode, a nod towards Scriabinesque grandiloquence, a whisper of Debussy, whose La mer might easily spring to mind. It's one long movement, about 35 minutes, beautifully coloured with clear, ambery orchestration, and it leaves you stirred, rather than shaken. Yet it wasn't wholly unfamiliar to me by the time I hopped on the train to Symphony Hall, because there are at least three versions of it available to listen to freely on Youtube and I'd availed myself of this. It's not impossible that that was why I didn't feel I had to concentrate on every bar, wondering what was coming next and whether or not it was a "great" piece, but instead I could simply enjoy the organic whole made by the music and painting together. I'm fond of ballet, as you know, and this is not so different. If you can watch dancing while enjoying the music, why not painting? The supposedly different mediums create one whole, a gesamtkunstwerk. So really, the notion that you can't concentrate on two things at once doesn't hold all that much sea-water.

And if it's not "great music", so what? It's a window into another corner of the musical world, a voice that is strong and pleasing. It's enjoyable, different and memorable, it broadens our experience and it makes us think. Is that not something worthwhile? Or does it have to be ...Beethoven 7 every single time? Look, you might not want to marry someone, but you can enjoy a conversation with him or her over a coffee, and even if you decide he's not your ideal date and you leave it there, you might hear something, learn something, have a laugh together. Social life would be pretty dull if you never just went for a cuppa with an occasional pal.

by Čiurlionis
The Virtual Reality exhibit in the foyer, incidentally, took things further still. It was essentially an animation of Čiurlionis's own paintings. It was tucked away in the foyer bar and it took me a while to find it, but then I had a go on it and it was gorgeous. You're absorbed into a magical world, a little bit like Nicholas Roerich's paintings, if more evanescent, even ineffable. Roerich, a mystical philosopher as well as artist, was the designer of the original Rite of Spring for Diaghilev and worked on the scenario with (or possibly for) Stravinsky, and I think he and Čiurlionis had much in common - or would have had if the unfortunate Čiurlionis had lived beyond the age of 35. Coming back to the reality of central Birmingham on a Saturday night (don't even ask) from being surrounded by fields of flowers and a boat ride along a glowing shore is a bit of a jolt. I hope this beautiful creation might be more widely available to view soon.

The natural end point of rejecting a piece of music because it's not 100% perfect is that you end up playing "Mornington Crescent" (the spoof game in the radio show I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue) with Beethoven 7. It goes like this. The Sea is not Strauss's Alpine Symphony. Why do The Sea when you can do the Alpine Symphony? But then, the Alpine Symphony is not regarded by some as a "great" work, but as an OK one by a composer who arguably did better with other pieces. Why do the Alpine Symphony when you can do Ein Heldenleben...yet again? But why do Strauss, then, when you can do Beethoven, who was greater than Strauss, the greatest of them all? Why do Ein Heldenleben when you can do...Beethoven 7?

The London Underground. Mornington Crescent is on the Northern Line (the black line) just north of the city centre.

Yes, all roads lead to Beethoven 7. And I love Beethoven 7 and I do think it's probably the best symphony ever composed. But I also have soft spots for about 3000 other pieces and would welcome, for instance, the chance to hear contemporary works like John Adams's Harmonielehre more often, let alone an occasional work by César Franck, André Messager or Lowell Liebermann - for any of which, guess where you mostly have to go? The ballet. (This season the Royal Ballet is doing both The Two Pigeons and Frankenstein, so you can hear Messager and Liebermann within a few weeks of each other.)

If you prefer to end every journey at Mornington Crescent, then by all means do - but now and then it really doesn't hurt to get off the train at Kennington instead and explore south of the river. If we only listened to the familiar and the "great", then we'd never hear anything we hadn't heard it before - and without new music, or indeed music that is new to us, the art form would just dry up and die. That Mornington Crescent lark could be fatal.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Visas for Life - a return to Lithuania

It is Lithuania's National Day today, and for the first time Symphony Hall, Birmingham, is to resound to The Sea by Mikolajus Čiurlionis, the CBSO conducted by Mirga Gražynitė-Tyla, with live-painted visual interpretations by Norman Perryman (see his recent guest post here). I'm going up to hear it. 

As Norman mentioned the other day, I have Lithuanian roots, or sort of. My ancestors were from a small town now called Skudas, where they lived for several centuries until pogroms in the late 19th century persuaded them to seek a new life on the other side of the world, when they fetched up in South Africa. I visited Lithuania for the first time 15 years ago, in 2004, when the violinist Philippe Graffin suggested I could come out to Vilnius to cover a world premiere that he and the violist Nobuko Imai were giving, of Vytautas Barkauskas's Duo Concertante, and do a spot of roots-finding while I was about it. This seemed like a good idea, especially as there was a heap of interest in Lithuania at that point, since the Baltic states had just joined the EU. I went - and wrote, and wrote. And found myself transformed, for press ticket purposes, into Dzesika Duciene.

Since today is today, I've been looking up some of the old articles I produced then and would like to offer you part of an extended piece I wrote for the Jewish Quarterly. 

It seems a long time ago and I am sure things have changed a lot in the intervening decade and a half.  So, please bear in mind that this article first appeared in 2004. And if you're at Symphony Hall tonight, do say hello.

Jessica Duchen

This is part of an article that first appeared in the Jewish Quarterly in 2004

The wide, lonely landscape sprawls beneath the plane, pine forests basking in Nordic evening sun that transforms the sky into an expanse of blazing gold. My heartstrings twang; my knees turn to water. I am going to Lithuania. I am the first member of my family to go to Lithuania in a hundred years. If everything had been different around 1904, then when we touch down in Vilnius, I might have been coming home.

I am visiting Lithuania not solely as a modern Jewish woman trying to find her roots, however, but specifically to attend the Vilnius Festival, which has commissioned a new work from one of the country’s leading composers, Vytautas Barkauskas. His Duo Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra is the substantial result. In it he has chosen to pay tribute to one of the most extraordinary figures of Lithuania’s Jewish history: Chiune Sugihara, Japanese consul in Kaunas in 1940, who took it upon himself to issue transit visas to save more than 6000 Jewish refugees from the Nazis, despite the censure of his government. 

Chiune Sugihara is recognised in the Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and his story is chronicled in several books, including one by his wife Yukiko, who encouraged his actions at every turn. But, compared to Oscar Schindler’s Spielberg-enhanced fame, Sugihara’s heroism has been significantly under-recognised, not least because during the long years of Soviet occupation in Lithuania, such matters were swept under the all-embracing USSR concrete carpet. Fourteen years after the country declared its independence, Vilnius’s legacy as the ‘Jerusalem of Lithuania’ has yet to be fully acknowledged by a populace that has grown up with little awareness of its city’s tragic past.

Vilnius: The Gates of Dawn
The Vilnius Festival, which has run for eight years, is a proud, ambitious event, featuring some of the biggest names in classical music – conductor Mstislav Rostropovich and violinist Gidon Kremer are regular visitors – as well as an annual commission which to date has included symphonies, ballets and an opera. Vilnius enjoys an extraordinarily vibrant cultural life: in this city of only half a million people, there are two symphony orchestras, a National Opera and Ballet Theatre that has staged ten new productions in just two years, two chamber orchestras, a thriving theatre and literary scene, a jazz festival and much more besides. As for historical figures, the artist Chaim Soutine was born in Vilna (as it was then known), while Marc Chagall first saw daylight in nearby Vitebsk. And the great violinist Jascha Heifetz too was born in Vilna and made his debut aged seven on the stage of the Filharmonja, a beautiful concert hall combining grandeur with intimacy, which today is the setting for most of the Vilnius Festival’s performances. 

Why should the Sugihara story find its musical tribute through Barkauskas, and why now? As with many of the best things in life, much can be attributed to sheer serendipity. Vytautas Barkauskas, at 72, is probably Lithuania’s most prolific composer, but until recently he has been known abroad mainly for his dazzling Partita for solo violin, a favourite recital piece of Gidon Kremer’s. The recipient last year of Lithuania’s prestigious National Prize for his Violin Concerto ‘Jeux’, Barkauskas has now found another champion in the musician to whom he dedicated ‘Jeux’, the French violinist Philippe Graffin, whose international career spans a large number of contemporary works as well as celebrated recordings of French music and unusual repertoire for Hyperion and Avie Records. Graffin has visited Vilnius a number of times and has grown ever more fascinated by its character, its heritage and its loss of that heritage. 

Nobuko Imai, Philippe Graffin and Vytautas Barkauskas
I’m intrigued by the fact that it was such a centre of Jewish culture and yet so much has been erased from its map,’ Graffin says. ‘The Communist era put a lid over that, but today it is opening up. As you walk through the old town, you can sense the presence of generations of children playing in every yard and the spirits of the vast numbers of people who were massacred. Those generations have left their feeling in the stones themselves – you sense that Vilna in its day was a melting pot like London or New York. I feel the absence of this very strongly.’

Barkauskas, having received the much-coveted National Prize, had the opportunity to provide the 2004 Vilnius Festival with its annual commission; he had already written a violin concerto and a work for viola and orchestra, so, as he explains, ‘I was happy to put the two instruments together. But the total is more than the sum of its parts. It offers many more interesting opportunities psychologically with many more possibilities – it is like a man and a woman together, exploring a loving relationship in many different ways.’ Graffin suggested as his fellow soloist the Japanese violist Nobuko Imai – and at once the Japanese connection with Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara presented itself as a driving force in the work’s development.

JD and Vytautas Barkauskas
Barkauskas welcomed the opportunity with open arms. ‘It was wonderful to write a piece dedicated to this man. Thousands of people were murdered during the Holocaust in Lithuania and he undertook an exceptionally humanitarian act. I had heard about Sugihara and his wife Yukiko who together had helped people to leave the country within just 29 days of applying for a visa – a visa for life. It was a great humanitarian act, showing great feeling, courage and understanding; his government had forbidden it and later destroyed his career because of it. At the time this happened, I was nine years old, living in Kaunas, and my father had been thrown into jail in the first week of the Russian occupation. My Duo Concertante is not programme music; it doesn’t tell the story of what happened. But in it I aim to recapture the feelings of those times, the emotions, the psychology. I too was a victim of the war, through the subsequent Soviet occupation, so to feel this humanitarian aspect is very natural to me. Writing the Duo Concertante has certainly helped me to work through the connection.’

Nobuko Imai, who travelled to eastern Europe for the first time to take part in the premiere, was overwhelmed by the experience. ‘I found people so welcoming and warm, especially Mr Barkauskas and his wife,’ she says. ‘In a way, there is still much of the “real Europe” alive in Lithuania; people are so genuine. The Duo Concertante is a very effective piece, but also I find it human, warm and profound. In the second movement, the song about the cherry trees – a song we all grow up knowing in Japan – is beautifully used. It could have been cheap and predictable, but instead it is treated with true depth. It is melancholy, nostalgic and always beautiful; and the motif returns again and again. It seems to speak of something eternal that keeps going across generation after generation. And the last movement finishes with a tremendous sense of positive energy.’

The final movement of the Duo Concertante, recorded live in the concert

Imai adds, ‘I’m sad to say that I knew very little about Sugihara before becoming involved in this project. I read the memoir by Yukiko Sugihara and I think that if I had read it earlier, it might have changed my life. I think it is vital to keep this story alive to inspire new generations – and there is no stronger way to do this than through music.’ 

Around 90 per cent of Vilna’s Jewish population perished during the Holocaust. On my third morning in Vilnius, I wended my way through the back streets to find the Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum. What I didn’t realise was that the museum is in two parts, one dedicated to the history of Vilna as the Jerusalem of Lithuania, the other to the Holocaust itself. I found myself, unintentionally, in the Holocaust division: an old wooden house, typically Baltic and painted deep green, tucked away behind a busy street. In front of it stands a sculpture that serves as a memorial to Sugihara; inside is preserved the full horror, in memorabilia, in yellow stars and armbands and in horrific pictures, of what became of the Jewish population of this extraordinary centre of culture and learning. The museum appears to run on a shoe-string and many of the captions have yet to be translated into any language beyond Russian. That morning I was the sole visitor, alone with the full recognition of what would have become of my ancestors had they not emigrated to South Africa at the beginning of the 20thcentury. 

Statue of the Vilna Gaon
A statue paying tribute to the Vilna Gaon, the legendary figurehead for the Jewish community in the 18thcentury, stands in an out-of-the-way corner of the old town beside some characterless Soviet office blocks and an empty patch of grass. Only an exploration of a map in the Jewish Museum reveals the reason for this memorial’s position: this was the site of the Great Synagogue, a magnificent building seating more than 3,000 people, razed by the Nazis and its remains subsequently flattened by the Soviets. Nothing is left to show that it ever existed.

So does a healing process still need to take place between modern-day Lithuania – with its brand new EU membership, Vilnius’s renovated Old Town gleaming with new paint thanks to the World Heritage Fund, its growing number of tourist coaches and souvenir shops selling amber and linen – and the history so long buried under the rubble of its 20th-century nightmare? 

The process is just beginning and in many ways one cannot be surprised that it is not the country’s first priority. Lithuania, and particularly Vilnius, is currently poised on a historical cusp, undergoing a tug of war between centuries and ideologies. Ironically, this was directly represented on the very night of the Duo Concertante’s premiere, 27 June, which coincided with the presidential election (the former president, Rolandas Paksas, having been dismissed from office after allegations of financial scandal). The victor, Valdas Adamkus, president from 1998 to 2003, represents the reforming force, though his pro-Moscow opponent Kazimira Prunskiene won much support. As the managing director of the Vilnius Festival, Ruta Pruseviciene, puts it, Vilnius itself is ‘a battleground between old and new, Russian and American, values and systems. Half the members of parliament play with Russian rules and the other half with western rules and they often find no common language at all!’

Local legend has it that Heifetz was born in this house
In the midst of such intense and turbulent years, some tribute is nevertheless being paid to Jascha Heifetz, whom Graffin describes as ‘the most famous and the most mysterious of violinists’. The house where Heifetz was born still stands amid an area ripe for redevelopment on a hillside outside the former ghetto area. No plaque has been raised to him on the house (I’m told there is one elsewhere), but local word-of-mouth seems to have established that this was indeed Heifetz’s first home. A more public tribute exists in the form of an international violin competition named after Heifetz, held for the first time in 2002, with Gidon Kremer as chairman of the jury. The competition will be held again next year. 

Sporadically, there have been wider-ranging events too. Gintautas Kevisas, artistic director of the Vilnius Festival and intendant of the National Opera and Ballet Theatre, in 2002 staged the first Festival of Jewish Art Music in Vilnius, in collaboration with Tel Aviv University and the Rubin Academy of Music. ‘I had no knowledge about this music, but I knew the festival needed to explore it more deeply than just whether Mahler or Mendelssohn had some Jewish roots,’ Kevisas says. 

But even Kevisas, who has long been a prime mover and shaker in Vilnius’s cultural life and was minister of culture for a year in 2001, had had little insight into Vilnius’s Jewish culture until then. ‘I was very much surprised when I looked deeper into Jewish culture and realised that Vilna had been the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” – then historical things happened and this changed. That’s life. Every nation suffered; we are a small nation and we suffered a lot.’ Kevisas trained as a pianist at the Moscow Conservatoire, ‘where I realised that Russians and Soviets were not the same thing at all. The nation that suffered the most in the 20thcentury was Russia – the biggest number of victims were Russian.’ This perspective is typical in Vilnius. As Ruta Pruseviciene says, ‘In the end, only time can heal.’ But the 2002 festival took an interesting standpoint, inviting contemporary Lithuanian composers to write with Jewish texts – to explore, says Pruseviciene, ‘their individual view of what Jewish cultural and religious thinking means to them’.

Anatolijus Šenderovas
For next year [2005], the Vilnius Festival is commissioning a new ballet score from the city’s only Jewish composer, Anatolijus Šenderovas; the story is based partly on the legend of the Dybbuk. Senderovas, who enjoys one of the strongest international profiles among Lithuanian composers, has written numerous works for the Lithuanian-born cellist David Geringas and composed the set piece for the first Jascha Heifetz International Violin Competition. Born in 1945, he grew up in Vilnius, where his parents settled shortly after the war. They settled in ‘a normal street’ with no idea that just two years earlier it had been part of the ghetto, nor any notion of the tragedy that had taken place there. 

Vilnius, however, was a relatively positive place to be a composer, Šenderovas points out. As the Soviet system had regarded music and culture as ideologically advantageous, plenty of money had gone into cultural life and also into education, notably a network of music schools and the Čiurlionis School for the Arts, at which many of the country’s gifted young musicians, artists and ballet dancers trained. Senderovas adds, ‘At the Conservatory, we had good professors and I also had the chance to study in St Petersburg with Orest Evlachov, who had been a pupil of Shostakovich – that was very important to me because everything Shostakovich had told him, he then told me.’ 

Šenderovas has written a number of works drawing intensely on Jewish themes and the Sephardic music that he was able to study in Tel Aviv following Lithuanian independence in 1990. But now, he says, the issue is not to be solely Jewish or solely Lithuanian, but to achieve something more universal. ‘If we say somebody is a Lithuanian composer or a Jewish composer, then maybe he’s quite good,’ he remarks. ‘But if someone is a real composer, we have to say he is a good composer, not a good Jewish composer! Somebody in the future will decide what I am – maybe Jewish, maybe Lithuanian, maybe both, maybe neither, but hopefully a composer.’ 

Geringas plays Šenderovas

Barkauskas, Šenderovas and Kevisas all see Lithuania’s new EU membership as a cultural step forward. ‘It is certainly easier for my works to be played abroad now,’ says Barkauskas. ‘In Soviet times, Vilnius was seen very much as a province; most of the privileged composers were in Moscow and St Petersburg and, from Lithuania, it was difficult to get works through the Composers’ Union, which was a very powerful organisation. My works became known through individual musicians who took them up and performed them, such as Gidon Kremer, rather than through the Union.’

‘Our cultural life in general will not change so much, because it was already at a very high level,’ says Senderovas. ‘What has become easier is to travel and to invite people from overseas. The choreographer for my new ballet is Italian – under the Soviet system, this would have been completely impossible. But now we can be constantly in touch.’ Kevisas feels that greater internationalism will enhance the quality of Lithuanian culture: ‘Now maybe we will not think only locally. The Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra or the National Opera and Ballet Theatre are already very good, but now they need not be thought of as primarily Lithuanian; instead they need to be thought of primarily as good! Quality is my priority. Now we can compete for the best quality of musicians and directors, and if we succeed then we can improve, with fresh ideas and new approaches.’ 

Barkauskas sums up the atmosphere today: ‘Fantastic! There is a whole new feeling – people are hopeful and happy. It’s like springtime.’ 

My thanks to the Jewish Quarterly for commissioning and publishing a longer version of this article in 2004

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Miracle at Milton Court?

Benjamin Grosvenor
Photo: Patrick Allen

Imagine for a moment that you are at, say, the Derby. It’s pretty good. But then in flies Pegasus, the mythical winged horse. What happens?

We need to talk about these rare moments of almost inexplicable magic in concerts, because unless I’m massively mistaken, that is one crucial factor that keeps us going to them. Perhaps you’ve witnessed one. Something happens. Some might say that a spirit descends. An atmosphere comes to surround us and we all sense it, musicians and audience alike, and we lose ourselves in it together. Welcome to Milton Court’s evening with the Doric String Quartet and pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, with a spot of Chopin...

An astonishing evening at Milton Court yesterday with Benjamin Grosvenor and the Doric String Quartet in the Chopin Piano Concerto No.1 and Fauré's Piano Quintet No.1. Here's the whole of my review for The Arts Desk (£).–-night-remember

Heads-up: Grosvenor and the Dorics are back in late May for the other Chopin concerto plus the Dvorák Piano Quintet in A major. Grosvenor gives a recital on 16 May at the Barbican.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Seeing is Believing: Norman Perryman paints the music

Last night I was describing the musical work of the painter Norman Perryman to some artistic friends who were young in the 1960s. "That's rock'n'roll!" they declared. It is. And it's also going to rock Symphony Hall Birmingham next Saturday, when Perryman and his projectors join the CBSO and Mirga Gražynitė-Tyla to perform The Sea by the composer and artist Mikolajus Čiurlionis, Lithuania's most celebrated artistic figure, one whose music is hardly ever heard in the UK – though Mirga, herself Lithuanian, is about to change all that. Čiurlionis's combination of musical and visual artistry makes him the perfect outlet for Perryman, who creates "kinetic painting" live in concert. 

Video trailer for Saturday from the CBSO:

As I have adored Norman's work for years, yet never before had the chance to see him in action in a top UK concert hall, I thought we should ask him for a guest blog. He has kindly provided one, so here it is. JD

A guest post by Norman Perryman

“What? Are you crazy? Have you ever done this before?” 

“Yes, for 45 years or so.”

For years, I’ve been trying to verbalize what I do – create a hybrid art-form of flowing colours and light in synch with the music. Unlike a framed static painting, this painting only exists in real time – for as long as the music lasts. Instead of using computer-generated images, I use my hands, as musicians do. My instrument is my paintbrush. I don’t just improvise. I memorize the score, mark it up with my choreography for brushstrokes and colours, then practise for months before the performance.

Rather than synthetic pixelated images, I prefer pure analogue fields of flowing colour that touch our emotions with their organic properties. When these watercolours are magnified with my overhead projectors onto a ten-metre wide screen as I paint, they acquire an other-worldly quality. But words fail me - seeing is believing.

Every day now in my studio, as I practise my lyrical expressionist painting for a performance of the symphonic poem The Sea, by Lithuania's national hero the painter/composer M.K.Čiurlionis (1875-1911), I feel deeply moved. By the end of this 35-minute piece I’m almost in tears, with a sense of having plumbed the depths of his “boundless longing” for a sublime mystical experience with Nature. After months of work, his music is in my blood, in my ears, day and night. I feel we know each other. It’s time now to show this to the world.

Widely regarded as one of the precursors of European modern art, Čiurlionis was steeped in the cultural philosophies of his day, in his case visualized in hundreds of paintings of mystic symbolic landscapes, seascapes and fantastic architecture. It would be totally inappropriate to try to imitate his paintings. Instead, I take my inspiration from his music to show in my own style of painting, how visual and emotional his music is. Had he lived longer, he might have become one of the early film composers, who knew how to underscore the drama of the movies. I myself underline the emotions of the music with my own movies of abstract lyrical images.  

I shall never forget the moment when two years ago the new Lithuanian CBSO Music Director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla flipped through one of my heavily marked-up scores and exclaimed: ”Aha… you paint the music!” Then, after 20 seconds fast-forwarding through a video-trailer of my Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, she looked at me very thoughtfully and said: “We must work together, with Čiurlionis”. The obvious choice for my fluid watercolours was The Sea.  I spent the following summer travelling in Lithuania, to soak myself in its rich culture and nature. I felt I was in the very heart of Europe. That visit and following studies played an essential part in my understanding of The Sea and of the amazing man who wrote it. 

How did it all start? As a Birmingham art-college student in the early 1950s, I couldn’t afford lunch, so my lunch-times were spent at free concerts given by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra just across the road in the Town Hall. I was wrestling with the choice of studying music or art. My compromise was to dedicate my life to finding a way of satisfying two passions, by bringing these art-forms together. Forty years later, it was the visionary Simon Rattle who recognized my ambition. He suggested working together with his CBSO and in 1993 BBC Television filmed the results in the documentary entitled Concerto for Paintbrush and Orchestra. Since then, after 25 years of performances worldwide, it feels like coming home to be back in Symphony Hall, this time via a pathway that led to Lithuania, of all places.

But I was also appalled with the realization of how tragic and complex the history of Lithuania is, despite having been the largest and one of the most prosperous countries in Europe. Many of us are ignorant of the significance of this tiny country and of the many cultural heroes it has produced. Did you know that Jascha Heifetz, Philip Glass, Bob Dylan, Sean Penn, Leonard Cohen and our celebrated author Jessica Duchen, to name just a few, all have Lithuanian roots? [another story, that - JD]

It’s been a long road, so this performance with Mirga and her CBSO in Birmingham Symphony Hall on 16  February, Lithuania’s Independence Day, is a huge milestone for me. I’m proud to play a modest part in the ongoing cultural renaissance of the city where I was born.

Norman Perryman

Norman Perryman is with the CBSO and Mirga Gražynitė-Tyla at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, on Saturday 16 February, 7pm. More info and booking here.

Saturday, February 09, 2019

Everything you wanted to know about the Russians, but were afraid to ask

Many years ago, in another century, in what feels like another lifetime (though was merely the 1990s) I used to edit a piano magazine. It was the UK's first independent piano magazine, named Classical Piano, and its creation, lifeblood and later eventual absorption into one of its fast-springing rivals is now ancient history. While there I published an article by a then-youthful Russian pianist, Rustem Hayroudinoff, about what the Russian School really means.

It was one of the most informative and interesting articles we ever ran, I think. So I was more than delighted to log on to Rustem's website and see that he has now revised the article and much expanded it, complete with all mod cons such as recordings from the likes of Rachmaninov, Chaliapin and Neuhaus, to name but three. Rustem is now a professor at the Royal Academy of Music and has made some stunning recordings himself, notably of Rachmaninov.

Here's a taster of the article: 

A great deal of confusion surrounds the term “The Russian Pianistic Tradition”. This phrase has been applied to any successful pianist coming out of Russia - often conjuring up images of fire-eating virtuosi scooping up competition prizes. And very often musicians with aesthetic principles as different as those of, for example, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Sviatoslav Richter are mentioned in the same breath as being representatives of the same “great Russian School”. To discover the true meaning of this term, I am going to look at some common features in the pianistic principles of several performers who belonged to this tradition.

Even the most superficial acquaintance with the recording legacy of pianists such as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Josef Lhevinne, Josef Hofmann, Vladimir Horowitz and Heinrich Neuhaus reveals that all of these pianists possessed an exquisitely beautiful tone. Their incredible achievements in this area were due to a very conscious cultivation of singing tone and colour on the piano, as the following quotations illustrate.

Josef Lhevinne dedicated a long chapter of his Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing to “the secret of a beautiful tone”, in which he explains how a “ringing, singing” tone is to be achieved: “The main principle at first is to see that the key is touched with as resilient a portion of the finger as possible, if a lovely, ringing, singing tone is desired ... Just a little further back in the first joint of the finger, you will notice that the cushion of flesh is apparently more elastic, less resistant, more springy. Strike the key with this portion of the finger, not on the fingertips as some of the older European methods suggested ...” 

He also emphasises the role that the free wrist and arm play in the production of a good tone: “... the wrist [is] still held very flexible so that the weight of the descending hand and arm carries the key down to key bottom, quite without any sensation of a blow.” And “... when the hand descends, as large a surface of the fingertip as feasible engages the key; and the wrist is so loose that it normally sinks below the level of the keyboard.” 

This last passage holds particular interest because it testifies to the fact that Horowitz’s famous flat finger-low wrist technique was not a mere oddity but an integral part of this same tradition which he took to its extreme in the pursuit of his ideal of a singing tone...

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Lupu's London farewell?

Radu Lupu in rehearsal.
Photo from New York Review of Books,

The chairs were out for the returns queue at the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday night. Word was spreading that this might be the last chance for London to hear Radu Lupu play. He has long preferred to avoid the capital's concert halls - whether because of iffy acoustics, acidic critics or other reasons I could not say - and an appearance with the Philharmonia Orchestra and conductor Paavo Järvi for Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto looked almost too good to be true. 

Lupu, 73, is tall and imposing on the platform, yet somewhat frail in gait and balance. His Beethoven came through in parts almost as a memory of the concerto. Yet the unique quality of his playing lies in the touch itself. It's the transparency of tone, the cushioned finesse of it, and the way he turns a phrase that, in a matter of a few notes, suggests a deep, empathetic humanity and a profound love for the music.

He uses a chair rather than a piano stool and sits at the keyboard almost as others might at a desk, as if making notes (in every sense, of course). He's thinking aloud with his hands. His playing is a form of writing, a direct channel from mind and spirit. And it is quiet, fabulously so. Rather than slamming out sounds to reach the back of the auditorium, he pulls the audience in towards him, forcing you to listen.

A few memory lapses were accompanied by a half-humorous dismissive gesture with one hand; and in the final movement's cadenza he wasn't above turning a pause into a joke, catching Järvi's eye as if to say 'OK, wait for it....' Järvi proved the perfect accompanist, deferring to Lupu but keeping everything gently on the rails, perhaps stoking up the orchestral energy if the solo line had wandered into the realms of introspection just before.

One hopes that the suggestion Lupu might be winding up his concert schedule this year is not true, but it wouldn't surprise me if it is. I'm sure I wasn't the only person present who listened to his exquisite encore of Brahms Op.117 No. 1 - the darkest of whispered lullabies - with a fearful lump in the throat.

(Please read this beautiful tribute to him by fellow pianist Kirill Gerstein, which appeared in the New York Review of Books for Lupu's 70th birthday.)

Järvi, having proved himself a master of managing energies, did so again in the second half, with a taut, glistening, impassioned account of the Rachmaninov Symphony No.2. It was the perfect cathartic finale for a rather emotional concert hall, and as an interpretation it had the glorious variety of a great epic narrative: the elemental fire of Tolstoy, the fantastical colours of Bulgakov and the aching passion of Chekhov. The Philharmonia played as if their lives depended on it.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Lupu is playing in London tonight

The legendary Romanian pianist Radu Lupu is performing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.4 at the RFH with the Philharmonia, conducted by Paavo Järvi. It's pretty much sold out. But Lupu does not play in London every night. In fact, he hardly ever plays in London. To say this is a rare sighting is not saying enough.

And before you ask, the answer is no, I haven't: he doesn't do interviews. The RFH website says he has not given a press interview for 30 years. The best I can offer you is that he used to play bridge with my former piano teacher back in the 1970s-80s; and I met him once backstage in Lucerne, where he was utterly charming, funny and kind.

All being well, I'll report back.

Enjoy this rare gem meanwhile:

Saturday, February 02, 2019

It was 20 years ago...

This morning I enjoyed a moment of quiet satisfaction, the kind known only to writers of rather obscure biographies. I glanced at my author page on Amazon, as I do about twice a year to see how the books are doing, and noticed something peculiar. My first book, about a then very unusual composer, was published in 1996. It used to have a princely 6 reviews. It now has 5.

It's gone. Yes! GONE! The abusive, mendacious, vicious one-star anonymous review that was the first I ever got on Amazon when it opened its "reader review" facility in 1999, is no longer there - after 20 years.

When that thing initially appeared, it was a heck of a shock - especially as it was pretty obvious to me who'd written it. After all, there was only a handful of people whom I'd told what I wanted the book to do, and who then might have had cause to go online and write an anonymous review saying that it didn't do exactly that. What is this, I thought. Anonymous reviewing? Isn't that just asking for trouble? Isn't it opening the door to all manner of revolting abuse? It makes a mockery of the whole concept of criticism...

In 1999, an abusive review was not a daily occurrence in thousands of writers' lives, but actual news. It was, indeed, such news that the Guardian interviewed me. They put in a photo of the 32-year-old me looking very grumpy (Me: "Do you want me to smile?" Photographer: "NO!") and I think it was Emma Brockes who wrote the feature, which was headed 'Trash your rivals and get away with it'. Then the Times called and asked, in a gentle, confiding tone, "As a matter of interest, who do you think it was?" I told them I wasn't going to say, in case I was wrong.

But that review sat there, and sat there, and sat there. Others appeared, seeming satisfied with the book, which was nice. But Mr One Star still crouched on the site like a sodding great spider, glaring at me with its compound eyes and eight spiky, hairy legs, and there was nothing on earth I could do about it.

Except now, it's gone. It has only taken 20 years.

I like to think about how different the world in general might be today if people had not had anonymity on the internet. Think about it. Just think about it.

Friday, February 01, 2019

Citizen of Nowhere, here

The revival of interest in Mieczyslaw Weinberg's music began with his opera The Passenger a few years back. But now, with the centenary of his birth falling in 2019, the floodgates have opened at last. Next season the Wigmore Hall is hosting a complete cycle of his string quartets. Mirga Grazynite-Tyla has brought his Symphony No.21 (the man was very prolific) to the CBSO this season and, along with Gidon Kremer, has been focusing much attention on him at Symphony Hall. And on Sunday the bass-baritone Mark Glanville and pianist Mark Verter are giving a concert devoted entirely to his songs at the Purcell Room here in London. It is entitled - poignantly and appositely - Citizen of Nowhere.

I went to interview Mark about it and you can read the full story in The JC. Below are some pertinent extracts. Meanwhile: please come and hear them!

The name of Mieczyslaw Weinberg was virtually unknown in western Europe until his opera The Passenger, set partly in Auschwitz, was staged for the first time at the 2010 Bregenz Festival. Since then, championed by prominent musicians across the world, Weinberg has finally made it onto the musical map. 

This prolific and powerful Polish Jewish composer left a vast legacy of music, including 22 symphonies, 17 string quartets, 40 film and animation scores, seven operas, copious miscellaneous instrumental and orchestral pieces, and more than 200 solo songs...

Glanville’s concert, pointedly entitled “Citizen of Nowhere”, is a journey through Weinberg’s long, turbulent life. “Obviously the title is a direct reference to Theresa May’s appalling declaration,” says Glanville (the Prime Minister said, “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere,” during a speech at the Conservative Party conference in 2016). “I felt strongly about that,” Glanville says. “It seems to evoke the ‘Rootless Cosmopolitan’ term of Stalin, which was obviously shorthand for ‘Jews’. But if you look at Weinberg’s life, he really was a Citizen of Nowhere...”

Rostropovich plays the amazing Weinberg Cello Concerto (part 1) - please, please listen to this

Weinberg was born in 1919 in Warsaw to Jewish parents from Kishinev (now in Moldova), who had fled after their own parents were slaughtered in the 1905 pogrom in that town. When the Nazis invaded Poland, Weinberg escaped to the Soviet Union: first to Minsk, then to faraway Tashkent. Both his parents and his sister were killed in the Trawniki camp. 

In Tashkent, to which many of Russia’s intellectuals and artistic community had been evacuated, Weinberg married the daughter of the celebrated actor Solomon Mikhoels, and met Dmitri Shostakovich, who became a close friend and urged him to move to Moscow. Weinberg did so in 1943. But in the so-called ‘Doctors’ Plot’ in February 1953, Mikhoels was murdered and Weinberg, as a close family member, found himself thrown into jail. “He was probably on death row,” says Glanville. “It was only because Stalin died that he was released.” 

Weinberg went on to live a long and fruitful life - he died as recently as 1996. Yet his fate was to remain a perpetual outsider. “The Poles never accepted him as Polish,” says Glanville. “In Russia, he was never Russian. And there is even a weird, bizarre, horrible reverse snobbery to do with the Holocaust and Jewish composers: if you survived, you’re not taken as seriously as the composers who died. It has possibly stood against him, a composer of such genius, that he survived.” 

Glanville has assembled a personal selection of what he sees as some of Weinberg’s very best songs. “To me, they knock Shostakovich’s songs out of the park,” he asserts. Among them are settings of the Polish-Jewish poet Julian Tuwim, the Hungarian poet Sándor Petőfi in Russian translation, and some harrowing pieces about the Holocaust. 

They are enormously challenging to perform, Glanville adds. “It’s very demanding music: I have to have a range of about two and a half octaves, because he writes huge stretches for the voice. The piano parts too are very difficult: he’s pushing you, as a musician, to the absolute limits of your ability. He will never compromise. He will write whatever needs to be written to say what he wants to say. He won’t spare you: you do what he needs to do. He has a very authentic voice and I think it’s insulting to see him, as some do, as a B-list Shostakovich. He’s not trying to be anyone but himself.” .....

Mark Glanville and Mark Verter perform Citizen of Nowhere: A Sung Life at the Purcell Room on 3 February. Booking: 020 3879 9555

Here is a conversation with Irina Shostakovich about Weinberg, from the International Weinberg Society, filmed in 2015: