Friday, March 29, 2019

It's International Piano Day!

So on 29 March 2019 something momentous was meant to happen, but it isn't - phew, at least for now - thank EU very much! And we can, instead, celebrate what is apparently International Piano Day. Here are a few of the pianists who helped me to fall in love with the piano as a child/teenager and were among the formative influences in how I think and write about it today. This is a tribute to them all.


I never heard Dame Myra Hess in person (I was born the year she died), but I became aware of her very early on. First of all, my mum's name was Myra too - unusual and 'clockable' when you are small - and there is something similar about their profiles. We lived in north London and used sometimes to go for walks on the Hampstead Heath Extension. There was a blue plaque to Hess on her house in Wildwood Road and we always used to try to park outside it. Later, of course, I heard all about her National Gallery concerts during World War II, which was enormously inspiring. But above all, the quality of her artistry shines from every note. 


The first piano recital I ever attended was by this eminent Hungarian pianist at the Royal Festival Hall. He played the complete Chopin waltzes (I expect he'd just released this recording) and I do remember that I had a beastly cold and having quite a to-do with my mother over nose drops before the concert began. Vásáry must have done something right because these gorgeous pieces have been close to my heart ever since. 


My father adored Brahms. He'd sit and compare different recordings of the symphonies for fun on a Sunday afternoon. And he had a big box on LP of the complete piano music, played by Julius Katchen. When cassettes were invented, he transferred all the LPs onto them and we'd have them on in the car on long drives during holidays. I can still see the countryside bowling by as I listened to this dusky, rich-toned Hungarian dance, which seemed to capture a whole world of which I then knew nothing, but have been chasing ever since.


We knew him first as pianist of the glorious Beaux Arts Trio. A force of nature, his playing filled with  bounce, light, life and love, Pressler brought his unique touch and irrepressible charm to chamber music repertoire that in his hands seemed the best thing in the world - and still does. What a wonderful way to get to know the Schubert Trios, Dvorák's Dumky, and even the Korngold. I longed (as a seriously fed-up university student in Cambridge) to go and study with him in Bloomington, Indiana, but I never had the courage to try. And he's still going strong at 95. I interviewed him when he was 82 and asked if he never thought of retiring. "Why would I want to play golf when I can play Beethoven?" he said.


The first time we heard Zimerman in concert was at the Royal Festival Hall on 8 June 1981. He was very young, though already an international superstar, and he played Brahms's Sonata No.3 in F minor, the Chopin G minor Ballade and the 'Funeral March' Sonata. I will never, ever forget it because that was the day I realised that a piano was much, much more than a musical instrument. It was a whole world. A universe was unlocked in my brain by the magic of his playing. I hope he will forgive me for using this video today.


After hearing Zimerman I started taking the piano more seriously and worked much harder at it. At 16 I went for the first time to the Dartington International Summer School - my school friend Laura Roberts (who now teaches at Guildhall) had been there the year before, adored it and persuaded me to go there with her. We both auditioned for a rising star Hungarian pianist named András Schiff, who was about 28 at the time and flamed through Dartington setting everyone alight with his vivid, beautiful, radical Bach playing. It was the era when on one hand you were supposed to do What's In The Score and nothing else, so people were sometimes puzzled when András produced notes inégales or changed the register of a Goldberg Variation on a repeat, but this was actually authentic performance practice. On the other hand, you weren't supposed to play Bach on the modern piano... One way or another I astonished myself by actually being accepted for the class and I played a Schubert impromptu, quaking in my summer sandals... Above, a more recent class in which he coaches the splendid Martin James Bartlett on another impromptu from the same set, and years may have passed, and Martin wasn't yet born when I went to Dartington, but the maestro isn't really so different.


The following year I went back to Dartington and got into Imogen Cooper's masterclass. This time I played some Beethoven and totally mucked it up and was really, really upset afterwards and went off into the gardens to have a howl, as one does. Imogen came along later and found me; she gave me a very sweet, understanding pep talk. She was always a vast inspiration - again, like Hess and Schiff, for the purity of her sound, her values and her depth of artistic understanding, and watching all of this deepening and expanding more and still more has been one of the great joys in my past 35 years. We can be very glad that Chandos has recorded her extensively. Above, she talks about beloved Schumann.

Well, one could go on and on about this and add Rubinstein, Barenboim, Ashkenazy and Anthony Goldstone (a great favourite of my mum's). We could add Arrau, whom I was lucky enough to hear twice in concert, and Richter, who I nearly met but didn't, though spent an hour in the same house in another room, and Fou Ts'ong, and the incredible Rosalyn Tureck. But I have to go out and catch a train as a very dear friend has just flown into town from New York. 

Remember: whatever happens this afternoon and in two weeks' time or next year, we are all citizens of music if we want to be.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

A tale of two parties

No, not those parties. These are Baron Zeta's embassy ball, and Hanna Glawari's glamour-trip do. We're in Paris and we're at a different party in each act of The Merry Widow, where the filthy-rich Hanna, having inherited millions from her deceased spouse, is the target of Baron Zeta's determination to marry her off to a fellow countryman to bolster the national economy of their homeland, Pontevedro.

A moment of magic: Sarah Tynan as Hanna sings 'Vilja' from the moon.
All photos from ENO (c) Clive Barda

The great thing about operetta is that it is "light". But the trouble with operetta is that it has to be "light", otherwise it becomes heavy and goes clunk. Treat its subject matter with too much earnestness and it can be a total disaster. But what is "light"?

It's in the music, it's in the drama, it's in the touch. It's in the teasing out of meaning, rather than the hammer-head of fate. It's in the quality of projection, the creation of imagery, the flexibility and, most elusively, that strange old-fashioned thing called charm. It makes you laugh, but not without occasionally raising a tear to the eye. There's farce or fantasy, madcap humour and melodies to go mad about. There are home truths, but happy endings. Mostly nobody dies. And, as remarked my companion for the evening - a friend and colleague who knows his central Europe inside out - it's like goulash: there's no one recipe. Anyone who's ever tried will tell you that comedy is far and away the most difficult genre to pull off - whether you're writing, or filming, or staging opera/operetta.

Maybe, then, it's no wonder that a trip to The Merry Widow at English National Opera is a rare experience. We all know the waltz tune, but Franz Lehár's best-known work doesn't often make it to the stage in the UK, let alone in English. This version, with English new book by April de Angelis (Flight) and lyrics by Richard Thomas (Jerry Springer: The Opera), looked enticing and promised much.

How does it match up? Musically, pretty well - though the Overture seemed a strange mash-up of The Best of the Merry Widow, rather than Lehár's original. Still, Kristiina Poska's conducting maintained a pleasing spring in the step, bowling-along momentum and some nice Viennese-style rubato. The cast's voices suited the roles and the music. Sarah Tynan's girlish high soprano was well chosen, precise and biting, with a beautifully plaintive 'Vilja' song delivered from the crescent moon. Nathan Gunn was clear-spoken and world-weary as Danilo and the supporting acts of Rhian Lois, Robert Murray and Andrew Shore as respectively Valencienne, Camille and Baron Zeta pulled off their multiple shenanigans with terrific aplomb.

Go with the flow...
Max Webster's staging had its ups and downs. The splendour and romance of Hanna's party, with that dangling moon, was hard to resist, but act I, taking place inside a stage-within-a-stage that was occupied mostly by a sweeping staircase, felt a bit cramped. The major weakness, though, was one-dimensional characters; Hanna herself, "common as muck", as she's described in this version, is also hard as nails and veers all the way from vampily taunting the predatory men about their obsession with her money to... vampily taunting the predatory men about their obsession with her money. Tynan certainly looks the part in a svelte silver gown, but the character proved oddly hard to care about; when she suddenly deduces that "he loves only me" it comes as a bit of a surprise that she's even interested. Gunn's Danilo was, well, a good match. Their relationship seemed as shallow as both of them, beyond a vague old-flame frisson. These two deserved each other.

And the translation? Sassy and modern, yes: the women get the upper hand, the men are baffled and buffeted. Sideswipes at the present political situation hit home, notably when it's pointed out that the trouble with being Pontevedran is that you're from a country with no natural resources, no manufacturing industry and with whom nobody would want to do business, and that risks being annexed by Lichtenstein. But the highlight was the men's song at their row of urinals, wondering how on earth the women took control ("Go with the flow!"). Last time I heard an English version of this, it was all about "Girls, girls, girls, girls, giiiirls", so a radical rethink was somewhat refreshing. Besides, the words were not only quick, catchy and clever, but they actually worked with the music.

That wasn't always the case elsewhere. Not that this was likely to be a smooth run. I've done some pieces myself that involved fitting new words to existing music, and it's a challenge. You have to make sure you do go with the flow - the shape of the phrases, the open vowels, the way the stresses fall naturally - but when the sound of the original language can be so much a part of the music itself (and it is - others will say it isn't, but in most cases it really, really is), you're almost doomed before you start. Still. One example. You know that waltz tune? The three falling notes at the end of the phrases? Here they sang: "I'll miss you." It comes out with the music as "I'LL miss YOU," though the natural flow of these words, though is "I'll MISS you." Try saying it aloud: it's the shape and impact of the syllables themselves...

There's a lot to be said for sassy, modern and up to date. But it means - perhaps inevitably - replacing charm with cynicism. And without charm, the whole thing risks missing the mark. You can take Lehár out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but you can't take the...oh.

I kid you not.

A quick word, to close, about the beavers, national symbol of Montevedro... You first encounter them in the foyer - gold ones - and then on stage. And you think perhaps the metaphor/pun is going to become something more risqué, but actually it doesn't, so the gag falls a little bit flat... Except that then two beavers appear at Hanna's party and, um, they tap-dance, accompanied by a gaudy array of moustachioed acrobatic strongmen and party-frocked prancers (see above). At which point, my companion remarked: "Actually, this is very like Romanian late-night TV." To which I can't really add anything at all.

Here's a little treat: the original Merry Widow, Mizzi Günther, singing 'Vilma', recorded in 1906.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

En marche

We do.

Plenty of us were there, too.

Cheers to everyone who marched yesterday, using our democratic right to peaceful protest. And with a turnout of an estimated 1.8m, don't forget that each of us were also representing those who couldn't make it due to work, rehearsals, family and other commitments, but were there in spirit and asked us to remember them there. I had at least 10 requests to "march for me".

Who knows if it will make any difference - but that is no reason not to try.

Similarly, if you haven't yet signed the Revoke Article 50 petition - which at time of writing is just short of 5m - please do so here.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

"A gaping hole in the heart of British choral music"

I don't think I'm the only person who's currently so cheesed off with the behaviour of our dear country on the international stage that I've been feeling disinclined to listen to any British music. This is not good. Brexit isn't the fault of our composers - anything but. Therefore I'm making an effort to get back to them and I've asked William Vann to write us a guest post about Hubert Parry's oratorio Judith, which he is conducting at the London English Song Festival at the Royal Festival Hall on 3 April, no matter what happens on 29 March. He tells me this will be the work's first airing in London since the 19th century and that its neglect seems to him to be "a gaping hole in the heart of British choral music". Nevertheless, you might find some of it sounds familiar...

Please read on, have a listen and (unless you're in Great Malvern that night for the Schumann Violin Concerto) do give the concert a whirl. If you can't make it, watch out for the recording in due course. JD

‘It is the offspring not only of a finished musician but of a cultivated thinker. For such a possession art is the better and England the richer.’ Charles Villiers Stanford writing on Judith, 1888.

Hubert Parry,
younger than we usually think of him
2018, the year of the centenary of his death, saw a widespread reawakening of interest in the music of Hubert Parry, including the release of three discs of his complete English Lyrics on SOMM Recordings. Yet, particularly in the world of choral music, many of his large-scale works were overlooked in favour of well-known classics, such as the Songs of FarewellBlest Pair of Sirens, or I Was Glad.

The London English Song Festival’s performance of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s oratorio Judith on 3 April promises to be one of the most important revivals of English music for many years. A work of considerable stature and irresistible quality, Judith has not been performed in the UK since the 1950s; in London its last performance was at St James’s Hall in 1889 - 130 years ago! It has never been recorded. Parry was the master of large choral and orchestral forces, and Judith features spine-tingling choruses and a dramatic story. It was an overwhelming success in Victorian England, performed by some of that era’s greatest musicians all over the UK, and it contains the melody that later, under the name Repton, became the famous hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.

George Grove appointed Parry as the Royal College of Music’s professor of composition and musical history in 1883, and he was finally able to put his unhappy career in insurance (he had been underwriter at Lloyd's of London from 1870 to 1877) behind him. The 1880s was a decade when he emerged as a composer of stature, with a reputation as a symphonist and as writer of choral music. His dramatic cantata, Scenes from Prometheus Unbound, had been performed at the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival of 1880 and he was again commissioned to write a short choral work for the Gloucester festival in 1883. Blest Pair of Sirens of 1886, setting Milton’s ‘At a solemn musick’ was commissioned by Stanford and the London Bach Choir to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and was received with adulation by the public and critics alike.

Shortly afterwards, Parry was commissioned by the great triennial festival at Birmingham to write  a large-scale oratorio. Extensive choral participation was part of the brief: the Birmingham committee insisted on, as Parry put it, ‘regular oratorio’, and after much thought he settled on the dramatic story of Judith during the reign of the repentant Jewish king, Manasseh. After some wrangling with the Birmingham committee, Judith was performed on 29 August under the direction of the festival conductor, Hans Richter.

Parry's new oratorio was well received and was soon taken up by choral societies around Britain, notably in Edinburgh, London, Cambridge, Gloucester, Bristol and Oxford. The work contains many impressive choral movements, particularly in such numbers as ‘Our king is come again’ and the final fugue (‘Put off, O Jerusalem’) and the solo work is thrilling. The hymn tune Repton originated in the ballad of Meshullemeth, the queen-mother (‘Long since in Egypt’s plenteous land’), who sings of the early Israelite history to her children.

It seems that Judith fell out of favour and fashion, along with much of Parry’s music, after his death. The next generation of composers took British classical music in a new direction: no bad thing, but with hindsight it was a pity that much of the finest of late 19th century music was discarded. The more I studied the score, playing through sections of choruses and arias with groups of singers, the more I grew to regard the neglect of this work as a gaping hole in the heart of British choral music.

And so, on Wednesday 3 April 2019, at Royal Festival Hall (an organ is crucial to a full performance!), Judith will receive its first London performance since the 19th century and its first UK performance within living memory. The soloists will be Sarah Fox as Judith (she features on discs 2 & 3 of the SOMM English Lyrics, as it happens), Kathryn Rudge as Meshullemeth, Toby Spence as Manasseh and Henry Waddington as High Priest of Moloch & Messenger of Holofernes. We will go on to record it for Chandos Records later in the month. I am thrilled to be conducting the four of them alongside the London Mozart Players, Crouch End Festival Chorus and a superb chorus of children, specially selected for the occasion. Join us!

William Vann

[Heard this tune somewhere before?]

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Korngold dream sequence...

Guys, guys...wait...what.....

So, here we go. Jonas Kaufmann is singing the role of Paul in Korngold's Die tote Stadt at the Bavarian State Opera, starting on 18 November. And Kirill Petrenko is conducting, and Marlis Petersen is Marietta and if the announcement on Twitter hadn't been accompanied by a slightly worrying cartoon, I'd have fallen off the proverbial chair. One has of course been hoping for years that Kaufmann might do this. (One might even have mentioned such a hope when interviewing him five years ago, just in case - if he was already thinking about it by then, the cards were not revealed.) But gosh, I hope I'm not dreaming.

This video introducing the production suggests that director Simon Stone could well do it proud. (And indeed - update - a Die tote Stadt fan on Twitter tells me he has attended Stone's production in Basel and that it was "the best I've ever seen".) "We must go through the dark times so that we can see the light again," Stone says. "That's what's so great about the piece." Kaufmann meanwhile points out that the work contains just about everything that happened in opera between 1850 and 1950, which makes it "pretty difficult".

This opera, with its extended dream sequence, has in the past been an occasional magnet for 'dirctoritis': I've never quite recovered from witnessing Olaf Bär having to sing the Pierrot Tanzlied dressed in a black basque, angel wings and high heels. It's a work with a lot of heart and a lot of heartbreak; it carries a strong message about love and loss that was all too pertinent in the wake of World War I when the opera was premiered. That was, I'm convinced, one reason for its extreme popularity in the inter-war years - though its generous, atmospheric score and powerhouse roles for the lead singers might just explain something too. 

Speaking of dreams, yesterday I logged on to the Deutsche Oper Berlin site to see if they were doing their hugely successful production of Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane again, and it suggested to me that they were, in late April and early May, and I even checked T's calendar to see if he'd be free to go and see any of the performances together, and he wasn't. Then I checked back later - only to find it had completely disappeared. Dream sequence again (or just last year's website)? At least that production is due out on DVD in May. Pre-ordering is available, even if tickets are not. 

Meanwhile in the US, the whole of the Bard Festival is built around Korngold this summer. Not least among the treats on offer will be the US staged premiere of Das Wunder der Heliane, conducted by the marvellous Leon Botstein. The festival also contains a concert performance of Die tote Stadt, a rare performance of the Piano Concerto for Left Hand, the Piano Quintet, the Symphony in F sharp, the Passover Psalm and much, much more. Music by Korngold's contemporaries, peers and mentors sets the context, spanning the worlds from Heliane to Hollywood with much in between.

Korngold now has what he has needed the most: top-level international advocacy. With Leon Botstein at Bard, Kaufmann, Petersen and Petrenko in Munich and Christoph Loy in charge of Heliane in Berlin, there's no doubt about the take-up, the appeal and the power. But there's only one thing missing: a real presence in the UK's opera world. One staged production of Die tote Stadt has come to Covent Garden, ever, many years ago. And that was that - which is frankly nuts. Perhaps Korngold is perceived as too European for one lot of Brits and too American for the others. It's time this changed. Thxbi >books plane to Munich<. 

Friday, March 15, 2019

Sarastro gets a sympathy laugh

Wow! Thomas Oliemans as Papageno.
(All photos courtesy of ENO, (c) Donald Cooper)

It's not every day that Sarastro announces "This is the most important assembly we've ever held - the decision we are about to make is of grave importance" - only to find half the audience giving him a belly-laugh. But then, it's not every day that The Magic Flute feels so relevant to our needs that the whole of the House of Commons should be frogmarched into the Coliseum and made to study every word of it. This Magic Flute has got...bells.

ENO's production by Simon McBurney is back for another revival, and gosh, it's just better and better: the storytelling could not be clearer, nor the inventiveness, nor the meaning. In Mozart and Schikaneder's Enlightenment fairytale, wisdom, truth and love battle against the forces of darkness – lies, ignorance, superstition, vengeance, violence. (Sounds familiar?) And the forces of good triumph. (Yes!) Along the way, in their quest, the young couple Tamino and Pamina are tested to their limits, and protected by their steadfast devotion to each other and the power of their music. (Double yes!)

The Magic Flute in person, with attendant bird action
The ingenious designs by Michael Levine turn the spines of books into pillars of the temple of wisdom, and Papageno's birds are their fluttering, faithful leaves. Wisdom, enlightenment itself, comes through studiousness, learning, books, self-discipline, the embrace of art and culture. The transformative effect of music saves Tamino and Pamina's lives and Papageno's too. There is something uniquely moving about a work by one of the greatest musical geniuses who ever lived that pays such a direct tribute to the art to which he devoted his short life.

The Magic Flute is open to infinite numbers of interpretation and reinterpretation, but McBurney's is the only production I've seen in which the emotional climax - the tests of Fire and Water - actually are frightening: an extended, roaring engulfment of flames followed by a magical flood in which Tamino and Pamina must swim for the spiralling surface. There's magic and whimsy aplenty - the sets are live-drawn, the sound-effects produced by a Foley artist in real time (she even has to dodge the attentions of Papageno), and the prince and Papageno are respectively attended by the orchestra's flautist and keyboard player, trotting up from the pit when needed - until Papageno learns to play his own bells.

Rupert Charlesworth (Tamino) and Lucy Crowe (Pamina) swim for their lives
For this revival the musical performance is a little uneven, but chiefly splendid: Lucy Crowe's Pamina brought a blazing emotional gravitas, Thomas Olieman's Papageno a grumpy yet irresistible charm. Brindley Sherratt's Sarastro simply couldn't be bettered (and, um, I think he was speaking those crucial lines perhaps not 100% "in character" which, under the circumstances, is fine with me). Julia Bauer's Queen of the Night delivered her arias with a concentrated punch of energy, making up in scariness for anything lacking in projection. Rupert Charlesworth as Tamino was slightly the opposite, with a powerful tone that nevertheless did not fully bloom into the sort of open generosity one might long for at the top. The Three Ladies had luxury casting in Susanna Hurrell, Samantha Price and Katie Stevenson, Daniel Norman was a splendid Monostatos and Rowan Pierce's Papagena so appealing that you'd wish her to have a great deal more to sing.

Ben Gernon's conducting felt a little hard-driven and businesslike, at least in the first half; there was sometimes too little space for the music to breathe and it seemed to lack the sense of lightness and air that can add the final touch of Mozartian warmth; but in the second half, Papageno's high comedy with the tuned wine bottles and Lucy Crowe's heartbreak aria oddly enough sorted things out as if simply through the power of Mozart himself. And the upside of the briskness is that the drama does bowl along, keeping you on the edge of your seat all the way through.

The performance was dedicated - as McBurney announced at the end - to the memory of its translator, Stephen Jeffreys, who died last autumn. His English version sparkles and twists and shines.

And did we come out of the Coliseum to find that wisdom had prevailed down the road in Westminster? Not quite - and yet, there's progress. Perhaps a parliament trip to this show might help them put the final pieces into place to save us all from the forces of darkness...

Go see. You'll laugh and cry.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Just a little encore by Hamelin...

We're possibly entering a new golden age of the composer-pianist, methinks.

Stupendous recital by one of the very finest, Marc-André Hamelin, at the Wigmore Hall the other night. It included (among much else) one of the most beautiful and emotionally devastating accounts of the Schumann Fantasie that I can remember, plus a goodly number of encores, one of which was Hamelin's own Toccata on L'Homme Armé. This wild and wonderful creation was commissioned by the Van Cliburn Competition for the 2017 competitors to play as a set piece.

Some of us trotted backstage to say hello afterwards and I couldn't help remarking that I would have liked to see the competitors' faces when they opened up that score for the first time. "Oh," said the ever-modest Marc, "it's not really that difficult..."

Have a listen, above.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Crossing the line of dreams

Roxanna Panufnik and I have been working on our first collaboration since Silver Birch. It's being premiered this week in Baltimore under the joint batons of Marin Alsop and Valentina Peleggi. Yes, both of them. It's for double choir, double orchestra and two conductors. And it is about two powerful women (by which I don't mean either them or us, at least not first of all...).

Harriet Tubman
source: National Geographic
Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, India, and Harriet Tubman, who saved hundreds from slavery in America before, during and after the Civil War, obviously never met in real life. But they were near-contemporaries and both gave their lives to the cause of freedom for their people. Harriet Tubman lived to a ripe old age and was venerated as 'Moses'. Rani Lakshmibai was killed in battle at the age of 29. The Rani has recently been the subject of a major biopic, but we wrote this piece before we knew about that. Harriet Tubman's previous musical incarnations include a whole opera by the wonderful Thea Musgrave, which is long overdue for a revival or three.

Rani Lakshmibai
Source: Real Bharat
The piece is called Across the Line of Dreams and you can hear it in three concerts on 14, 15 and 16 March, the first in the Music Center at Strathmore, the other two at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is joined by the University of Maryland Concert Choir. More info and booking here.

Here is an introduction to the piece, which Roxanna and I have written for the programme. We hope you'll enjoy this extraordinary dream meeting...

ACROSS THE LINE OF DREAMS – Celebrating Harriet Tubman & Rani Lakshmibai
Words: Jessica Duchen (JD)                      Music: Roxanna Panufnik (RP)

JD: In Across the Line of Dreams, two choirs with two conductors tell the stories of two extraordinary women who gave everything to save their people.

Harriet Tubman and Rani Lakshmibai came from opposite sides of the world and, of course, never met - but they had more in common than you might think. 

Both were born in the 1820s. Each decided to fight for her people’s freedom. Each underwent a change of name, symbolising a new, altered state of being. Each held fast to her faith. And each risked her life for a cause greater than herself. Both have passed into the realms of legend.

RP: Each heroine is represented by one conductor, one choir and half of the orchestra – Harriet has woodwinds, brass and percussion and Lakshmibai is accompanied by harp, piano and strings.

JD: Born Araminta (‘Minty’) Ross in Dorchester County, Maryland, around 1822, Harriet Tubman fled slavery in 1849 and became active in the ‘underground railroad’, a network that aided the escape of slaves from the deep south of the US, via which she helped to rescue dozens. Having taken her husband John Tubman’s surname, she adopted her mother’s first name to reinvent herself. She was nicknamed ‘Moses’ for leading her people to freedom. She died in 1913 aged about 90. 

RP: Harriet was fervently Christian, so some of her music has a hymn-like quality with a drone figuration often heard in spirituals. Not much is known about her ancestry, but it is believed that her maternal grandmother, Modesty, was brought to the US on a slave ship from West Africa and was thought to be of the Asante (a.k.a. Ashanti) tribe, who came from Ghana. Therefore I’ve used Ghanaian drum patterns to drive her music. While researching Asante music, I came across Joseph S. Kaminski’s excellent book Asante Ntahera Trumpets in Ghana– in it, he has transcribed a signature motif, from Asantehene’s mmentia musicians“Atoto wore sane” which means: “We are removing the knot”. This refers to a legendry knot that could only be untied by the true ruler, yet can also describe Harriet’s brave missions. 

Manikarnika in childhood
Source: Real Bharat
JD: Rani Lakshmibai was born Manikarnika Tambe in Varanasi, by the Ganges, in 1828. Married off to the Rani of the princely state of Jhansi, she took the crown after her husband’s death. Their only child died in infancy, after which she adopted a young boy, Damodar, intending him to inherit her throne. The controlling British East India Company refused to recognise him as heir and attempted to exile Lakshmibai. When a major rebellion took place against the British in 1857, and was horribly crushed, she led her forces into battle herself. She died of her wounds, aged only 29. A British officer paid tribute to Lakshmibai after her death, terming her “the bravest and the best”. 

RP: There is a famous lament “Babul Mora” about Lakshmibai, written by the Nawab of Lucknow, after the battle in which she lost her life. It mourns her leaving her family and all she knows behind, as she is taken away to be married to Gangadhar Rao, and it now exists in many versions. It was originally written in the Bhairavi mode, with which I have created my own lament. I have also composed my own “Powada” – a popular heroic or military ballad, which was used to eulogize heroic leaders. Again there are many examples of this form, but a common musical thread is a declamatory delivery of repeated singenotes, followed by a descending scale (for which I’ve used the Bhairav, Purvi and Ãsãvan modes). We finish, at the end of Lakshmibai’s life, with a return to the Bhairavi lament.

JD: Across the Line of Dreamsis in three parts. The first section is devoted to Harriet Tubman. There follows a contrasting episode telling the story of Rani Lakshmibai. Finally we imagine a dialogue showing the two women’s similarities, differences and inspirational natures. 

RP: This is where the two conductors come to the fore – Harriet’s music is in 4 and Lakshmibai’s simultaneously in 5. I was determined that while these two women retained their unique musical identities, they would merge to create a driving energy.

RP: I am deeply grateful to Joseph Kaminski for allowing me to use his transcription of “Atoto wore sane” and to the Asantehene who, through Kaminski, authorized the use of this chant for educational and artistic purposes. Also to Justin Scarimbolo for 19thcentury Indian music, Richard Williams & Richard Widdess for their introduction to Powadas and James Gardner for trying, heroically, to teach me Ghanaian drumming. Thank you, most of all, to Marin Alsop and Valentina Peleggi for commissioning the work, along with Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Jessica and I have loved every step of this process.
JD & RP, 11thDecember 2018

Friday, March 08, 2019

In praise of IWD

It's International Women's Day, and you know it. You couldn't not know it, really. The astonishing thing is that ten years ago, you wouldn't have. The annual event on 8 March has rocketed in public consciousness, becoming a calendar landmark in a few short years, chiefly thanks to a certain number of people making a great deal of noise about it and programmers in crucial places looking on and thinking "Y'know something? They're right. Let's do this."

It's especially so in the music world, where the chance to make restitution for centuries of neglect and, frankly, the squishing of women artists has been embraced by concert halls, broadcasters, conservatoires and more.

You'll find fantastic things happening today everywhere - but IWD has become, hearteningly, about far more than just one day. BBC Radio 3 has a week of celebration and an all-female schedule of composers today. The conservatoire Trinity Laban is running its Venus Blazing programme all year, putting music by female composers in the spotlight, and a special lunchtime concert today features, amongst much else, Errollyn Wallen singing some of her own songs. At the Southbank there's the annual Women of the World festival, and at Kings Place Venus Unwrapped is a splendid series running the length of the season with a series of marvellously and meticulously programmed concerts highlighting music by women. The seriously buzzing trade fair Classical:NEXT is themed around women in music this year and its innovation award is devoted to this field - come to Rotterdam in May if you can. There are Clara Schumann festivals galore: Classical:NEXT has homed in on her bicentenary, and there's plenty to hear in London and a festival in Leipzig in September just for starters. Conductors are on the rise at last, perhaps fighting an even more difficult battle, but again with key decision-makers thinking: "Y'know something? They're right. Let's do this." One result is the marvellous work of the Royal Philharmonic Society's RPS Women Conductors training and similar programmes springing up around the world, from the Southbank (with Marin Alsop) to France to Texas.

I could go on, but you get the idea. This stuff is happening, so strongly, when ten years ago it wasn't. Things have changed. Things can change further. Things will change further. And in an era when so much around us is being changed for the worse, in political terms, it is more heartening than ever to see positive developments in the artistic world.

And it makes sense. In 2019 gender equality should be simply a no-brainer. We may deplore the fact that it's taken so long to happen, but now there's no excuse for it not to - and every chance to celebrate. In the end, with more music and more artistry to develop and enjoy, it enriches everybody, regardless of gender.

Brava bravissima to all!

Here are four of my top choices to listen to today. I've gone for historical figures this time, just to show that there's a massive hinterland of super music to explore...

GRAŻYNA BACEWICZ: Concerto for String Orchestra

Tasmin Little and John Lenehan's new recording of violin masterworks - just out on Chandos.

World premiere recording of Viardot's operetta on a libretto by Ivan Turgenev - yes really, at long last, with an all-star cast - Eric Owens, Jamie Barton, Camille Zamora, Michael Slattery... I jumped for joy when I saw this one!

The legendary Russian pianist and friend of Shostakovich was a heck of a good composer in her own right, but who knew? Here she is playing three of her own Etudes.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

FS Kelly: a lost genius?

When I was working on Ghost Variations, one of the most rewarding - and moving - discoveries was the music of Frederick Septimus Kelly (1881-1916): Australian composer, pupil of Donald Francis Tovey, Olympic rowing gold medallist of 1908. He was tragically killed in the Battle of the Somme, having survived the horrors of Gallipoli. Jelly d'Arányi, our violinist heroine, was in love with him and kept his picture on her piano for the rest of her life. There's not much evidence that he returned her feelings, beyond the enjoyment of making music together - but nevertheless, he wrote her a substantial violin sonata on his way back from Gallipoli, which was unearthed and recorded for the first time by Australian violinist Chris Latham less than a decade ago. (You can hear Kelly's most famous work, the beautiful Elegy in Memoriam Rupert Brooke, in The Ghosts of War, the d'Arányi-themed concert I'm presenting for the Oxford Philharmonic on 1 June in Oxford Town Hall, which also includes Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra and, of course, the Schumann Violin Concerto).

The other day I had an email from the pianist Alex Wilson, with the heartening news that he has unearthed more unknown Kelly music, this time for piano solo, and is making a recording. He's crowdfunding it. I've asked him to tell us more. And do please support his efforts in bringing this rewarding music to light - you can contribute here. The campaign is live only until Thursday 7 March.

JD: Alex, how did you first come across FS Kelly and his music? 

AW: I have always been fascinated by the music of composers who fall outside of the mainstream musical canon – a passion that led me to researching the music of the forgotten composers of World War One.  I discovered and performed music by Ernest Farrar, Cecil Coles and George Butterworth in a 5-year concert series – entitled ‘The Banks of Green Willow’ – and it was this exploration that led me to the piano music of the British/Australian composer Frederick Septimus Kelly (‘Sep’), one of the few wartime composers who wrote extensively for solo piano. I managed to unearth a few published pieces at the British Library that I performed in concerts back in 2014, and the success of these works led me to want to explore further.

How would you describe his music, for someone who’s never heard it before? What appeals to you most about it?

Sep’s music is so appealing to me because it is unlike the other music being written by his contemporaries in Britain.  He studied at the Hochkonservatorium in Frankfurtand as a result was influenced by both the late romanticism of mainland Europe and the pastoral, folk influenced style of his British colleagues, creating a unique sound world packed full of contrasting influences that it is really fascinating to try and make sense of – shifting from restrained hymn tunes to Chopin-esque romanticism and enigmatic harmonic languages reminiscent of Scriabin.

This music is full of youthful exuberance, unashamedly unrefined at times and covering a full range of emotions. His music is enigmatic, hard to categorise, but is still very accessible, and has proven to be popular every time I have performed it.

Why have you decided to record these piano works? Tell us something more about them. 

This recording will be the first time the ’24 Monographs’ and ’12 Studies’ have been recorded in their entirety, with many works in the collections unperformed in 100 years.  The process of learning music for which I have literally no other point of reference as to how to perform, read and interpret has been fascinating.  There is no standard interpretation to fall back on, I essentially have a blank canvas on which to make my mark.

The Monographs and Studies were written over a number of years, started before the war in 1913 and continued during the war years until his death at the Somme in 1916.  Sep was revising and editing the music during active service, preparing it for publishing after the war.  It is unclear how close he was to completing this task when he lost his life, though one can assume that the revisions were largely completed as he had already performed a number of the works in concerts during the war period.  Stylistically the music ranges from romantic simplicity to harmonic ambiguity, and the Monographs cover all the major and minor keys, which naturally leads to comparisons with the Chopin Preludes.  

Many of the pieces have only recently come to light. Please tell us how this happened, and why? Where have they been and how were they found?

Much of Sep’s original music is held in archives at the National Library of Australia. It remained in its manuscript form until 2005 when the Marshall-Hall Trust (an organisation devoted to publishing and distributing music by Australian composers) and editors Bruce Steele and Richard Divall created editions of the piano music.  On discovering the existence of further piano music by Sep I was able to obtain the sheet music from Kelly expert Chris Latham, the director of the Australian organisation ‘The Flowers of War’ – an organisation set up to promote the Australian contribution to the First World War.  

His most famous work until now has been the Elegy in Memoriam Rupert Brooke - incredibly beautiful piece and one that pays tribute to a close friend. Can you tell us anything more about Kelly and the social circles he moved in?
Sep was a polymath; a young man who turned his head to various disciplines with skill and ‘thereupon decided to be a great composer’ after reading ‘Psychology and Life’s Ideals’ by Professor Hamer.  He performed with the greatest musicians of the day, including as part of a well-renowned trio with cellist Pablo Casals and violinist Jelly D’Aranyi – a woman who loved him deeply, for whom he wrote the Gallipoli violin sonata and who kept his photo on her piano for the rest of her life. 
As a naval officer in World War One Sep joined the famous ‘Latin Club’ – a group of learned officers that included poet Rupert Brooke, composer William Denis Browne and Arthur (Ock) Asquith, the son of the Prime Minister. Sep was also a talented rower, winning gold medal at the 1908 London Olympics with the men’s 8s – before immediately giving it up and returning to performance and composition once again!

What do you think his significance is? (And what could it have been, had he lived longer?)
Kelly died at the age of 35, an age at which he was fully trained as a musician but had only just begun to refine his music, combining the many influences on his composition into a cohesive and individual musical voice.  Chris Latham suggests that ‘if Ralph Vaughan Williams had also died at the age of 35, their musical output would be an almost exact match in quality and quantity, but with Kelly writing more piano works, and Vaughan Williams writing more chamber works.’ Vaughan Williams grew into one of Britain’s most successful and loved composers, and one can only imagine that Kelly might have developed in a similar way.

Why are you crowdfunding the recording? What do you think the pros and cons of crowdfunding are? Is it something you’d recommend that other musicians try?

Funding from official sources is harder than ever to secure, with more musicians seeking funds from ever dwindling resources.  Crowdfunding has proven to be the perfect solution to this problem, and has been a wonderful way to bring my project to the attention of as many people as possible.  Directly as result of publicising this campaign I have connected with groups as diverse as Sep’s relatives, his old rowing club, wartime history enthusiasts and individual supporters from across the world.

Crowdfunding requires a LOT of hard work – I have spent months sending emails, writing articles, creating various recordings and radio appearances, all of which takes precious time away from the practice room in the months building up to a recording of some very difficult music!  However, I now feel like I know my subject much better than before, I have learnt immeasurably from my backers and the stories they have told me, and I am happy to have ‘sold’ a number of my CDs before the music has even been recorded!

For those considering crowdfunding, I’d say GO FOR IT, just don’t expect to have much time for anything else!

Saturday, March 02, 2019


They certainly didn't tell me I'd be doing this for 15 years when I signed up to Blogger on 2 March 2004.

Here's a little glimpse into the State of the Art, involving one of those "you couldn't make it up" moments that happened to me the other day when I
David Dolan coaches YMS cellists
on structure in Bach
went down to the Yehudi Menuhin School to look around, talk to the head, watch some teaching and hear a lunchtime concert by some of the students.

To a visiting journo, the school seems a haven of peace. It has impressive facilities: a magnificent wood-lined concert hall, a Fazioli grand, a range of super studios. And here you can meet the absolute values of musicianship at the highest, specialised level, matters communicated exceptionally effectively in the lesson on Bach I listened to, given by pianist, analyst and classical improvisation guru David Dolan.

This place - one of sadly few specialist music schools in this country - has been subjected to some serious misrepresentation in the press, in particular ridiculous charges of that pernicious concept "elitism", which leaves you wondering how, if a young person has a talent and vocation, he or she would ever to be permitted to develop it with the necessary hard work. The vast majority of the children - around 90 per cent of them, according to the head teacher, Kate Clanchy - are on close-to-full scholarships, as talent does not correlate to a parent's economic situation, unless it correlates by landing upon those who can't afford to fork out for instruments and lessons. And it's a struggle to provide the scholarships, because the support from the government's Music and Dance Scheme does not increase at even half the same speed as the spiralling costs of running the place. These schools, including (but not limited to) YMS, Purcell, Chets and some of the cathedral schools, are the engine-room of musical life. Remove them and you cut off the nurture at the source, a future that many young musicians need in order to grow and flourish.

There's no doubt that boarding schools are not for everyone at the best of times; and some exciting young musicians simply attended their local comprehensive (the Kanneh-Masons) or ended up being home schooled from about 14 (Benjamin Grosvenor). I know one exceptionally successful musician, now in her sixties, who ran away from music school. But in the meantime the Menuhin School can count among its alumni such figures as Tasmin Little, Alina Ibragimova, Melvyn Tan, Nicola Benedetti and many, many more, figures without whom musical life in the UK would not be all it is today (which is, seriously, among the world's finest. Enjoy it before Brexit rips out its heart.)

Yehudi Menuhin's grave, in the school grounds. The inscription reads:
"He who makes music in this life makes music in the next".
Then came the "you couldn't make it up" incident. I was just waiting for my lift back to the station when my phone rang. There's a journalist on the line from BBC Radio Essex. They have a story on their patch, he said, and were looking for a comment. There's a primary school in Basildon at which the pupils are asked to listen to ten minutes of classical music every day over lunch. What did I think about music being used to discipline kids? I explained that I don't really feel qualified to talk about that, as it's not something of which I have direct experience. Well, then, he said, what about "why should we give classical music the time of day in any case?"

I looked around at the young people off to their next lessons, and Menuhin's grave (pictured above) just in front of me. And I cracked. I gave him a bit of an earful about how I was speaking to him from a specialist music school that's chock-full of some of the most talented kids in the country, youngsters who simply live and breathe music, and hearing them play, hearing the joy oozing out of their music-making, is so inspiring - it's simply incomprehensible that anyone could think that playing and listening to music is, in principle, not a wonderful thing.

It highlighted the extreme divides in opportunity that our kids face in the rather haphazard lottery of the UK's educational life. But it also highlighted something possibly even worse: a divide in attitude based on misinformation, misunderstanding and prejudice. The school in Basildon has sparked "controversy" in some tabloids. Apparently getting children to listen to music for ten minutes a day is controversial. (Funny, it used to be called "music lessons"...) Trumpeting this as controversial is the triumph of the type of playground bullies we've all met.

I think the programme used a snip of my interview very early yesterday morning (here), but the most interesting thing I heard listening back was an interview with the primary school's head, explaining that the children were not being asked to listen in silence, only to "use quiet voices"; that no parent has removed a child from the school because of this; that a few parents shouting about not liking the idea are not speaking for everyone; and that basically the whole thing has been badly distorted in a way that doesn't reflect its reality. Their lunchtime sessions introduce a "composer of the week", with pictures and information: they've just had Vivaldi and she says the kids absolutely loved it.

It still seems incomprehensible that anyone would think kids shouldn't have the chance to encounter music. Without any opportunity to be introduced to it, you risk missing out on one of the most wonderful experiences available to us.

And then I came home to the news that André Previn had died. We will never forget such a musician. Where are today's communicators on a comparable level? I know of no total, top-level  all-rounders of that calibre: composer, conductor, broadcaster, jazz pianist and equally magnificent in every one of them.

"Something must be done," says Jess, but what? How to keep the communication of the marvel of music alive? Diversifying the imagery certainly helps to get the word out, but it's only the beginning; it won't solve  everything. International Women's Day next week has sparked a celebration of women in music that gets bigger every year, and seems - to me - to be taking root in our culture at long last. It certainly didn't exist 15 years ago. The arrival of Chineke! and Sheku Kanneh-Mason and his family are helping, too, and the communicative joys expounded by orchestras like the format-pioneering Aurora and Manchester Camerata, and the repertoire-busting Southbank Sinfonia, are making waves as well. None of this was happening 15 years ago. Next I think some of the things we need to tackle are the issue of concert start times, the availability of food and drink at venues - affordable, with choice and quality, and not too much queuing, please. And call a meeting with the Department of Transport (once they get rid of their current minister...). But above all, music education. Of quality. For all. We can dream...

So there is hope. One might argue that the playground bullies have always been with us and always will be, and it's up to us to be tough enough to hang on in there. Still, it's not getting any easier.

And yet, and yet...let's finish with the thought of a little Menuhin School pianist, 11 years old, performing in the lunchtime concert the other day: she played the Schumann Abegg Variations and part of Mozart's K414 with gorgeous tone and absolute identification with the idiom, which seemed remarkable. She's Anglo-Chinese and her name is Claire Wang. I keep thinking she's called Clara.