Tuesday, April 30, 2019

"We start with a completely blank slate"

Charlotte Bray
Photo: (c) Nicholas Dawkes

Charlotte Bray's brand-new Triple Concerto, modelled after Beethoven's, is being premiered next week. A triple concerto is such an extraordinary format that one might wonder why there aren't more around. Well, maybe someone needs to commission them...  That someone, on this occasion, is the Investec International Music Festival in Surrey,  for the Sitkovetsky Trio - Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin), Wu Qian (piano) and Isang Enders (cello). I asked Qian, co-artistic director of the festival, to tell us more about the new piece - and about why it is SO important, and rewarding, to commission and perform new music in general. JD


JD: Why did you want to commission a Triple Concerto in particular?

WQ: This is something that we as a trio wanted to do for a long time. Apart from the Beethoven there are very few triple concertos which are in the mainstream repertoire and we wanted to play a small part in rectifying that. Most of the piano trio groups that exist today often perform as soloists with orchestras and so we really hope that this new concerto will be embraced for many years to come by as many musicians as possible. I was also incredibly thrilled when this opportunity came through the Investec International Music Festival. We felt that there was no better way to celebrate our 10th anniversary than by making our first festival commission and we were thrilled when Charlotte Bray accepted to write the new work. As an arts organisation we feel it is our responsibility not only to programme the music of the past, but also make a mark on the future and we are very excited that we have managed to bring this project to life.

Isang Enders plays Charlotte Bray's 'Suya Dalmak' for cello and tape (general rehearsal)


JD: What are the big challenges that this format presents - for performer and composer?

WQ: I think that writing for piano trio is less a challenge and more an opportunity. The possibilities are wonderfully vast because of the different natures of the three instruments and also the dual roles that each one plays in a trio. The piano trio formation is unique because it encourages the players to be both soloists and chamber musicians at the same time. In one moment you must breathe as a singular organism and in another, a leading voice can rise above the others and soar individually. Adding an orchestra to this already very varied colour palette only encourages more textures and opportunities to create a unique sound world, so we are very excited to see what Charlotte has done and can’t wait to hear it ourselves for the first time.


The Sitkovetsky Trio

JD: Why did you choose to commission Charlotte Bray? What qualities most attract you to her music?

WQ: Charlotte is someone whom we had thought about for some time as a composer that we would like to work with. Initially we considered to ask her to write a new trio for us, but when the conversation turned to a possible concerto commission, we didn’t hesitate to contact her. We loved her Cello Concerto that was premiered at the BBC Proms and we thought she would be the perfect person to ask. Charlotte has a unique voice amongst today’s composers with a very personal language that we find fascinating.

JD: What role do the performers play in the compositional process? Have you and your trio worked with her on the concerto, made suggestions about matters such as technique, balance, etc?

WQ: We know many musicians that like to be very hands-on with the compositional process, making suggestions and being very specific about what they want the piece to be like. In our case, when we talked to Charlotte about our thoughts for the piece, she came up with a brilliant idea to use tiny cells of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto and to have the piece grow organically out of them. We thought it was a wonderful suggestion to make a link between the two concertos as it almost seems symbolic to have a new triple concerto sprout its roots from the one great Triple Concerto written in the 19th Century. That’s where Charlotte’s idea for the title 'Germinate' came from and we were so happy with it that we left Charlotte to it and tried not to interfere. The only thing that we mentioned was how we wanted to make sure that all of our instruments have a chance to sing, as we want to show the vocal quality of our instruments as well as the rhythmic.

The Sitkovetsky Trio plays the finale of the Ravel Trio at last year's Investec International Music Festival


JD: In what way is performing brand-new music different from performing standard repertoire? What are typically the different challenges and rewards for you as performers? 

WQ: Well, most importantly, we have a direct line to the composer where we can ask exactly what he or she had in mind in places where you are not sure about something. That is an incredible advantage. You can’t imagine how much time is spent in rehearsals discussing whether Schubert wrote an accent or an diminuendo, or the flexibility of Brahms’ tempos, which have always been a talking point. Also, there is the possibility for working through and possibly making changes if something is not working practically, or if something doesn’t sound as convincing as it should be. And, of course, bringing the piece to life for the first time is simultaneously the hardest challenge and the biggest reward. We start with a completely blank slate, no recordings to be influenced by, no “traditions” to observe or at least contemplate: just the musicians doing their best to give the most convincing interpretation possible.


JD: What would you say to those people who are still scared of contemporary music about why it’s important to keep commissioning new works?

WQ: I have found from experience that if you are performing for an audience who have never heard classical music before, very often a piece of extremely contemporary music might touch and connect with them more than a work of Mozart or Beethoven, so this just shows hoe powerful the impact of new music can be. Sometimes one feels that the experienced public comes to the concert already prepared to love Beethoven because they know how it sounds, so they are excited to hear a masterpiece that they already know. At the same time, they might be a little apprehensive about an unknown work that they haven't heard before. I would say: leave any preconceptions at the door and just listen to the piece as if you are hearing music for the first time. Whether you are moved and excited, or completely unfulfilled, at least you give the piece a fair try. 

The audience's role in the life of a new piece cannot be underestimated and, as we have already talked about, it is extremely important to commission new works. That is how we can secure music’s legacy for the next 300 years. So many musicians over the last 100 years have contributed to the incredible growth of repertoire that is now considered standard and mainstream and we must help that continue. At the same time, a new piece needs the chance for many performances, not just one, so this is something that I feel is extremely important to cultivate: a relationship between the artists, composers and concert hall promoters to continue to support the piece after the first performance so that it has a long life! That is the only way that the piece will end up in the mainstream repertoire.

Investec International Music Festival website: http://iimf.co.uk/

Monday, April 29, 2019

5 lessons from three busy days

Whatever we do, we can learn something. In any situation, principles can be extrapolated that are valuable for the future. I've had three Very Busy Days during which I learned certain things I'd love to share with you. On Friday I was adjudicating a Schumann piano competition at Trinity Laban Conservatoire. On Saturday Viv, Fenella and I performed the Odette concert at St Mary's Perivale, and yesterday I went to Market Harborough to do a pre-concert talk about Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time for the Harborough Concerts series. Here are my life lessons about music that resulted.



1. About music competitions. Whether you are trying to compare five different instruments and five different musicians playing pieces from across several centuries, or three pianists playing one composer on the same instrument, someone is always going to say "apples and oranges" and they are right. You are never comparing like with like - unless, of course, everyone plays exactly the same piece, and even then you're not comparing like with like because different players will have different strengths and weaknesses. One is not always, or only, "better" than another. In many ways, the idea of competition is therefore completely impossible to apply to music. But we have competitions and they are a useful way for young musicians to train up for the pressures that attend a musical career. Therefore, perhaps the best thing we can do is try to see them as handy experience for the competitors and a chance for the audience to hear gifted youngsters on the up - rather than a be-all and end-all Olympian contest.

2. About concert venues. Most concert-halls-in-chief are too big and lack atmosphere. It's possible that the single nicest way to experience music is to be up close and personal (though with just enough distance not to be deafened). There is a great deal to be said for an intimate venue with a special atmosphere of its own, packed with local fans and friends, able to give everyone a sociable cuppa or glass of something after the performance and make a really personal and social occasion out of a performance. You only need a massive hall for big orchestral and choral works. For smaller-scale music, something the size of the Wigmore or Kings Place is perfect; and you may find that your local church or historical property with music festival associations is replete with possibility.

3. About technology. The Odette concert was live streamed and afterwards I saw social media posts from people who'd tuned in from Sweden and Italy. I'm finding it as hard to get my head around this capability as I did the first time I set eyes on a miraculous invention called the Fax Machine in 1988. What? You can send documents around the world on a phone line? This has now become 40 years ago only the BBC could broadcast a filmed concert live. Now a 12th-century church behind the A40 can do it at the touch of a few buttons! 

If anyone in Brexit Britain really believes in turning the clock back to 1973, this is just one example of why that little notion is never going to work in 1m years. Because now we can do livestreaming, and you can't switch this all off again just because you want to live in 1973. The rest of the world won't stop to let us indulge that silly fantasy. Twenty-first-century technology is here to stay. This is not 1973; it's 2019. Get real and get over it before it's too late.

4. Of course you don't need to "know about music" in order to enjoy it, but sometimes it helps if you do know something, depending on what the music is. Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time may be a case in point. Yesterday I gave a 20-minute introduction to it, explaining the extraordinary background and circumstances of its composition, and talking through the meanings and some of the workings of each movement. This series, presented in the Market Harborough Methodist Church, has a devoted audience - violinist and artistic director David Le Page and the Harborough Collective have built up a strong following that seems to trust them implicitly and will come along to hear anything they do, which is an ideal in itself and utterly wonderful - so there was a strong turnout for a complex piece by Messiaen on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Afterwards I lost count of the people who came up to say that the talk had made a big difference to their appreciation of the music because now they could contextualise it and knew something of what was going on and why. (The next concert in the series includes Shostakovich, Mahler and Schnittke.)

5. Apropos of this, it now occurs to me that most of us who regularly declare that you don't need to know anything about music in order to enjoy it - and I often have in the past - actually can't be sure this is true, because we usually do know something about it, however little, and we can't know what it is like really to know nothing, because we cannot unlearn what we've learned. This might make us pause and reflect for a moment. My experiences this weekend [and it applies to the Odette concert too, because it's full of stuff about Tchaikovsky and why he wrote so many violin solos in Swan Lake] suggest that audiences like to feel informed and maybe to learn something along the way. [See also: massive success of The Rest is Noise, Southbank Centre 2013.] I'm still convinced that you don't need to know anything about some kinds of music to enjoy it. But is it perhaps possible that if you do become informed, you might enjoy it even more? Unpopular opinion, I know - but give it a whirl.



Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Curveball

It's Groundhog Day: everyone is dissing the Proms. Every year the same thing happens: the niche interests complain that their particular Thing isn't there, or is not there enough, there aren't ever enough women composers or conductors or musical figureheads of colour, and there'll be a couple of not-strictly-classical concerts to which the reactionaries, er, react. There is a lot of standard fare from decent orchestras, with famous pieces; some see this as padding, others might recognise that tickets have to be sold now and then.

Dissing the Proms is a sort of annual tradition, like cheese-racing or dancing round the maypole. We don't wholly interrogate the deeper reasons for why we're doing it, or what the context really is, or what the realities might be of programming a magnificent summer of concerts that truly can please everybody (i.e., there goes another of those flying pigs over Kensington Gardens). The fact is that we simply don't know how lucky we are to have them. And in the meantime, our eye is off the ball. The ball is: what happens the rest of the year. Beside this, the Proms measure up very, very well.

Lili Boulanger: the only deceased woman composer being played by a top London orchestra next season
(Photo from Seattle Symphony Orchestra website)

Here's a bit of context by way of a curveball. I've just looked through next season's programmes for the LPO, Philharmonia  and LSO to see what they're doing, or not, in the department of female conductors and composers. (Disclaimer: I haven't been through the seasons of every single orchestra in the country because I don't have time and neither do you, and we already know about wonderful Mirga in Birmingham. I've chosen these three orchestras because they are the capital's chief musical flagships.)

The LPO has ONE (1) piece by a woman in the ENTIRETY of its London season 19-20. It is by Kaija Saariaho. They have TWO (2) female conductors - Marin Alsop and Susanna Mälkki.

The Philharmonia is doing very slightly better. It is having THREE (3) concerts featuring composers who happen to be female: Lili Boulanger, Helena Tulve and Augusta Read Thomas, with a whole programme of the Music of Today series devoted to the last of these. There are FOUR (4) female conductors: Elim Chan, Shi-Yeon Sung, Xian Zhang and Joana Carneiro. Lili Boulanger is the only deceased woman composer being played by a top London orchestra next season.

The LSO is including pieces by THREE (3) composers who are female: Emily Howard, Elizabeth Ogonek and Kaija Saariaho. Among conductors, they score more highly, with FIVE (5) - yes, that many. We encounter Nathalie Stutzman, Elim Chan, Karina Canellakis and Susanna Mälkki, plus Emmanuelle Haïm conducting a baroque chamber orchestra incarnation at Milton Court.

And believe it or not, this lamentable total from the lot of them is progress. I hate to say it, but had we not been making such a fuss these past years, even such extraordinarily pathetic paucity of recognition for the talents of musicians who happen to be women would not now be taking place at all. Beside this, the Proms look positively angelic.

Susanna Mälkki conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in Sibelius 2:


I have not even touched upon the matter of BAME representation. The LPO has Ravi Shankar's opera, which is nice, and Sheku Kanneh-Mason is playing Elgar with them. The LSO is having a Gospel concert and is also welcoming Wynton Marsalis. Otherwise: ?

Here's a little anecdote about unconscious bias. On Monday night I went to Chineke's concert for Stephen Lawrence Day. They played, among other things, the beautiful Elegy: In Memoriam Stephen Lawrence by the black British composer Philip Herbert, in which 18 string players each represent a year of the murdered teenager's life. It is profoundly moving and in terms of style sounds a little bit like Barber's Adagio, but a lot more like Vaughan Williams. And what is the unconscious bias? It is that this surprised me. I discovered that I had not expected it to sound so English. And I was not pleased with my own expectations. I learned something. The trouble with unconscious biases is that they are unconscious. You don't know they're happening to you until one of them trips you up. I thought I was aware, or "woke" or whatever you want to call it. Was I heck. If this can happen to me, it can happen to you too, and it needs to happen to some musical decision-makers who were not at this concert.

Here's a performance of it from one of their earlier concerts:



The LPO and Philharmonia are both due new principal conductors in the early years of the next decade when their admirable, long-serving ones - Vladimir Jurowski and Esa-Pekka Salonen - move on to pastures new. These matters depend on circumstance, availability, money and much else. We'll all have our own views on who it ought to be. I can think of at least one person who should be under consideration, indeed who should be pursued around the world from Helsinki to California until she is persuaded. I have not the slightest idea who will actually be chosen and I am not party to any discussions at either orchestra. However, I am half tempted to go to a bookmaker's and put money on at least one of these two high-profile appointments being a British man (white) educated at public school and Cambridge. This is not a criticism per se, because he might be musically excellent, he might a totally lovely person whom everyone there adores, he might be an eloquent figurehead for the organisation and in the grand scheme of things he might indeed be a superb appointment. But why should it be so simple to guess? It's high time our orchestras started to be at least a little bit braver.

Avril Coleridge-Taylor
(photo from Wikipedia)

If the Proms can programme ten female historical composers, and moreover the splendid Chineke can go to the trouble of unearthing music by Avril Coleridge-Taylor (daughter of Samuel) and finding that it is really, really good (which it is - they played her Sussex Landscapes on Monday and it was wonderful, gorgeously orchestrated, rather Pucciniesque), then you'd think the bigger, better resourced orchestras could do likewise. And if it is still impossible for one of the UK capital's top orchestras to consider appointing a woman as principal conductor, then it's time for some very serious thought about who is doing what, how and why.

News came through recently from the ACE that they are planning to fund not quality, but relevance. Not the greatest prospect, admittedly - relevant to what, and for whom, and who decides? - but this may in the end force the issue. And the issue has to be forced, or else it will never move at all.







Thursday, April 18, 2019

Festival of Sunshine

One of my highlights of 2018 was my trip to the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville, Far North Queensland. The pianist Kathryn Stott was in her first year as artistic director and we all had a ball: an absolute bonanza of music, companionship, sunshine, palm trees, whale-watching and seriously amazing seafood. But a few months later, parts of Townsville were devastated by floods. As AFCM gears up again towards the 2019 festival, I spoke to Kathy about what happened and how AFCM can help to make Townsville shine again.





How are things in Townsville after the floods? 

The floods were terrible. On the surface now you don’t see much sign of it - on the Strand the lovely palm trees are still there and everything looks OK, but someone told me that more than 2000 homes have been condemned. There were several deaths, and I know of some people who were ill with a “flood disease”. And one person said they weren’t frightened of floods, but of being eaten by a crocodile. It’s important that people know it’s been serious, because once it is no longer in the news it’s quickly forgotten, but some people have really been struggling. 

The festival brings about AUS$8m into the economy and my dream now for the festival is that we will put Townsville on the map again for positive reasons. There’s a hashtag, #TownsvilleShines - you often see it on social media: it needs to shine again. People have really been through the mill. Among our volunteers everybody had a story or knew someone who had lost everything… I’ve never before been so close to people who’ve been involved in a disaster like that, and you just want to bring some positive news. What better way than music, and bringing people to Townsville to support it?

 
Kathryn Stott on the Strand at Townsville


Now that you’ve got your feet under the AFCM, desk, what have you learned, how do you feel about last year and how do you want to build on last year’s festival? 

The AFCM takes up more than half my life. I was totally thrilled with last year’s - I couldn’t have hoped for it to go any better. There’s some trepidation coming into a scenario like that, especially with someone like Piers Lane as my predecessor, who’d been there for so long. People get used to things and it’s an extremely loyal audience - so if you throw in any curveballs, you never quite know how they’re going to come off. 

What thrilled me was that after two days I was relaxed, I knew it was going well and audience members started coming up to me to say they were enjoying themselves. But actually the support of the musicians I had was amazing. They all knew that it was my first festival and it was important to get it right. And the way they bonded together was beyond belief. It’s nice now to see some of them working together, having met there for the first time: some new musical relationships have been established. 

I learned that I don’t want to play as much as I did. I probably will still end up playing too much, but I did learn my lesson! Nothing went wrong, but I was exhausted by the end. And you realise what has to happen to make this festival work - I was staggered to see how many hours the volunteers put in, and to understand what people are giving up in order for us to do what we do. Of course there are always lessons to be learned, but all in all I was super-happy with it.


What do you have in store for your audience this year?

It’s a wonderful spread of pieces from the 13thcentury to the present day, and it’s fairly full-on! There are some really unusual flavours, which is what I enjoy most - I don’t want it to be what you can hear everywhere else. One person came up to me and said: ‘Thank you for programming some music we just never hear’! 

We are trying to bring over artists who are extraordinarily versatile and bring something special to the festival’s big table. For instance, the 13th-century reference involves our harpist, Ruth Wall. We’ve borrowed a concert harp for her - we found one in Townsville, incredibly the same make that she uses - but I also wanted her to play some small harps: a bray harp and a lever wire-strung harp and we’re flying them over; she’ll be able to do extra things in the festival because they’re easy to move around. She’ll play music from the 13thcentury to a piece by Graham Fitkin, who’s her partner, for harp and quartet, with the Goldner String Quartet. And you might find her playing Goldfrapp or some trendy band… 

Then we have Roberto Carillo-Garcia: he’s principal double bass in the Halle but also plays the gamba and the guitar, so he will definitely be the most overworked person in the festival! He’s coming over with his wife Rachael Clegg, who’s a fantastic oboist. There’s Wu Man, the amazing Pipa player, who is bringing an amazing piece by Tan Dun, among much else. The violinist Liza Ferschtman is coming from Holland - usually she’s busy running her own Delft Festival in July and August, but fortunately this year she’s taken a sabbatical. From London we have the pianist Charles Owen, who I think will have a good time here, and we have a number of Australian artists including Arcadia Winds and both the Goldner and the Australian String Quartets and the brilliant young Australian mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts-Dean has taken on a very wide range of different repertoire. That’s just to name a few! (Full list of artists here.)


 Are you having a festival “theme”?

Themes are tricky because you can get boxed in quite easily; it’s difficult to sustain a theme over 30 events and suit everybody. Still, I’ve come up with the theme of ‘Origins’ - which means lots of different things in this context. Some things are obvious, such as nationalistic music like Janácek and Smetana, Dvorák Slavonic Dances, Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies and so on. Themes and variations are next, since the theme is the origin of the variations. Then there’s music that’s been transcribed; and quite a few pieces with fascinating stories behind them. A colleague suggested the Vierne Piano Quintet: his son, Jacques, was executed at 17 after things went badly wrong in World War I, and he wrote this as a result. 

There’s also a mini theme of piano trios, including a few blockbusters - Tchaikovsky’s trio written in response to Nikolai Rubinstein’s death, and Rachmaninov’s in response to Tchaikovsky’s death. Alongside these are some mini-trios, with a twist: Tori de Clare is a thriller writer and she’s created a story to link several of these - Schubert, Sibelius, etc - in real time; so we’ll start at 9.30 at night, someone will narrate the story, it will be interspersed with the music and should finish exactly on 10.30 - so hopefully no one will break a string or want to retune… 

All in all, there’s an interesting mix of artists who know each other and some who don’t, some who are making their festival debuts and some who’ve never been to Australia before. You can never predict exactly how it will turn out, but I’m happy with the way it looks. I’ve listened to every piece and I think I’ve got the right combination of people playing the right works. You can’t do much more than that! 


Last year I loved the Winterschool and the family events - more of these, I hope?

The family concerts might look predictable at first glance, with Poulenc’s Babar the Elephant, which I totally adore, and Stravinsky’s Firebird, which Ashley Wass and Matthew Trusler have arranged. But both will involve extensive community activities, so we’ll have interactive visuals and we’ve got people building sets, local dance schools are involved, and there are some little actors. It’s nice to build up this side of the activities, otherwise it’s just piano and narrator - I want more going on! The Winterschool is going from strength to strength and the fantastic Pavel Fischer is in charge once more.


Who’s this year’s composer in residence?

In the past they’ve been well-established, names everyone knows in Australia and further afield. But last year the percussionist Claire Edwards brought a piece by a young composer called Connor D’Netto, who came to London to do his Masters. I went to meet him – and I thought let’s have a change and invite a young, emerging composer. He had to have enough material, though - so we’ve got him a commission to write a quartet for the Goldners. I’ve just been working on a piece called Tracesfor cello and piano, which is difficult but I’m really enjoying it, and there’s a piece for viola and electronics; about five pieces through which we will hear how his style is moving and developing. Purely by chance he’s from Brisbane, so people in Townsville are thrilled that he’s a Queensland boy.


I see you’ve broadened out the baroque evening?

We’re having two baroque concerts. The first is Baroque around the Clock, in which a Dowland song rubs shoulders with Thomas Adès’s Darkness Visible which is based on it, and a piece by Ligeti in is amongst everything: it’s a real mixture of eras, but all based on baroque themes. Then the evening features Vivaldi concertos with ensembles made from the Goldner and Australian String Quartets. We’ve got a harpsichord this year and Roberto on his gamba, so that all worked out, and there’s some Monteverdi - and for Bach fans, the Italian Concerto.


You’ve recently been in Australia, promoting this year’s festival. How did it go? 

It was a whirlwind! This was my first-ever publicity tour, and I did 11 flights, six cities and one interview after another. No concerts, though, because I’m on my concert sabbatical. I played five minutes here and there with someone else, but that’s literally all since the end of August. That’s why my social media posts recently have all been about my spaniel, Archie. 


Last but by no means least, how have you enjoyed your sabbatical?

It’s been really good, because usually the need to practise is something that hangs over me all the time. So for a few months I didn’t touch the piano. I closed the lid and thought “if I want it, it’s there…” - but actually I’ve been quite happy. I started slowly again after Christmas, and now there’ll be a build-up...


Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Notre Dame: an organic tribute



UPDATED, 2pm: Miraculous news indeed from Paris: the great organ is UNTOUCHED. It is unusable because of soot and dust, but it is structurally intact. From Europe 1:


Laurent Prades, régisseur du patrimoine intérieur de Notre-Dame de Paris, a passé la nuit à sortir des œuvres de la cathédrale pour les sauver des flammes. Sur Europe 1, il rassure quant à l'état des orgues.EXCLUSIFSous la toiture éventrée de Notre-Dame de Paris reposaient des centaines d'œuvres magistrales, historiques, inestimables. Dans quel état sont-elles aujourd'hui, après le terrible incendie qui a dévasté lundi soir la cathédrale ? Et notamment l'immense orgue principal, dont certains tuyaux dataient du 15ème siècle. En exclusivité sur Europe 1 mardi, Laurent Prades, régisseur du patrimoine intérieur de Notre-Dame de Paris, a apporté des informations rassurantes.
"Pas une goutte d'eau". "Le grand orgue n'a absolument pas été touché, si ce n'est qu'il est très empoussiéré. Mais il n'a pas pris une seule goutte d'eau. Il a pris de la suie et de la poussière, donc il est totalement inutilisable. Mais rien n'a brûlé, rien n'a fondu",assure-t-il à Europe 1. Quant au deuxième orgue, utilisé quotidiennement et situé dans le chœur, "il a été copieusement arrosé (par les lances à incendie), mais c'était pour préserver les stalles du 18ème siècle (les rangées de sièges, liés les uns aux autres et alignés le long des murs du chœur de la cathédrale, ndlr) qui sont juste en dessous."



The musical legacy of Notre Dame de Paris extends back as far as the history of music itself. That the cathedral is still standing at all after yesterday's inferno seems little short of miraculous - though of course it is actually thanks to the tireless efforts of the city's firefighters: four hundred of them risked their lives during this task and one has been seriously injured.

Notre Dame's Cavaillé-Coll organ was inaugurated in 1868 and built using pipes from the previous instrument - which originates far earlier than the French Revolution, from which it bears some scars. Indeed, early mentions of the organ go back to 1357, and François Thierry constructed a new one in 1730-33, which was then renovated and extended by Cliquot in the 1780s before Cavaillé-Coll transformed it 80 years later. Successive restorations and reworkings have taken place across the intervening years, translating the instrument's power according to the capabilities of modern technology; most recently, in 2010-14, Bertrand Cattiaux and Pascal Quoirin gave it an overhaul which included a new computer traction. It still has 33 pipes from the pre-Revolution instrument and around 50 by Cavaillé-Coll.

In tribute, here it is, played by its current organist Olivier Latry, in Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor.



You can see a fascinating film about the organ featuring Latry, at this link.

This article has been revised since this morning, following the revelation of the good news about the organ.

(Photo above from Wikipedia)

Monday, April 15, 2019

More shows on 17 and 27 April!




We had a whale of a time at Kings Place, performing the UK premiere of Being Mrs Bach on Saturday afternoon. Left to right: Ben Bevan (baritone), Steven Devine (harpsichord), me, Jonathan Manson (cello and gamba) - what an absolute privilege to work with them! Totally knocked out by the brilliance of Steven's harpsichord playing, which provided the effect of an entire orchestra or two, the apparently effortless beauty of Jonathan's solos and the way he switched between instruments as if simply taking another breath, and the warm, gorgeously tender tone of Ben's baritone, which we understand will be gracing Opera Holland Park this summer.

Onwards... next up is Odette: A Celebration of Swan Lake, which takes wing on Wednesday. The award-winning Fenella Humphreys (violin), also-award-winning Viv McLean (piano) and I will be at Bob Boas's series, Music at Mansfield Street, London W1, on 17 April, and St Mary's Perivale on 27 April. St Mary's will be LIVE STREAMED! If you would like to come along on Wednesday, there are still places available (it clashes with a) the Easter hols and b) most annoyingly, the Proms launch) and you can email boas22m@btinternet.com for further details. If you want to come to St Mary's, just turn up on the night - more details here. And if you want to watch the live stream, it will be here (but is only available at the actual time, not online thereafter.) The concert is an hour and a half without an interval.

More stuff below!

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


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

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

Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake – Introduction 

Saint-Saëns: Danse macabre 

Liszt (arr. Achron): Liebestraum No.3 

Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake – Odette's Solo 

Gershwin: The Man I Love 

Chopin: Polonaise-Fantaisie 

Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake – White Swan Pas de Deux 

Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake – Adagio from the Black Swan Pas de Deux 

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major - finale 


Fenella Humphreys (violin) enjoys a busy career combining chamber music and solo work, performing in prestigious venues around the world. Her first concerto recording, of Christopher Wright's Violin Concerto with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra was released in 2012 to great critical acclaim. Her recent Bach to the Future project, a set of six new unaccompanied violin works by eminent composers was a huge success, garnering performances at acclaimed UK venues, and has now been recorded over two CDs for Champs Hill Records. Both have received huge critical acclaim, and the second received the BBC Music Magazine's 2018 Instrumental Award. Her new disc with Nicola Eimer was released in February 2019. Fenella is a passionate chamber musician and is regularly invited by Steven Isserlis to take part in the prestigious Open Chamber Music at the International Musicians' Seminar, Prussia Cove. Concertmaster of the Deutsche Kammerakademie, Fenella also enjoys guest leading and directing various ensembles in Europe. Her teachers have included Sidney Griller CBE, Itzhak Rashkovsky, Ida Bieler and David Takeno at the Purcell School, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and the Robert-Schumann-Hochschule in Düsseldorf. She plays a beautiful violin from the circle of Peter Guarneri of Venice, kindly on loan from Jonathan Sparey.

Viv McLean (piano), the winner of the First Prize at the 2002 Maria Canals International Piano Competition in Barcelona , has performed at all the major venues in the UK as well as throughout Europe, Japan , Australia and the USA . He has played concerti with most major UK orchestras, performed chamber music with leading groups such as the Ysaye String Quartet and the Leopold String Trio. Viv studied at the Royal Academy of Music and was the piano winner at the Royal Overseas-League Music Competition and one of three winners of the National Federation of Music Societies' Young Artists Competition, leading to various recitals and concerto appearances throughout Great Britain . Viv has recorded regularly for BBC Radio 3 and recorded for Sony Classical Japan and Naxos , as well as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's own label. Viv lives in Harrow and has been a huge supporter of concerts at both St Mary's Perivale and St Barnabas in recent years.

Jessica Duchen's books have gathered a loyal fan-base and wide acclaim. Odette, published by Unbound in November 2018, is her sixth novel, but has occupied her for over 26 years. Ghost Variations (Unbound, 2016) was Book of the Month in BBC Music Magazine and was John Suchet's Christmas Choice among the Daily Mail's Best Reads of 2016 ("A thrilling read" - John Suchet).   Jessica grew up in London, read music at Cambridge and has devoted much of her career to music journalism, with 12 years as music critic for The Independent. Her work has also appeared in BBC Music Magazine, The Sunday Times and The Guardian, among others. She was the librettist of Silver Birch by composer Roxanna Panufnik, which was commissioned by Garsington Opera and shortlisted for an International Opera Award in 2018, and she has worked frequently with Panufnik on texts for choral works. Her further output includes biographies of the composers Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Gabriel Fauré, her popular classical music blog JDCMB, and the play A Walk through the End of Time , which won the town medal of St Nazaire in France, where its commissioning festival was based. Jessica lives in London with her violinist husband and two cats.

Friday, April 12, 2019

You ARE the future

This week I've been adjudicating at the Whitgift International Music Competition - a wonderful initiative at Whitgift School in Croydon at which musically gifted boys from around the world arrive to compete for prizes and in some cases scholarships to study at the school. I've been involved with it from the beginning in 2013 and following the progress of the entrants over the ensuing years has been quite tremendous. The standard this time was absolutely gobsmacking, with entrants from Moldova, Montenegro, Hong Kong, Mongolia, Belarus and the UK in junior and senior categories for each of strings and brass/woodwind - and our breath was taken away by quite a number of the performances we were lucky enough to hear.

Last night at the gala concert that concluded the event I gave a little speech. There were things I Really Wanted to Say, and I still really want to say them - so here they are.






Ladies and gentlemen, it is a great honour to be here today as chair of the jury for the Whitgift Music Competition. At lunch on the first day, my fellow jurors and I turned to each other and said “How about that for a way to spend a Monday morning!” And indeed, what could be more inspiring than hearing this array of truly remarkable young musicians who have come all the way to Whitgift from as far afield as Hong Kong, Mongolia, Montenegro and Moldova - to say nothing of the Whitgift Boarding Block and day pupils - especially to play to us? I’ve been involved in the competition since its inauguration back in 2013 - the level of musical accomplishment has always been astonishing, and as you’ve heard, this year is no exception.

The Whitgift Music Competition is a ground-breaking initiative and indicates just how powerfully lives can be changed when a school decides it will throw its weight behind supporting musical talent. In 2013 the devastating decline we’ve been seeing in musical education in UK schools was already underway; Whitgift bucked the trend by setting up this wonderful scheme. And it has proved to be a trailblazer: I'm hearing rumblings now that other prestigious educational institutions have begun to introduce copycat initiatives. All credit to Whitgift for continuing to give its support and its blessing to musical talent from around the world. I think the results not only are transformative for those who win, but also enhance the lives of the other students who have the chance to collaborate with their peers, making music at a fabulous level. It helps bring music into lives that might otherwise miss that chance; and it expands everybody’s world view and cultural understanding.

Judging the competition is a complex business because we’re looking at two distinct strands. One is the matter of sheer excellence. The prizes we award tonight are purely for artistic achievement. But also of crucial importance is the Headmaster’s Scholarship - the chance for a boy showing exceptional promise to come and study at Whitgift. Let’s face the fact that not every budding young musician wants to attend a British boarding school and take GCSEs and A levels; sometimes they just want to practise their instruments! We should never underestimate the amount of work it takes to do well at music - it’s actually like becoming an Olympic athlete. So for the scholarships, everyone has to be happy that these go to youngsters who will flourish in this environment and become Happy Whitgift Boys.

But for those who do take up the scholarship, there are opportunities that really are unrivalled. They can study with some of the best instrumental teachers in London, they have splendid performing opportunities both at the school and outside it, they have the world-class musical life of London on their doorstep to explore and enjoy, and by the time they finish school they are exceptionally well placed to enter some of the finest conservatoires or universities in this country and abroad. Previous scholarship holders like Dan-Iulian Drutac, and Ion Mosneaga have taken up scholarships to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Royal Academy of Music, one boy has gone to the splendid Birmingham Conservatoire, another abroad to study in Essen in Germany, and the list continues. Our senior strings category winner last time, Krzystof Kohut from the Czech Republic [pictured above with violin], proved the value of the musical work ethic, too: he had applied to the previous competition and not reached the final. Well, he spent the intervening two years working flat out, came back again - and scooped first prize. Since then he has been flourishing at the school both musically and academically and he is off to music college soon with flags flying. In the end, seeing one person realising his very considerable potential so wonderfully can become a beacon for all the rest of us to do the same.

And that’s why it’s such a privilege to be on this jury, and it’s why I keep coming back and back for more. It gives us hope. These young people are the future.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Mrs Bach is in town on Saturday

My words&music show BEING MRS BACH is at Kings Place on Saturday at 5pm, part of the venue's magnificent Bach Weekend. More info here: please join us!

With harpsichordist Steven Devine, baritone Benjamin Bevan and cellist/gamba Jonathan Manson we explore the story of Anna Magdalena Bach, looking back on her life from her last days when she was tragically forgotten - even by most of her large family. From gifted young soprano to mater familias and sidekick-in-chief to her overworked husband, and the terrible operation that hastened his death, we follow her through arias and solos that reflect the emotions and preoccupations of the Bach family's Leipzig life. https://www.kingsplace.co.uk/whats-on/classical/being-mrs-bach/


Here's a little interview I did for Kings Place's website:




Why did you want to create an event around Anna Magdalena Bach?

The initial suggestion for ‘Being Mrs Bach’ came from the pianist Kathryn Stott, artistic director of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music. She knew about my various narrated concerts and thought this would be an exciting creation to add to a Bach Day for the 2018 festival. The idea was to bring Anna Magdalena to the fore in her own right and try to find out more about who she really was. I loved the idea and it was a joy to be part of that lovely event in Far North Queensland.


How did you go about researching it?

Besides the usual reading etc, I went to Leipzig! I completely fell in love with the place. It has an extraordinary wealth of musical associations, including Schumann, Mendelssohn, Grieg, Brahms and Wagner, and takes great pride in this legacy. The Thomaskirche, where Bach spent much of his working life, is still much as he would have known it. I attended a service and a concert there, trying to immerse myself in its atmosphere and acoustic. The Bach Museum is a treasure-trove: here one can explore the layout of the Thomasschüle where Bach taught, read a great deal about the family, listen to a wealth of music examples and even see a few rare relics - including the buckle and thimble that were retrieved from what was thought to be Bach’s grave.


What struck you particularly about her life and work?


While too little is known about her personality, a few key facts make it possible to join dots and colour in blanks. She was a very fine musician and singer: she was employed at the court of Anhalt-Cöthen as a soprano in Bach’s ensemble when he was Kapellmeister, which is where they met. Unfortunately when they moved to Leipzig, town regulations decreed that women were not allowed to sing in public! I expect she sang at home, though… She loved both nature and nurturing (children, stepchildren, birds, plants and constant visitors). This was just as well, because she inherited four step-children when she married Bach, who was a widower 16 years her senior - and she went on to have 13 children of her own (sadly fewer than half survived to adulthood). She must have been Bach’s greatest support, both personally and professionally, in the latter capacity serving as copyist and collector, especially of the ‘Anna Magdalena Notebook’. I think she may have had the constitution of an ox.

Nevertheless, the painful truth is that Anna Magdalena has been desperately neglected, both in her lifetime and beyond it. She survived Johann Sebastian by nearly a decade, but ended up in a hand-to-mouth existence, reliant on charity. Then, when Bach’s body (or what they thought was his) was first exhumed in 1894, the skeleton of a younger woman was found with him. They reburied him elsewhere - and left her behind.



Do you think she really did write the cello suites, or any of her husband's music?

It’s not impossible, but I’m afraid I’m not entirely convinced.


What music did you want to include in the event? 

We needed repertoire that would illumine the narration so that words and music cohere as a sequence. For instance, an extract from the Coffee Cantata picks up on the tribulations of having teenage children! I particularly wanted to end with ‘Mache dich mein Herze rein’ from the St Matthew Passion so that this otherwise tragic story would have an uplifting, transcendent conclusion. Meanwhile, there are solos for Steven Devine and Jonathan Manson as well as various contrasting arias for Ben Bevan. We have added, quite late, the aria ‘Komm, süßes Kreuz’ (also St Matthew Passion) because it includes a magnificent viola da gamba obbligato and therefore shows off all three musicians to the utmost. 

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

The strange tale of the Schumann concerto, tomorrow

Very excited to be heading tomorrow to Great Malvern to do a pre-concert talk about the Schumann Violin Concerto with conductor Ken Woods – whose concert with the English Symphony Orchestra includes this haunting work as centrepiece, with soloist Zoe Beyers. We are at Great Malvern Priory, talk at 6.30pm, concert at 7.30pm. Booking here.

Incidentally, I will also be presenting a concert themed around Jelly d'Arányi, World War I and World War II for the Oxford Philharmonic on 1 June, including the concerto alongside music by Bartók and FS Kelly.

As a preview, here is an article I wrote for the Independent in 2016 about the extraordinary history of this long-forgotten work, its traumatic composition when Schumann was on the cusp of mental illness and its bizarre rediscovery in the 1930s when the world itself was tipping over into madness... 



Robert Schumann
Photo from Wikimedia

When I first heard the story of how Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto came to light in the 1930s, I nearly fell off my chair. 
This extraordinary piece, the composer’s last orchestral work, has had a chequered existence. After one airing by its intended soloist, Joseph Joachim, it languished in obscurity for nearly eight decades. Then in 1933 Joachim’s great-niece, the Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi (one-time muse to Bartók, Ravel and even Elgar) claimed to have received spirit messages via a Ouija board begging her to find and perform it. 
So bizarre was her quest – extending to the highest echelons of the Third Reich’s administration – that I’ve turned it into a novel, entitled Ghost Variations
The reality is admittedly stranger than fiction. After Schumann’s death, his widow, Clara, put the concerto aside, fearing it might betray its composer’s increasingly unstable state of mind. Always prone to extreme highs and lows, Schumann may have been bipolar, or suffered from tertiary syphilis, or possibly both; academics remain divided on the nature of his malady, though most incline towards the syphilis explanation. In February 1854 he suffered a devastating breakdown and tried to drown himself in the Rhine. Having survived, he requested to go into a mental hospital. He spent his final two years in an asylum in Endenich, Bonn, and died there in July 1856. 
Thereafter, it was up to Clara to decide which of her husband’s unpublished works should see the light of day. In consultation with her two right-hand men, Johannes Brahms and Joachim, she took time to make up her mind about the concerto. Finally she elected not to issue it. Joachim’s heirs deposited the manuscript in the Prussian State Library, placing what was thought to be a 100-year embargo on the work. Schumann’s daughter, Eugenie, insisted that in fact her mother wished it never to be played.
Jelly d’Arányi was 14 when her great-uncle Joachim died. Her elder sister, Adila Fachiri, likewise a celebrated violinist, had been Joachim’s pupil in Berlin. Fachiri was, as it turned out, a psychic “sensitive”, able to receive at considerable speed and intensity detailed “messages” in the then-fashionable Glass Game (ie, a home-made Ouija board). 
Although d’Arányi herself claimed to have received the initial message, she rarely participated in such sessions. It was largely Fachiri and her friend Baron Erik Palmstierna, the Swedish Minister in London, who drove the search thereafter; Palmstierna himself unearthed the manuscript in Berlin; and his book Horizons of Immortality, based on “messages” interpreted by Fachiri, broke the news of the concerto’s revelation upon an incredulous and cynical public in September 1937.
Others, though, also had a vested interest in reviving the piece. Once the concerto was found, its publisher-to-be, Schott, sent a copy to the young superstar violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who longed to give its modern premiere as his comeback after a year’s sabbatical. Meanwhile, the Nazi administration was alerted by the enquiries from England to the fact that something interesting was sitting in the Prussian State Library. Having investigated for themselves, they elected to override any alleged embargoes, as well as d’Arányi’s claim to priority. Germany’s most popular violin concerto, the one by the Jewish-born Mendelssohn, had been banned; Goebbels wished to promote Schumann’s suppressed work as a great German violin concerto by a great German composer – performed by a German soloist, Georg Kulenkampff. Menuhin, in the US, was relegated to second place and d’Arányi, in London, to third. She finally gave the UK premiere in February 1938. 
There was little chance, though, that the Nazis would persuade the public to love this concerto as much as they did Mendelssohn’s. To some – including the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, whose new recording of the work is out next week – the work can represent a testimony to a mind tragically dislocated from reality. And even if you don’t feel it necessarily betrays signs of incipient insanity to such an extreme degree, it is certainly complex, formally intriguing, filled with struggle, difficult to pace in performance.
Either way, it contains much wonderful music. Its slow movement is heartbreakingly beautiful – sharing a shred of melody with Schumann’s last piano work, written soon afterwards, entitled Geistervariationen (Ghost Variations). Schumann believed that the theme for the piano piece had been dictated to him by the spirits of composers beyond the grave – forgetting that he had already written it himself.
Today the Schumann Violin Concerto is finally rising to prominence. Given chances to shine in the hands of today’s leading soloists, it proves that its genuine soul, passion and intensity can ride high, despite its composer’s tragic fate. And even if Jelly d’Arányi did not quite give its first 20th-century performance, her effort on its behalf saved it from oblivion. Thanks to her, we can appreciate and assess it for ourselves.

Monday, April 01, 2019

SHOCK MAESTRO MOVE: Rattle throws his hat into prospective PM ring

"I told you no good would come of Brexit!"
(Photo courtesy of the LSO)

In a move that will shock the orchestral profession worldwide, Sir Simon Rattle is rumoured to be on the point of announcing his intention to throw his hat into the political ring, instead of the Wagnerian one.

While the UK government is in meltdown over Brexit, sources close to the maestro say that he hopes to be a candidate for Prime Minister, standing at the next (no doubt imminent) election with a national unity manifesto.

"Music is a force for unity and cohesion," said one source, who preferred to remain anonymous. "Sir Simon has a uniquely charismatic, positive personality and the power to transcend the venomous divisions currently besetting both government and opposition in the House of Commons. We are not the only ones who think he's just the person to bring the country together again."

Another source remarked, more sourly: "If he can get an orchestra with its inevitable factionalism and cliques to pull together, he can do anything. British politics ought to be a doddle by comparison."

First, though, he must stand for election as a local MP. He is said to be eyeing the Richmond Park constituency, where the incumbent MP Zac Goldsmith was elected with a slender majority of just 45 votes and was noticed advocating a no-deal Brexit in last week's indicative votes, despite a 71% majority for Remain in his area. With many music-lovers resident in this part of south-west London, Sir Simon should gain an excellent level of support.

Music and politics have a long, distinguished history of mixing and matching. The legendary pianist Ignacy Paderewski became president of his native Poland. Conductor Kurt Masur, while Kapellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, was a leading light in the collapse of the DDR, often mentioned as the figurehead who helped to keep the demonstrations non-violent. Further back, King Henry VIII is usually credited as the composer of 'Greensleeves'. In world music, Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour ran for his country's presidency in 2012 and Gilberto Gil was Brazilian Minister of Culture for five years (2003-08).

Rattle intends to maintain his concert schedule as planned, at least for the moment. "Who better than a musician," our source commented, "to step forward and save Britain in her hour of need?" She added as an aside: "He certainly can't make things any worse."