Saturday, May 25, 2019

And breathe...

It's very hard to "sweat the small stuff" in the musical world when the country's trapped down a rabbit hole.

Fidelio: great opera for young ears, courtesy of Die Zeit
In some ways, out there it's business as usual: Jonas has cancelled a month of performances in Paris, everyone's off to garden opera with a picnic basket and a thermal blanket, and from the look of next year's seasons we are all going to know Fidelio backwards by the time we hit Beethoven's actual 250th birthday.

And there's some good news around: at the Philharmonia, Santtu-Matias Rouvali, a 33-year-old Finn, has been named as successor to Esa-Pekka Salonen as principal conductor. At Decca, soprano Lise Davidsen and pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason both have debut discs on the way. Chandos is about to celebrate its 40th birthday, the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards do still exist but have shifted to November, and International Piano Magazine has gone monthly.

In other ways, there are a few tectonic plates on the move. I've just finished reading Robert Harris's Pompeii, a spectacular historical thriller about the explosion of Vesuvius. It begins with the deaths of some sensitive fish as their water supply is contaminated by something sulphurous, source unknown. I'm smelling sulphur now, and I suspect it's rising from the giant ravine between Arts Council England and the Department for Education. One organisation is demanding diversity and "relevance" (to what, and who decides?). Cutbacks at the other mean that musical education at grassroots level is disappearing at a rate of knots from more and more schools; indeed, the latest report has found a 37% reduction in the number of young people taking music A level. Joined-up thinking, anyone? You can't have it both ways. If you want music to be diverse, you have to offer good, workable, effective musical education to all, otherwise it's not going to happen and nothing our orchestras try to do can fix it in a month of Sundays.

Where are those fish? The Philharmonia's CEO, Helen Sprott, has resigned after just two years in post. Elsewhere, I'm hearing rumblings on the grapevine about other high-level resignations that are making me wonder what exactly is going on. While we're busy being bloody terrified that a new prime minister will push us off the no-deal cliff in October out of sheer hubris, everything else slides off the radar, and this is dangerous.

I've been keeping busy. The Happy Princess, the new youth opera for Garsington by composer Paul Fincham for which I've written the libretto, is shaping up and sounding terrific. I went to watch the youth companies rehearsing last weekend and it's amazing to see their enthusiasm, their willingness to work as hard as Karen Gillingham, our powerhouse director, wants them to, and they can pack a tremendous punch with their singing. Lovely to note lots of familiar faces from Silver Birch, though in two years some of them have grown so much that I had to blink. Meanwhile I'm working on a big choral piece with Roxanna Panufnik for the Beethoven Anniversary, to be performed next year at the Berlin Philharmonie by the Berlin Rundfunkchor and nine visiting choirs from all over the world. And I'm about to take the plunge with another novel - this time in similar vein to Ghost Variations, though I need a bit of courage to do it.

The Oxford 'Ghosts of War' concert starring violinist Alena Baeva and conductors Hannah Schneider and Marios Papadopoulos is next Saturday - please come if you're within shooting distance - and on 16 June I'm doing a pre-concert talk with Steven Isserlis at the Wigmore Hall about the Fauré String Quartet and the Schumann Geistervariationen and Violin Concerto, which is a rare combination and, if your musical enthusiasms are anything like mine, a wonderful treat.

The central figure of my new book is a real-life 19th-century woman, blessed with extraordinary energy, vision and determination, who despairs over the "dull wits" that surround her. She knows her country could have become the most advanced and sophisticated in the whole of Europe, but for the fact that those who hold the power and the money don't have the requisite intelligence or imagination to make it happen. But she keeps trying, and so will we. I look forward to introducing her to you properly in due course. There are so many wonderful things to do, so many new and interesting ways to communicate the wonders of music, which is human creativity at its very best - if only we keep finding the energy and don't give up.