Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Decade? How were the - whaddyacallits - for you?

Clara Schumann. This was the year it all came home.

End of a decade that won't be much missed, unless the twenties ahead fail to roar, or roar - as they might - in all the wrong ways. Nobody seems sure what to call this past lot. The 'teenies' might be a good one, with reference to Trump's hands.

How were they for you? Bests and worsts? My worst is probably the Very Stressful Thing 8 years ago that left me with a long-term health issue I could seriously have done without. It seemed to signal that we were moving into a world of irrationality and persecution that was likely to get worse rather than better, which is exactly what's happened. But we keep on keeping on, because something I've learned from Beethoven (who is off to the publisher tomorrow) is to sing joy at the worst of times as the ultimate defiance. Beethoven weaponised positivity. He never gave up. It's just as well we have a year of him ahead.

The best thing of the decade, though, is that I've discovered my favourite thing in the whole world ever is writing librettos. Silver Birch for Roxanna Panufnik at Garsington was a life-changing experience - the sort of moment when you regret all the years you spent on other stuff when you could have been WRITING OPERAS instead.

2017, indeed, was a spectacularly wonderful year, the Brexit mess notwithstanding. Not only Silver Birch but a magical visit to Leipzig to write Being Mrs Bach, the success of Ghost Variations and a visit to a favourite interviewee to talk about Schubert knee-deep in a field of mountain wildflowers are all memories to cherish. Performing Alicia's Gift at the Wigmore Hall with Viv McLean was a phenomenal highlight of 2016. Then Odette took wing in 2018, having been in the works for 26 years.

One of the oddities of the financial crisis was that it kicked the stuffing out of traditional publishers -who dropped many hardworking and dedicated "mid-list" authors, mostly because they had paid insanely huge advances to "celebrities" to produce stuff that, surprise surprise, didn't sell. Unbound is one of the new business models that has sprung up to deal with that situation. Instead of saying "there's no market for that, dearie", they allow you to prove there is a market first, by selling the thing in advance. This has worked jolly well. Immortal, the Beethoven novel I have waited all my life to write, was fully funded within three months (and you can still get your name in the book as a patron if you click here.) Regrettably, the 'teenies' have turned us all into hustlers. I'm sorry about that, but please blame the government for not dealing properly with the root philosophical causes of the financial crash in the first place.

For me personally it's been a decade of vicissitudes - Brexit, the Indy going xxxx-up, and the dissolution in front of my eyes of several professions that were all viable ways of making a living back in 1987 when I finished university - and yet in other ways it's been the best decade I've ever had. You may wonder if I miss the Independent, and sometimes I do, but often I don't. (Though I do miss it being the quality broadsheet newspaper I was so pleased to join in 2004.) Along similar lines, I miss our ginger bruiser Solti to bits, but we now have our Somali cats Ricki and Cosi who are simply the best.

In some ways 2019 was the year certain things came home to roost. The ascendency of awareness of women composers has been impressive. First of all, I seem to have spent half the year writing about Clara Schumann, whose 200th anniversary has provided a marvellous figurehead-point. And remember Pauline Viardot, whom I started shouting about sometime in ?2003? Now Orlando Figes has written a fabulous book about her, Turgenev and Louis Viardot entitled The Europeans; Cecilia Bartoli is putting her centre stage at the Salzburg Easter Festival; there's a definite upswing.

Conducting, too, is a growth area for female musicians, and not before time. Brava to Mirga Grazynite-Tyla, changing minds across the world from the heart of Birmingham, and all the fantastic work the RPS Women Conductors programme is doing - and much, much more besides.

Next, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor - another composer I've been yelling about since a similar time - has become rather a figurehead for the fantastic Chineke! Orchestra. They have just been touring his gorgeous Violin Concerto around Europe, flummoxing racists and shining the light.

Meanwhile, music and storytelling have been coming together in all manner of ways - try the Aurora Orchestra's Berlioz Symphonie fantastique - and showing how new audiences can be engaged and won.

A new decade can bring a new injection of energy as we try to figure out what went wrong and how we can put it right. Now: climate change is the single biggest problem. Also, keeping peace in the face of worldwide popularity for strongman politicians who care for nothing but their own power; and maintaining the fight for liberty, equality and siblinghood.

As for the arts, my hopes are these.
-- We can reconnect music and opera and ballet to humanity by writing new works that people actually relate to and in which young people can perform.
-- We need to get rid of a situation where the substance of an artwork is secondary to the superficial way it is performed. We risk not seeing the wood for the trees, missing the point, and alienating huge swathes of audience.
-- We need urgently to find a way for freedom of movement to continue for arts practitioners between the UK and Europe, or our arts scene in Britain is going to suffer very, very badly. The case has been built often by organisations such as the ISM and the ABO, but there's precious little sign that anybody is listening; perhaps some quiet behind-the-scenes machinations might help. Brexit will show everybody its true colours in due course - whether it takes one year, five or 50 - and until then we can only try and limit its likely damage.
-- Let us seize fate by the throat. It shall not overcome us wholly. How beautiful it is to live - to live a thousand times! (Thank you, "Luigi".)