Monday, August 03, 2020

Leon Fleisher (23 July 1928 - 2 August 2020): in memoriam

Sad news today of the death of the great pianist and teacher Leon Fleisher, aged 92. I much regret not having met him in person, especially as my father was among the scientists whose research led to the therapy that ultimately helped Fleisher's focal dystonia. I did, however, talk to him on the phone for the Independent back in 2010 when he came to the UK to participate in the Aldeburgh Festival. Here is some of that interview.

                                                                       Leon Fleisher 
                                                                    Photo: Ned Burgess
 

JD: Please talk us through your experience of focal dystonia, what it did to you and how it came about?

 

LF: I noticed that the fingers of my right hand started to have the tendency to curl under and my initial reaction was that it seemed to me I’d have to increase my practising and it was a sign that I wasn’t working enough – which was the wrong thing to do. Over a period of about 10 months that tendency became so pronounced that two fingers virtually dug into the palm of my hand and it took enormous effort to straighten them out, followed by endless visits to countless doctors and a search that lasted 35 years with no answers. 


To make a long story short, I found two modalities eventually that helped me. One was called Rolfing, named after the German therapist Ida Rolf. Because Rolfing is a modality of tissue manipulation that can restore the normal plasticity of even the fibres of whatever tissue is being manipulated; and eventually I was informed of a programme at the National Institute of Health in Maryland for people with similar dysfunction and they were treating them with something called Botox, of all things. They inject the botox where the nerve informs the muscle to contract, which is not at the site of the muiscle itself but usually somewhere between the site where the muscle is affected and the brain. In my case, it’s in the forearm and they inject a minute amount of botox - which is a virulent poison - into the muscle, just paralysing it a little bit so that the tendency to curl under is weakened just a wee bit and therefore allows the opposing muscles, the flexor muscles, to be more effective. That’s the mechanism for the treatment of focal dystonia. They don’t know what causes it and therefore they don’t have a cure, but they’ve found this way to help deal with the symptoms. 

 

JD: My father was a neuropathologist, involved in the early research into the therapeutic use of botulinum toxin….) 

 

LF: Possibly he knew the neurologist friend of mine here in Baltimore who developed the idea of the botulinum – Dan Drachman. (JD: Yes, they were good colleagues). His father-in-law was Gregor Piatigorsky! Dan was the one that told me about this programme. 

 

JD: You returned to playing with both hands around 1995-96. How do you feel the whole experience changed you as a musician? 

 

LF: All I can say is that after a couple of years in a pretty deep depression I finally woke up one morning realising that my connection to music was not exclusively as a two-hands piano player, it was a little more profound than that. This enabled me to do a number of things. It enabled me to expand my teaching in a way that became more productive: that is to say I was no longer able to push students off the piano bench and demonstrate the way I thought it should go, I had to find words to express that very intangible and ephemeral aspect of music, and I think I became a better teacher. 


The formal admission to myself that I had this thing of being dystonic somehow freed me up to examine the not-inconsiderable literature for the left hand alone in which can be found several great works – the Ravel Left Hand Concerto is one of the great pieces of literature for the piano and it gave me the idea also to start conducting, which was a totally new endeavour for me and from which I learned so enormously and which brought me tremendous satisfaction and gratification – it makes me wonder, were I to live my life over again I’m not sure I would change anything.

 

JD: Do you remember now how it felt the first time you were able to sit down & play with both hands again?

 

LF: Yes, and curiously enough it wasn’t what many people might think – I’d tested it every day of those 35 years so that I was expecting somewhere, somehow, I was always one step away from being able to do it. So when I finally did it, it was enormously satisfying, but not as enormously revelatory as you might think. 

 

JD: Was there any special piece or composer that you were most happy to be able to play again?

 

LF: Well, yes, I played some of my old favourites for myself – the D minor Brahms Concerto, Beethoven 5. Enormously satisfying.

 

JD: What happens now? Do you have to keep having treatment? 

 

LF: Once a dystonic, always a dystonic, so I get my injections now once every four months.

 

JD: There have been a lot of studies recently, looking at music and science and the way the brain and musical instinct hook up – I wonder, why now? Do you have any views on that? 

 

LF: Perhaps it’s just that it’s probably about time and it’s ripe for investigation. I don’t think the question is so much from the artistic side, but science is now ready. The mind is always trying to break things down and look for that moment in time when creativity starts

 

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Last day to 'become an IMMORTAL'


A portrait of Countess Therese Brunsvik von Korompa - regrettably misidentified on TV the other day as Antonie Brentano. Therese is the narrator of IMMORTAL (but she is not the Immortal Beloved!)

I've been up to my eyeballs in the last edit of IMMORTAL, plus trying to be two other work-people at the same time, so I've been doing 15-hr days, I am knackered and I could use a holiday, but I have to jump straight in to another massive project, starting tomorrow. 
More of that anon, but meanwhile today is the last day to get your name listed in IMMORTAL as a patron. Tomorrow I shall send back the final edit and after that the book will be turned into proofs. After that, only errors/typos can change: no more additions. So if you have not yet put in a pledge and you want to be there, it is literally your last chance.
In the meantime, I'm thrilled to share with you  three amazing endorsements for the book. Here we are:
“IMMORTAL is a revelation, offering the ideal blend of historic exactitude and a book you simply won’t want to put down." -- Daniel Hope, violinist and president of the Beethoven-Haus, Bonn
“The perfect companion for this landmark Beethoven anniversary year. Jessica’s writing is, as always, deeply knowledgable, emanating from a profound understanding of her material. This new book brings the human, vulnerable side of Beethoven into focus for our 21st Century audience.” -- Marin Alsop, conductor
"From its first, dazzlingly-rendered pages, IMMORTAL pulls you into a vanished world and an utterly compelling love story – at its centre, one of music’s greatest and most enduring mysteries. Few authors understand better than Jessica Duchen the way music can change the course of a life; and few writers make that music leap more vividly off the page. If you’ve ever wondered what Ludwig van Beethoven was like as a man, here he is, painted as if from life: inspiring, infuriating, and intensely, unapologetically real. Because for all her understanding of art and character, and her brilliantly-described evocations of early 19th-century Vienna in all its splendour and squalor, Duchen never forgets that at the core of all great music – and all great stories – beats a human heart." -- Richard Bratby, music critic and author
Thank you to all three of them, many thousands of times!
Progress here is good and I have to say that preparing a book for publication doesn't half keep your mind off pandemics and lockdowns. Take care, everyone, keep well and thank you again for all your support. More soon...

Monday, July 06, 2020

Thank you!

The government has just announced a rescue package for the UK's arts and heritage that is worth £1.57bn. 

A massive "thank you" is in order - to them, to the organisations whose directors lobbied for us all, to the individuals who talked and discussed and presented and persuaded, to the members of the public who shouted and signed petitions, and to everyone who has realised - at long, long last - just how much the arts are worth to us as human beings and as a country. As the first, they support our souls. As the second, they support our entire lives by bringing in billions to the treasury - and they're inextricably enmeshed with innumerable other industries that depend on the people they attract. 

The small print will need reading, of course. For several theatres it may be too late. The status of the arts freelancers whose income is now £0 and who don't qualify for the self-employment support scheme remains to be seen - there's scant indication of help for them. Whether there are strings attached, and what they are, likewise. Still the package is a lot more than most of us had expected and we should give credit where it's due. It makes the difference between hope and no hope - and that is very big indeed.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Finding our roots: a guest post by Rebeca Omordia

In solidarity with BLM, I'm handing the floor to the pianist Rebeca Omordia to tell us the hows and whys of her African concert series, which goes online later this month. Her CD of music by Nigerian composers was proof that we need to hear a great deal more of them! 
You can also watch a preview of the series on the African Concert Series Facebook page, here.
Over to you, Rebeca...
jd




The African Concert Series London was launched in 2019 and its mission was pioneering repertoire by African Art composers. Bringing African classical music to the Western audience was right from the start an endeavour meant to unravel the cultural diversity of the African continent, reflected in its music, and to create a platform for the African classical music to be performed.

Africa is very colourful - each country in Africa has a multitude of ethnic groups and each ethnic group has a music of its own, with characteristic melodies and rhythms -, quality which I have tried to emphasise in the programmes of The African Concert Series, through individually themed concerts: Nigerian Odyssey, The South African Double Bass, String Quartets by African Composers, Arabesque: Piano music from the Arabworld, and many more.

After the success of the 2019 series, I had hoped for other performances in 2020 but the Coronavirus pandemic forced us all into our homes. The 2020 online series is not a resignation, an acceptance of “The New Normal”, we are not bending our heads down and pretend we still have jobs as performers; it is the continuation of our pioneering work, of taking the message forward despite circumstances. During the current social and racial climate, I believe returning to one's roots is the best form of self-care and I truly hope it inspires others to research their origins and explore their heritage. 

The online series features one week of very short performances, especially recorded for this programme, streamed daily on The African Concert Series Facebook page starting on 22 June that will reveal music never heard before by the social media audience, giving us the opportunity to reach a wider audience.

African classical music, known as African Art music, emerged in West Africa in the 20th century and its founding father is Nigerian composer Fela Sowande (l905-1987). Most of the African composers studied in Europe then returned to their African countries where they began broadcasting and lecturing in universities. Eventually, Music Societies were formed (e.g. MUSON – Musical Society of Nigeria founded in 1983) allowing for classical concerts to be performed. All composers wrote music in a Western classical style while using African traditional melodies and rhythms. Composers from Ethiopia, South Africa, the Arab world – Morocco, Algeria, developed their own style of art music.

The African Concert Series 2020 - online edition opens on 22 June with multi-award winner St Louis (USA) based Nigerian-Ghanaian composer and pianist Fred Onovwerosuoke and his wife flautist Wendy Hymes. FredO, as friends call him, became internationally renowned when his chant Bolingo was featured as a soundtrack in Robert de Niro's film The Good Shepherd. FredO wrote music for many instruments including the flute, music featured on The African Art Music for Flutealbum released by Wendy in 2008. 

The second performance in the series is by Nigeria’s leading tenor Jo Oparamanuike, accompanied by Babatunde Sosan, the third in his family to be organist at Christ Church, Lagos, who will stream from Nigeria. South African virtuoso bass player Leon Bosch will play music featured on his new Meridian Records CD The South African Double Bass– music composed especially for him. Nigerian pianist Glen Inanga, founder of the first ever Arts Festival in the Cayman Islands, will perform music from Nigeria. Moroccan-Hungarian pianist Marouan Benabdallah has been touring the world to great acclaim with his programme Arabesque: Piano music from the Arab world, project which lead to the discovery of 90 composers from countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. 

I will close the series on 29 June with a selection from 24 Studies in African Rhythms by Fred Onovwerosuoke. FredO travelled the whole Africa where he gathered material that he used in his 24 Studies in African Rhythms, each study is inspired by a song or a dance from a different country in Africa.
Rebeca Omordia

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Rattle and Elder step up to shout

Many thanks to everyone for your fantastic response to yesterday's post. Keep yelling!

We shouldn't underestimate the quiet and devoted behind-the-scenes beavering that is taking place on behalf of the music world: missions that hopefully will start shouting in due course, but may not have done so yet. I am getting the impression that there are spaces to watch...

Today The Guardian is carrying an open letter from Sir Simon Rattle and Sir Mark Elder regarding the plight of British musicians of all genres. You can read the whole thing on the site, but here's a taste of it:


There are so many pressing problems to solve in the UK that it takes courage even to mention the desperate situation of classical music in the time of Covid-19.
There’s a real possibility of a devastated landscape on the other side of this; orchestras may not survive, and if they do, they may face insuperable obstacles to remain solvent in our new reality. What we write applies, of course, to all types of music, not just classical music which is our area of expertise. Our music is essentially a live experience and requires all the participants, performers and listeners alike, to be in the same room together. What we may do individually over the internet in these months is all well and good, but the living core of our work is a live communion, a sharing of space, art and emotion which is both vital and healing.
This healing will become ever more necessary in the coming time as we attempt to bear witness and understand what we have all gone through. In such an existential crisis, the realisation of our shared vulnerability will surely change and deepen our relationship to all the arts. In our own field we are asking ourselves; how can we get back to live music? How can we give our audiences the courage to gradually return?
More immediately, how can we maintain musical continuity when orchestras are silenced? And how do we nurture a generation of young musicians whose prospects look bleak just as they embark on a career in this ever more uncertain world?...

Meanwhile (not directly related to the above), I promised some music on a regular basis, so here is something I heard the other day - live via my phone while in the middle of Richmond Park, surrounded by greenery. Wood magic from Schumann, and Fauré's Cello Sonata No.1 - Steven Isserlis and Mishka Rushdie Momen at the Wigmore Hall. Please watch it on the Wigmore's own site and do make a donation if you can. I was horrified to see that one of the concerts the other day had raised a grand total that was well under £100, and I'm sure we can do better than that. https://wigmore-hall.org.uk/live-streams/steven-isserlis-cello-mishka-rushdie-momen-piano

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

"The position of the perpetual spectator"


I'm reading Music Comes Out of Silence, by András Schiff and the Swiss journalist Martin Meyer, which has just been published in English translation. Its first part is a discussion between them which veers from the fascinating to the eye-opening to several hilarious anecdotes. The second part consists of essays, letters and reflections by Schiff himself. The passage above is from a piece he wrote in 2000 in response to the far-right politician Jörg Haider's election in Austria. Haider was killed in a road accident in 2008, but otherwise Schiff's words are as true today as they were 20 years ago.

Today, while the few newspapers that accord any space to classical music are pointing out that in the UK the industry faces collapse within months, somehow only a handful of musicians are speaking up about the dangers. Many are talking online about music, streaming performances from home or doing both, finding ways to keep motivated and keep their, and our, brains engaged with our art. It needs, nevertheless, to go further than that.

There's no shortage of anger and anxiety, and at first I was convinced that a large part of the problem is simply that newspapers are just not interested enough in classical music to give it the sort of airing that exists for theatre, in which stars like David Tennant and Sam West are household names. There is an excellent piece in today's Guardian by Charlotte Higgins - which asks why we are not putting up more of a fight.

Part of the issue is the lack of cohesion between various organising bodies. I have been wondering where the Musicians' Union is in all this. All I can find at the moment is a report in which it appears to suggest that two musicians sitting next to each other facing forward shouldn't be a problem because they're not breathing on each other. Um. [UPDATE 5.15pm: Today the MU General Secretary, Horace Trubridge, speaks up eloquently in The Evening Standard - in an article that is headlined by theatre. Music is placed second, under cover - as is so often the case. Another indication that media attitudes must shoulder a lot of this blame.] Organisations such as the ISM and the ABO have been active and energetic, but chiefly behind the scenes, lobbying the necessary forces-that-be; and they are only occasionally picked up and yelled about on Radio 4.

What about actual musicians? Chi-chi Nwanoku, founder of Chineke!, has been a fabulous spokesperson for the art form, especially in the crucial area of race relations, and has been featured on LBC. Nicola Benedetti speaks out eloquently on behalf of music education. But there has to be the airtime. Tasmin Little, liberated months too early from the stage commitments she was preparing to relinquish amid much celebration this summer (she should have been giving her final Southbank Centre recital on 5 June), has been on Radio 4 current affairs programmes several times - but too often her contributions have been curtailed by the programmes. On one occasion a guest performance she had recorded for them was reduced to seven notes of "Somewhere over the rainbow". She has nevertheless revealed that she earned £12.34 for 5 million streams and this figure is now being quoted everywhere to show how appallingly our sector is served by the multi-million-pound giants who provide the streaming. Any classical soloist would be able to say the same, so why do they not? Too shy? Too scared? I honestly have no idea.

Here is Sam West, speaking up about why the UK's arts scene is more affected than those of our neighbours in France and Germany. Basically, it's the funding model: we have been trained to rely on commercialism because government subsidy accounts for a comparatively minuscule share of the funding. When commercial activity ceases, therefore, we are harder hit. Please listen:


Samuel West introduces the latest Arts Index - June 2020 from National Campaign for the Arts on Vimeo.

It begs the question: where is everyone? I'd like to think that the philistine media is chiefly to blame for not allowing the oxygen of publicity into the music sector. But I am also aware that musicians are not accustomed to what we journalists shrug away as "the rough and tumble". In times of trouble, the ostrich instinct in many of them runs deep. It's fair enough to be scared. Also, however, when I remember the music college in which I lasted three weeks before fleeing in despair, feeling that if I stayed I'd be turned into a lemon, I'm actually not surprised. How I wish that education for musicians more often included education beyond music itself.

There would be a benefit in this for all. You'll note that the illustration at the top of this article comes from one of the world's most justly celebrated pianists - and indeed the musicians who reach the very top are often those with the laser-sharp minds. Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim, Alfred Brendel, Thomas Adès and Schiff have reached the heights in part because of their extreme intelligence. Igor Levit and Mahan Esfahani are among a newer generation who fully grasp the essential nature of the connections between music and the wider world, the community and what it means to be a full human being with responsibility for our fellow human beings.

Musicians who speak up certainly receive abuse for it, but this is par for the course: there'll always be someone to snipe "shut up and play" if they disagree with you. All it means is that you said something true that got under their skin. Take it as a badge of honour.

If your training has provided no scope for writing and speaking, let alone broader education, don't worry. You can do this for yourself at any time. You don't have to be 18 (it's possibly better if you are older anyway). You don't have to sign up to a course. You can download from the internet any book on philosophy, society, economics, history or global warming that you desire. You can learn languages on Duolingo (I'm finding this quite addictive). There are plenty of actors and acting coaches who need work as much as you do and will train you in public speaking techniques. No time to go to museums, and now they're shut? Look at the online exhibitions. Explore ancient Egypt and the splendours of Pompei, from the screen of your phone if nothing else. Listen to the great gurus of Indian classical music; explore cultures you haven't encountered, their ways of thinking, their traditions, problems and means of expression. Look at what is really going on in Syria, Afghanistan, the refugee camps, the Mexican border, the diamond trade, the tobacco industry, the Palestinian territories. Read the first-hand accounts. Talk to people who have been through it. Read the damn news from a reliable source, and distinguish it from conspiracy theories and propaganda. If you feed your creativity, your curiosity, your strength of character and opinion, it will feed your musicianship. Indeed, you will quite possibly become a better musician for it (OK, you need to remember to do enough practising too.)

Dear musicians, in this hour of trouble do not on any account "shut up and play". Get out there and start yelling. 

Tell people what music means to you. Show them what music can and does mean to them. Demonstrate what music does for us all. The financial figures speak for themselves - the UK's music industry is worth billions more to our exchequer than the fisheries the tabloids shout about - but the worth of art music in education and wider western culture has been eroded until swathes of the population are disinclined to give it the time of day. It's up to us to tell them - and you more than me. Though I was also a trained musician, I'm a writer and always have been; I'm used to it and my voice comes through. That's why you're reading this. You need to be able to do it too. Get talking. Get writing. Get shouting. The internet is an open platform and you don't need to wait for someone to do it for you. Get it? Got it? Good. Now, go for it.

Friday, June 05, 2020

Solidarity: Chineke! revisited



The concerts by Chineke!, Europe's first-ever majority BME orchestra, have been among the most uplifting of any I've attended. The phrase "a breath of fresh air" has often come to mind. It is not a question of sitting primly to listen thinking proper thoughts like "Ah, multi-racial, very good...". And it is certainly not about suddenly making classical music "cool" by, ooh, including performers of different races who might wear something relaxed and smile now and then. No. It's a direct and gut-based reaction to the atmosphere in the hall.

There's enthusiasm, delight, revelation - for lots of people come to these events who have rarely or never attended a concert before - and a sense of discovery for us all. For example, music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and his daughter Avril Coleridge-Taylor that we have never heard programmed in "mainstream" concerts, or the music of wonderful contemporary composers such as the Errollyn Wallen, Philip Herbert and Daniel Kidane. The excitement in the audience, though, is a response to that on stage.

This week the term "a breath of fresh air" has acquired a whole new meaning. George Floyd's last words "I can't breathe" have swept the world as the emblem signalling, over entrenched racism, that enough is enough.

As a tribute and in solidarity, here is an extract from Chineke!'s concert four years ago at the Queen Elizabeth Hall: this is their "signature" piece, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Ballade. Wayne Marshall conducts.

Coleridge-Taylor, like Barack Obama, was the son of a white mother and a black father. In 1912, aged 37, he collapsed on West Croydon station and died several days later of pneumonia, brought on through exhaustion and overwork. This was partly because although he had written the most popular oratorio of Edwardian England, Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, he had sold the rights for a one-off pittance and received no financial recompense whatever for its wild success. Among those who had defended him against the racism he encountered for much of his short life was his teacher at the Royal College of Music, Charles Stanford, who on hearing another student making racist remarks, informed him that Coleridge-Taylor had more talent for music in his little finger than the rest of the students put together.

I want you to hear this music and reflect on where we could all be, instead of the fearsome and disgraceful situation that lies before us now. We could be making music together, in joy, freedom and equality, no matter who we are or where we come from.

You cannot stand in front of something you know is wrong and do nothing. To make a change, one has first to recognise the need for it. And maybe that's where Chineke!'s power comes from: a recognition, an idea, a plan - and action. A breath of fresh air.


Thursday, June 04, 2020

Triumph, tragedy and trying very hard

Another week, another litany of bungles, idiocies and the counting of "excess" deaths (where's Beckett when you need him?) and in the arts world a paradoxical mingling of unjustified pessimism, unjustified optimism and unjustified attacks on one for the other are doing little to help. However, some things are moving, and they are not always the things you'd expect.

The Wigmore Hall has started a series of live-streamed lunchtime concerts in front of a physical audience of two (the head of the venue and the Radio 3 announcer). Taken up first by Radio 3 and subsequently by the European Broadcasting Union too, they are already reaching vast international audiences. Today you can hear Nicholas Daniel (oboe) and Julius Drake (piano). The Royal Opera House is planning to start a similar idea later this month. Everywhere there's streaming, creativity, resourcefulness. And everywhere I hear opinions like, "Oh, the big places will be fine because they have money. It's the smaller ones I'm worried about..."

Actually - no. It's the big ones that are at most risk: those that are too large to adapt easily. A smaller organisation that is not fixed to a large, costly venue stands much more chance of surviving through changing its own practices, because it can. For example, Viv McLean and I were booked some while ago for a performance at a local music society in November, at a small neighbourhood venue of which we are very fond. The other week I had a call that I expected to reveal the cancellation of the event. Instead, the director asked if we'd mind playing somewhere larger, where the audience would be able to be seated with social distancing. They moved the concert by one day and about 500 metres to a beautiful, spacious church. We currently expect the performance to go ahead. They can do that.

A venue like the Royal Albert Hall or the ROH has a different problem. Their bricks and mortar, their red plush and their histories are as much their selling point as the artistry they house - and the costs of running huge venues are, in a nutshell, ferocious. The ROH has warned that it risks folding if social distancing has to continue past the autumn, because the economics of running a theatre that way simply cannot work in the long term. A lean, mean entity that can be flexible about its numbers, its venues, its pay and its programming is a tree-climbing mammal alongside the immovable brontosaurs that we love so much.

Overseas, in places where the pandemic has been bettered managed and more swiftly conquered, where transport by road from other parts of Europe is a little easier, and where funding is more readily available, some festivals are starting to reconstitute themselves. In the latest move, an email from Pontresina tells me that the Engadin Festival, based in St Moritz, is going ahead, again using larger venues than planned to enable audience distancing, and due to reconstituting of attendance numbers, involving a surprise recital by Renaud Capuçon and Martha Argerich and not one but two, for two socially distanced crowds, by Grigory Sokolov.

Here in plague island, where we can also look forward to the double-whammy joys (not) of a fantasist government of zealots foisting hard brexit upon us in the new year, it's not so easy. Streaming and Zooming seem to be if not quite the future then certainly the present. Resourcefulness certainly pays off. The LPO held its annual fundraising gala online the other day, included an individually pre-recorded movement from the 'Eroica' and got its guests to put on DJs for the occasion. Idagio has launched a Global Concert Hall in which specially filmed performances are available live and for 24 hours afterwards and cost £4.99 to watch, with "80% of net proceeds" going direct to the artists, which I hope might mean they receive something worthwhile, rather than the price of a pizza for 6 million streams.

On the one hand, streaming is great, with the potential for truly globalised audiences. But on the other hand, it's tragic. The performances I've enjoyed watching the most during this time are those previously filmed in packed venues with cheering audiences throwing flowers on stage at the end. I am listening to various livestreams, or catching up on them afterwards, but there's a cracking noise that interferes and it's my heart. I shall keep listening, in the hope that somehow or other I will get used to it...

The empty shell of a theatre or hall turns out to be a poor substitute for one that is alive with coughs, sweet paper rustles, chattering, shushing, canoodling and clapping between movements. Who knew: all those things so many people loved to hate and to mouth off about in fury on social media are in fact the very lifeblood of a concert hall.

It is better than nothing, but it has got to be a temporary, not a permanent solution. Whatever you do, don't start thinking of this as that blood-curdling concept "new normal". There is nothing normal about any of it and nor should there be. This is the thin end of a very wobbly wedge. It's as welcome as can be, because it keeps those stages, those artists and that music pulsing along in our lives and hearts. We need music in our lives. But those stages and those artists and that music, with composers hard at work, need us, too. There in person. Showing we love it. Supporting them.

In order to show that love and support, I'll include in postings, wherever possible, a performance from Youtube for you to enjoy. Today's is Imogen Cooper's 70th birthday concert from the Wigmore Hall, given last autumn.




Sunday, May 31, 2020

Dancing du Pré



Ballet at its finest does something no other art form can match. It can articulate elusive emotions and ineffable relationships, making them palpable when words would scarcely exist. How, for instance, can one capture the nature of the relationship between a musician and their instrument? The interdependency which seems to make the latter into a second self, an interwoven soul?

The latest online offering from the Royal Opera House is the new ballet The Cellist by choreographer Cathy Marston, which was premiered only a few months ago. It's the story of Jacqueline du Pré, with original score by Philip Feeney partly based on many different pieces from her repertoire - Elgar, Schubert, Beethoven, Fauré, Schumann and more - with one important difference. The cello is human.

Indeed, he's Marcelino Sambé, one of the Royal Ballet's brightest young stars (if you saw the disappointingly infantilised TV documentary about the company's male dancers the other day, you'll have spotted him there). How do you become a cello? Sambé's extraordinary dancing embodies it all: there's virtuosity, plasticity, dignity, yearning beauty and an otherness, offset by human beings with their multiplicity of everyday detail. Moreover, anyone who's ever dated or married a musician knows that "there's three of us in this relationship": and the emotional height is not the sensual Fauré-based pas de deux for the Cellist and the Husband, but the performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto - backed by a dancing orchestra - in which the two of them and the Cello become an inseparable twelve-limbed conglomeration of movement, concentration and flow, rising and falling individually yet as one.

Opening with the rolling of many LPs, which inspire the child Jackie to dream of learning to play, with the Cello reaching out to her, the ballet follows her from her first lessons through young adulthood, leaving home, meeting and marrying her conductor husband (of whom more in a moment) and the heights of success; then the onset of her illness and her decline until the poignant final scene in which she lies in her armchair listening to her own recording, with Sambé spinning around her like an LP in frisbee flight.

The dramaturgical detail is seriously enjoyable for du Pré fans, who will guess that Gary Avis is William Pleeth, taking hold of Sambé to demonstrate a phrase, or that the wedding is in Israel by the Wailing Wall amid the wartime dangers of 1967, and that the Jewish wedding dance is but a step away from Hava Nagila. The 'Musical Friends' in bright-coloured shirts who join the three leads for a session based on the scherzo of the 'Trout' Quintet are bound to be Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Zubin Mehta - capturing in dance all the joyous collegiality, quirkiness and high-jinx fun that the quintet brought to that famous filmed performance: Jackie is transformed briefly into her husband's piano, held for him by the three men, which feels like a delicious riff on the way the group were captured in Christopher Nupen's film trying to play one another's instruments. Much of this won't be obvious to those who are not intimately familiar with du Pré's history, but those who are will derive a bit of extra "ooh" factor from the ballet.

Lauren Cuthbertson as The Cellist, Marcelino Sambé as The Instrument
Photo: (c) ROH, Bill Cooper 

Matthew Ball as the Husband - Daniel Barenboim, of course - can't help but be taller and lither than the man himself, but his dancing really does embody something of Barenboim's driven, animalistic energy. As The Cellist, Lauren Cuthbertson too is uncannily like du Pré, in blue dress, pony tail and a succession of cardigans: the generous smile, the open-limbed joie-de-vivre, the absolute get-up-and-go that vanishes in the agony of illness, finally shattering in the trembling of a bow arm that, in front of an assembled audience and with Sambé ready in front of her, simply will not move.

Other characters are treated with a lighter touch than they have sometimes received in other contexts. The Sister (implicitly Hilary) is an archetypal sister, stirring Jackie's tea, beautifully danced by Anna Rose O'Sullivan. The parents are a lovely, conventional family and the Mother's anguish over the abandoned cardigan as Jackie vanishes into the big wide world is deeply touching. Marston sets all of this with a gentle, humane quirkiness in which the Cello is not the only inanimate object transformed by human portrayal: dancers become the family furniture, with a finger as a switch on a lamp, and later, briefly, du Pré's wheelchair. Specially wonderful are a couple of star turns for the sisters as children, Lauren Godfrey as the teenage Hilary and Emma Lucano as the dreaming young Jackie, who match the adults for charisma, character and expertise.

Marston's choreography captures all of this wealth of history, imagination and otherwise intangible embodiment with tremendous flair. The cello performance starter-pose is perfect: Sambé kneeling in front of Cuthbertson with one raised arm as the cello's neck and one extended leg as its spike. Yet occasionally the sheer quantity of movement can feel overwhelming: personally I enjoy moments of slowness and stillness in ballet in which the eye and brain can enwrap more clearly the sculptural moments of the choreography, something one finds aplenty in Ashton and MacMillan. As in music, a rest can speak more loudly than demisemiquavers, so too in dance.

Perhaps the ultimate value of this ballet, though, is to illuminate for those to whom it's a new concept that a musical instrument is not just an inanimate object. You do not put them in the plane's hold, and this is why. It literally risks breaking your dancing partner into pieces. I hope that in the empty-skied lockdown, many off-duty airline staff will see and enjoy this fabulous creation and understand, some for the first time, exactly what they are doing.

Last but by no means least, there is glorious cello playing throughout from Hetty Snell.

You can watch the whole thing here. Please donate to the company, which is losing 60% of its income while forcibly closed, with no reopening date currently knowable.


Wednesday, May 27, 2020

In case you missed BEETHOVEN MATTERS, catch up here

Toby Spence sings Florestan's aria, together with pianist David Owen Norris
but somewhere else

Yesterday it was a pleasure and privilege to "Dimbleby" for Beethoven Matters, a discussion for Garsington Opera and the Royal Philharmonic Society - one that we had assumed weeks ago would not be able to go ahead. Here's what actually happened.

We were going to be live in a small London music venue, expecting an audience of maybe 150-200, with a performance from two of our panellists, Toby Spence and David Owen Norris, and questions from the floor at the end. We expected to have to defend Beethoven amid the slough of overkill resulting from his 250th anniversary and to raise appetite for the new production of Fidelio at Garsington this summer, with Toby as Florestan. All this was going to happen on 29 April, and it was with regret that we saw it floating away into the ether, complete with the new production and most of the anniversary events across the world.

Hang on - there is a thing called Zoom. And some clever people who work for Garsington and the RPS who know how to work it, and how to fade videos and photos in and out of it, and how David could record the piano part of Florestan's aria in his house and send it to Toby, who could then record the singing and these two videos could be put together into something that while not as ideal as a joint performance, was very much better than we could ever have dreamed just three months ago. Indeed, three months ago most of us had never even heard of Zoom, let alone imagined that such a talk could be captured on it and broadcast live simultaneously on Facebook and Youtube. We could even have questions - not from the floor, but from the screen, and arriving from all over the world, including California and Bucharest.

We reached an audience on Youtube that was much what we would have expected from the live event, but on Facebook our technical wizard noted hits that topped the equivalent of a full Wigmore Hall.

This is amazing. It seems we're so globalised that we don't have to go anywhere at all.

Our discussion, with conductor Dougie Boyd, composer Freya Waley-Cohen and, of course, Toby and David, ranged across Beethoven the musician, Beethoven the human being and Beethoven the leaver of a legacy that still inspires and sometimes intimidates even today. If you missed it, you can catch up here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2RctalAtNbk&feature=youtu.be

We couldn't reconstitute the Fidelio production, though, and we couldn't go to the pub together afterwards. Tom nevertheless treated me to prosecco in the back garden and I hope my fabulous colleagues were similarly fortunate.

Beethoven, as the poet Ruth Padel says, is the music of hope. We couldn't agree more.



Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Southbank: a love letter



A view from the terrace of the biggest arts centre in the biggest city in Europe,
which ought to be our pride and joy

Dear Southbank Centre,

You are my home-from-home. You have been for 40 years, possibly more. With yesterday's news that you may have to stay closed until April 2021 at least (which I must admit isn't wholly unexpected), there comes a sense of dismay and anxiety that's almost vertiginous even without being compounded by the same fears for the future of Shakespeare's Globe, the National Theatre, the Royal Opera House, the West End, and indeed every other theatre and concert hall in the land. Nobody has yet solved the conundrum of infectious disease versus mass audience versus economics of putting on a show. Trouble is inevitable. That doesn't mean we should just roll over and accept it.

Britain without its arts would be...well, not a lot. We've always been defined by our theatre, our playwrights, our authors, our actors; in recent decades also, at long, long last, by our musicians. Some of the finest in the world are British - not that we always appreciate them enough - and their numbers are swelled by those who have decided to make London their home, in many cases exactly because of its flourishing arts scene. Kill that off and you destroy first of all billions in our economy - guess why tourists come here? It ain't for skiing; secondly, the present and future of dozens of thousands of people whose livelihoods exist in this huge industry (which is worth a lot more in economic terms to the country than fishing); the dreams of generations of young people who find fulfilment, creativity and hope in the arts as nowhere else; and, essentially, anything that still remains of our souls.

Opera North's Ring Cycle, relayed into the foyer from the RFH
Dear Southbank, I remember the first time I was brought to experience you, in particular the Royal Festival Hall. It was a concert by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Rudolf Kempe, with Miriam Freed the violin soloist. My father coached me on the music for a week beforehand, playing me recordings and telling me about the composers: Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and the Dvorak New World Symphony. I remember staring at the flautist in fascination and feeling sorry for her, because she was sitting right in front of some awfully loud brass. Not long afterwards I was in again for my first piano recital - Tamás Vásáry playing the Chopin Waltzes - and a taste of chamber music, in the form of the Amadeus Quartet and William Pleeth in the Schubert Quintet.

That was also the first time I went backstage, and I have no idea how or why we did that, but I do remember circling the RFH's Green Room looking for the quartet members to sign my programme, and William Pleeth looking down from what seemed a very great height with the most benevolent smile in the world. Often I'm in that room twice a week now.

When I was a teenager, the penny dropped in earnest. Or rather, Ernest: the Ernest Reid Children's Concerts. I was first to arrive for our music O level class one day and found myself unexpectedly conscripted: "There's one place free in the choir to sing at the Royal Festival Hall and it goes to the first person to arrive today, which is you...". Actually I can't sing to save my life - but gosh, did I sing then, and wow, did I love it. We performed specially arranged versions of the Fauré Requiem (that was where I got my passion for Fauré, too), the Haydn "Creation" with Sir David Willcocks, Handel's "Messiah", Vivaldi's Gloria and some wonderfully offbeat Christmas carols. There were lightbulbs around the mirrors in the dressing rooms, we were seated on benches beside the mighty organ, and we felt so grown-up. We'd take the tube to Embankment and walk over Hungerford Bridge in the rain and there you were, the RFH, on the far side, sitting proud like a green prize cat with curved back, waiting for us to stroke you.

Then Horowitz came to give his last London recital and I queued up for ages and didn't get in. Howls. But in those teen years I went to other piano recitals that shaped my piano passions for decades. Sviatoslav Richter. Krystian Zimerman (aged 23). András Schiff (aged 28). Maurizio Pollini, Alfred Brendel, Annie Fischer, Imogen Cooper, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Shura Cherkassky, Murray Perahia, Alicia de Larrocha, Emil Gilels, André Tchaikovsky, Mitsuko Uchida, Daniel Barenboim and more - none of them ever forgotten, each of them treasured like a priceless family heirloom that lives on in the heart and the inner ear.

Vladimir Jurowski rehearsing with the LPO
I met some of my dearest friends in your foyers. I remember my first glimpse of some of them. My first love, rounding a pillar in the RFH together with the mutual friend who introduced us. My wonderful colleague and opera-writing partner Roxanna Panufnik in the doorway of the Purcell Room with the mutual friend who introduced us (who was Tasmin Little). The party in the Chelsfield Room after a London International Piano Competition final where my former piano teacher taunted me "go and mingle, you've got the best chat-up line in the room!" and I met several people who are still dear friends now. And on the stage, a violinist I watched for years in his orchestra, thinking "he looks nice" before we ever met, let alone got married. The first time I did meet Tom I didn't recognise him at first. It was only after two weeks that he invited me to one of his concerts and I thought "oh, it's him?". Because I'd only ever seen him in profile, playing in the first violin section of the LPO.

I well remember the controversies and infighting of the early nineties, rumbling forth during my days as assistant editor on various music magazines. The time the Tory government decided to try to kill off one of the orchestras and mercifully failed (this incident ended up nicknamed the 'Hoffnung Report' after the musical satirist). The time the poor old RPO was hideously penalised for daring to have made a commercial recording called Hooked On Classics and had its grant sliced to little bits. The time the LPO had to appoint a principal conductor too fast and ended up with someone who seemed frankly worse than most.

Federico Colli and JD with the Critics' Circle Award 2019
I've stood or sat on your stages myself, and not only as a singing kid. I found myself doing things beyond my wildest dreams. The pre-concert talk to introduce the UK premiere of Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane, the opera I never imagined I would be lucky enough to hear live. A pre-concert interview with Krystian Zimerman, who unexpectedly transformed himself into the sharpest comedian in town; I became the fall guy, asking the straight questions to which his answers and the way he timed them had people rolling in the aisles. Then last year I had to make a little speech at a Philharmonia concert, presenting pianist Federico Colli with the Critics' Circle Emerging Artist Award (see pic above). Here is where great musicians begin to reach their audiences and can bring them insight, inspiration and wonderful memories...

It's not all a rose garden out there, of course. For the last several years, it's struck me that visiting you is a little bit like being St George and battling the dragon for entry to the castle, because between platform 19 at Waterloo and your side entrance there are about 10 different ways one can be killed, but it is worth it every time. You can be run down in the station by the crowds going the other way, you can fall down the front stairs in that crowd, you can be run over by lorries or motorbikes zooming round the roundabout, or by taxis and bicycles on Belvedere Road or skateboarders crashing into you pretty much anywhere. Then you have to get past the food market which is so tempting that in five minutes it can empty your wallet and burst your buttons. Once one is lucky enough to reach the foyer, the Long Bar can be a welcome sight. During the daytime, since the austerity governments started cutting stuff, the open-to-all free-wifi foyer life has become a haven not only for the London creatives and freelancers who give the atmosphere such a buzz, but also for the dispossessed, the homeless and young families who have nowhere else to go and play. Some people object to this, but perhaps those individuals should stop voting in the governments that have produced the situation.

None of this is helped by those contrarian pundits who this week said a) theatre's dying, "*whispers* good" (an actual tweet by a right-wing rag's arts editor, who probably adored the massive outrage he caused), and b) kill off the Southbank and put it out to "private tender" (hello? this is the biggest arts centre in the biggest city in Europe, with a mission to serve its public, so what are you even talking about?). Can you imagine a sports editor saying "it's about time we killed off football"? It's a shoddy, miserable, wanton look to kick something or someone when they're down; and at a time when an unelected aid gets to address the nation from the Downing Street rose garden to say why it is apparently OK for him to undermine the health rules, it also shows that arrogant squandering of hard-won advantage has become a way of life here. That's almost as dangerous and destructive as the virus itself. But remember: every dog has its day. There is a thirteenth circle of hell ready and waiting to hand out its keys.

Really we should all be pulling together at the moment. We have to save the arts, because they will be saved: as a dear friend reminded me last night, from the slough of despond, theatre has been with us since ancient Greece and isn't going away any time soon. The same is true of music. We can and will make music at home. Sales of digital pianos are apparently soaring. Instruments are coming out of cases after lying untouched for years while the rat-race claimed us. Tideovers are possible online: tonight I am hosting a discussion about Beethoven for Garsington Opera and the Royal Philharmonic Society which was going to be in a theatre but has now been reconstituted via Zoom and can hence be watched by our friends all over the world. There will be a way - even if everything looks hopeless right now.

But mess with the Southbank and you mess with much more than brutalist architecture. You mess with people's entire lives, their inner landscapes, their souls. Take all those favourite memories, as above, and multiply them by millions. For every music-lover who lives here or visits here will have a store of them just as large, and there are millions, all about listening to the world's greatest musicians in these spaces and keeping their performances alive in their hearts ever afterwards, just as I do.

Take that away and those musicians, those audiences and that inspiration won't return. Squander our advantage, won after many, many decades of hard work and devotion, and it's gone for good. So let us keep our concert halls and theatres. And let us bloody well find ways to make them work again.

Much love,
Jess.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

When Schumann isn't what we thought

Hmm, the Schumann Cello Concerto - gloomy old thing, isn't it? The Eeyore of the cello concerto repertoire, shadowy and a bit of a grump? For music coming from a composer like Schumann, though - one filled with fizzing, propulsive joys that scarcely touch the ground - this not-wholly-uncommon type of assessment should probably set alarm bells ringing.

Even if finding the truth does not (unlike the Violin Concerto) involve spirit messengers and a race against the Third Reich, the manuscript has been sitting apparently unexplored in Poland for many a long year, as cellist Josephine Knight discovered when she began delving into the piece. The detail she found has completely transformed the work's character, in her view. Here she tells us how.

First, it's not actually a concerto at all...


Restoring a Masterpiece from Josephine Knight on Vimeo.

Josephine Knight writes:

A few years ago, while practising for a tour of Schumann’s Concertoin Germany, I became deeply suspicious of various scores and cello parts I had in my possession. All the editions I had available were hugely cluttered with markings and bowings and not one edition corresponded to another. You get a feel for when bowings are added and are not original! But how could I possibly perform this piece without knowing what Schumann had actually intended? I found it of mounting importance to locate the autograph so that I could see for myself.

My search for the autograph score took me to the Biblioteka Jagiellońska in Kraków, Poland, and to Bergamo, Italy, to study extra material and fill in the missing pieces. When I arrived in Kraków, I was shocked to find that almost no one had looked at it at all! The first thing I noticed was that Schumann had clearly named the piece Concertstück für Violoncell mit Begleitung des Orchesters. He had actually written a ‘Concert piece for cello with orchestral accompaniment’, not a Concerto.


Still, I was never expecting that when I opened the autograph score fully, I would find hundreds of differences, including misplaced accents, incorrect dynamics, different notes and more! Between the autograph and the editions I had been playing from, there was constant cutting of original phrasing, created by overuse of extra bows to ease technical challenges, disrupting Schumann’s intended long, sweeping lines. Later editions had added numerous lines over notes which Schumann never used in his notation.

The most prominent change occurs in the grand finale of the third movement. Here, instead of an arpeggiated ascending triplet figure, Schumann adds a virtuosic flourishing scale from the lowest A on the C string to the highest A in the top register of the cello, before landing finally on the tonic, on a low A. This is much trickier for the performer and the conductor to execute, but it adds something extra and unpredictable to this dramatic finale.

By themselves, these changes may seem small, but together they completely alter the nature of the piece. How could this have happened? I delved into the history of the piece. Schumann wrote his Concertoin the autumn of 1850, soon after the Schumann family had moved to Düsseldorf, and he appears to have completed it in just two weeks. It came at the tail end of some of Schumann’s most prolific years and happier times, and Schumann was in good health and mentally stable when he composed this work. Although he wrote the work with no cellist in mind, he did give the piece to a cellist in Frankfurt – Robert Emil Bochmul – in the hope that he would perform it. 

Bochmul was entrusted with the responsibility for the technical aspect (bowings and fingerings) of the solo part, and made many changes and ‘suggestions’. Perhaps he had good intentions, but reading letters between the pair, I’ve gathered Schumann found the ‘improvements’ irritating and they were mostly ignored. Following various excuses, a performance never materialised. The Concertoseems to have remained unperformed owing to Schumann’s death in 1856, until Ludwig Ebert played it in 1860, first at Oldenburg on 23 April and later at the Leipzig Conservatoire on 6 September. 

Schumann’s Concertowas the first nineteenth-century cello concerto to achieve classic status, but it was slow in establishing itself. Alfredo Piatti gave the British premiere in London in April 1866, but the work seems to have lacked an immediate advocate. It was not heard again in England until 1880, when at the Crystal Palace, London on 6 March it was played by Robert Hausmann, and later at a Philharmonic Society concert on 24 March 1892 when the soloist was the Belgian cellist Ernest de Munck. In fact, until Pablo Casals took it up, it had failed to achieve universal recognition. 

Bochmul was the first to tamper with the piece, but future generations of performers must have introduced bowings and significant changes soon diluting the original conception of the work beyond recognition. Why don’t we take their word for it? The Concertowas first published by Breitkopf & Härtel in 1854, the year that Schumann’s illness took hold, resulting in his hallucinations and subsequent suicide attempt. But I found Schumann’s markings to be clear and precise. He was not in a state of mental turmoil while composing the work. On the contrary, he had great clarity of mind, given that it took only two weeks to complete. 

I found that incorporating the changes enabled the piece to take on a completely different character. It is lighter and happier, even “jolly”, as Schumann described the work to Breitkopf & Härtel. When you eliminate the overuse of accents and chopped phrasing, the piece becomes beautifully lyrical. I hope that my recording will bring something new and fresh to this well-loved work. I’ve also created a new edition with Edition Peters, one which aims to strip the work back to Schumann’s original conception.My ultimate wish is to give the performer both access to and confidence that they are playing from an edition which is a true representation of the piece in its original form, no matter how much more difficult this might be.

Josephine Knight’s new recording of the Schumann Cello Concertowith the Royal Northern Sinfonia is available now on Dutton: 
Her new edition will soon be published by Edition Peters.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

BEETHOVEN MATTERS


On Tuesday 26 May 6pm, I'm "Dimblebying" for an online discussion about Beethoven, jointly hosted by the Royal Philharmonic Society and Garsington Opera. Originally this was going to happen live and in person, to trail Garsington's Fidelio, which of course is now a distant dream. But the clever people behind both organisations realised that actually we don't have to go anywhere at all: we can broadcast direct from our own homes, together, and reach viewers all over the globe. The mind is boggling and the Beethoven is flowing: this is the music of hope.

My panel will consist of:

Toby Spence - tenor (he was going to sing Florestan at Garsington)
David Owen Norris - pianist and academic extraordinaire
Freya Waley-Cohen - composer, much inspired by Beethoven's Grosse Fuge
Dougie Boyd - conductor and artistic director of Garsington Opera

You can watch the event live, here on Youtube, or here on Facebook, and RPS members will be able to see it thereafter on the RPS website's designated Members' Area (more details on how to find this and sign up for membership here.) We'll be taking questions from whatever the cyber-equivalent of "the floor" is, at the end, so you can post yours in the comments boxes on either viewing site on the night.

Please join us - from the comfort of wherever you happen to be, anywhere in the world!

Friday, May 22, 2020

Remembering Anton Kontra (1932-2020)



Just listen to that tone. That personality. That versatility. Get a load of that bow arm. This compilation film shows the great Anton Kontra in his many guises as virtuoso soloist, quartet leader, Gypsy jazz group, orchestral leader and real-deal Hungarian-Gypsy folk ensemble complete with cimbalom.

The Hungarian violinist Anton Kontra, who has died at the age of 88, was born in Tomomajnostora, Hungary, into a musical family, beginning the violin at the age of five. At ten, he entered the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, where among other things he had theory lessons with Kodály. After winning prizes at the International Bach Competition in the city, and the Wieniawski Competition in Warsaw his burgeoning career was abruptly thrown off course by the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

Escaping Hungary, Kontra ended up in Sweden where like many of his compatriots in the same situation he played for a while in a Gypsy orchestra. Trying to find his feet, he also played the vibraphone. After freelancing in the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, in 1965 he won the post of concertmaster for the Tivoli Concert Hall Orchestra in Copenhagen and Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

He became a "unique dynamo" in Danish musical life: soloist, leader of the Kontra Quartet, and in Sweden the Malmö Symphony Orchestra. A strange, multifaceted career in which he became, according to Tom [my husband], simply the greatest violinist in his adopted homeland.

In 1980 Kontra came to London to preside over international auditions for some violin posts in the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra. Tom, who was a young freelance violinist aged 22, went from Buxton to the Craxton Studios in Hampstead to play to him - and got the job. During his five years there, Tom often encountered Kontra and evidently revered him. "He had a kind of special status in the country. He was head and shoulders above every other violinist in Denmark."

And let's not forget Czardas with Victor Borge...




Thursday, May 21, 2020

Vengerov: Beethoven breaks all the walls


My last face-to-face interview before lockdown was with Maxim Vengerov. Looking back on the transcript now, it's so strange to see the list of countries, venues, orchestras, repertoire that he had coming up for the rest of this year. It hammers everything home somewhat. There was much I could not put in the article by the time I came to write it, because it was clear that none of this was actually going to happen. It was supposed to trail his big anniversary concert at the Royal Albert Hall in June - 40 years on stage (though he's only 45). That has, of course, been postponed until next April.

For The JC we talked about growing up Jewish in Soviet Russia and playing Bach by the fence of Auschwitz, amongst other things. Also, Maxim is releasing his latest recordings exclusively through IDAGIO and you can get 2 months free trial of its premium service by entering the code 'Maxim Vengerov'.

However, there were some bits that did not make it into the article, and one of them was about Beethoven. Here is the resilience we need. I wonder, at the moment, whether I will ever be able to do an interview in person like this again. Let us keep hoping. And I don't usually pray, but now I would.

JD: What are your thoughts about the Beethoven anniversary? 

MV: For me Beethoven is always contemporary. I just can’t believe it’s 250 years! From now on, it doesn’t matter - 250 or 400 years, he’ll always be there with us. His message is so sharp and so quick, like a razor - it goes to anybody, through any society, it breaks all the walls and all the barriers, no matter which language you speak, which religion you belong to, which political wing you belong to. Beethoven is always there with us, he always reflects our strength and shows us the way from darkness to light. In a way, for me every year is Beethoven year! 

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

"Don't just sit there..."

"Don't just sit there. DO something!" The line is a popular comedy feature because of its usual subtext: the person addressing it to someone else hasn't got a clue what to do themselves.

A lot of us are just sitting there at the moment, wondering what the heck to do. We do what we can on a daily basis - taking care of the family, cooking, cleaning, shopping where possible, attempting exercise, trying to get on with any work we're lucky enough to have. I'm measuring out the weeks in the fabulous streamings from National Theatre At Home, each available for seven days from Thursdays. Tom is practising Paganini and catching up on 60 years of reading (I just gave him some Nabokov, but now can't get him to put it down and go to sleep). The cats are so well combed that they look ready to win rosettes at the Somali Cat Club Show, except that it had to be cancelled.

But there remains the deep and frustrating desire to do something positive; to make a difference in this bloody crisis; to make it all go away, or at least cheer other people up a little bit.

We each revert to type under stress, while work habits also become accentuated because they make us happy through their familiarity. Yesterday I felt happy because I had virtually a normal working day. I corresponded with an editor and a PR person about an article, selling an idea to the former, then telling the latter that I'd to do an interview (over Zoom). I started transcribing a recording of another interview, had a phone conversation with someone I'm consulting with regard to the story of a forthcoming opera libretto, watched a documentary from which I can learn about that topic, worked on a largish recordings-related project and on the side took part in a super Twitter discussion about how to conduct Tchaikovsky. And I combed Ricki, of course (Tom does Cosi). Normality makes one feel better. But of course, it is only a millimetre deep; any of this may vanish at any moment. As for personal tendencies, when things are difficult, I hide. I hole myself up in my study (back at college, it was a practice room, if and when such things could actually be found) until the danger has passed...

If someone says to me "DO something", I write, because that's my profession and represents the best of what I have to give. If you are a musician, you'll want to make music, for exactly the same reason. If you are a doctor or nurse, you will want to step up to offer your best in that department. Perhaps I am a hopeless idealist, but I think people have a natural instinct to want to help when times are tough.  That makes it depressing to see the negativity with which so many cynical misery-guts  are greeting artists' efforts to do something.

If musicians and musical organisations are giving free performances online, it's not because they are committing the evil of "self-promoting" (dear American readers, you'd be amazed to hear that a certain strata of Brits regard this as the worst of cardinal sins, rather like "being in trade, darling..."). It's not because they are trying to undercut everyone and make it impossible to earn a living henceforth because this extraordinary patch is how it's gonna be forever and forever more amen. It's possibly partly because some organisations are publicly funded and have a type of moral obligation to make their work available to the public in some form. It's also a matter of musicians staying in shape, because performing is an art in itself and it's easy to fall out of the habit, the adrenalin, the resilience.

But generally, it's because they want to do something. To give something. To give their best. Anything from a live recital - Igor Levit's regular house-concerts on Twitter are among the most popular around - to playing on the balcony for the Thursday evening Clap for Carers...


Alexandra Dariescu and Andreas Flor at home in London


Indeed, you can browse the internet and find a live broadcast of chamber music from the Budapest Festival Orchestra, or Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason playing the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata in the family home (that was wonderful), or Fenella Humphreys giving a violin recital from her front room after getting the audience to choose her programme via a Twitter poll, or the Royal Academy of Dancing offering Silver Swan ballet classes for the longer in tooth, or the live concert the other day from the Bavarian State Opera in which Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deutsch performed Schumann's Dichterliebe to an empty theatre, which was fabulous but heartbreaking ("Music without an audience just isn't the same," Kaufmann commented to the camera afterwards).

Yes, there is a glut of stuff; yes, it is often marvellous; no, it is no substitute whatsoever for attending the real live thing in a performance space shared with the performers and 500-3000+ other people. I don't believe the digital option is something we should expect to become the be-all and end-all forever, even though the virus danger needs to be much reduced before we can think of safely attending mass events again. No, it's simply the Thin End of the Wedge, and we all know it, but we hesitate to say so, either because we're trying to be terribly positive about things, or because we are bloody terrified. Neither is a reason to malign people's intent in providing this material.

If you object to people giving their work away for free, you are correct that of course they shouldn't have to. It is well known that streaming is daylight robbery in terms of proportion of income that goes to the companies versus that to the person actually providing the material, i.e. the artist. The artists should be able to earn a decent living from their work; it is scandalous that they do not. And it's usually not their fault - they've been got over a barrel and been forced to sign away their rights (small person versus big company: 'twas ever so). Ditto writers; since the Net Book Agreement, which set the price of a book, was done away with, incomes have plummeted and the only way is down.

However, streaming on the internet in times of crisis is an issue on its own. This is a period in which household incomes are shattered and in some cases completely non-existent. Ordering your colleagues not to do free work in case they find that people get used to it and expect it forever is really not the answer (not least because it is already too late).

May I suggest something constructive?

There are a number of crowdfunding platforms online which are suitable for musicians and writers. On Buy Me A Coffee, you can ask patrons to contribute the price of a cuppa after enjoying your work. Patreon enables (I think) people to offer you a chosen amount every month. GoFundMe seems easy to use, is efficient, lets you set a target but keep whatever funds are raised even if you don't reach that amount. And there are of course many more. I recommend that musicians offering free streaming could set up an account on one of these and encourage those who can to contribute as large or small an amount as they wish. I recommend, too, that those with the means could offer as much as they can to support their preferred artists.

On a larger scale, the big companies - the National Theatre included - present a request for a donation with every streaming. Most theatres, festivals and concert halls that have had to cancel their performances will offer you the option of donating your ticket price to help the company and its artists to weather this blast, and if you feel able to do that it is a very, very good thing.

There are plenty of charities, such as Help Musicians UK, which will be massively grateful for donations and provides grants for musicians in financial trouble. You can help in all kinds of ways, and the latest is your very own Tasmingram to say it with music: Tasmin Little is offering musical video messages specially recorded for you, in aid of Help Musicians UK (it's £35, the same cost as a nice bouquet - more details here).

As for those individuals who disparage all internet music on the grounds of No Free Performance and No Internet Presence, please contribute a donation to everything you hear, watch or read, and then you won't feel so bad. Indeed, you will feel that you did something worthwhile - and quite rightly so.



Thursday, April 23, 2020

My top five Beethoven books...

The website Five Books very kindly interviewed me about my top five choices of reading about Beethoven. It's a relatively in-depth discussion, if a bit rambly on my part (I didn't realise it would be a word-for-word transcript of the phone call), and aimed to identify some good reading primarily for the general rather than academic music lover. It seems to have gone down quite well, so here's the link.
https://fivebooks.com/best-books/beethoven-jessica-duchen/?fbclid=IwAR3xZhZhw4qRZr6zOO1-jMIEOajs50YiOdQz2CctCBYOu5g10MjCWQcm-Hk

Work on Immortal presses on apace.