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:

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,

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


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.

Work on Immortal presses on apace.

Monday, April 13, 2020

No looking back...

Did you know that if you are a member of certain libraries you can read their stables of digital magazines online? I have a Westminster Libraries card, as it's my go-to resource for reference books, the music collection at Victoria and more, so nowadays when I have read every last word of The Guardian I can log in online and read The New Yorker instead. And I look at its font and imagine what life might have been like had I taken the other road of my Great 1997 Fork and moved over there for a job with a firm of music publicists. (I didn't. I stayed in London, got married and stuck with the writing. But I acknowledge that NY was a big dream and I didn't follow it.) COVID-19 lockdown is a strange place from which to contemplate the What-Ifs, which as ever are pointless. I had several chunks of What-If reflections in Immortal; the editor has gently suggested removing them and she is absolutely right.

Spring oak trees demonstrate social distancing

I am relieved not to be in NY, where lockdown must no doubt be claustrophobic and alarming. I admire my friends and family there who are positive and capable and full of good humour, as they always are. Every day I count the blessings of our life here: we have a garden, there's a large and beautiful park nearby for walking at safe distances from other people - and as it is now gloriously free of planes, cars and bicycles, you can hear the skylarks. There's a supermarket three minutes' walk away and if the queue to enter looks over an hour long you can go home again and try again at a different time. The other day Tom did a dash to try to locate eggs and matzah for an elderly neighbour who can't go out of his house and has never in his life had Pesach without a seder.

This week The JC announced it was going into liquidation. I've contributed on and off to that paper for about 20 years and have always appreciated the chance to cover in depth musical stories that fit its niche but might be, well, passed over elsewhere. Some of my favourite assignments over the years have been for its pages: my visit to Vienna's centre, the interview last year with the remarkable Erika Fox and in 2016 with Zuzana Ružičková in Prague are all up there with the dearest. I hope there is still a chance it will find some way, shape or form in which to reconstitute itself, but we'll have to see. At times of strain, sometimes you can hear the ropes snapping.

On Thursday nights everyone comes out and makes a heap of noise to thank the NHS and essential workers. A couple of empty doorways, however, betray an ache of sorrow: two elderly people on our cul-de-sac have died in the past six weeks, though neither from COVID-19. Each had lived here for more than 50 years. (One house is now for sale - if you want to be our opposite neighbours, this is your chance).

Looking back is too painful, because you think about everything you should have been doing and everything that has been postponed or bitten the dust and it can slice you up to remember you were supposed to have a premiere at the Berlin Philharmonie on 1 May and you were meant to go to Australia and the Beethoven celebrations should have been in full swing. You can try planning ahead - some events, such as the youth opera I've been working on for Garsington with the wonderful composer John Barber, will probably happen next year instead, as will Australia, but we cannot see into next year right now because we don't know how this one is going to progress, let alone end. So no looking back. No looking forward. We must live in the present and deal with each day as it comes. There is a lesson in this, somewhere.

Living in the present has its challenges as well, notably the amount of time I'm spending trying to dissuade people from believing conspiracy theories. Today there were two before 8am. Everything from "Boris Johnson didn't really need to be in intensive care" to the suspicion that someone had faked a music video, to which you can only point out "of course they're going to take extra care of him, he's the flippin' PM," and "but why would they pre-record and sound like that?...".

My years freelancing with newspapers have shown me a few little truths. First of all, what you see is probably not what's really going on, which is almost certain to be worse. Secondly, never underestimate the number of slips that are made twixt cup and lip. Thirdly, your imagination is just your imagination. The world is not going to change its reality merely because you're believing only what you want to believe. There is such a thing as empirical fact, so get used to it.

Get it? Got it? Good.

So don't look back. Don't look forward. The present is where we will find the pleasures that still make life worth living.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Notes from Musicians' Kitchens

British mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston has launched a super initiative to help raise money for our crisis-stricken musicians and to inspire us in our cooking efforts too. Its name is Notes from Musicians' Kitchens. Jennifer writes:

Jennifer Johnston
photo: Helena Cooke
The musical world across all genres has been very seriously affected by the shutdown, and there are millions of musicians and music professionals worldwide who are out of work and fearing for both their futures and the future of the industry as a whole. It has now fallen to charities like Help Musicians U.K. to take up the slack, offering one-off hardship grants to those musicians affected by the crisis, but their £5million money pot will not last forever. 

It’s now time for creatives to be creative and so I have established Notes From Musicians Kitchens (, a subscription-only digital recipe resource, with a £10 one-off access fee, of which 100% goes to Help Musicians U.K. The aim is also to publish a cookbook which will hopefully be sold worldwide. 

Food is not just a universal need but also a universal link to our homes and communities, and a universal pleasure, just like music, and so, in the midst of this worldwide shutdown, I want food to bring us all together as a global community, and help to ensure that there is a music industry to return to after the shutdown, not leaving any of our colleagues and friends behind. 

Notes For Musicians’ Kitchens is a means of digitally breaking bread with each other, of sharing and appreciating our diverse food cultures, of creating new memories. Once lockdown is over, food will be used to celebrate our freedom and our ability to give each other hugs again, not to mention throw parties. 

The recipes are from all over the world, and all have a personal story attached, we all have our own stories to tell which are as important as the food. There’s also a section for those who don’t like to cook, or who are too busy and want an easy life, and there will be plenty of vegan / gluten-free / vegetarian / dairy-free / Keto recipes, so there should be something for everyone. 

We’re always accepting submissions, so if you’re a music professional, please think about it, The Rules are below. My thanks go to those who have submitted their recipes and told their stories so far, and to those who are helping me run this project behind the scenes, especially Madeleine Pierard, my right-hand woman who has designed the website. You can also follow this project on Instagram: @notesfrommusicianskitchens. 

The aim is to raise as much money as possible for musicians in need, and whilst the subscription to our site is a donation in itself, we also have a fundraising page, linked directly to Help Musicians, in the event you wish to donate more than £10: Please give generously, and please help us to spread the work by telling everyone you know about the project.

I have asked musicians to tell me what food means to them: 

Food is culture
Food is habit
Food is nourishment
Food is health
Food is identity
Food is memories
Food is comfort
Food is family
Food is community
Food is universal
Food is life
Food is home
Food is LOVE

*recipe submissions will be accepted from music professionals only
*only one recipe per person will be accepted
*it must be your own recipe and free from copyright
*by submitting you agree to your recipe being donated and published without any payment
*not all recipes will be selected for the physical cookbook but all will be published on the website
*it would be enormously helpful if you could send us a photo of your finished dish with your recipe
*when you submit a recipe, please could you also identify yourself and any website you would liked listed with your submission

Please consider subscribing or, if you're a musician yourself, contributing a favourite recipe!

Monday, April 06, 2020

Karina takes the cake

There is some seriously good news this morning: actual progress in the upper echelons of a London orchestra. Karina Canellakis is announced today as the principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic, the first woman (as far as I know) to hold this level of post among the capital's sort-of-self-governing symphony orchestras. I'm reliably informed that her concerts with them last season were rapturously received by players and audience alike and I look forward to many more when we are all up and running again. At present she is scheduled to conduct them in October in a programme of Adams, Bartók and Beethoven and a series of three concerts in April 21 in repertoire that includes both Brahms piano concerts with soloist Stephen Hough.

Brava Karina!

Karina Canellakis is the newly appointed Chief Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin. Internationally acclaimed for her emotionally charged performances, technical command and interpretive depth, Canellakis has conducted many of the top orchestras in North America, Europe, and Australasia since winning the Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award in 2016. 

She makes several notable debuts in the 2019/20 season, including Philadelphia Orchestra, the symphony orchestras of San Francisco, Atlanta and Minnesota, London Symphony, Munich Philharmonic and NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra. With a strong presence at European summer festivals, Karina also makes debut appearances at St Denis Festival with Orchestre Philharmonique du Radio France and Edinburgh International Festival with BBC Scottish Symphony, and returns to Bregenz Festspiele with Wiener Symphoniker with a programme featuring the third act of Wagner’s Siegfried. Other notable re-invitations include the Orchestre de Paris, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, the Houston and Toronto symphonies and the LA Philharmonic for performances at Walt Disney Concert Hall. 

A sterling 2018/19 season saw Karina conduct the First Night of the Proms in London and the Nobel Prize Concert in Stockholm. Debuts included Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, St. Louis Symphony, Melbourne Symphony, London Philharmonic, Deutsches Symphonie-orchester Berlin, Dresdner Philharmoniker and Oslo Philharmonic. She returned to Swedish Radio Orchestra, Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the symphony orchestras of Cincinnati, Dallas, Detroit and Milwaukee. 

On the operatic stage, Karina returns this season to Opernhaus Zurich, where she will lead a fully staged production of Verdi’s Requiem. Last season she conducted critically acclaimed performances of Don Giovanni with the Curtis Opera Theater at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. She has also conducted Die Zauberflötewith Opernhaus Zurich, Le nozze di Figaro with Curtis Opera Theatre, and gave the world premiere of David Lang’s opera The Loserat the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In 2017 Karina led Peter Maxwell Davies’s final opera The Hogboonwith Luxembourg Philharmonic. 

Already known to many in the classical music world for her virtuoso violin playing, Karina was initially encouraged to pursue conducting by Sir Simon Rattle while she was playing regularly in the Berlin Philharmonic for two years as a member of their Orchester-Akademie. In addition to appearing frequently as a soloist with various North American orchestras, she subsequently played regularly in the Chicago Symphony for over three years and appeared on several occasions as guest concertmaster of the Bergen Philharmonic in Norway. She also spent many summers performing at the Marlboro Music Festival. She plays a 1782 Mantegazza violin on generous loan from a private patron. Karina Canellakis previously served as Assistant Conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. She is a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music and The Juilliard School.

Friday, April 03, 2020

Off the wall in 10,000 steps

It's Friday, apparently - not that I'd have guessed. The days are measured out in porridge, coffee, soup, tea and job-lots of 10,000 steps and by 9.30pm I am knackered and ready for a good long sleep. How do I normally manage, out at 3 or so performances a week, back at 11pm or later, navigating busy trains and the throngs of central London?

The 10,000 steps is Tom's insistence (I'd be quite content sitting at my desk checking the book edits all day). Generally, I can't keep up. He is loving his time off with a passion. He does yoga, practises the violin all morning, goes to Waitrose a couple of times a week, puts on the washing, sometimes goes running or demands a good long walk in the park, and has been doing most of the cooking while I'm trapped in 1812 tussling with Luigi and Josephine. I've always known he has more energy than I do, and now I'm glad and grateful that someone has the oomph to mow the lawn.

And so to Immortal... The editing is going pretty well. The big issues are coming out in the wash, so to speak, and I am ever more impressed with the job that the doughty structural editor has done on my 135000 words: where she has made big cuts, I first of all stare with dismay, but then read the new version and think "ah, riiiight..." - because she has found ways of allowing certain things to speak for themselves, instead of being spelled out, which is something I should know but can't always spot from up close. Josephine's first husband's waxworks museum is a case in point. The book is haunted by his ghoulish image of King Ferdinand IV of Naples. The glass eyes of ETA Hoffmann's Dr Coppelius are never far away. But you will need to go and read Hoffmann to learn more about this.

I am continuing with daily (almost) readings from Ghost Variations as my personal Jessanory on my new Youtube channel. Each day I upload 13-17 mins of it around 5pm. The filming is done with PhotoBooth on my computer and it is pretty amateurish, not least because I can't be bothered getting glammed up and the cats may wander in in the background at any moment. Meanwhile, my evening reading is Anthony Trollope's The Warden, which is such a laser-sharp picture of small-town politics and fat-headed journalism that it could almost have been written this century. So with this mental mix, tempered by high anxiety, last night I had a nightmare: I had been filmed for a TV interview with Lang Lang and some other pundit and something went awfully wrong and the video of me was so terrible that some newspaper website ran it whole as a shaming exercise. I woke up shaking and relieved to discover that all I really have to deal with is a global pandemic. I might need to avoid Lang Lang's recordings for a few days.

And so we plough on. I have a few things to write and some of the concerts we had planned for this year are now going to take place next year instead (touchwood). All is not lost. It is still springtime and this weekend is going to be sunny. Enjoy it, and stay safe.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Wagner's Ring-Cyber?


Morning all! won't have escaped your notice that many musical organisations have been using the wonders of modern technology to arrange playing together at a socially-distanced distance, from many and disparate locations. But wait for it: is this the biggest one yet? How could it not be? It is...

Loge, from Arthur Rackham's Ring cycle illustrations
- a prequel of Jurowski's conducting?

The Ring cycle. Or in this case, the Ring-Cyber.

Putting on Wagner's Ring is no task for the faint-hearted. It requires years of planning, months of practice and weeks of rehearsal. And then, of course, days of playing and listening. So, really, you can't take risks with it, even at the best of times. The complete work has been in the 2020-21 diary of my orchestra-in-law, the LPO, for years: in some ways Vladimir Jurowski's farewell as he enters his last year as principal conductor before heading for the Bavarian State Opera, where he becomes music director later next year. Yet who knows when we will be able to return to life as "normal" used to be - with live concerts and operas to attend? Nothing is guaranteed.

And so they have devised the contingency plan to end all contingency plans.

The players will play from their homes, the singers will cyber-beam themselves in from all over the world, the anvils will have to be improvised from whatever metallic surfaces the percussionists have to hand, and the semi-staging will be in our imaginations only; but Vladimir, aided and abetted by the doughty leader Pieter Schoemann, will cue everyone in to perfection, having also conducted the rehearsals in similar remote mode. If he can't pull this off, nobody can. They know the first three backwards already; now it's only the small matter of nailing Götterdämmerung...

So, prepare to book your places at the computer and don't forget to tune in to this Ring-Cyber once-in-a-lifetime experience!

(PS: mezzo Jamie Barton, bass-baritone Ryan McKinny and pianist Katherine Kelly are already getting in shape: try this!

Sunday, March 29, 2020

A change of clock

A green parrot in the park, wondering why it's so quiet
It is a sign of our digital obsessions that I accidentally wrote that title as "A change of click" first. Ticking off the tock, "British summertime" begins today, so everything is an hour later than you think it is. This will be nice for the cats, who might be surprised to find they're agitating for feeding time on schedule instead of way in advance. But it remains dangerous for me as I have a computer-conference at 9.15am Brussels time tomorrow. At breakfast today Tom put on the first Brünnhilde-Siegfried scene from Götterdämmerung, and the Rhine journey, and if that doesn't wake me up, nothing will.

I should have been travelling to Brussels today - little more than two hours by train - and there meeting colleagues from all over Europe and having dinner with a wonderful violinist whom I know so far only through her playing and some Facebook messages. Anyway, here I am instead in my study, in my warmest winter pully and joggers, wishing I'd had my hair done, my piano tuned and a wine conditioner cabinet installed before all this mess blew up.

I'm amazed by the resourcefulness with which our locality is dealing with it. The supermarket was functioning sort of normally a week ago. Now they have put in place a supremely efficient queuing system. They calculated they have a capacity of 70 shoppers at a time. As one exits, one more is allowed to enter. Everyone queues outside, 2m apart. The deep trolleys have vanished and there is only a small supply of the shallow ones; an assistant is on hand with disinfectant wipes and cleans the trolley handle before passing it to the next person who comes in. There is no close queuing at the checkouts and the shelves seem relatively well stocked, although certain lines have been discontinued. They encourage people not to go in in couples to shop for one household, but they will help solitary shoppers to their cars with their bags. They have my applause for figuring all this out so fast and making it work so well.

The other day we took a government-approved-one-exercise-walk-per-day in Richmond Park (we are extremely lucky to live 10 mins stroll from it) and were fairly shocked by the behaviour of cyclists in there, out in their gear with rap blaring from wherever they keep it, riding several abreast, causing log-jams by the pedestrian gates and creating quite some hazard to families with young toddlers trotting along in front of them (in case you are reading this in a sensible country that has proper official divisions between cyclists, cars and pedestrians: we don't, and it's a problem, but nothing is ever done about it properly cos no magic money tree etc etc.) Police vans were out, observing, and that evening it was announced that cycles are now banned from the park. It is pedestrians only, unless you are a child under 12 in which case you can bring your little wheels. The place feels safer now. Whatever happened to the lycra lads?

Yesterday I watched a TV programme for the first time since the lockdown began - a documentary about the choreographer Kenneth MacMillan (highly recommended, btw). I think I'm finding it hard to watch or listen to anything that depends upon people being together, working together and creating together - which is virtually everything. I do not mind being solitary-with-husband-and-cats, and I like the peace and quiet, but my goodness, the situation shows us how much we take for granted the way we all interact simply because that is how human beings function, and how society functions. And if it is a small comfort that after this nobody will ever be able to say again "there is no such thing as society", it is a cold comfort too. Why does it take a pandemic to make people recognise this?

More cold comfort: we suspect we may have had the virus already. Tom was quite unwell with a terrible three-week dry cough immediately after our South African trip in late January; I caught it and had to drop out of attending the Immortal reward concert to which I was supposed to escort two patrons who had pledged for tickets (luckily they are friends and I can take them to something else, one this becomes possible). I hope that was it, because it would be one less thing to worry about. I know at least 10 people who have had all the symptoms and in some cases been downed for a week or two or more - and of course none of them have been tested for it, because here in dear old Blighty there are only tests if you are in hospital, so actually we have not the first clue how many people have really had this blasted thing, and no way of telling, other than that it is many, many more than the official figures show.

Meanwhile I am going one day at a time. It's all we can do. Today I am going to cook up a little JDCMB treat for 1 April.

Take care and keep well.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Springtime for Ludwig?

Under normal circumstances (whatever "normal" means any more), I'd have to pinch myself to make sure all this is real.

It's springtime. All week there hasn't been a cloud in the sky in which one could seek a silver lining. The magnolias are out and each day on my government-approved-exercise-walk I notice the new leaves have advanced another few bright millimetres. The cats are busy catting, aware only that it's sunny and warmish and they have licence to bounce.

'Immortal' has come back from the structural editor. It is 10,000 words shorter, though I am going to want a few of those back. The editor is the same person who worked on 'Ghost Variations', and she did a splendid job with that one, so I totally trust her. I now have 3 weeks to put right 125,000 words and check a number of historical queries - but all the libraries are shut, so that is going to be interesting. The thing is, all my programme notes, spring/summer concerts and travel plans have gone up in smoke, so I have that weird thing called time to work on the book.

And along with the time I have peace. There are no planes. The nursery school over the fence is shut too, and I no longer have to slam my window against the squealing and squalling of its playtime (yes, I am a nasty person sometimes - tough).

There is no traffic on the South Circular. We can actually breathe. It's wonderful.

Meanwhile as of yesterday I think I may qualify for government support, for the first time in my life. OK, I haven't read the small print yet, but I've been making an average living from self-employment since 1993, and any work I have that is related to live performance has gone. Which is a lot of it.

My husband is at home, being incredibly positive and good company, and willing to do a lot of cooking.

I don't have to go into central London and deal with crowds. I don't have to fight my way upstream at Waterloo Station in the rush hour. I hate that so much that it gives me dizzy spells. I don't miss it.

For years I've been grumbling that there are no arts on TV any more. Now suddenly the BBC is going to start broadcasting the Royal Shakespeare Company. And 'Fidelio' from Covent Garden, and the 'Metamorphosis' ballet starring Edward Watson and a whole heap more. On the internet the National Theatre and the OperaVision channel and the Met and the Berlin Philharmonic and the LSO and even the LPO are busy streaming all kinds of archive material at the touch of a button.

I've learned how to make a video, if in a rudimentary manner. Log on to my Youtube channel each day at 5pm for another episode of 'Jessanory' - I'm serialising 'Ghost Variations', because why not.

They renationalised the railways. They did. I can't help laughing (see 'Hungarian Dances' for why).

I'm not eating junk food, because I can't just nip into Waitrose and buy gf chocolate muffins or whatever (they have implemented a deeply civilised queuing system, but you should only go there if you absolutely have to). I am taking care to get enough exercise, so reaching 10,000 steps per day when I usually, totally, don't. And I am so anxious that the weight is dropping off me in any case. So I'm getting in shape quite by accident.

Frankly, it's beyond my wildest dreams.

There is only one snag. We are all effectively under house arrest because any of us may catch the illness. We may die at any time.

And that is so frightening that we are taking care to appreciate each and every day as if it could be our last.

Take care, dear all, and please stay home. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Quick diary update...

Nothing much to say at the moment, except we're all in the same boat. Back soon, I hope.

Monday, March 23, 2020

East wind

We live under the Heathrow flight path. I've been sitting here grumbling about it for 22 years. Plane noise. Plane pollution. Appalling for health, mental and physical. Still, you can always tell what time it is when Singapore Airlines wakes you up at 4.30am with the first arrival of the day.

It's all gone quiet. This, above all, makes one realise that everything is not as usual. Business is closed. The music has stopped. The world has stopped. Words I thought I'd never say: it is too quiet.

Only then you's east wind. We don't have planes overhead with an east wind. That's when they come in over Windsor instead. It's only temporary.

There is, therefore, a difference between illusion and reality. Our imaginations sometimes run away with us. This will finish, one day, however much it feels as if it won't. The casualties will of course be enormous, and not only from the virus: I am almost more worried about the effects of the stress caused by the situation in which we all find ourselves. Isolation, destruction of livelihoods and panic buying at Waitrose do nothing for health, mental or physical, any more than the planes do. (Having so said, Waitrose mercifully seemed to be settling down a bit yesterday.)

I am trying to be selfish and to count my blessings: I have a roof over my head and I bought an extra pack of loo roll months back when I thought we'd be getting a no-deal Brexit and it would lead to national collapse... But there are musicians, actors, artists of all kinds, who a week ago had a full diary, a healthy income and good management, and it has all gone at a stroke. If it hurts them, it hurts us all, because everything is interconnected, much more than we fondly imagine.

If a virus outbreak proves anything, it is the uselessness of ideology in the face of something that shows the basic truth: we are all human beings and we are all the same when it comes to mortality. That is the bottom line. The virus is the bottom line.

And suddenly 40 years of the UK's dominant political outlook has been swept away in ten days flat. Bye-bye, Thatcherism. What a shame it had to take this to get rid of you.

That aspect is not east wind. It will change the direction forever, and ultimately for the better, if we can just get through to see it happen.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

5pm daily: 'Ghost Variations' readings from my study

I'm on a technology high-rate learning curve here in the bunker.

Yesterday I created a Youtube channel and uploaded some videos to it >wow, I can do this?!<. To try and have something that requires me to focus intensely - because that's the most difficult thing, it seems - I am reading Ghost Variations out from my study in bleeding chunks of about 15 mins a go and "broadcasting" it on my channel every day at 5pm.

Here is the channel and you can, naturally, subscribe to it (no charge) if you wish to.

And here is episode 1. A few technical glitches and I do not sound like Vanessa Redgrave (yet), but I hope you enjoy it. Episode 2 follows tonight at the same time.

Today my task is to download and learn to use Zoom so that I can have coffee morning, tea afternoons or something stronger not necessarily much later with my "quartet". We have already made ourselves a WhatsApp group and suddenly we're in daily touch sharing crazy memes that make us laugh. I recommend this, though probably everyone else tried it sooner than I did.

I don't know about you, but I have no appetite, either physically or mentally, right now. Everything is taken up with shock, and the bit that isn't shock is fright. I am trying, honest to goodness, to be positive, to think "there is light at the end of the tunnel" and "this is an opportunity to learn German/learn the 'Hammerklavier'/spend time with Tom and the cats/do some actual gardening for once".

But meanwhile my May concerts have gone, the June concert has gone, the Garsington youth opera with John Barber - which is going to be wonderful - will have to be postponed and I have no idea whether I'll be able to make it to Australia. As for programme notes, if there are no concerts, they're not needed. I am trying to convince myself that nothing bad can happen to Immortal, which is dependent on people sitting at desks and pressing buttons, and that by autumn we have got to be back on our feet, because if we're not, what then? But the fear, the uncertainty, the renewal of sheer disbelief every time you wake up in the night, the anxiety that the illness may take people you love, all this on its own is actually enough to make you ill. The task now is to get a grip and not let it do that.

So. Come on, Ludwig, let's seize fate by the throat again. Please. NOW.

Here is András Schiff's lecture about the F sharp major Sonata Op. 78, dedicated to Therese von Brunsvik, from whose point of view Immortal is written. Beethoven himself rated this piece much higher than the 'Moonlight' Sonata. Enjoy.