Thursday, December 31, 2020

2020 in the JDCMB-Haus



What did we do in 2020? The world did a pandemic. The UK did Brexit. I did Beethoven. 

I finished writing a book about Beethoven. I wrote a bunch of articles about Beethoven and I wrote a bunch of articles about writing a book about Beethoven. I made a video with a musician, the fabulous Mishka Rushdie Momen, at the Wigmore Hall where I read from my book about Beethoven and she played some Beethoven on the piano. I played some Beethoven on the piano - I learned Op. 31 No. 3 and the 'Waldstein' and I wrote an article about learning the 'Waldstein'. My big new piece with Roxanna Panufnik about Beethoven for the Berlin Philharmonie had to be cancelled (hopefully back in 2022). My Beethoven concerts with Viv McLean and others had to be cancelled. My trip to do Beethoven in Australia had to be cancelled. I reviewed some CDs and even a recital or two at the Wigmore Hall where Beethoven was played. Others had to be cancelled. I talked to musicians about Beethoven in person, on the phone, on Zoom. I was in videos talking about Beethoven and talking to musicians about Beethoven. I presented some Beethoven events on Zoom including a video launch for my book. I spent part of December chasing Krystian Zimerman and Simon Rattle around parts of east London trying to make some videos talking to them about Beethoven. I heard them playing some Beethoven concertos at LSO St Luke's and it was heaven. I saw Fidelio twice at Covent Garden and many times online. I talked to musicians about Fidelio. I listened to my husband learning the Beethoven Violin Concerto while I was writing my articles about Beethoven. I heard one of Tasmin Little's farewell recitals, in which she played a Beethoven sonata gorgeously. I read articles about Beethoven and books about Beethoven and listened to radio programmes about Beethoven and watched TV programmes about Beethoven, and then I reviewed a book about Mozart for the Sunday Times. I think I had Covid back in February, but that was before it made the big time, and I had to cancel going to a Beethoven concert because of it. Yes, there was a global pandemic, Brexit "got done", it felt as if everything had to be cancelled and our musicians are in appalling, desperate financial trouble, with no end yet in sight, but Beethoven just went on getting everywhere.

And in the summer we got away to Germany, where we walked up some mountains, rowed across a lake, saw wonderful friends and ate more oysters, and more wonderful oysters, than I have ever seen or eaten in all my life.

Hooray for Beethoven. Hooray for oysters. Boo to Brexit. Our country used to be flawed, but workable; we had the best musical life in the world. That's finished. We'll muddle through, but the golden age is over. Beethoven will survive. 

Next, I think I might learn some Mendelssohn.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Farewell to Fou Ts'ong (1934-2020)

Late last night the tragic news reached me that the great Chinese pianist Fou Ts'ong has died, aged 86, of Covid-19. This phenomenal artist was part of my childhood, as from the age of 10 to 17 I studied piano with his wife, Patsy Toh. He would flit by occasionally, a somewhat shy and shadowy figure in a doorway or in the hall, and my small self was rather terrified of him. I knew little of his story then, nothing about the horrific fate of his family in the Chinese Cultural Revolution or his dramatic escape via Poland after the Chopin Competition - though I did know he was friendly with Richter, because I once turned up for a lesson to find that Richter was there in the house, practising Schubert. Finally, as editor of what was then Classical Piano Magazine in the 1990s, I had the chance to interview him on the occasion of his 60th birthday. I asked him one question and he talked for two hours. Fortunately I still have the text, so I am rerunning it below in tribute to him. 


Fou Ts'ong
(Picture source: Svensk Konsertdirektion AB Website)

"I am always a beginner. I am always learning..." 

Fou Ts'ong tells Jessica Duchen the extraordinary story of his childhood in China and his escape to the West


Fou Ts'ong's life and career have been unconventional in almost every way, sometimes spectacular, sometimes unobtrusive, yet always sincere, taking him from the cosmopolitan Shanghai of the 1930s through Poland in the 1950s to the shores of Lake Como in the 1990s. There, under the auspices of the International Piano Foundation, he works with other eminent teachers and a select group of the best young pianists, creating, as he puts it, "the Davidsbündler of our time".


Fou talks with great enthusiasm (and an astonishing gift for mimicry) about his childhood and the early part of his career. This world could not have been more different. "My childhood would have been peculiar anywhere," he begins, "but was especially so in China, then a country of 450 million people over 90% of whom were peasants and the small core of intellectuals a tiny percentage." Fou belonged to that minimal number, being the son of a leading Chinese scholar, Fu Lei, who, having travelled freely to Europe and studied in Paris for five years, was exceptionally equally well versed in both Classical Chinese and modern philosophy. Among his works he counted the translation into Chinese of Romain Rolland's immense and influential novel Jean Christophe and the complete works of Balzac. [Fu Lei's Family Letters, a best-seller in China, published the correspondence of father and son and the progress of the youthful musician's piano studies.]


"Jean Christophe was an enormous influence in China, much more so than in Europe," explains Fou. "I think that was because it represented the liberation of the individual. To the Chinese this is the crucial issue - to this day it is not solved. My father was an extraordinary person, a renaissance man of great humanism; that is the way I was brought up. I was taught classical Chinese from a very early age by my father himself and this kind of classical education even in my generation is very rare. And my father, when he was teaching me Lao-tse or Confucius, would also quote Aristotle or Plato or Bertrand Russell or Voltaire."


"Those were very frenetic years in China, we were under Japanese occupation from 1941-45 - and for four years my father never went out of the house. There was hardly any food, just very coarse rice. Very hard times, but also it was a very hopeful time because the whole of China was in a ferment; everybody felt that fascism was evil, and evil and good were very clear cut. We were good, so we fought for the cause."


Fou's family also possessed a large number of records of classical music. Fou grew up to the sounds of artists such as Alfred Cortot, Edwin Fischer, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Pablo Casals. From a very early age he was mesmerised by music, yet it was not until he was 17 years old that he began to take the piano seriously as the focus of his life. Early lessons when he was ten were given by a pupil of his father, a young woman who had studied with a Russian pianist in Shanghai. Her loving and encouraging approach provided "the greatest joy in my life" for the otherwise strictly reared child. He progressed by leaps and bounds, but when he was sent instead to the Italian pianist and conductor Paci, one-time assistant to Toscanini at La Scala Milan and the founder of the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra - who had "got stuck" in Shanghai thanks to a passion for gambling - he found himself facing a very different approach which took all the joy away. He was given nothing but exercises to play for a year, plus the indignity of balancing a coin on the back of the hand.


After the family moved to Kuming in Yunan province, Fou became a rebellious teenager, passionately committed to the idea of communist revolution. His father, among the first Chinese to realise the truth about Stalin and the lies of Bolshevik communisim in Russia, acted as "a Cassandra of his time" and foretold disaster. His son disagreed and eventually a family split ensued. His father went back to Shanghai while Fou, alone in Yunan, was thrown out of school after school and finally, running out of schools and excuses, applied to and was accepted at the University of Yunan at the age of 15. He enrolled for English literature but spent his time "making revolution all over the place, falling in and out of love all the time, drinking and playing bridge!" 


But word got out that he could play the piano. When two rival churches in the town both put on Handel's Messiah at Christmas they competed for Fou's services as accompanist. Fortunately the performances were on different days, so he played for both. By exam time he was terrified, having done no work. Instead, he put on, with the help of fellow students, a concert in one church where he played an album called 101 Favourite Piano Pieces from cover to cover on a wartime upright. At the end a collection was made for him and immediately he had enough funds to make his way back to Shanghai by himself to continue his musical development.


The 17-year old thoroughly impressed his father with his difficult two-month solitary journey; his father agreed to help him pursue studies with the aim of becoming a concert pianist. These took on a distinctly surprising slant as Fou had very few lessons; one piano teacher emigrated to Canada after three months; next, what lessons he did have were from not a pianist but a violinist, the aging Alfred Wittenburg, a refugee from Nazi Germany, ex-concert master of the Berlin Opera and chamber music partner of Artur Schnabel. After Wittenburg's death, "I studied by intuition, thinking and reading books. I studied on my own and made my debut one year later. In Shanghai that made such a stir that central government, who wanted to send someone abroad for a competition, came to Shanghai to search out for me as one of the candidates."


That was how Fou went to a competition in Bucharest, where he won third prize, and then, fatefully, to Poland, where the government sent Andrzej Panufnik himself to listen to him to find out if he was worthy to participate in the Chopin Competition  Panufnik raved, "and soon everyone in Poland was raving. 'Have you heard him play mazurkas? Listen to those mazurkas!' I became a sort of performing monkey, everyone was asking me to play mazurkas all the time!" Fou laughs. He duly entered the competition and won the mazurka prize.


https://youtu.be/SqFOylOw2Ls


After the competition Fou studied in Warsaw and Cracow, thriving on the enthusiasm and encouragement he received there and falling in love again, this time with Mozart, an affair which lasts to this day. Professor Drzewicki, who also taught Halina Czerny-Stefanska and Adam Haraciewicz, sat and smiled through Fou's lessons. "After the competition he told me, 'Ts'ong you are different, you are so original and personal, you should only come to my lesson maybe once a month, no more'. Altogether I can count on my fingers the number of times I went. He said, 'I am here only to guide you if you go out of way'. 


"I was a great counterfeiter because I managed to hide all my troubles by my unique way of fingering, by my imagination, somehow by hoping to produce the goods. I always wanted to realise whatever vision I had in my head - in what way I don't know, I found it in my own way. Unless the vision was presented in a way that didn't show its deficiencies I would not allow it to go out. In a way I am my own downfall because I camouflage so well. In some ways it's also good because my way is original. But the struggle I have had with pianistic problems over the years is unbelievable, even to this day. I have to practise awfully hard; I envy pianists who have a great facility because I wish I had more time to play more music. Musically I am very greedy!'


Fou extended his stay in Poland as long as he could, for by then it had become dangerous for him to return to China where the anti-rightist movement - "the dress rehearsal of the Cultural Revolution" - had begun, and condemned him and his father. "It was a matter of life and death." He was desperate to go to Russia where a new friend and supporter was doing his best to offer help: Sviatoslav Richter, who wrote an enthusiastic article about Fou for a communist magazine entitled Friendship, published jointly in Russia and China. Richter had hoped thus to help Fou come officially to Russia, but while the article appeared in the Russian edition, the Chinese never carried it; nothing came of the scheme. Fou did not learn of this episode until many years afterwards.


His dramatic escape to Britain was made possible by the help of some more eminent beings: Wanda Wilkomirska, who helped to persuade the Polish authorities to "look the other way"; a music-loving wealthy Englishman named Auberon Herbert, who helped arrange an invitation for Fou to play in London, for which he could obtain a visa; and the pianist Julius Katchen, who lent him the air fare. To help throw the Chinese authorities off the scent, a "farewell"concert was announced at the last minute; Fou Ts'ong would perform two concertos, Mozart 's C major K503 and Chopin's F minor (both of which he learned in a week - on Saturday evening, 23 December. Another red herring, a farewell recital, was also announced for a later date, though pianist and organisers knew it would never happen. Early the next morning - a Sunday and Christmas Eve in a strongly Catholic country, a day on which "even the most diehard military police will become a little bit lax!" - Fou Ts'ong took a British Airways plane to London. He was free and an immediate celebrity in the West. Caught in the Cultural Revolution in China, Fou's father and mother both committed suicide.


Today, looking back over this extraordinary story and his varied fortunes since that time, Fou has some sensible advice to offer young would-be pianists. "First, you must have good self awareness, to know what you're made of. If you really have got it in you, not only talent but real aspiration, that means you are ready to sacrifice your life for it, totally dedicated to it, that's almost more important than talent. And even with these two, you have to be prepared to get nowhere in terms of worldly 'success'. You must know what you're in for! I wouldn't advise anyone to go on for the wrong reasons. 


"I consider myself terribly lucky, although I wouldn't consider my career that easy, partly because I have my deficiencies, also partly and largely because of my character. My wife Patsy [pianist and teacher Patsy Toh] says to me, 'You shouldn't complain, because you made your own destiny'. And that's true. Today I think to myself, thank God, now I'm really beginning to understand music. But I consider myself a beginner. I am always a beginner. I am always learning. I think I am very lucky that I never had so much success that I could be blinded by vanity. And to be in music, you are very lucky. When I was very young, I wrote to my father from Poland that I was sad and lonely. He wrote back: 'You could never be lonely. Don't you think you are living with the greatest souls of the history of mankind all the time?' Now that's how I feel, always."







Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Happy...

 


A very merry Christmas and happy new year 

to all our friends and readers,

with love from JDCMB

Monday, December 21, 2020

Welcome to (what remains of) the JDCMB Chocolate Silver Awards 2020


It's 21 December! Welcome back to our cyberposhplace, with a difference. Nowadays we are all living permanently in cyberplaces. Paradoxically, I considered holding this year's JDCMB Chocolate Silver Awards ceremony in the flesh for the first time, because now a real cybermeetingplace exists called Zoom and we'd be able to invite readers to join in from all over the world. This time last year nobody would even have thought of such a thing. That's just one way that Covid-19 has changed our world. The others are worse.

One thing I've learned in 2020, though, is that presenting an event online is still real. It takes, in fact, a lot of organisation, forward planning and slick technical support. And you know something? I'm tired. 

Many of us are. Unable to see our friends and family, deprived of the concerts and theatres on which our imaginative and social life centres and watching our towns crumbling as unit after unit gives up and shuts down, is depressing enough. Seeing even household-name musicians and actors struggling to make ends meet while excluded from the government's self-employment support schemes - that's horrifying. And guess what, we've got Brexit in 10 days' time and still nobody knows what's going to happen. Since I first drafted this post yesterday, a new crisis has emerged, which you can read about in all the papers rather than here.

While I could be all positive and "hello sun, hello trees," and "isn't music wonderful," I don't want to pretend. I'm doing my best to keep my nose above water. As regular readers will have noticed, blogging is not uppermost. I hit a largish birthday this month and it seemed time to take stock. It's not only a question of not being as young as one used to be, but also of longing to create something worthwhile, something that has a chance of lasting. Blogging is ephemeral. I wrote a novel about Beethoven called Immortal, it's more than 400 pages long and you can always read that instead. (For a taster, here's the video presentation that the Wigmore Hall filmed in September, in which I introduce the book and read extracts, and the wonderful Mishka Rushdie Momen plays the Piano Sonata in F, Op. 10 No. 2.)

Now, on with our awards ceremony, or what remains of it.

Come on in! Grab a glass of cyberbubbly. Here in our imaginary virtual venue, we can hug our friends without fear. This time we're outdoors, but it's a beautiful warm Mediterranean-style night. Strings of fairy lights glitter in the trees. The moon shines bright over the water, a string quartet is playing Irving Berlin and Cole Porter in the background, there's a buzz of conversation punctuated by the piccolo of joyous laughter (remember that sound?), and Ricki and Cosi are ensconced on their silken cushions in front of a large photo of Solti the Ginger Cat, ready to present the winners with their prize purrs and a cuddle of their lovely chocolate-silver and usual-silver Somali cat fur. 

Our guests of honour have scrambled up through the back of the centuries' wardrobe to join us from far-flung times. Ludwig van Beethoven has made an exception to his hatred of parties and is present to celebrate his 250th birthday. We can't change his otosclerosis, but we can give him a state-of-the-art hearing aid, so he's with us, smiling, laughing and joking, with Josephine by his side and little Minona in her party dress. Times have changed, they remark; if only they could be alive now instead, this is how it could have been. And we'd have had nine more symphonies. Only Therese, in her habitual black, is little changed. Don't say I didn't tell you, she twinkles. 

Alongside them, here are our friends of the present day, gathering from everywhere in the world: New York and Sydney, Paris and Berlin, Tuscany and Switzerland, Leipzig and Warsaw. Barnes, Manchester, Glasgow and Camden. We haven't seen each other the whole damned year. Love you. Miss you. Here's to next time...

Quiet please. Grab a refill and come over to the cushions. Now, would the following winners please approach the podium. And let's have a huge round of applause for every musician who has soldiered on bravely during 2020 and still manages to touch our hearts and souls, despite everything.


ICON OF THE YEAR

Thank you, Luigi. You help us to be resilient. There could have been no better anniversary to mark in this of all years. And I'm glad to see that in Germany they've decided your celebrations are going on next year too. Hopefully we'll do the same here. Thank you for letting me put you in a book. Thank you, too, to those marvellous people who have paid sterling tribute to you in their top-notch series: John Suchet on Classic FM and Donald MacLeod on BBC Radio 3, respectively available now as podcast and audiobook. And a huge thank you to my publishers, Unbound, for your faith in Immortal and for making sure that it could still come out in time for the anniversary even when so much else was being put back to 2021. Roxanna Panufnik's choral piece Ever Us, with my libretto, fell victim to the pandemic back in May - it should have been in the Berlin Philharmonie - but all being well it might instead be heard in 2022.

ARTISTS OF THE YEAR

-- Krystian Zimerman

I've met many musicians, and plenty of the finest, but only two who I believe deserve the title "genius". One was Pierre Boulez. The other is Krystian Zimerman. Thanks to a booklet notes commission, I've spent part of December pursuing Zimerman and Simon Rattle around corners of east London and attending some of the rehearsals for their incredible series of the Beethoven piano concertos at LSO St Luke's. It has provided an insight into what it actually takes to be such an artist: as TS Eliot said, "A condition of complete simplicity (Costing not less than everything)." Yes: everything, every hour, every cell, every emotion and every last scrap of spirit. Most of us have simply no idea... The concerts are being streamed on DG's new online concert platform, DG Stage (the last is the 'Emperor' Concerto, being shown tonight - you can still catch part 2, nos. 2 and 4, as well). The audio recording will be out in the spring. Perhaps one of 2020's biggest surprises was finding that he's on Instagram. (Photo above by Kasslara.) 

-- Tasmin Little

It's hard to believe that Tasmin Little is retiring from the stage, but she insists that she is. I attended her last Southbank Centre performance, watching from among a smattering of guests distanced in the back stalls; it included among other things, her astounding performance of Brahms's D minor sonata with the stunningly fine Russian pianist Andrey Gugnin. Tasmin, I said later, did you know that Margot Fonteyn decided against retiring when she met Rudolf Nureyev? Hint hint. Tasmin laughed, but her bright smile hardened a little. She says she regrets having to discontinue such a partnership, but she is stopping, and that is that. So you can't say I didn't try. She'd already had to postpone her farewell concerts from summer to autumn and is busy giving the last ones right now, in those places where concerts haven't been knocked out of the water yet again by Tier 3 or 4. Here's to your pastures new, Tasmin, whatever they may be. Come and have a purr from Ricki and Cosi. (Photo by Paul Mitchell.)

LOCKDOWN HEROES

There are quite a few of you who meet this description. Step forward, Elena Urioste and Tom Poster (pictured right)! Your UriPoste Jukebox, violin and piano music for all seasons daily from your home, has brightened the year. Hello Daniel Hope, whose living room concerts were pounced upon for televising by Arte and spread the music-making of fabulous colleagues in Berlin far and wide. Welcome, dear Kanneh-Mason Family, who have brought us hope and inspiration at every turn - from your home concerts on Facebook to Sheku and Isata's gorgeous Proms recital to Jeneba playing Florence Price's Piano Concerto in One Movement with the ever-more-marvellous Chineke! Orchestra at the Southbank, plus the enchanting Carnival of the Animals album with Michael Morpurgo. I also loved Kadiatu's book House of Music, charting in graphic detail what it takes - oh yes - to raise such a family. Gabriela Montero, Angela Hewitt, Igor Levit and Boris Giltburg are among the many fabulous pianists who have been playing for us online. The Wigmore Hall blazed a trail in getting live concerts going again, while they could, and streaming them into our homes for free. It is up to us to do better at paying for this, and really you should if you can. Kings Place hit on an inventive and empathetic way to tempt nervous audience members out of their houses and into to the concert hall for the first time in the summer, offering one-to-one 10-minute sessions with Elena and Tom among others. That was my own first trip on the tube in four months, and they performed a piece selected especially for me ("We heard you were coming in, so we dug out some Fauré..."). And jolly wonderful it was. (Pictured above, photo by JD.)

This list could continue. What's astonished me is the amount of imagination, resourcefulness, determination, understanding, urgency and passion that so many in the music world have shown in the face of catastrophe. They don't call us "creative industries" for nothing. Perhaps the only good thing to come out of 2020 is the fact that we will never, ever take music for granted again. And if some do, we can say to them "Remember the pandemic, when the music stopped..." Could we live without it? No, we couldn't. Never forget.

Oh, and one Turkey of the Year: the British government marching us smack onto the rocks of Brexit despite the existing devastation. What a phenomenally stupid waste of time and energy it all is. We'll have to spend the years ahead putting ourselves back together. 

We are all connected. We all affect one another. There are positive forces that unite and inspire us: music, art, logic, poetry, science, learning, wisdom, generosity, honesty, kindness, love. There are negative ones, which divide us: greed, wanton destruction, lies, superstition, ignorance, heartlessness, hatred and indifference. 

Perhaps the best we can hope for is that destruction really will bring creative opportunities (as the disaster capitalists would say - admittedly that's not a great advert...) and that we can turn the collapse of old structures to good by creating new ones, re-establishing as our driving values the qualities that represent the best of humankind, rather than the worst. 

Speech over. Grab some more cyberbubbly and let's dance while we still can. Merry Christmas.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Here in our haven...


It's been a hectic few weeks and a bout of tonsillitis didn't help. So from the tranquility of a plane-less Monday morning, in company with a snoring cat and a violinist practising Paganini downstairs, here's a quick update and some links for a catch-up.

First of all, because of a sudden, belated and unexpected lockdown (thanks, Boris...) everyone's carefully laid plans for distancing audiences at concerts went up in smoke and everything for November got cancelled. There's been a scramble to rethink, reimagine and reschedule. The Up Close and Musical festival at the Fidelio Orchestra Cafe has been moved to May, my 'Immortal' concert with Piers Lane for the Barnes Music Society has been rescheduled for 16 January, and the Nordern Farm performance has unfortunately had to bite the dust. There are a few other dates in the diary for June, but let's cross that bridge when we come to it.

One of the events that I was most sorry to lose this year was the staging of the youth opera The Selfish Giant by the composer John Barber, for which I did the libretto. It was meant to happen in July. Now we are hoping that it will be able to enjoy a performance in some way, shape or form next summer instead. Like The Happy Princess with composer Paul Fincham in 2019, it's a commission from Garsington for their youth companies, and this time it is also a co-commission from Opera North. The story is a transformation of an Oscar Wilde fairytale. It is all about the beauty of nature, how much we need it, how much we need to be at one with it, and how completely stupid it is to build walls between different peoples and different generations. We need to work with nature and with each other to build a better world - because one day we will leave it, and then what is our legacy?

"Here in the garden, our haven, here in the garden, our heaven; here we can be who we're meant to be, where we find ourselves and are free..." When we wrote the piece we had no idea that this year the beauty of nature would become what would sustain our young performers who were indeed cut off from their friends, their schools, their rehearsals and their joy in singing together. They made a film about it, using some songs from the opera. It's called Our Haven and Garsington released it on Friday for National Children's Day. Here it is: https://youtu.be/jJK1Rc1DdFU

Meanwhile, the Zoom launch for 'Immortal' went off with much more zing than I'd thought possible. We had more than 50 attendees from all over the world, which was astounding, and the support of Joanna Pieters, who presented and interviewed, Simon Hewitt Jones, who produced, and Mishka Rushdie Momen, who played, was absolutely incredible. Although I was alone in the study, and Ricki slept in a chair behind me all the way through, I felt as if we'd had a real party. If you didn't see if and you'd like to, the whole thing is now on Youtube, here.

Soon afterwards, I found myself roped into a reimagining of an event for the wonderful Wimbledon International Music Festival, a favourite calendar highlight of mine here in south-west London. Normally the inimitable Anthony Wilkinson brings world-class music to live stages on his own doorstep, but of course this time everything had to be moved online and replanned for the format. You can see the lot for a small fee at their website - and yes, one should have to pay to watch music online, because making these things costs and otherwise there soon won't be any. The festival includes some amazing concerts such as a cello and piano recital of Beethoven by Raphael Wallfisch and John York, a typically thoughtful and eclectic programme from pianist Clare Hammond and a star highlight filmed at Wigmore Hall with Paul Lewis performing the Beethoven Diabelli Variations. If you think there's a Beethoven theme, you're right; the event into which I was parachuted was a discussion with pianist Piers Lane, actor/director/writer Tama Matheson and festival director Anthony Wilkinson exploring the magic of Beethoven and, beyond that, what the arts really mean to us, why we need them and where we go from here. All details here.

Next, a call from The Sunday Times. There's a new biography of Mozart just out, by the splendid Jan Swafford, the musicologist and composer who seemed to capture the nation's hearts when he appeared in the BBC series Being Beethoven. This latest book is 800 pages long, which I didn't completely realise until after I'd agreed to review it, but it is such a lovely read that I felt a bit bereft when I'd finished. The review was in yesterday's paper and is online (£) here.

Yesterday, too, I was on Talk Radio rabbiting about Beethoven and 'Immortal'. There's been an enthusiastic blog tour of book site reviews, and we're waiting with slightly nibbled nails for further reviews to appear in print. In general, though, I would advise any budding novelists to check in advance that their release date does not coincide with a very important American presidential election, because firstly nobody will have eyes for much else, and secondly nothing that you write will ever be able to match up to the bizarre reality unfolding in front of our eyes there.

As the divine Joni Mitchell sings, "something's lost and something's won, in living every day... I really don't know life at all."

Let's keep on keeping on, and remember the beauty in the garden. 

To which end, I've just ordered 80 daffodil bulbs. 

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Zoom launch event for 'Immortal' on Tuesday

"O friends, not those tones!" That particular dog has had its day: soon a new day will dawn. Congratulations to our friends over the Pond for electing President Biden and Vice-President Harris! I've been out in the park this morning and everyone is smiling, despite lockdown. America's big moment can bring hope to us all: change is possible. 

Meanwhile...


Immortal - Jessica Duchen Book Launch

All the book events I had lined up for November have had to be cancelled/postponed due to the new lockdown (details in the sidebar, which I'll update as necessary). So we're having an online celebration instead. It's on Tuesday 10 November at 6pm UK time for round about an hour, and there'll be an interview, a reading, Q&A and hopefully even some music. If you'd like to join in, please register here to receive an email containing the Zoom link, and then just show up in cyberspace with a glass of something or a cuppa or whatever. We will do our best to make it as festive as possible! Hope to see you there.



Thursday, October 29, 2020

'Immortal' is out, and so is its Wigmore digital launch

It's publication day for Immortal. I am overjoyed to say that we are sending it out into the world with a digital launch presentation from the stage of the Wigmore Hall, thanks to the unbelievably kind invitation of John Gilhooly. 

I'm joined in a unique words&music presentation by the rising star pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen (pictured left), who plays the Beethoven Piano Sonata in F, Op. 10 No. 2. It was a memorable day: both of us were back in the hall for the first time since lockdown and I certainly felt a little strange performing to the empty auditorium, where I've enjoyed so many unforgettable concerts in better times. I hope you enjoy hearing the readings from the early part of the book when Josephine and Therese meet Beethoven for the first time, become his pupils and hear him improvise; and Mishka's playing is out of this world.

My profound thanks to Mishka, John, my lovely publishers Unbound, and the entire Wigmore Hall team for making this possible.

Meanwhile, Immortal is now available from all good bookshops. Enjoy!



Saturday, October 24, 2020

Hologram future?

Eugene Birman has sent me a fascinating piece about how a university research project that he initiated pre-pandemic has been reimagined for the Covid-19 era - using holograms. Is this the future? Who knows - I can hardly see more than a few days ahead at the moment and I am sure I'm not the only one - but what's certain is that it is emblematic of the creativity, originality and sheer determination with which so many people in the arts world are responding to the situation in which we find ourselves. I hope that we can take heart, build on the positives and find a way forward, possibly one that will break down boundaries in all kinds of new ways. I am not the planet's most optimistic person at the best of times, but I do have hope. Which is different. Over now to Eugene's guest post. JD



HOLOGRAM FUTURE? 

A guest post by Eugene Birman

There can never be enough ink spilled on the global catastrophe in which the performing arts finds itself at the moment. From my own vantage point in Hong Kong, where pandemic and protests have, in concert, over the past 12 months effectively cleared the entire live performance calendar, the term ‘catastrophe’ is particularly apropos because the public life in the city is essential to its functioning - with the smallest average home size in the world, the street is our living room, and the concert hall our home theatre system. Yet to focus on what we don’t have distracts from a conversation on what we could have. Today, the ink spills in the direction of some positive, practical thinking.

 

Eighteen months ago, back when a trip to London was about as easy as one across Hong Kong harbor, I initiated a university research project with installation artist Kingsley Ng in how arts and computer science could reflect on global climate change, a guilt-free musical discourse on the indisputable facts. We had a plan - a big data-fueled art and music installation on how we relate to air in Hong Kong, which, with no heavy industry of its own, has lost its clear skies increasingly to smog from an industrializing world. 

 

Theatre of Voices would sing it, we would work with groups of young people from the Hong Kong Children’s Choir - the real stakeholders of our current-day decisions - to design a text to sing that they actually wrote, and bring audiences in small groups on a narrative adventure through a lush and lavish greenhouse in the center of the city, the Forsgate Conservatory. ARIA 空氣頌would combine symbolism, star performers, and a scheduled premiere in September 2020 during the Autumn Festival, which, away from its colored lanterns, is traditionally a time to reflect on our connection to the Earth.




 

History, evidently, took a different course. The complete closure of the city’s external borders meant bringing Theatre of Voices to perform live would be impossible. Strict guidelines on social distancing inside enclosed spaces, the impossibility of rehearsing the children’s choir due to restrictions on assembly and closed schools, and then a third wave of infections in the latter half of July: I suppose the right idea would have been simply to postpone to some far-off date in a less dystopian future. 

 

But somehow we insisted on adapting to this whole thing, and with the frankly unprecedented support and encouragement of the city’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department as well as Hong Kong Baptist University, not to mention a tireless team led by curator Stephanie Cheung, the project in its pandemic-proof, but conceptually unaltered, state will go live in mid-November. 

 

The key, I think, was to preserve the live element. Certainly, streaming performances have allowed musicians to at least continue to exist in the public consciousness, but we do not experience them as an audience as much as we simply consume their content. Back in May, we started investigating the possibility of rendering Theatre of Voices as holograms, keeping their presence as performers in the physical space intact. 

 

By the end of August, we had 335GB of video and audio footage, meticulously shot in Copenhagen to Kingsley’s specifications. The Hong Kong Children’s Choir somehow learned a microtonal score over Zoom, with rehearsals beginning live only the second week of October due to relaxed gathering restrictions. And while we’re not quite sure whether a public audience will be permitted for the live event or not, should they be, they will experience the show at most 20 to a group, allowing for ideal sightlines and plenty of separation. Having the holograms allowed us to increase the live shows from three as initially planned to eight nights with perhaps two shows per night; those 335GB are working very hard for us.




It’s been sufficiently mentioned already that the new reality of travel, even if temporary, asks valid questions of whether star performers genuinely need to carve such a global (carbon) footprint. They certainly look convincing in their hologram form in the greenhouse tonight - artistically expressive, with the added adrenaline of having to learn and record an eighty-minute work in the space of a week. And in a work about the environment, it’s what we should have done all along anyway. 

 

Fundamentally, the decision to postpone events and cancel seasons is generally understandable, but relies on the naive idea that the world next September will be precisely like the world in 2019. What if it won’t? As social distancing grows untenable, so will streaming become insufficient and further delay, impossible. What then? The post-pandemic concert is, in fact, a puzzle for our lonely present.

Eugene Birman

 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Not quite normal

Back in the Royal Festival Hall: Chineke! takes the stage

I'm astonished to realise that my schedule this past week has been a closish mirror to business as usual - without feeling remotely as if it is. It has included, among other things, a couple of interviews, but on Zoom rather than face to physical face; and two concerts to review, both with world-class performances, but in front of scant, distanced, masked-up audiences, and one evening featuring the new-look pandemic-era 21st-century orchestral layout in which every player has their own music stand. There was even a press launch to "attend" - for the exil.arte centre in Vienna's new exhibition about Jan Kiepura and Martha Eggerth, with their son Marjan and his wife Jane Kiepura taking questions, but beamed in from all corners of Europe and America direct to my study in sunny Sheen. 

I was a guest on Radio 3's Music Matters the other night after the Chineke! concert, but broadcast live from a corner of the Royal Festival Hall that used to be where the receptions were held (Radio 3 is in residence at the hall for a fortnight). Instead of standing with glass in hand gazing out at the London Eye and anticipating a packed-out concert with standing ovation, we were tucked into a corner with tables, microphones and wires, trying to figure out how to get the microphone black foam 'socks' out of their packaging. I caught my 11.03pm train home, but instead of the usual scrummage of passengers sporting theatre programmes, John Lewis bags and excess alcohol-breath, there was...nobody. Nobody else at all. 

It's good that we can find ways, now and then, to keep on keeping on, but my goodness, it's weird. "Are you optimistic for the future?" asked Tom Service on Music Matters. I had to struggle for a few seconds, and then explained that I'm not a particularly optimistic person in any case, but that even if I'm not optimistic per se, I look at the quantity of creativity and invention and adaptability around us and that gives me hope. Hope is different from optimism. 

Here are a few links if you want to read some more or listen back to the broadcast:

Review of Stephen Kovacevich's 80th birthday concert at the Wigmore Hall...

Review of Chineke! at the RFH with Jeneba Kanneh-Mason and more...

BBC Radio 3 Music Matters, live from the Royal Festival Hall...

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

'Immortal': the difficult stuff

I was saddened to hear the other day that the celebrated musicologist Maynard Solomon has died, aged 90. I have admired his writings for many, many years, I love his book on Mozart and have found his articles about Beethoven absolutely invaluable when working on Immortal, especially his explorations of the composer's conversation books. He sounds a fascinating person and I am only sorry that I never had the chance to meet him. Here is an excellent obituary from the New York Times.

This is a good moment to put some "difficult stuff" about Immortal briefly under the spotlight and get it, hopefully, out of the way.

Maynard Solomon's theory of the Immortal Beloved was that the woman in question was Antonie Brentano, the wife of one of Beethoven's closest friends and supporters. There were two principal reasons: first, that she was definitely in Prague on the right day in 1812; secondly, that Solomon undertook a sort of posthumous psychoanalysis of Beethoven which seemed to support this theory. His suggestion has been much approved and amplified, notably by the writer and scholar Susan Lund, who has worked on Beethoven since the 1970s and has written a novel, a play and a factual book about it. 

Josephine - 'Pepi'

The theory has also been widely contested, even objected to, the alternative being that the Immortal Beloved was Josephine Brunsvik. Chief among the scholars exploring in this direction was the late Rita Steblin, whose articles and books have been a mainstay of my own information (I was devastated to hear that she died a year ago, leaving some important research unfinished). Before that, Marie-Elisabeth Tellenbach had written a fascinating, extremely detailed book on the Josephine theory and the zealous John Klapproth translated into English some crucial early texts on the subject, including La Mara (1920s) who had published some of Therese's memoirs. Some of these writers entered into spirited and occasionally angry exchanges with Solomon on the Josephine v Antonie topic. 

But if you saw the BBC's Being Beethoven series recently, you will have noticed (or you might not - it went by very fast and in almost sheepish tone) that one of the Viennese academics acknowledges, after much "we don't know who she really was", that they do now think there is a 90 per cent likelihood that the Immortal Beloved was Josephine. Ninety per cent is not a small figure. The doubt remains because the traces of this affair were extremely well concealed at the time. It's impossible to prove the final ten per cent without digging up Beethoven and the person - or indeed more than one person - who may have been his illegitimate child and doing a DNA test. I doubt that is going to happen any time soon. 

The fascinating thing about either theory, Antonie or Josephine, is that both present Beethoven with a possible "love child" at the crucial moment. Antonie's youngest son was born about three weeks before Josephine's daughter in spring 1813. So whichever of these infants was the one to whom he could never be a father, the likely outcome - his obsession with adopting his nephew - still applies and makes sense.

It's true, too, that we don't know for certain, and that last 10 per cent of doubt is why I have tackled Immortal in the way I have: a fictional first-person narrative from a not necessarily reliable observer, leaving a little room for a question mark around the potential of Antonie. I'm not a zealot about this (I've died on a few hills before and this isn't going to be another, especially not when we are facing the biggest crisis to hit the world in my whole lifetime...). I do know that the Josephine theory looks, walks and quacks like a duck; the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn favours her as the likely solution; and I can't deny that I am not wholly in favour of psychoanalysing someone who is not present to speak for himself, though I find the nephew explanation perfectly plausible. 

Antonie Brentano

Let's cut to the chase: the problem with the Josephine v Antonie dilemma is that it is not really about Josephine and Antonie, or not any more. It is about today's factions. The fact is that if the Immortal Beloved was Josephine, it means Solomon's solution is not correct, which would be a painful admission for his disciples and admirers. Moreover, on Josephine's side it's unfortunate that Klapproth - who died several years ago - entered into some startlingly belligerent and rather wild-toned arguments about it, even with scholars of the calibre of Jan Swafford (whose book stays sensibly neutral on the issue, though seems unusually in favour of Bettina Brentano). It's not impossible that Klapproth harmed his own cause through sheer obsessiveness; moreover, his translations are not of the quality one could wish for, but their existence may perhaps have prevented others from producing more lucid ones. 

Rita Steblin's clear, rational, scholarly writings have clarified much, however; she confirmed that Josephine expressed a wish to consult someone in Prague at the right time, and furthermore revealed that as late as 1818 Therese was mooting to her sister a possibility that they could consider going to London with Beethoven (see her article in The Musical Times, summer 2019). Steblin's involvement was key to the turnaround. There are probably power struggles rumbling away beneath the entire situation, and it's quite likely that they could involve the reverence sometimes accorded to senior male scholars, the propensity back in the 20th century for squishing away the women who see things differently...and much more besides.

This is a topic that can get under your skin. I'm not surprised it provokes obsession - and some of the texts in existence are almost terrifying in this respect. That was one reason that I hesitated for several years before plunging into writing Immortal. It is dangerous, disturbing and disruptive. 

But it's also a fantastic story, strong and important enough to become known beyond academia, especially as it potentially casts fresh light on some of Beethoven's music. I've found that it's better recognised in Germany and, indeed, Hungary (the Brunsviks were Hungarian) than it is in English-speaking countries. Few writers of my outlook would be able to resist it, so...here we are. 

Immortal is a novel because it couldn't be anything else. It travels from the spheres of Jane Austen at the beginning towards the emotions of Tristan and Isolde at the end. If you like it, great; if not, a pity; either way, it is not intended as a definitive statement on the ultimate truth. I'll leave that to academia and, possibly, the DNA lab. Meanwhile I heartily recommend that readers should also explore the writings of Solomon and Lund, weigh up the theories and decide for themselves. In the end, that's all we can actually do. 


Sunday, October 04, 2020

Letting Music Live

Where? Parliament Square, London; Centenary Square, Birmingham. When? Tuesday 6 October, 12 noon. 

Time to show parliament what's what in the music world, which is in graver peril than ever before. Under the auspices of a new banner, Let Music Live, convened by violinist Jessie Murphy, 400 professionals - chiefly freelancers, as most are - will be setting out to show that music is still alive and ready to work...

The arts culture sector contributes enormous amounts to the UK economy every year, but has yet to receive anything more than a kick in the teeth from the government. Despite that promise of £1.57bn of help, months later not much actual money has yet been distributed to the people who need it - if any. And that's the ones who do "qualify". Even performers who are household names in the musical and theatrical worlds have had no work or income since March and still fall through the "safety net", such as it is, "qualifying" for no support whatever. 

Please note that due to social distancing restrictions numbers are strictly controlled. Anyone who wants to attend Parliament Square must please contact the organisers first at letmusicliveuk@gmail.com.

400 freelance professional musicians from all parts of the industry will be joined in support by leading musical figures including David HillRaphael WallfischEmma Johnson and Tasmin Little, to perform in Parliament Square and Centenary Square, Birmingham, shining a light on the need for targeted support for freelance musicians and all those who work in the arts and entertainment sector. They are also joined in solidarity by the Musicians' UnionThe Musicians' Answering ServiceEmily Eavis and more.
 
Conducted by renowned director David Hill in Parliament Square, the freelance musicians will perform a short section of 'Mars' from Holst's The Planets before standing in silence for two minutes. The 20% of the piece that they will perform represents the maximum 20% support that freelancers receive from the government through the SEISS grant. The two-minute silence represents the 45% of musicians currently not covered by the SEISS grant (MU). The event will be Covid-safe, adhering strictly to social distancing regulations, facilitated by support from #WeMakeEvents.

The arts and culture industry contributes £10.8 billion a year directly to the UK economy (ONS), with growth in creative industries previously running at five times that of the rest of the economy. With effective short-term support, freelance musicians will continue to make a positive impact.
 
For every £1 directly spent on music and events, an extra £2 is generated in the wider economy (ACE), powering a network of businesses across the country. Supporting freelance musicians means supporting the wider economy.

Let Music Live calls on the Government:

  • to recognise that freelance musicians are an economic asset. It is essential they invest in freelancers so that they can continue to support the intricate network of businesses that rely on arts and events for their footfall.
  • for sector-specific support to reopen, including a subsidised concert ticket scheme while social distancing restrictions remain, and Government-backed insurance for live events and theatre performances.
  • for targeted support for those skilled workforces forced to remain closed by Covid restrictions, so that freelance musicians are still there to bring music to everyone when this is over. 


Friday, September 25, 2020

32 not out: a Beethoven piano festival with a few major differences

Moving music online may have reduced audiences in one way, but it's expanded them in others. Next weekend, on 3 and 4 October, you can log on from anywhere on earth to see all the Beethoven piano sonatas being played in a festival in a tiny 12th-century church in west London. Hugh Mather, who runs the series at St Mary's Perivale, has put together what looks like an extraordinary logistical feat: 32 pianists for 32 sonatas. Here he tells me why and how - and what Beethoven has meant to us in these troubled times. You can see the whole festival line-up here:  http://www.st-marys-perivale.org.uk/events-beethovenfestival3.shtml 


Amit Yahav performs at St Mary's Perivale

JD: Why did you decide to have a festival of the Beethoven piano sonatas at St Mary’s Perivale, given that Beethoven was already to be so extensively celebrated this year in the “upper echelons” of the music world?

HM: We obviously had to mark the great 250th anniversary in some way. I had organised three similar cycles of the sonatas with 32 pianists at St Barnabas Ealing in 2009, 2012 and 2014, so I knew the format works. Our strong suit is the large number of superb pianists who live in or around London. A sonata cycle was the obvious way of giving 32 of them a chance to perform, and the opportunity for listeners to re-discover many of the lesser-played works. Unfortunately the virus has led to many other festivals being cancelled, and we are now one of the few big Beethoven events still happening. Our friends in the Beethoven Piano Society of Europe are also putting on a similar cycle, but spread over the whole year, rather than a weekend, and in different venues. I had also planned to present all 10 violin sonatas played by 20 musicians in a single day, but that will have to wait till next year.  


JD: You have a different pianist for each sonata - a major contrast from most Beethoven cycles which are attempted like a solo Everest-climb by individual pianists. Why did you decide on this?   


HM: Simply because the format is infinitely more interesting and enjoyable with 32 different pianists!   I have at least 15 CD or LP sets of the complete sonatas, but I always skip around to hear different pianists and their various sonorities and approaches. Even if Schnabel were reincarnated, I would get slightly bored in hearing the same sort of sound and aesthetics for 14 hours, whereas with different pianists it is endlessly fascinating. And we have a superb team of pianists who will each have something special to offer and will all sound very different from each other. I guarantee a very high standard of performance throughout the cycle, and it will be compelling viewing and listening for anyone interested in Beethoven or fine piano-playing.       


JD: What were the issues involved in putting it together? Organising 32 pianists sounds like a logistical nightmare… 


HM: Actually it was surprisingly easy. I wrote to a carefully selected group of pianists in early January, asking them if they would like to participate, and if so, which sonatas they would like to perform. A handful of pianists were unable to participate because it was expected to clash with the Warsaw Chopin competition (since postponed), but otherwise virtually all instantly agreed to play, and I am very happy with our current team !    


To put this in perspective, I have a database of 160 very good pianists who have asked for a solo recital slot. Our venue is always popular because we pay our musicians, we have a nice piano and we provide a high quality recording. So I could easily construct teams to play 2 or 3 cycles! As regards choice of sonatas, nearly all offered the 'Appassionata' and 'Moonlight', etc, but I asked them to specify less familiar sonatas which they would be prepared to play in 9 months' time. From previous festivals, I know that the difficult sonatas to fix are Op 2 no 2, Op 22, Op 31 no 1, Op 54 and the two Op 49s. The jigsaw fell into place over the spring, before the lockdown in March.  



St Mary's Perivale


JD: It’s wonderful that you can livestream concerts from St Mary’s, even without a physical audience. How has COVID-19 affected your plans in terms of the pianists themselves? Have many had to drop out, and how do you replace them?  


HM: The original team of 32 pianists in January included a very good Polish pianist – Michal Szymanowski – who obviously had to cancel because of travel restrictions, and two other pianists cancelled because of other considerations, but otherwise the team is virtually unchanged. I recently advertised on Facebook for replacements to play Op 13 and Op 79 and within 24 hours received offers from 20 and eight pianists respectively. With such a large team of musicians, I suspect there may be at least one to three cancellations next week, and I will need to find a replacement at short notice! That is the worst aspect of the whole project.


JD: What are the technical challenges of relaying concerts on the internet? How does St Mary’s manage this?  


HM: Our video and streaming facilities were developed over several years by a group of retired BBC personnel, led by Simon Shute and George Auckland, who live in Ealing and are longstanding friends.    The system now comprises 7 high definition cameras and 2 high quality microphones permanently installed in the church. It was developed as an adjunct to our concerts, initially to provide recordings for our musicians, and it only realized its full potential in the lockdown, since when we have become, in effect, a broadcasting studio! Since then we have streamed 28 live concerts and 53 concert recordings.  Our superb technical team provide their services free of charge, in keeping with everyone else at Perivale, so we have been able to install broadcast quality video systems remarkably cheaply.

     

JD: Do you think concerts change substantially without an audience? How do performers cope without that live feedback? 


HM: Broadcast concerts, viewed at home, are inevitably a poor substitute for the ‘real thing’, and I can’t wait to return to having a ‘live’ audience enjoying a communal experience again. Nevertheless, the concerts have filled a void in many peoples’ lives, providing much entertainment and solace, and they have enabled us to support so many musicians over the past few months of financial hardship, from viewers’ donations. Performing in an empty venue is indeed slightly nerve-racking, rather like a professional broadcast, but most of our musicians are experienced performers and soon get used to it.


JD: As a pianist yourself, can you tell us something about what makes the Beethoven sonatas such an extraordinarily special body of works? Do you have any personal favourites among them? If so, which and why?


HM: The Beethoven sonatas have been called the ‘New Testament’ of the piano literature. They cover such a remarkable range, from the early classically-based works to the late transcendental sonatas, and there are few if any weak pieces among them. I love them all, and have listened to them all my life, but I didn’t have time to study many of them, on top of my medical career. My favourite will always be the 'Hammerklavier', for personal reasons. After graduating in medicine in 1971, I took a few months off to study the piano with Jimmy Gibb at the Guildhall, and decided to learn the great work, which I played at an open recital at the Guildhall in 1972. Then I got married to Felicity Light, who was a medical student, so I had to earn a living, and returned to a frantically busy career, which precluded serious practice for years. So I have only learned and played about 5 of the sonatas in public. The 'Hammerklavier' has stayed with me ever since, and I played it in our complete Beethoven cycles at St Barnabas in 2009 and 2014. The slow movement still moves me to tears every time I hear or play it – one of the most profound and transcendental pieces ever written. 


JD: Medicine and music are often deemed to “go together”. While writing ‘Immortal’ I’ve been fascinated to learn that Beethoven occasionally practised almost an early form of music therapy: he would improvise for friends who were suffering grief, bereavement, depression etc, and his musical response to their frame of mind would bring them the relief of tears. During this weird year, I’ve gone back to my piano and playing Beethoven has brought me energy, positivity and renewed enthusiasm for life. Do you find he has a similar effect?


HM: The link between medicine and music is indeed widespread. As for Beethoven, one can spend a lifetime exploring these wonderful masterpieces, and I never tire of them. I particularly enjoy all the early sonatas which people rarely play in recitals, as well as the immortal late sonatas. Part of the joy of our festival will be a re-acquaintance with some of the less-commonly played works. In the lockdown I have been re-listening to the late string quartets and have found them to be life-enhancing and deeply enriching, and appropriate listening material for this strange and depressing time. At the risk of sounding pompous, Beethoven’s compositions really do encapsulate every facet of the human experience, rather like Shakespeare. We hope to show that in our great festival at St Mary’s Perivale on 3 and 4 October.


Beethoven Festival, St Mary's Perivale, 3 and 4 October, is online here: http://www.st-marys-perivale.org.uk/events-beethovenfestival3.shtml 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Can conductors change the world? A guest post by Rebecca Miller



I've been astounded, these past tricky months, at the explosion of creative thinking and doing by musicians around what can feel like a very shattered world. The news in the papers is universally awful: a third of MU members are thinking of leaving the profession, while the ISM has found that 64 per cent of musicians are considering the same, and there are eye-watering redundancies at many of our leading concert halls. And yet things have come about in six short months that we'd never have dreamed of a year ago, from ENO staging a drive-in La Bohème in the car park at Alexandra Palace, to a whole new opera by Alex Woolf and David Pountney at Grange Park Opera, and the ability to tune in online to performances from far and wide, many of which are fortunately starting to charge for viewing, which they should. 

With education and social life suffering abominably, creative initiatives that bring people together online for stimulating discussions and masterclasses are coming into their own. Among the best I've come across is Beyond Borders, devised by the conductor Rebecca Miller, which is launching on 2 October, aiming to gather musicians, educators and music industry leaders from all over the world. I'm delighted that she has written us a guest post. Please follow the links at the end to sign up and take part. JD

  


Can conductors change the world? 

A guest post by conductor Rebecca Miller

 

Who is this crazy woman spouting about conducting masterclasses when the world is falling apart? What relevance do orchestras have to us today? Why should we try to save them? Can orchestras make the world a better place? How? What makes a community? How can we fix the world? 

 

(…just a small insight into the current state of my mind)

 

From darkness to light

 People often ask me if I have a favourite composer. I usually laugh and say, ‘that’s impossible to say - it’s like asking me which of my children I like best’. But if I had to choose one at gunpoint, I would choose Beethoven. Of all the composers who mastered the art of finding light through the darkness… for me, it is Beethoven. Of all the composers who excelled in imagination through extreme limitations… for me, it is Beethoven. 

 

Throughout lockdown, throughout the darkness, the despair, the fear, the longing, I have found a token of strange and sombre comfort somewhere - it wasn’t in Beethoven, but it was in the knowledge that everyone in the world is in the same plight - that everyone is in this isolation - together; that everyone in the world is affected in some way by COVID and that we are all fighting the same fight. When else has it been that the whole world fights the same problem at the same time? That we are completely united as a world, against a single cause? As humans, as societies, we are usually wrapped up in our own problems - we often don’t pay enough attention to the problems of others. But here we are, every single person in the world has heard of COVID, is affected by COVID, wants to rid the world of COVID. 

 

That unified purpose - that’s what an orchestra does on stage. We are all committed to one objective - to play this piece, at this time, on this day, for this audience, to the best of our abilities. Nothing else matters at this moment. It doesn’t matter who the person is next to us - what is the shape their violin, or what is the colour of their skin. All we care about is getting it right - getting it better, and better, as we strive further and further towards an unattainable perfection. 

 

I started Beyond Borders out of isolation, out of a desire to overcome the restrictions on human contact - to bring people together, from across the world, in ways and for discussions and sessions that previously didnt seem possible. I think we have all accepted - like it or not - that digital meetings and conferences are a way of the present and likely a way of the future - and I have decided to embrace it, rather than reject it. So I turn back to Beethoven. To find the light out of the darkness. To create something imaginative out of extreme limitations. 

 

Beyond Borders aims to bring people throughout the world together through online sessions and masterclasses - to discuss and contemplate community, leadership, and orchestras, but through the eyes of a conductor. Individual sessions and masterclass series - details here and more below.

 

So… can conductors change the world? 

 

I’m passionate about changing the world. I have been ever since I was little. I did realise at some point, however, that I cannot change it all myself. And I probably can’t change very much about it. But in my own little way, each day, I try to at least make small changes. 

 

I want a world that is kinder, more respectful, more empathetic, and that listens more to each other. Through Beyond Borders I’m trying to take my small corner of the world - conducting an orchestra - and shed a light on the relevance to society of this rather strange and seemingly mysterious job. 

 

I’m passionate about teaching my conducting students that the ‘stick technique’ (arm waving) is only a very small portion of ‘the job’. The majority of the job is actually the people skills, the collaboration, the leadership, the big ideas, and of course all the intense study of the music and its context that is the basis for all of the former. In order to lead you must be able to offer - at the very least - knowledge, ideas, and context, and then hopefully you’re also able to add a dollop of inspiration, trust, and enabling. 

 

I bang on and on in my conducting lessons about stepping outside of yourself - what’s the view like from the other side? What do your co-collaborators need from you? Do you understand their position? Do you understand what they need in order to do what you are asking of them? That you serve the musicians - your team - not the other way around. 

 

For me these skills - putting yourself in context, viewing yourself from the outside, and having a wide perspective - are life skills. And I hope that my students - conducting and orchestral - take these pieces of advice and apply them to their wider lives as human beings. I am convinced that by widening the perspective of a few young conductors, that I am in my own tiny little way, changing the world - just one conductor at a time. And that’s OK with me. 

 

 

I hope you’ll join me at Beyond Borders - whether as a participant, as a guest at one of our sessions, or as a member of our mailing list to start. We will be rolling out sessions on orchestras, community, conducting, and leadership. 


Our first offering is a master class series that touches on all of these topics - Making Waves - October 2-4th, with some fantastic guests from the industry. Please join with us - to help bring the world together and to work towards a kinder and more collaborative society. 

 

Rebecca Miller 

 

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