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.
x




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. 

Saturday, March 21, 2020

A message from pianist Helena Glover, 8



Please listen to this wonderful message from 8-year-old Helena, a prodigiously gifted young pianist from London, appealing for assistance for those many, many musicians who have lost all their work and income in one week. And listen to her playing in her home recital, which will show you why her words matter so much. We need music. Children need music. We cannot cut off this life source in the springtime. (Or any other time.)

Great to see Stephen Fry tweeting about this. Do please join him (and us) in spreading the word.

And please do whatever you can to lobby the government for the inclusion of freelancers in their employment support plans, which are good but only if you are actually an employee, which 5m people in the UK are not.


Thursday, March 19, 2020

Kitten on the keys?


Morning. I hope you're bearing up OK and finding some way to take in the latest developments without the elevator-stopping lurch of stomach that seems to hit me whenever I open up my browser.

The most touching thing I've seen this morning is a note on Twitter from a prominent journalist, offering to look after a cat. She had one, but he has died, she doesn't really want to have a pet full time, not really, but she misses him and would be happy to take in an indoor kitty if someone needs one to be cared for, for a bit.

Our furry pals can be a cause for concern. If we can't get their normal food for any reason, they won't understand the substitute and they'll stare at us as if to say, "What do you mean, 'Essential Waitrose'?" They need to be combed and fed and spoilt. Dogs require lots of daily walking, and a routine, which is the reason we have never had one. We'd love a dog someday. (Ricki and Cosi might not, of course.)   It's a lot of work, having a pet, but they are so much part of our lives that if you're used to their company, doing without it can be, frankly, agony.

One can't predict how animals are going to react to music, and our two gorgeous Somali cats are no exception. When Tom starts practising, Cosi sits outside the door and meowls at top voice. She is a petite creature - our vet calls her a "diddi-cat" - but she can do serious shouting when she wants to, and she doesn't give up. Paganini seems the usual trigger, and whether it's the vaguely feline overtones in the double-stopping or the fact that Cosi wants ATTENTION, NOW, we will probably never know. Ricki seems to enjoy Mozart piano sonatas and, having a deeper, darker cat-voice, did once show a real fascination for the cor anglais solo in Act III of Tristan und Isolde.

More importantly, at the moment, they provide cuddles and sanity. I think they know what's going on, if not the exact latest figures of infection versus recoveries versus stringent new measures like starting to reduce the Tube service and cancelling kids' exams. Ours are not lap-cats. They used to be, as kittens, but when they were about 18 months old they suddenly decided they were grown up and were going to be dignified. This morning, though, Ricki sat on my lap and purred for a good five minutes. I'm not sure what I've done to deserve this honour. Nevertheless, cats are sensitive and we underestimate their intuitive capabilities. I think they know when we need them.

Yesterday, the big challenge I identified was the need for focus. I wonder if you're finding this as difficult as I am? I honestly have no idea how to do it. I have some actual work, with deadlines, at least for the next 10 days or so. And, with weird timing, I am on Radio 4 tomorrow and need to be up to speed on what I'm talking about, which has nothing whatsoever to do with pandemics or worldwide economic collapse, so I have to stop reading the Guardian liveblog and start swotting relevant material PDQ.

It's easy to say "get on with your work", and I'm lucky still to have anything to do. But how do you make the assessment of something planned for six months to a year's time feel real, important and relevant? How do you write that feature about a pianist and her thrilling concerts and how she's mapped out her Wigmore Hall programme? I'll find a way, because I must, but everything we took for granted has suddenly acquired an air of surrealism that is really not helpful.

The cats don't help that side of things at all: they want me to stop whatever I'm doing and play with them. At least someone in the house will stand to benefit from idle human beings. I hope that my journalist friend will decide sooner or later that what she actually wants is a cat of her own.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Dear London,

...Good morning. You are my home. You always were. Sometimes I hate you and dream of escaping your grey skies and fume-filled air for...somewhere warm, somewhere pretty, somewhere with sun and orange trees...and never returning. At the moment, though, I love you more than ever.

A couple of years ago we joined a club, one of those spacious, historic buildings where you can sit in absolute peace in the centre of the city, sipping a nice glass of wine and reading the TLS. Like most of these clubs, its doors are now closing for the C-19 crisis, so we went for dinner last night, the last opportunity. We are fine and have not been in contact with anybody suffering symptoms, so this was a reasoned decision and will probably be our last outing for months. I took the train into Waterloo - not empty, but relatively quiet - and walked across the bridge, past Charing Cross and through Trafalgar Square.

There is no upstream overcrowding on exiting the station, no traffic, and only scant bicycles or scooters to knock one over between there and the South Bank; usually the Waterloo main entrance is so appallingly designed, and the streets nearby so mismanaged, that there are 10 different ways you can be killed in five minutes.

The Royal Festival Hall is eerie: most of the restaurants are still open, and sparsely populated by small groups of young people, but the venues are shut. On the way home later, Tom admits quietly to having a "soft spot" for the place (where he has after all worked for 34 years), which is a way of saying it means the absolute world to him, and now it's closed. The bridge is empty of tourists, buskers or sellers of caramelised nuts. River boats pass underneath looking like the Marie Celeste. In Trafalgar Square, the lions preside and Nelson seems to wonder, up there, what's going on. The mood is sober. Outside the National Gallery a young man plays a Celtic harp - a silvery, ancient sort of sound, a fine alternative for St Patrick's Day - and pavement artists are chalking Paddington Bear with his red duffle coat onto the flagstones. I imagine Dame Myra Hess marching up those stairs during the Blitz, then wonder if she had to use a side entrance.

As usual, in London, there are as many different attitudes and opinions as there are people (estimated: 10m). One newspaper has noted that we're all talking to each other on the phone more than usual. The instinct is to huddle together, just when we can't. As the Italians say, we must keep our distance now in order to hug each other later. I've had various phone conversations with friends, three-metres-away chats with neighbours, and some long emails. The emotional range is from basic panic (induced mostly by empty shelves in Waitrose) to basic, relaxed, sit-it-out acceptance and, also, a downright relishing of the opportunity this unprecedented-in-our-lifetimes event gives society to rethink, completely, its priorities, structures and means of functioning.

I quote one dear friend who sees things in a more positive light than I do, and may have a point:

"The world is entirely reinventing itself! Our utterly corrupted and broken society and planet is forcing us to rethink our ENTIRE way of life... I know it is SO sad for us individually when so much is being lost (especially income ... very worrying), but I just wonder whether this is the moment where the world as we knew it cracks open, and then a new, more human way of existing is forced into existence...I'm not unhappy about the world taking a break ... the human tragedy aside, I can't think of anything better than the planet having space to breathe, and people having a chance to reconnect and reflect and think..."

Income being lost...well, quite. Yesterday, my commissions and engagements dropped like flies, and not like albums (how I loathe that term "x is dropping a new album" - it sounds like trousers, or guano). Programme notes for concerts are not needed if there are no concerts. Two of our planned IMMORTAL pilot performances in late spring are victim to cancelled series and festivals; much uncertainty surrounds major events in other parts of the world as well as closer to home. I am trying to find a silver lining in the truism that this will give me more time to work on IMMORTAL when it comes back from the editor, who hopefully is as able to work alone at home as I am.

The flood of dis/misinformation continues. When fact-checking the news, please read only official and trusted sources, and apply common sense at all times. Remember, for example, that if a virus could simply be flushed into the stomach and killed by warm water, we wouldn't have a pandemic at all. Meanwhile even left-wing commentators are noticing that the charismatic Rishi Sunak, the recently appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, can wipe the floor with the bumbling, bungling, burbling Boris PM. And reading Keir Starmer's articles, I keep wishing there was some way to magic him into Downing Street right away.

We go day by day. We can't do much else.

Hang in there, and see you tomorrow.
x


Sunday, March 08, 2020

International Women's Day: a celebration!

It's time to celebrate International Women's Day, and alongside a number of fantastic programmes on BBC Radio 3, which is playing works by female composers all day, there's a lot more going on besides. Catch the new film Beyond the Grace Note about conductors who are female, on Sky Arts, directed by Henrietta Foster - 3pm today. Writer Anna Beer and composer Debbie Wiseman are giving a talk later today at Kellogg College, Oxford. Kathryn Stott has just announced a terrific range of music by women that will be heard later in the year at her Australian Festival of Chamber Music (more about that very soon). The list could continue.

For our own celebration here on JDCMB, I've assembled some of my favourite pieces by female composers, for your musical delectation. They are in no particular order and have not been chosen for any representative geographical or temporal spread. I've picked some because they are specially well played, others because they will have wide appeal, one because it shows the composer playing the violin, and all of them because they are fantastic pieces that ought to be performed more widely, as should the other music by their composers. If you are a musician and enjoy these, please use the selection as a jumping-off point for further exploration of their works and consider adding them to your repertoire.

Have a wonderful IWD, everyone!


CLARA SCHUMANN: PIANO TRIO, Op. 17. I personally think this is her best piece, but feel free to pick another if you prefer!


LOUISE FARRENC: SYMPHONY NO. 3. Ought to be 'standard repertoire' the world over.


GRAZYNA BACEWICZ performs her own OBEREK (1952) - chose this one because it is rare film of the composer playing her own music, but there are MANY wonderful pieces by her


BARBARA STROZZI: L'ERACLITO AMOROSO. If you like Monteverdi, you'll adore this. A beautifully made music-video film performed by Heather Newhouse and Le Concert de l'Hostel Dieu.


ROXANNA PANUFNIK: FOUR WORLD SEASONS, smashing violin concerto written for Tasmin Little. Here's the last movement, 'Indian Summer'.


ERROLLYN WALLEN: MIGHTY RIVER. Wonderful piece combining spirituals and contemporary techniques to reflect on slavery and freedom.


NICOLA LEFANU: TOKAIDO ROAD, chamber opera performed at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. A spare, sensitive, magical work inspired by the life of the artist Hiroshige.


VITEZLAVA KAPRALOVA: PARTITA FOR PIANO & ORCHESTRA. Martinu's star pupil (and more), she should have been a leading Czech voice of the 30s, but she died tragically at the age of 25. This is a dazzling and ruggedly challenging piece...


ELIZABETH MACONCHY: STRING QUARTET NO. 1. This is the just the first of a major series of quartets that should by rights be heard as often as certain other 20th-century cycles. Next, hear all her others.


SOFIA GUBAILDULINA: CHACONNE. Performed by the magnificent Sofya Gulyak. Any pianist looking for a contemporary work by a female composer to add to their regular concert repertoire should have a look at this brilliant piece right away.