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.

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.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Nothing is certain, only the certain spring

A surreal time indeed, but a revealing one. I am going to be on Radio 4's Front Row this evening, talking about contraltos. Normally this would feel exciting, challenging and fun. Today it seems the most peculiar prospect. I was going, originally, to go to Salford. I was hoping to meet the team, see my Manchester friends and go on a tram (something that can thrill you equally whether you're a small child or a half-century older one). Instead I will be in my study, on Skype. But we can still do it.

Speaking of technology, I am trying to figure out a way to go live on the internet reading to you in chunks of 15 mins each day. A sort of Jessanory (instead of Jackanory). Unfortunately, as technology grows better, my brain cells grow worse and I had a shot at Facebook Live only to find that the sound wasn't working properly and I have no idea how to fix this. I'll keep trying and report back.

Meanwhile, I exhort everyone to take care of themselves, and that goes for mental health as well as physical. It turns out that the simplest, easiest and most direct way to do this is to have a really good walk.

Yes, exercise is as important as they say. We have made a resolution to get out for a walk every day, and going to Richmond Park, which happily is our nearest big green space, is truly curative. You see people doing normal stuff. Throwing balls for muddy dogs to chase. Families insisting their little ones keep their coats on. Joggers in weird running shoes and bright blue leggings pushing three-wheeled baby-buggies containing bemused kiddiwinks (yes, this is Richmond). And trees. Big, ancient, rugged oaks that renew themselves each year, century after century. I occasionally hug them, I'm afraid. 

Not these ones, though. These are willows on the waterside. Going green.

It puts me in mind of one of my favourite poems, The Burning of the Leaves by Laurence Binyon. It is a poem of autumn - but also, in a way, for the renewal of life, something we need to remember.

Now is the time for the burning of the leaves.
They go to the fire; the nostril pricks with smoke
Wandering slowly into a weeping mist.
Brittle and blotched, ragged and rotten sheaves!
A flame seizes the smouldering ruin and bites
On stubborn stalks that crackle as they resist.

The last hollyhock's fallen tower is dust;
All the spices of June are a bitter reek,
All the extravagant riches spent and mean.
All burns! The reddest rose is a ghost;
Sparks whirl up, to expire in the mist: the wild
Fingers of fire are making corruption clean.

Now is the time for stripping the spirit bare,
Time for the burning of days ended and done,
Idle solace of things that have gone before:
Rootless hope and fruitless desire are there;
Let them go to the fire, with never a look behind.
The world that was ours is a world that is ours no more.

They will come again, the leaf and the flower, to arise
From squalor of rottenness into the old splendour,
And magical scents to a wondering memory bring;
The same glory, to shine upon different eyes.
Earth cares for her own ruins, naught for ours.
Nothing is certain, only the certain spring.


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.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

JDCMB: JD's Coronacrisis and Music Blog

I am turning this blog into a diary to chronicle how things are going, because why not. 

I've always had a sense of fragility about life. It's possibly because I lost both my parents and my sister to cancer within a scant few years, the family home was dismantled and sold and the rug under our feet went west in no time. It seemed a measure of how easily one's life can just...vanish. I remember at the height of the mid-Noughties' good times a violinist friend came round to play through a concerto in our front room. The roses were out, the sun was shining, the window was open, we had world-class Elgar ringing out in the company of close friends, and I went to the fridge to find the champagne, thinking: "I wonder how long this life can go on? It's too good to be true."

Perhaps, after all, it was as illusory as I suspected. We declined. Now we're falling. Of course, thinking like that is not remotely helpful, but as programme note writing vanishes overnight, everything closes, the orchestra does...who knows what, because we don't know yet...because nobody knows how long this will go on for...there is a distinct sense of unreality. Anyone freelance at the moment is facing the nightmare of their lives, whatever their field.

One of the most difficult aspects is the uncertainty of how long it will continue. Weeks? Months? The rest of this season? Over the summer? What about autumn? The Bavarian State Opera has just announced that next season it is having, among other things (ELEVEN new productions) Tristan und Isolde with Kirill Petrenko conducting, starring Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros - and qu'est-ce qu'on fait?

An illustration by Maurice Lalu for Tristan und Iseult, 1909
(Don't try this with your friends at the moment)

Yesterday the government gave "advice". It stopped short of ordering theatres, pubs, concert halls etc to close, but recommended that people do not go to them. Twitter is full of conspiracy theories now about why this is, for example "...the Tories' mates run insurance companies and this will give them a get-out clause to not pay up..." I'd treat that with suspicion as if this isn't "force majeure", goodness knows what is. [UPDATE 2.50pm - fact-check here:]

We have a basic problem in the UK that, broadly speaking, a) the people do not really trust the government to do the right things, and b) the government does not really trust the people to obey directives (b being a logical consequence of a). That implied social contract went out the window at the last election because we had no credible opposition to elect, and this unfortunately is the price being paid. The crisis shows why we need to elect intelligent politicians who are expert managers in a crisis, who communicate clearly, decisively and sympathetically, and who do not sacrifice good sense to pig-headed ideology: people who can unite everyone when the going gets tough. This seems a distant dream right now. If the government's communication strategy is such a mess, what does that say about the substance of the rest of their "projects"? All we can do at present is...stay off Twitter.

As of yesterday, the Royal Opera House and English National Opera have closed until further notice and the Wigmore Hall has closed until, it says at present, 14 April. Currently awaiting news from more arts companies. There were performances over the weekend: the Philharmonia did the Beethoven 1808 reconstruction, Piers Lane gave a wonderful recital and ENO opened a new production of The Marriage of Figaro, but I'm afraid I didn't go to any of them because I didn't want to sit in my home-from-homes wondering when I will ever see them again and whether this is the last concert/opera/recital I will ever attend, because who knows. I do want to keep on being a voice of reason, because that has long been my role, but it can be difficult sometimes.

I thought I'd do something positive, so I'm trying to start a WhatsApp group for our neighbours. We have quite a few elderly people in the vicinity and it is important that everyone feels connected. Of course everyone is all for it, but it turns out that some of the target members do not have smartphones and don't know how to use WhatsApp...and I realise that I, too, do not quite know how to use WhatsApp on an iPad. Which is embarrassing. One neighbour has a son who's in IT, so hopefully he can advise.

We have never been so connected, in a way: the quantity of work that can be done remotely is fantastic. Instead of taking planes, trains and automobiles to other cities or countries, we can hook up from our computers. We can FaceTime. We can Skype. We can WhatsApp (if we know how). And we have the social element of social media. So this is a major advantage. Nevertheless, there is a staggering quantity of absolute claptrap doing the rounds on social media and it is well worth avoiding. The other day a friend earnestly forwarded me a circular from a supposed medical expert source (unnamed, of course) with all kinds of advice about how not to get coronavirus, every shred of which can be roundly disproved in seconds on a good search engine. People are putting around spurious theories about everything from insurance to crash-dieting, and if we are fond of them we have to try to be kind about it.

Some reality checks are taking placed, which is better. There's been shock at the idea that there is £000 to be made from books, and especially not from China (seriously, some company there published a translation of one of mine, yet I had no contract, no payment and not even a copy of it. They got in touch wanting me to do some publicity, which is how I knew.) There have been falling jawbones at the information that members of most UK orchestras are freelance and are not paid a salary. There has been disbelief at the notion that some seriously famous musicians, having lost all their work in a matter of days, have no financial safety net whatsoever. Looking for a silver lining: we can learn, fast, about actuality versus supposition.

If we need and can face a culture fix, there are plenty of streaming services to bring opera, ballet, concerts and theatre into our computers. This is great. St Mary's Perivale, while closing its doors to its devoted audience, is intending to continue its performances as "virtual concerts" to be live-streamed with no audience. If this situation has not cleared up by the end of May, Viv and I may end up doing the premiere of our new Beethoven show like that.

The things that are keeping me sane are:
-- Tom
-- the cats
-- Kalms tablets at bedtime
-- the bits of work that are not falling through because associated with live performances
-- the Beethoven book is due back from the editor any day now and will need a great deal of concentration. Perhaps this is actually good timing...
-- a new confidence in my own intuition, because it's turned out that my superstition about Mahler 1 being a harbinger of doom was absolutely true
-- certain contents of the wine rack
-- it's spring, the magnolia over the fence is absolutely beautiful and so far we are still allowed to go for long walks in the park and by the river.

It is good to have plans and projects, especially creative ones, and I do have several, but the next challenge will be how to maintain concentration enough to realise them.

So today I will press on. I have to finesse some CD booklet notes and transcribe an interview with a lovely pianist. Tonight we were planning to go out to dinner...we might do it anyway...unless the place we want to go has closed its doors until further notice by then.

I'm going to try to write this blog every day. I don't know how much music there will be, but I'll do my best. Good luck out there.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

There may be trouble ahead

I'm never very happy about Mahler's First Symphony, which after a strange mix of circumstances about 8 or 9 years ago has become somehow associated with portents of Not Good Things. So I'm keeping clear of the one at the RFH tonight and hiding behind the sofa instead.

Seriously, this expectation is currently not wrong. My husband's orchestral tour to Germany and Austria for a week looks unlikely to go ahead as at least the Vienna and Munich parts of it won't happen; perhaps some clever manager can make alternative plans to hook up those that remain, but if so we have yet to hear about it and they're off (if at all) in under 48 hours. Moreover, my social media timelines are full of musicians and actors who have arrived at their designated opera houses or concert halls to find that everything is cancelled for the next fortnight/month/who knows. Musicians who make a living from performing on cruises are likewise facing cancellations (a cruise ship is no place to be trapped at the best of times, least of all now, but it's still their means of feeding their families). Please remember, these professionals do not get paid in these circumstances. Actors, tour guides, anyone self-employed, anyone in spheres that necessarily involve people "going anywhere or doing anything", is facing a period of extreme anxiety. If financial woes were not enough, what about the prospects for health and actual survival?

UPDATE, 11.50am: It has come to my attention that many people, including regular audience members and even some critics, have no idea that the majority of London-based orchestras (except for the BBC ones and the Royal Opera House) are SELF-EMPLOYED and therefore if their concerts, tours and summer opera seasons are cancelled they get NO money at all. The same is true of opera singers. Soprano Lee Bisset tweeted this morning: "Performances can be the culmination of months of (unpaid) work and thousands of pounds outlay in a accommodation, travel, coaching, childcare etc. What looks like the loss of 2 weeks’ work can actually amount to the loss of half a performers’ annual income."

I am in no position to offer any advice on either health or finance, but I can suggest one or two ways to help keep your head level in these bizarre times.

1. Stay away from conspiracy theories. If you see any, please do not be seduced by them. They are seriously unhelpful. Please apply a three-point rule to assessment:
-- Context and history (e.g. is there a history of diseases emanating from dodgy animal markets with appalling hygiene, around which people then inhale and eat? Yes. Does this therefore carry a higher level of probability than the scenario of that dodgy sci-fi-style conspiracy theory you're reading?)
-- Source. What site are you reading? Who produces it and why? What is their stance? Above all, what is their subtext? (E.g. a site purports to be offering news. It is actually offering "alt-right", i.e. Nazi, propaganda.) Be very careful about who you're listening to. If in doubt, log off.
-- "Do I want to believe it?" If you find that you do, then take a long hard look in the mirror and ask yourself why.

2. Be careful even with genuine news. While working for a newspaper for 12 years, I often wondered "if that many mistakes get into the music reports, what on earth are they doing to the news?" Headlines and "standfirsts" are the biggest problem areas, because they can be misleading. They are not created by the same people who write the articles. They are usually out to grab attention. You may find that an article's content completely disproves what you thought you were about to read, but you may have to actually read it to discover this, instead of taking on the OMGOMG message you absorb from the headline. You may also find that an interviewee's words have been twisted to give the impression that he/she said something nasty when they actually didn't, simply to encourage senseless mud-throwing on a false premise. Again, you have to look at the outlet's agenda. (This applies to music features, too.)

3. Only trust proven experts, who in this case are scientists.

4. Have a strategy in case you're quarantined at home for several weeks. Have a project. Learn to play a new piece. Read that book. Write that book. Make those long-postponed phone calls and catch up with friends over Skype or whatever. For me, self-isolation is rather a way of life (it's the only way anything can be written), but if I can't go out to listen to someone playing the "Hammerklavier" I shall damn well try to learn it myself, two bars a day if need be, and hope that my husband is wearing his ear-protectors.

5. Check up on any vulnerable friends regularly, but don't alarm them. 

6. Don't sweat the small stuff. Irritants become more irritating when your anxiety levels are high, so try and keep them to a minimum. Incidentally, if you still have to get hot and bovvered about the old chestnuts like coughing in concerts, this is the time to enjoy noise-free performances (if they haven't all been cancelled). I noticed that you could hear a pin drop at Fidelio last week, and many friends have reported the same thing. It proves that people can and will suppress coughing when they think about it.

7. Do not apportion blame. It helps nobody.

8. Remember: this too will pass. Top tip from my mum (1932-1994).

9. Keep calm and listen to Beethoven. Here's how to wash your hands to 'An die ferne Geliebte' (the site doesn't cope very well with umlauts, but there we go).

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.