Wednesday, April 29, 2020

"Don't just sit there..."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May I suggest something constructive?

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 23, 2020

My top five Beethoven books...

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

Work on Immortal presses on apace.

Monday, April 13, 2020

No looking back...

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

Spring oak trees demonstrate social distancing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get it? Got it? Good.

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

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Notes from Musicians' Kitchens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 06, 2020

Karina takes the cake

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

Brava Karina!

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

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

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

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

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