Showing posts with label AFCM. Show all posts
Showing posts with label AFCM. Show all posts

Thursday, August 02, 2018

AFCM#6: Being Anna Magdalena

It’s done! The premiere of Being Mrs Bach was yesterday at 5pm and it simply flew by. It’s almost impossible to sum it up...but the great reward, when you’ve dreamed up a project and you can see it in your mind’s eye, and then months later that image actually becomes reality and does what you want it to do - that’s a good feeling.




The original commission for Being Mrs Bach came through last summer from Kathy Stott and Tom and I took off to Leipzig to experience Bach’s environment as far as humanly possible. The trip made a big difference to the story, because there is information at the Thomaskirche, the Bach Museum and the city museum in the Town Hall that provides colour and authenticity that would not have been available to me from the comfort of my bookshelves. Anna Magdalena’s tragedy was that she gave her whole life to Bach and her family, only to find, first, that she could no longer sing - women were not allowed to sing in public in Leipzig - and then, after JSB’s death, she and her youngest daughter were left reliant on charity as, for some reason, the other children gave her little support. In 1894, when Bach’s body was exhumed so that scientists could measure his skull, hers was left behind. By the time he was reburied in pride of place in the Thomaskirche in 1950, anything that remained of Anna Magdalena had probably been blasted to pieces by allied bombing.

How to choose the right pieces from Bach’s gigantic output to include in the show was, to put it mildly, mind-boggling - especially with such an eclectic roster of astounding musicians available to take part. But as soon as Kathy let me know who my singers could be, things began to fall into place. The chance to persuade Roddy Williams to sing ‘Mache Dich’ from the St Matthew Passion to finish the show seemed almost too good to be true, and he kindly agreed to sing ‘Hat man nicht mit seinen Kinder’ from the Coffee Cantata as well. The glorious soprano Siobhan Stagg sang ‘Bist du bei mir’ - such a favourite of mine that we had it at our wedding. (You may have seen Roddy and Siobhan as Papageno and Pamina in The Magic Flute at the Royal Opera House last year....).




The Goldner Quartet are in residence - who better to tackle the legendary Unfinished Fugue of The Art of Fugue? The effect is devastating: this magnificent complexity unfurling in phase after phase suddenly peters out into silence with a few final notes on the viola. Daniel de Borah contributed not only two splendid solos - the chunky, good-natured E flat Prelude and Fugue from Book 2 of the 48 and the ubiquitous Minuet in G, beautifully embellished on its repeat - but also accompanied Siobhan and joined the Winterschool’s very accomplished student quartet and bassist Kees Boersma in the ensemble for ‘Mache Dich’. Guy Johnston played the first movement of the C major Cello Suite, just as Anna Magdalena remembers how she made fair copies, put in all the bowings and used to imagine that one day someone might find those pages in her handwriting and wonder if she wrote them herself... ;).

Funnily enough, the single most complicated part of the process was setting up the stage. We wanted everyone there all the way through for ease of running - we only had an hour - and it can be hard to tell in advance what will fit and what won’t. Solutions were found, lighting was planned, and everyone made valuable contributions to the placements and the flow.

And to judge from the audience reaction, I think it went pretty well.

It’ll be a wrench to say goodbye to Anna Magdalena and return her dress to the costume store, but I hope she may simply be awaiting a resurrection of her own, should any more concert halls or festivals fancy meeting her.

Onwards...and today I am giving the Winterschool a lecture about eight - or nine - wonderful composers across the ages who happen(ed) to be female.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

AFCM#5: Of trumpets, sheng and whales



Pity the group of youngsters in their little motor-boat and sea-kayaks who turned up for a nice, private swim on the deserted beaches of Orpheus Island. Just as they were getting their towels out, in pulled a Sealink seacat and disgorged about 200 festival-goers and a bunch of musicians carrying some very peculiar contraptions, which they proceeded to unpack and play.

Two trumpets, a clarinet with golden keys, a rose-gold flute, a pearl-inlaid bandoneon and an extraordinary Chinese sheng took up residence for about an hour, surrounded by ecstatic music-lovers who stood, sat, lay, or knelt at their feet, or went into the water and stayed there to enjoy the performances from the cool comfort of lapping crystal-clear shallows. Tine Thing Helseth and her new husband Sebastian opened proceedings, walking out of the waves and up onto the sand as they played a Norwegian wedding march (they got married in May and are just back from honeymoon). Wu Tong performed on a Chinese flute sitting on a high rock, a la Pan, and later mesmerised us all with his Sheng playing - an amazing, colourful piece we assumed must be a sophisticated new composition of his own. Later he told us he was improvising. Pru Davis played Debussy’s Syrinx, Julian Bliss an unaccompanied contemporary virtuoso piece that sounded like Messiaen (but wasn’t), and JP Jofre, after some solos, joined him to finish with Piazzolla’s Libertango.

The sun lowered towards the waters on the horizon, Katya went swimming, Lars fell asleep and Anna Magdalena Bach deeply regretted leaving her swimsuit behind, but had a good paddle nonetheless. Artistic director Kathy, meanwhile, had the look of a pianist who’d landed the best job on the planet, and I rather think she has.



I had a fascinating chat with Wu Tong on the boat: he showed me how the Sheng works. I may have described it as a kind of “bagpipe”, but it really isn’t. It’s a mouth organ. Literally. It’s a collection of pipes, in a round cluster, played by blowing with fingering as appropriate - a sort of mix of accordion, clarinet and church organ rolled into one astounding instrument about the size of a trumpet. It is immensely sophisticated and the lack of anything entirely similar in western music is rather striking - though Wu Tong tells me it may have had a bearing on the development of the organ in Europe, far predating its invention. Sample it and him here: https://youtu.be/mybsLx7RyIo.

On the return journey the excursion turned into a sunset cruise, albeit a slightly choppy one, and we took a detour to look for whales. The light dimmed, the planets brightened above, we could see the Milky Way from the upper deck, as well as Venus and Mars (which is closer to the Earth than at any time for ?xx years), and the starlight dappled the bouncing waves...until just as the last of the day was fading, a jet of water blew into the air nearby, a stampede to starboard nearly capsized us and a baby humpback whale and its mummy were there, ready to put on a display for us since they knew full well we couldn’t infringe their copyright by filming in the night. They danced under the surface, with smooth, dark backs curving above now and then, and let fly with joyous blowhole fountains, hopefully egged on by the oohs and ahhs aboard.



I don’t know whose bright idea it was to create a music festival in such a place, but frankly...I’d like to send them some chocolate.

Loads more photos on Instagram (my account is jessica.duchen). And now I am off to make final preparations for Being Mrs Bach, which is at 5pm TODAY at the Townsville Civic Theatre. Til later...

Sunday, July 29, 2018

AFCM#3: Working. Seriously: working....



The pic above is from our first rehearsal today for Being Mrs Bach here in Townsville. I’m wielding my script at the side, offscreen, while some of our siezable team of musicians rehearse in the studio - pictured, baritone Roderick Williams, pianist Daniel de Borah, the young Stanley Street Quartet, who are studying at the festival Winterschool, and bassist Kees Boersma, getting to grips together with ‘Mache dich’ from the St Matthew Passion and ‘Hat man nicht mit seinen Kinder...’ from the Coffee Cantata.

The wonderful soprano Siobhan Stagg - who does actually look like Anna Magdalena - will be channelling our heroine’s spirit into ‘Bist du bei mir’, Daniel is playing the Minuet in G and the E flat Prelude and Fugue from Book 2, and somewhere in the room the Goldner Quartet were preparing to play the unfinished contrapunctus from The Art of Fugue. Completing the line-up, Guy Johnston will offer a movement from one of the cello suites.

I can hardly believe I’m working with this team of musicians. They’re simply the best in the world...and somehow I have to match up. Gulp.

The first two evening concerts have brought us some astounding performances - last night’s included Roddy and Daniel in the Vaughan Williams Songs of Travel and a roof-raising Tchaikovsky Souvenir de Florence with an all-star international line-up, to say nothing of a supremely talented young Australian violinist, Grace Clifford (she’s 20), playing Julian Yu’s Passacaglia after Biber so splendidly that I suspect a magnificent future for her.



Relaxed festival-goers who don’t need to rehearse, practise or write about things can enjoy musical events from morning til night most days at AFCM. In the mornings, Kathy Stott presents Concert Conversations, interviewing her artists, with  performances by them to follow, a Winterschool lunchtime masterclass, a 5pm Sunset Series (in which Being Mrs Bach is included) and then more events in the evening. Tonight people are off to a Supper Club where they will be entertained with jazz, tango and Gershwin while munching. Some of us, though, are grabbing the opportunity to conquer the jet-lag, or try to, and cook ourselves some local fish.

The jet-lag is quite something. Jokes are zipping around the festival about how everyone is ‘drugged’ - on melatonin. I don’t know how we’d manage without it...but I made the mistake of taking a second one at about 3.30am and then slept through to 9.30am, when I had to write and file some copy by 10am. Tom kindly made the coffee while I jumped to it...

To be fair, it wasn’t only jet-lag. We’re having too much fun. After the concerts you go out, bump into people, eat gluten-free linguine with seafood or veggie burgers, sample the local produce (I have a none-too-secret passion for Ozzie wines) and before you know what’s happened, it’s midnight. Music festivals were ever thus, but this one is more than usually friendly - and exceptionally well set up by its devoted teams of volunteers, patrons and management, so everyone seems free to be in a singularly good mood. Long may that continue.

More pics at my Instagram account (jessica.duchen) and another update will follow tomorrow. For the time being, the Chadonnay beckons and the pan is waiting for me to pop in the barramundi...

Saturday, July 28, 2018

AFCM #2: Home from home...

There’s that moment when after a 24-hour journey you peer out of the plane window at the country you’re about to visit and you see...Australian sunlight. I haven’t been here for 15 years and had managed to forget its unique nature. The quality of it is like opals, brilliant and translucent and full of gold, ochre and purple. You have to screw up your eyes against it, or rush for sunglasses. Strong, pure and irresistible, as if shot in technicolour, it makes you wonder if the Land of Oz was so named for a good reason. Toto, we’re not in Kansas any more...

We’ve made it to Townsville, in the dry tropics of Queensland, and now it’s the morning after the night before...and that was the night after the day after the journey before. We left London with two big suitcases on Tuesday night, spent a pleasant few hours in Hong Kong airport and arrived in Sydney on Thursday morning...with one big suitcase. Sole free day in Sydney was supposed to be spent happily reuniting at leisure with my aunt, whom I hadn’t seen for 15 years, but this turned into a hasty and frazzled coffee in between frantic calls to the airport where we’d shunted from office to office for about three hours upon arrival. The case arrived 24 hours after we did and has joined us here. At least it wasn’t the one that contained my Anna Magdalena costume.


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All in all, I can think of worse places to hold a chamber music festival. We’re staying - along with all the festival artists - in an apartment hotel near the marina; the sun is pouring into our new home-from-home across the cluster of lilttle boats  this morning, the Strand beside the sea awaits exploration, as do its gelatarias, there’s a massive seafood bar across the road and yesterday’s opening concert was a heap of musical joys.

It was full of fresh, startling ideas, juxtapositions and collaborations, with Tine Thing Helseth and Katya Apekisheva shining amid an all-star line-up for the Saint-Saens Septet, eight cellists plus wonderful Siobhan Stagg in the Villa Lobossome amazing new timbres from marimba, sheng and bandoneon in world premieres by JP Jofre and Paul Stanhope, and a completely barnstorming performance of the Chausson Concert by Kathy Stott, Alexander Sitkovetsky and the Goldner String Quartet. The big concerts take place in the Townsville Civic Theatre, a sizeable modern hall from which last night’s concert went out live on the radio - splendidly hosted by Mairi Nicolson, whose interviews with the musicians while the stage set-up changed were fun, interesting and sympathetic.

Backstage, of course, it’s hard not to think “YIKES, I have to do the Bach show HERE?”, given the impressive scale of the whole thing - but with a chance to catch up with old friends like Kathy, Katya and Guy Johnston and to meet new ones over artist drinks-and-eats post-concert, the nerves quickly dispel. For performers in festivals like this, the treat is exactly that: to work with colleagues you’re meeting for the first time, forge new connections, spark ideas into being, and while away the post-concert wind-down over Australian beer or wine in which jet-lag becomes but a memory and lost suitcases all part of life’s rich pattern. I’ve now met many of my Bach show colleagues, Roddy Williams, Siobhan Stagg, Pavel Fischer, Kees Boersma and the Goldner String Quartet, among others. And out front in the audience, one can’t help noticing the way that people are running into one another as festival regulars over years and years, catching up in (where else) the queue for the ladies’ loos (“How are you? We met four years ago right here!”) and, better still, over ice-cream in front of the theatre, under the full moon.

A last thought for the morning: this is winter. It’s 28 degrees and there is simply no sunlight in the world quite like this. It’s going to be one amazing week.

Update: I think I’ve worked out how to bring the photos in from Instagram, but please visit my instagram account to see some more.

Monday, July 23, 2018

#AFCM1: All set, sort of...

It's tomorrow! We are off to Australia for a week in Townsville as part of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music. And in the meantime I can report that you get some very interesting looks when trogging up to Vauxhall station in the heat of the sun, carrying a huge plastic bag emblazoned with NATIONAL THEATRE COSTUME AND PROPS HIRE.

Tucked away in a south London warehouse/college/arts pad a few minutes from the Oval cricket ground, there's a facility that, if you like dressing up or giving theatrical performances of any type, is better than Aladdin and his Genie ever dreamed of. London's Royal National Theatre here keeps row upon tempting row of costumes - covering all eras from echt-Shakespeare to 1920s flapperville to 1980s glam rock - and they hire them out for a suitable fee. Silken gowns, embroidered waistcoats, feathered and bejewelled headdresses, era-appropriate strings of pearls, underskirts of any colour, petticoats galore, and the sort of under-contraptions you're very lucky not to need to wear under your dress in this day and age. Walk in and you might even see an ass's head lurking on a shelf, ready for the next Midsummer Night request.

You phone them up, book in and have a good browse, with a chance to try on your most suitable targets, complete with accessories of any type from royal crown to bum pads. I can't say I ever expected to need bum pads, but bum pads I've now got, because they go under 18th-century dresses to create that sumptuous shape... A happy afternoon a few weeks ago led me to the perfect outfit for Anna Magdalena Bach to take to Australia: a dark overdress with a subtle pattern and a black underskirt. Nothing fancy, I promise. Just...18th century.

I did try to research what Anna Magdalena looked like. There aren't many pictures of her. There is, however, this:


Ouch. Owowowowowch.

As you may remember, Kathryn Stott, the new AFCM artistic director, has commissioned me to write and perform a new show with words and music about Anna Magdalena Bach. Being Mrs Bach will receive its world premiere on 1 August, 5pm, with musicians including Roderick Williams (baritone), Siobhan Stagg (soprano), Guy Johnston (cello), Daniel de Borah (piano), the Goldner String Quartet, Pavel Fischer (violin), Kees Boersma (double bass) and Winterschool Strings. Anna Magdalena, when she appears, is an impoverished widow, looking back over her life with Johann Sebastian, with all the associated agonies and ecstasies... And I've never worn a costume before. I hope I can still get into it on Wednesday week. In case you were wondering: Lucy Worsley I'm not. (Nor am I the blonde bombshell pictured above.)

The next day I'm giving a lecture about women composers for the festival's Winterschool and then joining Kathy and some of the musicians for the morning Meet the Artists chat on 3 August before heading, no doubt with reluctance, back to the airport. In the meantime I will be writing about the festival a fair bit, and have promised to do a daily blogpost while there, so please check back after Friday for my festival diary and PICS.



You wouldn't believe what it takes to get ready for a thing like this, unless you're especially prone to taking part in festivals on the other side of the world. First there's the preparation of the show. In October, I went to Leipzig to see the Bach family's own territory at first hand - it made all the difference, too. Then the writing and whittling down, choosing the music, fitting it all together, making sure it's the right length. That's the easy bit. Then the paperwork: visas, documents, passports, emails and more emails. (Can you believe we're going to have to do all this for Europe as well soon, when currently we don't? Those Brexiters are out of their tiny minds.) There's booking the travel, deciding where and when to stop (straight to Sydney on the way out, to see my aunt, then to Townsville the next morning; and Hong Kong on the way home...). The costume. The house-and-cat-sitter. Finishing everything that needs finishing before going. Remembering everything that needs to go in the suitcase. Panicking.

And above all, panicking about the jet-lag. Most of the festival artists - to judge from Kathy's Facebook pics - are already in Townsville and acclimatising. I'm still in sweltering in London and won't arrive until Friday. I'm not sure this was the greatest plan, but it's too late now...

Anyway, if all goes smoothly we shall be there in time for the big opening night on Friday evening, in which  no fewer than 24 festival artists will perform works by Saint-Saëns, Villa-Lobos, Paul Stanhope (world premiere of a new piece for marimba), Wu Tong performing another world premiere on the sheng, Leopoldo Federico, JP Jofre (world premiere of new piece for marimba, sheng and bandoneon), and one of my great all-time favourite pieces, the Chausson Concert, with Kathy on the piano, Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin) and the Goldner String Quartet. That would be enough to turn me upside-down on its own.

For the rest of the programme, please see here.