Tuesday, June 09, 2020
I'm reading Music Comes Out of Silence, by András Schiff and the Swiss journalist Martin Meyer, which has just been published in English translation. Its first part is a discussion between them which veers from the fascinating to the eye-opening to several hilarious anecdotes. The second part consists of essays, letters and reflections by Schiff himself. The passage above is from a piece he wrote in 2000 in response to the far-right politician Jörg Haider's election in Austria. Haider was killed in a road accident in 2008, but otherwise Schiff's words are as true today as they were 20 years ago.
Today, while the few newspapers that accord any space to classical music are pointing out that in the UK the industry faces collapse within months, somehow only a handful of musicians are speaking up about the dangers. Many are talking online about music, streaming performances from home or doing both, finding ways to keep motivated and keep their, and our, brains engaged with our art. It needs, nevertheless, to go further than that.
There's no shortage of anger and anxiety, and at first I was convinced that a large part of the problem is simply that newspapers are just not interested enough in classical music to give it the sort of airing that exists for theatre, in which stars like David Tennant and Sam West are household names. There is an excellent piece in today's Guardian by Charlotte Higgins - which asks why we are not putting up more of a fight.
Part of the issue is the lack of cohesion between various organising bodies. I have been wondering where the Musicians' Union is in all this. All I can find at the moment is a report in which it appears to suggest that two musicians sitting next to each other facing forward shouldn't be a problem because they're not breathing on each other. Um. [UPDATE 5.15pm: Today the MU General Secretary, Horace Trubridge, speaks up eloquently in The Evening Standard - in an article that is headlined by theatre. Music is placed second, under cover - as is so often the case. Another indication that media attitudes must shoulder a lot of this blame.] Organisations such as the ISM and the ABO have been active and energetic, but chiefly behind the scenes, lobbying the necessary forces-that-be; and they are only occasionally picked up and yelled about on Radio 4.
What about actual musicians? Chi-chi Nwanoku, founder of Chineke!, has been a fabulous spokesperson for the art form, especially in the crucial area of race relations, and has been featured on LBC. Nicola Benedetti speaks out eloquently on behalf of music education. But there has to be the airtime. Tasmin Little, liberated months too early from the stage commitments she was preparing to relinquish amid much celebration this summer (she should have been giving her final Southbank Centre recital on 5 June), has been on Radio 4 current affairs programmes several times - but too often her contributions have been curtailed by the programmes. On one occasion a guest performance she had recorded for them was reduced to seven notes of "Somewhere over the rainbow". She has nevertheless revealed that she earned £12.34 for 5 million streams and this figure is now being quoted everywhere to show how appallingly our sector is served by the multi-million-pound giants who provide the streaming. Any classical soloist would be able to say the same, so why do they not? Too shy? Too scared? I honestly have no idea.
Here is Sam West, speaking up about why the UK's arts scene is more affected than those of our neighbours in France and Germany. Basically, it's the funding model: we have been trained to rely on commercialism because government subsidy accounts for a comparatively minuscule share of the funding. When commercial activity ceases, therefore, we are harder hit. Please listen:
Samuel West introduces the latest Arts Index - June 2020 from National Campaign for the Arts on Vimeo.
It begs the question: where is everyone? I'd like to think that the philistine media is chiefly to blame for not allowing the oxygen of publicity into the music sector. But I am also aware that musicians are not accustomed to what we journalists shrug away as "the rough and tumble". In times of trouble, the ostrich instinct in many of them runs deep. It's fair enough to be scared. Also, however, when I remember the music college in which I lasted three weeks before fleeing in despair, feeling that if I stayed I'd be turned into a lemon, I'm actually not surprised. How I wish that education for musicians more often included education beyond music itself.
There would be a benefit in this for all. You'll note that the illustration at the top of this article comes from one of the world's most justly celebrated pianists - and indeed the musicians who reach the very top are often those with the laser-sharp minds. Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim, Alfred Brendel, Thomas Adès and Schiff have reached the heights in part because of their extreme intelligence. Igor Levit and Mahan Esfahani are among a newer generation who fully grasp the essential nature of the connections between music and the wider world, the community and what it means to be a full human being with responsibility for our fellow human beings.
Musicians who speak up certainly receive abuse for it, but this is par for the course: there'll always be someone to snipe "shut up and play" if they disagree with you. All it means is that you said something true that got under their skin. Take it as a badge of honour.
If your training has provided no scope for writing and speaking, let alone broader education, don't worry. You can do this for yourself at any time. You don't have to be 18 (it's possibly better if you are older anyway). You don't have to sign up to a course. You can download from the internet any book on philosophy, society, economics, history or global warming that you desire. You can learn languages on Duolingo (I'm finding this quite addictive). There are plenty of actors and acting coaches who need work as much as you do and will train you in public speaking techniques. No time to go to museums, and now they're shut? Look at the online exhibitions. Explore ancient Egypt and the splendours of Pompei, from the screen of your phone if nothing else. Listen to the great gurus of Indian classical music; explore cultures you haven't encountered, their ways of thinking, their traditions, problems and means of expression. Look at what is really going on in Syria, Afghanistan, the refugee camps, the Mexican border, the diamond trade, the tobacco industry, the Palestinian territories. Read the first-hand accounts. Talk to people who have been through it. Read the damn news from a reliable source, and distinguish it from conspiracy theories and propaganda. If you feed your creativity, your curiosity, your strength of character and opinion, it will feed your musicianship. Indeed, you will quite possibly become a better musician for it (OK, you need to remember to do enough practising too.)
Dear musicians, in this hour of trouble do not on any account "shut up and play". Get out there and start yelling.
Tell people what music means to you. Show them what music can and does mean to them. Demonstrate what music does for us all. The financial figures speak for themselves - the UK's music industry is worth billions more to our exchequer than the fisheries the tabloids shout about - but the worth of art music in education and wider western culture has been eroded until swathes of the population are disinclined to give it the time of day. It's up to us to tell them - and you more than me. Though I was also a trained musician, I'm a writer and always have been; I'm used to it and my voice comes through. That's why you're reading this. You need to be able to do it too. Get talking. Get writing. Get shouting. The internet is an open platform and you don't need to wait for someone to do it for you. Get it? Got it? Good. Now, go for it.
Friday, February 26, 2016
A rather wonderful interview with Sir András Schiff has just arrived in a press mailing from the Salzburg Festival and I thought you might enjoy it as much as I have. Here he is in the Mozart D minor Concerto, to start us off...
Salzburg Festival President Helga Rabl-Stadler in Conversation
with Sir András Schiff
Helga Rabl-Stadler: I had the pleasure of hearing you once again during the 2016 Mozart Week. It was wonderful. I have a question regarding the details of that concert: wherein lies the challenge and the attraction in playing two concerts on three different pianos within 24 hours – programmes featuring Mendelssohn and Mozart on grand pianos by Graf and Walter and on a modern Bösendorfer? As you did on a CD in 2013, when you played Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations on a 1921 Bechstein grand and then on a pianoforte built by Franz Brodmann in Vienna around 1820.
András Schiff: The older I become, the more interested I am in the historical, old instruments. It is not true that today’s instruments are better – on the contrary. Being able to play Mozart’s Walter grand piano is a gift, a great privilege. It feels like returning to the source. However, one must pay close attention to the hall where one is performing. The Mozarteum is ideal for the purpose; at the Festspielhaus it would be unthinkable. Old instruments offer an enormously rewarding experience – afterwards, you play the same music on a modern grand piano quite differently, with the right tempi and true sensitivity.
Helga Rabl-Stadler: Will you choose different pianos for your three concerts this summer at the Salzburg Festival? And if so, why? On August 1 you play with one of the world’s best string quartets, the Jerusalem Quartet. On August 3, you offer something very special indeed, performing with the Salzburg Marionette Theatre, and on August 31 you appear in the finale of the 2016 Salzburg Festival, as the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major with the Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig and Herbert Blomstedt.
András Schiff: This time I will play a new Bösendorfer; I am an old friend of that company, and they have managed to develop an outstanding new model. Incidentally, it is the same instrument on which I played the Mozart and Mendelssohn piano concerti during the Mozart Week.
Helga Rabl-Stadler: Last year you were celebrated in Salzburg for three concerts under the motto “Last Sonatas” (of the First Viennese School). This year you will perform with the Salzburg Marionette Theatre for the first time. How did this come about?
András Schiff: The Salzburg Marionette Theatre is wonderful, I have always admired it, for example its old production of Die Zauberflöte. Philipp Brunner and his parents are old friends of mine. As a small boy, he founded a marionette ensemble with his friends in Berlin, based on the Salzburg model. In Mondsee, where I was artistic director of the Music Days for ten years (1989-1998), I was able to invite this group for Debussy’s La Boîte a Joujoux. The children did a fantastic job. Many years later, Philipp became artistic director of the Salzburg Marionette Theatre. Thus, it was logical to develop this project further. The production of La Boîte is not brand-new; we have already performed it in New York, Vienna and elsewhere. However, Papillons by Robert Schumann is new. It is a highly unusual programme. Children are welcome, but it was developed with adults in mind.
Helga Rabl-Stadler: You are esteemed the world over as a pianist, song accompanist, festival director, teacher and conductor. In chamber music concerts you often lead ensembles from the keyboard as a conductor. Are you happy to have a conductor guide you when you are the soloist?
András Schiff: I do not imagine myself a conductor – but, if you please, neither was Mozart. When he performed his piano concerti, there was no conductor far and wide, but he led the ensemble from the keyboard, as a first among equals. His music does not tolerate anyone beating time. With my Cappella and a few other orchestras, I can communicate so intimately that we understand each other with few words, even without words. That gives me great joy. But of course I love working with such excellent maestri such as Bernard Haitink or Herbert Blomstedt. The only trouble is that there are very few like them.
Helga Rabl-Stadler: In 1982 you first performed at the Salzburg Festival – so far, you have given 52 concerts here, plus one at the Salzburg Whitsun Festival. What does this Festival mean to you?
András Schiff: Salzburg and the Festival mean very much to me. 52 performances – I would never have guessed. That is a great honour, for which I am grateful. We lived here for a long time and have many good friends here. And, above all, Salzburg is the city of Mozart!
Helga Rabl-Stadler: You have directed and founded festivals yourself. What does a festival have to offer, compared to regular seasons?
András Schiff: It is already inherent in the word: a festival is a “fest”, a feast, and everything is different from everyday life. “It must be something wonderful.” It is not surprising that we have so many of them today. In a beautiful place, far from the stress and strife of daily life, people are better able to concentrate on art; they can absorb more. On the other hand, there are those festival lovers who attend several events every day, only to have forgotten in the evening what they saw or heard that same morning. Enjoyment is good, but within measure. Less is more.
Helga Rabl-Stadler: You are an explorer, someone who searches through the original sources and seeks new connections. Can you reveal where your next journey of discovery is headed?
András Schiff: As a musician, one has to travel a lot, and today, the good Lord knows that is no pleasure. I enjoy my time at home all the more – and all too rarely. Thus, my journeys of discovery are metaphorical ones. One delves very intensely into certain composers and their time. My next project will focus on Brahms, his late piano works.
Helga Rabl-Stadler: You are from Hungary, live in Italy, were knighted in Great Britain. Where do you feel at home? Was it a painful decision for you when you determined not to perform in Hungary anymore for political reasons?
András Schiff: In principle, I feel that I am a European, a Central European. I am interested in other cultures, but my home is the Occident. What is happening with Hungary is very sad, and very little will change in the foreseeable future. However, I am optimistic that I will be able to return within my lifetime.
Helga Rabl-Stadler: Are you still in touch with György Kurtág, your teacher who turns 90 this year, and what did you learn from him?
András Schiff: Only by phone. To me, Kurtág is the greatest, most important living composer. As a teacher, he was enormously important to me; I came to him at a very young age, when I was 14. Even the first piano lesson, on the three-part Invention in E major by Bach, was unforgettable. After about three hours, we had advanced no further than the third measure. There are few people who experience music so passionately and intensively as Kurtág. I also owe my passion for Schubert’s songs to him.
Helga Rabl-Stadler: Your wife Yuuko Shiokawa is a violinist from Japan. Do you think it is easier to be married to an artist who understands the problems of an artist’s life?
András Schiff: Yes, certainly. It is almost impossible for an outsider to comprehend these problems.
Helga Rabl-Stadler: You are known for reading a lot. In which language, or languages, do you read? What is the last book you read?
András Schiff: Yes, I am a passionate reader. I read Hungarian, German, English, Italian, occasionally French. My last book was Erfolg (Success) by Lion Feuchtwanger, a wonderful satire about Munich and Bavaria, very timely!
Helga Rabl-Stadler: You perform from memory most of the time; is your memory better than everyone else’s? Doesn’t one feel more secure when one has the music in front of one?
András Schiff: My memory is pretty good, but surely not better than that of many others. Just think of Daniel Barenboim! It is congenital, so to speak. However, one does have to work hard at it. I find it much more difficult today to learn something by heart than I did thirty years ago, since my head is pretty full and one doesn’t want to forget the most important pieces either. For me, playing from memory is a liberation, allowing me to communicate better with the composer and the audience. After all, a piano recital is not a lecture. It is my choice, and there is no need for apology or shame.
Helga Rabl-Stadler: Which are your favourite concert halls in the world, and why?
András Schiff: There are a few. The Musikverein, the Mozart Hall at Vienna’s Konzerthaus, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Rudolfinum in Prague, the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, the Philharmonic in St. Petersburg, the Tonhalle in Zurich, and – last but not least – the Mozarteum in Salzburg.
Friday, September 04, 2015
|András Schiff plays Bach at the Proms. Photo: Chris Christodoulou|
If we didn't have the BBC, guys, we wouldn't have this: András Schiff playing the Bach Goldberg Variations at the Proms, fabulously filmed, televised yesterday and available to watch on the iPlayer
for 29 more days, here. I was away in Switzerland on the day itself, 22 August, and am glad to be able to experience it after the event.
It's playing in which not just mastery but wisdom, balance and humanity shines out of every note of this intimate music, in which the Royal Albert Hall is somehow transformed into András's living room - and in which a state of grace seems to surround the pianist and, with him, us, the listeners. In the introductory interview with Kirsty Wark, András explains that it doesn't matter whether or not you are an atheist or religious, or in what way; Bach was, and you have to enter that zone if you're going to play his music. In he goes. And during those 70 minutes of the Bach's duration, the world changes.
Do yourself a favour. Hear it today.
UPDATE: The filmed version of this performance is unfortunately not available outside the UK, but readers overseas should hopefully be able to access the audio-only recording on the iPlayer, here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b066zjyt