Friday, July 29, 2005
Originally uploaded by Duchenj.
Back from Verbier. Here's a picture of the scene outside the concert tent the other night. The tent in the picture is the Cafe Schubert, where lectures and pre-concert talks are held. It's quite some setting for music...
The quality of the performances was, as usual absolutely incredible (with one scarey exception). The highlights of our all-too-brief stay were Leonidas Kavakos, Mischa Maisky and Elena Bashkirova playing the Schubert B flat Trio; and Thomas Quasthoff, accompanied by Evgeny Kissin, singing a selection of dark-hued Schubert with a power and empathy that were positively spine-chilling.
During less than 48 hours we experienced all of this and much more. Cello masterclass with Ralph Kirshbaum, lunch & interview with the fabulous Kavakos (stopping on way into street cafe to say hi to Vengerov a few tables away), mountain cable car & glorious walk, amazing concert with Mozart played by Michala Petri, Janine Jansen, Julian Rachlin & various others, a scrumptious fondue, the Quastoff/Kissin gig and the most extraordinary party I've ever been to...
The only upset was a cellist called Alexander Knaizev, who - despite having Kissin as his pianist - gave the most horrible performance of sonatas by Franck and Shostakovich. I disgraced myself by getting the giggles, but I don't think I was the only one. Half the audience loved it; many others fled the moment the Franck was finished. I hung on for the Shostakovich in case it improved, but it didn't.
Some claim to like his 'intensity' - but if someone TALKED to you like that, constantly fortissimo, milking E-V-E-R-Y W-O-O-O-R-D F-O-R M-A-A-A-A-A-A-X-I-M-U-U-U-M E-M-O-T-I-O-O-O-O-N A-A-A-A-L-L T-H-E T-I-I-I-I-M-E W-I-T-H-O-U-U-T A-N-Y V-A-R-I-E-T-Y-Y-Y-Y, you would either think they were crazy or you'd go crazy yourself. Sorry, but that's not intensity. It's emotional claptrap and it has nothing, but NOTHING, to do with Franck, let alone Shostakovich (and this guy, being Russian, should at least have known better there). Plus it takes some doing to make an audience come out of a cello recital in a tent feeling as if their ears have been assaulted by an electric guitar. I was particularly disappointed because I've heard some of his recordings and liked them very much, including his solo Bach.
Anyway, win some, lose some... Verbier is beautiful, thrilling and -given the amount of serious dosh there - remarkably human. This was my fourth visit (and Tom's first) and I hope I'll be able to go back next year.
I'm now about to do extra time on the exercise bike to burn off some of that fondue...
Friday, June 24, 2005
Originally uploaded by Duchenj.
It's a little like meeting people: it can take two encounters to make the penny drop, a double dose to take in the full measure of somebody special. So it was with Vilnius.
Above, the oldest church in Vilnius, or so it says inside. You can see from this picture the kind of loving care that has been lavished on its restoration. There are around 130 churches in Vilnius and they are all architectural gems (though I can do without the Russian orthodox one that contains a glass casket of three pickled 14th-century saints in white stockings!).
Only one synagogue is left. And it's closed. It appears that the old divide between the mystics and the intellectuals has resurfaced in a rather unexpected way. All very complicated... I hear, however, that there is a long-term project to restore the old Jewish sites of the city and a very long-term hope that perhaps one day the Great Synagogue, destroyed by the Nazis, could be reconstructed. At the moment there is an open basketball court where it once stood.
I'm very, very glad that I went back to Vilnius to re-order my impressions after the vaguely surreal experiences I had there during my first visit last year (see archive for June 04). It was an incredible trip, full of extraordinary music and wonderful people. I met most of my friends from last year and made some new ones too. Tom came with me and was bowled over by the whole experience; we both feel that this place, in one way or another, gets under one's skin. You can't escape the horrors of the past, however much you try to look forward rather than back; but maybe this is why the place has such a sense of soul.
It was once a melting pot; and perhaps it will be again, since during two days we encountered Indian classical music (the incredible Wahajat Khan in collaboration with the Ciurlionis Quartet), a travelling Norwegian choir, a free concert of Lithuanian premieres and Mischa Maisky performing Bruch's Kol Nidrei looking extraordinarily like the Vilna Gaon himself. Whatever the programme notes had managed to dredge up about the lack of Jewishness in this piece of music, I can think of little that would be more moving than listening to it being performed in "Vilne". Several members of the audience around us were in tears too.
The language seems impenetrable at first - it's like nothing you've heard anywhere before (unless you happen to know Latvian). I've managed to remember Labas (hello), Aciu (thank you - sounds like you're sneezing) and I svekata (cheers - memorable not only through quantity of use but because it sounds like "is the cat here?"). As for the food, I'm still not keen on the potato pancakes, but can heartily recommend my favourite soup EVER: Saltibarsciai. Essentially it's cold borscht with hot potatoes. Here's a recipe, which I'll be trying at home shortly...
Vilnius is, in one word, extraordinary. Don't ask how or why, but something tells me that this won't be my last visit.
Friday, May 06, 2005
Thanks to this festival, there's a feast for book-lovers in Kingston this month. My agent is among a number of publishing professionals taking part in a discussion on May 9th called 'Writing: a suitable job for a woman?' [answer as I see it: it's not a suitable job for anybody, but we do it because we just have to do it...'] and novelist Maggie O'Farrell is among the literary luminaries, on May 25th. Full details at the website.
Meanwhile, I've discovered a blog for pianophiles: Pianophilia written by Bart Collins. Bart has a plethora of interesting stuff up there, including the complete list of contestants for the Van Cliburn Competition, links to the forthcoming Chopin Competition in Warsaw and a fab story about how the new Pope's piano couldn't get into the papal apartment on the Vatican top floor! Adding you to blogroll right away, Bart.
The sun is shining and Labour has been re-elected, but with a vastly reduced majority. Our local Lib Dem candidate, Susan Kramer, won comfortably in this constituency. Tom had the appropriate orange sticker on his violin case and I was extremely tempted to scrub out 'Susan' and write 'Gidon' instead (and alter the appropriate A to E, of course). But - aren't I good? - I didn't do it.
Tuesday, September 21, 2004
Originally uploaded by Duchenj.
We are back home after ten fabulous days in France. First, a week in a 'gite' in the Loire Valley countryside near Angers, relaxing (me) and practising (Tom). Lovely food from local market, a little private 'piscine' in our jardin, some trips to see the chateaux at Usse and Azay-le-Rideau and a spot of wine-tasting for good measure... Then off to Philippe's festival, Consonanaces de St Nazaire, where I took this picture during a rehearsal for the Weber Clarinet Quintet.
Left to right: Philippe Graffin, Tom, Nobuko Imai, Gary Hoffman and Charles Neidich. And they were bloody fantastic. I sat by, watching the Tomcat and engaging in that time-honoured pursuit known in Yiddish as 'clibing nachas'.
The intensity of atmosphere in these chamber music festivals really has to be experienced to be believed. I've written about St Nazaire before (a post a few months back entitled 'My favourite festival') - suffice it to say that this small, quiet, pleasant, rather uneventful shipbuilding town on the Loire estuary is home to a festival that, thanks to Philippe, its artistic director, provides chamber music of the calibre more often heard at Carnegie or Wigmore halls. Apart from Tom's spot in the Weber with Charlie Neidich (who is a complete genius of the clarinet), another major highlight was hearing the Faure Second Piano Quartet in a performance by Philippe, Nobuko, Gary and Pascal Devoyon that made me feel I was hearing the piece for the first time - and so beautiful it brought on tears. The flow, the freedom, the richness of expressive range, the cohesion between the players and the sense of utter absorption in Faure's magical language - words, I'm afraid, don't do it justice.
Rodion Shchedrin was present throughout - he was the focus of the festival. Tomorrow Philippe is giving the world premiere of a new Shchedrin work, Concerto Parlando. Rather than sitting here blogging, I ought to get on the next plane back to Nantes... Shchedrin had brought with him one of his finest young interpreters, a hotshot Russian pianist named Ekaterina ('Katia') Mechetina who has just won the World Piano Competition in Cincinnati (more details here). She performed a number of his piano works, which are astounding: Shchedrin, a fantastic pianist himself, knows exactly how to exploit the instrument's potential and creates pieces for it that are immensely energetic and hugely demanding on any virtuoso's abilities, yet also deeply poetic. Cross Shostakovich with Keith Jarrett and double it.
Every festival, however, should have a British brass player. Martin Hurrell of the BBC Symphony Orchestra was there to be trumpet soloist in Concerto Parlando alongside Philippe (the idea was to create something along similar lines to the Shostakovich First Piano Concerto which features a prominent trumpet solo). Martin is a brilliant player but also happens to be the funniest guy on earth. His sense of timing ought to have propelled him onto his own TV show years ago. Around midnight a few days ago over a late-night repas of French wine and cheese, he reduced the entire festival table, including Shchedrin and his wife, the former Bolshoi prima ballerina assoluta Maya Plisetskaya, to helpless, howling rubble with his impersonation of a certain 20th-century dictator which would make Charlie Chaplin turn in his grave. The experience won't be quickly forgotten...
We didn't really want to come home. But Solti is very pleased to see us.
Wednesday, September 01, 2004
Combine scenery, sunshine and the festival atmosphere with the rich acoustic in the Usher Hall, two concerts with the LPO at its very finest under principal guest conductor Vladimir Jurowski, innumerable wonderful cafes and fabulous vegetarian food (we particularly recommend Henderson's) and a fabulous party thrown for the orchestra by the sponsors last night in The Hub, a converted church on the Royal Mile, and - well, it was great. Even Tom felt as if we were having a glorified holiday, and he was working his socks off.
Of course, when everybody said that Vladimir set the Usher Hall alight with his electrifying charisma, they didn't quite mean the fire alarm to go off, which it did 10 minutes before the concert on Monday. Vladi was blameless, however: the culprit turned out to be an overenthusiastic tea urn in the ladies' dressing room... Earlier in the day I'd strolled down the Royal Mile, closed to traffic and boasting several fire-eaters juggling with flaming torches. Plenty of sparks flew in Edinburgh, one way or another.
The Scots don't always like to believe that life can be quite so marvellous and we found that the people we talked to were eager to point out that 'it isn't like this all the time!'. The Festival, they declare, is exceptional. A few weeks of intense, creative glory in which the place is packed with fantastic things to see, hear and do, and then back to normal: by December it's completely freezing and night sets in around 3.30pm. Tom complained that London doesn't have a festival - there are some fine local festivals such as Spitalfields, City of London and Hampstead and Highgate, not to mention the Proms, but nothing that unifies the city's lively arts scene across the board in the way that Edinburgh does. On the other hand, London is always full of things to see, hear and do - not just for three weeks of the year.
Still, COULD THERE BE a way to pull everything together in comparable fashion in London? Would it be sensible, practical or even desirable to have a London International Festival? Personally I reckon it would be virtually unworkable because of the sheer scale of the city, but I'm famously pessimistic. What does everyone think about this?
Thursday, August 26, 2004
The Chetham's Summer School, held in one of the UK's tiny handful of fine specialist music schools, is run by the school's head of piano, the redoubtable Scot Murray McLachlan, who's an old friend of mine from university. He had assembled 20 piano professors and 160 students of all ages and levels; each student was to have around 4 hours of personal tuition during the week, the chance to practise as much as they liked and the freedom to listen to as many other lessons as they could swallow. There were lectures, concerts by the professors and, for the kids, even a trip to Laserquest. Back at my own piano after only 48 hours, I was staggered to discover how much I'd learned from two days of intensive listening without playing a note myself.
The range of lessons was fabulous. From Murray there was focus, strength and support. From Jeremy Siepmann, a nearly mystical sense of connection between matters of the piano and everything from physiology to astrophysics. Yonty Solomon, once a student of Dame Myra Hess, seems to be the mentor I've long itched to find - and he says he'll listen to me (!); he is a Faure fanatic, his recital displayed a luminosity of tone and total emotional involvement that one hardly ever sees, while his classes were filled with pearls of wisdom handed to him from Hess herself, someone I've always idolised. Noriko Ogawa, whose concert included one of the most stunning Liszt B minor Sonatas I've heard in years, offered a perceptive and analytical approach in her teaching. Bernard Roberts bounced in with down-to-earth common sense, good humour and high spirits - and I can't understand how he's managed not to change one jot since I played to him at Dartington in 1984, while the rest of us have aged past recognition. There were plenty of other professors too whom I didn't have time to hear.
All were kind; all were generous; all had their hearts in the right place. They were there because of their passion for the piano and an almost equal passion to communicate that love and its secrets not only to the next generation but to anyone who hungers for it. It was moving and marvellous. School dinners notwithstanding.
We must feel at home in the piano keyboard, said Yonty. This is where we live: no. 88 Black-and- White-Notes street.
It's difficult to return to normal life after a sojourn at this address.
Wednesday, July 21, 2004
I tried to get cynical about Verbier last year. Circus tricks: spot the megastars wandering about ski resort off-season, listen to concerts in a tent where you can't hear anything when it rains - and don't you DARE go through the doorway designated to the sponsors. True. Very true. The megastars do wander about. You can't help but spot them from your cafe or hotel breakfast room or when you're sauntering up and down the main hill. You stumble upon Mischa Maisky reading the daily schedule on the Place Centrale noticeboard, or Pieter Wispelwey in dark glasses heading down to a rehearsal; this morning I ended up having breakfast with the marvellous young pianist Jonathan Biss, a recent interviewee of mine who happened to be staying in the same hotel. It's also true that you can't hear the concerts terribly well when it rains - last night it poured most of the way through the Schumann Piano Quintet played by Andsnes, Znajder, Cerovcek, Imai & Wispelwey. But heck, it was wonderful anyway!!!
So it all feels too good to be true and there must be a catch somewhere. Trouble is, it IS all too good to be true, but so far I haven't quite found the catch. A few possibles regarding aspects of the youth orchestra and of course that tent, but these don't amount to much in the grand scheme of things from the audience's point of view. If your two prime requirements for heaven are the most beautiful mountains and the greatest music, Verbier is for you.
Most stunning of all: Vadim Repin, soloist for Shostakovich Violin Concerto No.1 on Monday night. That concerto isn't my favourite piece on earth, but I was completely mesmerised by him. I vowed on the spot not to miss any more of his London concerts, because hearing playing of such combined intelligence, power, finesse, magnetism and vitality is rare indeed. He doesn't do the Vengerov showmanship thing, he doesn't do the Josh Bell Learns To Ski knee bends, he doesn't force the tone like some others I could mention; instead he puts everything straight where it ought to be: the music, the instrument, the intensity, the spirit.
I followed this, the next morning, with a trip up the mountain by cable car and a lovely walk at the top, gazing at snowy peaks, listening to silvery cowbells on the local herd and the soft rustle of waterfalls, spotting tiny pink orchids and brilliant blue gentians among the meadows of wild flowers. Mountain walks are shiatsu massage for the soul; over the last few years they have somehow become essential to me. This was my one and only this year, and I appreciated every second of it.
It was tempting simply to miss the plane home and vanish into the mountainside. I failed to work out how to do so in time, however, so here I am at my desk, blogging once again.
Tuesday, April 13, 2004
I haven't been able to write about this anywhere 'official' yet, because editors tend to say 'Where on earth is that?' when I tell them I had a great time in...St Nazaire. Fair enough: a depressed, sometime-shipbuilding little town on the Loire Atlantique coast of France, blasted to pieces (mainly by the Brits) in the war and a long way from the glitz and glamour of gay Paris doesn't sound like a prime-time travel feature to anyone. And if you have heard of St Nazaire, chances are that it's because there was a fearful accident there last November when a gangplank leading onto the new oceanliner Queen Mary II (which was being built there) collapsed and 15 people were killed falling onto the dry dock.
If, however, you want to join my campaign for Real Music, this is the place to go in September. The festival was founded 14 years ago by my friend, interviewee and favourite fiddler Philippe Graffin [see South Africa etc]. Last September he assembled a marvellous group of musicians to perform a set of fascinating programmes build around the idea of 'L'invitation au voyage' - appropriate because the building of the Queen Mary II was the most significant thing to have happened in St Nazaire in years. 'L'invitation au voyage' largely took the form of a pairing of English and French music; there was also the world premiere of David Matthews's specially-commissioned setting of the Baudelaire poem of that title.
It was only there, listening to Yuzuko Horigome playing The Lark Ascending with piano accompaniment in the beautiful chapel-turned-art-gallery where most of the concerts happen, that I realised how little British music is known outside our little island. The enthusiastic local audience lapped it up, but had never heard it before. The same went for Elgar's Sospiri, the centrepiece of the final concert. That was an event in itself: a large warehouse, right next to the nearly-finished Queen Mary II, was transformed into a concert hall for the evening. Despite a rather unusual acoustic, it proved a stunning setting. The audience was bussed in from the town and some people apparently queued all day to get there first and be in the front row.
Why is this my favourite festival? There are no 5-star hotels or gourmet oyster bars; no mountain views or hang-gliding; no composer house museums, specially made chocolates or champagne tents for corporate sponsors. And there's no pretentiousness, no posing, no money for marketing, no big-name circuit recitalists playing their year's programme for the hundredth time. Just wonderful, imaginatively devised concerts played by fantastic musicians for mainly local audiences who'd never get the chance to hear it otherwise. St Nazaire may not be the prettiest of French towns, but it's friendly, the locals love their festival, the food is excellent and the local wine splendid - and there's also a wonderful beach! It's genuine, it's real and it deserves all the attention it can't afford.
This year's St Nazaire Festival - the official title is Consonances - takes place from 18 to 25 September and some exciting Russian stuff was being planned last time I checked it out. See the link for more info.