Showing posts with label Kings Place. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Kings Place. Show all posts

Monday, December 21, 2020

Welcome to (what remains of) the JDCMB Chocolate Silver Awards 2020

It's 21 December! Welcome back to our cyberposhplace, with a difference. Nowadays we are all living permanently in cyberplaces. Paradoxically, I considered holding this year's JDCMB Chocolate Silver Awards ceremony in the flesh for the first time, because now a real cybermeetingplace exists called Zoom and we'd be able to invite readers to join in from all over the world. This time last year nobody would even have thought of such a thing. That's just one way that Covid-19 has changed our world. The others are worse.

One thing I've learned in 2020, though, is that presenting an event online is still real. It takes, in fact, a lot of organisation, forward planning and slick technical support. And you know something? I'm tired. 

Many of us are. Unable to see our friends and family, deprived of the concerts and theatres on which our imaginative and social life centres and watching our towns crumbling as unit after unit gives up and shuts down, is depressing enough. Seeing even household-name musicians and actors struggling to make ends meet while excluded from the government's self-employment support schemes - that's horrifying. And guess what, we've got Brexit in 10 days' time and still nobody knows what's going to happen. Since I first drafted this post yesterday, a new crisis has emerged, which you can read about in all the papers rather than here.

While I could be all positive and "hello sun, hello trees," and "isn't music wonderful," I don't want to pretend. I'm doing my best to keep my nose above water. As regular readers will have noticed, blogging is not uppermost. I hit a largish birthday this month and it seemed time to take stock. It's not only a question of not being as young as one used to be, but also of longing to create something worthwhile, something that has a chance of lasting. Blogging is ephemeral. I wrote a novel about Beethoven called Immortal, it's more than 400 pages long and you can always read that instead. (For a taster, here's the video presentation that the Wigmore Hall filmed in September, in which I introduce the book and read extracts, and the wonderful Mishka Rushdie Momen plays the Piano Sonata in F, Op. 10 No. 2.)

Now, on with our awards ceremony, or what remains of it.

Come on in! Grab a glass of cyberbubbly. Here in our imaginary virtual venue, we can hug our friends without fear. This time we're outdoors, but it's a beautiful warm Mediterranean-style night. Strings of fairy lights glitter in the trees. The moon shines bright over the water, a string quartet is playing Irving Berlin and Cole Porter in the background, there's a buzz of conversation punctuated by the piccolo of joyous laughter (remember that sound?), and Ricki and Cosi are ensconced on their silken cushions in front of a large photo of Solti the Ginger Cat, ready to present the winners with their prize purrs and a cuddle of their lovely chocolate-silver and usual-silver Somali cat fur. 

Our guests of honour have scrambled up through the back of the centuries' wardrobe to join us from far-flung times. Ludwig van Beethoven has made an exception to his hatred of parties and is present to celebrate his 250th birthday. We can't change his otosclerosis, but we can give him a state-of-the-art hearing aid, so he's with us, smiling, laughing and joking, with Josephine by his side and little Minona in her party dress. Times have changed, they remark; if only they could be alive now instead, this is how it could have been. And we'd have had nine more symphonies. Only Therese, in her habitual black, is little changed. Don't say I didn't tell you, she twinkles. 

Alongside them, here are our friends of the present day, gathering from everywhere in the world: New York and Sydney, Paris and Berlin, Tuscany and Switzerland, Leipzig and Warsaw. Barnes, Manchester, Glasgow and Camden. We haven't seen each other the whole damned year. Love you. Miss you. Here's to next time...

Quiet please. Grab a refill and come over to the cushions. Now, would the following winners please approach the podium. And let's have a huge round of applause for every musician who has soldiered on bravely during 2020 and still manages to touch our hearts and souls, despite everything.


Thank you, Luigi. You help us to be resilient. There could have been no better anniversary to mark in this of all years. And I'm glad to see that in Germany they've decided your celebrations are going on next year too. Hopefully we'll do the same here. Thank you for letting me put you in a book. Thank you, too, to those marvellous people who have paid sterling tribute to you in their top-notch series: John Suchet on Classic FM and Donald MacLeod on BBC Radio 3, respectively available now as podcast and audiobook. And a huge thank you to my publishers, Unbound, for your faith in Immortal and for making sure that it could still come out in time for the anniversary even when so much else was being put back to 2021. Roxanna Panufnik's choral piece Ever Us, with my libretto, fell victim to the pandemic back in May - it should have been in the Berlin Philharmonie - but all being well it might instead be heard in 2022.


-- Krystian Zimerman

I've met many musicians, and plenty of the finest, but only two who I believe deserve the title "genius". One was Pierre Boulez. The other is Krystian Zimerman. Thanks to a booklet notes commission, I've spent part of December pursuing Zimerman and Simon Rattle around corners of east London and attending some of the rehearsals for their incredible series of the Beethoven piano concertos at LSO St Luke's. It has provided an insight into what it actually takes to be such an artist: as TS Eliot said, "A condition of complete simplicity (Costing not less than everything)." Yes: everything, every hour, every cell, every emotion and every last scrap of spirit. Most of us have simply no idea... The concerts are being streamed on DG's new online concert platform, DG Stage (the last is the 'Emperor' Concerto, being shown tonight - you can still catch part 2, nos. 2 and 4, as well). The audio recording will be out in the spring. Perhaps one of 2020's biggest surprises was finding that he's on Instagram. (Photo above by Kasslara.) 

-- Tasmin Little

It's hard to believe that Tasmin Little is retiring from the stage, but she insists that she is. I attended her last Southbank Centre performance, watching from among a smattering of guests distanced in the back stalls; it included among other things, her astounding performance of Brahms's D minor sonata with the stunningly fine Russian pianist Andrey Gugnin. Tasmin, I said later, did you know that Margot Fonteyn decided against retiring when she met Rudolf Nureyev? Hint hint. Tasmin laughed, but her bright smile hardened a little. She says she regrets having to discontinue such a partnership, but she is stopping, and that is that. So you can't say I didn't try. She'd already had to postpone her farewell concerts from summer to autumn and is busy giving the last ones right now, in those places where concerts haven't been knocked out of the water yet again by Tier 3 or 4. Here's to your pastures new, Tasmin, whatever they may be. Come and have a purr from Ricki and Cosi. (Photo by Paul Mitchell.)


There are quite a few of you who meet this description. Step forward, Elena Urioste and Tom Poster (pictured right)! Your UriPoste Jukebox, violin and piano music for all seasons daily from your home, has brightened the year. Hello Daniel Hope, whose living room concerts were pounced upon for televising by Arte and spread the music-making of fabulous colleagues in Berlin far and wide. Welcome, dear Kanneh-Mason Family, who have brought us hope and inspiration at every turn - from your home concerts on Facebook to Sheku and Isata's gorgeous Proms recital to Jeneba playing Florence Price's Piano Concerto in One Movement with the ever-more-marvellous Chineke! Orchestra at the Southbank, plus the enchanting Carnival of the Animals album with Michael Morpurgo. I also loved Kadiatu's book House of Music, charting in graphic detail what it takes - oh yes - to raise such a family. Gabriela Montero, Angela Hewitt, Igor Levit and Boris Giltburg are among the many fabulous pianists who have been playing for us online. The Wigmore Hall blazed a trail in getting live concerts going again, while they could, and streaming them into our homes for free. It is up to us to do better at paying for this, and really you should if you can. Kings Place hit on an inventive and empathetic way to tempt nervous audience members out of their houses and into to the concert hall for the first time in the summer, offering one-to-one 10-minute sessions with Elena and Tom among others. That was my own first trip on the tube in four months, and they performed a piece selected especially for me ("We heard you were coming in, so we dug out some Fauré..."). And jolly wonderful it was. (Pictured above, photo by JD.)

This list could continue. What's astonished me is the amount of imagination, resourcefulness, determination, understanding, urgency and passion that so many in the music world have shown in the face of catastrophe. They don't call us "creative industries" for nothing. Perhaps the only good thing to come out of 2020 is the fact that we will never, ever take music for granted again. And if some do, we can say to them "Remember the pandemic, when the music stopped..." Could we live without it? No, we couldn't. Never forget.

Oh, and one Turkey of the Year: the British government marching us smack onto the rocks of Brexit despite the existing devastation. What a phenomenally stupid waste of time and energy it all is. We'll have to spend the years ahead putting ourselves back together. 

We are all connected. We all affect one another. There are positive forces that unite and inspire us: music, art, logic, poetry, science, learning, wisdom, generosity, honesty, kindness, love. There are negative ones, which divide us: greed, wanton destruction, lies, superstition, ignorance, heartlessness, hatred and indifference. 

Perhaps the best we can hope for is that destruction really will bring creative opportunities (as the disaster capitalists would say - admittedly that's not a great advert...) and that we can turn the collapse of old structures to good by creating new ones, re-establishing as our driving values the qualities that represent the best of humankind, rather than the worst. 

Speech over. Grab some more cyberbubbly and let's dance while we still can. Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 16, 2019

French revelation

I reviewed the Aurora Orchestra's splendiferous performance of Louise Farrenc's Symphony No. 3 the other day at Kings Place. WTH is this piece not performed 30 times a year? It's simply wonderful - and the orchestra under Duncan Ward gave it a beautifully characterised performance. Plus a gorgeous new piece for cello and strings by Charlotte Bray and Angela Hewitt in a fine, glittering Mozart concerto, on a piano that took up most of the platform... Here's my review for The Arts Desk.


Why does music suddenly disappear? It is all the more heartening when a work as excellent and enjoyable as Louise Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3 takes wing once more, but you do have to wonder what they were thinking in mid 19th-century Paris to allow such a terrific orchestral piece to sink and vanish. The symphony formed the second half of the Aurora Orchestra’s latest concert in its Pioneers series for Kings Place's "Venus Unwrapped" series, and very welcome it was. 

Farrenc (1804-1875) was a highly successful and well-regarded musician in her day, known as a brilliant pianist and the only female professor at the Paris Conservatoire. Her third symphony, premiered in 1849, bristles with post-Beethovenian energy; the idiom is a little like Weber, but with a voice all its own, deftly written with never a note too many, plus a satisfying feel for structure and strong conclusions. The slow movement contains some enchanting ambiguity between major and minor, the scherzo fizzes and pounds and the finale is bright with contrapuntal virtuosity. 

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Brainstaves: a string quartet on a mission

The Ligeti Quartet is presenting a programme at Kings Place tomorrow that's so extraordinary I just had to ask them how it works. This is string quartet work with a mission, a whole new concept for a new century. This concert is called 'Consciousness' and involves a collaboration with the neuroscientist and composer Cliff Kerr, using the musicians' brain activity to generate music. The works by Ruth Crawford Seeger, Shiva Feshareki and Lutosławski all connect to the theme in ways of their own; in particular, Feshareki's quartet Venus/Zoreh is a planetary journey with a difference. The concert is part of Kings Place's astonishing Venus Unwrapped series. First violinist Mandhira de Saram has agreed to answer some of my questions...

JD: What inspired this programme and how have you chosen the pieces for it? 

MDS: Like most ensembles, we put an inordinate amount of thought into programming - we want to make sure that programmes are always challenging, thought-provoking, but (hopefully) with some sense of fun. After all we have a lot of fun planning them although we agonise and argue over details. Often our programmes are built around a particular piece or concept or around around a few pieces which we love performing. 

This programme, Consciousness, was inspired by discussions with neuroscientist and composer Cliff Kerr over a year ago about using our actual brain activity to generate music. We realised that some of our favourite pieces would show different ways in which composers as well as we, as performers, approach awareness and responsiveness, shared consciousness. Shiva spent a long time with us leading meditative exercises as an essential preparation for her piece. In fact, we found that after working with Shiva for just a short time, we became more aware whilst performing other repertoire too in terms of our receptivity to sound, noise, texture and our shared consciousness as a string quartet. 

Ruth Crawford's string quartet, and especially the third movement, uses as its compositional base an extremely new and unique (for the time - 1931!) sound world. Composers are still exploring the same techniques and concepts - her ideas were so new and meaningful that they are ageless! The dense writing in her music requires us to be totally 'in tune' with each other - a huge amount of rehearsal goes into preparing this music even though the piece is very short. 

In contrast to the condensed miniatures which make up Crawford's work, Lutosławski's only string quartet (both Crawford and Lutoslawski wrote only one work in this form) is a long work, which uses some aleatoric devices, but carefully controlled and calculated so that the outcome is always the same - like a chess grandmaster who has foreseen all possible moves. The result is that the performers feel they are playing in a quasi-improvisatory style, feeding off and interacting with each other, but in fact we are always within a grid of cues and meticulously worked out 'mobiles' or episodic material. 

The Ligeti Quartet perform on the Thames Estuary

JD: How does Cliff Kerr’s piece Brainstaves for string quartet and EEGs actually work? It’s difficult for a prospective audience to imagine what is going on when someone is 'using brain activity in real time to generate creative aspects of the music’ - please could you explain the technical side of it? 

Cliff Kerr
MDS: This is what Cliff says: "When musicians improvise, their brains create musical ideas, which are translated into muscle commands, sent along the spinal cord to the muscles, and then these muscle movements make music. But what if you were able to read the music directly from the brain? The concept behind Brainstaves is to use EEG headsets to record the electrical activity of the performers' brains, allowing the score for the piece to be generated in real time. The challenge here is twofold: to be scientifically accurate enough to do justice to the brain's bubbling activity, and to be musically sensible enough to keep the audience from reaching for their earplugs. To solve this, I created a structural and harmonic environment that is static, but within which each individual note is determined by mapping the amount of brain activity in different frequency bands onto a statistical distribution. The result is effectively an improvisation between the performers and their own brains - an exploration of the wild, wacky, and perhaps wonderful signals that are transmitted within, and between, our brains."

MDS: We are still working on the piece every day - it is certainly a collaborative process, three-way: Cliff, the LQ and our brains. That is not taking into account getting to grips with the tech - for example, the EEG headsets to a long time to get working in a way Cliff could actually use for composing a piece (the ones we have are actually to be used with a meditation app!). Over the next few days we will be developing the piece further and also using it as the basis for our workshops with Hearing Impaired children, an ACE funded project. The exciting (and stressful!) aspect of this piece is that we will always be sight-reading, even though we will have a sense of what the music might be like through pre-generated or fully composed examples. We have yet to experience how our brain activity might change during an actual performance as opposed to simulating this experience in rehearsals or workshop sessions. Perhaps we are in for a surprise, but, I know that Cliff (like Lutoslawski did in his quartet) has controlled parameters so that the feedback loop is always predictable in most ways, certainly in its sound-world and rhythm, even though individual notes change. 

JD: What’s most exciting to you about creating new music by linking with a scientific process in this way? 

MDS: This is something which is certainly stimulating, and more than anything generates even more ideas for compositions and collaborations. In fact, I think working with a scientist and the process of collaborating on a piece inspires a lot of non-scientific ideas, which I guess is the idea. We always want to find new concepts, sounds, techniques and ways of creating. The novelty and inventiveness which is needed to make this work is in itself important research. Scientists and composers sometimes work in similar ways and most often the process is as important as the result. For us, we would hope that between Cliff's and our own musical knowledge, the piece produced would be artistically successful, but the work we had to do to get there is as important to us as it will hopefully give us a model for developing further such collaborations. 

JD: Please tell us more about Shiva Feshareki’s ‘Venus/Zohreh’ - and how come you were touring planetariums? How does the music relate to the planets? 

Shiva Feshareki, winner of a British Composer Award 2017
Photo: Mark Allen
MDS: The planetarium tour came about as the Ligeti Quartet, Sam Bordoli and Sound UK wanted to commission a new 'Planets' as a homage to Holst's piece. By complete chance, we realised that the 100th anniversary of Holst's planets would coincide with this project. So we commissioned a diverse range of composers from different musical backgrounds, selected a planet for them and paired them with a scientist who is an expert in their particular planet. Shiva and Dr Philippa Mason brainstormed and looked at data together, as did the other composer-scientist pairings. The idea was that each Planet would be inspired by science rather than Astrology, as in Holst's Planets.

Shiva's programme note: VENUS/ZOHREH is one exponential crescendo in volume, intensity, speed, and pitch exposure. Within this expansion a rich array of direct expression is exposed. The piece was composed using a variety of techniques such as plotting pitches, dynamics, duration, and rhythmic ideas as graphic shapes, that together create one overarching shape. The realisation of the composition draws on deep listening exercises that bring together other physical elements related to sound such as movement and space.
After collaboration with the Venus expert and geologist Dr Philippa Mason, the composition was crafted using the same methods as used to extrapolate information about Venus through what we know about Earth. The emotional journey behind the piece is inspired by my mother Zohreh. Zohreh in the Persian language translates to Venus, or the Morning Star. Therefore, the scientific journey behind the composition is forged through the collaboration with Dr Mason, and the spiritual journey is from my mother Zohreh. These energies combine to create VENUS/ZOHREH.

This piece is dedicated to my mother Zohreh as well as Envision: a planetary mission to Venus which aims to measure the rate and nature of geological activity and its influence on atmospheric chemistry. The piece was commissioned by Sound UK for the Ligeti Quartet.

Other composers approached their planets in different ways.  For example, Mira Calix literally translated geological data into notes, Richard Bullen concentrated on the 4 moons of Jupiter, Laurence Crane the 'iciness' of Neptune etc. All were hugely inspired by their meetings with experts on their planets. 

JD: What most appeals to you in the music of Ruth Crawford Seeger and Witold Lutosławski?

Ruth Crawford Seeger
MDS: Ruth Crawford (this piece was written before she married Charles Seeger) is a landmark piece of music, probably one of the earliest examples of writing a string quartet using this kind of modernist language. The piece is so tightly constructed, full of expression as well as fun and absolutely amazing to play even though it is technically challenging. The third movement especially is groundbreaking - a crescendo of rising cross-swells which arrives at a climax and quickly descends and dies down. A few days ago in rehearsal we were thinking that the effect created in all 4 movements is like a backwards tape! But written a decade before tape was actually invented!

The Lutosławski requires a very different kind of quartet mentality. Whereas the Crawford requires that we are absolutely synchronised, the Lutosławski allows us at least a sense of freedom even though he has in fact calculated outcomes so carefully that the piece always sounds the same. The composer did not want the players to see a full score for the piece (I have to admit, that when we first learned it, we did cheat), The effect of this is that when we do actually play together, and this is indicated in the individual parts, it feels amazing to play into that string quartet sounds, and then we drift away again. 

JD:  How do you see the current upsurge of interest in music by women? Do you think it can transform our musical landscape? 

MDS: It is high time that diversity is embraced in classical music (and in any other discipline). It is quite obvious that we have in no way reached a point where women are commissioned as much as men. It should not be considered a vogue or trend but something that should have always happened, a mistake which is now being corrected. in order for there to be equality, we need to redress the balance perhaps more in favour of women and minorities before finding a real balance. We aim for a 50:50 balance in our programmes and actively seek out composers to commission. 

JD: The Ligeti Quartet is doing some truly fascinating programmes - do you see yourselves as an ensemble with a mission? What would be your mission statement? 

MDS: We certainly do have a mission! The music we commission and perform, we feel, is thought provoking. We try to programme in ways which challenges the audience to listen actively, find connections, images, stories and engage with what we, the performers are doing - in fact, encouraging the audience to make some of the same kind of decisions and choices that we make when interpreting a piece. It is a three way interaction between composer, performers and audience (sometimes four-way if we consider the space/acoustic) I guess our mission is to invite as many people as possible to enjoy the music we love with us and to defy those who feel that new and challenging music has no meaning. Music is constantly evolving and we enjoy being a part of this.

Ligeti Quartet: 'Consciousness', Kings Place, 9 May. Booking here:

Monday, April 15, 2019

More shows on 17 and 27 April!

We had a whale of a time at Kings Place, performing the UK premiere of Being Mrs Bach on Saturday afternoon. Left to right: Ben Bevan (baritone), Steven Devine (harpsichord), me, Jonathan Manson (cello and gamba) - what an absolute privilege to work with them! Totally knocked out by the brilliance of Steven's harpsichord playing, which provided the effect of an entire orchestra or two, the apparently effortless beauty of Jonathan's solos and the way he switched between instruments as if simply taking another breath, and the warm, gorgeously tender tone of Ben's baritone, which we understand will be gracing Opera Holland Park this summer.

Onwards... next up is Odette: A Celebration of Swan Lake, which takes wing on Wednesday. The award-winning Fenella Humphreys (violin), also-award-winning Viv McLean (piano) and I will be at Bob Boas's series, Music at Mansfield Street, London W1, on 17 April, and St Mary's Perivale on 27 April. St Mary's will be LIVE STREAMED! If you would like to come along on Wednesday, there are still places available (it clashes with a) the Easter hols and b) most annoyingly, the Proms launch) and you can email for further details. If you want to come to St Mary's, just turn up on the night - more details here. And if you want to watch the live stream, it will be here (but is only available at the actual time, not online thereafter.) The concert is an hour and a half without an interval.

More stuff below!

Fenella Humphreys (violin)
Viv McLean (piano)
Jessica Duchen (narrator)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's ballet score for Swan Lake casts a powerful spell over generation after generation. It has had innumerable reimaginings and retellings, balletic and otherwise. The latest is author and music critic Jessica Duchen's magical-realist novel ODETTE, in which the enchanted swan princess meets 21st-century Britain.

This remarkable narrated concert mingles selected readings from the book with the story behind Tchaikovsky's creation of Swan Lake and its passionate, tragic inspirations. Award-winning, ballet-loving British violinist Fenella Humphreys embraces the great violin solos with which Tchaikovsky embroidered his score, as well as the closely related Violin Concerto; pianist Viv McLean evokes the influence of Chopin and Liszt on Tchaikovsky; and there's plenty of humour, with works by Saint-Saëns and Gershwin. Share the enchantment with this joyous celebration of a beloved ballet, its composer, its fairy tale and what they can mean to us today.

Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake – Introduction 

Saint-Saëns: Danse macabre 

Liszt (arr. Achron): Liebestraum No.3 

Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake – Odette's Solo 

Gershwin: The Man I Love 

Chopin: Polonaise-Fantaisie 

Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake – White Swan Pas de Deux 

Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake – Adagio from the Black Swan Pas de Deux 

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major - finale 

Fenella Humphreys (violin) enjoys a busy career combining chamber music and solo work, performing in prestigious venues around the world. Her first concerto recording, of Christopher Wright's Violin Concerto with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra was released in 2012 to great critical acclaim. Her recent Bach to the Future project, a set of six new unaccompanied violin works by eminent composers was a huge success, garnering performances at acclaimed UK venues, and has now been recorded over two CDs for Champs Hill Records. Both have received huge critical acclaim, and the second received the BBC Music Magazine's 2018 Instrumental Award. Her new disc with Nicola Eimer was released in February 2019. Fenella is a passionate chamber musician and is regularly invited by Steven Isserlis to take part in the prestigious Open Chamber Music at the International Musicians' Seminar, Prussia Cove. Concertmaster of the Deutsche Kammerakademie, Fenella also enjoys guest leading and directing various ensembles in Europe. Her teachers have included Sidney Griller CBE, Itzhak Rashkovsky, Ida Bieler and David Takeno at the Purcell School, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and the Robert-Schumann-Hochschule in Düsseldorf. She plays a beautiful violin from the circle of Peter Guarneri of Venice, kindly on loan from Jonathan Sparey.

Viv McLean (piano), the winner of the First Prize at the 2002 Maria Canals International Piano Competition in Barcelona , has performed at all the major venues in the UK as well as throughout Europe, Japan , Australia and the USA . He has played concerti with most major UK orchestras, performed chamber music with leading groups such as the Ysaye String Quartet and the Leopold String Trio. Viv studied at the Royal Academy of Music and was the piano winner at the Royal Overseas-League Music Competition and one of three winners of the National Federation of Music Societies' Young Artists Competition, leading to various recitals and concerto appearances throughout Great Britain . Viv has recorded regularly for BBC Radio 3 and recorded for Sony Classical Japan and Naxos , as well as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's own label. Viv lives in Harrow and has been a huge supporter of concerts at both St Mary's Perivale and St Barnabas in recent years.

Jessica Duchen's books have gathered a loyal fan-base and wide acclaim. Odette, published by Unbound in November 2018, is her sixth novel, but has occupied her for over 26 years. Ghost Variations (Unbound, 2016) was Book of the Month in BBC Music Magazine and was John Suchet's Christmas Choice among the Daily Mail's Best Reads of 2016 ("A thrilling read" - John Suchet).   Jessica grew up in London, read music at Cambridge and has devoted much of her career to music journalism, with 12 years as music critic for The Independent. Her work has also appeared in BBC Music Magazine, The Sunday Times and The Guardian, among others. She was the librettist of Silver Birch by composer Roxanna Panufnik, which was commissioned by Garsington Opera and shortlisted for an International Opera Award in 2018, and she has worked frequently with Panufnik on texts for choral works. Her further output includes biographies of the composers Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Gabriel Fauré, her popular classical music blog JDCMB, and the play A Walk through the End of Time , which won the town medal of St Nazaire in France, where its commissioning festival was based. Jessica lives in London with her violinist husband and two cats.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Mrs Bach is in town on Saturday

My words&music show BEING MRS BACH is at Kings Place on Saturday at 5pm, part of the venue's magnificent Bach Weekend. More info here: please join us!

With harpsichordist Steven Devine, baritone Benjamin Bevan and cellist/gamba Jonathan Manson we explore the story of Anna Magdalena Bach, looking back on her life from her last days when she was tragically forgotten - even by most of her large family. From gifted young soprano to mater familias and sidekick-in-chief to her overworked husband, and the terrible operation that hastened his death, we follow her through arias and solos that reflect the emotions and preoccupations of the Bach family's Leipzig life.

Here's a little interview I did for Kings Place's website:

Why did you want to create an event around Anna Magdalena Bach?

The initial suggestion for ‘Being Mrs Bach’ came from the pianist Kathryn Stott, artistic director of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music. She knew about my various narrated concerts and thought this would be an exciting creation to add to a Bach Day for the 2018 festival. The idea was to bring Anna Magdalena to the fore in her own right and try to find out more about who she really was. I loved the idea and it was a joy to be part of that lovely event in Far North Queensland.

How did you go about researching it?

Besides the usual reading etc, I went to Leipzig! I completely fell in love with the place. It has an extraordinary wealth of musical associations, including Schumann, Mendelssohn, Grieg, Brahms and Wagner, and takes great pride in this legacy. The Thomaskirche, where Bach spent much of his working life, is still much as he would have known it. I attended a service and a concert there, trying to immerse myself in its atmosphere and acoustic. The Bach Museum is a treasure-trove: here one can explore the layout of the Thomasschüle where Bach taught, read a great deal about the family, listen to a wealth of music examples and even see a few rare relics - including the buckle and thimble that were retrieved from what was thought to be Bach’s grave.

What struck you particularly about her life and work?

While too little is known about her personality, a few key facts make it possible to join dots and colour in blanks. She was a very fine musician and singer: she was employed at the court of Anhalt-Cöthen as a soprano in Bach’s ensemble when he was Kapellmeister, which is where they met. Unfortunately when they moved to Leipzig, town regulations decreed that women were not allowed to sing in public! I expect she sang at home, though… She loved both nature and nurturing (children, stepchildren, birds, plants and constant visitors). This was just as well, because she inherited four step-children when she married Bach, who was a widower 16 years her senior - and she went on to have 13 children of her own (sadly fewer than half survived to adulthood). She must have been Bach’s greatest support, both personally and professionally, in the latter capacity serving as copyist and collector, especially of the ‘Anna Magdalena Notebook’. I think she may have had the constitution of an ox.

Nevertheless, the painful truth is that Anna Magdalena has been desperately neglected, both in her lifetime and beyond it. She survived Johann Sebastian by nearly a decade, but ended up in a hand-to-mouth existence, reliant on charity. Then, when Bach’s body (or what they thought was his) was first exhumed in 1894, the skeleton of a younger woman was found with him. They reburied him elsewhere - and left her behind.

Do you think she really did write the cello suites, or any of her husband's music?

It’s not impossible, but I’m afraid I’m not entirely convinced.

What music did you want to include in the event? 

We needed repertoire that would illumine the narration so that words and music cohere as a sequence. For instance, an extract from the Coffee Cantata picks up on the tribulations of having teenage children! I particularly wanted to end with ‘Mache dich mein Herze rein’ from the St Matthew Passion so that this otherwise tragic story would have an uplifting, transcendent conclusion. Meanwhile, there are solos for Steven Devine and Jonathan Manson as well as various contrasting arias for Ben Bevan. We have added, quite late, the aria ‘Komm, süßes Kreuz’ (also St Matthew Passion) because it includes a magnificent viola da gamba obbligato and therefore shows off all three musicians to the utmost. 

Thursday, October 04, 2018

London Piano Festival: one plus one equals a hundred

Charles Owen & Katya Apekisheva. Photo: Viktor Erik Emanuel
I had a whale of a time at the London Piano Festival opening last night, trying to puzzle out what makes the duo of Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen quite so special. It's just one of those crazy things: even if there's an argument that they are such different pianists that together they have a kaleidoscopic range at their disposal, there's also something magical about the chemistry. What's more, Kings Place has a new Steinway and it sounds pretty bloody marvellous. I''ve reviewed the concert for The Arts Desk. Read the whole thing here.

Can't help remembering my hideous experience on last year's opening night when I got the cough from hell in the middle of the Rachmaninov Suite No.2. Blissful breathing this time. phew.

Lots more LPF to go: Konstantin Lifschitz tonight, Leszek Możdżar tomorrow, on Saturday a full afternoon and evening of Paul Roberts Debussy lecture recital, Pavel Kolesnikov and a two-piano gala bringing in Margaret Fingerhut, Stephen Kovacevich and Samson Tsoy, and finally Alexandra Dariescu, ballerina and virtual reality for The Nutcracker and I on Sunday afternoon.

Friday, October 06, 2017

The mind behind the cough

Diagram from Wikipedia
Last night I went to the London Piano Festival concert and in the middle of the Rachmaninov I felt the first warning signs. Like most other people in London, the PM included, I've had a lurgy. It's gone, but left lingering dregs in the form of a tickly but persistent and "productive" cough. Nothing that Vocalzone pastilles can't sort out, I thought, heading off to Kings Place. And all was well until 2/3 of the way through Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva's splendid performance: in the Rachmaninov Suite No.2's Romance, the bug decided it was time to get me. Just after friends and I had spent half the interval grumbling about people coughing.

It starts with a soft sensation like cat-fur brushing against one tonsil. Perhaps a quiet 'hem-hem' will clear it. No...The cat fur is pressing and now feels more like a brush-bristle. A needle. It's agony, all down the right side of my neck. I put my coat over my mouth and cough as quietly as humanly possible. Did you know that if you stifle a cough in material it helps muffle it, but if you put your hand over your mouth it just amplifies the noise? Take note, dear friends... Yet the cough remains. And I can't cough properly, especially not in this bit. Oh, come on, Jess, it's not like you're the PM...

But...oh help. Oh gawd. What to do? I can scarcely take a breath. My eyes are watering. On stage Charles and Katya are in Rachmaninov Heaven and everybody around me is blissing out. If I get up and run for the door, won't that cause more disturbance than coughing? But I can't cough either. What's more, if I pick up my handbag and start rustling around for my Vocalzone under the tissues, Oystercard, lipstick, Ghost Variations flyers and change that fell out of my purse, that'll cause impossible disturbance too... But I can't cough. What would my friends say? What would my neighbours say? What about the other press?

Won't it be over soon? Won't it pass? Won't this movement, at least, end, and then I can attack the bag for a pastille? I thought the suite was quite short, but it seems not - this movement has turned interminable. Rachmaninov will make sure it goes on forever and forever more. And far from being gentle and romantic, it's eating me alive.

By now something inside my throat is shivering like violin vibrato and my eyes are streaming so much that it must be wrecking my make-up (upside: maybe everyone will think the music moved me to tears...) My whole body is shaking. I try to control it, but slowly the whole of Kings Place seems to be tipping slowly over to the right. Is this real? Is it all psychological? Is this every worst experience of my whole life coming back to destroy me, in the middle of a piano festival? Is this what it's like to have a breakdown? They're going to have to carry me out in a heap of melted hopelessness.

The movement ends. There's a second or two of silence. I can hear the cough sweets screaming at me from the bottom of the bag. In a moment...but Charles and Katya catch one another's eye over their pianos, hands raised, motionless. And they plunge straight into the finale.

Suffice it to say that this morning I'm alive and well. I wonder if every other concert-cougher feels as I do when that happens to them. Rather cruelly, I hope so, because it really does disturb the music. I managed to muffle mine, despite personal suffering. So you can, too. Remember: use material, not your hand, and never leave home without a cough sweet.

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Thursday, October 05, 2017

All hands on deck! London Piano Festival opens today

I'm going to be hanging out at Kings Place a lot over the next few days as the London Piano Festival swings into action tonight, led by the dastardly duo of Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva. Turning piano concerts into celebrations of the range, colour and full glory available to pianists, they've programmed a total feast and brought in some amazing artists to deliver it. Here's a piece I wrote originally for Kings Place's magazine to trail the festival. The full programme is online here.

When Kings Place opened the doors to its first London Piano Festival last year, some concertgoers may have been wondering where it had been all their lives. Piano festivals are oddly rare in the capital, despite the perennial popularity of the instrument and its almost limitless repertoire. The piano duo Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva decided to put that situation right – and sure enough, the 2016 festival went so well that now it is happening again.

Between 5 and 8 October Kings Place will resound with piano music: four solo recitals, a concert for children, an evening with Owen and Apekisheva, a grand two-piano marathon with six star pianists and finally jazz from Jason Rebello.

The range of music extends from a baroque recital performed by Lisa Smirnova to a new commission from the South African composer Kevin Volans, included in Melvyn Tan’s concert alongside Weber and Ravel. The children’s concert includes Poulenc’s L’histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant and an unusual arrangement for piano four-hands of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf - Simon Callow is the narrator. Nelson Goerner from Argentina offers high romanticism (Friday 6th, 7.30pm), and the Russian pianist Ilya Itin presents two sizeable sonatas by Schubert and Rachmaninoff (Saturday 7th, 4pm).
Katya & Charles amid some silver birches
Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke
“We’re trying to focus not only on the biggest names, but on artists who are of the very highest calibre but rarely perform in Britain,” says Owen. “We are very keen to bring several of those musicians to reconnect with British audiences.” Lisa Smirnova and Ilya Itin are prime examples: “Lisa is someone I studied alongside in Moscow, with Anna Kantor, and I always admired her,” says Apekisheva. “She’s a very interesting, individual musician and she has a huge career in America and Europe, but not in the UK. Her Handel recording was wonderful and received fantastic reviews.”

Itin, who won first prize, the audience prize and the contemporary music prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1996, is now based in New York and combines performing with his role as a sought-after teacher. Apekisheva met him at Leeds and was bowled over by his musicianship: “Again he is an absolutely outstanding artist, but hasn’t played here for such a long time. We decided we must have him back.”

The repertoire is a combination of the familiar and unfamiliar. “There’s an underlying theme of Russia, coinciding with the anniversary of the October Revolution in 1917,” says Owen. “Katya and I are playing both the Rachmaninoff Suite No.2 and the Symphonic Dances for two pianos and we’re giving the world premiere of a new commission from Elena Langer, inspired by some Kandinsky paintings from 1917 which we hope to project onto the screen as we play.”

The Russian focus extends to a significant rarity: the Sonata No.2 by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a close friend of Shostakovich’s whose music is currently enjoying a major revival of interest. Apekisheva learned it for the Brundibár Festival in Newcastle earlier this year: “I completely fell in love with the piece and very much want to play it again,” she says. “It’s very exciting music, but what a challenge to play!”

Ultimately, Owen and Apekisheva say, their aim for the festival is to create something special together that can be enjoyed by piano fans from far and wide. Both regard Kings Place as the perfect venue in which to realise their vision: “With all these wonderful spaces, there’s room for audiences to spread out, meet, talk and chat,” says Owen. “The vibe is informal and there are great places to eat and relax. We’re trying to build an audience who will trust our choices, a core audience of piano lovers. And, very importantly, we want people to have fun!”

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A new piano festival for London!

Meet Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen: two glorious pianists who have been working together for many happy years. An established duo of this kind, celebrated as an entity in itself, is still relatively rare. And now the pair have added another string to their bow: they have founded three days of pianistic feasting under the simple yet splendid heading London Piano Festival. Highlights include a lecture on Liszt by Alfred Brendel with Dénes Várjon at the piano, Kathryn Stott in French repertoire, jazz from Julian Joseph, Charles and Katya in a two-piano recital culminating in Rachmaninoff's Suite No.1, and much more besides.

But why aren't there more piano festivals around anyway? When the Institut Français founded its own It's All About Piano a few years back, I couldn't help wondering why it was the first such event in the UK's piano-filled capital. Now we have that one in South Kensington for spring and this one at Kings Place coming up fast for 7-9 October, with exciting plans for future years too. I asked Charles and Katya to tell us more about it... (All photos: Sim Canetty-Clarke.)

JD: How and why did you conceive the idea of starting a piano festival? 

KA: Charles and I had an idea of starting a piano festival a few years back after a wonderfully positive visit to the New Ross Piano Festival in Ireland. There are so many chamber music festivals in the world, but piano festivals are relatively rare. London has many exciting piano events to offer, but none of its major concert halls presents a single intensely focused festival devoted exclusively to the piano, at least not until now! The idea came from our friendship and love of the instrument. The possibilities of repertoire are endless, and of course the piano is versatile like no other instrument – it can imitate the human voice, various instruments and even the full orchestra.

 JD: How did you decide on who and what to programme? And why at Kings Place?

CO: For this first festival, we decided to focus on artists, all of whom we admire and know personally, people we could pick up the phone to or email directly. Both Kathryn Stott and Noriko Ogawa took part in the New Ross festival where the four of us became a bit of a gang. They are both irrepressible musicians and wonderful personalities! Ashley Wass is an artist we both value highly and the same can be said for our fellow Guildhall professors Lucy Parham, Ronan O’Hora and Martin Roscoe. We are both fortunate to have received inspiration through coaching sessions with Stephen Kovacevich and of course Alfred Brendel remains the ultimate iconic figure in today’s piano world, now sharing his insights through the spoken word.

When it came to deciding upon repertoire, each pianist was encouraged to choose the repertoire with which they feel a special connection. For example, Kathryn Stott will play a signature all-French programme linked by the luminous tonality of F sharp. The epic Two Piano Gala has been deliberately created to avoid the most famous duo works to give audiences a new encounter on many unexpected 20th-century treasures.

As for the choice of Kings Place, we both love their two vibrant concert halls and super contemporary feel, set in the most buzzing and regenerated area imaginable. We’ve played there as a duo and in solo recitals since the venue first opened in 2008. The two resident Steinway pianos are both stunners and as North Londoners, the halls are walking distance from our respective homes!

JD: You're both busy performers, together and separately! How have you dealt with all the organising?

KA: Starting a new festival is a great and exciting idea, but the reality is you never really know the challenges that are waiting for you until you start the work. Charles and I had to learn some totally new skills as organizers and it has been difficult and demanding at times - we are still learning! But also rewarding when you see the results. It's really great to have each other as we try to divide the work. Often one of us might be away or really busy with concerts and that's when friendship and understanding come in handy!

JD: Have you had to fundraise to deal with the cost? What has that been like?

CO: Indeed, we have organized fundraising events and been generously supported by a number of companies, and individuals. Approaching people for funds is my least favourite part of the festival process, but it is a necessary evil that anyone involved in the Arts and many other walks of life has to accept.

JD: What are you most looking forward to?

KA: Of course we look forward to every single event at our festival as each was carefully created with various themes in mind. But perhaps the one we most look forward to is the Two Piano Gala on Saturday 8 October. It has an unusual format, not the usual two halves concert, but a three-part event.

Seven fantastic pianists are taking part and the repertoire is all 20th century music. The programme will start with a serious Busoni work and continues on with Debussy and Rachmaninov culminating with a selection of fun, exciting pieces by Milhaud, Piazzolla and Grainger. There is also a newly commissioned work by Nico Muhly, Fast Patterns, which is highly virtuosic, obsessive and minimalist in style. The evening will be a true celebration of the instrument.

JD: Can we hope that it will become an annual event?

CO: Indeed you can! Plans are already underway for the 2017 London Piano Festival to include a strong Russian flavor in terms of pianists and their repertoire.

JD: To end, how about some anthem-like words from you both about why the piano and its repertoire deserves to be celebrated? 

CO & KA: The sheer depth of tonal beauty that a great piano possesses, mirrored by the incomparable range, variety and beauty of its repertoire is always a cause for celebration. Which other single instrument, apart from the mighty cathedral organ, can truly encompass such a spectrum of emotions, textures and dynamic range whilst retaining a truly magical singing tone?

Full programme and booking here.