Showing posts with label London Philharmonic. Show all posts
Showing posts with label London Philharmonic. Show all posts

Monday, October 21, 2019

The triumph of Mahler

Saturday was a day I shall remember for a very long time. When strange things connect, when music does what it was meant to do, when people from all parts of life reach new heights and new meanings come together and you realise that over the years melodies converge: we all need each other more than ever. 

Even today it's hard to know where to begin, but here it is - from the flame of a single candle in Wells Cathedral to the tsunami of energy and light that is Mahler's Symphony No.2 at its best.

Inside Wells Cathedral

I was in Wells for its Festival of Literature. Having arrived the night before (and massive thanks to the festival and its representatives for such a warm and hospitable welcome!), I started the day with a visit to the cathedral, which I had virtually to myself. It's an awe-inspiring place, with proportions, geometry and grace that are exceptional even among its magnificent peers in York, Salisbury, Lincoln et al. It was silent, rapt, atmospheric. I lit a candle. I have not ever been much into religion, prayer or belief, but the state of things at present has strange effects: perhaps a little focus, some valiant intent, some deeply held hope can make a difference. On a more mundane plane, at the market afterwards, I availed myself of a big shiny spider brooch à la Lady Hale. One unintended consequence of The Brexs**t Show is that I've developed a whole new admiration for lawyers.

My assignment in the festival was to be interviewer to Jane Glover about her book Handel in London. It's a beautiful and fascinating volume (I reviewed it for the Sunday Times when it came out last year) and brings 18th-century London to vivid life. Some of the most interesting aspects of our discussion, though, were about the man himself: who was Handel? How do you get, well, a handle on him? Few letters exist; some famous anecdotes may be apocryphal; some may have been misinterpreted. Jane is convinced that when he threatened to throw Francesca Cuzzoni out of the window it was simply a joke to defuse a dangerous prima donna situation. The key, she suggests, is in the music and perhaps can be found most keenly in L'allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato - which ends with a quiet contemplation at the fireside. Perhaps at the end of a long day, he liked to go home, shut the door and gaze quietly into the flames. 

Jurowski rehearsing Mahler with the LPO
Meanwhile in London, the flames were metaphorical as more than a million people took to the streets to surround parliament and shout against Brexit. Wells is in Somerset, a good hike from London via Bath, and I didn't get back until about 5pm, so annoyingly missed the midday march and most of the action - but the atmosphere upon arrival was uplifting nonetheless. To see the number of blue-and-yellow berets and flags and placards and smiling protestors brought the feeling that one could breathe, that the clouds had lifted and that all hope has not yet been crushed. I've been gorging on the reports and videos. Who knows if it will make a difference; if it does not, dark times lie ahead; once that slippery slope begins, its end point cannot be predicted. Some of my musician friends, acting as canaries in the UK coal mine, departed several years ago for more open-minded shores and have scarcely been seen since. I can't blame them. More will doubtless follow. 

A discussion yesterday found a family member describing Brexit as a "category error", which is why it can never work: you are trying to impose one narrative onto a framework that is not designed for it and cannot hold it. Oddly enough, this is how too many opera productions seem to be at present; comedies handled with the weight of a Mahlerian mallet (Orpheus in the Underworld), or by all accounts a blingy and ludicrous staging of Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus, which is emphatically not a comedy. I wonder if this is symptomatic.

At the South Bank, I slunk into Tom's rehearsal for the Mahler 'Resurrection' Symphony. There in the choir seats was Dame Sarah Connolly, singing the mezzo solos. She is undergoing treatment for breast cancer, but spent the afternoon on the march singing choruses from Carmen, Beethoven 9 and (I hope) "Bollocks to Brexit" with a group from the Royal Opera, then came to rehearsal and performance singing with a dignity and eloquence that had to be heard to be believed. 

The concert was one in a million, or would have been were it not the third in close succession conducted by Vladimir Jurowski that was on this level and left me lost for words. All of life was here: the darkness and the dread, the elegant and ironic grace, the sardonic yowls, the deep, rapt spirit of nature, the blinding blaze of redemption. 

The LPO, Jurowski and Sarah Connolly in rehearsal
Recently I interviewed the artist Mat Collishaw - one of the Young British Artist generation, who's working on a fascinating musical project. He made an impact on me by stating something that should perhaps be obvious, but is not: namely, that without darkness, beauty loses its meaning. He tries to bring both into his artwork, which is often, or usually, an extraordinary mix of beauty and horror. (Explore his works here.)

Occasionally someone says something that changes how you experience art, or even life. My best example was Boulez, who said in our interview that you can't just stand in front of something you can see is wrong and do nothing. This is the next mind-bender. Both statements seem no-brainers when you think back over them later, which must be why they have such an effect: because do we truly think about such things? Do we articulate them to ourselves clearly enough? Can we understand them and assimilate their principles if we don't? Here's a moment when everything comes into focus, when you know there is a lesson that is meant for you, now, right here. You sense the idea crawl on the back of your neck, burrow into your innards: you need this message. 

"Gravity and grace," said Mat. And listening to Vladimir's Mahler, how right his words seemed. I've grumbled in the past about Mahler performances that lacked adequate darkness. Here was one that said "You want it darker?" and went there - all the better to rise to the heavens at the end. And my God, it was overwhelming. The playing was taut, furious, unified, exultant; Sarah Connolly and Sofia Fomina as soloists; the LPO Choir and London Youth Choir giving everything. The audience was on its feet within seconds of the final chord, yelling. Backstage, conversation was difficult because everybody's breath had been so totally removed that nobody could find the right words. Many were in tears, some of the orchestra included. And Marina Mahler, the composer's granddaughter, was there. 

After the Mahler
The orchestra's journey to the stratospheres has been remarkable to experience; perhaps, faced with the imminent departure of Vladimir to Munich in 2021, they've now realised what they currently have on the podium. But this Mahler, the Tchaikovsky Pathétique the other week and, in between, the Strauss Alpine Symphony have been a trilogy the like of which we see and hear all too rarely in the grand scheme of things. (The question arises: if more music-making held this degree of excellence and meaning, would we appreciate it so much...? hmm.)

Vladimir's journey, too, has been a saga of building, experimenting, exploring, deepening, widening and now flowering on uppermost branches. As for Sarah: my heart is in pieces over her indomitable stance, her dignity and determination and the way she channels the lot into her singing. Jane remarked in out talk in Wells that Handel would have adored a singer such as Sarah Connolly. Seconded. I know too many people who are suffering from this appalling illness at present (its latest victim is the wonderful journalist Deborah Orr) - a terrifying scourge on women, often of our age group. Please send all your energy, your healing, your hope and your determination to Sarah as she embarks on a new journey, through chemotherapy.

At this level, music becomes a matter of life and death; nothing is ever "just a piece of music", but now we know how and why not. And that's what music is for. Without its role as ultimate catharsis, reaching the heart directly, beyond words, beyond sight, beyond intellect, it loses its power. Without darkness there is no light. 


Update, 22 Oct: I am mightily embarrassed to realise that originally I didn't mention the other piece in the programme: Colin Matthews, 'Metamorphosis' from Renewal. It's a glistening, intense setting of Ovid, burrowing into the text's exploration of the world in a constant state of flux. It was performed at the start of the concert and led straight into the Mahler. Even if it was the latter that produced the sensation of Total Overwhelm, it was the Ovid that I later copied out into my "commonplace book" and that actually encapsulates much of my feeling about the symbolic lessons of this evening as articulated above.

If you've enjoyed this post, please consider supporting my work in progress: IMMORTAL, a novel in which Beethoven is a rather crucial character. Please visit its page at Unbound for further details.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Jurowski's Tchaikovsky

Another opening, another LPO show - except that this wasn't. I'm still reeling from the brickbat impact of Vladimir Jurowski's Tchaikovsky 'Pathétique'. It was almost like hearing the work for the first time.

One of the advantages of getting older is that you have been lucky enough to watch things, people, orchestras and artists growing. I still remember the day around 20 years ago when startling news spread around Glyndebourne that a 20-something Russian conductor had been appointed as music director and everyone said "Vladimir Jurowski? Who?"

Vladimir Jurowski.
Photo: Drew Kelley
By the time Jurowski leaves the LPO in 2021 to be music director of the Bavarian State Opera, he will have become the orchestra's longest-serving principal conductor, having been in place since 2007. Over the years I've interviewed him a number of times and observed his musicianship expanding year upon year. When he took up the post, I remember Tom mentioning that he'd said he wanted to transform the LPO into a truly great orchestra (this allegedly irked some of them, because they thought they already were - but actually there were weak links in those days). Now they have reached that level. I doubt they have ever sounded better than they did yesterday: absolutely unified, breathing as one, everything as intent and focused as the core of steel on the podium.

Jurowski's technique is quite the opposite of the "windmill", "Ketchup Kid" or "flailing octopus" approach one sometimes encounters in certain other conductors. There is something Zen about him: he has long sought a special form of almost preternatural concentration, a central force of stillness and exactitude. I have the impression that yesterday realised fully the vision he has been working towards all these years.

They started on the Pathétique together in 2005 and I've heard them perform it several times. It was always good; now it's the north face of a musical Eiger. Its backbone of strength and dignity is everything. There's no sentiment or slush, but urgent, philosophical eloquence. There's no for-effects push-me-pull-you, but the breathlike  flexibility of true rubato if and when required, and magisterial pacing of the work's grand structures and long lines. The march is as terrifying as a million-strong, empty-eyed totalitarian rally. There's no depression, but authentic tragedy in the finale, and the cellos and basses finally subside like red-eyed demons into their pit of darkness. The effect is shattering.

I don't think there is a way to solve the clapping-after-the-march problem. They've performed it on tour around the world and Tom says the only place where that didn't happen was Hong Kong. This march-to-the-scaffold and its devil-imp clarinet (note to self: investigate Tchaikovsky's view of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique) should really have been enough to stun everyone into horrified silence.

The concert opened with a tribute to the late Oliver Knussen in the form of his delicate, glimmering orchestrations of some Scriabin piano miniatures, and continued with a vivid, well argued and cool-headed account of the Britten Violin Concerto with the splendid Julia Fischer as soloist. The evening was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and you can hear it on the iPlayer for a month here. 

Jurowski will be a very, very difficult act to follow. And my goodness, he will be missed.


Thursday, July 25, 2019

Eton Riverside

An old Etonian is taking over: a middle-aged white bloke with lots of charm, appointed by a tiny number of people, without any say from more than 99% of those over whom he'll wield life-changing power.

A familiar story, no? But while the newspapers are preoccupied, understandably, with the old Etonian heading into Downing Street, another alumnus of the school has scooped another head position over the Thames: Edward Gardner, who has been signed up by the London Philharmonic Orchestra to be its new chief conductor. (Told you so.) He only has school, not university, in common with Boris Johnson, as he went to Cambridge, not Oxford. Oxford produces politicians. Cambridge produces conductors, which is way preferable, depending on your point of view.

Edward Gardner
photo: Ben Ealovega

As music director of ENO, Ed wielded the baton for some glorious operatic performances - his Meistersinger, The Flying Dutchman, Rosenkavalier and more were among my most memorable trips to the Coliseum. He has proved his mettle time and again in the great choral works like the Verdi Requiem, Tippett's A Child of Our Time and, at his Bergen Philharmonic, Schoenberg's Gurrelieder. Unlike the pifflepaffle exponent who has got the keys to the country, Ed can start his own new post with every expectation that he will rise to the challenge ahead with great aplomb and convince us all that he was the right person to install there.

The appointment of an English conductor at Brexit time says much. The LPO's CEO Tim Walker, from Australia, has been interviewed in the past appearing to be in favour of Brexit. Hopefully he's woken up to the mistake now, but if he hasn't, he soon will, and with Boris Johnson in No. 10 it's a bit late in any case. So, one can't help speculating on the reasons for this choice. Much as I like Ed and unfailingly enjoy his performances, I personally was still hoping they would appoint an equally deserving conductor who happened to be female - ideally Susanna Mälkki or Karina Canellakis (whom I'm told the orchestra adored and who got rave reviews for her concert with them last year). This could have sent out a positive, inclusive, adventurous, positive message and ushered in an exciting new era...

Is it a question of the changing face of orchestras? A presentation of "best of British" being perceived as requiring a British figurehead in some way? I doubt it. My hunch is that with the ACE funding priorities changing radically, and a likely crash in public finances once we've actually departed the EU (lots of jobs will be lost and tax revenues will plummet), the issue of fundraising is soon going to be even more important - at a time, too, when Britain's image internationally will be badly tarnished; they already think we're mad, and with good reason. International support is going to be absolutely vital and it's possible that a different cohort of donors will have to be magicked into the fold. This would indicate a move to a more American-style approach in which the principal conductor is a lynchpin for, essentially, schmoozing. Ed's personal charm would stand him, and them, in good stead under such circumstances.

The bottom line with any principal conductor appointment, though, has got to be musical chemistry. An orchestra is a living organism made up of a large number of expert performers and the relationship between it and its principal conductor is like a marriage (I know this is a cliché, but it happens to be true. If you want some insight into how this all works, I recommend Tom Service's book Music as Alchemy: Journeys with Great Conductors and their Orchestras.) The best conductor on the face of the planet cannot ever be the ideal person for every single orchestra that sits in front of him - just as not every Strad is the right instrument for every single violinist. Things work, or they don't. They can develop. They can change. They can grow. They can grow together. But the essential match does have to be right.

With some irony, I realise I experimented with a blind-date review format for a concert by the LPO under Ed's baton at Snape a little while ago, here.
Imagine a spouse who is used to - and loves - long, deep, intense conversations, in which each word is controlled with immense precision and the underlying philosophy must be considered at every moment...suddenly taking a walk with someone who laces up his boots, links his arm through hers and points out the dramas among passers by, the green parrots flying about and the sun sparkling on the water and says "great, so what do you want for lunch?"
This is an orchestra that still, in 2019, carries the pride and the sound quality that was shaped by Klaus Tennstedt's Mahler. After a long stint with Vladimir Jurowski - who by the time he leaves in 2021 will have been its longest-serving chief conductor ever - there is nothing that it cannot do or play or adapt to. There may be cliques, personality clashes and petty fights off-stage, but that's equally true in every company and every orchestra (what is the matter with our orchestras - why on earth do some of them not have HR managers?). When it comes to the concert, though, they pull together every time. The one thing they have to rely on is their artistic reputation which, aside from a teeny blip arising from a crazy political situation in the early '90s, has been an unblemished record in the top rank. The orchestra of Tennstedt, Haitink, Solti, Masur and Jurowski wants to stay international.

Orchestra politics the world over, meanwhile, are notoriously thorny and often, as I watch from a safe distance, seem more than a bit daft. There can be threats, excuses, twists, slipperiness and high dudgeon that would once have been news. But now most of the press don't give a flying f*** because they've got bigger things to worry about, and the only journalists so far who do think this appointment is a story have been very positive. But when the CBSO musicians (and chorus, audience and critics - !) are able to help choose their own music directors - and they do keep on just picking unknowns like Andris Nelsons and Mirga Grazynite-Tyla and turning them into megastars - frankly London musicians get very little say in the equivalent situation. This still puzzles me, because those are the people who have to create that chemistry. I do think that leaving them so little input can store up trouble.

Ed has a chance to win over any nay-sayers - they are bound, after all, to exist for anyone appointed to this type of position anywhere - and prove that the management has got it right. I gladly cheer him on as he takes up the post and I look forward to many fresh, exciting concerts - with sun sparkling on the water of the Thames.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Russian into London: a fabulous violinist makes her debut

I’ve just had a terrific Skype chat with the young Russian violinist Alena Baeva, ahead of her London debut at the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday. She and I have a little Schumann-related project together in June in Oxford and it’s splendid to get to know her. Here she is, talking about her turbulent background in central Asia, her first-rate musical training, her passion for historical recordings and all we can learn from them, and a few particularly wonderful concertos…






JD: Alena, you’ve recently been playing a very special piece in Katowice to mark 100 years of Polish independence… 

AB: It was a major event for me because I’d wanted to play the Karlowicz Concerto for a long time. It’s hardly played anywhere but Poland, which is a pity because it’s a great piece. It’s quite difficult! Someone brought it for me to play in a masterclass in Poland and I was fascinated. I’m happy we did it this summer. 


JD: Where are you from and where did you grow up? 

AB: That’s the most difficult question! I can’t say one place I’m from. I was born in Kyrgistan, by chance because my parents’ parents were sent to work there - they were sent to random places in the Soviet Union. I lived in my grandmother’s small house with a garden the first five years, which was a very happy time. Then civil war broke there and I remember we were hiding underneath the storage in the basement. I don’t remember many things about it, but my dad, when there was the first possibility to take a plane, he sent us to Almaty in Kazakhstan because his mother lived there at the time. We came to her because we had no other place to live and we were there for another five years. I started to learn the violin there. 

Almaty is a very special place for me, because I was at an important age when you start to discover the world around you. People there are so warm, so nice and so kind. I missed this a lot when we moved to Moscow when I was 10. The violin was going so well and I needed some education to go and study somewhere so my parents chose Moscow because of great Soviet school of playing. I entered the Central Music School, which was a big contrast. Moscow is somehow more than a metropolis. 


JD: Who was your main teacher?

AB: I was studying from the age of 10 with Eduard Grach, an accomplished violin player and student of Yampolsky – a great, great school. I continued studying with him at the Moscow Conservatory, so it was for 12 years! When I was 16-17, I started to seek some other ideas and influences too. It was thanks to Mstislav Rostropovich, who supported talented children in Moscow. He had a foundation and he sent me to Paris to study. This was a whole big change because it was too late to enter the Conservatoire, but his French friends organised private lessons. I lived in the house of his good friends who are fantastic people and became my French family. It was so enriching just to be with them and discover this great country and great culture. I was staying several months of the year and it was in Chartres, a fantastic place with a rose garden, just in front of the cathedral - a dream! Now I appreciate it even more than I did before.

I had lessons there with Boris Garlitsky, a Russian violinist who had moved more than 20 years before to Europe and became a very European style of musician - it was so helpful to study Mozart and Brahms with him. It was such a change from old-style Russian School teaching with big sound, big vibrato and big emotion all the time. It was quite opposite, what I learned from Boris, so that was very important for me. And going to concerts and exhibitions, I fell in love with everything French! I connected to the French language and the French style of life - they can enjoy life so well, better than many people… 


JD: And you’ve settled eventually in Luxembourg?

AB: I really wanted to move to a French-speaking place! So I ended up here eight years ago. It’s easy to remember because it was three weeks before giving birth to my daughter. I didn’t really care about what was a good moment to move, I just kept going! She is eight now and my son is ten. It’s a very good base - calm, beautiful, central and efficient. The airport and train station are very close, especially compared to Moscow, where the way to the airport takes longer than the flight! 


JD: Which violinists have you most admired? 

AB: It was changing all the time, I had my favourites every month! Most things I discovered on CDs at the time because there was no Youtube and not many people used to come to play concerts in Moscow. I remember my father presented me with a Michael Rabin box of CDs: that was fantastic - he’s not as known as he deserved to be. I was in love with Menuhin for a long time. And what is most important, I think, is the variety of expression, the different languages performers and composers speak to us: it’s impossible to be stuck with something. Like life itself, it continues and changes. 




JD: You’re quite a recording buff?

AB: I am lucky to know a great collector of old 78s in Paris who happens to be my ex-uncle-in-law. He’s a fantastic person and every time I go to Paris I try to see him and listen because there are such treasures, unknown and unpublished recordings. One of many impressions I had was from the Casals Festival in Prades: a live performance of Christian Ferras playing Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in the church and you can hear a thunderstorm outside. The C major fugue – I never heard anything like that on the violin! 


JD: This Wednesday, 5 December, you have your debut with the LPO and Vladimir Jurowski, playing Tchaikovsky...

AB: I’m so much looking forward to that! I learned the concerto when I was 14 and since then I have played it regularly, as it is one of the best concertos ever written for violinists, one of the most masterful and perfect pieces. With Vladimir Jurowski it’s a very special story because we met first several years ago when we worked on the Strauss concerto, which was v interesting. Then we played Tchaikovsky in Moscow and we had three hours of rehearsal with orchestra which is itself a luxury, but especially for this concerto and the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra. It was the way only Vladimir can make it: totally different way than what I was doing before, and it was incredible to feel these new connections which make the phrases and the whole mood sound totally different. I like very much his idea of this concerto, which is that it’s not so heavy, as stuffed and middle of 20thcentury in style. It’s closer to Mendelssohn. That’s exactly what I feel about this piece too - it’s very light. The second movement is very intimate, but not going too deep. It all finds resolution in the tempos we take & the accents we try to make. So I very much look forward to discovering it with LPO. 


JD: What’s your violin?

AB: A Guarneri del Gesù, a wonderful instrument of 1738, and it’s a whole new world to discover. It’s very interesting to see how much you can observe and learn from the instrument - I still don’t understand how that works. I was playing a modern instrument previously, also a wonderful instrument which got lots of compliments and I really enjoyed playing it. But the Guarneri somehow has something bigger. It’s really a mystery how time and the violinists who have played it before do change it. This violin was discovered relatively recently and has not had many owners, but still it’s very rich. It is lent to me by a private sponsor who wished to stay anonymous - he’s a fantastic person and I’m grateful to get to know him. 


JD: You’re working a lot with the pianist Vadym Kholodenko?

AB: His playing is very special for me. We were in the conservatory studying at almost the same time and for our first sonata together he suggested Beethoven No. 10, one of the most complex sonatas ever written! I learned so much from him, first of all because he’s a great musician and for a teenage violinist when we started to play it was very important, because violinists especially in the early years are obsessed with practising and have to invest so much time… so this was a whole new world. We’ve played together for more than 12 years already. 



JD: In June, you and I are working together - hooray! We’re doing a concert with the Oxford Philharmonic called The Ghosts of War, in which I’ll narrate the story of Jelly d’Arányi and you are the soloist in the Schumann Violin Concerto. Tell us about the concerto - what’s it like to perform? How do people respond to it?

AB: Since I first played the Schumann, I’ve tried to schedule it everywhere I can, which was not as simple as with Tchaikovsky! But I’m playing it several times before Oxford and I’m very much looking forward to that. 

The most common answer when I suggest programming the concerto is ‘Oh, the public doesn’t like it so much’… but that’s absolutely not true, because also important is the way it’s played, because it is so personal and so intimate. 

There are some most precious moments in the concerto - the second movement I adore, and going up to the third movement, it’s absolute magic. I think the fact that it’s not being accepted as it deserves to be is just because it’s not being heard much. That’s the only reason. It can be difficult to find the balance with the tempi, but it is possible. I’m convinced that at that time performances involved much more natural changes of rubato and a much more natural flow which makes much more sense in the finale and in Schumann in general. Of course he was improvising a lot, but I don’t think we should consider his pieces improvisations, especially the later ones: it’s very well thought and well shaped music, and he managed to find such a spare means of expression to express so much emotion. It’s a miracle. 


JD: The metronome marks are quite controversial…

AB: The finale makes sense when you swing it a little bit. Obviously it’s a polonaise, but it makes most sense when you don’t play it too strictly, in terms of movement. And of course I think it should be natural: if something is written unplayable, you can take it and bring sense to it, and that’s how I’m trying to manage this concerto. I think the tempi should be taken into consideration, but you can also change the tempo within the movement. If you listen to how Auer played this melody of Tchaikovsky… the old recordings were so much more free - it was like talking, like a conversation. I also heard a CD included in a book called How to Play Brahms, which had recordings of Brahms symphonies, the same excerpts with the same Berlin orchestra every 10 years - from the 1910s, 20s, 30s, 40s, and it’s absolutely shocking how much it changed. The early recordings had a flow like a flock of birds flying - it’s hypnotising, this feeling of time. Gradually over the decades it was more and more squared within time and slowed down. This can give us a thought about how to better play it. And before, the composers were so much more open to the performers… 


JD: Alena, thank you so much for making time to talk. See you on Wednesday, and toitoitoi!

5 DECEMBER, 7:30 PM, ​ ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL, LONDON
Weber Overture, Der Freischütz
Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto
Bruckner Symphony No. 2 (1877 revised version)

Vladimir Jurowski conductor
Alena Baeva violin
London Philharmonic Orchestra

Monday, January 29, 2018

Brexit and the Arts: no. 1 in the List of Shame

...oh, look.

It's our very own London Philharmonic Orchestra, whose Australian CEO, Tim Walker, is quoted in a Telegraph article extolling the "opportunity for orchestras to escape EU red tape and re-engage with the world". 

What the actual ****?

Here, in the interests of balance, is a report from the ISM corporate members' Brexit round table discussion, exploring some of the concerns at stake, including the potential loss of flexible travel, the potential loss of opportunities for higher education, the increase in bureaucracy for Brits working abroad and the general, bewildered impression overseas that Britain has lost its mind.
https://www.ism.org/blog/ism-corporate-members-brexit-round-table-1
Plus more from its #freemovecreate here: https://www.ism.org/news/parliamentary-committee-backs-flexible-travel-for-the-creative-industries-post-brexit

And here is the ABO report on the implications of Brexit for UK orchestras, which contains a great deal of very important reading. http://abo.org.uk/media/128619/ABO-Brexit-report.pdf


I have some questions for Tim next time I see him - but, things being as they are, it's all in the open, so here goes.

-- There's nothing wrong with being positive and looking for opportunities. I value your optimistic stance. But I would like to know to what extent the Torygraph has taken your words and twisted them to fit its own world view - and to what extent it has not.

-- What is the management doing to support the EU citizens who are long-standing members of the orchestra, given the current bargaining-chip status foisted upon them by our government? You have members from Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Hungary, Latvia, Spain, Ireland, Sweden and Bulgaria. How do you think they'd feel if they thought you, their own CEO, were part of the movement that is making life so traumatic for EU citizens in Britain now?

-- The orchestra has long been going to China almost annually, so how exactly is this part of your brave new Brexit world?

-- How is the orchestra going to manage the costs and bureaucracy of customs when transporting its equipment if we get a hard Brexit that forces us to leave the Customs Union? This will mean more red tape in Europe, not less - as has been roundly proven many times in the past 19 months. And will the LPO lorry not be stuck on the M20 outside Dover for days in each direction, with all the other truckers?

-- In the same field, costs will be higher. Government coffers will be depleted as the City workers who can longer function here depart, taking with them the tax revenues they'd have provided. This will keep public investment at rockbottom for many years to come and in the arts the chances of your public grant increasing are frankly zilch. You'll need to fund all this from elsewhere. I do hope you're on the case?

-- How are you going to replace lost sponsorship from European organisations? We have heard rumours that a planned recording recently fell through because a sponsor decided not to stump up for a British orchestra.

-- How are you going to persuade a world-class conductor to come here and take over from Vladimir Jurowski when he goes, knowing their earnings will be worth so much less outside Brexit Island?

-- How are you going to continue to attract and retain such fine players? You will lose the interest and enthusiasm of the best young European orchestral musicians, who won't have the automatic right to come and work here. While we appreciate that there are many good foreign players in the orchestra from the Far East and America, the chances are that in the long term, standards will fall as fewer players will be applying to join.

-- Conditions for the musicians are already quite poor compared to those in mainland Europe. And most of the younger recruits can't afford to live in London; they spend much time and energy commuting from Lewes, Tonbridge and the like. How can you ever improve their lot if all that revenue disappears?

-- How are you going to replace the bums-on-seats that will fall victim to economic uncertainty and the lack of business confidence? In the end you need your audience. Numbers are already down this season; it appears that people are not buying anything in the way of optional extras, since Brexit has devalued the pound and sparked inflation with which earnings do not keep pace.

-- You have done much for this orchestra in artistic terms over the years. It's currently in better shape than I have ever heard it (with the one exception of Solti's Mahler 5 in 1988). You've facilitated Jurowski's leadership and taken excellent risks with programming. You've made the LPO, with Jurowski, into currently the best orchestra in London. All this achievement risks being squandered in the slag-heap of division that Brexit has sparked. Why? Why throw it all away?!?

-- In this article you do not categorically say you voted for Brexit, but neither do you categorically deny it. Did you, or did you not, vote to strip your UK members of their automatic right to live and work in 27 other European countries? If you did, do you believe they and their families will ever forgive you?



Friday, October 20, 2017

A Schumann podcast

Serendipity! The London Philharmonic is playing the Schumann Violin Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall on 8 November (soloist: Patricia Kopatchinskaya, conductor: Alain Altinoglu) and then touring it to Antwerp, Vienna and around Germany. They asked me to record a podcast about Ghost Variations, the concerto and its astonishing history, and the result is up now at their site, and also below.

Before that, you could come and hear David Le Page, Viv McLean and me bringing the story to life in the more intimate setting of the Crazy Coqs, Brasserie Zédel, on Monday evening (23 October, 7pm).

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Beethovening tonight at the Royal Festival Hall

Quick note: if you're around the Southbank Centre for the Belief & Beyond Belief Festival today,  please pop along to the pre-concert talk. Tonight's performance includes Beethoven's Ninth, with the LPO conducted by Kazushi Ono [replacing an indisposed Christoph Eschenbach], and I've been drafted in to moderate a pre-concert discussion with professors Matthew Bell of Kings College London, an expert on German literature, and Benjamin Walton of Cambridge University's music department. We'll be exploring the history and context of the symphony and Schiller's Ode to Joy. Ballroom floor, Royal Festival Hall, 6.15pm. Please come along and say hello.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

SHOCK: Top London orchestra will relocate to Germany

New home: the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg
[PLEASE NOTE: THIS IS THE JDCMB APRIL FOOL'S DAY POST 2017]


The London Philharmonic Orchestra has allegedly accepted a remarkable offer from the City of Hamburg to move to Germany after Brexit, adopting a new home base at the magnificent Elbphilharmonie. The UK orchestra is thought to be planning its migration for the year 2021, allowing time for Brexit negotiations to end and the 120-odd families involved to make relocation plans.

The deal is thought to include a substantial pay rise as well as improved working conditions that are standard amongst orchestras in Germany. The musicians can also expect to enjoy the facilities of the splendid new hall, which opened in January this year.

A Hamburg city representative declared: "Just as centres such as Frankfurt and Paris can't wait to get their hands on the business of British banks wishing to escape the effects of a hard Brexit, so we also are eager to welcome the finest arts organisations whose business operations will be made much easier if they can continue within the single market of the EU."

Asked about the expense to the city of supporting a British orchestra in addition to its own, the representative gave a shrug and a smile, saying: "This is a prosperous place with its feet on the ground and an enlightened approach to long-term thinking. We invest in the arts as a vital contributor to a proud and prosperous future for all people in our country. We value music as a symbol of humanity, unity and cultural enrichment. Musicians here are artists, and top-level, highly respected professionals besides. We like to treat them accordingly and show them how much they are valued."

The orchestra will continue to perform the concerts of its residency at Southbank Centre, but expects to find the exchange rate with the plunging pound favourable when paid in Euros.

While some members of the ensemble are said to be worried about the language, a spokesperson for the orchestra said: "Music is a universal language and will continue to unite us as it always has."

Asked what they would miss about London, some musicians remarked sarcastically: "The ruinously expensive hour-and-a-half commute to work on unreliable trains. And the cost of living was already ridiculous here even without the inflation Brexit is bringing." Others, however, praised the diversity, open-mindedness and enthusiasm of British audiences.

Although the deal reportedly divided opinion among the players at first, the clinching factor is thought to be a practice already known in Cologne, where every member of the orchestra is handed a glass of lager as they step off stage at the end of the concert. The Londoners on the Elbe are to receive a mug each of the excellent local Bergdorferbier after every performance.

The orchestra's name will be changed to reflect its new binational status. It will henceforth be known as the London Hamburger Orchestra.


Note: Please bear in mind that this post was published on 1 April!

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Music for our days

A spot of musical escapism after a very dark night.

Tonight I'm chairing a panel discussion with five American composers who happen to be women, before the concert in Lontano's Festival of American Music at the Warehouse, Waterloo. The composers are Hannah Lash, Julia Howell, Elena Ruehr, Barbara Jazwinski and Laura Kaminsky, so it should be a fascinating chat. But it's going to be an even more interesting evening than I'd anticipated. We'd hoped to be celebrating the accession of the US's first-ever female president, but...no.

Tonight, too, the LPO pertinently plays Dvorák's "New World" Symphony at the RFH. Robin Ticciati conducts. (But listen out for the dark side of that piece. It's there.) In the first half, Anne-Sophie Mutter is playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto - on her Strad, which used to belong to Jelly d'Arányi and was probably the instrument on which the latter gave the UK premiere of the Schumann Violin Concerto.

Tomorrow at the Barbican, the LSO is playing the Schumann itself, with Renaud Capuçon the soloist. An insane piece for an insane world? Or Schumann's last stand before the crash, unfairly suppressed for 80 years until its bizarre rediscovery? It's not for nothing that that story became Ghost Variations, though I didn't anticipate that its 1930s setting would ring quite as many bells as it does. I'm looking forward to hearing Renaud play it.

At some point I'll try and produce some cogent thinking about the scuppering of the new London concert hall, but today is not the day.

Actually I am lost for words and I don't want to depress anyone further, but I have no verbal slivers of hope, inspiration or humour to offer, so here's some Schumann instead.


Saturday, September 19, 2015

Spot of Mahler with your breakfast?

Medici.tv is live-streaming Mahler Symphony No.2 from Mexico City right now - the LPO is on tour there and the conductor is Alondra de la Parra. Sounds absolutely amazing. (Btw, my OH is not playing - he took the Mexico tour off and is safely at home watching in his pjs.) Catch it here, this minute.


Rumbles from the tour across the Atlantic suggest that the orchestra has taken to de la Parra in a big way. The Mahler, what we've heard so far, would seem to bear this out.

You can find out more about her on her website - and listen to performances from the tour there too!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

When Rafa Nadal and Kate Winslet met the London Philharmonic...



...this was the result. ESPN roped in the LPO to help with its Wimbledon promotion, along with Kate Winslet, who does the narration. I am reliably informed that the music is by 30 Seconds to Mars and is called Kings and Queens. Er, enjoy.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

New baton announced for the LPO



Born in Colombia, living in Vienna, flexing his muscles and charming the everything off everyone, to judge from this video from Portland, here comes the new boy at the London Philharmonic. Andrés Orozco-Estrada (he pronounces his own name Orozcestrada) has today been announced as the band's new principal guest conductor, taking over when Yannick Nézet-Séguin's tenure concludes at the end of this season. I haven't seen him in action live yet. He only conducted the LPO for the first time a couple of months ago.

Here he is conducting the Tonkunstler Orchestra in the Figaro overture.

We look forward to getting to know him. 



Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A hundred years ago already?

(OK, OK, I promise I'm never, ever going to say again that I'm on holiday and won't blog for a week. Apologies for typos in the past few posts - I was working on a shiny-screened laptop in brilliant Egyptian sunshine....... Now back. Bit chilly here, i'n't it?)

My birthday tribute to The Rite of Spring - a piece of music without which my life might have been very different - is out in today's Independent. (Own obligatory book plug here.) Below, please find the director's cut. First, here's a fascinating interview with Monica Mason, Kenneth MacMillan's original Chosen Maiden, about the making of his version, with extracts of dancing from the amazing Ed Watson, the most recent male Chosen One at Covent Garden, among others.







THE RITE OF SPRING
Jessica Duchen

It was probably the most cataclysmic moment in the history of music. On 29 May 1913 the curtain rose at Paris’s Théatre des Champs-Elysées on the new ballet Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky to a score by Igor Stravinsky. Minutes later the place was in uproar. This event set the music of the 20th century in motion as surely as the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand 13 months later heralded a terrifying new age in warfare, politics and society. 

Speaking recently at the first night of the Southbank Centre’s year-long festival of 20th and 21st-century music, The Rest is Noise, the artistic director Jude Kelly termed this era “the age of violence”. And in 1913 The Rite of Spring was indubitably the most violent music the world had yet heard. Harmony is slashed, cubic, multilayered. Often the orchestra effectively plays in two keys at once. Melody, when it is present at all, is fragmentary, suggesting the ambience and contours of folk songs. Rhythm drives the whole thing, but those rhythms – elemental, driven, clashing – are anything but predictable, throwing the listener about like a runaway train. Stravinsky sets up a pattern only in order to shatter it. It has been suggested that the work contains “a touch of sadism”. 

The ballet’s story is indeed cruel. An imaginary ancient tribe sacrifices a young virgin to propitiate the god of spring. We are hapless witnesses as the Chosen Maiden is selected, glorified, then forced to dance herself to death. It is a gut-wrenching idea that could seem almost to tap into a primitive bloodlust. Whether or not that was deliberate on Stravinsky’s part, or Nijinsky’s, is something we’ll probably never know. 

Stravinsky claimed that he had the idea for the ballet in a “fleeting vision”. But someone else needs to receive more credit for dreaming it up: the ballet’s designer, the Russian artist and philosopher Nicholas Roerich, who was far more deeply engaged with matters of folklore – besides Theosophy and occult mysticism – than the composer himself. Stravinsky’s earlier ballets drew on fairy stories and Russian folk music, but the wellsprings of horror that underlie The Rite are never fully present. Stravinsky certainly developed the scenario in collaboration with Roerich, and later the artist was furious to see his crucial role in its creation downgraded while the composer hogged the glory. 

Not that there was much of that to be had from the hissing and cat-calling on the first night. The protest broke out shortly after curtain-up. Stravinsky fled the auditorium and observed the rest of the performance from backstage: “I have never again been that angry,” he recalled. Serge Diaghilev – the impresario behind the Ballets russes de Monte Carlo, responsible for commissioning all concerned – was nevertheless rather satisfied with the outcome. Even then, there was no such thing as bad publicity.

The “riot at The Rite” has been the subject of endless scrutiny. Doubt has been cast on whether it really amounted to a riot at all; noise, yes, but fist-fights, probably not, though around 40 people are said to have been thrown out of the theatre. In all likelihood the disapprobation was directed at Nijinsky’s eccentric and ungainly choreography, rather than Stravinsky’s efforts; after all, with so much noise, the music was scarcely audible. Commentators have pointed to all manner of issues at stake that night, from a faction in attendance that was loyal to Diaghilev’s better-established choreographer, Mikhail Fokine, to the sensitivities of a French audience beleaguered by the tense atmosphere that prefigured World War I. But some composers who heard it were not happy either; Puccini attended on the second night and dubbed it the work of “a madman”.

Stravinsky emerged from the fracas dispirited; he feared that the hostile reception would shatter the momentum he had achieved following enthusiastic responses to his first two ballets, The Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911). But just under a year later, The Rite was rescued when the conductor Pierre Monteux championed it at the Casino de Paris, purely as a concert piece. Allowed to stand or fall on its musical merits, The Rite rose triumphant. 

Today The Rite of Spring has achieved a popularity that Stravinsky could only have dreamed of on that notorious first night. It is a tribute to him that even after a century in which every traditional parameter of music – tonality, rhythm, melody, sonority – has been subverted or destroyed, this work has lost none of its power. In a year dominated to excess by composers’ anniversaries – Wagner, Verdi and Britten – The Rite, only about half an hour long, is enjoying a similar celebration in its own right. 

If anything, its power has increased with familiarity (no doubt helped along when Disney animated it with volcanoes and dinosaurs in Fantasia). It is a concert staple, a modern classic. Last year the London Symphony Orchestra and the conductor Valery Gergiev performed it in Trafalgar Square; a 10,000-strong audience turned out to cheer it on. In the theatre, numerous choreographers have turned their hand to its reinterpretation, from Kenneth MacMillan’s geometric marvels to the heartbreaking terror of Pina Bausch’s version for her Tanztheater Wuppertal. 

We can expect plenty more of it this year. Sadler’s Wells is to stage a celebration entitled A String of Rites, including Michael Keegan Dolan’s choreography of The Rite for Fabulous Beast, a large-scale community project and a new, full-evening ballet by Akram Khan, entitled iTMOi (in the mind of Igor), with new music by Nitin Sawhney, Jocelyn Pook and Ben Frost. And first, the work features in a concert in The Rest is Noise, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. It’s clear that as it reaches its hundredth birthday Stravinsky’s most famous score has become as perennial as spring itself.

The Rite of Spring features in The Rest is Noise at the Royal Festival Hall on 16 February with the London Philharmonic conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Box office: 0844 875 0073

MUSIC THAT SHOCKED
Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (1865)
Wagner’s opera changed the face of music when later composers fell under the spell of its harmonic language; but its eroticism scandalised many listeners. Clara Schumann wrote: “It was the most repulsive thing...To be forced to see and listen to such sexual frenzy the whole evening, in which every feeling of decency is violated …I endured it to the end since I wanted to hear the whole lot!”

Georges Bizet: Carmen (1875)
Bizet’s opera was a flop when it first opened at Paris’s Opéra-Comique. It broke the conventions of the venue’s repertoire by ending in murder and tragedy; and the sexually liberated Carmen was regarded as a scandalous, immoral heroine. The opera’s many admirers included Nietzche and also Tchaikovsky, who was greatly influenced by it, but Bizet died three months after the world premiere and never saw its success.

Richard Strauss: Salome (1905)
Strauss amplified Oscar Wilde’s play about the lust-maddened princess and her demand for the head of John the Baptist with music that mixed sensual beauty with claustrophobic and violent excess. Salome’s final scena over the severed head culminates in a chord that encapsulates her depravity so thoroughly that tracts have been written about this moment alone. The opera was banned in London for its first two years. Strauss set out to shock – and succeeded.

Arnold Schoenberg: String Quartet No.2 (1908)
“I feel wind from other planets,” runs the Stefan George poem that Schoenberg set for soprano and string quartet in this ground-breaking work. So did its audience. The planet in question was the final movement’s experiment in “atonality”: a piece written without any tonal centre, giving an impression of floating, unrooted dissonance that exists for its own sake rather than for its relativity. More than a century later, the effect still sounds radical.

John Adams: The Death of Klinghoffer (1991)
Based on the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists, Adams’s opera fell foul of ferocious international sensitivities. Planned productions were cancelled and some responses expressed horror that the work should dare to portray the emotions of characters on both sides. After 9/11, an article in the New York Times accused it of “romanticizing terrorism”. Its UK stage premiere finally took place at English National Opera last year, to considerable acclaim.




Wednesday, July 27, 2011

And the winner is...

Congratulations to STEPHEN LLEWELLYN, winner of the JDCMB 'Chacun a son gout' competition. Yes, bizarrely enough, that is indeed the same Stephen Llewellyn who was the proud champion of Miss Mussel's first #operaplot competition. Stephen, you will be the lucky recipient of the new CD by Joseph Calleja, 'The Maltese Tenor', which will be sent to you straight from the offices of Universal Classics.

The correct answers: 'Chacun a son gout' is featured prominently in Johann Strauss II's opera Die Fledermaus. And it is sung by Prince Orlofsky. I am impressed that everybody who entered the competition - and there were lots of you - got it right.

The prize draw took place last night in the concertmaster's dressing room at the Royal Albert Hall, just after the London Philharmonic had completed its 'Vladothon' all-Hungarian Prom, which involved Kodaly's Dances of Galanta, Bartok's Piano Concerto No.1 with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet as soloist, and to end, Liszt's Faust Symphony.

We asked the orchestra's one actual Hungarian violinist, Katalin Varnagy, to select the winner's name from the many entries that mingled in the violin case... You can see the very glam Kati talking about her Hungarian musical heritage in the Prom interval when the concert's televised on Thursday evening.



Then, since the occasion was also Tomcat's birthday and, besides, marked the 25th anniversary of him joining the LPO (odd, as he's only 21...) everyone came along for a drink, including the adorable and stupendous Mr Bavouzet...




 













...and also Vladimir Jurowski and concertmaster Pieter Schoemann (pictured below - l to r, Vladimir, Tomcat, Kati and Pieter). The flag is Hungarian - there's a green stripe at the bottom.


I'd just like to reassure any Hungarian Dances fans that the characters of Karina (semi-Hungarian) and Rohan (South African) were not actually based on Kati and Pieter. It's all pure coincidence, honest to goodness, guv. These things happen with books sometimes. Life imitates art. It does.

Quite a late night. Please excuse the JDCMB team while it adjourns to the kitchen for extra coffee....