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

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Tonight's Prom...

...will be quite an event It features our very own Tomcat and his orchestra, under their principal conductor, the indomitable Kurt Masur! They will be starting with a piece by Gubaidulina and then doing Beethoven 9th. It's going out live on BBC2 - as well, of course, as Radio 3 and the good old webcast. The LPO Prom is always a slightly bigger deal for my resident fiddler than most other gigs, since it is always the first concert after Glyndebourne - having done nothing but opera for several months, one's suddenly out in the spotlight again. And the Albert Hall is very large. Tonight is a little compounded by the suspicion that he'll be in quite a lot of close shots on the TV, because for the Beethoven he's sitting on the second desk of the Firsts, next to the orchestra's glammest blonde Hungarian, who is bound to attract the cameras!

Tickets are a bit thin on the ground, or so I'm told, but the arena queue will be doing its stuff, as ever. Do come along if you can! Gubaidulina is doing a pre-concert talk at 6pm, which should be fascinating, and Tom assures me that the piece is marvellous and very listenable.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Another legendary Prom

One couldn't get into this one the other day for love or money. Annette Morreau's review (click above) really has it in a nutshell.

I did make it, though, to Barenboim's press conference last week -and have to say I've never before been moved to tears in a press conference before. Barenboim seems to have achieved what nobody else anywhere in the Middle East is able to do: bring young people from different sides together to meet one another during a shared endeavour. It's a grass-roots approach, and probably the only way to make any progress.

Five members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra were there with him; one was a young Palestinian violinist from Ramallah whose description of her endeavours to keep her musical training on the rails was deeply touching. After she'd talked about how she'd had a different teacher almost every year - they'd come in from other countries and then leave - Barenboim beamed: "Yet here she is, playing Mahler 1 in London." Two of the others, one Israeli and one Arab, pointed out that they lived just 40 minutes' drive from one another, yet there was no way they would ever have met, but for this orchestra.

The Goethe Institute has quite a good explanatory article about the orchestra's background.

They will play in Ramallah for the first time on 21st August. This is miraculous in itself. Spain - where the orchestra is based - has provided all the orchestra's youngsters with diplomatic passports for the occasion to make it possible. Barenboim's dream is that one day the orchestra will be permitted to play in every country from which its members are drawn...

I've been privileged to meet and write about a lot of fantastic musicians in the last 15 years, but if I had to pick out the greatest one of all, it has to be Barenboim. I don't believe anyone else on earth could have done what he's done for these young musicians.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Tuesday morning

Only one thing to say to Philippe Graffin this morning: "MERDE!!!!"

You can listen to the Prom tonight via the internet from anywhere: here's the link.

Meanwhile... Tom and I are still reeling from yesterday: we went to see 'The Producers'. Now I know where opera houses go wrong: they're not doing this show! It's the best thing I've seen in a theatre since 'Meistersinger'. And I don't think I've laughed so much since I saw the Marx Brothers for the first time. If you are in London or New York and you have only one free evening to do something, then do this! (Unless that evening is in London tonight, in which case you have to come to the Prom...)

Sunday, August 07, 2005


...playing at the Proms for the first time.

Philippe Graffin is doing this on Tuesday. Full details here.

How anyone tackles such a task is simply beyond me. I found it quite scarey enough playing to a nice little roomful of 50 people at the Elgar Birthplace Museum. The Royal Albert Hall can take around 6,000 on a good night. And this should be a good night: the BBC Concert Orchestra in a rather original all-British programme. Philippe plays the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor concerto, which is many decades overdue for a Proms performance. Here's my article from Friday's Indy about "SCT" - there's also a link on the left to my liner notes for his recording on Avie. This is not a dusty rarity. It's a wonderful, wonderful piece. If you're in London, come and cheer him on!

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

This thing called The Proms

In answer to Andrea, here's a quick explanation of the Proms.

'Proms' is short for BBC Promenade Concerts. It's an annual summer festival in central London at the Royal Albert Hall - reputedly the largest music festival in the world. This summer there are 74 concerts, which began last Friday and go on every day until mid September. 'Promenade' = standing. They take all the seats out of the stalls and pack in 'promenaders' - you can also stand in the gallery. Over 1400 standing places are available at every concert, sold on the door for £4. There are also plenty of seats for those who want them. But it's more fun to prom because the atmosphere is fantastic and the sound quality is best in the arena! It's top-quality stuff from beginning to end: the finest orchestras, conductors and soloists and plenty of interesting programming too. There's a whole promming subculture which is to do with etiquette inside, queuing, buying season tickets to the whole lot, etc etc. ... As it's a BBC festival, they broadcast absolutely everything on BBC Radio 3 and now that they have some digital TV channels quite a lot of the concerts also go out on BBC 4. The Last Night of the Proms is when we get the Sea Shanties, Rule Britannia, Land of Hope & Glory and Jerusalem - it's always a bone of contention for those who don't like its 'jingoistic' element, but anytime anyone talks about changing it there's an outcry (...long topic, will save it up for another time). The Proms were founded by the conductor Henry Wood 110 years ago and the Beeb took over in 1927.

Last night's Prom was a concert performance of Die Walkure with the team from the current Royal Opera House production: Antonio Pappano conducting, Waltraud Meier and Placido Domingo as Sieglinde and Siegmund, Lisa Gasteen as Brunnhilde and Bryn Terfel as Wotan. It doesn't get better than that and you could get in for £4. I regret to say I didn't hear it - because I was backstage, interviewing Domingo during Act III once his role was over!!!! :-)))

He's LOVELY...

Here's what The Indy has to say this morning.

The great news for me is that each Prom is now available to listen to online for 7 days after it takes place! Further details of how to do it here!

We'll do Desert Island Discs next time, Andrea. A British phenomenon, by the way, dating back to 1942 and originating on BBC Radio 4, and here they do 8 records, not 2.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Friday night

I'd like to tell you all about the spirit of London's music-lovers on Friday night when my friends of the Razumovsky Ensemble were unlucky enough to have their Wigmore Hall concert. The concert the night before - the day of the bombings - had been cancelled, but Oleg and the hall decided to go ahead as planned, although the audience was half of what it should have been, understandably enough.

I went along with a friend who feels, as I do, that we must defy terrorism and not let our daily lives be disrupted. We drove in, but I took the train home and had to get on the tube to return to Waterloo. If I couldn't do it that day, I might never have done it again. And, bolstered by the extraordinary music-making I'd been witnessing, it wasn't so difficult after all.

When the evening's total of four musicians took the stage for the Faure C minor Piano Quartet at the start of the second half (the first having been string players without pianist), Philippe turned to the audience and declared, "We'd like to thank you for coming to this concert tonight." Before he could say anything else, someone called back from the stalls, "Thank you for playing for us!!" Hugely appreciative round of applause followed; and then a transcendental account of the Faure, filled with elan, refinement, sensitivity, poetry and sensuality in perfect balance.

Life is very short, and often shorter than we could have imagined. Music is one of the best things we can experience during it. If we can clock in to that depth of beauty, that intensity of poetic vision, then something about life will have been worth living, despite the horrors around us. It's not just diversion, entertainment, escapism or something to do after work. Oscar Wilde wrote: "It is through art, and through art only, that we can realise our perfection." It is enrichment, defiance, assertion, power, but, above all, a form of love - a universal love that enters, draws out and re-expresses a deep-seated spirit shared, in some obscure corner of the soul, by most people on earth. We are, and in the modern world must struggle to remain, more than animals who go about daily life eating and sleeping and surviving and buying things. I feel it is our ability to appreciate and create art, in whatever form, that raises us to the apex of all that humanity at its best can be.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

On Friday 8 July...

...the place to be is the Wigmore Hall, where a concert is taking place that's rather special to me. If you introduce a violinist to a cellist over dinner one day and suddenly they're playing your favourite piece of music together at the Wigmore Hall, you can't help feeling a little responsible! Anyway, this performance by the Razumovsky Ensemble is the result. Online booking here via the Wigmore website, or phone the box office on 020 935 2141.

The Razumovsky Ensemble is Oleg Kogan's baby. He's hit on a most unusual but highly creative modus vivendi for it, drafting in top-notch musicians who don't often have the chance to get together and play chamber music, but give everything when they do. The line-up is never exactly the same, but the combinations are always intensely combustible - every one of their Wigmore gigs that I have heard has absolutely raised the roof. For this concert, Philippe and Asdis are joining the line-up for the first time. And I am so thrilled that they are playing my beloved Faure C minor Piano Quartet that I'm ready to turn somersaults.

Here's what The Times said about the Razumovskys a few concerts ago: "They open up a world of music-making fabulously rich in tone colours, ensemble precision and lyrical sweep of a kind rarely met this side of paradise. Each Razumovsky member may be king of their chosen instrument, but they scale the heavens as a team."

Need I say more? Except: BE THERE!

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Return of the king

Tom and I have accumulated a cast of musician's nicknames that somehow resembles Alice in Wonderland. There's a Bishop, a Baron, a Count and, of course, several delightful Queens! But there is only one king. Having spent five years in Denmark, where kings tend to be called Frederick or Christian, Tom has dubbed our favourite pianist King Krystian. Last Thursday, Krystian Zimerman came back to the Festival Hall for a recital that simply blew our socks off.

Over the last 25 years I've missed maybe two of Krystian's London concerts - I hope not more than that - so by now my expectations of his playing are of course astrononimcal. But however much I expect of him, I'm always astonished, devastated and humbled by how far he goes. He always discovers some new truth that makes your heart stop for a second or more; while the emotional range of the whole is nothing less than phenomenal. On Thursday he began with the most angelic of Mozart sonatas and progressed, via the Ravel Valses Nobles et Sentimentales and the Chopin Fourth Ballade, towards some mazurkas and the B flat minor sonata at completely the other end of the spectrum. And while the Mozart was as pure and exquisite as I've ever heard it, the Ravel as exciting and the Ballade radiant with that elemental energy that few can truly sustain through its coda, the second half was where the extreme magic happened.

The Op.24 mazurkas finish with one of my favourites, in B flat minor - which KZ made into a bridge towards the sonata in the same key, its conclusion suspended in mid air like a premonition. And finally the sonata revealed everything he had saved up until then. In the funeral march, the sound of the piano somehow doubled in size - and just when you thought you'd heard it all, at the climax of the march's return, down went the soft pedal. The sonoric effect was absolutely extraordinary: comparable only to a black gauze curtain falling in front of a brilliantly lit stage. I don't believe I've heard a sound like that come out of a piano before. The standing ovation begged him for an encore, but I have the impression he never plays an encore after that sonata and I don't think anyone could blame him. After such a journey of emotional devastation, it's amazing that he could even stand up.

Though a totally different musician from Grigory Sokolov, Zimerman has one thing in common with him: he gives five hundred per cent of himself in a concert. Musicians who can do this have always been the ones I admire the most - but now I understand why that is. Having tried to perform myself, I feel that the vast majority of musicians can't physically take the risk of turning their souls inside out on stage. Only the absolute masters with total artistic integrity can manage it and live to tell the tale.

Andrew Clements gives him a five-star review in The Guardian today.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Proms news

Oh, I do like to stroll along the Proms Proms Proms...the launch party is one of the schmoozing highlights of the musical calendar. This year's was held at Tate Britain yesterday evening. I had alarming visions of someone missing a step and a glass of wine zooming rather too vigorously towards a priceless Pre-Raphaelite, but it didn't happen; instead everyone seemed very mellow and unusually up-beat. Proms director Nick Kenyon cracked some jokes that actually made people laugh and declared his optimism for the future of classical music: Proms audience figures were up last year, while this year the harnessing of various technologies will make them even more accessible than they are already. The lunchtime chamber music series got too popular for its own good and has been shifted from the V&A museum to the larger Cadogan Hall. Here's the full website for the 2005 BBC Promenade Concerts!

I came the closest I have ever been to embracing 'Old Nick' when I turned to the very last page of the listings. There, under the heading LAST NIGHT OF THE PROMS, I saw a magic word I never expected to see: KORNGOLD. Yes, they are doing Korngold at the Last Night - the suite from The Sea Hawk! And they are starting the second half with it, which means that it will be broadcast live on BBC1 and all over the world to an audience of millions if not billions. It would have been very undignified to turn a cartwheel in the middle of the Proms launch, but I can't say I wasn't tempted.

As if that wasn't enough, Philippe has his Proms debut on 9 August, playing the Coleridge-Taylor Violin Concerto, which, if I'm right, is getting its first Proms airing since its British premiere in 1912. About time too - for both of them. Paul Lewis is also in an overdue spot: he'll be playing Lambert's The Rio Grande on the Last Night, something he was scheduled to do in 2001 but was bumped out by the replacement programme that was put on after September 11.

Otherwise, plenty of goodies to tempt us all to Kensington through the summer: 'themes' include Fairy Tales, especially Andersen (why couldn't they have told me this 6 weeks ago?!), The Sea, the End of the War (they'll be playing Gorecki 3 for the first time) and some Big Stuff including a Royal Opera prom of Die Walkure, complete (and oh my, it stars Placido Domingo and Waltraud Maier). The first night features Tippett's A Child of Our Time. New(ish) works by Turnage, Ades, MacMillan and Sørensen, to name but a few, and prime-time soloists include Leif Ove Andsnes, Christian Tetzlaff, Viktoria Mullova, Manny Ax and Anne Sofie von Otter.

No doubt there'll be complaints from everyone else about why there isn't more of this, that or the other, but I reckon the Proms team, generally speaking, is doing a fantastic job against all the odds.

ADDENDUM: 10pm. I knew it: here we go, here's what Norman Lebrecht has to say about English music or lack of it. And it's a darn good read: I for one never knew that Alan Rawsthorne got together with Constant Lambert's widow... Stormin' Norman asks why everyone else has forgotten about these guys' centenaries falling this year and, of course, blames British orchestras for ignoring them. Isn't it more the case, though, that Certain Bigwig Composers, even long-dead ones, now have entourages rooting for them with guns blazing, while others aren't so lucky? Or didn't build the appropriate power-base while alive? Or upset the wrong people in the wrong way (drinking like a fish and getting sacked for it doesn't help). The truth is that composers need someone to fight their corners.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005


A succession of somewhat cataclysmic musical experiences over the weekend has left me reeling for a few days, in the face of the mystery of how on earth a human being with the usual human functions can create such marvels. The combined brick-on-head consisted of 1)Gotterdamerung (well, Twilight of the Gods), 2)an interview with Daniel Barenboim, who has proved beyond a doubt how the power of music can achieve healing effects that no politician would dare to touch, and 3) Philippe Graffin playing Ravel's Tzigane with the white-hot energy of some possessed, shamanic worker of black magic; the little Conway Hall didn't know what had hit it.

Of course, one is very, very lucky to experience even one of these three bricks, let alone the whole lot, within around 24 hours. It's not that I'm complaining. I've simply been lost for words.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005


I can't sleep. I've had quite a large dose of whisky and still can't sleep, mainly because my brain is overloaded. Also, it's snowing here - most uncharacteristic for London in these days of global warming - and I'm wondering how I'll get to the library tomorrow to look for the books I need for my next Indy feature. For those of you beyond these sunny shores, all we need here is an inch of snow and the entire infrastructure of the country grinds to a halt. "The wrong kind of snow" has gone down in history as ye late lamented British Rail's excuse for everything packing up at the slightest excuse...

A few scattered snow showers earlier this evening didn't stop me getting to the Wigmore Hall to hear Gidon Kremer, who was playing there for the first time in 21 years. Not only a fantastic chance to catch him in an acoustic that flatters his sound - I've only experienced him before in the RFH and the Verbier tent - but also a marvellous, apparently eclectic but well-planned programme that would actually have worked nearly as well in Ronnie Scott's. Lots of exciting contemporary & near-contemporary stuff based around the influence, in one way or another, of Bach. With Kremer was the Russian percussionist Andrei Pushkarev, who blended wonderfully with Kremer's intelligence and driven conviction, but nearly stole the show with his own fabulous, jazzy transcriptions for vibraphone of some of Bach's 2-part inventions. I was on the edge of my seat all the way through. And I think Piazzolla is TOP.

Kremer seems to perform as he does not because he's a violinist, but because he's a thirsty, questing, creative musician in every sense. So many violinists seem to be hung up on purely violinistic questions: wonderful sound, great technique, etc, which on this instrument are so complex that they risk becoming an end in themselves. Kremer goes way beyond that. Some of us loved his Bach Chaconne - completely unbaroquey, completely Kremer, completely convincing (apart from some odd upbow retakes that puzzled me a bit). Others didn't. Why is it that some concert-goers hear a so-called baroque fiddler play this thing with a curved bow and no vibrato and instantly think that anything different from that has nothing to do with Bach?!? (I was, as you can see, eavesdropping on the row behind...) That's the amazing thing about Bach, as Pushkarev proved on his vibraphone: this music can take any number of arrangements, updating, adaptation etc etc and still emerge as strong and vital and marvellous as it was the day it was written.

No wonder I can't sleep.

Images are haunting me too of snowflakes on Oxford Street - the only thing that can turn that place into something magical - and poems on the underground and half-glimpsed parallel universes and eleventh dimensions that, I understand, may exist, but then again may not.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Symphonic blues?

I am wearing sackcloth and ashes over missing the world premiere of Matthew Taylor's Symphony No.3 on Friday night. Helen played the harp at the concert and has a full report at Twang Twang Twang. I fear I had to stay in and practise/rehearse (we had a gig yesterday) and so it has been and gone and I feel desperately guilty. (Not least because Matthew once dedicated a very touching piano piece to me. Matthew being a great Schumann fan, it's called Blumenstuck. I remember thinking the title beautifully ironic because at the time I did indeed feel bloomin' stuck...but, thank goodness, that's a long time ago...).

Helen asks in her report why symphonies aren't generally being written these days; Lisa has some succinct and pertinent replies. But what's worrying me about Matthew's new piece is when we will ever have the opportunity to hear it again. Writing a symphony takes so much time, effort and spiritual blood & guts that it seems nothing less than tragic if there's to be only one performance. Sobering, of course, to think of symphonies over the centuries whose composers never heard them at all - Schubert's Ninth being the prime example. To Lisa's list of reasons, however, I should add that concert promoters who refuse to take risks must shoulder some of the blame. By being over-conservative, they have steered audiences towards further conservatism - if you feed people nothing but familiar music, they will come to expect and accept nothing but familiar music. As indeed, they now do.

Hats off to Matthew and his few symphony-writing colleagues who dare to stand their ground and speak their musical minds, even if it means swimming against the tide and even if it means busting every gut every day of their lives. Bravo.

Friday, January 07, 2005

By Strauss

To the most stunning and luscious chamber music concert last night: the Razumovsky Ensemble at Wigmore Hall. The Razumovskys are a flexible-sized group of London's top orchestra leaders and freelance chamber musicians/soloists, given their much-deserved chance to play at the Wig and elsewhere in groups that show what astonishing players they really are. Last night the ROH leader Vassko Vassilev, LSO principal second David Alberman, LPO principal viola Sasha Zemstov, ROH principal viola Andrey Viytovych and cellists Oleg Kogan (who runs the whole thing to perfection) and Alex Chaushian got together to play an entire programme of string sextets: the one from Capriccio by Strauss, the Brahms G major and the Tchaikovsky Souvenir de Florence. We sat and wallowed all the way through. The sound quality! The vigour! The textures! The fabulous music that is never performed often enough! Glorious musical chocolate, 100% cocoa solids.

A thought about Capriccio: the crux of the opera is whether Countess Madeleine, pursued by a poet on one hand and a musician on the other, decides that music is more important than words, or vice-versa. We never learn what her decision is. BUT Strauss starts the opera with - a self-contained string sextet. He must have realised that it would be taken out and performed in chamber concerts as a work in its own right. Without words. Could this sextet represent Strauss's reaction to his story? The answer is music, music, music...

Monday, December 13, 2004

Blowing my orchestra-in-law's trumpet...

...without shame! Because yesterday they played a favourite piece of mine that I have never heard in a live concert before. And it's by TCHAIKOVSKY.

I'm always astonished by the amount of music I learned as a kid simply by virtue of being a ballet nut. Tchaikovsky's Suite No.3 - at least, its Theme & Variations - was transformed into a Balanchine hit for New York City Ballet. As a teenager going to see them at the ROH, I had, I guess, a relatively enquiring mind: I heard this substantial final movement and went out to look for a recording of the complete thing. Loved it to bits. Haven't heard it since. Yesterday Vladimir Jurowski finished the Festival Hall concert with it and I sat there in seventh heaven listening to the first movement, which contains the sort of Tchaikovsky melody that could make me turn cartwheels of ecstasy if there were room in row G of the RFH to do so.

What annoys me was that this concert should have been sold out and it wasn't. The name Mark Anthony Turnage beside the opening piece put off probably 20% of possible capacity. The unfamiliarity of the words Suite No.3 beside the familiar word Tchaikovsky put off probably around another 10%. The Rachmaninov Rhapsody in the middle didn't do much to help, despite flavour-of-the-month youngish Russian Nikolai Lugansky as soloist.

What annoys me even more, incidentally, is Lugansky himself. Oh please. What do people see in this ultradigital cold fish? He has a hard-edged sound, a forearm-dominated technique and apparent total lack of capacity to either be moved by his music or move others with it?!? OK, he played all the right notes in the right places. SO WHAT? What is the earthly use of being able to do that if you have nothing to say? But he got a tremendous ovation, so I guess people don't WANT piano playing to say anything except right notes any more. GRRRRRRRRRRRRR. Please, next time, can we have Grigory Sokolov instead...?

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

A miserably clean weekend

My birthday is coming up soonish, so Tom and I decided to treat ourselves to a couple of days in Paris. We had some air miles and managed to get a special deal to go first class on Eurostar. They give you a meal on the train and we got the 8.01 from Waterloo so they gave us breakfast, the full works. Tom ate the chicken sausage. I didn't. In Paris we wandered around and Tom started feeling queasy. We had lunch, which he managed to eat, but by dinnertime he was confined to hotel room, turning progressively greener. So instead of lovely romantic French diner a deux with yummy sauces and a bottle of burgandy, I found myself on my own in the cafe across the street having a glorified toasted sandwich and a nice cup of camomile tea. Poor old Tom was extremely sick in the night and then spent most of yesterday asleep.

I spent half the morning trying to get our Eurostar tickets changed to go back earlier, but they wouldn't do it. I did manage to undertake a few nice Parisy activities - notably shoe-shopping and buying some unusual bits of Debussy and Saint-Saens in a music shop on the Left Bank that hasn't changed a jot in 25 years (probably longer). Also visited the Cite de la Musique,the site of the Paris Conservatoire and the Musee de la Musique, which I heartily recommend. They have a permanent collection of musical instruments, including the dinosaur-sized Octobass created by Vuillaume for Berlioz (the particular instrument that I was keen to see, however, turned out not to be on display...long this space....). Currently there is a fabulous exhibition about music and the Third Reich, with extracts of film of Furtwangler and Richard Strauss conducting and exhibits including a programme from 'Brundibar' in Terezin, as well as Schoenberg's certificate of reconversion to Judaism, signed by Marc Chagall. Very strongly recommended.

Short version of above - I adore Paris, even if I have to go around on my own, but this wasn't really how I'd hoped to spend the past two days! I shall be writing a strongly worded letter to Eurostar about their noxious chicken sausages.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

End games

To the Festival Hall last night to hear Stephen Kovacevich playing Beethoven (Op.31 No.2 and Op.109) and Schubert (B flat D960). Glorious, soul-enriching music-making: intimacy, inspiration and gentle philosophy that didn't shout at the back row but instead pulled the attention quietly in towards the platform.

But one major bugbear: a small number of people insisted on clapping a) before the last chord of Op.109 had died away, before Stephen had even lifted his hands from the keyboard, and b) after the first movement of the Schubert B flat.

I don't care if this sounds 'elitist' (the most dangerous and misused word of the English language over the last decade). If you clap between movements in a work which your programme clearly tells you has four of them, you are stupid. But if you break the magic spell of music before the artist does, you are an insensitive, moronic idiot. You are wrecking the experience for everyone in the hall, including the musicians themselves. Music isn't only about sound. It is equally about silence and its magic lies in its use of silence - during, before, after and in between.

After a post-recital drink in the People's Palace, my friends and I came downstairs to find the pianist in the foyer, happily munching his way through the world's best-earned Big Mac. Stephen, we said, how do YOU feel when people clap in the wrong places? He told us that it didn't worry him so much after the first movement of the Schubert, but at the almost-end of the Beethoven sonata it made him absolutely furious. You might expect it to be more bothersome between movements, but no: it's the quality of silent rapture that carries a work away back into the ether that is most precious and vulnerable.

Can't halls bear to make announcements about this? Yesterday we had to sit through a five-minute speech about fundraising before they let Stephen onto the platform (any thoughts of donating money to the South Bank Centre must have evaporated instantly). Why could they not add, 'Make sure your mobile phones are dead and please do not applaud until the music has come to a complete stop...'?



Sunday, July 25, 2004

Stop talking and get on with the music

Curious about the Prom the other night - a new John Casken work and Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing Ravel G major piano concerto - I thought I'd take the easy option and watch it on BBC4, rather than braving the acoustics at the Albert Hall. Proms on TV have many advantages, one being that with the simultaneous radio broadcast you can hear everything clear as a bell (not always the case in the RAH) and another being that you can see everything too, such as the pianist's hands. But there is one major disadvantage, as I discovered: the way the Beeb likes to have its Proms presented.

I'm not in favour of 'a return to' anything, unlike some of my blogging e-colleagues who seem to think clocks can be turned backwards (they can't; end of story). But I fail to see the advantage of presenting music on TV by having windbags in loud shirts yakking at one another, demonstrating their own superior levels of knowledge and offering opinions and more opinions, all addressed to their fellow windbags rather than the TV audience and, in this case, doing little more than what my analysis teacher at uni used to call 'woffle'. If I was a first-time viewer to music on TV - just supposing I had bought an expensive digital box, found the Prom and thought 'OK, let's give it a try' - I wouldn't even have got as far as the music before switching off. Loud shirts, trendy haircuts and positive spin about painful noises do nobody any favours.

If I was a first-time viewer to this Prom, I'd have wanted to know this kind of thing:

Who is John Casken, what's he done before, what does he looks like, what's so special about him and why should I listen to his music? What should I listen out for if I'm to be helped to enjoy it?

Who was Ravel, when did he live, who did he know, what was his music all about, what did he look like, what kind of guy was he and is this concerto going to be better than the Bolero?

Instead of which, trendy presenter and friends wittered on and on about nothing very much, dropping in tidbits of information that you had to be rather alert to catch...

Particularly noteworthy, or so I'm told, was the interactive audience exchange about the Casken work on the digital text option afterwards. I'd switched off long before, deeply depressed, but my brother told me that, contrary to positive-spinning comments by the on-screen windbags about how the music's pulse pulled you along with it, viewers weren't mincing their words about fingernails on blackboards.

The whole thing should, in any case, have been banned on grounds of cruelty to wind players, who were so exhausted after the Casken marathon that they couldn't cope with the Ravel, let alone The Firebird...

Still, a huge thank-you to the BBC for televising this, which meant that I could watch and listen in the safety of my own home with access to an 'off' button.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

A trumpet for Saint-Saens

Just back from the opening concert of Steven Isserlis's Saint-Saens Festival at the Wigmore. One of those glorious evenings where you come out feeling glad to be alive.

A few highlights were the very, very young clarinettist Julian Bliss playing Saint-Saens's incredibly beautiful clarinet sonata of 1921 (sounds 100 years earlier), Josh Bell pulling out the pyrotechnics in the Rondo Capriccioso and, of course, Carnival of the Animals, complete with Ogden Nash verses suitably doctored for the occasion:

"When a clarinettist leaves the stage
It's not because he's under age!
He's lurking round behind that wall
About to do his cuckoo call."

And Steven's 'Swan' could have made Pavlova cry.

It feels very nice to have had some small part in spreading the word about this festival (see link to my piece in the Indy the other day) as it's something I really believe in. It's going to be marvellous - concerts include Steven and Pascal Devoyon playing the cello sonatas, concertos at the Barbican tomorrow and a programme of songs devised by Graham Johnson - next Tuesday, 27th April, still a few tickets available! The festival goes on until mid-May and finishes with a grand jamboree on 18 May to raise funds to start a Saint-Saens Society. Full details at the Wigmore Hall website.

But dare I make one tiny complaint? I didn't see any musicians in the audience. Yes, there were a handful of children and some 'young people', no doubt dragged in for the nice 'animals' piece. Otherwise, this was the Wigmore Hall Friends Incorporated (mostly over-65s from Highgate), plus a few music business types (the ones who look straight through you until you force them to acknowledge your existence) and, of course, sponsors. Not that I'm objecting to the extraordinary fact that a Saint-Saens Festival could suddenly become THE Place To Be Seen. But it's a conundrum for the Wigmore Hall, which seats about 550 and doesn't have room for everyone who'd want to go. The hall can't expand because that would wreck everything - the intimacy, the atmosphere, the acoustic. Isn't there any way to get more 'ordinary' music lovers into a concert like this?

Never mind. Three cheers for Camille Twinkletoes! I shall tell my mobile phone company that I'm only going to accept the free upgrade if I can have a handset that plays the 'Carnival of the Animals' finale. And you know someone's made a difference to the publicity when, on the way to such a concert, you hear a busker at Waterloo playing 'The Swan'!

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Ravel Day, Wigmore Hall, 29 February 2004

There can't be many nicer ways to spend a freezing Sunday than sitting in the Wigmore Hall listening to Ravel, Fauré and Debussy. When Philippe Graffin and Pascal Devoyon's 10th Anniversary Concert evolved into two concerts in one day entitled 'Ravel: A Masterly Pupil' - placing the great man alongside his most eminent teacher, Fauré - I was very touched to be asked to give the pre-concert talk.

I swotted Ravel like mad, ended up writing an article about him for The Independent (see link) and discovered some excellent musical comparisons. For example, did you know that the opening of Ravel's Sonatine is virtually modelled on the opening of Fauré's A major Violin Sonata? No, neither did I until a couple of weeks ago. So much in music is simply waiting to be found. We know so many pieces so well by ear - parrot fashion, if you like - yet to have the opportunity to stop, look and notice such things is all too rare. To emerge feeling as if you really know these pieces for the first time is incredibly valuable in a world where we take them so much for granted.

The concerts were marvellous. Philippe and Pascal joined forces with Nobuko Imai and two fabulous Finns, cellist Martti Rousi and his violinist brother Tuomas Rousi. In the coffee concert they played the Fauré Second Piano Quartet and the Ravel String Quartet; the afternoon was mostly duos - Ravel's early Violin Sonata, short pieces by him and Fauré, the Duo for Violin and Cello; then, to finish, the Debussy Cello Sonata and the Ravel Trio. Philippe has a sound all his own - never one to play safe, he takes risks and discovers marvels at the top of the slide... Pascal's exquisite pianism is deep and crisp and even...and Martti has to be seen to be believed, a larger than life personality whose involvement in and projection of the music is mesmerising. In case you haven't come across him before (I hadn't), he runs the Turku Chamber Music Festival in Finland and has won a Silver Medal in the Tchaikovsky Competition.

I was happy that Philippe and Pascal came to join the talk and allowed me to turn myself briefly into Parkinson for a short open interview with them. Philippe talked about Ravel's classmate Enescu, mentor to one of Philippe's own mentors, Yehudi Menuhin; Pascal offered some fascinating insights into Ravel and Debussy's contrasting styles of piano writing; and they both had some interesting contributions to make on the issue of what makes a good duo. I hope I didn't wreck the whole thing by saying 'Cassez une jambe'!

And what makes a good concert? Several of you have said to me that the Ravel experience will 'stay with me for a long time'. Really, that says it all.

See links on left to my Ravel article in The Independent, and websites for Philippe Graffin and Pascal Devoyon.

Philippe's new recording of the violin concertos by Dvorak and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is about to be released on the Avie label. It's the world premiere recording of the Coleridge-Taylor, a gorgeous, gorgeous piece by an extraordinary figure, a black British composer from the early 20th century. Philippe recorded it in South Africa with the Johannesburg Philharmonic - no doubt a story in itself.

Philippe and Pascal have recently made a new recording for Hyperion of rare sonatas by Canteloube and Pierre de Bréville. Scheduled, I believe, for release in June.

Links on left to Avie and Hyperion.