Showing posts with label Olivier Messiaen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Olivier Messiaen. Show all posts

Monday, April 29, 2019

5 lessons from three busy days

Whatever we do, we can learn something. In any situation, principles can be extrapolated that are valuable for the future. I've had three Very Busy Days during which I learned certain things I'd love to share with you. On Friday I was adjudicating a Schumann piano competition at Trinity Laban Conservatoire. On Saturday Viv, Fenella and I performed the Odette concert at St Mary's Perivale, and yesterday I went to Market Harborough to do a pre-concert talk about Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time for the Harborough Concerts series. Here are my life lessons about music that resulted.

1. About music competitions. Whether you are trying to compare five different instruments and five different musicians playing pieces from across several centuries, or three pianists playing one composer on the same instrument, someone is always going to say "apples and oranges" and they are right. You are never comparing like with like - unless, of course, everyone plays exactly the same piece, and even then you're not comparing like with like because different players will have different strengths and weaknesses. One is not always, or only, "better" than another. In many ways, the idea of competition is therefore completely impossible to apply to music. But we have competitions and they are a useful way for young musicians to train up for the pressures that attend a musical career. Therefore, perhaps the best thing we can do is try to see them as handy experience for the competitors and a chance for the audience to hear gifted youngsters on the up - rather than a be-all and end-all Olympian contest.

2. About concert venues. Most concert-halls-in-chief are too big and lack atmosphere. It's possible that the single nicest way to experience music is to be up close and personal (though with just enough distance not to be deafened). There is a great deal to be said for an intimate venue with a special atmosphere of its own, packed with local fans and friends, able to give everyone a sociable cuppa or glass of something after the performance and make a really personal and social occasion out of a performance. You only need a massive hall for big orchestral and choral works. For smaller-scale music, something the size of the Wigmore or Kings Place is perfect; and you may find that your local church or historical property with music festival associations is replete with possibility.

3. About technology. The Odette concert was live streamed and afterwards I saw social media posts from people who'd tuned in from Sweden and Italy. I'm finding it as hard to get my head around this capability as I did the first time I set eyes on a miraculous invention called the Fax Machine in 1988. What? You can send documents around the world on a phone line? This has now become 40 years ago only the BBC could broadcast a filmed concert live. Now a 12th-century church behind the A40 can do it at the touch of a few buttons! 

If anyone in Brexit Britain really believes in turning the clock back to 1973, this is just one example of why that little notion is never going to work in 1m years. Because now we can do livestreaming, and you can't switch this all off again just because you want to live in 1973. The rest of the world won't stop to let us indulge that silly fantasy. Twenty-first-century technology is here to stay. This is not 1973; it's 2019. Get real and get over it before it's too late.

4. Of course you don't need to "know about music" in order to enjoy it, but sometimes it helps if you do know something, depending on what the music is. Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time may be a case in point. Yesterday I gave a 20-minute introduction to it, explaining the extraordinary background and circumstances of its composition, and talking through the meanings and some of the workings of each movement. This series, presented in the Market Harborough Methodist Church, has a devoted audience - violinist and artistic director David Le Page and the Harborough Collective have built up a strong following that seems to trust them implicitly and will come along to hear anything they do, which is an ideal in itself and utterly wonderful - so there was a strong turnout for a complex piece by Messiaen on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Afterwards I lost count of the people who came up to say that the talk had made a big difference to their appreciation of the music because now they could contextualise it and knew something of what was going on and why. (The next concert in the series includes Shostakovich, Mahler and Schnittke.)

5. Apropos of this, it now occurs to me that most of us who regularly declare that you don't need to know anything about music in order to enjoy it - and I often have in the past - actually can't be sure this is true, because we usually do know something about it, however little, and we can't know what it is like really to know nothing, because we cannot unlearn what we've learned. This might make us pause and reflect for a moment. My experiences this weekend [and it applies to the Odette concert too, because it's full of stuff about Tchaikovsky and why he wrote so many violin solos in Swan Lake] suggest that audiences like to feel informed and maybe to learn something along the way. [See also: massive success of The Rest is Noise, Southbank Centre 2013.] I'm still convinced that you don't need to know anything about some kinds of music to enjoy it. But is it perhaps possible that if you do become informed, you might enjoy it even more? Unpopular opinion, I know - but give it a whirl.

Friday, January 27, 2017

The lost music that can still live

Josima Feldschuh: the child prodigy from Warsaw who died of tuberculosis at 15. Gideon Klein: perhaps the most gifted young composer of Prague, killed in Auschwitz at 25. Songs in Yiddish written in the ghettos and the concentration camps, full of black humour and pithy commentary on the internal politics of those places. A concert at the Wigmore Hall a few weeks ago placed some of these works centre stage, and for International Holocaust Remembrance Day I've had a chat with a remarkable academic who has been spearheading the hunt for the lost music. Archives are all very well, she says, but now it's time to hear the pieces too. 

Meanwhile, I'd like to give a shoutout to the Brundibár Arts Festival, which is to be held in Newcastle and Gateshead next week. Here's it's director, violinist Alexandra Raikhlina, of the Royal Northern Sinfonia, on what she's doing and why: 

Original watercolour posted for Brundibár's premiere in Theresienstadt

As Artistic Director of Brundibár Arts Festival, my vision is to create an annual programme of events that showcases the little known music written during the Holocaust, to be held here in Newcastle and Gateshead.
Launched in 2016, the annual Brundibár Arts Festival is the first recurring Festival in the UK dedicated to the Music and Arts of the Holocaust. The Festival takes its name from Hans Krása's children's opera "Brundibár". Brundibár, (meaning bumblebee) was written in 1938 by Jewish Czech composer Hans Krása, and first performed publicly by the children of Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1943. We see naming the Festival after Brundibár as a positive affirmation of creativity in adversity, and a lasting tribute to those children who suffered and perished.
The greatest music, art and literature has often emerged from the most threatening of circumstances, bringing comfort and expression to those in need. Once I started to research this subject, I discovered a vast wealth of relatively unknown, yet wonderful music that has struggled to get the recognition it deserves on its own merit, despite the broad range of cultural and musical activities we enjoy here in the UK. During the Festival, works by these lesser known composers will be shared and explored alongside well-loved works from the more mainstream repertoire, therefore claiming its rightful place in our concert halls.
Only through education can greater tolerance be achieved - an increasingly important subject in today's complex world. With this focus, we aim to increase the participation of young people, creating lasting links between professional musicians, local community groups, children, and artists. There are dwindling numbers of Holocaust survivors who can tell their stories first hand. Our generation carries the responsibility to find new ways of telling them, and to strive for a more comprehending and cohesive world.

Alexandra Raikhlina
(Artistic Director)
The full programme for this year includes a talk by Ela Weissberger, a Holocaust survivor who was in the first performances of Krása's Brundibár in Theresienstadt; a new documentary about Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Lithuania, who saved around 2000 of Polish Jews by providing them with transit visas; and music by, among others, Ullmann, Schulhoff, Schoenberg and Weinberg. Performers include Natalie Clein, Katya Apekisheva, Jack Liebeck and many more.

I'm touched and honoured that on 31 January they also include my play A Walk through the End of Time, complete with the Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time to follow. Our actors are Joy Sanders and Phil Harrison, and the quartet will be played by Kyra Humphries (violin), Jessica Lee (clarinet), Liubov Ulybysheva (cello) and Yoshie Kawamura (piano). Venue is the Caedmon Hall of Gateshead Library. Please come along if you're around. 

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Walking through the End of Time in Ealing

Hello. I'm taking a short blogging break at present because I am very busy and a bit down and it's not the best combination. All week I've been trying to write a coherent post about the debacle unfolding at ENO, yet feeling quite confounded with disbelief, anger and uncertainty that anything one says can be remotely helpful, and wondering just what the heck really has gone on in the back rooms these past few years. In other news, the book is (sort of) finished and I'm heading for Budapest on Monday (unrelated to book).

So this is just a quick shout-out for the Ealing Autumn Festival's performance tonight of my play A Walk through the End of Time, at the Church of Christ the Saviour, which is a couple of minutes from Ealing Broadway tube station. The play is given by actors Caroline Dooley and David Webb and is followed by a complete performance of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, performed by Colin Bradbury (clarinet), Adrian Bradbury (cello), Richard George (violin) and Gillian Spragg (piano). Do come along if you can. All details here.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The End of Time comes to Ealing

Absolutely thrilled that the Ealing Autumn Festival is about to put on my Messiaen play, A Walk through the End of Time, even though it is feeling very much like spring outside! The performance takes place at the Church of Christ the Saviour, New Broadway, Ealing, London W5 2XA, on Saturday 5 March 2016. 

The actors are Caroline Dooley and David Webb and after the play the complete Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time will be given by Colin Bradbury (clarinet), Richard George (violin), Adrian Bradbury (cello) and Gillian Spragg (piano). Gillian is artistic director of the festival and it is thanks to her indefatigable dedication to making this project happen that it is indeed taking place.

The drama is designed to illuminate the quartet from a creative, philosophic and aesthetic perspective, exploring the ideas behind the music and the circumstances of its composition. Through the story of two people whose lives have been deeply touched by the quartet it pays tribute to the enduring power of music, love and the human spirit. Messiaen's quartet is not only a work of genius; it is in many ways a message of hope, composed and first performed in a prisoner-of-war camp in Silesia in January 1941.

More information at this link. Do come along if you can - at present this is the only performance planned for 2016.

Book now! Tickets via Eventbrite here.

Saturday, May 30, 2015


Chgall: The Falling Angel (1923-47)

My play A Walk through the End of Time is being given at the Riverhouse Barn Arts Centre, Walton-on-Thames, next Friday, 5 June, 8pm. Tickets are just £5 each and the evening will involve a rehearsed reading by actors Caroline Dooley and David Webb. The next evening the Cremona Trio (and friend) will be giving a performance of the complete Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time and they and I will all be there on Friday to take part in a Q&A session after the reading. Come along and find out about Messiaen, Stalag VIIIA, the significance of these pictures by Chagall and Yves Klein and why this piece can and does matter so much to us all.

Yves Klein: Leap into the Void (1960)

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Marvels of Messiaen

It's Messiaen's birthday today. Above,  the last movement of the Quartet for the End of Time, 'Louange à l'immortalité de Jésus' played by Gil Shaham and Myung Whun Chung. One of the most heavenly pieces I know.

Next year my play A Walk through the End of Time, which centres on the quartet, is due for a couple of performances. It's a one-act two-hander and is usually followed - either after an interval or in some cases in a related event soon after - by a complete performance of the music. Will post performance details in due course.

This extract relates to the final movement:
Christine: But can I tell you what I thought I was looking for? I wanted the depth of tenderness I discovered that night in the Messiaen. I think the tenderness in the violin solo represents the greatest possible strength. It takes unbelievable courage to be still and show love and vulnerability. Expose your heart and you’re laughed at, or trampled on... I had a longing for an emotion that I knew must exist – because it’s in the music. ...Love is an ultimate freedom, isn’t it? And if freedom is within you, then perhaps love is, too. If it isn’t already in your heart, if you don’t know how to give it…It was something in myself, some unfulfilled capacity, but I didn’t understand. I got it the wrong way round.  

Monday, April 28, 2014

Meet Music Of Our Time - Sounds of War, Instruments of Peace

OK, there's self-interest here - next week, on Friday 9 May, they are doing my Messiaen play. I'm more than thrilled that the founder of MOOT, Brighton-based musician Norman Jacobs [pictured below with literary companion], wanted to include the play and the Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time in his varied, exciting and intriguing festival on the Brighton Fringe. Do please come to St Nicholas's Church, Brighton, on 9 May to see A Walk Through the End of Time performed by Dame Harriet Walter and Guy Paul and the Messiaen played by the Ether Quartet. Book for all MOOT events here.

JD: Norman, please tell us about MOOT. How did you start the series and what are your aims with the programming in general?

NJ: The idea came to me one New Year’s Eve after thinking that although so many good musicians live in Brighton there was no one facilitating innovative contemporary music events on a regular basis.

Several musician friends I spoke to said that they had had enough of ‘background’ gigs and only wanted to play foreground music. After a few months of just playing records (starting with Berio’s ‘Sinfonia’!) and having a reasonable sized number of attendees our very first concert took place: Travels with my Theremin with Sarah Angliss We managed to get and audience AND pay the musicians. MOOT – music of our time had come of age.

JD: For this year’s series, themed around war, you've got a wonderful variety of events - how did you arrive at this? Point us towards a few highlights?
NJ: Music’s role during times of war is multifarious: a tool to lift morale at home and in the field, as a form of protest, witness, remembrance or documentary.

I hope that the series will provide audience with a view of music at the start of the First World War, specifically on the music and lives of soldier-composers, pacifists and women – three very important parts of British society of that time which continue to have resonance in our lives and thinking today.

For me the highlights are A Walk Through the End of Time (Messiaen and a play with the brilliant Harriet Walter and Guy Paul!) [thank you!! JD] , the Heath Quartet and Nigel Cliffe in A Letter from Private Joe with music by Roxanna Panufnik, and the Post War Orchestra (weapons transformed into musical instruments). I am also looking forward to hearing music across ten concerts by our featured composer Frank Bridge, the Brighton-born composer and pacifist.

JD: Is 
Brighton a good spot for a series like this? How does it work in terms of support, funding, interfacing with the festival, etc?
NJ: I seem to spend a third of my year completing funding forms. Thankfully, the effort was not wasted as we have been successful in receiving funding from Arts Council England, Heritage Lottery Fund, Sussex Community Foundation, Brighton & Hove City Council and half a dozen other organisations. If only it were easier so I could spend more time on the creative side of concert planning, which is what I enjoy most in what I do.

JD: What are your plans and hopes for MOOT in the future? 
NJ: In September, the legendary American pianist Ursula Oppens is visiting the UK and she has agreed to play inBrighton a programme of Ravel and American modern masterpieces. Definitely one not to miss!

Next year marks Pierre Boulez’s 90th birthday. As one of our patrons we will definitely include his music. I also want to include more music by women composers in next year’s series. Watch this space.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Countdown to my play...

Here's the latest news regarding A WALK THROUGH THE END OF TIME at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, this weekend.

As you know, the scheduled performance at 2.30pm sold out about six weeks in advance. Due to popular demand, the theatre and the International Wimbledon Music Festival decided to put on a second one, beginning at 5.15pm. This, too, is now sold out.

If you want to go and you still haven't booked, please call the box office and ask to be put on a waiting list for returns. Phone number: 020 8940 3633.

I've been having fun, meanwhile, working out how to incorporate some actual music. Originally the play was designed as a curtain-raiser for a complete performance of the Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time, but for practical reasons the Messiaen itself this time will be part of the festival concert by the Nash Ensemble the following evening, 19 November. So we need a little sonic illustration. Hopefully what I've cooked up may find favour with Anthony Wilkinson, Henry Goodman and Harriet Walter; we'll see the outcome soon.

There's not much point my being nervous, because there's nothing more I can do - it is over to our expert team to make it all real. My calming-down mantra normally goes: "I don't have to play the piano... I don't have to play the piano... I don't have to play the piano..." Hope it works.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Aces ahoy at Wimbledon

Amid sighs of relief and big cheers for President Obama, back home in Blighty the countdown to the International Wimbledon Music Festival has begun. Coins have been tossed, warm-ups enacted, the end of the court selected, Federer is set to play Murr...oh, well, maybe not yet... Actually, Roger Federer (pictured right) is rumoured to be a major enthusiast for classical music. But even without him, there are some aces to be served in SW19 in the weeks ahead. Because we have here a festival director, Anthony Wilkinson, who's determined to move heaven, earth and a lot of amazing people to transform south-west London into a magnet for marvellous music-making.

Now, there's some amazing news about my play A Walk Through the End of Time, concerning Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, the festival's performance of which at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, has been sold out for weeks. (Article about it from the Independent, here.) It seems that such is the demand for tickets that they have decided to offer another performance, later the same afternoon! It will start at 5.15pm. We are immensely grateful to Henry Goodman and Harriet Walter for agreeing to do this, and to Anita Lasker-Wallfisch too. Box office: 020 8940 3633. Website is here - if the extra show isn't on it yet, just call the box office and ask to be put on the waiting list for tickets.... Here's Anthony announcing the glad tidings last night:

The play is in seriously good company. The festival kicks off on Saturday 10 November with a glorious Purcell jamboree starring Susan Bickley, Robin Blaze, Njabulo Madlala, James Bowman and Malin Christensson. And it's beginning as it means to go on, because every concert is a highlight in its own right. Catch the Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time itself the night after the play in the expert hands of the Nash Ensemble; thrill to the wonders of Christine Brewer singing Strauss and Wagner (yes, in Wimbledon!); enjoy celebrity recitals by violinist Alina Ibragimova and her family, as well as cellist Zuill Bailey and starry young guitarist Xuefei Yang; and absolutely don't miss Piers Lane and Patricia Routledge in Admission: One Shilling, the story of Dame Myra Hess and the National Gallery Concerts in the Blitz. Twenty-three events in all, and the whole lot are world class. Here's the full programme, so have a browse and book soon.

Perhaps the most exciting, though, is the Petrushka project, specially created by the IWMF with the pianist Mikhail Rudy. "Micha" is one of the last of the true old-school Russian artists, having trained at the Moscow Conservatoire with Jakob Flier and subsequently defected with a flood of international attention, to say nothing of some brushes with the KGB, in 1977. His autobiography (left) is fascinating, and reading it is excellent for polishing your French. In recent years Micha has taken in a big way to multimedia projects - I've already reported extensively on his marvellous theatre version of Spilman's memoirs in The Pianist (soon to return to Britain, we understand) and the beautiful animated Kandinsky film for Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, which he brought to Wimbledon last year.

Petrushka goes even further. Some years ago, Micha took the three pieces from the Stravinsky score than already exist in transcription for piano solo, and set about transcribing the rest of the work. Now he, Anthony Wilkinson, choreographer Claire Sibley and the Little Angel Theatre have collaborated to bring together all the elements that feature in the original concept of Petrushka: live music, ballet and puppetry. I've had a sneak preview of the entire film, produced and directed by Anthony, and can bring you an extract, below - and there is some truly extraordinary stuff in it. I will never understand the magic by which expert puppeteers can appear to infuse a piece of wood and string with actual life - and that magic, of course, is what Petrushka is all about. See it on 14 November.

On the night, Micha performs the music live to the film. The costumes, incidentally, are designed by students of the Wimbledon College of Art. And the whole thing was made possible by a grant from the Arts Council England, the Lottery Fund, the Tertis Foundation and a donation from Mr and Mrs Kutsenko. This Wimbledon performance should be the first of many, as the plan is to tour this project nationally, and internationally too.

Next step? What about a world-class concert hall for Wimbledon? I'm not joking. Watch this space.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Friday Historical: Messiaen talks about Debussy

This is a special treat for anyone who came to the showcase evening for our Messiaen project The End of Time on Monday (and for everyone else too). Footage from Olivier Messiaen's analysis class at the Paris Conservatoire. The great composer talks to his students about the work that he often referred to as the most profound influence upon his own music: Debussy's opera Pelléas et Mélisande.

Monday, by the way, went really rather well. We had the most fabulous evening. My profound and profuse thanks to our hosts, Bob and Elizabeth Boas; the six expert performers, actors and musicians alike; and the indomitable Yvonne Evans, who made it all happen. It may have been the first 'real' London performance of my play, but I hope it won't be the last.