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

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Ghosts of War

Tracing the path from FS Kelly's death in the Battle of the Somme, through the rediscovery of the Schumann Violin Concerto on the eve of World War II, to the exile into which that tragic conflict threw so many composers including Bartók: the concert The Ghosts of War is one of my dream events made real. It's been built around my book Ghost Variations and the story of Jelly d'Arányi, who was deeply connected with not only the concerto but also the other two composers. On 1 June I'm narrating the concert for the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra in Oxford Town Hall, with the conductors Marios Papadopoulos and Hannah Schneider (who will do the Kelly) and the stunning Russian violinist Alena Baeva as soloist in the Schumann. I do hope you can join us! Booking here.

Here's some more about the concert and the personalities behind the pieces, to help whet the appetite...


THE GHOSTS OF WAR


Jelly d'Arányi in the 1920s. Portrait by Charles Geoffroy-Dechaume

From the death of composer Frederick Septimus Kelly in the Battle of the Somme, through the bizarre rediscovery of Schumann’s long-suppressed Violin Concerto on the eve of World War II to music that Bela Bartók composed in exile in 1940, this concert traces the inter-war years through the extraordinary figure of the great Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi (the heroine of my novel Ghost Variations, which inspired the programme). 

One of the most significant musicians of her day, muse to such composers as Ravel, Szymanowski, Holst, Vaughan Williams and Bartók, d’Arányi was born in Budapest in 1893 and in her heyday premiered many seminal new pieces of music. But in 1933 she claimed to have received spirit messages purporting to be from the composer Robert Schumann, asking her to find and play his long-neglected Violin Concerto. In her quest to find this work, which had never been published, d’Arányi found herself trapped in a race against the Nazi regime’s Department of Propaganda, which wanted to conscript the newly discovered concerto for its own purposes. The concerto’s rebirth was almost as traumatic a tale as its birth; it had been Schumann’s last orchestral work before the mental collapse that led to his hospitalisation and death. Its modern premiere was eventually presented in November 1937 in front of Hitler and Goebbels. D’Arányi gave its UK premiere at the Queen’s Hall, London, in February 1938.

Flanking the concerto are works by two of the most significant figures in d’Arányi’s life. Frederick Septimus Kelly was described by d’Arányi’s family as “her only fiancé” (if in the French sense of 'suitor' or 'boyfriend' rather than 'intended'...): a highly talented Australian composer and pianist, he studied at Eton and Oxford and frequently met the d’Arányi sisters to rehearse and perform chamber music. On the outbreak of World War I he became an officer and survived Gallipoli, composing a violin sonata for d’Arányi while there. His most famous work, however, is the exquisitely beautiful Elegy in Memoriam Rupert Brooke, written in tribute to the poet, who was a close friend and died in 1915. Kelly met his own tragic death at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. D’Arányi kept his portrait on her piano for the rest of her life - even though there was no sign that Kelly had ever actually returned her feelings. 

Jelly plays Kelly

Bela Bartók was close to the d’Arányi family in Budapest before they moved to Britain: as a young man he was frequently at their home to give piano lessons to their middle sister, Hortense. He was enraptured first by the eldest of the three, Adila (herself an eminent violinist under her married name, Adila Fachiri); but later, when the youngest, Jelly, grew up, she became a crucial inspiration. For her he composed his two impassioned sonatas for violin and piano, which she premiered with him in London respectively in 1922 and 1923. This time the unrequited love was his.

After the outbreak of World War II, Bartók left Hungary and spent his last years in America, where he had to struggle for acceptance and survival. In exile, he composed his magnificent Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned by the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who conducted its premiere in 1944. Despite the distance of several thousand miles, the work seems to overflow with the energy, lyrical beauty and exotic colours of Bartók’s - and d’Arányi’s - native Budapest, the dazzling rhythms of the Hungarian language and the soulful, rhapsodic qualities so characteristic of Hungarian folk music. 

The Schumann Violin Concerto’s modern rediscovery seems highly symbolic. D’Arányi’s career was on the brink, tipping from greatness to decline in a combination of physical and psychological pressures; the work is by a composer about to experience a catastrophic breakdown; and it was revived for a world poised on the cliff edge, ready to tumble into the madness of fascism and war. Yet the concerto’s Polonaise finale carries a message of hope that bore a startling relevance to those times and to the future. It was a story crying out to be told, especially in a world that can seem once again to be on the brink of madness. In Ghost Variations I wanted to pay tribute to these great musicians, but also to capture the resonance that their world carries for our own. 

https://oxfordphil.com/events/128153638/the-ghosts-of-war-2019-06-01

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

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Fit for purpose

What is fit for purpose in the UK at the moment? Not a lot, but I've found one thing that is. It's a national treasure of a concert hall - in an Essex village state school.

Saffron Hall
Photo: Graham Turner
I'm talking about Saffron Hall, of course, named after its location, not the donor who put up the money to build it - that person, with rare grace, preferred to stay anonymous. And if you go through Saffron Walden, you wouldn't expect to find this venue there. An almost too-adorable antique town in not-too-flat-yet East Anglian countryside, beyond the great house of Audley End, it's a setting in which you'd be less surprised to find a haunted hotel (at the Cross-Keys Inn the ghost of a Civil War soldier is said to walk the corridors, while Cromwell's mistress supposedly lurks in a bedroom) than a shiny four-year-old concert venue haunted by the likes of Maxim Vengerov and Mats Lidström. The good news is that the two notions aren't incompatible.

The hall, in case you haven't seen it yet, seats around 800 and has a wide, shiny, wooden interior with a narrow balcony section that runs all the way round the sides and behind the stage. The acoustic ('tunable') is warm and blooming, ample and resonant. The audience seems still to be in a honeymoon with it - a community blessed with a big asset and the chance to hear Vengerov and friends play right on their doorstep - and it was great to see lots of children in the ranks. The school setting helps. I learned during the course of the evening that the place used not even to offer Music A Level (a tragically increasing situation nowadays), but that music for its pupils and beyond is now thriving thanks to the exemplar of the hall and the world-class events it hosts.

This should be a model for anyone to follow if and when they want to build a new hall: for goodness' sake, embed it in its community. Put it where children will feed it with their energy and enthusiasm and be fed its art in turn. Put it where its audience will be happy, where they will be there to support it, prioritise it and take pride in it. This is high art for everyone and that's exactly what we need, right here and right now. For too long we've fetishised concert halls as a tool of regeneration - sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, and if it does it takes decades - or decided they must multitask as conference venues. It's the kiss of death. You end up with soulless creations in places nobody really wants to go. Try multitasking them within community schools instead. You might be surprised.

Maximum violinist: Maxim Vengerov
And we got a wonderful surprise last night. Maxim Vengerov and friends from the Soloists of the Oxford Philharmonic joined forces for a delicious programme of varied chamber line-ups. First, Brahms violin and piano music with Marios Papadopoulos - more often found on the orchestra's podium - becoming an empathetic duo partner to Vengerov in the D minor Sonata, following an up-tempo, soaring account of the 'FAE' Scherzo. In these days of exaggeration and over-interpretation, Vengerov is a breath of fresh air: he eschews such intrusive trends. He plays that violin with a perfect tone that one can drink up like honeyed mead. He polishes it to the nth degree and displays it without a hint of fuss. He makes all of this look phenomenally easy and natural, which heaven knows it's not.

The second part was a rarely-heard two-movement String Sextet by Borodin and then the Mendelssohn Octet, and here we had a chance to hear some of the Oxford Philharmonic's lead string players. My, oh, my, look who's here: only a line-up to match any top-notch international chamber ensemble and probably beat them on their own turf. Violinists Natalia Lomeiko, Anna-Liisa Bezrodny and Yury Zhislin. Violists Garfield Jackson and Jonathan Barritt. Cellists Mats Lidström and Peter Adams. They're all among the best on the scene, whether established soloists or long-standing members of great string quartets, and with Vengerov as first violin they produced an Octet to remember, almost symphonic in scale (it's amazing how much noise can come out of just eight instruments) and wonderfully conversational. We don't need reminding that it's a masterpiece, but it's a perennial joy to be reunited with Mendelssohn's extraordinary fount of high energy, bowling along as if he simply can't get the ideas down on paper fast enough, so richly do they flow. This was a Maserati of a Mendelssohn rather than a wispy, elfin job, and I had the impression the performers were enjoying every note as much as we were.

I'm quite embarrassed to admit I had no idea any of them were with the Oxford Phil, although in some cases I've known and followed their careers for decades. Perhaps the problem with the word 'Oxford' is that you are conditioned to hearing it alongside another word: 'University'. This is, emphatically, not necessary.

You can hear the same concert tonight at Cheltenham Town Hall if you are lucky enough to be in the area.

Fit for purpose: music, musicians, hall and everything about them. Not fit for purpose: the UK's infrastructure.

I was offered a ticket and a lift to/from Saffron Walden by a friend in the music business who lives near me and has a car. We set off from Hammersmith at 3.30pm. An hour and a quarter later we'd reached...Kilburn. Because if you're sitting in Wood Lane you can't get across the A40 because the traffic blocks the junction and you're basically stuffed. Somehow we found the A1M via somewhere near my old school up in Stanmore, and then there was a smash, with ambulances rushing up the hard shoulder, so we sat there for a while too, and eventually we turned off, pootled across some golden cornfields and adorable countryside near Cambridge, along twisty little lanes, past calendar-worthy old houses, and arrived for supper at the 15th-century Cross-Keys Inn (no ghosts on display) a cool almost-three-hours after setting out. Made the concert in the nick of time.

The thing about going anywhere in the UK to review a concert is that you have to go, and in my unfortunate experience neither roads nor trains can be relied upon to get you anywhere at the time you need to be there. This has always been bad, but it's getting worse and heaven alone knows how things are going to function after the B word happens, in a country seemingly hell-bent on national suicide.

When the revolution comes, and it may, I'll head for Essex and hide under the piano in Saffron Hall. Because this place gives me hope in what remains of our humanity.