Showing posts with label Philippe Graffin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Philippe Graffin. Show all posts

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Visas for Life - a return to Lithuania

It is Lithuania's National Day today, and for the first time Symphony Hall, Birmingham, is to resound to The Sea by Mikolajus Čiurlionis, the CBSO conducted by Mirga Gražynitė-Tyla, with live-painted visual interpretations by Norman Perryman (see his recent guest post here). I'm going up to hear it. 

As Norman mentioned the other day, I have Lithuanian roots, or sort of. My ancestors were from a small town now called Skudas, where they lived for several centuries until pogroms in the late 19th century persuaded them to seek a new life on the other side of the world, when they fetched up in South Africa. I visited Lithuania for the first time 15 years ago, in 2004, when the violinist Philippe Graffin suggested I could come out to Vilnius to cover a world premiere that he and the violist Nobuko Imai were giving, of Vytautas Barkauskas's Duo Concertante, and do a spot of roots-finding while I was about it. This seemed like a good idea, especially as there was a heap of interest in Lithuania at that point, since the Baltic states had just joined the EU. I went - and wrote, and wrote. And found myself transformed, for press ticket purposes, into Dzesika Duciene.

Since today is today, I've been looking up some of the old articles I produced then and would like to offer you part of an extended piece I wrote for the Jewish Quarterly. 

It seems a long time ago and I am sure things have changed a lot in the intervening decade and a half.  So, please bear in mind that this article first appeared in 2004. And if you're at Symphony Hall tonight, do say hello.

Jessica Duchen

This is part of an article that first appeared in the Jewish Quarterly in 2004

The wide, lonely landscape sprawls beneath the plane, pine forests basking in Nordic evening sun that transforms the sky into an expanse of blazing gold. My heartstrings twang; my knees turn to water. I am going to Lithuania. I am the first member of my family to go to Lithuania in a hundred years. If everything had been different around 1904, then when we touch down in Vilnius, I might have been coming home.

I am visiting Lithuania not solely as a modern Jewish woman trying to find her roots, however, but specifically to attend the Vilnius Festival, which has commissioned a new work from one of the country’s leading composers, Vytautas Barkauskas. His Duo Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra is the substantial result. In it he has chosen to pay tribute to one of the most extraordinary figures of Lithuania’s Jewish history: Chiune Sugihara, Japanese consul in Kaunas in 1940, who took it upon himself to issue transit visas to save more than 6000 Jewish refugees from the Nazis, despite the censure of his government. 

Chiune Sugihara is recognised in the Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and his story is chronicled in several books, including one by his wife Yukiko, who encouraged his actions at every turn. But, compared to Oscar Schindler’s Spielberg-enhanced fame, Sugihara’s heroism has been significantly under-recognised, not least because during the long years of Soviet occupation in Lithuania, such matters were swept under the all-embracing USSR concrete carpet. Fourteen years after the country declared its independence, Vilnius’s legacy as the ‘Jerusalem of Lithuania’ has yet to be fully acknowledged by a populace that has grown up with little awareness of its city’s tragic past.

Vilnius: The Gates of Dawn
The Vilnius Festival, which has run for eight years, is a proud, ambitious event, featuring some of the biggest names in classical music – conductor Mstislav Rostropovich and violinist Gidon Kremer are regular visitors – as well as an annual commission which to date has included symphonies, ballets and an opera. Vilnius enjoys an extraordinarily vibrant cultural life: in this city of only half a million people, there are two symphony orchestras, a National Opera and Ballet Theatre that has staged ten new productions in just two years, two chamber orchestras, a thriving theatre and literary scene, a jazz festival and much more besides. As for historical figures, the artist Chaim Soutine was born in Vilna (as it was then known), while Marc Chagall first saw daylight in nearby Vitebsk. And the great violinist Jascha Heifetz too was born in Vilna and made his debut aged seven on the stage of the Filharmonja, a beautiful concert hall combining grandeur with intimacy, which today is the setting for most of the Vilnius Festival’s performances. 

Why should the Sugihara story find its musical tribute through Barkauskas, and why now? As with many of the best things in life, much can be attributed to sheer serendipity. Vytautas Barkauskas, at 72, is probably Lithuania’s most prolific composer, but until recently he has been known abroad mainly for his dazzling Partita for solo violin, a favourite recital piece of Gidon Kremer’s. The recipient last year of Lithuania’s prestigious National Prize for his Violin Concerto ‘Jeux’, Barkauskas has now found another champion in the musician to whom he dedicated ‘Jeux’, the French violinist Philippe Graffin, whose international career spans a large number of contemporary works as well as celebrated recordings of French music and unusual repertoire for Hyperion and Avie Records. Graffin has visited Vilnius a number of times and has grown ever more fascinated by its character, its heritage and its loss of that heritage. 

Nobuko Imai, Philippe Graffin and Vytautas Barkauskas
I’m intrigued by the fact that it was such a centre of Jewish culture and yet so much has been erased from its map,’ Graffin says. ‘The Communist era put a lid over that, but today it is opening up. As you walk through the old town, you can sense the presence of generations of children playing in every yard and the spirits of the vast numbers of people who were massacred. Those generations have left their feeling in the stones themselves – you sense that Vilna in its day was a melting pot like London or New York. I feel the absence of this very strongly.’

Barkauskas, having received the much-coveted National Prize, had the opportunity to provide the 2004 Vilnius Festival with its annual commission; he had already written a violin concerto and a work for viola and orchestra, so, as he explains, ‘I was happy to put the two instruments together. But the total is more than the sum of its parts. It offers many more interesting opportunities psychologically with many more possibilities – it is like a man and a woman together, exploring a loving relationship in many different ways.’ Graffin suggested as his fellow soloist the Japanese violist Nobuko Imai – and at once the Japanese connection with Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara presented itself as a driving force in the work’s development.

JD and Vytautas Barkauskas
Barkauskas welcomed the opportunity with open arms. ‘It was wonderful to write a piece dedicated to this man. Thousands of people were murdered during the Holocaust in Lithuania and he undertook an exceptionally humanitarian act. I had heard about Sugihara and his wife Yukiko who together had helped people to leave the country within just 29 days of applying for a visa – a visa for life. It was a great humanitarian act, showing great feeling, courage and understanding; his government had forbidden it and later destroyed his career because of it. At the time this happened, I was nine years old, living in Kaunas, and my father had been thrown into jail in the first week of the Russian occupation. My Duo Concertante is not programme music; it doesn’t tell the story of what happened. But in it I aim to recapture the feelings of those times, the emotions, the psychology. I too was a victim of the war, through the subsequent Soviet occupation, so to feel this humanitarian aspect is very natural to me. Writing the Duo Concertante has certainly helped me to work through the connection.’

Nobuko Imai, who travelled to eastern Europe for the first time to take part in the premiere, was overwhelmed by the experience. ‘I found people so welcoming and warm, especially Mr Barkauskas and his wife,’ she says. ‘In a way, there is still much of the “real Europe” alive in Lithuania; people are so genuine. The Duo Concertante is a very effective piece, but also I find it human, warm and profound. In the second movement, the song about the cherry trees – a song we all grow up knowing in Japan – is beautifully used. It could have been cheap and predictable, but instead it is treated with true depth. It is melancholy, nostalgic and always beautiful; and the motif returns again and again. It seems to speak of something eternal that keeps going across generation after generation. And the last movement finishes with a tremendous sense of positive energy.’

The final movement of the Duo Concertante, recorded live in the concert

Imai adds, ‘I’m sad to say that I knew very little about Sugihara before becoming involved in this project. I read the memoir by Yukiko Sugihara and I think that if I had read it earlier, it might have changed my life. I think it is vital to keep this story alive to inspire new generations – and there is no stronger way to do this than through music.’ 

Around 90 per cent of Vilna’s Jewish population perished during the Holocaust. On my third morning in Vilnius, I wended my way through the back streets to find the Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum. What I didn’t realise was that the museum is in two parts, one dedicated to the history of Vilna as the Jerusalem of Lithuania, the other to the Holocaust itself. I found myself, unintentionally, in the Holocaust division: an old wooden house, typically Baltic and painted deep green, tucked away behind a busy street. In front of it stands a sculpture that serves as a memorial to Sugihara; inside is preserved the full horror, in memorabilia, in yellow stars and armbands and in horrific pictures, of what became of the Jewish population of this extraordinary centre of culture and learning. The museum appears to run on a shoe-string and many of the captions have yet to be translated into any language beyond Russian. That morning I was the sole visitor, alone with the full recognition of what would have become of my ancestors had they not emigrated to South Africa at the beginning of the 20thcentury. 

Statue of the Vilna Gaon
A statue paying tribute to the Vilna Gaon, the legendary figurehead for the Jewish community in the 18thcentury, stands in an out-of-the-way corner of the old town beside some characterless Soviet office blocks and an empty patch of grass. Only an exploration of a map in the Jewish Museum reveals the reason for this memorial’s position: this was the site of the Great Synagogue, a magnificent building seating more than 3,000 people, razed by the Nazis and its remains subsequently flattened by the Soviets. Nothing is left to show that it ever existed.

So does a healing process still need to take place between modern-day Lithuania – with its brand new EU membership, Vilnius’s renovated Old Town gleaming with new paint thanks to the World Heritage Fund, its growing number of tourist coaches and souvenir shops selling amber and linen – and the history so long buried under the rubble of its 20th-century nightmare? 

The process is just beginning and in many ways one cannot be surprised that it is not the country’s first priority. Lithuania, and particularly Vilnius, is currently poised on a historical cusp, undergoing a tug of war between centuries and ideologies. Ironically, this was directly represented on the very night of the Duo Concertante’s premiere, 27 June, which coincided with the presidential election (the former president, Rolandas Paksas, having been dismissed from office after allegations of financial scandal). The victor, Valdas Adamkus, president from 1998 to 2003, represents the reforming force, though his pro-Moscow opponent Kazimira Prunskiene won much support. As the managing director of the Vilnius Festival, Ruta Pruseviciene, puts it, Vilnius itself is ‘a battleground between old and new, Russian and American, values and systems. Half the members of parliament play with Russian rules and the other half with western rules and they often find no common language at all!’

Local legend has it that Heifetz was born in this house
In the midst of such intense and turbulent years, some tribute is nevertheless being paid to Jascha Heifetz, whom Graffin describes as ‘the most famous and the most mysterious of violinists’. The house where Heifetz was born still stands amid an area ripe for redevelopment on a hillside outside the former ghetto area. No plaque has been raised to him on the house (I’m told there is one elsewhere), but local word-of-mouth seems to have established that this was indeed Heifetz’s first home. A more public tribute exists in the form of an international violin competition named after Heifetz, held for the first time in 2002, with Gidon Kremer as chairman of the jury. The competition will be held again next year. 

Sporadically, there have been wider-ranging events too. Gintautas Kevisas, artistic director of the Vilnius Festival and intendant of the National Opera and Ballet Theatre, in 2002 staged the first Festival of Jewish Art Music in Vilnius, in collaboration with Tel Aviv University and the Rubin Academy of Music. ‘I had no knowledge about this music, but I knew the festival needed to explore it more deeply than just whether Mahler or Mendelssohn had some Jewish roots,’ Kevisas says. 

But even Kevisas, who has long been a prime mover and shaker in Vilnius’s cultural life and was minister of culture for a year in 2001, had had little insight into Vilnius’s Jewish culture until then. ‘I was very much surprised when I looked deeper into Jewish culture and realised that Vilna had been the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” – then historical things happened and this changed. That’s life. Every nation suffered; we are a small nation and we suffered a lot.’ Kevisas trained as a pianist at the Moscow Conservatoire, ‘where I realised that Russians and Soviets were not the same thing at all. The nation that suffered the most in the 20thcentury was Russia – the biggest number of victims were Russian.’ This perspective is typical in Vilnius. As Ruta Pruseviciene says, ‘In the end, only time can heal.’ But the 2002 festival took an interesting standpoint, inviting contemporary Lithuanian composers to write with Jewish texts – to explore, says Pruseviciene, ‘their individual view of what Jewish cultural and religious thinking means to them’.

Anatolijus Šenderovas
For next year [2005], the Vilnius Festival is commissioning a new ballet score from the city’s only Jewish composer, Anatolijus Šenderovas; the story is based partly on the legend of the Dybbuk. Senderovas, who enjoys one of the strongest international profiles among Lithuanian composers, has written numerous works for the Lithuanian-born cellist David Geringas and composed the set piece for the first Jascha Heifetz International Violin Competition. Born in 1945, he grew up in Vilnius, where his parents settled shortly after the war. They settled in ‘a normal street’ with no idea that just two years earlier it had been part of the ghetto, nor any notion of the tragedy that had taken place there. 

Vilnius, however, was a relatively positive place to be a composer, Šenderovas points out. As the Soviet system had regarded music and culture as ideologically advantageous, plenty of money had gone into cultural life and also into education, notably a network of music schools and the Čiurlionis School for the Arts, at which many of the country’s gifted young musicians, artists and ballet dancers trained. Senderovas adds, ‘At the Conservatory, we had good professors and I also had the chance to study in St Petersburg with Orest Evlachov, who had been a pupil of Shostakovich – that was very important to me because everything Shostakovich had told him, he then told me.’ 

Šenderovas has written a number of works drawing intensely on Jewish themes and the Sephardic music that he was able to study in Tel Aviv following Lithuanian independence in 1990. But now, he says, the issue is not to be solely Jewish or solely Lithuanian, but to achieve something more universal. ‘If we say somebody is a Lithuanian composer or a Jewish composer, then maybe he’s quite good,’ he remarks. ‘But if someone is a real composer, we have to say he is a good composer, not a good Jewish composer! Somebody in the future will decide what I am – maybe Jewish, maybe Lithuanian, maybe both, maybe neither, but hopefully a composer.’ 

Geringas plays Šenderovas

Barkauskas, Šenderovas and Kevisas all see Lithuania’s new EU membership as a cultural step forward. ‘It is certainly easier for my works to be played abroad now,’ says Barkauskas. ‘In Soviet times, Vilnius was seen very much as a province; most of the privileged composers were in Moscow and St Petersburg and, from Lithuania, it was difficult to get works through the Composers’ Union, which was a very powerful organisation. My works became known through individual musicians who took them up and performed them, such as Gidon Kremer, rather than through the Union.’

‘Our cultural life in general will not change so much, because it was already at a very high level,’ says Senderovas. ‘What has become easier is to travel and to invite people from overseas. The choreographer for my new ballet is Italian – under the Soviet system, this would have been completely impossible. But now we can be constantly in touch.’ Kevisas feels that greater internationalism will enhance the quality of Lithuanian culture: ‘Now maybe we will not think only locally. The Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra or the National Opera and Ballet Theatre are already very good, but now they need not be thought of as primarily Lithuanian; instead they need to be thought of primarily as good! Quality is my priority. Now we can compete for the best quality of musicians and directors, and if we succeed then we can improve, with fresh ideas and new approaches.’ 

Barkauskas sums up the atmosphere today: ‘Fantastic! There is a whole new feeling – people are hopeful and happy. It’s like springtime.’ 

My thanks to the Jewish Quarterly for commissioning and publishing a longer version of this article in 2004

Monday, July 11, 2016


My friend and colleague Philippe Graffin, the fabulous French violinist, has just released his new recording of the Schumann Violin Concerto. As you know, this is the work that lies at the heart of my forthcoming novel, Ghost Variations. The CD also features Schumann's Phantasie in D minor for violin and orchestra and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor. Philippe is partnered by the Orchestra di Padova e del Veneto, conducted by Tuomas Rousi and the CD is now available from Cobra Records. I've written the programme notes.
Philippe and I have worked together on a number of other projects in the past: among these, he commissioned my first play, A Walk through the End of Time, for his music festival in France, and recorded a CD of Gypsy-inspired works to partner my third novel, Hungarian Dances
Philippe has kindly provided three copies of the CD for me to award as prizes for a very special Ghost Variations competition.
Within the novel I have embedded a number of references to another work by Schumann: a particular song cycle. To enter the competition, correctly identify the work's title and spot all the references to it and its words in the text, list them, then send them in a PRIVATE MESSAGE to the Ghost Variations Facebook page (not a public post, please, or everyone else will see your answers!):
I'll put all the correct entries in a hat and draw out the names of three lucky winners. 
The closing date is 2 January 2017, which gives you four months from the novel's publication date, 1 September 2016, to grab your copy, read it and make notes accordingly.
Happy reading!
And if you haven't already done so, don't forget to pre-order your e-book by pledging for it now at

Friends in America and Europe-proper, Unbound can now take payments in $ and € as well as the plunging £.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

An Anglophile violinist celebrates

Philippe Graffin. Photo: Marco Borrgreve

Hooray for Philippe Graffin, the Anglophile French violinist of London. He has been living here for 20 years and is marking this 0anniversary with three concerts on two days. Tonight at Cadogan Hall he gives the world premiere of Peter Fribbins's new Violin Concerto, written especially for him, with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Jean-Jacques Kantorow, and throws in Ravel's Tzigane for good measure.

On Friday he joins forces with musical friends at St John's Smith Square for an evening of two performances: first, at 6.30pm (NB time) - chamber music by Debussy, Elgar and David Matthews with a line-up including Raphael Wallfisch, Roger Chase, David Waterman, Alastair Beatson, Marisa Gupta, Emeline Dessi, Chen Halevi and David Matthews himself (more info here). Then at 9.15pm there's the fabulous Enescu Violin Sonata No.3, two premieres of works written for Philippe, and a collaboration with Tango Factory from Buenos Aires to conclude with some headily gorgeous Piazzolla.

We hope he will stay longer. Here's to the next 20 years.

Here is Philippe with pianist Claire Désert in the Valse Triste by Franz von Vecsey - a 'Hungarian Dances' Concert favourite, from the album he made to go with the novel in 2008...

[UPDATE: post amended 18/2/15 to reflect fact that he's been here 20 years, not 25. Moral: never blog after a good lunch.]

Monday, December 22, 2014

Emergency: My favourite festival is faced with closure


Miserable news from Saint-Nazaire, France: the Festival Consonances, which was founded and run by violinist Philippe Graffin for nearly 25 years, is faced with closure. The town's new mayor has pulled its funding.

Opinion seems divided as to why. Hard times everywhere, say some; a new man wanting to make his mark with a new approach, suggest others; and unfortunately rumblings about classical music being "elitist" have been rumoured as well...

Philippe with ensemble & singer Christianne Stotijn

Saint-Nazaire is (or was) a ship-building town on the Loire estuary with a traumatic war history, good food and a beach. It was in a position of some strategic importance during World War II and is still the site of an indestructible concrete submarine base build by the Nazis, which the allies tried to bomb, though they only succeeded in reducing much of the town to rubble. It's not a wealthy place, nor is it full of glitzy five-star hotels or spectacular scenery to attract well-heeled international festival-goers. Consonances was always very much for a local audience, who are not well-served with world-class classical music the rest of the year. (Above: a line-up typically worthy of the Wigmore and beyond, with Philippe's ensemble accompanying the wonderful Christianne Stotijn.)

Nobuko Imai, Philippe Graffin, Henri Dutilleux, in 2007
Over the quarter-century he's been there, Philippe's programming has been so consistently high and the presence of the musicians so friendly and welcome that the audience grew to trust him and would go and hear pretty much whatever he put on, and he has never been one to stint on intriguing programming. I remember seeing families with young children queuing round the block to get in to a three-hour concert of music by Rodion Shchedrin. The Russian composer was there as artist in residence, together with his wife, the great ballerina Maya Plisteskaya. Further compositional luminaries at the festival have included Henri Dutilleux (above, with Nobuko Imai and Philippe).

Part of the submarine base was turned into an arts centre about seven years ago, and this was the location for the premiere of my play A Walk through the End of Time, with the Messiaen Quartet as companion piece. The project was Philippe's idea and he commissioned the play especially for the occasion. The premiere was given in French by the actors Marie-Christine Barrault and Charles Gonzalès.

Consonances festival in the shipyard
The very first time I attended the festival, the Queen Mary II was under construction in the shipyard and Consonances held its final concert in a hangar on the site; vast pieces of mechanical equipment acquired through context the look of a massive iron art installation [right]. A special bus was put on to take people out there from the town centre and many were in place hours in advance to be assured of the best seats.

Here is one very general point that applies not only perhaps in Saint-Nazaire, but everywhere else too. Before anyone declares classical music "elitist" and therefore not "for" a particular sector of society, please remember this: that is just your opinion. And you are simply scratching around for a feeble excuse to hold back the money an organisation needs. And we can see through that. In effect, you are telling your populace that they are not good enough to appreciate good music. How dare you suggest such a thing? It is the most patronising thing you can possibly do. Of course they are. That was the whole point of arts funding: to make performances affordable enough for everybody to attend.

Everyone is "good enough" for the best sounds in the world. You may like these sounds or you may not, but the unforgivable thing is when the powers that be declare that you will never have the chance to find out for yourself.

Please, dear Saint-Nazaire, restore Consonances's existence right now. It's still in time for Christmas.

Here is Philippe's open letter to the town (en français).

Ce  texte a été écrit mardi 16 décembre par Philippe Graffin cofondateur avec Joël Batteux de Consonances et directeur artistique  :
Philippe Graffin in rehearsal in Saint-Nazaire
“Il y a quelques jours, lors d’un concert que je donnais à Londres, une jeune violoniste américaine en se présentant me dit qu’elle allait souvent sur le site internet du festival Consonances pour s’inspirer des programmes pour le festival qu’elle vient de créer à la Nouvelle Orléans.
Si la musique et les concerts sont par essence éphémères, il n’en reste pas moins que nous ne savons pas jusqu’où ils résonnent.
Pour ma part, le soutien et l’écoute croissante du public de Saint-Nazaire font partie intégrante de la réussite et du succès de cet événement, qui revenait chaque début d’automne.
Ce pari du mariage improbable de la musique dite “élitiste”, dans le contexte du “tintamarre contemporain”, selon l’expression de Joël Batteux, a été la marque de Consonances qui affirmait ainsi ses valeurs.
Mais, finalement, que reste-t-il de tous ces sons, de tous ces concerts, de ces espoirs mis dans la musique, de ces milliers d’heures à préparer l’accueil des musiciens, du public, lorsque le festival prend fin?
Il en reste avant tout une expérience inoubliable d’avoir réussi à marier, chaque année pour quelques jours, ce patrimoine de l’humanité que représente la musique dans cette ville, fleuron de la plus haute industrie.
Consonances s’est associée aux différents événements qui ont marqué cette période, par exemple, lors de la construction du Queen Mary 2, ainsi que du drame qui a précédé son lancement.
Au fil de ces années, j’ai eu l’occasion de découvrir une ville merveilleuse et unique, de lier des amitiés fortes et d’inviter une partie du monde musical à prendre le chemin de Saint Nazaire et à la découvrir.
Des images me viennent à l’esprit, des moments forts comme la présence pleine de charme d’Henri Dutilleux à Saint-Nazaire, celle de Rodion Schedrin et Maya Plissetskaya, artistes russe ô combien légendaires, ou celle d’Ivry Gitlis ou Stephen Kovacevich avec sa chaise plus basse.
Pour moi Consonances, au détour d’un concert particulièrement réussi, fut bien le centre du monde, ne fusse-t-il que musical.
Ces “rencontres” ont porté ainsi, bien au-delà de nos frontières, le drapeau de Saint Nazaire.
Elles ont été d’abord exportées dans des salles prestigieuses, Au Wigmore Hall à Londres, pour toute une semaine autour de la musique française, reprise du festival Consonances précédent, ainsi qu’à La Haye, avec l’Orchestre Philharmonique sur le même thème deux ans plus tard, puis nous fûmes invités au festival Présence de Radio France, à Paris, à de nombreuses reprises.
The war memorial, Saint-Nazaire
Consonances c’est, au cours des 24 éditions, à peu près 450 concerts, donnés non seulement dans les salles que vous connaissez mais aussi dans les chantiers, les hangars d’Airbus Industrie, les hospices, les hôpitaux, dans la rue parfois, sous des préaux improbables, des écoles diverses ou dans des quartiers où la musique dite “classique” aurait pu paraître inadéquate. À chaque fois, ce fut organisé et joué comme si il s’agissait du Théâtre des Champs Elysées ou de la Salle Pleyel, avec la plus grande passion et simplicité.
Consonances a reçu plus de 300 artistes venus du monde entier, souvent fidélisés, et comptant parmi les plus recherchés.
C’est aussi plus d’une vingtaine d’oeuvres commandées et publiées à des compositeurs d’origines diverses et de tendances différentes.
Consonances à fait renaître de nombreuses oeuvres oubliées de compositeurs du passé, romantiques ou classiques. Nous avons repensé à maintes reprises le rapport de la musique à la jeunesse en cherchant de nouvelles formules.
Il reste aussi de nombreux enregistrements, traces de ces recherches et moments inoubliables.
Comme en témoigne cette critique du magazine Diapason, pour notre disque Chausson, qui commençait par ces mots : “Merci à la ville de Saint Nazaire…”
Au nom de mes amis musiciens, je tiens à remercier tous les Nazairiens pour nous avoir accueillis généreusement pendant 25 ans dans leur ville. Ce fut un réel port d’attache pour nous tous.
Je souhaite très sincèrement bonne chance à la nouvelle équipe municipale, à mes collègues du conservatoire, au Théâtre, à la Meet ce projet extraordinaire, au Théâtre Athénor, à Christophe Rouxel du théâtre Icare.
Je voudrais dire un grand merci, du fond du coeur, à tous mes amis de l’association Atempo, à commencer par Patrick Perrin, qui, je le sais, a oeuvré pour Consonances sans relâche, ainsi que Claire Dupont.
Consonances s’efface, certes, mais je reste et resterai toujours un ambassadeur de Saint-Nazaire et un fidèle ami”.
Plus d’informations dans  l’Echo de la Presqu’île du 19 décembre 2014

Saint-Nazaire, 44

Saturday, December 13, 2014

GÉRARD DEPARDIEU shows us how to do a kids' concert

The controversial yet perennially great French actor Gérard Depardieu joined forces with Philippe Graffin for a weekend of words and music in Brussels, at the end of November - during the course of which they showed us just how wonderful kids' concerts can be, given half a chance. Here they reach the finale of the Carnival of the Animals.

"Now you are all animals," Depardieu instructs the young audience, going on to say that now they are all good companions, every kind of creature with every other. "Next Sunday," he then adds darkly, "the carnival of humans..."

In the second clip the musicians sound like they're having the time of their lives as the kids clap along with the encore.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Two happy birthdays!

Two musicians I feel very lucky to know are both celebrating birthdays today. Have a listen to celebrate.

First, here is my very special colleague Philippe Graffin, the poetic and creative French violinist, in a track from the album Hungarian Dances, recorded in 2008 and inspired by my novel of the same title.  Claire Désert is the pianist. This is the enchanting Marche miniature viennoise by Fritz Kreisler - OK, not Hungarian at all, but huge fun and gorgeously played. (Onyx)

The second very happy birthday goes to British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, who's turning all of 22 this sunny Tuesday. He has a new album out soon, a delicious mixed programme celebrating dance all the way from Bach to Boogie-Woogie (that marvellous etude by Morton Gould). Tip: make sure that when you get it you download the "deluxe" version so that you also have the bonus tracks. They include possibly the most stunning performance of Liszt's Gnomenreigen that you or anyone else will ever hear in this day and age. Since it's not out yet, here's his Ravel 'Ondine' from Gaspard de la Nuit. (Decca)

Friday, December 06, 2013

In memoriam Mandela: a recording that couldn't have been made without him

We were fortunate to have such a figure as Nelson Mandela in the world at all. Today everyone on social media seems to have found a pertinent quote from him - each one chosen in a way that is extremely personal to the chooser. Each one is an inspiration in itself. (Tomorrow the Indy will publish a special souvenir edition in his memory, btw.)

Instead of a quote, here's an incident.

Ten years ago the violinist Philippe Graffin went to Johannesburg to record the gorgeous violin concerto by Samuel Coleridge Taylor with the Johannesburg Philharmonic. It was an event that could never have existed without Nelson Mandela: a mixed-race South African organisation, performing a work by a composer half British, half African. This is the end of the first movement and the whole of the second movement. (Get the whole recording.) And here - from the first month of JDCMB - is why this means such a lot to me, then and now.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Favourite things... Philippe plays Chausson

It's hot out there. Trying to cool my study down for a hard day's writing with some lovely limpid Chausson: the Concert in D for violin, piano and string quartet, as recorded by Philippe Graffin, Pascal Devoyon and the Chilingirian Quartet (on Hyperion). It's a favourite thing in itself - I am potty about Chausson, yet we hear him in concert only once in the proverbial odd-hued moon - but another favourite thing therein is Philippe's violin tone and his feel for colour. Listen to the way he varies the nuance of the little rising figure that's repeated three times towards the end (around 3:44). Gorgeous gorgeous gorgeous.

Monday, September 10, 2012

When music meets story

Ahh, what it is to be a pioneer. A few years ago, Philippe and I bust all our gut strings on the Hungarian Dances project: a novel (mine) about 80 years of cross-currents between Gypsy and classical violin playing, with a CD (his) created specifically, though separately, to match. It was, to the best of our knowledge, the first time that a classical CD had been recorded to partner a contemporary novel (most others were just compilations of pre-existing tracks).

Fortunately, in a few short years, we've had the advent of mass downloads: it's a lot simpler to do this kind of thing now. And it seems we were indeed pioneers. Now they're hitting the shelves thick and fast. I was a tad intrigued when Jodi Picoult (who had the same editor at the same publishing house as I did, btw) put out a CD of country music to accompany her novel Sing You Home. Then there was the business of 50 Shades of Grey and Sperm - oops - Spem in Alium...

But Cecilia Bartoli is going a step further: she has long been the Cleopatra of the concept album and her new disc, Mission, has a new historical mystery novel to be its companion piece, written specially for the purpose, by Donna Leon. Classy. Get a load of this:

Monday, July 23, 2012

Hungarian Dances goes to Buxton

Blazing sunshine, teeming crowds in the Pavilion Gardens, a brass band whiling away the afternoon, cupcakes galore and a crowd of delighted festival-goers - Buxton in its festive spirit, a rare and wonderful Buxton, and a very welcoming one. Above, the Hungarian Dances Concert team outside the Pavilion: pianist Margaret Fingerhut, JD and Bradley Creswick, the violin's answer to Bradley Wiggins. Enormous thanks to Stephen Barlow, Glyn Foley, Jeff and all the festival team, the AA for rescuing Bradley from a glitch on the A1, and whoever it was who sorted out the weather - it was truly a day to remember.

If you were there and you need some info or you want a CD or a book (I regret to say I underestimated demand and didn't bring enough), here are the vitalstatistics:

You can order Hungarian Dances on in paperback, hardback, Kindle e-book or large print. You can also get it in Dutch or Hungarian, and I'm promised that the Romanian edition (!) should be out soon.

A CD to accompany the book was specially recorded a few years ago by the brilliant French violin and piano team Philippe Graffin and Claire Desert. It's available on Onyx Classics, on disc or download. Get it here. The music for the book is all credit to Philippe, who not only dreamed up the idea, but found the perfect piece to represent the fictional concerto in the novel (it's the Dohnanyi that opens the programme).

There's much more info on all of this, plus some nice reviews and a few yummy Hungarian recipes at our designated HUNGARIAN DANCES website, here.

And last, but not least, if you want to book us for a Hungarian Dances concert, drop us a line. Yesterday's programme is 75 mins of music and reading with no interval, and there's also a full evening version in two halves. Apart from anything else, it is great fun. Featured works include Dohnanyi's Andante rubato alla zingaresca, Ravel's Tzigane, Vecsey's Valse Triste, Bartok's Romanian Dances, Hubay's Hejre Kati and Monti's Csardas, among others.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

It's the anniversary of Fauré's death too

Gabriel Fauré died on 4 November 1924.

Here's a little extract from his Piano Quartet in G minor, apparently filmed in Apeldoorn by someone based in Bulgaria. The performers are Philippe Graffin (violin), Asdis Valdimarsdottir (viola), Colin Carr (cello) and Pascal Devoyon (piano). Because listening to Philippe playing Fauré is one of the great joys of life; because turning the pages for Pascal in Messiaen's incredible Visions de l'Amen in St Nazaire was one of the high points of my musical year; and because Gabriel 'The Archangel' Fauré is simply the best; I hope you like it too.

Monday, September 17, 2007

A walk through the end of time...

Back from I'd suspected, my technotwit tendencies (or inadequate laptop) prevented any blogging en route.

My play 'A Walk through the End of Time' was premiered on Saturday as part of the opening night of the Consonances Festival - a privilege indeed, and an astonishing experience.

The Alveole 14 of St Nazaire's former Nazi submarine base eyesore has been renamed LIFE and transformed into a venue for experimental performing arts which turned out to have a startlingly good acoustic; ours was the first show to take place inside it. Actors Marie-Christine Barrault and Charles Gonzales gave their all, director Ilonka van den Bercken from Amsterdam devised some beautiful coups-de-theatre, a young Dutch artist created projected drawings to illustrate the action in real time and the closing performance of the Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time by Charles Neidich, Philippe Graffin, Raphael Wallfisch and Claire Desert was unforgettable. And afterwards the mayor of St Nazaire awarded me a medal. :-)

More pics on my permasite. For the moment, above: the American War Memorial on the beach at St Nazaire; the set inside LIFE; and a would-be playwright with Raphael Wallfisch (left) and Philippe Graffin (right).

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Sticking up for Edu

Everyone else is busy writing about Elgar now. His birthday isn't until next weekend, but here's conductor Sakari Oramo in The Guardian with a ream of good sense. What Elgar needs, he insists, is foreign champions. Dead right. With the same peculiar nationalist whateveritis that insists you have to be Russian to play Rachmaninov, English musicians have tended to prevail in Elgar - whose fault? Promoters? Record companies? Elgar's perceived 'Englishness'? Sakari says something I've been saying for a while, which is that Elgar's music is not particularly English: his principal influences are Strauss, Schumann and Wagner.

Michael Kennedy takes the Englishness line in a different direction in The Telegraph, but I guess he/they would. He begins with 'Windflower', Alice Stuart Wortley, talking about Elgar coming from the heart and soul of England etc etc.

Oh lordy, and The Times says we're wrong to downplay his love of Empire. That's all he needs... but at least they are offering free downloads (only short ones, mind).

Pay your money and take your choice. Or alternatively have a look at my angle on the matter in my archive.

Tasmin Little is going off to the Far East and Australia next week to tour the Elgar Violin Concerto around Kuala Lumpur, Perth, Adelaide and, appropriately enough, Tasmania (which is what will take over Launceston and Hobart when they hear her play!). Meanwhile I missed Philippe Graffin's performance of the piece in its pre-Kreislerised version in Liverpool with the RLPO and Tod Handley on Thursday night. I had to give about a talk about Schumann and Brahms down the road in Manchester at the same time - this went well, by the way. It was in the Bridgewater Hall, one of my favourite venues, combining good modern design, excellent acoustics and a relatively intimate atmosphere. My fellow Indy journalist Lynne Walker and I discussed the cross-currents between the composers and persuaded the resident CD player to cooperate with illustrations now and then.

I'm still overwhelmed with relief when I walk on to a concert platform and find that I do not have to play a piano.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

'Too Much Mozart'

Too Much Mozart, a short story I've written to accompany a new CD of the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante, is now available to read online at my permawebsite: follow the link from the news page. The recording will be released on the Avie label later in the spring and features Philippe Graffin (violin and director), Nobuko Imai (viola) and Het Brabants Orkest; the story will be published in the CD booklet.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

William Wilberforce lives on

Oh, sod it, I've got a new mousemat & keyboard ridge thing, both with a gel support for sore wrists, and if I don't write this up now, I never will. So, let's hear it for Errollyn Wallen (above centre), whose new piece 'Mighty River' nearly brought down William Wilberforce's church on Clapham Common on Saturday night.

The work was commissioned for this very special concert (mentioned on JDCMB last week) commemorating the 200th anniversary of the act of parliament that resulted in the abolition of the slave trade. It opens with a horn solo based on 'Amazing Grace'; as the music progresses, it really is as if you're travelling down a wide, glowing river with a pulse of life entirely its own, observing flashes of detail and beauty and drama that pass by on the rich tapestry all around. The orchestration is luminous, the mood at once expansive and intimate, the influences perhaps more John Adamsy than we'd have expected so far from Errollyn; and the impact was huge. The Philharmonia seems thrilled with it and in a speech later on, their inimitable chief exec David Whelton promised that it'll have plenty more airings, which it should.

And so should the Coleridge-Taylor Violin Concerto, which Philippe played with immense beauty and conviction. The slow movement was applauded in its own right; as it progressed, I could just feel the buzz in the church while everyone asked each other 'Ever heard this thing before? No, nor me, but why not? It's incredible!'

Last but not least, conductor Martyn Brabbins led the whole audience in a new arrangement of 'Amazing Grace' by supertalented Philharmonia fiddler Julian Milone - and as it went down a treat at the end of the first half, we did it again at the end of the second. I was horrified when I saw it on the programme ('what, they want us to sing, are you kidding?!?!?') but soon found myself swept up in the atmosphere of fervour, celebration and sheer humanity. A marvellous, unforgettable evening.

Holy Trinity is a wonderful venue, without a doubt, and the collaboration of church and art is something that even a confirmed atheist/agnostic like me can applaud and encourage. But this programme should take place next somewhere three times the size - ideally the Royal Festival Hall - and as part of the mainstream season. Coleridge-Taylor (above left), having been half African and an idealistic black activist in his day, was a perfect choice for the evening, but the concerto is so wonderful that it should be part of the mainstream repertoire. Go hear it.

It's appalling to reflect that slavery still affects millions of people all over the world. Join the fight for freedom 1807-2007 here.

UPDATE, 1 MARCH, 10.20pm: Bob Morris writes to alert us to this article in the New Yorker about 'Amazing Grace', a new film about William Wilberforce starring Ioan Gruffud. A thought-provoking piece, recommended reading. Thanks, Bob!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Hats off to the Philharmonia

Puzzled as to why the Philharmonia hasn't been shouting about this from the rooftops... here's the link.... Fab reason for concert, a world premiere of a new work by the very cool and humungously talented Errollyn Wallen, a chance to hear Philippe Graffin play the Coleridge-Taylor Violin Concerto in case you missed it at the 05 Proms, the excellent Martyn Brabbins conducts, and it's FREE. You just have to find your way to Clapham Common. Call the box office to reserve tickets.


Holy Trinity Church, Clapham

Sat 24 Feb 2007, 7:30pm
Holy Trinity Church, Clapham, London

Martyn Brabbins conductor
Philippe Graffin violin

BeethovenOverture, Leonore No. 2
Coleridge-TaylorViolin Concerto
BeethovenSymphony No. 3 Eroica: 3rd Movement Marcia Funebre
WallenMighty River (World Premiere)

On Saturday 24 February, the Philharmonia Orchestra and one of Lambeth’s most historic churches, Holy Trinity Church, Clapham, have teamed up to mark the 200th Anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in a special commemorative evening.

Tickets are FREE but ticketed. To reserve your seats please call 0800 652 6717.

There will be a retiring collection and proceeds will go to Holy Trinity Church and Anti-Slavery International.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Trio brio

First, here's the feature I wrote about classical music on Youtube for The Independent - out today.

Elated yet again after the trio concert last night. I love living in London: a city where you can hear Jonas Kaufmann on Saturday, the Menuhin-Graffin-Wallfisch Trio on Sunday, the Razumovsky Ensemble on Tuesday (Wigmore again - be there, they're fab), Juan Diego Florez and Natalie Dessay on Thursday, and the LPO in a new work by John McCabe somewhere in between (regret to say that Tom has 'flu and won't be playing in it).

Back to the trio at the Wigmore. A wonderful concert, full of glorious tone, finely gelled musicianship and a beautiful combination of sparkiness, sensuality and intelligence. Philippe, Raphael and Jeremy are all powerfully individual players, but since they've formed themselves into a regular trio, they've been growing together an exciting, creative way, as the best chamber groups ideally should. The hall was full, the atmosphere was terrific and although the Ravel Trio brought the house down, the opportunity to hear Schumann's Trio No.2 in F minor made the evening all the more significant.

It's incredible: I've never heard this thing before. It brims with Clara-themes and Clara-sighs; there's a quote (?) from the song 'Dein Bildnis', a slow movement to die for and a revelatory third movement that lopes along softly in subtle, mysterious fashion, and rhythms in the first movement that I'm convinced Korngold grabbed. How can it be that I've reached the age I am, fortunate enough to be surrounded by classical music at its finest, and I've never heard this piece? Why on earth doesn't it get played more often?!? Philippe, Raphael and Jeremy did it proud.

Fascinating to reflect that these musicians share one big area of common ground other than music: prodigious families. Raphael is the son of the pianist Peter Wallfisch and cellist Anita Lasker (her memoir is required reading); Philippe's father Daniel Graffin is a fascinating artist; and Jeremy's...well! I can't deal with the psychology of this before I've had my third cup of coffee. Probably not even then. All that matters, though, is that they're great musicians and great guys in their own right.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Sounds from South Africa

Philippe Graffin is currently in Cape Town coaching the Hout Bay String Project. A report from Jan-Stefan's Kloof Street Blog has some pictures and a brief but touching account of what it's been like. The project's own website has a fuller account of its aims and achievements. Here's an extract:

Our orchestra is a vehicle of social upliftment and change. It allows for fundamental communication between individuals. Our teachers have high standards and give of their best and expect the same of the children. We ask children to attend up to five lessons and rehearsals per week. They practice technical exercises and work at their intonation and interpretation, constantly striving to raise their standard of performance. The children experience adults who are willing to invest time and energy in them. Time and time again we see disruptive and angry children become motivated, disciplined, engaged and joyful individuals. These children then become involved in teaching activities at our Project, sharing their knowledge and encouraging others to progress. Some of our children have come from abused backgrounds or have been involved in violence and crime. Music provides drive, focus, passion and moments of beauty in lives where children are often forced to deal with adult issues like despair and abject poverty.
This is admirable and inspiring indeed: see also the astonishing ongoing activities of Buskaid, founded by Rosemary Nalden in Soweto.

I've recently viewed a DVD of a stunning South African reinterpretation of Carmen, U-Carmen, sung in Xhosa and set in a huge township - a version that transposes and sometimes even strengthens the drama, is wonderfully sung and acted, and proved totally convincing. Go see it

UPDATE, 27 November 11.30pm: Jan-Stefan has posted a report about the concert with Philippe yesterday. Great pics.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Letter from St Nazaire #1

And here it is: my first post from anywhere other than my study. Magic, this WiFi business, once you work it out.

Here we are in St Nazaire, fresh off the train from Paris and preparing for evening no.1. Paris was wet, misty, oppressive - though, of course, beautiful as only Paris can be - but here the sea air manages to be crisp and mellow at the same time. The hotel has been wonderfully refurbished since my last visit 2 years ago and now Tom is practising his Mozart quintet. Avec le mute de practice, just in case some of the other string players are within earshot...and there are a few... We arrived just too late to catch the first concert of the evening - two per day, 6pm and 8.30pm - so acquaintance with the Quince Quartet will have to wait for the moment - but the later concert includes Philippe with his regular trio, Jeremy Menuhin and Raphael Wallfisch, in Beethoven's Op.1 No.1 and to close, the Dohnanyi Piano Quintet, which I haven't heard in decades.

My third visit here - so St Nazaire feels almost a home from home. It doesn't win on the Picturesque French Seaside Town stakes, since the Brits carpet-bombed it in the war trying to get rid of the German submarine base - the great concrete hulking eyesore of which has proved indestructible to this day. But there is atmosphere nevertheless; friendliness, enthusiasm for the festival and a flock of volunteers who support the festival with transport etc.

What I'm not used to, though, is feeling nervous. 'My' concert is on Thursday and with any luck I may meet 'my' actress, Marie-Christine Barrault, in about one hour's time. There's not much I can actually do, since the script is written, has been tweaked to accommodate the songs that Francois wants to sing and has now been translated into fine French too. Will the reality remotely match my mental image of LE CHANT DE L'AMOUR TRIOMPHANT? Or have I perhaps written - er - utter claptrap? Will Philippe actually want to walk from the back of the hall up to the stage, playing the fiddle, or is this unworkable? How are they going to get the string quartet on to the platform without holding up the action too much? Will Ruth like the Viardot song I sent her last week? It's all very scary, but up to a point all I can do is leave it to its own devices now....