Showing posts with label Royal Festival Hall. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Royal Festival Hall. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Not quite normal

Back in the Royal Festival Hall: Chineke! takes the stage

I'm astonished to realise that my schedule this past week has been a closish mirror to business as usual - without feeling remotely as if it is. It has included, among other things, a couple of interviews, but on Zoom rather than face to physical face; and two concerts to review, both with world-class performances, but in front of scant, distanced, masked-up audiences, and one evening featuring the new-look pandemic-era 21st-century orchestral layout in which every player has their own music stand. There was even a press launch to "attend" - for the exil.arte centre in Vienna's new exhibition about Jan Kiepura and Martha Eggerth, with their son Marjan and his wife Jane Kiepura taking questions, but beamed in from all corners of Europe and America direct to my study in sunny Sheen. 

I was a guest on Radio 3's Music Matters the other night after the Chineke! concert, but broadcast live from a corner of the Royal Festival Hall that used to be where the receptions were held (Radio 3 is in residence at the hall for a fortnight). Instead of standing with glass in hand gazing out at the London Eye and anticipating a packed-out concert with standing ovation, we were tucked into a corner with tables, microphones and wires, trying to figure out how to get the microphone black foam 'socks' out of their packaging. I caught my 11.03pm train home, but instead of the usual scrummage of passengers sporting theatre programmes, John Lewis bags and excess alcohol-breath, there was...nobody. Nobody else at all. 

It's good that we can find ways, now and then, to keep on keeping on, but my goodness, it's weird. "Are you optimistic for the future?" asked Tom Service on Music Matters. I had to struggle for a few seconds, and then explained that I'm not a particularly optimistic person in any case, but that even if I'm not optimistic per se, I look at the quantity of creativity and invention and adaptability around us and that gives me hope. Hope is different from optimism. 

Here are a few links if you want to read some more or listen back to the broadcast:

Review of Stephen Kovacevich's 80th birthday concert at the Wigmore Hall...

Review of Chineke! at the RFH with Jeneba Kanneh-Mason and more...

BBC Radio 3 Music Matters, live from the Royal Festival Hall...

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Southbank: a love letter



A view from the terrace of the biggest arts centre in the biggest city in Europe,
which ought to be our pride and joy

Dear Southbank Centre,

You are my home-from-home. You have been for 40 years, possibly more. With yesterday's news that you may have to stay closed until April 2021 at least (which I must admit isn't wholly unexpected), there comes a sense of dismay and anxiety that's almost vertiginous even without being compounded by the same fears for the future of Shakespeare's Globe, the National Theatre, the Royal Opera House, the West End, and indeed every other theatre and concert hall in the land. Nobody has yet solved the conundrum of infectious disease versus mass audience versus economics of putting on a show. Trouble is inevitable. That doesn't mean we should just roll over and accept it.

Britain without its arts would be...well, not a lot. We've always been defined by our theatre, our playwrights, our authors, our actors; in recent decades also, at long, long last, by our musicians. Some of the finest in the world are British - not that we always appreciate them enough - and their numbers are swelled by those who have decided to make London their home, in many cases exactly because of its flourishing arts scene. Kill that off and you destroy first of all billions in our economy - guess why tourists come here? It ain't for skiing; secondly, the present and future of dozens of thousands of people whose livelihoods exist in this huge industry (which is worth a lot more in economic terms to the country than fishing); the dreams of generations of young people who find fulfilment, creativity and hope in the arts as nowhere else; and, essentially, anything that still remains of our souls.

Opera North's Ring Cycle, relayed into the foyer from the RFH
Dear Southbank, I remember the first time I was brought to experience you, in particular the Royal Festival Hall. It was a concert by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Rudolf Kempe, with Miriam Freed the violin soloist. My father coached me on the music for a week beforehand, playing me recordings and telling me about the composers: Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and the Dvorak New World Symphony. I remember staring at the flautist in fascination and feeling sorry for her, because she was sitting right in front of some awfully loud brass. Not long afterwards I was in again for my first piano recital - Tamás Vásáry playing the Chopin Waltzes - and a taste of chamber music, in the form of the Amadeus Quartet and William Pleeth in the Schubert Quintet.

That was also the first time I went backstage, and I have no idea how or why we did that, but I do remember circling the RFH's Green Room looking for the quartet members to sign my programme, and William Pleeth looking down from what seemed a very great height with the most benevolent smile in the world. Often I'm in that room twice a week now.

When I was a teenager, the penny dropped in earnest. Or rather, Ernest: the Ernest Reid Children's Concerts. I was first to arrive for our music O level class one day and found myself unexpectedly conscripted: "There's one place free in the choir to sing at the Royal Festival Hall and it goes to the first person to arrive today, which is you...". Actually I can't sing to save my life - but gosh, did I sing then, and wow, did I love it. We performed specially arranged versions of the Fauré Requiem (that was where I got my passion for Fauré, too), the Haydn "Creation" with Sir David Willcocks, Handel's "Messiah", Vivaldi's Gloria and some wonderfully offbeat Christmas carols. There were lightbulbs around the mirrors in the dressing rooms, we were seated on benches beside the mighty organ, and we felt so grown-up. We'd take the tube to Embankment and walk over Hungerford Bridge in the rain and there you were, the RFH, on the far side, sitting proud like a green prize cat with curved back, waiting for us to stroke you.

Then Horowitz came to give his last London recital and I queued up for ages and didn't get in. Howls. But in those teen years I went to other piano recitals that shaped my piano passions for decades. Sviatoslav Richter. Krystian Zimerman (aged 23). András Schiff (aged 28). Maurizio Pollini, Alfred Brendel, Annie Fischer, Imogen Cooper, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Shura Cherkassky, Murray Perahia, Alicia de Larrocha, Emil Gilels, André Tchaikovsky, Mitsuko Uchida, Daniel Barenboim and more - none of them ever forgotten, each of them treasured like a priceless family heirloom that lives on in the heart and the inner ear.

Vladimir Jurowski rehearsing with the LPO
I met some of my dearest friends in your foyers. I remember my first glimpse of some of them. My first love, rounding a pillar in the RFH together with the mutual friend who introduced us. My wonderful colleague and opera-writing partner Roxanna Panufnik in the doorway of the Purcell Room with the mutual friend who introduced us (who was Tasmin Little). The party in the Chelsfield Room after a London International Piano Competition final where my former piano teacher taunted me "go and mingle, you've got the best chat-up line in the room!" and I met several people who are still dear friends now. And on the stage, a violinist I watched for years in his orchestra, thinking "he looks nice" before we ever met, let alone got married. The first time I did meet Tom I didn't recognise him at first. It was only after two weeks that he invited me to one of his concerts and I thought "oh, it's him?". Because I'd only ever seen him in profile, playing in the first violin section of the LPO.

I well remember the controversies and infighting of the early nineties, rumbling forth during my days as assistant editor on various music magazines. The time the Tory government decided to try to kill off one of the orchestras and mercifully failed (this incident ended up nicknamed the 'Hoffnung Report' after the musical satirist). The time the poor old RPO was hideously penalised for daring to have made a commercial recording called Hooked On Classics and had its grant sliced to little bits. The time the LPO had to appoint a principal conductor too fast and ended up with someone who seemed frankly worse than most.

Federico Colli and JD with the Critics' Circle Award 2019
I've stood or sat on your stages myself, and not only as a singing kid. I found myself doing things beyond my wildest dreams. The pre-concert talk to introduce the UK premiere of Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane, the opera I never imagined I would be lucky enough to hear live. A pre-concert interview with Krystian Zimerman, who unexpectedly transformed himself into the sharpest comedian in town; I became the fall guy, asking the straight questions to which his answers and the way he timed them had people rolling in the aisles. Then last year I had to make a little speech at a Philharmonia concert, presenting pianist Federico Colli with the Critics' Circle Emerging Artist Award (see pic above). Here is where great musicians begin to reach their audiences and can bring them insight, inspiration and wonderful memories...

It's not all a rose garden out there, of course. For the last several years, it's struck me that visiting you is a little bit like being St George and battling the dragon for entry to the castle, because between platform 19 at Waterloo and your side entrance there are about 10 different ways one can be killed, but it is worth it every time. You can be run down in the station by the crowds going the other way, you can fall down the front stairs in that crowd, you can be run over by lorries or motorbikes zooming round the roundabout, or by taxis and bicycles on Belvedere Road or skateboarders crashing into you pretty much anywhere. Then you have to get past the food market which is so tempting that in five minutes it can empty your wallet and burst your buttons. Once one is lucky enough to reach the foyer, the Long Bar can be a welcome sight. During the daytime, since the austerity governments started cutting stuff, the open-to-all free-wifi foyer life has become a haven not only for the London creatives and freelancers who give the atmosphere such a buzz, but also for the dispossessed, the homeless and young families who have nowhere else to go and play. Some people object to this, but perhaps those individuals should stop voting in the governments that have produced the situation.

None of this is helped by those contrarian pundits who this week said a) theatre's dying, "*whispers* good" (an actual tweet by a right-wing rag's arts editor, who probably adored the massive outrage he caused), and b) kill off the Southbank and put it out to "private tender" (hello? this is the biggest arts centre in the biggest city in Europe, with a mission to serve its public, so what are you even talking about?). Can you imagine a sports editor saying "it's about time we killed off football"? It's a shoddy, miserable, wanton look to kick something or someone when they're down; and at a time when an unelected aid gets to address the nation from the Downing Street rose garden to say why it is apparently OK for him to undermine the health rules, it also shows that arrogant squandering of hard-won advantage has become a way of life here. That's almost as dangerous and destructive as the virus itself. But remember: every dog has its day. There is a thirteenth circle of hell ready and waiting to hand out its keys.

Really we should all be pulling together at the moment. We have to save the arts, because they will be saved: as a dear friend reminded me last night, from the slough of despond, theatre has been with us since ancient Greece and isn't going away any time soon. The same is true of music. We can and will make music at home. Sales of digital pianos are apparently soaring. Instruments are coming out of cases after lying untouched for years while the rat-race claimed us. Tideovers are possible online: tonight I am hosting a discussion about Beethoven for Garsington Opera and the Royal Philharmonic Society which was going to be in a theatre but has now been reconstituted via Zoom and can hence be watched by our friends all over the world. There will be a way - even if everything looks hopeless right now.

But mess with the Southbank and you mess with much more than brutalist architecture. You mess with people's entire lives, their inner landscapes, their souls. Take all those favourite memories, as above, and multiply them by millions. For every music-lover who lives here or visits here will have a store of them just as large, and there are millions, all about listening to the world's greatest musicians in these spaces and keeping their performances alive in their hearts ever afterwards, just as I do.

Take that away and those musicians, those audiences and that inspiration won't return. Squander our advantage, won after many, many decades of hard work and devotion, and it's gone for good. So let us keep our concert halls and theatres. And let us bloody well find ways to make them work again.

Much love,
Jess.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Jurowski's Tchaikovsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

"A gaping hole in the heart of British choral music"

I don't think I'm the only person who's currently so cheesed off with the behaviour of our dear country on the international stage that I've been feeling disinclined to listen to any British music. This is not good. Brexit isn't the fault of our composers - anything but. Therefore I'm making an effort to get back to them and I've asked William Vann to write us a guest post about Hubert Parry's oratorio Judith, which he is conducting at the London English Song Festival at the Royal Festival Hall on 3 April, no matter what happens on 29 March. He tells me this will be the work's first airing in London since the 19th century and that its neglect seems to him to be "a gaping hole in the heart of British choral music". Nevertheless, you might find some of it sounds familiar...

Please read on, have a listen and (unless you're in Great Malvern that night for the Schumann Violin Concerto) do give the concert a whirl. If you can't make it, watch out for the recording in due course. JD



‘It is the offspring not only of a finished musician but of a cultivated thinker. For such a possession art is the better and England the richer.’ Charles Villiers Stanford writing on Judith, 1888.

Hubert Parry,
younger than we usually think of him
2018, the year of the centenary of his death, saw a widespread reawakening of interest in the music of Hubert Parry, including the release of three discs of his complete English Lyrics on SOMM Recordings. Yet, particularly in the world of choral music, many of his large-scale works were overlooked in favour of well-known classics, such as the Songs of FarewellBlest Pair of Sirens, or I Was Glad.

The London English Song Festival’s performance of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s oratorio Judith on 3 April promises to be one of the most important revivals of English music for many years. A work of considerable stature and irresistible quality, Judith has not been performed in the UK since the 1950s; in London its last performance was at St James’s Hall in 1889 - 130 years ago! It has never been recorded. Parry was the master of large choral and orchestral forces, and Judith features spine-tingling choruses and a dramatic story. It was an overwhelming success in Victorian England, performed by some of that era’s greatest musicians all over the UK, and it contains the melody that later, under the name Repton, became the famous hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.

George Grove appointed Parry as the Royal College of Music’s professor of composition and musical history in 1883, and he was finally able to put his unhappy career in insurance (he had been underwriter at Lloyd's of London from 1870 to 1877) behind him. The 1880s was a decade when he emerged as a composer of stature, with a reputation as a symphonist and as writer of choral music. His dramatic cantata, Scenes from Prometheus Unbound, had been performed at the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival of 1880 and he was again commissioned to write a short choral work for the Gloucester festival in 1883. Blest Pair of Sirens of 1886, setting Milton’s ‘At a solemn musick’ was commissioned by Stanford and the London Bach Choir to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and was received with adulation by the public and critics alike.


Shortly afterwards, Parry was commissioned by the great triennial festival at Birmingham to write  a large-scale oratorio. Extensive choral participation was part of the brief: the Birmingham committee insisted on, as Parry put it, ‘regular oratorio’, and after much thought he settled on the dramatic story of Judith during the reign of the repentant Jewish king, Manasseh. After some wrangling with the Birmingham committee, Judith was performed on 29 August under the direction of the festival conductor, Hans Richter.

Parry's new oratorio was well received and was soon taken up by choral societies around Britain, notably in Edinburgh, London, Cambridge, Gloucester, Bristol and Oxford. The work contains many impressive choral movements, particularly in such numbers as ‘Our king is come again’ and the final fugue (‘Put off, O Jerusalem’) and the solo work is thrilling. The hymn tune Repton originated in the ballad of Meshullemeth, the queen-mother (‘Long since in Egypt’s plenteous land’), who sings of the early Israelite history to her children.

It seems that Judith fell out of favour and fashion, along with much of Parry’s music, after his death. The next generation of composers took British classical music in a new direction: no bad thing, but with hindsight it was a pity that much of the finest of late 19th century music was discarded. The more I studied the score, playing through sections of choruses and arias with groups of singers, the more I grew to regard the neglect of this work as a gaping hole in the heart of British choral music.

And so, on Wednesday 3 April 2019, at Royal Festival Hall (an organ is crucial to a full performance!), Judith will receive its first London performance since the 19th century and its first UK performance within living memory. The soloists will be Sarah Fox as Judith (she features on discs 2 & 3 of the SOMM English Lyrics, as it happens), Kathryn Rudge as Meshullemeth, Toby Spence as Manasseh and Henry Waddington as High Priest of Moloch & Messenger of Holofernes. We will go on to record it for Chandos Records later in the month. I am thrilled to be conducting the four of them alongside the London Mozart Players, Crouch End Festival Chorus and a superb chorus of children, specially selected for the occasion. Join us!

William Vann

[Heard this tune somewhere before?]



Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Children of the Stars



"There is no boundary of difference... different skin, different religion, or different culture - we are all children of the stars."

Here's a fascinating interview with the Korean composer Unsuk Chin, who has a major European premiere in London next week under the auspices of the Philharmonia Orchestra. She talks about her studies with György Ligeti ("He opened my eyes and my mind"), her compositional processes ("I need 3-4 years to get the idea clear") and the blend of science and art that has gone into this huge new work. She collected 150 poems first and finally selected 12-13 variously about the birth of the universe, humanity and eternity.

The resulting different songs/movements span centuries and continents, all of them exploring the idea that we are, essentially and all of us, the substance that comes from a star. Chin says here that she reads about astronomy every day and that it brings her "hope in this world". It's an optimistic work. "My dream is to perform this piece with mixed north and south Korean boys' choir - I don't know if it will be possible, but I have hope."

Is it the Big Bang? "Not that big," Chin smiles, "but I wanted to create...a very big sound with lots of power..."

Unsuk Chin's Le chant des Infants des Etoiles (The Song of the Children of the Stars) receives its European premiere on 15 April at the Royal Festival Hall, with the Philharmonia, the Philharmonia Voices and Trinity Boys Choir conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Tickets here.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Good for Goode

Richard Goode. Photo: Steve Riskind
Richard Goode cast Beethoven and Chopin in a long shaft of light from Bach's most audacious and complex keyboard Partita, No.6 in E minor. I reviewed his recital in the Southbank's International Piano Series last night for The Arts Desk. Read it here. 


With Goode, a recital is all about the music (that might sound like stating the obvious, but one can’t guarantee it with every pianist these days). The veteran American has an unassuming stage presence, taking to the piano as if sitting down to demonstrate a musical point to friends in his own living room. There is nothing flamboyant in his manner, nor in his musical concepts: simply the sense that he has lived with this music for decades and is pleased to play it for us. He uses a well-thumbed score and a page-turner; no Lisztian feats of memory, and no iPad. The magic is in the tone itself...

PS: Goode turns 74 today. Happy birthday to a much-loved maestro of the piano.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Rafael Payare goes Russian


Tonight at the Royal Festival Hall, the conductor Rafael Payare joins me on stage for a pre-concert interview about his life and work, his training in El Sistema and this evening's programme of Russian music: Prokofiev's 'Classical' Symphony and the Violin Concerto No.1 and Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Frank Peter Zimmermann is the violin soloist. Do come along if you can. Talk starts at 6pm and concert at 7.30pm. Tickets here.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Valentine for a favourite film


Having not previously experienced one of the talkies-with-live-music events that have become so popular since digital technology enabled them to exist, I went to see Brief Encounter with real-time Rachmaninoff at the Royal Festival Hall the other night. Digital transformation involves the careful stripping out of the music while leaving the voices in place; it's so detailed that 60 seconds takes a day to do. Striking the balance in the hall between the volume of the soundtrack and the live music isn't easy either, but the effect is so absorbing and compelling that we can forgive the occasional "what did she say?" for the gorgeous horn-playing or clarinet solo that might mask a couple of seconds.

Alexandra Dariescu with a creation of her own.
Photo: BBC Music Magazine
And jolly lovely it was, y'know... First we had the complete Piano Concerto No.2 with soloist Alexandra Dariescu making her debut at the hall and with the LPO. She offered a near-ideal balance of heart and head, with plenty of excitement and lyricism matched by beautiful tone, intelligent voicing and excellent musical narrative even without that of Noel Coward. And as Eileen Joyce, the legendary Australian pianist for the original film, used to do, she even changed her dress in the interval. Dirk Brossé conducted with reasonable attentiveness. It's no small feat to play the whole concerto in a "real" interpretation and follow it immediately with bleeding chunks, timing determined by (I guess) a click-track, and everyone rose to the task magnificently.

Celia Johnson's daughter, the actress Lucy Fleming, introduced the evening, telling us about her mother's memories of the filming: the cold early mornings at the station pervaded by the smell of the fish train from Aberdeen; the enormous challenge of playing a role that involves large tracts of silence with a narration over the top; and Noel Coward's absolute insistence, when others tried to demur from using that concerto, that nothing could happen without the Rachmaninoff - that Laura's character is circumscribed by the facts that "she changes her library book at Boots, she eats at the Kardomah and she listens to Rachmaninoff"...

Of course! Where would we be without Rachmaninoff? The music creates perhaps 85 per cent of the film's emotional world. The little town it shows us, otherwise, is cold, small, mean. Everything is based in deadened routine: putting on the wireless, picking up the embroidery or the Times Crossword, the Thursday ritual of going into Milford, chatting to acquaintances you can't stand and who haven't an interesting thought in their heads, going to the cinema no matter what's on, laughing at the Mighty Wurlitzer, and then the cup of tea at the station where the staff never say hello even though they see you every single Thursday and try to make life a little bit harder for you because it's their job (Beryl swings her keys at Laura with such relish). The one sign of passion is Alec's devotion to his work in preventive medicine; as he describes it Laura falls for him, perhaps because she has never seen anyone express such aliveness before.

We never really know Alec, though, or Laura either: only the tip of the iceberg, plus their eyes. Laura is Celia Johnson's eyes and Rachmaninoff. Everything in the movie happens at a tangent - the shadows of Alec and Laura in the station underpass, the chilly stone bridges, the snide and hypocritical "friends", and even Laura's impossibly cute kids are filmed from off-beat angles. ("My birthday's in June and there aren't any pantomimes in June," says little Margaret in expert plummy tones. Apparently the little girl was actually Celia Johnson's niece.)

Only the Rachmaninoff is direct. And we love it and we weep because there is so much love in there, being squashed to extinction by that ghastly, two-faced provincialism and hypocrisy that Coward captures to perfection. Remember, Coward was gay and homosexuality was illegal. The whole thing is an analogy of illicit love, with its truth spark buried deep.

Odd to think that that world-in-black-and-white represents to some the sort of nostalgia that's sparked the ludicrous prospect of Brexit. Love will go away from us forever on the 5.43pm train and we will never get it back because we're worried about what other people will think if we try. What could be more British than that?

Dated? Not necessarily. Quite a few people, not least in the orchestra, were seeing that film for the first time and it won a lot of new friends.

Friday, November 11, 2016

About that new concert hall...

The Paris Philharmonie. We want one too! Photo: Charles Platiau

It's dead - supposedly. Theresa May's government recently decided Rattle Hall, or The Centre for Music to use its official title, wasn't "value for money" for the taxpayer (though this, one presumes, depends which taxpayers you ask). In today's Times, Richard Morrison points out that that doesn't mean it's not going to happen: it's just that it will have to be funded entirely by private money, and possibly by someone who might roll up loving Sir Simon Rattle enough to stump up a few hundred million. Well, we can dream...

The news has been greeted with a peculiar mixture of anger, relief and cynicism, and while the prevailing anxieties are Brexit and Trump, nobody seems able to get excessively worked up about it. Yes, we need a new orchestral concert venue in London because the acoustics in the Barbican and the Royal Festival Hall really are several hundred light years away from today's state of the art possibilities, which are exemplified by the work of Mr Toyota. There's only a limited amount of good that their expensive refits could do them; the RFH is now over-clinical, with funny bass-treble balance in some parts of the hall, and the Barbican is louder without being warmer. But the Museum of London site is far from ideal. If we're to have a truly world-class new hall, please can we get it right this time?

What concerned me the most about the plans, as far as they went, was in fact not the location, nor the argument that the money would be better spent on music education - it never would have been in any case (different budgets). Arguably the hall would have been a major incentive to improve music education locally, if not nationally, since it would have provided top-notch facilities to be used by schools and young people and - crucially - sent out a positive and encouraging message about the value of the arts to society, the exact opposite of what pulling the plug does. Parties of children could have flocked there daily on "enrichment" projects.

No, the worrying thing was the implication for the rest of London - indeed, the rest of the country. A new hall has to be built. After that, it has to be run. And where does the money come from to do that?  Yes, government. What is the government doing to the arts? It is cutting their budget. Is there any prospect of that changing? Not while this lot is in power. So where would that money come from? Other organisations, run from the same budget, being slashed, obvs.

Musicians and audiences in London want, need and deserve a hall to match the finest in Tokyo, Berlin and Paris. What we don't want is an organisation that comes to life by snuffing out the competition. Whatever their limitations, we wouldn't be happy to see the Royal Festival Hall stripped of its orchestral programmes, which are already somewhat reduced, or the Barbican put entirely out to pasture, or ENO killed off; if that were the price for the Centre for Music, it would indeed be too high. Arts in the "regions" are to be a greater priority now - and quite right, too - but London is a massive city, and growing fast (unless we lose a six-figure number of bankers as they shift to Paris and Frankfurt post-Brexit, which could happen), and can easily support as many arts organisations as it has, and more. Especially since we expect a steady influx of tourists who can now come over more easily because of our tanking currency, and are definitely not heading here to bask on a beach.

If the new hall were to be built, with private money, in an ideal world it would be an "as well as" rather than an "instead of". As long as that is the case, it would be much better that it happened than that it didn't.

But we can't predict anything now, things being as they are, so the whole idea may yet remain one more vape dream: an empty gesture, stripped of substance.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

How Marin is changing the world

A few weeks ago I went to listen to Marin Alsop giving masterclasses for young women conductors and had a terrific interview with her. She is not one to pull her punches on "the women conductors thing". The piece is in the Independent today, ahead of her concerts with the OAE in Basingstoke on Thursday and the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday - the one with the Schumann Violin Concerto.

I'm delighted to say that she and I will be on BBC Radio 4 'Woman's Hour' tomorrow to talk about the story of the Schumann Violin Concerto. Plus I'm now joining the panel for the pre-concert talk at the RFH on Saturday (5.45pm) where we'll be discussing music, mental illness, Schumann, the Concerto and more.

Here's a taster of the article and you can read the rest here.

Marin Alsop's selfie at the Last Night of the Proms
Some conductors who are female are outraged if one raises “the women conductors thing”. Why are we still talking about this? Isn't it time to forget it and just get on with making music? Alsop, though, faces the issue head on – and she is perfectly happy to bring it out into the open. 

“People ask why a course like this is necessary, and I think it's a disingenuous question,” she says. “It's only necessary because of the reality. It's not something I'm making up. I'm just reacting to the landscape.” There is no point, she suggests, trying to deny that there are too few women conductors, or that they face problems different from those experienced by their male colleagues – both in terms of that glass ceiling protecting prestigious posts and in how the details of their artistry are perceived.

“Because I have quite a thick skin, I don't mind being the one out front, trying to elbow my way in,” she adds. “But I think, as that person out front, it's important for me to create a pathway for people coming through. I don't want it to be so hard for the next generations.”

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Heart of darkness

Barenboim in concert at the RFH. Photo: Chris Christodoulou
Yes, it's him again. Them. Barenboim and that piano. I reviewed the final recital of the Schubert series last night for The Arts Desk - and a very extraordinary evening it was.

I'm normally loathe to use imagery quite as colourful as suggesting that a pianist becomes Orpheus and leads us across the Styx, but how else to convey in words with reasonable accuracy the effect of what he did with the slow movement of the B flat Sonata? He went right into the work's darkest recesses and drew from it something resembling catharsis in the ultimate sense. I don't think I'll be able to listen to the piece again for quite a while, so strong was this. Read the whole thing here.

Incidentally, I had a fascinating little chat with the piano technician Peter Salisbury, who has been helping with maintaining the newbie instrument through the series. I've rarely seen any piano expert quite so fired up about anything. Apparently the action on the Barenboim-Maene piano is not lighter than a "normal" concert grand - it is as heavy, or heavier, he says - and it is not easier to play, but more difficult, and takes a lot of getting used to; yet the rewards are still emerging in terms of colour and seem to hold endless potential.

Last week Barenboim gave the Edward W. Said London Lecture at the Mosaic Rooms. You can find a video of it and the Q&A that followed online at the London Review of Books, here. The lecture focused on...

Music education. Its crucial, essential nature. The necessity for music to be taught in schools 'on a par with mathematics or biology'. So there. Listen up, politicos.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Comeback for Kyung Wha Chung!

The great violinist Kyung Wha Chung is making a comeback at the Royal Festival Hall with a recital on 2 December, after more than a decade of absence. Here she talks frankly about her life, work and music, the prospect of returning and the injury which kept her off stage for so long. It's wonderful to see her back again. With pianist Kevin Kenner she will perform works by Mozart, Prokofiev, Bach and Franck. Book now for the concert, here.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Pinky

I caught Pinchas Zukerman for a chat when he was in town giving masterclasses at Cadogan Hall not long ago. He is a mesmerising person on stage, holding forth to the audience and students alike with his memories and anecdotes about the great musicians with whom he studied, and the youngsters who were playing to him seemed to be lapping up his every word. The violin's history is aural, in more ways than one: this is how its traditions, secrets and marvels are passed down most effectively. “My teacher, Ivan Galamian, used to say that if it sounds good, you feel good,” Zukerman told us all. “I’d put it the other way too: if it feels good, it’ll sound good.”

He's back in the UK with his NAC Orchestra this week and I have a short piece in today's Indy about what they're doing, where and why...






After the outbreak of World War I, some 30,000 Canadian troops came to the UK and underwent military training on Salisbury Plain. Now a Canadian orchestra is following in their footsteps – at least as far as the town’s cathedral. Ottawa’s National Arts Centre Orchestra plays there on 29 October, part of a tour in which they celebrate the links between the two countries. At the helm is their music director Pinchas Zukerman, one of today’s most celebrated violinists and a dab hand, too, with the conductor’s baton.

Zukerman, 66, started out as a child prodigy in his native Israel, where the influential violinist Isaac Stern spotted him and encouraged him to study in New York; he rose to stardom during the 1960s-70s. Today, though, there is still a pugnacious energy about him, an unshakeable determination to forge ahead with big ideas. I catch him after a masterclass at London’s Cadogan Hall and find him still afizz despite a long day’s work.

“Canada feels very passionately about this anniversary,” Zukerman declares. “One of the high points for the orchestra is of course performing at Salisbury Cathedral, and with my connection with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra [he is its principal guest conductor] it also seemed the perfect idea to do a concert with both orchestras together at the Royal Festival Hall.” In that concert on 27 October, the ensembles combine for Beethoven’s Symphony No.9, which concludes with the ‘Ode to Joy’. 

During his 15 years at the NAC – this is his final season – Zukerman has shaken up the orchestra, expanding it to more than 60 players and implementing a pioneering programme of education and outreach work, including experiments in video-conferencing and distance learning. 

“When you are lucky enough to have the kind of education I had and the kind of exposure to the great figures of music, then if you’re capable of it, you have to give back what you received,” he says. “I was fortunate to encounter the greatest musicians, not only as mentors and teachers, but also as players: Isaac Stern, some of the Budapest String Quartet’s members, the list is huge. You absorb information that you can’t really write down. You have to show, you have to play, you have to exhibit yourself, so to speak, to the youngsters – and they eat it up.” 

Nor are his efforts restricted to advanced students. He recalls an occasion when he played the Brahms lullaby to a children’s music class taken by a former pupil of his wife (the NACO’s lead cellist Amanda Forsyth, his third marriage). “Afterwards one little boy said: ‘I’m on fire!’. God, that was fantastic.” 

And he has encouraging words for those struggling to keep music education alive. Teaching effectively and transforming a pupil “takes time, proper teaching and follow-up,” he says. “We need to create coalitions, work together and share information. But we’re not only teaching them to be good players. We’re teaching them to be good people.”


Pinchas Zukerman and the NAC Orchestra perform with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on 27 October at the Royal Festival Hall (0844 875 0073), and at Salisbury Cathedral (01722 320 333) on 29 October

Here they are in a spot of Mozart...