Showing posts with label Sir Simon Rattle. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sir Simon Rattle. Show all posts

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Rattle's return: a young composer's view

Culture shouldn't be just a feather in the country's cap - it's the cap itself, says Jack Pepper, 18-year-old composer and writer, in this guest post on the return of Simon Rattle and what this means for his generation. Go, Jack! 
JD



Upping the Tempo
Jack Pepper

Portrait of Rattle by Sheila Rock (licensed to Warner Classics)

Say what you will about the PR drive surrounding Sir Simon Rattle’s return to London. We need classical musicians who can grab the headlines and capture the imagination of the public. Let’s just hope we ride the crest of this wave

Exhibitions of “photos and memorabilia covering Sir Simon Rattle’s musical life to date”. A “large-scale projected artwork” that reduces his form “to a series of animated dots”. And even a screening of Henry V, with the score performed by the maestro himself. If you were an alien landing in London today, you might wonder whether you were encountering the propaganda of some vast autocratic state, or perhaps be fooled into thinking that classical music had produced its own A-List Hollywood movie. But even with eyes that are so myopic they won’t allow me to see my feet from where I stand, I can see that the London Symphony Orchestra is making the most of its new Music Director. And why not?

Rarely has the classical music world seemed so feverishly excited in my 18 years on the planet. As a young teenager tentatively exploring classical music for myself, everything seemed just a tad sterile. Serious, even. Perhaps it would be going too far to say that everyone seemed bored, but to a ten-year-old the classical world appeared, well, indifferent. In reality, classical musicians and music-lovers are never indifferent, but appearances count for a lot when it comes to engaging new audiences. Despite numerous scandals and intriguing personalities, the public rarely hear of classical musicians from the mainstream news. This contributes to an image of sterility, of distance, even if it is far from true.

Whilst my friends would be hyper at the release of a new iPhone, ecstatic at the thought of a new Bond, and positively overwhelmed by the prospect of a wireless speaker, I looked at the classical world and found that its own most publicised stirrings consisted of an elderly female pianist pirating old records and the frequently acerbic response of audiences to the latest opera production that happened to show a nude singer. Whilst a 1920s silent movie would never have shown such exposure, it would be hard to avoid it in the latest Bond release; yet classical audiences seem consistently irritated by similar things. 

Of course, the news hadn’t made me aware of Darmstadt, or of any of the other seismic revolutions that rocked classical music as a force for change. Old habits seemed to die hard, and with its penchant for tradition – constantly wearing dinner jackets and sure to hiss the latest opera production - the classical world on the surface seemed rather glued to routine.  

But it is true that some constants have damaged classical music for too long. If horror at the pettiest of nude ‘outrages’ was regular, genuine excitement seemed equally regularly hard to come by at first glance. I would watch the latest BBC coverage of the Proms to find the presenter insisting that they were all having “a great party”, whilst looking more like they were at a wake. Dig deep and you find huge excitement in classical circles, but this was not regularly communicated on the surface level that any new audience would first see. To a newcomer, didn’t it all seem just a tad rigid? We seemed so busy insisting that we were excited by a new piece that we forgot to appear genuinely excited. To a young person surrounded by glaring digital billboards advertising the latest Tom Cruise blockbuster, the classical music world seemed – to judge by its sparse mainstream coverage alone – decidedly fixed in its ways.

Rattle could not have come at a better time. Not only can he change public perceptions of classical music, nor can he only change the way seasoned music-lovers view their art form, but he can also tackle political indifference. It is disturbing that the arts seem so often to be a mere feather in a national cap, and not the cap itself; for too long, we have been reading articles crying despair at British cuts to arts funding, seen images of the latest American orchestra to close, and (most likely didn’t) read how most UK political parties entirely overlooked the arts in their manifestos in the 2017 General Election. When so many public personalities – faces we see every day on the news, and who influence everything from arts funding to public perceptions – seem so adamantly against the arts, we need a cultural figurehead who can take a stand. If politics are indifferent to music, then music must never appear indifferent to itself. It must never just ‘accept’. Classical music needs a politician, but if it can’t have one in politics, why can’t it have one in music?

The problem is clear. The world of classical music seemed indifferent to itself when I first started exploring its treasures not because it genuinely was ambivalent, but because its public image was stuffy, traditional and old-fashioned. Of course it has its peculiarities, like an audience’s strange aversion to sniffing, sneezing and any other sign of human life at a concert. We should be willing to admit this. But the classical music world is not stuffy. It was only my subsequent experience of meeting musicians, going backstage and getting involved that showed me nothing could be further from the truth. But we need someone out there saying it.

With Simon Rattle, we have a fantastic opportunity to present a rejuvenated image of classical music to new audiences who, like I was as a young child, may be intrigued by the wonders of this genre but hesitant to go further simply because it seems so daunting. If politicians and the mainstream media seem indifferent to the arts, the arts world must redouble its efforts to demonstrate the passion that it undoubtedly has. Rattle should be a kick up not just our own classical derrières, encouraging us to spread our passion to all, but also up the political rear as a reminder that this genre does have its own powerful figureheads. Yes, Rattle’s return has been coupled with a strangely omnipresent and marketing-speak PR campaign, but if it gets people talking about classical music, then consider it a job well done.

Our passion and our determination to open the arts to all must never be restricted to purely musical circles, where we are at risk of preaching solely to the converted. Someone like Sir Simon Rattle can remind us all why we adore this genre, and bring our love of classical music to everyone. That’s worth a PR campaign.
Jack Pepper



Friday, September 15, 2017

Rattle's big night

Rattle and the LSO.
Photo: Doug Peters/PA

THIS IS RATTLE. The posters greet you at the main entrance, on the programme cover, everywhere around the Barbican. And the first sound that meets your ears is of children singing. The foyer is crammed with opening-night concert-goers gazing up at a choir of primary-school kids on the balcony showing off their musical skills to the manner born. It's a great way to start the big night that marks the opening of Sir Simon Rattle's long-awaited return to Britain as music director (yes, music director, not chief conductor) of the London Symphony Orchestra. Explore their website to read about the plans for innovative digital work, outreach, British music focuses, streaming, filming and even some rather fine concerts. These are going to be exciting times, or so one might hope.

"This is music, this is what we believe.
Music is for everybody, music is a right.
It's the air we breathe, the water we drink." 
--- Sir Simon Rattle

Rattle has been on the TV, on the airwaves, in the newspapers. He only has to sneeze for it to make the headlines, it seems. Having a household name at the head of the LSO can only be a good thing for musical life here. And his chosen opening night programme was something that probably no other conductor could get away with and end up still speaking to the management: a musical marathon of five works by British composers, four of them alive and kicking hard, two of them present to take their bows, and among them names of the type that in other settings sometimes strike fear and paralysis into the hearts of potential attendees. Not so here: the crowd, if occasionally bemused and unquestionably challenged, at worst read its programmes and at best positively lapped up the craggy music by Helen Grime, Thomas Adès, Harrison Birtwistle and Oliver Knussen before relaxing into the sunlit garden of Elgar's Enigma Variations. If there was champagne for the musical soul of London, food for thought was never far away.

The first half could scarcely have been better chosen. First was a new work commissioned by the Barbican for the LSO, a five-minute piece by Grime named 'Fanfare' - but 'Overture' might have been better, since it seems to contain the seeds of much more than its moniker suggests. Vivid string syncopations and starbursts of percussion made celebratory noises, but the wide-ranging imagination in terms of forces mingling - whether punchy musical motifs or glitter-rich orchestration - suggested there is plenty to build on and possibly expand.

The young Simon Rattle, portrait by Norman Perryman
Adès's Asyla is 20 years old: a tried and tested piece of diamond-hewn musical ammunition, premiered by Rattle in Birmingham back in the day, and since then played all over the world. That probably gives it 'modern classic' status, but it only becomes more startling on repeated hearing. Its swirling dreamscapes, its visionary, passacaglia-like slow movement, the simultaneous unfolding of extraordinary ideas one on top of another, the adopting of club music techniques (the programme includes a story from Adès about how writing this passage landed him in hospital with a suspected heart attack) - all of this sounds more original, fresher and more bizarre every time around. The piece can sparkle a little bit more than it did last night, perhaps - I've heard tenser, tauter accounts - but placing it centre stage was absolutely the right thing to do.

Christian Tetzlaff was the soloist for Birtwistle's Violin Concerto of 2009-10, which shows the doyen of British composers in relatively mellow mode. While the orchestration has a dark, cave-like spaciousness and resonance, or sometimes moves like a leviathan in the deep (the tuba writing helps), Tetzlaff was caramel-toned over the top, a poet amid a mass that sometimes comprehends, other times discusses, and often serves to offset the eloquent tenderness of his thoughts. It's a collaborative concerto, essentially: wind players emerge from the ranks to set up solo spots alongside the violinist one at a time, and Tetzlaff did all he could to spur them into playful musical discussion. The octogenarian composer, who today somewhat resembles a comfortable, shuffly polar bear, took his bow to a respectful ovation.

Oliver Knussen's Symphony No.3 is a short three-movement work of sensitive, moody, atonal architecture, begun when the composer was all of 21 in the early 1970s, and completed in 1979. Rattle tackled it with enormous affection, shaping and pacing it splendidly. If it proved one big chew too many for a single evening, probably few would have admitted it yesterday; we could reflect, instead, on why it is that when there are so many fine pieces of modern British music in existence, we can wait years for them to return, then get three at once (London buses, etc...).

It's also intriguing to think that while the idiom of this music was fully current by 1973, that was almost a half-century ago - yet the basic style of what's thought of today as mainstream British modern music has not changed much. The finest voices within it are individual and distinctive, and produce occasional masterpieces. But now, one could reasonably contend, isn't it time to move on?

Settling into Elgar's Enigma Variations after all of this was like stepping out of a deep lake onto dry land. The sense of gravity is transformed. Your breathing changes. You know where your feet are. Rattle's account of the variations homed in on the affection of the composer for his "friends pictured within" - and he coaxed the LSO strings into some Seidel-esque marvels on the G string in "RPA", a hush to end all hushes at the start of "Nimrod", an elusive, butterflyish, cherishable delicacy in "Dorabella" and a moment of anguish for "***" on her long sea voyage - for everybody, there must be one that got away. The finale was a giant musical bear-hug. The orchestra, playing its many socks off for its new boss, blossomed and shone; and the hall, too, was full of friends - friends of music and art and joy. If anything represents hope in Brexit Island today, it's the return of Rattle.

And there's that elephant stalking the corners of the room. The ambition expressed in the Barbican last night is vast: new initiative will follow new initiative and even the new hall was spoken of as a budding reality - though a lot of money still has to be found through donors and sponsorship to make it happen. Nobody said what many of us are thinking: how on earth are we going to manage any of this after Brexit?

What will happen to the LSO's large contingent of European players? What will happen to international touring if we end up with visas, customs and tariffs even to travel a couple of hours to Paris or Amsterdam? How can we continue to attract the world's greatest soloists if the pound plummets still further and our fees can't remain even slightly competitive on the world stage? Would Sir Simon have come back at all if he'd known Brexit was going to happen? (They asked him this on the TV news. He said it would have "given me pause".) It's possible, of course, that our civil servants, working behind the scenes, can avert a worst-case, crash-out Brexit, but there's scant sign of competence, understanding or realism among the front-bench politicians who seem hell-bent on driving us smack into the cliff-face, determined to sacrifice everything of the public good to a public opinion formed on the basis of proven lies.

Welcome home, Sir Simon.


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Friday, April 01, 2016

Shock: London's new concert hall to be crowdfunded

In a move that has shocked the UK arts world, the government has let it be known that it will not be providing any cash towards the new Centre for Music in the City of London. Instead, the project's board members will be expected to raise the necessary money by crowdfunding. "It's a scheme that has worked perfectly well for everything from orchestral tours to new product design," a spokesperson for the DCMS pointed out. "Why not a concert hall?"

A group of experts has been assembled to devise the pledge rewards for the scheme, aiming to reach £270m by the end of this year. While details are yet to be confirmed, it is understood that ideas mooted include:

£5: MUSIC. A ticket to a concert in the first season;
£10: CAFFEINE. A ticket plus a coffee or tea in the first season;
£100: GRUB. Two tickets and a light meal in the canteen for you and your companion;
£500: SELFIE. You may go backstage and take a selfie with Sir Simon.
£1000: CHAMPERS. You may bring a bottle of champagne backstage and present it to a musician of your choice.
£10,000: KNICKERS. You may throw knickers to a musical star of your choice in concert at the hall. (NB Jonas Kaufmann incurs a premium of £2,500.)
£50,000: PHILANTHROPIST. All of the above, plus a suitably sycophantic interview in one of those magazines that supports the privatisation of absolutely everything.
£100,000: NAME. All of the above, plus an orchestral player renamed after you.
£250,000: NAME IN LIGHTS. All of the above, plus your name to be flashed in lights every night across the entire City from a big screen atop the hall.
£500,000: TICKETS. All of the above, plus tickets for every performance you wish to attend at the new hall for the rest of your life;
£1m: LUNCH: Lunch with a cabinet minister of your choice and whoever becomes London Mayor in May, at the closest Starbucks to Westminster (net donation to project: £500,000, once expenses are deducted).
£2m: CHOCOLATE! All of the above, plus a lifetime's supply of high-quality chocolate, not lower than 85 per cent cocoa solids.

JD particularly likes the sound of the final option, and once the film of GHOST VARIATIONS has scooped all the Oscars, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Helena Bonham Carter, Colin Firth and Sebastian Koch, directed by George Clooney, she hopes to participate with enthusiasm.




Monday, November 23, 2015

Hall of mirrors?

The results of the feasibility study into the mooted new concert hall in the City of London are due out, I hear, (two months late) on Wednesday.

In case you missed it when the whole thing began back in February, here's a piece I wrote over at The Amati Magazine, wondering whether the project is a) a political football, or b) a vanity project, or c) the results of remotely joined up thinking about the needs of London's cultural life, or music education, or d) an attempt to kill off the Southbank (presumably together with all its ensembles - has the LSO ever quite forgotten that murderous 'superorchestra' plan?), or... what exactly? We need a hall, but we don't need it at any price.
...How ironic that some of the people behind this ambitious, “mostly” privately-funded new project should be the very same that effectively killed plans to transform the Southbank Centre into an more attractive, state-of-the-art location.
Is this hall not a hall? Is it a political football, intended to prove the worth of private finance over public and therefore of right-wing attitudes over left?
Conspiracy theories aside, what’s certain is that, far beyond the Square Mile, budget cuts to local authorities – necessitated by Osborne’s austerity policies – are threatening music tuition for thousands of children around the country who cannot afford to pay for private lessons...
Read the whole thing here. 

But many things have changed since February - above all, this past week. In the light of the terrorist attacks in Paris and the current outcry over the projected gigantic cuts to policing here, the idea that a new concert hall costing in the region of several hundred million pounds could be given a significant injection of government money to get it underway would perhaps not be guaranteed to go down exceedingly well with the general public.

And with costs doubtless spiralling, where is the money really going to come from? What chance that the lifeblood of government funding might be sucked out, vampirically, from other arts organisations in London in order to build a super vanity project?

Let's see what happens on Wednesday. I wouldn't rule anything out. The only thing that can usually be guaranteed where British governments and the arts are concerned is that sometime, somewhere, somehow, there'll probably be an almighty cockup.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Honeymoon music-making, and a story about Brahms

Rattle (left), Zimerman (centre) and the LSO: a night to remember. Photo: Amy T. Zielinksi

The honeymoon is underway over at the Barbican: Sir Simon Rattle is here for his first concerts with the LSO since The Announcement a few months back. On Thursday night he kicked off this stint with his orchestra-to-be, offering a high-octane programme of Brahms and Dvorak.

The LSO, let's face it, needs him. We need him, too. He offers a taste of the genuine passion that should be at the heart of musical experience, yet all too often isn't as others let its precedence falter under the competing weight, variously, of intellect (necessary, but in balance), power (less necessary), greed (not at all) and ego-building pretension (aagh...). Rattle is, for music, pioneer, evangelist and born leader; and while raising such high expectations for his forthcoming tenure at the LSO is obviously dangerous, it's hard not to notice that everyone is hoping he'll be the best thing that's happened to us in a good while.

The fact that he was able to bring Krystian Zimerman with him to play the Brahms D minor Concerto says much about his persuasive nature, since this titan of a pianist is, sadly, now among several greats who no longer willingly subject themselves on a regular basis to the many and varied iniquities of London.

Rattle in action. Photo: Creative Commons
Rattle conducts like a man in love with music and with life; and the orchestra responded to him like a purring cat experiencing sunshine and tuna fish. One almost expected it to roll on its collective back and let him stroke its tummy. The sheer sensual gorgeousness of sound he draws from them is light years away from Gergiev's heavy-duty ferocity; no less visceral, but with different intent, different texture - speaking to the heart as much as to the gut.

A second half of Dvorak tone-poems and a joyous, high-stepping Slavonic dance as encore was a surprising but refreshing choice of repertoire - something else we need from the LSO and Rattle is a healthy injection of unusual pieces - and when delivered with such narrative charm and all-giving warmth (y'know, Mrs Rattle is Czech), it convinces, lingering in the mind. And Zimerman's Brahms found conductor and soloist in more than exceptional accord.

When I interviewed Zimerman for the first time back in c1990, I quizzed him about that special intensity that seems to drive his playing. He commented that he likes to play on the very edge of what's possible. Sometimes it seems he goes beyond it. This Brahms was one such occasion - and how excellent to hear, once more, that white-hot quality that so compelled in the young pianist, and that remains intact and alight in his late fifties.

Brahms's Piano Concerto No.1 is the creation of a very young composer; the first sketches date from 1854, when he was all of 21 and was considering writing a symphony, soon after Schumann's attempted suicide and incarceration in the Endenich mental hospital. Several permutations later, the drafts evolved into the D minor Concerto. Brahms once wrote to Clara Schumann that the Adagio was a "gentle portrait" of her - and the theme apparently sets the unheard words "Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domine", from the Requiem mass, in tribute to Schumann, who by then had died.

So far, so beautiful - but what about that last movement? Some approach it as an austere, Bachian-Beethovenian counterpoint exercise. Zimerman brought us a Hungarian dance. When have we ever heard it sound quite so alive and aflame?

It makes sense, too. Think about it. Variation 14 of the Brahms 'Handel Variations' is extremely similar to this movement's main theme in certain ways: a lively, staccato, syncopated number with strongly marked rhythms, trills flying around and a running semiquaver bassline; and it follows from the sultry variation 13, verbunkos style. The two variations make up a lassù and friss. You can almost feel Joseph Joachim, Brahms's close friend and Hungarian violinist par excellence, peering over his shoulder and picking up the tribute with a brusque nod of thanks. Perhaps it's not only youthfully exuberant; perhaps, complete with that pernickety fugue episode, it's a portrait of Joachim to complement the portrait of Clara? It would not have been the first such piece Brahms created, and it certainly wasn't the last.

Who does that leave for movement no.1? It's been said before that the opening plunges, with Schumann, into the Rhine. This music feels like a soul in existential crisis. As Zimerman and Rattle bounced ideas off each other, plumbing the extremities of the score, the anguish and struggle behind Brahms's conception shone out as vividly as if they'd poured descaler over its furred-up contours and brought it to life new-minted. Zimerman's moments of pianissimo playing at times seemed almost to shock the orchestra into matching him. The balance never faltered; Rattle's support let him fly up to the sun on wings that can take the heat.

Is this a sign of things we can look forward to when Rattle arrives in earnest? Bring it on.

Next summer Zimerman is scheduled to come back with him, too, this time for a spot of Beethoven.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Symphony Hall to be shifted to London

Is this to be Orfulkoff Symphony Hall, City of London?
Photo: Craig Holmes

In a strange yet possibly inspired twist to the saga of the new venue for Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, is to be shifted brick by brick to London.

Rattle's campaigning for a state-of-the-art concert hall during his years with the CBSO resulted in the construction of what many consider to be the UK's finest of its kind. But now, as Birmingham City Council struggles against budget cuts that have already rendered its splendid new library openable only in restricted hours, selling Symphony Hall to London appears to kill many birds with one concrete block. Rattle and the LSO get the use of Symphony Hall's fabulous acoustic and magnificent interior; the cost to London will be lower than commissioning a brand-new design and buying new materials; Birmingham City Council gets the money from selling off arguably its finest asset; and everybody is happy, with the possible exception of the CBSO.

It is thought that the tab for much of this will be met by a massive donation from the philanthropic pharmaceutical oligarch Ivan Orfulkoff, whose firm will later gain further promotion by offering audiences attending events free manuka honey lozenges. The hall will, obviously, be renamed after the man who has given so much to support its arrival in the capital. It is expected that Orfulkoff Symphony Hall will open its doors to the public in time for Rattle's first concert as LSO music director.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

RATTLE: HE'S IN

Today a dream has come true for the LSO.  They just confirmed that Sir Simon Rattle is to take over as music director in 2017. Congratulations, guys. Brava, managing director Kathryn McDowell, with her well-placed butterfly net. And good luck with everything this may bring to London at long last.

Wondering what this means for the rest of the orchestral scene in London, meanwhile.

Rattle said of his appointment:

“During my work with the LSO over the last years, I noticed that despite the Orchestra’s long and illustrious history, they almost never refer to it. Instead, refreshingly, they talk about the future, what can they make anew, what can they improve, how can they reach further into the community. In terms of musical excellence, it is clear that the sky's the limit, but equally important, in terms of philosophy, they constantly strive to be a twenty-first century orchestra. We share a dream in which performing, teaching and learning are indivisible, with wider dissemination of our art at its centre. I cannot imagine a better or more inspiring way to spend my next years, and feel immensely fortunate to have the LSO as my musical family and co-conspirators.”

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Saturday, February 14, 2015

Rattle's Sibelius...

I went along to the Barbican on Tuesday for the opening night of the Rattle/Berlin Sibelius cycle. My review is for The Independent and should be online there soon. I wanted to post it here before The London Residency comes to its close tomorrow...


*****

Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
Barbican, London, 10 January 2015

Jessica Duchen

The Barbican was heaving at the concrete seams as the Berliner Philharmoniker began its London residency, the promise of which has been engendering unprecedented heat. Divided between this hall and the Southbank Centre, it features Sir Simon Rattle at the helm of his German orchestra, widely termed the best in the world. The expectations of this orchestra are such that tickets for its Mahler Second Symphony at the weekend are rumoured to be changing hands for £200 a piece. Meanwhile Rattle’s mooted appointment as music director of the London Symphony Orchestra is still up in the air.

Opening their complete cycle of symphonies by Sibelius with the first two, Rattle and the Berliners proved at the peak of their powers: an orchestra of individual virtuosi playing as one, as if in supersized chamber music, with Rattle, conducting from memory, leading the way with an assurance that proved at every turn that the music is part of him and he of it.

Rattle has a long history with the Sibelius symphonies – he recorded them back in his years last century with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – and his interpretations have grown into something at once individual and universal. Here the progress of the composer's imaginative sophistication from the first to the second symphonies shone out: No.1, dating from 1900, aching in the shadow of Tchaikovsky; No.2 moving into new dramatic territories in which no step is safe, no illusion unquestioned, yet no lament unanswered by hope.

For some, Rattle’s interpretations might at first seem too rich, too warm; we imagine Sibelius as rugged and lonely, shivering through the Finnish winter. But his ability to pace the drama paid ample dividends: working in long lines and giant paragraphs, generating energy from small details that gradually rise to take over, striking just the right balance to cast new light over the precipices, the power of thought is made palpable with overwhelming intensity.

Above all, though, listening to this orchestra is an experience of astonishing sensuality, the aural equivalent of, for example, bathing in asses’ milk laced with rose petals while sipping the finest vintage Bordeaux and watching the Northern Lights at their most spectacular, topped by a meteor shower. If you thought an orchestra could not do that, be advised: it can.

This opulence of tone is the Berliner Philharmoniker’s own, honed long ago under the baton of Herbert von Karajan; Rattle is in some ways åits custodian. But it is clear how much he will be leaving behind in Berlin when he departs, and equally clear what we would be missing if he does not ultimately accept that post with the LSO. Frankly we need Rattle here more than he needs us. If a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like this is missed, if the UK’s only home-grown great maestro is allowed to slip through our fingers thanks to finance and mealy-mouthed politicians, it would be an act of criminal irresponsibility against the cultural life of the UK.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Rattle: "European orchestral conditions are like the wildest edges of science fiction in our country"

Sir Simon Rattle: only on his terms
Photo: c Sheila Rock/EMI Classics

Following a spectacular opening for his London Residency with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon has been speaking to BBC TV News. Yesterday, in an interview with the BBC's Will Gompertz, he declared: 

"I think it's clear that London and Munich are the two great cities in the world that don't have proper concert halls. The music lovers of London and of the country would deserve to have something where also the orchestras can flourish. 

"You have no idea how wonderful an orchestra like the London Symphony Orchestra can sound in a great concert hall. The Barbican is serviceable. But it's like when I've seen so many young violinists finally be handed a great violin - it's a whole other world."

He also drew a pertinent comparison between the general conditions and the generous rehearsal time he has with the Berliner Philharmoniker and the LSO's relentless schedule of performing and touring. 

"The kind of conditions a European orchestra has, which any orchestra would take for granted in Europe, are on the wildest edges of science fiction in our country, particularly in London. It's hard to explain to people just how hard and brutally these London orchestras work."

Will Gompertz asked him whether he was saying that if he can alter the conditions towards something a little closer to that of Berlin, then he would accept the LSO music director post, and if not, he wouldn't? 

"I think the conditions for the players are incredibly important," said Sir Simon, "because it's a matter of what actually people can achieve." 

Gompertz concluded that Rattle would come back to Britain - but only on his own terms. Which is pretty much what we thought. 

The sound of the Berlin orchestra in Sibelius's first two symphonies was so overwhelming, by the way, that I scarcely slept a wink that night. My review should be up at the Independent website soon.


Monday, January 19, 2015

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SIR SIMON...



Sir Simon Rattle is 60 today. He's on his way over to London for a major residency and a slew of celebratory programmes on BBC TV(!) and Radio 3 next month. The fuss and the heat is growing by the day - but we still don't know if he's definitely taking the LSO job. Never mind; this film shows him conducting SIX school orchestras in Berlin. Which is exactly the sort of leadership we need here.

With politicians calling for more diversity in the arts, yet simultaneously making the cost of music (and theatre) education so high that only the privileged can afford to train unless the good fortune of a rare full scholarship comes their way - where's the joined-up thinking, chaps? - a terrific celebrity maestro of this magnitude could potentially make a major difference to the state of the art, not just in his musicianship, but also as advocate, figurehead, role model and inspiration for all.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

St Matthew and St Mark?

It was one of the hottest tickets in town yesterday: the semi-staged performance at the Proms of the Bach St Matthew Passion with the Berlin Philharmonic, Sir Simon Rattle conducting, direction by Peter Sellars. Add to this the Berlin Radio Choir, singing from memory, an all-star cast and a packed Albert Hall that was ready for anything...

Well, almost anything. We were not quite ready for the utterly devastating performance that Mark Padmore gave as the Evangelist. In Sellars' concept - sometimes convincing, sometimes less so - the Evangelist carries everything, experiencing the emotions and traumas of each character, supporting them, leading them, suffering in their place. Christ - the astounding Christian Gerhaher - is a distant figure, seated above the orchestra and outside the action through the first half, then entirely off stage for his scant few phrases in the second. The Evangelist lives the drama and is its focal point. The beauty, nuancing, clarity and stillness of Padmore's voice would have been enough to carry the night on its own, but his every move magnetised us and convinced us that he felt every anguish, every burden and every lash. If the British music business had not already given him a virtual sainthood by repute, they certainly should now. (Gerhaher, of course, is just as magical, but has frustratingly little to sing.)

The staging has its ups and downs, many of them literal. A lot of rushing around is involved and sometimes one wished they'd keep still for a few minutes. Yet some extraordinary images unfolded that also enhanced the music at a profound level, notably through the interaction of the instrumental soloists with the singers, moments that carried a plethora of meanings. Sometimes the players seemed to represent the soul, the conscience or the better self; perhaps even God, or Bach in place of God? Magdalena Kozena sang 'Erbarme dich' kneeling at the feet of her violinist; Camilla Tilling in 'Aus liebe will mein Heiland sterben' stood in close quartet with her oboists and flautist; Emmanuel Pahud, no less, beside her right shoulder. Tenor Topi Lehtipuu stretched up towards an unattainable oboist in the organ inset; bass Eric Owens appeared to pray for mercy before a vengeful virtuoso fiddler. 

Rattle's tempi were largely very brisk, sometimes too much so - occasionally I longed for an old-school influence to bring back a little more time for breath, contemplation and refulgence, since some of the intricate instrumental writing whooshed by to somewhat unsettling effect. But the magic was there all the same and the moments of stillness stood out all the better. The episode that brings the whole work together is (I feel) the final bass aria, 'Mache dich mein Herze rein' - here he understands, accepts and transcends all that has gone before. If that doesn't do its job, nothing does. It worked. 

My personal frustration with the staging is mostly due to the sonic impact, as it entails much clonking about and some directional echoes which are the fault of the RAH's acoustic, not the performers. Still, there's much to chew over: the presence, or lack of it, of Jesus himself (we might ask: is he real?), those intimate dialogues between singers and instrumentalists, that soul-searing performance by Padmore. 

Would less be more? We can feel the suffering in the music; we don't need to see it. The spiritual catharsis of this work, like Parsifal's, is perhaps better internalised if there is not too much to observe and assess: that process puts us outside ourselves, switches on our objective brain and mutes the intuitive, emotional plane that's necessary for the full cumulative effect to reach us. (Btw, I am not religious in any way, shape or form; yet perhaps that makes the spiritual dimensions of Bach and Wagner all the more meaningful.)

What seemed at the time a long, hot evening now haunts for its ineffable beauty, its deeply human quest for meaning and its all-consuming, tour-de-force performances. 

In the foyer I spotted the head of the LSO, who may or may not have been clutching a metaphorical butterfly net. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The soprano who keeps her head when all around are losing theirs...

It's Sally Matthews, who stars as Blanche in the forthcoming run (the Robert Carsen production) at Covent Garden of Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle. The opera ends with the onstage beheading of 16 nuns. 

Here's my interview with her from today's Independent.  And a little extract from Gianni Schicchi.




If you met Sally Matthews in the street you might not guess that she is one of Britain's finest sopranos. Quiet, serious and rather reserved, the 38-year-old singer is anything but an obvious star; but on stage her voice speaks for itself. Blessed with great range and a rich tone containing unusual warmth, colour and shadow, her refulgent yet pure sound is ideal for Mozart, Strauss and, not least, French music.

Matthews is about to take the leading role in Francis Poulenc's opera Dialogues des Carmélites at the Royal Opera House, amid an all-star cast conducted by Simon Rattle. Operatic success does not get much bigger than this, but she refuses to play the diva. To her, opera is teamwork; and she prefers to avoid repertoire like the more melodramatic moments of Puccini, which possibly attract a different type of personality. "Sometimes the big egos completely detract from what we're doing," she muses. "I've worked with a few of them and I didn't like it much. It should be all about the music."

The Southampton-born singer's career was launched when she won the Kathleen Ferrier Singing Competition in 1999, but it was a special opportunity at the Royal Opera House in 2001 that subsequently determined her direction...
READ THE REST HERE

'Dialogues des Carmélites', Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000) 29 May to 11 June

Monday, January 13, 2014

My top ten wishes for music in the new year



1. Re performers, I wish we might see the return to these shores of the pianists Grigory Sokolov, Krystian Zimerman, Martha Argerich and Menahem Pressler.

2. Re audiences, I wish for the principle to be established that you have a responsibility to consider other people as well as yourself - you may have bought a ticket, but so have they. Therefore during the concert you don't talk, you switch off all functions of your phone and you - er - listen to the music.

3. Re orchestras and other ensembles, I wish that those who depend on their local councils for life-giving tranches of funding could find alternative sources, fast. I fear they will need them. Here is the first of what will be many such problems: the BBC Philharmonic's grant is being slashed by Salford Council, which - shamefully - is also ending its contribution to music and performing arts in schools, according to this report from the Manchester Evening News.

4. Re programming, I wish for scope, breadth and depth. I am sick of pianists in particular programming same old same old. Do you know how much piano repertoire there is? More than any of us could possibly read through in one lifetime. So no more Schumann Etudes Symphoniques; why not Gesange der Fruhe? And enough of the last three Schubert sonatas; why not the G major or the big D major instead, or, if you can face its challenges, the "little" A minor? This could go on, but you get my drift.

5. I also wish for plenty of Andrzej Panufnik, whose centenary falls this year. He is a neglected master and he's due for a big-time return to the concert hall. Watch this space for further details of the centenary plans so far. At least there's a good chance of this wish being fulfilled.

6. I wish that Sir Simon Rattle would confirm or deny, definitively, whether or not he is coming to head the LSO. Preferably the former.

7. An end to witch-hunting and bullying in all its forms. The notion that a composer/performer/any individual who does something artistic/creative/literary/etc should be judged in that activity first by his/her personal beliefs/sayings/doings in matters of religion/sex/politics/etc is insidious and daft.

8. I wish that along with endeavouring to increase levels of sponsorship, membership, Friends schemes etc, there could be an increased sense of responsibility to those who can't afford to be among them. Venues exist that sell out to their members before anyone else gets a look in. Some of those venues keep day seats for which you can queue. Those that don't currently do this should start. The ones that already do should keep more day seats.


9. I wish that some doughty, important and fearless conductor would decide that it is OK to perform Mozart operas with a bit of vibrato and an orchestra that's non-microscopic in size.

10. Last but by no means least, I wish for the realisation of my dream of an awards ceremony to celebrate and raise the profile of the great achievements of women in music. And I'm sure Fanny Mendelssohn (right) would approve.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Some breaking news that's Rattling around...


A report in today's Times [£] suggests that Sir Simon Rattle "is understood to have accepted the job of principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra".

[UPDATE, 11:30: The LSO has responded on Twitter: "Morning all; thanks for all the tweets. We're delighted to have strong artistic projects with Sir Simon Rattle in forthcoming seasons …but as the article says, we have no further comment to make on the speculation that appeared in today's Times!"

So nothing is actually official. But no categoric denials per se... ]

If it is all true, it would be the following:

* Brilliant news for the LSO. Gergiev's name is a draw that would be difficult to follow;

* Brilliant news for London and the UK. Rattle is the most famous British conductor in the world, but has not previously held a London post. For the UK's top orchestra (which the LSO is - sorry, rest of you) to snaffle the UK's top conductor is a major snooker achievement. This sphere is often about timing, contracts, forward planning and, sometimes, a stroke of good fortune.

* Brilliant news for Rattle, we hope. He is much in tune with the British arts scene's pioneering activities in pushing the boundaries of repertoire, outreach, community and education alike, and the LSO, with its beautiful facilities at St Luke's, is perfectly set up for that. One senses that his innovations in Berlin may have been a bit of an uphill struggle at times.

* He has a fine track record of persuading people to do things, including the building of very good concert halls. See Birmingham. Guess what we need in London?

* If it is true, and mentions in The Times and BBC Radio 4 are normally pretty serious, it is much as I predicted in January. Everyone was asking why he was leaving and who the BP might appoint next; I wondered where Rattle could go from there (we didn't yet know that Gergiev was going to step down from the LSO); and by process of elimination.... => http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/features/sir-simon-rattle-and-the-berlin-philarmonic-is-this-great-relationship-ending-on-a-sour-note-8455762.html?origin=internalSearch


Meanwhile, on a much more modest scale...

If you like JDCMB, come to my concert! TOMORROW afternoon we are at the Musical Museum near Kew Bridge, west London.

You could view the museum's collection of musical curiosities, have lunch overlooking the river, then go on to enjoy the show in the Concert Hall. With your concert ticket you can get discounted entry (£3) to the museum, with a guided tour at 1pm. The  museum and cafe are open from 11 a.m.

SUNDAY 8 SEPTEMBER, 3PM
HUNGARIAN DANCES: the concert of the novel
with DAVID LE PAGE - VIOLIN, VIV McLEAN - PIANO, JESSICA DUCHEN - NARRATOR

The HUNGARIAN DANCES concert is great fun and is stuffed full of wonderful Hungarian and Gypsy-influenced repertoire, including Ravel's Tzigane, Bartok's Romanian Dances, gorgeous pieces by Vecsey, Dohnanyi and Kreisler, and much more. And the storytelling aspect of the performance means it's 500% accessible for first-time concert-goers.

* Tickets : BOX OFFICE:  020 8560 8108/HOUBENS BOOKSHOP: 020 8560 8108
or from Yvonne Evans 07889 399 862.

Next up: PenFro Book Festival, Rhosygilwen, Wales, on Thursday 12 September (with David Le Page, violin, & Anthony Hewitt, piano); and Bournemouth Arts Festival, Shelley Theatre, 26 September (with Jack Maguire, violin, and Barbara Henvest, piano). 

Monday, September 02, 2013

Nice work

Been here, reviewing.


As locations for music festivals go, it really ain't bad. This is Lake Lucerne, snapped from the shore at the bottom of Wagner's lawn at Tribschen. I spent a happy afternoon there, working on the revision of my new play Sins of the Fathers, which is set...um, at Tribschen. Pure coincidence, but nice. (The premiere, 24 November, is selling fast...)

I was really there to attend two concerts in the Lucerne Festival, one conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, the other by Jonathan Nott. Somewhat amused to see the heading "Viva la revolucion!" on the programmes. In Spanish. One concert was of Viennese and Russian music, the other was Wagner's Das Rheingold (part of Lucerne's first-ever Ring cycle). Few festivals have a less revolutionary atmosphere - the glorious lakeside and the wonderful acoustic of the KKL are populated by the sleek and meek of the moneyed festival circuit - but nevertheless, the programming is absolutely sterling and below the gleaming surface the waters are deep and fertile, especially where the Festival Academy is concerned. My review is out now in the Independent, here: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/reviews/classical-review-british-conductors-bring-the-sounds-of-revolution-to-the-lucerne-festival-8794619.html

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Feasts, joy and optimism at the BBC Music Magazine Awards

A seriously impressive line-up of award-winners raised eyebrows and spirits alike yesterday at Kings Place when Oliver Condy and James Naughtie presented the BBC Music Magazine Awards 2013.

The Instrumental prize went to the fabulous and brave pianist Janina Fialkowska. (I was thrilled to be "sat" next to her at lunch - she is on the right.) Imogen Cooper was there to present her prize and it was deeply touching to see these two distinguished artists, who have been friends ever since their student days in Paris, take the stage together at such a celebration.

Janina's winning CD is of Chopin and she treated us to two waltzes that were fine testimony to her feel for natural expressiveness, delicate rubato and radiant tone. Knowing the story of her cancer survival adds a twist of poignancy (see my recent article about her in Classical Music Magazine), but her artistry transcends her personal history. Clear of the disease now for six years, she has started to plan long-term at last and the prize is worthy recognition for her, not a moment too soon.

Heart-warming, too, to find the occasion - quite unlike last year's Gramophone Awards - celebrating the achievements of women musicians extremely strongly. Composer Kaija Saariaho won the Premiere prize for a CD of her music and made a gracious acceptance speech. Star mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager was present to collect the Singer award for her CD of Liszt Lieder on Hyperion, and treated us to a gorgeous performance of Schumann's Widmung, accompanied by Roger Vignoles. And the young Malaysian pianist Mei Yi Foo scooped an audience prize for her album of contemporary piano pieces, Musical Toys: she proved herself a terrific player, assured, intelligent and glitter-fingered. Her career, we heard, has been on the up since she was spotted by the composer Unsuk Chin, who noted that she'd had three awful reviews of the type that meant she was probably a really interesting musician. "I don't only thrive on bad reviews," she added, accepting her prize. "I like good ones too..." I am sure she will win many more.

It was a good day, too, for Sir Simon Rattle - who wasn't there in person, but landed the prizes with his Berlin Phil both for the Orchestral category (the musicologically completed Bruckner 9) and the DVD (the Bach St Matthew Passion in a "ritualisation" by Peter Sellers). The principal cello of the Berliner Philharmoniker collected the award and made one of the day's most valuable points. The BBC has a classical music magazine? And it presents annual awards to celebrate the art form? Wow! In Germany - a country that we usually assume values classical music more highly than our own does - an equivalent situation is something of which he can only dream, he said. Do we know how lucky we are? (We do now.)

Last but by no means least, Sir Mark Elder scooped Record of the Year for his CD with the Halle of Elgar's The Apostles and was there to talk about its creation in inspiring tones, together with the baritone Jacques Imbrailo, who sings the role of Christ.

All in all, it was an enlightened selection, populated by genuine, passionate music-lovers and some of the finest performers on earth. A time for optimism, blessing-counting and great hope.

The full list of award-winners can be found here.





Thursday, August 30, 2012

Salzburg: I am a Festspielhave




I'm just back from the Salzburg Festival, where I heard more amazing singers within 72 hours than you'd believe possible. Three very different operas from three different centuries, each focused on war, actual or between the sexes - usually both. My review-proper will be in Opera Now magazine. In the meantime, here's a little taste of the trip.

Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Die Soldaten proved perhaps opera's most devastating experience: an all-out tour-de-force, assaulting senses and emotions alike. Good to see TV cameras there last Sunday, as this production is a great achievement that requires preservation on film; nothing, though, can really capture the impact of experiencing it live, from a seat almost beneath the largest of several outsize tam-tams. This opera musters every last shred of force available to an orchestra, a cast, a lead soprano (the magnificent Laura Aikin), a conductor (heroic Ingo Metzmacher) and the human ear itself to get across its message: the horrors that these military men foist upon the hapless Marie, and the failure of a variety of parents to prevent it. The composer took his own life in 1970. Books on Zimmermann are in short supply, and there seems to be nothing in English, but Alex Ross provides some valuable insights here.

Other question-marks hang over Carmen. Updated to Franco's Spain, it starred Magdalena Kozena as a red-haired firebrand partnered first of all by her husband, Sir Simon Rattle, in the pit, and secondly by Jonas Kaufmann, whose Don Jose was a puzzling matter possibly determined by directorial decisions rather than tenorial ones.

Finally, Handel's Giulio Cesare, with Andreas Scholl as Julius, Cecilia Bartoli as Cleopatra, Anne Sofie von Otter Cornelia and Philippe Jaroussky Sesto. These people know how to Handel you. A perturbing moment towards the end when one reckoned that the Salzburg Festival and all those great singers should know better than to put drinks on a piano. But otherwise...these guys and GFH together moved me to tears several times - Cornelia's first aria, the duet for her and Sesto, Cleo's 'Piangerai' - and left me at the end of five hours almost ready to beg for more. Gulp.

Inside the venues: phenomenal music-making, imaginative productions (some more than others) and world-class performances. The setting: mountain scenery, evening dresses, outsize jewellery, facelifts, sponsors' parties, pre-show drinkies choice of Moet on one side of the road or Taittinger on the other.

And the Festspielhave? In case you haven't seen all this before, the Festspielhaus bears Roman-style lettering above the door, declaring it the 'Festspielhavs'. This is where the Festspielhaves go in. The promenade of the audience around the champagne stalls often attracts onlookers. Those are the Festspielhavenots.

Pretentious though it may look, it's not all snob value. On my second and third evenings my neighbours were enthusiasts who were there on their own purely for love of music and interest in theatre. One was a retired lady from west of Paris, the other a mechanic from the Salzkammergut. And there is kindness aboard, too. Exiting Die Soldaten, I was brolliless in a downpour that put Salzburg's famous Schnurlregen to shame. A Californian lady festival-goer spotted me and offered to share her umbrella across the bridge. That's never happened en route to Waterloo Station. (Below: the view of the Castle from the interval crowd outside the Felsenreitschule. The dog is a Festspielhavenot.)

The atmosphere has changed a little since my last visit, some 20 years ago. Back then, almost every shop window bore a poster showing one or more of the musical stars visiting the town. The buses carried advertisements proudly welcoming Maurizio Pollini and Krystian Zimerman to Salzburg. The record shops were full to busting. Today? The sides of the buses plug designer outlets and free parking. I only spotted one record shop in town, and it specialised in world music. Zimerman's recital had been cancelled due to illness (Leif Ove Andsnes replaced him). Sponsor logos are plastered everywhere - gone are the graceful days of discretion in philanthropy (though it's nice of Nestle to provide Kit-Kats for the journalists in the media centre). And a gaping division is all too evident between the down-at-heel atmosphere on the outskirts of town and around the station, and the dripping-with-gold-and-designer-shops historic centre. The one thing that hasn't changed is the number of tourists and the amount of Mozartkugeln on sale.

A more welcome addition is a big screen in the Domplatz that relayed Die Soldaten live on Sunday, and on other evenings showed film of operas from festivals gone by. And I may have missed a trick by not taking the Sound of Music tour bus - apparently you all sing 'Doe, a Deer' and there's a quiz to win a packet of Edelweiss seeds. But the way time panned out, it was a choice of that or a jog along the river, and the latter won. Had to burn off some of that chocolate.

Check the November issue of Opera Now for my detailed review of the three performances.