Showing posts with label Vladimir Jurowski. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Vladimir Jurowski. Show all posts

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.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Shostakovich: a warning from history

Shostakovich in 1950
Photo: Deutsche Fotothek
I'm not sure that listening to a completely terrifying performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11 was the best way to spend my birthday. Of course there was no way the LPO could have known, when they scheduled it, that there'd be a general election the next day. Suffice it to say that this piece is an hour-long tone poem depicting an eerie silence, a people on the march, a horrifying massacre, its tragic aftermath and a renewal of elemental yet hideous energy beyond.

It is supposedly the Russian revolution of 1905. It was actually written shortly after Russia crushed Hungary in 1956. Shostakovich is living on the edge here - how could anyone have believed his excuse for the piece? - but his warning comes to us loud and clear: it could happen then, it can happen now, it can happen again, anywhere. The impact, as brought to us yesterday by Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO, is more than shattering. Hear it on Radio 3 iPlayer.

Totalitarianism doesn't begin as totalitarianism. It starts with crackpot ideology that speaks to a sect of zealots. It may be idealistically founded, but it bears no relation to helping ordinary people live in peace. Its perpetrators are sometimes elected when ill-informed electorates decide they want a 'strong man' to lead them. Gradually the promulgators face challenges to their power, from the judiciary, the media and more. They start taking control of such organisations to ensure they get rid of those that disagree with them and would stop them. The process continues, small step by small step, and it ends with people on the streets and those to whom ideology is more important than human life (as it will be by then) crushing them. And killing them.

Take a look at the state of Britain today and then consider what will happen if we allow a gigantic drop in GDP, starting from what's already a pretty grim position - a wealthy country that's home to some of the poorest places in Europe.

Yesterday's concert set Shostakovich beside one of the weirder British piano concertos of the last hundred years: John Foulds' Dynamic Triptych, which was brilliantly performed by Peter Donohoe, whose heroic effort for it should really be called upon for more than one outing. It's another piece of the jagged puzzle that is the music of the late twenties and early thirties (written 1929, performed 1931); a craggy, individual voice rooted in the concertos of the past but transformed with a wholly personal take. Each movement is based on a different motivating idea, respectively mode, timbre and rhythm. The result is bizarre, puzzling but also haunting, leaving one wanting to hear it all again to grasp a little more of what is going on within it.

I am mesmerised by Foulds' life story, but suspect that his music will not travel especially well, so far does it sit up in the tree of individual ideology. One would love to think it could have a wider currency, but in terms of realpolitik, sadly I doubt it. (Read more about him here, in an article I wrote for the Independent 12 years ago, in the days when a national newspaper would still take an article this size about a maverick classical composer.) Ahead of his time he may have been; out on a limb, assuredly; but with hindsight he represents another kind of Englishness that is not often acknowledged these days: the eccentric individual, an independent thinker, a person with a different creative outlook that does not tally with any party line in their art. It will never be easy to be a Foulds, or to get to grips with his creations, but we need these people more than ever, and not only in music.

If Shostakovich brings us a warning, Foulds brings us an alternative - but one that may not catch on strongly enough for long enough to prevent the juggernaut heralded by the side-drum and crowned by the demoniac roar of the tam-tam.

Today, Thursday 12 December, please get out there and vote against the mendacious monomaniacs who have taken a wrecking ball of greed, cruelty and lies to Britain and will take a worse one if we give them the chance. If you have a vision of a country that is open-hearted, international, sensible, long-termist and responsible to its people, its partners and its world, today is the day to get the new-look fanatic-Brexit Tories gone forever. It may be our last chance.







Monday, October 21, 2019

The triumph of Mahler

Saturday was a day I shall remember for a very long time. When strange things connect, when music does what it was meant to do, when people from all parts of life reach new heights and new meanings come together and you realise that over the years melodies converge: we all need each other more than ever. 

Even today it's hard to know where to begin, but here it is - from the flame of a single candle in Wells Cathedral to the tsunami of energy and light that is Mahler's Symphony No.2 at its best.

Inside Wells Cathedral

I was in Wells for its Festival of Literature. Having arrived the night before (and massive thanks to the festival and its representatives for such a warm and hospitable welcome!), I started the day with a visit to the cathedral, which I had virtually to myself. It's an awe-inspiring place, with proportions, geometry and grace that are exceptional even among its magnificent peers in York, Salisbury, Lincoln et al. It was silent, rapt, atmospheric. I lit a candle. I have not ever been much into religion, prayer or belief, but the state of things at present has strange effects: perhaps a little focus, some valiant intent, some deeply held hope can make a difference. On a more mundane plane, at the market afterwards, I availed myself of a big shiny spider brooch à la Lady Hale. One unintended consequence of The Brexs**t Show is that I've developed a whole new admiration for lawyers.

My assignment in the festival was to be interviewer to Jane Glover about her book Handel in London. It's a beautiful and fascinating volume (I reviewed it for the Sunday Times when it came out last year) and brings 18th-century London to vivid life. Some of the most interesting aspects of our discussion, though, were about the man himself: who was Handel? How do you get, well, a handle on him? Few letters exist; some famous anecdotes may be apocryphal; some may have been misinterpreted. Jane is convinced that when he threatened to throw Francesca Cuzzoni out of the window it was simply a joke to defuse a dangerous prima donna situation. The key, she suggests, is in the music and perhaps can be found most keenly in L'allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato - which ends with a quiet contemplation at the fireside. Perhaps at the end of a long day, he liked to go home, shut the door and gaze quietly into the flames. 

Jurowski rehearsing Mahler with the LPO
Meanwhile in London, the flames were metaphorical as more than a million people took to the streets to surround parliament and shout against Brexit. Wells is in Somerset, a good hike from London via Bath, and I didn't get back until about 5pm, so annoyingly missed the midday march and most of the action - but the atmosphere upon arrival was uplifting nonetheless. To see the number of blue-and-yellow berets and flags and placards and smiling protestors brought the feeling that one could breathe, that the clouds had lifted and that all hope has not yet been crushed. I've been gorging on the reports and videos. Who knows if it will make a difference; if it does not, dark times lie ahead; once that slippery slope begins, its end point cannot be predicted. Some of my musician friends, acting as canaries in the UK coal mine, departed several years ago for more open-minded shores and have scarcely been seen since. I can't blame them. More will doubtless follow. 

A discussion yesterday found a family member describing Brexit as a "category error", which is why it can never work: you are trying to impose one narrative onto a framework that is not designed for it and cannot hold it. Oddly enough, this is how too many opera productions seem to be at present; comedies handled with the weight of a Mahlerian mallet (Orpheus in the Underworld), or by all accounts a blingy and ludicrous staging of Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus, which is emphatically not a comedy. I wonder if this is symptomatic.

At the South Bank, I slunk into Tom's rehearsal for the Mahler 'Resurrection' Symphony. There in the choir seats was Dame Sarah Connolly, singing the mezzo solos. She is undergoing treatment for breast cancer, but spent the afternoon on the march singing choruses from Carmen, Beethoven 9 and (I hope) "Bollocks to Brexit" with a group from the Royal Opera, then came to rehearsal and performance singing with a dignity and eloquence that had to be heard to be believed. 

The concert was one in a million, or would have been were it not the third in close succession conducted by Vladimir Jurowski that was on this level and left me lost for words. All of life was here: the darkness and the dread, the elegant and ironic grace, the sardonic yowls, the deep, rapt spirit of nature, the blinding blaze of redemption. 

The LPO, Jurowski and Sarah Connolly in rehearsal
Recently I interviewed the artist Mat Collishaw - one of the Young British Artist generation, who's working on a fascinating musical project. He made an impact on me by stating something that should perhaps be obvious, but is not: namely, that without darkness, beauty loses its meaning. He tries to bring both into his artwork, which is often, or usually, an extraordinary mix of beauty and horror. (Explore his works here.)

Occasionally someone says something that changes how you experience art, or even life. My best example was Boulez, who said in our interview that you can't just stand in front of something you can see is wrong and do nothing. This is the next mind-bender. Both statements seem no-brainers when you think back over them later, which must be why they have such an effect: because do we truly think about such things? Do we articulate them to ourselves clearly enough? Can we understand them and assimilate their principles if we don't? Here's a moment when everything comes into focus, when you know there is a lesson that is meant for you, now, right here. You sense the idea crawl on the back of your neck, burrow into your innards: you need this message. 

"Gravity and grace," said Mat. And listening to Vladimir's Mahler, how right his words seemed. I've grumbled in the past about Mahler performances that lacked adequate darkness. Here was one that said "You want it darker?" and went there - all the better to rise to the heavens at the end. And my God, it was overwhelming. The playing was taut, furious, unified, exultant; Sarah Connolly and Sofia Fomina as soloists; the LPO Choir and London Youth Choir giving everything. The audience was on its feet within seconds of the final chord, yelling. Backstage, conversation was difficult because everybody's breath had been so totally removed that nobody could find the right words. Many were in tears, some of the orchestra included. And Marina Mahler, the composer's granddaughter, was there. 

After the Mahler
The orchestra's journey to the stratospheres has been remarkable to experience; perhaps, faced with the imminent departure of Vladimir to Munich in 2021, they've now realised what they currently have on the podium. But this Mahler, the Tchaikovsky Pathétique the other week and, in between, the Strauss Alpine Symphony have been a trilogy the like of which we see and hear all too rarely in the grand scheme of things. (The question arises: if more music-making held this degree of excellence and meaning, would we appreciate it so much...? hmm.)

Vladimir's journey, too, has been a saga of building, experimenting, exploring, deepening, widening and now flowering on uppermost branches. As for Sarah: my heart is in pieces over her indomitable stance, her dignity and determination and the way she channels the lot into her singing. Jane remarked in out talk in Wells that Handel would have adored a singer such as Sarah Connolly. Seconded. I know too many people who are suffering from this appalling illness at present (its latest victim is the wonderful journalist Deborah Orr) - a terrifying scourge on women, often of our age group. Please send all your energy, your healing, your hope and your determination to Sarah as she embarks on a new journey, through chemotherapy.

At this level, music becomes a matter of life and death; nothing is ever "just a piece of music", but now we know how and why not. And that's what music is for. Without its role as ultimate catharsis, reaching the heart directly, beyond words, beyond sight, beyond intellect, it loses its power. Without darkness there is no light. 


Update, 22 Oct: I am mightily embarrassed to realise that originally I didn't mention the other piece in the programme: Colin Matthews, 'Metamorphosis' from Renewal. It's a glistening, intense setting of Ovid, burrowing into the text's exploration of the world in a constant state of flux. It was performed at the start of the concert and led straight into the Mahler. Even if it was the latter that produced the sensation of Total Overwhelm, it was the Ovid that I later copied out into my "commonplace book" and that actually encapsulates much of my feeling about the symbolic lessons of this evening as articulated above.

If you've enjoyed this post, please consider supporting my work in progress: IMMORTAL, a novel in which Beethoven is a rather crucial character. Please visit its page at Unbound for further details.

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.


Saturday, December 15, 2018

'SWAN LAKE' JDCMB CHRISTMAS COMPETITION



WIN A SWAN LAKE CD AND A COPY OF ODETTE

Vladimir Jurowski's recording of Swan Lake in its original 1877 version - before Drigo got his paws on the score - is an absolute stunner, out now on Pentatone Classics. The State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia 'Evgeny Svetlanov' offers sleek, intense playing, the sound quality is excellent and in Jurowski's hands the dramatic climaxes become utterly hair-raising, almost Wagnerian in their magic and majesty. And in the box there's even a set of instructions for how to fold your own Origami swan.


Swan Lake is the inspiration behind my new book, Odette, in which the ballet's heroine meets the present day head-on. This week Odette has been on a 'blog tour' which has found it termed 'enchanting', 'magical' and 'absolutely unique' (for which I'm extremely grateful and happy.)


I'm delighted to say that Pentatone is offering a copy of Jurowski's splendid Swan Lake recording for our JDCMB Christmas Competition. This is your chance to win a double prize: the CD and a paperback copy of Odette.

For a chance to win, simply answer the following question and email your response to: jdcmblog@gmail.com before Christmas Eve, 24 December 2018.

QUESTION:Which ballerina danced the role of Odette/Odile in the world premiere of Swan Lake, at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, on 4 March 1877?


I will put all the correct entries into a hat and the one to be drawn out wins the prize. The winner will be notified by email. The prize will be dispatched when the post office reopens after Christmas.

Don't forget that you can see Swan Lake itself on BBC4 TV on Christmas Day at 7pm. It's the Royal Ballet's gorgeous new production and stars Marianela Nunez and Vadim Muntagirov. More details here.


Sunday, December 02, 2018

Russian into London: a fabulous violinist makes her debut

I’ve just had a terrific Skype chat with the young Russian violinist Alena Baeva, ahead of her London debut at the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday. She and I have a little Schumann-related project together in June in Oxford and it’s splendid to get to know her. Here she is, talking about her turbulent background in central Asia, her first-rate musical training, her passion for historical recordings and all we can learn from them, and a few particularly wonderful concertos…






JD: Alena, you’ve recently been playing a very special piece in Katowice to mark 100 years of Polish independence… 

AB: It was a major event for me because I’d wanted to play the Karlowicz Concerto for a long time. It’s hardly played anywhere but Poland, which is a pity because it’s a great piece. It’s quite difficult! Someone brought it for me to play in a masterclass in Poland and I was fascinated. I’m happy we did it this summer. 


JD: Where are you from and where did you grow up? 

AB: That’s the most difficult question! I can’t say one place I’m from. I was born in Kyrgistan, by chance because my parents’ parents were sent to work there - they were sent to random places in the Soviet Union. I lived in my grandmother’s small house with a garden the first five years, which was a very happy time. Then civil war broke there and I remember we were hiding underneath the storage in the basement. I don’t remember many things about it, but my dad, when there was the first possibility to take a plane, he sent us to Almaty in Kazakhstan because his mother lived there at the time. We came to her because we had no other place to live and we were there for another five years. I started to learn the violin there. 

Almaty is a very special place for me, because I was at an important age when you start to discover the world around you. People there are so warm, so nice and so kind. I missed this a lot when we moved to Moscow when I was 10. The violin was going so well and I needed some education to go and study somewhere so my parents chose Moscow because of great Soviet school of playing. I entered the Central Music School, which was a big contrast. Moscow is somehow more than a metropolis. 


JD: Who was your main teacher?

AB: I was studying from the age of 10 with Eduard Grach, an accomplished violin player and student of Yampolsky – a great, great school. I continued studying with him at the Moscow Conservatory, so it was for 12 years! When I was 16-17, I started to seek some other ideas and influences too. It was thanks to Mstislav Rostropovich, who supported talented children in Moscow. He had a foundation and he sent me to Paris to study. This was a whole big change because it was too late to enter the Conservatoire, but his French friends organised private lessons. I lived in the house of his good friends who are fantastic people and became my French family. It was so enriching just to be with them and discover this great country and great culture. I was staying several months of the year and it was in Chartres, a fantastic place with a rose garden, just in front of the cathedral - a dream! Now I appreciate it even more than I did before.

I had lessons there with Boris Garlitsky, a Russian violinist who had moved more than 20 years before to Europe and became a very European style of musician - it was so helpful to study Mozart and Brahms with him. It was such a change from old-style Russian School teaching with big sound, big vibrato and big emotion all the time. It was quite opposite, what I learned from Boris, so that was very important for me. And going to concerts and exhibitions, I fell in love with everything French! I connected to the French language and the French style of life - they can enjoy life so well, better than many people… 


JD: And you’ve settled eventually in Luxembourg?

AB: I really wanted to move to a French-speaking place! So I ended up here eight years ago. It’s easy to remember because it was three weeks before giving birth to my daughter. I didn’t really care about what was a good moment to move, I just kept going! She is eight now and my son is ten. It’s a very good base - calm, beautiful, central and efficient. The airport and train station are very close, especially compared to Moscow, where the way to the airport takes longer than the flight! 


JD: Which violinists have you most admired? 

AB: It was changing all the time, I had my favourites every month! Most things I discovered on CDs at the time because there was no Youtube and not many people used to come to play concerts in Moscow. I remember my father presented me with a Michael Rabin box of CDs: that was fantastic - he’s not as known as he deserved to be. I was in love with Menuhin for a long time. And what is most important, I think, is the variety of expression, the different languages performers and composers speak to us: it’s impossible to be stuck with something. Like life itself, it continues and changes. 




JD: You’re quite a recording buff?

AB: I am lucky to know a great collector of old 78s in Paris who happens to be my ex-uncle-in-law. He’s a fantastic person and every time I go to Paris I try to see him and listen because there are such treasures, unknown and unpublished recordings. One of many impressions I had was from the Casals Festival in Prades: a live performance of Christian Ferras playing Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in the church and you can hear a thunderstorm outside. The C major fugue – I never heard anything like that on the violin! 


JD: This Wednesday, 5 December, you have your debut with the LPO and Vladimir Jurowski, playing Tchaikovsky...

AB: I’m so much looking forward to that! I learned the concerto when I was 14 and since then I have played it regularly, as it is one of the best concertos ever written for violinists, one of the most masterful and perfect pieces. With Vladimir Jurowski it’s a very special story because we met first several years ago when we worked on the Strauss concerto, which was v interesting. Then we played Tchaikovsky in Moscow and we had three hours of rehearsal with orchestra which is itself a luxury, but especially for this concerto and the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra. It was the way only Vladimir can make it: totally different way than what I was doing before, and it was incredible to feel these new connections which make the phrases and the whole mood sound totally different. I like very much his idea of this concerto, which is that it’s not so heavy, as stuffed and middle of 20thcentury in style. It’s closer to Mendelssohn. That’s exactly what I feel about this piece too - it’s very light. The second movement is very intimate, but not going too deep. It all finds resolution in the tempos we take & the accents we try to make. So I very much look forward to discovering it with LPO. 


JD: What’s your violin?

AB: A Guarneri del Gesù, a wonderful instrument of 1738, and it’s a whole new world to discover. It’s very interesting to see how much you can observe and learn from the instrument - I still don’t understand how that works. I was playing a modern instrument previously, also a wonderful instrument which got lots of compliments and I really enjoyed playing it. But the Guarneri somehow has something bigger. It’s really a mystery how time and the violinists who have played it before do change it. This violin was discovered relatively recently and has not had many owners, but still it’s very rich. It is lent to me by a private sponsor who wished to stay anonymous - he’s a fantastic person and I’m grateful to get to know him. 


JD: You’re working a lot with the pianist Vadym Kholodenko?

AB: His playing is very special for me. We were in the conservatory studying at almost the same time and for our first sonata together he suggested Beethoven No. 10, one of the most complex sonatas ever written! I learned so much from him, first of all because he’s a great musician and for a teenage violinist when we started to play it was very important, because violinists especially in the early years are obsessed with practising and have to invest so much time… so this was a whole new world. We’ve played together for more than 12 years already. 



JD: In June, you and I are working together - hooray! We’re doing a concert with the Oxford Philharmonic called The Ghosts of War, in which I’ll narrate the story of Jelly d’Arányi and you are the soloist in the Schumann Violin Concerto. Tell us about the concerto - what’s it like to perform? How do people respond to it?

AB: Since I first played the Schumann, I’ve tried to schedule it everywhere I can, which was not as simple as with Tchaikovsky! But I’m playing it several times before Oxford and I’m very much looking forward to that. 

The most common answer when I suggest programming the concerto is ‘Oh, the public doesn’t like it so much’… but that’s absolutely not true, because also important is the way it’s played, because it is so personal and so intimate. 

There are some most precious moments in the concerto - the second movement I adore, and going up to the third movement, it’s absolute magic. I think the fact that it’s not being accepted as it deserves to be is just because it’s not being heard much. That’s the only reason. It can be difficult to find the balance with the tempi, but it is possible. I’m convinced that at that time performances involved much more natural changes of rubato and a much more natural flow which makes much more sense in the finale and in Schumann in general. Of course he was improvising a lot, but I don’t think we should consider his pieces improvisations, especially the later ones: it’s very well thought and well shaped music, and he managed to find such a spare means of expression to express so much emotion. It’s a miracle. 


JD: The metronome marks are quite controversial…

AB: The finale makes sense when you swing it a little bit. Obviously it’s a polonaise, but it makes most sense when you don’t play it too strictly, in terms of movement. And of course I think it should be natural: if something is written unplayable, you can take it and bring sense to it, and that’s how I’m trying to manage this concerto. I think the tempi should be taken into consideration, but you can also change the tempo within the movement. If you listen to how Auer played this melody of Tchaikovsky… the old recordings were so much more free - it was like talking, like a conversation. I also heard a CD included in a book called How to Play Brahms, which had recordings of Brahms symphonies, the same excerpts with the same Berlin orchestra every 10 years - from the 1910s, 20s, 30s, 40s, and it’s absolutely shocking how much it changed. The early recordings had a flow like a flock of birds flying - it’s hypnotising, this feeling of time. Gradually over the decades it was more and more squared within time and slowed down. This can give us a thought about how to better play it. And before, the composers were so much more open to the performers… 


JD: Alena, thank you so much for making time to talk. See you on Wednesday, and toitoitoi!

5 DECEMBER, 7:30 PM, ​ ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL, LONDON
Weber Overture, Der Freischütz
Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto
Bruckner Symphony No. 2 (1877 revised version)

Vladimir Jurowski conductor
Alena Baeva violin
London Philharmonic Orchestra

Saturday, August 26, 2017

A very big noise: ONE DAY ONE CHOIR


'One Day One Choir' sounds singular. But hang on a mo: no fewer than 55 countries are now taking part in this gigantic day of celebration to bring peace (both inner and interpersonal) to us all through singing together. 

One Day One Choir has snowballed in the past three years: next month it will enjoy its biggest event yet, including the participation of 30 cathedrals. Its website describes it as "an inspiring global peace initiative which uses the harmonious power of singing together to unite people around the world on Peace Day, September 21st". It's still building, though, with a special eye on 2018, the final year of the World War I commemorations, so there could be no better time to step up, get involved and add your voices to the worldwide mix.

I asked its instigator and organiser, Jane Hanson, how and why she started on the project and where it goes from here.


JD: What’s the idea behind One Day One Choir? Why this, why now?

Jane Hanson
JH: ODOC arrived as a vision over a period of weeks in 2013. It was always clear that it would be about inspiring/motivating people to sing together for peace and using the amazing powers and qualities of singing to connect and unite people. 

I had been troubled about the unrest in Syria for some time, riots had been taking place in the UK and I was constantly being asked by children what was going to happen and how could they stop being scared. I kept thinking about what was happening and asking myself what could I do to make a small contribution for the better. 

I’d sung in choirs almost all my life (as had my parents and grandparents) and I’d also done research and radio work for the BBC on the power of music and singing together - so I knew this was something that anyone, anywhere in the world could do. I had seen the special and powerful effect singing together had achieved in many communities around the world.  Singing unites and uplifts people more quickly and effectively than almost any other human activity, and I knew it could make a difference by bringing people together and helping them to focus on thoughts and ideas around peace and unity. I’d also run the London Philharmonic Choir, so had connections and had helped out on global choral concerts for Voices for Hospices. I thought that by getting people singing together around the world, I could create something that offered an opportunity to anyone, anywhere, to have a small voice for peace and to feel connected to others with the same aim.

Vladimir Jurowski adds his support
Vladimir Jurowski was part of the vision. I went to him and asked for support, which he gave by bringing the LPO on board and adding his name as an ambassador for the project. Then I had to try and find funding and support for a launch concert. While all these ideas were running around in my head, the government announced that a chunk of money was becoming available to fund projects linked to the World War I commemoration, 14-18, so I thought perhaps I could run a project during these years and get people to unite in their communities and sing together for peace. Unfortunately, despite best attempts and a personal letter to me from the PM saying that ODOC was a very exciting idea, no money from this vast fund was to be forthcoming as it was only for projects linked to and directly commemoration WW1 events, and definitely not for peace projects... 

I almost gave up many times - but something always happened to keep me going. Everyone I spoke with thought the project was a brilliant idea and insisted I carry on. Three months before Peace Day 2014 I had lots of support, but still no funding, when - out of the blue - Radio 3’s The Choir stepped up and offered us a launch concert in the piazza outside Broadcasting House. This, along with media that had built up around the project, kicked us off on 21 September 2014. A conglomerate of choirs comprising The Mixed Up Chorus, London International Gospel Choir, Gospel Oak Community Parents Choir, Cheam Common Infant School Choir and The London Philharmonic Choir sang separately and together in an event broadcast live on Radio 3 and - with the help of various groups and supporters - 100,000 other people around the world also signed up to sing for peace.


JD: What does it take to organise events as big as this? How do you get people involved and spread the word.

JH: Faith, effort, determination, time and commitment - plus the support of friends and others who feel strongly about doing something for unity, community and peace and who love singing. I still do all this for free in my ‘ spare' time, so we don’t have the outreach and impact we would have if we had funding, wider support and back up and staff. But we’re still not doing too badly: lots of people know about us now. I do what I can do in the time I have and try and reach out to other groups who are interested in the same things and who try to help us by spreading the word and by finding some media support as well. 

First one school in Argentina joined in;
this year, six or seven participate
Most of our outreach goes through the website, Facebook and people who have already sung with us and share our values. One man has driven around the UK visiting cathedrals and peace centres and asking them to come on board, a music student in Kansas brought eight choirs on board last year and there are more stories of people taking up the ‘baton' and helping the project to run.

We are also now getting support from Sing UP, Music Mark and Making Music and an increasing number of people love the project and help out by reaching out and spreading the word to others - though obviously we would love LOTS more.


JD: Do you think music can bring peace? If so, how?

JH: By itself, of course, not directly, although singing can be a very peaceful and positive and uniting activity. We are looking at peace of all kinds in this project. We’re not just about non-violence but - perhaps more importantly - about inner peace, and thinking about ways to build and maintain peaceful existence with each other in families, schools, work place, communities, etc. Certainly when people sing together a very powerful bonding takes place. 


The Sixteen's recent Poulenc CD
with a dove, symbol of peace
Singing has been shown scientifically and psychologically to connect and unite people more than any other activity - some people even go as far as to say that that is its purpose. Vladimir Jurowski, for example, definitely believes that singing together has a special sociological power or purpose and helps people and communities to connect and keep linked in a positive way. Then there is the view of Bernstein: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

It is also a good teaching tool, especially in schools that work with the project to introduce notions and lessons/thoughts on what peace is and how to help achieve it personally and at school, as well as singing which is the fun and widely connecting part for children. For some schools where singing has taken a back seat of late, it provides a great opportunity to get the whole school singing by coming to it from a different direction. And teachers want ways to communicate with children about global issues, dealing with conflict and talking about peace. More and more schools are signing up, all over the world - already including more than 500 in Pakistan.


JD: Where would you like the project to go from here?

JH: I’d love some big organisation or media group to offer help to take this to more and more people and to help us create a big concert next year that can be screened or streamed to a huge audience around the world. I feel more like the guardian of the project than the owner; it needs help and support now from or wider community groups and leaders.

I would like as many people as possible around the world to engage with the project and sing for unity and peace with us - especially children and schools - and I’d like people to do this more spontaneously themselves in the future. To sing in a pro-active way in their communities without having to be on a social media video, for example, and to reach out to others to bring them together. If there were an annual peace singing event, I’m sure people would love it.

I also want people to take the thoughts and ideas we share about unity and peace (and singing) into their everyday lives, using them however they can to help themselves and their communities - and to be empowered and to have fun with it. 

Two singers from the National Opera Studio added their voices to those of students from Burntwood School in this Peace Assembly in London last year

JD: What would you say to encourage people to take part?

JH: Most people love singing and I don’t really know anyone who doesn’t want to live in a more peaceful or united world. So I would simply ask them to think about this and then get together with a few (or lots of) other people and add their voices to the others singing out.  

It’s not necessary to put on a concert, although people do. You can sing one song to be part of it - anything appropriate for peace (we have some free songs on the website) or you can dedicate something you are already doing, e.g. evensong or chants in temples and mosques or even a pre-planned rehearsal or concert. The Sixteen have just dedicated their concert on 21 September and will be mentioning us before they sing, and the monks at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight and at Wat Buddhapadipa Thai Temple will be dedicating their chanting to ODOC and inviting the public to join in. The Wat is organising a special chant event for ODOC this year.

And this is a great and easy project for schools to join, as the whole school can sing in assembly. We provide free songs and support - and children and teachers who’ve already joined us love it.  Increasing numbers of schools now connect with others, or invite parents in to join them

If that’s not inspiring enough, then singing itself is super-good for us in so many ways - it has multiple health benefits including the fact that singing regularly in a choir improves your entire immune system. It literally helps to make us feel uplifted and happy because of the chemicals it stimulates in our brains and it’s a great social activity. Singing connects us to others better than anything else and when we sing together our hearts literally start to beat at the same time. (Our supporter Mark Elder loves that fact)


JD: What do you personally feel about it? What would you say to inspire others?

Karl Jenkins adds his call for participants
JH: At the moment a lot of long days and sleepless nights!  But I know it’s worth it, too, because every time a group signs up or sends a positive message or feedback, there’s a calm inner feeling that you know this is a right thing to be doing and that some people, somewhere, are feeling inspired or supported by it. That’s especially true when it’s children and schools, or people who wouldn’t be singing together with others in any other way. And it feels great every time we get a sign-up from a new country or a well-known group or choir.

What drives me? Well, when you start something, then you have to finish it, as they say, especially when you’ve set very clear and public timelines and intentions! And there's a strong inner knowledge and guiding force that things have to be done to help people find ways to unite with a common voice, as our world seems to have become even more troubled than when the project started. Singing or chanting together is one of the only ways that they can do that - so the aim is to provide a common platform where people can sing their own tunes in their own words and languages, but still create a common harmony and be united with others. 

I don’t even think I have a choice to do this, really. I think it was there in the ether just waiting or wanting to happen and I happened to be the person that had to do it. And anyway, my friends and supporters wouldn’t let me stop now even if I tried - especially as there’s only just over a year to go to our 2018 target!

If you have a vision, a passion, a strong belief or a gut feeling that you can or could do something that matters, to you or other people, then believe in it and keep going, however hard it seems to be! Reach out for all the support you can get. You’ll be amazed how many strangers can step up to help - and keep going.  And don’t attach too much to a specific outcome because, as we have seen with ODOC, it might not go quite the way you pictured, but if the idea is good it will go the way it’s meant to go. Go with the flow. And keep going.



Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Meaty Hamlet

When I glanced down at the carrier bags and saw the two gigantic volumes of score, I realised the chap next to me on the Glyndebourne bus was none other than the composer of Hamlet, Brett Dean. "Why Hamlet?" I asked. He grinned: "Why not?"



Hamlet should be a gift for any composer - glorious soliloquies, poetry known to the entire land if not the whole world, a story of bottomless depth and endless possibilities for reinterpretation. It's not as if nobody has set it before: if I remember right, there are around 14 earlier versions, with Ambroise Thomas's effort the best known (though as Saint-Saëns said, "There is good music, bad music and the music of Ambroise Thomas...") Brett Dean's humongous new work for Glyndebourne, though, seems set to shred all competition into musical flotsam and jetsam.

Jacques Imbrailo, John Tomlinson, Allan Clayton
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
One thing you cannot do if you're turning a play like Hamlet into music is treat it with kid gloves. Dean and his librettist, the distinguished Canadian director Matthew Jocelyn, haven't. They have used only about a fifth of the actual play: Jocelyn has taken it to bits, reassembled it, restructured, redepicted, redreamed. After all, it takes, on average, about three times as long to sing a word as to speak it, so if you set every last line of Hamlet you'd end up with about 15 hours of opera. It would be possible to do it in other ways, retaining more of the poetic monologues which here are often boiled down to a mere handful of lines. But then something else would have to give; one might lose the grand sweep of the dramatic total, the ensemble work, the sonic colour with its imaginative flair.

Although you may find your favourite moments are missing ("Alas, poor Yorick" is in, but "To thine own self be true" is not) the work is masterfully structured. The impression, musically, is rather like a giant symphony of Mahlerian proportions plus some; dramatically it is full of different levels, new insights, magnificent company challenges and a vivid variety of pace and richly explored possibilities.


Symphonic Shakespeare

Allan Clayton as Hamlet
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
The opera's scenes seem to correspond roughly to the movements of a symphonic work in which the intensity rarely lets up. First, an opening dramatic exposition with slow introduction - Hamlet mourns his father at the graveside before we plunge into Gertude and Claudius's wedding party, at which the prince is drunk and disruptive; and the arrival of the Ghost, all the more chilling for the tenderness between Hamlet and his dead father.

The second main section opens almost as a scherzo, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern played by two skittish countertenors, and culminates in the play-within-a-play - lavishly decorated with a totally brilliant onstage accordionist plus deconstructed lines from Hamlet's soliloquy that pop in as self-referential touchstones. The 1hr 45min first act closes with the desperate confrontation between Hamlet and Gertrude and the murder of Polonius - a great central climax that leaves Gertrude psychologically eviscerated. We all need the long interval to get our breath back.

Allan Clayton and Barbara Hannigan as Hamlet and Ophelia
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
Next we turn to Ophelia's madness, death and funeral - an eerie slow movement, full of startling writing that includes a good proportion of the work's best and most interesting music. The dramatic pacing is notable here, building up to an absolute cataclysm as Hamlet cries "I loved Ophelia"; similarly cathartic is the multifaceted finale, with the sword fight and multiple murders that nevertheless retains Horatio's determination, as the match is agreed, to up Hamlet's quota of prize horses to 11. The rest is...silence.

The opera has been planned with Glyndebourne's auditorium in mind. A group of singers take their places in the orchestra pit - and sometimes in the balcony - being used, effectively, as instruments.  Indeed, almost everywhere you look there are people singing, thumping instruments or doing strange things with unusual percussive gadgets... The LPO tweeted this image from the score:



Electronics are subtly woven in, whether using sampled (apparently pre-recorded) extracts of the singers' lines or setting up atmospheric rumbles and roars. Even the more conventional aspects of the instrumentation are clever, clear, often ingenious; for instance, the countertenors of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are aurally shadowed by two clarinets almost trying to edge one another out of the way. As for the designs, Ralph Myers places the action in a Nordic Noir type of design featuring shiftable Scandic white walls with huge windows; Alice Babidge's costumes are contemporary in style, which makes Claudius's crown look faintly ridiculous, but I suspect it's meant to be. Neil Armfield's direction is so organic a part of the work that it is hard to imagine it done in any other way.


To thine own self be true...

To say that it's a superhuman effort, and not only for the composer, is not saying enough. Dean and Jocelyn have risen to the challenge of transforming the play with fearless aplomb, and in so doing have created giant roles for their lead singers.

Allan Clayton's Hamlet may prove the ultimate making of this rising-star British tenor. He is on stage almost all the time; we rarely see anything from anyone else's point of view. A doomed, bearlike desperado, he travels from agonised grief through madness real or imagined and out the other side to the fury of his final (expertly performed) sword fight with David Butt Philip's Laertes. It's a huge sing for this often classically-oriented performer - we have loved his Mozart and Handel although, most recently, he was pushing the boat out further as David in Meistersinger - and he proves himself not only in glorious voice but a master of the stage in every way. For Barbara Hannigan's Ophelia, Dean has created ethereally high, dizzyingly complex arabesquing lines, offset by Sarah Connolly as a persuasive Gertrude, hard-edged in character but mellifluous and radiant of voice. Sir John Tomlinson is the Ghost, as well as the Lead Player and the Gravedigger - an intriguing alignment of the three figures - and owns those scenes with his outsize presence and sepulchral tone.

The chorus frames the action with plenty of impact, plunging into "Laertes shall be king" to launch the second half with maximum oomph. There's also a rewarding plethora of smaller roles, luxuriously cast: Rod Gilfrey as Claudius, Jacques Imbrailo as Horatio, Kim Begley as Polonius and Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowrey as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. As for Vladimir Jurowski's conducting, I doubt anyone else could have pulled this off even half so magnificently.

I am reliably informed that some of the stage blood found its way onto a first violin part in the orchestra pit. At least, I think it was stage blood. Pictured left...

You can see Hamlet in a cinema relay on 6 July. Other performances can be found and booked here, and we are promised that the opera will be included in the Glyndebourne tour, with David Butt Philip taking over in the title role.


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