Wednesday, April 21, 2004

A trumpet for Saint-Saens

Just back from the opening concert of Steven Isserlis's Saint-Saens Festival at the Wigmore. One of those glorious evenings where you come out feeling glad to be alive.

A few highlights were the very, very young clarinettist Julian Bliss playing Saint-Saens's incredibly beautiful clarinet sonata of 1921 (sounds 100 years earlier), Josh Bell pulling out the pyrotechnics in the Rondo Capriccioso and, of course, Carnival of the Animals, complete with Ogden Nash verses suitably doctored for the occasion:

"When a clarinettist leaves the stage
It's not because he's under age!
He's lurking round behind that wall
About to do his cuckoo call."

And Steven's 'Swan' could have made Pavlova cry.

It feels very nice to have had some small part in spreading the word about this festival (see link to my piece in the Indy the other day) as it's something I really believe in. It's going to be marvellous - concerts include Steven and Pascal Devoyon playing the cello sonatas, concertos at the Barbican tomorrow and a programme of songs devised by Graham Johnson - next Tuesday, 27th April, still a few tickets available! The festival goes on until mid-May and finishes with a grand jamboree on 18 May to raise funds to start a Saint-Saens Society. Full details at the Wigmore Hall website.

But dare I make one tiny complaint? I didn't see any musicians in the audience. Yes, there were a handful of children and some 'young people', no doubt dragged in for the nice 'animals' piece. Otherwise, this was the Wigmore Hall Friends Incorporated (mostly over-65s from Highgate), plus a few music business types (the ones who look straight through you until you force them to acknowledge your existence) and, of course, sponsors. Not that I'm objecting to the extraordinary fact that a Saint-Saens Festival could suddenly become THE Place To Be Seen. But it's a conundrum for the Wigmore Hall, which seats about 550 and doesn't have room for everyone who'd want to go. The hall can't expand because that would wreck everything - the intimacy, the atmosphere, the acoustic. Isn't there any way to get more 'ordinary' music lovers into a concert like this?

Never mind. Three cheers for Camille Twinkletoes! I shall tell my mobile phone company that I'm only going to accept the free upgrade if I can have a handset that plays the 'Carnival of the Animals' finale. And you know someone's made a difference to the publicity when, on the way to such a concert, you hear a busker at Waterloo playing 'The Swan'!

Saturday, April 17, 2004

Injury time

I'm getting a taste of Life on the Other Side. It hurts.

Venturing to a piano in public is about the dumbest thing someone in my profession can do. Since I have to pass judgment on other people's musical achievements, trying to perform myself is asking for trouble. Still...playing the piano + marrying professional violinist = concerts. My colleague Olly Condy, dep ed of Classic FM Magazine, has asked Tom and me to give a recital in a series at the church where he's organist, St Paul's, Clapham. With rash delight, we chose the Cesar Franck sonata, which happens to have one of the nastiest piano parts in the repertoire.

Upshot: headache. Except that it's not so much headache as shoulder ache.

About six weeks ago my shoulder started hurting and it's got worse. I've eliminated various other activities that could have caused it - weight training (oh yes), carrying the shopping, carting around big handbags full of books...but with the concert a few weeks away, I can't cut out the piano; and the more I practise, the clearer it is that Monsieur Franck is to blame. So the heat is on - the Deep Heat.

It's so easy, from our usual position as happy listeners, to forget what an intensely physical thing playing a musical instrument is. Musicians are 'dreamers of dreams', absorbed in a world of beauty, spirituality and moral edification.....aren't they? No way. They're like Olympic athletes. The more I practise, the more spurious my privileged position as reviewer feels. Does ANYONE who doesn't play have ANY idea how DIFFICULT it is? It takes your whole body, your whole mind, your whole spirit, your whole heart, and if you emerge unscathed in each department you are damn lucky. Hey guys, dear musicians, I take my hat off to all of you.

I'm seeing the physiotherapist later this week and after our concert I can close the piano until I'm better. Spare a thought for the professional musicians who can't stop - no play, no pay. How many of them are pushing on through pain like this in front of oblivious audiences and critics? How many of them ever find the backup, support and understanding they need?

I'll never forget the nightmare I had as a student in Cambridge when I got tendonitis. In those days (1986), nobody had heard of RSI...Over 18 months I experienced:

* Sports injuries clinic - ultrasound.
* GP - anti-inflammatory drugs.
* Different GP - diagnosis of glandular fever-type virus.
* University Counselling Service - recommended for Neurotic Music Student Who Thinks Her Arm Hurts. Sat there telling long-suffering counsellor that my arm hurt.
* Chiropracter - mad Yorkshireman with chips on both shoulders who'd missed his true vocation (butcher). Nearly fainted in Newnham College afterwards.
* Acupuncture - no fun if you don't like needles. Emerged with bruising which, I'm assured by those who swear by acupuncture, isn't supposed to happen.
* Packet of frozen peas, wrapped in tea towel - applied to sore arm daily.
* Finally I bought a little bottle of homeopathic remedy for pains in ligaments. Two weeks later I was better. As I don't really believe in homeopathy, this was quite a surprise, but thank goodness it worked.

I was lucky then. Hundreds are less lucky. My toast today is to them. And my plea to everyone else is: just think a little more about what has gone into the creation of the performance you are listening to.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

My favourite festival

I've been to a few, Salzburg and Verbier included, but this one took the biscuit. And the chances are you won't have heard of it.

I haven't been able to write about this anywhere 'official' yet, because editors tend to say 'Where on earth is that?' when I tell them I had a great time in...St Nazaire. Fair enough: a depressed, sometime-shipbuilding little town on the Loire Atlantique coast of France, blasted to pieces (mainly by the Brits) in the war and a long way from the glitz and glamour of gay Paris doesn't sound like a prime-time travel feature to anyone. And if you have heard of St Nazaire, chances are that it's because there was a fearful accident there last November when a gangplank leading onto the new oceanliner Queen Mary II (which was being built there) collapsed and 15 people were killed falling onto the dry dock.

If, however, you want to join my campaign for Real Music, this is the place to go in September. The festival was founded 14 years ago by my friend, interviewee and favourite fiddler Philippe Graffin [see South Africa etc]. Last September he assembled a marvellous group of musicians to perform a set of fascinating programmes build around the idea of 'L'invitation au voyage' - appropriate because the building of the Queen Mary II was the most significant thing to have happened in St Nazaire in years. 'L'invitation au voyage' largely took the form of a pairing of English and French music; there was also the world premiere of David Matthews's specially-commissioned setting of the Baudelaire poem of that title.

It was only there, listening to Yuzuko Horigome playing The Lark Ascending with piano accompaniment in the beautiful chapel-turned-art-gallery where most of the concerts happen, that I realised how little British music is known outside our little island. The enthusiastic local audience lapped it up, but had never heard it before. The same went for Elgar's Sospiri, the centrepiece of the final concert. That was an event in itself: a large warehouse, right next to the nearly-finished Queen Mary II, was transformed into a concert hall for the evening. Despite a rather unusual acoustic, it proved a stunning setting. The audience was bussed in from the town and some people apparently queued all day to get there first and be in the front row.

Why is this my favourite festival? There are no 5-star hotels or gourmet oyster bars; no mountain views or hang-gliding; no composer house museums, specially made chocolates or champagne tents for corporate sponsors. And there's no pretentiousness, no posing, no money for marketing, no big-name circuit recitalists playing their year's programme for the hundredth time. Just wonderful, imaginatively devised concerts played by fantastic musicians for mainly local audiences who'd never get the chance to hear it otherwise. St Nazaire may not be the prettiest of French towns, but it's friendly, the locals love their festival, the food is excellent and the local wine splendid - and there's also a wonderful beach! It's genuine, it's real and it deserves all the attention it can't afford.

This year's St Nazaire Festival - the official title is Consonances - takes place from 18 to 25 September and some exciting Russian stuff was being planned last time I checked it out. See the link for more info.

Friday, April 09, 2004

Pilgrims' progress - to Malvern

Just back from an Easter trip to the frozen north...well, north of Watford. On the way up to the in-laws in Buxton, we took a detour to Malvern. I'd always wanted to go there to pay homage to a secret favourite: Sir Edward Elgar.

Being effectively English, by birth if not blood, I feel, as so many of us do, that maybe there's something a little shameful about actually liking music by certain English composers. But Elgar is glorious: paradoxical, personal, heart-rending. His public face can be deeply irritating - even he didn't like what became Land of Hope and Glory - but when he turns inward and shows you his heart, he is up there with the finest of his day. My personal favourites: the Piano Quintet, Serenade for Strings, Violin Concerto, Cello Concerto, Sospiri and even a symphony or two.

The Malvern Hills - a bizarre, dramatic hump in an otherwise flattish landscape - provided the backdrop to Elgar's inspiration. The views are stunning and the atmosphere remarkable. It feels like a place to stand back from life and look at everything from above and beyond: at once distanced, provided with perspective, yet also thrown back upon yourself and your own thoughts. You seem to gaze at life through both ends of the binoculars at the same time. Is this perhaps how Elgar saw it too?

He is buried in the graveyard of St Wulstan's Church, Little Malvern. We went there and found the grave adorned with vases of daffodils. Tom got out his violin and played Salut d'amour for him.

The Elgar Birthplace Museum, just west of Worcester and north of Malvern, is the cottage where the composer first saw the light of day. His daughter Carice bought it and turned it into a museum in (I think) the 1970s, with, on show, his writing table, plenty of photos, some letters and memorabilia and the prettiest of English country gardens full of daffodils and apple blossom. An additional Visitor Centre offers an excellent display telling the story of his life and containing some amazing manuscripts including the Second Symphony. More info via link on the left.

Additional insight for Faure fanatics like me: Elgar and Faure had the same British patron - Leo Frank Schuster - who once gave a party for the two of them together. They both sported fabulous moustachios and there are moments when they even sound alike.

A visit to Malvern and the Elgar Birthplace Museum is highly recommended for all Elgar fans, closet or otherwise. We don't make enough fuss of our few composers in this country!

Friday, April 02, 2004

Get a grip, Gustav

I can't help wondering whether there's something wrong with me. The rest of the Royal Festival Hall goes nuts over Mahler, Bruckner and Shostakovich symphonies. And I sit there wondering what to cook for dinner tomorrow, daydreaming about being forcibly confined for as long as this in better surroundings (the Sanctuary/beach in south of France/leisurely dinner at Gavroche) - or simply wishing that dear old Gustav could get a grip.

Why, why, WHY did these self-indulgent egomaniacs have to write symphonies that go on for 80 minutes with no relief to the overwhelming gloom? Were they sadists? Or cry-babies? Listen, Gussy, everyone's got problems. If you didn't know what you were getting into when you married Almschi...well, you were probably the only man in Vienna who didn't. You have only yourself to blame.

Actually, I can deal with Gus on a good day - at least he had a heart, which is more than can be said for Bruckner, who bores me to tears. Shostakovich isn't exactly heartless, but usually induces inclination to throw self off Waterloo Bridge - bad idea, no future in it.

Schubert could encapsulate the sort of emotion that the symphonic dinosaurs were after in a three-minute song. What did Anton B write that could even begin to compare with Schwanengesang? And did Gus ever create a view of the human condition more intensely touching than Schubert's String Quintet? I don't believe so.

Also, the more I think about it, the more I prefer French stuff once we get past about 1865. One of my best musical moments in the past month was attending the dress rehearsal of Verdi's 'Simon Boccanegra' at the Royal Opera House. Lots of doges, intrigues, mixed-up identities, oompahs and fight scenes. And as the curtain went down, someone's mobile went off - playing the twinkletoes finale of Saint-Saens's Carnival of the Animals. If that didn't put things in perspective, nothing could.