Thursday, August 26, 2004

No. 88 Black-and-White-Notes Street

I've spent several days at the Chetham's International Festival and Summer School for Pianists in Manchester. Back in London today, attending a record company launch for its new releases, I've come to understand just how valuable the experience of the summer school was. When you're surrounded by like-minded people, it's appallingly easy to start taking them for granted. Until, that is, you return to the "real world" and realise that the performances you heard in 48 hours up north by lesser-known names knock the spots off all those glitzy soloists with their snazzy photos and empty heads.

The Chetham's Summer School, held in one of the UK's tiny handful of fine specialist music schools, is run by the school's head of piano, the redoubtable Scot Murray McLachlan, who's an old friend of mine from university. He had assembled 20 piano professors and 160 students of all ages and levels; each student was to have around 4 hours of personal tuition during the week, the chance to practise as much as they liked and the freedom to listen to as many other lessons as they could swallow. There were lectures, concerts by the professors and, for the kids, even a trip to Laserquest. Back at my own piano after only 48 hours, I was staggered to discover how much I'd learned from two days of intensive listening without playing a note myself.

The range of lessons was fabulous. From Murray there was focus, strength and support. From Jeremy Siepmann, a nearly mystical sense of connection between matters of the piano and everything from physiology to astrophysics. Yonty Solomon, once a student of Dame Myra Hess, seems to be the mentor I've long itched to find - and he says he'll listen to me (!); he is a Faure fanatic, his recital displayed a luminosity of tone and total emotional involvement that one hardly ever sees, while his classes were filled with pearls of wisdom handed to him from Hess herself, someone I've always idolised. Noriko Ogawa, whose concert included one of the most stunning Liszt B minor Sonatas I've heard in years, offered a perceptive and analytical approach in her teaching. Bernard Roberts bounced in with down-to-earth common sense, good humour and high spirits - and I can't understand how he's managed not to change one jot since I played to him at Dartington in 1984, while the rest of us have aged past recognition. There were plenty of other professors too whom I didn't have time to hear.

All were kind; all were generous; all had their hearts in the right place. They were there because of their passion for the piano and an almost equal passion to communicate that love and its secrets not only to the next generation but to anyone who hungers for it. It was moving and marvellous. School dinners notwithstanding.

We must feel at home in the piano keyboard, said Yonty. This is where we live: no. 88 Black-and- White-Notes street.

It's difficult to return to normal life after a sojourn at this address.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Carmen by train

I've been spending a few days in Lewes with Tom, whose Glyndebourne schedule doesn't permit daily homecoming at the moment. This week he has rehearsals at St Luke's (City of London) in the mornings for Edinburgh Festival concerts next week, followed by performances at Glyndebourne in the evenings. Insane. So he's staying with some friends and I went to stay too. I came home by train this morning and there on the train was Carmen.

I'm very accustomed to meeting musicians and feel lucky to count some incredible ones among my dearest friends, to the point that round the East Sheen dinner table I can often forget what they do for their living (until they slope off to try the Bechstein). But opera singers are quite another matter - it's almost impossible to get their latest character out of your head. Once I had to interview Richard van Allen about the opera studio in London which he was involved in running, not long after seeing him play the baddy in 'Billy Budd'; I turned up for the meeting and could only think 'Oh my God, it's Claggart!' So sitting on the Victoria train seeing Carmen leafing through the Sunday Times and then nodding off for the better part of the journey was a tad strange. She deserved her nap, though.

The weirdest thing of all, however, was the time Tom got to play in the stage band of Don Giovanni in Graham Vick's highly controversial staging, nicknamed 'the dead horse production'. The on-stage musicians were made up to look as decadent as everyone else, so Tom had to wear an 18th-century frock coat and a wig, with his face made up stark white except for black circles around both eyes. He looked like a vampire. But he thoroughly enjoyed himself and was even told off at one point for over-acting. All sorts of stuff goes on on the last night of the season, of course, and he took that particular opportunity to kiss several girls in the chorus during the dance scene, knowing full well I was out front and could do nothing about it...

Glyndebourne is nearly finished - the last night is 29th. But it's not quite the end of the summer...not quite...the Proms are still on, the Edinburgh Festival is in full swing (I am going for the first time) and St Nazaire is not until well into September. That will be the grand finale, especially for Tom, who has finally got a moment of real glory. He has been invited to play in the Weber Clarinet Quintet with Philippe Graffin, Nobuko Imai, Gary Hoffman and Charles Neidich. Go to Consonances de St Nazaire and scroll down the pics to a smiley fiddler between Devoyon and Graffin... Quite apart from that, St Nazaire will be fascinating this year because of the presence of the astonishing Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin, who has written a new concerto for Philippe. St Nazaire is a strange place for strange marvels.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

The Emperor and his new clothes

FIRST, here is the link to Artsblogging, the collaborative blog in which George Hunka, Helen Radice and I are pooling forces (if you'll pardon the mixed metaphor). This is how George describes it:

"Romantic tradition has it that artists are alienated not only from our
culture but from each other, and despite the explosion of information
technology in the past twenty years I can't say that personally I feel any
less alienated than I did in 1984. Blogs have the potential to provide the
communication and communion missing from the fragmented cultural milieux
in which we're all participating. Now, at least, we can be alienated

Do come and join us! I shall, of course, be keeping this one going as diligently as ever... which end, the Prom last night was quite an experience. Anyone convinced of the imminent demise of classical music should have been there. The place was packed to the magic mushrooms in the ceiling. And the ovation that greeted the veteran pianist Alfred Brendel before he had even played testified to the way people not only love the music but love its finest exponents even if they do happen to be white, male and 75. This was to be Brendel's last Prom: reports say that he no longer wants to do live broadcasts, and for someone who has been playing at the Proms for 36 years this seems fair enough. He played the Beethoven 'Emperor' Concerto, and for this night he was an emperor of the piano himself. The performance was full of colour, the tenderest and most luminous phrasing and the exhilaration of making music in such a joyous atmosphere; only a few memory lapses betrayed what might be the great man's reasons for wanting to bow out.

This was not all: before the concerto, we had to listen to the token piece of Birtwistle. Apparently there has only been about one Prom season in the last 20 years or so (that figure may be wrong - I'll check it) in which Birtwistle has not been played. I've never 'got' the big deal about Birtwistle. There are vast numbers of finer composers both dead and alive who never get a look in the BBC Proms door. It's not only that I don't like the way it sounds; but often, and certainly last night, I don't think it's very good music. This was a setting of three poems by Brendel - who, in case you haven't read them, is a marvellous poet, not only musical but also surreal and often hilarious. The three poems Birtwistle set are all excellent, but did the music add anything? Did it have anything to do with the words? Think of what Schumann could add to Heine, Faure to Verlaine, Duparc to Baudelaire... But here I found the noises emanating from (very good) baritone and orchestra little other than pointless - the usual Birtwistlian gloom and discord and squalliness. What for? Yes, it was the emperor again: but this time, the Emperor's New Clothes. The Emperor did very well without them.

And, oh my dears, it was SO last century. As Brendel is giving up Proms, couldn't someone persuade Birtwistle to do so as well so that we can hear some 21st-century voices instead? Music has GOT to move on from this cod-liver-oil effect. We need new sounds that can inspire us, sounds that look forward instead of backward, individual voices that communicate and fascinate and stimulate. We need new voices for a new century and the Proms should be trying to find them.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

This is Solti

Originally uploaded by Duchenj.

It's the silly season, it's Saturday night and as usual I'm home alone because Tom is working, so here is a picture of our cat, Solti - Sir Georg for short. He lives up to his name. He thinks he's the boss. He thinks he's a tiger. We think he's a mobile teddybear with whiskers and, sometimes, claws.

It's warm and muggy here in London. After a hectic patch I've been doing useful things like washing my autumn skirts, buying jeans and trying, rather half-heartedly, to practise Faure.

A propos of ACD's comment on my misuse of the word 'crossover' the other day, I wonder what people made of the use of Mahler 3 in the Olympic opening ceremony yesterday? Despite the symbolism of the half-nude dancer on the sugarcube suspended above all that water, which according to the BBC commentator was 'man becomes a logical, spiritual being in quest of knowledge', it is still only a major sporting event that can expose Mahler 3 via TV to an audience of 4 billion. With my naive facility for being wonder-struck, I was blown away by the whole thing and am thoroughly in favour of Mahler being aired in this way, which goodness knows he deserves. The rest of the summer is going to be deathly, with nothing on TV except sport, sport and more sport. Honest to goodness, the BBC had nothing better to do today than show the HUNGARIAN Grand Prix. Excuse me while I vote with the red button at the top and take up a good book instead.

Speaking of good books, my Vilnius thoughts were reawakened today by a conversation with the editor of the Jewish Quarterly, for whom I've written a substantial article about the trip (yes, the editor of the JQ is prepared to work on a Saturday and so, mercifully, am I!). I am now reading The Pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman's memoirs on which the film was based - immensely harrowing. But not nearly as harrowing as the book that Philippe gave me for my birthday last year, 'The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania' - an 800-page tome of the diary kept by Herman Kruk, a librarian in the Vilna ghetto chronicling, day by day, moment by moment, the descent into destruction, horror and death of 90 per cent of entire community during the Second World War. Kruk, too, was eventually shot. Just before, anticipating his fate, he had buried the manuscript of his diaries in the presence of six witnesses, one of whom later dug them up; they constitute a horrendously vital document.

Oh my, there is a series about Stalin on Channel 4. I shall now go and watch a programme about Soviet genocide...

PS - I've been tinkering with my list of Musician Friends, deciding to limit it to those who have been round to dinner and/or invited us to their place, or with whom we have good intentions about getting together socially if they and we can ever find a moment when we're in the same place at the same time. I've also put the list into alphabetical order, since it was previously random and "there's some as might take their placing amiss". At some point I'll get round to making a list of Musicians I Think Are Interesting, to restore the casualties of these decisions.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Artsblogging is here!

George Hunka (see his blog Superfluities on the blogroll left) has started a new collaborative blog called Artsblogging. I just joined. Contributors include George, Helen Radice and - though so far just in comments pulling our grammar and word choice apart - ACD. (Note: Who is the mysterious ACD? My guess is that he must be a fearsomely experienced sub-editor, exactly what most of us started blogging in order to avoid!!)

Posts on Artsblogging so far have been focusing on the need for a greater interchange of ideas in the arts. Practitioners of each tend to stay in their own little pigeon-holes and don't mix easily. Even in a place like a 'school of music and drama' the chances are that the musicians will huddle in corners comparing notes on how fast they practise certain studies; and the actors will, well, be actors together. Very different from the early 20th century when writers, artists, musicians etc used to meet and mingle in places like the Princesse de Polignac's Parisian salon...oh for a time machine... The shell-shock for Lucy and me in 'Beloved Clara' was the insight we gained into the world on the other side. Only when working with these actors, Lucy said, has she ever found herself weeping with laughter 90 seconds before walking on to a concert platform.

Exchanging ideas is what Artsblogging is all about. Good on you, George!! It will have a new URL in the next few days, so when that is established I shall add it permanently to the blogroll.