Tuesday, September 21, 2004


Rehearsing Weber
Originally uploaded by Duchenj.

We are back home after ten fabulous days in France. First, a week in a 'gite' in the Loire Valley countryside near Angers, relaxing (me) and practising (Tom). Lovely food from local market, a little private 'piscine' in our jardin, some trips to see the chateaux at Usse and Azay-le-Rideau and a spot of wine-tasting for good measure... Then off to Philippe's festival, Consonanaces de St Nazaire, where I took this picture during a rehearsal for the Weber Clarinet Quintet.

Left to right: Philippe Graffin, Tom, Nobuko Imai, Gary Hoffman and Charles Neidich. And they were bloody fantastic. I sat by, watching the Tomcat and engaging in that time-honoured pursuit known in Yiddish as 'clibing nachas'.

The intensity of atmosphere in these chamber music festivals really has to be experienced to be believed. I've written about St Nazaire before (a post a few months back entitled 'My favourite festival') - suffice it to say that this small, quiet, pleasant, rather uneventful shipbuilding town on the Loire estuary is home to a festival that, thanks to Philippe, its artistic director, provides chamber music of the calibre more often heard at Carnegie or Wigmore halls. Apart from Tom's spot in the Weber with Charlie Neidich (who is a complete genius of the clarinet), another major highlight was hearing the Faure Second Piano Quartet in a performance by Philippe, Nobuko, Gary and Pascal Devoyon that made me feel I was hearing the piece for the first time - and so beautiful it brought on tears. The flow, the freedom, the richness of expressive range, the cohesion between the players and the sense of utter absorption in Faure's magical language - words, I'm afraid, don't do it justice.

Rodion Shchedrin was present throughout - he was the focus of the festival. Tomorrow Philippe is giving the world premiere of a new Shchedrin work, Concerto Parlando. Rather than sitting here blogging, I ought to get on the next plane back to Nantes... Shchedrin had brought with him one of his finest young interpreters, a hotshot Russian pianist named Ekaterina ('Katia') Mechetina who has just won the World Piano Competition in Cincinnati (more details here). She performed a number of his piano works, which are astounding: Shchedrin, a fantastic pianist himself, knows exactly how to exploit the instrument's potential and creates pieces for it that are immensely energetic and hugely demanding on any virtuoso's abilities, yet also deeply poetic. Cross Shostakovich with Keith Jarrett and double it.

Every festival, however, should have a British brass player. Martin Hurrell of the BBC Symphony Orchestra was there to be trumpet soloist in Concerto Parlando alongside Philippe (the idea was to create something along similar lines to the Shostakovich First Piano Concerto which features a prominent trumpet solo). Martin is a brilliant player but also happens to be the funniest guy on earth. His sense of timing ought to have propelled him onto his own TV show years ago. Around midnight a few days ago over a late-night repas of French wine and cheese, he reduced the entire festival table, including Shchedrin and his wife, the former Bolshoi prima ballerina assoluta Maya Plisetskaya, to helpless, howling rubble with his impersonation of a certain 20th-century dictator which would make Charlie Chaplin turn in his grave. The experience won't be quickly forgotten...

We didn't really want to come home. But Solti is very pleased to see us.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Happy hols ahead

I'm off to France this morning for 10 days. Back in town and in cyberspace on 20th September. We are renting a house in the middle of nowhere in the Loire Valley for a week, then going to St Nazaire. Watch this space for a report on chateaux, fromages, patisserie, the St Nazaire Festival and Tom's momentous day on stage with the Graffin All-Stars!

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Happy Birthday Dvorak

It's Dvorak's birthday - he would have been 163 today... My article about him for The Indy came out on Monday to trail today's all-Antonin Prom, which included Sarah Chang playing the Violin Concerto with the Czech Phil conducted by Charles Mackerras. The second half was the New World Symphony, which is the basis of my article.

That symphony was in the first concert I ever went to, at the Royal Festival Hall in (I think) 1973. I still remember it. It was the Royal Philharmonic - then a powerhouse presence on the musical scene, not the demoralised, cash-starved basket-case it has become today - with Rudolf Kempe conducting, on a Sunday afternoon so that hard-working fathers like my dad could take their children along at an hour when they wouldn't be missing bedtime (WHY don't we have Sunday afternoon concerts now? As a kid, I'd have never heard any live music without them!). If I've got this right, they started with the Berlioz Carnival Romain overture and then Miriam Fried played the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. What I remember most from the Dvorak symphony was a) loving the tunes, b) feeling desperately sorry for the flautist, Susan Milan, who was sitting right in front of the very loud brass and timpani.

30 years on, I've interviewed Susan Milan, and also Miriam Fried's son, Jonathan Biss, a young pianist we'll soon be hearing a lot more about. But today I felt as if I was hearing the New World Symphony for the first time, thanks to Michael Beckerman of NYU, whose superb book New Worlds of Dvorak explores the work's connections to the composer's abortive attempts to write an opera based on Longfellow's 'Hiawatha' (a task later satisfactorily accomplished as a cantata by his young Black British disciple Samuel Coleridge-Taylor). Dvorak, always considered a 'Czech Brahms', says Mike, always wanted to be a 'Slavic Wagner' instead. This book has all the warmth, gentle humour and humanity that is so often missing from musicological tracts, and it made a deep impression when I first perused it when writing liner notes for Philippe's recording of the Violin Concerto, coupled with Coleridge-Taylor's (see link on left).

Now, though, I can really hear it. This symphony is pure symphonic poem. It's all there - the death of Minnehaha, the demoniac dance of the magician Pau-Puk-Keewis, the great famine...and if there should be any doubt as to Dvorak's operatic aspirations, the final chord is straight out of the Ring Cycle, the woodwind sustaining into the beyond after the strings have vanished. Incredible. That b****y bread advert wrecked this work for many years with naff associations; in fact it's one of the late 19th century's finest efforts. It is both sobering and inspiring to return to a work like this and suddenly recognise that you have never appreciated it before.

Bravo Dvorak! And happy birthday.

APOLOGIES MEANWHILE for long blogging silence. I'm trying frantically to juggle family duties with finishing a bunch of articles before going away to France on Friday. GOOD NEWS: my NEW NEPHEW was born on Saturday! He is adorable, and reputedly responds positively to the CD of Nice Soothing Tracks that I put together for his mum, my brother's partner Laura. I'm told it has become the Soothing Feeding CD. It's is full of beautiful slow movements from various concertos, plus a good few chunks of Faure. Luckily enough, it seems to work.

Friday, September 03, 2004

Sir Georg's 15 minutes

A peculiar number of hits originating at a wonderful blog named Llama Butchers prompted me to investigate. Turns out that our resident feline Solti, a.k.a. Sir Georg, a.k.a. Poochface, is having his own personal 15 minutes of fame and has nearly won us a companion cat from the States. Voila: Llama Butchers.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Eating fire and words in Edinburgh

Two glorious days in Edinburgh at the tail end of the Festival have, I think, made me eat most of my former words about Scotland. Previously I've had a few nasty experiences there, but this trip was pure magic. Not least, that was because the sun came out - though Edinburgh is a stunningly beautiful city whatever the weather. Tom compares it to Prague, with the hilltop castle, the deep cleft valley, the historic grandeur that infuses the grey stone from which most of the city is built; and you can see the first hills of the Highlands in the distance from the centre of town.

Combine scenery, sunshine and the festival atmosphere with the rich acoustic in the Usher Hall, two concerts with the LPO at its very finest under principal guest conductor Vladimir Jurowski, innumerable wonderful cafes and fabulous vegetarian food (we particularly recommend Henderson's) and a fabulous party thrown for the orchestra by the sponsors last night in The Hub, a converted church on the Royal Mile, and - well, it was great. Even Tom felt as if we were having a glorified holiday, and he was working his socks off.

Of course, when everybody said that Vladimir set the Usher Hall alight with his electrifying charisma, they didn't quite mean the fire alarm to go off, which it did 10 minutes before the concert on Monday. Vladi was blameless, however: the culprit turned out to be an overenthusiastic tea urn in the ladies' dressing room... Earlier in the day I'd strolled down the Royal Mile, closed to traffic and boasting several fire-eaters juggling with flaming torches. Plenty of sparks flew in Edinburgh, one way or another.

The Scots don't always like to believe that life can be quite so marvellous and we found that the people we talked to were eager to point out that 'it isn't like this all the time!'. The Festival, they declare, is exceptional. A few weeks of intense, creative glory in which the place is packed with fantastic things to see, hear and do, and then back to normal: by December it's completely freezing and night sets in around 3.30pm. Tom complained that London doesn't have a festival - there are some fine local festivals such as Spitalfields, City of London and Hampstead and Highgate, not to mention the Proms, but nothing that unifies the city's lively arts scene across the board in the way that Edinburgh does. On the other hand, London is always full of things to see, hear and do - not just for three weeks of the year.

Still, COULD THERE BE a way to pull everything together in comparable fashion in London? Would it be sensible, practical or even desirable to have a London International Festival? Personally I reckon it would be virtually unworkable because of the sheer scale of the city, but I'm famously pessimistic. What does everyone think about this?