Thursday, June 11, 2009

Van Cliburn competition delivers 'odd couple'

For the first time the Van Cliburn Competition has been won by three Asian candidates: two very young winners sharing the top prize and no 'crystal' (third) prize being awarded. One of the top two was a blind Japanese boy whom some have been calling the 'Susan Boyle' of the piano: Nobuyuki Tsujii, 20, who has been blind since birth. The other, Haocheng Zhang from China, turned 19 during the contest.

Here's a report from Michael Johnson from Facts & Arts, putting most of the situation into a nutshell and including the delicately-expressed information that some of the jurors appear to have voted for their own students, that the contest finished on a 'sour' note, that some felt there was a bias against Russian candidates and that the audience mobbed the Italian finalist Mariangela Vacatello and thought she'd been short-changed. [The Facts & Arts article also alleges that Tsujii is 'mentally handicapped' as well as blind, but as you'll see from the comments this detail is disputed and I am unable to confirm either way, though have found no other references to this condition as yet.]

I dread to think what the music business machine will decide to do with 'Nobu'.

See further updates above!

Monday, June 08, 2009

Yeats for a very sorry morning in Europe

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Kenning the London scene?

I remember, during my long-ago days as editor of the ill-fated Classical Piano magazine, being occasionally accosted by amateur PRs telling me that I was mad to miss a unique opportunity to interview some pianist or other with a name like Victori Eludesmi and that this piece of neglect meant that they could do my job much better than me. I'm not saying they couldn't, of course - assuming you gave them a modicum of literacy - but is insulting people a sensible way to persuade them they should do what you want them to do? Needless to say, Mr Eludesmi eluded me, and everyone else, most satisfactorily and has never been heard of since.

So I've spent the last few hours gasping speechless over the complete idiocy with which a highly distinguished film director has written about what he perceives to be London's musical scene. Meet Ken Russell, providing a guest editorial at

Tommy Pearson has got to this already over at One More Take and I agree with absolutely everything he says [aside - I can't comment on the Britain's Got Talent bit because I couldn't watch the final, I had to wash my hair...].

The tract reads as if Ken has not been to a concert in decades, and has never heard of Valery Gergiev let alone Kurt Masur, Vladimir Jurowski or even Daniel Harding ("accommodating, appeasing, conciliatory, compatible, deferential, negotiable, obsequious, servile, subservient and pusillanimous..." - er, no, Ken, noooooo...).

As for filling concert programmes with B-list Britclassics - aha. Now I understand: what Ken is really trying to do is champion neglected British music, and bring back Klemperer at the same time. But since the first task is difficult and the second impossible, how does his persuasion technique match up?

Well, having slagged off the conductors, he then slags off the orchestras. Since I see daily at close quarters every ounce of the hard work, dedication, anxiety, professionalism, adrenalin and so on that go into concerts by the major London orchestras, I think I'm well-placed to say that his comments are baloney. Sloppy? Lazy?!? Besides, if they're so sloppy, lazy and badly conducted, why does he want them to play the difficult British music he loves in any case?

I have a suggestion: for one of those reality TV shows, Ken and my LPO violinist hubby Tom should switch places. I'd like to see Ken follow for even a fortnight the schedules, pressures and performing standards Tom has lived under for the past 22 years. And no doubt Tom also thinks he could make a damn good musical documentary in which his favourite actresses take off all their clothes.

Champion neglected British music by all means - but not by insulting the very people you'd like to play it!

Friday, June 05, 2009


I'm convinced that our Hungarian friend who took the Barbican by storm last night could play the socks, never mind the red leather trousers, off Znaider, Bell and Mutter combined. There's an image to get the imaginations working...

Sporting those trousers and a diamante-buckled belt, as if the trademark tache wasn't enough to let us know who he was, Roby Lakatos brought on his band, including some very young and phenomenally talented performers, just in front of the LSO. He played the first half unamplified, but what a massive sound he produces - vast and round and as rich as Hungarian venison stew with lashings of goose liver. (The pic is courtesy of the LSO, taken during the rehearsal - no trousers, at least not those ones...)

His cimbalom player, Jeno Lisztes, played his almost-namesake's Hungarian Rhapsody No.21 solo - the damn thing is hard enough when you use 10 fingers, but the cimbalom is rather like playing with two only, and with the notes in odd locations. The roof nearly blew off. One day I will have to share with you an account by Arthur Hartmann of the time Debussy tried to learn the cimbalom. It's priceless. Soon, I promise.

With the programme a mixed bag of lavish Gypsy virtuosity, a couple of solo spots for the orchestra (Strauss Zigeunerbaron Overture and Kodaly Dances of Galanta, well chosen and delicious), a few marvellous jazzy episodes rather a la Hot Club de Budapest, some unutterably incredible fiddle playing and a bit of commercial schlock (Fiddler on the Roof just didn't do it for me in this context, though I love the music), I anticipated an interesting mesh between the Hungarians and the LSO.

Much was more mush than mesh, though. The balance never worked when band & orchestra played together, even when Lakatos & co put on mics in the 2nd half, and I wonder if the very young conductor, Eva Ollikainen, could not perhaps have asked the orchestra to play a tad more quietly now and then. Most people I talked to were great LSO fans yet still wished the orchestra would just go home and give the floor to their guests, full stop.

But full marks of a different kind to the LSO's Maltese leader Carmine Lauri, whom Lakatos took centre stage to share the work that he dubbed, with extreme Hungarian charm, "CsardasMonti" as a duet. Dazzling stuff.

A lot of violinists in the audience were fanning themselves quite hard in the interval with their programmes. Can't blame them - it was a hot night for fiddlers. I hope my programme notes made sense...wrote them while really quite ill...and it is terrifying to walk into a hall and see the editor of Songlines reading your words (he is a Hungarian music expert, to put it mildly). Not sure, what became of the Leo Weiner Divertimento, which either didn't happen or didn't do so in remotely the way I'd anticipated. Suspect the latter.

With encore after encore, a third reprise of Hejre Kati ended the evening after a stunning, exhilarating and rather exhausting three hours. As one friend remarked, I think we all knew exactly what must have happened to Kati by then.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Lakatos is in town tonight!...

...with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican...and I've done their programme notes. Fun! :-) This also means that I finally get to see the guy play live, at long long last.

A bunch of friends are very excited about this too - how else do you get half the violinists of another orchestra to turn up to a concert on their night off? But I also have friends who dislike the commercial turn that Lakatos & co have taken. It depends how purist you want to be. I tend to think that sensational playing is sensational playing, and wonder how the orchestra will keep up with the guys in pieces like this: Cosma's music for Le grand blond (an otherwise forgettable thriller that happens to have a great score). Will report back tomorrow...