Wednesday, January 12, 2011

In praise of Bartok

A good strong puff for beloved Bartok, in today's Independent. I did spend a bit of time in the first draft trying to explain how Bartok went into a revolving door behind Stravinsky and came out in front, but it was a little, well, a bit, um... The Philharmonia, Takacs and co have a veritable feast lined up, anyway, and it's going to be amazing. As for Hungary, once again, its music holds the alter-ego of the place: its spirit at its very, very best. More of that shortly.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Meet Sophie Bevan

Here's my piece from today's Independent about the terrific young British soprano Sophie Bevan -- and her family of 60 (SIXTY) singing Bevans! We also discuss her Wigmore Hall recital debut tonight, her appearance there next week with the Classical Opera Company, why she hates competitions and why she didn't want to be the next Charlotte Church.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Let's hear it for... the Mozart piano sonatas

In case you hadn't already noticed, BBC Radio 3 is playing every note that Mozart ever wrote, to the best of all our humble knowledge. It's taking 12 days and the initial concept did not precisely make me reach for the "on" switch (I can't listen to music while I write in any case). But today is Piano Day: the Mozart Piano Sonatas are centre stage, thanks not least to the brilliant Leon McCawley and it seems high time for a bit of defence for these astonishing and oft-maligned works.

Now, the curse of received opinion and false tradition works against music of every era. Baroque: precious and vibrato-less. Mendelssohn: shallow. Schumann: mad. Liszt: loud and vulgar. Faure: difficult, austere and drippy. Korngold: Hollywood schmaltz. Cage: random and unemotive. And Mozart piano sonatas: written for fortepianos, designed for home-based amateurs in the salons, therefore insignificant and tinkly. Musicians too often come to the music they play with little more knowledge of the context, truths and texts than such poisonous preconceptions (at least two of the above were notions originally put about by the Nazis, yet have seemingly entered universal knee-jerk-reaction consciousness). Recordings are imitated unthinkingly and thus false traditions build.

Look a little deeper, look into the text itself and take on board what you find. It may not be what you expect.

The Mozart piano sonatas are glorious works. Stop the tinkling, stop the Jane Austen images: the composer of the great C minor Fantasy and Sonata, the frenetic and pre-Schubertian A minor K310, the dazazling F major K533/494 gave us Don Giovanni, Le nozze di Figaro and Die Zauberflote. He created those incredible string quintets, 27 inspired and beloved piano concertos, the Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, and, for heaven's sake, most of the greatest Requiem ever written. So how are his piano sonatas tinkly and insignificant? Strip away the fear of incorrect phrasing, the academic insistence on articulation from a treatise or two and the idea that you cannot so much as touch a pedal while playing them; immerse yourself in the operas, the orchestral works, the choral music. Then come back to the sonatas and plunge in. The colour, fantasy and imagination you can then find is immeasurable. Take the F major sonata above: try it after hearing Figaro and you can find comparable characters in the sonata: the bubbling Susanna, the grand and angry Count, the rebellious pranks of Figaro, the yearning Countess. Place the C minor work alongside Don Giovanni and you find the Don's blazing reckoning within it.

I used to attend the lectures of Hans Keller at Dartington in the early 1980s -- he was already ill by then, but I will never forget his talk entitled Today's Musicless Musician. In his young day, he said, recordings were harder to come by, but music students went out of their way to learn not only the full repertoire of their own instrument, but the composers' vital works in other genres. And the idea that anyone could play the late Beethoven sonatas without knowing the late string quartets or the Ninth Symphony was simply unthinkable. You cannot understand the true spirit of a composer from one work alone. Some tried to argue back: can't every work speak for itself? But he had just given them the answer: it can't, not if you want to do it artistic justice. And if you think it can, you're showing up nothing but your own laziness.(Hans Keller also wrote very eloquently about football, btw. There's now a Facebook group devoted to memories of him.)

R3 will be (I hope) making today's broadcast available on the Listen Again website for UK residents, but in case you miss it or are not on the shores of this green and pleasant land, here is someone they won't be playing: Dinu Lipatti, in the slow movement of the A minor Sonata.

Monday, January 03, 2011

A really new beginning

Over the Xmas hols, while everyone was away, news popped into my in-box about the launch on New Year's Eve of the first full-scale Palestinian symphony orchestra to hit the boards since the band that later became the Israel Philharmonic. I only hope the concerts did take place as planned. Having not heard anything to the contrary, I thought I'd run the following... The pictures were taken when we visited the West Bank last April.

Only an immensely ambitious ensemble would begin its inaugural concert with music by the late György Ligeti. But the Palestine National Orchestra has nothing to lose: it is already perhaps the most audacious new orchestra in the world.

Holding its first public concert on New Year’s Eve in Ramallah, and, remarkably, following this with performances in Jerusalem and Haifa on consecutive days, the PNO is the first Palestinian symphony orchestra of professional musicians to be launched since the orchestra that later became the Israel Philharmonic back in 1948. Its opening programmes were to feature, alongside Ligeti, Mozart and Beethoven, music by two Palestinian composers, Sharbel Dalal and Salvador Arnita, the latter a former organist from Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The PNO is the natural consequence of a groundswell of interest in western classical music that has developed in the Palestinian Territories over the past 15 to 20 years. It is the initiative of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music which, since being founded in 1993, has grown into a network of music schools that teach both western and Middle Eastern musical instruments and styles, with centres in Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and more in the planning stages. 

To say that music has come to represent the life blood of the Palestinians might be an exaggeration, but not by much. When I went to the West Bank a few months ago with my husband, who brought his violin, we visited the ESNCM in Bethlehem -- a little town that bears scant resemblance to the Christmas carol, being neither still nor dreamless. There Jalil Elias, the Bethlehem ESNCM director, described the organisation’s mission in no uncertain terms.

“We teach music to give the children here a new mentality and a new life and we teach them to let them breathe,” Elias declares. “It’s our philosophy, it’s how we can let the Palestinian people, through music, find peace for themselves. We believe that music is one voice for everyone, all over the world. It doesn’t matter if we are Japanese, French, English, Italian or whatever: a soul is a soul. Politics is full of lies, but when you play music like Mozart or Beethoven, you play from your depths and from your feelings and from your fingers and your touch and your heart – it’s truth, not lies.”

The ESNCM offers music tuition to thousands of children, 75 per cent of them on full scholarship, and via an outreach programme to those in impoverished villages and refugee camps. Its flagship is the Palestine Youth Orchestra, founded in 2004, which is made up of young musicians aged from 12 to 26. And Bethlehem’s conservatory is now building a state-of-the-art new home with a concert hall, a music library, 17 classrooms and plentiful studios, due to open in 2011.

In Ramallah I visited the independent music school Al Kamandjati (in Arabic ‘The violinist’), run by the violist Ramzi Aburedwan. Born and raised in a refugee camp, Aburedwan first held a musical instrument in his hands when he was 14 and attended a children’s workshop held by a visiting musician.

“I had always dreamed about playing music but I never expected to touch an instrument,” Aburedwan says. “It was always a far-away dream because of the lack of opportunity, and I was from a poor family that could not afford music lessons.” He went on to win scholarships to study in the US and France, but never lost sight of his goal to return to his homeland and bring music education to children there. Al Kamandjati opened in 2005 with a group of visiting teachers, a motley collection of donated instruments and 20 students. Now, says Aburedwan, the latter number around 500.

The Barenboim-Said Foundation (distinct from the ESNCM, which is also named in honour of the Palestinian writer Edward Said) is yet another a powerful force in music education, centering on Ramallah where it has established an international team of teachers and seeks to make the study of western classical music part of everyday life. Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, though, does not attract universal praise: to some it represents a false image when seen alongside the realities on the ground. “It’s another world,” says Aburedwan. “Playing in the best halls in the world has nothing to do with what’s going on here.” 

Undeniably, given the realities of daily life in the Palestinian Territories, the PNO is launching against all odds. Ferocious logistics are involved in putting on any concert in this region, especially if it requires the transport of a large number of people of assorted backgrounds, residences and permits; journeys through the Palestinian territories are liable to be interrupted for unpredictable lengths of time by armed checkpoints, while the Palestinian populace is subjected to a labyrinthine system of regulations affecting, among other things, entry permissions, number plates, segregated roads (some are reserved for Israelis and settlers only) and the Separation Wall.

But nothing could make clearer the pivotal role of music in maintaining the Palestinian sense of dignity and identity than the establishment of this orchestra. Its opening series is an international affair under the baton of the Swiss conductor Baldur Brönnimann, with the Palestinian-Japanese soprano Mariam Tamari as soloist. The orchestral players include both Palestinian musicians and classical performers of many backgrounds who have visited the Palestinian territories to teach. If it can succeed, its message of hope for the year ahead should speak out loud and clear.

(Were you there? Have you heard about how the concerts went? If so, please write in and tell us.)

UPDATE: Violinist Simon Hewitt Jones writes in to say that actually another symphony orchestra launched in Ramallah just a couple of weeks earlier! This is the Ramallah Orchestra, founded by Ramzi Aburedwan himself, with Al Kamandjati. Simon joined them at their first concert to perform Monti's Czardas. You gotta love the way that the spirit of artistic competition is flourishing so strongly over there. See article here.

Saturday, January 01, 2011



And here, on 1.1.11, are a selection of 7 Top Reasons to Welcome 2011:

1. Last night our home was the unexpected host of a proposal and subsequent engagement at midnight. CONGRATULATIONS, RUSTEM AND DANIELA! With you around, who needs Wills & Kate? And a huge Mazel Tov to my beautiful Ozzie cousin Mandi and her bridegroom Dean, who tied the knot in sunny Sydney the other day. May 2011 be a year of weddings!

2. Hugh Canning has named the London Philharmonic as Best Orchestra of 2010 in his Sunday Times Best & Worst of the Year. Bravo, orchestra-in-law!

3. The New Year's Day Concert from Vienna was full of Liszty Czardasy stuff and there will be lots and lots and LOTS more to look forward to in the Liszt Bicentenary.

4. Some really good people got New Year Honours, including MBEs for the admirable and energetic Simon and Pamela Majaro of the Cavatina Trust, an OBE for composer Colin Matthews and a CBE for composer/presenter Howard Goodall. Best of all, there's a Damehood for the glorious Felicity Palmer, mezzo gloriosa.

Admittedly, as Michael White points out in the Telegraph, the precise ranking may be disputable. Still, it is good to see anyone in classical music receiving due recognition at the moment. (By the way, we're still waiting for Dame Tasmin. I don't know how these things work, but it's scandalous that our leading British violin soloist has never been awarded any official honour whatsoever.)

5. Glyndebourne is doing Meistersinger this summer, with Vladimir Jurowski conducting and David McVicar directing. Roll over, Bayreuth...

6. I have some terrific projects on the go. For now, let's just say that they may pop up in such diverse locations as San Francisco, Australia, France, Suffolk and the Middle East.

JDCMB housekeeping has taken place in the sidebar and involves weekly links to interesting musical Youtube channels, plus a shameless plug via which you may advertise here, take part in a writing course, etcetera, etcetera.

7. Katie Fforde this morning tweeted the adorable idea that we are now living in the Elevenses. Here's to honey for all!

Happy New Year, folks, with lots of love from me, the Tomcat and Solti.