Wednesday, June 08, 2011

"This is not music!" Viola heckler raises hell

UPDATE: There's much more going around now about this story & you can see Mr Zaslav's explanation of his protest, as well as some thoughtful commentary, at conductor Kenneth Woods' blog, here: The reason for the 'heckling'  was in fact one of my own favourite bugbears: the amplification level. In Mr Zaslav's position, I'd have done exactly the same. Excessive noise absolutely is painful and can cause us permanent damage - and we value our hearing. I refuse to go into a situation where the decibels are beyond tolerable; it hurts & it's not worth the potential consequences.

If you don't like the music, how far will you go to say so? This astonishing story from the blog Music vs Theater by Brian M. Rosen (which I found thanks to a tweet from Toby Deller) is kind of extreme. 

Is there a point at which les bourgeois grow sick of avant-garde composers wanting to épater them and decide to jolly well say so? After all, shocking the middle classes out of their supposed smug complacency has been one of the key driving forces of new art for around a century. In response, maybe just not buying tickets is no longer enough...

It turns out that the heckler wasn't even a smug bourgeois, but a respected musician, viola player and former member of a seriously wonderful string quartet. See what happened here:

Still, I'm not sure the poor old performer need really have smashed his own viola in response. 

Monday, June 06, 2011


Happy Birthday to someone who is often voted World's Greatest Living Pianist - and who, from what I've seen, probably is. Martha Argerich turned 70 yesterday. And back in February a call from Olly Condy at BBC Music Magazine assigned me the prize task of interviewing her for a cover feature, or trying to.

Martha and interviews are a bit of a contradiction in terms - she doesn't like them, and I don't blame her. I imagine she has enough to contend with already, without silly journos pitching up asking her how many hours a day she practises. Anyway, they dispatched me to Rome to trail her, clutching BlackBerry to report in case of emergency...

Rome should be a favourite destination, but sadly isn't - it can feel as if everyone is out to rip you off, from taxis that won't do the fixed-rate trip from the airport because you're staying just outside the city walls, to restaurants that overcharge, then say there was a misprint in the menu. (Amazing how the 'trickle-down effect' works perfectly in politics and morals, but not cashflow - but that's another matter...) The bonus, though, was that in one day I met not one great pianist I hadn't talked to before, but two. After the concert I was having my camomile tea in the hotel and in walked Alfred Brendel.

And Martha? I got the interview - with a little help from the lovely Yannick Nezet-Seguin, who fortuitously was conducting and knows me from the LPO, of which he's principal guest conductor. And after I explained to Martha in a preliminary chat post-rehearsal that I trained as a pianist myself, but stopped because I couldn't stand the nerves, the great Argerich became the kindest person in all Italy.
I'll never forget sitting just about underneath the piano while she rehearsed Prokofiev 3 - the sounds that came out of it were elemental, the sort of music you imagine that a mountain range or a wide, wise ocean would produce, could it play the piano. But there is absolute method to the 'Argerich sound'...

The interview is in BBC Music Magazine's June edition, which came out a few weeks ago. Get at a copy via this link:


Sunday, June 05, 2011

...And a return to THE APPRENTICE!

It so happens that the house in the latest series of The Apprentice is on my jogging route up to Richmond Park... And suddenly I'm back in the board room and Siralun is saying:


(Above: part of Dal'Ouna in action: Dimitri the oud player, Oday the singer and Drew Balch the violist perform after the talk)

[The Qattan Foundation, Earl's Court. Siralun, flanked by Nick and Karen, faces Jess, Simon, Ramzi and Drew]

Siralun: Morning, all. Your task today is to solve one of the biggest problems in the world, through music. You have three days to put on a discussion and make use of the latest technology to convey it to the widest possible audience. Off you go."
All of us: Yes, Siralun...

[The House, Aldeburgh. Half past midnight. Frantic clicking of BlackBerry keys (Jess) and tapping of iPad (Simon).]

Drew: You know, those kids today were just amazing. They're real young artists, not just schoolchildren.
Simon: Damn, the internet connection's gone again!
Jess: I keep getting messages saying everyone's away. How are we going to raise an audience?
Drew: Doesn't matter, because the task's really about the webcast.
Jess: How does this webcast thing work, anyway?
Simon: Oh, it's easy, you just point the computer and press 'start'.
Jess (feeling abruptly old): Oh, er, right...I see...gulp...

[Thursday, 7am. Beethoven's Violin Concerto rings gently out of the dining room through a practice mute. Jess looks in.]

Jess (embarrassed): Sorry to bother you, Simon, but have you got any idea how to work this shower?
Simon (putting down violin): Oh, it's easy...Look, you just turn this switch, and bingo.
Jess: Er, right. Thought I'd tried that. Never mind...
Simon: We're going to get some coffee and croissants at the beach for ten minutes. Come and join us?

[8am. The beach. Brilliant morning sun due east. Pebbles crunch underfoot. Jess, munching croissant and enjoying cappuccino, can't find the lads anywhere. Might have been sensible to wear my glasses.]

The sea on the pebbles: Ahhhhhh...shhhhhhhh....Ahhhhhh....shhhhhhhh....
Jess: This place is unbelievable. But how do we get anyone to come to our debate the day after bloody tomorrow?
The sea: Ahhhhh.....shhhhhh....Ahhhhhh.....shhhhhhh....

[Back at house, everyone has finished their croissants and coffee already. Message pings into BlackBerry]
Jess: Hooray! Dennis can join our panel on Saturday!
Drew: My fiancee will be there. And Cassandra, and all of Dal'Ouna.
Jess: I managed to make a Facebook event and we've had several yesses and three whole maybes.
Simon: It's a real pain not having internet, Jess, when you get home, please could you have a look at this TO DO list... (shows Points 1 to 8 on iPad). It's very easy, you just...
Jess: Er, right, yes...

[Saturday, 1.30pm, Earl's Court Station]

Jess (wheeling an elegant purple shopping trolley): Sorry I'm late! Bloody District Line.
Simon (carrying suitcase, computer carrier, violin case, suit carrier, iPad and iPhone): Could you nip to Sainsbury's and get the refreshments? I've got to go and set up the webcast...

[Sainsbury's, Earl's Court. Jess meets the Automatic Checkout and unloads stuff at the side, not wishing to use plastic carrier bags but to place everything straight into elegant purple shopping trolley, which is what it's for]

Automatic Checkout: Please place item in bagging area.
Jess: So if I put the trolley on the bagging area...
Automatic Checkout: Checking weight of item... PLEASE CALL ASSISTANCE.
Assistant: Madam, you need to take the trolley off the bagging area, then place the item you've just scanned on the bagging area, or the machine thinks you've gone.
Jess: It thinks?
Automatic Checkout: Please place item in bagging area.
Saturday Afternoon Queue: Tsk tsk tsk tsk...
Jess: *%$%$^£&;*!*)!*&""!???///
[ten minutes later]
Automatic Checkout: You have successfully completed your purchase. Thank you for shopping at Sainsbury's.
Jess: At least I have enough HobNobs to feed an army...

[The venue. Big room: an art gallery with beautiful tall windows, elegant lighting and paintings - an exhibition by a young Palestinian artist who now lives in Venice. Small room: boardroom redolent of Siralun himself, with a big heavy table.]

Jess: We should use the gallery.
Simon: We should use the boardroom. That's what we did last time.
Jess: But the gallery is beautiful and the music might be better in there...
[Simon rushes upstairs to change into suitable shirt. Jess and Cassandra arrange the gallery with plenty of chairs and fold-out trestle tables, plus loads of HobNobs, brownies and drinks in the kitchen.]
Artist: Marhaba! How come the lighting's changed on my exhibition?
Simon: Look, I can't get the WiFi connection to connect, but in the boardroom there's a fixed connection so we'll have to go in there.
Dennis: Hello! Where'd you like me to be?
Simon: Dennis! Great to see you...just a minute...we're fighting the's easy, really....
[Jess and Cassandra decommission the gallery and set up boardroom instead.]
Artist: Can I have my lighting back now, please?
Simon: Jess, your laptop's connection's disappeared, can you please get it working again, I have to talk to Ramzi quickly...
Jess: You want me to fix a computer?!?
Simon: Yes, yes, it's easy....
[3.05pm. Webcast delayed. Three guests have arrived.]
Jess: Welcome, please come in and have a Hobnob...

[3.20pm We have lift-off. Simon has an iPad, an iPhone and my laptop open on the table. I clutch my doughty BlackBerry]
Simon: Hello, everyone, and thanks for watching! Please send us your questions on Twitter...
Dennis: So, Ramzi, tell us about Al Kamandjati? And what do you hope to achieve with the Road to Jericho project?
Ramzi: Music can be a form of revolution. Revolution does not have to be about throwing stones. Revolution is inside us. We cannot wait for change from outside, because it won't happen. We have to make the changes in ourselves...
Dennis: Can music help with achieving resolution or reconciliation?
Ramzi: Well, you can't have reconciliation unless you actually solve the problem first.
Dennis: Have you talked to Barenboim about all this?
Ramzi: I played for several years in the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, and yes, we discussed. Barenboim's parents were piano teachers in Argentina. He said that when he was a child, he therefore thought everyone who came to the house was there to play the piano. He thought the whole world played the piano. I grew up in a refugee camp where there was continual conflict with the soldiers, and for most of my childhood, I thought the whole world was like this - in continual conflict.
Dennis: So that was your normality?
Ramzi: Exactly. Then after the Oslo Accord, some musicians and music teachers who had left the country were allowed to return and that was when I discovered music and had the chance to learn the viola... We used, before 1948, to have a thriving musical culture. That was virtually destroyed. Now we are rebuilding it.
Simon by email to several friends: *Please* send us some questions by Twitter!
Clemency, by Twitter: Ramzi, what is the single biggest obstacle you face?
Ramzi: We'd need a whole extra hour for that one...
Pal in America, by email: I've never tweeted before! Can I send questions by Twitter without an account?
Jess, Blackberrying under the table: Email me your questions and I'll tweet them for you...
[Pal in America sends 3 questions. Jess tweets them, then gestures frantically with BlackBerry at Simon at the other end of the panel, hoping webcast won't notice. Meanwhile the laptop has switched itself off.]

Dennis: Ramzi, you're inspirational. We've learned a lot today. Now, we have some music from Dal'Ouna.
[The group switches places with the panel and perform three gorgeous Arabic songs with two ouds, percussion and viola obbligato. Left to right: Ibrahim, Dimitri, Oday, Drew, Ramzi.]
Simon, aside, to Jess: Actually, what we need is someone to run the digital side, take down the tweets and pass the chairperson a piece of paper with the questions.
Jess: Did you say...a PIECE OF PAPER?!?

[5pm. Mingling over wine, juice, brownies, tortilla crisps and HobNobs. We have far too many HobNobs and not quite enough wine.]
Simon: Er, we need to be out of the building in ten minutes.
Jess: Please, someone, eat the HobNobs?
Ramzi and co:  Shukran! Ma'a salama! We're off to see Big Ben!

[Sunday morning, 9am. The Boardroom. Simon and Jess wait anxiously on the black leather sofas.]
Secretary: You can go through to the Boardroom now.
Siralun: Well, well, well. That was a pretty pickle, wasn't it? And you sure as hell didn't bring peace to the Middle East.
Jess: Music can't bring peace, Siralun. But it can make people happier. It can show people - especially children - living under impossible conditions that there are beautiful things in life too. That's a good start.We can only do what little we can...
Simon: Siralun, I think we did commendably, under some very difficult circumstances and constraints of time, geography, internet connections and so forth.
Siralun: Jess, Simon knew the space and you didn't. He said 'We should use the boardroom' and you still went ahead and set up the gallery. You started the webcast 15 minutes late because of that. People were wondering what was going on.
Jess: No, Siralun, the set-up didn't take even two minutes as everyone mucked in. We started late because we couldn't get the computer connection up and running.
Siralun: But you didn't listen to the Project Manager.
Simon: That was the least of the problems. The technology really is easy, Siralun, when it works - but...
Siralun: Ah yes. Technology. Jess, is there one single piece of technology on the face of Planet Earth that you are actually capable of using without totally screwing up?
Jess: Well, my generation is the very last that just wasn't born into it, and...
Siralun: Your generation? Don't make me laugh. I've met grandmothers in their ninth decade who are better at working things than you are.
Jess: I'm a creative, Siralun!
Siralun (highly sarcastic): With all that that implies. Here's one piece of creativity neither of you thought of using: a good old-fashioned piece of paper and a pencil. Why didn't you?
Simon and Jess: Er. Um. The technology's easy, really, but...
Siralun: Jess, you're responsible for this - even pencil and paper seem to be beyond the reach of your birdbrained understanding.
Jess: I'm a technotwit, Siralun, and I've never pretended to be anything else. Personally I think this task was a great success. We had the most fascinating talk and viewers tuned into the webcast from as far afield as Rome and Oklahoma.
Siralun: Oklahoma? Oh, what a beautiful morning. Jess (points finger), you're fired!

Sunday. Back in sunny Sheen, I'm going jogging once I've finished this blogpost. I might take a different route today.

Catch Fifth Quadrant, Dal'Ouna and the Aldeburgh Young Musicians in The Road to Jericho on the opening night of the Spitalfields Festival at Shoreditch Church on Friday 10 June. I'm introducing the pre-concert event at 6pm. And in the main concert, as well as traditional Arabic music and a Dvorak string quartet, the guys will be giving the world premiere of Who is my Neighbour? by Antony Pitts, written especially for the project.

We had a lot of fun yesterday. Dennis chaired the meeting wonderfully and drew out the best that Ramzi and Simon had to say; my "prose poem" about things we don't know we do know seems to have gone down rather well; the music from Dal'Ouna was breathtakingly beautiful and performed straight from the heart; and the webcast, miraculously enough, worked. Quite a palava doing it all in just a few days, though. Huge thanks to Dennis Marks, the Qattan Foundation, and the long-suffering artist Mohammed Joha whose exhibition is called Dreams in Black and White, and a big bravi to all the musicians involved!

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Debate and webcast today...

Don't forget The Road to Jericho London debate & webcast at 3pm today. If you can join us, we're here: but if you can't, you can access the webcast by going here and following the video link: and you can submit questions via Twitter using the hashtag #R2J - see you there!

If I can work the technology, I might even be able to run the webcast right here on JDCMB. Simon says it's easy..........

Friday, June 03, 2011

Aldeburgh dreams

My interview with one of my very favourite singers is in today's Independent: meet Angelika Kirchschlager ahead of her first-ever trip to Aldeburgh.

It so happens that I was there yesterday...

That was the beach about 24 hours before I wrote this blogpost... Two minutes in this extraordinary little place and you can start to wonder why you bother staying in London. The air! The sea! The sky! The croissants! (yes, all mod cons, thanks.) Of course, on a day as beautiful as that it's easy to forget what the winter is like - but I can safely say I didn't really want to go home.

I went up to visit the Aldeburgh Young Musicians at Snape. The Britten-Pears buildings around the Maltings have been transformed into the type of space that just hungers for bright, creative youngsters to bound in and start making music. The Aldeburgh Young Musicians programme started about three years ago and chooses a number of gifted kids aged from 10 to 18 from all over East Anglia: they arrive at every possible opportunity to take workshops, write music and play it together. Aldeburgh takes them on board not as kids, but as young artists - and in this buzzing and beautiful atmosphere, they're flourishing.

This week the Road to Jericho boys are on board - Fifth Quadrant from London and Dal'Ouna from Ramallah, working together on instruments eastern and western. I watched a brilliant drumming workshop, led by Ramzi Aburedwan (pictured above, pointing). Ramzi gets the energy flowing and everyone is drawn in... until the drums almost play them, instead of the other way around. Earlier I gatecrashed a rehearsal of a piece that one boy had just written that day and which he conducted so clearly that several professional maestri of my acquaintance could usefully have watched him too. Might the ghosts of Britten and Pears have been lurking in a corner and smiling to see the spirit of music living on in this dedicated and passionate new generation? It's quite possible that Britten's most important legacy will turn out to be not his music (or at least, not just that), but the ongoing, lasting influence on Britain's musical life of Aldeburgh and Snape.

The kitchen produced a delicious Middle Eastern meal with couscous specially for the occasion; we watched a French documentary about the founding of Al Kamandjati; and yesterday morning I found myself sitting beside Ramzi in the studio, reading out the words of the Balfour Declaration of 1917. The fact that Ramzi and I, with our contrasted backgrounds, can sit and share and discuss the transformative effects of music has to say something about the nature of those transformative effects. If we can do that - a Palestinian who grew up in a refugee camp and a 'nice Jewish girl' from north London, who happen to share one big faith, that of music - then so, one hopes, can others.

Join us tomorrow at the Mosaic Rooms tomorrow at 3pm, where we'll be talking about all that and more together with Fifth Quadrant violinist Simon Hewitt Jones and film-maker and author Dennis Marks. There'll be chocolate hobnobs.