Saturday, July 30, 2011


Very happy to announce that TOMORROW, in AUSTRALIA, my latest 'stage work' will take the platform for the first time at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville, Far North Queensland. Entitled Franz Liszt: Sins of the Father, it's a grand-scale piece bringing together as many of the resident musicians as humanly possible, and commissioned for the Liszt Bicentenary Year by the doughty Piers Lane, pianist and artistic director of the festival. The show kicks off at the Townsville Civic Theatre at 4pm.

The popular Australian radio presenter Damien Beaumont is Franz Liszt, narrating the strange history of how his sometime friend Wagner stole his limelight, his music and his daughter Cosima - and how, perhaps, the scandal of the latter was his own fault. There is humour, pathos, poetry (from Obermann), love and some reflection on the bonds that bind families so close, however bizarre that family may be.

It's very exciting that Lisa Gasteen, the great Australian Wagnerian soprano, is making a rare return to the concert platform to perform Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder and Liszt's 'O lieb', accompanied by Piers (pictured right) himself. The performance opens with Wagner's Siegfried Idyll, and along the way there are solo spots for violinists Jack Liebeck in Paganini's Variations on God Save the King and Philippe Graffin in Liszt's Romance Oubliee and Bartok's Romanian Dances; pianist Danny Driver, who'll play Liszt's transcription of Wagner's Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde; and cellist Louise Hopkins, who plays the cello version of La lugubre gondola and joins Philippe and Danny in the trio version of Vallee d'Obermann. And finally there's the Hungarian Rhapsody No.2...played by the Contiguglia Brothers piano duo, the American pianists who were among the last pupils of Dame Myra Hess.

I just wish I was there. But the performance will be broadcast the next day on ABC Radio and I'm informed that it should be possible to access it by internet, though I haven't quite worked out the time difference issues... UPDATE: An Australian tweet-friend has sent me this link which should hopefully do the trick:

Do please feel free to drop me or Piers's agent a line if you are a venue that would like to book the show for Wagner Year, 2013.

UPDATE: Limelight Magazine has an interview with Damien today in which he (pictured left) talks quite extensively about Sins of the Father and what he loves about Liszt.
Beaumont says a complicated triangle of musical passions, love and betrayal lies at the heart of the show, which takes as its subject not only Liszt but also that other Romantic titan, Richard Wagner. “We explore the story of Liszt, his daughter Cosima and her eventual marriage to Wagner. It’s an extraordinary tale of these two men connected by women, and connected by music."
The suave Hungarian and the imperious German were longtime friends, the wealthy concert pianist often helping Wagner financially. But the relationship turned sour. “The whole story is predicated on what Wagner stole from Liszt, right from his daughter to a musical phrase that Wagner turned into a five-hour opera.”

Thursday, July 28, 2011

This one is especially for...

...some Parisian friends who turned up unexpectedly at Wilton's Music Hall the other night. "Music Hall?" they said. "This was really one of the first concert halls - ?" So I tried to describe what that English 19th- to early 20th-century concept of music hall entertainment was all about: the stand-up comedy, sort of, the Gracie Fields-type songs, tap-dancing, risque and suggestive this, that and the other, and...well, it's so English that it's not easy to give an accurate picture, so I looked it up on Youtube.

And guess what I found? A cancan. From 1943. Not so English after all. Voila!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Look what I found on Facebook

Amazing what you can stumble across on Facebook. If I hadn't logged on just after Jonathan Dove posted a flier for his new opera Mansfield Park, which will be premiered next week. I might never have known he'd written it. What? Jonathan Dove has turned Jane Austen's Mansfield Park into an opera?!? Clearly this needed urgent attention, so I've written a feature, which is out today in The Independent. Read it here.

There was a little more in the original version about the doughty Heritage Opera and how this tiny and excellent enterprise went about raising the necessary dosh to commission a new work from one of the UK's best music-theatre composers. So here is the director's cut.

Plenty of new opera has graced the stages of London and Manchester this year, much of it controversial, cutting-edge and high profile. But off the beaten track, in the stately homes of northern England, a small and very plucky opera company has dared to think big in a completely different way. Heritage Opera, based in Staffordshire, is about to give the world premiere of an opera based on nothing less than Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, written for it by one of Britain’s finest music-theatre composers, Jonathan Dove.

The intimate scale of the enterprise might have pleased Austen herself, who once referred to “The little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush...” Involving just ten singers and piano-duet accompaniment, the opera has been conceived specifically for performance in country houses, which has been Heritage Opera’s speciality since its founding in 2006 by its musical director, Chris Gill. The ‘theatre’ itself serves as the opera’s set.

Commissioning Dove was ambitious for such a small and still relatively new company: this audience-friendly musical creator has some extremely successful operas to his name and can probably pick and choose. His Flight, created for Glyndebourne in 1998, has been staged across three continents; his Pinocchio for Opera North was a more recent smash hit. Yet the encounter with Heritage Opera was serendipitous: it enabled Dove to fulfil a cherished dream.

“The idea for Mansfield Park goes back a long way,” says Dove. “When I first read it, more than 20 years ago, I remember hearing music and feeling that it wanted to become something. At that time there was another company that used to tour stately homes doing blockbuster opera repertoire with piano; it went through my mind at the time that that would be the perfect way of doing Mansfield Park
. I’ve never thought it would be right for a larger opera house.”

Austen fans will be familiar with the story of Fanny Price, a poor relation in a grand house, in love – at first unrequitedly – with the family’s second son, Edmund. The long-suffering girl watches helplessly as he is dazzled by the sophisticated Mary Crawford; scandal, heartbreak and stargazing all have their places in the tale before it reaches its quietly happy conclusion. Dove nails its appeal: “It’s just like Cinderella,” he says. His regular librettist, Alasdair Middleton, has boiled down the substantial book to its dramatic essence, framing each scene with a sung ‘chapter’ heading and retaining Austen’s words wherever possible.

Strange, perhaps, that Austen has been largely overlooked by opera composers until now; strange, too, that of all Austen’s books Mansfield Park could seem the least obvious choice for adaptation. Would Pride and Prejudice or Emma, more popular novels with more extrovert characters, not hold more appeal? Dove says that in fact the reverse is true.

“I heard music in Mansfield Park in a way I hadn’t with the others,” he says. “It’s the way Fanny Price is written. Elizabeth Bennett and Emma Woodhouse are delightful and fantastic characters, but I never felt there was anything that I needed to add to that. With Fanny, we sense her suffering, but she’s never explicit – she never says to Edmund ‘Stay away from Mary Crawford’. It’s what she’s not saying that provokes the music.”

He hasn’t attempted to create a pastiche of the musical style of Austen’s day: “The score doesn’t strictly behave like early 19th-century music, but I hope it suggests that era,” he says. “The accompaniment is for four hands at one piano, a medium that Austen would have heard often. I like the idea that while that the musical grammar might be unfamiliar to her, the vocabulary is something she’d recognise.”

Sarah Helsby Hughes, HO’s artistic director who also sings the role of Mary Crawford, has high praise for Dove’s musical characterisation. “The music for Fanny is gorgeous, extremely haunting and touching,” she says. “Mrs Norris is very cleverly done, with spiky writing that’s her to a T. And for the conversation between Mary and her brother Henry he’s created an urbane, almost jazzy, city-gloss idiom that’s different from any of the other characters’ music: it tells us that these are city slickers who’ve arrived in the country. The words of that conversation are lifted straight from the book – it really is Jane Austen.”

Dove’s Mansfield Park arrives in typically restrained Austenesque style, virtually unannounced compared to this year’s other, noisier world premieres. The Royal Opera has brought us Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole; English National Opera presented Nico Muhly’s social-networking crimmie Two Boys; Damon Albarn’s Dr Dee has just taken the Manchester Festival by storm. Heritage Opera’s approach to commissioning has been altogether different – of necessity, since unlike those other companies it receives not a penny of state subsidy.

The cost it faced, £36,000, may seem relatively modest, but it’s still a substantial amount for a small company to raise from scratch. Help arrived in a grant from the Peter Moores Foundation; a healthy donation came from a private sponsor; but still, for three years HO collected doggedly via fundraising events and appeals at their other performances around the north of England. Responses ranged from fans popping in a few pounds to one enthusiast writing a cheque for £1000. “Our local audiences have responded like kings and given everything they could,” says Helsby Hughes.

And what will hardened Austen fans make of a Mansfield Park opera? Tim Bullamore, publisher of the Bath-based magazine Jane Austen’s Regency World, thinks it will be welcomed with open arms. “The ‘Janeites’, as Rudyard Kipling called them, are absolutely devoted,” he comments. “They’ll go round the world, they’ll go to conferences, they dress up – recently I saw 100 of them walking through Bath in regency costume. That’s especially popular with Americans – I think this opera should cross the Atlantic really well.” As an opera in its own right, he adds, Mansfield Park has great potential: “It has all the subjects you need in an opera: adultery, affairs, money...”

There, though, any resemblance to Anna Nicole ends. Austen’s Mansfield Park has a special sensibility (and perhaps sense, too) that enjoys an apparently timeless appeal. Dove’s version may start out on a piece of operatic ivory with its first stately homes tour. But I suspect this won’t be the last we hear of it.

Mansfield Park opens on 30 July and tours until 11 August. Full details at:

And the winner is...

Congratulations to STEPHEN LLEWELLYN, winner of the JDCMB 'Chacun a son gout' competition. Yes, bizarrely enough, that is indeed the same Stephen Llewellyn who was the proud champion of Miss Mussel's first #operaplot competition. Stephen, you will be the lucky recipient of the new CD by Joseph Calleja, 'The Maltese Tenor', which will be sent to you straight from the offices of Universal Classics.

The correct answers: 'Chacun a son gout' is featured prominently in Johann Strauss II's opera Die Fledermaus. And it is sung by Prince Orlofsky. I am impressed that everybody who entered the competition - and there were lots of you - got it right.

The prize draw took place last night in the concertmaster's dressing room at the Royal Albert Hall, just after the London Philharmonic had completed its 'Vladothon' all-Hungarian Prom, which involved Kodaly's Dances of Galanta, Bartok's Piano Concerto No.1 with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet as soloist, and to end, Liszt's Faust Symphony.

We asked the orchestra's one actual Hungarian violinist, Katalin Varnagy, to select the winner's name from the many entries that mingled in the violin case... You can see the very glam Kati talking about her Hungarian musical heritage in the Prom interval when the concert's televised on Thursday evening.

Then, since the occasion was also Tomcat's birthday and, besides, marked the 25th anniversary of him joining the LPO (odd, as he's only 21...) everyone came along for a drink, including the adorable and stupendous Mr Bavouzet...


...and also Vladimir Jurowski and concertmaster Pieter Schoemann (pictured below - l to r, Vladimir, Tomcat, Kati and Pieter). The flag is Hungarian - there's a green stripe at the bottom.

I'd just like to reassure any Hungarian Dances fans that the characters of Karina (semi-Hungarian) and Rohan (South African) were not actually based on Kati and Pieter. It's all pure coincidence, honest to goodness, guv. These things happen with books sometimes. Life imitates art. It does.

Quite a late night. Please excuse the JDCMB team while it adjourns to the kitchen for extra coffee....

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Alina rocks Wilton's

(UPDATED) Went to the newly-saved Wilton's last night to see what Alina Ibragimova (left, photo by Sussie Ahlburg) has been up to with the visionary Quay Brothers. Here's my review in The Independent - five stars, thanks very much. Taster:

Perhaps the image that lingers most strongly is that of her Bach Chaconne: the young violinist in white and gold, side-lit to cast a gigantic shadow, as if she were at once an angel of light and one of death. But with such violin playing, we could have been anywhere and still emerged wonderstruck... 

Do go and see it: there are further performances tonight and tomorrow. It's extremely special. More details from the Barbican here - part of the centre's Blaze Festival.

A bit of competition tonight, though, from the Tomcat's special birthday Prom...oh, all right, it's just a coincidence, but it is indeed his birthday and it's also the 25th anniversary (honest!) of him joining the LPO. As they say, time flies when you're enjoying yourself. The LPO and Vladimir are performing an all-Hungarian programme (yes!) featuring the Kodaly Dances of Galanta, Bartok's Piano Concerto No.1 with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and the Liszt Faust Symphony. More about it here.


Meanwhile, I feel lucky to have escaped Norrington's Mahler Nine yesterday. I've been listening online this morning in an increasing fascination of horror. At times it's barely recognisable. Not just for the lack of vibrato, either, but that is a big part of it... Look at what Gavin has to say about it at EntarteteMusik.

At least Alina's Bach sounds wonderful without vibrato. But switching off vibrato in Mahler smacks of the worst kind of musical fundamentalist fanaticism - the point at which curio becomes religion, and tradition becomes doctrine, without sense, without proof, indeed contrary to both sense and proof. Especially when we know from Leopold Mozart that as early as Bach's lifetime many players were using lashings of what we now call vibrato - Wolfgang's dad even provides exercises for practising it! Let's just recognise Sir Roger for what he really is: an interesting, eccentric, experimental maestro, sometimes inspiring, sometimes bumbling and who sometimes goes rushing in where angels fear to tread. He's a one-off. With any luck he will stay that way.