Saturday, March 08, 2014

20-year-old conductor wows London

How often do you go to an orchestral concert and find you're on the edge of your chair, smiling at the warmth and passion bounding off the stage, thrilling at the sounds of early Shostakovich slaloming around the percussion, and watching, enchanted, a real rapport between the soloist and the conductor that makes the most familiar of piano concertos go leaping off the page like a March hare?

And then you realise the conductor is younger than your nephew who hasn't done his uni finals yet.

Meet Ilyich Rivas. Maybe you already have. I saw him conducting in Verbier several years ago and was impressed with him then; in the intervening time he has conducted for Glyndebourne Touring Opera, among other things, and been mentored by Vladimir Jurowski. Now he's been signed by IMG.

Last night's programme with the LPO - his first big London date - was carefully and beautifully chosen. They kicked off with Dvorak's Scherzo Capriccioso, continued with Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.1 with Simon Trpceski - who has also been following Ilyich's career with great enthusiasm for a while - and in the second half, Mahler's Blumine and Shostakovich's Symphony No.1.

The fresh air swept into the hall with this engaging young Venezuelan, who jogged onto the platform, had perhaps the clearest beat of any conductor I've seen in the past year and led the way through the pieces with some fairly extraordinary freeze-frame gestures that are certainly unusual yet seemed to work a treat. He let the music's passion, beauty and visceral élan sing out to his and our hearts' content. Particularly impressive was the way he handled gear-changes with smooth assurance, maintaining an impeccable sense of timing, and ultimately - best of all - leaving us marvelling at the wonders of the music, first and foremost.

Simon Trpceski's account of the Tchaikovsky would take some bettering. He is a fabulous showman, of course, but his special sound involves a remarkable lightness - there's swift, fierce motion, yet he scarcely seems to touch the ground and his pianissimo touch is at its loveliest in the slow movement. He made a little speech before his encore about the joy of working with Ilyich and seeing his promise coming to fruition; the encore itself, which he dedicated to the young conductor and his family, was from Album for the Young by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Simon's own breakthrough moment arrived in the same hall, with the same orchestra, when he was about Ilyich's age and won the (now sadly defunct) London International Piano Competition. That added a certain poignancy to the evening. It may be a cliché to say "history in the making" - but honest, guv, we don't say such things too often.

Ilyich's grandparents flew in from Venezuela for the concert and received a round of applause to themselves. Incidentally, Ilyich, rarely among young Venezuelan conductors, hasn't been through El Sistema. His father is a conductor and the lad absorbed the art at his knee, mainly in Denver, Colorado.

So come on, orchestra bigwigs - form a nice orderly queue, please. A decade from now, might Ilyich Rivas have the best job in the world? Place your bets.

Friday, March 07, 2014

BBC Music Magazine's 12 best novels about music - !

Tickled pink to discover my fourth novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, featuring in BBC Music Magazine's list, for World Book Day, of their pick of the 12 best novels about classical music. I've heard of being in good company, but this is ridiculous! The list is here. You can download the e-book of Songs here (paperback doesn't appear to be available on Amazon at the moment).

Meanwhile, for Women of the World week, here is my exploration of women's orchestras through the ages...

...and the Insiders Anonymous column for Classical Music Magazine this month is about The Classical Music Critic.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

A chat with John Adams

My interview with the fabulous John Adams is in today's Independent. Read it here.

I wouldn't want to say this or that person is my favourite composer of today - there are so many, so different, so fascinating, so inspiring. But hey...

Obviously if you have time to talk to a composer like Adams, you don't want to chat for just ten minutes if you can help it, so below are some "bonus tracks", Qs and As that are not in the Indy piece.

JD: I was reading something in which you said you felt the medium of the orchestra has run its course. But together with Glass you’ve done so much to put contemporary music back at the heart of full scale, mainstream concert programmes - maybe it’s not dead after all?

JA: It’s hard to say. I have good days and bad days and on bad days I wake up feeling that what we’re doing in classical music is so barely on people’s radar that I can get very depressed. But there are a lot of poets and composers and novelists like Melville and Charles Ives who did not get much attention at all in their lifetime. We do what we do because we love it and we have a small audience that adores what we do - and over time it persists, while the other stuff is revealed to be rather ephemeral.

JD: Do you still compose nine to five?

JA: I do, yes. I never work at night. (JD: Is it a question of routine?) Yes, it’s routine – I don’t travel a huge amount, but I do a reasonable amount of conducting during the year and I’m not someone who can actually compose in a hotel room, I absolutely have to be home in my studio. So when I am home I’m very disciplined. I try to work every day and have certain hours. I think most composers are that way – it’s an extremely labour-intensive activity and you have to make all the decisions yourself, so most composers I know are basically very disciplined, hardworking people. 

JD: There’s still a common misapprehension that people stroll through art exhibitions or mountain scenery and have sudden strokes of inspiration... 

JA: That's just nothing. We’re not like that at all. I just read Amsterdam which has a composer as its main character and I very much enjoyed the book but I thought his view of a composer was much too romantic. We’re much duller than that! 

JD: Is there anything in particular that does get the creative juices flowing for you?

JA: I wish I knew! If I had a magic pill or a certain place to take a walk, maybe starting pieces wouldn’t be such agony. Beginning a piece is always just hell – even if I think know what I’ve got to do. For some strange reason once a piece finally gets lift-off, if I work every day I usually – it’s like being an athlete, you’re in shape and the genetic material of the piece gives birth to tissues and organs and muscles and skeletons. Being a composer is like being a gardener – you water, prune, encourage and cut back. I take a walk every day with my two dogs. Lately I’ve been taking my iPod and listening to audio books or music and I think I should just stop the chatter and go back to what I did as a kid, when every time I took a walk I imagined a new piece of music in great detail. I’ve sort of got lazy about that. Now I’m leaving my technology behind when I leave the house.

JD: Not that long ago John Berry at English National Opera gave a press conference where he said that he hoped you’d write your next opera for ENO. Can we hope that this will happen? Have you any more operas on the go? 

JA: ENO have been absolutely among my strongest supporters and I’m deeply grateful to them. They’re creative and they make things happen... I just haven’t found a story that rang my bells the way Nixon or Klinghoffer or Dr Atomic did. I’m sure it’ll happen soon. (JD: Would you look for a similar real life event to base it on?) I think that’s sort of what I do best. I don’t think I’m a Pélléas et Mélisande type of composer - I don’t think a story that is intimate is what I’m strongest at – but I think it’s best to stay loose and not make any predictions. 

JD: Do you think The Death of Klinghoffer has finally been accepted? 

JA: The Met is doing it soon [Tom Morris's production, already seen at ENO], so I think it’s possible that there’ll be some controversy, but I don’t think it’s going to be at the level it was in '91. The issue was that the people who got so upset didn’t actually know the opera! That was almost always the case... As far as I’m concerned, it was very painful years ago, but I think over time people have realized that the opera isn’t at all about what the controversy was about. Really it’s a tragedy and it's something for everyone, it's not just about Palestinians and not just about Jews. It’s for everyone, because that’s what’s happening in the world. But it’ll be interesting at the Met because everything that does is sort of widescreen, with lots of attention and lots of people weighing in. I hope it’ll be experienced as a work of humanity, not perceived as some sort of agit-prop. 

Sunday, March 02, 2014


It was 10 years ago today that I thought I'd investigate these strange new things called blogs. All of a sudden, you could write something and press a button and a minute later a total stranger could be reading it on the other side of the world. For a writer this was a) mind-blowing, b) irresistible. I started mucking about with a site or two and next thing I knew, I had my own blog. I didn't know you could give blogs fancy titles so I just called it Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. And here we are.

Celebration? Well, there's a Hungarian Dances novel-concert this afternoon at 3pm at the gorgeous St Mary's Perivale, with me, David Le Page (violin) and Viv McLean (piano). Admission is free, though you can make a donation afterwards. There will be cake, and there's a pub over the road.

So, how have things changed in these first 10 years?

First of all, and most obviously, we are still here. Many are not. I've recently overhauled the blogroll and am surprised by the number of writers who've stopped blogging in the past couple of years. Perhaps novelty wears off; perhaps pressures of time encroach too much. I've often considered closing down this one, but have never quite been able to bring myself to do it. It's often a sort of mental limbering up at the start of the day, a way of getting brain into gear - even though you should never blog before your second cup of coffee - and it's cheaper than therapy. More importantly, there are few ways to keep certain values going in this scary world, but JDCMB is one. If you are a regular visitor, chances are that you know them. That's why I keep on keeping on.

When the Internet was becoming ubiquitous, its gatekeepers - and its users - made two enormous mistakes. One was to allow anonymity. The other was to make everything free.

Ten years on, many gifted individuals are struggling to make ends meet because of the second; as for the first, this is why many of us have closed our comments facilities and never read "below the line". I closed the JDCMB comments facility not because there were regular trolls, but because it was always a worry that there might be. One needs to eliminate sources of avoidable stress whenever possible.

When Amazon started to allow anonymous book reviews, one of the first things that happened to my stuff was that someone wrote a vicious anonymous review of my Korngold (pictured right) biography. I was convinced I knew who'd written that review and sent a letter to the Society of Authors journal saying, essentially, that anonymity makes nonsense of the whole idea of reviewing. Apparently this was news and I got interviewed by The Guardian. That was 15 years ago, never mind ten; it's still true; and it's still not sorted. (I still think I know who wrote that review, btw, only now I think it wasn't the person I thought it was then. It's worse. Never mind.)

As for free...well, this blog is, obviously, free. Mainly because I haven't worked out a way to put up a paywall. If it becomes possible, I may do so. I've tried other ways to allow it to bring in an income, including, briefly around 2009, virtually selling my soul (it's back - thanks). Occasionally some of you kindly decide to sponsor Solti's cat food and receive a sidebar advert in return. You can still do this if you so wish. Thank you to everyone who's taken up the possibility, especially, our latest long-term sponsor, for whom I now write a reasonably regular Soapbox column. Here's the latest, featuring one of Mr Buchanan's priceless cartoons: when should we applaud prodigies?

A lot has happened to me in ten years. I've written four novels, two plays and several words&music projects, joined the Independent as a freelance music and ballet correspondent, met and interviewed many of my heroes and heroines, become a bit of a campaigner for women's equality in the musical field and survived a Dalek invasion (my digestion remains a long-term casualty). I've travelled a lot and fallen in love with Budapest (right); I've trailed Martha Argerich to Rome; I've even found my way back from Munchkinland. And if you've enjoyed the novels to date, there IS another one, it is finished and it is musical (we just have to find it a publisher who doesn't think classical music is elitist...). But do read this article from The Observer today.

During the past decade we've watched the emergence of many glorious new artists: Benjamin Grosvenor, Daniil Trifonov, Juan Diego Florez, Jonas Kaufmann, Julia Fischer, Alisa Weilerstein, Joseph Calleja, Yuja Wang and more have risen to prominence. It's been a privilege to chart this. Here is my latest big interview for Opera News, with the glorious mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch (March issue cover feature).

But the most worrying thing at present is the reduction in freedom of expression that results from this bizarre climate of mass hysteria and free-for-all, line-toeing mudslinging, encouraged by the tabloids and a few bloggers who like high ratings. Such a climate has never happened before in my lifetime. "What do they want? Blood?" asked someone recently. I fear so. It resembles a primitive call for blood-letting - like The Rite of Spring, a ritual in hard times to bring back the sun. It is always the innocent who are sacrificed - whether it's an abstract force for good, like art music itself, or learning, or intellectual capability; or the Chosen Maiden of Stravinsky's ballet, who if you remember is a young, innocent and terrified teenage girl. Guess what? It doesn't help.

I believe we need nothing less than the Enlightenment. An embracing of reason, clarity, proportion, sense and sensibility; love to combat hatred; the power of laughter, which is also an endangered art; a note of sanity to restore rational thought against ideologies that have tipped askew under their own over-inflated obesity. This doesn't mean "a return to..." anything - because you can never go backwards. Nothing does. Time doesn't work like that. You can only go forward. Let's go forward to a fresh Enlightenment. Let there be light.

So, to celebrate JDCMB's tenth birthday, above is the ultimate Enlightenment masterpiece: Haydn's The Creation, a work that features all the qualities and values I love the most, in a performance from 1951 conducted by Eugen Jochum. Enjoy.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

The real thing

Tomorrow we have the last performance for a little while of Hungarian Dances: the concert of the novel, at the beautiful 12th-century church of St Mary's Perivale. Stars David Le Page (violin) and Viv McLean (piano) and I narrate. Start time is 3pm and admission is FREE, though if you like us you can make a donation at the end. Do join us. There will be cake.

Last night, though, we experienced a taste of the real thing, courtesy of the Balassi Institute Hungarian Cultural Centre: the Hungarian Roma guitarist and composer Ferenc Snétberger, his trio and some of his students came to London to perform at a converted chapel in Bloomsbury.

Snétberger's music combines influences of traditional music with classical technique and raptly concentrated improvisation. He's a stunningly versatile musician; and besides his hypnotic jazz he has written a concerto for guitar and string orchestra entitled For My People - a tribute to the Roma Holocaust, which he has recorded with the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra, Budapest. His music gets to your innards and twists them with a mix of meditative immediacy and hinted nostalgia as his drummer surrounds much of the music with a glimmer of cymbal or a hiss of brushed side-drum, as if we're listening through the crackles of an old LP.

Snétberger has started an academy for young Roma musicians in Hungary, near Lake Balaton - the Snétberger Music Talent Centre. Last night several of the students were here with him: a 14-year-old violinist who already has a sweetness of tone and depth of musicality to promise much for the future, and a 17-year-old pianist whose absorption, assurance and personal style of playing made a terrific impression.

Here he is with some of the students...