Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Two happy birthdays!

Two musicians I feel very lucky to know are both celebrating birthdays today. Have a listen to celebrate.

First, here is my very special colleague Philippe Graffin, the poetic and creative French violinist, in a track from the album Hungarian Dances, recorded in 2008 and inspired by my novel of the same title.  Claire Désert is the pianist. This is the enchanting Marche miniature viennoise by Fritz Kreisler - OK, not Hungarian at all, but huge fun and gorgeously played. (Onyx)

The second very happy birthday goes to British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, who's turning all of 22 this sunny Tuesday. He has a new album out soon, a delicious mixed programme celebrating dance all the way from Bach to Boogie-Woogie (that marvellous etude by Morton Gould). Tip: make sure that when you get it you download the "deluxe" version so that you also have the bonus tracks. They include possibly the most stunning performance of Liszt's Gnomenreigen that you or anyone else will ever hear in this day and age. Since it's not out yet, here's his Ravel 'Ondine' from Gaspard de la Nuit. (Decca)

Monday, July 07, 2014

What does it mean to be an artist?

I had a note the other week from a hip-hop songwriter/rapper in the US, Anthony Tomaz, asking me to have a look at his story. I don't cover much rap, as you've probably noticed - it's never been my cuppa - but this film from Fuse News touched me very strongly.

Most of Anthony's family seems to have been jailed; he was homeless in New York for two years; but now he has a recording contract. He suggests that his music saved him. And he talks in this video about the way he is always writing, wherever he is, anytime and all the time - the way the sounds and words grip him and demand expression comes over unmistakably.

What does it mean to be an artist? Exactly this. Your medium, whether it's microtonality or minimalism, rap or Rachaminov, news or novels, takes hold of you and insists you make it real. You therefore learn how to do it and develop your ability to the utmost, or you feel you're letting down more than only yourself.

It's never easy to explain this to anyone who hasn't experienced it and thinks you should shut up and get a proper job. (I had a Twitter message yesterday from a gentleman who thinks I'd be a good traffic warden, but it turned out this had something to do with women in uniform...er, right...)

But the concept of the creative artist is not dead, despite the 21st century's best efforts to kill it, because it is a human phenomenon that stays with us and can keep us on the rails, or restore us to them when we've fallen off.

I said to Anthony that I would run his story, because it's an inspiration and he is an artist. Nothing stops him from making music. Here it is.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

A landmark year for the Proms?

Here is my preview, from the Radar section of today's Independent, about this year's Proms.  Enjoy...

On 18 July the Royal Albert Hall opens its doors for the annual BBC Promenade Concerts, know simply as The Proms: two months of world-class classical music at which standing places cost just £5 a pop. There is nothing else quite like it – either here or abroad. Once you’ve experienced the queues of ‘promenaders’ snaking down Prince Consort Road with sandwich boxes and comfy shoes, sampled the relaxed but excited atmosphere inside the hall and witnessed evenings as thrilling as last year’s Ring cycle – when thousands listened rapt to Wagner’s gigantic tetralogy at the feet of the conductor Daniel Barenboim – chances are you’ll be hooked too.

The 2014 Proms nevertheless marks the end of an era: Roger Wright, director of the Proms for seven years and controller of BBC Radio 3 since 1998, now ends his tenure as both. His successors – the role is to be split – have yet to be appointed.

The news of Wright’s departure broke in a startling way, with an announcement from Aldeburgh Music (the umbrella organisation behind the Aldeburgh Festival and more) that he is to become their new Chief Executive. The very day after this was revealed, there came a BBC announcement that Bob Shennan, controller of Radio 2, is being appointed as overall director of music right across the BBC. The timing struck many as intriguing. Restructuring is inevitable at the BBC in the current climate, but no one with as fine a track record as Wright’s is likely to be too happy if someone else is brought in over his or her head. Meanwhile, whoever takes over Wright’s roles will undoubtedly have to implement funding cuts and deal with whatever may emerge from the new licence fee settlement in 2016.

Wright bids farewell to the Proms after the opening night. “Elgar’s The Kingdom will be the last music I hear as Proms director,” he says. “I’m sad to be leaving the team, of course, but to have had the fun of working with them, and knowing the Proms are in such safe hands, is terrific.”

He does not mince his words, though, over uncertainties in the future: “The Proms has been singled out for reinvestment, so I think there’s a real understanding of their importance, right at the top of the organisation,” he says, “but the biggest question is the future of the BBC funding overall. We don’t know what the licence fee settlement is going to be in 2016-17 onwards. You can’t separate out the future of anything to do with the BBC from those decisions. That’s a question that’s going to arrive very quickly indeed.”

Music lovers not only in Britain but around the world are hoping against hope that that recognition of the Proms’ significance will survive such changes. For generations of music-lovers summer without the Proms has been as unthinkable as Halloween without pumpkins or Christmas without carols. This year marks the series’ 120th anniversary; it has been run by the BBC since 1927 and resident at the Royal Albert Hall since 1941. And it is not as if the BBC has not made a huge effort to extend its reach. Indeed, never before has the Proms been quite as accessible as it is now.

If you can’t get there in person, not only is every concert broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, but also there are plentiful TV broadcasts and a plethora of online facilities to let you enjoy the performances by a dizzying range of musicians: from the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle to the Pet Shop Boys. The latter are creating a new work for orchestra and electronics that pays tribute to Alan Turing, the Bletchley Park computer pioneer who took his own life 60 years ago after a 1952 conviction for homosexual activity destroyed both his personal life and his career. A posthumous royal pardon was granted to him last December. 

There is much to live up at the Proms – especially after the last two years. In 2012 it was absorbed into the Cultural Olympiad and featured some extraordinary moments – whether the arrival of the British athletes at the festivities of the Last Night, or Barenboim walking into the Olympic opening ceremony as one of eight great humanitarian figures carrying the Olympic flag, straight from conducting a Prom.

Last year’s Wagner bicentenary season included concert performances of no fewer than seven of his operas, featuring starry casts that could turn the priciest festivals green with envy. And the Last Night proved a landmark, headed for the first time by a woman conductor, Marin Alsop, her podium festooned with pink balloons. That occasion was double-edged since, as Alsop pointed out in her speech, it was hard to believe such “firsts” were still waiting to happen.

Staging these festivals involved both vision and chutzpah, and paid off handsomely in terms of audience figures: last year’s average attendance was 93% and 57 of 75 main concerts sold out completely. But without quite such special events to raise the roof, can this year’s programme match that success?

The agenda contains just about enough celebration to keep the mood upbeat. The 150th anniversary of Richard Strauss’s birth is marked with three of the composer’s finest operas: Salome, featuring the Swedish star soprano Nina Stemme (last year’s Ring cycle Brünnhilde), followed 24 hours later by Elektra, in which Strauss creates the ultimate in hair-raising musical Expressionism. Earlier in the season, Glyndebourne brings in the cast and crew of its controversial production of Der Rosenkavalier for a semi-staged concert performance.

The World Cup has not necessarily sparked this year’s focus on international orchestras from sometimes surprising places (and will probably have been quietly forgotten by opening night). Still, a record number of them are converging on London, many demonstrating the rapidly burgeoning interest in western classical music in developing countries. Therefore alongside heavyweight visitors such as the Berlin Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, a number of ensembles are making their first-ever visits to the Proms, among them orchestras from Turkey, Iceland, China, South Korea, Lapland, Australia and Qatar.

The latter is a case in point. The Qatar Philharmonic has existed for only seven years and its music director is Han-Na Chang, the former cello prodigy and protegée of Mstislav Rostropovich, who has reinvented herself as a force to be reckoned with on the podium. The orchestra, Chang says, includes musicians of some 30 different nationalities; and its mission statement includes assisting Qatar “on its journey from carbon economy to knowledge economy by unlocking human potential”. Their Prom will include a work by the Iranian-born composer Behzad Ranjbaran. “The musicians are incredibly excited – it’s such a privilege for us to be making our Proms debut,” Chang says.

Ironically, she remarks that “the women conductors issue” was scarcely mentioned when she took up her post; in a country where the orchestral field is so new, western traditional notions of the dominant male maestro have not had a chance to become ingrained. She is one of four women conductors at this year’s Proms, along with Sian Edwards, Rebecca Miller and a return visit from Alsop – not a lot, but a gentle shift in the right direction.

Women are relatively well represented among this year’s composers, notably with a Proms debut for Roxanna Panufnik, a new BBC commission by Judith Weir, London premieres for Sally Beamish and Helen Grime and works by Unsuk Chin and Dobrinka Tabakova. Not least, a late-night Prom is devoted to an appearance by the singer-songwriter Laura Mvula, who has crossed all boundaries with apparent ease. Parity for women composers and conductors remains a long way off, but these are noteworthy steps nonetheless.

Commemoration rather than celebration is the order of the day where the music of World War I is concerned. The tragedy of war has inspired numerous musical masterpieces and the Proms, besides scheduling some of the most famous, such as Britten’s War Requiem, is also airing rare gems such as the Elegy for Strings In Memoriam Rupert Brooke by the Australian composer FS Kelly, who died at the Battle of the Somme, and songs by the much-loved poet and composer Ivor Gurney. One Prom is themed around War Horse, with a visit from the National Theatre’s Handspring Puppets.

British music has long been an enthusiasm of Wright’s and beyond the works associated with World War I there is plenty of it to enjoy, including the Violin Concerto by E J Moeran, a surprise recent hit in the classical charts. The range of UK composers extends from Elgar and Walton to the gritty modernism of Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, both turning 80 this year.

It has not escaped the notice of the Twitterverse, though, that what the BBC Proms seems to celebrate above all this year is – well, the BBC. Quite a few events draw upon the broadcaster’s wider brand, including a Sports Prom and a CBeebies Prom offering the under-fives early experience in concert-going. Traditionalists have, predictably, been snorting about such things – to say nothing of the bile that still greets the occasional presence of pop musicians in the country’s premier classical festival.

Contrary to those critical of apparent self-aggrandisement in the BBC brand, Wright says that he sees the trend as “hugely positive” in terms of reaching new audiences. “After all,” he points out, “it’s the BBC licence fee payer who pays for the Proms. The range of the audience becomes greater and greater the more we can play in to the Proms reaching different audiences. The Sports Prom is a great example: for a Prom to be live on R5 Live for the first time is a really big deal, as is the late night Battle of the Bands – looking back to the Swing era of the 1930s-40s – which is on Radio 2. It’s always been the agenda to reach new audiences for classical music. That’s absolutely what the Proms do.”

For the moment, it’s time to put any anxiety about the future aside and get ready to enjoy the music. All you need to enjoy the Proms is open ears, an open mind and comfortable shoes.

BBC Promenade Concerts, Royal Albert Hall, opening 18 July. Box office: 0845 401 5040


Prom 1, 18 July, 7.30pm: Elgar, The Kingdom
BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, BBC National Chorus of Wales, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Erin Wall (soprano), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Staples (tenor), Christopher Purves (bass-baritone).
Elgar’s biblical oratorio gets the Proms season off to a celestial start in the grand manner.

Prom 4, 20 July, 7.30pm: World Orchestra for Peace, Valery Gergiev (conductor). This designated UNESCO Concert for Peace involves a Proms debut for British composer Roxanna Panufnik, music from Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten and Mahler’s Symphony No.6.

Prom 8, 23 July, 10.15pm: Pet Shop Boys, BBC Singers, BBC Concert Orchestra, Dominic Wheeler (conductor). Featuring world premiere of A Man for the Future, a tribute to Alan Turing by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe.

Prom 10, 25 July, 7.30pm: BBC Philharmonic, Juanjo Mena (conductor), Tasmin Little (violin). A British programme featuring Walton’s Variations on a Theme by Hindemith, Moeran’s Violin Concerto, the London premiere of David Horne’s Daedalus in Flight and Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

Prom 16, 29 July, 6.30pm: Borustan Istanbul Philharmonic, Sascha Goetzel (conductor), Daniel Hope (violin). Turkey’s leading orchestra in its Proms debut, including the world premiere of the new Violin Concerto by Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of Sergei).

Prom 21, 2 August, 7.30pm: Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, featuring the John Wilson Orchestra conducted by John Wilson. The fizz of this classic musical should build on the success of musicals at the Proms in past years.

Prom 33, 10 August, 7.45pm: National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Edward Gardner (conductor), Louis Schwizgebel (piano). The UK’s finest youth orchestra in a dazzling programme of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Birtwistle and Lutoslawski, with the dynamic Ed Gardner on the podium and rising star pianist Louis Schwizgebel as soloist.

Prom 42, 17 August, 7.30pm: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Manze (conductor), Allan Clayton (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone). A World War I tribute programme featuring music by Rudi Stephan, Butterworth, Vaughan Williams and the searingly beautiful Elegy for strings, in memoriam Rupert Brooke by FS Kelly.

Prom 46, 20 August, 7.30pm: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Barenboim returns to the Proms with his famous orchestra that brings together Arabic and Israeli musicians. Along with music by Mozart and Ravel they perform the UK premieres of works by Kareem Roustom and Ayal Adler.

Proms 52 and 53, 25 (7.30pm) and 26 August (7pm): Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer (conductor). The sleek, sophisticated and fresh-thinking Budapest ensemble return for two Proms: a mixed programme including Schubert, Dvorák and Kodály, and the next night an all-Brahms concert.

Proms 58 and 59, 30 and 31 August (7.30pm): Strauss opera weekend - Salome and Elektra. Nina Stemme stars as Salome, with the Deutsche Oper Berlin and conductor Donald Runnicles. For Elektra the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Semyon Bychkov are joined by a cast including Christine Goerke in the title role, Johan Reuter and Dame Felicity Palmer.

Proms Chamber Music 7, 1 September, 1pm, Cadogan Hall: Benjamin Grosvenor (piano). The gifted young British pianist performs music by Chopin, Mompou, Ravel and Gounod/Liszt, and the world premiere of Judith Weir’s new BBC commission Day Break Shadows Flee.

Prom 66, 6 September, 7pm: Berliner Philharmoniker, Berlin Radio Choir, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Mark Padmore (tenor), Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Camilla Tilling (soprano), Magdalena Kozena (mezzo-soprano), Topi Lehtipuu (tenor), Eric Owens (bass). An all-star performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion.

Prom 67, 7 September, 3.30pm. Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, Han-Na Chang (conductor), Denis Matsuev (piano). The phenomenally gifted Han-Na Chang, cellist turned conductor, is at the helm for this young orchestra’s Proms debut, featuring music by Behzad Ranjbaran, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky.

Prom 74, 11 September, 10.15pm. Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright joins forces with the Britten Sinfonia and conductor Johannes Debus for a late-night Prom of his own brand of ‘baroque pop’

Friday, July 04, 2014

Just in: Fallen? Aber nein!

This is the cast of La Traviata at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich tonight (NB, in the interval) as Germany progresses to the semi-final of the World Cup. "Something I've never, ever witnessed at Glyndebourne," says my spy.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Longborough Festival Opera: TOSCA

This is my review of lovely Longborough's terrific Tosca for the Independent. Four stars.  

Among the UK’s country house opera destinations, Longborough stands out as possibly the most audacious, unlikely and lovable. Near Moreton-in-Marsh in the Cotswolds (beware: sat-nav black holes), it was founded as Banks Fee Opera in 1991 by its owners Martin and Lizzie Graham, Wagner devotees who have converted a barn into a Palladian-fronted theatre; last year it became the first privately-funded opera house in the country to stage Wagner’s complete Ring cycle, a magnificent effort duly recognised with a nomination for a Royal Philharmonic Society Award.

This year’s festival got off to a flying start with Puccini’s Tosca. As with the Ring, the production proves that wacky concepts and costly sets are not necessary to create compelling drama. Take a row of pillars that can suggest church, palazzo and fortress, some steep slopes to be fallen down or jumped off, and a billow of dry ice; add a few very fine singers; and we have lift-off.

Richard Studer’s direction and designs hint at the Mussolini era without labouring the point. Rather than relying on spectacle, the entire drama is focused on the opera’s toxic love triangle of diva, artist activist and malign dictator, portrayed respectively by the soprano Lee Bisset, the tenor Adriano Graziani and the baritone Simon Thorpe; the characters emerge as very believable people caught up in events for which none of them are cut out.
Bisset’s Tosca – as she reflects in her aria ‘Vissi d’arte’ – really has lived for art and love; she is naïve enough not to suspect at first that her lover Cavaradossi is being tortured. She wants a quiet life with the man she loves; instead, faced with blackmail and rape, she first considers suicide, then turns murderer. She finds her weapon embedded in a loaf of bread – and afterwards wipes off the blood and puts it back.

Musically there are thrills aplenty. Bisset’s soaring soprano inhabits the full gamut of the role’s expressive possibilities: she has fabulous power at the top of her considerable range and her beauty of tone carries her from flirtation to fury, desire to despair. Graziani’s tenor is a fine match for her voice; his performance warmed as the evening went by, glorying in roof-raising high notes and culminating in a no-holds-barred account of ‘E lucevan le stelle’.

Thorpe’s Scarpia does not quite echo them in terms of vocal power, but his character is convincing: physically imposing, but psychologically weak, this dictator is a pathetic bully boy who does his dirty work by proxy. In the pit, the conductor Jonathan Lyness keeps the pace gripping and the score’s drama paramount. 

The set’s rather cumbersome mix of steps and rakes, the cut-down orchestration and chorus, and some slightly ropey amplification – notably for Act III’s offstage shepherd boy and the Act I finale’s pre-recorded canon effects – are a tad problematic. Otherwise, it is a thoroughly enjoyable occasion.

The 2014 festival continues with Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Handel’s Rinaldo. Next year: Tristan und Isolde.