Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My hopes for the music world in 2015

New years bring new fears - this one more than any I can remember.

Interesting to glance back at where we were last time. Here is that list. 

Progress? First of all, our consciousness-raising about gender equality (lack thereof) and sexism in the industry started to do some good, though there's a long way to go. Then, in concert, there was indeed plenty of Panufnik. And a few people have performed other interesting programmes, too. As for absent friends, Sokolov is still not coming to Britain, but Zimerman's name is in the LSO's schedule for July 2015, when he'll play Brahms's Piano Concerto No.1 with Simon Rattle conducting.

But Rattle still has not confirmed or denied that he'll take over the LSO's podium wholesale; we do know, however, that there will be no new London hall for him in the Olympic park redevelopment. Meanwhile Mayor Boris has delivered the coup-de-grace to Southbank Centre's redevelopment plans by taking sides with a small group of intractable skateboarders, rather than supporting the largest possible access to the arts for the largest number of Londoners (yes, really, o surprised overseas friends in sensible places - you couldn't make it up.) Generally, arts organisations are struggling, more so than before, and the senseless bullying and witch-hunting over different varieties of rubbish has got worse.

Top ten hopes for 2015? I almost can't look...

1. That we emerge from the general election in May with a government that will drop crackpot ideology in favour of down-to-earth measures to help to create a fairer and happier society, and that will recognise that nothing can change unless it changes at the level of education. We need good, free education for every child, in which music and the arts can play a central role at a strong level. This means we also need excellently trained music teachers, the encouragement of parental involvement in practising, and instruments made available to borrow, or to rent at a pittance. Education is the single most important issue facing the music world at the moment.

2. That we can change some of the narratives that are currently parroted about in the arts world (and beyond) yet make little practical sense.

3. That we emerge into 2016 with all our orchestras, opera companies, ballet companies, choirs and youth music organisations fully intact.

4. That people decide it's better to have a sense of proportion and stop the knee-jerk petty offence-taking over trivialities. My advice is: don't sweat the small stuff - because if you do, then how are you going to cope with real trouble?

5. That nobody goes to war with anybody else.

6. That the Leeds Piano Competition can find a worthy successor to Dame Fanny Waterman and that the cavalcade of contests for the instrument in 2015 - Dublin, Leeds, Warsaw, Moscow - will find winners equally as interesting as the last lot (Trifonov, Colli, et al).

7. That more would-be music students in Britain realise that as EU citizens they can receive tertiary training free of charge in some places on mainland Europe, and consequently make sure they learn German.

8. That proven facts can be noted more than paranoid fantasies. Truth is not simply what you want to believe. Truth is found in scientific observation. Like it or lump it.

9. That news starts bringing us actual news instead of gossip about a "celebrity's" backside. The other day I picked up a free newspaper on a train and had to turn to page 28 (or was it 36?) to find even one paragraph about Ukraine.

10. That there is still such a thing as professional music journalism in 2016.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Concerts? Remember those? Get down the Wiggy tonight, then

Christmas: the kiss of death, if you're a musician. Or a music-lover, for that matter. Nothing but Messiahs and Nutcrackers being wheeled out all over again as far as the ear can hear. After you've been around for a few decades, you may start wanting to scream at the sound of that celesta. Maybe escapism is the reason so many of us eat and drink ourselves into a stupor over the days of festivities. By 30 December, enough, already.

Thank you to all those doughty musicians who brave the seasonal wheeliebin to remind us that life goes on. At the Wigmore Hall tonight the smiley, gleamy-toned Australian pianist Piers Lane is doing a recital that is refreshingly free from anything topical. The first half is Rachmaninov and the second is Schubert, culminating with the great A major Sonata D959. Do please try to tear yourselves away from the overload and hear some really wonderful piano playing. Book here.

A few other chippings of gold amid the general plastic recycling have come from the Royal Ballet, which gave Alice's Adventures in Wonderland instead of The Nutcracker this time, and BBC4, which made the Christmas ballet treat The Winter's Tale - an absolute glory of a full-length story ballet, choreographed this year by Christopher Wheeldon, which needs to be seen by lots and lots of people. It is not exactly seasonal, despite the title; instead, it's a very grown-up and brilliantly imagined balletic translation of Shakespeare's play, with a specially composed score by Joby Talbot and featuring astounding performances from Edward Watson and Lauren Cuthbertson as Leontes and Hermione, and Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae as Perdita and Florizel. (You can catch it on the iPlayer for another 25 days if you missed it.)

Last but not least, do catch Fascinating Aida's brilliant show Charm Offensive at the Queen Elizabeth Hall during the first two weeks of January. Here's a taster, which I've been attempting to bear in mind this past week (honest, guv).

Sunday, December 28, 2014

JDCMB Top 12 Posts of 2014

A little recap on some of the JDCMB highlights of 2014

Mourning, anxiety, flashmobs, victimisation of one sort or another and an April Fool's joke proved dominant in this year's reader stats. Glad to say that also scoring highly (so to speak) are a certain wonderful tenor, a great composer to whom I love talking, and a very gifted young conductor.

A guest post from Serhan Bali in Turkey about the dire situation threatening the country's music scene.

20 JAN
Obituary of the conductor whom everyone loved best.

Beethoven proves his credentials once more as a galvanising inspiration.

10 FEB
Look who I met in New York...

The London debut of the incredibly gifted Ilyich Rivas at the Royal Festival Hall.

I had the only interview with Tara that was doing the rounds before the opening of the Glyndebourne Der Rosenkavalier...

Some bonus material from my interview with the composer (the rest is in the Independent)

Farewell to a wonderful pianist in the most tragic of circumstances.

Check the date on this one.

Don't laugh if your neighbour doesn't think the libretto is funny, even if you do.

A critic tells off a small child of colour in a concert.

A trailer for Du bist die Welt für mich...

Tuesday, December 23, 2014



(and huge thanks to the lovely Sally Olson, who had some fun with Photoshop and the kitten pic)

Monday, December 22, 2014

Emergency: My favourite festival is faced with closure


Miserable news from Saint-Nazaire, France: the Festival Consonances, which was founded and run by violinist Philippe Graffin for nearly 25 years, is faced with closure. The town's new mayor has pulled its funding.

Opinion seems divided as to why. Hard times everywhere, say some; a new man wanting to make his mark with a new approach, suggest others; and unfortunately rumblings about classical music being "elitist" have been rumoured as well...

Philippe with ensemble & singer Christianne Stotijn

Saint-Nazaire is (or was) a ship-building town on the Loire estuary with a traumatic war history, good food and a beach. It was in a position of some strategic importance during World War II and is still the site of an indestructible concrete submarine base build by the Nazis, which the allies tried to bomb, though they only succeeded in reducing much of the town to rubble. It's not a wealthy place, nor is it full of glitzy five-star hotels or spectacular scenery to attract well-heeled international festival-goers. Consonances was always very much for a local audience, who are not well-served with world-class classical music the rest of the year. (Above: a line-up typically worthy of the Wigmore and beyond, with Philippe's ensemble accompanying the wonderful Christianne Stotijn.)

Nobuko Imai, Philippe Graffin, Henri Dutilleux, in 2007
Over the quarter-century he's been there, Philippe's programming has been so consistently high and the presence of the musicians so friendly and welcome that the audience grew to trust him and would go and hear pretty much whatever he put on, and he has never been one to stint on intriguing programming. I remember seeing families with young children queuing round the block to get in to a three-hour concert of music by Rodion Shchedrin. The Russian composer was there as artist in residence, together with his wife, the great ballerina Maya Plisteskaya. Further compositional luminaries at the festival have included Henri Dutilleux (above, with Nobuko Imai and Philippe).

Part of the submarine base was turned into an arts centre about seven years ago, and this was the location for the premiere of my play A Walk through the End of Time, with the Messiaen Quartet as companion piece. The project was Philippe's idea and he commissioned the play especially for the occasion. The premiere was given in French by the actors Marie-Christine Barrault and Charles Gonzalès.

Consonances festival in the shipyard
The very first time I attended the festival, the Queen Mary II was under construction in the shipyard and Consonances held its final concert in a hangar on the site; vast pieces of mechanical equipment acquired through context the look of a massive iron art installation [right]. A special bus was put on to take people out there from the town centre and many were in place hours in advance to be assured of the best seats.

Here is one very general point that applies not only perhaps in Saint-Nazaire, but everywhere else too. Before anyone declares classical music "elitist" and therefore not "for" a particular sector of society, please remember this: that is just your opinion. And you are simply scratching around for a feeble excuse to hold back the money an organisation needs. And we can see through that. In effect, you are telling your populace that they are not good enough to appreciate good music. How dare you suggest such a thing? It is the most patronising thing you can possibly do. Of course they are. That was the whole point of arts funding: to make performances affordable enough for everybody to attend.

Everyone is "good enough" for the best sounds in the world. You may like these sounds or you may not, but the unforgivable thing is when the powers that be declare that you will never have the chance to find out for yourself.

Please, dear Saint-Nazaire, restore Consonances's existence right now. It's still in time for Christmas.

Here is Philippe's open letter to the town (en français).

Ce  texte a été écrit mardi 16 décembre par Philippe Graffin cofondateur avec Joël Batteux de Consonances et directeur artistique  :
Philippe Graffin in rehearsal in Saint-Nazaire
“Il y a quelques jours, lors d’un concert que je donnais à Londres, une jeune violoniste américaine en se présentant me dit qu’elle allait souvent sur le site internet du festival Consonances pour s’inspirer des programmes pour le festival qu’elle vient de créer à la Nouvelle Orléans.
Si la musique et les concerts sont par essence éphémères, il n’en reste pas moins que nous ne savons pas jusqu’où ils résonnent.
Pour ma part, le soutien et l’écoute croissante du public de Saint-Nazaire font partie intégrante de la réussite et du succès de cet événement, qui revenait chaque début d’automne.
Ce pari du mariage improbable de la musique dite “élitiste”, dans le contexte du “tintamarre contemporain”, selon l’expression de Joël Batteux, a été la marque de Consonances qui affirmait ainsi ses valeurs.
Mais, finalement, que reste-t-il de tous ces sons, de tous ces concerts, de ces espoirs mis dans la musique, de ces milliers d’heures à préparer l’accueil des musiciens, du public, lorsque le festival prend fin?
Il en reste avant tout une expérience inoubliable d’avoir réussi à marier, chaque année pour quelques jours, ce patrimoine de l’humanité que représente la musique dans cette ville, fleuron de la plus haute industrie.
Consonances s’est associée aux différents événements qui ont marqué cette période, par exemple, lors de la construction du Queen Mary 2, ainsi que du drame qui a précédé son lancement.
Au fil de ces années, j’ai eu l’occasion de découvrir une ville merveilleuse et unique, de lier des amitiés fortes et d’inviter une partie du monde musical à prendre le chemin de Saint Nazaire et à la découvrir.
Des images me viennent à l’esprit, des moments forts comme la présence pleine de charme d’Henri Dutilleux à Saint-Nazaire, celle de Rodion Schedrin et Maya Plissetskaya, artistes russe ô combien légendaires, ou celle d’Ivry Gitlis ou Stephen Kovacevich avec sa chaise plus basse.
Pour moi Consonances, au détour d’un concert particulièrement réussi, fut bien le centre du monde, ne fusse-t-il que musical.
Ces “rencontres” ont porté ainsi, bien au-delà de nos frontières, le drapeau de Saint Nazaire.
Elles ont été d’abord exportées dans des salles prestigieuses, Au Wigmore Hall à Londres, pour toute une semaine autour de la musique française, reprise du festival Consonances précédent, ainsi qu’à La Haye, avec l’Orchestre Philharmonique sur le même thème deux ans plus tard, puis nous fûmes invités au festival Présence de Radio France, à Paris, à de nombreuses reprises.
The war memorial, Saint-Nazaire
Consonances c’est, au cours des 24 éditions, à peu près 450 concerts, donnés non seulement dans les salles que vous connaissez mais aussi dans les chantiers, les hangars d’Airbus Industrie, les hospices, les hôpitaux, dans la rue parfois, sous des préaux improbables, des écoles diverses ou dans des quartiers où la musique dite “classique” aurait pu paraître inadéquate. À chaque fois, ce fut organisé et joué comme si il s’agissait du Théâtre des Champs Elysées ou de la Salle Pleyel, avec la plus grande passion et simplicité.
Consonances a reçu plus de 300 artistes venus du monde entier, souvent fidélisés, et comptant parmi les plus recherchés.
C’est aussi plus d’une vingtaine d’oeuvres commandées et publiées à des compositeurs d’origines diverses et de tendances différentes.
Consonances à fait renaître de nombreuses oeuvres oubliées de compositeurs du passé, romantiques ou classiques. Nous avons repensé à maintes reprises le rapport de la musique à la jeunesse en cherchant de nouvelles formules.
Il reste aussi de nombreux enregistrements, traces de ces recherches et moments inoubliables.
Comme en témoigne cette critique du magazine Diapason, pour notre disque Chausson, qui commençait par ces mots : “Merci à la ville de Saint Nazaire…”
Au nom de mes amis musiciens, je tiens à remercier tous les Nazairiens pour nous avoir accueillis généreusement pendant 25 ans dans leur ville. Ce fut un réel port d’attache pour nous tous.
Je souhaite très sincèrement bonne chance à la nouvelle équipe municipale, à mes collègues du conservatoire, au Théâtre, à la Meet ce projet extraordinaire, au Théâtre Athénor, à Christophe Rouxel du théâtre Icare.
Je voudrais dire un grand merci, du fond du coeur, à tous mes amis de l’association Atempo, à commencer par Patrick Perrin, qui, je le sais, a oeuvré pour Consonances sans relâche, ainsi que Claire Dupont.
Consonances s’efface, certes, mais je reste et resterai toujours un ambassadeur de Saint-Nazaire et un fidèle ami”.
Plus d’informations dans  l’Echo de la Presqu’île du 19 décembre 2014

Saint-Nazaire, 44