Thursday, July 09, 2015

"Self-taught" is not the panacea you think

The other day I went to Cambridge and had a fascinating chat with Stephen Layton, the inspirational director of Trinity College Choir. Layton is one of those rare people who not only lives for music, but whom you can't help seeing does so. You see it in the way his face illuminates as he talks about the composers he loves to perform - whether it's Byrd, Purcell or Eriks Esenvalds - and the disarming sincerity with which he recalls his own start in musical life: he came from a council estate background and found that music "gives me something to live for". He won a scholarship to Eton, came to King's Cambridge as organ scholar, and the rest is history.

We got talking about how many of the best-known British conductors come out of Cambridge. Some musicians of my acquaintance are cynical about this. They think it's the old boys' network that ensures the career advancement. Now, I can't be sure how much of a role that does play. But one thing is clear. Cambridge University is (or used to be - I hope it still is) a melting pot of multi-talented people. If you have the gumption to get an orchestra together and conduct it, you can do so. Nobody will help you, but the raw material will be there: students to recruit to your band, chapels to perform in, halls to hire if you raise the money, college bars in which to put up posters. If you step up, take the initiative and make it happen, you can ensure that you have more opportunities to stand in front of an actual orchestra and perform than many conservatory conducting students will ever get. You won't find any conducting lessons in the music faculty - you might as well be studying languages, medicine or anthropology - but you might have the chance to teach yourself by learning on the job the hard way.

And for some, indeed for most of us, that experience will teach you the things you never forget. You learn to teach yourself by being forced to work out, from within, how it's done.

Some of the best instrumental teachers will leave their students with this attitude and the analytical ability to keep working it out for themselves long after they have finished their formal studies. (That was how I tackled, in my thirties, pieces of piano music I wouldn't have been able to get near as a student. You work out what the problem is, what you need to be able to do, and how to practise in such a way that it becomes physically possible.)

So, to some degree, all musicians need to be "self-taught", because a musical career is an ongoing process in which if you don't keep moving forwards, you move backwards. If you work hard in a systematic way, you'll improve. If you don't, your abilities will ossify. And this is true at any and every age.

But let's face it: you will probably also have some advantage in terms of technique if you have actually had some formal tuition (and this goes for conductors too).

Therefore the fuss attending one young competitor of the Tchaikovsky Competition has reached a point where it risks being seriously misunderstood.

Articles have been appearing saying that Lucas Debargue, fourth prize winner, is "self-taught". Even though his biography makes it perfectly clear that he went to the Paris Conservatoire. It seems he was a late starter: taking up piano from 11 (as opposed to 3), and serious music studies from 20 (not 12). That's not quite the same thing.

It's dangerous to overplay the "self-taught" card because, sad to say, a large part of the British public thinks music happens by magic. That it's something for "fun". That it doesn't take hard work to be good at it. That if you want your kids to have music in their lives as something to enjoy, they don't have to practise every day (despite the fact that it'll be a lot more fun in the end if they can play decently). They seem to believe, too, that if you by-pass all the traditional channels but follow your dream in any case, you'll be bound to come out as some kind of genius. That traditional studies are somehow bad and the inspiration of the moment is good, indeed is everything.

Britain's got canine talent
Pardon my French, but this is bollocks. Britain's Got Talent probably has a lot to answer for, but please note: it was won by a dog.

It bothers me, too, that this attitude is something that might somehow give governments carte blanche to cut funding for music education.

There are people, for sure, who can indeed make some headway on raw talent. But music does not happen by magic. Music happens, for the vast majority of people wishing to make it, by hard graft, long hours of solitary slog, gritty determination and personal sacrifice. Yes, you can teach yourself and many important lessons will be learned that way. But "self-taught" does not mean miracles. "Self-taught" means you did that work, but maybe you did more of it on your own than others might - and maybe you'd have done even better if you'd had good tuition from the get-go. By all means, praise a wonderful young pianist with a slightly unconventional approach. But please don't mistake it for a miracle.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

7/7 - the 10th anniversary

It is ten years since the London tube and bus bombings of 7/7. 52 people were murdered in the attacks, and hundreds were injured.

That day I was supposed to go to the Hampton Court Flower Show with a friend. We didn't make it. Instead, I was at home trying to get hold of Tom, who had gone to a rehearsal at the south bank, and various musician friends who were on their way to the Guildhall, the Royal College and probably the airport.

I remember the sense of unreality that accompanied the fright until their texts pinged back to me. And, much, much worse, the grim, appalling news by email later that told me that a young executive from Rhinegold Publishing (where I worked for eight years and which produces Classical Music Magazine, Opera Now, Music Teacher, and the piano magazine I used to edit) had been killed at Edgware Road on her way to work. Her name was Jenny Nicholson.

A group of friends led by the violinist Philippe Graffin had a concert the following night at the Wigmore Hall and I had to get on the tube to go home from it. And forced myself down that escalator knowing that if I didn't do it then, I would probably never do it again, and it's very difficult to live in London if you can't face getting on the tube, and that a bunch of criminal thugs were not going to scare me into missing that performance, no siree. At the start of the second half, Philippe thanked the audience for coming out to the concert. An audience member called right back: "Thank you for playing for us!" Here's the account from the time...

Some of the musicians came over for dinner the following week and we listened to Schubert. This seemed the ultimate consoling music. I think it remains so.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Honeymoon music-making, and a story about Brahms

Rattle (left), Zimerman (centre) and the LSO: a night to remember. Photo: Amy T. Zielinksi

The honeymoon is underway over at the Barbican: Sir Simon Rattle is here for his first concerts with the LSO since The Announcement a few months back. On Thursday night he kicked off this stint with his orchestra-to-be, offering a high-octane programme of Brahms and Dvorak.

The LSO, let's face it, needs him. We need him, too. He offers a taste of the genuine passion that should be at the heart of musical experience, yet all too often isn't as others let its precedence falter under the competing weight, variously, of intellect (necessary, but in balance), power (less necessary), greed (not at all) and ego-building pretension (aagh...). Rattle is, for music, pioneer, evangelist and born leader; and while raising such high expectations for his forthcoming tenure at the LSO is obviously dangerous, it's hard not to notice that everyone is hoping he'll be the best thing that's happened to us in a good while.

The fact that he was able to bring Krystian Zimerman with him to play the Brahms D minor Concerto says much about his persuasive nature, since this titan of a pianist is, sadly, now among several greats who no longer willingly subject themselves on a regular basis to the many and varied iniquities of London.

Rattle in action. Photo: Creative Commons
Rattle conducts like a man in love with music and with life; and the orchestra responded to him like a purring cat experiencing sunshine and tuna fish. One almost expected it to roll on its collective back and let him stroke its tummy. The sheer sensual gorgeousness of sound he draws from them is light years away from Gergiev's heavy-duty ferocity; no less visceral, but with different intent, different texture - speaking to the heart as much as to the gut.

A second half of Dvorak tone-poems and a joyous, high-stepping Slavonic dance as encore was a surprising but refreshing choice of repertoire - something else we need from the LSO and Rattle is a healthy injection of unusual pieces - and when delivered with such narrative charm and all-giving warmth (y'know, Mrs Rattle is Czech), it convinces, lingering in the mind. And Zimerman's Brahms found conductor and soloist in more than exceptional accord.

When I interviewed Zimerman for the first time back in c1990, I quizzed him about that special intensity that seems to drive his playing. He commented that he likes to play on the very edge of what's possible. Sometimes it seems he goes beyond it. This Brahms was one such occasion - and how excellent to hear, once more, that white-hot quality that so compelled in the young pianist, and that remains intact and alight in his late fifties.

Brahms's Piano Concerto No.1 is the creation of a very young composer; the first sketches date from 1854, when he was all of 21 and was considering writing a symphony, soon after Schumann's attempted suicide and incarceration in the Endenich mental hospital. Several permutations later, the drafts evolved into the D minor Concerto. Brahms once wrote to Clara Schumann that the Adagio was a "gentle portrait" of her - and the theme apparently sets the unheard words "Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domine", from the Requiem mass, in tribute to Schumann, who by then had died.

So far, so beautiful - but what about that last movement? Some approach it as an austere, Bachian-Beethovenian counterpoint exercise. Zimerman brought us a Hungarian dance. When have we ever heard it sound quite so alive and aflame?

It makes sense, too. Think about it. Variation 14 of the Brahms 'Handel Variations' is extremely similar to this movement's main theme in certain ways: a lively, staccato, syncopated number with strongly marked rhythms, trills flying around and a running semiquaver bassline; and it follows from the sultry variation 13, verbunkos style. The two variations make up a lassù and friss. You can almost feel Joseph Joachim, Brahms's close friend and Hungarian violinist par excellence, peering over his shoulder and picking up the tribute with a brusque nod of thanks. Perhaps it's not only youthfully exuberant; perhaps, complete with that pernickety fugue episode, it's a portrait of Joachim to complement the portrait of Clara? It would not have been the first such piece Brahms created, and it certainly wasn't the last.

Who does that leave for movement no.1? It's been said before that the opening plunges, with Schumann, into the Rhine. This music feels like a soul in existential crisis. As Zimerman and Rattle bounced ideas off each other, plumbing the extremities of the score, the anguish and struggle behind Brahms's conception shone out as vividly as if they'd poured descaler over its furred-up contours and brought it to life new-minted. Zimerman's moments of pianissimo playing at times seemed almost to shock the orchestra into matching him. The balance never faltered; Rattle's support let him fly up to the sun on wings that can take the heat.

Is this a sign of things we can look forward to when Rattle arrives in earnest? Bring it on.

Next summer Zimerman is scheduled to come back with him, too, this time for a spot of Beethoven.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Edward Gardner bows out

Photos both by Richard Hubert Smith

Yesterday Edward Gardner took his final bow as music director of English National Opera after the last night of The Queen of Spades.

The new incumbent, Mark Wigglesworth, steps up in the new season. We love Mark too, but we are going to miss Ed like the blazes. I have no doubt that the brightest of brilliant futures awaits this thrilling, charismatic and galvanisingly energetic musician. The good news is he's coming back to do Tristan & Isolde next year.

ENO sent out a range of pictures from the event. Below, John Berry, flanked by the orchestra, bids farewell to Ed. I hope the figures high above them are not representatives of Arts Council England.

Watch the Tchaikovsky Competition Prizewinners' Gala NOW

The Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and St Petersburg has concluded with a storm of controversy in some departments. OK, let's face it, that is perhaps par for the course in contests of this magnitude. Today is your chance to see and hear the winners. It's on NOW at

The Prizewinners' Gala is taking place today at 5pm GMT in the Mariinsky II concert hall, St Petersburg - and you can watch it live. Valery Gergiev will also be announcing the winner of the Grand Prize - the one overall winner from the five categories of piano, violin, cello and voices male and female.

Piano: Dmitry Masleev (Russia)
Cello: Andrei Ionut Ionita (Romania)
Voice (male): Ariunbaatar Ganhbaatar (Mongolia)
Voice (female): Yulia Matochkina (Russia)
Violin: No first prize awarded. Second prize: Yu-Chien Tseng (Taiwan)

The whole competition has been live-streamed on and the contestants' performances are all up there for you to see - and make up your own mind about these young musicians.!/xv-international-tchaikovsky-competition-on-medicitv-second-gala-concert