Thursday, October 08, 2015

The Brontës' piano comes to life

Linger - Ailís Ní Ríain @ The Bronte Parsonage Museum from Ailís Ní Ríain on Vimeo.

Tomorrow the Irish composer Aílís Ní Ríain launches a fascinating new project at the home of the Brontë family in Haworth, Yorkshire. She has written six new pieces specifically for the literary siblings' own piano - the sound that might have lived alongside the creation of Emily's Wuthering Heights, Charlotte's Jane Eyre and Anne's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Aílís and the Brontës' piano
The project, entitled Linger, has been recorded and its component pieces will be played in the various rooms of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, where they can be heard until 4 January. There'll also be a concept album based on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Aílís, who was born in Cork and whose composition teachers included Nicola LeFanu, Kevin Malone and Adam Gorb, has lived in northern England for 20 years and is currently based near Haworth. She says:
The pieces are composed to 'lock into each other' when heard at a distance. In essence, Linger is a large work for six intertwining, contrapuntal voices which are separated into six rooms in the Brontë home. Elements of each piece will 'drift' or 'leak' out of each room forming a sonorous space all of its own on and near the stairwell. Visitors are invited to dwell in quiet contemplation and thought; to linger.”
The piano itself has undergone a three-year restoration process and Aílís says it is "beautiful".

Tuesday, October 06, 2015


The Wimbledon International Music Festival, which runs 14 to 29 November, is kindly offering readers of JDCMB tickets at a special reduced price for two events in this year's fabulous programme. This, happily, is my local international music festival and it is quite something to be able to hear a collection of world-class artists just a short bus ride away. 

I've also been fortunate that the festival (in 2012) staged my play A Walk through the End of Time starring Dame Harriet Walter and Henry Goodman, then commissioned another play from me - Sins of the Fathers, which was a slightly off-the-wall take on Wagner, Liszt and Cosima. Last year Viv McLean and I gave a matinee of the Alicia's Gift concert. 

This year it's over to you for these two very special treats. JDCMB readers can get £10 off the two top prices for each of these events - so £28 tickets for £18, and £23 tickets for £13.

Roxanna Panufnik
Saturday 21 November 
Henry Goodman narrates a 150th Anniversary Celebration of 'Alice in Wonderland', written by Louis de Bernieres. Matthew Trusler (violin) and Ashley Wass (piano) perform 12 short pieces by 12 celebrated composers  representing the 12 chapters of the book. The composers are Sally Beamish, Roxanna Panufnik, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Stuart MacRae, Poul Ruders, Howard Blake, Carl Davis, Stephen Hough, Richard Dubugnon, Ilya Gringolts, Colin Matthews, Gwilym Simcock, Augusta Read Thomas.
Book via this link using the promotional code Jess10, which you enter at the 'basket' stage.

Mikhail Rudy
Thursday 26 November
Mikhail Rudy (piano) presents a recital incorporating two of his now-legendary multi-media projects: Petrushka, which was a commission from this festival a couple of years ago, and his latest one - here coming to the UK for the first time - The Sound of Colours, featuring animations of the Chagall paintings in the auditorium of the Paris Opéra Garnier. 
Mikhail Rudy was close to Marc Chagall in his last years. He gave his first concert in the West with Mstislav Rostropovich and Isaac Stern in the Beethoven Triple Concerto for Chagall’s 90th birthday, and subsequently met him on numerous occasions. Now, in collaboration with the Chagall family, who allowed him to use many unpublished sketches for the ceiling of the Opera Garnier, Rudy has created a new project on the music from Gluck, Mozart, Wagner, Debussy and Ravel.
Book via this link using the promotional code Jess10, which you enter at the 'basket' stage.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Scriabin and gone, but marvellous

Stunning encounter with Scriabin's Third Symphony at the RFH the other night made me realise I never posted on JDCMB the article I wrote about him during the Proms, all about the grandiose excesses and giant dreams of this very tiny Russian (honestly, you should see his evening suit, which is on display in his flat in Moscow...). Oliver Knussen, who was conducting the Poem of Ecstasy and arranged some piano pieces for orchestra which were played on Saturday evening, had some fascinating things to say, too. It was in the Independent on 1 August. Here goes.

Scriabin's Bechstein, in the composer's Moscow apartment

A tiny man with a vast imagination, Alexander Scriabin is possibly the most intriguing of the composers whose anniversaries are marked at this year’s Proms. He died aged only 43 exactly a hundred years ago and the Prom on 6 August features his Poem of Ecstasy, a work that represents the very pinnacle of his exotic, even erotic musical language.

The late Ken Russell once wrote a radio play entitled The Death of Alexander Scriabin, in which the composer encounters the occultist Aleister Crowley; the notion is fictional, yet has its appeal, for the spellbinding darkness of Scriabin at his best can resemble musical black magic. From an aristocratic and military family in Moscow, he started out composing piano music much influenced by Chopin, but later became preoccupied with mysticism and theosophy. He dreamed of creating as his magnum opus a multimedia work, Mysterium - “a grandiose religious synthesis of all arts which would herald the birth of a new world,” he wrote – for performance in the Himalayas, but did not live to complete it.

The British composer Oliver Knussen is conducting the Poem of Ecstasy at the Proms; he says he has been under Scriabin’s spell since boyhood. “The uniquely sensuous and hypnotic harmonic world, fabulous orchestral colours, and textures teeming with Fabergé-like detail have exerted a powerful attraction for me since my teens,” Knussen says. “It's especially seductive music to accompany the time when one's hormones are ragingly active – but the fascination has deepened over the years. 

The museum curator displays Scriabin's lightbox
“Scriabin’s mystical side was of enormous creative importance to him; his writings belong firmly in the world of Madame Blavatsky, et al; and the self-glorifying messianic ambitiousness certainly got out of control towards the end of his life,” he remarks. “But it is the quality and originality of the music itself that is most important. Scriabin made his own surprisingly rational way into a world of extreme chromaticism completely independently of Schoenberg. One wonders how this might have developed had he not died at 43.” 

Scriabin’s Moscow apartment is now a museum: the composer’s piano takes pride of place and is often played by visiting pianists making a pilgrimage; and his diminutive evening suit is on display - he was just over five feet tall. On his desk stands a wood-mounted circle of six different-coloured electric bulbs, which can light up in various combinations. 

This modest device aided and abetted Scriabin as he composed his Prometheus – The Poem of Fire, an attempt to bring his synaesthesia (the correlation of two senses, here sound and colour) directly into his music. Colour in relation to tone is written in to the score at one point; orchestras sometimes attempt to include it with the use of coloured light. Knussen does not quite approve: “It’s most often an embarrassment unless done with great care and taste,” he says. “Scriabin's music is too strange and subtle to be treated as some sort of proto-hippie/rave lightshow.” 

It is also too significant and influential for that. The Poem of Ecstasy was considered startlingly modern on its first hearing in 1908: “Prokofiev in his diary says that he went to a rehearsal together with Miaskovsky and that neither of them understood it at all,” Knussen recounts. “But Stravinsky certainly did; although he was rude about Scriabin in later life, neither The Firebird or Le Rossignol would sound as they do without Scriabin in the background. 

“I myself have been profoundly influenced by Scriabin’s harmony,” he adds,  “which to me is embarrassingly easy to hear in, for example, my Third Symphony, Where the Wild Things Are, and especially my piano music. As I said, once you're hooked, you're hooked.”

Friday, October 02, 2015

Maestro Lucidity

I record all my interviews on my iPhone and sometimes, as you know if you have one, these little contraptions decide they know how to spell people's names better than you do. While I was saving my interview with Fabio Luisi in Zurich a couple of weeks ago, some predictive text happened and what I ended up with was Fabio Lucidity.

In fact, it's not inappropriate. I had a wonderful long interview with him that traversed his background, training, attitude to opera directors, what it's like working with Christian Gerhaher and much more. But the paper wanted the bit about the perfumery he runs on the side, so that piece appears below and I will offer more of the interview at a later point.

Luisi is in London today with the Zürich Opera, performing Wozzeck in concert at the Royal Festival Hall. I saw it whole, with Andreas Homoki's production, in Switzerland, right after the interview, and it is absolutely amazing and if you're here, you should go. I found it amazing, incidentally, that any conductor would do an interview all of two hours before curtain up on a new production, first night of the season, an opera he's never done before. But that, dear readers, is Maestro Lucidity for you.

UPDATE, 8.42am: I've just heard that unfortunately Christian Gerhaher is not well and won't be singing tonight. His place will be taken by Leigh Melrose, who sang Wozzeck at ENO and was terrific. So, still go.

Fabio Luisi. Photo: Barbara Luisi Photography

You might think that being principal conductor of two world-class opera houses would be enough to keep anyone busy. Fabio Luisi (56) divides his musical time principally between the Zürich Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He is at the helm for the Swiss company’s forthcoming visit to London’s Royal Festival Hall, opening the Southbank Centre’s International Orchestras Series 15/16 with a concert performance of Berg’s opera Wozzeck, starring the German baritone Christian Gerhaher.

But this soft-spoken maestro from Genoa has a startling extra strand to his life: he has his own perfume business, FL Parfums.

“I was always interested in perfumes,” Luisi says, “and one day I thought: why don’t I try it for myself? About four or five years ago I started to read, to get informed, to try by myself to make mixtures. I had a teacher and continue to learn. It’s a continuous learning process; it never ends.”

He likes to use essential oils in his scents – indeed, has recently qualified as an aromatherapist. Some of the perfumes are inspired by music; two are named for elements of Debussy’s La mer – Jeux du Vagues and Jeux du Vent – and for another, Invincible, Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony was his chief “muse”.

Luisi’s personal balance of ingredients – whether in music, life or perfume – include focus, sensitivity and organisation in what one imagines are equal parts. Slight, wiry, not remotely flamboyant, he directs the energy where it needs to go: into the creative task in hand, whatever it may be. Most perfume hobbyists might never consider turning a passion into a business – but for Luisi, perhaps if something is worth doing, it is worth doing thoroughly? “Possibly,” he agrees, laughing. “I can’t stand it when people do not care about quality.

“To be a perfectionist is a challenge,” he admits. “I try to do it well. Why are we doing this?” Music, that is. “It’s not for the money! For the audience? Yes, for the audience – but also for the respect of what we are doing. I think how much energy, thought, passion and time Alban Berg put into Wozzeck; I feel forced to do it well for him, for the work itself, and to show the audience how great this opera is.

“Sometimes I can do it, sometimes not as good as I want,” he adds. “But my father always used to say, ‘You have to try not harder - harder is not enough - but hardest. Then if you don’t achieve that goal, even if you are a little bit behind it, the result will still be good. But if you don’t aim for the best, you will never achieve any goal.’ And this is right.”

His father was a conductor, as it happens – a train conductor. Every small boy’s dream? “Mine too,” Luisi smiles. “Sometimes he would take me on the train in the driver’s cab. I loved him and I loved his job.”

Zürich Opera, Southbank International Orchestras Series, Royal Festival Hall, London, 2 October. Box office: 0844 875 0073

Thursday, October 01, 2015

"I played a radiated piano" - Martha Argerich speaks in Hiroshima

An actual interview with the extremely press-shy Martha Argerich has appeared in a Japanese newspaper after the great pianist visited Hiroshima. 

In it she reveals that she played a piano that had been subject to radiation from the atomic bomb that destroyed the city in 1945, saying: "It was very much taken care of and had a lovely sound. I know the story of Akiko (Kawamoto, who played the piano). She was not obviously injured (by the atomic bomb) but the next day she died (of radiation) at 19."

She also declares that both the Holocaust and Hiroshima must be remembered as human tragedies, and speaks about her recent collaborations with Daniel Barenboim: "I have no musical disagreement with him, until now at least."

Read it all here.

Here are Argerich and Barenboim playing a Schubert duet by way of encore...