Thursday, November 05, 2015

Let's make an opera - for Garsington!

My opera-writing partner, Roxanna Panufnik. Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell
It's all official now, so I can tell you at last: Garsington Opera has commissioned a new opera from Roxanna Panufnik and I am writing the libretto. It's called Silver Birch. It's a "People's Opera". It is to be performed on Garsington's main stage as part of the 2017 festival and will be directed by Karen Gillingham and conducted by Douglas Boyd, Garsington's music director.

What's a "people's opera", you may ask? It's an opera for absolutely everyone, whether on the stage or in the audience. The cast is led by 5 principal professional opera singers. Then there are two child soloists, an adult chorus of local people, Garsington Youth Opera, a youth dance company, and a primary school-age chorus, an orchestra of 17 professionals and 20 young instrumentalists too. There'll be around 150 participants! And the story is designed to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, from 8 to 108.

We held devising workshops, led by the incredibly dynamic Karen, in which schoolchildren and members of the local population joined us to explore the theme of war and its impact on families, as well as the significance to them of World War 1. Both the character and poetry of Siegfried Sassoon will play an important role within the piece, connecting the ongoing World War 1 commemorations with modern-day warfare. 

The story is original, multifaceted and informed by some very personal research we've undertaken, involving interviews with members of Sassoon's family plus advisers from today's military and ex-military personnel, our principal consultant having served on the frontline in Iraq. 

It's been a whole new way of working for me and I've loved every moment of it. I hope you'll love the results too. As they say, watch this space.

More here...

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Women in music: positive action works

I've got a piece in the new edition of Classical Music Magazine, responding to one last month by Alexandra Coghlan.

Here's Alexandra's piece, in which she asserts that women in music are being spotlighted for all the wrong reasons.

Here's mine, pointing out the inconvenient truth that sometimes affirmative action works...

In the late 1980s, my generation emerged from college believing we could have it all. We imagined the battle for ‘Women’s Lib’ had been won and we would be its beneficiaries. We thought that if we tried to put in place conditions for discrimination and prejudice to disappear, they would, by some kind of natural, progressive evolution. Ever since, we’ve been finding out how wrong we were.
That applies throughout society, of course, and classical music is no exception. With Suffragette receiving top billing in the cinemas as I write, it’s clear that there is a preoccupation with these issues in the world around us right now – and with good reason...
Read the whole thing here. (I'm happy to say that even if Alexandra and I may disagree, we're good friends and colleagues and we applaud each other's right to speak up.)
Meanwhile, if you were in any doubt that positive action can effect change, just take a look at the Lucerne Festival. Yes, mighty Lucerne; Lucerne the wealthy and beautiful; historical Lucerne, founded to counter Bayreuth and Salzburg beyond the Third Reich's reach; Lucerne where Wagner wrote Tristan, has announced that in 2016 its theme is "Prima Donna": a focus on women artists. And it is going to feature ELEVEN (11) conductors who are female, at the helm of top orchestras from around the world. 
Emmanuelle Haim, who will conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in Lucerne.
Photo: Simon Fowler, (c) Warner Classics

Marin Alsop will make her Lucerne debut with the São Paolo Symphony Orchestra. Barbara Hannigan is to conduct the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Susanna Mälkki will conduct the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra in the world premiere of a new work by Olga Neuwirth, who is composer in residence. A "day of adventure" [sic] brings in the conductors Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla, Anu Tali, Maria Schneider, and Konstantia Gourzi. And Emmanuelle Haim, the French baroque suprema, is to take the podium for the Vienna Philharmonic, which as we all know isn't exactly renowned for the number of women it admits to its ranks. (Well, renowned for exactly that. Because there are so few.) 
And in case you were in any doubt, there are plenty of men around as well. Riccardo Chailly, recently appointed music director of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, will conduct opening night, which is Mahler's Symphony No.8.
The risk of the "prima donna" focus, of course, can be summarised as "been there, done that, bought the t shirt". It's a super celebration, but what one wants is consistency: equality of opportunity that becomes normal and ultimately unremarkable because it is so accepted. The fact that Lucerne is doing this means that all the activism, the articles, the general "noise" about women in music is having an impact in the places it matters. The long-term effect, though, needs to be different. Lucerne is offering a chance for the movers and shakers of the music world to sample the excellence of great artists who happen to be female. We'd like them then to win enduring opportunities as a result. Things can't just go back to business as usual. 
Bravo, Lucerne, for biting the bullet and sounding the trumpet. And I look forward very much to seeing how Emmanuelle gets along with the Viennas. 

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Taking it to the Maxim...

Vengerov 2
...or taking the Maxim to the Editor's Lunch, in this case. My interview with the very vibrant Vengerov is out now at The Amati Magazine. We went to The Gilbert Scott brasserie at St Pancras and enjoyed quite a lavish Sunday roast. Read the whole thing here.

Vengerov took a break of several years from the violin, following an injury to his shoulder; but during his time out he turned himself into a conductor, studying in Moscow with Yuri Simonov. On his return to the Wigmore platform in April 2012, he performed a programme of Bach, Handel and Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata. 
His playing emerged as fiery, burnished and characterful as ever – yet subtly different, too.‘I think it has changed only for the better,’ Vengerov says. ‘I was refreshed and I could use the knowledge of my new job as a conductor. I implemented a lot of things I learned from conducting to the violin business. I even rebuilt my technique based on this knowledge. 
‘I think my rhythm became better, in some ways – because as a conductor you have to have great rhythm,’ he adds. ‘As a soloist you sometimes don’t realise: you just go along with the flow and everyone has to follow you! But I think now my phrasing and colouring are sharper, more precise, more differentiated. Before that it was more instinctive. Today it’s more conscious, and yet I use the freedom that I had before.’ ....

Monday, November 02, 2015

A new castle for Lars Vogt

Guilty passion no.1 for a Londoner: loving a place up north. I have a sneaky, enduring and increasing fondness for Newcastle-upon-Tyne and its nearby Northumbrian coast. I first went there as a student and was transfixed by the silver sands, the ruined castles on the horizon, the sea-bound causeway to Holy Island, Lindisfarne; and the city itself is a treat, full of soaring Victoriana and great-arching, east-coast skies. Moreover, it reminds me a little of Budapest, with Newcastle on one side of the Tyne and Gateshead on the other. Add to that possibly the best-designed arts centre in the entire country in the form of The Sage.

The Sage (left) at sunset over the Tyne, seen from the Millennium Bridge. Photo: JD

So the chance the other day to zip up the east coast mainline to visit the Royal Northern Sinfonia and its newly incumbent music director, Lars Vogt, came as a welcome treat. Taking over from Thomas Zehetmair is no small order for this superb musician - and in choosing him the RNS seems to have been seeking an artist of similar type to Zehetmair, a fine soloist who is becoming adept on the podium as well and enjoys, sometimes, doing both at once.

Coincidentally, Vogt just reached a whole new audience when some problems with falling music in a recent concert went viral a couple of weeks ago, making his page-turner abruptly world famous...

Vogt, who's in his forties and hails from Rhineland Germany (though his current base is Berlin), first shot to prominence in a rather different way, winning second prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition back in the early 1990s; he and Simon Rattle, who was conducting the concertos, seem to have 'clicked' at once and Rattle invited him to make recordings soon afterwards. He is a peerless chamber music pianist, his closest collaborator being no less a violinist than Christian Tetzlaff; and his latest solo recording, of the Bach Goldberg Variations, has been a runaway success, refulgent with tenderness. His sheer affection for the music and its many facets shines out - and is shown to marvellous effect in the works of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

Therefore, on Friday I found myself listening to the best Mozart D minor Piano Concerto performance I've encountered in a long while. It is far from a favourite work of mine, especially as it is programmed so often that many [possibly still better] Mozart piano concertos are left in its shadow
(K453? K482? K491? Come on, people, there are 27 of these beauts...). Vogt first of all treated it as chamber music; secondly, he kept the second movement flowing and poised - it can be a disaster if it's allowed to sag, since it is so repetitive - and when Mozart flings D minor out of the window in the finale and reverts to humorous high-jinks, rather than shying away from the teasing triad figure in the coda and underplaying it, Vogt milked it deliciously. Humour and humanity are part and parcel of vintage Mozart, and this was a real joy.

Lars Vogt. Photo: Neda Navaee
Vogt is still refining his technique as conductor - he's certainly not conventional in podium aspect - but the crucial question is whether or not he is able to infuse the performance with the authentic spirit of the composer as well as he can on the piano. Early in his career, he developed a strong reputation for his playing of Haydn piano sonatas, so would this be carried through into the symphonies? Haydn's Symphony No.103, the 'Drumroll', left no doubt that it is.

Citing among his influences Gardiner and Norrington, yet leaving aside three-line whips on vibrato, Vogt focuses on long lines and vocal, eloquently articulated phrasing; a fine feel for tempo, balance and humour add much heart and soul to the effect and his terrific double-act with leader Bradley Creswick in the violin solo variation in the second movement drew a laugh from the audience - something we should indeed be allowed in Haydn. The two big works were ushered in respectively by Beethoven's Overture 'The Creatures of Prometheus' and Webern's Langsamer Satz - a tender glance forward to a later Vienna.

The RNS has introduced a new idea this season: after sitting as usual for the first half of the concert, most of the orchestra (with the obvious exceptions of cellos and basses) dispensed with their chairs for the second half. This, I sense, has its pros and cons; on the one hand there's more freedom of movement for each player, which some feel is reflected in the sound; but on the other, with considerable differences in height between desk partners, it can't be easy to get the music stands at the right level for everyone, and it probably doesn't do people's backs much good. It will be interesting to see whether they stick with it and whether the freeing-up effect is great enough to justify the necessary compromises. My personal impression was that they sounded so good in any case that the lily was perhaps being gilded. But a "suck it and see" attitude  to new ideas is more than slightly healthy.

You can read my full interview with Lars when it comes out in the new year - more of that anon.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Barenboim calls to the world to help Syrian refugees

Daniel Barenboim, speaking to reporters ahead of conducting a concert by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at the United Nations in Geneva last night, called on the world to do more to help refugees from the Syrian civil war. 
"Europe alone can't deal with (the) Syrian refugees...the rest of the world has to participate," he said. "The Arab world should also take Syrian refugees."
Millions have been displaced in Syria since the conflict began about four years ago. Two million have gone to Turkey, more than one million to Lebanon and 630,000 to Jordan, according to UN figures, while more than 700,000 have come to Europe.

Barenboim's own family came to Argentina as refugees from Russian pogroms against the Jewish community in the late 19th century. In Argentina today, he said, there are three Syrian communities, respectively Muslim, Christian and Jewish: "All of them would be happy to give a land to the refugees," he said.

Maestro Barenboim, who holds both Israeli and Palestinian passports, also spoke about the current intensification of violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories. "In Jerusalem the problem is really complex," he said. "The moment has come for the UN to put pressure on to solve the conflict."

At yesterday's Concert for the Understanding of Civilisation and Human Rights, given at the invitation of the UN Director General and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Barenboim and the WEDO performed the last three Mozart symphonies for an audience which included the UN Ban Ki-Moon. The WEDO website says that broadcast details for the performance will soon be announced.

Barenboim was designated a United Nation Messenger for Peace in 2007.