Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Adieu, Maestro

Pierre Boulez has died at the age of 90. A visionary who owned a muse of fire. Farewell, Maestro, and thank you for waking us up and changing our lives.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

The piano prodigy determined to beat Hitler

I had a lovely interview the other week with the American pianist Mona Golabek, whose mother started out as a child prodigy pianist in Vienna. Once Hitler had annexed Auatria, though, she was fortunate to escape, one of the several thousand Jewish children permitted to come to Britain on the Kindertransport - but leaving their families behind. Mona wrote a book about her mother and now performs an inspirational one-woman show telling the story through words and music. She's bringing it to the St James Theatre, London, later this month.

My piece is in The Independent today:

Monday, January 04, 2016

Greatest Living Biography: now in song

The pianist and composer Ben Dawson has written a song about all those xxest of the xx artist biographies. You know the ones.

Ben says: "Being a musician for a living means you have to write, and then keep re-writing your professional biography to put in concert programmes, on websites, for publicity etc. It's unbearably tedious and painful having to stretch the truth about oneself in the third person without sounding like a d*ckhead. That doesn't, however, stop numerous musicians from calling themselves 'the greatest/most admired x of his/her/their generation'. They can't all be the greatest living whatever, can they? Someone, somewhere is lying... 
Every lyric (almost) is from a real biography I have seen in print over the past year or so."

Here's Rachel Weston singing it, with Ben at the piano. Enjoy.

And on that merry note I am off to do some intensive writing for a week or two. Back soon...

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Spirit of the Goldbergs

I'm not quite sure how this came about, but last week Angela Hewitt came round and played the Bach Goldberg Variations on my beloved Bechstein to us and a few friends in the living room.

Sounds simple, doesn't it? One of World's Great Bach Players pitches up and gives you a private concert, and afterwards you cook risotto primavera. What's certain is that this setting, an ordinary room where the listeners are at close quarters with the performer, is far and away the best way to listen to music on an intimate scale. Even so, this was a house-concert with a difference.

You might remember a piece I wrote about St Mary's Perivale, the 12th-century church in west London, a year or so ago. It was about "sacred space" syndrome: an atmosphere that a special place bestows on a performance. I wouldn't normally count our living room as a sacred space, though, so last week's magic had nothing to do with that. No, this was about Bach, and about Angela's particular mastery of the Goldbergs.

Back in the days of Wanda Landowska, Myra Hess and Rosalyn Tureck, great female soloists were sometimes termed 'high priestesses' of their art. It's worth pausing to think about what that really meant. It implies a pure, holy-ish approach to the music: at the keyboard these phenomenal performers would be perceived as handmaidens, if you'll excuse the slightly ghastly term, to the sacred spirit of Bach, Beethoven et al. Today this is an unfashionable idea.

Angela Hewitt. Photo: C M Yamanoue
Still, something extraordinary happened during the 80-or-so minutes in which Angela held us all under Bach's spell. It's not easy to articulate this. Around variation 9, one could sense a subtle change in the air. By 13 the stillness was absolute; and by the time the final toccata-style variation before the Quodlibet emerged as if on full organ, the illusion - if illusion it was - that we were experiencing some kind of spiritual visitation that was blessing us could not have been stronger if we could see its presence in the room. At the end I think we were all in tears.

You can attribute this "state of grace" (I write as an atheist, by the way) to many things. You can put it down to Angela's supreme control of technique, pace, concentration and drama - without which nothing would have happened. You can suggest a "sacred fire" descends while certain artists play certain works and that it's beyond anybody's control; either it happens or it doesn't (a view I've heard espoused about the playing of the violinist Jelly d'Arányi - of whom I'll be writing a lot more soon). You can attribute it to Bach himself, to the incomparable construction and inspiration of the music - though this requires the interpreter to bring it to life. Add to that the listener's state of heightened awareness, arrived at through intense focus and concentration, akin to the nature of a deep meditation. You can put it down to a combination of all these factors, while additionally admitting that on a further level it is close to miraculous.

I mentioned the sense of "divine visitation" to Angela afterwards. She nodded and said that, yes, this can sometimes happen with the Goldberg Variations...

The ultimate issue is that only music can do this, and only the very greatest music, performed by someone who is entirely at one with it, artistically and technically, and only when it is played live and shared, perhaps congregation-like, with others. That's why we have and need live musical performance at the ultimate level, and that's why all those much-discussed peripheral issues (what to wear, when to clap, bringing in drinks, etc) will remain peripheral, because they're not relevant (we wore everyday clothes, we had no desire to make any kind of noise until the very end and we had some wine, but rarely touched it while she played).

This kind of experience is rare, but it's possible. It brings another dimension into life that might otherwise be missing. If that is a sacred fire, and its summoner a high priestess, so be it. It's the essence of what musical experience is all about.

Friday, January 01, 2016


New Year's Eve in London. Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

Good morning, everyone, and happy 2016!

A warm welcome back to JDCMB if you're a regular reader and a big Aloha if you are new to the site.

The blogging sphere has become quite strange since I started JDCMB by mistake back in March 2004, so here's a little about my mission statement, such as it is.

I'm not "a blogger"; I'm a writer who has a blog. I trained initially as a musician and I write mainly, though not exclusively, about music. I've been in music journalism for 27 years. I held a number of editorial posts on music magazines and since 2004 have been freelancing for The Independent. I've written biographies, novels and plays. Right now I'm working on an opera libretto and my fifth novel.

JDCMB is relatively random and spontaneous. I hope the linking thread is a certain set of musical values, headed by quality and equality. I employ a rather British sense of sarcasm and irony (so do watch out for that if you're not used to it). I try to keep a sense of perspective - life's taught me not to sweat the small stuff - and I don't like the hysteria, witch-hunting and irrationality that's invaded discourse on many topics, including music.

I live in London, UK, and I use English English, not American English.

You can follow JDCMB by signing up for email alerts in the box at the top of the sidebar. Every post is then sent direct to your in-box. (This is an automated system, so I won't actually have your email address.)

JDCMB is free to read and unpaid to write. If you enjoy it, you're invited to support the site in several ways. You could come to my concerts and talks, buy the books, and support my next novel - on a very musical topic - which will be up for crowd-funding with Unbound later this month.

I receive many requests for coverage here, but I can't do everything. If you would like your event, recording or product to be visible on JDCMB, you might like to consider taking an advertisement, or alternatively a Solticat Memorial Sponsorship paragraph, at a highly competitive rate, which contributes to cat food for Solti's successors, Ricki and Cosi.

JDCMB does not invite reader comments, but we have some lively discussions around the posts that are shared on Facebook.

What you won't find on JDCMB: ad hominem attacks, porn, conspiracy theories, twisted thinking and malice.

What you will find: good humour, solid artistic values and plenty of passion. I believe that everybody deserves truly great music and arts in their lives.

Last but not least, Pierre Boulez once said to me: "When things are cannot just stay in front of it without doing anything." He's right. So sometimes I try to do something. Very occasionally, it works.

Happy reading, happy listening and, above all, happy music-making!