Friday, February 05, 2016

How I didn't quite meet Helen Mirren, and other stories

This is one busy week.

If you missed me and Marin Alsop on BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour yesterday, you can listen to it online, here We're the very first item on the programme, talking about the bizarre story of the Schumann Violin Concerto, its suppression and its recovery, and Marin's view of the music, and my novel. But with much regret, we didn't meet Helen Mirren in the Green Room!

Meanwhile, we all enjoyed the excellent discussion evening, Music into Words, on Tuesday at Senate House. It proved extremely stimulating and seems to have got everyone's grey matter into a tingle. Simon Brackennorough talked about his site, Corymbus, and why he created it; Mary Nguyen revealed that she attended 64 operas last year, blogging and reviewing for online outlets; I took a fond look back to the days of galley proofs and cowgum, marvelled over the opportunities the internet has brought our way and speculated on the likelihood that writing about music really is like dancing about architecture. Imogen Tilden of The Guardian told us about some of the harsh realities of traditional print journalism.

Audience questions were plentiful and fascinating and prompted revelations from the fact, cited by Simon, that medieval historians are a lot better at social media than the traditional classical world (with the possible exceptions of Stephen Hough, Steven Isserlis and Peter Donohoe); and when asked who we are writing for - who our "internal reader" really is - a temporarily psychoanalytical reaction revealed to me that mine is actually my mum (even though she died 22 years ago next week).

Frances Wilson of The Cross-Eyed Pianist, who chaired the discussion, had everything filmed, so here is my chunk, and you can find Simon's here and more from Mary here.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

How Marin is changing the world

A few weeks ago I went to listen to Marin Alsop giving masterclasses for young women conductors and had a terrific interview with her. She is not one to pull her punches on "the women conductors thing". The piece is in the Independent today, ahead of her concerts with the OAE in Basingstoke on Thursday and the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday - the one with the Schumann Violin Concerto.

I'm delighted to say that she and I will be on BBC Radio 4 'Woman's Hour' tomorrow to talk about the story of the Schumann Violin Concerto. Plus I'm now joining the panel for the pre-concert talk at the RFH on Saturday (5.45pm) where we'll be discussing music, mental illness, Schumann, the Concerto and more.

Here's a taster of the article and you can read the rest here.

Marin Alsop's selfie at the Last Night of the Proms
Some conductors who are female are outraged if one raises “the women conductors thing”. Why are we still talking about this? Isn't it time to forget it and just get on with making music? Alsop, though, faces the issue head on – and she is perfectly happy to bring it out into the open. 

“People ask why a course like this is necessary, and I think it's a disingenuous question,” she says. “It's only necessary because of the reality. It's not something I'm making up. I'm just reacting to the landscape.” There is no point, she suggests, trying to deny that there are too few women conductors, or that they face problems different from those experienced by their male colleagues – both in terms of that glass ceiling protecting prestigious posts and in how the details of their artistry are perceived.

“Because I have quite a thick skin, I don't mind being the one out front, trying to elbow my way in,” she adds. “But I think, as that person out front, it's important for me to create a pathway for people coming through. I don't want it to be so hard for the next generations.”

Monday, February 01, 2016

Eight and a half days...

I have a busy week ahead! Please come and join in if you can make it to any of these. One, of course, only involves your kitchen radio.

Fran Wilson of The Cross-Eyed Pianist has organised a wonderful evening at Senate House, Bloomsbury, in which five speakers - academic Mark Berry (Boulezian), blogger and editor Simon Brackenbury (Corymbus), journalist Mary Nguyen, Imogen Tilden of The Guardian, and I - will be speaking about the agonies and ecstasies and everything in between of writing about music, and doing our best to answer audience questions. Is it really like dancing about architecture? The event is now sold out, but you can still take part by tweeting your questions with the hashtag #musicintowords. More info at the Facebook page here.

I'm honoured to be joining Marin Alsop in the Woman's Hour studio to talk about Schumann, the Violin Concerto and Jelly d'Arányi. The confluence of GHOST VARIATIONS and the OAE's performance of the concerto on Saturday night seems a perfect excuse and I'm really pleased this is happening. Listen online here.

It's the Schumann Violin Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall! I'm looking forward to attending this with a group of GHOST VARIATIONS supporters. (You can also hear this programme in Basingstoke on Thursday 4 February.)

Viv McLean and I are giving the first of our three February ALICIA'S GIFT performances - 3pm at St Mary's Perivale, my favourite "sacred space" place. The 12th-century church, tucked away behind the A40, is worth a visit in itself, but it's a fabulous venue to enjoy music at intimate quarters, so if you're a west Londoner or you just fancy coming to check it out, please join us. The programme also includes some gorgeous songs from soprano Sarah Gabriel with Viv at the piano. The story of the child prodigy pianist Alicia and her impact upon her family forms the second half of the concert. Admission free, with a collection at the end.

Viv and I are taking ALICIA'S GIFT to Hampton Court House - an extraordinary historical venue across the road from Hampton Court Palace. It's a magnificent mansion that these days is home to an interesting international school whose headmaster, Guy Holloway, has been in the news recently advocating a later start to the school day for teenagers. After the performance we're having a panel discussion about child prodigies, in which Guy will take part along with myself and Hugh Mather, artistic director of St Mary's Perivale, who I'm sure has encountered prodigies aplenty. 7pm arrival for 7.30pm, tickets available on the door.

Speaking of prodigies...I'm mildly disconcerted to discover that the latest on the scene, little Alma Deutscher, has a father who shares a name with that of my Alicia. Besides sharing her own initial. This is pure and mere, if weird, coincidence. She was born in 2005, the year I started writing ALICIA'S GIFT. Alma has been playing her own violin concerto with some big orchestras and has been signed up by Askonas Holt aged 10. Here's what happened when David Lister at the Independent met her last week. 

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Chabrier's Star in the ascendant

Lost already? You're in a sort of French Monty Python with very good music, coming up fast at Covent Garden. Chabrier's L'Étoile opens Monday. Had lovely chats with director Mariame Clément and conductor Sir Mark Elder for a short and sweet feature in today's Independent.

Here's one of the most beautiful bits of the music, the 'Romance de l'étoile':

The king, the pedlar, his lover, the astrologer, Chris Addison and a glass of green chartreuse… Lost already? Welcome to the absurd fantasy world of Emmanuel Chabrier’s L’étoile (The Star), which opens at the Royal Opera House on 1 February.

It’s rare for the Royal Opera to venture into French 19th-century operetta – but they’ve picked a good one. Chabrier (1841-1894) has long languished in the shadows of his contemporaries, among them Saint-Saëns, Massenet and Fauré – and it is excellent to see him back in the limelight. He was well known in his day for his charm, wit and technical brilliance both at the composer’s desk and at the piano. He was friendly with Degas and Manet and collected impressionist art; he was conducted by Richard Strauss, referenced by Stravinsky, admired by Ravel; and his bright-hued orchestral work España even impressed Mahler. His music’s perfectionism, refinement and lightness of touch (L’étoile even includes a Tickling Trio) mark him out as a creator of the highest calibre. Yet like many musicians blessed with a rare gift for writing good comedy, he longed to compose serious opera and later produced a Wagnerian-style drama entitled Gwendoline.

Posterity seems to prefer L’étoile. As its conductor at Covent Garden, Sir Mark Elder says, “The operatic repertoire is so full of wonderfully powerful, tragic melodramas that it’s lovely, especially in winter, to have a fantastical, bizarre, mad comedy instead. The music is so full of colour, contrast and wit that for a first-time listener it’s irresistible.”

Though neglected throughout the 20th century, L’étoile has begun to shine once more in the 21st. In recent years it has been popping up in opera houses around Europe, with airings in Geneva, Berlin, Frankfurt and Amsterdam, among others; a few weeks ago its overture featured in the Berlin Philharmonic’s Saint Sylvester concert conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

But one reason that perhaps we don’t hear enough French operetta generally is that stylistically it’s so difficult to pull off. “It has to have sensuality, but it also has to have verve and attack,” says Elder. “It mustn’t be heavy, yet it must have great brilliance.”

According to the production’s director, Mariame Clément – who is making her Royal Opera debut with it – we can expect “French operetta meets Monty Python”. For her the big challenge is to bridge the gap between Chabrier’s world and that of 21st-century opera-goers – and that is why Chris Addison, star of The Thick of It and Mock the Week among much else, is treading the boards alongside the singers. “The story is very French,” says Clément, “full of misunderstandings, affairs and disguises, a very convoluted plot - but what it has in common with British humour is the nonsense of it! Monty Python is a frequent reference in our staging.”

“With surtitles, speed and style it’s possible to be very entertaining,” Elder confirms. “And I can promise you that we’ve got some surprises for everyone.”

L’étoile, Royal Opera House, London, from 1 February. Box office: 020 7304 4000

Friday, January 29, 2016

Did you know the UK's creative industries are worth £10m per hour?

I've been to a marvellous party (as Noel Coward would say) - held by EdmissionUK, the international higher education and cultural consultants, for the company's tenth birthday. The idea for the evening, according to its head honcho Lewis Owens (who is also the author of Like a Chemist from Canada, the play about Shostakovich in Oxford, performed last summer at the Royal Academy of Music), was to put a large group of creative people - musicians, writers, technology people, historians, academics, record producers, you name it -  in a room together with some drinks and give them a chance to be creative together.

We had speeches from, among other people, the inimitable James Rhodes, who pointed out in terms I simply cannot reproduce online that the visionary plan for music in education that was produced at official levels around five years ago could not have collapsed more spectacularly if it had tried. The idea, he reminded us, was that every schoolchild in the country should have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument, and to take their learning to higher levels if they wished. Gone. Today, the "40 per cent" of children learning an instrument that the government likes to remark on might actually consist of three children in a class of 30 learning the ukelele for 20 minutes a week in a group. Schools in impoverished areas of the system can't afford the facilities to buy, store or insure instruments. James mentioned that he had offered to give £25k of his own to a school he visited to help set up some music facilities, but was told that any money donated would go straight into numeracy or literacy instead.

That budget for the suggested new London concert hall - he cited £400m, though the consultation said £278m, but I'm not sure anyone quite believes the lower figure - would amount to five years of musical education for the entire country. Our own generations, he said, grew up taking music in school for granted, but this has been systematically eradicated with nothing counting in school assessments now except literacy and numeracy, even though learning music can aid both and can be beneficial in all manner of other ways, as has been proven and proven again. He worries not about where the performers for that new hall will come from in 20-30 years' time, he remarked, but where the audiences will come from. A whole generation is growing up without a clue about what music really is. This despite the fact that the creative industries are apparently growing at around twice the speed of any other sphere of contributions to the UK's economy and are worth about £10m per hour.

It's down to all of us to do something about this, since the chances of the government doing so are looking remote. What can we do? To begin with, keep on keeping on. Keep playing, composing, recording, writing, getting our stuff out there and making as much noise as we can about it.

At the same time, the Barbican, the Southbank Centre and the Wigmore Hall have all announced their 2016-17 seasons this week, and they are humdingers filled with wonderful, inspired ideas and many of the greatest musicians in the world. And the number of alternative venues has never been greater - fizzing initiatives like Nonclassical, Club Inégales and Multistory are alive and flourishing in the clubs of Hoxton. I wonder if we have any idea how lucky we really are here in London? The question is: how do we bridge the ever-widening gap in the middle, between the marvels that are brought to this still-fabulous city and the vast swathes of people who don't even know that it exists?

Incidentally, I asked James if he'd like to post the text of his speech here on JDCMB, but he said he hadn't written it down. I do think that if more musicians could learn to present speeches as strongly and eloquently as he does, that would be of considerable value.

In one of those strange counterpoints, I've found words from a very different pianist, from a bygone age, proving that our concerns are nothing new, and that over the decades, probably the centuries, those in music have been tussling with these same issues and finding little more effective than allowing people the chance to actually hear the music.

Here are a few words from Dame Myra Hess, from her speech at the lunch following the presentation of her honorary degree at Cambridge in 1949, looking back at her extraordinary series of lunchtime concerts in the National Gallery that took place during World War II. (If you ever get a chance to see Admission: One Shilling, written by Myra's great-nephew Nigel Hess and performed by Patricia Routledge and Piers Lane, please do - it's fabulous...)

She told the story of a young sailor she met after the war, who told her that he had stumbled upon the concerts by chance and found it "a damned good show".

"He then told me that by the end of the war six of them, Petty-Officers, whenever they had a day's leave, would never miss an opportunity of coming to the concerts. This is only one instance of what must have happened thousands of times. The opportunity then existed for people to discover that something had been missing from their lives; nobody told them that a Beethoven or a Mozart Quartet was high-brow, or beyond their understanding; they just sat back, listened, and a new world opened to them."

She went on to explain exactly why it was vital to "enlarge the scope of public music-making", thus: "In times as unsettled as our own, music can have a profound influence for good. It is unfettered by the barrier of words, and needs no translation; and therefore it is one of the great forces that can bring people together in mind and spirit." She then wondered how this could be achieved and said that she hoped "the forces of habit and prejudice in the musical world" would give way in due course to "a more enlightened view of our present needs".

That was 1949 - nearly 77 years ago. We're still wondering now. I will give that beloved angel of a pianist the last word.