Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Music for our days

A spot of musical escapism after a very dark night.

Tonight I'm chairing a panel discussion with five American composers who happen to be women, before the concert in Lontano's Festival of American Music at the Warehouse, Waterloo. The composers are Hannah Lash, Julia Howell, Elena Ruehr, Barbara Jazwinski and Laura Kaminsky, so it should be a fascinating chat. But it's going to be an even more interesting evening than I'd anticipated. We'd hoped to be celebrating the accession of the US's first-ever female president,

Tonight, too, the LPO pertinently plays Dvorák's "New World" Symphony at the RFH. Robin Ticciati conducts. (But listen out for the dark side of that piece. It's there.) In the first half, Anne-Sophie Mutter is playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto - on her Strad, which used to belong to Jelly d'Arányi and was probably the instrument on which the latter gave the UK premiere of the Schumann Violin Concerto.

Tomorrow at the Barbican, the LSO is playing the Schumann itself, with Renaud Capuçon the soloist. An insane piece for an insane world? Or Schumann's last stand before the crash, unfairly suppressed for 80 years until its bizarre rediscovery? It's not for nothing that that story became Ghost Variations, though I didn't anticipate that its 1930s setting would ring quite as many bells as it does. I'm looking forward to hearing Renaud play it.

At some point I'll try and produce some cogent thinking about the scuppering of the new London concert hall, but today is not the day.

Actually I am lost for words and I don't want to depress anyone further, but I have no verbal slivers of hope, inspiration or humour to offer, so here's some Schumann instead.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Farewell, Zoltan Kocsis

Zoltan Kocsis. Photo: Zsolt Szigetvary/MTI via AP,
Tragic news came yesterday that the Hungarian pianist and conductor Zoltan Kocsis has died at the age of 64. He was chief conductor of the Hungarian National Philharmonic and had also been active as a composer. In tribute, his fellow conductor Iván Fischer said: "Kocsis was a giant of music...his influence on his generation is immeasurable."

Many regrets that I never managed to meet him, and heard him play infrequently - he was not a regular visitor to the UK, and the loss was ours. I first heard him, in fact, while on holiday in Switzerland when I was 14, which must have been 1980. He gave a recital in the cinema, Pontresina, and nobody around had actually heard of him before, but he played his own transcription of the Prelude & Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde and the roof nearly flew off. I remember we were all left speechless.

Kocsis had heart surgery in 2012 and more recently had cancelled a number of concerts on medical advice.

Agence France Press says:

Kocsis had served as musical director of the National Philharmonic Orchestra since 1997 and became a household name among music fans from the United States to Japan as he took the ensemble on tour.
He underwent heart surgery in 2012, and last month cancelled upcoming concerts on the advice of doctors, according to the orchestra.
Born in Budapest in 1952, Kocsis began playing the piano around the age of three.
He first played abroad after winning the prestigious Hungarian Radio Beethoven Competition at the age of 18 in 1970, and made his first concert tour of the United States a year later.
He also performed extensively with the Berlin Philharmonic, and played with leading orchestras including the Royal Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.
In 1978, aged 25, he was awarded the Kossuth prize, Hungary’s highest state honour for artists, an award he won again in 2005.
Often taking the conductor’s baton with the BFO, Kocsis also began composing from 1987.
His pieces, along with his transcriptions of works of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok and the recordings he made from them, also won him wide acclaim. 
“His death is an irreplaceable loss for Hungarian culture,” said a statement from Hungary’s ministry of human resources.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Steve Reich at 80: a Cambridge chat

Delighted today to bring you a Q&A with Steve Reich, an interview conducted by Justin Lee, the director of the Cambridge Music Festival and generously offered to JDCMB, for which many thanks. Next week the legendary (though very real) American composer is on the UK leg of his 80th birthday tour, which takes him to just three events - the Barbican, the Royal Opera House and, on 8 November, the Cambridge Music Festival. Justin asked him about his influences, Clapping Music, Bob Dylan and the American election...

Justin Lee: My 14-year-old daughter came home on Friday and explained what she had been doing at school that day – a version of ‘Clapping Music’ – and she was so excited to hear that you’re coming to Cambridge next week. Did you know that you’re on the music curriculum in British schools, and that 'Electric Counterpoint' is on the GCSE music syllabus – our public exams at 16?

Steve Reich: First of all, I’m delighted to hear what you’re telling me because if younger people don’t like my music, my goose is cooked. They’re the next generation; they’re the future. So tell your daughter I’m delighted and I hope she’ll enjoy ‘Clapping Music’ live and that she’ll forgive me because I am 80 years old and don’t have the energy and verve that I did 30 years ago. And I’m delighted to hear that 'Electric Counterpoint' – which is certainly one of the best pieces I’ve written – is incorporated onto the syllabus for study in the UK. That’s wonderful.

JL: Can you tell me a bit about your musical background and influences? How do you account for your appeal to people who love Bach AND people who love Bowie?

SR: I started with piano, then, at the age of fourteen, I heard Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for the first time, which of course changed my life and made me a writer and composer. Just a few weeks later, I heard Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, then I started listening to jazz, and began studying percussion and going to Birdland, to hear Miles Davis and Bud Powell. Later on, I got interested in Ghanaian drumming, then Balinese music, then John Coltrane while I was studying with Luciano Berio. I was also very attracted to Perotin and the whole Notre Dame School of the twelfth century.

If you put all that together, it’s a very wide spread of things. So there are people who are attracted to the early music, people who are attracted to jazz and pop music, people who are attracted to all of the twentieth century, and some of all these people will naturally be attracted to what I do.

Steve Reich. Photo: Wonge Bergmann
JL: When you’re composing are you thinking about whom you’re writing for, about your audience? For example, did you write ‘Electric Counterpoint’ with a festival audience like Glastonbury in mind and ‘Music for 18 musicians’ thinking of a huge concert hall?

SR: I am completely and 100% a writer – I am completely 100% selfish and I don’t think of anyone in the world but myself. I write what I believe I really must write at the time I am doing it, and it has been my good fortune, and it has been a blessing that other people have – not everyone of course – shown some appreciation of my work.

JL: What advice would you give to young composers and musicians today?
SR: The advice I have for composers is simply this: get involved yourself. If you are a performer, play your instruments with your friends, play your own music with them when you start out, when you’re young. Start out while you’re young. If you are a conductor, then conduct them, if you programme a drum machine, then programme a drum. So, get involved, do it with your friends, and if you do a recording of a piece of music you wrote, be proud of it, no apologies, and people will get to know what you really have in mind.

JL: You’re a musician, and Bob Dylan’s a musician. Do you think it’s right that he has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature?
SR: He’s a very good songwriter. I admired early Bob Dylan, particularly ‘Bringing it all back home’, but with 'Subterranean Homesick Blues', I couldn’t even understand the words! The interesting thing about Bob Dylan is that the magnetic attraction of his music, for me in the early days, was based entirely on the songs themselves – on the music and his tone of voice.

JL: In 1970, you wrote an essay entitled ‘The future of music’, and practically everything you predicted has come to pass. What’s the future of music today?
SR: I’m no longer young and sometimes foolish, so I’ll quit while I’m ahead. But, I can tell you this, in the English-speaking world, there’s a huge group of wonderful young composers, so many good ones – like Nico Muhly and Bryce Dressner here, and Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead, who performed Electric Counterpoint at Glastonbury in 2014) in your country.

JL: November 8, the night you perform at the Cambridge Music Festival, is a big night for Americans. What has been your reaction to the presidential campaign?
SR: I’m a human being, so of course I get involved, just like everybody else, but I really don’t think composers’ views on politics are worth any more than yours or mine or the postman’s, but it certainly isn’t the greatest choice of candidates that we’ve ever had, that’s for sure.

BUY TICKETS TO STEVE REICH FROM or Cambridge Live: 01223 357851 (Mon-Sat, 10.00am – 6.00pm)
The Cambridge Music Festival runs from 8-24 November 2016 at venues across the city.

Steve Reich at 80 events

Tuesday 8 November      Cambridge Corn Exchange   7.30 pm
Programme: ‘The Mallet Quartet’, ‘Music for 18 Musicians’. The concert opens with ‘Clapping’ performed by Steve Reich and Colin Currie.

5-6 November 2016   The Barbican
The Barbican celebrates Steve Reich and his music with a weekend of concerts on 5-6 November.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Final call! Plus November update

Dave & me taking a sort of bow
Final Ghost Variations Concert klaxon of the year: tomorrow, 3 November, at the Barnes Music Society, my ace and beloved duo colleagues - the dastardly David Le Page (violin) and the vivacious Viv McLean (piano) - and I are proud to be presenting our show for its final performance of 2016. It's the last one for a little while, so if you want to hear it I recommend showing up at the Old Sorting Office, Station Road, Barnes, London SW13 tomorrow evening for a 7.30pm start.

The programme includes music by Bartók, Brahms, Ravel, Mendelssohn, Hubay, FS Kelly and Schumann, all of it chosen for its relevance to the story and most of it intimately connected with Jelly d'Arányi.

All details at the Barnes Music Society website. See you there!

And meanwhile...

HUNGARIAN DANCES is back! This autumn has marked the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and we are commemorating this with two performances in the north of England, one at the Helmsley Arts Centre in North Yorkshire on 12 November and the other at The Sage, Gateshead, on 22 November. The magical Bradley Creswick is the violinist, with the equally magical Margaret Fingerhut at the piano, and the story of Mimi Rácz's journey across the 20th century - from Roma child to celebrated soloist to exiled great-grandmother - is brought to life in music including Dohnányi, Dinicu, Debussy and much more. The venues are special delights, as Helmsley was host to my play back in July with the Ryedale Festival, and The Sage was where the whole phenomenon of the novel-concerts really took off: they commissioned the Hungarian Dances project for the Fiddles on Fire Festival back in 2009, so really this is going home.

On a totally different tack, next week, on 9 November, I'm delighted to be chairing a pre-concert women composers' panel discussion at the London Festival of American Music, under the auspices of Odaline de la Martinez.

Busy month ahead, which is fine.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Horses for courses? A guest post about Listenpony and why the EP is for them

Horses for courses? No, it's Listenpony! A group of young composers and their friends who are taking the reins: putting on concerts, commissioning new works and shuffling the genres to the manner born. They've just started a record label, so I asked them to tell us about it. Listenpony is run by three composers: Freya Waley-Cohen, Josephine Stephenson and William Marsey. Here's Josephine's guest blog on why they do what they do, how and why they've jumped into the record label water and what's in their next concert, coming up next week. JD

Listenpony: our new record label: a guest post by Josephine Stephenson

We, Listenpony, launched a new record label last month with the release of an EP of live performances by the violin duo Mainly Two. This recording was made at our last event in March and includes a movement from Prokofiev’s Sonata for two violins, a selection of Bela Bartók’s violin duets, and most importantly, the premieres of two pieces by young British composers, Dani Howard and Lawrence Dunn, which we commissioned. It is the first of a series of digital EPs designed to offer an alternative experience of our concerts, each focusing on a single performer or ensemble, to be enjoyed post hoc on the move or from the comfort of one’s own home, anywhere in the world!

The cover of “Live at Listenpony: Mainly Two”
(© Daniel Strange)

The mix of music on the record is typical of our programming. Ever since we started putting on concerts in London over four years ago, we have always aimed to showcase the wide variety of music we enjoy alongside that which we make - a bit like if someone was pressing ‘shuffle’ in one of our music libraries. For the most part, this is classical music that goes from the Renaissance to today, with a particular focus on the new music that we commission from contemporary young composers or write ourselves. But we also invite artists from other musical traditions to perform acoustic sets, and this has ranged from pop to folk via jazz and rap. We never choose music according to its style but only simply because we like it and think it’s good, and we hope that in there there is something for everyone. We often get all the performers to play something together at the end, and this always feels very special!

Tir Eolas, Abstruckt and the Vickers-Bovey guitar duo, performing at Listenpony in May 2015
(© Ben McKee)

The artists we collaborate with, performers and composers alike, tend to be young, unsigned artists of our generation whom we admire. It’s always fantastic working with them, and it’s also great that we can help make them known through the gigs and now the label too, just as they help us by making our music exist. Our recordings - which are done live by a brilliant young company called Sonus Audio - are distributed by The Orchard, thanks to whom they are available worldwide through Apple Music, Spotify and other services. As for the artwork, the covers are all unique lino prints which are handmade by the artist Daniel Strange, usually inspired by photographs of the actual event and subsequently digitalised. Dan made our brand new chicken logo too!

Here's Mainly Two performing a new piece by Dani Howard, which is on our first digital EP:

Setting up as a record label is something which we wouldn’t have imagined just 18 months ago. We didn’t even really know that it was something we could do - and yet we had all these recordings which we had been making ever since the beginning for the composers and performers’ benefit, to a higher and higher quality. It wasn’t until someone from the record industry attended one of our events last Autumn and told us that we had something they hadn’t quite seen before, and should consider putting out our live recordings, that we realised the potential of making them available to the public. This was a way for us to reach a wider audience, outside the limits of London and beyond the evening of the concert. We had everything we needed already, apart from artwork and a deal with a distributing company. We met up with a few different advisers and before we knew were a record label signed to one of the biggest distribution companies around.

Our next two EPs, to be released in the coming months, will feature the vocal consort Eo Nomine and the Vickers-Bovey guitar duo, with music ranging from the 16th century to today. Our next event is taking place on the 15th of November at Crypt on the Green, with the viola da gamba player Liam Byrne, the Laefer Saxophone quartet and the singer-songwriter Mara Carlyle. It should be another brilliant night - come along!

Josephine Stephenson