Sunday, June 11, 2017

Please support A Year for JDCMB

I've been thinking about this for a while, so here goes.

I have launched a campaign on GOFUNDME to seek some financial support for JDCMB, because I reckon the only way I can do that without selling my soul is to ask you, my readers. Here is my page and below is the text you'll find there.

There's a link at the top of the sidebar on the right if you fancy donating at any point later, but it would of course be nice if you did it right away...


When I first started JDCMB back in 2004 I could never have envisaged that I’d still be writing it in 2017. It was a complete accident. What were these strange new things called “blogs” anyway? I set up my site to find out. Thirteen years on, JDCMB is attracting more readers than ever and, in the perhaps surprisingly polarised, occasionally vicious and hysterical world of classical music commentary, is often termed by its devotees “the voice of reason”. 

I would love to take JDCMB to the next level and I suspect that you, my readers, would appreciate that: there’d be more regular posts, more exclusive content, more interviews and reviews, perhaps a spot more multimedia. At the moment it’s ad hoc – and I know it could be improved tenfold if I just had enough time to put into it. And time, “in this day and age”, is £. 

Who benefits? You do! Thanks to you, I could write much more of the “content” that you enjoy reading.

Over the years JDCMB and I have weathered a few slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and come through still fighting for the values I, and you, believe in.

JDCMB wants to represent:

• A voice of reason

• Encouragement of the finest and most idealistic in music-making

• Writing about music, ballet, books and related topics in an informal, entertaining yet informative way

• Spreading the message of the unique power of music

• Rejecting trollishness

With your support, I could do a lot more than I can at the moment.

There’d be interviews... and travel reports

…and even occasional moments of glory...

And the only way to seek financial support for JDCMB without actually selling my soul is to ask my readers for their backing. I know there are quite a lot of you out there and [coughs] you’ve been enjoying free content for many years. Please will you consider stepping up and supporting the site?

Here’s my plan. I’m seeking a total of £5,200 in order to fund writing JDCMB to the tune of £100 a week for one year. In that time I intend to build up the readership still further, post at least twice as often as I currently do, and make the site not just a diversion, but an essential read for those who feel they are “my” audience. If this goes according to plan and has the desired result, we can then think about where to go next. 

The sooner we get started, the better, so please make your pledge now!

To say that I would be grateful to you forever and a day is not saying enough. I shall post a list of JDCMB Patrons at the end of 2017 and again at the end of this first year of funding to thank you officially and publicly. And if all this goes well, I’m hoping to build up a supporters network for which we can develop special offers, get-togethers, concerts and more. 

Meanwhile, if JDCMB speaks to you, that makes me very happy. 

Thank you a thousand times.


Thursday, June 08, 2017

An election on Schumann's birthday

It's Schumann's birthday. Here is Steven Isserlis, one of today's greatest Schumannians, in his Cello Concerto. The composer finished its proofreading six days before he threw himself into the Rhine.

There's a bitter irony that this Brexit-focused general election is on Schumann's birthday. It's hard to know what to do when it is so clear that our country, like Schumann, is on the point of cracking up, in many, many ways. Unless some kind of miracle takes place, it may not recover in our lifetimes.

Please go and vote today. Think of Mrs Pankhurst etc. Voting with brains intact is all we can actually do to try to better our own future.

Incidentally, I stumbled over a fascinating documentary that Steven made about Schumann back in the 1990s. Here's part 1. There's more.

The clinching image of Ghost Variations is the tipping from glory days to terminal struggle (Jelly d'Arányi), sanity to madness (Schumann), freedom to fascism and war (the world) - converging into the same cliff-edge moment. Yet the tipping point is not so easy to find: things happen so slowly, and we are so eager to think the best - the "don't worry, it'll be fine" mindset - that we don't realise what's really going on until it's too late... Schumann's Violin Concerto was the last orchestral work he completed before his suicide attempt and confinement in a mental hospital. It's a story for today and has become so tenfold since I began working on it six years ago.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Silver Birch: We are all connected

"One chance to do something brave..."

It's all happening. On Saturday I went along to High Wycombe to see a rehearsal of Silver Birch for the first time. The Garsington Youth Company and some of the Adult Community Chorus were in extremely fine fettle and working their socks off, together with the Garsington music staff, the repetiteur, our director Karen Gillingham, the designer Rhiannon Newman Brown, the Foley team from Shepperton Studios, our producer Kate Laughton and many more. I came back reeling a bit.

I'm a novice librettist. OK, I've put together other words to be sung or acted, but this is the first time I've been involved in a complete, fully staged, top-notch, bells-and-whistles creation of a whole brand-new opera. And of course if you've been going to operas for more than 40 years and writing about them and reviewing them for half of that, you think you know what it takes. you don't.

Here's a little of what it's really taking to make this opera, after it's been written. This is leaving aside the devising process, the research, the writing, the composing - more of that another time.

Suzy and Patrick working with the youth company
The singers have to learn their roles. That may sound obvious, but it includes, for Silver Birch, a lot of young people and amateurs, and they have been rehearsing every week since the new year. They've all been auditioned. They had to prepare for those auditions and some who prepared for the auditions would have been rejected and would have been disappointed, and people had to audition them and make those decisions and tell them who was in and who wasn't.

The soloists - whom I haven't yet seen in action - have to get to grips with brand-new roles while also being busy with whatever else they're singing at the moment - for instance, our leading lady, Victoria Simmonds, is currently singing Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni at Opera Holland Park. Our conductor, Garsington's music director Dougie Boyd, has his hands full conducting The Marriage of Figaro. And don't get me started on what language orchestral musicians use while practising, at home, a new work they've never seen or heard before.

The director, Karen, has to map out the drama and then rehearse it all. The choreographer, Natasha, is in charge of a small group of brilliant youngsters who suddenly launch into breakdancing in the middle of the drill scene. Rhiannon has to find a way to make the silver birch tree grow, among much else. During the course of the rehearsal, the adult community chorus members are summoned one by one for costume fittings - someone has to make those costumes.

The adult community chorus members are devoting lashings of time and effort to taking part. One of them happens to be Siegfried Sassoon's great-nephew (he was a great help to me in the background research for the opera) and for much of the time he is standing pretty much next to where Bradley Travis will be portraying Sassoon, or at least his ghostly presence.

The music staff are working flat out. Suzy Zumpe leads the music side of the rehearsal, teaching the youth company how to memorise the tricky details of Roxanna's score. "Nothing can grow in this soil" is a line that returns several times, the last note held a different number of beats on each occasion - she finds a trick to help them remember how many and when. And she sings all the female soloist roles herself when they need filling in, with her sidekick Patrick singing all the male ones and the repetiteur, James, bowling along through the piano score.

The stage manager and assistant stage managers are zipping around moving the post that represents the silver birch, adjusting markings, constructing and deconstructing things, and someone has already erected the substantial skeleton two-level set in this school hall. Cups of tea materialise, kindly brewed by one of the assistants. Someone has brought food for the staff's lunch, plus sustaining snacks. One person remarks that during the course of this week they've eaten their body weight in dried fruit.

Everyone has to get there and back. Rhiannon has been stuck on the M25 for hours. The team of three Foley artists (aka our sound-effects gurus) have come up from Shepperton, been to Wormsley to have a look around the theatre and now have come to High Wycombe to see how they will be integrated into the battle scene. And at this point Patrick absolutely excels himself as stand-in sound effects, doing fighter jets, machine guns, mortars and more with vocals alone.

The full score is spread out on a table, a giant publication that has had to be created, proof-read and printed. So has the piano score - the chorus members clutch copies printed with the magic name PANUFNIK in big letters on the front. Someone at Edition Peters had to organise all of that. Every rest, every semiquaver, every word has to be in the right place.

Natasha, who runs a small dance company that specialises in traditional folk dance as well as youth work, can see everyone is knackered and leads a cool-down session at the end of the afternoon. Now the kids' parents are presumably going to have to come and pick them up - indeed, a couple of proud mums have been watching the proceedings for a while. Meanwhile Kate has to organise absolutely every practical detail of absolutely everything, yet seems utterly unflappable and even finds time to drop me back to High Wycombe station.

Final scene. That post in the middle is the silver birch, growing tall and strong.

I do have to take notice and learn some lessons. It's too late to change anything in my text, but I've now twigged that it's really, seriously not a good idea for singers to have a word ending in "t" directly followed by one beginning with "d" and that a few unintended consequences can include the command: "Let's go from 'Driblet'". The kids are unfazed by this, but I quietly sink through the floor.

Over at Garsington, it will be all go, too. People have to work the booking mechanisms, send out the tickets, tell people about the trains, set out the picnic tents, stock the bar, direct the parking. The audience has to find its way to Wormsley. Will they come out at the end singing the Silver Birch Song? I think so - I can't get it out of my head.

We are all connected. All these people, hundreds and hundreds of them, are connected by the one purpose of making this new opera reality. Everyone is connected. Everyone could potentially have their life changed in some way by this thing. To say "we're all in it together" is not enough. This is not a "community opera": it's a community. To stage any opera would mean creating a community, even if the opera has existed for 400 years. This one happens to be new. And it happens to be ours.

I'm not sure I'll ever be quite the same again.

Silver Birch by Roxanna Panufnik is on at Garsington Opera on 28, 29 and 30 July. Get your tickets here.

Friday, June 02, 2017

Happy birthday to Sir Mark Elder!

Sir Mark Elder. Photo: (c) Chris Christodoulou

Sir Mark Elder, music director of the Hallé Orchestra, is 70 today.

Last night he conducted the Manchester 'We Stand Together' Concert, a massed-orchestra event that was pulled together at the Bridgewater Hall in less than a week to fundraise for the families of victims and the injured of the Manchester Arena terrorist attack. The Hallé, the Manchester Camerata and the BBC Philharmonic joined forces and among their soloists were mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, vocalist Clare Teal and Elbow front-man Guy Garvey. Tickets were free and the Manchester Evening News reports: "Elder and his orchestra looked visibly moved by the rapturous applause and cheers to the variety of musical works on the programme".

Time and again, Elder has taken a stand, taken a lead and been given the kudos his stirring, sterling music-making deserves. There's always room for more, too. Let's raise a glass to him today.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Good for Goode

Richard Goode. Photo: Steve Riskind
Richard Goode cast Beethoven and Chopin in a long shaft of light from Bach's most audacious and complex keyboard Partita, No.6 in E minor. I reviewed his recital in the Southbank's International Piano Series last night for The Arts Desk. Read it here. 

With Goode, a recital is all about the music (that might sound like stating the obvious, but one can’t guarantee it with every pianist these days). The veteran American has an unassuming stage presence, taking to the piano as if sitting down to demonstrate a musical point to friends in his own living room. There is nothing flamboyant in his manner, nor in his musical concepts: simply the sense that he has lived with this music for decades and is pleased to play it for us. He uses a well-thumbed score and a page-turner; no Lisztian feats of memory, and no iPad. The magic is in the tone itself...

PS: Goode turns 74 today. Happy birthday to a much-loved maestro of the piano.