Thursday, December 28, 2017

*clears throat*

Two less than Christmassy pieces of news in music journalism have arrived within a matter of weeks. One is that the Ham & High - more than just a local paper for Hampstead & Highgate - is dropping classical music coverage. The other is that the Birmingham Post would be too, except that its critic of 48 years, the highly respected Christopher Morley, has agreed to keep writing for it without payment.

I don't need to tell you that this is sad. You know that. You also know, because it's plain logic, that if a newspaper pays some of its writers, then it should pay them all. A national newspaper well known to me stopped paying its critics too for a bit (someday I'll fill you in on that over a drink) and although we hear it has since rethought, it probably won't be the last.

If publicity is oxygen, classical music is allowed less and less of it - for reasons best known to higher-up editors whose eyes are most likely trained on clickbait and advertising revenue. This is boring for readers, bad for musicians and hopeless for an art that has been largely wiped from mainstream exposure and discussion - except when a conductor is misconducting himself or everyone is counting the women in the Vienna Philharmonic New Year's Concert.

Evidently diversification is needed. In the absence of paying sites, a good few unpaid ones have sprung up - most of them founded for idealistic reasons, namely to keep providing that oxygen for the arts and the high-quality reading ("content" schmontent) that music-lovers want and need. Does that mean that a newspaper with wealthy owners, read by many thousands, is justified in not paying its writers? Of course it doesn't. The two things are not even comparable.

But I fear it might be used as an excuse. I hate to say it, since obviously I write this blog, but possibly those of us who provide free reading matter are part of the problem. This isn't a comfortable thought.

Most of us started blogging because we're writers, and writers like to write and find audiences, and blogging is the easiest way there has ever been to do that. Some of us started the moment this medium was invented and quickly got "high" on its possibilities. Now I suspect that with the reducing of professional outlets, audiences are following us to our own sites (when I last checked the stats for JDCMB, they'd more than trebled since summer 2016). 

In some ways this makes the field "democratic". The audience becomes the editor. If you don't like a blog, for whatever reason, then you don't read it. If you don't like below-the-line comments, you don't read those either, and music blogs are equally prone to that brand of hideousness (which is why I got rid of the comment facility from JDCMB - we still have non-anonymous discussions, on Facebook). But people still have to make a living, so eventually the most active blogs will end up being written by those who have independent means or pensions, or who are lucky enough not to need more than four hours sleep a night. 

Many of us, JDCMB included, have therefore started a "support this blog" facility on crowdfunding sites such as GoFundMe, Patreon and elsewhere. If you like a blog, then please don't just read it: support it. Perhaps the central blogging host sites will eventually provide a way to put up a paywall. Until then, crowdfunding will have to do. 

And meanwhile, newspapers that pay some of their writers should pay all their writers, and pay them properly.

Enjoy JDCMB? Please support it at GoFundMe

Sunday, December 24, 2017


Dear readers,

Wishing you all joy and peace for Christmas 2017

Lots of love from JD & the crew

Saturday, December 23, 2017

#hammerklavier is out!

Ludwig van Beethoven: the dragon wakes
If you've been following my Twitter or Facebook posts this autumn you'll know that for a while my life was taken over by Beethoven. BBC Music Magazine asked me to do a 'Building a Library' feature about the 'Hammerklavier' Sonata and I discovered there were more than 50 to hear, recorded over a period of some 70 years, and these including only recordings that are currently in print and available in the catalogue. Before long it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to be listening to one of the greatest piano works ever written seven times a day.

It's been an extraordinarily instructive experience and if you've never tried doing anything like this, whether professionally or just for fun, I recommend it (it's also a lot easier to do it now if you subscribe to a well-stocked streaming service). I've done plenty in the past, but this was different. This was Beethoven's biggest and most ambitious sonata and everyone will read something different into it, none of it insignificant. The question is, how do those performing and recording it view it and what do they do to bring it to us?

Two major problems were crystallising by the end of Day 2. First of all, have you ever heard someone say of the 'Hammerklavier' "I admire it, of course, but I don't love it...". I've heard this so many times that I've come to the conclusion it's just something that people think they're meant to say about the piece. What's not to love? Love it? I adore it!

What's not to love, possibly, is that it is so bloody difficult to play. There's that first movement metronome mark, minim=138. Can you imagine how many excuses people come up with to justify not even attempting it? Blimey, guv - let's trust and revere Beethoven, but not if it doesn't suit us... Have a think about the background harmonic rhythm in the first movement, then wonder why it soon seems draggy if it doesn't go at at least a good lickety-split. Czerny said that it simply takes "assiduous practice". But even harder is to sustain the tension in the long adagio, and then have enough energy left to whirl your way up the mountain of the nearest thing Beethoven wrote to a grosse Fuge for piano.

The second problem is that all too often I felt we weren't listening to Beethoven. We were listening to our attitude to Beethoven. Playing that is reverential, or that wraps every note in cotton wool because it's sacrosanct, or that just plays faithfully what's on the page without presuming to add one jot of personality. Playing that is terribly, terribly nice. The 'Hammerklavier' is many things, but nice it ain't. I can forgive anyone for being intimidated by it, but not for bowing and scraping to it as they play. By the end of Day 4 I wanted nothing more or less than a recording that would make me feel I was listening to Beethoven himself at the piano, the dragon awaking.

I found one.

BBC Music Magazine asks for the format of a) background to the work, b) one overall winner, c) three runners-up, d) one to avoid. I expected it to be much more difficult to chose the top recording, but it was startlingly easy. The runners-up were much harder, as the number of recordings that are really excellent, by pianists alive or dead, is enormous. The list of "ones to avoid" could also, sadly, have been huge, so I decided to pick a recording by someone who is safely dead and can't be upset.

Really, though, I do have to do a bit of bowing and scraping too: I absolutely take off my hat to anybody who can play the 'Hammerklavier' at all, let alone plumb its depths and bring it to life.

So who's the winner? You'll have to buy the January issue of BBC Music Magazine to read the full article, but I can give you a few hammerklaviclues:

-- He is American and very much alive
-- He is not playing a modern piano
-- His dad would have been extremely proud.

You can get the magazine here. Enjoy.

It's Christmas! Please feel free to support JDCMB with a donation here...

Friday, December 22, 2017

Conductor's misconduct: now Dutoit is accused

Charles Dutoit conducting the NHK Orchestra in Japan, 2001.
Yesterday afternoon I switched on my computer camera to record some thoughts about the unmasking of sexual predators in the classical music world. I began by reflecting that allegations are extremely difficult to prove unless you were under the bed or hiding in the cupboard at the time; and if people don't speak up about their experiences on the record, unmasking can only be hearsay - this, apparently, was why an otherwise hard-hitting news piece on BBC TV the other day focused on the pop world, but did not include any classical musicians. But I never posted the video because just then the news broke that four women have come forward alleging misconduct by another conductor, this time the veteran maestro Charles Dutoit.

This particularly matters here in London, because Dutoit is principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

According to the Telegraph, the RPO has responded thus:
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra confirmed it would be speaking to Dutoit whenever possible but said it had received no complaints or claims of inappropriate behaviour relating to his work with the Orchestra.
It said: “Based on the information available to us, these allegations were issued without reaction from Mr Dutoit and, to the best of our knowledge, the claimants have initiated no formal legal proceedings.
“Nonetheless, we take this matter very seriously and we will be monitoring the situation closely.” It added: "As a leading international ensemble, the RPO is committed to the highest standards of ethical behaviour, which it expects from everyone that works with the Orchestra.  The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra takes very seriously its responsibility to maintain a safe working environment." 

The orchestra has since released another statement including the information that "Following media allegations...the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) and Dutoit have jointly agreed to release him from his forthcoming concert obligations with the orchestra in the immediate future". It adds: "...the RPO believes that the truth of the matter should be determined by the legal process. The immediate action taken by the RPO and Charles Dutoit allows time for a clear picture to be established. Charles Dutoit needs to be given a fair opportunity to seek legal advice and contest these accusations."

But meanwhile, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra has dropped him outright, several American orchestras with which Dutoit is associated have said he will not be making his scheduled appearances in the months ahead and now more musicians have added allegations of their own.

This obviously puts the RPO in a very difficult position. And the trouble is that the RPO is used to being in awkward positions; it seems deeply unfortunate that it should now have to deal with this as well.

I love the RPO very much. It was the first orchestra I ever heard as a child, the one largely responsible for turning me on to music in the first place - I well remember my first visit to the RFH, aged 7, to hear the RPO under Rudolf Kempe. I've followed its fortunes with interest and though one might often been saddened at the way it's been sidelined in terms of public subsidy, I've also been thoroughly impressed by how it has handled the challenges of our changing times.

Over the years this orchestra, founded by Sir Thomas Beecham, has turned its financial disadvantage into a special niche, reliant upon on its own flexibility, creativity and entrepreneurship. It has numerous residencies in parts of the country to which the other big orchestras rarely go, and its community and education department, RPO Resound, is truly inspiring. Witness, for instance, its Strokestra programme in which the musicians work with patients recovering from strokes.

The orchestra balances all this with extensive commercial activities, playing for video games, 'classical extravaganza' concerts and so forth. Even so, there's often some sense of struggle, not least because the local authorities' arts funding on which the RPO residencies depend have been slashed too in recent years. Through all of this they maintain playing inherently as fine as any of the better-funded organisations. The end results are naturally affected by who's on the podium, how much rehearsal time there is and how knackered the players are, but all the London orchestras are equally full of fabulous musicians.

One can appreciate that the last thing the RPO would want now is a scandal, the upheaval of possibly losing its principal conductor, and the associated issues that would then surround scheduling, costs, PR and more. They have a long-standing relationship with Dutoit and he has brought much to them in terms of artistry, not least Martha Argerich (the RPO birthday concert last year with Argerich and Zukerman was just wonderful). And these accusations don't involve the RPO itself at all. But no British orchestra can afford to have its brand tainted for long and for the sake of the audience, which in the RPO's case is especially wide and diverse, it's important that they do the right thing. They have the trust of a big public. They need to keep that trust.

And that's why the whole unmasking matters in general: because of the audience.

On my non-posted video I wanted to say that music belongs to all of us equally. Music makes no distinctions: it can bypass every division to go straight to the heart. Its force is primarily emotional and that's why it's so vital, so cathartic, so profoundly communicative. The better it is performed, the better this works, and that's why we need the best performers to be out there playing it. Music-lovers deserve the best and in order for the best musicians to come through, their abilities need to be judged solely on their merits. This is precisely why we have to fight racism, sexism, sexual manipulation, greed and inequality of opportunity: in order to reach a real meritocracy, one that rests on nothing but musical results that are not skewed by prejudice, predators or power-hunger. We'll end up with better music-making.

What once went no longer goes. The Canadian music journalist Natasha Gauthier wrote about Dutoit making a move on her 22 years ago and it seems that nobody batted an eyelid. But Kate Maltby - the journalist whose testimony has just brought down the deputy prime minister - put it well in a TV interview yesterday in which she declared that she spoke up about Damian Green because she wants to change the culture in which sexual misconduct has been tolerated. We shouldn't have to put up with it. She's right. 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017


Greetings, dear friends! Welcome to the good old cyberposhplace. First, please open your bags for a security check...[BLEEP] thanks...and please give your name to my assistant over at the table, who'll put your details into the system and issue you with a pass, and...

Just kidding. This is cyberspace and it's cyberxmas at JDCMB. Come on in, have a virtualcocktail and let's party!

Those of you who've hung around the blog for a while will know by now that every year on the winter solstice, 21 December, we have a virtualbash to say thank you to everyone who has been part of our lives in music over the past twelvemonth. A selection of award-winners, chosen simply by me with the aid of my furry friends Ricki and Cosi, receive a special shout-out and a purr. This year the party will soon be swinging to big-band music, including some from Bernstein's musicals - we're looking forward to this particular centenary with unusual enthusiasm - and under the rainbow glitterball you'll spot great musicians dancing the night away (yes, in cyberspace all those classical musicians who say they can't dance might let their hair down for once).

The Ginger Stripe Awards, conceived under the reign of the late and much-missed Solti (who was of course ginger), has been transformed into the Chocolate Silver Awards since our two beautiful silver and chocolate-silver Somali cats Ricki and Cosi padded in three years ago. There've been ups and downs, naturally, since the inaugural awards in 2005. One year we were in exile in Denmark. Last year my mother-in-law had just died and we sat in the lounge with cocoa. This year, though, I think we all deserve a treat.

Brexit-schmexit notwithstanding, 2017 has been, incredibly, my best year ever. Not one, not two, but three of the creative projects I've loved the most have come to fruition; all of them have been beyond my wildest dreams in one way or another. Silver Birch in particular was a highlight not just of 2017 but of - if it doesn't sound too pretentious - my life...

Quiet, please! We're ready. First, let's have a huge round of applause for each and every musician who has touched the hearts of his/her audience this year. You're wonderful. You help make life worth living. We love you. Thank you, thank you, thank you for all your inspirational artistry.

Now, would the following winners please approach the dais where Ricki and Cosi - who have been amply plied with fish to discourage them from charging off round the room chasing each other's tails - are ensconced on their silken cushions. They will let you stroke their wonderful fur (they specially like behind-the-ears and under-the-chin rubs) and will give you a special prize purr.


Photo: Sheila Rock/Warner Classics
Mostly Icons of the Year are dead. This one is alive, kicking and rattling. Please welcome Sir Simon, who's arrived in London at long last and is simply lighting things up.

He walks on stage and the sun comes out and everyone smiles. He programmes an entire evening of difficult British contemporary music, everyone plays like a dream and the hall is (almost) full. He does Bernstein's Wonderful Town and gets the whole LSO second violin section doing the conga and finishes with much of the audience dancing in the aisles. The brass section raises the roof. The violins go nuts on the G string. I've not had as much fun in a concert hall in half a century. The fresh air comes whooshing into the Barbican (no mean feat amid the concrete) and the bleary-eyed ghost of under-rehearsed Russian monoliths past is forever exorcised. And if anyone can get a fine new hall built, even if we'd really prefer it in a different location, it's him. A big hug, Sir Simon, and please stick around for years and years and years.


Dariescu (real) + animation (digital projection) = magic.
Photo: (c) Mark Allen
Alexandra Dariescu has made her mark this year in numerous ways. This charismatic Romanian pianist has stood out for not only playing the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2, but following it in the same concert by playing the solo for Brief Encounter on the big screen with live music; for not only playing Dinu Lipatti's exquisite and terribly demanding Concertino, but playing the Grieg Concerto in the same concert. And for not only playing the most hair-raising transcriptions of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker (Grainger, Pletnev, many more), but performing them with a ballerina in live interaction with digital animation, aiming to attract new audiences and inspire children to think big and follow their dreams. Indeed her The Nutcracker and I reinvents the whole performance experience. She has imagination and vision, but also the drive and determination to turn those visions into reality and the musicianship and pianism to make that reality convincing. I was thrilled when she asked me to write the Nutcracker-Pianist story for her accompanying CD, on which the daredevil TV presenter Lindsey Russell reads the script, but frankly after that premiere, plus that amazing Lipatti the other week, she'd have got the prize anyway.


Kaufmann as Otello.
Photo: (c) ROH, Catherine Ashmore
I'll own up: Otello is an opera I admire, but don't like very much. I don't like the distortion of Shakespeare into an Italian religious frenzy, I don't like Desdemona's mimsy lack of personality and I don't like the way Otello just succumbs to Iago's ministrations, going nuts almost at once - as he often does. But at the Royal Opera House, for once it all made sense. Keith Warner's direction and Jonas Kaufmann's careful pacing made the character convincing, and the singing, not being molto con belto, drew one in to the psychological drama. I'll reiterate my genuine, considered and honest account of a performance I appreciated: this was the most complex and satisfying interpretation of the role that I've personally yet seen, and to the gentleman who sniped that that was a "drool", I'll just say: bollocks. Our Singer of the Year is Jonas Kaufmann, so there.


One of the nicest things about getting older is that you realise you've been hearing Gloom, Doom and Despair for decades, yet you're seeing fabulous young musicians of a new generation coming forward with talent by the gazillions, with creativity, initiative, understanding, musicality and all the rest, and you realise there is hope for the future. Therefore this is the most important 'award category' of all.

If you came to our concert at Burgh House a few weeks ago, you met the two winners of this year's Youthful Artists award. Please welcome:

Jack Pepper. Jack, 18, is a composer, writer, songwriter and would-be broadcaster. He sent me an article on spec earlier this year and it was so good that I whizzed it onto JDCMB. Since then he's contributed more articles, lucidly argued and beautifully written. I was hoping he might become our youth correspondent - but it seems I'm not the only one eager to snap him up into the music industry. We'll be hearing a lot more of him soon - watch that space!

Gabriella Teychenné. Gabriella, 24, is a conductor and in the past few months she has been serving as assistant to Vladimir Jurowski for several projects at the RFH and to Barbara Hannigan on tour with Berg's Lulu Suite and more. She seems to have been making some waves around Europe in the process and her terrific intelligence, clarity, musicality and focus promise much for her future activities.

Bravi both and thank you!


Photo: Hiromichi Yamamoto/DGG
That joyous moment when your inbox goes PING and there's a message from DG asking you to do the booklet notes for Krystian Zimerman's first solo recording in a quarter of a century, which means spending a whole afternoon asking him questions about Schubert. We grabbed a morning as well to talk about Bernstein and Rattle, an interview which appeared in BBC Music Magazine in the December issue to trail the LSO concert the other day (where in the event, he managed to give a sensational performance of 'The Age of Anxiety' despite suffering a cough so severe he should probably have been in hospital). I don't need to tell you why Zimerman is a peerless glory at the piano: you can hear the evidence any time you like. If you haven't yet encountered the CD of the Schubert sonatas D959 and D960, do yourself a favour and hear it.


I haven't seen any real disasters this year, thank goodness, so this particular award goes instead to a gentleman who's been described to me as "world famous in Bavaria", who had always been warm and friendly before. He invited us to stay a night at his house - then disinvited us at one day's notice when we mentioned a dietary issue relating to a medical condition. That was fun.

And some personal highlights:


Roxanna Panufnik and muggins at the second night of our opera Silver Birch. Rain didn't stop play...
The world premiere of Silver Birch at Garsington Opera is not just the proudest moment of the year for me, but my proudest of any to date. Thank you for making it real, dear Garsington, Roxanna, Karen, Dougie, the whole cast - all 180 of you - and of course, Jay Wheeler.

I've also been overjoyed by the Ghost Variations concerts and my work with David Le Page and Viv McLean. Indeed, I've discovered that my "happy place" is...on stage with them. Thank you, my dearest colleagues - we've had a ball! Next concert is 2 January at Lampeter House, near Narberth, Wales.

More pride: seeing Alexandra Dariescu's The Nutcracker and I come to life the other day. See above, but having written the story for the CD is an enormous joy.


There've been a few - there always are. Most 2017 weirdnesses involve daft social media misunderstandings on a Comedy of Errors level, the unmasking of a supposed pal as a Brexit bot, the polarising of old friends into impossible political directions (if you voted to strip us of our right to live and work in 27 other countries, you can't seriously expect anyone to forgive that), and the blank uncertainty caused by the idiocy of Brexit which makes it impossible for anybody to plan ahead - in an industry that depends on forward planning.

On a lighter note, a very weird moment was the JDCMB April Fool's Day post about how after Brexit the LPO would move to the Elbphilharmonie and change its name to the London Hamburger Orchestra. This was a joke. J-O-K-E. I'd thought it was obviously a joke - 1 April, Hamburger, oh come on, guys... But it had the highest readership of any post here, like, evahh, and I'm still coming across people who believed it. Oy.

'Weird' is perhaps not the best word to describe the unmasking of serial sexual abusers in the music industry. James Levine was the first, but it's likely there will be more. If 'hearing rumours forever' amounts to 'knowing', then several are just waiting to go up in smoke. Of course it doesn't amount to 'knowing', but I wonder what next year will bring. There's nastiness, for sure. But I hope that the end result will be that people will be able to develop their artistry and their careers without fear of sexual manipulation, that those with power will learn to resist the temptation to be ruled by that power, and that we'll have a music industry with less exploitation, greater integrity, greater respect, greater diversity and greater openness and positivity. An atmosphere of fear, intimidation and aggression benefits nobody - and the listeners least of all.

Have a fantastic Christmas/Festive Season, everyone, and thank you for being part of JDCMB! And now, "before the fiddlers have fled, before they ask us to pay the bill, while we still have the chance, let's face the music and dance...".