Friday, March 16, 2018

The age of age?

A century and still running? Several things have happened in the last few weeks that seem to add up to more than the sum of their random parts. These are they:

Debussy in 1908
1. The centenary of Debussy's death has sparked so many recordings, concerts, etc, that it looks as if he's more popular than I thought. Debussy is wonderful, amazing, original, seminal, groundbreaking, crucial, one of the all-time geniuses, etc, yet I've never thought of him as either a special audience draw, like Mozart, or a media-friendly dead-celebrity type, like Stravinsky (who pinched lavishly from him). But the CD releases have been hitting my desk at the rate of several a week, a nice big new book has already emerged, and it's still only the middle of March. What conclusion to draw? Debussy is super-duper-popularoony after all? Or: take a centenary, any centenary, jump aboard and expect to watch sales soar? Forgive me if I sound cynical, but this is 100 years, and 100 years is, nowadays, in living memory.

2. At the Institut Français discussion on Equality and Conductors last week, the French conductor Claire Gibault remarked that she thought the next big equality to tackle would be that of age. In a time in which everyone is hungry for the next bright young star to come along, older artists - well known or 'emerging' - can find themselves having a hard time, passed over despite having much to offer in terms of experience and wisdom. I have come across individuals (whether in person or sounding fed up on Twitter) attempting to pursue musical paths in later life, finding everything skewed against them. We forget sometimes that people develop at their own paces, and not always by choice: if you peak at 16 you may be forgotten by 56, or if your life gets in the way early on, your artistry may be waiting for a chance to shine through later. By the time you start to make the lemonade out of the lemons life has given you, other people may assume mistakenly that you are too old to know how much sugar to put in, adding insult to injury... We recommend they taste the lemonade before deciding.

3. Today there breaks news that the actress Olivia de Havilland, aged 101, is suing the makers of the TV series Feud, about Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, for misrepresenting her. More here. De Havilland is the last surviving star of the 1930s golden age of Hollywood (and was, indeed, leading lady in a number of Korngold movies - apparently the composer rather took her under his wing when she appeared, very, very young, in Max Reinhardt's film of A Midsummer Night's Dream). She is quite right to speak up. Why should she not, just because she is 101? She is quoted as saying: "I feel strongly about it because when one person’s rights can be trampled on this way, the rights of others who are more vulnerable can be abused as well." What a heroine.

4. The pianist Marjan Kiepura has got in touch with news that it is now possible to listen to recordings by his mother, the legendary soprano Marta Eggerth (1912-2013), on Youtube, in a release of 43 numbers entitled My Life, My Song (it's also available on CD). These recordings were made as early as 1936 and as recently as 2002 when the Hungarian-born operetta star was 90. In some, Eggerth and her husband Jan Kiepura (Korngold's original tenor in Das Wunder der Heliane) sing together, in the mid 1950s. In others, Marjan accompanies his mother in beautifully paced Chopin songs. The voice changes, of course, but to hear Eggerth across some 70 years is to hear beyond the surface sound and delve into the underlying artistry that is conveyed by that sound through the decades. Here are some samples:

What is the linking factor in all these events? It's not just age - it's our attitude to it. Really we ought to be ashamed of ourselves, especially as we have these days an ageing population. Think about this a moment: our composers are producing music at three times Schubert's final age, or more. Elliott Carter was still composing at 100, Dutilleux into his nineties, Birtwistle and Gubaidulina are still going strong in their eighties. I'm not going to list the conductors or soloists, but you don't have to look far to find them. But isn't it strange that we celebrate the anniversaries later, rather than appreciating these individuals strongly enough when they're still with us?

Here's Mieczyslaw Horszowski in 1986, in his 90s, playing the Franck Prelude, Chorale and Fugue. I remember hearing him play it that year at Aldeburgh and have never forgotten how bowled over I was as it emerged almost as a mystical holy trinity, a three-in-one creation of utterly luminous intensity. 

It's wonderful that Debussy's anniversary is big-time. It's great that we're celebrating Bernstein's centenary so lavishly this year. But Bernstein is dead. What about the venerable artists who are still alive? Shouldn't we celebrate them while they're here? And why wait until they're 100? How much fine musicianship, creativity, insight, empathy and excellence are we missing out on if we judge people by their birthdays? 

Above all, Marta Eggerth's singing is proof, if it were needed, that though the body may age inevitably, the soul only ages if we let it, and we don't have to.

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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Deeds, Not Words: a guest post by Zerlina Vulliamy

Music student Zerlina Vulliamy was playing the trumpet in the WOW Women of the World Women's Orchestra on Sunday in the annual Mirth Control concert at the RFH, presented by Sandi Toksvig. She was so inspired by the occasion that she wanted to write about it. I couldn't be there myself this time, annoyingly, so I am very grateful to her for covering it for us. 'Mirth Control' is part of the Southbank Centre's year-round work to give a platform to female musicians, artists and more. JD

Sandi and the WOW Orchestra

Deeds Not Words
By Zerlina Vulliamy

I am a self-confessed hypocrite. I realised this on Sunday 11 March, when playing the trumpet as part of the Women of the World Orchestra in the ‘Mirth Control’ event at the Royal Festival Hall, conducted by Alice Farnham. The orchestra was about to play a piece by the British composer Elisabeth Lutyens, titled ‘Overture (En Voyage)’, but before this, the presenter Sandi Toksvig informed the audience of the difficulty the orchestra manager experienced trying to get the score and parts of this music. After contacting many publishers, archives and libraries she finally managed to track it down and distribute the parts to those of us in the orchestra. However, this was on the harsh condition that they were to be used for one performance only and had to be destroyed afterwards. Naturally, those of us on stage and in the audience expressed concern at such a tragedy – first, that the work of an excellent composer was so difficult to find, but also that it might be never be performed again. Sandi herself strongly called on all of us to support this cause of the forgotten women composers, a message that featured prevalently throughout the evening.

Jude Kelly, the WOW Orchestra and some inspiration
Yet whilst I was sitting there, thinking about how limited the representation of women in the arts still is, I suddenly realised that I too was contributing, without realising, to this archaic canon which consists entirely of male composers. I present a weekly show on music called Behind the Classics at the University of Oxford’s student radio station, and I thought I was helping the cause by dedicating an entire episode to raising awareness of relatively unknown female musicians such as Mel Bonis and Melba Liston for International Women’s Day. Yet I too have unknowingly contributed to the tradition of playing music entirely by men in a few episodes. 

This is ridiculous when you think about it, seeing as women make up half the population and there are millions of female musicians throughout history to the present, all with music worth playing to an audience. And yet, because of the music I have been exposed to throughout my life, whether it be classical, jazz, hip hop or others, at the time it seemed normal not to feature a single woman in an episode.

The RFH is decked for the occasion
Well, to quote the slogan appearing on red carpets recently: time’s up. As Sandi Toksvig said herself at ‘Mirth Control’ - it seems absurd that still, in 2018, women are so under-represented in the arts, as well as other fields. She showed the audience many slides which projected shocking statistics, such as the percentages of women composers and conductors who featured at the 2017 BBC Proms, which was 7.5% and 11% respectively. Tragically, women have often been discouraged throughout history from picking up a pen and writing, or from standing on a podium and conducting. 

Perhaps the important work being done by the WOW festival, which encourages women to strive for success in all fields across the globe, will help rectify the situation. The WOW Orchestra consists entirely of excellent women who are students, young professionals or amateurs; we were also joined by the Voicelab choir, conducted by Jessie Maryon Davies for this event. The music that featured was by a large host of female composers such as Dame Ethel Smyth’s ‘Serenade in D’, Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddamn’ and ‘Revolution’ featuring Josette Bushell-Mingo’s stunning vocals and the song ‘What’s Up’ by 4 Non Blondes.

From my own perspective, it was truly an inspiring night, with some hilariously memorable moments such as Sandi’s masterclass with Marin Alsop, or the conducting relay where students of Alice Farnham’s ‘Women Conductors with the Royal Philharmonic Society’ had the chance to conduct the orchestra for a few bars each. The perfect balance was cast between humour and more earnest moments, such as the profound words Jude Kelly, the founder of WOW and Artistic Director of the Southbank, had to say about her own rather difficult past of being a prominent woman in the arts. Yet more importantly, she proved herself to be an inspiring figure when talking passionately about how optimistic she was for the future. 

Some more of the hand-stitched banners
This message must have been powerful to those in the audience, looking at the huge number of women on stage (over 300) against the backdrop of 50 hand-stitched banners, each inspired by historic Suffragette posters. As a female brass player myself, one of the most empowering moments of the night was playing the ‘Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman’ by Joan Tower, with the brass section of the WOW Orchestra, conducted by Alice Farnham. More often than not I have been the only woman in an all-male brass section, hence why it was most refreshing to play in such a fantastic section made up entirely of women. I hope it proved to those who were watching that women fundamentally deserve equality in music, and perhaps inspired young girls out there to pick up a brass instrument.

After a brilliant evening, there was certainly a positive buzz in the foyer afterwards. Sandi Toksvig managed to leave us all in good spirits, with a fundamental message of hope: that raising awareness is the next step. To quote the slogan of the brave Suffragettes, who achieved a measure of equality exactly 100 years ago with the Representation of the People Act (which gave the vote to men over 21 and women over 30 who owned property), we need ‘Deeds Not Words’. 

So to anyone reading this, I urge you to do something to try and raise the profile of all the wonderful women composers out there, whether it be attending concerts run by organisations who have pledged a 50/50 balance or even by word of mouth – talking about women composers will not only put their names in people’s minds but also will hopefully encourage publishers and concert programmers to promote them to a place where equality exists. I myself will do what I can but the more there are devoted to the cause, the better. To quote Jude Kelly, if you can do anything to promote women musicians: “Pass It On”!

Zerlina Vulliamy, 19, is a writer, broadcaster, trumpeter/singer and composer from London. She is currently in her first year studying Music at the University of Oxford where she produces and presents a weekly radio show on music called Behind the Classics on Oxide Radio: all episodes are available at 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Cathedrals of Sound - a Jack Pepper guest post

Our Youth Correspondent, Jack Pepper - who now presents his own show, Musical Minds, on Resonance FM - has a new article to get our grey matter working overtime on a Tuesday morning. Enjoy! JD

Cathedrals of Sound

Yes, music is majestic. But there is danger in the deification of the great composers. Putting writers on a pedestal serves only to detract from the music and alienate potential audiences, argues Jack Pepper

Music has an immense potency, striking the very core of our being. There is nothing like the thrill of music. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; we know that Bach’s structures are finely crafted, and that Beethoven’s innovations dragged music through a new age. But proficiency, innovation and craftmanship do not negate the fundamental factor that links all of the great composers: their humanity.

Mendelssohn: Bach's prophet? Berlioz thought so...
Bruckner’s music has been described as forming “cathedrals of sound”.  Robert Browning argued that “the grandeur of Beethoven’s thirty-second piano sonata represents the opening of the gates of heaven.” Berlioz believed that “there is only one god – Bach – and Mendelssohn is his prophet.” Whether these statements merely sought to emphasise the importance of such composers in the history of music, or instead arose out of a genuine conviction that these composers were linked with a higher power, the common allusion to God raises an interesting question.

It is curious that we still apply such religious analogies to past composers today, given the noticeable decline in religious belief in comparison to the 19th century, in which these quotes occurred. 
Although these quotations come from a notably different context to our own, we tend to perpetuate these viewpoints. The times have changed, and yet our inability to express admiration for a composer without recourse to quasi-religious language remains. It is (paradoxically) reductive for us to compare a composer with a higher power; it is their humanity that makes them special, the fact that a human could create such awe-inspiring works. When confronted with a masterpiece, we seem unable to accept that its creator was a human being.

Let us explore the opposite instance for a moment. When confronted with acts of evil, perhaps what shocks us most is that the perpetrators were human beings. Hitler’s favourite Wagner opera was Lohengrin. Hitler, whether we like the fact or not, was a human being; that is what makes his crimes so shocking. Yet, like so many significant figures in history, he has become a symbol, an academic discussion, a book title. It seems that the inevitable accumulation of books, essays and broadcasts have transported historical figures into the realm of the mythical.

Perhaps this is a natural consequence of history. When a significant figure dies, studies, books, lectures and documentaries are inevitable, and yet we run the risk of over-analysis; reading about a composer, talking about a piece of music, perhaps we forget that – one day in the past – this was a real, breathing human being, whether we like it or not.

I raise this question because the deification of composers – the placing of great music and musicians on a pedestal – could be a significant barrier to new listeners. As a young composer, I’m determined to share my love of classical music to a wider audience, and yet – as someone who already loves and actively explores the repertoire – it is all too easy to forget that classical music is intimidating to a new listener. With centuries of music - where even a single year contained so much musical variety, indeed where even a single composer evolved through many different styles - it is easy for classical musicians to forget that the ‘canon’ can be a little daunting. By emphasising the other-worldly qualities of a master composer, we overlook their humanity – forgetting that they were just like us – and this may create a sense of detachment. This detachment surely promotes the false assumption that classical music is ‘old’ music, rather than a living and breathing art.

Stravinsky: People should be taught to love music
Photo from Wikipedia
Presenting ‘Musical Minds’ on Resonance FM, I have been eager to explore the anecdotal lives of great composers, emphasising the humanity and reality that binds all musicians together. In the same way I may struggle to be inspired for a piece of music one morning, so too past composers – far more accomplished than I will ever be – encountered similar difficulties when writing. Deifying past writers makes us forget that they encountered the same challenges, emotions and thoughts that we do today. It makes us forget that their music is a response to many of the issues and emotions that we face too. It makes music seem irrelevant when it is anything but.

This means deification of the great composers won’t help classical music engage new audiences. Linking composers to a higher power can’t help but create an image of classical music as somehow lofty, distant and entirely cerebral. Whilst classical music is undoubtedly an ‘intellectual’ art form as well as a form of entertainment – works require repeated listening for a better understanding of their material – we should be wary of shaping the genre into some form of relic veneration, a cult or clique that worships at the altar of those who achieved what we can only marvel at. By likening composers to gods, and by neglecting the fact that even the greats could write bad music, we neglect the very thing that makes this music so impressive, so beautiful, so striking: the fact that it was written by humans.

We live in a world that frequently (and perhaps rightly) dwells on the negative. The news shows conflict, poverty and injustice. However, the world is also full of good. The world is full of musicians who visit care homes, of orchestras who run workshops with the local community, of instrumentalists who visit schools and inspire a love of music in others. The great composers were no less human than any of these modern-day musical heroes. In both past and present, composers have been trying to express important truths, be they personal, emotional, political or global. But high intentions and impressive masterpieces should not distract us from their humanity, the fact that these composers were all human beings like us. Musical masterpieces are a product of humanity; this is something we should be proud of. It is a medal for humankind. Equally, by emphasising the humanity of past composers, we remind new audiences that classical music is merely another form of expression, much the same in intention and origin as great artworks, pop songs and architecture. It is not intimidating. It is a real, human, living, breathing form of expression. An expression of humanity.

Marvel at the “cathedrals of sound” – analyse them, relax to them, read about them, talk about them - but do not forget that a human was behind it. The fact that humans are the creators of music is what makes it so special, so expressive. The human experience behind such music is surely what makes it speak to us? Deifying past masters only serves to reduce this power of their music by distancing the creators from our own lives, making them increasingly irrelevant and archaic at a time when we need their life-giving music more than ever.

Stravinsky would likely agree. He said that “the trouble with music appreciation in general is that people are taught to have too much respect for music; they should be taught to love it instead.” Music is emotional, as well as cerebral, and so we should not reduce composers to mere objects of intellectual worship. Music is mind and body.

Monday, March 12, 2018

JDCMB Reader Competition: Win tickets to see Handel’s Messiah from Bristol Old Vic at your local cinema!

With Easter round the corner, here's a lovely competition for Handel fans and those eager to see what transpires when drama meets oratorio...

Bristol Old Vic’s dramatisation of Handel’s most iconic work is being screened in 300 cinemas around the UK & Ireland on 28 March – and to celebrate, distributors CinemaLive have 2 pairs of tickets to give away to JDCMB readers.

For a chance to win, simply email your venue of choice to by Monday 19 March. Winners will be contacted the very next day with details on how to claim their prize.

Full list of participating venues can be found here:

Directed by Bristol Old Vic’s Tony Award-winning Artistic Director Tom Morris (War Horse), Messiah from Bristol Old Vic explores the drama and struggle of faith, showing a bereaved community whose grief at the loss of their leader is transformed into hope through a narrative of resurrection. Recorded in the theatre in 2017, it features internationally renowned soloists Catherine Wyn Rogers and Julia Doyle, The Erebus Ensemble (Songs of Hope) and the celebrated Baroque orchestra The English Concert.

★★★★★ “Immersive and soaring” - The Reviews Hub

★★★★ "Refreshingly direct and impactful” - The Times

★★★★ “Astonishingly beautiful” - The Stage

Thursday, March 08, 2018

International Women's Day: Is classical music blazing a trail?

It's International Women's Day and in the musical world it's the most exciting one yet. While protests and marches and the movements #MeToo and #TimesUp are raising awareness and causing at least the start of real shift in attitudes, the musical world seems to be going a step further - because everywhere you look, powerful organisations are making commitments to doing something positive to change this enduring societal mess once and for all.

• Today Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance unveils an ambitious plan called Venus Blazing. Essentially, they are abolishing all-male concerts.

They pledge that music by women of the past and the present will make up more than half of its concert programmes in the 2018-19 academic year. It also intends to build up an online database of composing women and expand its library to make sure the students have access to the material.

Harriet Harman is launching the programme and says: "Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance is strongly committed to diversity in all elements and it has a mission to constantly challenge the status quo. Venus Blazing is a great example of just how it can do this. It will encourage and inspire its students - many of whom will go on to shape the future of the performing arts - to engage with the historic issue of gender imbalance in music by women, and ensure that it does not continue into the next generation. I welcome this bold initiative to raise awareness of the disparity that has long existed in music and shine a light on music that has so frequently been overlooked. I am also greatly looking forward to hearing some of the musical treasures by women I might not otherwise have had the chance to hear in performance."

The programme has been spearheaded by Dr Sophie Fuller, programme leader of TLCMD's Masters programmes and author of The Pandora Guide to Women Composers: Britain and the United States, and Jonathan Tilbrook, head of orchestral studies. Sophie Fuller says: "It is widely recognised that music created by women - whatever the genre - is heard much less often than music created by men. In past centuries, it was difficult for women to find a meaningful musical education or get equal access to performance opportunities, but there have always been those who leapt over any obstacles placed in their way. We at Trinity Laban want our students and their audiences to hear their often powerful work. It is our duty to celebrate women's music, not just for one year, but to provide the structures, support and encouragement to ensure that this is a lasting legacy for all future musicians and music lovers."

Among performance highlights is Thea Musgrave's opera A Christmas Carol (December 2018), symphonies by Louise Farrenc and Grace Williams performed by the Trinity Laban Symphony Orchestra, an exploration of the music of Trinity Laban alumna Avril Coleridge-Taylor (the daughter of Samuel, incidentally) and music by current Trinity Laban composition students and staff, including Soosan Lolavar, Laura Jurd and Deirdre Gribbin - whose Violin Concerto 'Venus Blazing' has given the name to this celebration.

This development really is groundbreaking, because it often looks as if it's at conservatoire level that the rot sets in.  More girls than boys take up music as children and teenagers, but that has somehow not translated into those who emerge with a high level of success in the profession. Therefore something must be going wrong in the middle.

Looking back, it strikes me that at university I was never auditioned, examined, interviewed or indeed taught by anyone who wasn't a man. My own aspirations to compose were snuffed out by the university patriarchy (or whatever it was) within one month. We never studied any pieces of music by women. The place was awash with would-be conductors, some of whom have done very well since and deservedly so - but any woman who wanted to conduct had to struggle to make headway. And was there sexual abuse going on? Oh blimey. I'm sure we used to joke about the guy who was a Handle Specialist.

So at student level everything needs attention, from the makeup of the boards (which play a larger role behind the scenes than one might realise) to the membership of the faculties to, as above, the approach to programming and role models. This does need addressing, and it needs it now.

• Today BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting 24 hours of music written by women. Every note you'll hear today was set down by a composer who was female. Listen here. Just been listening there to Francesca Caccini - fabulous stuff, sung by Ruby Hughes. Now listening: Ruth Crawford Seeger.

• This week we've already looked at the Keychange project from the PRS for Music Foundation, in which 45 international festivals have committed to 50:50 programming of music by men and women and the Proms agreed that half of all its new commissions would be by composing women.

• We've also talked to conductor Laurence Equilbey, who conducts Louise Farrenc's Symphony No.3 at the Barbican tonight with her Insula Orchestra, plus the Beethoven Triple Concerto with a dynamic trio of female soloists. I'm going along. And to Silvina Milstein, whose music is featured in the Lontano concert at King's College London tonight.

• The WOW Festival at the Southbank Centre is in full flood - the annual Mirth Control music and comedy evening, compèred by the incomparable Sandi Toksvig and conducted by Alice Farnham, is on Sunday. It's called 'Arts Over Tit'.

• Here's an important editorial from The Guardian, on the fact that promoting music by women is good for everybody because it widens the talent pool and doesn't threaten excellence but promotes it.

• Jude Kelly is leaving her post as artistic director of the Southbank Centre later in the spring to concentrate on running WOW full time. She has also introduced the WOW Women in Creative Industries Awards - the result, I understand, of the suggestion with which I went to her about four years ago, that we need awards for women in music to help blaze this trail. (Now we may also need one specifically for women in classical music.) I do think these things make a difference because they become emblems of success, helping to establish role models and being a high-profile example of what people can achieve, putting those achievements on very public display.

• Yesterday we had a fabulous day in which the Women in Music Breakfast at the Southbank Centre was attended by a huge number of women and a goodly number of men too, which is really important - if we don't get men on our side, the battle for change is impossible.

• And then an evening at the Institut Français, part of its Women Shaping the World series, in which I served as moderator to a seriously inspiring panel of conductors Claire Gibault and Alice Farnham, composer and conductor Eimear Noone and director of Harrison Parrott Lydia Connolly. The discussion went with real pizzazz. Claire told us that if we think things are bad for women conductors in Britain, we should just try France - in the UK 6 per cent of conductors represented by agents are female, but in France only 4 per cent - and that it is much more difficult to be a great musician than to be a politician (she spent 5 years as an MEP). As for being a moderator, the only snag, I discovered, is that none of us were remotely moderate. Huge thanks to the Institut Français for a smashing occasion, and wonderful cheese and wine.

Have a wonderful day, my sisters and brothers. We can do this.

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