Friday, April 06, 2018

Psst, Kaufmaniacs: Tristan alert

Jonas Kaufmann is singing Tristan und Isolde, Act 2, in concert this week with Camilla Nylund (soprano), the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Andris Nelsons. The New York Times has a sneak preview video, plus an interview by Joshua Barone. The singing sounds quite good.

Photo: Gregor Hohenberg/Sony Classical
NYLUND It’s actually very dangerous to drive a car and listen. You always drive much too fast. [She's not wrong - JD]
NELSONS A few conductors have died during “Tristan.” The reason is Act II. It might seem relaxing, but actually the heartbeat and the intensity and level of excitement — it’s so high that you can’t stand it for a long time. So I don’t want yet to die, but I might.
KAUFMANN Do it on Saturday, so at least we’ve done one concert.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Antonio Lysy: a tribute to his father, Alberto

Handing the cyberspace today to the wonderful cellist Antonio Lysy, son of the now legendary violinist Alberto Lysy (1935-2009). Antonio's projects today include being co-artistic director of the Incontri in Terra di Siena festival in Italy, teaching at UCLA and exploring a range of glorious music in creative formats, from Bach to Piazzolla.

Back in 2001 Alberto and Antonio recorded the Kodály Duo for violin and cello together. This recording was released for the first time just a few weeks ago. Hungarian as Kodály may be, the album is in fact called South America and features works by Piazzolla, Villa-Lobos, Coco Trivisonno and more - paying tributes to Antonio's multifarious background and influences. The South American repertoire is irresistibly seductive and atmospheric, while the Kodály, performed with tremendous intensity, bravura and sensitivity, is more than a treat and a half. In this guest post, Antonio tells us about the coaching his father received from Yehudi Menuhin and Zoltan Kodály himself.

Alberto and Antonio (aged 18) Lysy
Photo courtesy of Yarlung Records

A guest post by Antonio Lysy

I first heard my father playing the Kodaly Duo for violin and cello when I was 15. It made me really want to learn it with him, but his proclamation was, “No, it’s too difficult Tonino. Maybe in a few years… when you have hair on your chest.”
A few years later, I got my hands on the part when I was studying at the Yehudi Menuhin School.  I practiced so hard to prove him wrong, and brought it to his attention strategically, during the summer vacation. He was suitably impressed, which was a rare occurrence, and my father agreed to play it with me (I can’t remember if he checked my chest hair). We worked on it little by little, tenaciously. Little did I know it was to become the piece my father and I would perform most frequently together.
As the young protegé of Yehudi Menuhin, my father learned this work for a performance at Villa I Tatti, in Fiesole outside of Florence, with the Spanish virtuoso Gaspar Cassadò in 1958. Zoltán Kodály himself was staying in Florence at the time, creating a unique opportunity for the musicians to work with the composer in preparation for the performance. My father told me what Kodály shared with him and Cassadò.  The composer inspired them on so many levels and they fell in love with the work.  My father’s first main stage performance was with Jacqueline du Pré at the Sermoneta Pontino Festival south of Rome in 1963.  
This rhapsodic piece is infused, as most of Kodály’s works, with a deeply-rooted folk style, emanating from his well-known ethnographic research, collected from the countryside of his native Hungary. As he coached my father and Cassadò he often spoke of limitations in notating the music. “You just have to know the style, and recreate the improvisatory nature of the rustic, or gypsy, folk traditions. I can’t write that out even if I tried. You may want to improvise, adding some of those short cadenza-like repeated notes, or play fewer notes there, depending on your mood,” my father remembered him saying.  In other passages, the opposite was true: “Here you have to be extremely precise - I have written it this way for performers to do strictly what is written.”  While these directives may sound contradictory at first, they become clear after one has studied the music carefully.  Kodály’s varied, yet structured musical language unites the rigid and flexible sections harmoniously to create a masterpiece.

As Alberto’s son, I was thus introduced to this work through a unique aural tradition, learning a different musical language and intricate subtleties practically from the horse’s mouth. This was a privilege I knew not to take for granted, and a lesson about teaching music which I have carried with me ever since.
I value these aural traditions all the more dearly now, whenever they emerge, working from the source.  I take pleasure in passing them on to the next generation when teaching my own students. Speaking and writing about them is important, but communicating convincingly through the music itself is the ultimate goal. 
We recorded the Duo in 2001 just before my father injured his left hand. We used Paul Sutin’s studio in Switzerland.  Having by then played it so often, we felt it was now time to record it. This recording is a loving tribute to my father and what I learned from him. I am very proud to share it, as a crowning of the efforts that went into its making.  Bob Attiyeh and I give our thanks to Paul Sutin and to the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music for letting engineer Eric Swanson and me edit the takes in the new Evelyn and Mo Ostin Music Center.  As with the cello choir tracks on this album, we used Arian Jansen’s SonoruS Holographic Imaging technology to mix the recording into the form you can now enjoy. 

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Sheku and BBCYM flying high

Lovely, that! Sheku Kanneh-Mason playing his own cello version of No Woman, No Cry, which features on his smash-hit debut album Inspiration. I don't need to remind anyone that it was the BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition 2016 that launched him out of Nottingham straight into the nation's musical heart.

Now it's time once again for the BBC Young Musician of the Year, which this year celebrates its 40th anniversary. Gearing up for it, a TV documentary on BBC 4 last night explored the stories of the three young stars who emerged last time: Sheku himself plus saxophonist Jess Gillam and horn player Ben Goldscheider. It also traces the competition's history with memories from those who took part - Nicholas Daniel, Natalie Clein, Alison Balsom and more - and many more. I was honoured to be among the commentators.

I well remember when it all began, and as a musical child of sorts I was much exercised to realise, thanks to my own peer group, just how far behind them I was. Seeing the likes of Nicholas Daniel, Tasmin Little and all the rest of them on the TV was a tremendous inspiration - so much so that I even insisted on trying to take up the oboe when I was 13. It was a total disaster, but got me out of hockey lessons for a year.

One hasn't always been exactly uncritical of the format and presentation of the series, which at times has veered too much towards TV for the sake of it and too little towards the actual music - but the 2016 edition was a massive improvement and I'm looking forward to seeing what transpires this year.

You can catch up with last night's programme on the BBC iPlayer here (UK only):

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Monday, April 02, 2018

Well, that was fun.

I'm not becoming a conductor. That was an April Fool's joke. I've said a kindly version of 'gotcha' quite a few times in the past 24 hours, though. In this delightful age, it often seems that many people are ready to believe pretty much anything, and the best thing about April Fool's Day is that it reminds us we have to weigh up the likelihood of what we read being true, or otherwise, on all the other 364 days of the year as well.

I'd love to be a conductor, but as you need a brain the size of Africa, a skin of titanium and the stamina of a super-marathon runner to cope with that profession, I think it's unlikely to happen. It's a friendly dream, a personal fairy-tale.

The whole world is based on fairy-tales, though. Everyone believes in some of their own, whether pre-set religion, nationalism or the magic of music. That's partly why I'm so fascinated by them generally, and that's one reason I'm working on Meeting Odette (which you can pre-order and be thanked for supporting here, and I'd be extremely grateful if you did) and will be spending quite a lot of time with various others over the next several years. My "career" is undergoing some changes. Just not one involving a podium.

PS - this time last year the London Hamburger Orchestra was also an April Fool's joke. They are not moving to Hamburg. (Though I still think it wouldn't be such a bad idea if they did.)

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Shock: JD to become conductor

Here's the news you've all been waiting for. My career is about to undergo a radical transformation. I am going to be a conductor. And I don't mean buses.

I've been training secretly for quite some time. As you know, I started off with a music degree at a university which specialises in churning out conductors - even though it doesn't actually train them, there's a useful phenomenon that if you go there, you are magically endowed with the ability to wield a baton. Back in the 1980s, however, it never occurred to me that I might become a proper conductor with a proper orchestra. It just wasn't something you did if you were a girl. Now, though, everything has changed.

I've spent my whole career seeking ways to combine words and music. And what could be a stronger means to do that than using the former to order about the latter? So I asked a dear friend for some lessons...

It required courage, I admit. But then again, so does driving a car. You take your life in your hands every time you get behind a wheel, not because you can't do it, but because of all the other idiots out there on the road who think they can. Same thing with conducting. Now, don't get me wrong: I'm friends with many, many conductors and they are, in the main, wonderful people, intelligent, musical, creative and modest. But not all of them are. You have to keep reminding yourself: if such total plonkers can step up on that box in front of an orchestra, then so can I.

Of course, being married to an orchestral musician has proved handy, since at least he can tell me how not to conduct. One must learn, for example, not to be a "windmill", not to have one's mouth continually open, and not to be a traffic cop (though there are some resemblances with that process). I have a major advantage in that if I don't have to play the piano, I don't get nervous. And if you're conducting, you don't have to play the piano, or indeed any other instrument. It is impossible to play a wrong note. And if you forget something, at least the musicians know where they are, so probably nobody will notice.

Now I'm planning my debut, which will be on 29 March 2019 to take everyone's minds off Brexit Day. When we first moved to south-west London, there was a local orchestra called The Mortlake Murderers. It disbanded some time ago, but I am single-handedly reconstructing it from among friends, neighbours and contacts and we are going to do a smashing programme finishing with my favourite Beethoven symphony, No.7. In the first half, Tom will be the soloist in the Mozart G major Violin Concerto, and we'll start with Mendelssohn's Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (in honour of our brave little island drifting off alone into the mid-Atlantic...).

With any luck, I'll be able to have some coaching with Vladimir Jurowski. His likely departure for the Bavarian State Opera in 2021, we note, leaves a vacancy at the top of the LPO...

In the meantime, I'm practising at home and I think the look quite suits me, especially the combination (which I believe is a unique inspiration) of tailcoat and pink flowery t-shirt. I'm reliably informed that I need to work on my actual baton grip. But I believe the pen is mightier than the toothpick.

[UPDATE, 22:46 - so some of you guessed this was an April Fool's joke, and you're not wrong. But I'm sorry it's not true. I'd have loved to be a conductor.]

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