Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Happy big birthday, Steven Isserlis!

Steven Isserlis is 60 today!

I have flipping' well missed his big birthday concert on Monday at the Wigmore Hall - which included appearances by Simon Keenlyside, András Schiff, Radu Lupu, Ferenc Rados, Josh Bell and Connie Shih - because for some reason we'd thought it would be a good idea to go to Iceland in the middle of December to try and see the Northern Lights... As my Dad used to say, one lives and learns.

Steven Isserlis
Photo: PA

Anyway, it was a wonderful excuse to pop up to north London the other week and interview Steven himself. We talked about music, books, cellos, Rabbi Moses Isserles, Schumann, Fauré, Bloch, the perils of curly hair and the Marx Brothers, among much else. You can read the whole thing in the JC, here. 

And here's one select story.
His Twitter account makes lively reading, full of hair-raising stories about his travels with his cello. “I was on a Japanese airline, business class — very nice — and I asked the stewardess if she could help make up the bed,” he recounts. “I thought she said: ‘Are you sexy?’ It took me a minute to work out that ‘Yes, I’m in 6C…’”

Here he is in a spot of Fauré": the Romance in A major, Op.69, with pianist Pascal Devoyon.

Saturday, December 15, 2018



Vladimir Jurowski's recording of Swan Lake in its original 1877 version - before Drigo got his paws on the score - is an absolute stunner, out now on Pentatone Classics. The State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia 'Evgeny Svetlanov' offers sleek, intense playing, the sound quality is excellent and in Jurowski's hands the dramatic climaxes become utterly hair-raising, almost Wagnerian in their magic and majesty. And in the box there's even a set of instructions for how to fold your own Origami swan.

Swan Lake is the inspiration behind my new book, Odette, in which the ballet's heroine meets the present day head-on. This week Odette has been on a 'blog tour' which has found it termed 'enchanting', 'magical' and 'absolutely unique' (for which I'm extremely grateful and happy.)

I'm delighted to say that Pentatone is offering a copy of Jurowski's splendid Swan Lake recording for our JDCMB Christmas Competition. This is your chance to win a double prize: the CD and a paperback copy of Odette.

For a chance to win, simply answer the following question and email your response to: before Christmas Eve, 24 December 2018.

QUESTION:Which ballerina danced the role of Odette/Odile in the world premiere of Swan Lake, at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, on 4 March 1877?

I will put all the correct entries into a hat and the one to be drawn out wins the prize. The winner will be notified by email. The prize will be dispatched when the post office reopens after Christmas.

Don't forget that you can see Swan Lake itself on BBC4 TV on Christmas Day at 7pm. It's the Royal Ballet's gorgeous new production and stars Marianela Nunez and Vadim Muntagirov. More details here.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Wales goes to China

Xian Zhang, principal guest conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, fulfils a long-standing dream this month: she is at the helm as the orchestra heads for a tour of her native land. She's sent me a guest post about what this confluence of countries means to her, with a look, too, at the state of musical life in China [compared to the state of things here at the moment, one could weep - jd.]. Enjoy!

First, here they are performing Respighi's The Pines of Rome.

A Meeting of Minds

Guest post by the conductor Xian Zhang

Xian Zhang
Photo: Benjamin Ealovega
It has long been a dream of mine to take a European orchestra to my native country, China, and after years of planning, it is finally happening as I conduct BBC National Orchestra of Wales in five concerts in four major cities 15-21 December. 

For me, it’s a homecoming: I was born in China and studied there but, the main focus of my career has been in Europe and the United States. It feels a bit like three old friends meeting up, having looked forward to it for a long time, and simply picking up where they left off last time: as if they’d never been apart. BBC NOW has toured to China before, but it is still quite rare to see a Chinese native bring a foreign orchestra to China. 

The popularity of classical music in China is rapidly growing, with audiences getting younger and younger which is great. Education is focused on letting children play music: almost all take private lessons. They are even more likely to play an instrument than play soccer. We are very fortunate in China that music education is taken seriously.

The ‘software,’ as I like to think of it, of the industry then improves, with the standard of playing in Chinese orchestras being very high. As the economy grows, people want to indulge their cultural interests and an effect of this is that more and more concert halls, ‘hardware’, are being built all over the country: every year a couple of new concerts halls are built. Indeed, we will be playing in some fantastic, beautiful venues. 

My own journey into music started when my father built me a piano. My parents wanted me to learn at a very young age, but they were very expensive. He is an instrument maker, so he made the shell of the piano himself and sourced the keys and strings, assembling them together himself. My own ‘hardware!’ What a fantastic gift. I actually played it for about 10 years, up until I went to conservatoire, and then we sold it to a fellow student. We eventually bought it back as I have so many memories attached to it but unfortunately it is not playable anymore. 

That neatly sums up how I feel about this tour: with China and Wales both meaning so much to me, I wanted to reunite them. Thankfully, that is where the metaphor ends: BBC NOW is definitely not broken and unplayable! Bringing one of the best orchestras in the world to my home country? I can’t wait.

Xian Zhang
Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

There are two concerts in Beijing at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (15 & 16 December), then we travel to Changsha for a performance at the Concert Hall there (18 December), followed by a date at Qintai Concert Hall, Wuhan (19 December). The tour culminates in the Shenzhen Concert Hall (21 December), which I’m looking forward to, in particular as it is so close to Christmas and New Year: there’s always a different atmosphere in the audience around this time of year.

I am very proud of my connection to both China and Wales and I was keen to show that in the programme. All musicians believe in music’s ability to build bridges, relationships and friendships (particularly when the language options are Chinese, English or Welsh!) and this is precisely what I want the tour to achieve between the players, audience and the two countries. We are doing this in a number of ways: one of our encores is a piece by Welsh composer Huw Watkins and Chinese harpist (the national instrument of Wales, of course) Shimeng Sun performs Mozart’s Flute and Harp Concerto with BBC NOW’s Principal Flute Matthew Featherstone. Sun also studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in the UK. Cellist Jiapeng Niealso joins us on the tour, having studied in Germany, to perform Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations

In the final concert in Shenzhen, BBC NOW will perform alongside musicians from the Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra who hosted the Vienna Philharmonic last year, so this is something they are particularly passionate about and good at championing. I absolutely loved the idea when their director suggested it to me, particularly as I did one about 10 years ago with the Julliard Orchestra.  It is great for the players to perform together, exchange ideas and for the audience to see the mixture of players together: that’s the point of touring! 

Xian Zhang
 BBC National Orchestra of Wales and their Principal Guest Conductor Xian Zhang tour China 15-21 December. They perform in Beijing (15 & 16 Dec), Changsha (18 Dec), Wuhan (19 Dec), Shenzhen (21 Dec). Full details here.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Smash all-male choirs? A choral expert responds

Much fuss has been caused in the choral world these past few days by a suggestion from Lesley Garrett that it's high time all-male choirs were abolished. Some defenders of the great English choral tradition, in which these have featured since forever, have been up in arms. Others lean strongly towards providing equal opportunities for girls to sing, because at the moment they still miss out, and have done for centuries.

I was somewhat amused by a press release that landed in my in-box the other day in which a famous choral conductor vaunted the importance of keeping choirs all-male, saying - without irony - that boys would lose opportunities to make music if they admit girls (um, what does he think has been happening to women all this time?) and that the choir is defined by its people, after which he lists a number of highly distinguished personages going back to the 19th century, who are of course all men. My instinct is to cheer on Lesley Garrett's opinion. At the same time, though, I know it is really not as simple as perhaps we'd like.

What solutions could we present? One is that every institution that has a boys' choir should also start one for girls - indeed, many have already done so. But Anna Lapwood, a choral conductor and director of music at Pembroke College, Cambridge, has another suggestion. Here's a guest post from her on the topic. JD

The choir of Pembroke College, Cambridge conducted by Anna Lapwood sing Eric Whitacre's Lux Aurumque


I grew up wishing I could be a chorister. And yet, when I saw today’s article by Ben Dowell in the Radio Times advocating introducing girls into King’s College Choir, I was angry. 

I consider myself an advocate for gender equality and for encouraging young woman in choral music. I was the first female Organ Scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford; I was part of an all-male choir; I saw how far we had to go before we could achieve equality. 

However, I also eavesdropped on the unique dynamic of an all-male choir. What I saw was mutual respect and support; an environment where the back row understood what it was like to be a chorister, and helped them through it.

Having set up a girls’ choir at Pembroke College, I’ve observed the wonderful dynamic that comes from an all-female choir too: not only the shared singing, but a shared understanding of getting your ears pierced for the first time, or braces, or periods. A girls’ choir like ours, or the choirs at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge and Merton College, Oxford, provide an opportunity for a non-linear educational experience, in which children seven years apart can come together to make music. This is unique, and it’s important. 

I have worked with numerous treble lines made up of boys; I have watched them perform as professional musicians to thousands of people without batting an eyelid. I’ve also watched them turn into quivering messes when they’re talking to a girl they fancy. The issue, in my mind, is not one of the sound of the voices; the voices of young boys and girls are both wonderful, and should be celebrated. The issue is one of social implications. 

Research has shown that boys sing better in an all-male environment, in which it is totally normal to love singing, and do it every day. I fear that if we were to mix the treble line, the boys would lose confidence. 

Choral conductor Suzi Digby did an experiment several years ago, creating two parallel after-school classes. One was mixed with 12 girls and 12 boys, and the other was all boys. At the end of two years, both groups had grown to have over 40 singers, and yet there were only two boys left in the mixed class. It’s not a huge step from boys losing confidence to giving up entirely.

Anna Lapwood conducting the girl choristers at Pembroke

Losing boy choristers completely is something I feel would be a great loss for both the choral world and the wider world of classical music. The education of a chorister is gruelling; in addition to the busy life of a school child, he or she is expected to rehearse every morning and sing Evensong almost every day. 

It is this education that produces the lay-clerks of tomorrow, and more recently-formed girls’ choirs are now providing this opportunity for females; daily familiarity with the rhythm and repertoire of choral worship is one of the most important aspects of a chorister’s education.

 If, as has been suggested, girls were to sing half the services in a place such as King’s, this education would be diluted for both the boys and the girls. We’ve made huge progress in the past 20 years, creating more and more opportunities for girls in choral music, and yet we’ve still not achieved equality. In my mind, there is only one way to do this: a choir needs to be set up with an all-female treble line, singing with male and female lower parts. This would be a choir where girls would sing six services a week; a choir where girls would receive the full educational scholarship of a chorister. This would be a step towards equality. 

I have absolutely no doubt that we need to generate more opportunities for girls in choral music. However, these opportunities should be in addition to the ones available to boys, not a call to abolish all-male choirs altogether. 

Anna Lapwood
Director of Music, Pembroke College, Cambridge

Friday, December 07, 2018

Need a place to rehearse? This may have the answer...

Last week I went north of the river to interview Steven Isserlis about a certain big birthday he has this month, to be celebrated with some close friends on stage at the Wigmore Hall (and more, of course - results in the JC soon). On my way out, I met another Isserlis going in: Steven's son, Gabriel. 

A few weeks ago Gabriel launched a new scheme called Tutti to help musicians find rehearsal space when and where they need it. Given the headache that such things cause - even finding somewhere to practise the piano can turn into a student's worst nightmare, as I well remember - this seems an absolutely inspired idea. It functions like Airbnb: those with space can sign up to offer it and musicians who need it can sign up to book in. 

The crucial thing at the moment is: if you have a space to offer musicians, please sign up NOW, using the links below.

Here's Gabriel himself to tell us more about it, after an energising Schumann treat from dad and Dénes Várjon.


My family have been in music for generations. I like to say that before I learned English, I learned the language of music. I have always been surrounded by music: at home, on family holidays, my family even performed chamber music as part of our Christmas celebrations. 
However, as much joy as music brings, I was always very aware of the less wonderful side of it: the challenges it produces for people who dive in full time. After a brief decade, trying to escape the music in my blood, I gave in and returned, albeit from a different angle. During that time, I had trained in visual arts, audio engineering, and programming, and decided to combine my knowledge and passions into one. 
I spent over a year analysing the different issues that plague musicians, listening to my friends and family talk about all the frustrations they experience. Throughout that time, a number of key issues were most apparent but only one of them sparked a twinkle in every eye when I shared my potential solution: “AirBnB for Rehearsal Spaces.” That simple idea has grown into Tutti and has so much potential ahead of it – we’re just getting started. 
We just launched our very first version a few weeks ago: and we have already had a couple bookings come through. We just need people to list their spaces if interested. No one can book your space without your approval – if a musician attempts to book your space, you will be notified immediately and have 3 days to accept or reject the request. If you list your space before 2019, we will provide a photographer to come round to your venue and take quality photos, free of charge. Go to and click “List a Space” in the top right, or email if you have any questions/need any help.
-- Gabriel Isserlis