Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Just a little encore by Hamelin...

We're possibly entering a new golden age of the composer-pianist, methinks.

Stupendous recital by one of the very finest, Marc-André Hamelin, at the Wigmore Hall the other night. It included (among much else) one of the most beautiful and emotionally devastating accounts of the Schumann Fantasie that I can remember, plus a goodly number of encores, one of which was Hamelin's own Toccata on L'Homme Armé. This wild and wonderful creation was commissioned by the Van Cliburn Competition for the 2017 competitors to play as a set piece.

Some of us trotted backstage to say hello afterwards and I couldn't help remarking that I would have liked to see the competitors' faces when they opened up that score for the first time. "Oh," said the ever-modest Marc, "it's not really that difficult..."

Have a listen, above.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Crossing the line of dreams

Roxanna Panufnik and I have been working on our first collaboration since Silver Birch. It's being premiered this week in Baltimore under the joint batons of Marin Alsop and Valentina Peleggi. Yes, both of them. It's for double choir, double orchestra and two conductors. And it is about two powerful women (by which I don't mean either them or us, at least not first of all...).

Harriet Tubman
source: National Geographic
Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, India, and Harriet Tubman, who saved hundreds from slavery in America before, during and after the Civil War, obviously never met in real life. But they were near-contemporaries and both gave their lives to the cause of freedom for their people. Harriet Tubman lived to a ripe old age and was venerated as 'Moses'. Rani Lakshmibai was killed in battle at the age of 29. The Rani has recently been the subject of a major biopic, but we wrote this piece before we knew about that. Harriet Tubman's previous musical incarnations include a whole opera by the wonderful Thea Musgrave, which is long overdue for a revival or three.

Rani Lakshmibai
Source: Real Bharat
The piece is called Across the Line of Dreams and you can hear it in three concerts on 14, 15 and 16 March, the first in the Music Center at Strathmore, the other two at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is joined by the University of Maryland Concert Choir. More info and booking here.

Here is an introduction to the piece, which Roxanna and I have written for the programme. We hope you'll enjoy this extraordinary dream meeting...

ACROSS THE LINE OF DREAMS – Celebrating Harriet Tubman & Rani Lakshmibai
Words: Jessica Duchen (JD)                      Music: Roxanna Panufnik (RP)

JD: In Across the Line of Dreams, two choirs with two conductors tell the stories of two extraordinary women who gave everything to save their people.

Harriet Tubman and Rani Lakshmibai came from opposite sides of the world and, of course, never met - but they had more in common than you might think. 

Both were born in the 1820s. Each decided to fight for her people’s freedom. Each underwent a change of name, symbolising a new, altered state of being. Each held fast to her faith. And each risked her life for a cause greater than herself. Both have passed into the realms of legend.

RP: Each heroine is represented by one conductor, one choir and half of the orchestra – Harriet has woodwinds, brass and percussion and Lakshmibai is accompanied by harp, piano and strings.

JD: Born Araminta (‘Minty’) Ross in Dorchester County, Maryland, around 1822, Harriet Tubman fled slavery in 1849 and became active in the ‘underground railroad’, a network that aided the escape of slaves from the deep south of the US, via which she helped to rescue dozens. Having taken her husband John Tubman’s surname, she adopted her mother’s first name to reinvent herself. She was nicknamed ‘Moses’ for leading her people to freedom. She died in 1913 aged about 90. 

RP: Harriet was fervently Christian, so some of her music has a hymn-like quality with a drone figuration often heard in spirituals. Not much is known about her ancestry, but it is believed that her maternal grandmother, Modesty, was brought to the US on a slave ship from West Africa and was thought to be of the Asante (a.k.a. Ashanti) tribe, who came from Ghana. Therefore I’ve used Ghanaian drum patterns to drive her music. While researching Asante music, I came across Joseph S. Kaminski’s excellent book Asante Ntahera Trumpets in Ghana– in it, he has transcribed a signature motif, from Asantehene’s mmentia musicians“Atoto wore sane” which means: “We are removing the knot”. This refers to a legendry knot that could only be untied by the true ruler, yet can also describe Harriet’s brave missions. 

Manikarnika in childhood
Source: Real Bharat
JD: Rani Lakshmibai was born Manikarnika Tambe in Varanasi, by the Ganges, in 1828. Married off to the Rani of the princely state of Jhansi, she took the crown after her husband’s death. Their only child died in infancy, after which she adopted a young boy, Damodar, intending him to inherit her throne. The controlling British East India Company refused to recognise him as heir and attempted to exile Lakshmibai. When a major rebellion took place against the British in 1857, and was horribly crushed, she led her forces into battle herself. She died of her wounds, aged only 29. A British officer paid tribute to Lakshmibai after her death, terming her “the bravest and the best”. 

RP: There is a famous lament “Babul Mora” about Lakshmibai, written by the Nawab of Lucknow, after the battle in which she lost her life. It mourns her leaving her family and all she knows behind, as she is taken away to be married to Gangadhar Rao, and it now exists in many versions. It was originally written in the Bhairavi mode, with which I have created my own lament. I have also composed my own “Powada” – a popular heroic or military ballad, which was used to eulogize heroic leaders. Again there are many examples of this form, but a common musical thread is a declamatory delivery of repeated singenotes, followed by a descending scale (for which I’ve used the Bhairav, Purvi and Ãsãvan modes). We finish, at the end of Lakshmibai’s life, with a return to the Bhairavi lament.

JD: Across the Line of Dreamsis in three parts. The first section is devoted to Harriet Tubman. There follows a contrasting episode telling the story of Rani Lakshmibai. Finally we imagine a dialogue showing the two women’s similarities, differences and inspirational natures. 

RP: This is where the two conductors come to the fore – Harriet’s music is in 4 and Lakshmibai’s simultaneously in 5. I was determined that while these two women retained their unique musical identities, they would merge to create a driving energy.

RP: I am deeply grateful to Joseph Kaminski for allowing me to use his transcription of “Atoto wore sane” and to the Asantehene who, through Kaminski, authorized the use of this chant for educational and artistic purposes. Also to Justin Scarimbolo for 19thcentury Indian music, Richard Williams & Richard Widdess for their introduction to Powadas and James Gardner for trying, heroically, to teach me Ghanaian drumming. Thank you, most of all, to Marin Alsop and Valentina Peleggi for commissioning the work, along with Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Jessica and I have loved every step of this process.
JD & RP, 11thDecember 2018

Friday, March 08, 2019

In praise of IWD

It's International Women's Day, and you know it. You couldn't not know it, really. The astonishing thing is that ten years ago, you wouldn't have. The annual event on 8 March has rocketed in public consciousness, becoming a calendar landmark in a few short years, chiefly thanks to a certain number of people making a great deal of noise about it and programmers in crucial places looking on and thinking "Y'know something? They're right. Let's do this."

It's especially so in the music world, where the chance to make restitution for centuries of neglect and, frankly, the squishing of women artists has been embraced by concert halls, broadcasters, conservatoires and more.

You'll find fantastic things happening today everywhere - but IWD has become, hearteningly, about far more than just one day. BBC Radio 3 has a week of celebration and an all-female schedule of composers today. The conservatoire Trinity Laban is running its Venus Blazing programme all year, putting music by female composers in the spotlight, and a special lunchtime concert today features, amongst much else, Errollyn Wallen singing some of her own songs. At the Southbank there's the annual Women of the World festival, and at Kings Place Venus Unwrapped is a splendid series running the length of the season with a series of marvellously and meticulously programmed concerts highlighting music by women. The seriously buzzing trade fair Classical:NEXT is themed around women in music this year and its innovation award is devoted to this field - come to Rotterdam in May if you can. There are Clara Schumann festivals galore: Classical:NEXT has homed in on her bicentenary, and there's plenty to hear in London and a festival in Leipzig in September just for starters. Conductors are on the rise at last, perhaps fighting an even more difficult battle, but again with key decision-makers thinking: "Y'know something? They're right. Let's do this." One result is the marvellous work of the Royal Philharmonic Society's RPS Women Conductors training and similar programmes springing up around the world, from the Southbank (with Marin Alsop) to France to Texas.

I could go on, but you get the idea. This stuff is happening, so strongly, when ten years ago it wasn't. Things have changed. Things can change further. Things will change further. And in an era when so much around us is being changed for the worse, in political terms, it is more heartening than ever to see positive developments in the artistic world.

And it makes sense. In 2019 gender equality should be simply a no-brainer. We may deplore the fact that it's taken so long to happen, but now there's no excuse for it not to - and every chance to celebrate. In the end, with more music and more artistry to develop and enjoy, it enriches everybody, regardless of gender.

Brava bravissima to all!

Here are four of my top choices to listen to today. I've gone for historical figures this time, just to show that there's a massive hinterland of super music to explore...

GRAŻYNA BACEWICZ: Concerto for String Orchestra

Tasmin Little and John Lenehan's new recording of violin masterworks - just out on Chandos.

World premiere recording of Viardot's operetta on a libretto by Ivan Turgenev - yes really, at long last, with an all-star cast - Eric Owens, Jamie Barton, Camille Zamora, Michael Slattery... I jumped for joy when I saw this one!

The legendary Russian pianist and friend of Shostakovich was a heck of a good composer in her own right, but who knew? Here she is playing three of her own Etudes.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

FS Kelly: a lost genius?

When I was working on Ghost Variations, one of the most rewarding - and moving - discoveries was the music of Frederick Septimus Kelly (1881-1916): Australian composer, pupil of Donald Francis Tovey, Olympic rowing gold medallist of 1908. He was tragically killed in the Battle of the Somme, having survived the horrors of Gallipoli. Jelly d'Arányi, our violinist heroine, was in love with him and kept his picture on her piano for the rest of her life. There's not much evidence that he returned her feelings, beyond the enjoyment of making music together - but nevertheless, he wrote her a substantial violin sonata on his way back from Gallipoli, which was unearthed and recorded for the first time by Australian violinist Chris Latham less than a decade ago. (You can hear Kelly's most famous work, the beautiful Elegy in Memoriam Rupert Brooke, in The Ghosts of War, the d'Arányi-themed concert I'm presenting for the Oxford Philharmonic on 1 June in Oxford Town Hall, which also includes Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra and, of course, the Schumann Violin Concerto).

The other day I had an email from the pianist Alex Wilson, with the heartening news that he has unearthed more unknown Kelly music, this time for piano solo, and is making a recording. He's crowdfunding it. I've asked him to tell us more. And do please support his efforts in bringing this rewarding music to light - you can contribute here. The campaign is live only until Thursday 7 March.

JD: Alex, how did you first come across FS Kelly and his music? 

AW: I have always been fascinated by the music of composers who fall outside of the mainstream musical canon – a passion that led me to researching the music of the forgotten composers of World War One.  I discovered and performed music by Ernest Farrar, Cecil Coles and George Butterworth in a 5-year concert series – entitled ‘The Banks of Green Willow’ – and it was this exploration that led me to the piano music of the British/Australian composer Frederick Septimus Kelly (‘Sep’), one of the few wartime composers who wrote extensively for solo piano. I managed to unearth a few published pieces at the British Library that I performed in concerts back in 2014, and the success of these works led me to want to explore further.

How would you describe his music, for someone who’s never heard it before? What appeals to you most about it?

Sep’s music is so appealing to me because it is unlike the other music being written by his contemporaries in Britain.  He studied at the Hochkonservatorium in Frankfurtand as a result was influenced by both the late romanticism of mainland Europe and the pastoral, folk influenced style of his British colleagues, creating a unique sound world packed full of contrasting influences that it is really fascinating to try and make sense of – shifting from restrained hymn tunes to Chopin-esque romanticism and enigmatic harmonic languages reminiscent of Scriabin.

This music is full of youthful exuberance, unashamedly unrefined at times and covering a full range of emotions. His music is enigmatic, hard to categorise, but is still very accessible, and has proven to be popular every time I have performed it.

Why have you decided to record these piano works? Tell us something more about them. 

This recording will be the first time the ’24 Monographs’ and ’12 Studies’ have been recorded in their entirety, with many works in the collections unperformed in 100 years.  The process of learning music for which I have literally no other point of reference as to how to perform, read and interpret has been fascinating.  There is no standard interpretation to fall back on, I essentially have a blank canvas on which to make my mark.

The Monographs and Studies were written over a number of years, started before the war in 1913 and continued during the war years until his death at the Somme in 1916.  Sep was revising and editing the music during active service, preparing it for publishing after the war.  It is unclear how close he was to completing this task when he lost his life, though one can assume that the revisions were largely completed as he had already performed a number of the works in concerts during the war period.  Stylistically the music ranges from romantic simplicity to harmonic ambiguity, and the Monographs cover all the major and minor keys, which naturally leads to comparisons with the Chopin Preludes.  

Many of the pieces have only recently come to light. Please tell us how this happened, and why? Where have they been and how were they found?

Much of Sep’s original music is held in archives at the National Library of Australia. It remained in its manuscript form until 2005 when the Marshall-Hall Trust (an organisation devoted to publishing and distributing music by Australian composers) and editors Bruce Steele and Richard Divall created editions of the piano music.  On discovering the existence of further piano music by Sep I was able to obtain the sheet music from Kelly expert Chris Latham, the director of the Australian organisation ‘The Flowers of War’ – an organisation set up to promote the Australian contribution to the First World War.  

His most famous work until now has been the Elegy in Memoriam Rupert Brooke - incredibly beautiful piece and one that pays tribute to a close friend. Can you tell us anything more about Kelly and the social circles he moved in?
Sep was a polymath; a young man who turned his head to various disciplines with skill and ‘thereupon decided to be a great composer’ after reading ‘Psychology and Life’s Ideals’ by Professor Hamer.  He performed with the greatest musicians of the day, including as part of a well-renowned trio with cellist Pablo Casals and violinist Jelly D’Aranyi – a woman who loved him deeply, for whom he wrote the Gallipoli violin sonata and who kept his photo on her piano for the rest of her life. 
As a naval officer in World War One Sep joined the famous ‘Latin Club’ – a group of learned officers that included poet Rupert Brooke, composer William Denis Browne and Arthur (Ock) Asquith, the son of the Prime Minister. Sep was also a talented rower, winning gold medal at the 1908 London Olympics with the men’s 8s – before immediately giving it up and returning to performance and composition once again!

What do you think his significance is? (And what could it have been, had he lived longer?)
Kelly died at the age of 35, an age at which he was fully trained as a musician but had only just begun to refine his music, combining the many influences on his composition into a cohesive and individual musical voice.  Chris Latham suggests that ‘if Ralph Vaughan Williams had also died at the age of 35, their musical output would be an almost exact match in quality and quantity, but with Kelly writing more piano works, and Vaughan Williams writing more chamber works.’ Vaughan Williams grew into one of Britain’s most successful and loved composers, and one can only imagine that Kelly might have developed in a similar way.

Why are you crowdfunding the recording? What do you think the pros and cons of crowdfunding are? Is it something you’d recommend that other musicians try?

Funding from official sources is harder than ever to secure, with more musicians seeking funds from ever dwindling resources.  Crowdfunding has proven to be the perfect solution to this problem, and has been a wonderful way to bring my project to the attention of as many people as possible.  Directly as result of publicising this campaign I have connected with groups as diverse as Sep’s relatives, his old rowing club, wartime history enthusiasts and individual supporters from across the world.

Crowdfunding requires a LOT of hard work – I have spent months sending emails, writing articles, creating various recordings and radio appearances, all of which takes precious time away from the practice room in the months building up to a recording of some very difficult music!  However, I now feel like I know my subject much better than before, I have learnt immeasurably from my backers and the stories they have told me, and I am happy to have ‘sold’ a number of my CDs before the music has even been recorded!

For those considering crowdfunding, I’d say GO FOR IT, just don’t expect to have much time for anything else!

Saturday, March 02, 2019


They certainly didn't tell me I'd be doing this for 15 years when I signed up to Blogger on 2 March 2004.

Here's a little glimpse into the State of the Art, involving one of those "you couldn't make it up" moments that happened to me the other day when I
David Dolan coaches YMS cellists
on structure in Bach
went down to the Yehudi Menuhin School to look around, talk to the head, watch some teaching and hear a lunchtime concert by some of the students.

To a visiting journo, the school seems a haven of peace. It has impressive facilities: a magnificent wood-lined concert hall, a Fazioli grand, a range of super studios. And here you can meet the absolute values of musicianship at the highest, specialised level, matters communicated exceptionally effectively in the lesson on Bach I listened to, given by pianist, analyst and classical improvisation guru David Dolan.

This place - one of sadly few specialist music schools in this country - has been subjected to some serious misrepresentation in the press, in particular ridiculous charges of that pernicious concept "elitism", which leaves you wondering how, if a young person has a talent and vocation, he or she would ever to be permitted to develop it with the necessary hard work. The vast majority of the children - around 90 per cent of them, according to the head teacher, Kate Clanchy - are on close-to-full scholarships, as talent does not correlate to a parent's economic situation, unless it correlates by landing upon those who can't afford to fork out for instruments and lessons. And it's a struggle to provide the scholarships, because the support from the government's Music and Dance Scheme does not increase at even half the same speed as the spiralling costs of running the place. These schools, including (but not limited to) YMS, Purcell, Chets and some of the cathedral schools, are the engine-room of musical life. Remove them and you cut off the nurture at the source, a future that many young musicians need in order to grow and flourish.

There's no doubt that boarding schools are not for everyone at the best of times; and some exciting young musicians simply attended their local comprehensive (the Kanneh-Masons) or ended up being home schooled from about 14 (Benjamin Grosvenor). I know one exceptionally successful musician, now in her sixties, who ran away from music school. But in the meantime the Menuhin School can count among its alumni such figures as Tasmin Little, Alina Ibragimova, Melvyn Tan, Nicola Benedetti and many, many more, figures without whom musical life in the UK would not be all it is today (which is, seriously, among the world's finest. Enjoy it before Brexit rips out its heart.)

Yehudi Menuhin's grave, in the school grounds. The inscription reads:
"He who makes music in this life makes music in the next".
Then came the "you couldn't make it up" incident. I was just waiting for my lift back to the station when my phone rang. There's a journalist on the line from BBC Radio Essex. They have a story on their patch, he said, and were looking for a comment. There's a primary school in Basildon at which the pupils are asked to listen to ten minutes of classical music every day over lunch. What did I think about music being used to discipline kids? I explained that I don't really feel qualified to talk about that, as it's not something of which I have direct experience. Well, then, he said, what about "why should we give classical music the time of day in any case?"

I looked around at the young people off to their next lessons, and Menuhin's grave (pictured above) just in front of me. And I cracked. I gave him a bit of an earful about how I was speaking to him from a specialist music school that's chock-full of some of the most talented kids in the country, youngsters who simply live and breathe music, and hearing them play, hearing the joy oozing out of their music-making, is so inspiring - it's simply incomprehensible that anyone could think that playing and listening to music is, in principle, not a wonderful thing.

It highlighted the extreme divides in opportunity that our kids face in the rather haphazard lottery of the UK's educational life. But it also highlighted something possibly even worse: a divide in attitude based on misinformation, misunderstanding and prejudice. The school in Basildon has sparked "controversy" in some tabloids. Apparently getting children to listen to music for ten minutes a day is controversial. (Funny, it used to be called "music lessons"...) Trumpeting this as controversial is the triumph of the type of playground bullies we've all met.

I think the programme used a snip of my interview very early yesterday morning (here), but the most interesting thing I heard listening back was an interview with the primary school's head, explaining that the children were not being asked to listen in silence, only to "use quiet voices"; that no parent has removed a child from the school because of this; that a few parents shouting about not liking the idea are not speaking for everyone; and that basically the whole thing has been badly distorted in a way that doesn't reflect its reality. Their lunchtime sessions introduce a "composer of the week", with pictures and information: they've just had Vivaldi and she says the kids absolutely loved it.

It still seems incomprehensible that anyone would think kids shouldn't have the chance to encounter music. Without any opportunity to be introduced to it, you risk missing out on one of the most wonderful experiences available to us.

And then I came home to the news that André Previn had died. We will never forget such a musician. Where are today's communicators on a comparable level? I know of no total, top-level  all-rounders of that calibre: composer, conductor, broadcaster, jazz pianist and equally magnificent in every one of them.

"Something must be done," says Jess, but what? How to keep the communication of the marvel of music alive? Diversifying the imagery certainly helps to get the word out, but it's only the beginning; it won't solve  everything. International Women's Day next week has sparked a celebration of women in music that gets bigger every year, and seems - to me - to be taking root in our culture at long last. It certainly didn't exist 15 years ago. The arrival of Chineke! and Sheku Kanneh-Mason and his family are helping, too, and the communicative joys expounded by orchestras like the format-pioneering Aurora and Manchester Camerata, and the repertoire-busting Southbank Sinfonia, are making waves as well. None of this was happening 15 years ago. Next I think some of the things we need to tackle are the issue of concert start times, the availability of food and drink at venues - affordable, with choice and quality, and not too much queuing, please. And call a meeting with the Department of Transport (once they get rid of their current minister...). But above all, music education. Of quality. For all. We can dream...

So there is hope. One might argue that the playground bullies have always been with us and always will be, and it's up to us to be tough enough to hang on in there. Still, it's not getting any easier.

And yet, and yet...let's finish with the thought of a little Menuhin School pianist, 11 years old, performing in the lunchtime concert the other day: she played the Schumann Abegg Variations and part of Mozart's K414 with gorgeous tone and absolute identification with the idiom, which seemed remarkable. She's Anglo-Chinese and her name is Claire Wang. I keep thinking she's called Clara.