Thursday, July 18, 2019

A message from Dame Sarah Connolly

Wishing Sarah swift and safe treatment and the speediest of recoveries. Please see her message below.

Dame Sarah Connolly writes:
Last month, I had an unwelcome birthday present: breast cancer. Like so many women afflicted with this disease, I will face whatever is coming as best I can. Imminent surgery means I must withdraw from ENO’s ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’ and ‘L’enfance du Christ’ at the BBC Proms. I hope, however, to fulfil all my other concert and recording commitments over the coming months. I’d like to thank ENO and the BBC Proms for their kindness and understanding, and I look forward to working with them both in the near future."

Thursday, July 04, 2019

One woman, three harps and a very long journey

The Australian Festival of Chamber Music kicks off again in a few weeks' time and though I am sick as the proverbial parrot at not going (I was there a year ago for Being Mrs Bach) I'm only too happy to thump the drum for this marvellous, sunny, eclectic jamboree complete with tropical skies, ice cream galore and even humpback whales to watch.

Several performers besides the artistic director, Kathy Stott, are travelling over from the UK and one of them is the extraordinary harpist Ruth Wall, who's setting out from Land's End with two of her three harps and meeting another one there. I had a super chat with her yesterday... First, here she is with partner Graham Fitkin, as FITKINWALL:

From her home near Land’s End in Cornwall, Ruth Wall has a longer journey even than most others to Townsville, Far North Queensland. But then, she is used to long spans, musical as well as physical. Her repertoire ranges from the 13thcentury to the cutting edge of present-day new works. Her partner is the composer Graham Fitkin and the pair collaborate as the duo FitkinWall. She’s toured with Goldfrapp, been involved with sound installations and theatrical productions - not least the aerial theatre company Ockham’s Razor - and she makes musical arrangements and transcriptions of her own. And she composes. 

This multifaceted career began with her training in Scotland: “I grew up in the Highlands and I had a great harp teacher who was from the classical sphere - but there’s a great folk tradition up there and she taught me a lot of traditional music, so I had a mixture of both,” Wall says. 

“In my twenties I was introduced to early harps by a friend in Scotland who makes them, so I started getting interested in the Renaissance bray harp. I just heard it and thought I’ve got toplay this instrument.” What’s so special about it? “It's like a sitar but with knobs on: a big, huge range and a really big, buzzy sound. 

“The same friend, Bill Taylor, introduced me to the Gaelic wire-strung harp as well and that was love at first hearing. I was excited by those two instruments, even though I knew it would take more than a decade to learn them properly.” 

She’s not exaggerating: “Especially the wire-strung harp - it’s as different as you can get from playing a concert harp. It’s almost as different as playing the tuba! You need to have nails; you’re in literally the opposite hand position from the concert harp; the string intervals are tiny; it’s strung with metal; and you have to stop every note as well as play them. So it’s a very complex little instrument – but very beautiful.”

Transporting them from Penzance to Townsville is no laughing matter. “Kathy [Stott] and her team have organised for my bray harp and wire-strung harp to be picked up, so they’re going to be out of my hands from next Monday,” says Wall, “and I won’t see them again until 22 July, so it’s a long gap and I’ve never had that before. As for the concert harp, they’re renting one for me in Australia so that’s another new thing: to play really virtuosic music on a harp I’ve not played before. I’m trying not to worry about it because there’s nothing I can do about it! 

“The two that are being flown out get held hostage in Brisbane for a week. I’ll have to detune them and then tune them up gradually after I arrive. It’s always a little bit heart-in-mouth when there’s a long journey. Even if you fly with them and carry them yourself, it can be difficult - I’ve had a hole in the harp before now. Hopefully everything will be good and nothing will happen…”

Wall is taking part in no fewer than 12 festival events, playing a range of music that would make most other musicians sweat at the very thought. “You’ll hear some very “harpy” French repertoire, including Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro and Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp - those are the biggest pieces for the concert harp. Then I’m playing with Wu Man, the Pipa player: more like a folk piece in style, based on traditional Chinese music. I’ve made an arrangement of that and have been transcribing it in detail, which takes a long time, but is great fun. 

“Then I’m working with Lotte Betts-Dean, the singer, on an Irish piece called 'My Lagan Love' and a Dowland song, ‘Flow my Tears’, which I've arranged. On the Bray harp I’ll be playing some early music from the 13thcentury by Machaut, and on the wire-strung harp quite a long piece that I wrote myself, Pibroch Patterns based on classical bagpipe music from the Highlands.” Bagpipes? There are some similarities in sounds and techniques, Wall: says: “The bagpipes have a long drone which is similar in sound to the wire-strung harp’s one. As for the music, it’s difficult to know for sure because not a lot of traditional Highland music was written down - it’s an aural tradition. But there are little bits which one can catch that are connected with music of that time.”

The festival will be keeping Wall extremely busy, but she is thrilled to be collaborating with so many different musicians, most of them for the first time. “I just love working with other people,” she says. “The harp can be a lonely instrument, unless you play in orchestra, which I don’t. I’m looking forward to playing with all these musicians - Lotte and Wu Man and the Goldner String Quartet and more!” 

She knows the climate may prove a tad challenging for the instruments: “Harps really don’t like changes in temperature, humidity, etc - and in particular the wire-strung harp goes out of tune wildly and is very difficult to restring if anything goes wrong, so I just have to hope and pray that nothing happens! But I know what to expect. It’s going to be challenging. There won’t be a lot of free time and I’m going to be doing a lot of tuning.”

Nevertheless, it’s a fantastic chance to evangelise for an instrument that is as ubiquitous in imagery as it is rare in practice, and as beautiful as it is challenging to play. I used to have a yen to learn the harp myself, but my parents weren’t having any, I remark. “You should learn!” Wall enthuses. “It’s never too late…”

If JDCMB changes its name someday to “Harping On” - well, you’ll know what happened. 

Meanwhile, you can find Ruth's line-up of AFCM performances here.

Photos via

Wednesday, July 03, 2019


Ever thine, ever mine, ever us.

Beethoven to his 'Immortal Beloved' - and the source of our title, EVER US, for the new work that Roxanna Panufnik is writing for the Rundfunkchor Berlin and nine visiting choirs from all over the world, from Lebanon to the US to South Africa, to be premiered on 1 May 2020 in the great Berlin Philharmonie itself.

I have fashioned the libretto for this work out of Beethoven's own writings and those of the authors he loved, among them Goethe, Schiller, Kant, Tiedge and Sturm - and we follow him through his love of nature, his passion for liberty, deep despair, hopeless love and eventual transcendence. After it, we hear the finale of his Ninth Symphony (no pressure, then...).

This concert brings representatives from many corners of the globe together to celebrate our unity in humanity. We are...ever us. Ever together. Ever thine, ever mine, ever us.

When you see British representatives of the "Brexit Party" in the EU parliament physically turning their backs on the Ode to Joy, it is not in our name and represents us in no way. People declare themselves embarrassed by this heinous incident. I don't think 'embarrassed' is a strong enough word. It is more accurate to say we are revolted, furious, and determined to counter it in every way we can.

"When will there come a day when there are only people?" Beethoven wrote to a friend who was travelling to Russia, where the composer knew he would be depressed by the desperate social divisions he saw. "Only people": not nobles and serfs. "Only people": undivided. Today we must stand together against the perversion of our homeland by the Brexiter wreckers.

We are... Ever together. Ever thine, ever mine, ever us.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Meet lifelong composer Erika Fox. Her first CD is out today. She is 82.

This is one of my favourite interview assignments ever, just out in The JC. Erika Fox, who escaped Anschluss Vienna as a toddler with her mother, and has struggled all her life to follow her musical vocation, tells me her story. The first-ever commercial recording of her music is released today on the NMC label.

Erika Fox
Photo: Tim Fox

Erika Fox’s coffee mug is emblazoned with the title of HG Wells’s The Invisible Man. One can’t help noticing, because this extraordinary composer has for too long been an almost invisible woman. Today, her first-ever commercial CD is released, featuring a selection of her chamber works. She is 82.
Musical cognoscenti reacted with horrified astonishment to the realisation that Fox’s music has not previously been recorded. Its style is tough yet mesmerising, highly individual, with a strong undertow of unsettling emotion. “Some people have said it’s challenging, but because it’s mine, I don’t think of it that way,” Fox remarks. “To me it’s ordinary. It’s what I do.”
She lives in west London in a house overflowing with books and music, her home on and off for decades. Her music is much like her upfront personality — warm, perceptive and forthright, with a refreshing dislike of “pussyfooting around”. But it has also been nurtured with many difficult and painful memories...

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Goodyear rising

Absolutely thrilled to present a Q&A with the American composer and pianist Stewart Goodyear, who's in London today (QEH), Basingstoke tomorrowSymphony Hall, Birmingham, on Saturday and the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, on Sunday to perform his own suite Callaloo with the Chineke! orchestra. We talk inspiration, celebration, composition and golden ages...

Stewart Goodyear: part of a new golden age of composer-pianists?

He's also the soloist on a new album featuring the work alongside Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, which will be out on 7 July (Orchid Classics). It's conducted by Wayne Marshall. Here's a taster - which takes me right back to the day, around two decades ago, when Wayne performed the solo piano part with the LPO under Kurt, though, he and Stewart seem in much greater harmony!). JD

JD: Stewart, welcome to JDCMB! Please tell us about Callaloo: what is the story behind it? What inspired you to write it? And what can listeners expect from it?

SG: I always wanted to write a work that paid homage to my Trinidadian background. My suite for piano and orchestra, Callaloo, was composed in 2016, two years after I first experienced Carnival in Trinidad. At that festival, I was exposed to gorgeous Calypso music for two weeks straight, riveted every second. My dream was to showcase the music of my heritage in a classical work.

The suite is in five movements, each a musical depiction of various parts of the Carnival. The finale is a wild Soca, a high-tempo Calypso that compels the listener to jump up and throw away inhibitions. 
The work is a joyous celebration of life, of people coming together....Listeners can expect their bodies to inadvertently move to the music!

JD: What’s it been like to work with Chineke? What does this orchestra mean to you?

SG: I love every moment of working with the musicians of Chineke! All members are passionate and committed to their art, and strive for the very best in musicianship. The representation of people of all races and colours performing music that they love, and are passionate about, is a statement that is very much needed in the classical world. 

JD: Please tell us about your own background. How and where did you start learning the piano (and/or composition)? Who most encouraged and inspired you? And what do you regard as the most important landmarks in your career to date?

SG: I come from a very musically eclectic background...My father, who died a month before I was born, left a legacy of LPs ranging from the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Ravi Shankar, and the symphonies of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Hearing those later artists made me desire to have a close affinity to classical music...I was drawn to that music more than any other. 

There are so many people I will be eternally grateful for. A few I will mention: so much thanks, love and gratitude to my mother who believed in me and supported me from the very start, my piano teachers at both the Curtis Institute of Music and the Juilliard School, and Jennifer Higdon for supporting my composition, Matthew Trusler and the team of Orchid Classics, Stephen Carpenter, Chi-chi Nwanoku and the musicians of Chineke!

I have been fortunate to work with wonderful music teachers, hear incredible musicians in concert and on recordings, and work with fantastic people throughout my career. Some of the landmarks of my career have been fulfilling my dream of recording the complete Beethoven piano sonatas and concerti, composing 3 piano concerti and various other compositions, and recording Callaloo with Chineke!

Stewart plays his own 'Baby Shark' Fugue

JD: Have you always composed as well as being a pianist, or is this a new departure for you? How do you manage the combination of two musical activities in the practical sense? And what are you composing next?

SG: I have always had equal passions of becoming both a concert pianist and a composer. Being a lover of music history, I have been enthralled by the works of composer/performers like Beethoven, Liszt and Rachmaninov to name only a few. Composition has become a part of my life since I was 8 years old, and musical ideas flow through me wherever I I always travel with manuscript paper!

I have just composed a cello concerto which will be performed Rachel Mercer and the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa next season, and future projects include a piano quintet in honour of the Beethoven year 2020.

JD: Do you think there’s a resurgence taking place in the tradition of the composer-pianist that was so prevalent in the 19th century and early 20th? How do you feel about this idea?

SG:I truly hope that this tradition becomes the norm, and I am very excited by the resurgence of this practice, with composer-pianists like Thomas Ades, Daniil Trifonov, Stephen Hough and others. I believe nurturing a new generation of composer-performers will bring the classical music art form to a new Renaissance and golden age.

JD: Do you think the classical music world is making progress in the matter of diversity and equality? What would make the biggest difference, in your view, to the possibility of establishing this balance?

SG: The classical music world is beginning to take notice that many musicians of all colours are celebrating their love of this music without the fear of boundaries or walls. There are still ways to go for the classical music world to make progress in the matter of diversity and equality, but those ways are now being discussed, which is a positive step forward. I think the solution for true equality lies with how classical music programs are structured: Instead of boxing composers by race and sex, include them on programs where they are equal to the composers established already through history. As French, Russian and Italian composers are celebrated equally to German and Austrian composers in concerts, composers of every colour and background should be just as celebrated. Classical music will then be a truly relevant art form embraced by all demographics.