Thursday, March 19, 2020

Kitten on the keys?

Morning. I hope you're bearing up OK and finding some way to take in the latest developments without the elevator-stopping lurch of stomach that seems to hit me whenever I open up my browser.

The most touching thing I've seen this morning is a note on Twitter from a prominent journalist, offering to look after a cat. She had one, but he has died, she doesn't really want to have a pet full time, not really, but she misses him and would be happy to take in an indoor kitty if someone needs one to be cared for, for a bit.

Our furry pals can be a cause for concern. If we can't get their normal food for any reason, they won't understand the substitute and they'll stare at us as if to say, "What do you mean, 'Essential Waitrose'?" They need to be combed and fed and spoilt. Dogs require lots of daily walking, and a routine, which is the reason we have never had one. We'd love a dog someday. (Ricki and Cosi might not, of course.)   It's a lot of work, having a pet, but they are so much part of our lives that if you're used to their company, doing without it can be, frankly, agony.

One can't predict how animals are going to react to music, and our two gorgeous Somali cats are no exception. When Tom starts practising, Cosi sits outside the door and meowls at top voice. She is a petite creature - our vet calls her a "diddi-cat" - but she can do serious shouting when she wants to, and she doesn't give up. Paganini seems the usual trigger, and whether it's the vaguely feline overtones in the double-stopping or the fact that Cosi wants ATTENTION, NOW, we will probably never know. Ricki seems to enjoy Mozart piano sonatas and, having a deeper, darker cat-voice, did once show a real fascination for the cor anglais solo in Act III of Tristan und Isolde.

More importantly, at the moment, they provide cuddles and sanity. I think they know what's going on, if not the exact latest figures of infection versus recoveries versus stringent new measures like starting to reduce the Tube service and cancelling kids' exams. Ours are not lap-cats. They used to be, as kittens, but when they were about 18 months old they suddenly decided they were grown up and were going to be dignified. This morning, though, Ricki sat on my lap and purred for a good five minutes. I'm not sure what I've done to deserve this honour. Nevertheless, cats are sensitive and we underestimate their intuitive capabilities. I think they know when we need them.

Yesterday, the big challenge I identified was the need for focus. I wonder if you're finding this as difficult as I am? I honestly have no idea how to do it. I have some actual work, with deadlines, at least for the next 10 days or so. And, with weird timing, I am on Radio 4 tomorrow and need to be up to speed on what I'm talking about, which has nothing whatsoever to do with pandemics or worldwide economic collapse, so I have to stop reading the Guardian liveblog and start swotting relevant material PDQ.

It's easy to say "get on with your work", and I'm lucky still to have anything to do. But how do you make the assessment of something planned for six months to a year's time feel real, important and relevant? How do you write that feature about a pianist and her thrilling concerts and how she's mapped out her Wigmore Hall programme? I'll find a way, because I must, but everything we took for granted has suddenly acquired an air of surrealism that is really not helpful.

The cats don't help that side of things at all: they want me to stop whatever I'm doing and play with them. At least someone in the house will stand to benefit from idle human beings. I hope that my journalist friend will decide sooner or later that what she actually wants is a cat of her own.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Dear London,

...Good morning. You are my home. You always were. Sometimes I hate you and dream of escaping your grey skies and fume-filled air for...somewhere warm, somewhere pretty, somewhere with sun and orange trees...and never returning. At the moment, though, I love you more than ever.

A couple of years ago we joined a club, one of those spacious, historic buildings where you can sit in absolute peace in the centre of the city, sipping a nice glass of wine and reading the TLS. Like most of these clubs, its doors are now closing for the C-19 crisis, so we went for dinner last night, the last opportunity. We are fine and have not been in contact with anybody suffering symptoms, so this was a reasoned decision and will probably be our last outing for months. I took the train into Waterloo - not empty, but relatively quiet - and walked across the bridge, past Charing Cross and through Trafalgar Square.

There is no upstream overcrowding on exiting the station, no traffic, and only scant bicycles or scooters to knock one over between there and the South Bank; usually the Waterloo main entrance is so appallingly designed, and the streets nearby so mismanaged, that there are 10 different ways you can be killed in five minutes.

The Royal Festival Hall is eerie: most of the restaurants are still open, and sparsely populated by small groups of young people, but the venues are shut. On the way home later, Tom admits quietly to having a "soft spot" for the place (where he has after all worked for 34 years), which is a way of saying it means the absolute world to him, and now it's closed. The bridge is empty of tourists, buskers or sellers of caramelised nuts. River boats pass underneath looking like the Marie Celeste. In Trafalgar Square, the lions preside and Nelson seems to wonder, up there, what's going on. The mood is sober. Outside the National Gallery a young man plays a Celtic harp - a silvery, ancient sort of sound, a fine alternative for St Patrick's Day - and pavement artists are chalking Paddington Bear with his red duffle coat onto the flagstones. I imagine Dame Myra Hess marching up those stairs during the Blitz, then wonder if she had to use a side entrance.

As usual, in London, there are as many different attitudes and opinions as there are people (estimated: 10m). One newspaper has noted that we're all talking to each other on the phone more than usual. The instinct is to huddle together, just when we can't. As the Italians say, we must keep our distance now in order to hug each other later. I've had various phone conversations with friends, three-metres-away chats with neighbours, and some long emails. The emotional range is from basic panic (induced mostly by empty shelves in Waitrose) to basic, relaxed, sit-it-out acceptance and, also, a downright relishing of the opportunity this unprecedented-in-our-lifetimes event gives society to rethink, completely, its priorities, structures and means of functioning.

I quote one dear friend who sees things in a more positive light than I do, and may have a point:

"The world is entirely reinventing itself! Our utterly corrupted and broken society and planet is forcing us to rethink our ENTIRE way of life... I know it is SO sad for us individually when so much is being lost (especially income ... very worrying), but I just wonder whether this is the moment where the world as we knew it cracks open, and then a new, more human way of existing is forced into existence...I'm not unhappy about the world taking a break ... the human tragedy aside, I can't think of anything better than the planet having space to breathe, and people having a chance to reconnect and reflect and think..."

Income being lost...well, quite. Yesterday, my commissions and engagements dropped like flies, and not like albums (how I loathe that term "x is dropping a new album" - it sounds like trousers, or guano). Programme notes for concerts are not needed if there are no concerts. Two of our planned IMMORTAL pilot performances in late spring are victim to cancelled series and festivals; much uncertainty surrounds major events in other parts of the world as well as closer to home. I am trying to find a silver lining in the truism that this will give me more time to work on IMMORTAL when it comes back from the editor, who hopefully is as able to work alone at home as I am.

The flood of dis/misinformation continues. When fact-checking the news, please read only official and trusted sources, and apply common sense at all times. Remember, for example, that if a virus could simply be flushed into the stomach and killed by warm water, we wouldn't have a pandemic at all. Meanwhile even left-wing commentators are noticing that the charismatic Rishi Sunak, the recently appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, can wipe the floor with the bumbling, bungling, burbling Boris PM. And reading Keir Starmer's articles, I keep wishing there was some way to magic him into Downing Street right away.

We go day by day. We can't do much else.

Hang in there, and see you tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

JDCMB: JD's Coronacrisis and Music Blog

I am turning this blog into a diary to chronicle how things are going, because why not. 

I've always had a sense of fragility about life. It's possibly because I lost both my parents and my sister to cancer within a scant few years, the family home was dismantled and sold and the rug under our feet went west in no time. It seemed a measure of how easily one's life can just...vanish. I remember at the height of the mid-Noughties' good times a violinist friend came round to play through a concerto in our front room. The roses were out, the sun was shining, the window was open, we had world-class Elgar ringing out in the company of close friends, and I went to the fridge to find the champagne, thinking: "I wonder how long this life can go on? It's too good to be true."

Perhaps, after all, it was as illusory as I suspected. We declined. Now we're falling. Of course, thinking like that is not remotely helpful, but as programme note writing vanishes overnight, everything closes, the orchestra does...who knows what, because we don't know yet...because nobody knows how long this will go on for...there is a distinct sense of unreality. Anyone freelance at the moment is facing the nightmare of their lives, whatever their field.

One of the most difficult aspects is the uncertainty of how long it will continue. Weeks? Months? The rest of this season? Over the summer? What about autumn? The Bavarian State Opera has just announced that next season it is having, among other things (ELEVEN new productions) Tristan und Isolde with Kirill Petrenko conducting, starring Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros - and qu'est-ce qu'on fait?

An illustration by Maurice Lalu for Tristan und Iseult, 1909
(Don't try this with your friends at the moment)

Yesterday the government gave "advice". It stopped short of ordering theatres, pubs, concert halls etc to close, but recommended that people do not go to them. Twitter is full of conspiracy theories now about why this is, for example "...the Tories' mates run insurance companies and this will give them a get-out clause to not pay up..." I'd treat that with suspicion as if this isn't "force majeure", goodness knows what is. [UPDATE 2.50pm - fact-check here:]

We have a basic problem in the UK that, broadly speaking, a) the people do not really trust the government to do the right things, and b) the government does not really trust the people to obey directives (b being a logical consequence of a). That implied social contract went out the window at the last election because we had no credible opposition to elect, and this unfortunately is the price being paid. The crisis shows why we need to elect intelligent politicians who are expert managers in a crisis, who communicate clearly, decisively and sympathetically, and who do not sacrifice good sense to pig-headed ideology: people who can unite everyone when the going gets tough. This seems a distant dream right now. If the government's communication strategy is such a mess, what does that say about the substance of the rest of their "projects"? All we can do at present is...stay off Twitter.

As of yesterday, the Royal Opera House and English National Opera have closed until further notice and the Wigmore Hall has closed until, it says at present, 14 April. Currently awaiting news from more arts companies. There were performances over the weekend: the Philharmonia did the Beethoven 1808 reconstruction, Piers Lane gave a wonderful recital and ENO opened a new production of The Marriage of Figaro, but I'm afraid I didn't go to any of them because I didn't want to sit in my home-from-homes wondering when I will ever see them again and whether this is the last concert/opera/recital I will ever attend, because who knows. I do want to keep on being a voice of reason, because that has long been my role, but it can be difficult sometimes.

I thought I'd do something positive, so I'm trying to start a WhatsApp group for our neighbours. We have quite a few elderly people in the vicinity and it is important that everyone feels connected. Of course everyone is all for it, but it turns out that some of the target members do not have smartphones and don't know how to use WhatsApp...and I realise that I, too, do not quite know how to use WhatsApp on an iPad. Which is embarrassing. One neighbour has a son who's in IT, so hopefully he can advise.

We have never been so connected, in a way: the quantity of work that can be done remotely is fantastic. Instead of taking planes, trains and automobiles to other cities or countries, we can hook up from our computers. We can FaceTime. We can Skype. We can WhatsApp (if we know how). And we have the social element of social media. So this is a major advantage. Nevertheless, there is a staggering quantity of absolute claptrap doing the rounds on social media and it is well worth avoiding. The other day a friend earnestly forwarded me a circular from a supposed medical expert source (unnamed, of course) with all kinds of advice about how not to get coronavirus, every shred of which can be roundly disproved in seconds on a good search engine. People are putting around spurious theories about everything from insurance to crash-dieting, and if we are fond of them we have to try to be kind about it.

Some reality checks are taking placed, which is better. There's been shock at the idea that there is £000 to be made from books, and especially not from China (seriously, some company there published a translation of one of mine, yet I had no contract, no payment and not even a copy of it. They got in touch wanting me to do some publicity, which is how I knew.) There have been falling jawbones at the information that members of most UK orchestras are freelance and are not paid a salary. There has been disbelief at the notion that some seriously famous musicians, having lost all their work in a matter of days, have no financial safety net whatsoever. Looking for a silver lining: we can learn, fast, about actuality versus supposition.

If we need and can face a culture fix, there are plenty of streaming services to bring opera, ballet, concerts and theatre into our computers. This is great. St Mary's Perivale, while closing its doors to its devoted audience, is intending to continue its performances as "virtual concerts" to be live-streamed with no audience. If this situation has not cleared up by the end of May, Viv and I may end up doing the premiere of our new Beethoven show like that.

The things that are keeping me sane are:
-- Tom
-- the cats
-- Kalms tablets at bedtime
-- the bits of work that are not falling through because associated with live performances
-- the Beethoven book is due back from the editor any day now and will need a great deal of concentration. Perhaps this is actually good timing...
-- a new confidence in my own intuition, because it's turned out that my superstition about Mahler 1 being a harbinger of doom was absolutely true
-- certain contents of the wine rack
-- it's spring, the magnolia over the fence is absolutely beautiful and so far we are still allowed to go for long walks in the park and by the river.

It is good to have plans and projects, especially creative ones, and I do have several, but the next challenge will be how to maintain concentration enough to realise them.

So today I will press on. I have to finesse some CD booklet notes and transcribe an interview with a lovely pianist. Tonight we were planning to go out to dinner...we might do it anyway...unless the place we want to go has closed its doors until further notice by then.

I'm going to try to write this blog every day. I don't know how much music there will be, but I'll do my best. Good luck out there.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

There may be trouble ahead

I'm never very happy about Mahler's First Symphony, which after a strange mix of circumstances about 8 or 9 years ago has become somehow associated with portents of Not Good Things. So I'm keeping clear of the one at the RFH tonight and hiding behind the sofa instead.

Seriously, this expectation is currently not wrong. My husband's orchestral tour to Germany and Austria for a week looks unlikely to go ahead as at least the Vienna and Munich parts of it won't happen; perhaps some clever manager can make alternative plans to hook up those that remain, but if so we have yet to hear about it and they're off (if at all) in under 48 hours. Moreover, my social media timelines are full of musicians and actors who have arrived at their designated opera houses or concert halls to find that everything is cancelled for the next fortnight/month/who knows. Musicians who make a living from performing on cruises are likewise facing cancellations (a cruise ship is no place to be trapped at the best of times, least of all now, but it's still their means of feeding their families). Please remember, these professionals do not get paid in these circumstances. Actors, tour guides, anyone self-employed, anyone in spheres that necessarily involve people "going anywhere or doing anything", is facing a period of extreme anxiety. If financial woes were not enough, what about the prospects for health and actual survival?

UPDATE, 11.50am: It has come to my attention that many people, including regular audience members and even some critics, have no idea that the majority of London-based orchestras (except for the BBC ones and the Royal Opera House) are SELF-EMPLOYED and therefore if their concerts, tours and summer opera seasons are cancelled they get NO money at all. The same is true of opera singers. Soprano Lee Bisset tweeted this morning: "Performances can be the culmination of months of (unpaid) work and thousands of pounds outlay in a accommodation, travel, coaching, childcare etc. What looks like the loss of 2 weeks’ work can actually amount to the loss of half a performers’ annual income."

I am in no position to offer any advice on either health or finance, but I can suggest one or two ways to help keep your head level in these bizarre times.

1. Stay away from conspiracy theories. If you see any, please do not be seduced by them. They are seriously unhelpful. Please apply a three-point rule to assessment:
-- Context and history (e.g. is there a history of diseases emanating from dodgy animal markets with appalling hygiene, around which people then inhale and eat? Yes. Does this therefore carry a higher level of probability than the scenario of that dodgy sci-fi-style conspiracy theory you're reading?)
-- Source. What site are you reading? Who produces it and why? What is their stance? Above all, what is their subtext? (E.g. a site purports to be offering news. It is actually offering "alt-right", i.e. Nazi, propaganda.) Be very careful about who you're listening to. If in doubt, log off.
-- "Do I want to believe it?" If you find that you do, then take a long hard look in the mirror and ask yourself why.

2. Be careful even with genuine news. While working for a newspaper for 12 years, I often wondered "if that many mistakes get into the music reports, what on earth are they doing to the news?" Headlines and "standfirsts" are the biggest problem areas, because they can be misleading. They are not created by the same people who write the articles. They are usually out to grab attention. You may find that an article's content completely disproves what you thought you were about to read, but you may have to actually read it to discover this, instead of taking on the OMGOMG message you absorb from the headline. You may also find that an interviewee's words have been twisted to give the impression that he/she said something nasty when they actually didn't, simply to encourage senseless mud-throwing on a false premise. Again, you have to look at the outlet's agenda. (This applies to music features, too.)

3. Only trust proven experts, who in this case are scientists.

4. Have a strategy in case you're quarantined at home for several weeks. Have a project. Learn to play a new piece. Read that book. Write that book. Make those long-postponed phone calls and catch up with friends over Skype or whatever. For me, self-isolation is rather a way of life (it's the only way anything can be written), but if I can't go out to listen to someone playing the "Hammerklavier" I shall damn well try to learn it myself, two bars a day if need be, and hope that my husband is wearing his ear-protectors.

5. Check up on any vulnerable friends regularly, but don't alarm them. 

6. Don't sweat the small stuff. Irritants become more irritating when your anxiety levels are high, so try and keep them to a minimum. Incidentally, if you still have to get hot and bovvered about the old chestnuts like coughing in concerts, this is the time to enjoy noise-free performances (if they haven't all been cancelled). I noticed that you could hear a pin drop at Fidelio last week, and many friends have reported the same thing. It proves that people can and will suppress coughing when they think about it.

7. Do not apportion blame. It helps nobody.

8. Remember: this too will pass. Top tip from my mum (1932-1994).

9. Keep calm and listen to Beethoven. Here's how to wash your hands to 'An die ferne Geliebte' (the site doesn't cope very well with umlauts, but there we go).

Sunday, March 08, 2020

International Women's Day: a celebration!

It's time to celebrate International Women's Day, and alongside a number of fantastic programmes on BBC Radio 3, which is playing works by female composers all day, there's a lot more going on besides. Catch the new film Beyond the Grace Note about conductors who are female, on Sky Arts, directed by Henrietta Foster - 3pm today. Writer Anna Beer and composer Debbie Wiseman are giving a talk later today at Kellogg College, Oxford. Kathryn Stott has just announced a terrific range of music by women that will be heard later in the year at her Australian Festival of Chamber Music (more about that very soon). The list could continue.

For our own celebration here on JDCMB, I've assembled some of my favourite pieces by female composers, for your musical delectation. They are in no particular order and have not been chosen for any representative geographical or temporal spread. I've picked some because they are specially well played, others because they will have wide appeal, one because it shows the composer playing the violin, and all of them because they are fantastic pieces that ought to be performed more widely, as should the other music by their composers. If you are a musician and enjoy these, please use the selection as a jumping-off point for further exploration of their works and consider adding them to your repertoire.

Have a wonderful IWD, everyone!

CLARA SCHUMANN: PIANO TRIO, Op. 17. I personally think this is her best piece, but feel free to pick another if you prefer!

LOUISE FARRENC: SYMPHONY NO. 3. Ought to be 'standard repertoire' the world over.

GRAZYNA BACEWICZ performs her own OBEREK (1952) - chose this one because it is rare film of the composer playing her own music, but there are MANY wonderful pieces by her

BARBARA STROZZI: L'ERACLITO AMOROSO. If you like Monteverdi, you'll adore this. A beautifully made music-video film performed by Heather Newhouse and Le Concert de l'Hostel Dieu.

ROXANNA PANUFNIK: FOUR WORLD SEASONS, smashing violin concerto written for Tasmin Little. Here's the last movement, 'Indian Summer'.

ERROLLYN WALLEN: MIGHTY RIVER. Wonderful piece combining spirituals and contemporary techniques to reflect on slavery and freedom.

NICOLA LEFANU: TOKAIDO ROAD, chamber opera performed at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. A spare, sensitive, magical work inspired by the life of the artist Hiroshige.

VITEZLAVA KAPRALOVA: PARTITA FOR PIANO & ORCHESTRA. Martinu's star pupil (and more), she should have been a leading Czech voice of the 30s, but she died tragically at the age of 25. This is a dazzling and ruggedly challenging piece...

ELIZABETH MACONCHY: STRING QUARTET NO. 1. This is the just the first of a major series of quartets that should by rights be heard as often as certain other 20th-century cycles. Next, hear all her others.

SOFIA GUBAILDULINA: CHACONNE. Performed by the magnificent Sofya Gulyak. Any pianist looking for a contemporary work by a female composer to add to their regular concert repertoire should have a look at this brilliant piece right away.