Friday, June 05, 2020

Solidarity: Chineke! revisited



The concerts by Chineke!, Europe's first-ever majority BME orchestra, have been among the most uplifting of any I've attended. The phrase "a breath of fresh air" has often come to mind. It is not a question of sitting primly to listen thinking proper thoughts like "Ah, multi-racial, very good...". And it is certainly not about suddenly making classical music "cool" by, ooh, including performers of different races who might wear something relaxed and smile now and then. No. It's a direct and gut-based reaction to the atmosphere in the hall.

There's enthusiasm, delight, revelation - for lots of people come to these events who have rarely or never attended a concert before - and a sense of discovery for us all. For example, music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and his daughter Avril Coleridge-Taylor that we have never heard programmed in "mainstream" concerts, or the music of wonderful contemporary composers such as the Errollyn Wallen, Philip Herbert and Daniel Kidane. The excitement in the audience, though, is a response to that on stage.

This week the term "a breath of fresh air" has acquired a whole new meaning. George Floyd's last words "I can't breathe" have swept the world as the emblem signalling, over entrenched racism, that enough is enough.

As a tribute and in solidarity, here is an extract from Chineke!'s concert four years ago at the Queen Elizabeth Hall: this is their "signature" piece, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Ballade. Wayne Marshall conducts.

Coleridge-Taylor, like Barack Obama, was the son of a white mother and a black father. In 1912, aged 37, he collapsed on West Croydon station and died several days later of pneumonia, brought on through exhaustion and overwork. This was partly because although he had written the most popular oratorio of Edwardian England, Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, he had sold the rights for a one-off pittance and received no financial recompense whatever for its wild success. Among those who had defended him against the racism he encountered for much of his short life was his teacher at the Royal College of Music, Charles Stanford, who on hearing another student making racist remarks, informed him that Coleridge-Taylor had more talent for music in his little finger than the rest of the students put together.

I want you to hear this music and reflect on where we could all be, instead of the fearsome and disgraceful situation that lies before us now. We could be making music together, in joy, freedom and equality, no matter who we are or where we come from.

You cannot stand in front of something you know is wrong and do nothing. To make a change, one has first to recognise the need for it. And maybe that's where Chineke!'s power comes from: a recognition, an idea, a plan - and action. A breath of fresh air.


Thursday, June 04, 2020

Triumph, tragedy and trying very hard

Another week, another litany of bungles, idiocies and the counting of "excess" deaths (where's Beckett when you need him?) and in the arts world a paradoxical mingling of unjustified pessimism, unjustified optimism and unjustified attacks on one for the other are doing little to help. However, some things are moving, and they are not always the things you'd expect.

The Wigmore Hall has started a series of live-streamed lunchtime concerts in front of a physical audience of two (the head of the venue and the Radio 3 announcer). Taken up first by Radio 3 and subsequently by the European Broadcasting Union too, they are already reaching vast international audiences. Today you can hear Nicholas Daniel (oboe) and Julius Drake (piano). The Royal Opera House is planning to start a similar idea later this month. Everywhere there's streaming, creativity, resourcefulness. And everywhere I hear opinions like, "Oh, the big places will be fine because they have money. It's the smaller ones I'm worried about..."

Actually - no. It's the big ones that are at most risk: those that are too large to adapt easily. A smaller organisation that is not fixed to a large, costly venue stands much more chance of surviving through changing its own practices, because it can. For example, Viv McLean and I were booked some while ago for a performance at a local music society in November, at a small neighbourhood venue of which we are very fond. The other week I had a call that I expected to reveal the cancellation of the event. Instead, the director asked if we'd mind playing somewhere larger, where the audience would be able to be seated with social distancing. They moved the concert by one day and about 500 metres to a beautiful, spacious church. We currently expect the performance to go ahead. They can do that.

A venue like the Royal Albert Hall or the ROH has a different problem. Their bricks and mortar, their red plush and their histories are as much their selling point as the artistry they house - and the costs of running huge venues are, in a nutshell, ferocious. The ROH has warned that it risks folding if social distancing has to continue past the autumn, because the economics of running a theatre that way simply cannot work in the long term. A lean, mean entity that can be flexible about its numbers, its venues, its pay and its programming is a tree-climbing mammal alongside the immovable brontosaurs that we love so much.

Overseas, in places where the pandemic has been bettered managed and more swiftly conquered, where transport by road from other parts of Europe is a little easier, and where funding is more readily available, some festivals are starting to reconstitute themselves. In the latest move, an email from Pontresina tells me that the Engadin Festival, based in St Moritz, is going ahead, again using larger venues than planned to enable audience distancing, and due to reconstituting of attendance numbers, involving a surprise recital by Renaud Capuçon and Martha Argerich and not one but two, for two socially distanced crowds, by Grigory Sokolov.

Here in plague island, where we can also look forward to the double-whammy joys (not) of a fantasist government of zealots foisting hard brexit upon us in the new year, it's not so easy. Streaming and Zooming seem to be if not quite the future then certainly the present. Resourcefulness certainly pays off. The LPO held its annual fundraising gala online the other day, included an individually pre-recorded movement from the 'Eroica' and got its guests to put on DJs for the occasion. Idagio has launched a Global Concert Hall in which specially filmed performances are available live and for 24 hours afterwards and cost £4.99 to watch, with "80% of net proceeds" going direct to the artists, which I hope might mean they receive something worthwhile, rather than the price of a pizza for 6 million streams.

On the one hand, streaming is great, with the potential for truly globalised audiences. But on the other hand, it's tragic. The performances I've enjoyed watching the most during this time are those previously filmed in packed venues with cheering audiences throwing flowers on stage at the end. I am listening to various livestreams, or catching up on them afterwards, but there's a cracking noise that interferes and it's my heart. I shall keep listening, in the hope that somehow or other I will get used to it...

The empty shell of a theatre or hall turns out to be a poor substitute for one that is alive with coughs, sweet paper rustles, chattering, shushing, canoodling and clapping between movements. Who knew: all those things so many people loved to hate and to mouth off about in fury on social media are in fact the very lifeblood of a concert hall.

It is better than nothing, but it has got to be a temporary, not a permanent solution. Whatever you do, don't start thinking of this as that blood-curdling concept "new normal". There is nothing normal about any of it and nor should there be. This is the thin end of a very wobbly wedge. It's as welcome as can be, because it keeps those stages, those artists and that music pulsing along in our lives and hearts. We need music in our lives. But those stages and those artists and that music, with composers hard at work, need us, too. There in person. Showing we love it. Supporting them.

In order to show that love and support, I'll include in postings, wherever possible, a performance from Youtube for you to enjoy. Today's is Imogen Cooper's 70th birthday concert from the Wigmore Hall, given last autumn.




Sunday, May 31, 2020

Dancing du Pré



Ballet at its finest does something no other art form can match. It can articulate elusive emotions and ineffable relationships, making them palpable when words would scarcely exist. How, for instance, can one capture the nature of the relationship between a musician and their instrument? The interdependency which seems to make the latter into a second self, an interwoven soul?

The latest online offering from the Royal Opera House is the new ballet The Cellist by choreographer Cathy Marston, which was premiered only a few months ago. It's the story of Jacqueline du Pré, with original score by Philip Feeney partly based on many different pieces from her repertoire - Elgar, Schubert, Beethoven, Fauré, Schumann and more - with one important difference. The cello is human.

Indeed, he's Marcelino Sambé, one of the Royal Ballet's brightest young stars (if you saw the disappointingly infantilised TV documentary about the company's male dancers the other day, you'll have spotted him there). How do you become a cello? Sambé's extraordinary dancing embodies it all: there's virtuosity, plasticity, dignity, yearning beauty and an otherness, offset by human beings with their multiplicity of everyday detail. Moreover, anyone who's ever dated or married a musician knows that "there's three of us in this relationship": and the emotional height is not the sensual Fauré-based pas de deux for the Cellist and the Husband, but the performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto - backed by a dancing orchestra - in which the two of them and the Cello become an inseparable twelve-limbed conglomeration of movement, concentration and flow, rising and falling individually yet as one.

Opening with the rolling of many LPs, which inspire the child Jackie to dream of learning to play, with the Cello reaching out to her, the ballet follows her from her first lessons through young adulthood, leaving home, meeting and marrying her conductor husband (of whom more in a moment) and the heights of success; then the onset of her illness and her decline until the poignant final scene in which she lies in her armchair listening to her own recording, with Sambé spinning around her like an LP in frisbee flight.

The dramaturgical detail is seriously enjoyable for du Pré fans, who will guess that Gary Avis is William Pleeth, taking hold of Sambé to demonstrate a phrase, or that the wedding is in Israel by the Wailing Wall amid the wartime dangers of 1967, and that the Jewish wedding dance is but a step away from Hava Nagila. The 'Musical Friends' in bright-coloured shirts who join the three leads for a session based on the scherzo of the 'Trout' Quintet are bound to be Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Zubin Mehta - capturing in dance all the joyous collegiality, quirkiness and high-jinx fun that the quintet brought to that famous filmed performance: Jackie is transformed briefly into her husband's piano, held for him by the three men, which feels like a delicious riff on the way the group were captured in Christopher Nupen's film trying to play one another's instruments. Much of this won't be obvious to those who are not intimately familiar with du Pré's history, but those who are will derive a bit of extra "ooh" factor from the ballet.

Lauren Cuthbertson as The Cellist, Marcelino Sambé as The Instrument
Photo: (c) ROH, Bill Cooper 

Matthew Ball as the Husband - Daniel Barenboim, of course - can't help but be taller and lither than the man himself, but his dancing really does embody something of Barenboim's driven, animalistic energy. As The Cellist, Lauren Cuthbertson too is uncannily like du Pré, in blue dress, pony tail and a succession of cardigans: the generous smile, the open-limbed joie-de-vivre, the absolute get-up-and-go that vanishes in the agony of illness, finally shattering in the trembling of a bow arm that, in front of an assembled audience and with Sambé ready in front of her, simply will not move.

Other characters are treated with a lighter touch than they have sometimes received in other contexts. The Sister (implicitly Hilary) is an archetypal sister, stirring Jackie's tea, beautifully danced by Anna Rose O'Sullivan. The parents are a lovely, conventional family and the Mother's anguish over the abandoned cardigan as Jackie vanishes into the big wide world is deeply touching. Marston sets all of this with a gentle, humane quirkiness in which the Cello is not the only inanimate object transformed by human portrayal: dancers become the family furniture, with a finger as a switch on a lamp, and later, briefly, du Pré's wheelchair. Specially wonderful are a couple of star turns for the sisters as children, Lauren Godfrey as the teenage Hilary and Emma Lucano as the dreaming young Jackie, who match the adults for charisma, character and expertise.

Marston's choreography captures all of this wealth of history, imagination and otherwise intangible embodiment with tremendous flair. The cello performance starter-pose is perfect: Sambé kneeling in front of Cuthbertson with one raised arm as the cello's neck and one extended leg as its spike. Yet occasionally the sheer quantity of movement can feel overwhelming: personally I enjoy moments of slowness and stillness in ballet in which the eye and brain can enwrap more clearly the sculptural moments of the choreography, something one finds aplenty in Ashton and MacMillan. As in music, a rest can speak more loudly than demisemiquavers, so too in dance.

Perhaps the ultimate value of this ballet, though, is to illuminate for those to whom it's a new concept that a musical instrument is not just an inanimate object. You do not put them in the plane's hold, and this is why. It literally risks breaking your dancing partner into pieces. I hope that in the empty-skied lockdown, many off-duty airline staff will see and enjoy this fabulous creation and understand, some for the first time, exactly what they are doing.

Last but by no means least, there is glorious cello playing throughout from Hetty Snell.

You can watch the whole thing here. Please donate to the company, which is losing 60% of its income while forcibly closed, with no reopening date currently knowable.


Wednesday, May 27, 2020

In case you missed BEETHOVEN MATTERS, catch up here

Toby Spence sings Florestan's aria, together with pianist David Owen Norris
but somewhere else

Yesterday it was a pleasure and privilege to "Dimbleby" for Beethoven Matters, a discussion for Garsington Opera and the Royal Philharmonic Society - one that we had assumed weeks ago would not be able to go ahead. Here's what actually happened.

We were going to be live in a small London music venue, expecting an audience of maybe 150-200, with a performance from two of our panellists, Toby Spence and David Owen Norris, and questions from the floor at the end. We expected to have to defend Beethoven amid the slough of overkill resulting from his 250th anniversary and to raise appetite for the new production of Fidelio at Garsington this summer, with Toby as Florestan. All this was going to happen on 29 April, and it was with regret that we saw it floating away into the ether, complete with the new production and most of the anniversary events across the world.

Hang on - there is a thing called Zoom. And some clever people who work for Garsington and the RPS who know how to work it, and how to fade videos and photos in and out of it, and how David could record the piano part of Florestan's aria in his house and send it to Toby, who could then record the singing and these two videos could be put together into something that while not as ideal as a joint performance, was very much better than we could ever have dreamed just three months ago. Indeed, three months ago most of us had never even heard of Zoom, let alone imagined that such a talk could be captured on it and broadcast live simultaneously on Facebook and Youtube. We could even have questions - not from the floor, but from the screen, and arriving from all over the world, including California and Bucharest.

We reached an audience on Youtube that was much what we would have expected from the live event, but on Facebook our technical wizard noted hits that topped the equivalent of a full Wigmore Hall.

This is amazing. It seems we're so globalised that we don't have to go anywhere at all.

Our discussion, with conductor Dougie Boyd, composer Freya Waley-Cohen and, of course, Toby and David, ranged across Beethoven the musician, Beethoven the human being and Beethoven the leaver of a legacy that still inspires and sometimes intimidates even today. If you missed it, you can catch up here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2RctalAtNbk&feature=youtu.be

We couldn't reconstitute the Fidelio production, though, and we couldn't go to the pub together afterwards. Tom nevertheless treated me to prosecco in the back garden and I hope my fabulous colleagues were similarly fortunate.

Beethoven, as the poet Ruth Padel says, is the music of hope. We couldn't agree more.



Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Southbank: a love letter



A view from the terrace of the biggest arts centre in the biggest city in Europe,
which ought to be our pride and joy

Dear Southbank Centre,

You are my home-from-home. You have been for 40 years, possibly more. With yesterday's news that you may have to stay closed until April 2021 at least (which I must admit isn't wholly unexpected), there comes a sense of dismay and anxiety that's almost vertiginous even without being compounded by the same fears for the future of Shakespeare's Globe, the National Theatre, the Royal Opera House, the West End, and indeed every other theatre and concert hall in the land. Nobody has yet solved the conundrum of infectious disease versus mass audience versus economics of putting on a show. Trouble is inevitable. That doesn't mean we should just roll over and accept it.

Britain without its arts would be...well, not a lot. We've always been defined by our theatre, our playwrights, our authors, our actors; in recent decades also, at long, long last, by our musicians. Some of the finest in the world are British - not that we always appreciate them enough - and their numbers are swelled by those who have decided to make London their home, in many cases exactly because of its flourishing arts scene. Kill that off and you destroy first of all billions in our economy - guess why tourists come here? It ain't for skiing; secondly, the present and future of dozens of thousands of people whose livelihoods exist in this huge industry (which is worth a lot more in economic terms to the country than fishing); the dreams of generations of young people who find fulfilment, creativity and hope in the arts as nowhere else; and, essentially, anything that still remains of our souls.

Opera North's Ring Cycle, relayed into the foyer from the RFH
Dear Southbank, I remember the first time I was brought to experience you, in particular the Royal Festival Hall. It was a concert by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Rudolf Kempe, with Miriam Freed the violin soloist. My father coached me on the music for a week beforehand, playing me recordings and telling me about the composers: Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and the Dvorak New World Symphony. I remember staring at the flautist in fascination and feeling sorry for her, because she was sitting right in front of some awfully loud brass. Not long afterwards I was in again for my first piano recital - Tamás Vásáry playing the Chopin Waltzes - and a taste of chamber music, in the form of the Amadeus Quartet and William Pleeth in the Schubert Quintet.

That was also the first time I went backstage, and I have no idea how or why we did that, but I do remember circling the RFH's Green Room looking for the quartet members to sign my programme, and William Pleeth looking down from what seemed a very great height with the most benevolent smile in the world. Often I'm in that room twice a week now.

When I was a teenager, the penny dropped in earnest. Or rather, Ernest: the Ernest Reid Children's Concerts. I was first to arrive for our music O level class one day and found myself unexpectedly conscripted: "There's one place free in the choir to sing at the Royal Festival Hall and it goes to the first person to arrive today, which is you...". Actually I can't sing to save my life - but gosh, did I sing then, and wow, did I love it. We performed specially arranged versions of the Fauré Requiem (that was where I got my passion for Fauré, too), the Haydn "Creation" with Sir David Willcocks, Handel's "Messiah", Vivaldi's Gloria and some wonderfully offbeat Christmas carols. There were lightbulbs around the mirrors in the dressing rooms, we were seated on benches beside the mighty organ, and we felt so grown-up. We'd take the tube to Embankment and walk over Hungerford Bridge in the rain and there you were, the RFH, on the far side, sitting proud like a green prize cat with curved back, waiting for us to stroke you.

Then Horowitz came to give his last London recital and I queued up for ages and didn't get in. Howls. But in those teen years I went to other piano recitals that shaped my piano passions for decades. Sviatoslav Richter. Krystian Zimerman (aged 23). András Schiff (aged 28). Maurizio Pollini, Alfred Brendel, Annie Fischer, Imogen Cooper, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Shura Cherkassky, Murray Perahia, Alicia de Larrocha, Emil Gilels, André Tchaikovsky, Mitsuko Uchida, Daniel Barenboim and more - none of them ever forgotten, each of them treasured like a priceless family heirloom that lives on in the heart and the inner ear.

Vladimir Jurowski rehearsing with the LPO
I met some of my dearest friends in your foyers. I remember my first glimpse of some of them. My first love, rounding a pillar in the RFH together with the mutual friend who introduced us. My wonderful colleague and opera-writing partner Roxanna Panufnik in the doorway of the Purcell Room with the mutual friend who introduced us (who was Tasmin Little). The party in the Chelsfield Room after a London International Piano Competition final where my former piano teacher taunted me "go and mingle, you've got the best chat-up line in the room!" and I met several people who are still dear friends now. And on the stage, a violinist I watched for years in his orchestra, thinking "he looks nice" before we ever met, let alone got married. The first time I did meet Tom I didn't recognise him at first. It was only after two weeks that he invited me to one of his concerts and I thought "oh, it's him?". Because I'd only ever seen him in profile, playing in the first violin section of the LPO.

I well remember the controversies and infighting of the early nineties, rumbling forth during my days as assistant editor on various music magazines. The time the Tory government decided to try to kill off one of the orchestras and mercifully failed (this incident ended up nicknamed the 'Hoffnung Report' after the musical satirist). The time the poor old RPO was hideously penalised for daring to have made a commercial recording called Hooked On Classics and had its grant sliced to little bits. The time the LPO had to appoint a principal conductor too fast and ended up with someone who seemed frankly worse than most.

Federico Colli and JD with the Critics' Circle Award 2019
I've stood or sat on your stages myself, and not only as a singing kid. I found myself doing things beyond my wildest dreams. The pre-concert talk to introduce the UK premiere of Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane, the opera I never imagined I would be lucky enough to hear live. A pre-concert interview with Krystian Zimerman, who unexpectedly transformed himself into the sharpest comedian in town; I became the fall guy, asking the straight questions to which his answers and the way he timed them had people rolling in the aisles. Then last year I had to make a little speech at a Philharmonia concert, presenting pianist Federico Colli with the Critics' Circle Emerging Artist Award (see pic above). Here is where great musicians begin to reach their audiences and can bring them insight, inspiration and wonderful memories...

It's not all a rose garden out there, of course. For the last several years, it's struck me that visiting you is a little bit like being St George and battling the dragon for entry to the castle, because between platform 19 at Waterloo and your side entrance there are about 10 different ways one can be killed, but it is worth it every time. You can be run down in the station by the crowds going the other way, you can fall down the front stairs in that crowd, you can be run over by lorries or motorbikes zooming round the roundabout, or by taxis and bicycles on Belvedere Road or skateboarders crashing into you pretty much anywhere. Then you have to get past the food market which is so tempting that in five minutes it can empty your wallet and burst your buttons. Once one is lucky enough to reach the foyer, the Long Bar can be a welcome sight. During the daytime, since the austerity governments started cutting stuff, the open-to-all free-wifi foyer life has become a haven not only for the London creatives and freelancers who give the atmosphere such a buzz, but also for the dispossessed, the homeless and young families who have nowhere else to go and play. Some people object to this, but perhaps those individuals should stop voting in the governments that have produced the situation.

None of this is helped by those contrarian pundits who this week said a) theatre's dying, "*whispers* good" (an actual tweet by a right-wing rag's arts editor, who probably adored the massive outrage he caused), and b) kill off the Southbank and put it out to "private tender" (hello? this is the biggest arts centre in the biggest city in Europe, with a mission to serve its public, so what are you even talking about?). Can you imagine a sports editor saying "it's about time we killed off football"? It's a shoddy, miserable, wanton look to kick something or someone when they're down; and at a time when an unelected aid gets to address the nation from the Downing Street rose garden to say why it is apparently OK for him to undermine the health rules, it also shows that arrogant squandering of hard-won advantage has become a way of life here. That's almost as dangerous and destructive as the virus itself. But remember: every dog has its day. There is a thirteenth circle of hell ready and waiting to hand out its keys.

Really we should all be pulling together at the moment. We have to save the arts, because they will be saved: as a dear friend reminded me last night, from the slough of despond, theatre has been with us since ancient Greece and isn't going away any time soon. The same is true of music. We can and will make music at home. Sales of digital pianos are apparently soaring. Instruments are coming out of cases after lying untouched for years while the rat-race claimed us. Tideovers are possible online: tonight I am hosting a discussion about Beethoven for Garsington Opera and the Royal Philharmonic Society which was going to be in a theatre but has now been reconstituted via Zoom and can hence be watched by our friends all over the world. There will be a way - even if everything looks hopeless right now.

But mess with the Southbank and you mess with much more than brutalist architecture. You mess with people's entire lives, their inner landscapes, their souls. Take all those favourite memories, as above, and multiply them by millions. For every music-lover who lives here or visits here will have a store of them just as large, and there are millions, all about listening to the world's greatest musicians in these spaces and keeping their performances alive in their hearts ever afterwards, just as I do.

Take that away and those musicians, those audiences and that inspiration won't return. Squander our advantage, won after many, many decades of hard work and devotion, and it's gone for good. So let us keep our concert halls and theatres. And let us bloody well find ways to make them work again.

Much love,
Jess.