Friday, August 14, 2020

Catch up with Ludwig and Levit here

While we in the UK continue to run about like headless chickens (which in many ways we actually are), the Salzburg Festival has managed to be up, running and shouting about it with well-deserved pride. In the fast-growing blackberry bushes of classical music on the internet, there is plenty of ripe fruit waiting to be foraged, stewed and savoured, and the concerts of Salzburg being streamed by Arte.tv are not only some of the best, but also available to watch in the UK (which not all Arte films are).

Having been working flat out to finish the editing and proofreading of IMMORTAL - which is now going into production - I haven't had time, energy or inclination to watch or listen to anything very much for weeks, so it's time to catch up, and I'm very happy to say that they have sent me the first three of Igor Levit's complete Beethoven sonatas cycle for us all to enjoy here on JDCMB. Plenty more available at Arte's own site, of course. Levit has been one of music's outstanding lockdown heroes and I am looking forward to hearing the lot in due course.
Enjoy!


Monday, August 03, 2020

Leon Fleisher (23 July 1928 - 2 August 2020): in memoriam

Sad news today of the death of the great pianist and teacher Leon Fleisher, aged 92. I much regret not having met him in person, especially as my father was among the scientists whose research led to the therapy that ultimately helped Fleisher's focal dystonia. I did, however, talk to him on the phone for the Independent back in 2010 when he came to the UK to participate in the Aldeburgh Festival. Here is some of that interview.

                                                                       Leon Fleisher 
                                                                    Photo: Ned Burgess
 

JD: Please talk us through your experience of focal dystonia, what it did to you and how it came about?

 

LF: I noticed that the fingers of my right hand started to have the tendency to curl under and my initial reaction was that it seemed to me I’d have to increase my practising and it was a sign that I wasn’t working enough – which was the wrong thing to do. Over a period of about 10 months that tendency became so pronounced that two fingers virtually dug into the palm of my hand and it took enormous effort to straighten them out, followed by endless visits to countless doctors and a search that lasted 35 years with no answers. 


To make a long story short, I found two modalities eventually that helped me. One was called Rolfing, named after the German therapist Ida Rolf. Because Rolfing is a modality of tissue manipulation that can restore the normal plasticity of even the fibres of whatever tissue is being manipulated; and eventually I was informed of a programme at the National Institute of Health in Maryland for people with similar dysfunction and they were treating them with something called Botox, of all things. They inject the botox where the nerve informs the muscle to contract, which is not at the site of the muiscle itself but usually somewhere between the site where the muscle is affected and the brain. In my case, it’s in the forearm and they inject a minute amount of botox - which is a virulent poison - into the muscle, just paralysing it a little bit so that the tendency to curl under is weakened just a wee bit and therefore allows the opposing muscles, the flexor muscles, to be more effective. That’s the mechanism for the treatment of focal dystonia. They don’t know what causes it and therefore they don’t have a cure, but they’ve found this way to help deal with the symptoms. 

 

JD: My father was a neuropathologist, involved in the early research into the therapeutic use of botulinum toxin….) 

 

LF: Possibly he knew the neurologist friend of mine here in Baltimore who developed the idea of the botulinum – Dan Drachman. (JD: Yes, they were good colleagues). His father-in-law was Gregor Piatigorsky! Dan was the one that told me about this programme. 

 

JD: You returned to playing with both hands around 1995-96. How do you feel the whole experience changed you as a musician? 

 

LF: All I can say is that after a couple of years in a pretty deep depression I finally woke up one morning realising that my connection to music was not exclusively as a two-hands piano player, it was a little more profound than that. This enabled me to do a number of things. It enabled me to expand my teaching in a way that became more productive: that is to say I was no longer able to push students off the piano bench and demonstrate the way I thought it should go, I had to find words to express that very intangible and ephemeral aspect of music, and I think I became a better teacher. 


The formal admission to myself that I had this thing of being dystonic somehow freed me up to examine the not-inconsiderable literature for the left hand alone in which can be found several great works – the Ravel Left Hand Concerto is one of the great pieces of literature for the piano and it gave me the idea also to start conducting, which was a totally new endeavour for me and from which I learned so enormously and which brought me tremendous satisfaction and gratification – it makes me wonder, were I to live my life over again I’m not sure I would change anything.

 

JD: Do you remember now how it felt the first time you were able to sit down & play with both hands again?

 

LF: Yes, and curiously enough it wasn’t what many people might think – I’d tested it every day of those 35 years so that I was expecting somewhere, somehow, I was always one step away from being able to do it. So when I finally did it, it was enormously satisfying, but not as enormously revelatory as you might think. 

 

JD: Was there any special piece or composer that you were most happy to be able to play again?

 

LF: Well, yes, I played some of my old favourites for myself – the D minor Brahms Concerto, Beethoven 5. Enormously satisfying.

 

JD: What happens now? Do you have to keep having treatment? 

 

LF: Once a dystonic, always a dystonic, so I get my injections now once every four months.

 

JD: There have been a lot of studies recently, looking at music and science and the way the brain and musical instinct hook up – I wonder, why now? Do you have any views on that? 

 

LF: Perhaps it’s just that it’s probably about time and it’s ripe for investigation. I don’t think the question is so much from the artistic side, but science is now ready. The mind is always trying to break things down and look for that moment in time when creativity starts

 

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Last day to 'become an IMMORTAL'


A portrait of Countess Therese Brunsvik von Korompa - regrettably misidentified on TV the other day as Antonie Brentano. Therese is the narrator of IMMORTAL (but she is not the Immortal Beloved!)

I've been up to my eyeballs in the last edit of IMMORTAL, plus trying to be two other work-people at the same time, so I've been doing 15-hr days, I am knackered and I could use a holiday, but I have to jump straight in to another massive project, starting tomorrow. 
More of that anon, but meanwhile today is the last day to get your name listed in IMMORTAL as a patron. Tomorrow I shall send back the final edit and after that the book will be turned into proofs. After that, only errors/typos can change: no more additions. So if you have not yet put in a pledge and you want to be there, it is literally your last chance.
In the meantime, I'm thrilled to share with you  three amazing endorsements for the book. Here we are:
“IMMORTAL is a revelation, offering the ideal blend of historic exactitude and a book you simply won’t want to put down." -- Daniel Hope, violinist and president of the Beethoven-Haus, Bonn
“The perfect companion for this landmark Beethoven anniversary year. Jessica’s writing is, as always, deeply knowledgable, emanating from a profound understanding of her material. This new book brings the human, vulnerable side of Beethoven into focus for our 21st Century audience.” -- Marin Alsop, conductor
"From its first, dazzlingly-rendered pages, IMMORTAL pulls you into a vanished world and an utterly compelling love story – at its centre, one of music’s greatest and most enduring mysteries. Few authors understand better than Jessica Duchen the way music can change the course of a life; and few writers make that music leap more vividly off the page. If you’ve ever wondered what Ludwig van Beethoven was like as a man, here he is, painted as if from life: inspiring, infuriating, and intensely, unapologetically real. Because for all her understanding of art and character, and her brilliantly-described evocations of early 19th-century Vienna in all its splendour and squalor, Duchen never forgets that at the core of all great music – and all great stories – beats a human heart." -- Richard Bratby, music critic and author
Thank you to all three of them, many thousands of times!
Progress here is good and I have to say that preparing a book for publication doesn't half keep your mind off pandemics and lockdowns. Take care, everyone, keep well and thank you again for all your support. More soon...

Monday, July 06, 2020

Thank you!

The government has just announced a rescue package for the UK's arts and heritage that is worth £1.57bn. 

A massive "thank you" is in order - to them, to the organisations whose directors lobbied for us all, to the individuals who talked and discussed and presented and persuaded, to the members of the public who shouted and signed petitions, and to everyone who has realised - at long, long last - just how much the arts are worth to us as human beings and as a country. As the first, they support our souls. As the second, they support our entire lives by bringing in billions to the treasury - and they're inextricably enmeshed with innumerable other industries that depend on the people they attract. 

The small print will need reading, of course. For several theatres it may be too late. The status of the arts freelancers whose income is now £0 and who don't qualify for the self-employment support scheme remains to be seen - there's scant indication of help for them. Whether there are strings attached, and what they are, likewise. Still the package is a lot more than most of us had expected and we should give credit where it's due. It makes the difference between hope and no hope - and that is very big indeed.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Finding our roots: a guest post by Rebeca Omordia

In solidarity with BLM, I'm handing the floor to the pianist Rebeca Omordia to tell us the hows and whys of her African concert series, which goes online later this month. Her CD of music by Nigerian composers was proof that we need to hear a great deal more of them! 
You can also watch a preview of the series on the African Concert Series Facebook page, here.
Over to you, Rebeca...
jd




The African Concert Series London was launched in 2019 and its mission was pioneering repertoire by African Art composers. Bringing African classical music to the Western audience was right from the start an endeavour meant to unravel the cultural diversity of the African continent, reflected in its music, and to create a platform for the African classical music to be performed.

Africa is very colourful - each country in Africa has a multitude of ethnic groups and each ethnic group has a music of its own, with characteristic melodies and rhythms -, quality which I have tried to emphasise in the programmes of The African Concert Series, through individually themed concerts: Nigerian Odyssey, The South African Double Bass, String Quartets by African Composers, Arabesque: Piano music from the Arabworld, and many more.

After the success of the 2019 series, I had hoped for other performances in 2020 but the Coronavirus pandemic forced us all into our homes. The 2020 online series is not a resignation, an acceptance of “The New Normal”, we are not bending our heads down and pretend we still have jobs as performers; it is the continuation of our pioneering work, of taking the message forward despite circumstances. During the current social and racial climate, I believe returning to one's roots is the best form of self-care and I truly hope it inspires others to research their origins and explore their heritage. 

The online series features one week of very short performances, especially recorded for this programme, streamed daily on The African Concert Series Facebook page starting on 22 June that will reveal music never heard before by the social media audience, giving us the opportunity to reach a wider audience.

African classical music, known as African Art music, emerged in West Africa in the 20th century and its founding father is Nigerian composer Fela Sowande (l905-1987). Most of the African composers studied in Europe then returned to their African countries where they began broadcasting and lecturing in universities. Eventually, Music Societies were formed (e.g. MUSON – Musical Society of Nigeria founded in 1983) allowing for classical concerts to be performed. All composers wrote music in a Western classical style while using African traditional melodies and rhythms. Composers from Ethiopia, South Africa, the Arab world – Morocco, Algeria, developed their own style of art music.

The African Concert Series 2020 - online edition opens on 22 June with multi-award winner St Louis (USA) based Nigerian-Ghanaian composer and pianist Fred Onovwerosuoke and his wife flautist Wendy Hymes. FredO, as friends call him, became internationally renowned when his chant Bolingo was featured as a soundtrack in Robert de Niro's film The Good Shepherd. FredO wrote music for many instruments including the flute, music featured on The African Art Music for Flutealbum released by Wendy in 2008. 

The second performance in the series is by Nigeria’s leading tenor Jo Oparamanuike, accompanied by Babatunde Sosan, the third in his family to be organist at Christ Church, Lagos, who will stream from Nigeria. South African virtuoso bass player Leon Bosch will play music featured on his new Meridian Records CD The South African Double Bass– music composed especially for him. Nigerian pianist Glen Inanga, founder of the first ever Arts Festival in the Cayman Islands, will perform music from Nigeria. Moroccan-Hungarian pianist Marouan Benabdallah has been touring the world to great acclaim with his programme Arabesque: Piano music from the Arab world, project which lead to the discovery of 90 composers from countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. 

I will close the series on 29 June with a selection from 24 Studies in African Rhythms by Fred Onovwerosuoke. FredO travelled the whole Africa where he gathered material that he used in his 24 Studies in African Rhythms, each study is inspired by a song or a dance from a different country in Africa.
Rebeca Omordia