Monday, November 23, 2020

Here in our haven...

It's been a hectic few weeks and a bout of tonsillitis didn't help. So from the tranquility of a plane-less Monday morning, in company with a snoring cat and a violinist practising Paganini downstairs, here's a quick update and some links for a catch-up.

First of all, because of a sudden, belated and unexpected lockdown (thanks, Boris...) everyone's carefully laid plans for distancing audiences at concerts went up in smoke and everything for November got cancelled. There's been a scramble to rethink, reimagine and reschedule. The Up Close and Musical festival at the Fidelio Orchestra Cafe has been moved to May, my 'Immortal' concert with Piers Lane for the Barnes Music Society has been rescheduled for 16 January, and the Nordern Farm performance has unfortunately had to bite the dust. There are a few other dates in the diary for June, but let's cross that bridge when we come to it.

One of the events that I was most sorry to lose this year was the staging of the youth opera The Selfish Giant by the composer John Barber, for which I did the libretto. It was meant to happen in July. Now we are hoping that it will be able to enjoy a performance in some way, shape or form next summer instead. Like The Happy Princess with composer Paul Fincham in 2019, it's a commission from Garsington for their youth companies, and this time it is also a co-commission from Opera North. The story is a transformation of an Oscar Wilde fairytale. It is all about the beauty of nature, how much we need it, how much we need to be at one with it, and how completely stupid it is to build walls between different peoples and different generations. We need to work with nature and with each other to build a better world - because one day we will leave it, and then what is our legacy?

"Here in the garden, our haven, here in the garden, our heaven; here we can be who we're meant to be, where we find ourselves and are free..." When we wrote the piece we had no idea that this year the beauty of nature would become what would sustain our young performers who were indeed cut off from their friends, their schools, their rehearsals and their joy in singing together. They made a film about it, using some songs from the opera. It's called Our Haven and Garsington released it on Friday for National Children's Day. Here it is:

Meanwhile, the Zoom launch for 'Immortal' went off with much more zing than I'd thought possible. We had more than 50 attendees from all over the world, which was astounding, and the support of Joanna Pieters, who presented and interviewed, Simon Hewitt Jones, who produced, and Mishka Rushdie Momen, who played, was absolutely incredible. Although I was alone in the study, and Ricki slept in a chair behind me all the way through, I felt as if we'd had a real party. If you didn't see if and you'd like to, the whole thing is now on Youtube, here.

Soon afterwards, I found myself roped into a reimagining of an event for the wonderful Wimbledon International Music Festival, a favourite calendar highlight of mine here in south-west London. Normally the inimitable Anthony Wilkinson brings world-class music to live stages on his own doorstep, but of course this time everything had to be moved online and replanned for the format. You can see the lot for a small fee at their website - and yes, one should have to pay to watch music online, because making these things costs and otherwise there soon won't be any. The festival includes some amazing concerts such as a cello and piano recital of Beethoven by Raphael Wallfisch and John York, a typically thoughtful and eclectic programme from pianist Clare Hammond and a star highlight filmed at Wigmore Hall with Paul Lewis performing the Beethoven Diabelli Variations. If you think there's a Beethoven theme, you're right; the event into which I was parachuted was a discussion with pianist Piers Lane, actor/director/writer Tama Matheson and festival director Anthony Wilkinson exploring the magic of Beethoven and, beyond that, what the arts really mean to us, why we need them and where we go from here. All details here.

Next, a call from The Sunday Times. There's a new biography of Mozart just out, by the splendid Jan Swafford, the musicologist and composer who seemed to capture the nation's hearts when he appeared in the BBC series Being Beethoven. This latest book is 800 pages long, which I didn't completely realise until after I'd agreed to review it, but it is such a lovely read that I felt a bit bereft when I'd finished. The review was in yesterday's paper and is online (£) here.

Yesterday, too, I was on Talk Radio rabbiting about Beethoven and 'Immortal'. There's been an enthusiastic blog tour of book site reviews, and we're waiting with slightly nibbled nails for further reviews to appear in print. In general, though, I would advise any budding novelists to check in advance that their release date does not coincide with a very important American presidential election, because firstly nobody will have eyes for much else, and secondly nothing that you write will ever be able to match up to the bizarre reality unfolding in front of our eyes there.

As the divine Joni Mitchell sings, "something's lost and something's won, in living every day... I really don't know life at all."

Let's keep on keeping on, and remember the beauty in the garden. 

To which end, I've just ordered 80 daffodil bulbs. 

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Zoom launch event for 'Immortal' on Tuesday

"O friends, not those tones!" That particular dog has had its day: soon a new day will dawn. Congratulations to our friends over the Pond for electing President Biden and Vice-President Harris! I've been out in the park this morning and everyone is smiling, despite lockdown. America's big moment can bring hope to us all: change is possible. 


Immortal - Jessica Duchen Book Launch

All the book events I had lined up for November have had to be cancelled/postponed due to the new lockdown (details in the sidebar, which I'll update as necessary). So we're having an online celebration instead. It's on Tuesday 10 November at 6pm UK time for round about an hour, and there'll be an interview, a reading, Q&A and hopefully even some music. If you'd like to join in, please register here to receive an email containing the Zoom link, and then just show up in cyberspace with a glass of something or a cuppa or whatever. We will do our best to make it as festive as possible! Hope to see you there.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

'Immortal' is out, and so is its Wigmore digital launch

It's publication day for Immortal. I am overjoyed to say that we are sending it out into the world with a digital launch presentation from the stage of the Wigmore Hall, thanks to the unbelievably kind invitation of John Gilhooly. 

I'm joined in a unique words&music presentation by the rising star pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen, who plays the Beethoven Piano Sonata in F, Op. 10 No. 2. It was a memorable day: both of us were back in the hall for the first time since lockdown and I certainly felt a little strange performing to the empty auditorium, where I've enjoyed so many unforgettable concerts in better times. I hope you enjoy hearing the readings from the early part of the book when Josephine and Therese meet Beethoven for the first time, become his pupils and hear him improvise; and Mishka's playing is out of this world.

My profound thanks to Mishka, John, my lovely publishers Unbound, and the entire Wigmore Hall team for making this possible.

Meanwhile, Immortal is now available from all good bookshops. Enjoy!

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Hologram future?

Eugene Birman has sent me a fascinating piece about how a university research project that he initiated pre-pandemic has been reimagined for the Covid-19 era - using holograms. Is this the future? Who knows - I can hardly see more than a few days ahead at the moment and I am sure I'm not the only one - but what's certain is that it is emblematic of the creativity, originality and sheer determination with which so many people in the arts world are responding to the situation in which we find ourselves. I hope that we can take heart, build on the positives and find a way forward, possibly one that will break down boundaries in all kinds of new ways. I am not the planet's most optimistic person at the best of times, but I do have hope. Which is different. Over now to Eugene's guest post. JD


A guest post by Eugene Birman

There can never be enough ink spilled on the global catastrophe in which the performing arts finds itself at the moment. From my own vantage point in Hong Kong, where pandemic and protests have, in concert, over the past 12 months effectively cleared the entire live performance calendar, the term ‘catastrophe’ is particularly apropos because the public life in the city is essential to its functioning - with the smallest average home size in the world, the street is our living room, and the concert hall our home theatre system. Yet to focus on what we don’t have distracts from a conversation on what we could have. Today, the ink spills in the direction of some positive, practical thinking.


Eighteen months ago, back when a trip to London was about as easy as one across Hong Kong harbor, I initiated a university research project with installation artist Kingsley Ng in how arts and computer science could reflect on global climate change, a guilt-free musical discourse on the indisputable facts. We had a plan - a big data-fueled art and music installation on how we relate to air in Hong Kong, which, with no heavy industry of its own, has lost its clear skies increasingly to smog from an industrializing world. 


Theatre of Voices would sing it, we would work with groups of young people from the Hong Kong Children’s Choir - the real stakeholders of our current-day decisions - to design a text to sing that they actually wrote, and bring audiences in small groups on a narrative adventure through a lush and lavish greenhouse in the center of the city, the Forsgate Conservatory. ARIA 空氣頌would combine symbolism, star performers, and a scheduled premiere in September 2020 during the Autumn Festival, which, away from its colored lanterns, is traditionally a time to reflect on our connection to the Earth.


History, evidently, took a different course. The complete closure of the city’s external borders meant bringing Theatre of Voices to perform live would be impossible. Strict guidelines on social distancing inside enclosed spaces, the impossibility of rehearsing the children’s choir due to restrictions on assembly and closed schools, and then a third wave of infections in the latter half of July: I suppose the right idea would have been simply to postpone to some far-off date in a less dystopian future. 


But somehow we insisted on adapting to this whole thing, and with the frankly unprecedented support and encouragement of the city’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department as well as Hong Kong Baptist University, not to mention a tireless team led by curator Stephanie Cheung, the project in its pandemic-proof, but conceptually unaltered, state will go live in mid-November. 


The key, I think, was to preserve the live element. Certainly, streaming performances have allowed musicians to at least continue to exist in the public consciousness, but we do not experience them as an audience as much as we simply consume their content. Back in May, we started investigating the possibility of rendering Theatre of Voices as holograms, keeping their presence as performers in the physical space intact. 


By the end of August, we had 335GB of video and audio footage, meticulously shot in Copenhagen to Kingsley’s specifications. The Hong Kong Children’s Choir somehow learned a microtonal score over Zoom, with rehearsals beginning live only the second week of October due to relaxed gathering restrictions. And while we’re not quite sure whether a public audience will be permitted for the live event or not, should they be, they will experience the show at most 20 to a group, allowing for ideal sightlines and plenty of separation. Having the holograms allowed us to increase the live shows from three as initially planned to eight nights with perhaps two shows per night; those 335GB are working very hard for us.

It’s been sufficiently mentioned already that the new reality of travel, even if temporary, asks valid questions of whether star performers genuinely need to carve such a global (carbon) footprint. They certainly look convincing in their hologram form in the greenhouse tonight - artistically expressive, with the added adrenaline of having to learn and record an eighty-minute work in the space of a week. And in a work about the environment, it’s what we should have done all along anyway. 


Fundamentally, the decision to postpone events and cancel seasons is generally understandable, but relies on the naive idea that the world next September will be precisely like the world in 2019. What if it won’t? As social distancing grows untenable, so will streaming become insufficient and further delay, impossible. What then? The post-pandemic concert is, in fact, a puzzle for our lonely present.

Eugene Birman


Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Not quite normal

Back in the Royal Festival Hall: Chineke! takes the stage

I'm astonished to realise that my schedule this past week has been a closish mirror to business as usual - without feeling remotely as if it is. It has included, among other things, a couple of interviews, but on Zoom rather than face to physical face; and two concerts to review, both with world-class performances, but in front of scant, distanced, masked-up audiences, and one evening featuring the new-look pandemic-era 21st-century orchestral layout in which every player has their own music stand. There was even a press launch to "attend" - for the centre in Vienna's new exhibition about Jan Kiepura and Martha Eggerth, with their son Marjan and his wife Jane Kiepura taking questions, but beamed in from all corners of Europe and America direct to my study in sunny Sheen. 

I was a guest on Radio 3's Music Matters the other night after the Chineke! concert, but broadcast live from a corner of the Royal Festival Hall that used to be where the receptions were held (Radio 3 is in residence at the hall for a fortnight). Instead of standing with glass in hand gazing out at the London Eye and anticipating a packed-out concert with standing ovation, we were tucked into a corner with tables, microphones and wires, trying to figure out how to get the microphone black foam 'socks' out of their packaging. I caught my 11.03pm train home, but instead of the usual scrummage of passengers sporting theatre programmes, John Lewis bags and excess alcohol-breath, there was...nobody. Nobody else at all. 

It's good that we can find ways, now and then, to keep on keeping on, but my goodness, it's weird. "Are you optimistic for the future?" asked Tom Service on Music Matters. I had to struggle for a few seconds, and then explained that I'm not a particularly optimistic person in any case, but that even if I'm not optimistic per se, I look at the quantity of creativity and invention and adaptability around us and that gives me hope. Hope is different from optimism. 

Here are a few links if you want to read some more or listen back to the broadcast:

Review of Stephen Kovacevich's 80th birthday concert at the Wigmore Hall...

Review of Chineke! at the RFH with Jeneba Kanneh-Mason and more...

BBC Radio 3 Music Matters, live from the Royal Festival Hall...