A very merry Christmas and happy new year
to all our friends and readers,
with love from JDCMB
It's 21 December! Welcome back to our cyberposhplace, with a difference. Nowadays we are all living permanently in cyberplaces. Paradoxically, I considered holding this year's JDCMB Chocolate Silver Awards ceremony in the flesh for the first time, because now a real cybermeetingplace exists called Zoom and we'd be able to invite readers to join in from all over the world. This time last year nobody would even have thought of such a thing. That's just one way that Covid-19 has changed our world. The others are worse.
One thing I've learned in 2020, though, is that presenting an event online is still real. It takes, in fact, a lot of organisation, forward planning and slick technical support. And you know something? I'm tired.
Many of us are. Unable to see our friends and family, deprived of the concerts and theatres on which our imaginative and social life centres and watching our towns crumbling as unit after unit gives up and shuts down, is depressing enough. Seeing even household-name musicians and actors struggling to make ends meet while excluded from the government's self-employment support schemes - that's horrifying. And guess what, we've got Brexit in 10 days' time and still nobody knows what's going to happen. Since I first drafted this post yesterday, a new crisis has emerged, which you can read about in all the papers rather than here.
While I could be all positive and "hello sun, hello trees," and "isn't music wonderful," I don't want to pretend. I'm doing my best to keep my nose above water. As regular readers will have noticed, blogging is not uppermost. I hit a largish birthday this month and it seemed time to take stock. It's not only a question of not being as young as one used to be, but also of longing to create something worthwhile, something that has a chance of lasting. Blogging is ephemeral. I wrote a novel about Beethoven called Immortal, it's more than 400 pages long and you can always read that instead. (For a taster, here's the video presentation that the Wigmore Hall filmed in September, in which I introduce the book and read extracts, and the wonderful Mishka Rushdie Momen plays the Piano Sonata in F, Op. 10 No. 2.)
Now, on with our awards ceremony, or what remains of it.
Come on in! Grab a glass of cyberbubbly. Here in our imaginary virtual venue, we can hug our friends without fear. This time we're outdoors, but it's a beautiful warm Mediterranean-style night. Strings of fairy lights glitter in the trees. The moon shines bright over the water, a string quartet is playing Irving Berlin and Cole Porter in the background, there's a buzz of conversation punctuated by the piccolo of joyous laughter (remember that sound?), and Ricki and Cosi are ensconced on their silken cushions in front of a large photo of Solti the Ginger Cat, ready to present the winners with their prize purrs and a cuddle of their lovely chocolate-silver and usual-silver Somali cat fur.
Our guests of honour have scrambled up through the back of the centuries' wardrobe to join us from far-flung times. Ludwig van Beethoven has made an exception to his hatred of parties and is present to celebrate his 250th birthday. We can't change his otosclerosis, but we can give him a state-of-the-art hearing aid, so he's with us, smiling, laughing and joking, with Josephine by his side and little Minona in her party dress. Times have changed, they remark; if only they could be alive now instead, this is how it could have been. And we'd have had nine more symphonies. Only Therese, in her habitual black, is little changed. Don't say I didn't tell you, she twinkles.
Alongside them, here are our friends of the present day, gathering from everywhere in the world: New York and Sydney, Paris and Berlin, Tuscany and Switzerland, Leipzig and Warsaw. Barnes, Manchester, Glasgow and Camden. We haven't seen each other the whole damned year. Love you. Miss you. Here's to next time...
Quiet please. Grab a refill and come over to the cushions. Now, would the following winners please approach the podium. And let's have a huge round of applause for every musician who has soldiered on bravely during 2020 and still manages to touch our hearts and souls, despite everything.
ICON OF THE YEARJohn Suchet on Classic FM and Donald MacLeod on BBC Radio 3, respectively available now as podcast and audiobook. And a huge thank you to my publishers, Unbound, for your faith in Immortal and for making sure that it could still come out in time for the anniversary even when so much else was being put back to 2021. Roxanna Panufnik's choral piece Ever Us, with my libretto, fell victim to the pandemic back in May - it should have been in the Berlin Philharmonie - but all being well it might instead be heard in 2022.
ARTISTS OF THE YEAR
-- Tasmin LittleTasmin Little is retiring from the stage, but she insists that she is. I attended her last Southbank Centre performance, watching from among a smattering of guests distanced in the back stalls; it included among other things, her astounding performance of Brahms's D minor sonata with the stunningly fine Russian pianist Andrey Gugnin. Tasmin, I said later, did you know that Margot Fonteyn decided against retiring when she met Rudolf Nureyev? Hint hint. Tasmin laughed, but her bright smile hardened a little. She says she regrets having to discontinue such a partnership, but she is stopping, and that is that. So you can't say I didn't try. She'd already had to postpone her farewell concerts from summer to autumn and is busy giving the last ones right now, in those places where concerts haven't been knocked out of the water yet again by Tier 3 or 4. Here's to your pastures new, Tasmin, whatever they may be. Come and have a purr from Ricki and Cosi. (Photo by Paul Mitchell.)
There are quite a few of you who meet this description. Step forward, Elena Urioste and Tom Poster (pictured right)! Your UriPoste Jukebox, violin and piano music for all seasons daily from your home, has brightened the year. Hello Daniel Hope, whose living room concerts were pounced upon for televising by Arte and spread the music-making of fabulous colleagues in Berlin far and wide. Welcome, dear Kanneh-Mason Family, who have brought us hope and inspiration at every turn - from your home concerts on Facebook to Sheku and Isata's gorgeous Proms recital to Jeneba playing Florence Price's Piano Concerto in One Movement with the ever-more-marvellous Chineke! Orchestra at the Southbank, plus the enchanting Carnival of the Animals album with Michael Morpurgo. I also loved Kadiatu's book House of Music, charting in graphic detail what it takes - oh yes - to raise such a family. Gabriela Montero, Angela Hewitt, Igor Levit and Boris Giltburg are among the many fabulous pianists who have been playing for us online. The Wigmore Hall blazed a trail in getting live concerts going again, while they could, and streaming them into our homes for free. It is up to us to do better at paying for this, and really you should if you can. Kings Place hit on an inventive and empathetic way to tempt nervous audience members out of their houses and into to the concert hall for the first time in the summer, offering one-to-one 10-minute sessions with Elena and Tom among others. That was my own first trip on the tube in four months, and they performed a piece selected especially for me ("We heard you were coming in, so we dug out some Fauré..."). And jolly wonderful it was. (Pictured above, photo by JD.)
This list could continue. What's astonished me is the amount of imagination, resourcefulness, determination, understanding, urgency and passion that so many in the music world have shown in the face of catastrophe. They don't call us "creative industries" for nothing. Perhaps the only good thing to come out of 2020 is the fact that we will never, ever take music for granted again. And if some do, we can say to them "Remember the pandemic, when the music stopped..." Could we live without it? No, we couldn't. Never forget.
Oh, and one Turkey of the Year: the British government marching us smack onto the rocks of Brexit despite the existing devastation. What a phenomenally stupid waste of time and energy it all is. We'll have to spend the years ahead putting ourselves back together.
We are all connected. We all affect one another. There are positive forces that unite and inspire us: music, art, logic, poetry, science, learning, wisdom, generosity, honesty, kindness, love. There are negative ones, which divide us: greed, wanton destruction, lies, superstition, ignorance, heartlessness, hatred and indifference.
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: https://youtu.be/jJK1Rc1DdFU
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.
"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.
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.
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 (pictured left), 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!