Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Muesli for breakfast

Yesterday I had my first Covid-19 vaccination. Everyone said I’d feel odd afterwards, perhaps with a headache and exhaustion, but I was absolutely fine. 


Early this morning, my husband and I were at the breakfast table having coffee and I went to pour myself a bowl of fruity muesli. Our preferred fruity muesli is sold in plastic bags, so to stop spillages we decant it into a Tupperware box, which was on the other side of the kitchen. As this box was nearly empty, from a cupboard containing several bags of cereal I retrieved a fresh pack, opened it and poured one helping into my bowl and the rest into the Tupperware box. 

 

Then, however, I realised there were no raisins in it, and no almonds either. I had inadvertently poured porridge oats into the fruity muesli’s Tupperware box. I’d wanted to eat fruity muesli, but since I’d opened porridge instead, I thought ‘oh well,’ tipped my bowl of oats into a saucepan to make porridge, then took a large blue freezer bag from a drawer and prepared to pour the rest of porridge oats into it, so that I could instead fill the Tupperware box with fruity muesli.

 

‘Hang on,’ said my husband, ‘we can use the Tupperware box for porridge oats instead of muesli.’ That seemed sensible. I put the large blue freezer bag back in the drawer and fetched milk to pour into the porridge saucepan. ‘But if you want muesli, you can just put those in with the other porridge oats,’ my husband said. I put the milk away and poured the porridge oats from the saucepan back into the Tupperware box. 

 

Now we remembered that there had been a little bit of muesli that was not so fruity any more at the bottom of the Tupperware box before I filled it up with what I thought was fruity muesli but was actually porridge oats. ‘It’s OK to use muesli as porridge, or to eat porridge oats as muesli – isn’t it?’ said my husband. We thought about it for a minute, because there may be some kinds of oats that you are supposed to cook first and we were not certain. 

 

‘Here, I’ll do it,’ said my husband. I went back to the table and my coffee. My husband took the large blue freezer bag from the drawer and began to pour the porridge oats from the Tupperware box into it, which was what I’d been going to do in the first place.  

 

Suddenly, a noise and an exclamation. The porridge oats were now on the kitchen floor. I heard the cupboard opening and the vacuum cleaner clonking, then roaring as my husband took it out, assembled it and switched it on. ‘Stay at the table!’ he said, ‘I’m hoovering.’ I had a few sips of coffee. 

 

The porridge oats were now inside the vacuum cleaner. The large blue freezer bag was back in the drawer. The saucepan was in the sink. The Tupperware box was empty. Finally I could have breakfast. I retrieved a bag of fruity muesli from the cereal cupboard and filled my bowl and the Tupperware box.

 

I now have a headache and exhaustion.

Friday, February 05, 2021

"DALIA" - our new People's Opera for Garsington


We weren't planning to spill the beans about this project so soon, but it has just been shortlisted for an exciting development prize, the Fedora Award in Education, so it's time to say something.

You might remember Silver Birch, the so-called People's Opera that Roxanna Panufnik and I wrote for Garsington Opera a few years back. A People's Opera is a community project plus much more, designed to appeal to all ages, include professionals and amateurs alike and offer an artistically memorable experience to the audience as well as to the performers. Silver Birch was the one with the Iraq War, Siegfried Sassoon, the trees, the Foley Artists, 180 performers aged one to 82, the kitchen sink and the dog, and the International Opera Award education shortlist in 2018. It did well. They wanted another. This is it.

Dalia is on a similar model. It involves children, teens, adults, professionals, amateurs, the Philharmonia and quite possibly a cricket team. It is the story of a young girl from Syria who is fostered into a UK family having lost her father and brother during a terrible journey into exile. She doesn't know if her mother is alive or dead. She is determined to survive, to seize her day and to follow her dreams - of playing cricket. But there are inner and outer demons to face: trauma, flashbacks, racists, jealousies, misunderstandings and, ultimately, an impossible decision she must make. Along the way, as her life changes, so she transforms the inner worlds of those around her.

My libretto is done and Roxanna is hard at work on the score now, fired up and (to judge from my sneak peeks) writing music that, as always, goes light years beyond anything I could have imagined. The Fedora shortlist is not the first time this project has jumped ahead of our plans for it: the Amwaj Choir of Bethlehem, which has collaborated with Roxanna on elements of the music, has already recorded 'Dalia's Song' for the Bethlehem Cultural Festival. 

If you've been to Garsington Opera's home at Wormsley, you may have seen the fabulous cricket pitch on location. This is not a coincidence. How can one better unite a community of diverse peoples than through sport and music together? To say I've been on a steep learning curve is probably not saying enough; I still don't entirely understand the rules, and the fond hopes that Roxanna and I had of spending last summer at a test match evidently had to bite the pandemic-induced dust. Still, I've learned enough to know that cricket doesn't have much to do with ball games. 

We owe a vast debt of gratitude to all our many advisers, who include the aforementioned Amwaj Choir, our community liaison head Manas Ghanem (who is originally from Syria), the charity Refugees at Home, the BBC commentator Eleanor Oldroyd, the South African former professional cricketer Mo Sattar, and the former refugee, now bestselling author and motivational speaker, Gulwali Passerlay, whose book The Lightless Sky has been a major inspiration. The production reunites us with our fabulous director Karen Gillingham, conductor Dougie Boyd, 'magic singing woman' Suzi Zumpe, our dear friends at Garsington and hopefully even some of the same young people as Silver Birch, plus several years' worth of new Youth Company recruits. 

One more credit: my late mother-in-law, Gisela Eisner. Her history inspired Dalia's. She was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany at the same age as our Dalia. She was put onto the Kindertransport to London aged 12, said goodbye to her parents and brother at the station in Berlin and never saw them again: all three were murdered in concentration camps. She was fostered by a Quaker family in Wolverhampton, where she found her feet and her means of integration by learning to play netball. Originally I longed to tell her story, but in collaboration with the whole team we decided we needed a present-day setting. The equivalent was all too easy to find. The difference is that shamefully the UK does not have anything remotely resembling the Kindertransport to rescue children from Syria. 

On the Fedora shortlist, Dalia is the UK project among ten from countries all over Europe. One of the prizes is given through public vote, so if anyone felt like logging in and lending us your click, we would be very happy indeed. Thank you for your support! https://www.fedora-platform.com/discover/shortlist/dalia-a-community-opera/356

Dalia is planned for premiere in summer 2022. We profoundly hope that the pandemic will be firmly in the past by then.  




Thursday, January 21, 2021

Commonplace books

Moved beyond measure by President Biden's inaugural ceremony yesterday, I've entered the last lines of Amanda Gorman's poem The Hill That We Climb into my "commonplace book".

"When day comes, we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid. The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light. If only we're brave enough to see it. If only we're brave enough to be it."

I've kept a so-called commonplace book since 1986, when my sister gave me a sleek blank notebook with thin ivory-light pages and a black leather cover that looked ever so sophisticated. A "commonplace book" is somewhere to copy out pieces of text that you don't want to lose: perhaps they appeal to you by ringing emotional bells, putting words together like music, or reflecting what you feel, think or hope. Amanda Gorman's poem uses the 110th page and after 35 years the notebook is still is excellent shape and has enough room in it to last me another 70 if used at the same rate, which will hardly be necessary.

If you've never kept a book like this, I recommend it, because you can measure out the progress of your inner self by what you read back, what you've chosen, why you chose it and where the holes are. I didn't enter anything into it between the month of my father's death in August 1996 and that of my sister's death in March 2000. The latter was poetry by Irina Ratushinskaya and Arthur Rimbaud. The former was an advert for running shoes on TV that stated simply: "Some people quit when they reach their threshold of pain. Some don't."

Back in the 80s, when I was a student, I used to write with an italic pen, trying to preserve these slivers of guiding wisdom in beautiful calligraphy, but it never quite looked as good as I wanted it to (and crossings-out suggest I'd never heard of Tippex then), so in due course I gave up and used a biro, while still attempting neatness. That went out of the window too, so there are a few entries that I can hardly read at all. Now I'm trying again to make things legible so that some day, if we survive this year and manage to grow older and need stronger reading glasses, I'll be able to look back on the latest passages and say "Hm, OK, so that's how we got through that little nightmare..."


In May 1986, I see, I copied out a passage of an interview in The Strad with Raphael Wallfisch, having no clue that I would someday meet and interview him myself. It is about the pace of artistic growth. "It's interesting that everyone develops at different speeds through different circumstances. In the end it does not matter how you are formed. If you've been lucky, as I have, to be surrounded with music and to have had fantastic teaching, then you can go at your own rate without fear of going off on a wrong track." 

This was from a time when I was profoundly unhappy at university, furious about the institutional arrogance, small-mindedness and snobbery I was encountering there, especially when I'd just spent the Easter holidays in New York sitting metaphorically at the feet of some really incredible musicians. That was the year I had a consultation lesson with Richard Goode, went to a lecture by Carl Schachter about Schenkerian analysis at the Mannes College, and met Oscar Shumsky, who put on an LP of Rachmaninov playing his own music, which blew my mind as I had never heard him before. Historical recordings were in their infancy of CD transfer back then, these gems were rare and precious and the idea that one day the whole lot would be available on computer at the touch of a button would never have been even a glimmer in the eye, let alone the ear. With a quick splash of memory, I can see how comforting Raphael's words would have seemed at that moment.

All this can be brought back at the sight of those words, inscribed in slightly smudged black ink.

Over the years the focus of the entries change - from musings on love and friendship from Emily Brontë and Joni Mitchell, to seeking ways forward in writing (Angela Carter, Hermann Hesse, DH Lawrence) and some awfully naive and now slightly embarrassing spiritual texts that were nevertheless helpful around the time my mother died in 1994. There's material from poets and authors from France, Germany, Austria, Bosnia, Russia, America, Ireland, Hungary. Bits of wisdom from Lutosławski and Cage. There's some Ovid, some Keats, some Byron, Betjemen, Dylan Thomas. There's a wonderfully useful poem about how to stop worrying - Mary Oliver's "I worried" - copied out in January 2019, and thank God almighty I didn't know that what I was worrying about just then (Brexit and the likely collapse of our musical world) was in fact entirely justified. 

In the past year I've only made three entries, but that's quite a lot, since there was nothing at all in 2014 and only one apiece in 15 and 16. Since the pandemic struck, I've lighted upon a little phrase of Yeats, a fierce piece by Robert Frost called "Fire and Ice", and an extract from an interview with Hilary Mantel about what historical fiction can do that academic writing on history does not. 

And now from the past to the future: Amanda Gorman, the US's youth poet laureate, 22 and blazing a trail into the future. I hope her words at the inauguration will stand as inspiration and sustenance to us for many years, should we be fortunate enough to be granted them. Now I will have them in my notebook, accessible at the slide of a drawer, for as long as I live. 


Thursday, December 31, 2020

2020 in the JDCMB-Haus



What did we do in 2020? The world did a pandemic. The UK did Brexit. I did Beethoven. 

I finished writing a book about Beethoven. I wrote a bunch of articles about Beethoven and I wrote a bunch of articles about writing a book about Beethoven. I made a video with a musician, the fabulous Mishka Rushdie Momen, at the Wigmore Hall where I read from my book about Beethoven and she played some Beethoven on the piano. I played some Beethoven on the piano - I learned Op. 31 No. 3 and the 'Waldstein' and I wrote an article about learning the 'Waldstein'. My big new piece with Roxanna Panufnik about Beethoven for the Berlin Philharmonie had to be cancelled (hopefully back in 2022). My Beethoven concerts with Viv McLean and others had to be cancelled. My trip to do Beethoven in Australia had to be cancelled. I reviewed some CDs and even a recital or two at the Wigmore Hall where Beethoven was played. Others had to be cancelled. I talked to musicians about Beethoven in person, on the phone, on Zoom. I was in videos talking about Beethoven and talking to musicians about Beethoven. I presented some Beethoven events on Zoom including a video launch for my book. I spent part of December chasing Krystian Zimerman and Simon Rattle around parts of east London trying to make some videos talking to them about Beethoven. I heard them playing some Beethoven concertos at LSO St Luke's and it was heaven. I saw Fidelio twice at Covent Garden and many times online. I talked to musicians about Fidelio. I listened to my husband learning the Beethoven Violin Concerto while I was writing my articles about Beethoven. I heard one of Tasmin Little's farewell recitals, in which she played a Beethoven sonata gorgeously. I read articles about Beethoven and books about Beethoven and listened to radio programmes about Beethoven and watched TV programmes about Beethoven, and then I reviewed a book about Mozart for the Sunday Times. I think I had Covid back in February, but that was before it made the big time, and I had to cancel going to a Beethoven concert because of it. Yes, there was a global pandemic, Brexit "got done", it felt as if everything had to be cancelled and our musicians are in appalling, desperate financial trouble, with no end yet in sight, but Beethoven just went on getting everywhere.

And in the summer we got away to Germany, where we walked up some mountains, rowed across a lake, saw wonderful friends and ate more oysters, and more wonderful oysters, than I have ever seen or eaten in all my life.

Hooray for Beethoven. Hooray for oysters. Boo to Brexit. Our country used to be flawed, but workable; we had the best musical life in the world. That's finished. We'll muddle through, but the golden age is over. Beethoven will survive. 

Next, I think I might learn some Mendelssohn.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Farewell to Fou Ts'ong (1934-2020)

Late last night the tragic news reached me that the great Chinese pianist Fou Ts'ong has died, aged 86, of Covid-19. This phenomenal artist was part of my childhood, as from the age of 10 to 17 I studied piano with his wife, Patsy Toh. He would flit by occasionally, a somewhat shy and shadowy figure in a doorway or in the hall, and my small self was rather terrified of him. I knew little of his story then, nothing about the horrific fate of his family in the Chinese Cultural Revolution or his dramatic escape via Poland after the Chopin Competition - though I did know he was friendly with Richter, because I once turned up for a lesson to find that Richter was there in the house, practising Schubert. Finally, as editor of what was then Classical Piano Magazine in the 1990s, I had the chance to interview him on the occasion of his 60th birthday. I asked him one question and he talked for two hours. Fortunately I still have the text, so I am rerunning it below in tribute to him. 


Fou Ts'ong
(Picture source: Svensk Konsertdirektion AB Website)

"I am always a beginner. I am always learning..." 

Fou Ts'ong tells Jessica Duchen the extraordinary story of his childhood in China and his escape to the West


Fou Ts'ong's life and career have been unconventional in almost every way, sometimes spectacular, sometimes unobtrusive, yet always sincere, taking him from the cosmopolitan Shanghai of the 1930s through Poland in the 1950s to the shores of Lake Como in the 1990s. There, under the auspices of the International Piano Foundation, he works with other eminent teachers and a select group of the best young pianists, creating, as he puts it, "the Davidsbündler of our time".


Fou talks with great enthusiasm (and an astonishing gift for mimicry) about his childhood and the early part of his career. This world could not have been more different. "My childhood would have been peculiar anywhere," he begins, "but was especially so in China, then a country of 450 million people over 90% of whom were peasants and the small core of intellectuals a tiny percentage." Fou belonged to that minimal number, being the son of a leading Chinese scholar, Fu Lei, who, having travelled freely to Europe and studied in Paris for five years, was exceptionally equally well versed in both Classical Chinese and modern philosophy. Among his works he counted the translation into Chinese of Romain Rolland's immense and influential novel Jean Christophe and the complete works of Balzac. [Fu Lei's Family Letters, a best-seller in China, published the correspondence of father and son and the progress of the youthful musician's piano studies.]


"Jean Christophe was an enormous influence in China, much more so than in Europe," explains Fou. "I think that was because it represented the liberation of the individual. To the Chinese this is the crucial issue - to this day it is not solved. My father was an extraordinary person, a renaissance man of great humanism; that is the way I was brought up. I was taught classical Chinese from a very early age by my father himself and this kind of classical education even in my generation is very rare. And my father, when he was teaching me Lao-tse or Confucius, would also quote Aristotle or Plato or Bertrand Russell or Voltaire."


"Those were very frenetic years in China, we were under Japanese occupation from 1941-45 - and for four years my father never went out of the house. There was hardly any food, just very coarse rice. Very hard times, but also it was a very hopeful time because the whole of China was in a ferment; everybody felt that fascism was evil, and evil and good were very clear cut. We were good, so we fought for the cause."


Fou's family also possessed a large number of records of classical music. Fou grew up to the sounds of artists such as Alfred Cortot, Edwin Fischer, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Pablo Casals. From a very early age he was mesmerised by music, yet it was not until he was 17 years old that he began to take the piano seriously as the focus of his life. Early lessons when he was ten were given by a pupil of his father, a young woman who had studied with a Russian pianist in Shanghai. Her loving and encouraging approach provided "the greatest joy in my life" for the otherwise strictly reared child. He progressed by leaps and bounds, but when he was sent instead to the Italian pianist and conductor Paci, one-time assistant to Toscanini at La Scala Milan and the founder of the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra - who had "got stuck" in Shanghai thanks to a passion for gambling - he found himself facing a very different approach which took all the joy away. He was given nothing but exercises to play for a year, plus the indignity of balancing a coin on the back of the hand.


After the family moved to Kuming in Yunan province, Fou became a rebellious teenager, passionately committed to the idea of communist revolution. His father, among the first Chinese to realise the truth about Stalin and the lies of Bolshevik communisim in Russia, acted as "a Cassandra of his time" and foretold disaster. His son disagreed and eventually a family split ensued. His father went back to Shanghai while Fou, alone in Yunan, was thrown out of school after school and finally, running out of schools and excuses, applied to and was accepted at the University of Yunan at the age of 15. He enrolled for English literature but spent his time "making revolution all over the place, falling in and out of love all the time, drinking and playing bridge!" 


But word got out that he could play the piano. When two rival churches in the town both put on Handel's Messiah at Christmas they competed for Fou's services as accompanist. Fortunately the performances were on different days, so he played for both. By exam time he was terrified, having done no work. Instead, he put on, with the help of fellow students, a concert in one church where he played an album called 101 Favourite Piano Pieces from cover to cover on a wartime upright. At the end a collection was made for him and immediately he had enough funds to make his way back to Shanghai by himself to continue his musical development.


The 17-year old thoroughly impressed his father with his difficult two-month solitary journey; his father agreed to help him pursue studies with the aim of becoming a concert pianist. These took on a distinctly surprising slant as Fou had very few lessons; one piano teacher emigrated to Canada after three months; next, what lessons he did have were from not a pianist but a violinist, the aging Alfred Wittenburg, a refugee from Nazi Germany, ex-concert master of the Berlin Opera and chamber music partner of Artur Schnabel. After Wittenburg's death, "I studied by intuition, thinking and reading books. I studied on my own and made my debut one year later. In Shanghai that made such a stir that central government, who wanted to send someone abroad for a competition, came to Shanghai to search out for me as one of the candidates."


That was how Fou went to a competition in Bucharest, where he won third prize, and then, fatefully, to Poland, where the government sent Andrzej Panufnik himself to listen to him to find out if he was worthy to participate in the Chopin Competition  Panufnik raved, "and soon everyone in Poland was raving. 'Have you heard him play mazurkas? Listen to those mazurkas!' I became a sort of performing monkey, everyone was asking me to play mazurkas all the time!" Fou laughs. He duly entered the competition and won the mazurka prize.


https://youtu.be/SqFOylOw2Ls


After the competition Fou studied in Warsaw and Cracow, thriving on the enthusiasm and encouragement he received there and falling in love again, this time with Mozart, an affair which lasts to this day. Professor Drzewicki, who also taught Halina Czerny-Stefanska and Adam Haraciewicz, sat and smiled through Fou's lessons. "After the competition he told me, 'Ts'ong you are different, you are so original and personal, you should only come to my lesson maybe once a month, no more'. Altogether I can count on my fingers the number of times I went. He said, 'I am here only to guide you if you go out of way'. 


"I was a great counterfeiter because I managed to hide all my troubles by my unique way of fingering, by my imagination, somehow by hoping to produce the goods. I always wanted to realise whatever vision I had in my head - in what way I don't know, I found it in my own way. Unless the vision was presented in a way that didn't show its deficiencies I would not allow it to go out. In a way I am my own downfall because I camouflage so well. In some ways it's also good because my way is original. But the struggle I have had with pianistic problems over the years is unbelievable, even to this day. I have to practise awfully hard; I envy pianists who have a great facility because I wish I had more time to play more music. Musically I am very greedy!'


Fou extended his stay in Poland as long as he could, for by then it had become dangerous for him to return to China where the anti-rightist movement - "the dress rehearsal of the Cultural Revolution" - had begun, and condemned him and his father. "It was a matter of life and death." He was desperate to go to Russia where a new friend and supporter was doing his best to offer help: Sviatoslav Richter, who wrote an enthusiastic article about Fou for a communist magazine entitled Friendship, published jointly in Russia and China. Richter had hoped thus to help Fou come officially to Russia, but while the article appeared in the Russian edition, the Chinese never carried it; nothing came of the scheme. Fou did not learn of this episode until many years afterwards.


His dramatic escape to Britain was made possible by the help of some more eminent beings: Wanda Wilkomirska, who helped to persuade the Polish authorities to "look the other way"; a music-loving wealthy Englishman named Auberon Herbert, who helped arrange an invitation for Fou to play in London, for which he could obtain a visa; and the pianist Julius Katchen, who lent him the air fare. To help throw the Chinese authorities off the scent, a "farewell"concert was announced at the last minute; Fou Ts'ong would perform two concertos, Mozart 's C major K503 and Chopin's F minor (both of which he learned in a week - on Saturday evening, 23 December. Another red herring, a farewell recital, was also announced for a later date, though pianist and organisers knew it would never happen. Early the next morning - a Sunday and Christmas Eve in a strongly Catholic country, a day on which "even the most diehard military police will become a little bit lax!" - Fou Ts'ong took a British Airways plane to London. He was free and an immediate celebrity in the West. Caught in the Cultural Revolution in China, Fou's father and mother both committed suicide.


Today, looking back over this extraordinary story and his varied fortunes since that time, Fou has some sensible advice to offer young would-be pianists. "First, you must have good self awareness, to know what you're made of. If you really have got it in you, not only talent but real aspiration, that means you are ready to sacrifice your life for it, totally dedicated to it, that's almost more important than talent. And even with these two, you have to be prepared to get nowhere in terms of worldly 'success'. You must know what you're in for! I wouldn't advise anyone to go on for the wrong reasons. 


"I consider myself terribly lucky, although I wouldn't consider my career that easy, partly because I have my deficiencies, also partly and largely because of my character. My wife Patsy [pianist and teacher Patsy Toh] says to me, 'You shouldn't complain, because you made your own destiny'. And that's true. Today I think to myself, thank God, now I'm really beginning to understand music. But I consider myself a beginner. I am always a beginner. I am always learning. I think I am very lucky that I never had so much success that I could be blinded by vanity. And to be in music, you are very lucky. When I was very young, I wrote to my father from Poland that I was sad and lonely. He wrote back: 'You could never be lonely. Don't you think you are living with the greatest souls of the history of mankind all the time?' Now that's how I feel, always."