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  • Two hats, one post | Thu, 20 Sep 2018 10:53:00 +0000

    Rattle, milking it. (Photo: LSO)
    Critic's hat for the day here: I reviewed Simon Rattle, Janine Jansen & the LSO for The Arts Desk last night, but perhaps the most moving thing of all was Rattle's farewell speech for Lennox Mackenzie, who's retiring after an LSO career spanning nearly four decades. Read the whole thing here.

    Other hat: on Tuesday 25 September Tom and I are giving a concert together in North Yorkshire - at All Saints' Church, Kirby Hill. Tom plays solo Bach, Beethoven and other things. I'm reading some of my prose-poems. The concert is named after one of them, VOLCANIC ASH, and is built around what happened to us when we were trapped by closed air space somewhere you mightn't want to be trapped - with themes including identity, history, trauma and brainwash. Yorkshire friends, if you like the sound of this, do join us. To book, please call 01423 326284 or 01423 323774.

  • Are symphonies from memory bad news for pianists? | Tue, 18 Sep 2018 09:14:00 +0000

    Aurora plays from memory. (Photo:

    If you want music to lift you clean out of your chair, go and hear the Aurora Orchestra play a symphony from memory.

    The opening concert of their season, on Sunday afternoon, entitled Smoke and Mirrors, found them at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, delivering a theatrically staged event – in the first half of which, through clouds of dry ice, the brilliant singer Marcus Farnsworth travelled from Schubert's Der Wanderer to HK Gruber's Frankenstein!!. A narrated link described an erupting volcano, the skies that it darkened in 1816 and some glimpses of Mary Shelley and friends writing ghost stories by the lake. This storytelling's ability to immerse us in the world and the legacy of early romanticism proved vivid and atmospheric; Aurora has Kate Wakeling as writer in residence, and I assume she penned this dramatic casing. (You can find her work in
Pianist with music and iPad. (photo:
So what are the implications for pianists? If you're playing solo, then there's only one of you and you don't have to choose between staring at the music or indulging in actual interaction with your colleagues and the conductor. If you're playing Bach fugues or Messiaen or Ligeti and suchlike, I wouldn't blame you one little bit for plumping for the old iPad. It won't serve as a barrier between you and anyone else and it will ease your mind and your nerves, which can only be a good thing. 

But the big irony is that for pianists, the convention is to memorise solo works and play chamber music from the score (indeed, the pianist is usually the only one who has the full score in front of him/her). While the set-up of the chamber music circuit would probably make this idea deeply impractical, I can't help thinking it should be the other way around. It's in chamber music that memorisation would be most useful to all concerned, facilitating that interaction. That's not to say it doesn't work as things are. It's just that in an ideal world.....

Well, we don't have an ideal world, in any way, shape or form. But Aurora shows that with enough vision, ambition and determination, transformative experiences are still possible. Bravi tutti.

  • Being joyous, outside parliament? | Fri, 14 Sep 2018 17:40:00 +0000

    In these febrile times, I think it takes some courage to march around Westminster singing and playing the Ode to Joy. This is precisely what two brave Simons - baritone Simon Wallfisch and violinist Simon Hewitt Jones - and their friends have been doing on a regular basis for months and months and months. They are spreading togetherness and, well, joy, they say, to help heal this divided nation.

    Given the grim future that's at stake for every one of us if the government pushes ahead with "hard Brexit", we should all go and join in!

  • In Dicte's Denmark, the music's not so noir... | Thu, 13 Sep 2018 07:29:00 +0000

  • Last Night of the Proms: musical magic among the blue berets | Sun, 09 Sep 2018 10:52:00 +0000

    Roxanna Panufnik takes a bow. Photo: Chris Christodoulou/BBC

    Well, we needn't have worried. What usually happens at the Last Night of the Proms happened again: differences are put aside, all are welcomed in with flag of whatever hue, and there's one great big jamboree of a musical party, where we get to join in. A few years back (2013, I think, was the last time I was there) it struck me that what actually matters in those audience songs is not the content, but the fact that we're all there and singing together, and singing with the professionals and the orchestra and, in this case, Gerald Finley and Sir Andrew Davis. Nothing brings people together like singing. Goodness knows why, but it's true and you can feel it, palpably.

    It was a big night. Roxanna Panufnik's beautiful and very atmospheric new Proms commission, Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light, had its world premiere; saxophonist Jess Gillam must surely have shot to superstardom, music poring from every cell; Finley held the stage as only he can; and Davis looked as if he was back in situ after one day, not 18 years. 

    Outside the Royal Albert Hall blue-bereted devotees were handing out free EU flags. A great many people accepted them, while die-hards with the Union Jack looked on askance and muttered. But inside, all differences were firmly put aside: every flag under the sun was out for the Last Night party, along with the glitter poppers, an inflatable parrot and a model kangaroo.  On the podium, a familiar figure: Sir Andrew Davis, long-ago emeritus conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, owning the night again after some 18 years away, but as much at ease as if he’d tackled the job only yesterday. And his cavalcade of music celebrated the old, the new and, if not quite the borrowed, then certainly the blue – Stanford’s The Blue Bird, enjoying rare, richly deserved prominence. ..

  • Last Night and some alternative words... | Sat, 08 Sep 2018 13:33:00 +0000

    I'm off to the Last Night of the Proms, mainly because I think it's going to be fun (?) to write about it, this year of all years.
    When I last went, in 2013, I found that one of the jingo-songs stuck in the craw somewhat - I love Jerusalem, but not Land of Hope and Glory. I mean, come on, even Elgar didn't love Land of Hope and Glory. So, as I like making up words, I made some up. Join in if you feel the same. (This is strictly tongue-in-cheek, by the way - just a bit of fun - and anyway, if I make up words, you can too.)
    I love Edward Elgar, he's the man for me
    He's our greatest composer, as tonight we see.
    He grew up in Malvern, he was quite self-taught,
    Then he made the big time, as is right he ought.
    Then he made the big time, as is right he ought.
    Let us sing of Elgar, let his soul fly free,
    Let our song reach to heaven, wherein he may be;
    Wider still and wider shall our message sound:
    Music lasts forever, let this song shine out
    Music lasts forever, let this song shine out!

  • What are you doing on Sunday? | Tue, 28 Aug 2018 08:18:00 +0000

    Composer Lili Boulanger

    Asking because those of you who are as exercised as I am about the proper recognition of music that's written by women might like to join this splendid initiative from Heather Roche and the Southbank Centre. They're having a Wikipedia Edit-a-thon on Sunday 2 September, with the aim of adding more female composers to the site's database. Annoyingly, I will be away in Denmark then, having an actual holiday (cloning urgently required). 

    Here's what they say:
    If you're in London, grab your laptop and come and join us at the The Royal Festival Hall, where we'll provide support and socialising for fledgling editors. Or: set your laptop up and participate remotely; we'll be live streaming the event via Facebook and tweeting throughout the day with the hashtag #ComposingWikipedia.  
    Currently, only 17% of Wikipedia's entries about people are about women and only 10% of Wikipedia's contributing editors are women. Creating a Wikipedia entry is a simple and effective way to raise the profile of a composer. It's also not difficult to do: Wikipedia has become easy to use with a Visual Editor and lots of clear resources.  
    If you'd like to sign up, please visit this link.

    Pictured above, Lili Boulanger, one of the composers whose music is currently receiving wide acclaim and recognition in part thanks to this ongoing upswing of consciousness - a full century after her untimely death.

  • Dinner with Shura Cherkassky | Sun, 26 Aug 2018 07:34:00 +0000

    Thanks, everyone, for your warm response to my post last weekend about Knightsbridge. In it I mentioned en passant that back in about 1992 a friend and I took Shura Cherkassky out to dinner at the Russian restaurant Borscht'n'Tears, and this has caused something between amazement and amusement, so I thought we'd better have a follow-up. In 1993 I was editing Classical Piano magazine (will give you the full story of that little exercise some day) and for one of the earliest issues I seized the chance to interview the almost-uninterviewable Cherkassky and put him on the front cover.

    Somehow this interview has survived intact on my computer, so here it is. Fresh from the last century, other worlds, other mindsets - much missed. From Classical Piano, 1993...

    He loves the hottest sun, the most exotic travel and spur-of-the-moment inspiration. And he would rather go to a nightclub than sit and talk about music. Jessica Duchen meets the 82-year-old Shura Cherkassky

    Shortly after his much-celebrated 80th birthday a couple of years ago, Shura Cherkassky, a legend in his own lifetime, apparently walked into his agent's office and inquired, "Do you think my career's going all right?"

    Cherkassky is never one to become complacent. And he never stops seeking fresh stimulation in life. It is not only his unpredictable, even eccentric, but always astonishing musicality that has made him legendary. Interviewers have been known to dread the prospect of tackling him, and one photographer refused to try again after the maestro nodded off during a session.

    "I get bored," shrugs Cherkassky, at home in the small London hotel apartment he has rented for decades. "I have no patience for anything. Why don't I have my own flat? The answer is simple: because I have no patience. If I had a place of my own I would feel very isolated. I like to have people around, even if I hardly say hello to anyone – just that they're there. And if I need anything I just pick up the phone and ask the porter to get it. There is a restaurant. What would I do with my own place? A housekeeper would leave me because I keep the rooms too hot. I'm even difficult to go on holiday with because I like blazing sun. Most people can't stand it.'

    Even the grand piano is rented: "Everything is rented. I don't care for possessions, it's too much of an obligation. Because I never know, I may leave on the spur of the moment and go somewhere. Really at heart I'm a gypsy. I like adventures. I get easily bored with ordinary things.' So how does a man with such abnormal impatience learn such a vast repertoire of music? "Ah, that's different – for my work I have abnormal patience," explains Cherkassky.

    His great passion is travel. And his favourite country? "Thailand. I love Thailand. I love the Thai people – they always want to please you, and they never laugh at you, they only laugh with you. There is no country like it, none, none! I'd go there for a holiday any time except August when it rains. When I come back to Europe, to Italy or Greece, I'm bored. I like mystery, I like the orient very much.

    "Why do I live in London? It's the centre of the world – it's civilised, it's comfortable. I don't take advantage of London, though, and there are so many wonderful theatres. But I don't know many interesting people here. I like interesting people, the people who attract me most are the ones who travel, who discover things.'

    Quite apart from going on holiday, Shura Cherkassky has a schedule of engagements and tours which would be tough for anyone, let alone somebody of his years. But he is in the peak of health: "I never touch a drop of alcohol," is his explanation. "It's like an obsession, even if something is cooked in alcohol and it has evaporated, I won't touch it. And I don't smoke. Meat? Yes, I eat meat, but not too much – fish is better than meat."

    The physically tiring thing for him, he says, is the constant round of backstage handshakes. "People always come backstage and they talk about their families, they say, 'Oh, my daughter plays the piano...'. It's boring. People say 'Come round and talk about music'. They don't say 'Would you like to see the town, go to a nightclub?' They think someone who plays Beethoven and Bach wouldn't be interested to go to a nightclub!'

    Cherkassky agrees he has a reputation for being a musical eccentric. "Some people who go to my concerts say I can play the next night like a different pianist – not better or worse, just different. I never know how I'm going to play. I'm very unpredictable, they say. Yes, I am. And if you ask me why, I don't know. On the spur of the moment I can suddenly decide I'm going to make a diminuendo here. I used to shock people but I don't do that now because it's very bad. But I do some very odd things. The critics don't always like it, but the audience likes it. If I play too straight, the critics would give better reviews, but the audience would be less enthusiastic. The answer to it all is you have to be yourself."

    He has never taught, nor does he enjoy listening to young pianists who want to play for him. "I'm too frank, and I can't say to their face that they will never make any good. Because you can tell, even if they're 11 years old you can tell immediately. And I couldn't teach, I wouldn't know what to say. I have no patience for anything. Have you ever been to Asia?..." Steered back to the subject of teaching, Cherkassky comments he thinks most performers do not make good teachers, "because you take it all out on yourself, you have no more energy to give."

    Needless to say, he has no patience for recording studios either. "I don't have the inspiration to go into a studio and sit there and wait for a red light and a green light – I'm not very good at it. I'm self-conscious that I may make a mistake and have to repeat it over again." Most of the recordings that are now being issued are from live concerts, as encouraged by the late and much missed producer Peter Wadland, who worked closely with Cherkassky. Decca's discs from Carnegie Hall are a good example, though again Cherkassky is critical: "I didn't like the Chopin sonatas, but to my surprise the CD magazine gave me a rave review. But the encores, the short pieces, those are very good – Sinding Rustle of Spring, Moszkowski waltzes, just short pieces.' He reflects. "And Tchaikovsky's own arrangement of 'None but the Lonely Heart' – of that I'm very proud.'

  • Lenny's Credo | Sat, 25 Aug 2018 08:37:00 +0000

    It is Leonard Bernstein's centenary today. Above, the conclusion of his lecture series in 1973, in which as his 'credo' he predicts a new and wonderful musical era of eclecticism rooted in tonality. 45 years on, it seems he was right (though heaven knows we have other problems to contend with now that he probably couldn't foresee). Many of his lectures can be viewed online and I urge you to look them up: he was a musical communicator without compare.

    The unanswered question? "I no longer know what the question was," he says, "but I do know the answer. And the answer is: yes."

    And here's some music.

  • A palinka of a Prom | Fri, 24 Aug 2018 10:10:00 +0000

    Joszef Lendvay (son) and Joszef Csoci Lendvai (father) in full flight with Fischer & the BFO
    Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou
    I reviewed last night's Budapest Festival Orchestra Prom for The Arts Desk: Brahms, Liszt and Lisztes! Wonderful to see the audience pretty much eating out of the hands of some real Gypsy violins and the phenomenal cimbalomist Jenö Lisztes, to say nothing of Iván Fischer's heavenly Brahms. And as a show of unity and strength in contemporary Hungarian context, it couldn't be bettered. Read the whole thing here:

  • AGED 9-21? AUDITION FOR OUR NEW OPERA! | Thu, 23 Aug 2018 12:29:00 +0000

    The cat is out of the bag! I'm writing a new youth opera for Garsington 2019 with the composer Paul Fincham and the company is now announcing the auditions, which will be held on 15 September.

    So if you are or know a young person aged 9-21 who likes singing and stagecraft, send 'em our way, please. Details on Garsington's site here.

    The opera is THE HAPPY PRINCESS, an updated adaptation of that ever-popular Oscar Wilde story, The Happy Prince [NB, the Garsington site currently says Andersen, but it isn't]. We hope it will be touching, fun, 'relevant' and full of beautiful new music by Paul. I've been having way too much fun doing the words.

    Read about Paul and the audition plans here.

  • Knightsbridge March | Mon, 20 Aug 2018 08:20:00 +0000

    The other day I went to interview a wonderful young musician in order to write the booklet notes for his next disc. We had an hour to talk about a very great composer, the challenges he poses, the eternal appeal he holds. The musician in question lives in Germany and was staying in a hotel in Knightsbridge, so I trotted off to the tube and got off at a stop I visit perhaps once every two years, if that. I wasn't quite prepared for what I found up at street level.

    Start your week with the Eric Coates 'Knightsbridge March', above. It'll put you in a better mood than what follows, beneath. Because Knightsbridge is not like that now.

    What and who exactly is Knightsbridge 2018 for? When I was a kid (OK, a long time ago, but not that long, surely?) it was a place we'd sometimes go to for fun on a Saturday afternoon or a day off in the school holidays. We'd park the car in a side-street and wander through the Harrods sale or the food hall, where my dad might buy matjes herrings or some sponge biscuits, and my mum might throw her hands up in horror at the tastelessness of its fake-Egyptian decor and the ostentatious displays of wealth on show. We might walk up the main streets looking out for an affordable shop in which to trace a good bargain on something useful like a smart raincoat or winter boots. I'd been to Knightsbridge, too, on a couple of dinner dates in the 1990s - one occasion that was a date date in a beautiful brasserie that I've never seen again, and once with a friend who worked for a music management company: we took the octogenarian Shura Cherkassky out to Boscht'n'Tears, a Russian restaurant that had apparently been a flourishing institution in the 1960s. That was an evening I'll never forget...about 25 years ago.

    You know those designer shops in airports where the logo is huge, the clothes are literally chained up and there's nobody inside? That's Knightsbridge today, only it has knobs on. Sloane Street is a parade of fancy names - Prada, Zegna, Gucci, et al - and it's not as if you'd dare to go in if you're a normal kind of working journalist in your jeans and cardigan because there are what look like actual bouncers, never mind a security lookout, on the door. Anyway, why would you go in? The shoes are hideous: I surveyed some cream-coloured patent leather ultra-high heels with what looked like receipt spikes for heels, wide ugly-pink ribbons to tie them on and the label's logo in huge letters all over the back. Why would anybody want to wear those? How much might they cost? These places don't put prices in the windows. Who are these shops for? What are they for? What is the earthly use of them?

    This was a Saturday afternoon, in August, when London is teeming with tourists. There weren't that many here, other than a large tour party of French students looking into the windows and laughing fit to bust. Some other interesting languages and accents did go past me, including Russian and Arabic. Occasional groups of women - mothers and daughters in some cases, ferocious people in heels in others - wore expressions of boredom, ennui and get-outa-my-way. A few clusters of youngish men in dark clothes, talking hard but doing nothing in particular, strode past: my guess would be chauffeurs off duty, or security bods in disguise. There was no traffic to speak of, except a few long, low vehicles in shiny black and gold zooming up and down making their engines roar for the heck of it. Who are the people who do that? What's the matter with them? Haven't they got anything better to do? If you'd watched McMafia, you'd have had the distinct feeling you were on its set and you'd have expected a film crew to turn up any moment. It didn't. This shit is real. This shit is happening in my city.

    My musician and I wandered out to look for somewhere to sit quietly and talk music. The hotel had a posh restaurant, but no quiet place to get a cuppa. There was nothing, but nothing, on the main road. Eventually we went into Harvey Nichols - a shop that used to be pleasant and browsable with one's sister back c1995 (I even had Karina and Lindy going to 'Harvey Nicks' for a fun girls' outing in Hungarian Dances, written in 2006-7 - I doubt either of them would bother now). Everything is so beautifully presented in there that it's scary even to approach a garment to look at a label; you can't help thinking how excellent it would be if that amount of aesthetic care, expertise and money were to be put instead into the presentation of concert halls, theatres, colleges and schools.

    We ended up in a coffee bar in the basement and did the interview. Yesterday afternoon I transcribed it and ended up with a splitting headache as I tried to disentangle my soft-spoken interviewee's words from the more than usually hideous thumping, wailing, deafening electro-pop music that blared out over us throughout.

    The vacuity, the emptiness, the arrogance, the ostentation, the prices, the soul-deadening noise... What a place to talk piano concertos. My musician spoke gently, shyly, about the joy this music always brings him when he plays it, about the incredible, colourful range of emotions it contains, about how he and the conductor first met. And eventually I delivered him back to his parents at the hotel, and zipped back to the tube station. On the way home I stopped at the supermarket, where a young Romanian sells The Big Issue at the door and the well-heeled donate boxes of cornflakes or tins of spaghetti to the food bank collection point on the way to the car park, and picking out my fish and salad for supper I found myself wondering exactly how much money is being laundered though London these days and what will happen to places like Knightsbridge when we leave the EU, as I fear we really will next year (unfortunately I have no confidence in our politicians' competence to stop the madness before it's too late).

    Meanwhile, there's this: many people in the British capital who have jobs can't afford to eat.

    After our inevitable crash-out Brexit, when the medicine can't get to us and people start dying, there may well be a revolution. And then I will be pleased I saw Knightsbridge in 2018, because soon it won't exist any more. I'll remember, to tell new generations, what unchecked greed did to a once beautiful city. And then I'll listen to my young musician's recording, with all its sensitivity, humanity and communicative, poetic beauty, and I'll remember that that's why we went into music in the first place. The music will last and while we have it, God willing, our souls will stay intact.

  • 'Editorial Development': a view from the cat-tree | Sun, 19 Aug 2018 08:47:00 +0000

    [This is a shared post with my
    Next, I read the whole thing aloud. To the cat. Our old cat, Solti, used to detest being read to. After about two sentences he'd pad in and start meowing at me continuously. I never knew whether this meant "I wanna join in" or "Shut the **** up!" (The same is currently true for Madame Cosima and Tom's violin practice...) Ricki (pictured right) who has designated himself "my" cat, while Cosi is "Tom's", is much more patient. He'll sprawl in his top bunk and watch the birds in the apple tree while being read a nice, very long story, and only really responds if I happen to have used the word "suppertime".

    Whatever he thinks of it, it's an incredibly useful thing for me to do. Again, it's the laboratory microscope of the Writer's Technique malarkey. If you read aloud, you read every word. You hear things - and if you are into music, this means you are aurally motivated and hearing things will offer insights that simply seeing them can sometimes miss (especially if you're trying to look at them afresh after 26 years). You notice images that are repeated too often, or phrases you've over-used, or daft clichés that stick out like a sore thumb [see what I did there?]. You feel the passages that jar, rubbing at your skin like mosquito bites. And you notice the bits that probably go on too long because you start wanting to check Facebook while you're reading them. Time to make judicious use of the 'delete' button. 

    So, that's where we are in 'Editorial Development'. Now you know the painful truth, and I'm going back in to tackle the next 100 pages. Wish me luck and have a lovely Sunday. 

  • Discovered: the 'holy grail' of piano recordings? | Tue, 14 Aug 2018 08:17:00 +0000

    Mark Ainley of The Piano Files has just revealed the discovery and imminent release of something utterly extraordinary. A 'live' - i.e., non-commercial/studio - recording of Sergei Rachmaninoff playing his own music has long been considered by some to be the 'holy grail' for historical piano aficionados. Against all the odds, one has finally turned up.

    It dates from 1940 and on it you can even hear Rachmaninoff singing along and speaking to his colleague Eugene Ormandy while playing. Marston Records will be releasing it in as part of a 3-CD set of the great pianist-composer's non-commercial recordings on 4 September.

    Above, a taster video compiled by Mark. He says:

    "I am delighted to share this announcement of the discovery and imminent release of one of the most astounding historical piano recordings that I believe has ever been discovered - one that I don't think anyone could have imagined existing. 
    "For years there has been conjecture about a 'live' recording of Sergei Rachmaninoff at the piano - and what has recently been located is completely different than what might have been expected, yet also beyond what anyone could have imagined, and I anticipate that all piano fans and Rachmaninoff admirers will be thrilled at this phenomenal discovery. 
    "...The playing is I believe the finest that exists of the legendary pianist-composer, so incredibly mesmerizing and intoxicating in its beauty, with magnificent refinement and exuberance, that I find it to be on a whole other plane from everything we have heard of him before."

    Marston Records, introducing the video, says:
    Rachmaninoff Plays Symphonic Dances: Newly Discovered 1940 Recording is a three-CD set which highlights Sergei Rachmaninoff at the piano playing his Symphonic Dances Op.45.   At a private gathering with conductor Eugene Ormandy, Rachmaninoff demonstrated just how he wanted his new orchestral work Symphonic Dances to be performed, playing a single-piano reduction of the score for a single piano while singing and given spoken commentary to Ormandy, to whom the work was dedicated and who would premiere it two weeks later.  The recently discovered recording of Rachmaninoff at the keyboard is presented twice in this set: first edited to conform to the score, and again just as the occasion unfolded, with Rachmaninoff jumping from place to place as he demonstrates, comments, and sings. The playing throughout is absolutely phenomenal - some of the greatest, if not *the* greatest, that exists of Rachmaninoff on record. Additional performances of Rachmaninoff’s works are also included, and the voluminous booklet includes an insightful essay by Richard Taruskin, author of the Oxford History of Western Music. Further essays include A Musician's Reaction, in which Jorge Bolet's pupil Ira Levin discusses this performance in the context of live vs. studio recordings, and a lengthy Note From the Producers about the recordings in this volume.   Other performers whom Rachmaninoff admired are included in this set: pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch in his stupendous 1946 BBC broadcast of the Paganini Rhapsody (from newly obtained source material in superb sound), mezzo soprano Nadezhda Plevitskaya, and conductors Adrian Boult, Dmitri Mitropoulos, Eugene Ormandy, and Leopold Stokowski.  Every known non-commercial recording of Rachmaninoff, including the important Bell Laboratories recording (a six-minute excerpt) of Rachmaninoff playing during a 1931 recital, is also featured - the 1931 performance featuring excerpts of Ballades by Brahms and Liszt that are absolutely mesmerizing.   “It is with tremendous pride that I release Rachmaninoff Plays Symphonic Dances.  I feel this is one of the most important achievements of my career.” - Ward Marston

  • Long flight lurgy | Mon, 13 Aug 2018 08:41:00 +0000

    I haven't disappeared into the outback with my Anna Magdalena costume, promise. Got home last Wednesday morning from Hong Kong, suitcases intact this time. Trotted off to Oval to return 18th-century dress on Thursday - encountering, en route, someone so like the actor character in Odette that I thought maybe he was real after all (this is a frequent occurrence with my books: I invent characters, then find I meet them later).

    And then: struck down with the Long Flight Lurgy. I don't know if there is any truth in the idea that the recirculating cabin air supply increases your likelihood of picking up germs that other passengers are breathing out, or if it's the 15-degree drop in temperature, but one way or another I'm down and out today and the wild sunshine of northern Australia feels like a very, very long way off.

    Back soon. Holing myself up in the study with an opera DVD to review, lemsip and nose drops.

  • AFCM#6: Being Anna Magdalena | Thu, 02 Aug 2018 00:01:00 +0000

    It’s done! The premiere of Being Mrs Bach was yesterday at 5pm and it simply flew by. It’s almost impossible to sum it up...but the great reward, when you’ve dreamed up a project and you can see it in your mind’s eye, and then months later that image actually becomes reality and does what you want it to do - that’s a good feeling.

    The original commission for Being Mrs Bach came through last summer from Kathy Stott and Tom and I took off to Leipzig to experience Bach’s environment as far as humanly possible. The trip made a big difference to the story, because there is information at the Thomaskirche, the Bach Museum and the city museum in the Town Hall that provides colour and authenticity that would not have been available to me from the comfort of my bookshelves. Anna Magdalena’s tragedy was that she gave her whole life to Bach and her family, only to find, first, that she could no longer sing - women were not allowed to sing in public in Leipzig - and then, after JSB’s death, she and her youngest daughter were left reliant on charity as, for some reason, the other children gave her little support. In 1894, when Bach’s body was exhumed so that scientists could measure his skull, hers was left behind. By the time he was reburied in pride of place in the Thomaskirche in 1950, anything that remained of Anna Magdalena had probably been blasted to pieces by allied bombing.

    How to choose the right pieces from Bach’s gigantic output to include in the show was, to put it mildly, mind-boggling - especially with such an eclectic roster of astounding musicians available to take part. But as soon as Kathy let me know who my singers could be, things began to fall into place. The chance to persuade Roddy Williams to sing ‘Mache Dich’ from the St Matthew Passion to finish the show seemed almost too good to be true, and he kindly agreed to sing ‘Hat man nicht mit seinen Kinder’ from the Coffee Cantata as well. The glorious soprano Siobhan Stagg sang ‘Bist du bei mir’ - such a favourite of mine that we had it at our wedding. (You may have seen Roddy and Siobhan as Papageno and Pamina in The Magic Flute at the Royal Opera House last year....).

    The Goldner Quartet are in residence - who better to tackle the legendary Unfinished Fugue of The Art of Fugue? The effect is devastating: this magnificent complexity unfurling in phase after phase suddenly peters out into silence with a few final notes on the viola. Daniel de Borah contributed not only two splendid solos - the chunky, good-natured E flat Prelude and Fugue from Book 2 of the 48 and the ubiquitous Minuet in G, beautifully embellished on its repeat - but also accompanied Siobhan and joined the Winterschool’s very accomplished student quartet and bassist Kees Boersma in the ensemble for ‘Mache Dich’. Guy Johnston played the first movement of the C major Cello Suite, just as Anna Magdalena remembers how she made fair copies, put in all the bowings and used to imagine that one day someone might find those pages in her handwriting and wonder if she wrote them herself... ;).

    Funnily enough, the single most complicated part of the process was setting up the stage. We wanted everyone there all the way through for ease of running - we only had an hour - and it can be hard to tell in advance what will fit and what won’t. Solutions were found, lighting was planned, and everyone made valuable contributions to the placements and the flow.

    And to judge from the audience reaction, I think it went pretty well.

    It’ll be a wrench to say goodbye to Anna Magdalena and return her dress to the costume store, but I hope she may simply be awaiting a resurrection of her own, should any more concert halls or festivals fancy meeting her.

    Onwards...and today I am giving the Winterschool a lecture about eight - or nine - wonderful composers across the ages who happen(ed) to be female.

  • AFCM#5: Of trumpets, sheng and whales | Wed, 01 Aug 2018 00:12:00 +0000

    Pity the group of youngsters in their little motor-boat and sea-kayaks who turned up for a nice, private swim on the deserted beaches of Orpheus Island. Just as they were getting their towels out, in pulled a Sealink seacat and disgorged about 200 festival-goers and a bunch of musicians carrying some very peculiar contraptions, which they proceeded to unpack and play.

    Two trumpets, a clarinet with golden keys, a rose-gold flute, a pearl-inlaid bandoneon and an extraordinary Chinese sheng took up residence for about an hour, surrounded by ecstatic music-lovers who stood, sat, lay, or knelt at their feet, or went into the water and stayed there to enjoy the performances from the cool comfort of lapping crystal-clear shallows. Tine Thing Helseth and her new husband Sebastian opened proceedings, walking out of the waves and up onto the sand as they played a Norwegian wedding march (they got married in May and are just back from honeymoon). Wu Tong performed on a Chinese flute sitting on a high rock, a la Pan, and later mesmerised us all with his Sheng playing - an amazing, colourful piece we assumed must be a sophisticated new composition of his own. Later he told us he was improvising. Pru Davis played Debussy’s Syrinx, Julian Bliss an unaccompanied contemporary virtuoso piece that sounded like Messiaen (but wasn’t), and JP Jofre, after some solos, joined him to finish with Piazzolla’s Libertango.

    The sun lowered towards the waters on the horizon, Katya went swimming, Lars fell asleep and Anna Magdalena Bach deeply regretted leaving her swimsuit behind, but had a good paddle nonetheless. Artistic director Kathy, meanwhile, had the look of a pianist who’d landed the best job on the planet, and I rather think she has.

    I had a fascinating chat with Wu Tong on the boat: he showed me how the Sheng works. I may have described it as a kind of “bagpipe”, but it really isn’t. It’s a mouth organ. Literally. It’s a collection of pipes, in a round cluster, played by blowing with fingering as appropriate - a sort of mix of accordion, clarinet and church organ rolled into one astounding instrument about the size of a trumpet. It is immensely sophisticated and the lack of anything entirely similar in western music is rather striking - though Wu Tong tells me it may have had a bearing on the development of the organ in Europe, far predating its invention. Sample it and him here:

    On the return journey the excursion turned into a sunset cruise, albeit a slightly choppy one, and we took a detour to look for whales. The light dimmed, the planets brightened above, we could see the Milky Way from the upper deck, as well as Venus and Mars (which is closer to the Earth than at any time for ?xx years), and the starlight dappled the bouncing waves...until just as the last of the day was fading, a jet of water blew into the air nearby, a stampede to starboard nearly capsized us and a baby humpback whale and its mummy were there, ready to put on a display for us since they knew full well we couldn’t infringe their copyright by filming in the night. They danced under the surface, with smooth, dark backs curving above now and then, and let fly with joyous blowhole fountains, hopefully egged on by the oohs and ahhs aboard.

    I don’t know whose bright idea it was to create a music festival in such a place, but frankly...I’d like to send them some chocolate.

    Loads more photos on Instagram (my account is jessica.duchen). And now I am off to make final preparations for Being Mrs Bach, which is at 5pm TODAY at the Townsville Civic Theatre. Til later...

  • AFCM#4: Barefoot in the Festival? | Mon, 30 Jul 2018 06:59:00 +0000

    I’ve spent a happy morning today at Kathy Stott’s Concert Conversations. These events take place every day during the festival, in the Casino of the plushly gorgeous Ville Resort overlooking the sea and Magnetic Island - and they’re jam-packed solid with music-lovers. First Kathy interviews a group of festival artists for about 45 mins. Then they each perform something.

    I’m always intrigued to hear musicians interview other musicians because you can bet your bottom dollar it won’t resemble an interview by a journalist. Sure enough, Kathy and today’s group covered a startling range of topics. We had piano chat with Daniel de Borah and Timothy Young, some touching honesty about pressures and schedules from Tine Thing Helseth, who didn’t have a holiday for 10 years; tales from the orchestral front-line with flautist Prudence Davis (first flute of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra since 1980); and the price of top violins today from Alexander Sitkovetsky, who is trying to raise $5m to buy the heavenly Strad he is playing at present. But above all, we had...footwear?

    Or lack of it. Tine is one of an increasing number of young women musicians who prefer to play bare-footed. Seeing some of the heights of heels others wear on stage has often left me fearing for their ankles, feet, instruments and general security and if a rebellion is taking place, it’s not before time. I mean, come on, men don’t wear them, so why should we have to? (I gave up attempting high heels about 10 years ago and nowadays if I ever do wear them, I can hardly walk, and I like to be able to walk...) Pianist Alice Sara Ott has played barefoot for years, so has violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Tine explained she simply feels more comfortable that way. But today we learned that the phenonemon is spreading to men, and it’s the digital shift that’s driving it.

    Timothy Young appeared on stage not barefoot, but in some unusual shoes - unusual for a musician, that is. You’d be more likely to see them in a yoga studio. They’re the soft-soled, wrap-around, close-with-velcro (I think) type, and he explained that he wears them because he now performs from an iPad instead of paper sheet music and finds it easier to treat the necessary bluetooth pedal sensitively if he can feel it underfoot, which normal concert shoes don’t always allow. 

    When it was time for Kathy and Daniel to offer their morning performance - Fauré’s Dolly Suite for duet - Kathy admitted she would today be making her iPad debut. And Daniel, as the ‘secondo’ player in charge of page-turning, walked on 

    My jury is still out regarding Mrs Bach’s footwear for Wednesday. Whatever she has will be hidden by her long skirts in any case... hmm...

    In the meantime, I’ve reviewed the two opening nights’ concerts for Limelight Magazine, which you can read here:

    And we had Moreton Bay Bugs in garlic butter for lunch...

  • AFCM#3: Working. Seriously: working.... | Sun, 29 Jul 2018 08:42:00 +0000

    The pic above is from our first rehearsal today for Being Mrs Bach here in Townsville. I’m wielding my script at the side, offscreen, while some of our siezable team of musicians rehearse in the studio - pictured, baritone Roderick Williams, pianist Daniel de Borah, the young Stanley Street Quartet, who are studying at the festival Winterschool, and bassist Kees Boersma, getting to grips together with ‘Mache dich’ from the St Matthew Passion and ‘Hat man nicht mit seinen Kinder...’ from the Coffee Cantata.

    The wonderful soprano Siobhan Stagg - who does actually look like Anna Magdalena - will be channelling our heroine’s spirit into ‘Bist du bei mir’, Daniel is playing the Minuet in G and the E flat Prelude and Fugue from Book 2, and somewhere in the room the Goldner Quartet were preparing to play the unfinished contrapunctus from The Art of Fugue. Completing the line-up, Guy Johnston will offer a movement from one of the cello suites.

    I can hardly believe I’m working with this team of musicians. They’re simply the best in the world...and somehow I have to match up. Gulp.

    The first two evening concerts have brought us some astounding performances - last night’s included Roddy and Daniel in the Vaughan Williams Songs of Travel and a roof-raising Tchaikovsky Souvenir de Florence with an all-star international line-up, to say nothing of a supremely talented young Australian violinist, Grace Clifford (she’s 20), playing Julian Yu’s Passacaglia after Biber so splendidly that I suspect a magnificent future for her.

    Relaxed festival-goers who don’t need to rehearse, practise or write about things can enjoy musical events from morning til night most days at AFCM. In the mornings, Kathy Stott presents Concert Conversations, interviewing her artists, with  performances by them to follow, a Winterschool lunchtime masterclass, a 5pm Sunset Series (in which Being Mrs Bach is included) and then more events in the evening. Tonight people are off to a Supper Club where they will be entertained with jazz, tango and Gershwin while munching. Some of us, though, are grabbing the opportunity to conquer the jet-lag, or try to, and cook ourselves some local fish.

    The jet-lag is quite something. Jokes are zipping around the festival about how everyone is ‘drugged’ - on melatonin. I don’t know how we’d manage without it...but I made the mistake of taking a second one at about 3.30am and then slept through to 9.30am, when I had to write and file some copy by 10am. Tom kindly made the coffee while I jumped to it...

    To be fair, it wasn’t only jet-lag. We’re having too much fun. After the concerts you go out, bump into people, eat gluten-free linguine with seafood or veggie burgers, sample the local produce (I have a none-too-secret passion for Ozzie wines) and before you know what’s happened, it’s midnight. Music festivals were ever thus, but this one is more than usually friendly - and exceptionally well set up by its devoted teams of volunteers, patrons and management, so everyone seems free to be in a singularly good mood. Long may that continue.

    More pics at my Instagram account (jessica.duchen) and another update will follow tomorrow. For the time being, the Chadonnay beckons and the pan is waiting for me to pop in the barramundi...

  • AFCM #2: Home from home... | Sat, 28 Jul 2018 00:20:00 +0000

    There’s that moment when after a 24-hour journey you peer out of the plane window at the country you’re about to visit and you see...Australian sunlight. I haven’t been here for 15 years and had managed to forget its unique nature. The quality of it is like opals, brilliant and translucent and full of gold, ochre and purple. You have to screw up your eyes against it, or rush for sunglasses. Strong, pure and irresistible, as if shot in technicolour, it makes you wonder if the Land of Oz was so named for a good reason. Toto, we’re not in Kansas any more...

    We’ve made it to Townsville, in the dry tropics of Queensland, and now it’s the morning after the night before...and that was the night after the day after the journey before. We left London with two big suitcases on Tuesday night, spent a pleasant few hours in Hong Kong airport and arrived in Sydney on Thursday morning...with one big suitcase. Sole free day in Sydney was supposed to be spent happily reuniting at leisure with my aunt, whom I hadn’t seen for 15 years, but this turned into a hasty and frazzled coffee in between frantic calls to the airport where we’d shunted from office to office for about three hours upon arrival. The case arrived 24 hours after we did and has joined us here. At least it wasn’t the one that contained my Anna Magdalena costume.

    A post shared by Jessica Duchen (@jessica.duchen) on

    All in all, I can think of worse places to hold a chamber music festival. We’re staying - along with all the festival artists - in an apartment hotel near the marina; the sun is pouring into our new home-from-home across the cluster of lilttle boats  this morning, the Strand beside the sea awaits exploration, as do its gelatarias, there’s a massive seafood bar across the road and yesterday’s opening concert was a heap of musical joys.

    It was full of fresh, startling ideas, juxtapositions and collaborations, with Tine Thing Helseth and Katya Apekisheva shining amid an all-star line-up for the Saint-Saens Septet, eight cellists plus wonderful Siobhan Stagg in the Villa Lobossome amazing new timbres from marimba, sheng and bandoneon in world premieres by JP Jofre and Paul Stanhope, and a completely barnstorming performance of the Chausson Concert by Kathy Stott, Alexander Sitkovetsky and the Goldner String Quartet. The big concerts take place in the Townsville Civic Theatre, a sizeable modern hall from which last night’s concert went out live on the radio - splendidly hosted by Mairi Nicolson, whose interviews with the musicians while the stage set-up changed were fun, interesting and sympathetic.

    Backstage, of course, it’s hard not to think “YIKES, I have to do the Bach show HERE?”, given the impressive scale of the whole thing - but with a chance to catch up with old friends like Kathy, Katya and Guy Johnston and to meet new ones over artist drinks-and-eats post-concert, the nerves quickly dispel. For performers in festivals like this, the treat is exactly that: to work with colleagues you’re meeting for the first time, forge new connections, spark ideas into being, and while away the post-concert wind-down over Australian beer or wine in which jet-lag becomes but a memory and lost suitcases all part of life’s rich pattern. I’ve now met many of my Bach show colleagues, Roddy Williams, Siobhan Stagg, Pavel Fischer, Kees Boersma and the Goldner String Quartet, among others. And out front in the audience, one can’t help noticing the way that people are running into one another as festival regulars over years and years, catching up in (where else) the queue for the ladies’ loos (“How are you? We met four years ago right here!”) and, better still, over ice-cream in front of the theatre, under the full moon.

    A last thought for the morning: this is winter. It’s 28 degrees and there is simply no sunlight in the world quite like this. It’s going to be one amazing week.

    Update: I think I’ve worked out how to bring the photos in from Instagram, but please visit my instagram account to see some more.

  • #AFCM1: All set, sort of... | Mon, 23 Jul 2018 15:06:00 +0000

    It's tomorrow! We are off to Australia for a week in Townsville as part of the
    Ouch. Owowowowowch.

    As you may remember, Kathryn Stott, the new AFCM artistic director, has commissioned me to write and perform a new show with words and music about Anna Magdalena Bach. Being Mrs Bach will receive its world premiere on 1 August, 5pm, with musicians including Roderick Williams (baritone), Siobhan Stagg (soprano), Guy Johnston (cello), Daniel de Borah (piano), the Goldner String Quartet, Pavel Fischer (violin), Kees Boersma (double bass) and Winterschool Strings. Anna Magdalena, when she appears, is an impoverished widow, looking back over her life with Johann Sebastian, with all the associated agonies and ecstasies... And I've never worn a costume before. I hope I can still get into it on Wednesday week. In case you were wondering: Lucy Worsley I'm not. (Nor am I the blonde bombshell pictured above.)

    The next day I'm giving a lecture about women composers for the festival's Winterschool and then joining Kathy and some of the musicians for the morning Meet the Artists chat on 3 August before heading, no doubt with reluctance, back to the airport. In the meantime I will be writing about the festival a fair bit, and have promised to do a daily blogpost while there, so please check back after Friday for my festival diary and PICS.

    You wouldn't believe what it takes to get ready for a thing like this, unless you're especially prone to taking part in festivals on the other side of the world. First there's the preparation of the show. In October, I went to Leipzig to see the Bach family's own territory at first hand - it made all the difference, too. Then the writing and whittling down, choosing the music, fitting it all together, making sure it's the right length. That's the easy bit. Then the paperwork: visas, documents, passports, emails and more emails. (Can you believe we're going to have to do all this for Europe as well soon, when currently we don't? Those Brexiters are out of their tiny minds.) There's booking the travel, deciding where and when to stop (straight to Sydney on the way out, to see my aunt, then to Townsville the next morning; and Hong Kong on the way home...). The costume. The house-and-cat-sitter. Finishing everything that needs finishing before going. Remembering everything that needs to go in the suitcase. Panicking.

    And above all, panicking about the jet-lag. Most of the festival artists - to judge from Kathy's Facebook pics - are already in Townsville and acclimatising. I'm still in sweltering in London and won't arrive until Friday. I'm not sure this was the greatest plan, but it's too late now...

    Anyway, if all goes smoothly we shall be there in time for the big opening night on Friday evening, in which  no fewer than 24 festival artists will perform works by Saint-Saëns, Villa-Lobos, Paul Stanhope (world premiere of a new piece for marimba), Wu Tong performing another world premiere on the sheng, Leopoldo Federico, JP Jofre (world premiere of new piece for marimba, sheng and bandoneon), and one of my great all-time favourite pieces, the Chausson Concert, with Kathy on the piano, Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin) and the Goldner String Quartet. That would be enough to turn me upside-down on its own.

    For the rest of the programme, please see here.

  • 'Silver Birch' is in the SWAP'ra Gala! | Sun, 15 Jul 2018 09:11:00 +0000

    I've done an interview for SWAP'ra, the new charity which aims to change the opera world to make it more user-friendly, all round, for women and parents.

    Support for Women And Parents in Opera will be holding an inaugural gala concert at Opera Holland Park on 31 July consisting of extracts from operas famous and less so, in which all the performers and directors are female (though some of the composers, like Mozart and Strauss, were blokes...). Much to our delight, they're also including a scene from Roxanna Panufnik's and my Silver Birch - Anna's aria, in which she tells her son Jack that she will never let him risk his life. Helen Sherman plays our heroine and our original director, Karen Gillingham, will stage it. To my intense frustration, I won't be there. I have no objection to visiting Australia this summer, but I'm sorry to miss Silver Birch's first extract to be performed in London.

    The full gala line-up is here. Do go along - there's treat upon treat upon treat, culminating with the Trio from Der Rosenkavalier starring Janis Kelly, Diana Montague and Mary Bevan, conducted by Jessica Cottis. Booking here.

    Taster of my interview is below, and there are lots of other hard-hitting, tell-it-like-it-is interviews with the stars of the gala on the SWAP'ra website.

    So many of the staple operas and repertoire are stories and music written by men. Why do you think this is, and do you think that a composer’s/librettist’s gender has any bearing on the kind of music she/he writes?

    Much of this is historic. Let’s not forget that at present we are celebrating only 100 years of any British women having had the right to vote! Most of the world’s staple diet of opera is older than that; inevitably, women were not often able to be part of the creative teams as their fathers had to have accorded them a suitable musical education and their husbands had to permit their continuation of career (yuck) (but some did, and hooray for them). Plenty of works by women are crying out for rediscovery and they are now starting to be noticed. If more women composers are to be explored and resuscitated, it will also take the involvement of opera’s administrative framework to find, champion and stage them. It’s easier to get audiences into well-known pieces (though Silver Birch was totally sold out ☺ ) and it’s easy for operatic organisations to be…well, maybe a little bit lazy in this regard.

    Does a composer/librettist’s gender have any bearing on the music? No. To prove it, try listening blind. I heard some songs recently by a composer named Poldowski and was impressed by their invention, their tremendous energy, their vivid colours and their beauty, and wondered why I’d never heard of him before. Then I looked him up. Turns out he was a she. ‘Poldowski’ was the pseudonym of Irène Wieniawska, later Lady Dean Paul, daughter of Henryk Wieniawski. She’s amazing.

    SWAP’ra Supporting Women and Parents in Opera – was established in response to a collective frustration with the unconscious gender bias in the industry. The ultimate aim is to foster an environment in which a female CEO, Music Director, Artistic Director, Conductor, Composer or Librettist is no longer noteworthy.
    The founders – Sophie Gilpin, Ella Marchment, Anna Patalong, Madeleine Pierard, and Kitty Whately – will address the gender imbalance in opera by encouraging best practice strategies for diversity and inclusivity, and effect industry-wide positive change by working to dismantle barriers for women and parents in leadership positions and senior artistic roles. Acting in an advisory capacity, SWAP’ra will work alongside a range of organisations to develop projects and schemes to further support or nurture female artistic talent.
    Funds raised by this inaugural SWAP’ra gala will enable the organisation to make significant change in the industry. For more information, please visit the website:

  • Slippery storytelling | Fri, 13 Jul 2018 10:03:00 +0000

    Lauren Zolezzi as Nuria, Grant Doyle as Enric
    Photo: Julian Guidera

    I've been twice to see The Skating Rink at Garsington, the new opera they have commissioned from composer David Sawer and librettist Rory Mullarkey. Reviewing it is not my plan, as I'm a bit close to the place since Silver Birch last year and have some more projects in the pipeline, including a new piece for the Youth Company with composer Paul Fincham for 2019. I can say, though, that I found it enormously impressive, often very beautiful - the skating music and the snowy conclusion in particular - and, on balance, touching and engaging, more so than certain other highly-lauded recent operas I could mention. I hope it will have a long and happy life in the opera houses of many companies and countries hereafter.

    If there's a problem, though, it's the narrative style and I suspect that might account for some of the reviews that found it a bit, er, icy. The opera is based on a novel by Roberto Bolano, set on the Costa Brava, in which the same story - the murder of an unfortunate down-and-out singer, Carmen - is told through the different eyes of several implicitly unreliable narrators. As it unfolds, we build up a picture of the hierarchies involved and the way that love, supposedly a private matter, can impact upon the fates of others. "Love is a rebel bird," says Carmen - well, she would, wouldn't she? The clinching image at the conclusion shows us what the ice rink really is: a better world, away from all that squalor and distress, where perhaps we could all be our happiest and best selves.

    Yet preserving the novel's approach creates a special set of problems. First of all, each narrator tells his story in the past tense, while it is being acted in front of us. So, when the body of Susan Bickley as Carmen is lying on stage in a "thick black sea" of blood, our narrator tells us: "It was the singer". He could have run to her, tried to wake her, described how he feels - the shock, the pity, the terror - but no. He just tells us who it was, but we already know because we can see her. You get my drift.

    Meanwhile, characters with whom we've engaged early on - Gaspar, the drifting would-be poet (Sam Furness, on splendiferous form) and his passion for the unfortunate addict Caridad (equally splendid Claire Wild), begin at the centre of our world and fade to the edges; Remo Moran (excellent Ben Edquist) gives his viewpoint, yet is never quite sympathetic or rounded out; and our real hero, Enric, does not emerge until the second half.

    I'm concerned about this first of all because I'm not sure how you'd get around any of this when fashioning a piece out of a story told in that structure, but also because my Bach show for Townsville (on 1 August) is basically narrated as a flashback so that I don't have to convince anyone that I'm 20 at the beginning. On the other hand, nobody gets murdered (even though I have my doubts about Bach's quackish eye surgeon, John Taylor of London...). One wants it to be convincing, but how much does the past tense interfere when your audience is living the drama in the present? We'll see.

    The opera's finest moments are when the narration has stopped and the action enters both real time and inner worlds. Enric's dream of skating, with an ungainly double in the same brown suit and pink shirt sliding about on the rink to the manner born, is sweet and touching; the party scene in which the mayor, Pilar (an imperious Louise Winter) rumbles Enric's embezzlement of funds for the rink while they dance raises the temperature in a valuable way.

    The performance is absolutely top-notch, with wonderful contributions from the whole cast: Susan Bickley is outstanding as singer-turned-down-and-out Carmen, Alan Oke (come on, chaps, this guy should have national treasure status!) as her whispering, drawling, howling lover, Rookie, and Grant Doyle as Enric, the plump official whose life - and occasionally figure - is turned upside-down by his love for the Olympic skater Nuria Mari (a convincing joint performance by Alice Poggio as the skating Nuria and Lauren Zolezzi as the singing one). Garry Walker conducts an orchestra stuffed with interesting sounds including a Chilean charango, soprano saxophone and euphonium, plus an off-stage marching band.

    But for me, the most touching thing of all was to see, among the onstage silent extras - a chorus that never sings - several very familiar faces from Silver Birch. David, who was the Warden at the beginning and walked the dog in the army desert scene (hey, Skating Rink company, didn't you find a role for Sam's Labrador, Poppy?); Bev, who came into our production among our hard-won military recruits; and Sheila, who had fallen on hard times, had never imagined she'd set foot on a stage and found that being part of the adult community chorus helped her turn her life around. How wonderful that they are back for more!

    Some tickets remain for the final two performances - do go if you can. It's beautiful and haunting.

  • Hysteria: a guest post | Thu, 12 Jul 2018 08:59:00 +0000

    Delighted to give the floor today to the BAFTA-award winning composer
  • Jocelyn Pook
    Photo: Zoran S Pejic

    I am fascinated by the power of the mind, the power of thought and the power of emotion to trigger a chemical reaction in the body. It is a point where the unconscious takes over and the body reacts of its own volition with a physical symptom.

    So when the Wellcome Trust asked 10 artists including me to respond to the subject of Hysteria and psychosomatic disorders, it sparked 2 years of research resulting in the premiere this Saturday of my new work Hysteria:  A Song Cycle for Singer and Psychiatrist. Our brief from the Wellcome Trust was to pair up with a medical professional and I was lucky to work with the French psychiatrist Dr Stephanie Courtade. Stephanie has an unusually open, compassionate, humorous and perhaps at times unorthodox approach. As a result it was a fascinating process for me, resulting in the work occasionally veering off into quite unexpected directions.

    I am constantly surprised by how many people around me have been afflicted by these conversion disorders.  Hysteria is an irksome and outdated term previously a preserve of female disorders in the 19th century, yet now it is no longer considered a medical condition. Many of these ailments, if not necessarily critical, can however be debilitating. I wanted to find out whether hair turning white overnight was apocryphal or based on evidence.  

    I came across cases of outbreaks of severe eczema during an unhappy love affair, something which had never affected that person before or subsequently. A friend’s grandfather’s hair fell out overnight during a a breakdown as a young man, which in those days was never talked about and became a family secret. A woman suffered from panic attacks to the point that she lost the ability to swallow liquid. There was a violinist I had known since youth orchestra, who became plagued by a  psychosomatic pain in her solar plexis whenever she performed in an orchestra and resulted in her changing career entirely. Every time she picked up the violin, the pain returned though it never does when she sings. And I did discover a case of a 12-year old girl whose hair turned white overnight when her mother died. At times, I have feel like a fly on a wall at a therapist’s studio.
    The body speaks in so many different ways. As Stephanie says, “the body is like the stage for the drama and theatre play of the mind.” These examples are from men too, though the balance in this work is weighted unconsciously to more female voices.   

    Hysteria’s long gestation was preceded by two earlier works linked to mental illness, making latest installment Part 3 of a Trilogy. It started with Hearing Voices inspired by protest literature from patients incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals and in particular my great aunt’s notes during more than 25 years lost in an “asylum” as they were then known. Part 2 was Anxiety Fanfare, a choral work which also explores the sometimes funny side of anxiety and the use of humour as a kind of survival mechanism. 

    Like Hearing VoicesHysteria will also be a multi-media project. So many of my works start with the primary sources - the witnesses from the front line.  It’s their testimonies, which form the kernel of all three works. Often the cadence and rhythm of a patient’s own recorded voice morphs into the voice of vocalist Melanie Pappenheim. The performance is not a load of crazy grimacing and shrieking, but deals with the more private moments of pain. I wanted this idea to be reflected in the music and performance, in a way that feels true to our experiences and observations. It was important for me to show people in a state where they aren’t completely broken.  

    I have also incorporated many of Dr Stephanie Courtade’s insights about the medical profession, including her own experiences as a patient on the couch with a particularly unsympathetic psychiatrist. The common use now within the medical of profession of referring to patients as “service users”, seems particularly impersonal even if liberating them from illness. 

    I feel immensely privileged that so many people have shared such intimate experiences with me – feel a responsibility to them. I still have so much material that I would still like to use, so I don’t know whether this is the finished piece.   

    Tickets for Saturday here.

    The UK film premiere of The Wife for which Jocelyn Pook wrote the filmscore, will be premiered at Somerset House on 9 August before going on general release on 28 September. Memorial, based on the poem by Alice Oswald with music by Jocelyn Pook comes to Barbican Theatre 27-30 September.  

  • Problems with Pélléas | Mon, 09 Jul 2018 10:58:00 +0000

    It's always interesting to read bad reviews, even if one cringes while so doing. But those that have attended the new Pélléas et Mélisande at Glyndebourne have come with such a dose of vinegar that it makes one super-curious to see whether they're justified, and it's always hard to believe that they could be.

    Oh dear.

    Das Wunder der Heliane meets the ghost of Pélléas?
    Photo: Glyndebourne Productions Ltd, by Richard Hubert Smith

    Perhaps Stefan Herheim's concept would play better in central Europe or Scandinavia, where productions are often more heavily dramaturged [yes, I know, no such word] than is usually the case here, and where audiences have arguably grown to expect controversy on stage plus abstruse references laid on with the trowel. And perhaps the setting of Glyndebourne's Organ Room - recreated with useful additions such as concertina-folding organ pipes and sliding walls - would have played better if habitual Glyndebourne patrons had not seen umpteen other productions of other operas also set within Glyndebourne itself, to the point that this jumps aboard the most massive of local clichés.

    It is nevertheless a valid starting point: the action takes place in a grand, dark, oppressive old house/castle and, as my companion for the evening remarked, how many of us have not wandered through such a place and wondered what secrets it is hiding in its past? (Or is Herheim trying to tell us something about the age-old secrets of Glyndebourne? I sincerely hope not.) Perhaps part of the idea is about the Christies staging dramatics in their organ room. But what is inexcusable is to have Debussy's final bars obscured by audience laughter as actors clad as present-day Glyndebourne punters wander onto the stage, looking around. No. Just no.

    Everyone seems to be blinding each other. Yes, the text makes ample reference to blindness, but nothing in this text is literal: must it be spelled out to that degree? If there is a benefit to the storytelling, it's eluded me thus far. And Golaud, Pélléas and Yniold all frantically mime painting on empty easels. Yes, Debussy was a contemporary of the great Impressionist painters, but that doesn't make this appropriate, insightful or comprehensible, even if perhaps excusable.

    What's with the Christ-like figure that appears in the middle of the organ, just as Arkel tells Mélisande she must issue in a new era...with a sheep draped over its shoulders? Sacramental imagery, says a Twitter contact. Yes, we get that (and Herheim changes Yniold's shepherd into a priest), even if we don't necessarily get its point - but the bottom line is that it looks completely ridiculous and everyone laughed, and you don't want that to happen in the middle of Pélléas.

    Or maybe you do...and that would be worse, because it means you are not taking the work on its own terms or presenting your audience with something conceived in its true spirit, in which case why should we go? Moreover, having Golaud rape his own son/daughter Yniold is a major misjudgment in a scene that is upsetting enough as Debussy and Maeterlinck created it - and leaves Pélléas novices seriously confused ("But why does he do that?" "Well, actually, he doesn't...").

    Nevertheless, there's a sprinkling of wonderful ideas too. Mélisande is portrayed (by the excellent Christina Gansch) as a complete pre-Raphaelite beauty, overwhelming in her seductive presence, and she seems to have healing powers; also, she recoils when Golaud faces her with his sword presented as a cross. There's always a mystery about her; no reason she shouldn't be at least partly supernatural. Golaud (a tour de force from Christopher Purves) is a violent psychopath, as destroyed by his own malady as any Otello. Pelléas is under-characterised, though mostly well sung by John Chest. The division of body and soul for Mélisande at the start of the final scene works nicely, as does having the ghost of Pélléas lurking around, waiting for her to join him – though I'm not sure why he has to run her through with a sword when she's about to snuff it in any case. Some of these images come over more as Das Wunder der Heliane than Pélléas, and I can't really think of two more different operas.

    As you'll have gathered, a lot of visual ideas are crammed in here, layer upon layer upon layer. Yet Debussy's music is so subtle, so delicate, so hinted-at, that it's completely overpowered by the on-stage shenanigans. By the end one feels exhausted by all the "WTF now?" moments, and might be longing for the privilege of hearing a concert performance instead – preferably with Robin Ticciati conducting it every bit as beautifully, intelligently and ineffably as he does here.

    In the past few years Ticciati has had to take some time off for a back operation, which has somewhat disrupted his tenure as Glyndebourne's music director. But in that time, he has been reinventing his whole approach to conducting (as he told me in an interview last year) - and now the results are becoming more and more interesting. Something in him has deepened and darkened and opened out. I'm getting the impression that we may have here a very significant musician indeed, someone who has further to go interpretatively than some of the supposedly glitzier, more superficially exciting podium presences. I hope I'm still around to see where he is in 25 years' time.

    Nina Stemme as Kundry, with ex-equine friend
    Photo: Ruth Walz

    Concert performances, meanwhile, have a lot going for them. I spent yesterday afternoon and evening holed up with the webcast of Parsifal from the Bavarian State Opera, this being the first summer in a number of years that I'm not going physically to Munich. (Hallelujah, medals and science prizes galore, please, to whoever created the technology that makes webcasts possible and quality sound available on the computer.) What a musical treat: Kirill Petrenko on fire with spiritual joy in the pit, the orchestra playing the living daylights out of the piece, Nina Stemme the most astounding Kundry - and Kundry the most astounding Nina Stemme - that I've yet had the joy of hearing, Christian Gerhaher a dream of an Amfortas, Rene Pape channelling Gurnemanz in person, and Jonas Kaufmann tracing Parsifal's growth and strength incrementally, with That Voice. The production, by Pierre Audi, is strong, straightforward and clear, never confused or confusing. The Grail is meat in act I and music itself at the end of act 3: we are saved by art alone. Bravi. But the visual art is by the great Georg Baselitz and though many images are effective, at other times one just has to look the other way. A concert performance would solve that in one fell swoop. This probably sounds uncharacteristically philistine, so blame the heat if you like.

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