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|Pianist with music and iPad. (photo: cmuse.org)|
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!
|Roxanna Panufnik takes a bow. Photo: Chris Christodoulou/BBC|
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. ..
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 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!
|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.
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.
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.'
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.
|Joszef Lendvay (son) and Joszef Csoci Lendvai (father) in full flight with Fischer & the BFO|
Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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.
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. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/workers-jobs-food-banks-money-afford-cost-living-a8494311.html
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.
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 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.
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.
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: https://youtu.be/mybsLx7RyIo.
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...
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...
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.
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.
It's tomorrow! We are off to Australia for a week in Townsville as part of the
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.
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.
|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.