JDCMB is Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music & writing, with CHOCOLATE AND SILVER, in London, UK. Author & journalist JD writes for The Independent.
1545 Entries
I had wonderful chats with choreographer Wayne McGregor and composer Max Richter about the ambitious new ballet Woolf Works, which opens at Covent Garden on Monday and stars the great Alessandra Ferri, making a comeback. It's in the Independent today, but here's the "director's cut"...

Here & below, Woolf Works in rehearsal (photos Andrej Uspenski/ROH)

The Royal Opera House must be hoping that ballet audiences are not afraid of Virginia Woolf. On 11 May the curtain rises on the choreographer Wayne McGregor’s first full-length narrative work for the Royal Ballet: Woolf Works, an enormously ambitious creation inspired by three of the novelist’s books, plus the tragic story of her own life and self-inflicted death. 

When the news of McGregor’s plan first broke, jaw-bones splintered on floorboards across a dance world more accustomed to traditional, linear tales – rustic fun like La fille mal gardée or magical metamorphoses like Swan Lake. But McGregor has been working for a different sort of magic as he seeks to translate Woolf’s literary intensity and resonance into dance. “It was a bit overwhelming at first,” he admits. “Woolf is such an iconic figure and her work is incredible, frustrating, difficult, exciting – where do you start? I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to do justice to the brilliance of her writing.” 

Choreographers do not often risk stepping on the toes of literary critics. “There are so many experts on Woolf,” McGregor reflects, “and so many people who love it or detest it that when you say you’re doing a Woolf project you get an absolute tirade of either positive or negative energy. I’m not used to that. I only relaxed into the work after about six weeks, when I realised all I could do was to make a piece about my own experience of Woolf, filtered through my body, my imagination and my mind, and that was it.” 

McGregor, 45, the resident choreographer of the Royal Ballet since 2006, came to the company from the contemporary dance sphere and has always pushed at the limits of the possible. He stretches everything, from his dancers’ physical capacities in pieces such as Infra and Chroma to the potential of creative collaborations, notably Raven Girl with the author Audrey Niffeneger; last year he challenged the audience’s powers of perception in the detailed and symbol-laden Tetractys – The Art of Fugue. Now in Woolf Works, he is giving the process of storytelling itself a conceptual makeover. 

“I was interested in exploring multiple narratives and multiple viewpoints,” he says, “and our dramaturg, Uzma Hameed, put a copy of Mrs Dalloway under my nose. I felt the whole idea of stream-of-consciouness writing, many points of focus, shifting between times, was exciting and could be analogous with dance. It could also challenge, perhaps, the orthodoxies of how we make story ballets, which for me is about having a dialogue with heritage in a different way.” 

Wayne McGregor
Each of the ballet’s three parts is inspired by a different novel; McGregor has retitled them. A “meditation around Mrs Dalloway” becomes ‘I Now, I Then’; the second act, Becomings, which he terms “a flamboyant, very virtuosic 35 minutes of extraordinary dance,” is based on Orlando, Woolf’s whirl through the centuries with the protagonist changing sex en route. “It’s very lavish, with new visualisation techniques and a collage structure with a full-on assault and collision of the senses,” McGregor says. Finally, The Waves: “This is one of my favourite Woolf novels, because it’s like poetry, very abstract, but it’s also the one that relates most closely to Woolf and her passing.” Woolf drowned herself in the River Ouse close to her home in Sussex. “For her, water was a place of solace and beauty and her drowning is almost about becoming one with the universe. We’ve called this section Tuesday because that is the first word she wrote on her suicide note.” 

McGregor has commissioned for it a new score from the British composer Max Richter – the current Mr Cool of the classical contemporary world. The pair had already collaborated on Infra, among other projects, and more recently McGregor has choreographed for Zurich Ballet Richter’s major hit, Recomposed by Max Richter: The Four Seasons. 

Woolf Works’ score involves full orchestra, live electronics, pre-recorded sounds from nature and fragments of text: “Everything’s in there, including the kitchen sink,” Richter declares. “I love collaborating and the projects I do with Wayne are my favourite things. If I’m writing an instrumental work, then it’s me sitting in a room on my own and going slowly bonkers. But a ballet is the opposite process – it’s all about conversations and puzzle solving.”

Max Richter. Photo by Yulia Mahr
“I think what’s so impressive about Wayne,” he adds, “is that he has phenomenal skills as a maker of movement, but that’s just the starting point. He has an omnivorous intelligence and he’s always seeking out new ways of structuring ideas and information. That is the meeting point for us; in the musical sphere I’m also constantly looking for new ways to present material and to combine and enlarge languages.”

For Richter, reading Woolf during his schooldays was a revelation: “She handles language in such an extraordinarily personal and musical way,” he says. “She manages to pull off amazing literary tricks without drawing attention to them, and under her beautifully wrought surfaces there’s an amazing intelligence at work.” Her structures have been a direct inspiration for the music: “For me, Orlando is a novel in variation form,” he says. “I’ve written it as variations on a famous baroque theme, La Folia.”

The Orlando section’s central figure is to be Edward Watson, McGregor’s muse – prime among a cast of Royal Ballet luminaries that also includes Natalia Osipova and Sarah Lamb. But all eyes are upon the Italian ballerina Alessandra Ferri, 52, who is returning to the company to dance the dual role of Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway. Ferri began her career with the Royal Ballet after training at its school, but left in 1985 to join American Ballet Theatre at Mikhail Baryshnikov’s invitation. Although she officially retired in 2007, she began to appear again as both dancer and choreographer two years ago. McGregor says that he went to New York to ask her to consider the role.

“Dance is notoriously a young people’s art form,” he remarks. “Even though dancers often remain phenomenal into their fifties and sixties, we don’t see them much on stage. Alessandra is amazingly physical and always a great actress. And you just cannot trade those years of experience and training in a body. I’ve learned so much from her – she’s very collaborative, she’s in extraordinary shape and we’ve been able to push each other to find new ideas.”

Indeed, it sounds as if Woolf Works allows McGregor to question all the regular discourses around ballet, literature, design, music and performance. “It’s not a straightforward story,” he emphasises. “Woolf writes about the prosaic matter of getting from lunch to dinner – but is that the only reality? Is reality La fille mal gardée? There’s nothing wrong with that: it’s great and funny and there are dancing chickens. But who said that had to be the only version of reality?”

What’s certain is that it is not every day that a groundbreaking venture on this scale is unveiled on the Royal Opera House’s main stage. “It’s a real challenge, because people don’t know what to expect,” McGregor admits. “But I think it’s the responsibility of a big lyric opera house to offer work that is on the edge. If they don’t, and they only present things that are easy to watch and that they know people already like, that would kill off the art-form. They have to be able to take risks.” 

Woolf Works, Royal Opera House, 11-26 May. Box office: 020 7304 4000

5 months ago | |
| Read Full Story
As the UK wakes up to the unexpected election result of an actual, if small, Tory majority, another majority of sorts - those of the artistically inclined people in my social media feeds - are pondering ways to leave the country. Front-runner destinations include Germany, Sweden and Iceland.

So where did it all go wrong?

Time to have a quick look at the power of myth and the lessons we can learn from it. The wound foisted on us by a betrayal is an almost incomparably strong force embedded in the depths of human nature. So the people we feel betrayed us before are paying the price. It's all in the myths.

Try this (with apologies to Petipa/Ivanov and Tchaikovsky).


Once upon a time, there was a handsome politician who was standing for parliament. He went out campaigning by the lake and met a swan who unexpectedly transformed into a beautiful girl. He fell in love with her at once and she loved him too. He promised her everything: true love, compassion, empathy, heath care, arts funding. She promised to vote for him and love him forever if he'd break the spell that kept her doomed to daily metamorphosis into something she was not. He fell on one knee and vowed.

But the next night, at the election ball, there arrived a seductive, spellbinding beauty: a rich and privileged princess with amazing technique. She could pull off all the fancy tricks - the balances, the leaps, the mind-control, the 32 fouettés - and she promised him, besides her body if he wanted it, a huge quantity of private money for his campaign, and for himself beyond that. All was lost. He forgot his promise, or perhaps - taken in by the princess's resemblance to his swan girl - believed that he was indeed renewing it. The moment he vowed allegiance to the newcomer, the weeping swan girl was revealed, wringing her wings in despair out in the cold beyond the window.

When the prince realised his mistake, too late, he ran away to the lake to find his beloved and throw himself at her feet with an abject and public apology, to be printed in all the papers. But it was too late. His betrayal was absolute. You promised to save me. You promised to love me forever. You betrayed me. We are both doomed. The swan girl threw herself into the lake and drowned. He leapt in after her and drowned too. There could be no coming back after such a betrayal.

The imposter princess with all the money was left in charge.

5 months ago | |
| Read Full Story
Melissa Hamilton & Matthew Golding in Manon. Photo: Alice Pennefather

The ballerina Melissa Hamilton is to leave Covent Garden for a year in order to work with the Semperoper Ballet in Dresden during 2016, as a principal dancer. (Here's my recent article about her from the Independent, September 2014.)
At the Royal Ballet she is still a "first soloist" and those of us who've been loving her performances can't help feeling she should be a principal here too by now. She is a sophisticated dance actress and an intelligent and intuitive performer, as well as being phenomenally determined, and this is an opportunity she deserves in every way. With the German company she will dance Manon, La Bayadère and her first Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Initially, Hamilton will appear as a guest artist with the Semperoper Ballett dancing the title role in Sir Kenneth Macmillan’s Manon for the company’s upcoming premiere of the production in November 2015.

5 months ago | |
| Read Full Story
I've been drafted in as a late-notice pre-concert speaker for my much-loved CBSO today and tomorrow. Concert is a truly yummy programme involving a lot of Mozart and Haydn, conducted by Andris Nelsons - who last night scooped the Royal Philharmonic Society Award for conductor of the year. Today the talk is at 1pm and tomorrow again at 6.15pm, with same concert programme to follow. https://cbso.co.uk/event/haydn-in-london/

Do come along and say hi if you're there.

Meanwhile, I've done a little report on last night's RPS fun over at The Amati Magazine, here.

And rather than staying over in Birmingham, I'm heading home tonight & going back tomorrow evening - so that tomorrow morning I can get down the polling station and place my vote. Never forget: people died so that you could have the right to vote. SO DO IT.
5 months ago | |
| Read Full Story
The news of Maya Plisetskaya's death marks the end of an era for ballet. The great Bolshoi ballerina, who was 89, set extraordinary standards for all around her; not only through her technique, physique, acting and star quality, but also in terms of the way her artistry galvanised all who saw her and helped to revolutionise the repertoire, leaving a legacy that spreads far and wide across the dance world. Here is an obituary that fills in the background and extraordinary life story of the Soviet-era star who was once considered such a defection risk that the KGB even bugged her bed.

I met Plisetskaya and her husband, the composer Rodion Shchedrin, several times, notably at Philippe Graffin's Festival Consonances de Saint-Nazaire between 2006 and 2009. Plisetskaya spoke little English, unfortunately; on these occasions, Shchedrin seemed the public face and spokesman of the pair, while the ballerina - though so forceful on stage - seemed gentle, shy, enchanting, moving somehow in a world of her own. Once when they came to London I met Shchedrin for an interview and asked him to tell us the story of how his Carmen Suite came to be written. Here's his answer (accent untweaked).

"It was Maya’s idea to dance Carmen and first her step was to Shostakovich because we have very good relation to Shostakovich. She wrote libretto herself. We came to his dacha and Maya read him this libretto, of course not a professional libretto, and he said: 'Yes yes, it’s interesting, I will be thinking, I will be thinking...' and after few days he call us and said: 'Please come, I have final decision.' So we came, and he said, 'It is very nice libretto' - he is always speaking like that - 'but I refuse.' Why? 'I am very busy. Because if public will come into concert hall and want to hear song of Toreador they wil be totally disappointed. I am very busy, I am very busy, please excuse me...' 
"Then Maya asked Khachaturian and he said 'Why you need me? You have a composer at home, ask him!' And then she push me, and I remember the words of Shostakovich – he is a wise man, a wise man – and so I had to combine something: from one side it had to be something fresh, from the other side it had to be some connection with this famous melodies. And was idea, I think a lucky idea, only to have strings and percussion, because then it is a totally modern combination. The score by Bizet is fantastic, one of the best in the whole history of music. I took not only from Carmen but from L’arlesienne and his other work combined, but I had a good idea to combine strings with percussion.
"It also was some motivation because at that time strings in Bolshoi theatre orchestra was unbelievable, because it was 1967 and it was forbidden to emigrate from Soviet Union and the best string players were in Bolshoi Theatre and Leningrad Philharmonic with Mravinsky. Later around 1972-73 begin Jewish immigration from Russia to Israel, the best one because then they immediately go to America and in each orchestra the best playing in the strings are some fantastic Russian players. And also was excellent group of percussionists in Bolshoi theatre at the time. This was also some kind of motivation but in the second place – first was of course I dared to be totally far from this Bizet score without brass, woodwind, just percussion and strings, I did an orchestration that gave me many possibilities. The reaction of Shostakovich that without these melodies there would be disappointment, and some idea of the orchestration, a new point of view, and quality of the orchestra at Bolshoi at that moment in that year, altogether this gave me the inspiration to do this.
"My old publishers - it has been 15 years I have been with Schott, but before Schott, like all Russian composers, we all belonged to Sikorski - and they tell me that Carmen Suite is played every day somewhere in the world."

What better tribute, then, than Carmen itself?
5 months ago | |
| Read Full Story

The pianist Alicja Fiderkiewicz and the cellist Corinne Morris are collaborating to bring together a number of classical stars to give a fundraising concert in aid of the Nepal Disaster. Taking place on 29 May in St Barnabas' Church, Ealing, the event brings together the pianists Murray McLachlan, Artur Pizarro, Viv Mclean and Carlo Grante, along with Corinne and Alicja themselves, and will also include a world premiere by composer Keith Burstein. 

Alicja and Corinne write:
The entire proceeds of this fundraising concert will go to the DEC (Disasters Emergency Committee) Nepal Earthquake Appeal. Nepal needs 2 things: manpower to help get things up and running and money to access this help, to start rebuilding their lives.
With our fundraising concert, we hope to provide the DEC (Disasters Emergency Committee) with a contribution of £10,000.
If you can support our project, either by attending the concert, or making a donation via this page and sharing this with all your friends, then together we will make an impact and via the aid agencies already in Nepal, offer some much needed support and comfort.

Our sincere thanks for your help and support.
Please book tickets via the Indiegogo page, where you select them as your 'perk': https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/classical-music-gala-concert-for-nepal-disaster 
5 months ago | |
| Read Full Story
Coming up fast at Covent Garden: Wayne McGregor's new ballet Woolf Works, based on three Virginia Woolf novels and her life story. More of this soon. Meanwhile, here is Wayne working with his regular muse, the incredible Edward Watson, who is Orlando. Amazing to watch their connection as Wayne imagines something and Ed immediately knows how to make it real.

5 months ago | |
| Read Full Story
Gearing up for the cutting-edge trade fair Classical:NEXT, which this year is being held in Rotterdam at De Doelen. It runs 20-23 May. On 21 May at 3.30pm I'm chairing a "network meeting" on the topic of gender equality in the music world, under the title "Music to our ears?".

We have three fabulous speakers: Gillian Moore, head of music at the Southbank Centre; Susanna Eastburn, chief executive of Sound and Music; and Vanessa Reed, chief executive of the PRS for Music Foundation. I'll be asking each of them to say a few words on the issue from their perspective, then we'll discuss it a bit, then open up to the floor for discussion en masse. It's the perfect chance to compare notes with our colleagues from all over the globe - male as well as female, please (it is your equality too!). Do put the session in your diaries if you're coming along to Rotterdam. We have 45 minutes - but with any luck, that'll just be the start.

Pleased to say that the course at Morley College for young women conductors has also found its way onto the list of 21 nominees for Classical:NEXT's Innovation Award, which will be presented during the fair.
5 months ago | |
| Read Full Story
Professor Andrzej Jasinski. Photo by Marek Ostas
The preliminary rounds of the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw have been and gone. Three Brits are through to the contest proper: Ashley Fripp, Kausikan Rajeshkumar and Alexander Ullman. In addition, Dinara Klinton of Ukraine, who has been studying at the Royal College of Music, is admitted to the competition without tackling the preliminaries; and RCM student  Hin-Yat Tsang of China is through too. The full list of 84 pianists can be found here.

Professor Andrzej Jasinski, who is a member of the jury, has been talking to the Chopin Society about the story so far, and here's what he has to say on the Soc's Facebook page:

"Yes,they have emerged! I am pleased to say that in my notes I put the letter "W" against the names of three potential prizewinners. This was an interesting round. Compared to previous editions the standard was very mixed.   
"What surprised me was that a good number of participants sent in excellent DVD's, whereas their live performances turned out to be disappointing. Some applied too much physical strength, ignoring the potential of the piano and the ears of the listeners. Then there were those whose playing was quite simply boring enough to put the audience to sleep.
"Fortunately there were also artistic personalities who combined truly exquisite piano playing with Chopin's aesthetic. To see that someone applies technical skills to a higher purpose rather than in order to show-off makes one very happy. 
"Another ingredient which will be needed in the finals is luck: a competition is different to a normal concert. It's a very stressful environment, the desire to do well creates a lot of pressure. One of the ways of relieving it is to have positive attitude. Each time I'm asked about it, I always say: Try to win the 1st prize. Express what you really feel and be spontaneous. 
"But in the end accept the verdict of the jury. Nothing ends with winning or losing one competition. The real competition is your life afterwards. It will decide your place as an artist in society at large"."Fortunately there were also artistic personalities who combined truly exquisite piano playing with Chopin's aesthetic. To see that someone applies technical skills to a higher purpose rather than in order to show-off makes one very happy. 
"Another ingredient which will be needed in the finals is luck: a competition is different to a normal concert. It's a very stressful environment, the desire to do well creates a lot of pressure. One of the ways of relieving it is to have positive attitude. Each time I'm asked about it, I always say: Try to win the 1st prize. Express what you really feel and be spontaneous. 
"But in the end accept the verdict of the jury. Nothing ends with winning or losing one competition. The real competition is your life afterwards. It will decide your place as an artist in society at large".
5 months ago | |
| Read Full Story

This year's Last Night of the Proms promises to go out on a somewhat surreal note as Danielle de Niese and Jonas Kaufmann lead us all in a SingalongaSoundofMusic. Yes, we get to sing together with Danni and Jonas. And we are instructed to do this wherever we are, whether in the hall or in Birmingham or in the bath.

Moreover, at the press launch t'other day it was confirmed that it is Jonas who gets to sing Rule Britannia and it's all gone wonderfully quiet about him being, like, German. Good to see that he's the World's Greatest Tenor first and only. I hope that this is an indication from the Proms of support for the view that opera is international, music is international, people are international, the Last Night Hall is always full of flags of many, many hues, and fantasy nationalism in the end shall have no dominion.

The programme is up and running now and you can browse it all here. They're having a focus on the piano, big choral works and a heap of Nielsen and Sibelius for the anniversaries, and quite a lot of Mozart. There are 13 BBC commissions among more than 30 new music premieres of one sort or another; Marin Alsop is back to conduct the Last Night; and that evening has another soloist besides the singers, and it is Benjamin Grosvenor, who will play the Shostakovich Second Piano Concerto.

One has a slight sensation that everyone is treading water. The Proms as yet have no permanent new director to replace Roger Wright, who is a very, very hard act to follow. Alan Davey has barely got his feet under the desk as controller of Radio 3, Edward Blakeman is doing his best as the 2015 Proms director under difficult circumstances, the entire BBC has become more than a tad risk-averse of late and meanwhile we're awaiting a new government, to say nothing of the likely effects of the licence fee decision, whatever it may be, which is due next year.

So if there's a certain retrenchment into things like Belshazzar's Feast (opening night), The Dream of Gerontius (with Rattle conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, yes, that's Vienna) and yummy Mozart and Beethoven piano concertos, one can't be wholly surprised. As for the complete Prokofiev piano concertos, with the LSO conducted by Gergiev and starring Daniil Trifonov, his teacher Sergei Babayan and the pianist Alexei Volodin, I for one don't particularly want to hear the five Prokofiev concertos on the same night. It's a circus trick and it's music of which a little goes a long way.

Meanwhile, out there it's Groundhog Day as the one pop-focused event grabs all the headlines. This time the presence of an Ibiza club night is giving people high blood pressure and inducing the opinion that the end of the world is upon us. By this time next year, nobody will remember that. Because last year it was the Pet Shop Boys, and it seems nobody remembers that now. Aren't we used to this yet?

I'm more concerned that there are not very many women conductors other than Marin. There are eight female composers among the premieres. You might consider this a relatively good representation. Then again, you might not.

My top Proms? Sir András Schiff playing the Bach Goldberg Variations late at night; John Eliot Gardiner conducting Monteverdi's L'Orfeo; Yuja Wang playing Bartok's Piano Concerto No.2; Nicky Benedetti playing the Korngold Violin Concerto (only I'm away then); Bryn Terfel in Grange Park Opera's Fiddler on the Roof; and a lunchtime Prom in which pianist Christian Blackshaw will perform the Mozart Quintet for piano and wind instruments with a fine ensemble of colleagues. And probably that Last Night...

Note: I've written another, rather stringsy piece on the programme over at Amati. Thing is, it's not a very stringsy season.

[UPDATE: Earlier I said there isn't a free Prom this time. A kind reader points out that in fact there is, so I've corrected the post. It's Carmina Burana. I think I must have blanked that out. It's my least favourite music ever.]

5 months ago | |
| Read Full Story
91 - 100  | prev 67891011121314 next