JDCMB
Jessica
JDCMB is Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music & writing, with ginger, in London, UK. Author & journalist JD writes for The Independent.
1184 Entries
I've written an article for The Independent about creating my new play, SINS OF THE FATHERS, which is premiered next Sunday in the International Wimbledon Music Festival at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond. In brief: how do you write a play about somebody you can't stand?

Incidentally, the only way I could get started was by thinking: "Well, what would Woody Allen have done?"...

Cast for our performance:
VICKY/COSIMA: Sarah Gabriel
FRANK/LISZT: Jeremy Child
WAGNER: John Sessions

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/features/my-tricky-waltz-with-wagner-8940302.html
4 months ago | |
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It's BBC Children in Need again and Radio 3 is pitting girls against boys as their competitive star turn. So here are the girls. Singers are Ruby Hughes, Clara Mouriz, Charlotte Trepess, Elizabeth Watts and Kitty Whately, with the ladies of the BBC Philharmonic and The Halle conducted by Sian Edwards. And look out for special guests in the ranks: violinist Tasmin Little and pianist Kathryn Stott. (Why not a woman composer too? As for Pudsey Bear - we don't know about that...)

Happy Friday. I am chopping a script, and it hurts. Cuts are a vicious matter. I'm wondering if this is how our prime minister feels sometimes.
4 months ago | |
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Brava bravissima to the young Romanian pianist Alexandra Dariescu, who has just won the Woman of the Future Award.


Alexandra says: "This evening we celebrated women, equality between genders and an internationally cherished Romania, a country that makes me proud. I was the only non Brit in the Arts and Culture category and it gives the hugest of honours to announce that I was awarded the Woman of the Future Award, becoming an Ambassador for classical music. It's an exciting time for women all over the world and a huge step for us, strong, united and because we can!"
4 months ago | |
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Tonight: we are delighted that Alicia's Gift: The Concert of the Novel will be presented by the Kensington & Chelsea Music Society at Leighton House Museum, 12 Holland Park Road
London W14 8LZ. It's an amazing venue, the former home of Lord Leighton and his art collection, where east meets west...

Kick-off is 7.30pm and Viv and I, much encouraged by Saturday's successful outing (unexpectedly alongside a Mighty Wurlitzer), are looking forward to it immensely. Enormous thanks to the doughty Peter Thomas and the enthusiasm of KCMS for this project. I read; Viv plays Chopin, Falla, Debussy, Ravel, Granados, Messiaen and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue; and we finish with eine kleine piano duet...
BOOK HERE: http://www.kcmusic.org.uk/alicia_concert.htm
5 months ago | |
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Here is my short but heartfelt tribute to John Tavener, who died today at the age of 69, greatly mourned. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/news/pioneer-of-new-classical-music-john-tavener-dies-aged-69-8935709.html
5 months ago | |
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Fascinating stuff, this. Above, Gabriela Montero improvises on the Goldberg Variations theme. I've always listened to her (and many others) and wondered "How does she do that?" Now Neuroscience 2013, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, has released some information about what improvising can do for the brain, and vice-versa...

(Apologies for simply running the press release. Am short of time at present.)


To Change Your Brain: Improvise, Improvise, and Improvise Some MoreWith practice, specific brain circuits are strengthen and music flows
Brain circuits involved in musical improvisation are shaped by systematic training, suggest a new study presented at Neuroscience 2013, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and the world’s largest source of emerging news about brain science and health.
Researchers also found that more experienced improvisers show higher connectivity between three major regions of the brain’s frontal lobe while improvising. This suggests that the generation of meaningful music during improvisation can become highly automated —performed with little conscious attention, reported lead author Ana Pinho, MS, of the Karolinska Institutet.
“Our research explored whether the brain can be trained to achieve greater proficiency in improvisation,” Pinho said. “The lower activity in frontal brain regions that we saw in trained improvisers is interesting, and one could speculate that it is related to the feeling of ‘flow.’ This is the feeling that many musicians report feeling during improvisation – when music comes without conscious thought or effort.”
Improvisational training entails the acquisition of long-term stores of musical patterns and cognitive strategies to aid in their expressive, skillful combination. To test brain activity during improvisation, researchers worked with 39 pianists with a wide range of both classical piano training and training in jazz improvisation. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which images blood flow in different parts of the brain.
While the pianists improvised for brief periods on a 12-key MRI compatible piano keyboard, researchers tracked activity in the frontal lobe. More experienced improvisers showed a combination of higher connectivity and lower overall regional activity during improvisation. Higher connectivity also reflected extensive reorganization of functional connections within the regions of the frontal lobe that control motion.
According to the researchers, the extensive connectivity within the frontal lobe of experienced improvisers may allow the musicians to seamlessly generate meaningful re-combinations of music.
“This study raises interesting questions for future research, including how and to what extent creative behaviors can be learned and automated,” said Pinho. 
5 months ago | |
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This is the astonishing Elegy for Strings 'In Memoriam Rupert Brooke' by Frederick Septimus Kelly, the brilliant Australian pianist and composer who survived Gallipoli only to meet his death at the Somme.

An Olympic rowing champion in 1908, he was a sometime pupil of Donald Francis Tovey at Oxford and was close to the young Jelly d'Aranyi, who hoped to marry him. The Sonata he wrote for her on his way back to Britain from Gallipoli - having composed it in his head while in the trenches - was unearthed and performed a couple of years ago by the Australian violinist Chris Latham and turned out to be a carefree, sunny sort of work. The same cannot be said for the Elegy, which is not many miles in mood from Vaughan Williams's Tallis Fantasia.

Please listen, enjoy and think.
5 months ago | |
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I've been having some fun with the connections between Gypsy music and classical, with the help of such individuals as Jascha Heifetz, Grigoras Dinicu, Ginette Neveu and Roby Lakatos...and the result is up on the Sinfini site now. Enjoy.

Speaking of connections, a friend asked me how she could subscribe to JDCMB by email, since she doesn't do Facebook or Twitter. I didn't know, so I've been finding out, and now I've put a "Subscribe by email" box in the sidebar. If you sign up to this, you'll automatically receive a message whenever I publish a new post. I hope this is a useful new way to connect.

Premiere of ALICIA'S GIFT is tonight at the Musical Museum, Kew Bridge. Next up, Kensington & Chelsea Music Society at Leighton House, Wednesday evening. I narrate the story from my novel about a child prodigy pianist and her talent's effect on her family. Viv plays Chopin, Debussy, Granados, Gershwin, Ravel...and I need to practise glissandi. Please connect by coming to say hi afterwards if you're there.

5 months ago | |
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Last night left me convinced (as if I needed convincing) that this is the most beautiful aria for tenor ever composed. What a good excuse to listen to Fritz Wunderlich singing it.
5 months ago | |
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Before we get down to business with Simon McBurney's production of The Magic Flute, here's 2 1/2p about opera in translation. The raison d'etre of ENO is to perform opera in the vernacular. But London today is such a cosmopolitan city that the concept is starting to look outdated. Yesterday The Magic Flute was in English; but the main language in the foyer seemed to be Hungarian.

That was because the holder of ENO's Mackerras Conducting Fellowship was on the podium for a performance for the first time: Gergely Madaras, 28, from Budapest. He has been working at ENO alongside Ed Gardner, being mentored and nurtured. Perhaps The Magic Flute isn't an ideal debut opera - but his conducting was full of vim and whoosh, extremely alive, well-balanced and tender-hearted. It took a little while to "settle" - there were one or two little disagreements over tempo between pit and stage, and a few moments needed a tad more time to breathe. But that will go, in due course, and on the whole Madaras seems a careful accompanist and a fine, full-spirited musician. I look forward to hearing more of him.

So to Flute - a production on which many expectations hang, since it replaces Nicholas Hytner's classic of 25 years or more. It could scarcely be more different. And it could scarcely be more enchanting, more contemporary, more inspired. Flute has been my most-loved opera since childhood, yet I found things in it yesterday that I've never seen or heard before, in the best possible way.

It has been described as the most demanding production ENO has yet staged. Sometimes its effects are stunning: the writhing snake that attacks Tamino is filmed and projected around him; and during the trials the prince and princess swim through a mid-air, hand-drawn spiral, as if starring in Titanic (above). The Temple of Reason emerges from a shelf of giant books; their pages become Papageno's fluttering birds, wielded by 14 actors (below). The Queen of the Night - confined for much of the show to a wheelchair - sings amid a breathing, trembling aura of stars. Moreover, much action takes place on a platform that swings, dips and tips, leaving the singers to balance, pace, slide when necessary and, of course, sing some jolly demanding music throughout - which they managed without the merest flinch.

McBurney was new to opera when he directed the massively successful A Dog's Heart for ENO a few years ago; this is his first classic. A fascinating interview in The Guardian makes the following suggestion: "I want...to take the audience from darkness to light, to make us evolve, to end mystification and embrace reason and rationality. That, as I understand it, is what the opera is about."

It is indeed, and McBurney's staging makes its message one for today, "relevant" in a way that is revelatory and profound rather than contrived. Indeed, we've rarely needed that message as much as we do now. It's as if Mozart himself is speaking to us as spiritual leader, as prophet.

The opera has been divested of its racism and as much of its sexism as possible, and - dare I say - is the better for it. The world that the characters move in is profoundly dangerous, riven by war, delusion, superstition; the plea is for wisdom, love, enlightenment. Everything feels here and now; the crisis of humanity of which Sarastro speaks is our own; everything seems real, the more apparently illogical the truer to life - and, moreover, true to the timeless heart of Mozart's vision.

[Dear Simon, please will you do Parsifal next, then the Ring cycle? Lots of love, Jess x.] 

In this process of "becoming"; everyone evolves, not only Tamino in his quest for initiation or Pamina in her growth from projected image - literally shining onto Tamino's heart while he sings his great aria - to mature and devoted woman. The magic instruments are played by members of the orchestra, the flautist walking on stage to stand alongside Tamino, the magic bells rendered on a keyboard from a corner of the pit where Papageno can interact suitably (the orchestra is raised so that it is just a notch below the stage).

But Papageno gradually learns to play them himself. Unpacking his parcel of food and wine, he creates a row of bottles which he empties - and in one case, er, fills - to reach the right pitch, and uses them to accompany the start of 'Ein mädchen oder weibchen'. "My old friend Chateauneuf du Pape..." he quips, then wonders if his "friend"'s family is present. Sure enough, inside the basket he finds more bottles. "Ahh, here's Auntie Angela and Uncle Roberto. Better keep those two apart!" - with which he places them at either end of the row. (Apologies to my neighbours in the theatre - I may have squawked...) Anyhow, by the time we get to 'Klinge, glöckchen, klinge', Papageno can tickle the ivories perfectly well and the keyboard player, striding on stage to be his sidekick, is put out to find her services aren't required.

Major plaudits to a terrific cast. Ben Johnson is a superb Tamino - his voice better suited to this role than it was to Alfredo in La Traviata - open-toned, focused and deeply musical. Devon Guthrie's feisty, heart-breaking Pamina matched him turn for turn. Roland Wood's Papageno - from Blackburn? - was a delight. McBurney has him carting a ladder around and from time to time he climbs it to escape something that alarms him, as if fleeing from a mouse. The introduction of a cuckoo noise into his first aria is naughty and rather delicious. James Creswell is an ideal Sarastro and Cornelia Götz a mostly strong Queen of the Night - and I love it that she is redeemed at the conclusion. Pamina doesn't often get her mother back.

Just one other perennial bugbear. The orchestra plays in that contemporary, standardised, "listen!-we-play-18th-century-music-without-vibrato" sound that always has been at odds with that of the human voice, and will always remain so.

In 100 years' time, assuming anyone still remembers who Mozart was, some scholar, assuming scholars still exist, may undertake a research project, assuming research still exists, about The Magic Flute. Of course they will be shocked to see the long hushed-up original text. But where the music is concerned, they might try a daring experiment: have the strings play with vibrato, just once, just to see what happens. And they will be astonished by how beautiful it sounds. And they will look at our generations' reasons for stopping the vibrato. And they will laugh.
5 months ago | |
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