JDCMB is author and journalist Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music & writing, with CHOCOLATE AND SILVER, in London, UK.
1828 Entries

The e-book of Ghost Variations has been published.

It's a very weird feeling, since the book has been part of my life for some five years and has seen me through many not-so-liquorice all-sorts of life. If it is about Jelly d'Arányi saving a concerto (sort of), and it saving her (almost), they've also saved my sanity on several occasions. This week may be the start of the book's life as an actual book, but it's also, in some ways, the end of an era.

The crowd-funding was enormous fun - and several subscribers have already told me that they feel part of the process as a result, which is heartening. Unbound have been simply wonderful to work with: the editing excellent, the cover design the best I've ever had and the sense of support and good sense unfailing. My heartfelt thanks to the whole team - and to everyone who signed up to contribute with such enthusiasm. And, of course, to the many individuals who have helped, advised, pointed, talked, been interviewed, read, emailed and corrected my Hungarian along the way.

If you subscribed to it, you should have received an email with the links to your download. Other would-be readers can buy the e-book from Unbound now for £5, or hang on for the paperback which will soon be available for pre-ordering from Amazon (as will the ebook) for general release on 20 Sept.

Meanwhile, do come and celebrate with me, David Le Page and Viv McLean at St Mary's Perivale tonight - no books on sale yet, but a real jamboree of a violin&piano words&music concert. The next ones are on 4 Oct at 22 Mansfield Street, 18 Oct at Leighton House, and 3 November at the Old Sorting Office, Barnes.
7 months ago | |
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Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello), Kevin John Edusei (conductor) and the Chineke! Orchestra.
Photo: Belinda Lawley/Southbank Centre

It's hard enough to put an ordinary orchestra together... so just imagine the effort involved in assembling the magnificent crew that took the stage at the Royal Festival Hall last night for the climax of the Southbank's Africa Utopia festival. Chineke! - the brainchild of double-bass suprema Chi-chi Nwanoku - is Europe's first all-BME symphony orchestra and is designed a) to celebrate the talent of its members and b) to show the rest of us that not all faces on the concert platform need to be white or Far Eastern. The atmosphere of the RFH's foyers, too, was transformed; warm, relaxed, smiley people of every shape, size and colour were there, enjoying the festive programming, foyer events and the food market outside, and the hall itself was packed.

The Chineke! players come from all over the world. They range from young students of the Purcell School and Birmingham Conservatoire to such luminaries as leader Ann-Estelle Médouze, concertmaster of the Orchestre Nationale de l'Ile de France, the lead trumpet of the Met in New York, the violist of the Fine Arts Quartet, the stupendous flautist Eric Lamb, British cellist and educator Desmond Neysmith, principal second violin Samson Diamond who started with Buskaid in Soweto, and of course Chi-chi herself. Charlotte Barbour-Condini, a BBC Young Musician finalist as a recorder player, is here playing the violin.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason.
Photo: Belinda Lawley/Southbank Centre
Several members of the multitalented Kanneh-Mason family are aboard too, including the current Young Musician of the Year, Sheku the cellist; when he wasn't out front, making his RFH debut in the Haydn Cello Concerto, he was back in the middle of the cello section, giving his all.

Despite this disparate nature, even if the ensemble can't always be perfect, there were moments of absolute magic where a section began to play virtually as one instrument, notably the first violins. The conductor, Kevin John Edusei, a young competition winner and now chief conductor of the Münchner Symphoniker, offered clarity, swing and masses of positive and unifying energy.

The evening got off to a flying start with Sibelius's Finlandia. Odd choice? Not so: along came the chorus of Cape Town Opera, which has been performing its Mandela Trilogy in the festival and, ranked up the aisles, they transformed the big tune into a stirring anthem with nice, up-to-the-minute, inclusive words. It would be easy to pick holes in that idea (the cited flora sounded a tad Alpine) - but my goodness, I was right in among them in an aisle seat, and my own background is South African; my late parents left in the '50s and my father refused to go back until Apartheid was brought down, and I thought of how much this evening would have meant to them, and I cried.

Next, a transformation to the 18th century: the three-part Overture to L'amant anonyme by Joseph Boulogne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges: expert violinist, fencer and favourite of Marie-Antoinette. It's a piece of much charm and the Chineke strings, with Isata Kanneh-Mason at the harpsichord, brought it lilt, warmth and bounce.

Sheku was centre stage for the Haydn concerto and again one had the sense of history in the making. With virtuoso aplomb as cool as the proverbial cucumber punch, a splendid, pure and focused sound and a genuine, smiling stage presence, the 17-year-old cellist is going places, musically mature beyond his years - his encore, Bloch's Abodah in Sheku's own arrangement, was deeply reflective and moving. He had a hero's welcome, and deservedly so.

And to close, the Dvorák "New World" Symphony - a piece I realise one doesn't hear often enough because it, like so many other outright masterpieces (Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, Mozart's Piano Concerto No.21, Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No.2, etc), has been siphoned off into "popular classics" evenings and therefore often shunned by the bigwigs. But these pieces are popular because they are fabulous works, and I have a special soft spot for Dvorák 9 because it was the first symphony I ever heard live, at the good old RFH when I was 7 years old. So it's always a treat. The drive, passion and blazing beauty of sound that Chineke and Edusei brought it warmed us from head to foot and even if I sometimes missed perhaps an earthier, wilder, more mystical-magical quality in it, each bar nevertheless had its thrills. The audience clapped between movements, a few people went out or came in, and you know something? It was fine.

It does seem extraordinary, of course, that in proud multi-cultural London, in the 21st century, it still has to be proved that a BME orchestra can a) exist and b) play every bit as well as anyone else. But if that is what it takes to wake people up, make them see, think and respond, then that's what it takes. We have to do what it takes. And it's fabulous, and it's working.

Above all, this concert showed us all what absolute rubbish it is to think that music could be anything but for everybody. All these divisions - race, colour, creed, nationality, "relevance" - are imposed by us, not by the music, and do nothing but limit people. Music transcends the lot.

Bravi, Chineke! Brava, Chi-chi! And bravo, Sheku - we will be seeing much, much more of you.

7 months ago | |
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A recent Twitter exchange about the number of music blogs that have thrown in the towel got me thinking about why. I know I'm not posting at quite the rate I was in e.g. 07-08. But things change: in the world, in the virtual world and in yourself. In 2004, when I launched JDCMB on a whim, many other blogs were starting up. We were full of optimism: the Internet was a brave new world and we were excited about trying to make something wonderful out of it.

Unfortunately we reckoned without the pernicious effects of two vital points: 1. Anonymity, 2. Giving Things Away For Free. Twelve years on, the first can make people's lives a misery. It has contributed to the extreme polarising and poisoning of public debate, all the way from the comments "below the line" to presidential elections. The second is threatening our ability to make a living. And we have to face up to the fact that we've contributed to this ourselves, simply because it is so thrilling to be able to reach the reader right away, at the touch of one button. That hurts.

So what is stopping us blogging?
1. Trolls. I switched off the comments boxes a long time ago. Luckily we can have good discussions on Facebook, where people have to say who they really are.
2. Disillusion. Big one, as you'll see above.
3. Priorities. Big one too. I'm 12 years older than I was and, to coin a phrase, I'm looking at work-life balance.
4. Time. There's ever less of it.
5. Making a living. Necessary. I rather envy those older writers who have the luxuries of time and, I hope, a pension.
6. Anxiety, stress and what's now sometimes termed "overwhelm". Modern ailments, but real.
7. Watching your profession, which was thriving and perfectly viable when you went into it 25-30 years ago, shrinking around us year by year. (See 6.)
8. Brexit. WT actual F? (See 6.)
9. Rise of fascistic leanings in countries far and near. (See 6.)
10. Wanting to do something that lasts, in an ephemeral world. Blogging is very ephemeral. (It's also addictive, so probably won't go away entirely.)

If the blogosphere were a street of cafes, I guess mine would be the one that's been around for longer than some others, but maybe hasn't been painted for a few years. There's a fence outside and signs saying Beware of the Cats. There's a bookshop, magazines to leaf through, and a noticeboard about our concerts. I'm not open all hours; just a few days a week. But core customers come back because they like the ambience and the food. If I'm cooking, I try to create nourishing, organic fare. The cafe hasn't been forced out by the big chains, the high-sugar model, or the IEDs occasionally left under the windows, because it and its customers are cool about keeping on doing their own thing and not sweating the small stuff too often. Beyond the fence, as some neighbours close down, others move in with new recipes and interesting, fresh flavours.

In the musical blogosphere, matters have evolved. Our expectations perhaps need reassessing, since the discourse tends to go round and round in circles. For example, we know that classical music is not by nature "elitist" - after all, that word was scarcely used in musical contexts before the late 20th century - but everyone has a different explanation for problems arising in this sphere and many have agendas of their own to explore. No one area has a monopoly on needing to be "fixed"; everything is related; there aren't any simple solutions. Classracegendereconomicstalentslogpushyparentseducationschoolscashgovernmentamateursculturedifferencesplaygroundbulliesclothingclappingmobilephonestvcrispsdrinkssnobberyinvertedsnobberyhallscarparkspromsstreaming, and much more, all exist at once. What's really needed - to explore the whole lot together in real depth, in the context of the big, exciting, messy collisions of contemporary society - requires not so much a blog as a book around the length of the Chilcot Report.

Sometimes the discourse does make an effect. Today The Observer declared that there are plenty of women conductors around and that to suggest otherwise is an outdated view. (I'm not entirely convinced the problem is definitely fixed now, forever, and forever more, but we've certainly gone a good way.) It's a fine example of a case in which yelling loudly has helped to do some good: waking people up, making them think, see, then do something.

But meanwhile, certain other powerful ideals - music for peace, music for social change - haven't worked quite so well. Music is great, but it demonstrably does not bring actual peace. Music can keep kids off the streets in challenging places; so can sport and good schooling. Music can do wonderful things for young people's development, powers of concentration and school results; yet governments still don't want to give it adequate support and encouragement, despite all its benefits. From the other side, the behaviour of certain members of the profession can occasionally leave you wondering whether the benefits of musical study really are all that substantial. Some musicians I know are among the most excellent human beings in the world. Others aren't. That's true of many other professions as well.

Yet while we argue, the one thing that doesn't need to be fixed is the music itself; it just goes on being wonderful, and more and more fabulous musicians keep emerging into the light. Perhaps we just need to shut up and listen to some.

7 months ago | |
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Very grateful to the excellent Andrew Morris at The Devil's Trill blog for doing this e-interview with me about the umms and ahhs of turning history into fiction. It was interesting to try and articulate my thoughts on the process, as I hadn't particularly tried before. The questions we explored include: where do you start? And where do you stop? What's comfortable and what isn't? And how did a Swedish-French supermodel prove that it was time to stop the research?


If you're a subscriber waiting for your copy of Ghost Variations, we're nearly there. Just a teensy bit of last-minute snagging today. It will be with you soon! Everyone else will be able to pre-order the paperback or e-book from online bookstores sometime next week and general release is slated for 20 September.
7 months ago | |
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Ghost Variations is nearly here. Just three more days, I believe....and next week my performance partners David Le Page and Viv McLean - an absolute knockout of a violin and piano duo - join me for the first of four concerts we are giving through the autumn based upon 'Ghost Variations'. I narrate, they play the appropriate music and thus we tell the story together. 

The first concert is on Wednesday 7 September at the exquisite 12th-century church of St Mary's, Perivale, tucked away behind the A40. It's an intimate venue with a magical atmosphere and a marvellous concert series. Admission is free and seats unreserved (though you may make a donation at the end). 
The "pilot" for the project took place, to a very warm reception, at the Hungarian Cultural Centre back in March and  we have now extended it a little and added an interval, creating a full-evening recital. Incidentally, there will also be a shorter version, available for coffee concerts in the new year. Every piece has been chosen with forensic care to match the story, its protagonists and the necessary atmosphere.

(Above, Dave plays at the premiere...)
You'll have the chance to hear music written for Jelly d'Arányi - Ravel's Tzigane; Brahms Hungarian Dances arranged by her great-uncle, Joseph Joachim; music she played a great deal, such as the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto; a piece by Frederick Septimus Kelly, whom she had hoped to marry before he was killed at the Somme; 'Hejre Kati' arranged by her teacher, Jeno Hubay; and, of course, plenty of Schumann, including a juxtaposition that makes clear how close the slow movement of the Violin Concerto is to the theme of the Geistervariationen. Songs from the Thirties will welcome the assembling audience, creating the ambience in which the story unfolded (and I'm on the lookout for some vintage clothing...).
More details of the concert and how to get to St Mary's are available at the website: http://www.st-marys-perivale.org.uk/events-2016-09-07.shtml
Further performances very soon...watch this space...
7 months ago | |
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Listening on the radio to the splendid Proms debut of Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla with her CBSO the other night, I couldn't help a smile or ten. Cometh the hour, cometh the woman: with a performance like that, wonderfully sculpted, full of conviction, detail and blazing emotion, it couldn't be clearer that the orchestra has snapped her up because she is a fantastic conductor, not because she is female in an era when (at last) equality is being demanded. UK listeners can hear the concert on the iPlayer here. It's also clear that quite a few people haven't much idea of where Lithuania is, or why it should produce such an excellent musician.

When Lithuania and the other Baltic states joined the EU in 2004, I was lucky enough to be invited over to the Vilnius Festival to write some articles about the place, its musical scene and its artistic history - and to do some roots-finding at the same time, as my ancestors were from there in the 18th century. Concerts were held in the beautiful Filharmonja, where Heifetz - who was born in Vilnius - made his debut as a child; and in there I heard an astonishing performance of the Tchaikovsky 'Pathétique' Symphony, conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich. It was an absolute glory: gut-wrenching stuff, with old-school Russian-style strings and distinctive vinegary trumpets, sizzling narrative, epic-scale tragedy: music as a matter of life and death.

Vilnius has a proud and distinguished musical life; it's had its problems over the decades, of course, but the influences run deep and come from powerful origins. That's Mirga's background. (She must have been about 18 when I went there, of course...)

It seems worth revisiting those thoughts, so here's the briefish blogpost about it; and below I am pasting the article I wrote then for The Strad, 2004. (It may be missing some accents and suchlike, I'm afraid.) Pics are mine, from then.

The Vilnius Filharmonja

LITHUANIA by Jessica Duchen - from THE STRAD, 2004
Local legend has identified, on a hillside in the Old Town of Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, an unmarked site of pilgrimage for violinists. Surrounded by the tumbledown remains of what was long ago the Vilna Ghetto, ripe for redevelopment amid the turmoil of change underway all around, stands the birthplace of Jascha Heifetz – its yellowish brick and the wooden stables in its back yard probably unchanged since the day Vilna’s greatest prodigy made his debut at the Filharmonja concert hall, aged seven.
Apparently this is Jascha Heifetz's birthplace
Part of the Baltic territory that over the centuries has been carved up between surrounding powers in a variety of ways, Lithuania is home to a proud and impressive musical tradition, bearing important influences from both its heftier neighbours, Russia and Poland. Cesar Cui (1835-1918), one of Russia’s Mighty Handful, was born in Vilnius; among his teachers was the Polish-born Stanislaw Moniuszko (1819-1872), who was organist at St John’s Church in Vilnius and set to music poems by Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish poet said to have inspired Chopin’s Ballades, whose Vilnius home is now marked by a stone plaque.
Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis (1875-1911), after whom the country’s elite arts high school is named, was both a composer and a painter who pioneered abstract art in Lithuania; speaking of paintings, Marc Chagall was born in nearby Vitebsk and his canvases evoke, in fantastical images of floating violins and traditional Jewish fiddlers ‘on the roof’, the musical aspect of the once vast, artistically fertile Jewish community of this region. Vilnius was known in the 18th and 19th centuries as ‘the Jerusalem of the North’. All that was destroyed (with local help) during the Nazi invasion, and the traces of it flattened and suppressed under the subsequent Soviet regime.
Interior of the Filharmonja
But today Lithuania’s musical life is flourishing. Its ensembles include two symphony orchestras, the Lithuanian Opera and Ballet Theatre with its own orchestra in Vilnius and the State Music Theatre in Kaunas, two chamber orchestras in Vilnius and another in Kaunas, and a lively choral and chamber music scene. Add to that the ambitious Vilnius Festival, which has run every June for ten years, several annual festivals of contemporary music and three high-level musical competitions, including a violin competition named after Heifetz, and the importance of music becomes clear as daylight. Folk music, particularly song and dance, is ever popular (the local stringed instrument is the ‘kanklés’), and international jazz festivals bring visitors flocking to Vilnius and Kaunas each year; also taking place is a gradual resurgence of interest in Klezmer and the Jewish folk music of the Vilna Ghetto.
Among today’s most celebrated Lithuanian-born soloists are violinist Julian Rachlin and cellist David Geringas – the latter has particularly championed the music of Anatolijus Senderovas, once a childhood friend, now a leading Lithuanian composer, who has written a concerto and a number of solo and chamber works for him. Lithuania has a strong quartet-playing tradition; and although the Lithuanian String Quartet, for many years the country’s leading chamber ensemble, has now disbanded, others are doing well, notably the MK Ciurlionis Quartet and the Chordos Quartet which places considerable emphasis on contemporary music.
The Gates of Dawn
This is currently in abundant supply. The director of the Vilnius Festival, Gintautas Kevisas, also director of the Vilnius Opera and Ballet Theatre, says that he wants composers ‘to feel that they are a very significant part of the community’; he is eager to encourage this with an annual Festival commission. The 2004 festival’s world premiere was the Duo Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra by Vytautas Barkauskas, who won the prestigious National Prize in 2003 for his Violin Concerto, Jeux. His Duo Concertante is dedicated to the memory of an extraordinary figure in Lithuanian history: Chiune Sugihara, Japanese vice-consul in Kaunas (then the capital) in 1940, who saved 6,000 Jewish refugees from the Nazis by issuing them with transit visas although his government had forbidden him to do so. In tribute, much of the Duo Concertante is modelled on Japanese music. Its premiere, with violinist Philippe Graffin and violist Nobuko Imai as soloists, drew an enthusiastic response; Imai has now arranged its Japanese premiere for the Tokyo Viola Space Festival in May 2005.
This year, the Vilnius Festival commission is a new ballet score from Senderovas. Senderovas, Barkauskas and numerous other Lithuanian composers have been enjoying increasingly international profiles since Lithuania declared independence from Russia in 1991. As Barkauskas says, preparing for a previously unthinkable visit to Japan, ‘It’s like springtime!’
Lithuania is at an ‘interesting’ point in its history, caught in a tug-of-war between Communist legacy and capitalist aspiration. Experiences in some musical organisations are symptomatic of this ideological transition: most notably, last year the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra ejected its 77-year-old conductor, Saulis Sondeckis, who had been at its helm for 44 years, after a heated, vociferous and very public power struggle. During the Communist years, such appointments were jobs for life. This – as every musician I met in Vilnius agreed – has to change.
Nevertheless, most music in Lithuania is still state-run. The National Philharmonic Society, the umbrella organisation under which musical organisations were centralised under the Soviet regime, is still in place and is generally regarded as a positive way to protect musical life, preferable to exposing every organisation individually to the uncertainty of market forces. Young talent is still nurtured by a network of state music schools across the country, and also by the sizeable Ciurlionis School, which admits the most talented pupils in music, ballet and fine art. When I visited Vilnius, I found that most of the musicians and arts administrators I met had been educated there. 
Unsurprisingly, the dominant force in Lithuania’s string teaching is the Russian school. At the 2004 Vilnius Festival, hearing the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra performing Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich, and the young Lithuanian conductor Robertas Servenikas leading the specially-formed Vilnius Festival Orchestra through Mozart, Stamitz and Barkauskas, it was easy to imagine oneself sliding back in time by 30 years. The LNSO’s style is intense and creamy, reminiscent of recordings by the finest USSR orchestras, while the Festival Orchestra’s approach was lively, spirited and clear, but without a trace of influence from the sinewy sounds, inspired by period instrument performance, that now dominate many European chamber orchestras.
The Heifetz Hall is in the Jewish Community Museum
The LNSO’s concertmaster, Almina Statkuviene, explains the benefits of her colleagues’ unity of style: ‘Because we have all trained in the same system – we are almost all graduates of the Lithuanian Music Academy – we play together very naturally, with the same technique. Our principal conductor, Juozas Domarkas, has been with the orchestra since 1964, but we have none of the tensions that some other orchestras are currently experiencing! He studied in St Petersburg with Ilya Musin and Mravinsky and has brought some excellent traditions with him.’
Head of strings at the Lithuanian Academy of Music is violist Petras Radzevicius: he is also principal viola of the LCO and has been a crucial lynchpin in establishing the Jascha Heifetz Violin Competition. He has taught at the LMA since 1963 and served as head of department since 1987. Currently, he says, the string department holds 12 professors and around 80 students.
On Gediminas, looking towards the cathedral
‘After the war, in the early days of the Soviet occupation, some young musicians from Moscow arrived in Vilnius,’ he explains, ‘and from that time onwards the Russian school of playing, in those days considered rather progressive, established itself here. All the professors in the string department today are students of those original Russian teachers, and many of them also went to Moscow for postgraduate studies with pupils of David Oistrakh.’ A good handful of foreign students come to the Academy each year, he adds: ‘Lithuania is known as a good place to study the Russian style.’
Nevertheless, some of Lithuania’s younger musicians, especially those who have studied abroad, are impatient with the pace of change. Mindaugas Backus, principal cello of the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra and cellist of the Chordos Quartet, came to Britain to spend two years at the Royal Northern College of Music; the contrast, he says, proved revealing. He feels that musical attitudes in Lithuania need to be updated to take in stylistic developments in the wider musical world as well as more positive responses to personal enterprise. ‘The mentality in Lithuania remains to a large extent very Eastern European and there is a lack of choice,’ he explains. ‘Part of the problem is that so many young people leave the country; I think they should come back and help to carry things forward to new generations here!
‘Things are improving gradually,’ he adds. ‘People are working hard and the atmosphere is hopeful. EU membership makes it easier for us to travel and to invite people from abroad to give masterclasses and perform, although resources are still scarce. And when you go overseas, it’s very nice to stand in the EU Passports queue at immigration!’
Lithuania, poised on its cusp between old and new, looks set to become a fertile ground for musical development in the 21stcentury. It has long enjoyed that potential. And it may at last be on the road to fulfilment and international recognition. JD

7 months ago | |
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There's been a little flurry of attention towards music exams following an article by the excellent Rosie Millard about the pride and joy that success in them has brought to her kids - and countless others all around the world (the article is entitled somewhat misleadingly, 'Why I'm proud to be a pushy music parent').

A badge makes a nice post-exam present. (pic: zazzle.co.uk)
There's a huge sense of satisfaction, she explains. She took Grade V piano herself, learned the necessary pieces for two years, had a "horrendous experience" on the day and passed. The system is "a gold standard which everyone understands" and a "useful byword to sling around CVs..." It shows you have guts, courage, patience, application. And you feel proud of yourself. Great. What's not to like?

The day that article came out, we went to a pianist friend's place to hear her perform Bach for a small audience including two elderly Holocaust survivors. Our friend is one of London's more magical musicians and she played us a selection of JSB's less often-programmed music - Two-Part Inventions, Three-Part Sinfonias, some Capriccios (the one graphically depicting the departure of a beloved brother is a delight!) and more. But in two instances - the D minor Invention and the B minor Sinfonia - within two notes I felt a chill descend on my shoulders. Images assaulted me: Oh My God, That One.

I did the D minor Invention for goodness knows which exam, when I was I forget how young. The B minor Sinfonia was a set piece for Grade VII when I was 14. And the struggles came straight back. I worked on that bit for weeks and months. It was terrifying. I didn't know what the flippin'heck to do with the music and I didn't like it very much. You need fast fingers that aren't sweating and shaking, a light touch, preferably not too much pedal. You need to understand Bach's dance rhythms, his own instrument, his glittery, humorous flair. I don't think I'd ever heard of any of them at that age.

Glenn Gould plays the B minor Sinfonia. What a mean thing to set for Grade VII!

Exams? I was terrified. I didn't know what the piano was going to do to me (the keys are usually sticky and sweaty from all the other terrified students' fingers before you). You're shoved through the process as fast as humanly possible, because there's a time limit and a lot of kids waiting their turn outside in the waiting room, pasty-faced and nauseous.

None of that has the first thing to do with making music, enjoying music, understanding it, taking in the spirit-food with which it provides us. It's all about building up the CV, same as any exam. And 35 years later, the music is still laden with the ghastly associations of that miserable day: warming up from the chilly corridors by soaking your hands in a basin of hot water in the ladies' loos, simply counting the minutes until the whole thing will be over and you get given a nice treat of tea and cake as your reward (or I did - I was lucky).

Our friend plays Bach as if it's music to which angels dance. Among the guests were a sparky and elegant woman in her eighties, born in Hungary, who survived Bergen-Belsen, and a retired doctor of similar vintage who was deported from Amsterdam, where he'd lived a few blocks away from Anne Frank, at the age of five. He plays a little and has a clavichord at home. He and I followed the score of the Inventions together until he decided to stop and listen only, since there were tears in his eyes.

Of course, there's room for music to do both these things: to bring CV enhancement and "life skills" and to offer spiritual sustenance and oneness with the universe. That's an amazing thing about music: it's like a tree, which can pump out oxygen that we breathe, grow fruit that we eat, burn to help us keep warm, make furniture that we can sit on, make a violin that we can play, build a house or a ship, be carved to make a beautiful work of art.

Not enough of us, though, have the chance to realise that there is more to music than horrible experiences in exams. They should never be the be-all and end-all, but it worries me that perhaps, to many modern families, they become so, and they could actually put the kids off music. After all, if your first experiences of performing are in an exam situation, those associations might stay with you and they can be awfully difficult to shake off. You're ingrained to feel you are being judged from the start, not sharing music with other human beings.

Another downside is that they hold people back. You become psychologically tied to your level. "Oh, I can't play that - it's Grade VIII and I'm only Grade V." I remember being stuck with Grade VI for two years because for some reason my entry forms didn't arrive when they were meant to, so it had to be put back, but the syllabus changed, I had to learn the new set pieces and so forth. And you needed Grade VI for A level, I think, so I had to do it. When I could have just said "what the heck", and moved on to something more challenging, and maybe progressed faster.

Like various other great Victorian inventions (the first syllabus was developed in 1890) this system was possibly designed via a mindset that liked to keep people neatly in their place, like kitchen utensils. I once interviewed a quartet leader who'd been teaching the Sistema kids in Venezuela; we'd all been marvelling at the joy and enthusiasm of the Simón Bolivár Symphony Orchestra. What do those kids have that we don't, I asked. "They don't do graded music exams," my violinist growled. "Nobody tells them they can't do this or that piece because they're only Grade IV."

The Simón Bolivár Youth Orchestra in 2007. I know it's fashionable to denigrate El Sistema these days, because of the appalling conditions of life in Venezuela, but I don't think they'd have been playing like this at the Proms if they'd been stuck shivering in a corridor waiting to do their Grade V.

I don't know many professional musicians who went through the grade exams. If they're going to make a career, they'll probably have exceeded Grade VIII by the age of 12 in any case.

So do the grades, by all means, but don't forget about making music. If your children are tackling these exams, invent ways for them to practise performing for fun, with other kids, with ice cream and balloons, with a celebratory atmosphere. Take them to fun and social musical events - kids' operas, youth orchestra concerts, holiday courses. Let music-making be a natural and integral part of life, about giving, about sharing an enthusiasm, something to look forward to, something to love. If the exam associations - being judged, being frightened, longing for it to be over - can stay with you for decades, so can the joy of that other way forward.
7 months ago | |
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Want to hear something completely different? Pop along to The Warehouse, Waterloo, tonight, where Fifth Quadrant and violinist Simon Hewitt Jones are presenting the work of Michael Rosenzweig, a multi-talented South African-born composer who moved to Britain several decades ago full of promise, yet whose work has gone all but unheard until now. Fifth Quadrant tonight performs his String Octet, Elegy for 13 Solo Strings and Fugue '97 alongside music by Dvorák and Barber.

Here's a sneak preview: an extract from Fifth Quadrant's first read-through of the Elegy. The composer conducts.

Simon Hewitt Jones writes:

At the age of 65, Michael Rosenzweig remains the dark horse of British classical music, a position he has held since his arrival on these shores in l979 touting a Symphonic Tone Poem, a string quartet, a piano trio and several other works that paid homage to Mahler, Schoenberg, Bartok and Stravinsky.

At the time, Rosenzweig had no formal music education at all; he’d simply listened to the masters, taught himself to write music and somehow produced work of such promise that two major universities offered to admit him straight into their Masters and Doctoral programs – on full scholarships. Further honours soon materialised, including the DAAD Artists Fellowship in Berlin and ringing endorsements from such luminaries as Chou Wen-chung, Lukas Foss, Jack Beeson and Emanuel Hurwitz.

Rosenzweig appeared to be on the brink of greatness, but he ‘dropped out of sight’ circa 1995 and has spent the last three decades starving in London garrets while making the odd appearance as guest conductor of Bulgaria’s Vidin State Philharmonic. His appearance at The Warehouse with Simon Hewitt Jones' Fifth Quadrant offers Londoners a rare chance to see this enigmatic figure and hear some of his unheard music.

Endorsements are impressive, too. These are just two of them:
CHARLES MACKERRAS, international conductor: “I must say I find your compositions wholly admirable. You are obviously a man of huge talent.”

OLIVER KNUSSEN, composer, conductor, Conductor Laureate London Sinfonietta: “A talent of a major order…one of the most substantial composers of his generation at work anywhere today.”
7.30pm 25 August, The Warehouse, 13 Theed Street, Waterloo, London SE1 8ST. Further info and online booking: http://www.michaelrosenzweig.com
8 months ago | |
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The other day a fascinating CD landed on my desk. It's music by a composer who is also a well-known conductor - indeed, he'd probably say, most modestly, that he's a conductor who composes on the side. He's the splendid Iván Fischer, a maestro whose work I've known and loved for years, and whom I've interviewed a few times, but whose original music I knew not at all. I'm reviewing the disc for BBC Music Magazine, so the detail must wait for that; but how intriguing it was to find I was listening to that same voice I knew from his performances and interviews, translated into new-created music.

Fischer. Photo: Marco Borggreve
Whether it's a touching solo song in Yiddish (amazingly sung by Fischer's daughter, the contemporary-specialist soprano Nora Fischer), a short Sextet for strings and tabla subtitled 'Wanderlust', the anguished German-Yiddish Cantata or the short opera Tsuchigumo, a completely off-the-wall creation in six languages and plenty of pastiche, based on a 15th-century Noh play - that voice is Essence of Fischer. It's spare, direct, condensed. It's funny, agonising, personal, satirical, sometimes switching between these in a flash, sometimes all at one go. It's malleable, adaptable, insightful. A spot of Italian baroque style and language rubs shoulders with circus-like effects full of Hungarian black humour. And the opening fanfare is all fun - catchy and melodic and showy. Behind such chameleon-like eclecticism, though, lies a consistent personality: that voice, at one with the performer and the man.

I've noticed this occasionally with performers, too. I remember coming home from interviewing Mitsuko Uchida once and switching on the radio to hear her playing a Mozart piano concerto. There, bowling out of the airwaves, was the same voice that had just been talking to me - except now on the piano. The means of expression - the breathing, the phrasing, the dynamics, the eloquence - was just the same. When everything connects to the innermost self, when, if you like, the channels are open and there's a faultless technique without psychological blocks to hold it up, a musician can perform as the person she or he is, a composer writes the music that expresses the essence of his or her soul, and the more intelligent, enquiring and insightful the person, the more there will be to communicate.

Perhaps this is what lies behind that personal sound that all string players seek - in reality, it's probably there already and it's up to them to develop and refine it; and likewise, the distinctive sound of every great pianist (people who don't play the piano sometimes think this is impossible, but it isn't). You can even find it in an orchestra, when it's really at one with the music and the conductor; recently, at the Bavarian State Opera's Meistersinger, conducted by Kirill Petrenko, it seemed that unified, vivid personality with passion, meaning and a heap of attitude shone through every note of the overture

So what's it down to? Technique? Without the finest technique to put it across, that essence-of-personality won't come through; the technique is the means to the end. But there's no point having the technique if there is no personality behind it, nothing to say about the music, nothing to communicate. As Martha Argerich once said, the sound must be in your head before you can create it: it begins with the imagination.

You can hear Fischer conduct the Budapest Festival Orchestra at the Proms on 26 August - they are doing the Mozart Requiem, with the Collegium Vocale Gent.

Meanwhile, here are a couple of examples to illustrate these pieces of quasi-profundity for a Tuesday morning.

Ivá Fischer's Eine Deutsch-Yiddische Kantate

Mitsuko plays Bach
8 months ago | |
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News from John Adams's website tells us that this much-loved American composer has been hard at work on his biggest creation since The Gospel According to the Other Mary. His new opera is called Girls of the Golden West - yes, really - and is to be premiered in San Francisco in, he says, November 2017. 
The libretto is by Peter Sellars and, like the pair's two previous works together - the Other Mary and Dr Atomic - is compiled out of original texts from a variety of sources, this time including chunks of Mark Twain's eyewitness accounts, newspaper articles, letters, Gold Rush songs, political speeches, journals and a spot of Shakespeare. Set in the 1850s in mining camps in the Sierra mountains during the California Gold Rush, the story is a searing indictment of racism in American society of the time. It's violent, disturbing, tragic. But I can't help adoring the name of one central character, a Chinese prostitute called Ah Sing. 
Here's the full synopsis. Take a deep breath: it's strong stuff.
8 months ago | |
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