Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music and writing in London, UK.
1873 Entries
Bangor University. Photo: Iwan Williams
Bangor University later this year is holding the First International Conference on Women's Work in Music, which runs 4-7 September. A call for papers is now open and the application deadline is 1 March.
Keynote speakers will be the composer and author Dr Sophie Fuller and, er, me, and the timing of the event has been chosen to mark the 40th anniversary of the death of Grace Williams, one of the first Welsh composers to achieve international recognition. Across four days, it seems likely to offer an exceptional, in-depth exploration of its potentially explosive topic. Hope to see lots of JDCMB readers there.

Celebrating the Achievements of Women Musicians 

The Conference aims to bring together academics, researchers and music professionals from around the world to share their research and experience of all aspects of women working in music. The Conference will seek to both celebrate the achievements of women musicians, and to critically explore and discuss the changing contexts of women’s work in music on the international stage. The diversity and richness of this work will be illustrated at the conference through presentations in areas such as:
  • historical musicology, 
  • music education, 
  • ethnomusicology, 
  • practice-led research and performance, 
  • composition,
  • music analysis, 
  • popular music studies and much more.

More details here. 
6 months ago |
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Welcome to JDCMB. If you're new, welcome aboard. If you're a regular, welcome home. At new year, it's a good moment to realign the mission statement and explain who I am, what JDCMB is, and so on. Here we go...
New Year Fireworks in London. Photo: PA

JDCMB is my personal blog. I'm based in London, UK and I've been a writer and editor in the music business for about 27 years. My first music journalism job was as assistant editor on The Strad, way back when we still used cow-gum to stick down cut-out galley proofs. After that I was assistant editor on Classical Music Magazine for three years, persuaded the company to found the first independent piano magazine in the UK which I edited for five years, then went freelance, working for BBC Music Magazine, the British Council, the Guardian and others. I started writing regularly for The Independent in 2004. My first books were biographies of Korngold and Fauré for the Phaidon 20th-Century Composers series and my first novel came out in 2006, with Hodder. Ghost Variations is the fifth. I've written a couple of plays, words&music projects and an opera libretto for the composer Roxanna Panufnik, Silver Birch, coming up at Garsington in July. I regularly google 'How to become a plumber', but haven't enrolled yet...
I studied music at Cambridge in the mid 1980s, but my formative musical education happened in my piano lessons with Joan Havill at the Guildhall, playing in masterclasses and chamber music courses, listening to lectures by Hans Keller at the Dartington International Summer School, and some informal but crucial contact with a circle of extraordinary musicians in New York.  
What happens on JDCMB? I started blogging in 2004 because the concept was new and thrilling. It isn't extensively planned. I write about things that seem interesting and try only to post when there's something worth saying. You'll find responses to news, the occasional artist interview, a concert or opera review now and then, sometimes an e-Q&A or guest-post from someone who's doing something noteworthy. I sometimes post about my own stuff, our opera, etc.
What JDCMB tries to do: JDCMB has been called "the voice of reason". I'd like to keep it that way.
What it tries not to do: porn, clickbait, jealousy, "stirring", comment boxes, giving platforms to hate speech, encouraging witch-hunts. 
Excited by: really wonderful artistry, great music and writing, inspiration, idealism, creative thinking, and matters that help us live more fulfilling lives, from Mozart to heated blankets.
Bored by: concert-wear, gimmickry, mobile phones, crossover, marketing, toeing party lines. 
Furious about: Brexit, sexism, racism, "post-truth" (it means "lies"). 
Aims: To uphold the artistic ideals I've been lucky enough to have in my life, but that might vanish under the morass without a positive effort. And to puncture the occasional idiocy.
You can get in touch by contacting my Facebook page. I'm available to provide talks, coaching, consultations, programme notes, articles etc.
Happy new year!
7 months ago |
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Brexit island.

A very happy new year 2017 to all you lovely readers of JDCMB, from all of us lost in the Hampton Court Maze that is Brexit Island. At least we know we're in it now. The challenge will be getting out again. Let's hope that this year will be a little more positive than last. Meanwhile, enjoy the Johann Strauss this morning.

7 months ago |
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1. Vivat Enescu, 23 May

George Enescu. Photo: Enescu Festival, Bucharest

This is my highest-scoring post ever. I think three-quarters of Romania must have logged on. Seriously, though, I'm delighted so many of you enjoyed discovering the life and work of this extraordinary musician, and if you went to see Oedipe, I hope you loved it as much as I did.
2. Meet Cecilia Bartoli, Opera's Renaissance Woman, 26 July
I enjoyed talking to the great Cecilia in a rather chilly trip to Salzburg.
3. Dream job for British pianist, 15 NovemberThe excellent Kathryn Stott has a very nice new post, taking over the artistic directorship of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville from Piers Lane. 
4. Chineke! Riding High, 5 SeptemberThe Chineke! Orchestra is not only a splendid multicultural force in classical music, but a truly excellent ensemble, drawing together BME players from all over the world and pulling together with a splendid unity of musicianship. 
5. Pure Joy, 16 OctoberHow Murray Perahia and Bach saved my soul.
6. Not much in praise of exams, 26 AugustWhat it says.
7. Top 12 Books for Music Lovers, 4 DecemberIf you were looking for good Christmas presents, they were here, and going like hot chestnuts.
8. Cold Light, 25 JuneA large post-Brexit-vote post about its implications for the arts. This is not a pretty tale. Brexit is the biggest con-trick in the history of the British Isles.
9. Disaster at ENO: Wigglesworth has resigned, 22 MarchMark Wigglesworth stepped down as music director of English National Opera after not very long at all. A grim sign of the state of the place, and a major loss to London's musical life.
10. Interview with Krystian Zimerman, 5 DecemberAs a 60th birthday tribute to Krystian Zimerman, I re-ran an interview I did with him ten years ago for Pianist Magazine. 
7 months ago |
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Zuzana Ružicková at home in Prague. Photo by jd
She survived disease, three concentration camps, communism and its associated anti-Semitism in Czechoslovakia, yet plays the most life-affirming Bach you could hope to hear.

My articles about Zuzana Ružicková are out now, one in the JC and one in the January issue of BBC Music Magazine. The interview transcript following my visit to her in Prague a couple of months ago runs to the length of a small book, so it was great to be able to write two different pieces (the BBCMM one containing more of the Bachy, harpsichordy material). The JC's is out this week and online now, here. You can order a copy of BBC Music Magazine here.
7 months ago |
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Here is a rare moment of harmony. Merry Christmas, Season's Greetings and many purrs.And, I hope, a very happy new year 2017.Much love to you all.jd
7 months ago |
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Hello there, come on in. It's at my place, cyberversion, this year. None of us were in the mood for a cyberposhplace. I'm sorry to report that my mother-in-law, Gisela, died two days ago. She was 91 and had had a turbulent yet very good and very principled life. Aged 13 she was sent to Britain from Berlin on the Kindertransport in 1938; she never saw her parents and one of her brothers again as they were murdered in the Holocaust. She was tough, scrupulously fair, intellectually rigorous and an absolute brick in a crisis. We will miss her very much. Please toast her in some cyberbubbly.

This year has had more than its fair share of upsets and I'm afraid we can't expect anything to get better any time soon, so we'd better celebrate the good things while we can. It's the winter solstice and let me remind you that every year on 21 December we have the JDCMB Chocolate Silver & Ginger Stripes Awards to thank everyone who has made wonderful music in the last 12 months and helped to keep our spirits alive. It's good plain fun, the choices are entirely personal, it serves as a retrospective of the year and all you need is a smile and a willingness to enjoy some great music.

Quiet, please...quiet... thank you. First, a big round of applause for every musician who has touched the hearts of his or her audience this year. You're wonderful. We love you. Thank you for all your inspirational music-making.

Now, would the following artists please approach the platform where Ricki and Cosi are ensconced upon their silken cushions. They will let you stroke their chocolate and silver fur and are ready to give you each a very special purr. 

Yehudi Menuhin, whose centenary has been lavishly celebrated.

The incomparable Martha Argerich, whose Schumann Piano Concerto at the Royal Philharmonic's 70th anniversary concert I won't forget in a hurry. Here's some footage of her playing Liszt in 1966.

Please step forward, Renaud Capuçon: one of the finest advocates for the Schumann Violin Concerto. Thank you for bringing it the passion, virility and dignity it deserves in your performance with the LSO a few weeks ago.

Renée Fleming. Please don't go just yet!

Andris Nelsons. His Rosenkavalier is overriding pretty much everything right now.

The Munich Opera Festival, and not only because I got to say hello to a rather wonderful tenor at the last-night party. What a feast of treats this is: the greatest singers meet the most interesting and intelligent of productions and we can gulp it all down as greedily as humanly possible.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the thrilling young cellist who is now the BBC Young Musician of the Year.

Zuzana Ružicková, the only person ever to have made me fall in love with the harpsichord. She survived Terezín, Auschwitz, Belsen, the Czech communist regime and censure by leading lights of early music puritanism, but she is nearly 90 and her Bach - now released on CD for the first time, by Warner Classics - is the most radiant and life-affirming that I know. She is also my INTERVIEWEE OF THE YEAR. I have articles about her coming out shortly in tomorrow's JC, and another in BBC Music Magazine. I've met many inspiring people, but none more so than this remarkable soul.

Sadly, Patricia Kopatchinskaja in the Schumann Violin Concerto back in January. Just because Schumann was about to have his final nervous breakdown when he wrote it, that doesn't mean you have to play it as if you are the first Mrs Rochester.

Personal highlights:
PROUDEST MOMENTS: 1) Ghost Variations coming into being and being named Books Choice in BBC Music Magazine's latest issue (which is out tomorrow). 2) Performing Alicia's Gift with Viv McLean at the Wigmore Hall. 3) Roxanna Panufnik has finished composing the "people's opera" we've been writing together for Garsington, Silver Birch, and hearing it through for the first time was astonishing. She's produced some very beautiful stuff, it packs quite a punch and we hope you're going to love it when it hits the boards in July.

WEIRDEST MOMENTS: 1) In said Alicia's Gift concert, actually playing the piano in the Wigmore Hall. 2) The paper I'd written for for 12 years, which used to be a great national newspaper, decided to shut its print operation, sell its profitable offshoot and make a heap of people redundant. Discovering this by reading about it in another paper was pretty bloody weird.

Have a very happy Christmas, dear JDCMB readers, and may 2017 bring much music and joy.

7 months ago |
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I had many of my most important formative musical experiences at the Dartington International Summer School as a teenager and have never ceased to marvel at the thrill of its melting pot, its gorgeous surroundings, the virtually "sacred space" atmosphere inside the Great Hall and more. Its history is as astonishing as its music. Imagine my joy, then, on discovering that Unbound has taken on a new pictorial history of the summer school by the music journalist Harriet Cunningham. I've jumped in to contribute to its funding - I'll take the full-whack hardback, please! - and hope that all my fellow Dartington fans will consider doing so too. You can find it here.  All photos (c) the Dartington International Summer School.
Meanwhile, I asked Harriet what set her off on this wonderful project.
Stravinsky and his wife at Dartingon, 1957
JD: Please tell us something about your own experiences of the Dartington International Summer School? What do you think makes it such a special place?
HC: My experience of Dartington Summer School goes back way, way before I was even born. My parents met at Dartington sometime in the late '50s/early '60s. She was a student, he was a trog [Dartington's student-assistants]. So by the time I first came to Dartington, aged 4 months, in 1967, it was already in my blood. We continued to make the trip down the A303 then the M4 (once it was built) every summer. I am told that at the age of 4 I listened, transfixed, to the Amadeus Quartet playing Haydn and then demanded to learn the violin. It’s a nice story. I can’t remember it at all! My first memories of the Summer School are of wasps on danish pastries, rides on the Donkey and swimming in Aller Park pool. 
I do, however, remember sounds and artists and concerts. Like the sound of the choir warming up in the Great Hall every morning; like Jacqueline du Pré, beautiful and difficult, teaching cello; like being scared witless hearing ‘The Soldiers Tale’, and listening to the two pianists rattling out the orchestral accompaniment for the Schubert Mass. As I grew older I participated more - I sang in the choir, I worked in the kitchens, I trogged and, eventually, played in the orchestra for the conductor’s class, under the lovely Diego Masson. 
What makes Dartington special? I’ve thought about this a great deal. Of course, there’s the beauty of the surroundings, which everyone remembers, even if we gloss over the rain and grey skies in our memories. But I think it’s also to do with the mix of people, and with mixing people. There’s something about shoving a diverse bunch of musicians into a space and saying ‘play’ that can act as a catalyst for some amazing creative leaps. Or not. But there’s always the chance!
Benjamin Britten & Peter Pears at Dartingon, 1958

Why did you want to write a book about it?
I didn’t! I emigrated to Australia 25 years ago and felt happy to have left the Summer School behind me. But then it weasled its way back into my life when I was visiting my father and he showed me the archive, which he’s been curating for many years. It was quite an emotional experience, looking through all the old programmes, reading letters from artists and lists of bursary students. (All the usual suspects are there! Imogen Cooper, Simon Rattle, Stephen Hough...) My father was making plans to have the archive transferred to the British Library, and I decided that before it went I wanted to make something for my father to have, something to hold in his hands. Then, of course, I got completely sucked in by the many stories in the archive, and here we are... 
Janet Baker & Viola Tunnard, 1965
What aspects of its history have "jumped out at you” most strongly?
1950s Britain is fast becoming something of an obsession for me. Post-war Britain underwent a social, economic and intellectual revolution, and the Summer School, and Glock’s approach to music and education were very much part of that revolution. I’m also fascinated by the characters — Glock, of course, and people like Imogen Holst, Nadia Boulanger, Hans Keller and George Malcolm, so many others — who make up the story.
Which images have you most enjoyed discovering in the archives?
Silly, random things have caught my eye in the photos. The 1950s fashions — hats, gloves and, for men, jackets and ties at all times, except if you are violist Cecil Aronowitz, in which case you only wear shorts. The smoking - pipes and cigarettes. The posing, and the lack of posing. People often seem uniquely relaxed and expressive in the photos - as if being immersed in music and musicians allows you to be who you want to be. Perhaps that’s part of Summer School magic. 
I also enjoyed finding pictures with personal connections, although I don’t think I’ll ever forgive my mother for allowing me out dressed like that.
A very young Harriet in a violin masterclass with Roger Rafael

7 months ago |
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Farewell? Renée Fleming as the Marschallin.
Photo: ROH Catherine Ashmore

When Der Rosenkavalier turns into a piece for our own times, you know two things: first, the director has a classic production in the making; secondly, we ourselves are in a lot of trouble.

Robert Carsen's staging at the Royal Opera House sets the action in the year Strauss composed the work, 1911. The empire is imploding in slow motion. Arms dealers are the moneyed arrivistes. Violence simmers under the surface, sometimes explodes. The Field Marshall's palace boasts crimson walls and giant, imperial-era paintings. Outwardly, all is elegance, beauty and shiny show, the Marschallin choosing Klimtesque gowns from a fashion parade and a troupe of "house-trained dogs" drawing oohs and ahhs (especially the bulldog and the borzois); and the silver rose is massive, not only a ton of silver but full of crystal sparkles. It's an artificial rose of the future, set against the living, delicate but doomed red ones the Marschallin cradles and sniffs. For underneath there lurks "degeneracy": a brothel-load of prostitutes in Schiele-like revelations, an Octavian who knows a lot more than he lets on, and sexual danger looming around Sophie from Ochs's troops (Sophie nevertheless startles her father and the importunate Ochs with new-found defiance). The palace reveals doors within doors within doors; every level conceals another.

Matthew Rose as Baron Ochs and Sophie Bevan as Sophie
Photo: ROH Catherine Ashmore

But this is a world on the brink. As the Marschallin delivers her reflections on the passage of time, a shudder of recognition goes through us. She is talking not only about ageing, but about the world itself, about everything that surrounds her. Yes, this is Renée Fleming's likely farewell to London's operatic stage, and yes, the Marschallin is no spring chicken, however fabulous she looks and sounds. The implications are much wider, though. At the end the place disintegrates, showing us the battlefield horrors of World War I - and soldiers aim a gun at a drunken child named Mohammed. The veracity of this imagery hits home so hard that one becomes fearful in earnest for where we are all going now. Remember, historical fiction isn't only about the past; its task is to be about today.

Fleming: glamour itself
Photo: ROH Catherine Ashmore
Big plaudits, then, to Carsen and his designers Paul Steinberg (sets) and Brigitte Reiffenstuel (costumes). The lighting is by Carsen and Peter von Praet.  Musically, too, this performance couldn't be much more memorable if it tried; even if not every singer precisely matches every listener's ideal, the quality of insight, the excellence of the singers and the chemistry between them could scarcely be bettered.

Fleming's Marschallin is the incarnation of olde-worlde glamour. Her voice still has its amber-mellow beauty, if perhaps scaled down from its full glory, and her singing communicates with profundity accentuated by its directness and poise. As Octavian, Alice Coote brings oodles of character to her tone as well as her acting; this lad is awkward and stiff in army uniform, yet abrupt liberation follows in Act III when, dazzling in drag in a brothel, he/she displays a startling understanding of how to tantalise and torment the justifiably muddled Ochs - and whether Octavian has learned all this from the Marschallin or acquired it elsewhere is perhaps a moot point. Sophie Bevan as her namesake sounds warm and golden rather than cool and silver, yet her high notes at the presentation of the rose seem to reach heaven itself.

Matthew Rose's Ochs is no mere bumpkiny boor, but a powerful man out for a good time that doesn't please those around him and tramples - Trumples? - over societal norms with disruptive relish. It's almost impossible not to feel vaguely sorry for him as "Mariandel" delivers him her nasty dose of over-worldly Viennoiserie. Luxury casting for Annina and Valzacchi in the shape of Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke and Helene Schneiderman, as well as Faninal - the many-dimensional voice of Jochen Schmeckenbecher.

The greatest magic of all: Andris Nelsons, red-shirted, open-armed and open-hearted, unleashing the music and letting it fly out of the orchestra's players, hushing the levels for Fleming and allowing  the visual marvels to be cradled in a sensual richesse of sound.

It's hard to believe that this could be Fleming's farewell - but then, there's a lot that's hard to comprehend right now. She may be departing together with our golden age of opera. That's a topic for another time, but reinforces an important message: let's never forget we were lucky enough to have and hear this.

On a lighter note, a special little plaudit for a startling appearance in the onstage band of two characters that apparently reference "Geraldine" and "Josephine" from Some Like It Hot. A very endearing anachronism.

Meanwhile I may get up in the night and stop the clocks.

If you can find a ticket, go and see it. 

7 months ago |
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We're coming to the end of an insane year. Everything is polarised to lunatic fringe extremes, leaving the sensible, grown-up centre vacant. Is anybody talking sense any more?

Yes: Daniel Barenboim is. Here is his post-concert speech at the United Nations, where he and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra performed for Human Rights Day last weekend. Please listen carefully.

7 months ago |
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