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Jessica
Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music and writing in London, UK.
1917 Entries


How do you set an atomic bomb to music? To attempt it, you have to think big. Over the centuries, the greatest composers have arguably stood or fallen by their willingness to tackle the giant topics of their time, sometimes those of all time. Bach set the Crucifixion. Beethoven tackled liberty and fraternity. Wagner portrayed the end of the world and its rebirth. In Dr Atomic, John Adams has depicted a night that changed history forever, building up to the test of a nuclear bomb at Los Alamos and, at the last moment, fusing this event with the use of the "gadget" (as some of the characters call it) a few weeks later on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Adams, currently circumnavigating the world for his 70th birthday celebrations, has been in London this week recording the opera with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, finishing with a sort-of-semi-staged concert last night at the Barbican. Although the work was done at ENO when brand new, it isn't performed live often and the chance to be fully immersed in its terrifying world and boundary-crunching approach is not to be missed.

It's a dark, desperate piece that, in exploring an incident that changed humankind into a species capable of destroying its own world, plunges deep into the impulses of the soul - and manipulates our sense of time while doing so. We become intensely aware of the beauty and wonder of the world, the sensuality of it heightened by the poetry selected by Peter Sellars for the libretto, while intensifying the consciousness of horrifying imminent destruction.

John Adams. Photo: Vern Evans
The drama is in many ways inward, as Oppenheimer - at first seemingly transfixed by scientific data and the prospect of a "brilliant luminescence" - then becomes increasingly tortured and implicitly terrified by what he has created. In concert, the effect is in some ways more that of an oratorio than an opera: the settings of poems by John Donne, Charles Baudelaire, Muriel Rukeyser and others offer moments of reflection on love, death, sensuality and beauty, set to music that ebbs and flows in waves of shimmering, multifaceted, orchestral gorgeousness, the voices often soaring across the top in widespread extended phrases that reach both stratospheres and profundities of range, often in quick succession.

The personal interactions could be seen as the equivalent of recitatives and are mostly discussions between the men: General Groves bullies Frank Hubbard to predict good weather for the test even though dangerous storms are taking place, and engages in a lighter-hearted exchange with Oppenheimer about diet [dang! I thought Roxanna and I were the first team to put chocolate brownies into an opera, but no...]. Ensembles are few, though mesmerising when they occur - Wilson's dream of falling from the bomb tower is a case in point. Choruses are illustrative, sometimes devastating - the vision of Vishnu in particular - and the chorus's role is to contextualise, comment and evoke, but not especially to be a human presence.

The overarching time-drama of the whole edifice, though, is not so much Bachian as Wagnerian. The entire three-or-so hours of music is a build-up of tension to the final event. In short, we are waiting for a nuclear bomb to explode. At the end, it does.

Along the way, we sense the shifting of history's tectonic plates - keening violins, shuddering double-basses, the inimitable threat from the bass clarinet, visionary swirls of harp, flashes of lightening from piccolo or trumpet, an extraordinary episode early in act II, brass-led, that builds upwards and outwards, transforming its harmonies continually like a passage Wagner forgot to write. And like the fall of Valhalla, like the death of Stravinsky's Chosen Maiden, the release of tension in the final cataclysm is a form of catharsis. In music, after all, these violent ends sometimes presage a renewal of hope. (Having so said, this opera is probably the scariest musical experience I've encountered since first hearing The Rite of Spring.)

Conducted by the composer himself, the BBC Symphony Orchestra played like people possessed, fully matched by the BBC Singers, sounding like an ensemble twice the actual size (they also put believable American twists into their diction). The soloists were pure gold: Gerald Finley, Adams's original, the powerful and vocally luminous Oppenheimer; Julia Bullock radiant and expressive as Kitty, relishing the sensual poetry of "fierce peace"; Jennifer Johnston a dark, aching Pasqualita. The subsidiary male roles were all characterful and persuasive: Brindley Sherratt a fine Teller, Andrew Staples touching as Wilson, Aubrey Allicock a General Groves one wouldn't want to come up against if one was a weather-forecaster, Marcus Farnsworth and Samuel Sakker excellent as Hubbard and Captain James Nolan.

Staging, handled sensitively by Kenneth Richardson, was necessarily limited as the orchestra is absolutely vast, with a heavy-duty, space-eating plethora of percussion; there's not much room to move, so most of the effect was achieved by costumes and lighting. But there's much that can be done with that: a blaze of red light as the explosion begins, the ensemble cover their eyes - then darkness. As the final recorded voice intones Japanese pleas for help, for water for the children, the orchestra switch off their lights one by one until nothing is left but a ground zero in the pitch-black soul of humanity itself.

One might have expected the standing ovation to continue for longer, but the impression was that much of the audience was seriously shaken up by the experience and probably wanted air, which was in short supply. But one overriding image? The bomb explodes; and the composer stands, measuring out the bars with his baton. Humanity can create the horrors of the atomic bomb. Humanity can also create the wonder of great music about giant topics. Adams has done so.

7 months ago |
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Sunset over the Atlantic

We've been roots-finding in South Africa these past two weeks. It was 21 years ago that I was last there, having quality time with my terminally-ill father. My parents left in the 1950s and my father had always refused to go back until apartheid fell. After Mandela came to power, Dad spent his last several winters in Cape Town; it was only when I saw him there, in 1996, happy and smiling despite his illness, that I realised he had missed it all his life. Since then I'd had no wish to return, given the painful nature of the associated memories. This time, though, we had incentive as my husband has discovered family to visit too.

Another South African cousin...of Ricki and Cosi.
The place has changed enormously in those two decades. The problems of today are all too evident, in forms including destitution, smog and anxiety about the future. But in 1996 the end of apartheid was relatively recent and evidence of change was slow.

Moving forward...in Addo Elephant Park
Today, though, you can walk around the seaside Garden Route towns of Knysna and Hermanus, explore the Addo Elephant Park, eat out in Port Elizabeth or Cape Town and sense a basic openness and contentment with the multicultural society that has emerged.

As a tourist it's hard to know how deep this goes, but the feeling that everyone is out enjoying the sunshine, the local fruit and seafood and the beauty of the landscapes side by side is something new to me in that country - immeasurably so, compared to my early experiences on childhood visits to family there, which shocked me profoundly when I was a six-year-old in a car passing Soweto.

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Cape Town
Today a whole generation has grown up without apartheid. And even if my positive impressions are still perhaps more superficial than we starry-eyed visitors would like it to be, even if the future remains uncertain, the politics in upheaval and the dangers no doubt present, it has changed for the better in so many ways that I felt this trip offered a heartening note.

We remember, seeing South Africa, that countries can change for the better. Many others are changing for the worse at the moment, and it's easy to succumb to despair. We shouldn't. Transformation, a positive opening out, is possible, given will, action and enough time.

Melkbosstrand, north of Cape Town
As for the matter of never taking pictures into the sun, I don't buy that. Why not? Why do things the same way all the time? Let's flood the place with light.

7 months ago |
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I'm off on holiday for a bit, doing some interesting things a long way south. See you soon. Until then, here's a clue...




and another, just because I love this one so much too...



"This is the story of how we begin to remember..."
8 months ago |
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(...as opposed to creating reality from fiction, which seems to be going on a lot...)

Seriously, though, this is going to be a fun evening. Among Ghost Variations' sibling books at Unbound is Jennie Ensor's brilliant psychological thriller Blind Side, set at the time of the 7/7 London tube bombings. Both books are based around real events, as well as sharing a theme of the "outsider" in London, so we've got together to do some joint talks and discussions.

On 4 May at 6.30pm we'll be at The Sheen Bookshop, 375 Upper Richmond Road, London SW14, to talk about the hows and whys of crafting fiction out of reality. There'll be wine, discussions, readings, questions etc, and your modest £2 entrance fee is redeemable against the price of one of our books (though of course we hope you'll buy both!). Do join us if you can.

You can book in advance at Eventbrite here, or phone/email the shop to reserve a place: 020 8876 1717 or sheen@hewsonbooks.co.uk .
8 months ago |
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Scholarships can change lives. I feel lucky to be on a panel that gives enviable opportunities to youngsters on the basis of their musical talent. But my goodness, it's a tricky task.

In these weird times, there's nothing more inspiring and encouraging than encountering gifted young musicians, because they give us hope for the future. These teenagers, born in the 21st century, possess the same communicative, expressive instinct and passion that has always driven music-making through the centuries, through different vogues, epochs and lands. The thread continues. It's very much with us. And it's not going away.

Krystof Kohout, our violinist first prizewinner
Over the past few years I've been privileged to be on the jury panel for a biennial international music competition at Whitgift School in Croydon. The Whitgift International Music Competition is open to potential students from all over the world and the winners get a cash prize and/or a full scholarship to the school (perhaps the sole drawback is that it's a school and competition only for boys). Past winners, including some remarkable young violinists from Moldova, have gone on to study at various London music colleges and they are now reaching the stage at which I'm going to start looking out for them in much bigger competitions and concert halls. Until this year, the focus was on strings, but this time we opened it up to wind and brass - with inspiring results.

It's been an intense week. With so many gifted teenagers, how on earth do you "rank" them? Occasionally you do find someone who steps on to a stage and simply belongs there, connects with the listeners and knows how to make music from the heart and gut. Step forward, clarinettist Marian Bozhidarov from Bulgaria, and trumpeter Albert Baciu, from Moldova: two splendid young musicians with incipient star quality whose progress I'm looking forward enormously to following. They won joint first prize in the senior wind and brass category. 
Our string players were more difficult to choose from, because each was so superb, yet in a totally individual way. Sometimes a performance is almost note-perfect, yet doesn't entirely connect with the listener on a musical level; other times there are insecurities and slips, yet you can be moved almost to tears by the most beautiful, natural and heartfelt phrasing, and you suspect that with further study and polish that person has extraordinary potential; and in other cases you suspect that the candidate's choice of repertoire doesn't necessarily show their strengths to best effect, yet that's all there is to go on. It's particularly complex when you know your jury's choices will change someone's life, especially if they choose to take up the scholarship they are offered from the other side of Europe or, in some cases, the world. 
Our first prize in the senior strings went to the 17-year-old violinist Krystof Kohout from the Czech Republic, second to Chiu Chun John Lui from Hong Kong and third to Joel David Munday from Exeter (also both violinists). In the junior section, the winner was the violist Junyi Li, with splendid performances from Mark Reinski of London (playing the almost impossible Concerto Pathétique by Ernst) taking second prize and Iohan Coman from Romania in third place. But everyone gave performances that were gorgeous in their own ways - for instance, I won't forget in a hurry the Bartók Romanian Dances as played by Arsim Gashi of Kosovo. It was an absolute joy to listen to them. 
In the end, I suspect some of these boys will make it no matter what happens, prize or none, because they have the sheer fire in the belly to do so. Technique can be taught; discipline can be taught to some; but there's that something else that has to be present from the start and can't be imparted... 
Here's a video from 2012 about Whitgift's first Moldovan scholarship winner, Grig Cuciuc, who five years on is now finishing his stint at the Royal College of Music. It shows some of the challenges, chances and ambitions that scholarships such as Whitgift's and subsequently the one he won from Edelweiss can support.
8 months ago |
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In case you were wondering: yesterday's post was indeed an April Fool's joke. That doesn't mean, though, that there are not some extremely serious concerns about the effects of Brexit on the British musical scene, which is international through and through. Many thanks to the extraordinary number of people who logged on to read about the London Hamburger Orchestra!
8 months ago |
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New home: the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg

The London Philharmonic Orchestra has allegedly accepted a remarkable offer from the City of Hamburg to move to Germany after Brexit, adopting a new home base at the magnificent Elbphilharmonie. The UK orchestra is thought to be planning its migration for the year 2021, allowing time for Brexit negotiations to end and the 120-odd families involved to make relocation plans.

The deal is thought to include a substantial pay rise as well as improved working conditions that are standard amongst orchestras in Germany. The musicians can also expect to enjoy the facilities of the splendid new hall, which opened in January this year.

A Hamburg city representative declared: "Just as centres such as Frankfurt and Paris can't wait to get their hands on the business of British banks wishing to escape the effects of a hard Brexit, so we also are eager to welcome the finest arts organisations whose business operations will be made much easier if they can continue within the single market of the EU."

Asked about the expense to the city of supporting a British orchestra in addition to its own, the representative gave a shrug and a smile, saying: "This is a prosperous place with its feet on the ground and an enlightened approach to long-term thinking. We invest in the arts as a vital contributor to a proud and prosperous future for all people in our country. We value music as a symbol of humanity, unity and cultural enrichment. Musicians here are artists, and top-level, highly respected professionals besides. We like to treat them accordingly and show them how much they are valued."

The orchestra will continue to perform the concerts of its residency at Southbank Centre, but expects to find the exchange rate with the plunging pound favourable when paid in Euros.

While some members of the ensemble are said to be worried about the language, a spokesperson for the orchestra said: "Music is a universal language and will continue to unite us as it always has."

Asked what they would miss about London, some musicians remarked sarcastically: "The ruinously expensive hour-and-a-half commute to work on unreliable trains. And the cost of living was already ridiculous here even without the inflation Brexit is bringing." Others, however, praised the diversity, open-mindedness and enthusiasm of British audiences.

Although the deal reportedly divided opinion among the players at first, the clinching factor is thought to be a practice already known in Cologne, where every member of the orchestra is handed a glass of lager as they step off stage at the end of the concert. The Londoners on the Elbe are to receive a mug each of the excellent local Bergdorferbier after every performance.

The orchestra's name will be changed to reflect its new binational status. It will henceforth be known as the London Hamburger Orchestra.



Note: Please bear in mind that this post was published on 1 April....
8 months ago |
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Hamelin & Andsnes
Image: www.goldstar.com
The morning after, my head is still the worse for wear after encountering the juggernaut that is The Rite of Spring at nearly close enough quarters to cut its toenails. Stripped of its orchestral colour, performed on two pianos by a pair worthy of the label Two of Today's Greatest Living Pianists, Stravinsky's ballet comes over in x-ray clarity: the bones, muscles and sinews are as vivid as a dancer's, the workings of those shattering and shattered rhythms and the cruel, elemental crashes and crunches of multi harmonies steaming around you and boiling your blood, to say nothing of your eardrums. My God, it's a brutal, hideous thing, this vision of a tribe killing its pure and innocent young one. It's almost as if Stravinsky might have gone into a trance and predicted, unconsciously, the decades that were to follow.
The pianists responsible last night were Marc-André Hamelin and Leif Ove Andsnes, who took to the Wigmore Hall platform for a gritty programme - mostly Stravinsky, a bit of Debussy, plus Mozart as an opening amuse-bouche. I hear they first got together when Marc played in Leif Ove's festival, but however well you know their playing - and lots of piano fans know them both extremely well - you might not have guessed that they could turn out to be musical soulmates.
There are two basic ways to approach playing two-piano music, as with most chamber music. You can remain two individuals, exchanging and sparkling and making individual noises that point up the differences between you: this can work beautifully as a fun exchange, a conversation in which the performers are together yet still themselves. The other approach, which is much more difficult, is to fuse. To become one great machine with two keyboards, twenty fingers and two brains working as one. Hearing either of these two musicians alone, you might appreciate Andsnes's deep-velvet sound and forensic clarity of vision, or Hamelin's lyrical turns of phrase and super-cool supremacy over any technical challenge; yesterday, all were present, yet I doubt anyone would have been able to guess which was which from sound alone. They have much in common: a laid-back presence, a vaguely Nordic cool (Andsnes is from Norway, Hamelin from Canada) and a solid artistry that you can rely on with total confidence. 
They opened with Mozart's Larghetto and Allegro in E flat, in the version completed by Paul Badura-Skoda - a lively, lyrical, often sublime miniature with challenges aplenty, through which they brought lyricism to the fore: calm rather than excitability prevailed. Stravinsky's Concerto for Two Pianos, written in the 1930s for the composer to perform with his son, Soulima, is more of a rarity and probably with good reason: it's a chunky creation to chew on, sometimes evoking the hewn-out blocks and soaring lines of art deco, or presenting heavy-duty fugal writing derived from late Beethoven (yes, really). Debussy's En blanc et noir is an often enigmatic creation, its abstract explorations of colour and timbre punctuated by a central movement that is a searing portrait of World War I emotional life complete with bugle calls, a heavy-footed Lutheran chorale and hints of distant gunfire - all of it conveyed with detailed brushstrokes and subtle, seamless blending by the two pianists, these veritable painters of sound. 
And then, after the interval, the Rite. It was first heard on the piano when Stravinsky and Debussy played it through together. The critic Louis Laloy was there:

“Stravinsky asked if he could take his collar off. His sight was not improved by his glasses, and pointing his nose to the keyboard and sometimes humming a part that had been omitted from the arrangement, he led into a welter of sound the supple, agile hands of his friend. Debussy followed without a hitch and seemed to make light of the difficulty. When they had finished there was no question of embracing, nor even of compliments. We were dumbfounded, overwhelmed by this hurricane which had come from the depths of the ages and which had taken life by the roots.”
104 years later: yes, exactly.
Two Stravinsky encores - a tango and the Circus Polka - lightened the mood if not the language. I think that's quite enough Stravinsky for a little while.



8 months ago |
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The Philharmonia has today announced the appointment of their new principal guest conductor. And their other principal guest conductor too. The lucky maestri are Jakub Hruša from the Czech Republic and Santtu-Matias Rouvali from Finland. They will take up their shared role at the start of the 2017-18 season and will be the first conductors to hold the post since the death of Sir Charles Mackerras in 2010. You can see them both in London next month: Hruša conducts the Philharmonia on 6 April and Rouvali on 23rd at the Royal Festival Hall.

Here are two introductions to them:






We look forward to getting to know them!
8 months ago |
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Every now and then someone unearths a piece by Delius and holds its opaline gorgeousness up to the light to glimmer for a moment before it is shoved back into hiding. The rarity of his music is our loss, and it speaks volumes about the prejudices of the musical herd-mentality over the decades. A Village Romeo and Juliet may be an imperfect treasure, but it’s a treasure nonetheless, and when it is well performed (as it was at the Wexford Festival a few years ago) one can be left a tad furious that it is so rarely given a chance...

My review of last night's performance by New Sussex Opera of Delius's gorgeous tragic opera A Village Romeo and Juliet is up now at The Critics' Circle. It was a treat to hear it again, even in the not-very-operatic Cadogan Hall with a semi-pro company, reduced orchestra and some seemingly flat-packed planks. And I hope that clarinettist might twist his father's arm...

All is revealed here. 


8 months ago |
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