JDCMB
Jessica
JDCMB is Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music & writing, with CHOCOLATE AND SILVER, in London, UK. Author & journalist JD writes for The Independent.
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Astonishing news this morning that Daniel Barenboim will be playing his Royal Festival Hall Schubert series on a brand-new piano that he conceived and commissioned himself. It was unveiled today at the hall and is called the Barenboim-Maene Concert Grand, developed and built by piano maker Chris Maene of Belgium, with support from Steinway & Sons. I'm going to three of the four concerts and can't wait to hear how it sounds.

The other day at Classical:NEXT I had a go on a fortepiano - one recently built - and was amazed at the lightness of the touch and the ease with which it produces a beautiful, singing tone. How come pianos have kept on being made larger, heavier and more unwieldy, playing ever-louder with sensitivity suffering the while? Gergely Boganyi in Budapest unveiled a new piano a few months ago - one with a reasonably space-age design; the fashion for Fazioli (which sometimes convinces me and sometimes doesn't) has been gathering pace; and now it could be that Barenboim's initiative is going to point the way forward to something of a revolution in how we play and listen to the instrument.

I will report back after the concert. Meanwhile, here's the info...

Photo (c) Chris Maene

"The new Barenboim-Maene piano combines the touch, stability, and power of a modern piano with the transparent sound quality and distinguishable colour registers of more historic instruments. While on the outside it does not differ significantly in looks from a modern concert grand, most of its components – including the braces, soundboard, cast-iron frame, bass strings, keyboard and action – have been specially-designed and tailor made, and the positioning of others, such as the hammers and strings, is radically different.
"Barenboim was inspired to create a new piano after playing Franz Liszt’s restored grand piano during a trip to Siena in September 2011. Struck by the vital differences in sound of an instrument constructed with straight, parallel strings rather than the diagonal crossed ones of a contemporary instrument, he set out to create a brand new instrument that combines the best of the old and the new and offers a real alternative for pianists and music-lovers in the 21stcentury."
photo (c) Paul Schirnhofer/DG
Daniel Barenboim says:“The transparency and tonal characteristics of the traditional straight-strung instruments is so different from the homogenous tone produced by the modern piano across its entire range. The clearly distinguishable voices and colour across its registers of Liszt’s piano inspired me to explore the possibility of combining these qualities with the power, looks, evenness of touch, stability of tuning and other technical advantages of the modern Steinway. I am so delighted to have worked with Chris Maene, who had the same dream and I must pay tribute to his incredible technical expertise and his deep respect for both tradition and innovation. I must also thank Steinway & Sons, for bringing us together and for delivering key components for our new instrument, thus enabling a perfect match of the traditional qualities and modern advantages.”
3 months ago | |
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Past and present members of the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, and friends, are to give a fundraising concert for the people of earthquake-blighted Nepal on Wednesday evening, 28 May, under the baton of the ASMF's legendary conductor, Sir Neville Marriner - who is 91.

Soloists are Nicholas Daniel (oboe) and Kenneth Sillito (violin), and John Suchet will speak. Tickets are priced £9-£35. The performers and organisers are giving their services free and all proceeds go to the Disasters Emergency Committee Nepal Appeal.

Concert organiser and former ASMF violinist Enrico Alvares tells us that just a few tickets are now left now, so book soon!: "I may have organised this thing," he says, "but in truth it genuinely belongs to all those playing and listening on the night. It's our concert. Our effort to help thousands of people we don't know and will never meet. Join us."

Incidentally, for those of us who grew up listening to those irreplaceable recordings by the ASMF and Marriner this is a unique chance to go down memory lane.

Please note that the venue is St James Piccadilly, not St Martin-in-the-Fields!

Programme:Elgar – Introduction and Allegro, Op 47
Bach – Concerto for Oboe and Violin in D minor
Marcello – Oboe Concerto in D minor
Tchaikovsky – Serenade for Strings, Op 487:30pm, Thursday 28 May. St James's Church, Piccadilly, W1J 9LL.BOOK TICKETS HERE
3 months ago | |
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Great, great news from Classical:NEXT! Southbank Centre's year-long festival of 20th-century music and culture, The Rest is Noise, has won the Innovation Award, together with the Lucerne Festival's Ark Nova, a mobile, inflatable concert hall that toured Japan's earthquake-blighted regions in 2013. More good news is that the first runner-up is the Morley College course for young women conductors. Cheers, all! Wish I was still there to help celebrate!

Around 2000 participants from the three previous Classical:NEXT trade fairs voted for two winners from a list of 21 projects all around the world. It's a list of remarkable scope and continual inspiration, from a street orchestra in Brazil to Alistair Campell - no, not that Alistair Campbell, but the co-director of the Tectonics Festival in Glasgow.

Classical:NEXT’s director Jennifer Dautermann says: “This award aims to give international recognition to the people who are doing the most to push things forward with daring yet intelligent, effective and successful ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking, planning and action.”

You can see a collection of video interviews by Klassik.tv at Classical:NEXT here - including one with me, doing my bit for gender politics.

Chances are that if you're a regular here at JDCMB you already know all about The Rest is Noise festival, so here is a video introduction to Ark Nova.



3 months ago | |
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The pianist James Rhodes has won the right to publish his traumatic memoirs after a lengthy legal battle in which an injunction to prevent its release was raised by his ex-wife in the court of appeal. He was at Classical:NEXT in Rotterdam the other day and gave this interview to The Guardian while there.

There's another significance for this besides freedom of speech. In a music world that has been riven by revelations of historic sexual abuse of schoolchildren and college pupils, for which several people have gone to jail in recent years, this memoir has not come a moment too soon.

All too often victims of abuse in childhood are not believed when they speak up as adults, or are put through torments in court of the type that allegedly led to the death by overdose of the violinist Frances Andrade in 2013. Rhodes is a powerful communicator and eloquent with both words and music. He is the person who has now been brave enough to tell us all the truth, to show us what the realities of this living hell are - for nobody can imagine it for themselves if they have not experienced such a thing - and thus offers us a chance to understand what happens, what the long-term effects are and therefore why it is so important that we don't keep on turning a blind eye or blaming the victims for somehow, supposedly, bringing these horrors on themselves.

We owe it to him and to other people who have been through such experiences to treat them at the very least with compassion. The German word for compassion, 'Mitleid' (see Parsifal), explains this better than anything else: literally meaning "with sorrow" - i.e., sorrowing together. And as Parsifal shows us, the presence of this quality in other human beings is an essential ingredient in the start of a healing process of sorts that cannot take place without it.

As for freedom of speech, this is a major victory - and hopefully will set a precedent for other situations in which people speak up, tell the truth yet are silenced by a society that just doesn't want to know and tries to find official ways to make sure it needn't. As the court ruled: "The right to report the truth is justification in itself."

English PEN, Index on Censorship and Article 19 all intervened at the Supreme Court, pointing out that the implications were the book to be suppressed would have "a chilling effect on the production and publication of serious works of public interest and concern".

English PEN reports:

In a robust defence of freedom of expression, the court ruled: ‘The only proper conclusion is that there is every justification for the publication. A person who has suffered in the way that the appellant has suffered, and has struggled to cope with the consequences of his suffering in the way that he has struggled, has the right to tell the world about it.’
The Supreme Court criticised the Court of Appeal’s ruling in its judgment, stating that the terms of the injunction were flawed and voicing its concern about the curtailment of freedom of speech:‘Freedom to report the truth is a basic right to which the law gives a very high level of protection. It is difficult to envisage any circumstances in which speech which is not deceptive, threatening or possibly abusive, could give rise to liability in tort for wilful infringement of another’s right to personal safety. The right to report the truth is justification in itself. That is not to say that the right of disclosure is absolute, for a person may owe a duty to treat information as private or confidential. But there is no general law prohibiting the publication of facts which will cause distress to another, even if that is the person’s intention.’
3 months ago | |
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Chetham's upper sixth-form pianist Yuanfan Yang yesterday won first prize in the senior division at the Cleveland International Piano Competition for young performers (12-18). Yuanfan is a former winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year piano section and is a fine composer as well as a brilliant performer. Congratulations!

As part of his prize, Yuanfan wins a debut recital at the Frick Collection in New York. The concert will take place on 13 August.

Greetings meanwhile from the seriously buzzy trade fair Classical:NEXT in Rotterdam. I'm here for a few days and presented a session on gender equality in the music world, with a fine panel of speakers including Gillian Moore of the Southbank Centre, Susanna Eastburn of Sound and Music and James Hannam of the PRS for Music Foundation. Lively discussion with valuable contributions from the floor. Blogging on iPhone is not ideal, so more when I'm home...
3 months ago | |
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In today's Guardian, Polly Toynbee - who is chair of the Brighton Festival - has strong words for those in politics who would like to slash back the arts and the nation's children's education in them to starvation levels. You can't be good at anything, she suggests - including politics - if you have a one-dimensional brain. Please read.

Yesterday along popped a press release from Sistema Scotland, with lots of facts and figures and quotes about Big Noise in  Raploch. You can read the Glasgow Centre for Population Health's findings here.

I was going to add some commentary, but I think these quotes speak for themselves.

I have never seen a piece of work come into an area, target so many people and have such an impact in such a short period of time.”NHS Manager, Glasgow
“The music, how we hear music, how we get involved, build up your communication, build up your confidence.  Coming to Big Noise, you’ve got people you know and people you don’t know.  You’ve got music behind your back, pushing you.  So it’s like somebody pushing you to do something but its music and it’s pushing you to make good things like building your confidence.  When I started Big Noise I was shy, look at me now.  Anyone can achieve any goals they want”Participant, Big Noise Raploch
“[Child’s Name} can be hard to manage when he’s in my class.  But the difference when [a Big Noise musician] came in!  Because it was something he could do, you could just see in his eyes.  …Being taught on the violin, he was just so proud of what he could do.  That’s a child that stands out in my head for the impact there can be, on a child who’s very hard to reach, in many ways.”Primary school teacher, Govanhill
I’ve certainly seen concerts down here, where all the communities are mixing together.  The Arab community, the Eastern Europe community, the indigenous Asian community, the indigenous White community, they’re all mixing together.  The attendance at the concerts is phenomenal.  They’re packed, absolutely packed.  It’s great.  Sometimes the families, when the children are not directly in front, you see them creeping up closer and closer to the stage and just being totally mesmerised.  I think it’s a great unifier.”          Primary school teacher, Govanhill

3 months ago | |
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Federico Bonelli & Alessandra Ferri (photo: Tristram Kenton)

The wonder of dance is that it makes the human body capable of expressing extreme emotion through movement alone. And what a treat it is to see Alessandra Ferri portraying the anguish of the suicidal Virginia Woolf simply by walking across the Covent Garden stage. The Italian ballerina, who left the Royal Ballet for ABT in her twenties, is now 52 and back from what looks to have been a premature retirement. Artistry oozes from her every centimetre; delicate, vulnerable, dignified and technically flawless too, she is a privilege to watch. Why should it be assumed that dancers will retire in their forties? Why should they, and we, miss out on the fruits of mature artistry?

Woolf Works really does work. Wayne McGregor's choreography in the past has often been virtuosic, intellectual, trendy, or all three at once, yet it's in poetic vision - expressed in whatever medium - that the best creators live on. McGregor has in the past offered flashes of that poetry in moments like Raven Girl's final pas de deux. But here, at least in the first and third sections, the physical poetry of emotion is there in force. It's as if he has found his true voice lying beneath all the bedazzlement and is now letting it sing. Edward Watson in 'I Now, I Then' (based on Mrs Dalloway) as the shell-shocked World War I soldier Septimus accompanied in Max Richter's score by a keening solo cello à la Elgar, matches Ferri and her younger self (Beatrix Stix-Brunnell) in the evocation of that poetry and is a special highlight.

Steven McRae & Natalia Osipova (photo: Tristram Kenton)
Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae (right) navigate the central section, 'Becomings', with the expected magnificence, Osipova's legs reaching what looks like a 240-degree extension. This episode - based, but less tangibly so, on Orlando - perhaps overstays its welcome; half an hour is a long time for any composer to sustain variations on 'La Folia', especially this loud, and while the idea was always that one dance idea begins while another is still in full flow, it can at times be hard to know where to look - whatever you focus on, you always feel you're missing something else. This episode is constant movement, a collage of ideas flashing and whirling by in a continual state of evolution, stunningly lit with lasers through dry ice (though the gold crinkly crinolines are a bit garish).

Finally, in 'Tuesday', Woolf's suicide note and her death blends with the stream-of-consciousness flow of The Waves, unfurling against filmed sea breakers in slow motion; a tender duet  takes place as she pays heart-rending homage to her husband, before walking into the water-embodying corps de ballet, is partnered by them, becomes one of them.

Richter's score is studded with moments of impressive imagination; its surround-sound electronic effects, the use of chamber music moments, voices - notably Virginia Woolf's own at the outset - plus the sounds of nature or of a much amplified scratching pen add constant new dimensions to the minimalist-derived style. Tchaikovsky it ain't, but it serves this multimedia dance theatre experience strongly and is an organic part of the whole.

If you love Woolf Works as much as I did, by the way, and you want a different kind of souvenir, I can highly recommend Caroline Zoob's gorgeous book about Woolf's garden at Monk's House. We see filmed glimpses of this garden in 'I Now, I Then', but the book is so beautifully done that it's the next best thing to visiting the place. In this strange world of ours, too, it is also possible to download an e-book of Woolf's complete novels for all of £1.19.

Woolf Works continues to 26 May. Book here.

3 months ago | |
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(NB: contains spoilers. If you haven't seen the ROH Król Roger yet, and you're going to, and you don't want to know what they do with it, look away now and come back afterwards...)

There's a live streaming tonight of Karol Szymanowski's opera Król Roger (King Roger) from the Royal Opera House. Highly recommended. A gift of an excuse to do this opera has appeared - namely the Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, of big, oak-dark tone and native ability with the language - and in Tony Pappano's hands the score doesn't only seduce, but blisters and burns. I went in last week (reviewing for The JC) expecting honey and rosewater, but found neat chilli vodka instead. You can see the streaming on the brand-new Opera Europa platform - 15 of Europe's leading opera houses clubbing together to stream productions free to all - or on the ROH's own Youtube channel. It will be available on demand for 6 months afterwards.

Kasper Holten's production is, first, clever, and second, clear. The score and the action - inspired by Euripides, but written by the composer's cousin and travelling companion, the poet Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz - are sensual and heady for a good reason; the composer's inner conflicts, as a gay Catholic in the early 20th century, are given full rein to express themselves, as is the musical lure of the exotic near east and north Africa, where matters at the time were less repressive. Holten takes us inside the King's head, and I don't mean that Islington pub.

The first act finds the stage dominated by a giant head. In act two, the face turns to the back and we see its inner workings: three levels, connected by iron staircases. The superego at the top, somewhat underpopulated; the ego, strewn with piles of old books; the id, beneath, a mass of seething, writhing dancers, hemmed in, struggling to get out. In act III the question arises: what happens when they do? And who are they? And who, then, is the Shepherd?

Szymanowski's shepherd - sung here by the Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu, with a range of expression that carries him from rose velvet in the centre to knife-edge iron at the top when the drama demands - is (like Korngold's Stranger from Heliane, oddly enough premiered a year later) a newcomer in a repressed, traditional world. He arrives preaching love and hedonism; the Queen is enchanted by him; the King is filled with conflict, his adviser Edrisi warning him to be cautious and the church powers encouraging the stamping out of this unorthodox approach to life. Roger tries to condemn the stranger to death; Queen Roxana begs him not to.

But Roger is as mesmerised by this beautiful, tempting man as everyone else is. Szymanowski's music proves to us that the attraction is sexual; and in the drama, Roger's relationship with Roxana is clearly in trouble. But Holten remembers that Roger is a king and that his populace are all too keen to follow the newcomer instead. So who is this charismatic political upstart in his raw silk coat? A smouldering bonfire in the centre of the stage at the start of act III soon leaves us in little doubt as the populace bring out books to burn. This opera was premiered in 1926, and the costumes here are in the style of that time or shortly after.

Sometimes subverting an opera's intrinsic story is a mistake, on those occasions when you feel the solution is imposed on questions that were never there in the first place. But this is different. This is one of those lightbulb moments that you didn't necessarily see coming up, but that makes complete sense - and makes the production as vital an experience as the opera is in the first place.



I haven't written anything about the general election here because I simply don't know what to say other than "well, I didn't vote for them...". (Our local MP is a popular, independent-minded Tory, Zac Goldsmith, a vocal opponent to Heathrow expansion. Nobody else stood a chance round here.) I like the idea of the "northern powerhouse" and especially of faster trains thereto. But I dread the deepening of the already insane inequalities in our society; I dread what will happen to the poorest and most disadvantaged people in the country; and I fear an EU referendum that may leave us an isolated, powerless island on fantasy-fangled ideological grounds, even though the country's business leaders think we would be stark raving bonkers to take such a course. And I don't like to think what will happen to the arts. Last time round, a number of small companies and organisation either went under or had to find radical ways to reinvent themselves. This time, I think that may well start happening to bigger ones. And the BBC is going to face a huge upheaval next year when the licence fee arrangement is due for renewal or revision.

What's this got to do with King Roger (apart from another King Roger having abdicated from the Proms while the going was good)? This: it shows us what we don't have - specifically, a charismatic leader whose personal magnetism and honeyed promises can lead huge swathes of the population to follow him into dangerous paths. And if we don't have this, says the production, perhaps it's just as well. It's possible that one, of sorts, may emerge in due course - and it may not be who you think - but maybe we should count our blessings that no Szymanowskian shepherd of any one of those many political hues has yet walked through the gates of Westminster.

3 months ago | |
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The soprano Danielle de Niese and her husband, Gus Christie of Glyndebourne, are expecting a baby at the end of this month. The irrepressible Danni had to pull out of The Merry Widow at the Met - "can-can dancing and acrobatic lifts when your waters might break..." didn't seem a good idea, and she couldn't have flown home again. But she's planning to be back on stage for the Ravel double bill at Glyndebourne in August, all being well - and she wouldn't give up the Last Night of the Proms "unless I was dead".
Recently, en route to a charity gala with her tell-tale bump disguised beneath the drapes of a Vivienne Westwood gown, she changed trains at Clapham Junction. A hand on her arm, an "Excuse me, but…" – and there on the station platform, she declares, was Dame Vivienne Westwood herself: "She spotted her dress first and then said – 'Oh, it's you!'.."
My interview with her is in today's Independent. 

Here's a little video from Hello magazine, made last year. (I think this particular journal here enjoys its JDCMB debut...)


3 months ago | |
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HAPPY BIG BIRTHDAY, TASMIN LITTLE!
Tasmin Little: the birthday girl! Photo by Paul Mitchell

A violinist whose musicianship can make you feel glad to be alive. I can think of few whose performances have over 30 years consistently sent me home feeling that things are OK after all: faith renewed, spirit rejuvenated and joy enhanced.

I'll never forget the day we went busking, either. My editor at the Independent asked us to have a go at the Josh Bell trick; Tasmin happened to be in town and was game for it; and we set up under the railway bridge at Waterloo. Every child who walked by wanted to stop and listen to her. We watched with jawbones dislocating as their parents dragged them away from the music - in one case, a little girl of about 4, literally kicking and screaming. The day, according to Tasmin, changed her life: she invented her Naked Violin project and began touring schools, shopping centres, prisons, oil rigs and community centres as well as slightly more conventional venues. Since then her always sterling musicianship has reached even higher levels of compassion, poetry and imaginative range.

Here she is in a favourite filmed moment from a few years back.

3 months ago | |
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