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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There've been some surprises of the better kind in the chancellor George Osborne's autumn statement. Here's what he said about the arts today.

Please note, the small print that follows in the days after these "good news" statements often contain other surprises: how the ACE will decide to divvy up its allocation remains to be seen. Peter Bazalgette, Chair of the ACE, has apparently described the funding settlement as "astonishing" (according to the BBC's arts correspondent Will Gompertz).
Britain’s not just brilliant at science. It’s brilliant at culture too.
One of the best investments we can make as a nation is in our extraordinary arts, museums, heritage, media and sport.
£1 billion a year in grants adds a quarter of a trillion pounds to our economy – not a bad return. So deep cuts in the small budget of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport are a false economy.
Its core administration budget will fall by 20%, but I am increasing the cash that will go to the Arts Council, our national museums and galleries.
We’ll keep free museum entry – and look at a new tax credit to support their exhibitions and I will help UK Sport, which has been living on diminishing reserves, with a 29% increase in their budget – we’re going for gold in Rio and Tokyo.
The Right Honourable Member for Hull West and Hessle has personally asked me to support his city’s year of culture – and I am happy to do so.
The money for Hull is all part of a package for the Northern Powerhouse which includes funding the iconic new Factory Manchester and the Great Exhibition of the North. In Scotland, we will support the world famous Burrell Collection.
While here in London we’ll help the British Museum, the Science Museum, and the V&A move their collections out of storage and on display.
And we will fund the exciting plans for a major new home for the Royal College of Arts in Battersea.
And we’re increasing the funding for the BBC World Service, so British values of freedom and free expression are heard around the world.
And all of this can be achieved without raiding the Big Lottery Fund as some feared. It will continue to support the work of hundreds of small charities across Britain.


Here is the DCMS's response to the statement, which all looks pretty positive. It points out: "Less than 1 per cent of total government expenditure goes to culture, media and sport; sectors which account for almost a sixth of the UK economy." It does not contain one word about a new concert hall, which is also interesting.
2 months ago | |
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Changes in the recording industry mean that now even some musicians whose CDs have been up for major industry awards have to crowdfund their new recordings. 

The London-based Russian pianist Rustem Hayroudinoff made an enormously successful series of Rachmaninoff recordings (please note the FF for both composer and pianist) for Chandos some years back - interpretations that received rave reviews and benchmark status. One of them was shortlisted for a BBC Music Magazine award. A couple of years ago I attended a recital he gave at St John's Smith Square which included a performance of the Sonata No.1 - a Faust Symphony for piano in all but name - that had the entire audience on its feet, yelling, straight after the final note.

You have got to record it, I said to him. Now he is planning to do just that - and the ever-popular Sonata No.2 as well - but we're in a different world today and he is crowdfunding the recording. He has until 21 December to raise around £9000.

He has some trenchant views on the situation facing artists in the recording industry, too, and explains these in the video on his Crowdfunder page.

Please help support him on his page, here.
2 months ago | |
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Scented on the horizon: a new Cav & Pag at the ROH, opening on 3 December complete with passion, murder, incense and...baking?! My piece is in the Indy today.
Damiano Michieletto rehearses Paglicacci. Photo: Catherine Ashmore
This was a lot of fun to write and I am only sorry to have missed recently a cookery opera (Lee Hoiby's Bon Appetit) in which mezzo-soprano Emma Curtis baked a gluten-free chocolate cake on stage and the audience could eat it afterwards. 
http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/features/pagliacci-and-cavalleria-rusticana-smelled-any-good-operas-lately-a6745636.html
2 months ago | |
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The results of the feasibility study into the mooted new concert hall in the City of London are due out, I hear, (two months late) on Wednesday.

In case you missed it when the whole thing began back in February, here's a piece I wrote over at The Amati Magazine, wondering whether the project is a) a political football, or b) a vanity project, or c) the results of remotely joined up thinking about the needs of London's cultural life, or music education, or d) an attempt to kill off the Southbank (presumably together with all its ensembles - has the LSO ever quite forgotten that murderous 'superorchestra' plan?), or... what exactly? We need a hall, but we don't need it at any price.
...How ironic that some of the people behind this ambitious, “mostly” privately-funded new project should be the very same that effectively killed plans to transform the Southbank Centre into an more attractive, state-of-the-art location.
Is this hall not a hall? Is it a political football, intended to prove the worth of private finance over public and therefore of right-wing attitudes over left?
Conspiracy theories aside, what’s certain is that, far beyond the Square Mile, budget cuts to local authorities – necessitated by Osborne’s austerity policies – are threatening music tuition for thousands of children around the country who cannot afford to pay for private lessons...
Read the whole thing here. 

But many things have changed since February - above all, this past week. In the light of the terrorist attacks in Paris and the current outcry over the projected gigantic cuts to policing here, the idea that a new concert hall costing in the region of several hundred million pounds could be given a significant injection of government money to get it underway would perhaps not be guaranteed to go down exceedingly well with the general public.

And with costs doubtless spiralling, where is the money really going to come from? What chance that the lifeblood of government funding might be sucked out, vampirically, from other arts organisations in London in order to build a super vanity project?

Let's see what happens on Wednesday. I wouldn't rule anything out. The only thing that can usually be guaranteed where British governments and the arts are concerned is that sometime, somewhere, somehow, there'll probably be an almighty cockup.
2 months ago | |
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Richard Suart as the Lord High Executioner, doing his Little List. Photo: Sarah Lee

Confession time, folks. I have never seen The Mikado before. OK, maybe the first half on TV when I was about ten, but no more. Indeed, I have never even been to a professional performance of a Gilbert & Sullivan. A depressing am-dram Iolanthe about 30 years ago served as ferocious deterrent and our school performance of The Pirates of Penzance hadn't helped set up a positive impression, especially not when the big co-ed up the road was doing the St Matthew Passion and we, in the  Ladies' Seminary complete with lacrosse sticks, were stuck lumping through a G&S in which there are in fact only two female roles.

But G&S is - well, if you're fond of clever words (tick) and great tunes (tick) and desperately silly stories that nevertheless have a nugget or two of gold at their core (tick), and you love things that look pretty on stage (Jonathan Miller's production for ENO is simply gorgeous, darlings), and some really good singing too (tick), then what's not to like? The Miller production has been boomeranging back and back and back to the Coliseum since 1986, clocking up nearly 200 performances. Last night the man himself was there and went on stage to take a bow; the devoted audience gave him a standing ovation.





The words are indeed clever. Favourite lines include the idea that if you're going to masquerade as a Second Trombone, "you have to take the consequences". The Lord High Executioner's Little List of contemporary cruelties knocks the spots off Have I Got News For You and included on this occasion a fine predictive-rhyme swipe at our prime minister (hint: the word we heard was "dig" and we can imagine what would have followed...), alongside various demolitions of Nicola Sturgeon, Jeremy Corbyn and anything that remains of the Lib Dems.

The tunes are fabadabadoo. After all, I even conscripted one of them for kitten purposes a year ago.



The Jonathan Miller production has precious little to do with Japan, but that is true of the piece itself; so the black-and-white art deco approach complete with tap-dancing waiters and Yum-Yum looking strikingly like Ginger Rogers is all fine with all of us. The press info tells us it is supposed to be an English seaside hotel of the 1930s, but to me that idea says "miserable depression-era burned toast" - this stage set more resembles the Savoy, as well it might.

The nuggets of gold at the heart of the story? First of all, who could resist the ultra-romantic idea - delivered, of course, with irony aplenty - that it is better to enjoy one scant month of marriage to your true love and then die than never to wed her/him at all? Then there's the Lord High Executioner who finally reveals that he's so soft-hearted he couldn't even kill a bluebottle. And the one person who does have a chance to "soliloquise" with an aria all alone on stage is Katisha, the much-maligned Older Woman, who is the only character with a modicum of rounding out and a few specks of actual wisdom, which in this particular La-La Land is in short supply.

Singing is brilliant: Mary Bevan as Yum-Yum and Anthony Gregory as Nanki-Poo were ideal casting, Graeme Danby as Pooh-Bah was wonderfully convincing and Robert Lloyd managed the extra weight as the eponymous Mikado magnificently. Richard Suart's Lord High Executioner and Yvonne Howard's Katisha both seemed to be having the time of their lives.

So what's not to like? Why did I come out feeling "OK, been there, done that, would buy the t-shirt if there were one, but I don't have to see it again"? The evening felt very, very long and it didn't fly and sparkle and do that champagne-bubble thing that you want from operetta. And it wasn't just because in this day and age all the beheading jokes felt a bit close to the bone [sorry]. It felt like a half-open prosecco that's been in the fridge too long without a stopper. Tempi were often a little sluggish, except when they inadvertently galloped; several singers seemed to be trying to push things along, except on the occasions - including 'Three Little Maids' - when they had to step on it a bit to keep up. If only operas had previews to play themselves in, like theatre...

I have that feeling, which I had also over Jonas Kaufmann's Berlin album, that lightness of touch is fast becoming a lost art. Light music needs to be...lightly handled. Any screenwriter will tell you that comedy is the hardest thing of all to pull off - as will most actors - as it is all about timing. It is bloody difficult to do it well. And I am starting to wish that ENO would not throw its fine young conductors in at the deep end, getting them to do things like The Magic Flute, Die Fledermaus and, indeed, this for their debuts. Fergus Macleod, the incumbent Mackerras Fellow young conductor, whose house debut this was, is a highly gifted young maestro and I look forward to hearing him many more times in the future, in different, less niche repertoire.
2 months ago | |
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A friend alerted me yesterday to this 2005 film written by Ari Sandel and Kim Ray. It's a 20-minute West Side Story spoof, set in two rival fast-food restaurants, one Israeli, one Palestinian: David and Fatima fall in love and determine to find a way to resolve their families' differences.

At first, given the world situation, I hesitated to post it here. Then I realised that that very hesitation was the best reason to do so. More than ever we need messages of hope, however unlikely hope and peace may seem at the moment, and the powers of music, laughter and love are a good combination to create one. All credits go to  http://www.westbankstory.com

Ari Sandel was born in the US to an Israeli father and American mother. He studied Islam, Judaism and the History of the Middle East at college and has travelled extensively throughout the region. In the interview on the film's Youtube page, he says:
"I sometimes get remarks about the film being too simplistic and that it does not accurately show the suffering of any one side. I agree, it IS simplistic because it has to be in order to be a comedy. This film is not meant to be a learning tool for the situation in the Middle East. It is not an historical explanation, or a political solution on screen. It is a movie about HOPE and PEACE and that is it. It is meant to counteract the multitudes of negative documentaries and news reports that, while very informative, usually seem to be skewed to one side and ALWAYS leave the viewer feeling like this conflict will go on forever. I truly believe that peace between Israelis and Arabs will be achieved and don't believe it is a hopeless endeavor. We wanted to make a film that would convey that feeling." (More here)

2 months ago | |
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Kylie Minogue
Mulling over the online papers with coffee just now, I came across the punchiest, most to-the-point, one-star CD review I've seen in a while. It's of Kylie Minogue's Christmas album and The Guardian's Tim Jonze says: "Spare a thought for the music critic this Christmas, for whom the festive season is not 'the most wonderful time of the year', but a whole new circle of hell. Even listened to while off your knockers on sherry, Kylie Christmas is a confusing package...delivered with all the joie de vivre of a Sainsbury's advert..."

Read the whole thing here.

Reviewing classical recordings is arguably a different dish of sardines. We have the impression, in our corner, that Christmas pop albums are in any case going to be cynically manufactured tat designed to induce emotional blackmail on the shopping mall sound system, the sort of crooning that makes people spend, spend, spend, if only to get away faster from the noise. Or that they consist simply of famous names singing popular Xmas numbers to shift stock and get the tills ringing, and never mind what it sounds like because the job is to fill space in stockings and under trees and probably no one will actually play it.

Classical recordings, though, are difficult to make: if you're a classical musician, there's nowhere to hide the shortcomings of your technique or your artistry. Those of us who slogged away in practice rooms for years on end never quite lose the memory of the effort involved in learning, perfecting (??) and performing a piece of great music. It's demanding to do, it's satisfying to be able to do it, and if people hear and like it, so much the better. Therefore when CDs plop onto the desk for review, and you don't think they're terribly good, you might feel honour bound to give them the benefit of the doubt - usually in the form of two stars instead of one, or sometimes even three stars instead of two - because you know that to make even a 'meh' sort of recording probably takes a lifetime of hard work and dedication.

But there are times when it sticks in the gorge nonetheless. A very few of the piano discs that have crossed my computer in the past couple of years have been so dreadful that when offered the same artist's next album to review, I've said 'thanks, but no thanks'. Because what sells, and who sells, is not always the same thing as what and who can offer worthwhile musical insight, colouristic control of the sound, sophistication, variety of technique and, overall, a satisfying, communicative and justifiable listening experience for the buyer of the disc. The saddest thing is that some knowledgeable music lovers are still being bamboozled into thinking x, y or z is the greatest thing since sliced bread, because he/she records for a good company or happens to have some pretty photographs (this can apply no matter the artist's gender).

But you know something? Even the worst of them has probably been through hell and high water for the sake of his/her art.

There you are at your desk, charged with describing a recording so people can make up their minds whether or not to buy it. And you can think, without trying too hard, of 50 pianists who deserve the chance to have made that recording for that company instead and could have done it 100 times better. And you think, "Didn't anybody listen to this before letting it out there?" Or maybe: "How did this person get to be where he/she is anyway? How is that even possible?"

And then you dig for some mitigating qualities and give it two stars instead of one, or three stars instead of two, because it's a really, really difficult piece to play and they deserve credit for sheer chutzpah, or something like that, because you might picture to yourself the childhood lost to intensive practising, the terror of the competitions, the frustration of trying and trying and trying and getting nowhere, but keeping on trying because he/she has never trained to do anything else, and then the big break - however it may have arrived - and the opportunity seized with both hands and both feet too in case it never returns, and the probably messed-up private life, and the pressures from the industry as someone realises this disc can sell and starts to milk the artist and the industry for all they're worth, which in this day and age may not be much but can be too much in any case, and you wonder what will happen to them, after all that, when eventually the next hot young thing arrives and they're middle-aged and overweight and the work dries up.

Yet the playing on the CD is still not much good.

Are we too nice?

Next time: my top choices for really good discs to buy your music-loving friends for Christmas, and please note that they'll have nothing seasonal to say at all.
2 months ago | |
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As someone prone, as you know, to talking and writing too much, I'm struck somewhat dumb in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. There's a flood of commentary already and I don't particularly want to add to it, other than registering horror at some of the responses - whether it's world leaders rushing in where angels fear to tread and doing exactly what the terrorists want them to do, or the Republican state governors in the US who are refusing to let any refugees in, or the Daily Fail printing a cartoon that appears to liken refugees to rats, echoing anti-Semitic cartoons of the 1930s (NB, they have the freedom to print these things and we also have the freedom to be openly disgusted by them without advocating murder), or...the list could go on. I'm not wholly convinced we have leaders in possession of the necessary wisdom to handle this.

Personally I always remember my parents telling me, when I was a scared child (in 1970s London, where there were frequent IRA bomb threats) not to be afraid, and not to stop doing the things I do, because that is what terrorists want. Even so, yesterday I felt so wobbly about my husband going off on tour today that I stayed home for an evening instead of going to a concert I very much wished to attend (Andras Schiff's recital at the Wimbledon Festival).

We could ponder, instead, the necessity of quietude. Quiet time for reflection. The ability to stop and think and let the dust settle. The ability to take time to consider every aspect of something before rushing to action and possibly getting it wrong. Call it mindfulness if you must, but it's very valuable and, in these noisy days, underrated.

If in doubt, and if music helps quietude - if that's not a contradiction in terms - listen to Bach.

Here is my favourite Bach cantata. It was one of Brahms's favourites too, as it turns out.

2 months ago | |
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The pianist Boris Giltburg has released on his website recordings of two Chaconnes in tribute to the Paris attacks. One is the famous Bach D minor work in its transcription by Busoni and was recorded in central Paris about six months ago. The other is by Sofia Gubaidulina and Boris says he recorded it at home last night.

Boris introduces them with an article explaining his decision and quoting Leonard Bernstein's words: "This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before." He writes:
"A chaconne is a funeral dance of Spanish origin, which several classical composers have turned to in order to express their thoughts on death. The first one, by Sofia Gubaidulina, written in 1962, is for me all about non-acceptance of death; it's searing, raging, furious, full of anger which I perceive as righteous, anger at a death which is unjust, untimely, wrong..."
Read the rest of his article and hear the Bach on Boris's site here. Meanwhile, here's his Gubaidulina.

2 months ago | |
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I was already planning to run this trailer for Mikhail Rudy's new animation and live music project The Sound of Colours before the Paris tragedy happened. He recently performed it at the Philharmonie in Paris, where a gigantic exhibition of Chagall's theatre work is in progress until the end of January.

The animation is of the Chagall murals in Paris's Opéra Garnier and while the music involved - mainly piano transcriptions of orchestral music - extends from Gluck's 'Dance of the Blessed Spirits' to the 'Liebestod' from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, the trailer shows us Ravel's La valse.

Ravel wrote La valse in 1919-1920 in the aftermath of World War I. It feels - whether or not he intended it to be read this way - as if he's portraying the old world of the 19th century, led by the emblematic Viennese waltz, whirling itself into a vortex, the apocalypse of World Wars I and II (he died in 1937, so did not live to see the latter; but I wonder sometimes whether in due course history will come to see the two as indivisible).

Viewed now, it's unsettling to say the least.

Come to the Wimbledon International Music Festival on 26 November and experience the UK premiere.

As a JDCMB reader you can still get a special rate on this evening, and Matthew Trusler and Ashley Wass's Wonderland concert on Saturday 21st  too, by using the code JESS10 when you book.
2 months ago | |
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