Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music and writing in London, UK.
1972 Entries

Dear readers,
Wishing you all joy and peace for Christmas 2017
Lots of love from JD & the crew
3 months ago |
| Read Full Story
Ludwig van Beethoven: the dragon wakes
If you've been following my Twitter or Facebook posts this autumn you'll know that for a while my life was taken over by Beethoven. BBC Music Magazine asked me to do a 'Building a Library' feature about the 'Hammerklavier' Sonata and I discovered there were more than 50 to hear, recorded over a period of some 70 years, and these including only recordings that are currently in print and available in the catalogue. Before long it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to be listening to one of the greatest piano works ever written seven times a day.

It's been an extraordinarily instructive experience and if you've never tried doing anything like this, whether professionally or just for fun, I recommend it (it's also a lot easier to do it now if you subscribe to a well-stocked streaming service). I've done plenty in the past, but this was different. This was Beethoven's biggest and most ambitious sonata and everyone will read something different into it, none of it insignificant. The question is, how do those performing and recording it view it and what do they do to bring it to us?

Two major problems were crystallising by the end of Day 2. First of all, have you ever heard someone say of the 'Hammerklavier' "I admire it, of course, but I don't love it...". I've heard this so many times that I've come to the conclusion it's just something that people think they're meant to say about the piece. What's not to love? Love it? I adore it!

What's not to love, possibly, is that it is so bloody difficult to play. There's that first movement metronome mark, minim=138. Can you imagine how many excuses people come up with to justify not even attempting it? Blimey, guv - let's trust and revere Beethoven, but not if it doesn't suit us... Have a think about the background harmonic rhythm in the first movement, then wonder why it soon seems draggy if it doesn't go at at least a good lickety-split. Czerny said that it simply takes "assiduous practice". But even harder is to sustain the tension in the long adagio, and then have enough energy left to whirl your way up the mountain of the nearest thing Beethoven wrote to a grosse Fuge for piano.

The second problem is that all too often I felt we weren't listening to Beethoven. We were listening to our attitude to Beethoven. Playing that is reverential, or that wraps every note in cotton wool because it's sacrosanct, or that just plays faithfully what's on the page without presuming to add one jot of personality. Playing that is terribly, terribly nice. The 'Hammerklavier' is many things, but nice it ain't. I can forgive anyone for being intimidated by it, but not for bowing and scraping to it as they play. By the end of Day 4 I wanted nothing more or less than a recording that would make me feel I was listening to Beethoven himself at the piano, the dragon awaking.

I found one.

BBC Music Magazine asks for the format of a) background to the work, b) one overall winner, c) three runners-up, d) one to avoid. I expected it to be much more difficult to chose the top recording, but it was startlingly easy. The runners-up were much harder, as the number of recordings that are really excellent, by pianists alive or dead, is enormous. The list of "ones to avoid" could also, sadly, have been huge, so I decided to pick a recording by someone who is safely dead and can't be upset.

Really, though, I do have to do a bit of bowing and scraping too: I absolutely take off my hat to anybody who can play the 'Hammerklavier' at all, let alone plumb its depths and bring it to life.

So who's the winner? You'll have to buy the January issue of BBC Music Magazine to read the full article, but I can give you a few hammerklaviclues:

-- He is American and very much alive
-- He is not playing a modern piano
-- His dad would have been extremely proud.

You can get the magazine here. Enjoy.

It's Christmas! Please feel free to support JDCMB with a donation here...
3 months ago |
| Read Full Story
Charles Dutoit conducting the NHK Orchestra in Japan, 2001.
Photo: bbc.co.uk
Yesterday afternoon I switched on my computer camera to record some thoughts about the unmasking of sexual predators in the classical music world. I began by reflecting that allegations are extremely difficult to prove unless you were under the bed or hiding in the cupboard at the time; and if people don't speak up about their experiences on the record, unmasking can only be hearsay - this, apparently, was why an otherwise hard-hitting news piece on BBC TV the other day focused on the pop world, but did not include any classical musicians. But I never posted the video because just then the news broke that four women have come forward alleging misconduct by another conductor, this time the veteran maestro Charles Dutoit.

This particularly matters here in London, because Dutoit is principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

According to the Telegraph, the RPO has responded thus:
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra confirmed it would be speaking to Dutoit whenever possible but said it had received no complaints or claims of inappropriate behaviour relating to his work with the Orchestra.
It said: “Based on the information available to us, these allegations were issued without reaction from Mr Dutoit and, to the best of our knowledge, the claimants have initiated no formal legal proceedings.
“Nonetheless, we take this matter very seriously and we will be monitoring the situation closely.” It added: "As a leading international ensemble, the RPO is committed to the highest standards of ethical behaviour, which it expects from everyone that works with the Orchestra.  The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra takes very seriously its responsibility to maintain a safe working environment." 

The orchestra has since released another statement including the information that "Following media allegations...the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) and Dutoit have jointly agreed to release him from his forthcoming concert obligations with the orchestra in the immediate future". It adds: "...the RPO believes that the truth of the matter should be determined by the legal process. The immediate action taken by the RPO and Charles Dutoit allows time for a clear picture to be established. Charles Dutoit needs to be given a fair opportunity to seek legal advice and contest these accusations."

But meanwhile, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra has dropped him outright, several American orchestras with which Dutoit is associated have said he will not be making his scheduled appearances in the months ahead and now more musicians have added allegations of their own.

This obviously puts the RPO in a very difficult position. And the trouble is that the RPO is used to being in awkward positions; it seems deeply unfortunate that it should now have to deal with this as well.

I love the RPO very much. It was the first orchestra I ever heard as a child, the one largely responsible for turning me on to music in the first place - I well remember my first visit to the RFH, aged 7, to hear the RPO under Rudolf Kempe. I've followed its fortunes with interest and though one might often been saddened at the way it's been sidelined in terms of public subsidy, I've also been thoroughly impressed by how it has handled the challenges of our changing times.

Over the years this orchestra, founded by Sir Thomas Beecham, has turned its financial disadvantage into a special niche, reliant upon on its own flexibility, creativity and entrepreneurship. It has numerous residencies in parts of the country to which the other big orchestras rarely go, and its community and education department, RPO Resound, is truly inspiring. Witness, for instance, its Strokestra programme in which the musicians work with patients recovering from strokes.

The orchestra balances all this with extensive commercial activities, playing for video games, 'classical extravaganza' concerts and so forth. Even so, there's often some sense of struggle, not least because the local authorities' arts funding on which the RPO residencies depend have been slashed too in recent years. Through all of this they maintain playing inherently as fine as any of the better-funded organisations. The end results are naturally affected by who's on the podium, how much rehearsal time there is and how knackered the players are, but all the London orchestras are equally full of fabulous musicians.

One can appreciate that the last thing the RPO would want now is a scandal, the upheaval of possibly losing its principal conductor, and the associated issues that would then surround scheduling, costs, PR and more. They have a long-standing relationship with Dutoit and he has brought much to them in terms of artistry, not least Martha Argerich (the RPO birthday concert last year with Argerich and Zukerman was just wonderful). And these accusations don't involve the RPO itself at all. But no British orchestra can afford to have its brand tainted for long and for the sake of the audience, which in the RPO's case is especially wide and diverse, it's important that they do the right thing. They have the trust of a big public. They need to keep that trust.

And that's why the whole unmasking matters in general: because of the audience.

On my non-posted video I wanted to say that music belongs to all of us equally. Music makes no distinctions: it can bypass every division to go straight to the heart. Its force is primarily emotional and that's why it's so vital, so cathartic, so profoundly communicative. The better it is performed, the better this works, and that's why we need the best performers to be out there playing it. Music-lovers deserve the best and in order for the best musicians to come through, their abilities need to be judged solely on their merits. This is precisely why we have to fight racism, sexism, sexual manipulation, greed and inequality of opportunity: in order to reach a real meritocracy, one that rests on nothing but musical results that are not skewed by prejudice, predators or power-hunger. We'll end up with better music-making.

What once went no longer goes. The Canadian music journalist Natasha Gauthier wrote about Dutoit making a move on her 22 years ago and it seems that nobody batted an eyelid. But Kate Maltby - the journalist whose testimony has just brought down the deputy prime minister - put it well in a TV interview yesterday in which she declared that she spoke up about Damian Green because she wants to change the culture in which sexual misconduct has been tolerated. We shouldn't have to put up with it. She's right. 

3 months ago |
| Read Full Story

Greetings, dear friends! Welcome to the good old cyberposhplace. First, please open your bags for a security check...[BLEEP] thanks...and please give your name to my assistant over at the table, who'll put your details into the system and issue you with a pass, and...

Just kidding. This is cyberspace and it's cyberxmas at JDCMB. Come on in, have a virtualcocktail and let's party!

Those of you who've hung around the blog for a while will know by now that every year on the winter solstice, 21 December, we have a virtualbash to say thank you to everyone who has been part of our lives in music over the past twelvemonth. A selection of award-winners, chosen simply by me with the aid of my furry friends Ricki and Cosi, receive a special shout-out and a purr. This year the party will soon be swinging to big-band music, including some from Bernstein's musicals - we're looking forward to this particular centenary with unusual enthusiasm - and under the rainbow glitterball you'll spot great musicians dancing the night away (yes, in cyberspace all those classical musicians who say they can't dance might let their hair down for once).

The Ginger Stripe Awards, conceived under the reign of the late and much-missed Solti (who was of course ginger), has been transformed into the Chocolate Silver Awards since our two beautiful silver and chocolate-silver Somali cats Ricki and Cosi padded in three years ago. There've been ups and downs, naturally, since the inaugural awards in 2005. One year we were in exile in Denmark. Last year my mother-in-law had just died and we sat in the lounge with cocoa. This year, though, I think we all deserve a treat.

Brexit-schmexit notwithstanding, 2017 has been, incredibly, my best year ever. Not one, not two, but three of the creative projects I've loved the most have come to fruition; all of them have been beyond my wildest dreams in one way or another. Silver Birch in particular was a highlight not just of 2017 but of - if it doesn't sound too pretentious - my life...

Quiet, please! We're ready. First, let's have a huge round of applause for each and every musician who has touched the hearts of his/her audience this year. You're wonderful. You help make life worth living. We love you. Thank you, thank you, thank you for all your inspirational artistry.

Now, would the following winners please approach the dais where Ricki and Cosi - who have been amply plied with fish to discourage them from charging off round the room chasing each other's tails - are ensconced on their silken cushions. They will let you stroke their wonderful fur (they specially like behind-the-ears and under-the-chin rubs) and will give you a special prize purr.


Photo: Sheila Rock/Warner Classics
Mostly Icons of the Year are dead. This one is alive, kicking and rattling. Please welcome Sir Simon, who's arrived in London at long last and is simply lighting things up.

He walks on stage and the sun comes out and everyone smiles. He programmes an entire evening of difficult British contemporary music, everyone plays like a dream and the hall is (almost) full. He does Bernstein's Wonderful Town and gets the whole LSO second violin section doing the conga and finishes with much of the audience dancing in the aisles. The brass section raises the roof. The violins go nuts on the G string. I've not had as much fun in a concert hall in half a century. The fresh air comes whooshing into the Barbican (no mean feat amid the concrete) and the bleary-eyed ghost of under-rehearsed Russian monoliths past is forever exorcised. And if anyone can get a fine new hall built, even if we'd really prefer it in a different location, it's him. A big hug, Sir Simon, and please stick around for years and years and years.


Dariescu (real) + animation (digital projection) = magic.
Photo: (c) Mark Allen
Alexandra Dariescu has made her mark this year in numerous ways. This charismatic Romanian pianist has stood out for not only playing the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2, but following it in the same concert by playing the solo for Brief Encounter on the big screen with live music; for not only playing Dinu Lipatti's exquisite and terribly demanding Concertino, but playing the Grieg Concerto in the same concert. And for not only playing the most hair-raising transcriptions of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker (Grainger, Pletnev, many more), but performing them with a ballerina in live interaction with digital animation, aiming to attract new audiences and inspire children to think big and follow their dreams. Indeed her The Nutcracker and I reinvents the whole performance experience. She has imagination and vision, but also the drive and determination to turn those visions into reality and the musicianship and pianism to make that reality convincing. I was thrilled when she asked me to write the Nutcracker-Pianist story for her accompanying CD, on which the daredevil TV presenter Lindsey Russell reads the script, but frankly after that premiere, plus that amazing Lipatti the other week, she'd have got the prize anyway.


Kaufmann as Otello.
Photo: (c) ROH, Catherine Ashmore
I'll own up: Otello is an opera I admire, but don't like very much. I don't like the distortion of Shakespeare into an Italian religious frenzy, I don't like Desdemona's mimsy lack of personality and I don't like the way Otello just succumbs to Iago's ministrations, going nuts almost at once - as he often does. But at the Royal Opera House, for once it all made sense. Keith Warner's direction and Jonas Kaufmann's careful pacing made the character convincing, and the singing, not being molto con belto, drew one in to the psychological drama. I'll reiterate my genuine, considered and honest account of a performance I appreciated: this was the most complex and satisfying interpretation of the role that I've personally yet seen, and to the gentleman who sniped that that was a "drool", I'll just say: bollocks. Our Singer of the Year is Jonas Kaufmann, so there.


One of the nicest things about getting older is that you realise you've been hearing Gloom, Doom and Despair for decades, yet you're seeing fabulous young musicians of a new generation coming forward with talent by the gazillions, with creativity, initiative, understanding, musicality and all the rest, and you realise there is hope for the future. Therefore this is the most important 'award category' of all.

If you came to our concert at Burgh House a few weeks ago, you met the two winners of this year's Youthful Artists award. Please welcome:

Jack Pepper. Jack, 18, is a composer, writer, songwriter and would-be broadcaster. He sent me an article on spec earlier this year and it was so good that I whizzed it onto JDCMB. Since then he's contributed more articles, lucidly argued and beautifully written. I was hoping he might become our youth correspondent - but it seems I'm not the only one eager to snap him up into the music industry. We'll be hearing a lot more of him soon - watch that space!

Gabriella Teychenné. Gabriella, 24, is a conductor and in the past few months she has been serving as assistant to Vladimir Jurowski for several projects at the RFH and to Barbara Hannigan on tour with Berg's Lulu Suite and more. She seems to have been making some waves around Europe in the process and her terrific intelligence, clarity, musicality and focus promise much for her future activities.

Bravi both and thank you!


Photo: Hiromichi Yamamoto/DGG
That joyous moment when your inbox goes PING and there's a message from DG asking you to do the booklet notes for Krystian Zimerman's first solo recording in a quarter of a century, which means spending a whole afternoon asking him questions about Schubert. We grabbed a morning as well to talk about Bernstein and Rattle, an interview which appeared in BBC Music Magazine in the December issue to trail the LSO concert the other day (where in the event, he managed to give a sensational performance of 'The Age of Anxiety' despite suffering a cough so severe he should probably have been in hospital). I don't need to tell you why Zimerman is a peerless glory at the piano: you can hear the evidence any time you like. If you haven't yet encountered the CD of the Schubert sonatas D959 and D960, do yourself a favour and hear it.


I haven't seen any real disasters this year, thank goodness, so this particular award goes instead to a gentleman who's been described to me as "world famous in Bavaria", who had always been warm and friendly before. He invited us to stay a night at his house - then disinvited us at one day's notice when we mentioned a dietary issue relating to a medical condition. That was fun.

And some personal highlights:


Roxanna Panufnik and muggins at the second night of our opera Silver Birch. Rain didn't stop play...
The world premiere of Silver Birch at Garsington Opera is not just the proudest moment of the year for me, but my proudest of any to date. Thank you for making it real, dear Garsington, Roxanna, Karen, Dougie, the whole cast - all 180 of you - and of course, Jay Wheeler.

I've also been overjoyed by the Ghost Variations concerts and my work with David Le Page and Viv McLean. Indeed, I've discovered that my "happy place" is...on stage with them. Thank you, my dearest colleagues - we've had a ball! Next concert is 2 January at Lampeter House, near Narberth, Wales.

More pride: seeing Alexandra Dariescu's The Nutcracker and I come to life the other day. See above, but having written the story for the CD is an enormous joy.


There've been a few - there always are. Most 2017 weirdnesses involve daft social media misunderstandings on a Comedy of Errors level, the unmasking of a supposed pal as a Brexit bot, the polarising of old friends into impossible political directions (if you voted to strip us of our right to live and work in 27 other countries, you can't seriously expect anyone to forgive that), and the blank uncertainty caused by the idiocy of Brexit which makes it impossible for anybody to plan ahead - in an industry that depends on forward planning.

On a lighter note, a very weird moment was the JDCMB April Fool's Day post about how after Brexit the LPO would move to the Elbphilharmonie and change its name to the London Hamburger Orchestra. This was a joke. J-O-K-E. I'd thought it was obviously a joke - 1 April, Hamburger, oh come on, guys... But it had the highest readership of any post here, like, evahh, and I'm still coming across people who believed it. Oy.

'Weird' is perhaps not the best word to describe the unmasking of serial sexual abusers in the music industry. James Levine was the first, but it's likely there will be more. If 'hearing rumours forever' amounts to 'knowing', then several are just waiting to go up in smoke. Of course it doesn't amount to 'knowing', but I wonder what next year will bring. There's nastiness, for sure. But I hope that the end result will be that people will be able to develop their artistry and their careers without fear of sexual manipulation, that those with power will learn to resist the temptation to be ruled by that power, and that we'll have a music industry with less exploitation, greater integrity, greater respect, greater diversity and greater openness and positivity. An atmosphere of fear, intimidation and aggression benefits nobody - and the listeners least of all.

Have a fantastic Christmas/Festive Season, everyone, and thank you for being part of JDCMB! And now, "before the fiddlers have fled, before they ask us to pay the bill, while we still have the chance, let's face the music and dance...".

4 months ago |
| Read Full Story
Alexandra Dariescu and friend. Photo: Andrew Mason

At last I can spill the beans about something utterly lovely.

Pianist Alexandra Dariescu's cutting-edge digital animation performance, The Nutcracker and I, is premiered tonight at Milton Court
Alex has made a CD version of the project - but since you can't put digital animation on a CD, she wanted a narration, a scripted version to replace the visuals. So she asked me to write it for her. 
The story also appears in the CD booklet, with the digital animations by Yeast Culture translated into illustrations by Adam Smith. The script has been recorded by the TV presenter Lindsey Russell (I haven't heard it yet - hopefully will soon!). Release date is 27 April on Signum Records, and there may be advance copies floating around at Milton Court this evening.
The project reimagines the classic ballet's tale of Clara and the Nutcracker Prince with Alex herself as the main character, a little girl longing to fulfil her dream of becoming a pianist. Alex plays extracts from Tchaikovsky's ballet music in transcriptions by luminaries including Mikhail Pletnev and Percy Grainger, and the ballerina Desirée Ballantyne performs the role of Clara, interacting on stage with digitally animated characters. 
Alex conceived The Nutcracker and I as an alternative performance format in the hope of attracting audiences who mightn't normally think of attending a piano recital. It has sparked a huge amount of interest. Tonight's premiere at 6pm sold out in one day when they announced it, and demand was such that they've added a repeat performance at 8pm. They'll be taking it on tour in 2018.
I'm thrilled to have had a small part in this. It's been a huge amount of fun and we hope everyone is going to love it - and that we can inspire you and, crucially, your children to think big and dare to dream!
And now: off to the premiere!
4 months ago |
| Read Full Story

Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No.2, 'The Age of Anxiety', isn't so much a symphony as a piano concerto-stroke-tone-poem. Based on WH Auden's poem of the same title, exploring the overnight musings of a group of strangers in a New York bar, it includes a set of vivid variations, a jazzy movement 'The Masque' in which piano and percussion interact with intricate bedazzlement and a final, glorious sunrise in which you can almost see the dawn light glinting off the Empire State Building.

The real puzzle is why this piece is done so infrequently. Glad to say that that is changing tonight, as Krystian Zimerman and Sir Simon Rattle present it in an all-Bernstein concert with the LSO, alongside Wonderful Town.

In case you missed my interview with Zimerman in the December edition of BBC Music Magazine, here's a taster of what he said about this piece and why he's playing it.

....Touring the Brahms Second Concerto [with Leonard Bernstein], Zimerman recalls: “We were having lunch one day and he asked me about his own music. When I told him I had played his Symphony No.2, he was amazed and said, ‘How come I didn’t know?’. I said, ‘You never asked!’”
Naturally, numerous performances followed: “Each time was completely different. That was a special feature of his music making: he was always totally honest, so the smallest thing that changed his emotional construction immediately found its way into his interpretations. So there was not really a Bernstein interpretation – it was done ad hoc in the performance, to the extent that it was impossible to rehearse! He could make dramatic changes on stage. That’s something I have never experienced with any other conductor, this degree of courage and daring.” Scary, perhaps? Zimerman smiles: “Maximum adrenaline!”
Returning to the symphony this year fulfills a promise he made to Bernstein: “He asked me: ‘Will you play this piece with me when I’m 100?’. And that’s why I’m playing it now, because I realised two years ago that he’d be 100. It’s a great piece. It’s so much fun. And it’s so much like him, with all the freshness and flexibility and craziness of his character.”

Last time Zimerman played this piece in London, with Bernstein himself, it was 1986 (see video above). But now an Age of Anxiety is upon us in earnest - whether it's 52, 2017, or anything else of the totally unreasonable and largely unhinged world of today. I'd love to see what Auden and Bernstein would make of things now. 
Meanwhile, get down the Barbican and look for a return if you can.

4 months ago |
| Read Full Story
Some personal recommendations for literaromusical gifts this Christmas - though please note, this is a personal selection so there may be quite a few others that I've missed. Listed here in no particular order. Enjoy.

Being Wagner: the Triumph of the Willby Simon Callow
William CollinsWhat made Wagner into Wagner? What drove him? Who was he, really, and what fuelled that gigantic ego - without which, let's face it, he wouldn't have been able to write such humongously ambitious music-dramas? Simon Callow, who wrote and performed a one-man Wagner show in the composer's bicentenary year of 2013, here dives into the agonies and the ecstasies of what it must have been like to be the great man. Putting aside the title's side-swipe at Leni Riefensthal and the 1936 Olympics, the book is a suitably lavish read, stuffed full of fabulous wordy, over-the-top descriptions, which you have to just sit back and enjoy.

Verdi: the Man Revealed by John SuchetElliot & ThompsonAnd the other great opera composer is here too. Hot on the heels of his volumes on Mozart, Beethoven and Johann Strauss, Suchet turns his attention to the life and prickly personality of Giuseppe Verdi, aka The Bear of Busseto. The dramas onstage are so intense that we sometimes forget that for their creator there was plenty off-stage as well, some of it desperately tragic (he lost his young wife and two children in the space of two years) - and that despite the status he achieved as national hero, Verdi tended to cover his own tracks and keep himself to himself. Suchet brings this elusive, deeply private individual to life - as much as anybody has ever been able to.

Year of Wonder by Clemency Burton Hill
Headline HomePresenter and broadcaster Clemency Burton Hill is one of our finest and most eloquent advocates for classical music in the wider world, and the fast-rising popularity of this book is testimony to her communicative gifts. The personal tragedies that spurred her into writing it have played a part, but so has the simple and excellent concept: one piece of music to listen to for every day of the year. And it's not all basic, obvious repertoire, either - there's plenty to discover, a good representation of composers who are women, a thousand-year timespan and friendly but never patronising contextualisation. Applause aplenty.

When the World Stopped to Listen: Van Cliburn's Cold War Triumph and its Aftermathby Stuart IsacoffBantam Books IncA book about Van Cliburn? Wait a few decades and along come two almost at once. Isacoff's detailed and beautifully written volume arrived this year hot on the heels of Nigel Cliff's very readable but more journalistic Moscow Nights, which came out in autumn 2016. Isacoff traces the forces that shaped - and later destroyed - the great American pianist, symbol of the Cold War as he triumphed at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958, with their facets political, musical and personal: the KGB, the smothering mothering (he speculates as to whether Rildia Bee Cliburn was not just "the wind that filled his sails" but also "the albatross that sank him"), and the consuming force of musical genius itself.

Gender, Subjectivity and Cultural Work: The Classical Music Professionby Christina ScharffRoutledge Research in Gender and SocietyA thorough, elegant, academic exploration of what it's like to work in the classical music field today, looking at the effects of turning an art into a business or indeed, a saleable commodity, the persistence of racial and gender inequalities and the nature of entrepreneurship in the profession. This needed writing, to put it mildly, and it needs reading, absorbing and acting-upon, too. But I have to recommend it as an e-book because the hardback is, sorry to say, priced at £105, which is perhaps a little optimistic.

Structurally Sound: Seven Musical Masterworks Deconstructedby Eric WenDover BooksSchenkerian analysis fans, this is for you. Schenker sceptics, this is for you too. If you'll permit me a quick rant, Schenkerian analysis is being much maligned by a generation put off by the idea that he's old-fashioned, that he deals with dead white tonal composers (like, er, Mozart and Beethoven) and by, frankly, appalling teaching that distorts what he's all about. But two people have convinced me that Schenker is fascinating and fertile ground through which to discover the inner workings of the greatest music. One is Murray Perahia. The other is the author of this book, Eric Wen, who is currently a professor at the Juilliard School in New York. While others might leave you lost in the forest, he steers the safari truck through examples from Schubert, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Bach, Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven with a sort of virtuoso clarity and an infectious, unquenchable enthusiasm. (I use some principles of Schenker in my occasional creative writing workshops - it works rather well for books too.)

Jonas Kaufmann: In Conversation by Thomas Voigt
W&NAn essential stocking-filler for the Kaufmaniac in your life, now available in English translation for the first time. Authorised biography, yes, but that's the way the cookie crumbles. 

If you enjoy JDCMB, please consider supporting it with a small donation at GoFundMe. Thank you!

4 months ago |
| Read Full Story
Schumann Street: love, loss, recovery
Photo: Spitalfields Music

If you're heading east in London this weekend, don't miss a whole streetful of Schumann and Schumann-derived songs. Spitalfields Music's Festival, which is on now, spans everything from glorious Monteverdi through to the present day, with Anna Thorvaldsdottir as featured composer. But it has an unusual feature based on our Robert's best-loved song-cycle, Dichterliebe.

You know those street parties where you go from house to house and have a different course of a meal at each one? This is the Lieder equivalent and more - with numerous surprise flavours. Bengali folk, rap, jazz and soul all feature in reinterpretations of Schumann and Heine's journey through love, loss and recovery, situated in the Huguenot houses of the Spitalfields district: as the festival puts it, "16 songs, 16 rooms, 1000 journeys".

The festival's artistic director, the conductor André de Ridder, told me all about it the other day. He credits the Icelandic artist and performer, Ragner Kjartansson, with inspiring the idea: "At a festival at the old GDR Funkhaus in Berlin that was underwritten by some famous indie and rock figures, and Ragner performed a song from Dichterliebe on loop for four hours. I know he’s also done the whole cycle in his inimitable way. He was playing 'Ich grolle nicht' to a huge audience that had never heard it before and was more used to a pop festival - a setting that my group, Stargaze, and people like Bryce Dessner are trying to use, because people lap it up. And I was reminded how beautiful, essential and to the point Dichterliebe is.

André de Ridder
"Some songs are only 15 seconds, with very poignant words: a few turns of phrase can capture the really beautiful essence of an emotion. I don’t want to equarte that style with pop asongs, but the best pop songs today capture the essence of an emotion or vibe in very little time or with just a phrase. It made me think this cycle can be presented in that kind of context.

"When I combined that with these houses that are at our disposal in Spitalfields then the idea of House Music started playing on my mind. I decided we could put each of 16 songs into a different house and let the audience make their own way through the sound. You also make it a hybrid withan immersive sound installation, done live with humans rather than speakers. Another layer is immersive theatre pieces, like those pioneered by Punchdrunk. All these ideas came together and landed well on this idea.

"There are about five classical singers out of 16, and a couple will do the songs in the normal style; one will accompany himself, another will do the songs with other instruments. Then there are artists completely new to the composer and the music. They went through the cycle and found the songs that really spoke to them. In most cases we were able to give them the songs that spoke to them most and  they’d translate the accompaniments into their own musical language. 
"In the case of the German rappers, they created their own lyrics inspired by the original Heine. I also said to other people, especially with the songs that are very short, they might extend them with their own stanzas, continuing the text and bringing it into teir world. I really tried to give liberty to each performer to be inspired and develop it with their own practice. I don’t know yet what they’re all coming up with! I’ve only heard about two demos out of 16. So I’m very excited to see what happens.
"The whole theme of Dichterliebe is not unlike artists from our time who, when they made an album, took on another personality - like David Bowie who’d be Ziggy Stardust. They become another person and then in an album express their journey, eg through a breakup. The so-called 'breakup album' has become ubiquitous in our time and in a way that’s almost what Schumann is doing here! There is something about tracing the steps of a poet’s love, overcoming the loss of it and the hope of it and coming to terms with it that’s expressed. Maybe that is the first quintessential, universal breakup album!"
You can find more details and a complete list of performers and where to find them here.
One thing I haven't told you - at least, I don't think I have - is that references to Dichterliebe are implanted all the way through Ghost Variations. For the person who writes to me having found the full list of them, I have a small prize to award: a lovely recording of the Schumann Violin Concerto by my old friend Philippe Graffin. 

4 months ago |
| Read Full Story
Sasha Cooke as Marnie
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith/ENO

I finally got to see Marnie, Nico Muhly's latest opera, at ENO. Here's my review, for the Critics' Circle website - a second opinion for them, but it seems that I and the other critic were among the few who liked it. But...what's not to like? My quibbles are explained in the review, and are not limited to "Liebfraumilch and soda", but for the most part it was jolly good, for a number of important reasons...
Read the whole thing here. http://www.criticscircle.org.uk/marnie-english-national-opera-2/
4 months ago |
| Read Full Story
Grim reports emanate from the US about an alleged incident involving of one of its leading conductors - James Levine, no less. This is under investigation and in the meantime people must stick to the facts. But here the ISM has released statistics suggesting that 70 per cent - SEVENTY per cent - of self-employed people working in the classical music industry have experienced sexual harassment. This indicates not just a few salacious whispers; it suggests an entrenched, industry-wide problem.

Come hither...
Of course this is far from unique to classical music. I've encountered colleagues in the fields of law, universities, publishing, pretty much everywhere, in which sexual harassment has been a blight on lives and careers for as long as anyone can remember. But there are particular issues in our little corner that make music a particular hot-house.

As far as I can tell, these sexual abuse scandals aren't chiefly about sex. They're about power. They're about those with power over others enjoying wielding that power, and the fact that there's very little to stop them. Where power is an issue, you have to look at who has that power, and what structures, or lack of, are providing it.

Most of the music industry is self-employed. Very few practical musicians in the UK have an actual, salaried, regular-income, full-time job - a few orchestras out of London, but that's about it. Many orchestras, while a primary commitment for their members, are set up so that their members are technically self-employed, which can be artistically a good thing since they can't be ordered not to play in chamber ensembles, not to teach and not to pop off and do a concerto from time to time. But they don't have any employment rights. Get into any form of trouble and employment lawyers will swoop, offering help, but then take one look at your terms and conditions, or lack of, and say: "Oh." Wholly freelance musicians have perhaps an even more difficult situation, though there's more freedom to turn elsewhere if one situation goes pear-shaped.

This doesn't only apply to musicians, of course, and sometimes things are worse when you are employed, because you can't escape as easily. I've been technically freelance since 1993: after working for various magazine companies, each of which treated its staff worse than the last, I decided it was better not to be dependent on one bunch of jerks for an income, but at least spread the load, keep options open and stay at a safe distance. (To say nothing of working from home and avoiding the hellish Open-Plan Office; the latter must surely play some role in the UK's appalling productivity record.) Nearly a quarter-century later I still burn with fury about how certain institutions and individuals behaved, and there are plenty who have it worse than I did.

Why do people behave this way? Why why why? Because they have problems of their own. Because they want to feel powerful. Because they do have a tiny amount of power, and it's the only way they can feel themselves [sorry] experiencing that power. Still, sometimes the psychology behind the larger structures at play can be jolly interesting.

An orchestra, for example, is set up like a classroom. You sit at "desks" in pairs - just like school (or school in the 1970s-80s, at least). You have set, 20-minute breaks after Double Mahler or whatever. There's a Big Person up in front of you, giving the lesson, and you have to be quiet and concentrate on what he/she is telling you to do, and do it, or else your parents will get a Letter (OK, not quite, but you see my point). If the result is an infantilised mentality, it's possibly that pushing the psychological buttons of school makes people regress to the age of 13.

The thing is, those people are adults and should be responsible human beings. But the set-up is not designed for responsible human beings. It's designed - like so much in society - to keep people 'in their place'. At root, it's the same mentality that makes musicians use the trademen's entrance, entrenched across centuries. And so if there are 'personnel problems', it can be difficult to solve them. Few orchestras employ a trained, responsible, personnel manager (or "Human Resources", that hideous '80s term devised to transform people into commodities). The closest thing, usually, is the fixer, but his/her job is more about making sure there are enough violins present to make the requisite sound, rather than stopping them from tearing each others' eyes out. A section leader might be expected to "line-manage" his or her section, but just find me anyone who's OK with that and knows how. They're trained to play music, not to make other people behave themselves. Higher up the tree, individuals who are good at programming seasons or booking fine soloists aren't necessarily comfortable - despite splendid salaries - with facing, investigating and cautioning/firing someone. This seems to be a fundamental weakness in the system.

Other elements in the atmosphere facilitate nefarious goings-on, too. When some managers, record companies, journalists and more focus on how young women look, rather than primarily on how they play, a fervid, charged, sickening atmosphere is encouraged. Basically, this industry can look like it's a pimp to its young women. Why? Sales. Money. And sometimes the women want careers, so they put up with it, and in some cases are even accused of encouraging it themselves. But social media threads (especially "below the line" comments) occasionally turn into something resembling a verbal gang-rape.

This is not just nauseating; it facilitates the normalisation of sexual harassment. It stops those in the industry taking the matter seriously. In a law firm, a harassment situation would be investigated and those responsible held to account. It would be taken seriously, extremely seriously. But in the classical music world, from what friends and contacts have told me, raise the problem and you'd probably get back a snort of derision, advice to watch your own back or a declaration resembling "she were askin' for it, weren't she..."

And so if those who wield the power are people who enjoy misbehaving, it's unlikely that anyone would stop them. There aren't defences. The union's power appears quite limited. In the main, you have to fight back for yourself. But the self-employed person, as we've noted, has no employment rights. When your income can vanish in the twink of an eye, no wonder most people don't dare to speak up.

We need better, stronger structures for musicians. We need stronger unionisation - which means more people joining the union and making it work. We need more solidarity among those in the profession, rather than the every-person-for-themselves mentality that prevails when life is insecure, the field is ferociously competitive and there's an imbalance of supply and demand. We need well formulated, sensible, thorough, up to date codes of personal conduct (pun unintended) in institutions that can hold everyone to account, top dogs included. And we need, urgently, to put an end to the salacious objectification of women musicians and of gay male musicians too.

There will almost certainly be more accusations against more powerful men. As innumerable threads have noted since last night, people in the music industry have been hearing "rumours" about Levine for years. That doesn't make any of it true; rumours are just rumours and you can't go around accusing people on the basis of hearsay. But I can think of several conductors who could be next, people about whom other people have attempted to warn one another for decades. I'd hazard a guess that there'll be more women speaking out, and men too.

As I write, my cats are having a tiff in my doorway. Ricki is bigger than Cosi. He bullies her. He's the bigger animal, so he seems to think he's entitled to unseat her from the best perches, the comfiest cushions, the warmest snooze spots. We try to intervene, but it's difficult to explain to a cat that this is wrong, because they are animals, however cute, and they don't understand. But we are people. We have sophisticated language, philosophy, civilisation, art, comprehension. We have the inherent capacity to rise above base instinct and become fine, enlightened individuals and build fine, enlightened societies. We should be able to do better than animals. Instead, we're doing much, much worse.

If you have enjoyed this post, please consider supporting JDCMB at GoFundMe
4 months ago |
| Read Full Story
51 - 60  | prev 2345678910 next