JDCMB is author and journalist Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music & writing, with CHOCOLATE AND SILVER, in London, UK.
1799 Entries
At least, the cheese came home with me. Wensleydale, natch, with cranberries. It has a small yet special role to play in Alicia's Gift and it's nice to find a seriously good one.

Meanwhile, Alicja Fiderkiewicz and I were delighted by the warm welcome of the Wensleydale Concert Series in Aysgarth Parish Church, and much enjoyed working together for the first time.

Alicja, who hails from Warsaw, trained at the Central Music School and Conservatoire in Moscow and is sought after as recitalist and teacher. She got in touch a while ago having noticed that the concert involved her name! In her hands, select pieces in the usual programme are replaced with the likes of Szymanowski and Bacewicz (WHAT an amazing composer!) and there's Chopin and Debussy to die for. Here are a few photos from Saturday.

4 months ago | |
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If you were among the thousands of people who last Thursday lapped up the Royal Albert Hall showing of Independence Day with the score played live by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, you'll probably know by now that live film music is the concert trend de nos jours. The advance of digital technology has made it possible to strip out the music from the soundtracks and replace them with live orchestras while retaining the dialogue. Experience is proving there's a real appetite for the results.

Now classic after classic is being adapted. And one of the people at the forefront of the craze is the producer and presenter Tommy Pearson. I wanted to find out how it all works, and he's the man to tell us.

North by Northwest, coming up fast

Ahead of the first one to be done at the London Coliseum with the orchestra of English National Opera - Alfred Hitchcock's North By Northwest, with its blistering-hot score by Bernard Herrmann, coming up on 27 November - I asked Tommy a few questions...

JD: You're involved with a magnificent series of live film score concerts. It seems there's a huge explosion of enthusiasm for big-screen films with live orchestra at the moment. What's your role in all of this, and why is now the time for it to happen?
TP: I’ve been involved in film music concerts for a long time now, presenting and producing, and it’s been fascinating to see just how popular film music has become in the concert hall. When I first started in broadcasting (at Radio 3 in 1993) film music was still a dirty word and a lot of orchestras were nervous about performing it, simply because the people running the orchestras were either completely ignorant of it in the first place or didn’t think it was any good. 

There was also the problem of access to the music itself; since film composers recorded the music for their film in a studio and then left it at that and moved on, the orchestral parts and scores were packed away and often never seen again (and studios were terrible at looking after them). But slowly and surely, film music started to appear more in concerts, the composers would often attend, and orchestras saw that a new audience was coming to see them - an audience that might not have ever been to an orchestral concert before. Now almost every orchestra in the world performs film music in concert at some point in the their season, which is fantastic. On Saturday, I’m hosting two concerts at the Royal Albert Hall with the RPO featuring the music of John Williams - both performances are sold out. That’s a lot of people!

The Live Film genre has really developed out of this renewed popularity. Technology has had a lot to do with it (see below!). But the hunger for hearing film scores performed live has naturally developed into hearing entire scores played live to a whole film, which is ironic since that’s the way movies were presented before sound was invented! And as audiences demand more for the their money and are looking for more ‘event’-like shows, this genre is a great way to enjoy a film they love, with an orchestra playing the score live, creating a very special experience. And the studios are finally realising that this is a very effective way of reminding audiences about their back catalogues!
JD: What's involved in preparing these massive works for public presentation? For instance, where are the scores held, and how are they reconstructed?
TP: It differs from project to project. North By Northwest has taken about 5 years to get off the ground, working with Warner Bros, the rights holder, and dealing with the various estates to get the right to do it in the first place. But we also discovered that a lot of Herrmann’s score, because the film was originally mixed in mono, appears on the dialogue track. When we perform scores live, we have to remove the actual music soundtrack so that we replace it with the live musicians playing it instead. With modern films this is relatively easy because the music is on its own, separate track; so we can simply remove it without losing anything else (like sound effects and dialogue). But with earlier films (NBNW is 1959), this isn’t always the case. So, we have an amazing company in Los Angeles, Audionamix, who is, as we speak, digitally removing all the music on the soundtrack. It’s an incredible process and I don’t pretend to understand how they do it. They also removed the orchestra from the soundtrack to West Side Story so it could be performed live, but with the singing on the film completely intact - amazing. 

Herrmann’s music in NBNW, though, needs very little editing. There’s quite a bit of music that he recorded that wasn’t used in the finished film and there are quite a lot of cuts in the cues that are in the film. But nothing complicated. 
That’s in complete contrast to my most recent production, Independence Day Live, which was premiered at the Royal Albert Hall last week. That score took 9 months to reconstruct! David Arnold, the composer of the score, wrote and recorded the 2 hours of music in LA 20 years ago. So everything we had was handwritten by David’s orchestrator, Nicholas Dodd. And, once the score had been recorded, it was then often hacked to pieces by the editor, as the film was re-edited or the director made different choices about which bits of music to use where. So when we came to do Independence Day Live, we had to work ‘backwards’: we had all the original scores and the final movie soundtrack and had to make them the same, so that when we performed it live it would all work in synch. It was a huge, very complicated job and I asked a friend of mine, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, to do it - he reconstructed the score and put it into Sibelius, then the copyists produced all the scores and orchestral parts. 

The other important element is the conductor and how he/she synchronises all the music with the film: the score must fit the film exactly. This means creating a version of the film that only the conductor can see (on a screen in front of them on stage), which has all sorts of things on the screen: timecode, which is locked exactly to the version that the audience is watching; a visual click, which is a counter showing bar numbers and beats in that bar, so the conductor can always be in time; and various visual aids that also mean the conductor can ‘hit marks’ in the film (for example, when a door slams and the music also plays a big beat at exactly the same time). 

Most of these projects take about a year to put together and I spend a lot of time working with the studios, not just on the legal contractual stuff (and there’s a lot of that!) but also preparing the film itself and making sure it looks as good as it can. We almost always use computer files these days and play the films out via laptop. Amazing really. 

JD: Bernard Herrmann is one of the all-time greats as far as I'm concerned. Please tell us something about him and why you feel North by North West is a prime candidate for this treatment? Might this showing help to cast new light on his music?
TP: Herrmann is one of the greatest voices in film music, no doubt about that. And the films he did with Hitchcock are surely the best work of both men. Herrmann is very well represented in film music performance and orchestras have been playing his scores for years: you’ll often hear the Vertigo overture, the Psycho suite and the North By Northwest overture in concert. And there are full versions of Vertigo and Psycho as live film performances which have been done all over the world.

 I came to North By Northwest in a roundabout way. A friend of mine works at Warner Bros and he’s a huge film music fan. We were just talking one day about live film concerts and I asked which classic films Warners owned; NBNW came up and I immediately seized on it since it’s one of my favourite films and has such a terrific score. Of the three greats - Vertigo, Psycho, NBNW - it is easily the most family-friendly and funny, so I went for it. When deciding which films to present in this way, I’m always trying to look for a great film which also happens to have a great score; it’s not enough for the film to just have an amazing score, it’s got to be something a general audience will want to go and see (since these projects are always quite expensive to produce). 

For me, North By Northwest is the perfect film. And Herrmann’s score is a masterclass in musical economy and drama. It’s been fascinating looking at his original scores and seeing what he does with the tiniest amount of material, how he develops it, uses it in so many different ways. There’s only 50 minutes of music in the entire film, yet it’s used so well, in exactly the right places for all the right reasons, that it makes a real impact, dramatically and artistically. I wish a lot of modern scores were like that!

It will be great to hear the detail of Herrmann’s score. At times in the film, the music was mixed quite low so it’s often difficult to hear it. But when we do it in the Coliseum, we’ll hear every detail which is an exciting prospect.   

JD: Why at ENO? Is it a one-off, or might they do more? 
TP: I work with U-Live, the promoters; we put these projects on together. The idea of doing one of these projects in a London theatre came up and I think there had been a casual conversation about it with someone at ENO and it all developed from there. I think it’s a great idea; the Coli is a wonderful venue, with a decent number of seats, and the screen will look fantastic, filling the whole front of the stage. It’s going to be like the early days of film, with the orchestra in the pit playing the score. If North by Northwest works well, we are definitely looking at making it a regular relationship. 

JD: It seems extraordinary that we still have to combat snobbery towards film scores when so much great music is contained in them. What are your thoughts on that? 
TP: To be honest, I don’t really care about the snobbery. There’s room for everything. Back in the days when the snobbery actively stopped film music from being performed, it was definitely a problem. But now film music is everywhere, so who cares about the snobs? In my experience, most people in classical music who are snobby towards film music are doing it through ignorance: they think they know about film music, but probably haven’t actually listened to any for decades. The main accusation thrown at film composers is unoriginality. And it’s certainly true that film music does, a lot of the time, have a sound of its own (taken from Strauss et al and fashioned for the cinema by Max Steiner, Korngold, Alfred Newman and the other early masters); plus, the extreme time-constraints that film composers have to work to are astonishing: 2 hours of music written in 3 weeks is not unusual, so of course there are going to be musical shortcuts.  

But anyone with even a passing knowledge of the music of Jerry Goldsmith, Danny Elfman, Elliot Goldenthal, Hans Zimmer, Howard Shore, Alexandre Desplat, Tom Newman, John Powell, Harry Gregson-Williams, Michael Giacchino, Johann Johnannsson (I could go on) will know that there’s a lot of brilliantly original music out there. 

And are we really saying that none of the great classical composers ever took influences (or even stole) from other composers? 

There’s also the question of money: many people in classical music think that every film composer is fabulously rich and therefore cannot be a proper composer. Of course, film composers can do very well, but it’s only a tiny fraction of them. And in fact there’s never been less money in film music than right now. 

All the greatest film composers manage to combine creative and artistic credibility with huge popularity, which is not easy when dealing with a large number of studio suits, all of whom have an opinion on the music, the demands of the director who often knows nothing about music and cares even less, a producer trying to save money, and virtually no time in which to actually create the music. I have a huge amount of respect for film composers and I love working with them. 

There’s a lot of great film music and a lot of crap film music. It’s the same as any other genre of music. 

JD: Which other films would you most like to see reconstructed for live orchestral performance?
TP: ’m always on the look out for new projects and I have a few next year that I’m really excited about (but can’t mention yet!). I’d like to do a Korngold score since it would be a great play for the orchestra, but accessing the music and dealing with the films themselves (technically) might be rather challenging. And I’d do anything by Elliot Goldenthal because he’s a genius. His score for Batman Forever is, in my opinion, one of the finest (and certainly one of the most outrageous) scores of the last 25 years; trouble is, I think the film is awful!

Last year I produced Planet of the Apes (1968) live in concert at the Royal Festival Hall and that was a dream come true as Jerry Goldsmith’s celebrated serial score is my all-time favourite. It’s a true original. I can’t wait to do that again. So I’d love to do more Goldmsith too. 

But stay tuned, because next year will see some really diverse projects coming your way!

North by Northwest Live, London Coliseum, 27 November 3pm and 7.30pm. Booking here.
4 months ago | |
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So sad to hear today of the death of this wonderful conductor.

I interviewed him back in 2009 for the magazine of the Musikverein in Vienna, an interview that was translated into German and didn't come out in English at the time, so I hope my lovely editor there will forgive me if I run it now, in a slightly shortened form, by way of tribute.

Interview with Sir Neville Marriner (2009)

In 1958 a young orchestral violinist in London gathered together a small ensemble of musical friends to play for fun, with no conductor. Nobody knew that this would be the start of one of the best-loved orchestras in British musical life: the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields. The violinist’s name was Neville Marriner; and when a venture into larger repertoire eventually demanded that someone must conduct, as the leader it had to be him. The rest, as they say, is history.
The orchestra celebrated its golden jubilee in 2008 with an intense programme of touring. Frequently it still performs without a conductor – Marriner, now 84, says he is “a sort of godfather” to it. Yet he and the ensemble have remained virtually synonymous to their enthusiastic audience, not least thanks to the vast number of recordings they made during the industry’s heyday, which coincided with the orchestra’s early years.
Sir Neville Marriner. Photo: (c) Decca
...Performing in Vienna carries a sense of occasion. “It’s the focal point of classical music in Europe,” he says. “I think it is the ambition of every musician in the world to perform in the Musikverein. Other places would be the Philharmonie in Berlin, La Scala in Milan, or Carnegie Hall, but somehow the Musikverein takes precedence – you want to prove yourself in the heart of the classical music tradition. There have been so many great performances in there that you’re challenged every time you step onto the stage.”
It’s quite a distance to the Musikverein from Marriner’s relatively humble origins in Lincoln, where he grew up in the shadow of one of the UK’s most beautiful cathedrals. His father was a keen amateur musician: “He could play the piano and the violin and he conducted the local choir. Although he was a builder, his life was really about music. I don’t think I ever went to sleep as a kid without some sort of music going on in the house.” Aged 13, the young Neville went to London to play to the principal of the Royal College of Music. “The examination he gave me was absolutely terrifying! And he had a beard and the Victorian manner to go with it. But I knew it was a turning point in my life.”
At the RCM, Marriner studied with two extremely distinguished violinists: Albert Sammons and WH “Billy” Reed. “On the first day at college, you discover that although you might have been the brightest spark in your particular area of the country, suddenly everyone plays better than you do and it’s quite alarming!” Marriner recalls wryly. “Billy steered me through that, and Albert was very helpful later on.” Reed was the leader of the London Symphony Orchestra and had been Elgar’s closest consultant when writing his Violin Concerto. “Billy had the first pages of the Elgar Violin Concerto – he kept the manuscript because there were so many of his suggestions in it that he felt he’d virtually written it himself. Certainly most of the technical passages that Elgar himself couldn’t have achieved were entirely due to Willy’s advice.”
It was partly an encounter with another legendary violinist that made Marriner decide to hang up his violin for good. He spent some years in America studying conducting with Pierre Monteux, and in 1969 he founded the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. “In Los Angeles, Jascha Heifetz was one of our neighbours – and after playing in a string quartet with him, I thought maybe it was time to stop!” He doesn’t miss the instrument: “It was a sort of albatross around my neck, because if you don’t work each day you feel guilty. I had lived with that discipline for 30 to 40 years – it was quite a relief to give it up.”
His orchestral experience proved invaluable when he began to conduct. It’s intriguing that many conductors begin instead as pianists; but both routes, he suggests, have advantages and simply produce different styles on the podium. “If you’ve played in orchestras, it’s useful because you understand them psychologically: you know how hateful it is to be pushed into doing something that you don’t really like, and musically speaking you tend to know what the musicians would prefer you to do. As a pianist, though, you can learn the score at the piano in half the time it takes when you’re a string player with an instrument that involves just one line. The pianist-conductors speak more in musical generalities; if you’re a string player you tend instead to identify particular instruments and their problems.
“Because I’d been playing the violin most of my life, I’ve always thought that the physical gestures I made were much more natural than if I’d been sitting at a piano and hunching my shoulders. I often remember Solti, who was all shoulders and sometimes made rather uncomfortable gestures, compared to, for example, Monteux, who was a violin and viola player and always looked so comfortable as a conductor.”
The Academy began life, as Marriner puts it, as “refugees from conductors”. At first, it was simply a group of players who, though excited to work in symphony orchestras, felt that they wanted “to take more responsibility for expressing their own musicality”. For the first two years they played informally at Marriner’s house and had no intention of performing. “We only began because the keyboard player, Jack Churchill, suggested it.” His Sunday job was playing the organ at St Martin-in-the-Fields, the famous 18th-century church on the corner of Trafalgar Square in London. “He said that we could always give a concert there. We were rather grudging about it, but eventually he persuaded us. Then someone asked us to make a record – and it all happened. We were stuck with it!”
Much influenced by the musicologist Thurston Dart, Marriner found himself and the Academy at the forefront of what would become a revolution in performing style. “Having played in symphony orchestras for a long time, I used to feel there was something that we weren’t quite catching,” he explains. “The bulk, the weight of the sound, couldn’t quite bring off certain qualities that were latent in the music. The texture was the first thing the Academy aimed for – a transparency, vitality and virtuosity that you couldn’t achieve with a hefty symphonic sound. That was our earliest ambition. The great thing about the Academy was that, being a small group, we were able to discuss these things; sooner or later we achieved a style that seemed to suit everyone.”
Since then, he adds, the ‘early music movement’ has become somewhat beset by what he terms “navel-gazing”. “The extreme types of early music performances I find a little bit tedious and not necessarily helpful,” he admits. “It’s sad that symphony orchestras don’t really play Haydn and Mozart any more. They play Beethoven, but critics turn their noses up, and that’s a loss. But there are some very good contemporary groups of players who specialise in early music and sort of early instruments – even if the instruments are reproductions and were made yesterday!”
With 2009 marking the bicentenary of Haydn’s death, Marriner is glad that everyone will have a chance to reassess the composer’s work, not least because Haydn is constantly overshadowed these days by his pupil and friend, Mozart. “Interestingly, Haydn showed much more mastery of the orchestra in his early years than did Mozart,” Marriner says. “I always think of Haydn as the precursor of Beethoven: the late Haydn symphonies and the early Beethoven ones overlap very much stylistically and in their technical achievements. In many ways he was more important to the tradition of classical orchestral writing than Mozart.”
Looking ahead, Marriner insists he has no intention of retiring. “I think I’ll die before I retire,” he remarks. “I’m planning my diary into 2012. Mostly it’s a sort of hangover from being young, unsuccessful and terrified to look in the diary and see nothing. That sensation never seems to go away as you get older.”
As for the orchestra, though the musical climate in general has never been tougher he is confident that the Academy will weather the blast. “I’ve always hoped they will keep their fundamental objectives – a form of stylistic integrity – and because they are known to have achieved this they will always be desirable,” he says. “The public seems to stay with them, and I think as long as they insist on keeping their standards, they’ll survive very well.”

4 months ago | |
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Wanted... Mary Bevan as Zerlina and Christopher Purves as Don Giovanni
Photo: Robert Workman
WANTED. A huge poster of Christopher Purves as a gangster-like, shaven-headed Don Giovanni, states as much. He's wanted for murder...but also, for other things, by every woman who crosses his path, to say nothing of the occasional bloke. Sensuality, magnetism, confidence and the knowhow of the older man, backed up by threat, are working their illogical yet eternal magic.

In an age in which subtlety is not generally much valued, Mozart's operas seem to be getting harder to stage. They defy easy classification. Just when you think one of them will be tragic, it makes you laugh; and you decide something is a comedy of manners, only to have it kick out your guts. So what to do with Don Giovanni, that peerless "dramatic comedy" about sex, violence and hellfires, in a 21st century inured to the first two and disbelieving of the third?

Whatever you think about that, you may not have foreseen the utterly brilliant twist that the director Richard Jones brings to the denouement in his new production for English National Opera. It's tempting to spill the beans, but suffice it to say that whatever puzzles you in Act I, such as the presence of a Leporello look-alike, may come home to roost after the interval; and that the dizzy episodes of mistaken identity assume a more important position in the drama than usual. Problem: the meaning of the end is changed. But one can puzzle over that conundrum only to decide (as I did) that it's so flipping clever you just don't mind.

Clive Bayley (Leporello), Christopher Purves (Don Giovanni), Caitlin Lynch (Donna Anna)
Jones's set designer, Paul Steinberg, offers a gloomy, impersonal scene full of doors, resembling a dingy hotel sometime before mobile phones were invented; a phone box has a vital role to play. Looming yellow streetlights and a desultory party scene do little to liven it up. Act I begins with Giovanni rapidly servicing a stream of black-clad female clients (plus a man); the attack on Anna is transformed into a sex game, the sounds interrupting her father's session with a hooker in the room opposite. Derangement soon seeps in around the edges - perhaps the result of the constant hot-cold manipulation Giovanni foists on those around him. Elvira is basically nuts, as are strange shivering, gyrating dancers at the party; by the start of the final scene, Leporello too is losing it a bit.

If that feels glum and confusing, don't worry: most of what's going on is setting up what's to follow in part II - a key moment of which involves Giovanni's Serenade as a phone call, the effect of which upon Elvira's infatuated maid almost exceeds John Cleese's Russian in A Fish Called Wanda. Jones astutely counters this with Anna's 'Non mi dir' likewise delivered to Ottavio at a distance - however tangled in the wire you are, it's still a sorry way to chuck your fiancé for a year, especially when he is as wonderful a singer as Allan Clayton.

Allan Clayton as Don Ottavio. His expression was common to many of us by the end.
Photo: Robert Workman
Mark Wigglesworth is back in the pit he recently elected to leave when he resigned as ENO's music director. His Mozart certainly shows us what the management has lost with his departure. He's a rare, self-effacing conductor, modestly picking (mostly) excellent tempi, accompanying (mostly) ideally and leading a light-stepping, supple account of the score. One tricky moment when the stage and pit parted company will probably vanish with the first-night nerves. Meanwhile we wish, wish, wish he was staying.

The cast is very fine, with Clayton outstanding in the two tenor arias and the American soprano Caitlin Lynch as a characterful and precise Donna Anna. Christine Rice is quite a surprise as Donna Elvira; we more associate her with mezzo roles, yet her voice seems to be growing in both range and amplitude. And even if I'm not entirely comfortable with the idea that Elvira is off her trolley - she is far too subtle and fascinating a character for that - Rice brings her a convincing sense of desperation as the love she loathes simply refuses to die. Zerlina is Mary Bevan, pure-toned and full of warmth, clad in white while all around wear black. Nicholas Crawley is a strong, bitter Masetto and James Creswell as the Commendatore delivers a magisterial cameo.

But it is the double-act of Christopher Purves and Clive Bayley as Giovanni and Leporello on which the show hinges, and they don't disappoint. Purves's soft, velvety, sensually nuanced singing brings an edge of sinister magic to the Don; Bayley, as professional sidekick, is deeper and louder, yet meshes beautifully. The relationship is splendidly worked, full of details such as a much-lived-in drinks-serving ritual; and even if their modus vivendi seems balanced and settled, the master's more than callous treatment of the servant proves that any suspected affection is in fact non existent. You can be left wondering how many Leporellos the Don gets through, each one perhaps presented with the same glasses and red wig.

Would one really be irresistibly seduced by this Don Giovanni? Personally I wouldn't buy a second-hand cat-basket from him, let alone a car. But ahhh...there's the voice, that voice... He can call my landline any time.

Don Giovanni, ENO, to 26 October. https://www.eno.org/whats-on/don-giovanni/

4 months ago | |
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...it's a wonderful word, tra-la-la-la [=> Marx Brothers]. Meanwhile, the ambiguity of the great Così fan tutte is laid on with the proverbial trowel at Covent Garden. I've reviewed it here for the Critics' Circle reviews site. And found it...a bit così-cosà.

Just to add, though: it has had a lingering aftertaste. The music has stayed with me in a way that it rarely has before - the sheer sublimity of it. And whenever I run into to someone else who also saw and heard it that night, they say more or less the same thing. They come out thinking, as I did, "My God, I love Mozart so much..." - which means that someone is doing something very much right, and probably on the conductor's podium. Thank you , Semyon Bychkov!


The music of Così is so sublime it’s a difficult show to ruin. However often a production flies in scenery during the most beautiful passages – I could have lived without the brightly-lit cinema frame descending from the heavens in the middle of ‘Soave sia il vento’ – Mozart transcends everything. In this new production, the Royal Opera House debut of the German director Jan Philipp Gloger, that’s just as well. 

Two young couples arrive at the front of the stalls as the cast of an 18th-century opera (Così fan tutte?) take their curtain calls during the overture. One of that cast, our Don Alfonso, whisks the two boys up to the stage and makes a bet with them that he can prove their beloveds – selfie-snapping and hard-drinking girls – are unfaithful. Don Alfonso transforms into a movie director and the young people act, and act some more while scenes morph around them: a wartime farewell under a station clock, a bar in which the cynical Despina, devoid of morals and goodwill, shakes the cocktails, and a Garden of Eden with green plastic snake (aha: temptation! No, really?)...

Read the rest here.

4 months ago | |
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Meet Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen: two glorious pianists who have been working together for many happy years. An established duo of this kind, celebrated as an entity in itself, is still relatively rare. And now the pair have added another string to their bow: they have founded three days of pianistic feasting under the simple yet splendid heading London Piano Festival. Highlights include a lecture on Liszt by Alfred Brendel with Dénes Várjon at the piano, Kathryn Stott in French repertoire, jazz from Julian Joseph, Charles and Katya in a two-piano recital culminating in Rachmaninoff's Suite No.1, and much more besides.

But why aren't there more piano festivals around anyway? When the Institut Français founded its own It's All About Piano a few years back, I couldn't help wondering why it was the first such event in the UK's piano-filled capital. Now we have that one in South Kensington for spring and this one at Kings Place coming up fast for 7-9 October, with exciting plans for future years too. I asked Charles and Katya to tell us more about it... (All photos: Sim Canetty-Clarke.)
JD: How and why did you conceive the idea of starting a piano festival? 
KA: Charles and I had an idea of starting a piano festival a few years back after a wonderfully positive visit to the New Ross Piano Festival in Ireland. There are so many chamber music festivals in the world, but piano festivals are relatively rare. London has many exciting piano events to offer, but none of its major concert halls presents a single intensely focused festival devoted exclusively to the piano, at least not until now! The idea came from our friendship and love of the instrument. The possibilities of repertoire are endless, and of course the piano is versatile like no other instrument – it can imitate the human voice, various instruments and even the full orchestra.

 JD: How did you decide on who and what to programme? And why at Kings Place?

CO: For this first festival, we decided to focus on artists, all of whom we admire and know personally, people we could pick up the phone to or email directly. Both Kathryn Stott and Noriko Ogawa took part in the New Ross festival where the four of us became a bit of a gang. They are both irrepressible musicians and wonderful personalities! Ashley Wass is an artist we both value highly and the same can be said for our fellow Guildhall professors Lucy Parham, Ronan O’Hora and Martin Roscoe. We are both fortunate to have received inspiration through coaching sessions with Stephen Kovacevich and of course Alfred Brendel remains the ultimate iconic figure in today’s piano world, now sharing his insights through the spoken word.
When it came to deciding upon repertoire, each pianist was encouraged to choose the repertoire with which they feel a special connection. For example, Kathryn Stott will play a signature all-French programme linked by the luminous tonality of F sharp. The epic Two Piano Gala has been deliberately created to avoid the most famous duo works to give audiences a new encounter on many unexpected 20th-century treasures.
As for the choice of Kings Place, we both love their two vibrant concert halls and super contemporary feel, set in the most buzzing and regenerated area imaginable. We’ve played there as a duo and in solo recitals since the venue first opened in 2008. The two resident Steinway pianos are both stunners and as North Londoners, the halls are walking distance from our respective homes!

JD: You're both busy performers, together and separately! How have you dealt with all the organising?
KA: Starting a new festival is a great and exciting idea, but the reality is you never really know the challenges that are waiting for you until you start the work. Charles and I had to learn some totally new skills as organizers and it has been difficult and demanding at times - we are still learning! But also rewarding when you see the results. It's really great to have each other as we try to divide the work. Often one of us might be away or really busy with concerts and that's when friendship and understanding come in handy!
JD: Have you had to fundraise to deal with the cost? What has that been like?
CO: Indeed, we have organized fundraising events and been generously supported by a number of companies, and individuals. Approaching people for funds is my least favourite part of the festival process, but it is a necessary evil that anyone involved in the Arts and many other walks of life has to accept.
JD: What are you most looking forward to?
KA: Of course we look forward to every single event at our festival as each was carefully created with various themes in mind. But perhaps the one we most look forward to is the Two Piano Gala on Saturday 8 October. It has an unusual format, not the usual two halves concert, but a three-part event.
Seven fantastic pianists are taking part and the repertoire is all 20th century music. The programme will start with a serious Busoni work and continues on with Debussy and Rachmaninov culminating with a selection of fun, exciting pieces by Milhaud, Piazzolla and Grainger. There is also a newly commissioned work by Nico Muhly, Fast Patterns, which is highly virtuosic, obsessive and minimalist in style. The evening will be a true celebration of the instrument.

JD: Can we hope that it will become an annual event?
CO: Indeed you can! Plans are already underway for the 2017 London Piano Festival to include a strong Russian flavor in terms of pianists and their repertoire.
JD: To end, how about some anthem-like words from you both about why the piano and its repertoire deserves to be celebrated? 
CO & KA: The sheer depth of tonal beauty that a great piano possesses, mirrored by the incomparable range, variety and beauty of its repertoire is always a cause for celebration. Which other single instrument, apart from the mighty cathedral organ, can truly encompass such a spectrum of emotions, textures and dynamic range whilst retaining a truly magical singing tone?

Full programme and booking here.

4 months ago | |
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Most perturbed by the revelation that Arts Council England is planning "to impose quantitative measures of artistic quality" upon its National Portfolio Organisations. Here is more information about it on the ACE website.

Here is a clear and detailed report in Arts Professionalhttp://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/news/arts-council-impose-quantitative-measures-arts-quality

The scheme so far has apparently cost more than £700k, and the ACE is said to be pressing ahead with it despite concerns, following the pilot scheme, that it's not guaranteed to deliver in an entirely satisfactory way...

So how is this going to work? ACE site provides us with this.

The core quality metrics
Self, peer and public:
  • Concept: it was an interesting idea
  • Presentation: it was well produced and presented
  • Distinctiveness: it was different from things I’ve experienced before
  • Challenge: it was thought-provoking
  • Captivation: it was absorbing and held my attention
  • Enthusiasm: I would come to something like this again
  • Local impact: it is important that it's happening here
  • Relevance: it has something to say about the world in which we live
  • Rigour: it was well thought through and put together
Self and peer only:
  • Originality: it was ground-breaking
  • Risk: the artists/curators really challenged themselves
  • Excellence: it is one of the best examples of its type that I have seen

Some of these points make more sense in some areas of the performing arts than in others; it would, one surmises, be iffy to apply them en masse not only to theatre and cinema but also to opera and ballet both traditional and contemporary, and to concerts of classical music. One size doesn't fit all. It never did and it never will. 
It's tempting to wonder if this is an unintended consequence of the continuing reduction of space for professional critical assessments of artistic work in the national press - now so marginalised that the majority of cultural work never receives any newspaper assessment at all. The notion of public reviews - the 'everyone is a critic' stance - seems to be progressively devaluing the concept of the alternative: this is because consensus is so rare that once you pass a certain number of reviews everything ends up, on a scale of one to five, averaging around three because some like it, some don't, everyone takes a different view for a different reason and nobody really trusts what other people say in any case. 
This in itself should demonstrate how problematic it is to assess artistic quality in a generalised way.
Let's try out the Core Quality Metrics on an actual classical concert...
Yulianna Avdeeva. Photo: C. Schneider
It so happens that the most recent event I've been to was the debut recital at the Wigmore Hall the other night of Yulianna Avdeeva, the young Russian pianist who won first prize at the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 2010 - the year Daniil Trifonov pulled in in third place. Instead of a review, here is an assessment of the evening according to Core Quality Metrics.
CONCEPT: it was an interesting ideaOf course it's interesting to have the winner of the Chopin Competition make her Wigmore debut six years after the event. She is an extremely fine artist and should be far better known than she is.
PRESENTATION: it was well produced and presentedFind me anything at the Wigmore Hall that isn't well produced and presented? It's the Ritz of concert halls. Such things are never in doubt. As for Yulianna, she is a consummate professional, at ease on the stage and in complete control at every turn. (Presentation? I don't know where she got her pewter-coloured shot-silk jacket, but I'd like one too.) 
DISTINCTIVENESS: it was different from things I've experienced beforeYes, because I haven't previously heard Yulianna Avdeeva give a recital at the Wigmore Hall. I'm not sure I've heard those exact pieces played in that exact succession before either. But others might say: well, it's a piano recital, so it's not all that different. To those who love going to piano recitals, it was different for the above reasons. To the non-pianophile bureaucrat, though, would this risk raising puzzlement?
CHALLENGE: it was thought-provokingThat depends purely on the individual listener. Some might experience provoked thoughts such as: here is Bach's English Suite No.2 being played on the modern piano with absolute clarity, great conviction, beautiful rhythmic sense, exquisite sound quality and enthralling virtuosity, so what price those who think it's the wrong instrument, and do those people still even exist? And: here is Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No.8, written towards the end of World War II: it is a massive, nearly symphonic work, full of colour, deeply original and fantastically difficult to perform, and Yulianna is so at one with it and its idiom that she's making me imagine that I am in Moscow looking at Russian modernist art by the likes of Malevich and Goncharova. 
I hope this is what they mean by 'thought-provoking', but it's quite hard to tell. 
CAPTIVATION: it was absorbing and held my attentionYup. See above.
ENTHUSIASM: I would come to something like this againYup. You bet.
LOCAL IMPACT: it's important that it's happening hereWe're going round in circles now. Yes, it is important that Yulianna, a top-class musician with a growing international profile, should have a Wigmore Hall debut, here in central London, and that our discerning audience should have a chance to hear her. See above.
RELEVANCE: it has something to say about the world in which we liveThis can only mean what you want it to mean. The concert says that people still adore listening to Bach, Chopin and Prokofiev, that some young pianists are as good as ever at playing them, and that the Wigmore Hall is one of the best places to go to listen to them. But what of the mindsets with which people approach this topic? What do we want an artistic event to say about the world in which we live? 
Again, to standardise that expectation would be an unpleasant development. If I come out of the concert without any particular thoughts about the world in which we live, but having had a really great evening nonetheless, isn't that my prerogative as a member of the public? Some people go to arts events precisely to escape having to think about the world in which we live for a couple of blessed hours.
This recital brings us great music, wonderfully played, and people love that. This really ought to be enough. It doesn't tell us whether or not Southern Trains are still on strike, or whether it's a good thing if the third runway at Heathrow gets built, or what's going on now in Syria, and it shouldn't have to do so to be 'relevant'. Music connects people to one another across time and space - listening to Chopin we're in a way communing with the soul of a human being who died in 1849, and the souls of everyone who has played or listened to his music since then. That tells us something about ourselves as human beings at our best, and perhaps that is one of the many things that music is for. Can we hope that this registers as valuable in this 'core quality metric'?
RIGOUR: it was well thought through and put together.Yup. 
Self and peer only (including this because it's there):
ORIGINALITY: it was ground-breakingIn the sense that it was Yulianna playing in a venue that is new to her, and that venue hosting her for the first time, I guess that's a yes. In terms of musical content, not necessarily; but I don't really care because I enjoyed it so much.
RISK: the artist really challenged herselfAnd how. People forget what an enormous feat of accomplishment it is to play extremely complex music to a world-class level for a discerning public for about two hours. (Besides, she's hardly going to sit up there and play Chopsticks, is she.)
EXCELLENCE: it was one of the best examples of its type that I have seenIt was bloody excellent. But if every piano recital I attend has to be "one of the best examples of its type that I have seen", I think that would be a problematic way to assess them. This one was indeed top-quality artistry. But I've previously attended plenty of piano recitals that have been most enjoyable, not necessarily "one of the best" of all, yet still worth giving, worth listening to and worth loving. 
Core Quality Metrics as a measurement technique, then, seems a mixed bag. The bits that work would work anyway. The bits that don't work probably never will. And everything, but everything, depends on how the criteria are applied, and by whom, to what - and to which ends, with what effect.
For the moment, one has to try to set aside the unpleasant visions that a quango's "one size fits all" policy conjures up, with all our instinctive shudders about Stalin, Kafka and Orwell, and hope that this latest bizarre algorithmic development may somehow be able to do more good than harm. I can't say I'm holding my breath.
5 months ago | |
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Steven Isserlis is one of those infuriating musicians who writes as well as he plays. His latest book is just out and it is a revisiting of Schumann's Advice to Young Musicians, as tweaked for the 21st century (published by Faber & Faber). I went to talk to him about it - and also about his new recording of the Brahms Double and original version of the Op.8 Trio plus the slow movement of the Schumann Violin Concerto arranged by Benjamin Britten (yes, really), with Joshua Bell. Feature is out now in this week's JC and here's a taster.

....The question remains whether today's younger generation can share the attitude that music is something sacred, as he and Schumann both advocate. "It's not a sport," Isserlis declares. "I say it in the book and I've said it many times: music is not a sport and it should be taught as a mixture of religion and science. You find out as much as you possibly can about it and approach it with respect. You don't make it a vehicle for impressing people and showing off. 

"Actually I think the new generation has this outlook still more, at least among violinists and cellists," he adds. "They really respect the music. I think we went through a bad phase about 20-30 years ago. But those in their late teens and early twenties today seem to have a much better attitude and are emerging much more rounded as musicians."Read the whole thing here.
5 months ago | |
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Psst, pianophile friends: did you know that Martha Argerich is playing the Schumann Piano Concerto at the Royal Albert Hall on Monday? Well, she is. Get there.

It's part of a very special concert: the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's 70th anniversary gala. Their principal conductor, Charles Dutoit, will be on the podium for most of it and Pinchas Zukerman, the principal guest conductor, will also star in the Bruch Violin Concerto which I think he is directing from the violin. The programme is topped and tailed by the Rossini Overture to William Tell and the Stravinsky Firebird suite. Details and booking here.

I was lucky enough to interview Charles Dutoit for an RPO preview film about the concert and his long history of working with this orchestra, so here it is.

5 months ago | |
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Here are some pics from the Last Night of the Proms: Juan Diego Flórez serenading Paddington Bear - Britain's beloved fictional character is from Darkest Peru, remember - and (above) singing 'Rule, Britannia' dressed as arguably the Last King of the Incas, with Sakari Oramo holding the fort from the podium and a plethora of different international flags happily rubbing colours together throughout the arena. Photo credits: all BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

You know something? If we hadn't known about Brexit, we wouldn't have guessed it was (supposedly) happening. If we hadn't read in the right-wing press that nasty Remainers were printing EU flags to stir up trouble, we would have thought there were just as many other-nation flags around, including EU ones, as there usually are at the LNOP (and I've not seen or heard about any trouble at all - the notion that some pro-EU riot would happen seems to have been fictional, not that the Leave camp is known for making things up...). 
And if we thought that the UK has turned overnight into a vicious, small-minded, xenophobic nation bent on economic suicide for the sake of keeping out foreigners, we should think again. There are those elements here, as everywhere; and there have been some vile incidents of hate crime around the country, which could possibly have been stirred up by the Brexiters' rhetoric during the campaign. But it's not the whole picture - far, far from it. 
Because what the LNOP tells us is that at heart we're the same as we always were: a bit bonkers, zany humoured, welcoming, and loving a big party with a noisy communal singsong. Sakari (who as you know is Finnish) made a beautiful speech about the deeply magical power of music to transcend petty differences and unite us in our shared humanity. Ultimately the entire spectacle rather revived hope and faith in London's ability to remain the splendid multicultural melting pot as which it has flourished these past decades. 
As for 'Rule, Britannia', you don't have to sing it if you're watching at home, but if nobody can hear you, you can always consider some alternative words such as: 'Rule, Britannia! Britannia waives the rules...Britons have been led astray by self-serving fools'.

5 months ago | |
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