JDCMB is Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music & writing, with CHOCOLATE AND SILVER, in London, UK. Author & journalist JD writes for The Independent.
1686 Entries
Here it is: how Ghost Variations came to be. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/how-a-lost-robert-schumann-masterpiece-inspired-an-extraordinary-new-book-a6887581.html

The book will be out in July, according to current planning. You can still pre-order it now and get your name into it on the list of patrons: https://unbound.co.uk/books/ghost-variations
2 months ago | |
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Viv and muggins, delivering
What's it like to perform at the Wigmore Hall? I doubt I'd ever have found out if I'd kept on with my piano studies...but in one of those weird twists of fate I found myself up there yesterday, with wonderful Viv, presenting Alicia's Gift: the Concert of the Novel to an extremely well-sold auditorium, full of people aged from what looked like 3 to 93, who listened attentively, applauded Viv's playing with great enthusiasm, and laughed at the jokes.

It's the musical equivalent of...having tea at the Ritz. You're in there with the ghosts of the finest music-making in the history of London. In the Green Room you're surrounded by the dedicated photographs of musicians who have been there over the past 115 years, from Edwin Fischer, Daniel Barenboim, Jessye Norman, Christa Ludwig, to Stephen Hough, Angela Hewitt and - the final photo you see just before you walk on to the platform - András Schiff standing beside a bust of Beethoven.

Viv McLean in rehearsal yesterday
The platform itself, under the famous cupola depicting the Soul of Music, feels protected, intimate and reassuring, bathed in golden light. It's neither slippery nor intimidating, and from the front of the stage the hall looks smaller than it really is, rather than bigger, so you feel safe and happy. The Steinway we met there yesterday was new just over a year ago and if you're me - playing it for three minutes at the very end of the concert - it's like taking a ride in the most luxurious car you could imagine, only far better; one of those pianos where you only have to think of what you want it to do and out it comes. If you're Viv, of course, it's even better.

Nor can you imagine a more helpful team of people. There's even someone whose job it is to look after the performers backstage - not that Viv and I need a great deal of looking after, as we always bring our own gf chocolate muffins etc, but it's nice to be offered tea, and there's a quiet room upstairs where Viv was able to go for a pre-concert snooze.

It's scary. You bet it's scary. I don't usually suffer nerves for our narrated concerts - only a little bit for the duet at the end - but when you're sitting on a stage and you can almost see Jelly d'Arányi three feet away playing Tzigane, and you can picture your parents up there in the balcony where they always used to sit, waving and being proud, and you're remembering all the hundreds of times you've been in there listening to the great and good, but now you have to deliver, that's another matter. Even so - what an unimaginable treat it was to do so.

We had a lively panel discussion in the Bechstein Room downstairs after the performance: cellist Guy Johnston, pianist and Chet's head of keyboard Murray McLachlan and RNCM artistic director Michelle Castelletti joined me to talk about what makes a prodigy, what special challenges face them and what the peaks and pitfalls of prodigydom can bring. Excellent questions from a capacity audience, especially three young musicians in their teens whose eager participation made the whole event extra rewarding.

Things we learned that are to the advantage of this concert project as a whole:
• Age range of audience is basically unlimited and this is quite valuable;
• Format with discussion to follow works brilliantly;
• It may be a newish and unfamiliar way to listen to music, but people do seem to like it, so if you are a promoter who hesitates to give something different a whirl, don't be scared. Apart from anything else, it's stuffed with absolutely wonderful music.

Dearest Wigmore, THANK YOU.

2 months ago | |
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Viv McLean and I are off to the Wigmore Hall today to present ALICIA'S GIFT at 2pm. At 3.30pm I'm chairing a discussion in the Bechstein Room about child prodigies.
All details here: http://wigmore-hall.org.uk/artistic-series/alicias-gift
Please join us if you can!

2 months ago | |
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At Dartington in 1982 I shared an extraordinary experience with a group of very talented young pianists. We spent a week immersed in the masterclasses of a lively young Hungarian pianist, a rising star in his late twenties, whose performance of the Goldberg Variations in the Great Hall mesmerised everybody on day one. His name was, of course, András Schiff. For some of us it was a life-changing experience - including me, and also including Graham Fitch, who as luck would have it now lives up the road and is busy with some extremely engaging piano teaching projects. 
Notably, he has been running an excellent piano practise blog entitled Practising the Piano (I love sites that do what they say on the tin). Now he is turning the idea into an online academy for pianists of all levels - student, professional or amateur - and he's launched an Indigogo campaign to help make it happen. If you play, or want to, do take a peek and pledge your support via the links below. He's sent me a bunch of info about it, so here it all is. JD

Crowdfunding Campaign for the Practising the Piano Online Academy Launched
Pianist and teacher, Graham Fitch has launched an Indiegogo campaign for a new initiative, the Practising the Piano Online Academy. Building on his Practising the Piano blog and eBook series, the Online Academy will take his work to the next level with a comprehensive library of lessons, masterclasses and resources combined with insights from other leading experts. The materials will be presented in an intuitive, interactive manner and aims to transform the way you approach teaching and playing the piano. The funding goal is £10,000 and funds raised will be used directly for creating additional content and resources.  
The story so far
The art of practising is a special area of interest to me and is rarely taught specifically enough. Our practice time at the piano is just as significant to the end product as the hours of training undertaken by professional athletes, but this time can so easily be wasted unless we have the know-how. Effective practice is essential to mastering the piano and it’s for this reason that I have spent decades researching and experimenting in the art of practising to find the optimal approaches.
I’ve developed a methodology comprising practice tools, strategies and techniques which I’ve tested and refined in my work with students of varying ages and levels of ability. I would love to see as many people as possible benefit from my work but obviously not everyone can get to me for one-to-one lessons. Therefore I’ve embarked upon a number of initiatives to make my work more widely accessible including my blog and eBook series. These provide a conceptual introduction to my approach and I am now planning to build on this foundation with the Practising the Piano Online Academy.
What is it? The Practising the Piano Online Academy is an extensive, searchable, and regularly updated library of lessons, articles and resources which will:
  • Illustrate my methodologies and approach in more depth with multimedia content, interactive features and resources including musical examples, worksheets and annotated scores which can be downloaded and printed.
  • Expand on practice tools and strategies with masterclasses and tutorials applying them to popular pieces in the repertoire, exam syllabuses and specific technical challenges.
  • Share the expertise of guest experts on subjects including applied theory, improvisation and healthy piano playing.
  • Be regularly updated, easily searchable and allow for personalisation with bookmarking and notes.
  • Be shaped by your input, responding to your questions and suggestions for new content to meet your needs.

What it will do for you? Whether you are a budding student, keen amateur, passionate piano teacher or a professional musician, it is my hope that the Practising the Piano Online Academy will provide you with the knowledge and resources at your finger tips to overcome technical difficulties, master trouble spots, inspire your students or deliver performances that reflect your full potential.

How can you be involved?We’ve already started creating content for this project and are now seeking the further support of pianists and teachers via our crowdfunding campaign to help us make this resource as good as it can possibly be. A number of great rewards ranging from discounted subscriptions through to opportunities to sponsor lessons and obtain a one-to-one consultations with me are on offer. Supporters will also have an opportunity to shape the Online Academy by suggesting and voting for topics and content they would like to see featured. 
Please visit our campaign page to find out more and feel free to share this link with anyone you think might be interested.   

2 months ago | |
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I do wonder whence all these amazing recordings on Youtube are popping up. They don't grow on trees and many were never released on LP, let alone CD. This, of Jelly d'Arányi and her sister Adila Fachiri (who have become the main characters of Ghost Variations) with the pianist Ethel Hobday playing the Gigue from Bach's Trio Sonata in C BWV1037, is simply glorious and the most cheering thing I can find on a morning on which everything else seems to be in meltdown, from the BBC's music TV department to ENO to our newspaper to...

oh blast it, here's the Bach.

2 months ago | |
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The new music world is reeling after the news of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky's untimely death on Sunday at the age of 66. One of his country's best-loved and most often performed contemporary composers, Stucky had fought a short battle with an aggressive form of brain cancer. Here is his obituary from the New York Times.

The Philharmonia Orchestra here in London fortuitously made a short film in which Stucky and his friend and fellow composer Esa-Pekka Salonen, the orchestra's chief conductor, discuss the music of Witold Lutoslawski. As a tribute, here it is.

2 months ago | |
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It's a busy little patch, this, so here's what's coming up.

• On Saturday afternoon, 20 Feb, Viv and I are performing ALICIA'S GIFT at the Wigmore Hall, 2pm. The concert is an hour long and at 3.30pm I'm chairing a panel discussion about child prodigies, with Murray McLachlan (head of keyboard at Chetham's), Michelle Castelletti (artistic director of the RNCM) and Guy Johnston (cellist par excellence). Tickets are going fast - and you need to book separately for the two events - so do grab 'em now. Here's the link.

• At fairly short notice, thanks to an heroic effort on the part of the Ealing Autummn Festival's devoted artistic director, Gillian Spragg, a performance of my play A Walk through the End of Time is being given in Ealing on 5 March, together with the complete Quartet for the End of Time by Messiaen. It takes place at Christ the Saviour Parish Church, New Broadway, Ealing, London W5 2XA (a few minutes walk from Ealing Broadway tube) and starts at 7pm. The actors Caroline Dooley and David Webb present a rehearsed reading of the play and the Messiaen Quartet features a group of local celebrity musicians from Ealing: Colin Bradbury (clarinet), Richard George (violin), Adrian Bradbury (cello) and Gillian herself on piano. Details here and booking through Eventbrite here.

Ghost Variations is steaming on apace and I am delighted that we'll give the first public presentation about the book, with words and music, at the Hungarian Cultural Centre, Covent Garden, on 21 March. Viv (piano) and David Le Page (violin) join me to play music associated with Jelly d'Arányi, including Ravel's Tzigane and music by Bartók, Brahms and...Schumann. I'll be introducing the topic and reading some extracts from the novel. Admission is FREE, but you need to book a place in advance. The plan at the moment is for the book to be released in July. Meanwhile I am desperately trying to get the manuscript brushed up properly for the editor to tackle with red pen in March. http://www.london.balassiintezet.hu/en/events/current-events/983-0321-ghost-variations-by-jessica-duchen/

Back to the desk...

2 months ago | |
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As you know, I've written for The Independent since 2004, the same length of time as this blog has existed. It's been one of the longest and happiest professional associations I've ever enjoyed and it is a great privilege to have a platform in a quality national newspaper alongside some of the best news journalists and commentators in the country. Yesterday the paper, which has run for 30 years, announced that it is ceasing its print operations. The i paper, the smaller, cheaper daily, is being sold, and The Independent as a whole will be online only. It is the first of the UK national papers to take this step, but most people feel it won't be the last.

Around half the staff are being made redundant - according to the editor Amol Rajan on BBC news, that means more than 100 jobs will be lost. Again, we are talking here about some of the most professional, experienced, sharp-minded, knowledgeable editors in the UK. I have no idea what will happen to the splendid arts team, but I have loved and still love working with them and have endless respect for my "boss" there, David Lister, who has been with the Independent since the very beginning.

I hope this is not the end of the line. It may be. It may not be. I just don't know yet.

This piece is how I feel about yesterday and I offer it to them all with love and solidarity. It's Franz von Vecsey's Valse triste, played by Philippe Graffin and Claire Désert.

2 months ago | |
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Melanie Spanswick's book So You Want to Play the Piano? seems to have hit a chord with the market. She first published it herself a few years ago, but now it's been taken up by Alfred Music Publishing, revised, expanded and relaunched and it's just hit the shelves. I thought it was a great idea in the first place, so I've asked her to write us an introduction to the revised edition.

Over to Melanie:

So You Want To Play The Piano? has been revised, considerably expanded and republished in a second edition by Alfred Music. When I first wrote this book (back in the Summer of 2011), I had a fairly clear idea of what I wanted to achieve; which was to assist those who had never played the piano before in making important decisions about various crucial aspects at the start of their musical journey. The book is therefore useful for prospective students, beginners and all those up to and around intermediate level. However, it may also provide helpful information for piano teachers at the start of their careers.
The second edition is larger (A4 size) and much more comprehensive. Twelve chapters take the prospective student on a journey from the very beginning, examining the reasons for playing, how to ascertain the best instruments for beginners (or those who may be looking to upgrade), locating and deciphering the best or most suitable piano teachers, as well as discussing many other considerations which often crop up at the start.
Twenty-two piano tutor books are examined (both familiar and new books) and a selection of further publications are also listed, with a section dedicated to supplementary educational methods (such as the Kodaly and Suzuki methods). Another chapter indicates what can be expected from the first few lessons. Piano basics are covered in chapter eight; with advice relating to posture, hand positions and how to avoid common errors regarding rhythm and note learning. Piano technique is decoded in chapter nine, which discusses wrist flexibility, finger independence, touch, dynamics, and pedalling.

I’ve focussed on piano exams too, as many students wish to work their way through graded exams, so there is ample information regarding the most popular examination boards in the UK and abroad, and each exam component is explored with practice suggestions for scales, sight-reading and aural, as well as (hopefully) useful tips for preparing pieces. The book concludes with chapters on composers and suitable repertoire (for beginners up to and including intermediate level), and performance practice, competitions and festivals.
Littered with musical examples and photographs, as well as lists of recommended practice materials and a '5 points to remember' box at the end of every chapter, summating the most essential and relevant points, I hope piano students everywhere will find this book beneficial. Melanie Spanswick
You can order your copy from Alfred Music here: http://www.alfred-music.co.uk/shop/so-you-want-to-play-the-piano.html Or alternatively from Amazon here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/So-You-Want-Play-Piano/dp/1470611740
2 months ago | |
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The ongoing crisis at English National Opera is provoking much thought, soul-searching and protest. The current plan on the management side is to cut the chorus's pay by 25 per cent. The chorus, not surprisingly, is balloting for strike action.

Most people who go to ENO or who have performed with the company are all too aware that the chorus is the absolute life-blood of it - and it is not least their magnificent singing that has made so many of ENO's performances so outstanding over the past years. Some singers have remarked that the planned cut amounts to a good deal more than 25 per cent in practice, and that with the costs of family life, accommodation and travel in the capital, such a cut would make it unviable for them to continue in their jobs.

Meanwhile, a change.org petition is gathering signatures, including many from leading singers who have starred on the Coliseum stage, not least Sarah Connolly and Stuart Skelton. Soprano Susan Bullock has commented: ‘So much damage has been done to this wonderful company in recent years, and it is now time for it to stop. Wake up ENO Board before it is too late and fight for the company you are supposed to represent. Do not allow the heart to be ripped out of it by administrators who have no clue about opera. You can’t expect high quality performances from a broken company, nor do you deserve them if you persist in making these cuts.’

Mark Wigglesworth, who is in his first season as music director, has strong words about the company's present and future in today's Guardian. He is at the helm for a revival of The Magic Flute, in Simon McBurney's edgy and fascinating production. Do read this. 

And the company is currently advertising for an artistic director...

Meanwhile, I've been having a look back at where the company used to be. It has been very easy for people to use John Berry's artistic directorship as a punchbag, and ditto for Peter Bazalgette, who has recently announced his resignation from the chair of ACE (in a former life he was on ENO's board himself). But things have been volatile at the Coli for decades. It seems an endless cycle of boom and bust. Mostly bust.

Have a look at this, from the Telegraph in 1997. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/4711225/How-ENO-got-its-act-together.html

I'd like to draw attention to this section: 

Go down to the Coliseum after dark and you get swept up in pre-revolutionary ferment. The place is packed out, even for non-pops such as Verdi's Falstaff and Janácek's From the House of the Dead. The lobbies heave with men in windcheaters and ladies in print frocks, solid Labour types who come to the Coliseum two nights a week, no matter what's playing. There are schoolboys, unchaperoned by teachers, booked in of their own initiative. There are young couples of every gender-pairing and whole families, grans to tots, out for a birthday treat. No one has paid more than £25 a seat and some are in for less than a fiver.Inside the auditorium, the tension that mounts with any good drama explodes in roars of solidarity as, during curtain calls, a company member steps forward to advocate the case for survival. These appeals began spontaneously on the night of Smith's statement, when the new music director, Paul Daniel, delivered an emotional defence speech. "We have a very special platform of work," said Daniel, "and a very, very strong case for making opera as we do."
The audience is different today. So is the company. On the latter side, ticket prices are higher, considerably so; on the former, many people's incomes are less secure, more pressurised and less likely to be spent on opera seats two nights a week. Generally, loyalties are less pronounced. The company faced low ticket sales for "non-pops", even when they were as fine as Vaughan Williams's A Pilgrim's Progress and Martinu's fabulous Julietta directed by Richard Jones. And people are scared to step forward and speak up. Today does anybody dare to take the stage after the performance and tell the audience what's going on? Does the audience dare to roar its support for its beloved operatic family? I hope they will, if they haven't already. Because if they don't, it would be a sign of our cultural shift compared to 19 years back: the crushing of dissent, or self-censorship out of fear of it. Laugh if you want to, but there's a lot of this around and we ignore it at our peril.

2 months ago | |
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