JDCMB is Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music & writing, with CHOCOLATE AND SILVER, in London, UK. Author & journalist JD writes for The Independent.
1522 Entries

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

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

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Tasmin Little: the birthday girl! Photo by Paul Mitchell

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

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

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

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Cor, an anniversary - an excuse to play some of Fauré's finest. And it was YESTERDAY, ahem...we have been a bit preoccupied with stuff that happened last week. Love you, Monsieur Gabriel. (you know about my book already, but in case you didn't...)

Here are three amazing historical performances for us to enjoy on this glorious spring morning. In London the sun is blazing down, the leaves are bright and fresh, the cats are chasing each other and everything that moves, and we are trying not to let certain other things get us down.

Ballade Op.19 - Gaby Casadesus (piano), with the Orchestre Lamoureux conducted by Manuel Rosenthal. Recorded in Paris 1948.

Piano Quartet No.2 in G minor, Op.45 - Marguerite Long (piano), Jacques Thibaud (violin), Maurice Vieux (viola), Pierre Fournier (cello). Recorded in Paris in 1940 just as the Germans were invading. Apparently they could hear the bombs falling...

Nocturne No.6 in D flat major, Op. 63 - Germaine Thyssens-Valentin, recorded 1956. (Another of a large number of truly great women pianists from the earlier part of the 20th century who have been cruelly sidelined in history...)

Anyway, hope you love all these as much as I do. Bon anniversaire, mon cher Archange.
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I've had a ponder over at Amati about where it all went wrong...
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OK, it is admittedly pure coincidence, but we now have this to look forward to. Due out in the autumn.

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Raphael Wallfisch. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega
My new Editor's Lunch interview with Raphael Wallfisch is out at The Amati Magazine now. We went Italian - with a difference...no less than Theo Randall at the Intercontinental. And we talked red meat both culinary and musical. The piece also includes Raphael's brand-new short documentary about Gerald Finzi, which we hope you will enjoy and share. It's high time Finzi went viral!
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A new play by Lewis Owens entitled Like a Chemist from Canada depicts Shostakovich's visit to Oxford to be awarded an honorary doctorate - and the clash of two very different worlds, each with its own strictures. It is premiered on 13 June at Sadler's Wells Baylis Studio, then is at the Royal Academy of Music, London, on 14 June and the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, on 3 July. I was intrigued, to put it mildly, and asked academic-turned-playwright Lewis Owens to tell us about it...
JD: Lewis, what first gave you the idea to write a play about Shostakovich's visit to Oxford?
LO: I published the documents surrounding the event ten years ago, but the idea of turning it into a play has always been festering away in my mind.
Firstly, because there is a wealth of material with which a dramatist can engage: not only do we have Isaiah Berlin's long and expressive letter on the visit but also many of the telegrams and letters sent and received by the Oxford Registry and Soviet Embassy in London. I felt that all of the personalities involved could be explored, developed further and essentially brought back to life. I was also struck by the idea of an honorary doctorate itself (having struggled through my own non-honorary one!). How were they decided and by whom? I was aware that Tchaikovsky had been awarded one by Cambridge in 1893 (along with Saint-Saens, Bruch, Grieg and Arrito Boito – this is also forthcoming project of mine!) so I was intrigued to explore the machinations behind Shostakovich's award and visit to Oxford. 
I did ask Cambridge to award Shostakovich one posthumously in 2006, to celebrate the centenary of his birth, but unfortunately they declined (they do not award posthumous honorary degrees). Credit to Oxford, therefore, for recognising his talent and importance, particularly during the Cold War period, and credit more so to Shostakovich, perhaps, for actually coming!
JD: You've used a lot of original documents - can you tell us something about the process of turning them into actual drama?
LO:This has been one of the most difficult aspects for me, especially as my background is more of an orthodox 'academic'. It has also been a difficult balancing act between allowing the letters to speak for themselves but also having an audience in mind who wish to be challenged  yet entertained.Naturally I have had to develop written text into spoken dialogue on many occasions, which has not always proved easy. 
I am also very aware that some of those involved in the event are still alive, and therefore capturing their authentic voice and mannerisms was always something very much in my mind. I have sought advice on this from senior Oxford academics who knew personally figures like Berlin, Trevor-Roper and others as well as current family members, all of whom have been extremely helpful. I can't promise to have captured everything perfectly - this is a creative snapshot rather than a documentary -  but I have tried to show sensitivity to those involved as much as possible.

Shostakovich in academic gown. Photo credit: Oksana Dvornichenko (photograph taken by Oleg Tsesarsky). With grateful thanks also to Bryan Rowell and Alan Mercer from the DSCH Journal.
JD: You're looking very much at the clash of two contrasting worlds, each with its own structures and strictures - Oxford academia and Soviet Russia. Compare and contrast, please?
LO: I have attempted to make that clash quite evident, particularly in Act 1. The telegrams and correspondence show that the Oxford Registry became increasingly frustrated with a lack of response from the Soviet Embassy and needed to send the official ceremonial documents three times before they felt confident that Shostakovich was coming. I have tried to capture this most obviously in the figure of David Hawke (played by Patrick Farrimond) who read Oriental Studies at Lincoln College before entering the Registry, where he remained for the rest of his career. In the play he is very secure in the academic environment of Oxford but, when confronted with the suspicious and rather unhelpful nature of the Soviet Embassy, loses his poise and composure, regained only when he returns back to the safety of Oxford. 
This theme of people being taken 'out of their comfort zone' is something I have tried to encapsulate. This is no more evident than in the figure of Shostakovich, of course, when he arrives in Oxford and attends the ceremony and also a soiree arranged in his honour. I think he actually enjoyed parts of the visit, though, and was keen to take the gown and robes back to Moscow with him as a memento (much to the consternation of his bodyguards, who saw it very much as a 'bourgeois' honour). There are some photos of him back in Moscow after the event, fully robed in the ceremonial attire! [see photos attached].
JD: How did Shostakovich get along with Sir Isaiah Berlin? And with Poulenc?
LO: He clearly had a strong respect for Isaiah Berlin, who was his host for the visit. Berlin of course spoke fluent Russian and was very sympathetic to the plight of artists under communist rule (1958 was also the time of the 'Zhivago affair' surrounding the role Berlin played in bringing Pasternak's manuscript out of Russia). Shostakovich stayed with Isaiah and Aline Berlin at Headington House during the visit and later wrote to Berlin (see letter below) asking for his assistance with the staging of his opera Katerina Ismailova at Covent Garden. There was clearly mutual respect. 
I think there was also mutual respect with Poulenc, himself a recipient of an Honorary Doctorate and they certainly enjoyed each other's company. From talking to those present at the soiree, though, Poulenc seemed a little in awe of Shostakovich and certainly in Berlin's account of the event there was no doubt in his mind who was the more musically impressive.
JD: What part does music play in all of this?
LO: A large part. The play begins and ends with music. I decided quite early on that I did not want Shostakovich to have a spoken part in the play. Rather, his 'voice' would be represented by the piano. Therefore, there are snippets of his Prelude and Fugue in D Minor at particular points, which also serve to indicate passages of time. I have also staged a small part of the soiree (it was not practical to stage all the music) so we have songs of Poulenc and Shostakovich (sung by Clare McCaldin, playing the role of Margaret Ritchie) as well as more substantial parts of the Shostakovich D Minor Prelude and Fugue (played by Colin Stone). The music is integral to the play but it is by no means a musical. The music contained within is very subtle and, although very important and symbolic, should not be a distract from the dialogue or overall story.
JD: Do you think it's going to change the way we see Shostakovich - his personality and his music as well? And what else might we learn from it?
LO: SO much (too much?) has been written about apparent sub-texts' in Shostakovich's music. There is a reference to this in the play but it is certainly not my intention to contribute to this debate. Rather, I think it shows more about his personality: his nervousness and anxiety, which seemed only temporarily relieved whilst he was himself playing at the soiree. He clearly lived solely for his music and it is evident that it was quite simply an extension of his personality, in the way it was for so many of the other great composers. 

I have also tried to pose some contemporary questions: how much has really changed, both academically and politically, since 1958 and how does it make us evaluate current events surrounding Russia? I don't prescribe any answers but I do hope several poignant questions are raised.

Letter from Shostakovich to Isaiah Berlin: 15 April 1963 (Reproduced with the kind permission of Irina Antonovna Shostakovich):
Dear Sir Isaja Berlin!
I was glad to receive your letter. I hope that your operation went well, and that you are well. I always recall my stay in Oxford with great joy. I remember your hospitality and your kindness with gratitude. The score and the piano score of my opera ‘Katerina Izmailova’(this was how I changed the title of ‘Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk’) will be available soon. I was a little late with the completion of my new version. At present I have finished it completely and in 10-20 days the score and the piano score will be printed in multiple copies. Covent Garden’s administration should request the score and as many piano scores as needed, all these will be dispatched immediately. To send a request please write to: Moscow, K 9, ulitsa Nezhdanovoi, Bureau of the Propaganda of the Soviet Music of the Musical Fund of the USSR. If it is not difficult for you, please pass this information on to Covent Garden. And while my letter is on its way to you, and whilst Covent Garden’s letter arrives in the Bureau of propaganda, the score and the pianos scores will be ready.Please pass my greetings on to your wife.
With best wishes
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I had wonderful chats with choreographer Wayne McGregor and composer Max Richter about the ambitious new ballet Woolf Works, which opens at Covent Garden on Monday and stars the great Alessandra Ferri, making a comeback. It's in the Independent today, but here's the "director's cut"...

Here & below, Woolf Works in rehearsal (photos Andrej Uspenski/ROH)

The Royal Opera House must be hoping that ballet audiences are not afraid of Virginia Woolf. On 11 May the curtain rises on the choreographer Wayne McGregor’s first full-length narrative work for the Royal Ballet: Woolf Works, an enormously ambitious creation inspired by three of the novelist’s books, plus the tragic story of her own life and self-inflicted death. 

When the news of McGregor’s plan first broke, jaw-bones splintered on floorboards across a dance world more accustomed to traditional, linear tales – rustic fun like La fille mal gardée or magical metamorphoses like Swan Lake. But McGregor has been working for a different sort of magic as he seeks to translate Woolf’s literary intensity and resonance into dance. “It was a bit overwhelming at first,” he admits. “Woolf is such an iconic figure and her work is incredible, frustrating, difficult, exciting – where do you start? I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to do justice to the brilliance of her writing.” 

Choreographers do not often risk stepping on the toes of literary critics. “There are so many experts on Woolf,” McGregor reflects, “and so many people who love it or detest it that when you say you’re doing a Woolf project you get an absolute tirade of either positive or negative energy. I’m not used to that. I only relaxed into the work after about six weeks, when I realised all I could do was to make a piece about my own experience of Woolf, filtered through my body, my imagination and my mind, and that was it.” 

McGregor, 45, the resident choreographer of the Royal Ballet since 2006, came to the company from the contemporary dance sphere and has always pushed at the limits of the possible. He stretches everything, from his dancers’ physical capacities in pieces such as Infra and Chroma to the potential of creative collaborations, notably Raven Girl with the author Audrey Niffeneger; last year he challenged the audience’s powers of perception in the detailed and symbol-laden Tetractys – The Art of Fugue. Now in Woolf Works, he is giving the process of storytelling itself a conceptual makeover. 

“I was interested in exploring multiple narratives and multiple viewpoints,” he says, “and our dramaturg, Uzma Hameed, put a copy of Mrs Dalloway under my nose. I felt the whole idea of stream-of-consciouness writing, many points of focus, shifting between times, was exciting and could be analogous with dance. It could also challenge, perhaps, the orthodoxies of how we make story ballets, which for me is about having a dialogue with heritage in a different way.” 

Wayne McGregor
Each of the ballet’s three parts is inspired by a different novel; McGregor has retitled them. A “meditation around Mrs Dalloway” becomes ‘I Now, I Then’; the second act, Becomings, which he terms “a flamboyant, very virtuosic 35 minutes of extraordinary dance,” is based on Orlando, Woolf’s whirl through the centuries with the protagonist changing sex en route. “It’s very lavish, with new visualisation techniques and a collage structure with a full-on assault and collision of the senses,” McGregor says. Finally, The Waves: “This is one of my favourite Woolf novels, because it’s like poetry, very abstract, but it’s also the one that relates most closely to Woolf and her passing.” Woolf drowned herself in the River Ouse close to her home in Sussex. “For her, water was a place of solace and beauty and her drowning is almost about becoming one with the universe. We’ve called this section Tuesday because that is the first word she wrote on her suicide note.” 

McGregor has commissioned for it a new score from the British composer Max Richter – the current Mr Cool of the classical contemporary world. The pair had already collaborated on Infra, among other projects, and more recently McGregor has choreographed for Zurich Ballet Richter’s major hit, Recomposed by Max Richter: The Four Seasons. 

Woolf Works’ score involves full orchestra, live electronics, pre-recorded sounds from nature and fragments of text: “Everything’s in there, including the kitchen sink,” Richter declares. “I love collaborating and the projects I do with Wayne are my favourite things. If I’m writing an instrumental work, then it’s me sitting in a room on my own and going slowly bonkers. But a ballet is the opposite process – it’s all about conversations and puzzle solving.”

Max Richter. Photo by Yulia Mahr
“I think what’s so impressive about Wayne,” he adds, “is that he has phenomenal skills as a maker of movement, but that’s just the starting point. He has an omnivorous intelligence and he’s always seeking out new ways of structuring ideas and information. That is the meeting point for us; in the musical sphere I’m also constantly looking for new ways to present material and to combine and enlarge languages.”

For Richter, reading Woolf during his schooldays was a revelation: “She handles language in such an extraordinarily personal and musical way,” he says. “She manages to pull off amazing literary tricks without drawing attention to them, and under her beautifully wrought surfaces there’s an amazing intelligence at work.” Her structures have been a direct inspiration for the music: “For me, Orlando is a novel in variation form,” he says. “I’ve written it as variations on a famous baroque theme, La Folia.”

The Orlando section’s central figure is to be Edward Watson, McGregor’s muse – prime among a cast of Royal Ballet luminaries that also includes Natalia Osipova and Sarah Lamb. But all eyes are upon the Italian ballerina Alessandra Ferri, 52, who is returning to the company to dance the dual role of Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway. Ferri began her career with the Royal Ballet after training at its school, but left in 1985 to join American Ballet Theatre at Mikhail Baryshnikov’s invitation. Although she officially retired in 2007, she began to appear again as both dancer and choreographer two years ago. McGregor says that he went to New York to ask her to consider the role.

“Dance is notoriously a young people’s art form,” he remarks. “Even though dancers often remain phenomenal into their fifties and sixties, we don’t see them much on stage. Alessandra is amazingly physical and always a great actress. And you just cannot trade those years of experience and training in a body. I’ve learned so much from her – she’s very collaborative, she’s in extraordinary shape and we’ve been able to push each other to find new ideas.”

Indeed, it sounds as if Woolf Works allows McGregor to question all the regular discourses around ballet, literature, design, music and performance. “It’s not a straightforward story,” he emphasises. “Woolf writes about the prosaic matter of getting from lunch to dinner – but is that the only reality? Is reality La fille mal gardée? There’s nothing wrong with that: it’s great and funny and there are dancing chickens. But who said that had to be the only version of reality?”

What’s certain is that it is not every day that a groundbreaking venture on this scale is unveiled on the Royal Opera House’s main stage. “It’s a real challenge, because people don’t know what to expect,” McGregor admits. “But I think it’s the responsibility of a big lyric opera house to offer work that is on the edge. If they don’t, and they only present things that are easy to watch and that they know people already like, that would kill off the art-form. They have to be able to take risks.” 

Woolf Works, Royal Opera House, 11-26 May. Box office: 020 7304 4000

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As the UK wakes up to the unexpected election result of an actual, if small, Tory majority, another majority of sorts - those of the artistically inclined people in my social media feeds - are pondering ways to leave the country. Front-runner destinations include Germany, Sweden and Iceland.

So where did it all go wrong?

Time to have a quick look at the power of myth and the lessons we can learn from it. The wound foisted on us by a betrayal is an almost incomparably strong force embedded in the depths of human nature. So the people we feel betrayed us before are paying the price. It's all in the myths.

Try this (with apologies to Petipa/Ivanov and Tchaikovsky).


Once upon a time, there was a handsome politician who was standing for parliament. He went out campaigning by the lake and met a swan who unexpectedly transformed into a beautiful girl. He fell in love with her at once and she loved him too. He promised her everything: true love, compassion, empathy, heath care, arts funding. She promised to vote for him and love him forever if he'd break the spell that kept her doomed to daily metamorphosis into something she was not. He fell on one knee and vowed.

But the next night, at the election ball, there arrived a seductive, spellbinding beauty: a rich and privileged princess with amazing technique. She could pull off all the fancy tricks - the balances, the leaps, the mind-control, the 32 fouettés - and she promised him, besides her body if he wanted it, a huge quantity of private money for his campaign, and for himself beyond that. All was lost. He forgot his promise, or perhaps - taken in by the princess's resemblance to his swan girl - believed that he was indeed renewing it. The moment he vowed allegiance to the newcomer, the weeping swan girl was revealed, wringing her wings in despair out in the cold beyond the window.

When the prince realised his mistake, too late, he ran away to the lake to find his beloved and throw himself at her feet with an abject and public apology, to be printed in all the papers. But it was too late. His betrayal was absolute. You promised to save me. You promised to love me forever. You betrayed me. We are both doomed. The swan girl threw herself into the lake and drowned. He leapt in after her and drowned too. There could be no coming back after such a betrayal.

The imposter princess with all the money was left in charge.

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Melissa Hamilton & Matthew Golding in Manon. Photo: Alice Pennefather

The ballerina Melissa Hamilton is to leave Covent Garden for a year in order to work with the Semperoper Ballet in Dresden during 2016, as a principal dancer. (Here's my recent article about her from the Independent, September 2014.)
At the Royal Ballet she is still a "first soloist" and those of us who've been loving her performances can't help feeling she should be a principal here too by now. She is a sophisticated dance actress and an intelligent and intuitive performer, as well as being phenomenally determined, and this is an opportunity she deserves in every way. With the German company she will dance Manon, La Bayadère and her first Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Initially, Hamilton will appear as a guest artist with the Semperoper Ballett dancing the title role in Sir Kenneth Macmillan’s Manon for the company’s upcoming premiere of the production in November 2015.

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