Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music and writing in London, UK.
1941 Entries

It's out. And it was worth the wait. Pianophiles have hung on for a new album from Krystian Zimerman since 1994, when his Debussy Preludes won a Gramophone award. Concertos, yes; a rather wonderful piano sonata by Grazyna Bacewicz along with her piano quintets, yes; but all alone, no. Finally here it is: Schubert's A major Sonata D959 and B flat major Sonata D960.

These are unlike any other interpretations of these works that I've heard: he makes them entirely his own, and they scrub up like buried treasure after a bath. Yet with such eloquent phrasing, you feel Schubert himself is speaking to you directly, with something urgent, profound and life-affirming to communicate. If you only listen to one thing this week, make sure it's this. Incidentally, if you're a vinyl nut, this album will soon be available on LP as well.

Here's one Spotify extract...this is the Andante from the B flat major Sonata.

Back in May, into my in-box popped a message from DG: could I go and see Krystian, interview him and write the booklet notes? ("Er, let me have a think and get back to you..." said I, or not exactly...). Here are two little tasters of the resulting text, in which he talks about his view of the sonatas and the genesis of this project. Lots more inside the CD booklet. 
JD: How would you characterise these sonatas?
KrZ: I think they contribute significantly to our view of Schubert’s greatness. He switches into a different gear, daring radically new ideas in harmony and polyphony. Compared to his earlier sonatas, they could almost be by another composer.
The slow movements of the D959 and D960 sonatas are maybe the saddest music I know: the major keys are even sadder than the minor, because this is complete resignation, complete acceptance, perhaps thinking of leaving this planet and ending life. The middle of the A major’s slow movement is revolutionary. It’s a milestone in music: a tremendous tempest where all hell breaks loose. You feel it almost foreshadows Wagner, because it looks incredibly into the future. Yet both sonatas have scherzos that are full of humour, and gorgeous last movements in which Schubert integrates so beautifully the singing character of the cantilena.
I find the repeats absolutely necessary. In D960 the low trill in the left hand occurs fortissimo only at the end of the exposition, in the first-time bars, and it’s completely different from the other three times we hear it. But also, when you return to the beginning it sounds transformed after you’ve heard the whole exposition. The movement is long, but I have tried to choose a tempo that is always fluid, with plenty of breathing....
JD: The recording venue was the Kashiwazaki City Performing Arts Centre, Japan. Kashiwazaki is the location of a gigantic nuclear power station. After a terrible earthquake there in 2007, you gave a fundraising recital for the town – and to thank you they later offered you a week’s use of this hall?

KrZ: Yes, I am extremely grateful to the town of Kashiwazaki and its mayor, Mr Hiroshi Aida. The hall was built after the original Performing Arts Centre was destroyed in the earthquake, and is designed by a student of the great acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota. I thought it was among the best acoustics I had encountered and I thought I would love to record there. In Toyota’s halls, every note is clear, yet each is in a cushion of warm surroundings. For example, playing in Suntory Hall feels like flying – the piano opens up and you can do incredible things because you are so inspired by this acoustic.
...We arrived to record the Schubert… in three metres of snow. The staff were unbelievably generous, providing heating, food and four people to run everything smoothly, even when we worked until 2am. I am also very grateful to my excellent sound engineer, Rainer Maillard, who agreed to continue working that late. We recorded everything using 32-bit technology, perhaps for the first time on Deutsche Grammophon.
The snow was so deep that one night we had to shovel our way out. But inside, it was another world and I was able to spend five days completely immersed in Schubert.

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5 months ago |
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Jonas Kaufmann's new album of French arias, entitled simply L'Opéra, is out next week. Being JDCMB readers, dear friends, you are probably going to like it, so here is Sony's beautifully made trailer, narrated by the man himself.

He strikes a fine balance between known and unfamiliar repertoire, with the presentation on the video informal but informative, classy but unpretentious. He's accompanied by the magnificent Orchestra of the Bavarian State Opera from his home town of Munich, conducted by Bertrand de Billy. Ludovic Tézier joins him for the Pearl Fishers duet and Sonya Yoncheva for scenes from Massenet's Manon that even blissed out my cat, Ricki, not thus far noted for his appreciation of anything other than supremely refined playing of Mozart piano sonatas.

The album also includes dark-hued accounts of Massenet's 'Pourquoi me réveiller' from Werther and the Flower Song from Bizet's Carmen, but culminates in the glory of Berlioz's Les Troyens, performed with multifarious colour and vast, mature, refined authority. We hope you love it as much as we did.

Release date is 15 September and there's more info here.

5 months ago |
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As the capital's concert series gear up for the new season, here is a spotlight on an undersung yet extraordinarily valuable venue in central London. Still, you might not know about it unless you'd been lucky enough - as I was - to have been taken there every Sunday night right through your childhood and adolescence to hear and learn the chamber music repertoire.

My father was a regular at the Conway Hall's South Place Sunday Concerts and I went along from the age of about 8, mesmerised by hearing great live music at close quarters and contemplating the mysterious quote above the proscenium arch, 'To Thine Own Self Be True' (it's from Hamlet). A while ago the London Chamber Music Society moved its Sunday concerts to Kings Place and Conway Hall started its own. The first concert for 2017-18 is this Sunday, 10 September, 6.30pm: the Tippett Quartet and pianist Emma Abbate play a delectable programme of Haydn's String Quartet Op.103 and the piano quintets of Schumann and Dvorák.

I'm not sure I'd be here now without those Sunday concerts' influence. So I got together with the pianist Simon Callaghan, who's in charge of the programming, and asked him what it's like to run them.

The Badke Quartet rehearsing in the Conway Hall.
(I remember that lamp from when I was a kid...)

JD: Simon, how did you come to be running the concert series at the Conway Hall?

SC: In May 2008 I met Giles Enders who was then the manager of Conway Hall at an English music event at the Royal College of Music. We chatted and I became very interested in this historic place I had never heard about, and its potential as a first-rate concert venue! I visited the following week and the idea of me taking over as Director of Music was born. I won't lie and say it's been easy - it was a steep learning curve - but I've enjoyed every minute, especially the opportunity to hear wonderful chamber music every week and get to know lots of world-class musicians.

JD: Please give us a few vital statistics about the hall?

SC: The hall seats just over 400 people and is cherished for its wonderful acoustic, no doubt enhanced by the mainly wooden fittings throughout. Players of all instruments love experiencing the warm, intimate atmosphere and it is particularly suited to small chamber ensembles. The music can be enjoyed from any part of the hall but I particularly enjoy the centre of the balcony where the full 'bloom' of the sound can be absorbed!
The London Mozart Players and Howard Shelley. Photo: Tonmy Lam
JD: I’ve been going to the Conway Hall most of my life, as my father used to take me to the Sunday evening series. What does the place mean to you? What is it that inspires such loyalty in its audience?

SC: I think the 'down to earth' atmosphere coupled with the consistent high quality of the music making is what inspires such loyalty in our audience. Added to this is the variety of repertoire on offer, which draws a healthy number of new audience members each week. Since the first time I went there in 2008, I have grown ever fonder of the whole place and particularly the main hall, where every member of the audience can see the words 'To Thine Own Self Be True' above the stage throughout the performance, adding a contemplative element to the experience of the music.
JD: When you’re dealing with an audience who love their Beethoven quartets but might not be so open to unusual pieces, how do you handle the balance between pleasing them and attracting new people with other repertoire?

SC: This is a issue I'm not sure I will ever get to the bottom of! Our audience come from very varied backgrounds and while there is indeed a good number of people who come every week, our more adventurous programmes tend to attract lots of new people, which is great. I've also spoken to lots of our regulars recently who have developed quite an appetite for a greater variety of repertoire, so we are getting there. Contemporary music performance is something that traditionally was very common at Conway Hall, so I'm keen to do more of this, and perhaps even to commission some new works.

A Valentine's Day concert...
JD: What are the chief challenges you’re facing with this series at the moment? How would you like it to develop from here?

SC: The exciting developments and growth in our series in the last couple of years have left me greedy for more. My main challenge now is to make sure more and more people get to know about Conway Hall and especially the wonderful musical events that happen there. I speak to people almost every week who have recently discovered it and wish they had done so years ago.  It usually only takes one or two concerts for people to become hooked!
JD: Please can you point out a few highlights of the new season?

SC: It's very tricky to choose! Every concert has a real 'raison d'être'. We have our usual offering of string quartets and piano trios of course, but we're straying a little off the beaten track with a violin and guitar recital, and pre-concert performances featuring repertoire for harp and double bass, and even electric guitar. Balancing the programme we start and end the autumn series with two great piano quintets and two great clarinet quintets. There really is something for everyone.
JD: What would you say to encourage newcomers to attend a concert at the Conway Hall?

SC: I would pass on to them the comments that I've heard from many newcomers. They love the hall and its acoustic, of course, but what is special about Conway Hall is the atmosphere.  We are not stuffy, not overly formal, we just want to create the best ambience for everyone to enjoy the music and bring the audience and performers as close to each other as possible. Everyone in the audience has a chance to chat to everyone else if they so wish over a drink in the interval, and I know many long friendships that have been born through a mutual love of music and attending concerts at Conway Hall.
5 months ago |
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In this guest post for JDCMB, the 18-year-old composer and writer Jack Pepper, from Surrey, makes an impassioned plea to stop the closure of Dorking's Performing Arts Library. 

Crying Quietly: is anyone listening?
Save Surrey’s Performing Arts Library
Jack Pepper
Jack Pepper
This year, Surrey County Council needs to make savings of more than £100m, and as a result Dorking’s Performing Arts Library – which holds a plethora of scores, books, play scripts, libretti and records - is potentially facing the chop. For the sake of music, musicians, education, and our country’s heritage, we must not let this cultural goldmine close.
We hear a lot of grumbling nowadays. ‘Austerity’ is a familiar word, and it seems impossible to check a Facebook feed or an online journal without someone writing about what in their opinion is a ‘national disgrace’. But this blog is not political – the Surrey Performing Arts Library has faced closure in the past – and I do not seek to condemn one political party or endorse another. Instead, I’d like to shift the focus back to music.
That’s what the Surrey Performing Arts Library does so well. With countless orchestral and choral sets, miniature scores, valuable music history books and records, this building is far more than an efficiency saving. It is a cultural treasure-trove, and for musicians like me it is invaluable. Before a rehearsal up in London, I can rent a score and save hundreds of pounds a month. Equally, I can purchase a music history book for £1 that you could only find for £30 anywhere else. 
This library opens music to all. After a visit today, I have emerged with the writings of Wanda Landowska, the scores for Bach’s English and French Suites, an encyclopaedia of rock and pop music, and countless other volumes. I am hugely excited at the thought of the new discoveries that such books present; pieces of music I have yet to hear, composers I have yet to discover, and new areas of interest that are yet to open up. The books I have come away with today will no doubt inspire many a future composition of mine by exposing me to new ideas and possibilities. All for less than £20.
Some people may argue that this is just a library. But I argue that a library is far more than a building with some books; it is a symbol of our willingness to invest in education, culture and accessibility to the arts for all. Some too often see libraries and cultural centres as soft targets; because they don’t attract thousands of visitors a year, nor grab the national headlines frequently, they are too often side-lined. But they provide a vital service, and one that can hardly be measured in monetary terms. 
Libraries such as this open up music to all. Who doesn’t get a thrill from listening to a symphony? Who doesn’t recognise the power of a song that, despite having forgotten the names and faces of their closest relatives, triggers something in the mind of a Dementia-sufferer that allows them to recall the lyrics? The treasures discovered at a library stay with you for life. Libraries give inspiration to composers like me, and motivation to explore the breadth of what music has to offer. The treasures of our past are only accessible through such resources.
But it means even more than this. To protect this library, and countless others like it, means protecting not just our musical past, but also our musical future. Not only does the Performing Arts Library preserve the works and ideas of past musicians, but in making them available to today’s community, the Library also ensures that the work of the future is secure. Libraries such as this are an indication of our country’s willingness to invest in its own heritage, education, and in both its past and future. It is a statement of intent. So much more than ‘just a library’.
It would be careless to so flippantly discard such a vital national resource. Choosing to protect the Surrey Performing Arts Library is a choice to protect our community’s culture; a choice to allow young musicians like me to continue to access the best resources that will give us every opportunity to advance our musicianship; a choice to prove that we love the music we write so frequently about. It is precisely this love of music – not political character-assassination – that should make you sign the survey below today. 
When you have the choice to protect the music and education you value – you wouldn’t be reading this blog if you felt otherwise – then please take it. We must have this discussion because what it at stake is so much more than politics, or a mere building. This is a choice to defend the music that gives us all so much pleasure. This is a choice to make this music accessible to all.
Jack Pepper
Jack is an 18-year-old composer and writer from Surrey, who will soon start studying Music at Oxford University. Having written a fanfare for the Royal Opera House in 2016, he has since composed for Classic FM’S 25th birthday, in association with the Royal Philharmonic Society. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic are performing this commission in October 2017. As a writer has appeared on the Gramophone and RPS blogs, and as a reviewer for Opera Today.
5 months ago |
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I've been quiet this week, despite some noisiness elsewhere.

This week things have been moving faster than I can. There was the posting and reasonably swift subsequent removal by Entrée, the youth organisation attached to Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, of a promotional campaign featuring a model's pert behind being 'upskirted' (Air on a G String, geddit, geddit, ha bloody ha? How to attract millennials to classical music? um.) And the ignoring of Amy Beach's 150th anniversary next week by every major American orchestra. And Radio 3 announced it's going to do "slow radio" (for which read "the sound of paint drying" or, worse, "RELAAAX!"). And the Proms are ongoing and I've missed the lot.

Mostly I've been stuck at my desk writing a keynote speech for the Women's Work in Music Conference at Bangor University next week. I haven't given a keynote speech before and it's fairly scary. I am therefore trying to imagine channeling my late sister's spirit. She was unique: amazonian, humourful, intellectually sharp as a diamond: her sardonic ferocity could have carved the Sunday roast. And she would not have written a first draft that's 20 pages long...

So that's been time-consuming, and I'm having tendon problems in both ankles and one arm, so I'm trying to take up yoga, which currently makes everything else hurt as much as the tendons.

And if you want to hear me making a total fool of myself, please come to the Gower Street Waterstone's on 18 September at 6.30pm in which I'll be taking part, with seven other authors who are very brilliant people, in Unbound's next pledge party. It's the book equivalent of Dragon's Den: we each have five minutes to pitch for your support... Info and booking here.

Meanwhile, juggling seven more project ideas which all need considerable development before anything can become real in any of them.

Therefore there's a blogging backlog and with any luck I may catch up soon. Back to the speech now...

5 months ago |
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'One Day One Choir' sounds singular. But hang on a mo: no fewer than 55 countries are now taking part in this gigantic day of celebration to bring peace (both inner and interpersonal) to us all through singing together. 

One Day One Choir has snowballed in the past three years: next month it will enjoy its biggest event yet, including the participation of 30 cathedrals. Its website describes it as "an inspiring global peace initiative which uses the harmonious power of singing together to unite people around the world on Peace Day, September 21st". It's still building, though, with a special eye on 2018, the final year of the World War I commemorations, so there could be no better time to step up, get involved and add your voices to the worldwide mix.

I asked its instigator and organiser, Jane Hanson, how and why she started on the project and where it goes from here.

JD: What’s the idea behind One Day One Choir? Why this, why now?

Jane Hanson
JH: ODOC arrived as a vision over a period of weeks in 2013. It was always clear that it would be about inspiring/motivating people to sing together for peace and using the amazing powers and qualities of singing to connect and unite people. 
I had been troubled about the unrest in Syria for some time, riots had been taking place in the UK and I was constantly being asked by children what was going to happen and how could they stop being scared. I kept thinking about what was happening and asking myself what could I do to make a small contribution for the better. 
I’d sung in choirs almost all my life (as had my parents and grandparents) and I’d also done research and radio work for the BBC on the power of music and singing together - so I knew this was something that anyone, anywhere in the world could do. I had seen the special and powerful effect singing together had achieved in many communities around the world.  Singing unites and uplifts people more quickly and effectively than almost any other human activity, and I knew it could make a difference by bringing people together and helping them to focus on thoughts and ideas around peace and unity. I’d also run the London Philharmonic Choir, so had connections and had helped out on global choral concerts for Voices for Hospices. I thought that by getting people singing together around the world, I could create something that offered an opportunity to anyone, anywhere, to have a small voice for peace and to feel connected to others with the same aim.
Vladimir Jurowski adds his support
Vladimir Jurowski was part of the vision. I went to him and asked for support, which he gave by bringing the LPO on board and adding his name as an ambassador for the project. Then I had to try and find funding and support for a launch concert. While all these ideas were running around in my head, the government announced that a chunk of money was becoming available to fund projects linked to the World War I commemoration, 14-18, so I thought perhaps I could run a project during these years and get people to unite in their communities and sing together for peace. Unfortunately, despite best attempts and a personal letter to me from the PM saying that ODOC was a very exciting idea, no money from this vast fund was to be forthcoming as it was only for projects linked to and directly commemoration WW1 events, and definitely not for peace projects... 
I almost gave up many times - but something always happened to keep me going. Everyone I spoke with thought the project was a brilliant idea and insisted I carry on. Three months before Peace Day 2014 I had lots of support, but still no funding, when - out of the blue - Radio 3’s The Choir stepped up and offered us a launch concert in the piazza outside Broadcasting House. This, along with media that had built up around the project, kicked us off on 21 September 2014. A conglomerate of choirs comprising The Mixed Up Chorus, London International Gospel Choir, Gospel Oak Community Parents Choir, Cheam Common Infant School Choir and The London Philharmonic Choir sang separately and together in an event broadcast live on Radio 3 and - with the help of various groups and supporters - 100,000 other people around the world also signed up to sing for peace.

JD: What does it take to organise events as big as this? How do you get people involved and spread the word.
JH: Faith, effort, determination, time and commitment - plus the support of friends and others who feel strongly about doing something for unity, community and peace and who love singing. I still do all this for free in my ‘ spare' time, so we don’t have the outreach and impact we would have if we had funding, wider support and back up and staff. But we’re still not doing too badly: lots of people know about us now. I do what I can do in the time I have and try and reach out to other groups who are interested in the same things and who try to help us by spreading the word and by finding some media support as well. 
First one school in Argentina joined in;
this year, six or seven participate
Most of our outreach goes through the website, Facebook and people who have already sung with us and share our values. One man has driven around the UK visiting cathedrals and peace centres and asking them to come on board, a music student in Kansas brought eight choirs on board last year and there are more stories of people taking up the ‘baton' and helping the project to run.
We are also now getting support from Sing UP, Music Mark and Making Music and an increasing number of people love the project and help out by reaching out and spreading the word to others - though obviously we would love LOTS more.

JD: Do you think music can bring peace? If so, how?

JH: By itself, of course, not directly, although singing can be a very peaceful and positive and uniting activity. We are looking at peace of all kinds in this project. We’re not just about non-violence but - perhaps more importantly - about inner peace, and thinking about ways to build and maintain peaceful existence with each other in families, schools, work place, communities, etc. Certainly when people sing together a very powerful bonding takes place. 

The Sixteen's recent Poulenc CD
with a dove, symbol of peace
Singing has been shown scientifically and psychologically to connect and unite people more than any other activity - some people even go as far as to say that that is its purpose. Vladimir Jurowski, for example, definitely believes that singing together has a special sociological power or purpose and helps people and communities to connect and keep linked in a positive way. Then there is the view of Bernstein: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
It is also a good teaching tool, especially in schools that work with the project to introduce notions and lessons/thoughts on what peace is and how to help achieve it personally and at school, as well as singing which is the fun and widely connecting part for children. For some schools where singing has taken a back seat of late, it provides a great opportunity to get the whole school singing by coming to it from a different direction. And teachers want ways to communicate with children about global issues, dealing with conflict and talking about peace. More and more schools are signing up, all over the world - already including more than 500 in Pakistan.

JD: Where would you like the project to go from here?
JH: I’d love some big organisation or media group to offer help to take this to more and more people and to help us create a big concert next year that can be screened or streamed to a huge audience around the world. I feel more like the guardian of the project than the owner; it needs help and support now from or wider community groups and leaders.
I would like as many people as possible around the world to engage with the project and sing for unity and peace with us - especially children and schools - and I’d like people to do this more spontaneously themselves in the future. To sing in a pro-active way in their communities without having to be on a social media video, for example, and to reach out to others to bring them together. If there were an annual peace singing event, I’m sure people would love it.
I also want people to take the thoughts and ideas we share about unity and peace (and singing) into their everyday lives, using them however they can to help themselves and their communities - and to be empowered and to have fun with it. 
Two singers from the National Opera Studio added their voices to those of students from Burntwood School in this Peace Assembly in London last year

JD: What would you say to encourage people to take part?
JH: Most people love singing and I don’t really know anyone who doesn’t want to live in a more peaceful or united world. So I would simply ask them to think about this and then get together with a few (or lots of) other people and add their voices to the others singing out.  
It’s not necessary to put on a concert, although people do. You can sing one song to be part of it - anything appropriate for peace (we have some free songs on the website) or you can dedicate something you are already doing, e.g. evensong or chants in temples and mosques or even a pre-planned rehearsal or concert. The Sixteen have just dedicated their concert on 21 September and will be mentioning us before they sing, and the monks at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight and at Wat Buddhapadipa Thai Temple will be dedicating their chanting to ODOC and inviting the public to join in. The Wat is organising a special chant event for ODOC this year.
And this is a great and easy project for schools to join, as the whole school can sing in assembly. We provide free songs and support - and children and teachers who’ve already joined us love it.  Increasing numbers of schools now connect with others, or invite parents in to join them
If that’s not inspiring enough, then singing itself is super-good for us in so many ways - it has multiple health benefits including the fact that singing regularly in a choir improves your entire immune system. It literally helps to make us feel uplifted and happy because of the chemicals it stimulates in our brains and it’s a great social activity. Singing connects us to others better than anything else and when we sing together our hearts literally start to beat at the same time. (Our supporter Mark Elder loves that fact)

JD: What do you personally feel about it? What would you say to inspire others?
Karl Jenkins adds his call for participants
JH: At the moment a lot of long days and sleepless nights!  But I know it’s worth it, too, because every time a group signs up or sends a positive message or feedback, there’s a calm inner feeling that you know this is a right thing to be doing and that some people, somewhere, are feeling inspired or supported by it. That’s especially true when it’s children and schools, or people who wouldn’t be singing together with others in any other way. And it feels great every time we get a sign-up from a new country or a well-known group or choir.
What drives me? Well, when you start something, then you have to finish it, as they say, especially when you’ve set very clear and public timelines and intentions! And there's a strong inner knowledge and guiding force that things have to be done to help people find ways to unite with a common voice, as our world seems to have become even more troubled than when the project started. Singing or chanting together is one of the only ways that they can do that - so the aim is to provide a common platform where people can sing their own tunes in their own words and languages, but still create a common harmony and be united with others. 
I don’t even think I have a choice to do this, really. I think it was there in the ether just waiting or wanting to happen and I happened to be the person that had to do it. And anyway, my friends and supporters wouldn’t let me stop now even if I tried - especially as there’s only just over a year to go to our 2018 target!
If you have a vision, a passion, a strong belief or a gut feeling that you can or could do something that matters, to you or other people, then believe in it and keep going, however hard it seems to be! Reach out for all the support you can get. You’ll be amazed how many strangers can step up to help - and keep going.  And don’t attach too much to a specific outcome because, as we have seen with ODOC, it might not go quite the way you pictured, but if the idea is good it will go the way it’s meant to go. Go with the flow. And keep going.
You can find more info on how you can become part of One Day One Choir at the website, http://www.onedayonechoir.org

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5 months ago |
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Spent most of yesterday driving to and from Aldeburgh with the OH to experience a very special night of Strauss and Elgar at the Snape Proms. Renée Fleming sang the Strauss Four Last Songs and the programme was topped and tailed with his Till Eulenspiegel and Elgar's Symphony No.1. On the platform was a familiar presence who's nevertheless unusual in the context of this orchestra. It wasn't his first concert with them by a long chalk, but the first in a little while. So, with apologies to The Guardian's 'Blind Date', here's what happened when Ed Gardner met the LPO.

You'd never think that just behind you is one of the best concert halls in the country

What were they hoping for?A dynamic partnership of orchestra and conductor in which sympathy is found, sparks can fly and the audience can get really excited about the music. At least, that's usually what they want. 
What did they talk about?The end of days, intentionally or not. Poor Till is hanged at the end of his Strauss tone poem (I must look up what he's supposed to have done to deserve it - maybe he spoke out about politics...). The Four Last Songs are, well, the four last songs, ending implicitly with the souls of Richard and Pauline rising towards heaven in the form of larks; and Elgar, in his Symphony No.1, takes an eloquent "idée fixe" melody with regular, walking-type accompaniment and then, to use a modern-day trendy word, 'disrupts' it in almost every way conceivable in England in 1908. It was hard not to read the second movement as a macabre, scherzoid battle scene. The final pages, in which the theme returns surrounded by a great musical firework display, seemed simultaneously a celebration and a fearfully pertinent farewell to a vanishing era.
Rehearsal in Snape Maltings
Renée Fleming's performance of the Four Last Songs, and the encores Cäcilie and Morgen, offered a raw revelation of innermost heart, at times almost spoken more than sung; however quiet she goes, her voice still shimmers through the music fabric as only hers can, drawing us in towards her and softly wringing us out. Explaining the encores, she noted that the two they had chosen were early works dating from around the time of Strauss's marriage, and adding: "I just want to say: thank God he married a soprano..."
Any awkward moments?If so, very few and well masked. 
Good podium manner?Splendid. Gardner is debonair, extrovert, charismatic, with plenty of audience appeal. For the orchestra, one has the impression he seems clear, positive and cogent, wearing his expertise lightly.
Best things about the meeting?The freshness of it. Imagine a spouse who is used to - and loves - long, deep, intense conversations, in which each word is controlled with immense precision and the underlying philosophy must be considered at every moment...suddenly taking a walk with someone who laces up his boots, links his arm through hers and points out the dramas among passers by, the green parrots flying about and the sun sparkling on the water and says "great, so what do you want for lunch?"

Gardner is a splendid storyteller, pacing the narrative and sustaining tension over long expanses of music with vivid colour and detail around a rock-solid core. 
In addition, it was a massive treat to hear the home band in the Aldeburgh acoustic, which is warm and flattering, bloomy and gorgeous.

Would you send your friends to hear them?Heavens, yes.
Describe the meeting in three words.Energetic, inspiring, promising.
What do you think they made of each other?Very different from one another, but they seemed keen to adapt, to find common ground and to, er, make beautiful music together.
Might they go on somewhere?They might. We'll have to see.
And...did they kiss?Definitely having a good old flirt. 
If you could change one thing about the evening, what would it be?Distance. It's a long way to Aldeburgh and we didn't get home til nearly 2am. 
Marks out of 10?Eight.
Might they meet again?I reckon so.

5 months ago |
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Curtain calls...in front, Roxanna (right) and me, with Jay Wheeler in the middle

I've been away since just after the last night of Silver Birch, so I've only posted one of the reviews here so far. Here's a little selection from among the others. Silver Birch has been without a doubt the most wonderful experience of my professional life to date, so it is kind of nice to know it's gone over OK... Below, some extracts that appear on the Garsington website.

(Since I'm abandoning one's habitual English self-effacement and modesty here, I wouldn't mind adding that The Times review also called my libretto "powerful and poetic" and Roxanna's music "busy and imaginative", while the Financial Times said that the piece "should be a useful stepping-stone to something bigger"...)

Silver Birch
"It's the terrific panache of Karen Gillingham's staging that really socks you between the eyes and ears. It was all superbly played by the Garsington Opera Orchestra, augmented by student instrumentalists and expertly conducted by Douglas Boyd."
Richard Morrison, The Times, 31 July 2017????
"...this was a real achievement."
Richard Fairman, Financial Times, 1 August 2017????
"A remarkable event with a vast community cast. There is a real sense of vision in this coming together, as clear in the unstoppable energy of the performers as it is in the excellence of the stagecraft displayed in Karen Gillingham's complex production."
George Hall, The Stage, 31 July 2017?????
"Panufnik and Duchen's achievement is to synthesise personal and poetic experiences, often harrowing and disturbing, into a work of beauty and hope."
Amanda-Jane Doran, Classical Source, 30 July 2017?????
"A work that is having an impact on performers and audiences alike, and which stands as one of the very best examples of this type of opera."
Sam Smith, Music OMH, 31 July 2017???
"A chorus of roof-raising passion and purpose...directed with commanding skill by Karen Gillingham."
Helen Wallace, Arts Desk, 31 July 2017"This was undoubtedly the most uplifting and moving evening I've spent in the theatre this year. It deserves many more outings - soon."
Susan Elkin, Sardines Magazine, 31 July 2017Please also read this very moving piece by the mum of one of the participating schoolgirls, explaining how the experience has changed her life: https://rhapsodyinwords.com/tag/garsington-opera/

6 months ago |
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Yes, they did this.
The last scene of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg's second act is usually stirring, but doesn't often make the pit of your stomach drop as if you're in the London Underground's oldest lift. But this is Barrie Kosky's new production for the Bayreuth Festival. While white supremacists were marching and murdering in Charlottesville, we were in the Festspielhaus watching as Kosky unleashed across the entire giant plain of a stage an inflatable cartoon head, akin to the vile Nazi-era caricatures of supposedly typical Jewish appearance (as in the picture, but magnified a few hundred times). The riot in the town square here is fermenting an incipient pogrom against the Jewish Beckmesser. And, horrifying to admit, as an interpretation it makes sense.

That probably looks as if Kosky (the Australian director who has sometimes described himself as a "gay, Jewish kangaroo" - see my interview with him in the JC here) is bashing us over the head. Believe it or not, he isn't - or not solely. This masterful production poses many, many questions, but offers no easy answers. Kosky's laser-like imagination deftly clinches the linking image as one of judgment: the 'marker' is judging Walther, and Sachs judging Beckmesser, in the courtroom in which the Nuremberg Trials were held. Ultimately Sachs delivers his speech on great German art alone in the witness stand, before turning to conduct a newly visible orchestra to prove his point. At this moment, the audience must become the judges. We are saved by art alone... Or are we? That is up to us.

Saved by art alone?

We are not only judging Sachs, though - because this Sachs is Wagner. The overture shows us the interior of the composer's nearby house, Wahnfried, and as the first chords blaze out, the doors fly open and in strides the maestro, complete with his two Newfoundland dogs. We soon meet Cosima, who's been upstairs with a migraine; her father, Franz Liszt; a guest, the conductor Hermann Levi (who was the son of a rabbi, but was Wagner's choice to conduct the premiere of Parsifal). There's the spectacle of Wagner and Liszt playing this music to their captive audience as a piano duet, and the mercurial Wagner becomes puppet-master, directing everybody, while Levi is shown up as an outsider, reluctant to kneel for prayer - he's Jewish, but also he has gammy knees. A portrait of Cosima wins a central role, and soon from inside the piano emerge the mastersingers in 16th-century costume...

Wagner is transformed into Sachs; and his younger self, Walther; and his younger self still, David the apprentice; and two young boys in similar costume, perhaps Siegfried, or Wolfgang and Wieland. Cosima becomes Eva, if without such properties of recreated youth, and Liszt is her dad, Pogner. And Levi is coerced by the Master into becoming Beckmesser.

One can, of course, pick holes in the concept if one wants to - Eva/Cosima's hoppity-skippity ways in her dignified older-woman black crinoline don't always work convincingly. Yet the whole is carried out with the kind of flair, wealth of detail and technical brilliance that reduces such matters to relatively minor caveats. The crowd-scenes' Bosch-like ferments are punctuated by startling moments of stillness. Grass matting rises to fly skywards; Wahnfried wheels away, in its entirety, into the distance. (And how do those characters get into the piano to climb out of it? From row 24, the illusion of magic seemed complete.)

But the audacity of unfurling that giant antisemitic caricature is something that probably would only be acceptable in Bayreuth, a festival fated always to seek atonement for its historical disgrace. Today many scholars assert that Beckmesser was never intended as a Jewish caricature, while others declare it's obvious that he is one. Some productions hint at the issue genteelly - David McVicar's Glyndebourne production is a case in point - while others appear to by-pass it, notably the Bayerische Staatsoper's fascinating 1960s-set staging. Kosky grabs the issue and faces it, head on. That takes quite some guts. Besides, dramaturgically, historically, in terms of Wagner and Cosima's relationship, personalities and attitudes, the production seems watertight.

Kränzle & Volle as Beckmesser & Sachs
Musically things were not always as even as one might wish, although the best was the best of all the best. The peerless Beckmesser of Johannes Martin Kränzle was cherishable, with subtle, beautiful singing and detailed characterisation, carrying off both humour and humiliation with convincing aplomb. Michael Volle as Sachs/Wagner matched him in magnificence: a huge, charismatic personality with vast velvety voice, Volle seems effortlessly to hold stage and audience in the proverbial palm of his hand. The relationship between the two characters proved, as it should, the lynchpin of the entire edifice.

As Walther, Klaus Florian Vogt had virtually everything, including the requisite metallic cut-through tone to carry off the rigours of the role and the power to soar over the textures, and in this context it's hard to ignore the way that blond "Aryan" look contrasts with the bearded Beckmesser when vying for Eva's affection. Günther Groissböck presented an exceptionally colourful and beautiful-toned Pogner, while Daniel Behle was a warm and mercurial David, and Wiebke Lehmkuhl a mellifluous Magdalena despite the flighty character assigned to her (as an aside, one couldn't help feeling that the female characters didn't fare too well in this staging). And the chorus was an utter glory. Less happy, sadly, was the Eva of Anne Schwanewilms, who seemed at times to be struggling vocally. Philippe Jordan's conducting slid towards some ponderous tempi; indeed, a couple of times one feared things were about to grind to a halt. Some of the soloists appeared to do their level best to chivvy the pace along.

A mixed evening, then, but one that has provided endless food for thought well beyond the Festival Bratwurst. I'd love to see it several more times.

Photo credits: (c) Enrico Nawrath/Bayreuther Festspiele

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6 months ago |
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Now that the Silver Birch excitement is behind us, it's time for a bit of a break. Back in a couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, you could...

...read some of the reviews: http://www.garsingtonopera.org/news/latest-reviews-0

...make a pledge to MEETING ODETTE, my new novel based (in a slightly off-the-wall way) on Swan Lakehttps://unbound.com/books/meeting-odette

...book tickets for one of our GHOST VARIATIONS concerts with David Le Page and Viv McLean:
• 23 October: Brasserie Zédel, just off Piccadilly Circus - 0207 734 4888
• 3 November: Artrix Arts Centre, Bromsgrove
• 19 November: Burgh House, Hampstead
• 2 January: Lampeter House, Pembrokeshire
• 22 February: Leicester Lunchtime Concerts
(more booking details on the posters, left - click to enlarge)

...and/or ALICIA'S GIFT with Viv:
• 20 November: Barnes Music Society, The Old Sorting Office, London SW13 - email barnesmusicsoc@aol.com

...and support JDCMB's Year of Development, here: https://www.gofundme.com/jdcmb 


6 months ago |
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