JDCMB is Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music & writing, with CHOCOLATE AND SILVER, in London, UK. Author & journalist JD writes for The Independent.
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Temirkanov, Kavakos: Beethoven, Prokofiev powered by medici.tv, the leading online channel for classical music.

This concert comes to you live from the Annecy Classic Festival, courtesy of Medici.tv. JDCMB is delighted to share this streaming. Leonidas Kavakos playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto promises to be an artistic experience that everyone should sample, and the concert closes with music from Prokofiev's ballet score Romeo and Juliet.

Amusingly enough, the concert's programme appears originally to have contained Bruckner's Symphony No.4, according to the Annecy website. I promise I have had no part in this alteration!

Enjoy the concert. Dear Medici, thank you for sharing the streaming.
2 months ago | |
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Yuri Temirkanov (left) and Leonidas Kavakos (right) can be heard live from Annecy right here, tomorrow

Free Kavakos? Why are they holding him?

OK, just kidding. But you can indeed watch and listen to the fabulous Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos for free on JDCMB tomorrow. We are live-streaming a concert from the Annecy Classic Festival, in a webcast shared exclusively with us by Medici.tv. Kavakos is playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto and Yuri Temirkanov conducts the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra. The second half consists of something rather special that may surprise regular readers of JDCMB.

The performance starts at 21:00 French time, so in the UK it will begin at 8pm and in New York 3pm. Further west, I'm sure you can work it out for yourself.

Fingers crossed that I've got all the technology correctly set up...
2 months ago | |
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A double-bass player walks to work in the Taiswald

I started to go to Pontresina with my parents at the age of 12, more years ago than it's seemly to admit. This mountain resort in the Engadin, south-east Switzerland, with its open, sunny aspect and jaw-shattering scenery became their favourite summer haunt; over the decade that followed I must have been there with them for at least six or seven summers. But I hadn't gone back since 1988 and both my parents are long dead.

This being a slightly difficult, landmark, stock-taking sort of year, I had an attack of nostalgia and wanted to visit once more, just to make sure it was still there, still real, and still as good as my romanticised imagination and memory has been making out.

It wasn't. It was far better. And there was no getting away from the music.

Every day, I remembered, there used to be a free concert in the woods, from 11am to 12 noon. The spot is called the Taiswald: a pine glade near the start of the mountain pathways, where the audience can assemble on benches to listen to an hour-long chamber programme of old-style favourites, lollipops, operetta medleys, arrangements, concerto extracts and more. I dreaded walking that way and finding the place had fallen into disuse. Switzerland seems quiet at the moment - the exchange rate could well be decimating  tourism - and after all, people don't go to concerts any more, if the doomsayers are to be believed.

Well, they do here. The Taiswald is flourishing. More than a hundred people came to the Camerata Pontresina's concert on Friday, a programme full of juicy tidbits like Offenbach's Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld (which I haven't heard since, probably, my last visit to the Taiswald), Johann Strauss's Music of the Spheres Waltz and Fischer's delicious South of the Alps Suite. Some things have changed with the years: for instance, there's now a printed booklet displaying the programmes for the whole summer. Similar outdoor series take place in nearby towns and villages, among them St Moritz and Sil Maria. The concerts are organised by an impresario in St Moritz who, I'm told, has a personal library of the arrangements.

The musicians arrive to play here from all over Switzerland - we met a cellist from the Zurich Opera, a fine young clarinettist who's studying in Lucerne, and of course the double bassist above. They must contend with the vagaries of the elements - Friday was blowy, with commensurate effect on the music on the stands, which they dealt with by using clothes-pegs (though if the weather is too awful the concert takes place in the church or cinema instead). And the trains go by, whistling, and the dogs trot past, barking, and occasionally newcomers arrive, open mouthed with surprise at finding such an eccentric pastime taking place in the forest - and sometimes they sit down to enjoy the music. As for the piano: it lives in the pavilion year-round, winter included. It still sounds relatively OK.

Camerata Pontresina preparing to play in the Taiswald

The Taiswald, it turns out, is an old and proud tradition. It has been going since 1909; in 2009 centenary celebrations were duly held. Among those who came across it and sat down to listen many decades ago was Richard Strauss - who was apparently scandalised by hearing an arrangement of a Mozart symphony for quartet and said it should be forbidden!

Strauss. I didn't realise how important Strauss was to me. I just never thought about it. I took him for granted. But the fact remains that the first piece that switched me on to orchestral music in earnest was his Don Juan. I was given a ticket for a Royal Phil matinee at the RFH when I was 12 and it opened with the tone poem, which I'd never heard before. When it flew out at us, the energy lifted me and held me up and I remember falling head over heels in love with the whole thing on the spot. I wanted to be part of it. Don Juan swept me off my feet. Eventually, having not managed to become part of an orchestra myself, I married a violinist who was - and in whose background Strauss features prominently. Tom's great-grandfather was a Berlin businessman with a summer house in Bavaria, not far from Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and he knew the composer well; indeed, was a Skat-playing companion on summer evenings by the lakes.

Last Friday, we went to listen to a talk in the Hotel Saratz by the Swiss singer, musicologist and moderator Claudio Danuser about Strauss's connection with Pontresina. When Strauss's villa in Garmisch was requisitioned by the Americans at the end of the war, Strauss and his famously cantankerous wife Pauline took off for Switzerland. They moved hotels frequently because Pauline, true to form, kept falling out with the staff. But the family-run Saratz in Pontresina was a special favourite. Claudio had interviewed the proprietor about Strauss's stays there and was full of fascinating stories - among them, the Taiswald occasion mentioned above. Another time, the couple walked into the dining room and found musicians accompanying dinner. "Richardl," said Pauline, "play some Johann."

In the hotel garden is a wooden pavilion with a view across to the mountains of the Val Roseg, along which a favourite walk can be taken. It was in this structure in 1948 that Strauss completed the last of the Four Last Songs to be composed - 'Beim schlafengehen', ultimately the third in the set. I've always felt there is nothing in all 20th-century music that can quite compare with the beauty of this song and its violin solo.

The pavilion in the Hotel Saratz garden, where Strauss finished 'Beim schlafengehen'

So the elderly Richard Strauss was looking out at the Val Roseg as he worked on it. You can't really see the view in this photo, as it was very cloudy, but on a good day, when you are walking along it, the valley looks like this:

The Val Roseg, Pontresina

A mere 30 years later, there we were, me and my mum and dad, in the hotel next door. And in its garden, gazing at the same view as Strauss, without knowing it. I remember staying in a garden-floor room that must have been just a few metres away from that pavilion. Aged 14 I felt there was something in the air itself that was galvanising to creativity and I'd sit in the garden scribbling my attempts at novels by day and, by night, having the extraordinary dreams that one has at high altitude after dayfuls of fresh air and mountain walks. With no clue about Strauss - or anyone else, for Hermann Hesse apparently came here too, and Thomas Mann, and so on.......

It sounds matter-of-fact and so-what-anyhow to tell the story; but when something and somewhere and someone and that music have been as much part of you as your own nose for such a long time and you then learn something new about how it all connects, it feels quite another matter.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
-- TS ELIOT, 'Little Gidding'

Here's the Strauss - sung by Nina Stemme.

3 months ago | |
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You may think you're on holiday. It depends, though, what you mean by "holiday". I've been away for two and a half weeks, but this time has been brimming over with music, serendipity and a good few marvels of both. Every day has brought something new, a character from past or present, a startling contact or renewal, a joy or amazement, a revelation or insight or several, and I may need to take them one at a time...

I headed first for Munich and the Bavarian State Opera, steamy in the midst of a massive heat wave; here the final night of the annual Opera Festival brought Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais together again for Puccini's Manon Lescaut, relayed to the city on big screens and webcast to the world. This was the production by Hans Neuenfels that at the start of the season saw Anna Netrebko drop her participation, citing "artistic differences".

The square outside the Bavarian State Opera prepares for the relay

It's a bit of a mixed bag. The relationship of Manon and Des Grieux and its development is by far the most convincing element, and so it should be; the final act, the two of them in extremis, is a searing tragedy, full of struggle - Manon's passion fighting against the invasion of death, thumping the ground to bring back her despairing lover to her side. Opolais blossomed vocally and dramatically in the role to an even greater extent, perhaps, than she did at Covent Garden last year; Kaufmann simply soared along at the summit. Fine singing throughout in the supporting roles and chorus - but I am not sure I will ever get my head around the necessity for this chorus to wiggle about in fat-suits and pink wigs. Alain Altinoglu's conducting too brought patchy results: the opening tempo felt extremely fast, and some of the accompaniment was too loud, but often - not least in the intermezzo - it held a gorgeous eloquence.

Here Neuenfels, Altinoglu, Opolais and Kaufmann explore and explain the concept and the challenges of the opera.

A few days later, discussing the issue of the fat-suits and other potentially dubious details with friends who loved the production, I tried to see it their way: it shows Manon and Des Grieux defying convention, a pair of individualists in a world in which everyone else looks and behaves the same (except, presumably, for the Dancing Master, who turns up bearing some resemblance to an orang-utan, perhaps a refugee from Munich's old Rigoletto production set on the Planet of the Apes). As the introductory film declares, Manon and Des Grieux are seeing the world around them as nothing more than a preposterous installation compared to their love. Yet Jonathan Kent's production at Covent Garden last year spoke far more to me of the darker truths of this story in an incarnation for today's world, where it remains the most "relevant" opera of them all.

So what's the essential problem with Manon Lescaut? It could just be that the original book is a short, terse, taut, action-packed, 18th-century thriller. It shows us Des Grieux torn apart by his passion for a girl who wants to have her cake and eat it and whose charm makes her attractive, but who is more anti-heroine than sympathetic lead. Romanticising her never quite works, and that is not the fault of Puccini, nor of any director: it's simply that Abbé Prévost's novel is too finely wrought to allow such a metamorphosis. Maybe that is why this opera, which blossoms with phenomenal music from start to finish, still does not have quite the same currency on the stage as Madame Butterfly or La Bohème. If any director has found a way to make the drama work 200 per cent, I haven't yet seen it.

More on the joys (?) of Regietheater shortly - from Bayreuth.

But even with all these reservations, it was a tremendous performance and an unforgettable evening. Oh, and if you'd managed to get backstage at the Staatsoper that night and you had this photo, you'd put it on your blog too.

3 months ago | |
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My holiday, however, involves a Jonas-and-Kristine fix in Munich on Friday night and Tristan at Bayreuth on Sunday. So I might end up writing something about some of it, wifi willing. Failing that, I leave you with this...

3 months ago | |
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Before all that rain started, we spent a gorgeous afternoon at Opera Holland Park, under the leaves in the Yucca Lawn groves, watching Will Todd's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It's on until 1 August, so assuming we're clear of the rain, do try and catch a show.

It's one of those rare delights that holds little kids riveted, yet their parents equally so: a sassy adaptation of the characters and elements of the story, plus an eclectic take on the music with everything from gospel through a hint of zany modernism to something edging towards Somewhere Over the Rainbow (and try the Wonderland Blues above, starring the larger-than-life Keel Watson as the Caterpillar and super Fflur Wyn as Alice).

Wonders in Aliceland. Photo by Alex Brenner

The sets are dotted around in different spots beneath the trees; your ticket is a cushion and you take it with you to sit on on the ground, moving around between scenes. Full marks to the orchestra - known as the Alice Band - for shifting too, and to the cast for marshalling us all into the right places at the right time.

And in this environment, after a while even the most hardened critic/opera fan begins to shake off the old encrustations of cynicism and overwork grumpiness and...well, if you're surrounded by entranced four-year-olds, eventually you begin to feel like one yourself. And you discover anew that 'opera' scrubs up as enormous fun: a good story well told, through top-notch music and singing and movement and drama and costumes, all live in front of you. What a refreshing and welcome joy with which to see in the rest of the summer.

This show, incidentally, has legs. Though OHP commissioned it two years ago, it's travelling excellently and will be at the Linbury in November. A CD (as above) is now available too. More info about cast, performance dates, etc, here.
4 months ago | |
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I took part in a discussion for the US radio station WQXR's programme Conducting Business about playing the glamour card in classical music. Have a listen above.

More info here.
4 months ago | |
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The clarinettist John McCaw, always known personally as Jack, has died at the age of 96. He lived opposite us.

We had no idea, when we moved to our house back in the last century, that he was there. Virtually every clarinettist I've come across since then had at some point been to our street for lessons with him. He was principal clarinet successively of the Philharmonia and of the London Philharmonic, many years ago (and would always watch with much amusement as Tom zoomed out of our front door with instrument case and raincoat to catch the train to Glyndebourne). He was well known as a soloist, and made the recording above of the Nielsen and Mozart concertos with the New Philharmonia and Raymond Leppard in, I believe, a single day.

He can be heard in innumerable recordings, including, if I remember rightly, the Elgar Cello Concerto with du Pré, Barenboim and the LPO (1967), the Nielsen Symphony No.5 conducted by Jascha Horenstein and apparently with Placido Domingo singing 'La vita e inferno' from La forza del destino. In 1977 he played the Mozart Concerto at the Proms with the Philharmonia under Riccardo Muti. He also championed the works of Joseph Holbrooke.

Jack was born in New Zealand at the very end of the First World War and came to live in the UK a few years after the end of the Second, when he was about 30. He and his wife, Ann, a pianist, had lived in their house for more than 50 years.

He was a vivid, sparky character with an unfailing wit, a great deal of charm and, we hear, little patience for nonsense from conductors. He was meticulous, house-proud and a keen gardener. Even when he was over 90 we would see him on a step-ladder with an electric saw, trimming his hedge into a perfect oblong.

For friends and former pupils wishing to attend his funeral, I am told that it will be at Mortlake Crematorium on Tuesday 28 July at 4pm.

We will miss him very, very much.
4 months ago | |
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I was sent a CD by the young Israeli pianist and composer Matan Porat to review a couple of years ago and was mightily impressed (I called his playing "cool-tempered, intelligent and sophisticated"). The other day I heard - just one week before the event, of course - that he is making his Wigmore Hall debut on Sunday (26th). I can't go, annoyingly, but asked him for an e-interview. Here he is. 

Matan, where did you grow up, what is your background and how did you start to play?

I grew up in a non-musical family. My mother loves music and as a toddler I learned to listen to LPs on my own, and was fascinated for hours from music by Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler. My parents bought me small musical toys and I used to sing and play all day long. One day I came across a piano, and it was clear for me that is the instrument I want to play, as it provided instant gratification and had the possibility of imitating a whole orchestra. 

I started both piano and composition at the age of six. For a very long time, until I was 18, I was mostly interested in composition and improvisation, and piano studies were secondary. 

Which musicians and teachers have been most important to your development? 
All had changed when I entered the Tel-Aviv university. Initially, I wanted to study only composition, but my teacher advised me to apply also for the piano department. I had the immense luck to study with a fantastic teacher, Emanuel Krasovsky, who saw immediately the big potential I had and together we were able to accomplish many things, despite the fact my first public concert was when I was over 18.
Over the years I was privileged to work with some great artists who greatly inspired me, such as András Schiff, Daniel Barenboim and Richard Goode. 
Among my "regular" teachers, I have learned most from my first teacher, Emanuel Krasovsky, and my last teacher, Murray Perahia. 
How do you combine your joint activities as composer and pianist? And does understanding the composition process make a difference to how you approach the music that you perform?
It is essential for me to do both professions at the highest level possible, and each year it becomes a greater and greater challenge as my concert schedule is always growing and I need to find time to write my commissions. As it is impossible for me to compose in months I have lots of concerts or on tour, I find each year at least two months where I do not perform, and that is when I compose. 
Although the two professions are very different from each other, as a pianist I feel my approach to music is closer to a composer approach- I am always interested in form and harmony and never found myself interested in other performers, or "superficial" performance aspects (i.e. octaves, scales, etc.).
As a composer, I am more empathic towards performers, as I know hard it is to play, and I'm always making sure I do not create unnecessary difficulties. 

What ideas and motivations inspire you as a composer?  As a composer, my ideas come from various different sources- together with musical inspirations, I am often inspired by films, paintings, books and poetry. Once an idea is planted, all I need is to concentrate and develop it. But to reach that initial idea can take a long time...
Please tell us about your programme for the Wigmore concert.For my Wigmore recital I wanted to pick three very different, though wonderful works: Ligeti's Musica Ricercata, which is one of the composer's early works from the 50s, and in which he has already found his unique voice, departing from the language of Bartok and of eastern-European music. These 11 bagatelles are each constructed from an added tone: the first uses only 2 notes, the second 3, the third 4, and so on until the last piece which uses the full 12 notes. 
The second piece which I will present is Rameau's Nouvelle Suite en La. Naturally, Rameau is a harpsichord composer and many of the ornaments are better suited for harpsichord than for the modern piano. However, I find that rather than imitating the harpsichord, it is rather convincing to play it in a modern tradition, and even at times to use (God forbids!) the pedal. These wonderful dances include a harmonically daring Sarabande and the famous and virtuosic closing Gavotte et Doubles. 
I don't think it is needed to introduce Schubert's A Major sonata D959, the one before last sonata and one of the last pieces which he wrote. I feel very close to Schubert's music, and this sonata is one of my favourites among his pieces. 
Coming from the Middle East, do you feel music can be a positive force for change and reconciliation there? I do believe music, or any form of art for that matter, has no nationality or boundaries and is stronger than any political thought, regime or power. It has always been that way and will always remain independent. 
4 months ago | |
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The manuscript of 'Gold', Korngold's cantata written in childhood and shown to Mahler
Michael Haas, author of the book Forbidden Music - about the generation of Jewish composers murdered, obliterated or exiled by the Nazis - was curator at the Jewish Museum in Vienna of a fabulous exhibition about Julius and Erich Wolfgang Korngold several years ago. He has now posted on forbiddenmusic.org a very substantial essay entitled The False Myths and True Genius of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, lavishly illustrated with both visual and aural material.

It is wonderfully written and the story emerges powerfully with all its complex, baffling and ultimately tragic elements in sharp relief. Did Korngold die too young because of the stress caused by his own sense of "irrelevance"?

Do give it a read. And a listen.
4 months ago | |
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