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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Over at the South Bank, the magnificent Gillian Moore has a new job.

Southbank Centre has just announced that Moore, until now head of classical music, is to become Director of Music, with immediate effect.

Her task, the Centre says, is now to "bring together contemporary and classical music into one team, enabling Southbank Centre to work even more holistically and thematically across music genres. She will expand the already-acclaimed commissioning and educational remit of the music programme and work with the four resident orchestras, along with our contemporary musicians and ensembles, to deliver new and ground-breaking projects."

Moore comments: "“I'm really looking forward to expanding my work at Southbank Centre as Director of Music. This will enable us to forge a future for all music here on the South Bank, a future that is inclusive, innovative and in which as many people as possible will be able to benefit from the great riches London has to offer.”
2 months ago | |
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The great Roby Lakatos and his band take their bows at the end of an extraordinary evening yesterday in which they performed a special gig at the Amati Exhibition at the Langham, London. As editor of the Amati Magazine, I had the enviable task of introducing them and was therefore able to sit right at the front, at times virtually underneath Roby's violin as he strolled around... and also right next to the cimbalom, an instrument that in my next life I'd like to learn to play.

Roby's cimbalom virtuoso is the great Jeno Lisztes, a performer I've seen and marvelled at many times over. Yesterday his performances included a version of The Flight of the Bumble Bee which...well, I'm sorry, Yuja, but you've got competition there. Having been curious about his name and any possible relation to a certain other Hungarian name that is similar but shorter, I finally got to ask him the billion-pound question, "So, has 'Lisztes' got anything to do with Franz Liszt?"

Now, here's a little correction. "Liszt", he says, means "flour" in Hungarian. "Lisztes" means "floury". I heard "flower" and "flowery", but an eagle-eyed, Hungarian-literate reader has put me straight...

 So...yes and no. And a smile. And, perhaps, a mystery. But if the piano had Liszt, the cimbalom has Lisztes. That much is clear.

For this occasion Roby played the "Ex-Stevens" Strad of 1690, lent by Florian Leonhard for the occasion. In the glass case towards the back of the room is the 'Barjansky' Strad cello, likewise of 1690, which Julian Lloyd Webber has put up for sale (also via Leonhard). Standing in front of it is its bodyguard!
2 months ago | |
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The sad news has just reached us that one of the giants of contemporary music in the UK has died. The great Ronald Stevenson, composer and pianist - indeed, composer-pianist - was described by some as a Lisztian figure for our times. A composer outside the mainstream, with Busoni among his most powerful influences, he held true to the integrity of his own voice throughout, was immensely loved and respected, and has been deeply influential - and will remain so for years to come.

Learn more about Stevenson and his life and music at the Ronald Stevenson Society, here.

Here is an introduction to one of his most celebrated pieces, the gigantic Passacaglia on D-S-C-H, from Marc-André Hamelin and Stevenson himself.

And here is an incredibly beautiful piece entitled 'In the Silent Night', from L'art nouveau de chant appliqué au piano, Vol 1, played by Stevenson's friend and devoted advocate, Murray McLachlan.

3 months ago | |
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... it's Friday, it's gone 4 o'clock and it's high time we had a quick look at what Jonas Kaufmann is up to.

Singing Walther in Meistersinger in Munich, that's what - on the near horizon. Opening night is 16 May 2016, Kirill Petrenko conducts, Sara Jakubiak sings Eva and Wolfgang Koch is Hans Sachs.

It will be Kaufmann's first time in the role on stage - he sang it once before in concert at the Edinburgh Festival - and the Bayerische Staatsoper has issued this trailer in which he and the director David Bösch talk about the challenges that Wagner's glorious opera poses for them both. (With English subtitles.)

3 months ago | |
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Morley College has announced the next in its series of workshops for young women music students to try their hands at conducting, led by the conductor Alice Farnham:


WC4In March 2014 Morley College ran its first Women Conductors weekend workshop. This was developed in response to wide spread media coverage at the time that commented on the lack of female conductors in the industry. It is designed to create more opportunities for young women to try out orchestral conducting, and is led by acclaimed conductor Alice Farnham.With generous funding and support from Arts Council England the weekend workshops will run during 2015-16. They will be led by Alice Farnham with stagecraft and body language coaches Alma Sheehan and Shirley Keane. In addition students will be given practical experience of conducting small professional ensembles. View the weekend workshop programme and learn more about the tutors.Upcoming workshop dates:9-10 May 2015, Oxford University30-31 May 2015, Leeds College of MusicFurther workshops will be held throughout the UK during 2015/16.The workshops are open for application from women aged 16-25 or in full-time music education either in conservatoires, university or in sixth form and planning to study music full time. Whilst students who already have conducting experience will find this rewarding and challenging, it is also open to students who may think conducting is not for them, but are willing to try it out.Outstanding workshop participants will be selected to take part in the final masterclass day with a leading female conductor and a full orchestra, as part of the Women Conductors at Morley event in 2016.Fees:Participant fee = £150Observer fee = £40How to apply:Send a one page CV alongside a 500 word statement on why you would like to take part in the workshop to womenconductors@morleycollege.ac.uk
3 months ago | |
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The opera world is in shock at the news that mezzo-soprano Maria Radner and bass Oleg Bryjak were on the Germanwings plane that has crashed in the French Alps. 150 people are believed to have been aboard the flight and it is expected that nobody has survived. Everyone's thoughts and hearts are with those who have lost loved ones in this appalling tragedy

3 months ago | |
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...and no, it's not just the cats. I've had a busy weekend's work and here is the latest, therefore, from our Amati Magazine:

a) My interview with the brilliant Hungarian violinist Barnabás Kelemen about Gypsy style, classical stye and what it's like to have a bit of both;

b) The Monday Newsround, with the latest from London, New York, Norfolk and more.

Today I'm doing the Editor's Lunch interview for May. This is nice. I get to take a star to lunch at a wonderful restaurant. This particular star suggested going Italian, so we are - but I'm hoping that the place I've selected will give him a lot more than he bargained for.
3 months ago | |
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So this is Richard III week: the unfortunate medieval monarch, apparently much maligned by history and Shakespeare alike, turned up underneath a car park in Leicester, was positively identified with intense scientific investigation, and is currently on his way to be reburied with appropriate pomp in the town's cathedral this afternoon.

Richard III is, perhaps oddly, my favourite Shakespeare play. The power of its poetry simply could not be stronger. Where is the composer who could grab its heart of darkness and turn it into music? We could think of Beethoven or Verdi, but perhaps Mussorgsky would be the most fitting of the past. Today? We'd maybe give a British composer first bite of the cherry at this, in this day and age - hello, Harrison Birtwistle? James MacMillan? George Benjamin? But the field remains wide open to the world. The resurfacing of the king himself should be a good excuse for someone to commission something big. [Note: I've updated this paragraph out of utter terror that the remark about British composers, though intended with my usual Ironic Twist of Tongue, would be misconstrued as supportive to UKIP in some way. I would sooner die.]

Because you're missing a trick. Just look at this - the scene before Clarence's murder in the Tower:

SCENE IV. London. The Tower.

Why looks your grace so heavily today?

O, I have pass'd a miserable night,
So full of ugly sights, of ghastly dreams,
That, as I am a Christian faithful man,
I would not spend another such a night,
Though 'twere to buy a world of happy days,
So full of dismal terror was the time!

What was your dream? I long to hear you tell it.

Methoughts that I had broken from the Tower,
And was embark'd to cross to Burgundy;
And, in my company, my brother Gloucester;
Who from my cabin tempted me to walk
Upon the hatches: thence we looked toward England,
And cited up a thousand fearful times,
During the wars of York and Lancaster
That had befall'n us. As we paced along
Upon the giddy footing of the hatches,
Methought that Gloucester stumbled; and, in falling,
Struck me, that thought to stay him, overboard,
Into the tumbling billows of the main.
Lord, Lord! methought, what pain it was to drown!
What dreadful noise of waters in mine ears!
What ugly sights of death within mine eyes!
Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks;
Ten thousand men that fishes gnaw'd upon;
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scatter'd in the bottom of the sea:
Some lay in dead men's skulls; and, in those holes
Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept,
As 'twere in scorn of eyes, reflecting gems,
Which woo'd the slimy bottom of the deep,
And mock'd the dead bones that lay scatter'd by.

Had you such leisure in the time of death
To gaze upon the secrets of the deep?

Methought I had; and often did I strive
To yield the ghost: but still the envious flood
Kept in my soul, and would not let it forth
To seek the empty, vast and wandering air;
But smother'd it within my panting bulk,
Which almost burst to belch it in the sea.

Awaked you not with this sore agony?

O, no, my dream was lengthen'd after life;
O, then began the tempest to my soul,
Who pass'd, methought, the melancholy flood,
With that grim ferryman which poets write of,
Unto the kingdom of perpetual night.
The first that there did greet my stranger soul,
Was my great father-in-law, renowned Warwick;
Who cried aloud, 'What scourge for perjury
Can this dark monarchy afford false Clarence?'
And so he vanish'd: then came wandering by
A shadow like an angel, with bright hair
Dabbled in blood; and he squeak'd out aloud,
'Clarence is come; false, fleeting, perjured Clarence,
That stabb'd me in the field by Tewksbury;
Seize on him, Furies, take him to your torments!'
With that, methoughts, a legion of foul fiends
Environ'd me about, and howled in mine ears
Such hideous cries, that with the very noise
I trembling waked, and for a season after
Could not believe but that I was in hell,
Such terrible impression made the dream.

No marvel, my lord, though it affrighted you;
I promise, I am afraid to hear you tell it.

O Brakenbury, I have done those things,
Which now bear evidence against my soul,
For Edward's sake; and see how he requites me!
O God! if my deep prayers cannot appease thee,
But thou wilt be avenged on my misdeeds,
Yet execute thy wrath in me alone,
O, spare my guiltless wife and my poor children!
I pray thee, gentle keeper, stay by me;
My soul is heavy, and I fain would sleep.

I will, my lord: God give your grace good rest!


Five minutes later, or less, he is drowned in a barrel of sack.
3 months ago | |
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Mikhail Rudy is giving the UK premiere of Metamorphosis, the Quay Brothers' film visualisation of Kafka's famous story with live piano music by Janacek, as part of the Institut Français's long-weekend festival It's All About Piano. The concert/film is on 27 March at Kings Place (the other half will be Rudy's now-famous live music & film mix of animated Kandinsky and Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition). The festival itself promises to be a dazzling array of all things piano - artists appearing also include Peter Donohoe, François-Frédéric Guy, Daria van den Bercken, there's a masterclass with Angela Hewitt, a session on the inner workings of the instrument with Steinway master technician Ulrich Gerhartz, jazz, films, The Carnival of the Animals and, basically, you name it. Piano fans should be turning out in droves.

I took the opportunity to go and visit Stephen and Timothy Quay, the American-born identical twins who have taken the art of animation to places one might never have imagined it could go. My piece about them is somewhere in the Independent today, but here is the longer director's cut, with plenty of bonus material.

Here's a taster...

The Quay Brothers’ studio looks unassuming enough from outside on its south London side-street. Go in, though, and it feels like an evocation of an imaginary eastern Europe. One half is the workspace where the twins film their animations. The rest resembles the second-hand bookshops you might stumble across in old Krakow or Budapest, with a table for coffee and browsing amid laden, dimly lit shelves. A wooden-cased clock abruptly grinds, then chimes and keeps chiming. I could almost swear it strikes 13. Timothy Quay quips: “It only goes off when it hears the word ‘Kafka’.”
The American-born identical twins Stephen and Timothy Quay, 67, have long been associated with cutting-edge multi-media projects, often mingling animations with music in a sphere beyond the capabilities of words. Now their interpretation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis – the story of an ordinary young man who finds himself transformed into an insect – is due for its UK premiere on 27 March at Kings Place, in the Institut Français’s festival It’s All About Piano. The Quays’ images meld with music by Leoš Janácek, Kafka’s older contemporary and Czech compatriot, performed live with the film by the Russian pianist Mikhail Rudy.
The Quays eschew contemporary computer animation in favour of, among other things, handcrafted puppets. These adorn virtually every surface in the studio, spooky little presences that might resemble witches, demons and more. The brothers often make the puppets themselves: “The heads might be carved out of balsa wood, with real eyes,” says Stephen, then clarifies, “Real glass eyes. We put olive oil on them so that when the lights are on them they gleam.”
Rudy’s own multi-media projects include a theatrical adaptation of The Pianist (the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman) and animations of Kandinsky and Chagall to which he plays live. He originally commissioned Metamorphosis from the Quays for Paris’s Cité de la Musique. “We had six months to do it, but 30 minutes of music would normally take us about a year,” says Stephen. “We decided therefore on a mixture of live action and puppets, which was something new for us.” From Rudy’s recording of Janácek’s piano music they selected pieces to build the narrative. “In that sense we choreographed to what he laid out for us,” says Timothy.
Shot in sepia and black and white, the film is on the creepy side of sensitive – or the creepy-crawly side, since the Quays have been relatively literal about the insect. “Kafka specified that the book illustrator shouldn’t show the insect,” says Stephen, “but that’s literature. I don’t think you could get away with that in film.
"We decided we'd make a kind of cockroach, because for us that would be the worst thing to be turned into. We grew up with them around in Philadelphia and it was upsetting when you saw one rambling over your utensils in a drawer or darting round the room or, even worse, just a huge one walking down the centre of a street. It's an extraordinarily adaptable insect - a creature like a rat - and we even read that in those days in New York if you opened up the back of the TV they'd be in there, eating the wires..."
Oof. Back to Kafka. “We’ve always adored Kafka’s work,” Stephen says. “At first with Metamorphosis we flinched, because everybody knows it. At the same time, it was no problem to come to the story, and we knew Prague both physically and in our imaginations, especially through the black and white photos by Karel Plicka.”

Here they are at MOMA in New York, discussing their major retrospective exhibition there three years ago:

The Quays’ films are steeped in Eastern European influence, where rich traditions can be found of both puppetry and animation; they pay tribute to figures such as the Czech animator Jan Švankmejer or Walerian Borowczykfrom Poland. One of their great-grandmothers was from Upper Silesia: “The twins tendency comes from her family,” they note. “In a sense you feel those ghosts to have manifested in us.”
They grew up and initially studied in Philadelphia, but after winning scholarships for postgraduate work at the Royal College of Art in London, they found themselves “on the doorstep of Europe,” and never looked back. “We got out of America – it couldn’t propose anything for us,” says Stephen. “A friend said that if we could wash dishes in Philadelphia, we could wash them in Amsterdam – and that was sufficient.”
In one celebrated collaboration (in 2000) the BBC teamed them up with the giant of experimental electronic music, Karlheinz Stockhausen, in a 20-minute piece for the Sound on Film series. “It felt like being placed on the train tracks with something the size of Karlheinz rolling down towards you,” the brothers recall. “But he was immensely tactful and very open; he made no restrictions. At one point he asked us to add a touch of blue. We didn’t.” 
They recall that on first viewing their creation, Stockhausen was disturbed by the image of a woman seen only from the back, which they had chosen to represented a psychiatric patient from Heidelberg, whose letters to her husband had been so intensely written and written across that they became a "field of graphite". Stockhausen, they say, thought instead that the image represented his mother, who had been murdered by the Nazis. "He thought we were telepathic," the Quays remember.  "We hadn't known anything about it." 
Their next big project is with the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen on his new work Theatre of the World, which will be premiered in Los Angeles in May. Creating animation is a slow, detailed business; the brothers are habitually in the studio before 5am. “We’re exhausted by the end of the day,” they acknowledge, “but that’s what it takes.” At first working together was a practical solution: “At art school, each guy has a piece of paper and a pencil,” remarks Stephen, “but when someone gives you money to make a film, they don’t fund two films, only one. Still, who better to collaborate than two guys who can put their heads together, and their hearts too?”
For the Quays’ audience, the results may be startling, sometimes hair-raising, but always richly rewarding.
Metamorphosis, Kings Place, 27 March. Box office: 020 7520 1490. It’s All About Piano, 27-29 March. http://institut-francais.org.uk/itsallaboutpiano/

Finally, here's a teaser for Mikhail Rudy's latest film and animation project: bringing the ceiling of the Paris Opera to life
3 months ago | |
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March 20 marks the centenary of a pianist without whom the history of 20th-century music would have looked very different. Sviatoslav Richter was a colossus, the dominant figure of the instrument in his age, the artist whom everyone aspired to be. He was born in Zhitomir on 20 March 1915, and his story was that of his century, his country and his art.

Yet he was always an enigma - the title that the director Bruno Monsaingeon wisely chose for a film portrait of him, made in 1998. We knew strangely little, during his lifetime, of his personality, his attitudes, his private life, let alone his politics. At times it could almost seem that Richter was a blank slate onto whom were projected the hopes, fears, aspirations, loves, hatreds and musical attitudes of generation after generation of pianists and pianophiles.

His playing to some was a force of nature, to others almost too perfect; to some brutal, to others overrefined. The truth went beyond the lot. The legend of his performances have extended to disc after disc issued and reissued: some are of genius, among them the Sofia Recital, recorded live in 1958, which contains perhaps the most intense and visionary account of the Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition that one could ever hope to hear. This was my only choice - my only possible choice - when I did a 'Building a Library' article on the work for BBC Music Magazine a few years ago. Here's an extract:

This towering Russian pianist made it his mission to convey Mussorgsky exactly as written, but to embody in his performance of the unadulterated score all the emotion and philosophical great-heartedness that others try to achieve (usually unsuccessfully) through embellishment.
Richter regarded Ravel’s transcription as “an abomination, a decorative travesty of the most profound masterpiece of Russian piano music”. His own interpretation offers what the filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon described as a “wild and intractable purity”. It’s some of the most extraordinary piano playing you could hope to hear. His ‘Catacombae’ magically transforms every chord into a great cave, seeming to achieve that supposed pianistic impossibility, a crescendo in mid-resonance. Baba Yaga has a terrifying, pagan, monolithic power – contrast this with the delicacy of the unhatched chicks and the innocence of the Tuilieries children. In the grand finale the radiant carillon of Kiev and the evocation of Russian orthodox choirs behind cathedral screens are unforgettable. There’s a conceptual scale to Richter that goes beyond what most pianists can imagine: he throws himself into Mussorgsky’s truth and fuses with it.

Behind the Iron Curtain, Richter spoke perhaps more openly than he ever did in the West. The byways of the Internet have turned up some gems, notably this blog that reproduces some fascinating material. Here is an extract of an interview from Budapest in 1958 (retranslated by Zsolt Bognár):

Interviewer: "Please tell us about yourself. How do you live? Where did you spend your summer?" Richter: "I have a small house on the river Oka. I lived there during the summer, close to the water and far from people, four kilometers from the nearest village. There I was surrounded only by nature, the forests, fields, the air... this I enjoy tremendously. There everything is natural, tranquil, and I have no distractions or worries. One can bathe in the nude. If a thunderstorm comes, one experiences the elements very close-up: the house is of wooden construction, and when the rain patters on the roof, to be inside is like being in a dream."

I nearly met Richter (though not quite) when I was about eleven years old. My then piano teacher, Patsy Toh, was married to the pianist Fou Ts'ong and they lived in a big house in a Hampstead side street. Each weekend my dad would take me up there for a lesson and usually would wait in the car for an hour while Patsy put my unruly self through scales, studies and grade exam pieces. The Steinways were on the ground floor; Patsy taught upstairs in a smaller studio. Ts'ong, who had made a dramatic defection from China, knew Richter well from earlier times. One day I pitched up for a lesson to hear some exquisite Schubert emanating from behind a closed door off the hallway. "That's Sviatoslav Richter," Patsy whispered, ushering me towards the stairs. She remarked that shaking hands with him was like holding a beefsteak. I may not have known the full significance of the figure in the lounge, but I knew it was something that would interest my father, so before we started my lesson I zipped out, banged on the car window and said, "Dad, Richter's in there, practising!" Dad leapt out of the car and dashed up to the house; I don't think I ever saw him run quite so fast as then. Upstairs I delivered Hanon with rather sweaty palms.

The one time I was ever lucky enough to hear him in recital must have been his last performance at the Royal Festival Hall - given in darkness, but for one angle-poise lamp on the piano. He began with an account of the Schubert G major Sonata in which the first chord went on for so long that I thought we were all going to die (and yes, it was symptomatic of the movement's entire tempo that day). To end, though, there was Prokofiev: I remember the numbness and incredulity that passed through me at the thought that this man not only was friends with the composer, but gave the first performance of several of his masterpieces and was now bringing us all into direct contact with that history as his notes filled our ears. [UPDATE: A kind friend tells me - and sends proof - that on this occasion Richter played the Sonata No.4. I remember it, and wrote about it earlier, as No.7. Clearly I am mistaken, and therefore have amended this post accordingly - yet very oddly I can hear it in mind and memory as No.7.... well, 1989 was a while ago. The programme also included the Schumann Nachtstücke.]

Richter performed rarely in London in his later years, but he would sometimes do what we'd now called pop-up concerts. Yes - Richter would pop up. These very occasional surprise concerts would take place in churches, some like St James Piccadilly, others off the beaten track; they would be announced at the last minute and word of mouth would be spread by his fans, who'd drop everything and run; and the concerts, by all accounts, would be full, and intimate, and pure, free of media attention, social desirability or anything extraneous to passion for music. Something about this remains both remarkable and wonderful. I can think of several pianists who I wish would follow suit.

Bruno Monsaingeon's film, made when Richter was ageing and already ill, is in many ways a sad portrait, deeply moving, occasionally astonishing, and empathetic in the extreme. As we remember Richter this week, do see it.

3 months ago | |
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