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Jessica
Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music and writing in London, UK.
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I'm off on holiday for a bit, doing some interesting things a long way south. See you soon. Until then, here's a clue...




and another, just because I love this one so much too...



"This is the story of how we begin to remember..."
5 months ago |
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(...as opposed to creating reality from fiction, which seems to be going on a lot...)

Seriously, though, this is going to be a fun evening. Among Ghost Variations' sibling books at Unbound is Jennie Ensor's brilliant psychological thriller Blind Side, set at the time of the 7/7 London tube bombings. Both books are based around real events, as well as sharing a theme of the "outsider" in London, so we've got together to do some joint talks and discussions.

On 4 May at 6.30pm we'll be at The Sheen Bookshop, 375 Upper Richmond Road, London SW14, to talk about the hows and whys of crafting fiction out of reality. There'll be wine, discussions, readings, questions etc, and your modest £2 entrance fee is redeemable against the price of one of our books (though of course we hope you'll buy both!). Do join us if you can.

You can book in advance at Eventbrite here, or phone/email the shop to reserve a place: 020 8876 1717 or sheen@hewsonbooks.co.uk .
5 months ago |
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Scholarships can change lives. I feel lucky to be on a panel that gives enviable opportunities to youngsters on the basis of their musical talent. But my goodness, it's a tricky task.

In these weird times, there's nothing more inspiring and encouraging than encountering gifted young musicians, because they give us hope for the future. These teenagers, born in the 21st century, possess the same communicative, expressive instinct and passion that has always driven music-making through the centuries, through different vogues, epochs and lands. The thread continues. It's very much with us. And it's not going away.

Krystof Kohout, our violinist first prizewinner
Over the past few years I've been privileged to be on the jury panel for a biennial international music competition at Whitgift School in Croydon. The Whitgift International Music Competition is open to potential students from all over the world and the winners get a cash prize and/or a full scholarship to the school (perhaps the sole drawback is that it's a school and competition only for boys). Past winners, including some remarkable young violinists from Moldova, have gone on to study at various London music colleges and they are now reaching the stage at which I'm going to start looking out for them in much bigger competitions and concert halls. Until this year, the focus was on strings, but this time we opened it up to wind and brass - with inspiring results.

It's been an intense week. With so many gifted teenagers, how on earth do you "rank" them? Occasionally you do find someone who steps on to a stage and simply belongs there, connects with the listeners and knows how to make music from the heart and gut. Step forward, clarinettist Marian Bozhidarov from Bulgaria, and trumpeter Albert Baciu, from Moldova: two splendid young musicians with incipient star quality whose progress I'm looking forward enormously to following. They won joint first prize in the senior wind and brass category. 
Our string players were more difficult to choose from, because each was so superb, yet in a totally individual way. Sometimes a performance is almost note-perfect, yet doesn't entirely connect with the listener on a musical level; other times there are insecurities and slips, yet you can be moved almost to tears by the most beautiful, natural and heartfelt phrasing, and you suspect that with further study and polish that person has extraordinary potential; and in other cases you suspect that the candidate's choice of repertoire doesn't necessarily show their strengths to best effect, yet that's all there is to go on. It's particularly complex when you know your jury's choices will change someone's life, especially if they choose to take up the scholarship they are offered from the other side of Europe or, in some cases, the world. 
Our first prize in the senior strings went to the 17-year-old violinist Krystof Kohout from the Czech Republic, second to Chiu Chun John Lui from Hong Kong and third to Joel David Munday from Exeter (also both violinists). In the junior section, the winner was the violist Junyi Li, with splendid performances from Mark Reinski of London (playing the almost impossible Concerto Pathétique by Ernst) taking second prize and Iohan Coman from Romania in third place. But everyone gave performances that were gorgeous in their own ways - for instance, I won't forget in a hurry the Bartók Romanian Dances as played by Arsim Gashi of Kosovo. It was an absolute joy to listen to them. 
In the end, I suspect some of these boys will make it no matter what happens, prize or none, because they have the sheer fire in the belly to do so. Technique can be taught; discipline can be taught to some; but there's that something else that has to be present from the start and can't be imparted... 
Here's a video from 2012 about Whitgift's first Moldovan scholarship winner, Grig Cuciuc, who five years on is now finishing his stint at the Royal College of Music. It shows some of the challenges, chances and ambitions that scholarships such as Whitgift's and subsequently the one he won from Edelweiss can support.
5 months ago |
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In case you were wondering: yesterday's post was indeed an April Fool's joke. That doesn't mean, though, that there are not some extremely serious concerns about the effects of Brexit on the British musical scene, which is international through and through. Many thanks to the extraordinary number of people who logged on to read about the London Hamburger Orchestra!
5 months ago |
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New home: the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg

The London Philharmonic Orchestra has allegedly accepted a remarkable offer from the City of Hamburg to move to Germany after Brexit, adopting a new home base at the magnificent Elbphilharmonie. The UK orchestra is thought to be planning its migration for the year 2021, allowing time for Brexit negotiations to end and the 120-odd families involved to make relocation plans.

The deal is thought to include a substantial pay rise as well as improved working conditions that are standard amongst orchestras in Germany. The musicians can also expect to enjoy the facilities of the splendid new hall, which opened in January this year.

A Hamburg city representative declared: "Just as centres such as Frankfurt and Paris can't wait to get their hands on the business of British banks wishing to escape the effects of a hard Brexit, so we also are eager to welcome the finest arts organisations whose business operations will be made much easier if they can continue within the single market of the EU."

Asked about the expense to the city of supporting a British orchestra in addition to its own, the representative gave a shrug and a smile, saying: "This is a prosperous place with its feet on the ground and an enlightened approach to long-term thinking. We invest in the arts as a vital contributor to a proud and prosperous future for all people in our country. We value music as a symbol of humanity, unity and cultural enrichment. Musicians here are artists, and top-level, highly respected professionals besides. We like to treat them accordingly and show them how much they are valued."

The orchestra will continue to perform the concerts of its residency at Southbank Centre, but expects to find the exchange rate with the plunging pound favourable when paid in Euros.

While some members of the ensemble are said to be worried about the language, a spokesperson for the orchestra said: "Music is a universal language and will continue to unite us as it always has."

Asked what they would miss about London, some musicians remarked sarcastically: "The ruinously expensive hour-and-a-half commute to work on unreliable trains. And the cost of living was already ridiculous here even without the inflation Brexit is bringing." Others, however, praised the diversity, open-mindedness and enthusiasm of British audiences.

Although the deal reportedly divided opinion among the players at first, the clinching factor is thought to be a practice already known in Cologne, where every member of the orchestra is handed a glass of lager as they step off stage at the end of the concert. The Londoners on the Elbe are to receive a mug each of the excellent local Bergdorferbier after every performance.

The orchestra's name will be changed to reflect its new binational status. It will henceforth be known as the London Hamburger Orchestra.



Note: Please bear in mind that this post was published on 1 April....
5 months ago |
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Hamelin & Andsnes
Image: www.goldstar.com
The morning after, my head is still the worse for wear after encountering the juggernaut that is The Rite of Spring at nearly close enough quarters to cut its toenails. Stripped of its orchestral colour, performed on two pianos by a pair worthy of the label Two of Today's Greatest Living Pianists, Stravinsky's ballet comes over in x-ray clarity: the bones, muscles and sinews are as vivid as a dancer's, the workings of those shattering and shattered rhythms and the cruel, elemental crashes and crunches of multi harmonies steaming around you and boiling your blood, to say nothing of your eardrums. My God, it's a brutal, hideous thing, this vision of a tribe killing its pure and innocent young one. It's almost as if Stravinsky might have gone into a trance and predicted, unconsciously, the decades that were to follow.
The pianists responsible last night were Marc-André Hamelin and Leif Ove Andsnes, who took to the Wigmore Hall platform for a gritty programme - mostly Stravinsky, a bit of Debussy, plus Mozart as an opening amuse-bouche. I hear they first got together when Marc played in Leif Ove's festival, but however well you know their playing - and lots of piano fans know them both extremely well - you might not have guessed that they could turn out to be musical soulmates.
There are two basic ways to approach playing two-piano music, as with most chamber music. You can remain two individuals, exchanging and sparkling and making individual noises that point up the differences between you: this can work beautifully as a fun exchange, a conversation in which the performers are together yet still themselves. The other approach, which is much more difficult, is to fuse. To become one great machine with two keyboards, twenty fingers and two brains working as one. Hearing either of these two musicians alone, you might appreciate Andsnes's deep-velvet sound and forensic clarity of vision, or Hamelin's lyrical turns of phrase and super-cool supremacy over any technical challenge; yesterday, all were present, yet I doubt anyone would have been able to guess which was which from sound alone. They have much in common: a laid-back presence, a vaguely Nordic cool (Andsnes is from Norway, Hamelin from Canada) and a solid artistry that you can rely on with total confidence. 
They opened with Mozart's Larghetto and Allegro in E flat, in the version completed by Paul Badura-Skoda - a lively, lyrical, often sublime miniature with challenges aplenty, through which they brought lyricism to the fore: calm rather than excitability prevailed. Stravinsky's Concerto for Two Pianos, written in the 1930s for the composer to perform with his son, Soulima, is more of a rarity and probably with good reason: it's a chunky creation to chew on, sometimes evoking the hewn-out blocks and soaring lines of art deco, or presenting heavy-duty fugal writing derived from late Beethoven (yes, really). Debussy's En blanc et noir is an often enigmatic creation, its abstract explorations of colour and timbre punctuated by a central movement that is a searing portrait of World War I emotional life complete with bugle calls, a heavy-footed Lutheran chorale and hints of distant gunfire - all of it conveyed with detailed brushstrokes and subtle, seamless blending by the two pianists, these veritable painters of sound. 
And then, after the interval, the Rite. It was first heard on the piano when Stravinsky and Debussy played it through together. The critic Louis Laloy was there:

“Stravinsky asked if he could take his collar off. His sight was not improved by his glasses, and pointing his nose to the keyboard and sometimes humming a part that had been omitted from the arrangement, he led into a welter of sound the supple, agile hands of his friend. Debussy followed without a hitch and seemed to make light of the difficulty. When they had finished there was no question of embracing, nor even of compliments. We were dumbfounded, overwhelmed by this hurricane which had come from the depths of the ages and which had taken life by the roots.”
104 years later: yes, exactly.
Two Stravinsky encores - a tango and the Circus Polka - lightened the mood if not the language. I think that's quite enough Stravinsky for a little while.



5 months ago |
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The Philharmonia has today announced the appointment of their new principal guest conductor. And their other principal guest conductor too. The lucky maestri are Jakub Hruša from the Czech Republic and Santtu-Matias Rouvali from Finland. They will take up their shared role at the start of the 2017-18 season and will be the first conductors to hold the post since the death of Sir Charles Mackerras in 2010. You can see them both in London next month: Hruša conducts the Philharmonia on 6 April and Rouvali on 23rd at the Royal Festival Hall.

Here are two introductions to them:






We look forward to getting to know them!
5 months ago |
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Every now and then someone unearths a piece by Delius and holds its opaline gorgeousness up to the light to glimmer for a moment before it is shoved back into hiding. The rarity of his music is our loss, and it speaks volumes about the prejudices of the musical herd-mentality over the decades. A Village Romeo and Juliet may be an imperfect treasure, but it’s a treasure nonetheless, and when it is well performed (as it was at the Wexford Festival a few years ago) one can be left a tad furious that it is so rarely given a chance...

My review of last night's performance by New Sussex Opera of Delius's gorgeous tragic opera A Village Romeo and Juliet is up now at The Critics' Circle. It was a treat to hear it again, even in the not-very-operatic Cadogan Hall with a semi-pro company, reduced orchestra and some seemingly flat-packed planks. And I hope that clarinettist might twist his father's arm...

All is revealed here. 


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An article in The Guardian yesterday appears to have declared that music education is elitist because the notation is unintelligible unless you're privately educated, and therefore notation ought to be dropped. Oh dear.

At least, that's how it has been interpreted. Actually, there's a bit more to it than that.

Let's start at the very beginning. There's nothing elitist about reading music and if you learn it early on, it's easy as pie. A number of friends have responded that they managed to learn music notation in a day or two at their state primary schools. I vaguely remember learning it aged about 5, when my mum gave me some piano basics from this book (yes, I am that old...):



You know, of course, that kids learn anything and everything much faster than adults, especially if they are brought up with it from the start. My littler nephews, half Italian, were bilingual from the beginning, because if you're taught two languages as something normal, it just is normal to you. (That's also why kids can fix your computer problems...) Music is a language of sorts, and suggesting that notation shouldn't be taught is like saying that learning a language can be accomplished without knowing any vocabulary. If all children were to be taught to read music as young as possible, preferably before they are 7, they would have it as a skill and an asset for the rest of their lives.

What's so difficult about reading music anyway? It's incredibly straightforward and logical. The pitches go up and down, so you show them going up or down on the stave. There are only 12 notes, so when you finish the 12th you just start over again. The different clefs indicate which note is where, and they're designed to make it easier for you according to the pitch of your voice or the instrument you play. You can modify the notes with sharps or flats (OK, sometimes double sharps or double flats if you're Fauré trying to do something very clever, but never mind that for the moment).

You show the duration of the notes with clear, basic symbols. They're not so hard to remember, according to our teacher at school, when we were 11. She'd draw one bar of music on the blackboard with white chalk. One big round plain note was a semibreve and it went TAAAA. Two smaller ones taking up the same amount of time were minims and went TAA TAA. Four crotchets to the semibreve, going TA TA TA TA. Then you could fit two quavers with their funny black tails into each crotchet, going TA-TE-TA-TE-TA-TE-TA-TE. And then semiquavers, worth half a quaver each, going TAFFA-TEFFY-TAFFA-TEFFY.... (I'm not sure what we'd do with demisemiquavers, but maybe TAFFA-TEFFY-TIFFY-TOFFY?) OK, now you have the basics.

There are other teaching systems aplenty. My cello-playing nephew used to go to a very good Saturday morning music school and learned another way altogether. Creative teachers who really connect with youngsters can and do come up with all manner of interesting methods.

Still, one vital point in the original article is really worth a second look. It's the art of playing by ear. It would be enormously, immeasurably, phenomenally valuable if more of us learned to play by ear as early as possible. The solfège system is a great mystery to UK kids being put through the grade-exam mill and has never been part of our music education system (such as it is). In France and various other places it is absolutely standard. It is, in basic concept, as simple as The Sound of Music tells us, and once learned it helps you to know, as second nature, the relation of one note to another. That doesn't mean you won't find it a headache en route from time to time, but, like learning notation, it's an investment for your future. Over to Maria and the Von Trapp children:



While there is nothing inherently academic about notation, any more than there is something inherently academic about learning to read and write, we often remain too tied to the page. Playing by ear can free you up in all manner of ways. This is because it's not essentially the notes that hamstring us: it's authority.

It's your dad saying: "Stop mucking about and practise properly". It's your teacher saying: "No, you can't just make it up as you go along". It's the examiner at the desk following the score to make sure you're observing the right kind of crescendo in the right place, and you won't get a distinction if you don't (and then your grandmother will be terribly upset, because she's convinced you're the next Martha Argerich even though you're 10 years old and doing Grade 3, so you have to feel guilty too).

I would love to be able to play by ear, but was actively discouraged from trying. As a kid I used to seek hours of harmless fun by working out how to play tunes from my favourite records, then sticking basic accompaniments onto them. This probably caused cacophony at home; I was ordered to stop mucking about and practise properly. That was the end of it. Incidentally, I'm a useless sight-reader to this day.

Sight-reading ability, contrary to the Guardian piece, doesn't go only with being able to read. It goes with having the courage to try. To trust yourself to attempt something you haven't first taken to bits and worked out very, very slowly.

The few times I've found myself able to sight-read have been the occasions on which I've known by ear how the piece goes (this is assuming we're talking about something technically straightforward, not the Franck Violin Sonata). You look at the page, you hear it in your head and you know what to do with it. If you can't hear it in your inner ear first, it will be much harder to play. That's one reason the sight-reading tests in grade exams used to be so difficult, because they were designed, I used to feel, to catch you out, almost as if to make sure you probably couldn't hear it in your head first. They weren't actual pieces of music. Talk about putting kids off. I think, though, that this has now been tackled and reformed.

The signal that somewhere along the line British musical education really is too academic comes into focus with the divide between music college and university. I sincerely hope it's changed since my day. I graduated 30 years ago this summer, after three years of beating my head against every brick wall in town looking for somewhere to practise. The performance element in that course counted for an optional one-seventh of the third year, so during the first two years you weren't really allowed to practise because it wasn't part of your course until the third year, and then you didn't have to do it and if you didn't feel confident after having not been allowed to practise for two years you could choose a different option instead and stop worrying. The fact that most music students do play music and need to practise consistently tended to pass the colleges by - the college academics, most of them not musical at all, had no clue that becoming a musician requires regular, daily training as much as becoming an Olympic rower does. In the official view, music was an admirable pastime for an amateur but a dreadful profession, one to be looked down upon, condemning you to use the tradesmen's entrance forever. Institutional arrogance can close minds, ears and eyes. I lost count of the number of times I heard the words: "We are not a conservatoire".

After that, I tried to go to a music college, only to be faced with aural tests of sub-O-level standard, and then the words "Well, we're not a bloody university, you know, you can't just pick and choose". Caught between snobbery and inverted snobbery, I left. This divide seemed bad at the time, but the extraordinary thing is that I still feel angry about it now and it happened three decades ago.

In better news, a lot of fine musicians came out of both institutions. At that university the early music specialists had masses of support; the singers found ample opportunity to test their wings in chapels and university opera; and good student orchestras were two a penny and would-be conductors could form them and learn their craft on the job. As for pianists, a few things to kick against can work wonders for your motivation. Learning resilience has a value all its own and is not included in any curriculum, anywhere, ever.

Since then, I think the situation has changed incrementally: for instance, there are now plenty of joint courses between universities and music colleges, and more practical aspects of music-making are wound into school options if and where they exist. These old divides, though, would not suddenly have kicked in at tertiary level, from nowhere. Such matters tend to be rooted deeply in societal attitudes that have persisted for decades, sometimes centuries, and can prove hard to eradicate. I believe that our finest universities and colleges have been working hard to make those changes and if they have succeeded, then that is wonderful. But it has to work from the bottom up. Therefore starter music education must not be "elitist" and divided into artificially incompatible academic and practical strands - and I hope that in most places it already is not.

And the only egalitarian way to ensure that music education is not "elitist" is to provide it free, with a grounding in an instrument, in singing and in notation, in every school, for every child, from the very beginning. So there you go.

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Booking is now open for SILVER BIRCH, the new 'People's Opera' by composer Roxanna Panufnik, with a libretto by muggins. It's not only the fulfilment of a dream; this creative process, deeply collaborative at every level, has been entirely new to me, and it's one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences I've been lucky enough to encounter.

Performances are on 28, 29 and 30 July at Garsington Opera, Wormsley, near High Wycombe. You can book online here. 

The theme is the impact of war on soldiers and their families, tying together Siegfried Sassoon's World War I poetry and the experiences of those serving in modern warfare. It's designed to appeal to opera regulars and newbies alike and of all ages. It's fast paced and action packed, emotions run high and Rox has written some incredibly beautiful music, as well as letting her hair down a bit in the battle scene...
Inspired by the timeless themes of war and relationships affected by it, the opera draws upon Siegfried Sassoon's poems and the testimony of a British soldier, who served recently in Iraq, to illustrate the human tragedies of conflicts past and present. Jack joins the army to silence his father's taunts for his love of poetry. Joined by his brother Davey, their devastating experiences turn the whole family's world upside down. Supported by the power of their mother's love as she tries to hold the family together they, like Sassoon himself, seek to help those whose suffering they share. 
Jack Sam FurnessAnnaVictoria SimmondsSimonDarren JefferySiegfried SassoonBradley TravisMrs MorrellSarah RedgwickDaveyJames WayConductorDouglas BoydDirectorKaren GillinghamDesignerRhiannon Newman BrownComposerRoxanna PanufnikLibrettistJessica DuchenMovement DirectorNatasha Khamjani
We have:

A cast to die for (see above)
Some wonderful child soloists
Garsington's adult community chorus, which happens to include Siegfried Sassoon's great-nephew
A large choir of local children
Youth dance
Foley artists from Shepperton film studios
Digital animation by VJ Mischa Giancovich
Members of the Armed Forces

Book soon because there are only 3 performances and space is limited!

5 months ago |
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