JDCMB
Jessica
JDCMB is Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music & writing, with CHOCOLATE AND SILVER, in London, UK. Author & journalist JD writes for The Independent.
1713 Entries
ENO: sink or swim?

The meltdown facing ENO at the moment is disgraceful. No artistic director has yet been appointed. Mark Wigglesworth has elected to walk away from his music directorship at the end of this season - having made clear that he believed maintaining a full-time company was absolutely fundamental, he probably felt he had no choice after the chorus deal was reached last week. In a resignation letter sent to musicians, he made this clearer still: "The company is evolving into something I do not recognise..."

In an article last month, he declared:

The Arts Council’s recent decision to cut ENO’s subsidy by £5m a year and the financial crisis that that has created demands that we rethink and reassess what we do and how we do it. How we respond to this challenge will determine our future success. I believe a fresh approach will fail if it compromises the company’s experience and expertise. Without the commitment, sense of ownership, love, and pride of the people who are the essence of ENO artistically, we have no right to ask for any curiosity, loyalty, or passion from our audience. ENO’s identity as a team defines its past and will be its greatest asset in protecting its future. Cutting the core of the company – musicians and technicians alike - would damage it irreparably.

The company is left, therefore, effectively without artistic leadership and in the hands of...management consultants. The confusion beyond is...confused. One extra bit of trouble is that now Wigglesworth himself is being blamed for adding to it. It has to be said that a strong resignation statement from him throwing the whole filthy business wide open would have been handy, but has not been forthcoming. It wouldn't be surprising if some agreement has been reached that obliges him to do no such thing. (Arts organisations out of their depth are better than you might expect at muzzling those who know too much.)

Wigglesworth is a fine musician and a sensitive, thoughtful, principled person. What ENO actually needed in that job this season was an absolute bruiser.

But all this takes the focus away from the real problem, which was the original, punitive slashing of the ACE grant by 29 per cent. How was any company supposed to survive that intact?

The Magic Flute (pictured above in ENO's inspired production by Simon McBurney) shows a couple undergoing trial by fire and water, protected by their love for one another, their seeking after wisdom and the magic of their music-making. This is ENO's Magic Flute moment. If it can emerge, swimming rather than sinking, it will be stronger than ever. The difference is that in The Magic Flute the people subjecting Tamino and Pamina to the trials do want them to succeed.

If ENO were to fold, it would be a stain of dishonour upon British cultural life. ENO was, and still should be, the People's Opera. If it is murdered, there will need to be a post-mortem. Many of us would demand a public enquiry into its fate. That would come too late. We need it now, while the company can still be saved. We need to keep the big picture, first and foremost. The single most important thing is that the bean-counters cannot be permitted to sacrifice a company that at its finest is a national treasure and that reminds us at every performance of the best and most beautiful things of which human beings are capable.

(Here is a little light reading about management consultants.)
3 months ago | |
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A press release from Mark Wigglesworth's PR has just hit my in-box bearing the following information. Wigglesworth seemed to be the only good thing that had happened to ENO of late and I am very worried indeed that his departure spells the beginning of worse times still. 

Mark Wigglesworth has today resigned as Music Director of English National Opera, effective from the end of the current season. He will continue to honour his contractual commitments as a conductor and looks forward to continuing to work with the wonderful musicians of ENO.

Mark Wigglesworth is not commenting further at this time.


A statement from ENO says:
We regret to confirm that Mark Wigglesworth feels unable to continue as Music Director despite the best efforts of the Board and Senior Management to persuade him to remain. We are disappointed that he will not be staying to lead the artistic forces through this particularly challenging period. Mark has agreed to complete this season as Music Director including conducting Jenufa and to return as a guest conductor for two scheduled productions in the 2016/17 season. Mark is a world class conductor and we look forward to welcoming him back as guest conductor in future years. 
3 months ago | |
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Viv McLean, JD, David Le Page and the HCC's director Eszter Pataki

David Le Page, Viv McLean and I gave the first-ever performance of our new concert, Ghost Variations, based on my forthcoming novel, last night at the Hungarian Cultural Centre in Covent Garden. It's a gorgeous venue - as you'll see from the pics - and we felt very thrilled to be part of their Monday Musical Soirée season. Moreover, a packed house and the huge enthusiasm of the audience proved most encouraging.


The concert traces the story of the great Hungarian violinist Jelly d'Arányi and her rediscovery of the Schumann Violin Concerto, mingling shortened extracts of the novel with some explanatory links and, of course, the music that she used to play. We feel this is a words&music programme with a difference - because without the music, there wouldn't have been any words at all. Dave and Viv played works including the Bartók Romanian Dances, extracts from the Mendelssohn and Schumann violin concertos, Ravel's Tzigane, Hubay's Hejre Kati, Schumann's Violin Sonata in A minor and the theme from the Geistervariationen...

Afterwards: time for some Hungarian wine

Enormous thanks to the HCC for an unforgettable evening! Meanwhile: this concert programme really works, so is now available for booking. Happy to say it is supremely well suited to festivals and music clubs: it's 100 per cent accessible due to its storytelling nature, the words and the music are 100 per cent integrated, and the story has the added benefit of being based on real events.



The novel will be published in the summer. You can still get your name into it as patron if you pre-order it via Unbound.
3 months ago | |
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Cressida Pollock, head of English National Opera, has written a piece for today's Independent about the current crisis and how she's tackling it. Well, more why she is tackling it than how...the one definite policy that emerges is a conviction that the Coliseum has to remain at the heart of ENO's work, and vice-versa. That's a start, I guess.
I am often asked if I am an “opera buff”. By the standards of the world in which I now work, I am not (although perhaps in 10 years I might make a claim!). But many of the people who make up our audience today are not “opera buffs”, and nor should they be. Our audience members have so many choices in what to do with an evening – to watch a series on Netflix, to meet friends for dinner, to go to a late night at a museum, or to one of the hundreds of live performances on each night in this city. We should not take their time, or money, for granted. It is our task to persuade them of three things – that opera is the most exciting art form of all, that seeing it live is an incomparable experience and that ENO is where they should see it. 
Happy reading... http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/features/eno-head-cressida-pollock-s-exclusive-manifesto-to-save-her-company-i-cant-allow-it-to-fail-a6944756.html

[Update] You may find more illuminating information in The Arts Desk's piece talking to members of the exceedingly beleaguered and very wonderful chorus, here.


3 months ago | |
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Here's my interview with the magician at the helm of the Budapest Festival Orchestra (and, of course, the Konzerthaus of Berlin, and more...). It's in today's Independent. Iván Fischer is one of the few truly creative musicians I've had the good fortune to meet: he makes me realise what a rare quality creative thought really is in certain strata of this business. Boulez was the only person I've met whose brain worked in a similar continual whoosh of new thinking - though I liked Fischer's evocation of Bernstein as an ideal. I am looking forward enormously to hearing them do The Magic Flute on 10 May (RFH).

As you know, the Independent is closing its print operations on 26 March. I have one more piece to run before that. After that I may have a little more time on my hands for other things, because if anybody is going to need me they certainly haven't said so yet.

Anyway, what I'm sure some nice person out there will term our Second-Last Gasp was an interview I've been wanting to do for years. There's more of it and I'll upload a Director's Cut as soon as I have a moment. Meanwhile, enjoy...

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/features/budapest-festival-orchestra-founder-ivan-fischer-on-the-ensembles-love-of-song-a6942521.html
3 months ago | |
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There's been something of a furore - or at least a few raised eyebrows - since the Royal Opera House sent round an email to ticket holders warning of graphic sex and violence (though not necessarily at the same moment) in the forthcoming new production of Lucia di Lammermoor, directed by Katie Mitchell. There's also been an "unsuitable for children under 12" message re Boris Godunov. As Fiona Maddocks points out in The Guardian, this is potentially a slippery slope: art, a mind-broadening process, should not be delivered with apologies.

Natalie Dessay as Lucia at the Met, NY, 2011

So, does opera need: a) raised expectations of theatrical staging, b) a suitability ratings system akin to that of cinema, and/or c) a whole new approach for a new century?

First of all, why are expectations of operatic productions so low? Many opera-goers are familiar with the works they are about to hear and are likely to know the stories. Lucia is about a woman who is forced into marriage with a man she doesn't love and on their wedding night goes mad and kills him before dropping dead herself. That is pretty bloody violent. If a film director such as Quentin Tarantino tackled such a tale, and you went to the cinema to see it, you'd be fairly astonished if all that happened was that Lucia sang a nice coloratura passage accompanied by a flute and then mysteriously keeled over.

Katie Mitchell, one of today's most brilliant theatre directors, is known for her ruthless, forensic interrogation of character and drama (I've just done a big interview with her for the American magazine Opera News, which will be out soon and explores all of this) and if you only want crinolines and ringlets you probably don't go to her productions. Yet crinolines and ringlets, in dramatic terms, can be awfully boring - unless handled by an exceptional director who can bring such matters to life through evocation of character and nuance.

Operatic music and the stories it illustrates are of necessity extreme - opera at its finest reaches the moments of human experience in which words become inadequate and only music can capture the emotion at hand. (Tosca: "Vissi d'arte". Wotan's Farewell. The Countess in Figaro. And so on.) Why are expectations, then, so leery of extremity?

Rigoletto: Planet of the Apes (Munich, 2007)
First, because that was probably how opera was staged for decades and decades, until someone realised it was theatre. Secondly, because unfortunately a good deal of so-called "Regietheater" really is disappointing. I contend that that is not inherently because it is Regietheater; it is perfectly possible for radical productions to be convincing, insightful and strikingly imaginative while remaining perfectly in tune with the opera's content. Yet I once asked Joseph Calleja what had been the most ridiculous thing he'd ever had to do on stage and he promptly responded: "Singing the Duke of Mantua in a monkey suit".

Next question: is it time to introduce mandatory "suitability" ratings for opera productions? We have them for cinema, so why not opera as well? It would, however, be up to each theatre to assess its own roster - but there's no reason why every opera should be suitable for children no matter what story it tells. Besides, just imagine: Lucia di Lammermoor is X-rated and teenagers try to smuggle themselves in as a badge of honour...

This system would mean no need for grovelly, late-notice, apologies-in-advance and no refunds. People would know a bit about what they're signing up for from the start and that is fine. You don't go to a Tarantino movie expecting soft-focus romanticism. And you don't expect that from Katie Mitchell either.

Anyway, I'm more worried about this production's conductor, whose Robert le Diable was so dull that it made an iffy opera pretty much intolerable. Perhaps he'll be more comfortable with Donizetti.

When I went to Budapest last week I interviewed a very different conductor, Iván Fischer, about his glorious Budapest Festival Orchestra and especially his semi-staged production of The Magic Flute, which is coming to London soon. His idea is to explore "organic, integrated opera" which brings the drama and the music together - the latter having to be performed dramatically, the former being scaled down somewhat. Fischer, one of the most genuinely creative minds on the podium at present, drew heavy criticism for a venture into this when he brought one to Edinburgh, but his idea is well worth exploring. His take on it is that for 40 years now there has been a polarisation between stage and pit: the former expected to be radical and innovative, the latter expected to be deeply conservative (with "original instruments" et al). This polarisation has become a trope, a cliché effectively, and besides it doesn't always make for a satisfying overall experience. It's time, he says, to try something new. More about this when the feature comes out. I find his analysis cogent and agree with him that it is time to look for a new way forward, rather than just chugging along in the same old tramlines.

And meanwhile I can't wait to see what Katie Mitchell has done with Lucia di Lammermoor. It opens on 7 April.




3 months ago | |
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In case you missed my review the other day of Seong-Jin Cho's London debut recital at St John's Smith Square, here it is - it's in The Arts Desk, which allows plenty of space to get one's teeth into some detail. Overall, I was enormously impressed with his sensitivity, his gorgeous tone and control of its nuances, his ability to find the 'big picture', and above all with the marvellous sonic sculpture he created in the Funeral March. (The Arts Desk lets you read a certain number of things free, but thereafter there is a modest charge.)

Cho's debut recording on DG also well worth a listen [right].

Taster of concert review:
...he can find a world of meaning within one quiet note, or spin a melodic line with a pianistic voice ranging from full-throated open clarity to a hushed “covered” tone that wouldn’t disgrace a top Lieder singer. The final recitative-like moment in the F minor Fantasy, before the music dissolves into its last soft whirlpool, hung in the air like a spectre – you hardly dared breathe.
Whole thing is here.


3 months ago | |
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Sad news from Glyndebourne that its music director, Robin Ticciati, has had to withdraw from conducting Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at this summer's festival. He is recovering from surgery from a herniated disc in his back.

Robin says:
“I’m incredibly disappointed to have to withdraw from what would have been my first ever Wagner opera. I was so looking forward to being reunited with David McVicar for the production and would like to wish the company all the best as they start rehearsals. It is my great wish to continue with my second engagement at this summer’s Festival, Béatrice et Bénédict; I’ve been advised that this is a realistic prospect and my attention is focused on achieving a swift recovery to fulfil this.”
They'll announce a replacement conductor "in due course".
3 months ago | |
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"Max". Photo: BBC Media Centre

Peter Maxwell Davies has died at the age of 81. He was a powerful, trenchant, inspiring, gritty, determined, high-spirited, outspoken, eloquent, humorous, startling, original, fabulous, push-the-boat-out composer of our times. He will be desperately and profoundly missed.

Farewell, Max. We loved you very much and you have touched our lives deeply. You live on in your music.






Biography from Intermusica:
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies CH CBE (1934–2016)It is with deep sadness that we announce the death of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, at the age of 81.One of the foremost composers of our time, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies made a profound contribution to musical history in the UK and beyond through his wide-ranging and prolific output.Recognised as a successor to the avant-garde generation of Ligeti, Lutoslawski, Berio and Xenakis, as well as a composer of a distinctly British hue, Sir Peter’s output embraces every conceivable classical genre from symphonies and concertos to opera, music theatre, ballet, film, choral and more.He was also an experienced conductor, holding the position of Associate Conductor/Composer at both the BBC Philharmonic and Royal Philharmonic orchestras for 10 years, and guest-conducting orchestras such as the San Francisco Symphony, Leipzig Gewandhaus and Philharmonia. He enjoyed a particularly close relationship with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra as Composer Laureate.Born in Salford, Lancashire on 8 September 1934, Sir Peter attended Royal Manchester College of Music (now Royal Northern College of Music) where he was part of the so-called Manchester School with contemporaries Harrison Birtwistle, John Ogdon, Elgar Howarth, Richard Hall and Alexander Goehr. He later secured a Fellowship at Princeton where he studied with Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt. The 1960s were an especially formative decade, establishing him as a leading contemporary musical figure.In 1971 Sir Peter moved to the Orkney Islands, the place which would be his home for the rest of his life. The landscape and culture had a deep impact on his music and in 1977 he founded the St Magnus Festival, an annual event with Orkney residents at its heart.Sir Peter had a lifelong commitment to community outreach and education, writing much music for young people; his children’s operaThe Hogboon will receive its world premiere in June 2016 with Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO at the Barbican. His keen sense of social responsibility was threaded through many of his works, touching on major issues such as war, the environment and politics.Sir Peter held the post of Master of the Queen’s Music from 2004–2014. He was knighted in 1987 and made a Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour in the New Year 2014 Honours List. In February 2016, Sir Peter was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal, the highest accolade the society can bestow, in recognition of outstanding musicianship.Max (to all who knew him) passed away of leukaemia on 14 March 2016 at his home in Orkney. Our thoughts are with his loved ones at this time.
3 months ago | |
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Meryl Streep's forthcoming new movie about Florence Foster Jenkins looks simply glorious. See the official trailer above.

But why this story, why now? Strangely, it may represent a very current phenomenon of celebrating people who are determined to do something, but do it badly. Perhaps even celebrating the self-deluded. This makes for "heartwarming" tales such as the excellent Victoria Wood TV drama about Joyce Hatto, about the extent of love that will indulge such fantasies, about following your dreams no matter what, about getting your own back on all those nasty, nasty professionals. Great stories, but a very weird trend. (The real Joyce Hatto incident was less heartwarming. It was a disgrace on the music industry, and a tragedy for her.)

Where does this tendency come from? The TV "talent" show? The concept of "crossover", which over the years has packaged up various people who sing rather badly, on the grounds of marketability/accessiblity/audience-doesn't-know-any-better? Inverted snobbery against, or jealousy of, the really good? Or are we a self-deluding society?

Oh come on, it's just harmless fun, isn't it? People have enjoyed freak shows since the beginning of time, haven't they?... Except now this extends through all manner of supposed disciplines. Highly gifted professionals who have given their whole lives to the study and perfection of an art, craft or skill stand by helplessly as the ignorant-and-proud-of-it run roughshod over them, aided and abetted by internet mobs. I suspect it won't be until we have a US president who follows this same pattern that we realise how dangerous it is.

Nevertheless, I can't wait to see this film. It's out in May.
3 months ago | |
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