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.
1626 Entries


By Gabriel Fauré.
Our hearts are in Paris today.
2 months ago | |
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Stephen Fry, Benjamin Grosvenor, Ascher Fisch. Photo: Benjamin Grosvenor's Facebook page

Benjamin Grosvenor seems to be having a whale of a time in his first tour of Australia. Above, here is the 23-year-old British pianist with conductor Ascher Fisch (right) and a surprise guest, Stephen Fry (left). After a mutual friend put them in touch, Stephen invited Benjamin to his one-man show on Wednesday and Benjamin returned the invitation, asking the popular British comedian and writer to his rehearsal with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on Thursday.

Benjamin has already been to Sydney and Adelaide, is in Geelong today and Melbourne tomorrow. Lovely interview with him in the Sydney Morning Herald can be read here.
2 months ago | |
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A tastefully sepia adaptation of Alicia's Gift's cover
Thrilling stuff for me and my wonderful pianist colleague Viv McLean: we are performing ALICIA'S GIFT: THE CONCERT OF THE NOVEL at the mighty and marvellous Wigmore Hall, on 20 February at 2pm. You can find all the programme details and online booking here.

The seriously scary thing about this is that the final number in the concert is actually a duet, so this means I have to play the piano in the bloomin' Wigmore Hall and even if it is three minutes of slow and gorgeous Ravel it's still...a bit terrifying. But hey.

This version of the concert lasts one hour and it will be followed at 3.30pm by a panel discussion, which I'll chair, on the topic of child prodigies - which is what the novel is all about. On our panel are Murray McLachlan, head of keyboard at Chetham's School of Music; Michelle Castelletti, artistic director of the Royal Northern College of Music; and Guy Johnston, cellist par excellence, who was something of a child prodigy himself. Book for the panel discussion here.

Alicia's Gift explores what the presence of a child prodigy can do to a family, and what a misguided family can do to a child prodigy's talent. And that is not always a pretty or painless tale. The novel is therefore not suitable for children, but the concert (mostly) is, and has often been enjoyed by those aged 10 upwards.

Alicia's Gift is published by Hodder and can be found as an e-book or paperback here.

Here's what's in the concert...



  • Viv McLean  piano
  • Jessica Duchen  narrator
Author Jessica Duchen and pianist Viv McLean unite to tell the story of a child prodigy pianist trying to grow up, exploring her talent’s effect on her family and her family’s effect on her talent. Jessica’s readings from her novel Alicia’s Gift alternate with Viv’s performances of the relevant music to create a compelling joint narrative in words and music.
    • Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849)
          • Ballade No. 3 in A flat major Op. 47
    • Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
        • Estampes
          • Jardins sous la pluie
    • Fryderyk Chopin
          • Etude in C minor Op. 25 No. 12
    • Enrique Granados (1867-1916)
        • Goyescas
          • Quejas, o La maja y el ruiseñor
    • George Gershwin (1898-1937)
          • Rhapsody in Blue
    • Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
          • Sonatine
        • Ma mère l'oye
          • Le jardin féerique. Lent et grave


    2 months ago | |
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    Conductor Nicolas Nebout is heading a fundraising concert tonight at St James Piccadilly in aid of UNICEF's Syria Children's Appeal. Please come along if you can, or donate to the charity at the links below.
    Nicolas says:
    "We will perform Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, Mahler's Kindertotenlieder with the internationally renowned British mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, and a world premiere by award-winning Syrian composer Malek Jandali - all profits going to UNICEF.
    "It will be an inspiring evening for all involved and I hope this event will be an opportunity to unite the classical music community in the UK behind this important cause! People can show their support on social media with hashtag #MusiciansForSyria. "
    Book tickets at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2265817 and donate online at: http://www.justgiving.com/MusiciansForSyria
    2 months ago | |
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    Haas's new opera Morgen und Abend premieres on Friday 13 November at the Royal Opera House. Quite a date for a big, risky premiere, no? I had a good chat with Kasper Holten, the ROH's director of opera, about why taking a risk by staging the new and edgy is more important than ever before, and also had a chat with soprano Sarah Wegener about singing microtones. Article is in today's Independent.

    The book Morning and Evening by the Norwegian playwright and author Jon Fosse, by the way, is extraordinary, startling, poetic, sonorous. Read it. Fosse has prepared the libretto for Haas.

    Here is Klaus Maria Brandauer, the great Austrian actor who stars in the first part of the performance, on his role.

    2 months ago | |
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    Calixto Bieito's hotly awaited (by some of us) new staging of Verdi's The Force of Destiny opened last night at ENO. I've reviewed it for the recently expanded reviews section of The Critics' Circle website and you can read it here.


    Picasso's Guernica
    Mine is one of the more enthusiastic write-ups doing the rounds this morning (except for The Standard, which gives it 5 stars. Mine is starless - hooray! - but would have given 4 had that been necessary. The Guardian also gives it 4).

    So, confession time. I've never got along with Forza. I've seen it a few times and always found it overblown, implausible, ghastly and ridiculous by turns. Last night, though, I was thoroughly absorbed and deeply moved. Perhaps because I am a sceptic about the piece and therefore don't have my own fixed ideas of what I want from it (other than Jonas Kaufmann as the tenor, please) (I went to see him do it in Munich once, but he was off sick), I found Bieito's updating to the Spanish Civil War worked pretty well, on the whole.
    3 months ago | |
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    Looking for music for Remembrance Sunday - and especially music by Frederick Septimus Kelly - I was blown away by this short film from violinist Guillaume Sutre and pianist Steven Vanhauwaert. It concerns the CD of music from the World War I era that they have recently recorded for Editions Hortus - the first volume of Hortus's WWI series. I wrote the sleeve notes for one of the other albums - the one of left-hand piano concertos including Korngold's - and am much impressed by the research, creativity and quality of the recordings I've heard.

    The sonata by Georges Antoine sounds utterly marvellous and as well as impressive music by Pfitzner and Lili Boulanger there's a substantial chunk too of the sonata that Kelly wrote for Jelly d'Arányi - or 'von Arányi', as he wrote it on the manuscript (the family, who were living in England by then, had to Frenchify their German-sounding title soon afterwards).

    We will remember them...



    3 months ago | |
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    ENO's new production of La forza del destino - OK, The Force of Destiny - opens on Monday. I had an interview with its director, the ever-controversial Calixto Bieito, the other day which I think (hope) should be out in the Independent today. 

    To get us in the mood for what promises to be an immense interpretation of this epic-scale Verdi masterpiece, here's an extract of a very different one - the production by Martin Kušej from the Bavarian State Opera, starring Anja Harteros as Leonora. This is "Pace, pace, mio dio" from the start of the final scene. Not because Bieito's will be anything like this. Simply because I was fortunate enough to see Harteros perform this in Munich and thought she was one of the greatest sopranos I've ever heard in my life, most of all in this aria. (The cast at ENO includes Tamara Wilson as Leonora, Gwyn Hughes Jones as Alvaro, Anthony Michaels-Moore as Carlo and Rinat Shaham as Preziosilla, and Mark Wigglesworth conducts.)





    Calixto Bieito is directing The Force of Destiny. Those words might strike terror into the hearts of any opera-lovers who like their Verdi presented as it might have been in the 1950s, with quaint costumes and park-and-bark stances. Bieito, who has been likened to radical film directors such as Quentin Tarantino or Pedro Almodovár, could not be further from that approach if he tried. 
    Opera forums have been buzzing with the pros and cons of his take on Puccini’s Turandot, which recently opened at Northern Ireland Opera in Belfast, set not in ancient fairy-tale China, but in a doll factory in the communist era. Among his other productions have been a cannibalistic Parsifal and a Matrix-like Fidelio – and while much has been controversial, his contemporary production of Carmen has been enjoying enormous success in opera houses all over the world for some 15 years. But for Bieito, The Force of Destiny may prove to be a special test. 
    “For me this is a very personal show,” says the soft-spoken and self-confessedly melancholic Spanish director, who is 52. He has not tackled it before: “I was offered it, but I said no. I felt that for this I had to be much more mature than I was 15 or 20 years ago. I think this is a good moment to do it – but the music has been with me for a long, long time.” 
    La forza del destino, to give its original Italian title, is a marathon three-and-half hour epic. Two star-crossed lovers, Leonora and Don Alvaro, attempt to elope, but Alvaro accidentally shoots Leonora’s father when he intercepts them. Her brother Carlo seeks revenge and the lovers try to escape: Leonora becomes a hermit, courtesy of fanatical local priests, while Alvaro joins the army under an assumed name and encounters Carlo, also in disguise, at war. A series of impossible-sounding coincidences leads, inevitably, to tragedy.
    The plot is sometimes dismissed as confused – indeed, the opera used to be considered “cursed” – yet it is based on a Spanish classic, Don Álvaro; o La Fuerza del sino (1835), by Duque de Rivas, the play credited with initiating romanticism in Spain. “The text is extremely familiar to me because it belongs to Spanish culture and it’s obligatory in school. I read it for the first time when I was maybe 12 years old,” Bieito says. 
    It is not so much a crazy opera, he adds, as an opera about insanity: “It’s related to the themes of the romantic period and the time of Verdi. It’s related to religion, fanaticism, nationalism, anger and revenge. In this opera, the family is the mirror of the war and the war is the mirror of the family. There’s a sentence I like very much, written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: ‘Civil war is not war but a disease. The enemy is internal, people fighting themselves.’ And I think that this piece is about three people who are fighting themselves all the time.” 
    “The piece in that sense is a kind of oratorio in chiaroscuro for the family,” he says. “Finally forgiveness and the goodness of the people is very important. In this opera the problem is the hate, the anger, the revenge, the blood of the family that provokes an explosion.” The eponymous force of destiny, he suggests, is in the genes. 
    He has set his production in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War, an era that has strong personal significance for him. He grew up in Miranda de Ebro, north-eastern Spain, not far from Guernica. “It came as a shock when I saw for the first time Picasso’s Guernica,” he says, “because I went to Guernica many times in my childhood. Guernica was the first time the Germans were bombing a city not with military objectives, but just bombing the people.” That was 1937; the Luftwaffe attacked Guernica to support General Franco against the Basque government. 
    “It was only I went to university after many years that I discovered that the biggest concentration camp in the south of Europe was in my city,” he recounts. “Nobody talked about this. In the 1940s the boss of the concentration camp was a German general, but in the civil war for sure it was a Spanish one.” The camp was only closed in 1947.
    His grandmother had lived through the civil war: “A lot of images in this show come from the stories my grandmother told me about that time, in a very simple, very honest way,” he says. In this imagery, walls are crucial: “They reflect the houses of the imaginary Guernica in my mind: the walls that keep the memories of the bombs, of the people who have died, the people who are weeping, and the refugees.” 
    This production was planned some two years ago, before the current civil war in Syria provoked some European countries into erecting walls to keep out today’s refugees. “There are refugees in the show for sure,” says Bieito, “those who went to the Spanish border to escape to France, but in the end went to the Germans’ concentration camps. It was a big tragedy.”
    Opening at ENO on 9 November, ENO’s staging is a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where it will form Bieito’s house debut, in 2017-18; and with the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto, another first for him. Is this take-up in new territories perhaps a sign that the world is readier to accept the extreme darkness and intensity of the Bieito vision, that people are willing to look beyond old preconceptions that he wants to shock or horrify us? 
    “I have never tried to horrify or shock,” Bieito says. “I’m trying to be honest with myself – and I feel privileged to express myself with the music of a fantastic composer and with the text of a wonderful writer. Everything is interpretation. All opera, all art is interpretation. I have been reading a book by Edvard Munch, the painter, in which he says that an artist must open his heart to express himself. I think – in a humble way, a simple way – that’s what I am doing.”
    The Force of Destiny, English National Opera, London Coliseum, opens 9 November. Box office: 020 7845 9300

    3 months ago | |
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    My opera-writing partner, Roxanna Panufnik. Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell
    It's all official now, so I can tell you at last: Garsington Opera has commissioned a new opera from Roxanna Panufnik and I am writing the libretto. It's called Silver Birch. It's a "People's Opera". It is to be performed on Garsington's main stage as part of the 2017 festival and will be directed by Karen Gillingham and conducted by Douglas Boyd, Garsington's music director.

    What's a "people's opera", you may ask? It's an opera for absolutely everyone, whether on the stage or in the audience. The cast is led by 5 principal professional opera singers. Then there are two child soloists, an adult chorus of local people, Garsington Youth Opera, a youth dance company, and a primary school-age chorus, an orchestra of 17 professionals and 20 young instrumentalists too. There'll be around 150 participants! And the story is designed to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, from 8 to 108.

    We held devising workshops, led by the incredibly dynamic Karen, in which schoolchildren and members of the local population joined us to explore the theme of war and its impact on families, as well as the significance to them of World War 1. Both the character and poetry of Siegfried Sassoon will play an important role within the piece, connecting the ongoing World War 1 commemorations with modern-day warfare. 

    The story is original, multifaceted and informed by some very personal research we've undertaken, involving interviews with members of Sassoon's family plus advisers from today's military and ex-military personnel, our principal consultant having served on the frontline in Iraq. 

    It's been a whole new way of working for me and I've loved every moment of it. I hope you'll love the results too. As they say, watch this space.

    More here...
    3 months ago | |
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    I've got a piece in the new edition of Classical Music Magazine, responding to one last month by Alexandra Coghlan.

    Here's Alexandra's piece, in which she asserts that women in music are being spotlighted for all the wrong reasons.

    Here's mine, pointing out the inconvenient truth that sometimes affirmative action works...

    Taster:
    In the late 1980s, my generation emerged from college believing we could have it all. We imagined the battle for ‘Women’s Lib’ had been won and we would be its beneficiaries. We thought that if we tried to put in place conditions for discrimination and prejudice to disappear, they would, by some kind of natural, progressive evolution. Ever since, we’ve been finding out how wrong we were.
    That applies throughout society, of course, and classical music is no exception. With Suffragette receiving top billing in the cinemas as I write, it’s clear that there is a preoccupation with these issues in the world around us right now – and with good reason...
    Read the whole thing here. (I'm happy to say that even if Alexandra and I may disagree, we're good friends and colleagues and we applaud each other's right to speak up.)Meanwhile, if you were in any doubt that positive action can effect change, just take a look at the Lucerne Festival. Yes, mighty Lucerne; Lucerne the wealthy and beautiful; historical Lucerne, founded to counter Bayreuth and Salzburg beyond the Third Reich's reach; Lucerne where Wagner wrote Tristan, has announced that in 2016 its theme is "Prima Donna": a focus on women artists. And it is going to feature ELEVEN (11) conductors who are female, at the helm of top orchestras from around the world. 
    Emmanuelle Haim, who will conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in Lucerne.
    Photo: Simon Fowler, (c) Warner Classics

    Marin Alsop will make her Lucerne debut with the São Paolo Symphony Orchestra. Barbara Hannigan is to conduct the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Susanna Mälkki will conduct the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra in the world premiere of a new work by Olga Neuwirth, who is composer in residence. A "day of adventure" [sic] brings in the conductors Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla, Anu Tali, Maria Schneider, and Konstantia Gourzi. And Emmanuelle Haim, the French baroque suprema, is to take the podium for the Vienna Philharmonic, which as we all know isn't exactly renowned for the number of women it admits to its ranks. (Well, renowned for exactly that. Because there are so few.) And in case you were in any doubt, there are plenty of men around as well. Riccardo Chailly, recently appointed music director of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, will conduct opening night, which is Mahler's Symphony No.8.The risk of the "prima donna" focus, of course, can be summarised as "been there, done that, bought the t shirt". It's a super celebration, but what one wants is consistency: equality of opportunity that becomes normal and ultimately unremarkable because it is so accepted. The fact that Lucerne is doing this means that all the activism, the articles, the general "noise" about women in music is having an impact in the places it matters. The long-term effect, though, needs to be different. Lucerne is offering a chance for the movers and shakers of the music world to sample the excellence of great artists who happen to be female. We'd like them then to win enduring opportunities as a result. Things can't just go back to business as usual. Bravo, Lucerne, for biting the bullet and sounding the trumpet. And I look forward very much to seeing how Emmanuelle gets along with the Viennas. 
    3 months ago | |
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