JDCMB is Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music & writing, with ginger, in London, UK. Author & journalist JD writes for The Independent.
1186 Entries
My Amati column this week tackles a few niggles about musicians' schedules and aspirations, and conversely, what we tend to expect of them... http://www.amati.com/articles/1052-travelling-musicians.html
3 months ago | |
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I've long been an admirer of the extraordinary South African pianist Daniel-Ben Pienaar, whose recordings of Bach and Mozart in particular have struck me as profound, original, fresh, thought-provoking and utterly authentic in terms of the spirit of the music. Among his many roles, he teaches at the Royal Academy of Music and Benjamin Grosvenor has often cited him as a vital mentor. Daniel-Ben has just recorded the Bach 48 Preludes and Fugues (out now on Avie) and a few weeks ago he performed them whole at Kings Place. I asked him for an e-interview about this, but he wanted to wait - sensibly enough - until that particular hurdle was out of the way. Here is our resulting Q&A.

JD: Daniel-Ben, most of us have enough trouble playing just one fugue, let alone 48 of them plus preludes. How does it feel to perform them - the prospect beforehand, the sustaining of energy through the concert and then the aftermath?

DBP: There are some things that will never become easy and this is one of them. My recent concerts at King’s Place in London were a new experience for me – I had never played the two books back to back on consecutive evenings. I think it is impossible to completely banish worrying about a memory slip somewhere along the line no matter how ‘in the bones’ the music sits, but the bigger challenge for me was to make peace with living dangerously in other ways too: sustaining the greatest possible variety of pacing, dynamics, phrasing, pedalling and touch throughout the 96 pieces (sometimes at physical extremes) to really make palpable the encyclopaedically inclusive nature of the work to an audience – its diversity of characterisations, of emotions, atmospheres and colours, of musical ideas – in a truly pianistic way.

That means leaving very little room for ‘digging in’ for security, for putting up safety nets by defaulting to moderate tempi or comfortable tonal calibrations wherever difficulties present themselves. Living with that level of risk can be frightening but the rewards when things go well are so much finer! I have no idea whether I was successful on this occasion, but I certainly enjoyed working at it – and would love to perform the cycle again!

JD: How would you describe your approach to Bach performance? Do you think it's necessary to adhere to traditions or do you prefer to free yourself of all preconceptions about the music?

DBP: I do not think one could safely make any rules about Bach performance (or any other for that manner) - that is, as long as you think that playing piano is, at its best, an artistic endeavour! Good artists have always confounded or subverted given expectations. How one frees oneself from the sense of adhering to a set of conventions or commonly accepted mores is a complex issue though. It is almost inconceivable to me that, doing something as intricate and beautiful as playing the piano, one could NOT be deeply interested in the work of eminent exponents present and past (imagine a chess player who claims to be uninterested in the great matches of the grand masters!). Exploring the expressive means and ideas of these artists in some detail, one inevitably ends up having to face the anxieties and challenges of influence. Finding a playful freedom and a fresh sense of the intuitive beyond that remains the ultimate goal but getting there is an often arduous process. So, in short I would say I am less interested in the dictates of particular traditions than I am in the highly personal playing of some of the great exponents of those traditions, and the specifics of that. I think at this point in pianistic history it becomes possible to see the two things as separate to a certain degree.

JD: Some might argue against playing Bach on the modern piano. What would you say in favour of it?

DBP: See my answer above! Playing the music on the ‘wrong’ instrument, if it happens to be the queen of instruments – an instrument which has a reputation above any other for successful transcription and transformation, even transubstantiation (!), and can perhaps boast a more illustrious roster of great practitioners than any other (save the voice) – opens up a set of artistic possibilities quite distinct from those open to musicians playing on instruments of Bach’s day. The sensitive pianist does not merely take into account the instruments and practices of the late baroque but also of subsequent eras. This becomes a rather wonderful way of engaging, through Bach’s rich scores, with all sorts of histories and thus with that which remains timelessly human in the music. In any case those who still argue against playing Bach on the piano can only do so on grounds of personal taste. The whole ‘hardware’ debate is in fact one that is really quite a bit in the past, and as far as I am concerned came to decisive end with the priorities outlined in Laurence Dreyfus’s “Early Music Defended Against Its Devotees”. Those who still think there is an intellectually coherent argument contra playing Bach on the piano are simply horribly behind the times!

JD: We understand you've recorded the 48 - and we look forward to hearing it. What was it like, doing that? Are you a Glenn Gould in the studio, seeking perfection, or do you prefer to record each piece in a single take?
DBP: I love recording above anything else and I love editing my own recordings. I have to start with a very clear idea of what I want to achieve which normally entails a framework within which I play as spontaneously as possible. I record many possibilities within that set of clearly defined parameters and ‘harnessing points’, and decide later how I would like to use them, after listening to how things come across on tape. It is therefore incredibly important to me to edit my own recordings! Few people realise just what a difference the choice of takes, and the exact point where an edit is made, can effect. A lot of recordings end up almost as much the artistic work of the producers and editors as of the players! Editing my own work means my recordings are entirely composed of my own musical decisions. As far as long takes and short takes are concerned, I do both depending on what’s required and depending on the conditions under which I work on a particular day. It all depends on what is more likely to yield the kind of result one is after.
3 months ago | |
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As the commemorations of the World War I centenary begin, music is very much part of the equation. Radio 3 is starting a new series entitled Music on the Brink on 5 January, looking at the music of five crucial cities at the time of the war's outbreak. 

This article appeared in short form in the Independent a week or two ago, but what follows here is my longer original: an introduction to the effect of the "Great War" on the composers who had to participate in it, those who lived and those who died. Some are household names, but others can benefit from the chance of rediscovery that this year may bring.

We already had FS Kelly's deeply moving Elegy for Strings for Remembrance Day, so to start let's hear Jelly d'Aranyi (violin) and Ethel Hobday (piano) playing his Serenade Op.7.

The composer and poet Ivor Gurney once wrote: “Despairing work is the noblest refuge among other despairs”. During commemorations for the centenary of World War I this year, Gurney’s music will be much to the fore, together with that of a generation of composers who, if they survived, found themselves indelibly scarred by their wartime experiences. Their responses were extraordinarily varied. Far from being a catalogue of gloom, their works reflect everything from mourning to pacifism, from iconoclasm to wry humour and escapism.   Gurney’s history is as emblematic as it is tragic, and his songs as beautiful as his poetry. Always prone to depression, he had suffered a breakdown while still a student; but after serving in the war, in which he suffered a shoulder wound in 1917 and gassing only months afterwards, he was diagnosed with “deferred shell-shock”. He spent his later years in and out of mental institutions. Later this year there'll be a Radio 3 Composer of the Week series devoted to his compositions.

Among the most familiar of his contemporaries is Ralph Vaughan Williams. He was 41 on the outbreak of war, but served first as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps, later as a second lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery. He weathered considerable horrors with greater than average strength, though later suffered deafness thought to have been caused by noise damage from gunfire. His Pastoral Symphony – light years from Beethoven’s – references not idealised country scenes, but the fields of northern France. It incubated, he recalled, “when I used to go up night after night with the ambulance wagon at Ecoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was a wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset.” A trumpet cadenza captures the sound he heard of a bugler practising yet hitting the wrong note.
Other survivors were less well adjusted. EJ Moeran was a case in point. He was 19 in 1914 and spent much of the war as a despatch rider until being wounded at Bullecourt in 1917. Not only his psyche but also the progress of his career was overturned; it was soon hampered further by mental instability and alcoholism. He was just beginning to achieve real recognition when the outbreak of World War II intervened. Fortunately his concertos for cello and for violin have recently been enjoying a resurgence of popularity thanks to new recordings respectively by the cellist Guy Johnston and violinist Tasmin Little. Here's the second movement of his Serenade:

Many composers were less fortunate still. George Butterworth died in the Battle of the Somme, aged 31. A friend of Vaughan Williams and fellow collector of folksongs, his most celebrated work is the song cycle A Shropshire Lad, exquisitely evocative settings of AE Housman, as well as an idyllic work for orchestra, The Banks of Green Willow
A less famed loss at the Somme was the Australian composer Frederick Septimus Kelly, who had survived Gallipoli and was also a rowing champion, having won a gold medal in the 1908 Olympic Games. Recently the director of the Canberra Festival, Christopher Latham, has unearthed a violin sonata that Kelly penned on the boat home from Gallipoli, intending it for the violinist Jelly d’Arányi – also a vital inspiration to Ravel, Vaughan Williams and Bartók – whom he was widely expected to marry. It is a relatively carefree-sounding piece – as if imagining its strains in the trenches had offered a means of mental escape. 
Many who did not see action found their attitudes to life and music transformed nonetheless. Frank Bridge espoused strong pacifist views; the impact of the war induced him to transform his hitherto romantic style into near-expressionism – for instance, in an uncompromising piano sonata dedicated to the memory of the composer Ernest Bristow Farrar, who was killed in action. Bridge’s student Benjamin Britten was later to echo his pacifist outlook; and Farrar’s young pupil Gerald Finzi was deeply affected by his mentor’s death, which contributed to shaping his distinctly dark view of life.
Across the Channel, Claude Debussy was dying of cancer; he did not live to see the conflict’s end. He came to view composition as an act of resistance and patriotism. “I want to work not so much for myself, but to give proof, however small...that not even 30 million ‘boches’ can destroy French thought," he declared. His last works are three instrumental sonatas that show not a hint of the turbulence around him, signed ‘Claude Debussy, musicien français’. 
Maurice Ravel became a driver of ambulances at Verdun. In his piano suite Le Tombeau de Couperineach movement is dedicated to a different fallen friend. He, though, resisted the drift towards nationalism: “It would be dangerous for French composers to ignore systematically the works of their foreign colleagues, and thus form themselves into a sort of national coterie: our musical art...would soon degenerate and become isolated by its own academic formulas,” he wrote. But his La Valse is often seen as an unwitting evocation of the world of the Viennese waltz imploding in cataclysm.
This is the piano version, played by Yuja Wang at Verbier:

The composers of Vienna itself responded to the war in manners ranging from the personal to the outright political. Franz Lehár, that supreme composer of operetta, produced a tone poem for tenor and orchestra entitled Fever, portraying the memories of a soldier in shell-shock. At the other extreme, the youthful Erich Wolfgang Korngold became musical director of a regiment, for which he composed a military march. When his commanding officer complained that it was too fast, he quipped: “This is for the retreat.” 
For Arnold Schoenberg, who undertook military service aged 42, the war symbolised – at first – an attack on the reactionary musical world, especially that of France: “Now we will throw these mediocre kitschmongers into slavery, and teach them to venerate the German spirit and to worship the German God,” he wrote in 1914. But German musical losses were intense, too: just one example was the immensely gifted Rudi Stephan, whose opera Die ersten Menschen was only premiered five years after his death on the Galician front. 
While surviving composers processed their experiences through their art in many different ways, an overarching result became clear. The war had produced such trauma and disillusionment that the only way forward was to sweep away the past and find a new, sometimes revolutionary approach for the future. The scene was set for a fresh century of music, rising from the ashes of the old one.

3 months ago | |
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Happy New Year from JDCMB here in London.

In 2014 this blog marks its 10th anniversary. On 4 March 2004 I set out to investigate what these new-fangled things called blogs were and found, five minutes later, that I had one; and decided, two minutes after that, that I'd use it and see what happened. So here we are.

Ten years on, most things of real value seem to be in a state of slow-motion collapse. My wish for today is that 2014 will be the year we find exciting and positive ways to reconfigure them. We're still here, and it's up to us.

A few points for readers new to JDCMB:


ABOUT ME: I am a writer with a musical slant, based in London, UK. I contribute music journalism to publications including The Independent, BBC Music Magazine, Opera News and others. I've written a bunch of novels, biographies of Fauré and Korngold, some plays, and words for musical setting, and I write and perform scripts for narrated words&music concerts. I give pre-concert talks and sometimes do things on Radio 3. I play the piano and I still love music.

ABOUT THIS BLOG: JDCMB is a celebration of music and words, aiming to inform and entertain. Occasional tubs are thumped, but I don't do rabble rousing and I sometimes try to puncture some of the inflated idiocy around us.

We like: genuine artistry, enthusiasm, humour, music education for all, historical recordings and the bolstering of the soul; and we enjoy going off the wall from time to time (eg the annual Ginger Stripe Awards, presented by Solti, my ginger cat). We don't like: commercialism, populism, sexism, racism, bullying, cruelty or carnage.

The gluten-free reference in the sub-head has a double-meaning. I've had to go GF since a patch of vicious stress relating to a dalek invasion stymied my digestive system; and eliminating avoidable stress has meant getting rid of the comments boxes. As for the sugar and spice, we would like to invent a sarcasm font and one for irony, too.

You can follow this blog via email - please sign up in the sidebar box (I don't see the email addresses, btw - it's all automated). I usually post links on Facebook and Twitter. If you need to write to me, please use my public Facebook page. Please don't send me unsolicited CDs, as I can't promise to review them. If you wish to buy an advert, you are welcome to do so, whether as a display ad or in the Solti Sponsorship Scheme.

Here's to a great year of music ahead!

3 months ago | |
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Here are a few bits and pieces to decorate the brown paper wrapping around 2013 as we stowe it on the "done" shelf. (Right: Viv & I finish Alicia's Gift at St Mary's, Perivale, the other week.)

JDCMB's Top 10 Posts of 2013

Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman Conductor. The most-viewed post on JDCMB EVER.      
       Jonas Kaufmann and the Holy Grail. JK sings Parsifal live on the big screen from the Met.     
 Ten things that make no difference whatsoever to music, and things that do. A bit of fun.

 Guardian publishes Roscoe’s correspondence with Gregson. Historic sex abuse scandal at RNCM.        
   Some breaking news that’s Rattling around. Is Rattle taking over the LSO? Still not confirmed, btw. 

 Jonas Kaufmann, swamped with red roses. A jolly wonderful evening of arias at the RFH.          
                  JD meets Calixto Bieito. My interview with the "bad boy of opera".       
 Statement from Gergiev. The maestro's response to matters relating to Russian anti-gay legislation.

Why The Rest Is Noise festival will change concert-going forever. And it will. It will.              
              Beethoven: Strength, Inspiration, Revolution! My pre-concert talk for the CBSO involving Beethoven and Rosa Parks on the bus.              

New Year Honours
This year they include the Order of Merit for Sir Simon Rattle. NB, this is the highest you can go, to the best of my knowledge. There are only ever 24 OMs at any one time and musicians do not often reach these ranks, though Yehudi Menuhin did. It's a vital mark of respect not only for Sir Simon but for the standing of the art of music and it is therefore a jolly important move.
There's also a Companion of Honour for Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, CBEs for Stephen Hough and for opera director John Copley, a DBE for Colette Bowe (chair of the ABRSM), and OBEs for the CEO of ENO Loretta Tomasi, the CEO of the Musicians' Benevolent Fund David Sulkin, and Gillian Humphries, founder of the Concordia Foundation. Marios Papadopoulos, founder of Oxford Philomusica, gets the MBE. Katherine Jenkins has been awarded an OBE too (make of that what you like). In dance, there's a DBE for choreographer Gillian Lynne and a CBE for the glorious Carlos Acosta.

Statistics re women composers prove some points...
A contact at the ISM has rooted out some more sobering statistics regarding the standing of women composers in Europe. These figures, he says, come from a "women in music European cultural programme pamphlet" and they read as follows:
"51.32% of the European population is female but 90% of European music institutions are directed by men.

"Nearly 40% of European Composers and Creators of Music are women but less than 4% of their production is programmed by publicly funded organisations."

This issue is NOT going to go away.

And one final thought for the year... ...from the astonishing Dame Fanny Waterman, whom I went to visit in Leeds a couple of days ago: the best riposte I've ever heard to the problem of "well, the audience likes it". "The audience liked it too," she remarked, "when they chopped Marie-Antoinette's head off."

 Tomorrow is another day...

3 months ago | |
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This was the moment on 21 December when Andras Schiff was presented with the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society at the Wigmore Hall. Receiving it makes him the successor to such figures as Rubinstein, Horowitz, Curzon and only a scant handful of other tip-tip-tip-top pianists. He had just given a remarkable recital consisting of Bach's Goldberg Variations in the first half and Beethoven's Diabelli Variations in the second. It was his 60th birthday that very day.

The citation is inspiring and his response touching, humble and rather heart-rending. He went on to play a short piece written in memory of his mother, Klara Schiff, by his teacher from Budapest, Gyorgy Kurtag, who has also been presented with the RPS's Gold Medal this month. The RPS has been celebrating its own bicentenary this year, as it happens, and the bust of Beethoven is on the stage in memory of the Society's commissioning of his Ninth Symphony.

3 months ago | |
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Hello...nose over the parapet to mention that I'm presenting Saturday Classics on BBC Radio 3 today, 2pm. It's a programme of tributes to just a few of the many great musicians who've died this year. Includes Henri Dutilleux, John Tavener, Regina Resnik, Marie-Claire Alain, Van Cliburn, Janos Starker, among others...not a comprehensive list, but a varied and hopefully rather fascinating line-up. You can listen online here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b014kyc5. Enjoy.
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The doors to our cyberposhplace are wide open, though the entrance hall is currently full of abandoned umbrellas. Please come in out of the rain for the 2013 JDCMB Ginger Stripe Awards: the annual Winter Solstice event at which we traditionally have a virtualkneesup to celebrate the glorious music-making that's taken place in the past year. We present our very own cyberawards, aided and abetted by Solti of the Ginger Stripes, with no prejudice or proviso other than that each comes straight from the heart.

The entire banquet is gluten-free and you can have the finest virtual mulled wine, vintage cyberchampers or the world's yummiest hot chocolate beamed in from Denmark (see 2011) - or all three, since they are, of course, devoid of calories. I hope you've donned your best cyberbling to jolly proceedings along. It may be wet and windy out there, but inside we have the joy of friendship, the scent of virtualcinnamon and unlimited quantities of seasonal good cheer. When you've hung up your coat, please pop over to Gretel, the Good Witch of the South West, who will annoint you with virtualfairydust and offer you a synaesthesia biscuit.

Now, will you welcome, please, our guests of honour. This is a controversial invitation and already I can hear mutterings at the back, but they're here anyway: Richard and Cosima Wagner have come from CyberBayreuth to join the party. It's not that we forgive you - either of you - for what you wrote, or said, or did. But this is a time for reconciliation. Richard, your music has not precisely changed my life, but it has certainly changed my world...you know what I mean, don't you? Of course you do. Your Parsifal has been the greatest thing that happened to me this year: more than an opera, more than a music drama, more even than gesamtkunstwerk, it's a form of spiritual awakening. Even for an atheist. Thank you for your music, Richard, and, er, thanks to both of you for agreeing to star in my play. 

Who's that? Oh...dearie dear...Giuseppe and Benjy are in the corner, doing the muttering. I knew somebody was. Come on over, chaps, and let's celebrate you all together. What an anniversary year this has been... Let's hear it one last time for VERDI and BRITTEN! And a round of applause for every musician who has touched the hearts of his or her audience during the past 12 months.

Now, now, quiet please... Would the following winners kindly approach the platform, where Solti, ensconced upon his silken cushion, will let you stroke the ginger stripes and will give you your special prize purr.

Icon of the Year: Sir Colin Davis, whom I only met a couple of times, but miss, now that he has left us, as if he were a member of my family. He was the first conductor I ever saw, as a child, and among many joys over the years I particularly cherish what he did with the Elgar Violin Concerto, accompanying Nikolaj Znaider, in 2010. Early in 2012 he gave me one of the most outspoken interviews I've ever had the pleasure of writing up. Thank you, Sir Colin, for everything you did for our sacred art.

Pianist of the Year: A special award, this time, for my concert partner Viv McLean, who has been doing such a glorious job of the Alicia's Gift performances that we can't possibly give the prize to anyone else. Viv, you are exceptional: your energy is something oddly transcendent. Like our Alicia, "you know what it is to be in a state of grace, even if you don't realise that you do..." I sit beside your piano every time and I can see, hear and feel this, clear as Chopin. It's a privilege to share a stage with you. Thank you for an extraordinary autumn tour - and looking forward to more next year!

Violinist of the Year: Please step forward, Barnabas Kelemen. You just won a Gramophone Award [left], but there's no law against you winning the Ginger Stripes too. Your Bartok Sonatas recording with Zoltan Kocsis is an absolute scorcher and when you and your wife Katalin Kokas played the duos at those awards, everyone knew that you could reach a rare, remarkable level of insight and communication. Now that you've been signed up by Hazard Chase we look forward to hearing you many, many, many more times in the near future. Gratulalok!

Singers of the Year: Naturally, the first is Jonas Kaufmann. Parsifal from the Met; Don Carlo twice, once in London, once in Munich; a glorious evening at the Royal Festival Hall; and that Wagner CD with the most delectable Wesendonck Lieder you could hope to hear. It's not only Solti who purrs when his voice fills the air. And please welcome the simply divine Joyce DiDonato, whose glorious technique, effortless tone, unbelievable virtuosity and bolts-of-lightning charisma have been blazing through London in the form of La Donna del Lago at Covent Garden and at the Last Night of the Proms (btw, dear Joyce, please can I snaffle that Vivienne Westwood frock when you've finished with it?)

Conductor of the Year: Marin Alsop, of course. Marin, you are not the first woman conductor in the world, nor the only one - see my startlingly  famous list - but you have managed to make that crucial step to near-universal recognition, becoming symbol, role-model and triumphant trailblazer. But it wasn't only great to see you conduct the Last Night of the Proms; more to the point, you did such a glorious job with the Bernstein Chichester Psalms that some of us were moved to tears. Thank you for all that you mean to us, and brava bravissima!

Series of the Year: Please welcome, from the Southbank Centre, artistic director Jude Kelly and head of classical music Gillian Moore. This was the year of The Rest is Noise - the most exciting year I can ever remember experiencing at a venue to which I've been going on average at least once a week for a quarter of a century. Restoring the idea of narrative and context to enhance understanding of modern/contemporary music, the series went right through the 20th and 21st-to-date centuries, bringing together speakers, films, participatory events, concerts, listening guidance sessions and much more through 13 themed weekends that packed newcomers into the halls. The website holds a remarkable archive of the talks for all to hear.

At John Adams's bright-blazing El Nino the other night, which concluded the festival, it was revealed that the LPO audience figures never went below 1800 for any of the TRIN concerts, even the most challenging - and even though Jude remarked that they'd been warned there were only 700 people in any major city who would go to contemporary music. The vision and trailblazing confidence that Jude and Gillian have brought to The Rest is Noise has categorically disproved that. I believe concert life will never be quite the same again. Thank you, Jude and Gillian! More, please!!

Youthful Artist of the Year: From the nearer reaches of north-west London, here is the adorable violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen, whose first two recordings, respectively on the Champs Hill and Signum, labels show a developing performer of innate musicality and inspiration, as well as an excellent communicator of the joy of music-making. Looking forward to hearing you heaps more in the years ahead.

Artist of the Year: Dear maestro, Andras Schiff, it is your 60th birthday today. I can't quite believe this. I still think of you as 28... It has been a remarkable privilege to watch and listen as your musicianship has grown and grown and kept growing with the decades; and to interview you about so many fascinating topics, musical and otherwise (a little memento, left, of our latest, at the Beethovenfest in Bonn). And you're as irrepressible as ever. I know you have to leave our cyberposhplace pdq because tonight you're playing the Goldberg Variations in the first half of your big birthday concert at the Wigmore Hall and the Diabelli Variations in the second half. Your purr will therefore be delivered to the Wigmore's stage door.

Lifetime Achievement Award: Please step forward, Roger Wright, head of the BBC Proms and Radio 3, for bringing us the best Ring cycle in the world, and the most egalitarian, for £5 a pop(era) - and all that other Wagner too. (And for programming the Korngold Symphony!) The BBC gets a lot of stick these days - some justified, some not - and in this day and age I think we need to be reminded sometimes of how bloody lucky we are to have such a thing as the Proms at all.

Colleagues of the Year: Hooray for David Le Page, Bradley Creswick, Margaret Fingerhut and Anthony Hewitt, who have been my much-loved, ever-inspiring, on-stage partners for the Hungarian Dances concerts this year - alongside Viv McLean, of course, who's already got the piano prize. And thank you a thousand times to the entire Seven Star Productions crew: "Five stars is not enough"... The amazing Yvonne Evans and her team, complete with those yummy "synaesthesia biscuits", themed canapes and copious marshmallows! Cheers, applause, hugs and fairy dust to you all.

Interviewee of the Year: There is only one Angela Gheorghiu. Blimey, guv.

Opera of the Year: Daniel Barenboim's utterly incredible Wagner Ring cycle at the Proms. It is being rebroadcast on R3 over Christmas, btw, and therefore should, I think, be available to listen to on the iPlayer for 7 days thereafter.

Ballet of the Year: Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in Giselle with the Mikhailovsky Ballet back in March. They were utterly aflame: probably the greatest dancers I've ever had the good fortune to see. Spassiba balshoy, both!

Stuffed Turkey: Die Fledermaus at ENO. Dearie, dearie, dear.

And a few personal highlights:

Proudest moment: Premiere of my play Sins of the Fathers at the Orange Tree Theatre under the auspices of the International Wimbledon Music Festival, on 24 November. I never thought I'd write a fantastical comedy about Wagner, but there we are, it happened and it seemed to go over OK.

Weirdest moment: Quite a few contenders for this, provided by...well, three or four very different people, some of whom play the piano, some of whom sing and some of whom don't. Let's leave it there.

Quote of the Year: "What you went through with us is something which I never dreamt of and I never thought it would be possible..." - Daniel Barenboim thanks the Promenaders at the end of the Ring Cycle. (His whole speech is here.)

Biggest Sigh of Relief: Probably the one upon completing my Chopin Ballades survey for Radio 3's Building a Library a few weeks back - comparing 35 different recordings ranging across 83 years. You can download the podcast here. (Scroll to 30 November.)

Wonderful Webmaster of the Year: Step up, please, Horst Kolo, as always. Thank you for putting up with me and thank you for keeping www.jessicaduchen.co.uk running and updated! Glad to see that you are now making a website for a very special violinist friend, too. (Watch this space.)

Feline of the Year: Bravo, Solti. Keep up the good work - you're the best cat on earth. >^.,.^<

Thank you, everyone! And now, sit back, have another glass and let Jonas sing for us, accompanied by Christian Thielemann and the Dresden Staatskapelle. I will leave you with one last piece of news: >>>NEXT SUMMER WE ARE GOING TO BAYREUTH FOR THE FIRST TIME...

Season's Greetings to everyone! Take it away, Jonas...

3 months ago | |
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Happy seasonal everything, folks - and don't forget to log on tomorrow for the annual JDCMB GINGER STRIPE AWARDS! Meanwhile, it's that time of year and we went to a marvellous party...

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Please welcome to JDCMB the young British conductor George Jackson, who has been delving into the music of a fascinating and all-but-forgotten composer, Julie von Webenau (1813-1887). She was, incidentally, the dedicatee of Schumann's Humoresque, Op.20.

'Frag den Mond': Julia von Webenau's 'New' Orchestral Song Cycle By George Jackson
Edward Elgar's instruction to the London Symphony Orchestra during the famous 1931 Abbey Road session is an invaluable aid to a young musician: 'Play this tune as though you've never heard it before'.  Navigating the halls of the 'repertoire' museum is always controversial, particularly as a young conductor working with orchestras who have developed a culture of playing certain music long before you were even born.  Aside from a deep passion for new music, my solution has been to rediscover old 'treasures' and assume the joy and responsibility of sharing them with the world.
The culture of birthday celebration in concert programming is rife, and this year's BWV trilogy (no, not Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, but Britten-Wagner-Verdi, of course) has brought a lot of music to a wider audience. My attention was recently drawn to a lesser-known guest at the birthday party: Julia Baroni-Cavalcabò, better known during her days in mid-19th century Vienna as Julie von Webenau. The rather modest Grove entry places her on the musical map, as a student of Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart and a close friend of Robert Schumann. Webenau's compositional canon extends to a series character pieces for solo piano (à la Schumann) and a noteworthy selection of lieder: the latter - which are musical gems - are of special interest to conductors and singers. 
Continuing my pursuit of this forgotten character, I ended up negotiating a collaboration with Gesine Schröder, music theory professor at Vienna's University for Music and Performing Arts. We commissioned a series of Vienna-based composers to orchestrate several of Webenau's lieder, to be premiered by the Akademisches Symphonie Orchester (ASO) Wien, where I was principal conductor last season.
The four songs that we chose - from a very long shortlist - represent an important step in German text setting in the middle of the 19th century, and are certainly worthy of further study: Ludwig Bechstein (the same poet who inspired Mahler's own text for ' Das klagende Lied'), Johan Nepomuk Vogl (a great Schubert collaborator), Hermann Kletke (a poet often set by Schumann), and Robert Reinick (responsible for the libretto of Schumann's Genoveva).          
Terz Magazine described the song cycle as a work that should 'place a great composer into the limelight in a situation which, as with many of her colleagues, the gender aesthetics of the 19thcentury forced them to be forgotten'.  Without wishing to go into the obvious issues of gender (not least in Vienna both in the 19th century and beyond, but, as Jessica herself points out here, 'women composers are still climbing the Eiger', not least at this year's British Composer Awards): Julie von Webenau's music is stunning, enhanced by a unifying marriage to the gorgeous texts she chooses, and offering a differently-tinged perspective of the German romantic art song.  I hope that my conducting colleagues, singers, musicologists and cultural commentators alike will take note and explore this rich terra incognita in years to come.

Here is Julie von Webenau's Warum, to a text by Ludwig Bechstein, sung by Wolfgang Stefan Schwaiger with the Akademisches Symphonie Orchester Wien conducted by George.

3 months ago | |
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