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
The Philharmonia Orchestra is playing proud host to the pianist Daniil Trifonov at the moment. He's playing all the Rachmaninov concertos. Last week I was lucky enough to catch the concert that included both No.4 and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The Observer's critic didn't mince her words: "He is, no other word, a phenomenon." Hear hear.

The orchestra has been sharing a video clip of the rehearsal for the 'Rach Pag', and it was such astonishing playing that really you have to see it too - it's here.

The Trif is back on Thursday: beg, borrow or steal a ticket.

3 months ago | |
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Viv McLean
SPECIAL OFFER FOR JDCMB READERS

Viv McLean and I are performing Alicia's Gift, the concert of the novel, at the Clapham Omnibus on 8 November at 4pm. This terrific and innovative multi-arts centre is five minutes stroll from Clapham Common tube station and plays host to all manner of thrilling events across the genres - music, literature, comedy, painting, you name it - on an intimate scale.




Rebecca Clarke
A week later, on 15 November, the Lawson Piano Trio will be there to perform a programme of music entirely composed by women - from Clara Schumann to Cheryl Frances-Hoad, with the fabulous trio by Rebecca Clarke as centrepiece - and including an introduction and Q&A session with Diana Ambache.

Thanks to my involvement with Diana's Ambache Charitable Trust, which supports the promotion of music by women, the Clapham Omnibus is offering our friends and readers of JDCMB a special deal: a ticket to both concerts for only £16.

To claim this, please email box-office@omnibus-clapham.org or phone 0207 498 4699.

See you there.

Here's Viv in a certain party-piece that always goes down a storm during Alicia's Gift...

3 months ago | |
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I'm counting the days until the Wexford Opera Festival. Ten at present. Very pleased to be going back this year to an event of which I've loved every minute the times before that I have been there, and this year they're doing Delius's Koanga, a blink-and-you-missed-it rarity (it was done once at Sadler's Wells in 2007 and I blinked and missed it - or may have been away in Bosnia at the time - a pity one can't be in several places all at once). Posted below is a short piece I wrote for yesterday's Independent about why it's so special. 
First, here's Sir Malcolm Sargent, with an introduction to 'La Calinda' that isn't terribly accurate about its setting. The opera is set in Louisiana. It was Delius himself who was on an orange plantation in Florida...of which more in a mo.


Delius’s Koanga is the opera I have waited all my life to see. Stagings are so rare that if you blink, you miss it. Yet the work contains one of the composer’s best-loved pieces, ‘La Calinda’, with its irresistible oboe solo that seems all mingled smiles and tears; my husband and I both love it so much that we walked out to it after our wedding ceremony. Now, at last, Koanga is being presented complete at the Wexford Festival, Ireland – the best friend anywhere of deserving, under-performed operas.
Delius, 1907
Unfortunately it is rare for a good reason: its distinctly tricky story, based partly on the novel The Gradissimes by George Washington Cable. Koanga is an African king and Voodoo priest who has been brought to Louisiana as a slave. He loves Palmyra, the mulatto daughter of a slave girl and a white plantation owner, and agrees to convert to Christianity to marry her. But the overseer wants Palmyra for himself; everything goes horribly wrong and the tale concludes in tragedy.
Just imagine the problems such a scenario presents for a creative team in 2015. Its director, Michael Gieleta, whose staging of Maria by Roman Statkowski took Wexford by storm in 2011, nevertheless points out that the issues Koanga raises are absolutely current: religion, sexual abuse, power and of course race.
Blacking up is not an option. “The characters are defined not by their skin colour, but by their body language and by their relationships,” Gieleta says. “This is about captors and captives.” Koanga and Palmyra are played by two exciting young singers, the American baritone Norman Garrett and the South African soprano Nozuko Teto; and Gieleta’s preparations for the production included holding dance workshops in South Africa.
Back in 1895, Koanga might have seemed an unlikely topic for a British composer – but Delius had his own reasons for choosing a tragic love story set amid the toxic race relations of the Deep South. Born to a German immigrant family in Bradford, he moved to Florida in 1884, aged 22, to run an orange plantation. Here he fell in love with an African-American girl, whose family would previously have been slaves – and she bore his child. Later he returned to the US to look for her and their son. They had vanished. She may have gone into hiding for fear he would take the boy away.
This startling episode was confirmed by Eric Fenby, Delius’s amanuensis, in a recorded phone conversation with the violinist Tasmin Little, who researched the topic in 1997. Fenby was well aware, too, of how close Koanga was to its composer’s heart. “Usually, once a work was written, Delius's interest in it would wane,” he wrote. “For Koanga, however, he showed concern as though it held some secret bond that bound him to his youth in Florida. It was the one work he deplored in old age he was never likely to hear again...”
Clearly Fenby regarded Koanga as the work that was inspired by Delius’s lost love and the child he never knew. Its conductor at Wexford, Stephen Barlow, confirms the special nature of the work: “The libretto may be a bit clunky,” he says, “but some of the music has the great, sensual sweep of Delius at his finest.”
And if ‘La Calinda’ feels like smiles through tears, perhaps that was with good reason all along.  

Koanga, Wexford Festival Opera, Ireland, 21-30 October. Box office: +353 53 912 2144
3 months ago | |
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Page-turning may be the most terrifying job in classical music, but the other day violinist Anna Reszniak - in normal life concertmaster of the Nürnberg Symphony Orchestra - stepped into that role and saved the day for violin and piano duo Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt as they tacked Brahms's Scherzo from the 'FAE Sonata'. Her cool head and professional demeanour kept the music on the rails - and the stands - at the Sendesaal Bremen, and earned her a guest star spot at the curtain calls. Brava, Anna!

We know FAE stands for Joseph Joachim's motto 'frei aber einsam' (free but lonely), but I bet there were some alternatives interpretations flying around after that...

4 months ago | |
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Linger - Ailís Ní Ríain @ The Bronte Parsonage Museum from Ailís Ní Ríain on Vimeo.

Tomorrow the Irish composer Aílís Ní Ríain launches a fascinating new project at the home of the Brontë family in Haworth, Yorkshire. She has written six new pieces specifically for the literary siblings' own piano - the sound that might have lived alongside the creation of Emily's Wuthering Heights, Charlotte's Jane Eyre and Anne's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Aílís and the Brontës' piano
The project, entitled Linger, has been recorded and its component pieces will be played in the various rooms of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, where they can be heard until 4 January. There'll also be a concept album based on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Aílís, who was born in Cork and whose composition teachers included Nicola LeFanu, Kevin Malone and Adam Gorb, has lived in northern England for 20 years and is currently based near Haworth. She says:
The pieces are composed to 'lock into each other' when heard at a distance. In essence, Linger is a large work for six intertwining, contrapuntal voices which are separated into six rooms in the Brontë home. Elements of each piece will 'drift' or 'leak' out of each room forming a sonorous space all of its own on and near the stairwell. Visitors are invited to dwell in quiet contemplation and thought; to linger.”
The piano itself has undergone a three-year restoration process and Aílís says it is "beautiful".

4 months ago | |
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The Wimbledon International Music Festival, which runs 14 to 29 November, is kindly offering readers of JDCMB tickets at a special reduced price for two events in this year's fabulous programme. This, happily, is my local international music festival and it is quite something to be able to hear a collection of world-class artists just a short bus ride away. 

I've also been fortunate that the festival (in 2012) staged my play A Walk through the End of Time starring Dame Harriet Walter and Henry Goodman, then commissioned another play from me - Sins of the Fathers, which was a slightly off-the-wall take on Wagner, Liszt and Cosima. Last year Viv McLean and I gave a matinee of the Alicia's Gift concert. 

This year it's over to you for these two very special treats. JDCMB readers can get £10 off the two top prices for each of these events - so £28 tickets for £18, and £23 tickets for £13.



Roxanna Panufnik
Saturday 21 November Henry Goodman narrates a 150th Anniversary Celebration of 'Alice in Wonderland', written by Louis de Bernieres. Matthew Trusler (violin) and Ashley Wass (piano) perform 12 short pieces by 12 celebrated composers  representing the 12 chapters of the book. The composers are Sally Beamish, Roxanna Panufnik, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Stuart MacRae, Poul Ruders, Howard Blake, Carl Davis, Stephen Hough, Richard Dubugnon, Ilya Gringolts, Colin Matthews, Gwilym Simcock, Augusta Read Thomas.Book via this link using the promotional code Jess10, which you enter at the 'basket' stage.http://www.wimbledonmusicfestival.co.uk/bookingpage.php?linkcode=Wonderland






Mikhail Rudy
Thursday 26 NovemberMikhail Rudy (piano) presents a recital incorporating two of his now-legendary multi-media projects: Petrushka, which was a commission from this festival a couple of years ago, and his latest one - here coming to the UK for the first time - The Sound of Colours, featuring animations of the Chagall paintings in the auditorium of the Paris Opéra Garnier. Mikhail Rudy was close to Marc Chagall in his last years. He gave his first concert in the West with Mstislav Rostropovich and Isaac Stern in the Beethoven Triple Concerto for Chagall’s 90th birthday, and subsequently met him on numerous occasions. Now, in collaboration with the Chagall family, who allowed him to use many unpublished sketches for the ceiling of the Opera Garnier, Rudy has created a new project on the music from Gluck, Mozart, Wagner, Debussy and Ravel. Book via this link using the promotional code Jess10, which you enter at the 'basket' stage.http://www.wimbledonmusicfestival.co.uk/bookingpage.php?linkcode=Rudy





4 months ago | |
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Stunning encounter with Scriabin's Third Symphony at the RFH the other night made me realise I never posted on JDCMB the article I wrote about him during the Proms, all about the grandiose excesses and giant dreams of this very tiny Russian (honestly, you should see his evening suit, which is on display in his flat in Moscow...). Oliver Knussen, who was conducting the Poem of Ecstasy and arranged some piano pieces for orchestra which were played on Saturday evening, had some fascinating things to say, too. It was in the Independent on 1 August. Here goes.


Scriabin's Bechstein, in the composer's Moscow apartment

A tiny man with a vast imagination, Alexander Scriabin is possibly the most intriguing of the composers whose anniversaries are marked at this year’s Proms. He died aged only 43 exactly a hundred years ago and the Prom on 6 August features his Poem of Ecstasy, a work that represents the very pinnacle of his exotic, even erotic musical language.

The late Ken Russell once wrote a radio play entitled The Death of Alexander Scriabin, in which the composer encounters the occultist Aleister Crowley; the notion is fictional, yet has its appeal, for the spellbinding darkness of Scriabin at his best can resemble musical black magic. From an aristocratic and military family in Moscow, he started out composing piano music much influenced by Chopin, but later became preoccupied with mysticism and theosophy. He dreamed of creating as his magnum opus a multimedia work, Mysterium - “a grandiose religious synthesis of all arts which would herald the birth of a new world,” he wrote – for performance in the Himalayas, but did not live to complete it.

The British composer Oliver Knussen is conducting the Poem of Ecstasy at the Proms; he says he has been under Scriabin’s spell since boyhood. “The uniquely sensuous and hypnotic harmonic world, fabulous orchestral colours, and textures teeming with Fabergé-like detail have exerted a powerful attraction for me since my teens,” Knussen says. “It's especially seductive music to accompany the time when one's hormones are ragingly active – but the fascination has deepened over the years. 

The museum curator displays Scriabin's lightbox
“Scriabin’s mystical side was of enormous creative importance to him; his writings belong firmly in the world of Madame Blavatsky, et al; and the self-glorifying messianic ambitiousness certainly got out of control towards the end of his life,” he remarks. “But it is the quality and originality of the music itself that is most important. Scriabin made his own surprisingly rational way into a world of extreme chromaticism completely independently of Schoenberg. One wonders how this might have developed had he not died at 43.” 

Scriabin’s Moscow apartment is now a museum: the composer’s piano takes pride of place and is often played by visiting pianists making a pilgrimage; and his diminutive evening suit is on display - he was just over five feet tall. On his desk stands a wood-mounted circle of six different-coloured electric bulbs, which can light up in various combinations. 

This modest device aided and abetted Scriabin as he composed his Prometheus – The Poem of Fire, an attempt to bring his synaesthesia (the correlation of two senses, here sound and colour) directly into his music. Colour in relation to tone is written in to the score at one point; orchestras sometimes attempt to include it with the use of coloured light. Knussen does not quite approve: “It’s most often an embarrassment unless done with great care and taste,” he says. “Scriabin's music is too strange and subtle to be treated as some sort of proto-hippie/rave lightshow.” 

It is also too significant and influential for that. The Poem of Ecstasy was considered startlingly modern on its first hearing in 1908: “Prokofiev in his diary says that he went to a rehearsal together with Miaskovsky and that neither of them understood it at all,” Knussen recounts. “But Stravinsky certainly did; although he was rude about Scriabin in later life, neither The Firebird or Le Rossignol would sound as they do without Scriabin in the background. 

“I myself have been profoundly influenced by Scriabin’s harmony,” he adds,  “which to me is embarrassingly easy to hear in, for example, my Third Symphony, Where the Wild Things Are, and especially my piano music. As I said, once you're hooked, you're hooked.”


4 months ago | |
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I record all my interviews on my iPhone and sometimes, as you know if you have one, these little contraptions decide they know how to spell people's names better than you do. While I was saving my interview with Fabio Luisi in Zurich a couple of weeks ago, some predictive text happened and what I ended up with was Fabio Lucidity.

In fact, it's not inappropriate. I had a wonderful long interview with him that traversed his background, training, attitude to opera directors, what it's like working with Christian Gerhaher and much more. But the paper wanted the bit about the perfumery he runs on the side, so that piece appears below and I will offer more of the interview at a later point.

Luisi is in London today with the Zürich Opera, performing Wozzeck in concert at the Royal Festival Hall. I saw it whole, with Andreas Homoki's production, in Switzerland, right after the interview, and it is absolutely amazing and if you're here, you should go. I found it amazing, incidentally, that any conductor would do an interview all of two hours before curtain up on a new production, first night of the season, an opera he's never done before. But that, dear readers, is Maestro Lucidity for you.

UPDATE, 8.42am: I've just heard that unfortunately Christian Gerhaher is not well and won't be singing tonight. His place will be taken by Leigh Melrose, who sang Wozzeck at ENO and was terrific. So, still go.


Fabio Luisi. Photo: Barbara Luisi Photography


You might think that being principal conductor of two world-class opera houses would be enough to keep anyone busy. Fabio Luisi (56) divides his musical time principally between the Zürich Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He is at the helm for the Swiss company’s forthcoming visit to London’s Royal Festival Hall, opening the Southbank Centre’s International Orchestras Series 15/16 with a concert performance of Berg’s opera Wozzeck, starring the German baritone Christian Gerhaher.
But this soft-spoken maestro from Genoa has a startling extra strand to his life: he has his own perfume business, FL Parfums.
“I was always interested in perfumes,” Luisi says, “and one day I thought: why don’t I try it for myself? About four or five years ago I started to read, to get informed, to try by myself to make mixtures. I had a teacher and continue to learn. It’s a continuous learning process; it never ends.”
He likes to use essential oils in his scents – indeed, has recently qualified as an aromatherapist. Some of the perfumes are inspired by music; two are named for elements of Debussy’s La mer – Jeux du Vagues and Jeux du Vent – and for another, Invincible, Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony was his chief “muse”.
Luisi’s personal balance of ingredients – whether in music, life or perfume – include focus, sensitivity and organisation in what one imagines are equal parts. Slight, wiry, not remotely flamboyant, he directs the energy where it needs to go: into the creative task in hand, whatever it may be. Most perfume hobbyists might never consider turning a passion into a business – but for Luisi, perhaps if something is worth doing, it is worth doing thoroughly? “Possibly,” he agrees, laughing. “I can’t stand it when people do not care about quality.
“To be a perfectionist is a challenge,” he admits. “I try to do it well. Why are we doing this?” Music, that is. “It’s not for the money! For the audience? Yes, for the audience – but also for the respect of what we are doing. I think how much energy, thought, passion and time Alban Berg put into Wozzeck; I feel forced to do it well for him, for the work itself, and to show the audience how great this opera is.
“Sometimes I can do it, sometimes not as good as I want,” he adds. “But my father always used to say, ‘You have to try not harder - harder is not enough - but hardest. Then if you don’t achieve that goal, even if you are a little bit behind it, the result will still be good. But if you don’t aim for the best, you will never achieve any goal.’ And this is right.”
His father was a conductor, as it happens – a train conductor. Every small boy’s dream? “Mine too,” Luisi smiles. “Sometimes he would take me on the train in the driver’s cab. I loved him and I loved his job.”

Zürich Opera, Southbank International Orchestras Series, Royal Festival Hall, London, 2 October. Box office: 0844 875 0073
4 months ago | |
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An actual interview with the extremely press-shy Martha Argerich has appeared in a Japanese newspaper after the great pianist visited Hiroshima. 

In it she reveals that she played a piano that had been subject to radiation from the atomic bomb that destroyed the city in 1945, saying: "It was very much taken care of and had a lovely sound. I know the story of Akiko (Kawamoto, who played the piano). She was not obviously injured (by the atomic bomb) but the next day she died (of radiation) at 19."

She also declares that both the Holocaust and Hiroshima must be remembered as human tragedies, and speaks about her recent collaborations with Daniel Barenboim: "I have no musical disagreement with him, until now at least."

Read it all here.

Here are Argerich and Barenboim playing a Schubert duet by way of encore...

4 months ago | |
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Sibelius with his piano. Photo: sibelius.fi

I'm off to Birmingham tomorrow to give a pre-concert talk about Sibelius for the CBSO (though unfortunately am fighting a lurgy and need to get my voice back pronto - please forgive me if I sound a little croaky). https://cbso.co.uk/event/sibelius-fifth

The concert, at Symphony Hall, concludes with the Symphony No.5 and it's good to see that it's being broadcast live on Radio 3 so we will all be able to enjoy Ed Gardner's conducting of this utterly scrumptious, inspired, original, glorious symphony for a little while thereafter. In the first half there's the Mendelssohn 'Hebrides' Overture and Lars Vogt is the soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto in E flat, K271. The first of the two performances is tonight.

As for Sibelius - there is too much to say and squeezing everything into 25-30 minutes is no easy task, so I'm going to focus on the question of why, when we had a composer of such genius who was once voted the most popular classical composer ever, even ahead of Beethoven, and he lived to be 91, there wasn't more of his music. There's much to explore and chew over. Do come along if you're in town. Booking here: https://cbso.co.uk

4 months ago | |
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