JDCMB is Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music & writing, with CHOCOLATE AND SILVER, in London, UK. Author & journalist JD writes for The Independent.
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As promised a while ago, here is the Director's Cut of my interview in Budapest with Iván Fischer, the founder and conductor of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. We covered a great deal of ground, from the unique qualities he has built up with the BFO to his original and not-uncontroversial ideas for new ways to present opera, seeking increased integration between music and drama. As more and more of us seem to despair over how to resolve what's beginning to look like a global opera crisis - with the Met struggling to fill seats, the Arena di Verona going into administration and ENO gasping for its life - Fischer is one of the few people who is venturing into seriously creative solutions. He brings Die Zauberflöte to the Royal Festival Hall in a month's time....
A shorter version of this interview recently appeared in The Independent.
Iván Fischer. Photo: Marco Borggreve

The Budapest Festival Orchestra is perhaps the one orchestra for which I would drop everything and run. Founded by its music director Iván Fischer in 1983, it offers a musical cocktail that is unique: a springy, flexible musicianship which combines with red-hot intensity and all-out communicative passion, to inspiring effect. In May they visit London to perform Mozart’s opera Die Zauberflöte(The Magic Flute) semi-staged at the Royal Festival Hall. I went to their rehearsal studio, a converted cinema in a quiet suburb of Óbuda, to see what makes Iván Fischer tick.
His office is full of schoolchildren. A class has come to listen to the rehearsal and now the maestro is sitting on his desk, answering their questions. “We do this at every rehearsal,” he explains afterwards. It’s just one of the BFO’s numerous community initiatives: “We go out to schools; we give primary school children a chance to try instruments and talk about them with our players; we take children’s operas into to schools; we have a music-based film-making competition for teenagers. Many small things, but one can really get in touch with the community, something for which I feel a great deal of responsibility.”
That responsibility extended to hiring a van and distributing aid to the refugees from the Middle East who arrived at Hungary’s borders as their first entry point to the EU last year. A few months ago in Berlin, Fischer, as conductor of the Konzerthaus Orchestra, recently joined forces with Daniel Barenboim and Sir Simon Rattle to present a concert for the refugees. “There was a wonderful enthusiasm,” Fischer says. “Members of my Berlin orchestra do volunteer work, they teach instruments, they really put their hearts into helping the integration process. Music, language, learning about the culture, getting to know this new world that people live in, it must be looked after with great care, because integration is crucial.”
Fischer, 65, is a vivid, powerful yet almost impish personality, in possession of a quality rarer among conductors than you might expect: real creativity. His imagination seems to function non-stop. He credits the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt, with whom he studied, and who died earlier this year, for having inspired his questioning spirit: “He was an eye-opener teacher with a wonderfully critical mind,” Fischer says. “He always questioned things, he never took anything for granted. There was a lust for discovery in him and I think I learned it from him. He would say that we must question tradition, because tradition is not the main thing. Discovery is.”
The BFO at RFH, with tree, 2011. Photo: JD
One side effect of this creativity is possibly the key to the extraordinary popularity of the BFO. “When we first started, we played every concert programme once,” Fischer says. “Now each sells out three times.” Nor is it a question of desperately seeking ways to attract new audiences, he adds: “It’s more the opposite: ideas pop up because they fascinate me – this is the way I am – and somehow this attracts the new generation and new audiences. It works automatically.”
Sure enough, although the BFO might perform a standard concert one night, the next might be time for something completely different. A few years ago they offered London a late-night “audience choice” Prom, at which members of the audience were asked to pull a number designating a particular piece out of the tuba and small groups of musicians from the ranks performed while the orchestral parts for it were retrieved for a runthrough. Another time, they performed Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony with the musicians grouped around an onstage tree. At the Royal Festival Hall this caused some surprise, but a life-enhancing performance ensued (which I, for one, remember with great joy).
“It was very funny to see how ideas like this immediately get people raising their eyebrows,” Fischer twinkles. “A few feel that theatrical elements in a concert shouldn’t happen. But on the other hand, I think we present many different types of works in the same setting. The ‘Pastoral’ Symphony is clearly an excursion into nature: you hear the birds, you hear the little brook, the meadows, the folklore scene. Simply by presenting it like an installation – not a theatre, but playing it in a certain frame, such as having the orchestra seated around a tree – for me helped the feeling of the music-making and the listening. I don’t mind if some people are upset about it,” he adds. “Most people loved it!”
The new ideas keep flowing; now, says Fischer, they have a series of midnight concerts, which are much loved by students. In a further initiative, they occasionally perform in some of Hungary’s disused synagogues, drafting in rabbis to explain to the community what used to take place there, keeping alive the memory of some very dark times in the country’s history. Thousands of Hungarian Jews, including Fischer’s maternal grandparents, were deported and murdered in the Holocaust after the country joined the Second World War in 1944, and thousands of its Roma population as well. Bullet holes in the walls of some Budapest streets still bear witness to the battle between the Germans and the Russians that raged there. Some, too, are relics of the revolution against Soviet control that was brutally crushed in October 1956 (Fischer was five years old then).
Budapest from the Buda side of the Chain Bridge. Photo: JD
“I’m a passionate European,” Fischer says, “because I think the idea that this continent which finally found peace with each other should become an integrated family is far more important than all these small considerations that keep nations separate from each other. I think people should appreciate that for 70 years we didn’t have to turn against each other inside this continent and it’s a wonderful gift. It gives sense to the idea of integrated Europe.” (Brexiters should remember this point...)
Love and wisdom, the two values that feel uppermost in that outlook, are core to Mozart’s masterpiece of seeking and enlightenment, The Magic Flute. The performance that the BFO are giving at the Royal Festival Hall is part of yet another recent Fischer initiative: a trilogy of Mozart operas, semi-staged under his own direction. Critical eyebrows have been raised high over this, but Fischer refutes what he sees as an unquestioning adherence to a modern tradition in which radically new stage directors work with conservative conductors. In an era in which opera seems to have reached an impass about how to attract new audiences, how to stop alienating old ones and how to freshen up its brand for a new century, Fischer’s is one of the few really innovative ideas that has stepped into the spotlight.
“For many years I’ve tried to work on something which I call an organic, integrated opera performance, because I simply think that this idea of visual innovation and acoustic conservatism is now a little boring,” he declares. “We’ve had it now for 40 years and some great things happened. I love to work with many directors. But I’m looking for new ways to present operas and I’m specifically interested in this organic unity between music and stage – instead of polarising the two things, bringing the two things together. That means the music has to be done very theatrically and the theatre must reduce itself; just concentrate on bringing the two artforms to each other.
“Generally I find our whole music life is a little bit narrow and people have great fear of stepping out of it,” he adds. “For example, we started to talk about the opera tradition: nowadays people think the only possible opera performance is where you have an innovative director and conservative conductor and you combine the two. But imagine: in the time of Mozart there was no conductor and no director! So what are we talking about, really? I think we got stuck into a too-narrow perception of music ritual.
Fischer. Photo: Marco Borggreve
How, then, does he approach Die Zauberflöte for his special production? “I consider it a very beautifully constructed but complex masterpiece,” he says, “because it has many layers. It has the fairytale element, it has the Freemason aspect – it almost literally follows the rituals of the Freemasons – and it has this mysterious day-and-night, man-and-woman aspect, which is partly not PC today! But I don’t think that should concern us too much, because everybody understands it comes from a different century and a different environment. The wonderful thing is that Schikaneder and Mozart managed to create out of these different layers something which is clearly united in style and forms its recognisable own world which feels organic and natural. There is Tamino’s aspiration for wisdom, entering this mysterious circle, yet next to him there is the parody of the same thing, who makes us laugh because he’s one of us, and this is Papageno. How on earth did they manage to bring all these things together? I have great admiration for it!
“But where do productions fail? I think they usually fail when they emphasise one aspect too much. If one simply wants to do a fairy tale without the mystery, or something mysterious without the fairy tale element, it doesn’t really ‘click’ with the opera. I think one needs to present all the layers and find the balance.”
His association with Die Zauberflöte goes back to his childhood. The opera involves a trio of three boy singers; he sang Second Boy, aged 13, at the Hungarian State Opera. Growing up in Budapest, he and his peers – including his brother, the conductor Adam Fischer – benefitted from the country’s radical and inclusive approach to music education, based on childhood singing and pioneered by the composer Zoltán Kodály; even today the BFO occasionally startles its audiences by transforming itself into a choir and singing, rather than playing, an encore. That tradition, says Fischer, is one crucial part of the special nature of Hungarian music-making. The BFO is around 90 per cent Hungarian; it is by no means closed to musicians from other countries, though a distinctively Hungarian approach was part of its original ethos, Fischer having been eager to avoid the homogeneous, one-sound-fits-all nature of many international orchestras.
Kodály with young students. Photo: http://bridgestomusic.com.au
“Kodaly was a wonderful person and devoted his life to reforming music education, introduced a method, published exercises, a completely thought-through system which helps children. He is really to blame for the high quality of Hungarian music making and musical culture,” Fischer says. “There are a few more elements here, too, such as the geographical position. Budapest is in the cross-roads: Vienna is very near, so there’s a lot of Viennese influence and Mahler worked here. The Balkans are relatively close with wonderful rhythm and folklore traditions, and there is a high level of Gypsy musicians, who injected a lot of temperament and virtuosity into Hungarian musical culture. I would even say that Russia is not far away – many Hungarian violinists had Russian teachers. This closeness of Russia, Balkan, Vienna and the Gypsies created a wonderful melting pot, but the person who is most responsible is Kodály.”
The unique qualities of the BFO, though, go far beyond its nationality. Why has Fischer remained so devoted to it? “Because we found a completely different way to consider what an orchestra is all about,” he says. “I think the difficulty is that a symphony orchestra has to play in many different styles. In Mozart’s time everyone played in the style of Mozart. And now we have to play next to Mozart occasionally Messiaen or Bach or Bartók and the result internationally is music-making that is too uniform. The danger is that people play the notes but don’t understand the phrases, and don’t understand the meaning of the music.
“Especially with the way the orchestras work these days, with conductors who come and go, they become a little uniform and there is a lot of moaning and complaining about the geography – that one cannot distinguish between an American, French, Hungarian or Finnish orchestra. But I think there is another problem: that one plays more or less Beethoven, Ravel, Mahler and Messiaen the same way. It’s the uniform type of music-making that very often damages the meaning of the music.  
The BFO play at their Midnight Music series. Photo: http://www.bfz.hu
“What we wanted to find back in the 1980s, and have worked on ever since, is a symphony orchestra that works with the same serious kind of fanaticism and research as a chamber group would. To have a whole orchestra work with that attitude is a wonderful journey. Always when I come back to the BFO after working with other excellent orchestras, I always feel I can breathe freely because people immediately focus on the meaning of the music, not the outside symptoms; not the technicalities but the meaning.
“We want to be a laboratory where we imagine we want to move ahead to the orchestra of the future. So what do we do? We have a group within the orchestra playing on original instruments, so we play baroque music on period instruments. We sing, so we can suddenly turn into a choir. We have a group in the orchestra who specialise in Transylvanian folk music. We try to bring many styles into the family of the orchestra.”
It would be easy for any conductor as successful as Fischer to rest on his laurels, but clearly that won’t happen any time soon. He is full of ideas for both the present and the future, in which he dreams of creating a new opera festival, ideally in Italy, to work towards his ideal of organic, integrated music and drama. Moreover, he not only conducts, but also composes: “I would never consider myself a composer,” he insists, but is nevertheless writing his third opera at present. His first, The Red Heifer, was a caustic and impassioned denunciation of a vicious anti-Semitic incident that took place in Hungary in the 1880s.
“I feel close to the heritage of, let’s say, Leonard Bernstein, who I admired because of his complex activities,” he says. “What was he? Conductor, composer, educator, pianist? For me this is a little more interesting as a lifestyle than a narrow profession. If I would only conduct symphony orchestras, going from one to the next, I think I would be a bit bored.”

Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra perform Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte,Royal Festival Hall, 10 May. Booking here.

6 months ago | |
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Ghost Variations came back from the Unbound editor the other day 14,000 words shorter. Getting my head around the remaining 84,000 is likely to take a little time, so I may be going to earth for a bit, though looking forward to coming up for air chez Wigmore Hall tomorrow, where András Schiff reaches the last of his "last works" series (the final piano sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven, performed with no interval).
6 months ago | |
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The most touching moment of the BBC Music Magazine Awards, held last night at Kings Place, was when the Instrumental Award winner took the platform. Cellist David Watkin received his prize for his CD of the Bach Cello Suites from the hand of Sir John Eliot Gardiner, in some of whose orchestras David was lead cellist for around 20 years.

What was left unsaid was that this immensely-praised CD has had to be his last; in summer 2015 an autoimmune condition called scleroderma forced his retirement from the instrument. He continues to blaze across the early music skies, though, as conductor and devoted teacher.

In his acceptance speech he made the powerful point that if our field of music is to continue at all, we have to educate as many people as possible about it; and he gave his own children a special thank you. Storytelling, he said, is the single best preparation for giving a good musical performance, especially reading aloud to kids. His two have been treated to his rendition of the whole of Narnia and Lord of the Rings. "If you want to prepare, find some children and read to them. And do the voices!" he advised.

He accepted the award, too, on behalf of all undersung continuo cellists, those beings who often find themselves standing in the rain after playing every note of a long oratorio while a soloist who's sung for ten minutes of it swooshes by in a limo, splashing them as they go...

Just one highlight, there, of a terrific line-up to celebrate the best and most honest music-making on CD. Other winners included conductor Sakari Oramo, two of whose discs were nominated in Orchestral, and who won for his Nielsen Symphonies Nos 1 and 3 with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic; Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque for their Vivaldi L'Estro Armonico; and the splendid young Schumann Quartet were there to perform a piece of Ives from the disc that scooped the Newcomer of the Year award.

Rosalind Plowright accepted the DVD award for Dialogue des Carmélites from Paris, directed by Olivier Py; she remarked that she was the only British cast member in a line-up of leading French singers as the doomed nuns, and had been asked to audition for the role to make sure her French was up to it. "I got the job," she declared. Record of the Year was the winner in the Opera category: Aida, starring Anja Harteros and Jonas Kaufmann, conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano. The fabulous baritone Ludovic Tézier stepped up as the cast's representative to collect the prize.

A special plaudit to the choir Tenebrae, who won for a disc of Brahms and Bruckner motets that was recorded in support of Macmillan Cancer Care. They were there and sang Bruckner's 'Christus Factus Est', and very gorgeous it was. We should all buy that CD.

You can see the full list of award winners and hear extracts from the discs here.

Many of the guest award presenters - including Ed Balls, Clemency Burton-Hill and James Naughtie - reflected on how playing the piano in public had proved far more frightening than standing at the dispatch box or broadcasting to three million people on the radio. But one award was presented by "Dr Christian" - the medical presenter of such popular-health TV programmes as Supersize Versus Superskinny - who made an impassioned speech about how important music is to him, and to so many of his patients as a veritable medicine for healing. Indeed, he thanked the music profession from the medical profession.

A beautiful evening, all in all, and one that left a tug at the heart. You realise the impermanence of things. You realise the dedication, effort, time, vocation and sacrifice that goes into the making of music and the vital nature of its support for our souls. It takes so long to build up that expertise and the structures that support its existence. It can all be swept away in the stroke of someone's pen. We can't let that happen if we want future generations to experience the joy and life-enhancing beauty we've been lucky enough to have ourselves. In Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has just earmarked nearly $1.9bn for culture and the arts. Here, though, music education is fighting for its life and entire communities stand to be deprived of it and of the performing arts due to local authority cuts. And meanwhile, this is happening... Let's get a grip now, once and for all. Factory reset of human values, please!
6 months ago | |
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Choreographer and director Sir Matthew Bourne has this morning announced a brand-new ballet for his New Adventures company next season, and it's THE RED SHOES. It will have music by, oh joy, Bernard Herrmann, film composer par excellence, Hitchcock's composer of choice and one who absolutely deserves to be brought to a wider audience; the new score will be fashioned from Herrmann's work by Terry Davies.

Matthew's passion for golden-age movies has been beautifully reflected in some of his previous work, notably his Cinderella, which is set in the Blitz and draws on stories such as A Matter of Life and Death, and I can't wait to see what he is going to do with this Powell & Pressburger classic. Ashley Shaw will dance the role of Victoria Page and the designs are by Lez Brotherston. The tour begins in Plymouth on 21 November, hits Sadler's Wells on 6 December and continues around the country until next April or later.
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The Panama Papers reports are addictive reading. Following these tales of billions of pounds/dollars/roubles/Icelandic-whatever, squirrelled away by sunny southern seas, I keep coming back to one question: what do they want to do with it all? OK, one needs a certain amount of money to live on in reasonable comfort - you want to be able to pay for decent housing, your kids' needs, healthy food, transport, heating and concert tickets without worrying about it, ideally, and these days this does not come cheap in London. But billions? Who needs billions? What on earth do you gain from having a gold-plated car?

Why do they do it? It's the difference between eat to live and live to eat - or this time, money to live, or live to amass money for the sake of it. Look. This is important. You can't take it with you. At some point your number comes up, the grim reaper appears with his/her scythe and off you go, dancing through the wheat fields of no return. At this point, you do not want to be wondering what it was all for, do you?

There used to be this thing called tax that would help to get money from those who have too much to those who have too little. It doesn't really work any more, because there appear to be ways around it for those who really do have too much. Don't get me started on what that's doing to our society.

So what is it all for? What would you do if you had billions? Supposing you won the billionaires' lottery?

Here's a musing on what I'd do if 'twere me...

First, I'd set myself up in the pleasant yet not utterly-excess-laden style to which I would wish to become accustomed. This would involve a detached house somewhere nice within London, with a big studio that could accommodate an audience, furnished with a Steinway concert grand; we'd have house-concerts in there three times a week. I'd give lots to the family, being a proud aunt and great-aunt. I'd have the best, absolute state-of-the-art, surround-sound hi-fi equipment. I'd eat only organic food. I'd have a designated champagne fridge, well stocked. I'd employ a PA, a cleaner and a driver (for a normal sort of car), and pay them well. We'd go somewhere hot every winter for several months, and we'd be able to take the cats with us wherever it was.

And then, because we are talking insane levels of lucre here, there's still a couple of billion left. So what next? What do you need to do to make you feel that you are actually a halfway decent human being, doing something worthwhile for the world you love with the supreme good fortune that has come your way?

• I'd fund hostels for the homeless and schemes to help them back onto their feet.
• I'd fund systems that help refugees learn English for free, and that encourage them to do so, so that they can function here more easily and not be maltreated and exploited.
• I'd give a lot of money to hospices.

Then we'd get to the arts...
• I'd set up a foundation to give financial support to exceptional young musicians.
• I'd set up a music school, or several.
• I'd bail out ENO, assuming they want to be bailed out.
• I'd campaign for, and pay for, statues of great artists, musicians and writers at key places in the UK, so that our artistic heritage is celebrated and visibly valued.
• I'd give something to a lot of different orchestras. Possibly funding for them to employ a counsellor or physiotherapist.
• I might resuscitate the London International Piano Competition.
• Oh, and there's that new concert hall... I'd still like the lifetime's supply of chocolate that you get in return for a £2m donation to the crowd-funding [actually, folks, that was an April Fool's joke, but some people seem to have swallowed it...], but I'd use my financial clout to pressurise them to move the damn thing to a better location. In fact, I might buy up those concrete buildings opposite Broadcasting House, demolish them and rebuild the Queen's Hall, the musical treasure of London which was flattened in the Blitz.

All this is just the beginning, of course...

• I'd keep dreaming of a better world - but at least I'd have some leverage to try and make some of it happen.

There are some wonderful, generous, enlightened and knowledgeable philanthropists out there, but also, it seems, some other people who have more cash than they know what to do with. Please, o super-rich, if you're reading this, consider picking up some tips from the above.

6 months ago | |
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At yesterday's Olivier Awards, the prize for Outstanding Achievement in Opera went to ENO's orchestra and chorus. I should think so too. Let those who want to slash them squirm, big time.
Some of the other prizes went to the Royal Opera House for Best New Opera Production - Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci directed by Damiano Michieletto (the one with the baking); choreographer Wayne McGregor for Woolf Works; Dame Judi Dench for her supporting role in A Winter's Tale; and four awards to Gypsy starring Imelda Staunton and directed by Jonathan Kent. And many more, of course. It's a fabulous celebration of the quality, variety, vibrancy and sheer resilience of the theatrical arts in the UK. 
Awards season is upon us, incidentally: tomorrow evening it's BBC Music Magazine's.
6 months ago | |
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It's a sunny April morning, the cats are happy and I'm off for a run in the park, but first it felt essential to find a fine performance of Johann Strauss II's Frühlingstimmenwalzer - the Voices of Spring waltz. (or maybe I'm just looking for excuses to put off the effort that said run entails...) There's a wide choice, from the Frederick Ashton pas de deux to André Rieu, but I particularly love this one: the phenomenal coloratura soprano Lucia Popp, filmed in 1965, who offers diamond technique, peerless diction and phrasing to die for. Enjoy!
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In a move that has shocked the UK arts world, the government has let it be known that it will not be providing any cash towards the new Centre for Music in the City of London. Instead, the project's board members will be expected to raise the necessary money by crowdfunding. "It's a scheme that has worked perfectly well for everything from orchestral tours to new product design," a spokesperson for the DCMS pointed out. "Why not a concert hall?"

A group of experts has been assembled to devise the pledge rewards for the scheme, aiming to reach £270m by the end of this year. While details are yet to be confirmed, it is understood that ideas mooted include:

£5: MUSIC. A ticket to a concert in the first season;
£10: CAFFEINE. A ticket plus a coffee or tea in the first season;
£100: GRUB. Two tickets and a light meal in the canteen for you and your companion;
£500: SELFIE. You may go backstage and take a selfie with Sir Simon.
£1000: CHAMPERS. You may bring a bottle of champagne backstage and present it to a musician of your choice.
£10,000: KNICKERS. You may throw knickers to a musical star of your choice in concert at the hall. (NB Jonas Kaufmann incurs a premium of £2,500.)
£50,000: PHILANTHROPIST. All of the above, plus a suitably sycophantic interview in one of those magazines that supports the privatisation of absolutely everything.
£100,000: NAME. All of the above, plus an orchestral player renamed after you.
£250,000: NAME IN LIGHTS. All of the above, plus your name to be flashed in lights every night across the entire City from a big screen atop the hall.
£500,000: TICKETS. All of the above, plus tickets for every performance you wish to attend at the new hall for the rest of your life;
£1m: LUNCH: Lunch with a cabinet minister of your choice and whoever becomes London Mayor in May, at the closest Starbucks to Westminster (net donation to project: £500,000, once expenses are deducted).
£2m: CHOCOLATE! All of the above, plus a lifetime's supply of high-quality chocolate, not lower than 85 per cent cocoa solids.

JD particularly likes the sound of the final option, and once the film of GHOST VARIATIONS has scooped all the Oscars, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Helena Bonham Carter, Colin Firth and Sebastian Koch, directed by George Clooney, she hopes to participate with enthusiasm.

6 months ago | |
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A few months ago I interviewed the amazing Mona Golabek, whose one-woman show The Pianist of Willesden Lane was subsequently a smash hit at the St James Theatre. The pianist turned actress tells the story of her mother, Lisa Jura, who after travelling from Vienna to Britain on the Kindertransport, which saved her from the Nazis, pursued her dream of becoming a pianist despite all. (The piece is here.) Now news has arrived that the book on which Mona's show was based, The Children of Willesden Lane, written by Mona with Lee Cohen, is up for movie development at BBC Films. Watch this space.

6 months ago | |
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Musician and researcher Rachel Beckles Willson, Professor of Music at Royal Holloway, University of London, is about to launch a new project tracing the different musical traditions in which this exquisite instrument plays a central role, and the stories of migration that go with it. I asked her to tell us all about it... JD

Hearing the Ottomans in London

“So tell me, which singer does she aspire to be?”“Almost all the famous singers. But always with the same voice, the same makam, and interpreted in exactly the same way.”“That means she is a true original! It’s solved. Unique and new. Pay attention here! I mean new, new in capital letters! For when it’s a matter of the new, there’s no need for any other talent. Now we need only choose which direction to take: folk music or classical Turkish music, or folk music with a hint of alafranga, or perhaps alafranga with a hint of folk?” (The Time Regulation Institute, trans. Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, Penguin Books 2013.)

Rachel Beckles Willson (oud) and Nilufar Habibian (quanun) in concert

Music threads through the novels of Ahmed Hamdi Tanpinar in a tapestry of love, ambition, nostalgia and ambivalence. For a society newly ruled by clocks, radios, and popular song from Europe, what use were Ottoman repertoire and classical modes (makam)? Tanpinar’s protagonist bemoans his sister-in-law’s disregard for tradition (‘she knows nothing about music’) whereas his friend dismisses it: ‘Today who would ever think of trying to distinguish the Isfahanfrom the Acemasiran?, he asks.
While in Europe, classical music institutions flourished beyond the collapse of empire following WWI, in Ataturk’s Turkey, the centuries-old repertoire of the Ottoman courts and dervish houses was sidelined in favour of music that could embody the new Republic. In Greece the situation was similar: the focus fell on music that could express essentially European qualities of the modern state.
But the last decades of the 20th century saw a new growth of interest in Ottoman music, and public support emerged as well. So much so, in fact, that one can now study classical Ottoman repertories in Turkey, Greece, Germany, Holland, France and beyond. There are printed scores, recordings, theory books, teachers… and of course there are many concert performances.
On 13 April, one of London’s most beautiful salons, Music at 22 Mansfield Street, is hosting an evening of Ottoman classical music.
The concert will begin with some of the earliest Ottoman pieces of all, several of which are attributed to Persian musicians at the court of Selim I (1512-1520). We draw the music from scores prepared by Wojciech Bobowski (1610-1675), a Polish slave-musician and translator who converted to Islam and took the name Ali Ufki; and Dimitrie Cantemir (1673–1723), the Moldavian Prince, musician and man of letters who lived in exile in Constantinople from 1687 to 1710. Their scores and other remarkable notated sources reveal the continuous development of Ottoman musical styles from around 1630 right through to the present day.
Our programme then moves on into the late 19th century and shifts south to present the tradition in the Egyptian Nahda(Renaissance). We exchange kemencheh for violin to demonstrate the flamboyant Arabization that was part of that development. We also present Egyptian settings of Andalusian poetry, muwashshahat, along with a range of more recent music from Turkey, Armenia and Iraq.
At the heart of the concert is the oud, which is the predecessor of the European lute and reminds us of Europe’s debt to Al Andalus, the Muslim rule of southern Spain, Portugal and parts of France 711-1492. The oud itself is still played throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and increasingly widely in Europe and North America. I first discovered it by chance while I was researching western style music education among Arab communities of Palestine and Israel. I was increasingly captivated by the sound of the oud, its beauty, and by the way it could transform a social event, triggering laughter, song or tears – or all three of these.
I bought an oud in East Jerusalem, hoping my Arab friends would play it when visiting me back in London. But I found myself trying to play myself, initially grappling with the Iraqi tradition, then slipping into the music of Egypt, Turkey and Crete. A couple of years further on I started to integrate oud with my professional life, drawing it into undergraduate teaching and research. Gradually I’ve found myself performing in public again, many years after leaving my career as a pianist behind.
In the London concert on 13 April I am joined by several brilliant musicians (their origins combine Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Lebanon, Palestine and Turkey) to launch a website that is part of my current research [www.oudmigrations.com]. The website illustrates how ouds can be keys to unlocking stories of migration, and how they offer us fresh perspectives on the ever-changing relationships between Europe, Asia, and North America. The UK’s oldest oud was sent as a gift from the Khedive of Egypt to the South Kensington Museum in 1867. But Europe’s oldest surviving oud probably arrived in Brussels from Alexandria 28 years earlier, ordered by a Belgian researcher.
Several writers will be contributing to oudmigrations.com, so there will be stories from a range of places and in a range of voices. Please visit to watch the project develop. More details about the concert will be posted there shortly.
13 April 2016, 19.30 (welcome drinks served from 19.00).
22 Mansfield Street, London W1G 9NR.All the artists are giving their services free, ticket prices cover costs only.
Welcome drink and concert: £20 (students and under-18s £10)
Welcome drink and concert, drinks and canapés after: £30 (students and under-18s £20) Book by email – boas22m AT btinternet.com

Rachel Beckles Willson
6 months ago | |
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