JDCMB is Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music & writing, with CHOCOLATE AND SILVER, in London, UK. Author & journalist JD writes for The Independent.
1731 Entries
Viv McLean, JD, David Le Page and the HCC's director Eszter Pataki

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

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

Afterwards: time for some Hungarian wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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There's been something of a furore - or at least a few raised eyebrows - since the Royal Opera House sent round an email to ticket holders warning of graphic sex and violence (though not necessarily at the same moment) in the forthcoming new production of Lucia di Lammermoor, directed by Katie Mitchell. There's also been an "unsuitable for children under 12" message re Boris Godunov. As Fiona Maddocks points out in The Guardian, this is potentially a slippery slope: art, a mind-broadening process, should not be delivered with apologies.

Natalie Dessay as Lucia at the Met, NY, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nevertheless, I can't wait to see this film. It's out in May.
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This year marks the centenary of one of the 20th century's most extraordinary musicians: Yehudi Menuhin. A plethora of events and recordings surround this anniversary and in yesterday's Independent I had a piece exploring his legacy - essentially, how his pioneering creativity changed the musical world. It's here: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/features/yehudi-menuhins-centenary-year-a-maestro-with-many-strings-to-his-bow-a6919356.html

The violinist Daniel Hope, who was a protégé of Menuhin from the word go - his mother was the great man's PA - has made a new CD paying tribute to his mentor, and I have an e-interview with him to discuss it. Daniel talks about the perfectionism and iron will that underpinned Menuhin's heavenly musicianship - and tells us about the time his father left Menuhin's violin on a plane.

JD: Daniel, Yehudi Menuhin strikes me as not merely a musician, but a great humanitarian and, in many ways, a visionary whose preoccupations with bringing music to the people, training young musicians and collaborating with other genres seemed ahead of his time. Please can you tell us something about the various different ways in which he inspired you?
DH: Menuhin taught me that being an artist is more than just playing your instrument as well as you can. He believed that music had a strong social aspect and that musicians should use it to help others. Of the many wonderful organizations that he created or inspired, I think Live Music Now is the most impressive. Yehudi created LMN in 1977, and the organization works with a very diverse range of people that rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to experience live music - some of whom are very disadvantaged. They often face difficulties in communicating, cut off from the joy and pleasures of participating and sharing with others. LMN's approach to overcoming these barriers is very simple: talented young musicians are given the chance to gather early and essential performance experience, by sharing it in a social context, for example playing in hospitals, retirement homes or for children who are mentally or physically handicapped. LMN now has branches all over Europe: in Germany, where I often give fundraising concerts for them and am on their Honorary Committee, there are 20 branches alone giving over 5000 concerts a year. Worldwide LMN has reached more than 2 million people, with over 50,000 participatory performances for people with special needs.  

JD: What sort of a person was he? Do you have any favourite memories of him or anecdotes about him in daily life (rather than playing/teaching)?
DH: There was a magic about Menuhin and his aura as a musician was inspiring. Though physically of small stature he had a majestic charisma on stage. For a gentle man he was never ever satisfied he got things as good as he wished. He had a habit of turning and staring at the soloist’s fingers during cadenzas. So it was that in the summer of 1998, I was playing Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante with Philip Dukes on the viola. Menuhin was conducting when, without warning, he turned and fixed his eyes on Philip’s left hand - even his baton stopped.  He leaned over and got so close to Philip that the poor fellow blanched. He was watching Philip so raptly we wondered if he’d forget to turn back to the orchestra at the end of the cadenza, and only at the very last moment did he do so. 
Along with gentleness that nonetheless masked an iron will, Selbst bei größeren Zwischenfällen war Menuhins Humor unerschöpflich.Menuhin's humour was inexhaustible. On one occasion my father was entrusted with taking his priceless Guarneri del Gesù, a violin made in 1742 and known as the ‘Lord Wilton’, on an Alitalia flight to Rome. Menuhin was at the front of the plane and went straight to the VIP room.  When we got to passport control at Fiumicino airport, I asked my father where the violin was. My father looked at me with shock and came out with an expletive. He had left the violin in the baggage compartment on the plane. He ran like an Olympic sprinter back onto the runway and up the stairs of the aircraft - (you could do that in those days). When Yehudi heard about the incident, he giggled like a little boy. Thanks to some kind carabinieri he got his violin back after a tense half hour – tense for my father, anyway. 

JD: I understand he experienced a difficult patch, after his prodigy days were over, during which he virtually had to retrain his technique - can you shed any light on what happened to him and why, and how his playing after this compared to the recordings he made before?
DH: I think like many child prodigies, Menuhin reached a stage in his life where he began to question his astonishing talent. What had seemed entirely natural to him until that point suddenly became a struggle. From what he told me, this seems to have been compounded by emotional problems in his private life and the exhaustion of playing literally hundreds of concerts for the allied troops during the war. He did indeed teach himself to play the violin again, but this ‘crisis’ also led to a new journey of discovery on so many levels: yoga, Indian music with his collaboration with Ravi Shankar and a peace of mind which grounded him as a human being for the rest of his life.
JD: How would you describe his legacy?
DH: One of the greatest violinists of all time, and by far the most vocal classical musician of the 20th century.
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Two or three years ago I wrote my first Cross Article about the sexism inherent in the classical music world and suggested we should have a new award - as there is in literature - for women in this industry. Now the Soutbank Centre is going a step further than that. To coincide with the WOW Women of the World Festival, and International Women's Day yesterday (which annoyingly I had to miss, any likely Budapest version having been in Hungarian), the Southbank is announcing the launch of the first-ever awards for Women in the Creative Industries.

Music forms one little part of this. I hope that the achievements of women in classical music will be recognised in full in future awards, and that as one of the smaller corners of the creative industries this vital and ever more active sphere will not be entirely marginalised. I think there's been a lot of progress since that initial Cross Article. It seems to me that scales - so to speak - have fallen from some eyes (though there's always room and time for more to glitter down). There's been an awakening, and with increased awareness some increased action has come about, from such institutions as BBC Radio 3, the Cheltenham Festival, two important early music festivals last year - Brighton and London - and now the BBC Young Musician of the Year, which has made the inspired choice of the composer Dobrinka Tabakova to be chair of its jury for 2016. Even Pembroke College, Cambridge, is putting up a picture of its alumna Emma Johnson, the clarinettist - the first time it has ever commissioned a portrait of a woman in 650 years. 
Here's to much more celebration. I was looking for a "three cheers" video to post, but the only one that falls roughly within the remit of a classical music blog is an extract of HMS Pinafore that begins with three cheers and proceeds with a pompous man singing about being a captain, with a chorus interjecting "And we are his sisters and his cousins and his aunts..."
So instead, over to the Southbank to explain the awards.


Today Southbank Centre launches WOW Creative Industries Awards, the first ever awards to honour women who are leading the way across the creative industries.Julia Peyton-Jones, Director, Serpentine Galleries and Paulette Randall, Theatre and Television Director and Playwright are honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award and Bryony Kimmings, Live Artist, Playwright and Director will receive a Bold Moves Award.The awards, which will be presented annually at Southbank Centre’s WOW- Women of the World festival, will recognise significant achievements made by women in the arts, tech, music, film, games, media, fashion and advertising.

The three inaugural awards are presented by Southbank Centre Artistic Director Jude Kelly CBE at today’s Women in Creative Industries Day and will be followed by a call for submissions ahead of the first full awards ceremony at WOW-Women of the World festival 2017.

Founder of the WOW Creative Industries Awards and the WOW Women of the World festival, Southbank Centre Artistic Director,  Jude Kelly CBE said:

“I am launching the WOW Creative Industries Awards to recognise how pivotal women have been in making the sector as strong as it is today. Through our Women in Creative Industries Day we strive to bring recognition to the role women play in the creative industries and address challenges women face in reaching their creative goals. I believe these awards will help us reflect on the risks individual women have taken to push the arts, digital, music, film, fashion, games, media and advertising sectors forwards and encourage women who are passionate about carving their own creative path to pursue their dreams.”
Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy Ed Vaizey MP said:

“Congratulations to Julia Peyton-Jones and Paulette Randall on their outstanding efforts being recognised with the Lifetime Achievement Award, and also to Bryony Kimmings for her valuable contribution to the arts."I hope that the WOW Creative Industries Awards will help inspire the next generation of female entrepreneurs, artists, designers, coders and writers to pursue their dreams. The UK is home to so much talent in our thriving creative industries, but we can’t forget how much we still need to do to eradicate the barriers many still face when trying to achieve their goals.”
Julia Peyton-Jones, Director of Serpentine Galleries, said:

“I am very proud to be the recipient of the inaugural Women of the World Lifetime Achievement Award. International Women’s Day and occasions such as WOW serve as both an opportunity to celebrate women’s achievements and also as a reminder that there is still much to do. Equality is not yet a given and we need to be on the barricades for as long as it takes.”
Bryony Kimmings, Live Artist, Playwright and Director and winner of the Bold Moves Award said:

“I feel very humbled by this award. I often feel I exist at the peripheries of art forms and that being an activist often annoys people, it's bloody great to be told that being bold is a good thing... It makes you want to go even bolder!”
Paulette Randall, Theatre and Television Director and Playwright, said:

“I'm very honoured to receive this award. Working in the arts is not the easy option, it takes courage and determination to succeed. These awards send a signal to women who have a creative passion that if they work hard it can be possible to realise their ambition and I want them to hold on to that.”
The WOW Women in Creative Industries Day is part of Southbank Centre’s week long 6th WOW- Women of the World festival. The day is an opportunity for men and women working across the creative industries to discuss how to achieve gender equality in the sector and a chance to celebrate some of the important improvements that have taken place over the last year.
WOW Women in Creative Industries Day will include appearances from Alice Bah-Kuhnke, Swedish Minister of Culture and Democracy and Louise Jury, Director of Communications & Strategy at the Creative Industries Federation, Maria Eagle MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and Damian Collins MP, Chair of the Conservative Arts and Creative Industries Network and previously a member of the Select Committee for Culture, Media, Sport and the Olympics. There will be speeches from Kate Mosse OBE, international bestselling author and Co-Founder and Chair of the Board of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, Lucy Crompton-Reid, CEO of Wikimedia, Amali de Alwis, CEO of Code First: Girls, Caroline Norbury MBE, founding Chief Executive of Creative England, Melanie Eusebe, award winning business expert and founder and chair of the Black British Business Awards, Sue Hoyle OBE, Director of the Clore Leadership Programme, Mira Kaushik OBE, Director of South Asian dance company Akademi and Zoe Whitley, Curator, Contemporary British Art at Tate Britain and Curator International Art at Tate Modern.  For the complete London WOW 2016 programme, visit www.southbankcentre.co.uk/wow
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