JDCMB is Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music & writing, with ginger, in London, UK. Author & journalist JD writes for The Independent.
1252 Entries

I'm doing a talk at the Balassi Institute Hungarian Cultural Centre, Covent Garden, on Tuesday to mark Bela Bartók's 133rd birthday. It's called: "How I learned to stop worrying and love Bartók."

It's part of the HCC's Magyar Mind lecture series in which British academics and writers speak about Hungarian cultural topics. I'm intending to give a rather personal introduction to the magic of Bartók, skewering the silly preconceptions about him that seemed to be doing the rounds during my mis-spent youth and looking, too, at what makes the Hungarian tradition of musical training so very special. My friends David Le Page (violin) and Viv McLean (piano) will be there to perform a few key pieces. All welcome and admission is free, but please call the HCC and book a place in advance. More details here: http://www.london.balassiintezet.hu/en/events/current-events/559-how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-bartok/

Meanwhile, there's an amazing new biography of John Ogdon out, by Charles Beauclerk, and I've just reviewed it for the Sunday Times. It's here (behind paywall).
3 months ago | |
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There's a debate going on at present about whether bloggers are "citizen journalists" and whether their opinions count. Provocative piece in the Telegraph here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/9795521/Critics-are-important-even-in-the-blogosphere.html
and a debate live on Radio 3 this morning about the future of music criticism, led by Tom Service: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03yq7dz

Someone has to say this: there are quite a number of us who are professional writers first, bloggers by coincidence and/or in addition. I'm not "a blogger". I'm a writer who has a blog (and had a musical training). Just so you know. Cheers, all.
4 months ago | |
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Why are great tenors like the London buses? You guessed it. I have for you today interviews with not one, but two of today's very best.

Here is Juan-and-only-Diego Flórez for your delectation, in today's Independent, talking to me about his first album for four years, the not-too-inner game of tennis (including the inspiration of Roger Federer), and why he is soon going to sing Werther.

And here, dear friends, is the new April issue of BBC Music Magazine, out today, with Jonas Kaufmann as the cover star. My encounter with him has the dubious distinction of being the only interview I have ever conducted while wearing snow boots. He talks to me about versatility, Winterreise and, er, Werther.

You have to buy the magazine as it's not online. Apparently the cover is Blippable, which means you can download an app, point it at the picture of Jonas and something ought to happen, though one isn't sure precisely what.

By way of a Kaufmannesque bonus, I couldn't resist asking him whether he might ever sing Paul in Die tote Stadt - a role that seems to be crying out for his voice and his dramatic abilities. He remarked that you need a sweet tooth for Korngold, but that he has recently sung the final duet and found it incredibly beautiful - so why not? We are glad that at least he hasn't ruled it out. And a message for the Kaufmaniacs? Well, he has found that you often ask him after performances to please go and sing wherever it may be that you live - but there is only one of him, so you'll have to keep on travelling...

Just for the heck of it, here are both of them singing "Pourquoi me reveiller?" from that Massenet. Flórez's is from his new, all-French album, L'amour. Kaufmann's is from the Paris performance a few years back as broadcast by Arte/Medici TV.  See what you think...

4 months ago | |
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Please welcome Frances Wilson of The Cross-Eyed Pianist blog, with news of a wonderful young artist playing in a very special place... Great to see the South London Concert Series having to upgrade to a bigger venue, too!

Emmanuel Vass at Brunswick House
Guest post by Frances Wilson
Hard to believe it’s six months since I introduced readers of JDCMB to the South London Concert Series (SLCS), an innovative concept which gives amateur pianists the chance to take to the stage alongside the professionals. The series was launched to a full-to-bursting house at the 1901 Arts Club in November 2013 with a programme of music ranging from Scarlatti to Corea – with some Mozart, Szymanowski and Feuchtwanger along the way – and much enjoyable piano chat at the noisy post-concert reception in the 1901’s elegant upstairs bar and sitting room.
Now the series is two concerts in, both of which sold out within a couple of weeks of being advertised, with a third on 21st March, also sold out way in advance. Buoyed up by the obvious success and popularity of the concept, my partner in piano adventures, Lorraine Liyanage, and I decided that perhaps we should find a larger venue for our events. It was Lorraine who discovered Brunswick House: just five minutes from London’s Vauxhall Station, this fine Georgian mansion is incongruously flanked by the brand new 5-star hotel and luxury apartments of One Nine Elms.
Part of the London Architectural Salvage and Supply Co (LASSCo), Brunswick House is a treasure trove of antiques and reclaimed curiosities – including, conveniently, a pretty little John Hopkinson baby grand piano in the first floor Saloon, a room festooned with colourful oriental rugs, salvaged stained glass windows, glittering chandeliers, and even a life-size cut out of the actor Tony Curtis.
It wasn’t difficult to find an artist to grace the space, someone who could create the stylish, retro atmosphere of a salon concert from a bygone era: Emmanuel Vass, BBC Music Magazine’s March “rising star”, had already wowed the SLCS audience with his suave showmanship and his ability to seamlessly merge mainstream classical piano repertoire with his own transcriptions.
Emmanuel’s concert at Brunswick House comes hot on the heels of his West End debut in a DEC/Philippines appeal benefit concert, and his successful ‘From Bach to Bond’ national tour and CD launch in 2013. Described as “one to watch” by The Independent, Emmanuel will perform music by Bach, Turina, Liszt and some of his own new transcriptions. And in keeping with the original ethos of the South London Concert Series, he will be supported by performances by talented amateur pianists from the London Piano Meetup Group, playing music by Bach, Mozart, and Chopin. Added to that, guests can enjoy a glass of Prosecco on arrival, and are invited to join performers and hosts in the stylish restaurant at Brunswick House for a post-concert dinner. This promises to be a very special event, an evening of music making and conviviality in a unique and eclectic London venue.
Date: Thursday 3rd April 2014Time: 6.45pm for 7.15pm concertDress code: smartVenue: LASSCo/Brunswick House, 30 Wandsworth Road, London SW8 2LGBuy tickets: http://www.wegottickets.com/event/255923#.UyDJEV5qXdK
‘Emmanuel Vass at Brunswick House’ is presented by the South London Concert Series. Endorsed by top international concert pianist Peter Donohoe as "a wonderfully creative idea", SLCS concerts recreate the atmosphere of the 19th-century musical salon with music and socialising amongst friends in some of London’s most beautiful and intimate small venues.
www.slconcerts.co.ukTwitter @SLConcerts

4 months ago | |
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I missed the Met's cinema relay of Werther yesterday, travelling home from Paris... Thank you to their website for making the final scene available as an "encore" to watch online, starring Jonas Kaufmann, Sophie Koch and a lot of blood. (Update: we hear that this scene is online now because there were technical problems in the cinecast across the US that meant most people didn't actually see it...)

My interview with Sophie from this month's Opera News is here. Keep watching this space for news of t'other one.

Left: the house where Jules Massenet died, close to the Jardins du Luxembourg in Paris's 6ème arrondissement, which I spotted the other day.

4 months ago | |
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Been away in Paris. Here are a few bits and pieces of light reading for you while I get rid of my stinking cold and the blisters on my feet. (Apart from that, it's been a fabulous few days.)

Strauss, Pauline and the fish...a magical opera with some family insights, from the Indy: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/features/the-composer-and-his-muse-richard-strass-tempestuous-relationship-with-his-wife-pauline-de-ahna-9174239.html

How do you turn something as famous as Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood into an opera? I talked to John Metcalf, who has just done so. Also from the Indy. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/features/under-milk-wood-the-opera-a-new-voice-for-dylan-thomas-9185085.html

Pop goes the Wagner: why going gaga for JK may indicate, oddly enough, that we haven't altogether lost our marbles. From my Amati.com Soapbox. http://www.amati.com/articles/1108-pop-goes-the-wagner.html

Enjoy. I'm off to bed with some lemsip and a book about Bartok.

4 months ago | |
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Last week I went to a concert, as one does. A little way off from where I was sitting, I spotted a small African-American girl, probably aged about 8, with her mother. She sat very still and kept very quiet all the way through the first half. Then in the first piece of the second half she bent down and took a sweet out of her bag. A man in front of her turned round and glared daggers. 

When the piece was over he reprimanded her. He'd reckoned without her feisty mum, who was not going to take it. "She had one chocolate! She wasn't talking. She's a child! Were you never a child?" He retorted, with policeman-like pointy gestures: "You're at a performance." The mother, while heads turned nearby, declared: "You're a mean man!" 

Several points here. 

1. The mum and daughter were the only faces of colour in the hall that I could see, other than one or two of the musicians on stage. 
2. The little girl was the youngest person in view - indeed, as far as I could tell, the only child in the audience. I wonder if she will ever want to come back. Kids don't forget things like this.
3. Adults frequently behave far more badly than that in theatres and concert halls. 
4. The man was, regrettably, a critic. 

Don't critics have a duty not to put kids off classical concerts? 

Btw, when I posted this anecdote on my private Facebook page one well-known concert pianist responded by saying that if we can find this mother and daughter he would like to offer them comps to his next recital. That's more like it. 

4 months ago | |
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How often do you go to an orchestral concert and find you're on the edge of your chair, smiling at the warmth and passion bounding off the stage, thrilling at the sounds of early Shostakovich slaloming around the percussion, and watching, enchanted, a real rapport between the soloist and the conductor that makes the most familiar of piano concertos go leaping off the page like a March hare?

And then you realise the conductor is younger than your nephew who hasn't done his uni finals yet.

Meet Ilyich Rivas. Maybe you already have. I saw him conducting in Verbier several years ago and was impressed with him then; in the intervening time he has conducted for Glyndebourne Touring Opera, among other things, and been mentored by Vladimir Jurowski. Now he's been signed by IMG.

Last night's programme with the LPO - his first big London date - was carefully and beautifully chosen. They kicked off with Dvorak's Scherzo Capriccioso, continued with Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.1 with Simon Trpceski - who has also been following Ilyich's career with great enthusiasm for a while - and in the second half, Mahler's Blumine and Shostakovich's Symphony No.1.

The fresh air swept into the hall with this engaging young Venezuelan, who jogged onto the platform, had perhaps the clearest beat of any conductor I've seen in the past year and led the way through the pieces with some fairly extraordinary freeze-frame gestures that are certainly unusual yet seemed to work a treat. He let the music's passion, beauty and visceral élan sing out to his and our hearts' content. Particularly impressive was the way he handled gear-changes with smooth assurance, maintaining an impeccable sense of timing, and ultimately - best of all - leaving us marvelling at the wonders of the music, first and foremost.

Simon Trpceski's account of the Tchaikovsky would take some bettering. He is a fabulous showman, of course, but his special sound involves a remarkable lightness - there's swift, fierce motion, yet he scarcely seems to touch the ground and his pianissimo touch is at its loveliest in the slow movement. He made a little speech before his encore about the joy of working with Ilyich and seeing his promise coming to fruition; the encore itself, which he dedicated to the young conductor and his family, was from Album for the Young by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Simon's own breakthrough moment arrived in the same hall, with the same orchestra, when he was about Ilyich's age and won the (now sadly defunct) London International Piano Competition. That added a certain poignancy to the evening. It may be a cliché to say "history in the making" - but honest, guv, we don't say such things too often.

Ilyich's grandparents flew in from Venezuela for the concert and received a round of applause to themselves. Incidentally, Ilyich, rarely among young Venezuelan conductors, hasn't been through El Sistema. His father is a conductor and the lad absorbed the art at his knee, mainly in Denver, Colorado.

So come on, orchestra bigwigs - form a nice orderly queue, please. A decade from now, might Ilyich Rivas have the best job in the world? Place your bets.

4 months ago | |
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Tickled pink to discover my fourth novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, featuring in BBC Music Magazine's list, for World Book Day, of their pick of the 12 best novels about classical music. I've heard of being in good company, but this is ridiculous! The list is here. You can download the e-book of Songs here (paperback doesn't appear to be available on Amazon at the moment).

Meanwhile, for Women of the World week, here is my exploration of women's orchestras through the ages...http://sinfinimusic.com/uk/features/other-features/womens-orchestras

...and the Insiders Anonymous column for Classical Music Magazine this month is about The Classical Music Critic. http://www.classicalmusicmagazine.org/opinion/insiders-anonymous-the-music-critic/

4 months ago | |
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My interview with the fabulous John Adams is in today's Independent. Read it here.

I wouldn't want to say this or that person is my favourite composer of today - there are so many, so different, so fascinating, so inspiring. But hey...

Obviously if you have time to talk to a composer like Adams, you don't want to chat for just ten minutes if you can help it, so below are some "bonus tracks", Qs and As that are not in the Indy piece.

JD: I was reading something in which you said you felt the medium of the orchestra has run its course. But together with Glass you’ve done so much to put contemporary music back at the heart of full scale, mainstream concert programmes - maybe it’s not dead after all?
JA: It’s hard to say. I have good days and bad days and on bad days I wake up feeling that what we’re doing in classical music is so barely on people’s radar that I can get very depressed. But there are a lot of poets and composers and novelists like Melville and Charles Ives who did not get much attention at all in their lifetime. We do what we do because we love it and we have a small audience that adores what we do - and over time it persists, while the other stuff is revealed to be rather ephemeral.
JD: Do you still compose nine to five?

JA: I do, yes. I never work at night. (JD: Is it a question of routine?) Yes, it’s routine – I don’t travel a huge amount, but I do a reasonable amount of conducting during the year and I’m not someone who can actually compose in a hotel room, I absolutely have to be home in my studio. So when I am home I’m very disciplined. I try to work every day and have certain hours. I think most composers are that way – it’s an extremely labour-intensive activity and you have to make all the decisions yourself, so most composers I know are basically very disciplined, hardworking people. 

JD: There’s still a common misapprehension that people stroll through art exhibitions or mountain scenery and have sudden strokes of inspiration... 

JA: That's just nothing. We’re not like that at all. I just read Amsterdam which has a composer as its main character and I very much enjoyed the book but I thought his view of a composer was much too romantic. We’re much duller than that! 

JD: Is there anything in particular that does get the creative juices flowing for you?

JA: I wish I knew! If I had a magic pill or a certain place to take a walk, maybe starting pieces wouldn’t be such agony. Beginning a piece is always just hell – even if I think know what I’ve got to do. For some strange reason once a piece finally gets lift-off, if I work every day I usually – it’s like being an athlete, you’re in shape and the genetic material of the piece gives birth to tissues and organs and muscles and skeletons. Being a composer is like being a gardener – you water, prune, encourage and cut back. I take a walk every day with my two dogs. Lately I’ve been taking my iPod and listening to audio books or music and I think I should just stop the chatter and go back to what I did as a kid, when every time I took a walk I imagined a new piece of music in great detail. I’ve sort of got lazy about that. Now I’m leaving my technology behind when I leave the house.
JD: Not that long ago John Berry at English National Opera gave a press conference where he said that he hoped you’d write your next opera for ENO. Can we hope that this will happen? Have you any more operas on the go? 
JA: ENO have been absolutely among my strongest supporters and I’m deeply grateful to them. They’re creative and they make things happen... I just haven’t found a story that rang my bells the way Nixon or Klinghoffer or Dr Atomic did. I’m sure it’ll happen soon. (JD: Would you look for a similar real life event to base it on?)I think that’s sort of what I do best. I don’t think I’m a Pélléas et Mélisande type of composer - I don’t think a story that is intimate is what I’m strongest at – but I think it’s best to stay loose and not make any predictions. 

JD: Do you think The Death of Klinghoffer has finally been accepted? 
JA: The Met is doing it soon [Tom Morris's production, already seen at ENO], so I think it’s possible that there’ll be some controversy, but I don’t think it’s going to be at the level it was in '91. The issue was that the people who got so upset didn’t actually know the opera! That was almost always the case... As far as I’m concerned, it was very painful years ago, but I think over time people have realized that the opera isn’t at all about what the controversy was about. Really it’s a tragedy and it's something for everyone, it's not just about Palestinians and not just about Jews. It’s for everyone, because that’s what’s happening in the world. But it’ll be interesting at the Met because everything that does is sort of widescreen, with lots of attention and lots of people weighing in. I hope it’ll be experienced as a work of humanity, not perceived as some sort of agit-prop. 

4 months ago | |
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