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.
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The Britten Sinfonia has issued a heartening call for more women composers to step up and enter its Opus2015 competition. Currently in its third year, the scheme offers unpublished composers the chance to win a professional commission for a new work to be played in the orchestra's At Lunch series. But now the orchestra has noted that so far only 15 per cent of the applications have come from women composers - and they'd like some more, please.

Opportunities like this don't grow on trees, so all aspiring composers - both gals and guys - could do worse than get that show on the road and enter the contest! Deadline is 17 October.

Full details here.
3 months ago | |
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Quick reminder for pianophile friends in the north London area that today at the Hampstead & Highgate Literary Festival I am in discussion with the author Charles Beauclerk about PIANO MAN, his excellent biography of John Ogdon. The venue is Anna Pavlova's former home, now the LJCC - Ivy House, North End Road, London NW11 - and we start at 3.30pm. We'll talk for an hour and Charles will be signing copies of the book afterwards. Do join us if you're free. Details here.

And here is a reminder of what it's all about: a recital that Ogdon gave at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire in 1976.




3 months ago | |
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http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/features/stuart-skelton-rising-to-the-challenge-of-otello-9722095.html
Here's my piece from today's Independent about the fab Heldentenot Stuart Skelton, who stars as Otello at ENO's opening night on Saturday. He tells me about his path to the top, the challenges of Otello and why he and ENO feel the love...
3 months ago | |
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Meet Gabor Takács-Nagy, the inspirational secret weapon behind an ongoing transformation of ethos at the Manchester Camerata. If you're a fan of the Takács Quartet, you know Gabor already - he was its original first violin and it remains named after him long after he moved from the violin (due to an injury) to coaching and conducting. The Manchester Camerata's new season launches on 19 and 20 September with Nicky Benedetti as soloist in a little something by Vivaldi...and the starting point for the orchestra's self-reinvention is simpler than you might expect. As Gabor says: smile...and be ready to fall in love.

JD: Gabor, please tell us something about what “drives” you musically? I’ve heard you as violinist, conductor and teacher and I’d love to know what your ideals are and what qualities you think are vital in a musical performance.

GTN: The most important thing is to manipulate the emotions of the listeners (as Leopold Mozart wrote in 1756 – sending to them spiritual messages which are behind every note and phrase). In the score we find dead notes; we have to bring them alive. In other words, the composer feels an emotion or atmosphere and finds the notes for them; we performers find the (dead)  notes on paper and have to find the spiritual values behind each of them. This is fascinating and is what drives me – I am not a genius but hopefully have antennas to them. There is an Indian saying: 'You are as rich as much as you give.'  A musical performance, which is an emotional strip-tease, is nothing other than sharing and giving emotions and spirits.
JD: How did you come to join the Manchester Camerata? What is special about them, for you? What are your plans for the new season with them? And how would you like to develop your work with them in the longer-term future?
GTN: In 2008, Bob Riley, CEO of Manchester Camerata, invited me to conduct the new year’s concert and I felt a big affinity with the orchestra. They are very nice people and very good musicians and I knew immediately that we could make music as I just described . I‘d like to use fewer gestures in future performances and rehearsals and also to talk less because now we understand each other more and more. The mutual trust and confidence in each other could be even higher, which means we could be even more creative in the future.
JD: When the orchestra says that they wish to “redefine what an orchestra can do” - what do you feel this means? How would you like to see the orchestras of the future - or, indeed, the present - operating?
GTN: When I asked my young daughters if they like concerts of classical music, they answered, “No, because the music is nice but both the musicians and public are very stiff”. I had to agree with them. We have to be more communicative, open and emotional on stage, otherwise we will lose the next generation. Some years ago, I began presenting the pieces to the public and it makes the atmosphere more human and relaxed for both orchestra and public.
JD: The conductor Iván Fischer recently said (in an interview with The Times) that he thinks the traditional symphony orchestra model can last only another few decades, if that. What do you think he meant by this? Do you agree? How will things change?
GTN: I agree with Iván – if we don’t change drastically, we could lose the next generation.  We have to reform many things, but still manage to avoid circus-like activities.
JD: How is the musical scene of Hungary at the moment? Why is the place home to such a special tradition of musicianship - and does this still exist?
GTN: The Hungarian music scene is very alive: we have lots of brilliant musicians and the public loves classical music. The tickets are getting more expensive for an average wage but there are many free events as well. I hope the country will get stronger economically, which will help cultural activities. I do not know exactly what the secret could be of the special tradition of musicianship – one thing is true, though, which is that the Hungarians are very emotional with extremes of mood that can change abruptly. This is very useful for music-making!
JD: How can we best attract and excite new audiences with classical music in a world that seems so ignorant of it and resistant to the idea of it?
GTN: With exciting, emotional, colourful performances and with smiling faces from the stage. Classical musicians, especially in orchestras, can look far too serious. One of the reasons is the fear of making small mistakes which the public doesn’t hear anyway! It’s a long story.
JD: Please would you name a few of your favourite pieces?
GTN: My favourite piece is always the one I am working on (most of the time). If you study a masterpiece and get closer to it, sooner or later you will fall in love with it. During the performance, this love can be the generator for our energy and enthusiasm.
3 months ago | |
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It was one of the hottest tickets in town yesterday: the semi-staged performance at the Proms of the Bach St Matthew Passion with the Berlin Philharmonic, Sir Simon Rattle conducting, direction by Peter Sellars. Add to this the Berlin Radio Choir, singing from memory, an all-star cast and a packed Albert Hall that was ready for anything...

Well, almost anything. We were not quite ready for the utterly devastating performance that Mark Padmore gave as the Evangelist. In Sellars' concept - sometimes convincing, sometimes less so - the Evangelist carries everything, experiencing the emotions and traumas of each character, supporting them, leading them, suffering in their place. Christ - the astounding Christian Gerhaher - is a distant figure, seated above the orchestra and outside the action through the first half, then entirely off stage for his scant few phrases in the second. The Evangelist lives the drama and is its focal point. The beauty, nuancing, clarity and stillness of Padmore's voice would have been enough to carry the night on its own, but his every move magnetised us and convinced us that he felt every anguish, every burden and every lash. If the British music business had not already given him a virtual sainthood by repute, they certainly should now. (Gerhaher, of course, is just as magical, but has frustratingly little to sing.)
The staging has its ups and downs, many of them literal. A lot of rushing around is involved and sometimes one wished they'd keep still for a few minutes. Yet some extraordinary images unfolded that also enhanced the music at a profound level, notably through the interaction of the instrumental soloists with the singers, moments that carried a plethora of meanings. Sometimes the players seemed to represent the soul, the conscience or the better self; perhaps even God, or Bach in place of God? Magdalena Kozena sang 'Erbarme dich' kneeling at the feet of her violinist; Camilla Tilling in 'Aus liebe will mein Heiland sterben' stood in close quartet with her oboists and flautist; Emmanuel Pahud, no less, beside her right shoulder. Tenor Topi Lehtipuu stretched up towards an unattainable oboist in the organ inset; bass Eric Owens appeared to pray for mercy before a vengeful virtuoso fiddler. 
Rattle's tempi were largely very brisk, sometimes too much so - occasionally I longed for an old-school influence to bring back a little more time for breath, contemplation and refulgence, since some of the intricate instrumental writing whooshed by to somewhat unsettling effect. But the magic was there all the same and the moments of stillness stood out all the better. The episode that brings the whole work together is (I feel) the final bass aria, 'Mache dich mein Herze rein' - here he understands, accepts and transcends all that has gone before. If that doesn't do its job, nothing does. It worked. 
My personal frustration with the staging is mostly due to the sonic impact, as it entails much clonking about and some directional echoes which are the fault of the RAH's acoustic, not the performers. Still, there's much to chew over: the presence, or lack of it, of Jesus himself (we might ask: is he real?), those intimate dialogues between singers and instrumentalists, that soul-searing performance by Padmore. 
Would less be more? We can feel the suffering in the music; we don't need to see it. The spiritual catharsis of this work, like Parsifal's, is perhaps better internalised if there is not too much to observe and assess: that process puts us outside ourselves, switches on our objective brain and mutes the intuitive, emotional plane that's necessary for the full cumulative effect to reach us. (Btw, I am not religious in any way, shape or form; yet perhaps that makes the spiritual dimensions of Bach and Wagner all the more meaningful.)
What seemed at the time a long, hot evening now haunts for its ineffable beauty, its deeply human quest for meaning and its all-consuming, tour-de-force performances. 
In the foyer I spotted the head of the LSO, who may or may not have been clutching a metaphorical butterfly net. 
3 months ago | |
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Your Cinderella put on her ballet hat the other day and went to the ball. Well, a gala at Claridge's. The Royal Academy of Dance celebrated the 60th anniversary of its most prestigious award, the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award, by holding a fundraising dinner at which the prize was handed over to an entire company for the first time, rather than just one individual: namely, the Royal Ballet. Darcey Bussell, president of the RAD, is in the photo above, giving the award to RB director Kevin O'Hare.

The evening, complete with a glittery auction, raised about £65,000 towards the creation of a new bursary scheme to help young dancers from all over the world to enter the RAD's Genée International Ballet Competition. A talent for dance, like that for music, is no respecter of geography or bank accounts. In these straitened times this kind of support has become more crucial than ever to ensure that gifted youngsters do not miss out on opportunities due to financial disadvantage. The Genée is one of the biggest: its former medallists have frequently gone on to very distinguished careers, including RB stars Steven McRae and Lauren Cuthbertson (pictured right as Juliet). More info about the new bursary scheme will be revealed in time for next year's competition.

This got me thinking. I do wonder if some of the top musical competitions could consider starting a similar scheme for young instrumentalists. Not everyone can afford to travel to Moscow, Fort Worth or Leeds. Independent schemes like the Solti Foundation offer grants for young musicians for such purposes, but why should the most famous and well-heeled of contests not offer means-tested bursaries to gifted entrants who couldn't otherwise afford to go?

Meanwhile, it was quite a night. The exquisite Art Deco ballroom of this most fantastical of swanky London hotels was chock-full of the ballet world's great and good. And if you're me, dear reader, thinking back to the starry-eyed schoolkid who used to run up to the back of the amphitheatre on every possible occasion, this meant a lot more than Christmas come early.

I had some wonderful chats during the course of the evening with luminaries past and present: Lesley Collier, for example, who was the one I loved best when I was 13 and had never met before - she now coaches the principal dancers (pictured above with Rudolf Nureyev in Swan Lake). Darcey Bussell talked into my voice recorder about the occasion and about her championship of dance for all; and over dinner I encountered, among others, Philip Mosley, a brilliant Puck, who was the original model for Billy Elliot, and the Canadian premier danseur Matthew Golding (pictured right), who joined the company earlier this year and happens to be a dead ringer for Brad Pitt.

My fairy godmother was the RAD's press office, my pumpkin was South West Trains and I did not lose a shoe. There was dancing - the fun, after-dinner kind, to Abba and Michael Jackson and suchlike. If I'd only had the guts, I could have danced with the Royal Ballet...

Watch this space for more news of exciting initiatives - this one and others too - designed to support talented young dancers and more. The autumn promises much.
3 months ago | |
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...his lovely new disc.

I just want to add a few things. I love this stuff. It is very close to our hearts here at JDCMB, not least because some of these songs were associated with the Comedian Harmonists, that remarkable singing ensemble - pop group, indeed - who rose to fame in risqué 1920s Berlin, but were destroyed by the Third Reich since half the members were Jewish.

They all escaped the Nazi era, fortunately, but were scattered to the corners of the globe and never sang together again. One baritone with a gorgeously warm voice became a synagogue cantor. We stumbled across some reissued recordings ten or fifteen years ago and when we took them to my father-in-law - who was born in Berlin in 1921 and left forever in 1936, settling in Buxton - he still knew all the songs from memory and sang along, a faraway look in his eye...

There is also, as previously noted, some Korngold on this CD: the Lute Song from Die tote Stadt - but it's not on the trailer, so we'll just have to wait.

I'll leave you with this nice dose of Kaufmania as I am now off to meet some cats. This is not a euphemism.
3 months ago | |
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Hello, it's September. How did that happen?!

Here are a few things I'm doing this month: do come along if you're in the vicinity of any of them!

14 September, 3.30pm:HAMPSTEAD AND HIGHGATE LITERARY FESTIVAL: JOHN OGDON. I interview Ogdon's biographer Charles Beauclerk about the life and work of the troubled musical genius. LJCC, Ivy House, North End Road, Golders Green, London NW11.
21 September, 4pm:ALICIA'S GIFT, the Concert of the Novel. Viv McLean (piano), me (narrator). Chopin Society, London, Westminster Cathedral Hall.
24 September, 6.15pmPANUFNIK CENTENARY Pre-Concert Talk at the CBSO, Symphony Hall, Birmingham. I interview Sir Andrzej Panufnik's daughter, composer Roxanna Panufnik, about the life, legacy and influence of her father and his music. Concert includes A.Panufnik's Piano Concerto (with Peter Donohoe) and Sinfonia Elegiaca. 

September is one of the most beautiful months of the year. Here is its eponymous song by this year's top anniversary man, Richard Strauss, from Four Last Songs. The soprano is Nina Stemme, and it's the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Tony Pappano. 
I am sick as the proverbial parrot about having missed Nina's Salome at the Proms on Saturday night. I was in Salzburg to interview a VIPianist and was travelling back at the time. Apparently it was totally sensational and you can hear it on the iPlayer here: click on Listen Again, even if you haven't listened before.
3 months ago | |
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I went to see Mark-Anthony Turnage the other week to talk to him about the revival of Anna Nicole that is to open the Royal Opera House's new season (11 Sept). Article is in the Independent now and the uncut version is below. First, a taster: the PARTAY scene with the amazing team of Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole and Gerald Finley as Howard Stern... 

One more thought: isn't it also high time someone staged his earlier opera The Silver Tassie again? 





The premiere of Anna Nicole by Mark-Anthony Turnage, in 2011, was unlike any other the Royal Opera House has experienced. The foyer was plastered with images of the soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole Smith, complete with supersized fake breasts; and on the stage’s red velvet curtains the initials for the Queen, ER II, were replaced with “AnR”. This startling transformation of empty celebrity into high art is back to open the Royal Opera House’s new season on 11 September, with a special performance for an audience of students.
Turnage himself is all for this latter idea. “I think it’s fantastic,” he says. “I feel it’s part of a genuine effort by Covent Garden to get a wider audience in – they really want to make a difference.” Still, he has no idea how the work will go over with this youthful crowd: “I hope they’ll see it as a comic piece with a tragic end. But it’s quite likely that none of them, mostly aged between 18 and 26, will have heard of Anna Nicole Smith,” he remarks.
The eponymous heroine, to remind you, built a career as model and TV presenter after having her breasts surgically enhanced to vast proportions. She married an octogenarian billionaire, but was excluded from his will, lost her son to drugs and died of an overdose aged 39 in 2007. The court cases around her have rumbled on into recent weeks.
Still, it is the archetypal “fallen woman” resonances of her tale that well suit the genre of opera. “I think you can get too obsessed with the idea that it’s a story that relates to today,” says Turnage. “We were after a story that’s universal. Relevance – so what? If it dates, it dates. This time I won’t read the reviews.”
Anna Nicole was a hit with some for Turnage’s gritty, jazzy, sometimes heartbreakingly beautiful score and its snarky libretto by Richard Thomas (of Jerry Springer: The Opera). Others, considering the subject too trashy for an opera house, couldn’t abide it. For its composer, creating it was both agony and ecstasy.
“I found it very hard to write,” he says. The difficulty was the comedy: “It’s so hard to make people laugh!” He says he relied strongly on Thomas’s skill and experience with that side of it, adding, “All the miserable, angsty, lyrical stuff – that’s much easier for me.”
Controversy still surrounds the work: several opera houses in the US have demurred from staging it because of its bad language. But at 54 Turnage is no stranger to controversy. He shot to fame in his late twenties when his first opera, Greek, established him as the “bad boy” of British new music. While modernism and serialism were still excessively dominant forces, he drew vital influences from popular idioms, which was considered highly rebellious; and much was made in the press of his Essex background and his passion for football. “I’d played it up,” he admits, “and it hasn’t done me any harm.”
More fuss emerged in 2010 when his orchestral work for the Proms, Hammered Out, proved to have rather a lot in common with Beyoncé’s "Single Ladies". The imitation was a sincere form of flattery, plus a musical gift for his son, who liked the song; but eventually, Turnage says, “I paid 50 per cent to Beyoncé. I’d handled it really badly,” he reflects. “I should have come clean about it from the start.” His biggest regret, though, seems to be that he did not get to meet the R&B star.
His penchant for popular idioms may not have endeared Turnage to musical establishment organisations that give annual awards; incredibly, his only prizes are for his opera The Silver Tassie, which scooped an Olivier Award and a South Bank Award in 2000. Nevertheless, he has a strong following among both public and musicians, constantly garnering an impressive string of international commissions at the highest level, with orchestras including the New York Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic. The premiere takes place in Flanders, in October, of Passchendaele, a work commemorating World War I; further highlights ahead include another opera for Covent Garden, planned for 2020.
“People say I’m prolific,” Turnage remarks. “Well, I’ve got a lot of kids, so I’ve got to write a lot of music. I’m not writing to be indulgent, I’m writing to provide for my family.” He has four children aged between 18 and three, from two ex-marriages. Composers, he acknowledges, can be difficult to live with: “You can become so focused on work that you can be a pain in the arse. I think I’ve learned how to switch off.” Today he lives alone in a compact north London flat where his desk companions are busts of Beethoven and Brahms and, on his computer, an exceptionally scary photograph of Stravinsky.
“People do find composing hard and they do struggle,” he says. “But that struggle, the pain of it, is also very attractive to me, very engaging. If we’re not totally bound up in this strange world we’re in in composition, then something’s wrong. It’s got to be obsessive.”
Anna Nicole, Royal Opera House, London, from 11 September. Box office: 020 7304 4000




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In The Guardian, Susanna Eastburn, head of Sound and Music (the organisation that advocates for contemporary composers in the UK), has written a fine, to-the-point post asking why the BBC assumes that its audience won't like new music. This results from the exclusion from TV broadcasts - even on the niche BBC4 - of a clutch of premieres including works by some of Britain's leading composers, and equally those from abroad.

Roxanna Panufnik, John McLeod, Jonathan Dove (right), Harrison Birtwistle and the two composers commissioned by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra - one Israeli, one Syrian - have all been excised from their Proms and sequestered away on a designated website, where nobody who is not already deeply involved in the notion of new music can ever become aware of their existence.

It took some of us a long time to get into Birtwistle. It took me 30 years, and I had a musical training. But not all new music is as terrifying to the uninitiated these days as he might be. Panufnik, McLeod and Dove, for example, are all eminently listenable and could more than prove that music written today is inventive, inspired, varied, "relevant" (that awful word) and more besides. Yet the subliminal message from this move is that the powers-that-be are somehow afraid of it, simply terrified that the poor dears at home will switch off their TVs if they hear a sound that's unfamiliar because it happens to be brand new. The Birtwistle piece chopped from the Prom on TV tonight - the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain - is all of three minutes long. And Panufnik's Three Paths to Peace was the only thing in the World Orchestra for Peace's Prom, with Gergiev conducting, that really had anything to do with peace.

The funny thing is that if people are afraid of new music in Britain, they may very well be that way because of years of conditioning by...ah. The BBC.

Now, look. I LOVE the BBC. You only have to spend a week in the US dealing with American TV to realise how great the BBC is. We'd be lost without them. We'd be stuck with Fox News. Still, it does seem to have a way of getting things awfully wrong where contemporary music policy is concerned.

When I first worked on Classical Music Magazine as assistant editor, back in 1990, I would often find myself speaking to composers, either for interviews, or on the telephone when they rang up begging for a little attention. I don't know how many were convinced that they had been blacklisted according to some alleged new music policy at Radio 3 in its days under the control of William Glock and Hans Keller. Every neglected composer of tonal works was adamant that their music was not played on the radio because it went against received ideology: new music had to be atonal or, preferably, serialist. Microtonality was OK. Tunes were not. This same ideology had permeated the university I had left a few years earlier, where in the music faculty one scarcely dared utter the words 'Steve Reich'.

This alleged policy at Radio 3 has never been categorically proven, to the best of my knowledge - but if it was indeed there, it certainly dovetailed with the funding mechanisms of the Arts Council as was. New music had to be done; metaphorically speaking, a box had to be ticked, in the way it now must be for education, outreach and diversity. But it tended to have to be the right kind of new music, and most people outside the tiny new-music elite didn't like it. Guess what? Many still don't. And it is very, very difficult to persuade newcomers to contemporary music that some of this stuff is really fabulous. I regard Boulez is the kind of musical phenomenon that comes along once a century if you're lucky, but it took some very great performances - by Barenboim - to produce an epiphany for me at the Proms, as recently as 2012. I find it interesting that composers like Birtwistle and Boulez (left) are both being said, here and there, to have "mellowed" with age.

But in some ways it is not surprising if this former policy, if policy it was, eventually put listeners off new music. Music can hurt you, physically, in a way that visual art tends not to: those sound-waves go straight into your body and bypass the intellect, like it or loathe it. Thus people learned to avoid putting themselves through the pain. It's a case of Pavlov's Dog at the concert hall (or deliberately staying away from it).

The stupid thing is that all that is over: instead, a huge variety of new music is being written, engaging, fascinating, intriguing, communicative music, some of which even dares to be beautiful. But now it's being kept away from the TV as if it is certain to poison us if allowed into our homes? This is ridiculous.

And if the BBC is unhappy about us being unhappy about this, as many of us are, in the end it probably has nobody to blame but its old self.
3 months ago | |
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