JDCMB is Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music & writing, with CHOCOLATE AND SILVER, in London, UK. Author & journalist JD writes for The Independent.
1686 Entries
I had a lovely interview the other week with the American pianist Mona Golabek, whose mother started out as a child prodigy pianist in Vienna. Once Hitler had annexed Auatria, though, she was fortunate to escape, one of the several thousand Jewish children permitted to come to Britain on the Kindertransport - but leaving their families behind. Mona wrote a book about her mother and now performs an inspirational one-woman show telling the story through words and music. She's bringing it to the St James Theatre, London, later this month.

My piece is in The Independent today: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/features/the-pianist-of-willesden-lane-mona-golabeks-moving-one-woman-show-about-her-mother-a6796511.html
3 months ago | |
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The pianist and composer Ben Dawson has written a song about all those xxest of the xx artist biographies. You know the ones.

Ben says: "Being a musician for a living means you have to write, and then keep re-writing your professional biography to put in concert programmes, on websites, for publicity etc. It's unbearably tedious and painful having to stretch the truth about oneself in the third person without sounding like a d*ckhead. That doesn't, however, stop numerous musicians from calling themselves 'the greatest/most admired x of his/her/their generation'. They can't all be the greatest living whatever, can they? Someone, somewhere is lying... 
Every lyric (almost) is from a real biography I have seen in print over the past year or so."

Here's Rachel Weston singing it, with Ben at the piano. Enjoy.

And on that merry note I am off to do some intensive writing for a week or two. Back soon...
3 months ago | |
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I'm not quite sure how this came about, but last week Angela Hewitt came round and played the Bach Goldberg Variations on my beloved Bechstein to us and a few friends in the living room.

Sounds simple, doesn't it? One of World's Great Bach Players pitches up and gives you a private concert, and afterwards you cook risotto primavera. What's certain is that this setting, an ordinary room where the listeners are at close quarters with the performer, is far and away the best way to listen to music on an intimate scale. Even so, this was a house-concert with a difference.

You might remember a piece I wrote about St Mary's Perivale, the 12th-century church in west London, a year or so ago. It was about "sacred space" syndrome: an atmosphere that a special place bestows on a performance. I wouldn't normally count our living room as a sacred space, though, so last week's magic had nothing to do with that. No, this was about Bach, and about Angela's particular mastery of the Goldbergs.

Back in the days of Wanda Landowska, Myra Hess and Rosalyn Tureck, great female soloists were sometimes termed 'high priestesses' of their art. It's worth pausing to think about what that really meant. It implies a pure, holy-ish approach to the music: at the keyboard these phenomenal performers would be perceived as handmaidens, if you'll excuse the slightly ghastly term, to the sacred spirit of Bach, Beethoven et al. Today this is an unfashionable idea.

Angela Hewitt. Photo: C M Yamanoue
Still, something extraordinary happened during the 80-or-so minutes in which Angela held us all under Bach's spell. It's not easy to articulate this. Around variation 9, one could sense a subtle change in the air. By 13 the stillness was absolute; and by the time the final toccata-style variation before the Quodlibet emerged as if on full organ, the illusion - if illusion it was - that we were experiencing some kind of spiritual visitation that was blessing us could not have been stronger if we could see its presence in the room. At the end I think we were all in tears.

You can attribute this "state of grace" (I write as an atheist, by the way) to many things. You can put it down to Angela's supreme control of technique, pace, concentration and drama - without which nothing would have happened. You can suggest a "sacred fire" descends while certain artists play certain works and that it's beyond anybody's control; either it happens or it doesn't (a view I've heard espoused about the playing of the violinist Jelly d'Arányi - of whom I'll be writing a lot more soon). You can attribute it to Bach himself, to the incomparable construction and inspiration of the music - though this requires the interpreter to bring it to life. Add to that the listener's state of heightened awareness, arrived at through intense focus and concentration, akin to the nature of a deep meditation. You can put it down to a combination of all these factors, while additionally admitting that on a further level it is close to miraculous.

I mentioned the sense of "divine visitation" to Angela afterwards. She nodded and said that, yes, this can sometimes happen with the Goldberg Variations...

The ultimate issue is that only music can do this, and only the very greatest music, performed by someone who is entirely at one with it, artistically and technically, and only when it is played live and shared, perhaps congregation-like, with others. That's why we have and need live musical performance at the ultimate level, and that's why all those much-discussed peripheral issues (what to wear, when to clap, bringing in drinks, etc) will remain peripheral, because they're not relevant (we wore everyday clothes, we had no desire to make any kind of noise until the very end and we had some wine, but rarely touched it while she played).

This kind of experience is rare, but it's possible. It brings another dimension into life that might otherwise be missing. If that is a sacred fire, and its summoner a high priestess, so be it. It's the essence of what musical experience is all about.

3 months ago | |
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New Year's Eve in London. Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

Good morning, everyone, and happy 2016!
A warm welcome back to JDCMB if you're a regular reader and a big Aloha if you are new to the site.

The blogging sphere has become quite strange since I started JDCMB by mistake back in March 2004, so here's a little about my mission statement, such as it is.

I'm not "a blogger"; I'm a writer who has a blog. I trained initially as a musician and I write mainly, though not exclusively, about music. I've been in music journalism for 27 years. I held a number of editorial posts on music magazines and since 2004 have been freelancing for The Independent. I've written biographies, novels and plays. Right now I'm working on an opera libretto and my fifth novel.

JDCMB is relatively random and spontaneous. I hope the linking thread is a certain set of musical values, headed by quality and equality. I employ a rather British sense of sarcasm and irony (so do watch out for that if you're not used to it). I try to keep a sense of perspective - life's taught me not to sweat the small stuff - and I don't like the hysteria, witch-hunting and irrationality that's invaded discourse on many topics, including music.

I live in London, UK, and I use English English, not American English.

You can follow JDCMB by signing up for email alerts in the box at the top of the sidebar. Every post is then sent direct to your in-box. (This is an automated system, so I won't actually have your email address.)

JDCMB is free to read and unpaid to write. If you enjoy it, you're invited to support the site in several ways. You could come to my concerts and talks, buy the books, and support my next novel - on a very musical topic - which will be up for crowd-funding with Unbound later this month.

I receive many requests for coverage here, but I can't do everything. If you would like your event, recording or product to be visible on JDCMB, you might like to consider taking an advertisement, or alternatively a Solticat Memorial Sponsorship paragraph, at a highly competitive rate, which contributes to cat food for Solti's successors, Ricki and Cosi.

JDCMB does not invite reader comments, but we have some lively discussions around the posts that are shared on Facebook.

What you won't find on JDCMB: ad hominem attacks, porn, conspiracy theories, twisted thinking and malice.

What you will find: good humour, solid artistic values and plenty of passion. I believe that everybody deserves truly great music and arts in their lives.

Last but not least, Pierre Boulez once said to me: "When things are wrong...you cannot just stay in front of it without doing anything." He's right. So sometimes I try to do something. Very occasionally, it works.

Happy reading, happy listening and, above all, happy music-making!
3 months ago | |
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Here's why.

Radu Lupu, who is considered by most pianophiles as one of today's greatest artists, receives a CBE in the New Year Honours List. I'm afraid it is simply not recognition enough for an artist of his calibre.

Meanwhile, in Canada another great pianist, Angela Hewitt, has been made a Companion of the Order of Canada - the highest honour that the country can give one of its citizens.

Of course, plenty of people would like to see the UK honours system dismantled lock, stock and barrel, especially right now. I don't see that happening anytime soon, though, and meanwhile it is always good when musicians and deserving members of the music industry receive any public thanks. Here is a selection of the others in this year's list:

The pianist Malcolm Martineau and the conductor Steuart Bedford all receive OBEs, along with singer-songwriter Damon Albarn, former head of the ABRSM Leslie East and music publisher Paulette Long. The founders and artistic directors of Music Theatre Wales, Michael McCarthy and Michael Rafferty, and Jeremy Wilding, chairman of the Three Choirs Festival Society, all receive MBEs. So does the violinist Alina Ibragimova, as well as the CBSO violinist Catherine Arlidge, who has spearheaded numerous initiatives to engage children with music.

In ballet, this year's list includes a knighthood for choreographer and New Adventures director Matthew Bourne, a CBE for Tamara Rojo, head of English National Ballet, and an OBE for choreographer Christopher Wheeldon.
4 months ago | |
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From place 10 up to place 1, here are the most-read pieces on JDCMB of 2015

10. Tasmin Little's speech to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Music Education.
9. Return to the Magic Mountains 1: Manon Lescaut in Munich, and I had a picture taken with Jonas afterwards...
8. Anna Rezniak saves the day for Lars Vogt and Christian Tetzlaff: page-turner video goes viral.
7. Birmingham Music Library is under threat.
6. Sir Simon Rattle tells us that European orchestral conditions look like "the wildest edges of science fiction" from here in the sunny UK. (In which case, if that hall is ever build, he needs to demand that it has proper facilities for its musicians as well as its audience, for starters...)
5. Farewell to Jack McCaw, wonderful clarinettist (and wonderful neighbour).
4. Symphony Hall to be shifted brick by brick to London [please note, this ran on 1 April...]
3. Pianist lands dream job. Namely, Piers Lane is assuming the directorship of the Sydney International Piano Competition.
2. Sarah Connolly's speech on why we need the arts, as presented to a special Arts Council England event in Westminster.
And in first place:1. Barenboim is involved in designing his own bespoke piano and plays it in London. 
Meanwhile, I'm glad to say that the 2013 post Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman Conductor remains hot property and has notched up more reads than any other post in more than 12 years of JDCMB existence. 
4 months ago | |
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Do have a listen to this interesting conversation, from the BBC World Service's Newsday, between conductor Odaline de la Martinez and composer Nicola LeFanu about the changing - ? - situation of women in their professions. One problem they raise is something that is increasingly being recognised: prejudice is not something conscious. They discuss the potentially great figures of the past whose talents are lost to us. And they wonder what the future may hold. I'm glad to say that there is optimism alongside the realism.
4 months ago | |
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With lots of love from all the inhabitants of Casa JDCMB

4 months ago | |
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If you're new to JC, let me explain the Chocolate, Silver & Ginger Stripes Awards:
-- This extraordinary Virtualbash takes place here every year on 21 December. It used to be the Ginger Stripes Awards, in honour of my cat Solti, but since his death we've been joined by two new young award-givers, coloured chocolate and silver.
-- It's fun.
-- The choices are entirely personal.
-- It's a JDCMB retrospective of the year, plus a chance to let down one's hair;
-- All you need is a smile and the willingness to join in and/or suspend disbelief, and there's some good stuff to listen to.
-- Enjoy the party!

What? It's the Winter Solstice again? How did that happen? It feels like just the other day we were entering the CyberPoshPlace for Ricki and Cosi's first year as kitten-heirs to our late beloved Solticat's Ginger Stripes Awards. Still, the faster time progresses, the faster we get to enjoy our VirtualVintageBubbly and hug lots of people we can't hug in real life. 

So please don your CyberGladRags and come on in to the aforesaid venue. Welcome! It's decked out in thousands of fairy-lights, plus tinsel and glittery stuff in our colours, which mix Ricki's chocolatiness with Cosi's silveriness and a tribute to Solti's ginger stripes. 

Please leave your outer selves in the cloakroom. Have a glass, relax, enjoy the scents of rose and citrus and cinammon, and you'll find lavish quantities of extremely good Italian virtualfood being prepared by our friends Luigi and Cristian, the best caterers I know, sourced with the aid of a favourite café, Nelson's...

Next, a very warm welcome to our special guest stars. Bela Bartók has come to join us tonight, quiet, wise and great-eyed, modest and poised, and he leads the way for a rather surprised collection of characters, gathering by the door and gazing about, wondering how they got here. Three cheers, please, for the great Hungarian violinist Jelly d'Arányi (pronounced Yelly, not Gelly, btw), her sister - also a great violinist - Adila Fachiri, Jelly's former duo partner Dame Myra Hess, and their friend, Professor Donald Francis Tovey. Theirs is a very specific purpose tonight, but I'm not going to tell you what it is (you might have to check back in January to find out). 

Quiet, please...quiet... thank you. First, a big round of applause for every musician who has touched the hearts of his or her audience this year. You're wonderful. We love you. Thank you for all your inspirational music-making.

Now, would the following artists please approach the platform where Ricki and Cosi are ensconced upon their silken cushions. They will let you stroke their chocolate and silver fur and are ready to give you each a very special purr. 

Icon of the Year: It was Sviatoslav Richter's centenary this year and if there was ever an icon to celebrate it was him. I heard him in the flesh once only, many years ago, in recital at the Royal Festival Hall, on which occasion he played the Schubert G major Sonata and the first chord lasted for what felt like an entire revolution of the moon. This man worked with Prokofiev, managed things in interpreting Mussorgsky and Rachmaninov that few have ever matched, and made recordings that set the standard for generations. Let's take a moment to honour him.

Pianist of the Year: The piano recital of 2015 that will stay with me forever was Daniil Trifonov's performance at the Menuhin Festival Gstaad of the complete Liszt Transcendental Etudes. It took place in an atmospheric 15th-century church in Saanen (the next-door village - where Bartók composed his Divertimento) and proved a universe of colour and sonic imagination - as if Daniil was improvising it, yet sounding deceptively easy, natural, unshakeable. It was a privilege to be there. 

Here he is in 'Harmonies du Soir' at Carnegie Hall:

String Player of the Year: This was a tough one, because I've spent a lot of this year editing The Amati Magazine, which means that I've had more good lunches with fantastic violinists, violists and cellists than ever before. But here's da man. He looks flamboyant, yet is sweet and gentle; his virtuosity is dazzling, though delivered with modesty and grace; and incidentally, his incredible band made a Welsh fish and chip shop very happy when we all pitched up in Fishguard for Peter Donohoe's festival on the same day. The ensemble came to London twice to play at the Amati Exhibition and it was a joy and privilege to introduce them. Please welcome the incredible Roby Lakatos. Gratulálok, Roby, and thank you!

Singer of the Year: Who else?! Here you go, Jonas...

Conductor of the Year: Susanna Mälkki is a wonderful musician and a powerful personality: straightforward, assertive and able to inspire brilliant results. Her muscular, up-tempo Sibelius 1 the other week had me reaching for my programme to check whether this was a different version of the text, because I was hearing things in it I'd never heard before. 

Festival of the Year: Wexford Opera Festival is a true one-off. Every autumn this enchanting spot on the south-east coast of Ireland, two or three hours south of Dublin, is transformed into the most interesting venue in the opera world: rare and beautiful operas are performed by exciting young casts with rising directors and genre-expert conductors. This year hearing and seeing Delius's Koanga, Mascagni's Guglielmo Ratcliff and Hérold's Le Pré aux Clercs was a joy and, often, a revelation. If you've never been there, all I can say is: go. And book fast, because it sells out. 

Youthful Artist of the Year: Beatrice Rana, ace pianist, welcome to the stage. You've got the musicianship, the technique, the intelligence, the personality, the gumption, the groundedness and, generally, everything it takes to make it to the top and stay there in this insane world. I look forward to hearing you many, many more times. Congratulations on your first Chocolate Silver Ginger Stripe Award - but please don't bring your adorable dog with you to the platform to collect it because he'd scare Ricki and Cosi...

Artist of the Year: Daniel Barenboim's performance of the Schubert B flat Sonata on his special, bespoke piano at the RFH was probably the most heart-shattering performance I heard in 2015. Barenboim is perhaps the most complete of all our great artists: a visionary, an educator and a philosopher as well as a musician, accepting no division between such roles. Maestro, thank you.

Here's a slightly lighter piece of Schubert - with Martha Argerich joining him.

Colleagues of the Year: Our composer Roxanna Panufnik, our director Karen Gillingham and the entire team involved in creating our new opera, Silver Birch, for Garsington, where it will be performed in 2017. We now have a cast to die for. We also have a remit to create a work that seeks to reach the widest possible audience, from seasoned critics to opera newbies, featuring professionals, amateurs, children, teenagers, a VJ, Siegfried Sassoon's poetry and matters of life and death. It's a joy working with you all. And while I'd always wanted to write an opera libretto, this has been the most fun I have ever had writing anything, ever - because it is in collaboration with you. Please come up to the platform and receive your purrs.

Opera of the Year: That joyous marvel that was ENO's Mastersingers. It sent us all home walking on air. (Honest to goodness, folks, we mess with that company at our peril. What is the ACE really up to there?)

Ballet of the Year: Matthew Bourne's The Car Man nearly burned down Islington: the hottest of the hot, with gripping, galvanising storytelling, fabulously danced by a cast who gave more than anybody's all has a right to be. Its star, Jonathan Ollivier, gave his life a few days later, killed on his motorbike in a road accident in Clerkenwell - a huge shock and tragic loss. There is to be a gala to benefit his young family - details here. 

Stuffed Turkey: There were waaaay too many piano competitions this year, and some were distinctly more interesting than others. (The best I've yet heard, though, is the first prize winner Seong-Jin Cho of the Chopin Competition in Warsaw, whose debut CD I found seriously impressive). 

And a few personal highlights:

Proudest moments: Signing the contract for my opera libretto for Roxanna and Garsington (see 'Colleagues of the Year') - a long-held dream come true. And discovering, after several days giving pre-concert talks at the Istanbul Festival in the gardens of Topkapi Palace, that I had amassed a little fan club. That was great. 

Weirdest moment: In Pontresina, Switzerland, learning that Richard Strauss wrote 'Beim schlafengehen' (from the Four Last Songs) just over the fence from where I started writing in earnest as a teenager sensing something creative in the air.

Biggest sigh of relief: We are not moving house after all! PHEW.

Quote of the Year: "The power of music is to unite us and to bring out the best humanity has to offer"- Marin Alsop, Last Night of the Proms.
Wonderful Webmaster of the Year: Horst Kolo, of course. Dearest Horst, I don't know where I'd be without your attentive updates of the article archive and your ever so gentle chasing for my latest news. There's a good one on the way in the new year!

Felines of the Year: There have to be two, obviously: Ricki and Cosi, who are beautiful, bright, fluffy Somali cats, now fully grown and too clever by half. As the pet insurance documents delightfully tell us, 'You never know what Richard and Cosima are going to get up to'. 

Let's spend a moment thinking about what we want to be in 2016. 

I'm often told that JDCMB is 'the voice of reason' in our little corner of this crazy world - and I hope that's the case and intend it should continue to be so. Too often, the wealth of culture, invention, wisdom and delight that centuries of accomplished art music has built up seemingly doesn't count for a hill of beans any more. Yet music is one of the true forces at work for spiritual, social, mental and corporeal good - and the case has been made to prove this again and again and again. Still it must be restated often, because people who haven't seen its power for themselves always need to be convinced. Once you've witnessed it, you know it's true. 

Please join me to love our music, explore the joy it brings us, celebrate it and uphold its marvels in the face of whatever life throws at it, and us. Let's keep our heads, our sense of perspective, our passion and our idealism where our art is concerned. 

Thank you all for a wonderful year! Now please mingle, have fun and enjoy the VirtualParty. And just in case we don't get much snow this Christmas, here's an extra bit of wintery sparkle...

4 months ago | |
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A remarkable book landed on my desk recently - and if anyone is looking for a rapid Christmas present for a music lover, I can't recommend it highly enough.

Edited by Michael Church - for whom it has clearly been a lengthy task and an absolute labour of love - it is entitled The Other Classical Musics: Fifteen Great Traditions. Here western classical music emerges as just one of many: no more and no less than one possible option, a richly rewarding and individualistic approach to the art of sound, manifesting itself through the philosophies and social ecosystems of western Europe. This is not, however, world music for dummies. Every topic is treated with deep, considered and well-expressed exploration of history, society and musical analysis. It will suit academics and the general, intelligent reader alike.

Western musicians (to generalise, of course) can be broadly under-aware of other great worldwide traditions of music - maybe because we're so busy perfecting our own that it can be difficult to find the way out of our tunnel and, indeed, to know where to start.

As a student I used to go with my violinist duo partner (who lived in Kingsbury) to Brent Town Hall to hear Indian classical music. Often we'd be among a tiny sprinkling of European faces in the packed-out audience. And my goodness, we heard some marvels - not least, we were transfixed by Zakir Hussain, who was about 21 at the time. We also went rushing to hear the Peking Opera whenever they performed in London, with their breathtaking acrobatics and the acidic magic of their narrative music. I also spent a week at the Dartington International Summer School interspersing piano masterclasses with doing the gamelan class every morning; the more you are drawn into that collaborative, clangorous, vibrant flow, the odder distant Mozart would sound when you walked back past the other studios afterwards. Yes, we were seduced by apparent exoticism, but also we became aware of just how much we didn't know and weren't otherwise learning. My duo partner ended up becoming an ethnomusicologist and finally abandoned his violin for the Chinese erhu.

If only we'd had this book to help us in, I might have considered following his lead. On one level this weighty, beautifully produced and often almost surprisingly readable volume is a history of world societies seen through their musical traditions. On another, it's an extremely useful introduction to, and exploration of, numerous traditions - most centuries long, some longer still. Even if we are mesmerised by the sound of music from other traditions, we might derive still more pleasure and interest from it if we know the context it springs from and how, technically, it works.

Given the vital nature of the influence on the great western composers of traditions from, for example, the Far East, India and Africa, this exploration can bring much insight to those steeped in what we think of as classical music. Debussy and Messiaen might have been the first to applaud; Ligeti, who was influenced by the metric principals of Congolese drumming, would do so too.

As Church tells us, "This is not a comparative study, but it does allow comparisons to be drawn." Much of the book is devoted to the music of the far and near east, with two chapters apiece for China and India; the Mediterranean offers rich pickings with a fascinating exploration of the Andalusian music of the western Med area and one ranging through a Turkey that 18th-century Vienna might find it hard to recognise. The aural traditions of the west African regions that comprise Mande Jaliyaa are unpicked and beautifully evoked by Roderic Knight; Church and Terry E Miller whirl us through the contexts, splendours and technical bedazzlement of Chinese Opera; and the regions of south-east Asia are described in the Javanese chapter with an analysis of the local gamelan (Neil Sorrel). North America, meanwhile, is represented by a chapter on jazz.

That is just a taster of a sackful of riches. What this book can do is ultimately to offer a deeper, richer understanding of the nature of music itself and its significance to human beings the world over. As such, it could be transformative.

The Other Classical Musics is published by the Boydell Press, £25 hardback.

4 months ago | |
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