Saturday, February 13, 2016

A waltz for the Indy

As you know, I've written for The Independent since 2004, the same length of time as this blog has existed. It's been one of the longest and happiest professional associations I've ever enjoyed and it is a great privilege to have a platform in a quality national newspaper alongside some of the best news journalists and commentators in the country. Yesterday the paper, which has run for 30 years, announced that it is ceasing its print operations. The i paper, the smaller, cheaper daily, is being sold, and The Independent as a whole will be online only. It is the first of the UK national papers to take this step, but most people feel it won't be the last.

Around half the staff are being made redundant - according to the editor Amol Rajan on BBC news, that means more than 100 jobs will be lost. Again, we are talking here about some of the most professional, experienced, sharp-minded, knowledgeable editors in the UK. I have no idea what will happen to the splendid arts team, but I have loved and still love working with them and have endless respect for my "boss" there, David Lister, who has been with the Independent since the very beginning.

I hope this is not the end of the line. It may be. It may not be. I just don't know yet.

This piece is how I feel about yesterday and I offer it to them all with love and solidarity. It's Franz von Vecsey's Valse triste, played by Philippe Graffin and Claire Désert.

Friday, February 12, 2016

So you want to play the piano even more?

Melanie Spanswick's book So You Want to Play the Piano? seems to have hit a chord with the market. She first published it herself a few years ago, but now it's been taken up by Alfred Music Publishing, revised, expanded and relaunched and it's just hit the shelves. I thought it was a great idea in the first place, so I've asked her to write us an introduction to the revised edition.

Over to Melanie:

So You Want To Play The Piano? has been revised, considerably expanded and republished in a second edition by Alfred Music. When I first wrote this book (back in the Summer of 2011), I had a fairly clear idea of what I wanted to achieve; which was to assist those who had never played the piano before in making important decisions about various crucial aspects at the start of their musical journey. The book is therefore useful for prospective students, beginners and all those up to and around intermediate level. However, it may also provide helpful information for piano teachers at the start of their careers.

The second edition is larger (A4 size) and much more comprehensive. Twelve chapters take the prospective student on a journey from the very beginning, examining the reasons for playing, how to ascertain the best instruments for beginners (or those who may be looking to upgrade), locating and deciphering the best or most suitable piano teachers, as well as discussing many other considerations which often crop up at the start.

Twenty-two piano tutor books are examined (both familiar and new books) and a selection of further publications are also listed, with a section dedicated to supplementary educational methods (such as the Kodaly and Suzuki methods). Another chapter indicates what can be expected from the first few lessons. Piano basics are covered in chapter eight; with advice relating to posture, hand positions and how to avoid common errors regarding rhythm and note learning. Piano technique is decoded in chapter nine, which discusses wrist flexibility, finger independence, touch, dynamics, and pedalling.

I’ve focussed on piano exams too, as many students wish to work their way through graded exams, so there is ample information regarding the most popular examination boards in the UK and abroad, and each exam component is explored with practice suggestions for scales, sight-reading and aural, as well as (hopefully) useful tips for preparing pieces. The book concludes with chapters on composers and suitable repertoire (for beginners up to and including intermediate level), and performance practice, competitions and festivals.

Littered with musical examples and photographs, as well as lists of recommended practice materials and a '5 points to remember' box at the end of every chapter, summating the most essential and relevant points, I hope piano students everywhere will find this book beneficial.
Melanie Spanswick

You can order your copy from Alfred Music here:

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Save the People's Opera

The ongoing crisis at English National Opera is provoking much thought, soul-searching and protest. The current plan on the management side is to cut the chorus's pay by 25 per cent. The chorus, not surprisingly, is balloting for strike action.

Most people who go to ENO or who have performed with the company are all too aware that the chorus is the absolute life-blood of it - and it is not least their magnificent singing that has made so many of ENO's performances so outstanding over the past years. Some singers have remarked that the planned cut amounts to a good deal more than 25 per cent in practice, and that with the costs of family life, accommodation and travel in the capital, such a cut would make it unviable for them to continue in their jobs.

Meanwhile, a petition is gathering signatures, including many from leading singers who have starred on the Coliseum stage, not least Sarah Connolly and Stuart Skelton. Soprano Susan Bullock has commented: So much damage has been done to this wonderful company in recent years, and it is now time for it to stop. Wake up ENO Board before it is too late and fight for the company you are supposed to represent. Do not allow the heart to be ripped out of it by administrators who have no clue about opera. You can’t expect high quality performances from a broken company, nor do you deserve them if you persist in making these cuts.’

Mark Wigglesworth, who is in his first season as music director, has strong words about the company's present and future in today's Guardian. He is at the helm for a revival of The Magic Flute, in Simon McBurney's edgy and fascinating production. Do read this. 

And the company is currently advertising for an artistic director...

Meanwhile, I've been having a look back at where the company used to be. It has been very easy for people to use John Berry's artistic directorship as a punchbag, and ditto for Peter Bazalgette, who has recently announced his resignation from the chair of ACE (in a former life he was on ENO's board himself). But things have been volatile at the Coli for decades. It seems an endless cycle of boom and bust. Mostly bust.

Have a look at this, from the Telegraph in 1997.

I'd like to draw attention to this section: 

Go down to the Coliseum after dark and you get swept up in pre-revolutionary ferment. The place is packed out, even for non-pops such as Verdi's Falstaff and Janácek's From the House of the Dead. The lobbies heave with men in windcheaters and ladies in print frocks, solid Labour types who come to the Coliseum two nights a week, no matter what's playing. There are schoolboys, unchaperoned by teachers, booked in of their own initiative. There are young couples of every gender-pairing and whole families, grans to tots, out for a birthday treat. No one has paid more than £25 a seat and some are in for less than a fiver.Inside the auditorium, the tension that mounts with any good drama explodes in roars of solidarity as, during curtain calls, a company member steps forward to advocate the case for survival. These appeals began spontaneously on the night of Smith's statement, when the new music director, Paul Daniel, delivered an emotional defence speech. "We have a very special platform of work," said Daniel, "and a very, very strong case for making opera as we do."
The audience is different today. So is the company. On the latter side, ticket prices are higher, considerably so; on the former, many people's incomes are less secure, more pressurised and less likely to be spent on opera seats two nights a week. Generally, loyalties are less pronounced. The company faced low ticket sales for "non-pops", even when they were as fine as Vaughan Williams's A Pilgrim's Progress and Martinu's fabulous Julietta directed by Richard Jones. And people are scared to step forward and speak up. Today does anybody dare to take the stage after the performance and tell the audience what's going on? Does the audience dare to roar its support for its beloved operatic family? I hope they will, if they haven't already. Because if they don't, it would be a sign of our cultural shift compared to 19 years back: the crushing of dissent, or self-censorship out of fear of it. Laugh if you want to, but there's a lot of this around and we ignore it at our peril.

Monday, February 08, 2016

TOMORROW: Alicia's Gift goes to Hampton Court House

Across the road from Hampton Court Palace, down a little gravel side-street, you'll find the beautiful mansion known as Hampton Court House.

An historic venue with beautiful gardens and mysterious grottos, it is now home to an adventurous independent school, whose headmaster, Guy Holloway, has been much in the news of late for advocating a later start to the school day for teenagers, whose natural body rhythms make it seriously difficult for them to get going in the early morning.

Viv McLean and I, fresh from a gorgeous afternoon at St Mary's Perivale yesterday, are off there tomorrow evening for an Alicia's Gift performance - at a place in which the pressures facing gifted youngsters is all too relevant. The hour-long concert will be followed by a discussion in which Guy and I will be joined by Hugh Mather, artistic director of St Mary's Perivale, to consider the whole matter of child prodigy musicians.

Do join us - and you can book in advance here. Hampton Court House is about ten minutes walk from Hampton Court Station and you can arrive for a pre-concert drink any time from 6.45pm for a 7.30pm start.

All details here:

Did this man get under Mozart's skin?

OK, I know this may cause a few splutterings and shouts of "preposterous" and "piffle", but this story has been bugging me like one of those planets you can't see, yet whose presence is indicated by the tugs of energy around the encircling orbs. It's a theory, nothing more. I may have added two and two and made 130. I just think it's worth a little look.

In short: was Monostatos Mozart's revenge upon the person who was probably the only man of colour he encountered within his own circles as a young man - someone happier and more successful than he was, someone of whom he had reason to be jealous at one of the most terrible times of his life? Namely, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges? Here's my theory and the reasoning behind it in the Independent. (Incidentally, this could put a slightly interesting slant on the Queen of the Night, too.)

First, here's Covent Garden's solution to the Monostatos problem. We find many remedies for that in the opera world - but little explanation of why they might have been there in the first place.