Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Mad Hatters' Dance-Off

Maybe you were lucky enough to get into the ZooNation show The Mad Hatter's Tea Party at the ROH Linbury after I did my article about it the other week, but the thing sold out in a trice. I suspect this one will run and run.

In case you missed it, here's the dance-off between the Royal Ballet's Mad Hatter from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, tap-dancing megastar Steven McRae, and ZooNation's supercool counterpart, Turbo, with some fans to cheer them on. Happy festivities! And don't forget to log in to JDCMB tomorrow, the Winter Solstice, for what used to be the annual Ginger Stripes Awards, but has been given a little bit of a makeover this time...

Friday, December 19, 2014

Who can jump-start Leeds?

It's been a big week for musical chairs. Abigail Pogson of Spitalfields Festival is off to run The Sage, Gateshead. Darren Henley, head honcho of Classic FM, has been appointed CEO of Arts Council England - this man knows music, knows people love it and knows what's needed in music education, and has made his station a massive success, so looks like good news to me, touchwood. But one more change, north of Watford, is in its way just as vital, perhaps more so.

The inimitable Dame Fanny Waterman
Dame Fanny Waterman is stepping down from running the Leeds International Piano Competition, which she founded back in the 1960s. Can it survive without her?

We need "The Leeds". It is the most important music contest in Britain. It launched Murray Perahia, Radu Lupu and more. Andras Schiff once pulled in third, just behind Mitsuko Uchida, while first went to Dmitri Alexeev (hmm...). Further alumni of the prize ranks include Peter Donohoe, Kathryn Stott, Artur Pizarro, Leon McCawley, Riccardo Castro, Sonya Gulyak and most recently a vintage line-up with Federico Colli placed first and Louis Schwitzgebel second.

The next competition is September 2015 - part of a year ahead of top international contests that also includes Dublin, Chopin and Tchaikovsky. And it's precisely because we talk about Leeds in the same breath as the gigantic circuses in Warsaw and Moscow that it's vital the competition survives the retirement of its founder.

The Leeds puts Britain on the map for young musicians from all over the world. While certain other competitions are up to their armpits in gossip about jury corruption, it has survived with a squeaky-clean reputation (comparatively speaking), and a name for choosing superb musicians as its winners. It may not be as rich as the Cliburn or as glittery as the Tchaikovsky, but it's the one everyone wants to win.

Leeds depends heavily on local support, both financially and in terms of the volunteers who help to run it, putting the contestants up in their own homes, driving them to the venues and so forth. Dame Fanny, a local personage if ever there was one, has kept a tremendous grip on all this, with a sure touch for everything from inspiration to fundraising to musical judgment. People are asking who might step into her shoes. I wonder whether the competition can survive at all without her.

If the London Competition foundered without sufficient funds - in the wealthy heart of the capital, headed by the dynamic Sulamita Aronovsky and with winners including such luminaries as Simon Trpceski, Behzod Abduraimov and Paul Lewis (who got second prize), then what hope for a competition up north? Chancellor George Osborne has rightly identified the need for a powerhouse conurbation and railway system around Manchester, Leeds and the other great northern cities, but we don't have it yet and it'll take time to build, if it's done at all.

Murray Perahia around the time he won Leeds
Without Leeds, Britain would have no musical contest of such peerless status. The Carl Flesch Violin Competition folded years ago. The piano competitions in Scotland and Dudley are fine and respected events, but their international standing is not yet on a level to compare with Warsaw and Moscow. In other words, without Leeds Britain would be pretty much an irrelevance as a destination for young musicians eager for credentials and wing-testing. And there would be no truly top-level "home game" for any British pianists to enter.

Not that any have been in view recently; this is another matter. Mostly young British pianists don't even bother entering international competitions these days, let alone winning them. Without Leeds, the last incentive for them, one that sets an example and a standard at home, would be gone and we would be well and truly a pianistic island again - merely the place that Chopin couldn't get out of fast enough.

Dear Leeds, we need your piano competition! Please keep supporting it, please find yourself a really powerful successor to Dame Fanny - and please encourage young British pianists to take part and to aim at the necessary technical and musical standards to compete in an international playing field, even if it is in Yorkshire.

Who might take over? Among the figures one could consider are:

Kathryn Stott - former prizewinner, lives up north, much-loved British musician.
Peter Donohoe - all of the above (lives in Midlands) and very experienced juror.
Mike Spring - head of APR records, formerly chief piano man of Hyperion, know pianism inside out and backwards.
Erica Worth and Jesper Buhl - wife and husband team, respectively editor of Pianist magazine and of Danacord Records, dynamic duo with top-notch pianistic knowhow. Pianist's head office is in Leeds, btw.
Murray McLachlan and Kathryn Page - husband and wife team, Manchester based - both pianists, movers and shakers. Murray is head of piano at Chetham's and founders of a marvellous summer school, the Manchester competition for young pianists and much more besides.

Watch this space...

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

When should a director listen to his/her audience?

A few of my thoughts on the shifting of scenes on stage, from today's Independent. Design a show so the audience can see it, please; improve it if they can't; know when something is daft and needs ditching; but don't pull a show because of pressure groups!

Ten things for your best-ever night out's Chopin Liszt

A high old time was had by one and all last night at the Chopin Society's Christmas fundraiser - a gala recital, dinner and ball at London's historic Guildhall, amply attended by the great and good of the UK, Poland and the piano world.

For such an evening, you will need for your Chopin Liszt:

1. An atmospheric, beautiful and historically significant venue such as this one:

2. A tireless, dedicated organiser such as the Chopin Society's Lady Rose Cholmondeley who can muster a guest list of princesses, dignitaries, the Polish ambassador, great pianists and more.

3. At the back of your cupboard, a ball dress that you bought in Vienna about seven years ago and have never had occasion to don; plus the good fortune to find that it still fits you; and a bunch of Facebookers all saying WEAR IT!

4. A generous-spirited colleague who'll suggest you join her at the office to get changed there and share a taxi to the venue so that you don't have to risk ripping said ball dress on the rush hour trains en route. Thank you, Claire Jackson, editor of International Piano Magazine. (Pic: me in black, Claire in purple.)

5. A gifted young pianist - the multiple-prizewinning Mateusz Borowiak - who steams in, cool as the proverbial cucumber, to play Bach-Busoni, the Liszt Mephisto Waltz and, of course, Chopin. Mateusz is Polish-British; his parents are both music teachers, he has a music degree from Cambridge, and has been studying in Katowice with Andrzej Jasinski. Incidentally, Chopin's last public concert took place at the Guildhall in 1848, less than a year before his untimely death. Stepping into his shoes is no small order.

6. A sumptuous dinner and the excellent company of friends and colleagues old and new; a wonderful chance to catch up with pianistic luminaries, the likes of Angela Hewitt (in a beautiful furry wrap) and Piers Lane, the latter in fine fettle on the dance floor. Plus, of course, the good-humoured spirit that can enjoy hearing the Poles and the British roundly mucking up the pronunciations of one another's surnames, while getting along excellently in this celebration of longstanding Polish-British friendship - and manifold anniversaries, not least 10 years of Poland being an EU member.

7. A terrific band that can deliver everything from the 1870s to Abba and Diana Ross.

8. A mysterious stroke of fate. After all, what are the chances of wearing that Viennese ball dress only to find that at dinner you are sitting next to an actual Viennese man, moreover one who learned to dance in the great ballrooms of his home city, white gloves and all? Please take a bow, Ulrich Gerhartz, the legendary chief technician of Steinways, who I'm glad to say whirled me off my feet all the way from 'The Blue Danube' to 'Dancing Queen'.

9. A good cause. The aim of these high jinks is to raise money towards buying the society a new piano for its excellent series of recitals, most of which take place at Westminster Cathedral Hall. Recent performers have included Abbey Simon, Yevgeny Sudbin, Benjamin Grosvenor and many more (including me and Viv in 'Alicia's Gift' a few months back). Until now they have used a beautiful, warm-toned instrument that once belonged to the Polish virtuoso Witold Malcuzynski, but as you can imagine, it is getting on in years. With an auction of artworks and holidays, led by Philip Moulds, a "silent auction" and a raffle, one suspects that the new piano will no longer be such a distant prospect.

10. Getting home in the wee hours with ears ringing, head spinning and a slightly bloodied toe.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

GÉRARD DEPARDIEU shows us how to do a kids' concert

The controversial yet perennially great French actor Gérard Depardieu joined forces with Philippe Graffin for a weekend of words and music in Brussels, at the end of November - during the course of which they showed us just how wonderful kids' concerts can be, given half a chance. Here they reach the finale of the Carnival of the Animals.

"Now you are all animals," Depardieu instructs the young audience, going on to say that now they are all good companions, every kind of creature with every other. "Next Sunday," he then adds darkly, "the carnival of humans..."

In the second clip the musicians sound like they're having the time of their lives as the kids clap along with the encore.