Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Our concert on Friday 10 June

Just to remind everyone that next Friday, 10 June, Tom and I are playing in the 'Music at Woodhouse' series in Surrey. Woodhouse is a beautiful little private venue in the North Downs, not far from Dorking. Gorgeous gardens, top-class atmosphere. Here's the address:

Woodhouse Copse
Holmbury St Mary
Surrey
RH5 6NL
England

Email: woodhousemusic@dsl.pipex.com
Phone for enquiries: 01306 730403
Fax: 01306 730956


And our programme:

10 June 8p.m - 'Entente Cordiale', a recital

Tom Eisner, violin
Jessica Duchen, piano

EDWARD ELGAR (1857-1934): Violin Sonata in E minor
Allegro, Romance (Andante), Allegro non troppo

Sospiri

La Capricieuse

Interval

CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862-1918): La plus que lente (arr. Leon Roques)

GABRIEL FAURE (1845-1924): Violin Sonata No.1 in A major, Op.13
Allegro molto, Andante, Allegro vivo, Allegro quasi presto


This is what we're playing at the Elgar Birthplace Museum tomorrow (1 June) as well, 7.30pm start.

SATURDAY 4 JUNE UPDATE: We've dropped the Delius piece & are replacing it with Elgar's 'Sospiri'. Nothing personal about Freddy - and I'm sorry to lose my lovely reading about when Elgar visited Delius in 1933 and told him what it's like to fly in an aeroplane - but we've played the Legende rather too much and it sort of doesn't work any more. Besides, Sospiri is just wonderful and nobody ever plays it.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Conductor cat in residence


Solti on the bench
Originally uploaded by Duchenj.

I am hostage to my piano again - recital with Tom at the Elgar Birthplace Museum on Wednesday 1 June, a.k.a. the day after tomorrow. So, in the absence of anything refreshingly new to blog about, here is a picture of Solti, our conductor cat in residence. Sir Georg does love to sit on the garden bench of a sunny afternoon.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

More about yesterday

Here's what The Guardian has to say about Paul Kildea's resignation from the Wigmore Hall. And The Classical Source has the official version released by the hall's PR.

I could say a few things too, but I'm not going to.

I spent yesterday evening there listening to Rustem Hayroudinoff playing the socks off the complete Etudes-Tableaux by Rachmaninov. I've admired Rustem's playing for years and have always felt angry that he's not had the attention he deserves, except in a vote of confidence by Chandos, for which he's made three recordings (his Dvorak Concerto, with the BBC Philharmonic and Noseda, is just out).

What we heard last night was the performance of a mature and deep-thinking artist who understands Rachmaninov's mind as if from the inside and delivers his music in the finest Russian tradition with a huge, deep, beautiful tone and superb elan, which increased as the recital progressed. The great E flat minor number was an exceptional treat. What I loved most was that he did not shy away from Rachmaninov's big emotional issues. It's often seen as an asset to be 'cool' about such things and not accentuate the emotional content of such intensely romantic music. Rustem, thank heavens, doesn't seem to agree with that. He sounds as if he is confirming what I have come to feel too: that if you deny great feeling, you deny life, never mind music, its essential meaning. That doesn't mean that the playing was 'over the top', however - rather, it was profoundly felt and totally sincere.

Here's a nice review from The Classical Source.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

It's all happening here...

So today I get a press release that says Paul Kildea is to leave the Wigmore Hall to concentrate on his conducting career. He's been artistic director for just two years. Now 'the Trustees are to consider the best way forward' for London's finest and most beloved chamber music venue.

Will report back on anything further I hear about this. Meanwhile I am off to...yes, the Wigmore Hall itself, where Rustem Hayroudinoff is about to play a great deal of Rachmaninov.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Why Gergiev is OK

Sitting in a quiet study in our leafy London suburb, it's too easy to forget that people read this in New York and sometimes write in to a forum on the New York Times! (Why don't our newspaper websites have forums? Why are we so slow on the uptake on this side of the pond?)

Anyway, the latest is that someone wrote in and said 'there goes Jessica's credibility' because I'd suggested that Gergiev is 'head and shoulders above' etc etc. Someone else wanted to know whether they meant 'Jessica Simpson'. (I have no idea who Jessica Simpson is. Must have missed her somewhere between Homer, Marge & Bart. My favourite character is Lisa.)

OK. Just because I said VG is all that, it doesn't mean I like everything he does. I have a recording of him doing The Nutcracker which upsets me - it steamrolls through most of the best bits. But the concerts I have heard him do have been more thrilling than any other concert experiences I've had, at least for a conductor 'of his generation'. NB, Gergiev is in his early 50s. Most of the newsworthy conductors are either the eminences grises - Haitink & co - or the youngsters like Jurowski and one or two others. Of the middle ground, age-wise - well, Mariss Jansons is a bit older, Saraste and Belohlavek have their moments and are very reliable and although Rattle has some seriously wonderful moments and others that are less so, I've only experienced him lighting a collective fire once. Gergiev takes no prisoners. He has phenomenal energy, phenomenal charisma and an absolute belief in whatever his mission of the moment may be and orchestras give their all for him. And I seem to remember that it was listening to him conduct The Rite of Spring that sparked off my novel.

So no, I don't like everything he does. But where's his contemporary competition?

Monday, May 23, 2005

World domination at the Barbican?

Big news from the LSO: they have signed Valery Gergiev to be their new principal conductor to succeed Sir Colin Davis. Press conference today with both maestri present, during which Sir Colin declared that he's very happy to be 'kicked upstairs' to become president of the orchestra instead (and Clive Gillinson added that he is absolutely not retiring). Gergiev, who is a Very Busy Person Indeed, did admit, when questioned, that he would eventually be scaling down some of his other activities to make room for his commitment to the LSO. Among his regular outlets are the Maryinsky in St Petersburg, the Met in New York, a "special relationship" with the Vienna Philharmonic, the Rotterdam Philharmonic, the World Orchestra for Peace and no doubt a few more too. Are we talking world domination here?

Then again, there could be worse options for world domination. Given that Gergiev is simply head and shoulders above most other conductors of his generation (even if he does take his tempi a bit fast sometimes) it will be fantastic for both the LSO and London to have him permanently on board.

"2005", the opera

My post about "1984" seems to have generated quite a noise (if a blog can be said to be noisy), not least from Clive Davis (hi Clive, I sense a kindred spirit there!), 'Pliable' at The Overgrown Path and Tim Worstall, who kindly credits me with a touch of class. Among other things, I find I've been praised for having the courage to change my view about this opera.

This got me thinking:

1. I didn't change my view, because I didn't have one. I'd read the libretto and thought it excellent; I'd ploughed through all the background material provided by the ROH, which told me that the team involved were thoroughly professional; but I had had no access to even a note of the music. So I didn't make a judgement in my Indy article, because I had nothing to judge.

2. That's the problem with writing about world premieres before they happen. Nobody can guarantee what they're going to sound like.

3. What really 'narked' me about some of the writing in the British press was that some of my respected colleagues decided to trash the thing BEFORE they'd heard a note, simply because a) Maazel was paying for some of it himself, b) he'd never written an opera before, c) some unnamed source in the ROH had told The Guardian that it was 'crap' (unnamed sources are so useful, aren't they?! I've only ever used one once - years ago, in a piece for The Guardian... Long story for another occasion). The tone of these writers were such that anyone would have thought Prince Charles had tried his hand at writing an opera - not someone who has been highly respected in the musical world for nearly half a century and is currently musical director of the NY Philharmonic. I seem to remember that once upon a time someone accused of a crime used to be innocent until proven guilty. That's a principle I like to uphold. OK, so the outcome wasn't so great, but it did look like it was worth giving the thing a chance.

Anyway, I'm not really a critic. I am now - oh yes yes yes - a NOVELIST! At the kitchen table I am currently surrounded by piles of pages from Novel No.1, just back from the copy-editor. I've got two weeks to finalise the text before it goes to be typeset. Anything I don't change now will outlive me on a shelf somewhere. In between wondering whether a reference to cafe latte has to be italicised, whether the cat really says 'miaow', not 'meow' and whether the Russian character is still too much like - oh, never mind who - I've been pinching myself and wondering how this happened at all. Someone has EDITED my NOVEL??? Someone actually agreed to publish it? I am dreaming, aren't I?

Perhaps one day it'll be a good source for an opera called "2005". If so, I shall choose the composer myself.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Don't give up the day job, Maestro

After interviewing Maazel about "1984" for the Indy and then reading the clutch of appalling reviews that followed the premiere, I wanted to give the poor thing a chance and make up my own mind. So Tom and I went to see it last night.

The staging was brilliant. The singing and acting were stunning. The orchestra sounded marvellous. The libretto is well written and well constructed and you could hear all the words, rendering the surtitles (yes, for an opera in English) redundant. We even had the voice of Jeremy Irons doing the telescreen propaganda. Yes, the quality of the performance and the production were absolutely world class, Royal Opera House at its very finest. But the music....oh deariedeariedear.

When I read the libretto, when writing that mega-article, I'd visualised the whole thing in my head and my ears. Unfortunately, what I imagined turned out to be rather more exciting and moving than the sounds that assailed us yesterday. A few of my gripes are that sensitivity to words was non-existant (silly repetitions, amateurish stresses, lack of imagination), colouristic imagination was equally lacking (one thing I liked - the single coloratura singer over a few phrases of the Big Brother chorus - but that was it), dramatic moments that should have been moving or at least touching were not, because the music was so ineffective, the pace never seemed to vary and when it did it was unbelievably crass (build up to climax of scene two by getting faster and raising the pitch. Yawn.) Etceteraetceteraetcetera.... I must concede that my various colleagues who panned this thing were dead right: it should NOT have been put on at Covent Garden.

Tom nodded off after the first 15 minutes. The only time he began to look interested was when he thought the leading lady was going to get her kit off, but she didn't.

Didn't anyone tell Maazel how 'Oranges and Lemons, Say the Bells of St Clement's' goes? He could have got the correct tune from any ice-cream van. Or is it perhaps under copyright?

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Old music never dies, it just loses its appeal...

Hyperion has lost its appeal against Sawkins and what this means for the future of musical copyright as we know it is currently anybody's guess. What is clear is that it's lawyers, not musicians, who stand to benefit the most; and music-lovers who will lose out.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Speed date

Have just seen an item on Newsnight about a policeman who's been let off speeding while merely trying out his new car, despite driving at over 150 miles an hour on the motorway. Apparently this was because the judge decided that he was 'like a concert pianist' who has to practise to stay perfect.

Does this mean I could drive at c150 mph coming back from our Elgar concert in Malvern on 1 June without fear of reprisal? I shall officially be a concert pianist that evening, after all - and we'd be home in an hour.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Mystery on the coast

The 'piano man' of Sheerness has been making waves in the news here. One of the most bizarre things anyone has ever heard of.

One cynical soul of my acquaintance pointed out the event's uncanny similarity to a wonderful British film called 'Ladies in Lavender' in which a handsome young Polish violinist is shipwrecked on a beach and rescued by Maggie Smith and Judy Dench, who then a) nurse him back to health, b) help him establish his career, c) fall in love with him, despite being 50 years his senior... If you were a pianist, says my pal (not that I am...), and you wanted publicity above everything else on earth and you'd seen that film, what would you do? I pointed out that the Piano Man, picked up on 7 April, has apparently not spoken at all and I don't think I could go for 5 weeks without saying a word. To which said pal remarked, "well, YOU wouldn't..." - which could, of course, mean a multitude of things.

Apparently the response to the BBC appeal has been immense, so the mystery may yet be unravelled. All of us in the blogosphere will be watching for developments with eagle eyes.

Friday, May 13, 2005

What one learns...

Yesterday was what one could term 'instructive'.

Stephen Kovacevich had very kindly offered to let us do a 'play in' at his place to help us prepare for our recitals in June. It's one thing to play in your front room for the neighbours, quite another to play in an unfamiliar room on an unfamiliar piano in front of a group of frighteningly musical friends: one step further towards the Real Concert Setting. So along we went.

Oh, the things one learns...

Strange how after just two days the programme came out sounding entirely different. The Elgar Sonata went like a dream - it came together as never before and said everything we wanted it to say. The Delius Legende now goes faster than it used to; one friend who particularly loves it thinks we should slow it down again. There was much to be pleased with in the Faure A major sonata (and yesterday was Faure's 160th birthday!). But one notices other matters in this context that were never apparent before.

This is particularly true of energy and pacing - applying not only to the music but to oneself. Mistake number one: practising and rehearsing for three or four hours in the morning, then practising at Stephen's place for an hour and a half before the 'performance'. We were, obviously, knackered before we began... As for the flow of energy in the music, our programme involved two high-emotion sonatas with the Delius as a breather in between; and we thought that finishing with three short Debussy numbers and two Elgar salon pieces would work after the Faure. But the Faure is such a high-energy piece that after it the pace simply sagged and we felt we never got off the ground again. With the help of two clever and experienced friends at the end, we've decided to lose all the Debussy except possibly La plus que lente, to drop Elgar's Sospiri and to finish with the Faure. (Fine with me - as long as I don't have to start the entire programme with the ant-heap of a piano solo that begins that sonata, anything is OK.)

It was afterwards that the weird things started happening. Notably, Tom collapsed. Why? The hot room? The exhaustion? Something he'd eaten? First he started feeling odd and turned a greenish shade of white. Then he cut his finger on somethingorother and there was rather a lot of blood, which made me come over queer too (I'm idiotically squeamish about blood), then he went to the bathroom and fainted briefly, and I sat in the kitchen with my head down trying not to faint in sympathy; then someone bandaged up Tom's finger, after which he lay on the landing with his feet up saying he felt better and then he had to go and be sick and then somehow we got him out of the house, into the car and home. Stephen was marvellous about it...poor guy, I wonder if that will be the last time he offers to let friends perform at his home......

Whatever we learned yesterday, I'm glad that we learned it at a 'dress rehearsal' rather than the 'real' concerts. Hopefully in two weeks' time, we will have sorted out the programme and will be able to keep away from our instruments for the better part of the day. And I hope that finally the end will justify the means.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Turn again, kitty

I share a blogger design template with someone extremely important in this neck of the south west London woods: Whittington, the diary-keeping cat of our new Lib Dem MP, Susan Kramer. Solti (who is, of course, orange by nature) is dead impressed.

In fact, Solti is planning to write to Whittington to ask him to intercede with his eminent keeper to the following effect. Since cats are the best de-stressers in Britain, they make an invaluable contribution to their owners' quality of life and therefore to the country's economy. Spend between 15 and 30 minutes a day playing with and cuddling your kittycat and you will feel like a new individual. Your mood and therefore your work can only improve as a result. Therefore, argues Solti, all cat-keeping costs - including vet bills, reduced-calorie-formula cat food, scratching posts, sheepskin kitty beds and catnip mice - should be made available tax-free. And self-employed cat owners should be able to tax-deduct the lot. Please, Whittington, he meows, ask Susan to present this to Tony at the first possible opportunity?

The runthrough, by the way, ran. Another one tomorrow...

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

If I were a real pianist....

...I would be one of the ones who doesn't show up. I would cancel any concert for any excuse. I wouldn't want to do them.

So guess why I'm not a (real) pianist? That's why.

Tom and I have our first runthrough of our Entente Cordiale programme tonight. It's an enormous source of stress for me, but of absolutely no significance to anyone else because we're just playing to a bunch of terribly obliging neighbours in our front room! Nevertheless, it's had me practising all morning, then lying in bed with churning stomach all afternoon, eating far too much chocolate, breaking out in those patches of dry skin that I get on my face and hands when I'm stressed, and, worse, having to tell my editor at the Indy that actually no, I can't turn round the piece he wants me to do by the end of tomorrow. (He's nice. He's letting me do it next week instead. Thank heavens.)

Of course every musician undergoes stress over their concerts, but the proportion of reward to anguish has to be such that it's worth it. Even 40% stress and 60% reward would tip the balance in favour. What I undergo is 80% stress and 20% reward - and the latter only if things go well. If I make stupid mistakes, that proportion goes down. All I can say today is that it seemed a good idea at the time, when we planned it all last autumn, but now that the season is upon us, I would rather be doing ANYTHING but this. But until the end of 10 June, I am a prisoner to my piano.

"It is the three-legged monster that doth mock the meat it feeds on..." as Shakespeare might well have said.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Beethoven and the Ghost of Hampton Court

A very happy experience yesterday at the Kingston Readers Festival, which is currently one of the best things about life in south-west London. They'd asked me to do an open interview with the American pianist Robert Taub, who's currently in the middle of playing all the Beethoven sonatas at Hampton Court Palace and has written an extremely good book about them. He's also a fantastic guy and a great communicator. The whole evening went with quite a swing: we were in a superb studio in Kingston University, the audience asked lots of interesting questions, Bob gave expert demonstrations throughout and we managed to encompass matters from the evolution of pianos to the evolution of Beethoven's thinking to the time that Bob got locked inside Hampton Court after one recital and was mistaken for the place's resident ghost!

Thanks to this festival, there's a feast for book-lovers in Kingston this month. My agent is among a number of publishing professionals taking part in a discussion on May 9th called 'Writing: a suitable job for a woman?' [answer as I see it: it's not a suitable job for anybody, but we do it because we just have to do it...'] and novelist Maggie O'Farrell is among the literary luminaries, on May 25th. Full details at the website.

Meanwhile, I've discovered a blog for pianophiles: Pianophilia written by Bart Collins. Bart has a plethora of interesting stuff up there, including the complete list of contestants for the Van Cliburn Competition, links to the forthcoming Chopin Competition in Warsaw and a fab story about how the new Pope's piano couldn't get into the papal apartment on the Vatican top floor! Adding you to blogroll right away, Bart.

The sun is shining and Labour has been re-elected, but with a vastly reduced majority. Our local Lib Dem candidate, Susan Kramer, won comfortably in this constituency. Tom had the appropriate orange sticker on his violin case and I was extremely tempted to scrub out 'Susan' and write 'Gidon' instead (and alter the appropriate A to E, of course). But - aren't I good? - I didn't do it.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Votes count

Here in the UK it is Election Day. In this general election campaign, many of the words that matter to me - the arts, Europe, the environment and transport improvement - have barely been heard from any politicians' lips. Of course we're all upset about Iraq. BUT STILL, I URGE EVERY UK CITIZEN: DO NOT STAY AT HOME TODAY. Get out there and place your X on that page! Don't you remember what Britain was like under the Tories? You wanna let THEM get back in? You want the man who introduced the Poll Tax to be our prime minister? No, of course you don't! So for goodness' sake, go and vote. And if you don't feel any of the parties truly reflect your thinking, then simply vote for whoever, in your area, is most likely to defeat the Tory candidate outright! If it's Labour, bite the bullet and accept them as the lesser of those particular evils - after all, the Tories would have dispatched those troops to Iraq faster than you can say "UN resolution". Allowing them to win simply to protest at Blair's actions would be the ultimate in cutting off one's nose to spite one's face.

Remember, my sisters, that Mrs Pankhurst and her comrades used to chain themselves to railings, and worse, for the sake of winning women the right to vote. Now you must use that right, or else democracy is dead.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Big Brother is listening to you...or not

Here's the Guardian's take on 1984 at Covent Garden, which has been less than well reviewed today. The gist of this report is that the whole thing is basically a vanity project because Maazel has put his own money into it and that someone (unnamed) within the ROH has described the opera as 'crap'. The cost to the ROH has been about £500,000, the cost of a normal opera like Rigoletto, or half of a normal 'non vanity' premiere.

I can't help reflecting that the vast majority of new operas are actually crap. As they always have been. The immortal strains of La Boheme, Die Meistersinger and even Don Giovanni were always the tip of the iceberg. For every successful and enduring opera, there must be at least 20 that bite the dust the minute they are aired. As they say, you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince, and you have to listen to a lot of contemporary crap before you find something that really is worth the money that its company has devoted to it. Tom Ades's operas do so well that I've never yet been able to get into one, so I can't judge them. But in the meantime, I was less than thrilled by Nicholas Maw's 'Sophie's Choice', a Covent Garden commission which had its moments but which I would be quite happy never to hear again. As for Birtwistle - well, really, the amount of money that must have gone into HIS operas really doesn't bear thinking about. Critics love them, for some reason best known to themselves; but I have never yet met one member of the general public who regarded them as anything but 'crap'. Other works I remember sitting through include 'Golem' by John Casken (at the QEH, admittedly) and Robin Holloway's 'Clarissa', hampered by a fearful production at ENO donkey's years ago; both could usefully have been left in peace in someone's bottom drawer. All of these together must have cost the public purse a lot more than £0.5m and frankly Maazel's work has as good a chance as any of them of making an impact or, more likely, not. Does the Guardian really think that it's better to have Covent Garden fork out the full subsidised whack for officially approved, establishment-accepted crap? Crap is still crap, whoever foots the bill.

Meanwhile Andrew Lovett writes to me from Cambridge about his new opera with digital video, 'Abraham on Trial' , which DOES sound interesting. World premiere is at The Junction, Cambridge, on 20 May. Full details here. As usual, the really creative stuff does not take place within the establishment heartlands.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Slogsville

The days look like this at the moment:

morning: scribble scribble scribble.
afternoon: practise practise practise.
early evening: exercise.
dinnertime: try and eat something healthy.

In just a few weeks life is going to seem easier, once our concerts are out of the way. But preparing for them (1 & 10 June, plus some very scarey runthroughs next week) makes me wonder how on earth people do this all the time? The vast majority of my friends are professional musicians and I'm mystified as to how they can follow the sort of hectic schedules they have, deal with the stresses and strains of public performance (not to mention their own personal standards) and the associated travelling and admin, a certain amount of teaching to help pay the bills, and trying to have a life too? To me the psychological fright is the worst thing: knowing that on x day at y hour you have to stand up in z venue and play something as close to downright perfect as is humanly possible and there is no way round this but straight through the middle.

Meanwhile there are individuals in the world who have nothing better to do all day than log into blogs they're not interested in and waste everybody's time and energy, including mine, by posting daft comments. For this reason I am disabling the comments function for the time being. It's a pity, what more can I say. My apologies to the rest of you. Normal service will be resumed at some point.