Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A Brit at the Cliburn

I nearly went to the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition this year, but there were a few scheduling clashes. so I'm missing the fun, to say nothing of the Texas margaritas. There is, however, a splendid alternative: live streaming, plus watch-on-demand afterwards. And the finals are being relayed into cinemas on 10 June.

The sole British contestant, Martin James Bartlett (left) - the 20-year-old formerly a BBC Young Musician of the Year - is through to the quarter-finals and played yesterday. You can catch his performance and all the others thanks to brilliant Medici.tv at this link: http://cliburn2017.medici.tv/en/

For fellow pianophiles on Brexit Island wishing to follow Martin in particular, here's his performance yesterday: Scarlatti, Granados, Schumann/Liszt and Prokofiev 7th Sonata. http://cliburn2017.medici.tv/en/performance/-20

The quarter-finals continue today and tomorrow, with the semis scheduled for 1 June. Stay tuned.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Abstract? Is anything?

Zenaida Yanowsky in Symphonic Dances: angels, demons and revolution?
Photo: (c) Emma Kauldhar courtesy of Royal Opera House

I've been away for a bit, but before I went I hot-footed it to Covent Garden to see Liam Scarlett's new ballet, set to the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances. How many times have I sat in concerts, listening to this piece and quietly imagining a dream-ballet of my own to it, while the orchestra creates a choreography too, breathing together as if formed into a single coiled dragon? Finally someone got round to making it real.

Zenaida Yanowsky is a towering presence in more than one way. This creation is in some ways a farewell tribute to her, making the most of her unique qualities. The tallest, most commanding of the Royal Ballet's prima ballerinas - and sadly for us, about to retire - she can hold the stage with nothing more than a turn of the head or an implacable gaze. And, in this case, a billowing red skirt, designed by Jon Morrell. Whirling its scarlet wings, alone in what looks like a dimly lit warehouse with iron grill over the window, she conjures the ballet into life. It is all scarlet and black - how could this music be anything else? - and supposedly abstract.

What is abstract ballet, anyway? Balanchine is the epitome of it, as is Ashton's Symphonic Variations: music made visible, perhaps. The body is stripped not of its soul, but of its independence: physicality and sound merge into one expressive whole. There is no human tale to tell. The dancers become the choreographer's tool, nothing more. I remember interviewing one leading dancer who seemed almost horrified at the idea that he might have any input of his own into the work the choreographer created upon him; I also recall taking to Manon an American friend who had grown up on Balanchine and the NYCB and was aghast at the notion that a ballet could be about drama and not purely dancing.

Zenaida Yanowsky and James Hay.
Photo: (c) Bill Cooper
Perhaps it's in the conditioning - the conditioning of mind, that is, not muscle. Those of us who first met ballet through The Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet or Swan Lake early on became used to regarding a dancer on stage as someone human yet superhuman, a being with personality, but also with magical, transformative powers. There would be a background, too: Verona, a central European forest, or a lake of tears, suggested implicitly via a prince lost in the trees, or by a few hints in the scenery.

Therefore, when you see Yanowsky amid her red cloud, ferocity blazing out in the music, the image matches the sound to perfection. But what does it mean? Does it mean anything? Can it not mean something? Another kind of Zen would suggest "Don't think of a monkey"... So don't think of a story for this Zen. But how can we not?

Rachmaninoff, 1940. America. The emigré, the refugee, the exile. Remembering. Transforming. New attitudes, new worlds, chaotic memories. Old worlds, gone forever. In the first movement, energy explodes: figures run, groups form and shatter. There's athleticism, with an undertow of alarm. It's 2017, the anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution: hard not to remember that when faced with this music by one who fled. So is this revolution? Yanowsky settles from her demonic scarlet flight into a serene, almost immobile presence, to whom a young man (the excellently expressive James Hay) shrugs up and expounds idea upon idea as the saxophone melody unfurls. Is That Skirt a symbol of her status, her past, her separateness? Is she remembering, living or anticipating? Is she the spirit of revolution itself, inspiring them? Slowly she begins to engage with Hay; the dialogue becomes a duet. The meaning is in the eye of the beholder, but the images trigger free association. Grand skirt - aristocracy? Old Russia faced with violent transformation? One world meets another?

Waltz. What's happened to the skirt? Yanowsky is in something that looks like a tuxedo redux. She is surrounded by an all-male corps de ballets, and guess who's wearing derivatives of the skirt? If it's startling for a moment, we soon get used to it - the imagery is striking, groups massing and splitting and breathing together like that orchestra, the whirls of material enhanced by the visceral power of their wearers. The iron grill has been replaced by a giant screen on which images from those red swirls are sampled and projected. Is the skirt a symbol of power, transferred from princess to the people? Is Yanowsky, the sole woman, under threat here? Or is she, skirt-free, liberated, in command of them?


Yanowsky and Reece Clarke.
Photo: (c) Emma Kauldhar, courtesy of ROH

Rachmaninoff wrote the Symphonic Dances in the US in 1940: it was his last work. He corresponded with the choreographer Mikhail Fokine about turning it into a ballet (a thrilling prospect later scuppered by the choreographer's death in 1942). The Second World War was underway, though the US had not yet joined it and Russia would only be invaded the following year. Rachmaninoff, having lived for a while in Switzerland, had left Europe on the outbreak of war and was now in exile in Long Island. He drew on his deeply Russian nature, which had always infused every dimension of his music, but the energy of the US and the pent-up creativity that he had had to subordinate to his performing duties seem to have thrown a bolt of electricity into his orchestral writing. The last movement can be a cataclysm that leaves you hanging over the abyss.

But here, has our princess moved to America? Costumes are reduced to swimsuit size; the men and the women share and share alike; there's a thrill of athleticism and slightly Olympian poses here and there - shades of the Olympic games, Leni Riefensthal, Soviet parades? And Yanowsky has found a third partner who now suits her seemingly to perfection (he is the splendid Reece Clarke). Yet not all is resolved in this new world, for at the end, a peculiar coup de théatre involves a final escape, at least one hopes it does.

We all make our own stories, quietly, observing a creation like this. More than fifteen hundred of them a night in a theatre the size of the ROH. It's part of the joy of it that we don't know exactly what is going on, that perhaps nothing is, that perhaps all these processes are within ourselves, sparked by the images, the synergy of music, movement and aesthetics. So try the "don't think of a monkey" trick and see if you can treat this ballet as what it supposedly is: abstract.

The new Scarlett was part of a singularly satisfying quadruple bill at the Royal Ballet. The evening opened with William Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. Five dancers and one very brave orchestra tackle the finale of Schubert's Symphony No.9 in movement that lives up to its impressive title. Basically, they don't stop. The movement is hyperactive, but each switch as clear as spring water; the glorious Marianela Nuñez in particular deserves every gold medal in town for making it look spacious and unhurried despite all. (It's only a pity that they are clad in eye-aching lime green and purple, which reminded me of a faulty colour TV my parents had in the 1970s). The tempo is fast. Very fast. The orchestra, plunging straight in, should probably get a medal too, along with their splendid conductor, Koen Kessels.

Francesca Hayward in Tarantella.
Photo: (c) Emma Kauldhar, courtesy of ROH
We were then treated to the enchanting spectacle of the company's youngest, newest and perhaps most exciting partnership: Francesca Hayward and Marcelino Sambé, dancing Tarantella, a joyous, irrepressible slice of south Italian pastiche by Balanchine, set to some virtuoso Gottschalk. I suspect the entire house lost its heart to these two wonderful young people, who spent most of their spotlight moment simply airborne in body and soul.

The one explicitly narrative ballet in the programme was Christopher Wheeldon's Strapless, an intriguing idea indeed. It tells the story of how one of John Singer Sargent's society models, Amélie, was shamed and ruined by a portrait which depicted her clad in an exquisite black evening dress with one glittery strap slipping loose down one shoulder. The hypocrisy of a society that could destroy a woman for such a gesture, while simultaneously enjoying the spectacle of the can-can or indulging in extra-marital affairs both straight and gay, is much to the fore and has resonances aplenty for our own Age of Twits. Natalia Osipova brought the full force of her dramatic powers to bear on the unfortunate society beauty, but what a pity there was not more for Edward Watson to do as Sargent: presented with a dancer of such phenomenal abilities, you'd like him to be asked to use more of them. The storytelling is fine and convincingly worked, but the whole falls a little short of one's hopes. Mark-Anthony Turnage's score is full of excellent things: rich orchestration resonant with percussion and fine perspective. Yet the clash of modern music and the period piece on stage can raise some questions: supposing Wheeldon had used music of the time and place instead, say a spot of Chausson, Fauré and/or Debussy? This is a tale for today, he seems to say - but the score bops us on the head with that idea one time too many.

And that's where the abstract wins. If there's a story, it will speak to each of us in its own way. We'll find it for ourselves.

Last performance tomorrow: http://www.roh.org.uk/mixed-programmes/the-vertiginous-thrill-of-exactitude-tarantella-strapless-symphonic-dances


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A call from King Marke of Curtis

The Curtis Institute Orchestra comes to London on Friday

Fans of youth orchestras have a chance on Friday to hear one with quite a difference. It's the orchestra of the Curtis Institute from Philadelphia and, most unusually, they're on tour. Curtis is the Philadelphia music school celebrated for having trained what's often called the "crème de la crème" of young musicians. They're coming to London, playing at Cadogan Hall. The programme includes Strauss's Ein Heldenleben and Peter Serkin is the soloist in Brahms's Piano Concerto No.1 - this phenomenal American musician is another all-too-rare visitor to these shores. Osmo Vänskä conducts. Book here.

I was just wondering what to do about all this (I can't go as I'll be away seeing a person about a recording) when in popped a message from Matthew Rose, King Marke and Baron Ochs extraordinaire, himself a Curtis alumnus. Here's his call to attention:

Matthew Rose
On Friday May 26th, the Symphony Orchestra of the Curtis Institute takes to the stage at Cadogan Hall, London. It's an event I highly recommend you to attend. As in, this is one of the greatest concerts you could hear all year. 

"But what is this Curtis Institute?" I hear you cry. Well, it's probably the greatest music college on the planet. The place that probably trains more of the solo pianists, violinists, orchestral concert masters, principal clarinettists, Met Opera singers, composers, and conductors than any other institution in the world. From my time studying there alone, Lang Lang, Yuja Wang, and Jonathan Biss are at the forefront of pianists; the concert masters of Vienna Philharmonic, Atlanta Symphony, Met Opera Orchestra, Minneapolis Symphony, Indianapolis Symphony and soloists with every reputed orchestra. Juan Diego Florez is the most famous of the swaths of singers who have trained there; Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, Lukas Foss, Jennifer Higdon some of the most adorned composers etc.
It is an amazing place.

Founded by Mary Louise Curtis Bok in 1924, on the advise of Leopold Stokowski, Curtis was formed to train the exceptional, exceptionally. A music school of 170 students, only enough instrumentalists for a full seating of a Symphony Orchestra, 25 singers, undergraduate and graduate, whom train and perform 5 fully staged operas a year and a handful of pianists, composers, organists and conductors. A place where tuition is aimed at people reaching their own (world leading) potential in technical ability through the best teaching and then having the chance to utilise that in limitless performance opportunities, be it individually, orchestrally with the world's best conductors or in chamber music and opera. 
"So why have I never heard of this Curtis then?" Well, Curtis has existed only to train the exceptional exceptionally and hasn't had, until recently, an agenda to do anything else but that. A recent gift of $55m from out-going chairman of the board Nina Von Maltzahn to specifically spread the word of Curtis and allow tours like this present one to happen has changed that. 
Curtis's Lenfest Hall. Photo: Tom Crane
Curtis was initially housed in adjoining mansions on Rittenhouse Square, the sparkling jewel of Philadelphia's urban spaces. In 2011 a new Lenfest Hall more than doubled the footprint of the school, housing a world class orchestral rehearsal space, teaching rooms and all the amenities needed for youngsters embarking on the most demanding of professions. 
Again, it is a remarkable place.
I had the extreme good fortune of attending Curtis from 1998 until 2003. I arrived as a complete novice with barely the ability to sing an octave and left ready enough to join the Young Artists Programme at The Royal Opera, feeling completely ready, through my amazing education, to at least stand in the shadows of the world's great singers on that most amazing stage. My education was as thorough and comprehensive as I could ever imagine; singing lessons every week in New York with the best teacher I could choose (no faculty for voice, just limitless options), language and musical coaching with top professionals on a daily basis, singing roles in 21 operas, weekly visits to the Met, Carnegie Hall, and best of all, a free ticket to hear the fabulous Philadelphia Orchestra every Saturday evening. 

I went from someone who had barley been to a symphony orchestra concert, to someone ready to sing with those orchestras in five years. I feel so privileged to have had all this, and do you know what, it was all for free. Mrs Curtis Bok's initial endowment has grown and been supplemented by time, enthusiasm and massively generous and deserving support and philanthropy. 
If you are free on Friday, try and get to Cadogan Hall. On stage will be 100 of the finest musicians you will ever hear, and the average age will probably be 20. 20 year olds playing with ability and commitment rarely heard. 
Curtis really is amazing. Go find out for yourself.

Matthew Rose

Friday, May 19, 2017

Meet Glyndebourne's new Violetta



Kristina Mkhitaryan
Photo: Emil Mateev
This summer at Glyndebourne is dominated by Tom Cairns' production of Verdi's La Traviata, which gets not one run but two, the second in August, the first starting this Sunday. The first of their Violettas is the Russian soprano Kristina Mkhitaryan. I was fortunate enough to attend the dress rehearsal yesterday, but One Does Not Write About Things Until They Open, so for the moment let's just say that you might like to hear her.

She is from Novorossyisk and is 30 this year. Above, she sings Gilda's aria 'Caro nome' from Rigoletto, fabulously airborne at the Bolshoi. Here's a little more about her.

A graduate of the Galina Vishnevskaya Theatre Studio, Moscow, Kristina went on to join the Young Artist Programme at the Bolshoi Theatre where she remains a studio artist. She has most recently won first prize at the Queen Sonja International Competition in Oslo (2013), 3rd prize at the Neue Stimmen Competition (2013) and the Viotti Competition in Vercelli (2014).

And more here from the Bolshoi.

Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Top artists' manager speaks out against Brexit

It seems that the person who could have done best at running the STAY IN THE EU campaign is actually running the leading artists' management company Harrison Parrott. I've seen few words so eloquent and hard-hitting on the topic as those posted in this essay by the executive chairman Jasper Parrott himself, currently released on the company's website. We should all rally together with him.

UK Arts and Culture are a European legacy worth fighting for, he declares.
...We should remember that the wealth and power of the Great Britain that Brexiteers would so delusionally like to bring back was based substantially on wealth accumulated through slavery and the slave trade, exploitative colonialism, the cruel oppression of the poor and of children in the satanic mills of the Industrial Revolution, countless broken promises and a history of appalling leadership at many critical points of history including the lead into the two world wars and many other conflicts before and since in which we have been involved. 
To me however, our UK has been at its greatest as a major partner in the European project which has brought previously unimagined levels of freedom and prosperity to hundreds of millions of people since the Second World War, as the successful creator of a citizenship and homeland of rich cultural diversity and mutual tolerance, a haven of peace and opportunity, and a society where the arts, sciences, education and every aspect of culture can thrive as it has so successfully done, over the last 40 years. 
And how much greater our UK could have been if our leaders had wholeheartedly engaged with the challenges of leadership and reform from within the EU rather than using our power to carp, diminish, undermine and opt out...
Read the whole thing here.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

If you build it, they will come

It's not dead. The City of London Corporation has stumped up money to continue the creation of a business plan for the mooted Centre for Music. They are now looking for the right architects, engineers and acousticians to design the great concert hall that London doesn't have. This report in The Guardian explains the latest developments, which include a revising down of the estimated cost to around £200-250m.

Frankly, they could do worse than call in the team that built the auditorium of the NOSPR in Katowice, which opened in 2014. Photo gallery here. Friends in the LSO came back absolutely raving about it (as did Bachtrack's reporter, here). Katowice is a smallish mining town in southern Poland, part of a larger metropolitan area of Silesia that extends to a population of about 5.3m, and it has a hall, home to the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, that many performers consider acoustically superior to any orchestral venue in the UK's capital.

The firm to call is the Japanese acoustical engineering company Nagata Acoustics.

NOSPR, Katowice
Photo: Daniel Rumiancew

Nagata Acoustics has also created the auditoriums in the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, the Paris Philharmonie, the Helsinki Music Centre, Shanghai Symphony Hall, the New World Center Concert Hall Miami, the Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall in St Petersburg, the Danish Radio Concert Hall Copenhagen, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and halls all over Japan... Full list and more info here. 

I've had mixed feelings about the super-hall idea. First I loved it: why should London not have a great concert hall to match the finest in the world? Our musical life is still among the planet's best and we deserve a venue that fits the bill. Then I got worried. How will it be run? In particular, how will it be funded? What knock-on effect will it have on the capital's musical life in an environment already threadbare on the funding front (and likely to get worse if the companies whose incumbents provide sponsorship have to move abroad post Brexit)? Would it risk leaching the funding, public and private alike, away from its competition? And can the organisation of it be trusted not to get it totally wrong yet again?

And yet, and yet...get it right and...and the possibilities are endless. The magnificent Hamburg Elbphilharmonie is sold out right through this season, despite hefty ticket prices. It's now announced its 17-18 season of delectable musical delights and seems likely to sell out again. While one hopes that the London hall won't end up costing quite the same eye-watering sums, and that it can be designed so that you can get out at the end to catch your train in under 15 minutes seat-to-door, there's still a lesson here: if you build it, they will come. If the place is good enough, if the experience of being inside it to listen to great music is attractive enough, it will fill up with people and they will love it. And they will love what they hear if it sounds lovable. If we're proud of our music, if we celebrate it and promote it and encourage children to come in and experience it, perhaps the regeneration it brings the spirit can spread.

Detractors say that the sums of money involved would be better spent on music education - and they would indeed, but the fact remains that they won't be, not by the government currently in charge, and the hall's money would come from different budgets, and probably different organisations, in any case. And perhaps it would benefit music education directly if a place like this were to set a high-profile example and lead from the front.

We've had decades of multi-purpose, hall-plus-conference-centre design - but one size does not fit all. Flexible acoustics seem something of a technological miracle and of course it's good to be able to adjust the sound according to different music's different needs. Yet now we would all love a hall that is made for music and its audience, and that has the additional facilities to accommodate rehearsal, community projects, education work and a decent cafe or several. A hall that is designed to celebrate the great art it holds, a hall that is a joy to spend time in inside and out, a hall that welcomes everybody, a hall that draws the crowds and the artists and that doesn't send you home with a headache - that would be worth the wait. At least, it could be, if it's done well enough. (Oh, and it would be nice if there were enough ladies' loos. The Elbphilharmonie in that respect is disgraceful!)

So please, City, if you're going ahead with this, get it right. And if you haven't already done so, please put in a call to Nagata.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Fauré on eternal love

Painting of Fauré by John Singer Sargent (photo from wikipedia.com)

It's Gabriel Fauré's birthday today: 172. This means, happily, that in three years' time he will be 175, which is a good excuse for a few celebrations. Start planning now, chaps.



For today's anniversary, here are three of his songs, or mélodies. The first, 'Notre Amour', a particular favourite of mine as it is about eternal love, yet as many light years away from Tristan und Isolde as it's possible to be. It is followed by 'Le Secret', its sibling in Fauré's Op.23, and 'En Sourdine', a Verlaine setting from the Cinq mélodies de Venise. The singer is Elly Ameling with pianist Dalton Baldwin, recorded back in 1974. (The Seventies had certain things going for them, incidentally.)

Incidentally, the second volume in a brand-new, splendid, intimate, varied and warm-hearted recording of all the Fauré songs has just been released on Signum Records, spearheaded by pianist Malcolm Martineau. More about that here.
http://signumrecords.com/product/the-complete-songs-of-faure-vol-1/SIGCD427/
http://signumrecords.com/product/the-complete-songs-of-faure-vol-2/SIGCD472/




Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Right Royal Philharmonic Awards Celebration

The stupendous Finnish soprano Karita Mattila with her prize
Tuesday night: the lights are low and the music's high on the agenda. The Royal Philharmonic Society Music Awards are the annual UK jamboree that celebrates the best and brightest of music-making here on Brexit Island. Last night's was filled with warm welcomes, joyous encounters and plenty of good food and wine at The Brewery, round the corner from the Barbican. Andrew MacGregor and Sarah Walker of BBC Radio 3 served as hosts, there were enthusiastic words from RPS chairman John Gilhooly ("Live music is...priceless; live music is...sparkling...") and winners received their silver lyres from no less distinguished hands than Stephen Hough's.

In the bad old days when there was plenty of (or at least a bit more) money in the industry, we used to sit at this celebration through long speeches that would say how dreadful everything was and what a scandal it was that there wasn't more music on TV, and so forth. Now that the whole business is in mortal peril with the prospect of the economic and practical disruption likely to result from Brexit, paradoxically an atmosphere of celebration prevailed, with Stephen Hough declaring in his speech that we should embrace challenging music, stop apologising, not expect classical music to be for absolutely everybody, stop patronising the young ("we offer them Primrose Hill when they're ready to climb Ben Nevis") and appreciate the upside of the museums model which is, as I've often remarked too, not something to be disparaged on autopilot, but actually encourages great care, good display and creative communication with the audience. I hope he'll publish this speech somewhere.

A video message was also beamed in from the great Thomas Quasthoff, remarking that we have enjoyed 70 years of peace in Europe thanks in large part to the existence of the EU and that he would like there to be a similarly bright future for his 18-year-old stepdaughter's generation. Many of us cheered - not that there's much we can do about it, faced with a government apparently determined to drive our economy and our society alike over the Brexit cliff no matter how much damage it will do, and an opposition that seemingly won't oppose.

And the awards? It was quite a crop. Honorary membership of the RPS was presented to filmmaker Barrie Gavin, who has documented splendid quantities of 20th-century composers from Korngold to Boulez. The ceremony cited "the care and attention to detail which he invests in each and every subject, and his ability to demonstrate insightful authority and profound understanding".

The shortlisted conductors: Richard Farnes, Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla and Donald Runnicles.
Photo montage from classical-music.com
Along the way there were treats aplenty: the news that Classic FM is commissioning new pieces from seven young composers; an award for the Lammermuir Music Festival - which is a relatively new organisation, having only launched in 2010; and the rare treat of seeing the only-two-ever Takács Quartet leaders together, the violinist-turned-conductor Gabor Takács-Nagy collecting the well-deserved prize for the Manchester Camerata, which he's leading to brilliant things, and Edward Dusinberre modestly accepting the Creative Communication prize for his wonderful book about playing the Beethoven Quartets, Beethoven for a Later Age (published by Faber & Faber). The Manchester Camerata's award was essentially for its Hacienda Classical strand, with which apparently it's going to open Glastonbury this year. But I don't think it hurt that they also played Beethoven with Martha Argerich.

The Learning and Participation award was won by the UK's first disabled-led youth orchestra, the South-West Open Youth Orchestra, their achievements attested to by a moving video. The Young Artist award went to pianist and Lieder specialist Joseph Middleton, the two composition awards went respectively to Rebecca Saunders for Skin and Philip Venables for 4.48 Psychosis, and the Audience Engagement prize to the East Neuk Festival - it was indeed a good night for Scottish festivals. Fretwork won Chamber Music and Song, violinist James Ehnes was awarded the Instrumentalist prize and Karita Mattila swept to victory in the Singer award.

It was probably Richard Farnes's night first and foremost, though. The British maestro scooped the Conductor award for his Ring cycle with Opera North, and the company and that production also won the Opera award outright. You can see the whole thing on the BBC iPlayer, and please do take a look/listen, because it is simply a knockout. Priceless. Sparkling. And more.

I managed to squeeze into a dress I haven't worn for two years, hug four former interviewees, catch up with the whole Garsington team (they were shortlisted for Idomeneo), apologise for a non-attendance at something to entirely the wrong PR person, and win the best dessert of the evening as my annoying dietary condition meant that instead of whatever everyone else ate, I was given some utterly glorious chocolate goo. A fine time was had by one and all.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Building the future in Birmingham

Lloyd Webber with a young musician from In Harmony, Liverpool
It’s all go at Birmingham Conservatoire. There's a new £57m building nearly ready for next academic year, state-of-the-art technologies to open up music education to the world – and a launch in the form of a Royal Gala concert on 11 March 2018, which the conservatoire has announced will be conducted by the CBSO’s own music director, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. The college's new home includes a 500-seat concert hall and a 150-seat recital room, an experimental projects room, a jazz club, an organ studio and 100 practice rooms, as well as some remarkable digital developments. 

I caught up with the conservatoire’s head, Julian Lloyd Webber, who assumed the post in 2015 after having to bring his cello career to a close, to ask him about the challenges facing an institution on the brink of what should be a historic breakthrough, yet at a time of enormous national uncertainty. But the main challenge is not Brexit, says Lloyd Webber: instead, it is a national education system that fails the creative side of life...


JD: Julian, how’s the progress on the new building?

 JLW: It’s manic at the moment. From the outside it almost looks complete now. There’s still a lot of work to do inside, but we’re promised it’s all on schedule. We’re a little bit nervous because we know we’re going to have a great, great building and we have to go in there and make sure everything is working properly. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be here.


JD: The, er, Walk of the Valkyries preview on Youtube is most impressive. The new facilities look state-of-the-art.

JLW: It really is. The whole place is built around a “digital core”. In practice what it means is that any room in the conservatoire can be linked with any other room. So if you’re giving a class it can be relayed to someone in a practice room five floors up. Everything is interconnected.

A lot of it is about being able to do live classes outside, to relay and receive streaming live. Already we have a Soweto project Arco, run by our head of strings, Louise Lansdowne, who comes from South Africa and has created this programme, which is just growing and growing. We had Sheku Kanneh-Mason come in to do a recital which was shown live to our students in Soweto, so already we’re starting – but in the new building you’ll be able to do that anywhere and at any time.

JD: It’s great that Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is going to conduct the conservatoire orchestra's royal gala. Does this represent a strengthening link between the institution and the CBSO?

JLW: The conservatoire opens to students on 25 September and we’ll be doing quite regular concerts from soon after that, with quite a lot of broadcasts. We open officially with our royal patron, Prince Edward, at a gala concert in the main hall with our orchestra and Mirga has agreed to conduct it. It’s good for the city and I think it’ll be wonderful for the students. And it shows her interest in music education – she’s pretty keen on working with the conservatoire. 

We already have a very strong link with the CBSO – possibly a closer link than any other conservatoire with any symphony orchestra. A lot of their principal players teach in the conservatoire; we have an arrangement where sometimes our students can play along with the CBSO in rehearsal; and also we have showcases where our students play at Symphony Hall just before their concerts, twice a year with the orchestra and twice a year with our pianists. Many of our students are in the CBSO Youth Orchestra. I think the links are closer than anywhere else. It’s a great opportunity for the students to be playing alongside people of that level.

An envisioning of the new-look Adrian Boult Hall

 JD: What other ‘USPs’ do you want to develop further?

JLW: When I first came in I was expecting to have to make changes, but I’ve been really impressed with the heads of department. The piano standard is extremely high – for instance, one student has just been accepted for the Van Cliburn Competition, which is difficult to get into. Some of them are so good, really good, but what this brings me to, which I think is a USP for the conservatoire, is this: they are friendly, they collaborate and they try to help each other. I think that’s an atmosphere we have which is very special. Colleges can be very competitive. We’re competitive, but some institutions encourage that competitiveness and sometimes almost encourage students to compete against each other. We don’t. We try to encourage them to help each other, which is quite a different ethos.

We have had a pretty hard time at the end of the old building’s life – it felt unloved and uncared for in the middle of a building site. It hasn’t been easy. We lost our main concert hall, so this season we’ve been going out into the city to play, which in many ways has been a good thing and a real learning curve for students. Because we haven’t had a hall to give orchestral concerts in, we’ve been going to lots of different venues around Birmingham, including the Town Hall and Symphony Hall. I think there really is a spirit here of pulling together and getting down to the job of making music as best we all can, and I want to carry that spirit into the new place. It’s a completely different kind of building – bigger, more open, state of the art – but I want to keep that community spirit.

JD: One hears that you’re an extremely hands-on principal, always there and interested in everything…

JLW: For me it’s a natural extension to what I’ve always done. I didn’t particularly want to go into conducting when I had to stop playing the cello. I’ve always been involved in music education with Sistema, In Harmony, etc. My father taught at the Royal College of Music for many years and became director of the London College of Music, so that side of it feels very much in the blood. 

I can’t get to as many concerts as I’d like because there’s so much going on here! We have a great jazz department – we offer degree courses in jazz, which is quite unusual – and the standard is very, very high, with people coming from all over the world for them. We had a whole string of concerts at the end of last term and a concert at BirminghamTown Hall where they launched the conservatoire's Ellington Orchestra. I had so much on that I nearly didn’t go, but I was extremely glad that I did because they were so superb. It was really one of the best things I’ve heard.  

I try to be hands-on and I try to care for the students, because the music profession is tough, it costs a lot of money now for students to go to conservatoire and I feel a hundred per cent on their side. I want to help them as much as I can.


Julian Lloyd Webber in Birmingham

JD: So all these wonderful possibilities are opening up, there’s this fantastic new building…and then along comes Brexit. What do you think the main challenges are going to be, specifically for the conservatoire but also for music education in this country generally?

JLW: You said Brexit?

JD: Yep…

JLW: There was a sudden bleep on the line.

JD: Maybe someone’s censoring us!

JLW: Well, Brexit…It’s kind of impossible to know what exactly is going to happen. I’ve tried not to be pessimistic and decide the whole world has ended. The Erasmus exchange programmes we’ve had have been brilliant and I would hope and pray that they continue. But we have a huge number of students from China and we’re developing the relationships with Japan and Korea – we have a lot of far-eastern students. To be honest, I’m more concerned about the state of the UK’s music education system than about Brexit. 

That’s because we can only reflect, in conservatoires all over the country, the students that are coming through. Of all those countries in the Far East, I can’t name one in which music education isn’t absolutely the norm. Children learning music is a normal thing; in families that’s what children do. That’s increasingly reflected in the standard of what they’re producing. But here, with the EBacc and taking arts subjects out of the curriculum, we will pay the price for that. I think we already are.

That concerns me more than anything else at all, because it’s so hard to bring these things back. There’s a knock-on effect through the whole profession, with peripatetic teachers deciding not to do that for a job because there’s no work. That is the thing that really, really concerns me. We’ve been around a while, this country; we can deal with Brexit and I cannot believe that we will not be working with students and people in Europe, so I haven’t been as pessimistic as everyone else. That doesn’t mean I think it’s a great idea, and the whole situation with visas could be a nightmare. But I think we will survive it and I think ways will continue for us to do a lot of business in Europe.

JD: How much can the Conservatoire do to encourage music education at grassroots level?

JLW: We’re trying to do that. Richard Shrewsbury came in at the same time as me, July 2015, as learning and participation manager, which we didn’t have before. He’s full of ideas and now we’re working with over 3,000 school students. These things cost money, of course, and we don’t have as much as we would like, but he’s doing an absolutely brilliant job. 

Now we’re trying to work with the music hubs, we’re going into schools and we’ve just had a competition for Shakespeare Week among schools all over the region, composing a piece based on Shakespeare works. We need to do this, we need to be filling the gap the government has created – and I think that applies to all conservatoires. I think we have a duty to do it. By definition it’s only a drop in the water, though it still is a drop. But I think the core responsibility for music education has to lie in the national curriculum. Why should the whole state school sector be deprived of music?

JD: Last but by no means least, what’s your long-term plan for the Birmingham Conservatoire?

JLW: We’re going to have the best building and the best facilities and we already have a stream of great visiting artists, so it’s not a question of making huge changes; it’s adding to what’s already there. We’re making judicious appointments – for instance, we’ve brought in James Galway as international chair of flute, we’ve got Catrin Finch as international chair of harp, we’ve got people coming in now who are the top and I want to continue that. I said the first time I came in to all the visiting teachers that the standard is really good already, so nobody needs to be worried – but I want to make sure it goes on and that we bring in the best that we can and therefore attract the best students that we can. We want to make it the best.




Saturday, May 06, 2017

Beethovening tonight at the Royal Festival Hall

Quick note: if you're around the Southbank Centre for the Belief & Beyond Belief Festival today,  please pop along to the pre-concert talk. Tonight's performance includes Beethoven's Ninth, with the LPO conducted by Kazushi Ono [replacing an indisposed Christoph Eschenbach], and I've been drafted in to moderate a pre-concert discussion with professors Matthew Bell of Kings College London, an expert on German literature, and Benjamin Walton of Cambridge University's music department. We'll be exploring the history and context of the symphony and Schiller's Ode to Joy. Ballroom floor, Royal Festival Hall, 6.15pm. Please come along and say hello.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Syrian refugee records Ode to Joy for the Red Cross



A terrible journey; a moving tale; a fortunate end. Many have not been so lucky. Last week a young Kurdish musician was drowned while trying to reach his brother in Belgium, dying with his violin in his arms.

Here is Rami's story. His album is released today.

After travelling thousands of miles from Syria with his violin on his back, 21-year-old refugee Rami spreads a message of hope with his life-affirming debut album ‘My Journey’, released on Friday 5th May on Decca Records. The lead single ‘Ode to Joy – Anthem for Europe’ is being released digitally in support of the British Red Cross as part of Red Cross Week (7-13 May) to help raise awareness of people in crisis, wherever they are.

In 2015, Rami was studying at a music school in Homs, Syria, but as war developed, he had no choice but to flee the country in search of safety. He travelled from Syria, through Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria and Germany, on foot and by boat, often running and swimming for his life. However, through this exhausting journey, Rami managed to keep his violin safe by wrapping it in cling film and carrying it on his back.

After travelling from Syria to Lebanon and Turkey, it took four attempts to get a boat from Istanbul, and after the engine failed, Rami and other passengers rowed through the night until they were picked by the Greek coast guard and taken to Kos. Rami says, “I arrived and I was so tired. I slept together with the violin because I was scared of someone stealing it.”

From Athens, Rami travelled to Macedonia. At a camp on the border, he started to play a beautiful Arabic-influenced version of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ for his fellow refugees, and was heard by journalists. He then travelled to Serbia, where he spoke to journalists about the bad living conditions. Rami was punished for his actions, separated from his friends and deprived of food and drink – until a security guard noticed the violin and Rami started to play for him. Rami explains, “This made him very happy. He started to film me and then spoke to his wife. He got a lot of enjoyment from this.” The security guard reunited Rami with his friends and they continued on the next stage of their journey from Belgrade to Budapest by train.

After Rami was thrown off the train by police, he walked through the forest from Budapest with a friend. However, police caught up with them, and running in different directions, Rami became separated from his friend – and his violin. Rami was taken to a camp, which he described as “so bad and so sad” with everyone living in tents in hot and dusty conditions. He left the camp and travelled through the night to Austria, and onward to Munich and Sasbachwalden in Germany. He was given refuge there and – after telling his story to a local woman – he was handed a violin.

Rami was then transferred to a sports hall in Lahr, filled with bunk beds and more than 200 families, and he practised in the room with washing machines. He found a local church to pray and practise in – and a photo of him playing violin there appeared in a local newspaper. After seeing this, a German couple offered him a room in their house and gave him the chance to practise his violin in quiet and taught him German. This marked the start of a new chapter for Rami, which led to him making his very first album.

Alex Fraser, Director of Refugee Support at the British Red Cross said, “A huge thank you to Rami and Decca for this collaboration which will help raise funds for the British Red Cross. Rami’s story is incredibly moving and shows the dangerous journey refugees undertake to find a place of safety. 

The Red Cross works in countries spanning migratory trails across the globe. The funds raised from this single will go towards supporting our humanitarian work, supporting refugees arriving in the UK as they start to rebuild their lives and be reunited with their families.”

Thursday, May 04, 2017

So what is a "People's Opera" anyway?

Sam Furness (tenor), who sings our hero, Jack
Exciting times here as summer approaches and the Garsington Opera team gears up for the world premiere on 28 July of Silver Birch, the new opera by Roxanna Panufnik with a libretto by me plus some Siegfried Sassoon poetry.

 There's a supposition doing the rounds, though, that Silver Birch is a "community opera", but in fact we've called it something else: a "people's opera". And for a good reason.

A "community opera" is generally about the experience of those taking part in it, who in many cases are not auditioned. This "people's opera" is about the audience too: whether or not they are seasoned opera-goers or first-timers at a performance, the show should be equally enjoyable for all.

We do have a wonderfully large community involvement, but everyone has been auditioned and there is a strong professional core.

The Learning and Participation department has led the project, with Karen Gillingham, head of the department, as director; 180 people are taking part in the performance, including children from local primary schools, members of the armed forces, the Garsington adult community choir - and also a truly fabulous solo cast of some of the best young singers in the country.

Victoria Simmonds (mezzo-soprano) is our strong-hearted Anna
It will be performed on Garsington's main stage, with the company's music director, Douglas Boyd, conducting it himself.

So it is, really, for everyone and about everyone. It's all about all of us working together. That's one reason we love it so much, and we hope you will too!








Jack 
Sam Furness
Anna
Victoria Simmonds
Simon
Darren Jeffery
Siegfried Sassoon
Bradley Travis
Mrs Morrell
Sarah Redgwick
Davey
James Way
Conductor
Douglas Boyd
Director
Karen Gillingham
Designer
Rhiannon Newman Brown
Composer
Roxanna Panufnik
Librettist
Jessica Duchen
Movement Director
Natasha Khamjani