Monday, September 25, 2017

What makes a good duo?

Violinist Tasmin Little and pianist Piers Lane have been working together not just for years, but for decades. Doesn't time fly when you're having fun? Ahead of their delectable Wigmore Hall concert on Saturday 30 September, I asked Tasmin what the secret of a good duo might be... and a few other things...

Tasmin Little
Photo: bbc.co.uk
JD: Hi Tasmin - we're looking forward to your concert next weekend and that is quite a line-up of pieces: Bridge, Szymanowski, Bliss and Franck! How do you go about planning your programmes?

TL: When I plan a programme, I try to think about how an audience will feel when they sit down and what the first thing they would like to listen to might be! I always think it’s important to find a good mixture of works that are more immediately accessible and works which require more concentration and even emotional commitment for the audience. I think that audiences go to concerts to be moved, entertained and sometimes challenged - so, depending on where I’m playing and the kind of audience that the venue attracts, I’ll bear that in mind. I think it’s important to start with the opening piece and also think how to finish the evening. If there’s a very substantial work, I often put it just before the interval to allow the audience a breather afterwards (and me…).



JD: Why do you think British repertoire such as Bridge and Bliss is still relatively neglected? What appeals to you about their music?

TL: I think it’s simply that these works aren’t generally known to the wider public and so there’s less call for them - the Bridge, for instance, is an early work that has youthful vigour but is not perhaps representative of his mature style. And the Bliss sonata has only recently been reconstructed - so even I didn’t know it a couple of years ago! But this music is so engaging and I love the range of nuances that both composers demand;  it is also satisfying to bring a neglected work to life and then to have a good response from an audience who have enjoyed something new. 

JD: You and Piers have been playing together pretty much forever…what makes a good duo?


Piers Lane
photo: Keith Saunders
TL: It’s vital to have a good rapport and this is something that cannot be “learned” - it is either there or it isn’t! What develops through a long association is trust and a real understanding of how the other person thinks and feels. In this way, one can be very spontaneous on stage and know that you’re not going to take your partner by surprise! Piers and I have been playing together for 30 years now so we know each other really well - we even breathe together on stage… 

JD: What’s it like to perform at the Wigmore Hall? 

TL: The Wigmore Hall is such a glorious acoustic to perform in... the sound is so good that you can play as quietly as you like and know that every member of the audience will be able to hear you. So it’s an intimate hall but with a great deal of presence to it. I love walking on that stage and thinking of all the great musicians that have sung and played there over the years - it’s very inspiring. 

JD: Have you got any new recordings out?

TL: The most recent release is of both Szymanowski concerti and the Karłowicz concerto that I recorded with Ed Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. I love the Szymanowskis - they are so different from each other, the first one slightly mystical and other-worldly, and the second one completely sensual and down to earth, even rustic! The Karłowicz provides a beautiful foil for both works as it is a much more traditional concerto which is very easy to listen to and enjoy… 

JD: Other highlights for you this season?

TL: I’m excited to be going to play in Dubai with Piers in November and I’ll be playing the Britten concerto in Portugal in December. Next year I have two super trips to Australia, where I’ll be playing in Sydney and Melbourne among other places, and I’m also off to play Mozart in Spain. In between times and nearer to home, I’ll be up and down the UK for concertos and recitals and am particularly looking forward to playing with the CBSO doing Bernstein’s Serenade for violin and orchestra.



Quick reminder: you can show your enthusiasm for JDCMB by contributing a voluntary subscription at the Year of Development page on GoFundMe...

Cape Town Opera clicks with London


Mandla Mndebele sings the Prologue from Pagliacci

Last week, a very special event at Bonham's Auction House in New Bond Street brought a spring to the step and a tear to the eye.

My parents left South Africa in the early 1950s, soon after their marriage, and rarely returned. My father refused to go back until after apartheid had been thrown out. They were both great music-lovers, but both died more than 20 years ago, so they did not live long enough to see the marvellous growth of talent now emerging from their old country, black and white together. Today's star South African singers include, just for starters, Pumeza Matshikiza, Golda Schultz, Pretty Yende and Jacques Imbrailo - and as Bonham's geared up for its sale of South African art, it joined forces with Cape Town Opera to bring us some more.

The sheer raw talent and dynamism that came bounding off the platform amid the paintings was little short of extraordinary. Among them were Lukhanyo Moyake, the tenor whom you may have spotted on the Cardiff Singer of the World; Frances du Plessis, a splendid young soprano with a bent for bel canto; Johannes Slabbert, who's changing fach from baritone to tenor - not quite there yet, perhaps, but well on the way and with a personality with "tenor" written all over it; Mandla Mndebele, a magnificently charismatic and full-voiced baritone; and, perhaps most wonderful of them all, the rich-toned soprano Siphamandla Yakupa, whose searing intensity in Gershwin's 'My Man's Gone Now' was absolutely shattering. Samantha Riedel was their excellent accompanist. Moyake and Mndebele's Pearl Fishers duet was a major highlight too, and massed encores included the Click Song (I'd have loved more South African music to be included).


It was the first time Bonham's had staged an event like this, mixing the genres, and it brought a valuable dimension to both: first we could wander round the exhibition and discover the works of inspiring painters including Irma Stern, Vladimir Grigorovich Tretchikoff, Gerard Sekoto and many more; then there was singing in the gallery.

In an age where the progress made towards racial equality and away from discrimination sometimes seems to be stalling, or at worst reversing in certain parts of the world, here art and opera together proved that talent and the drive to be creative and to bring music to people know no such boundaries - proving how plain stupid the very notion of racism is.

One day, far in the future, perhaps people will scratch their heads and say to one another, "Did you know, 200 years ago people actually used to judge each other by the colour of their skins or by which fairy-tale they believed in? Can you imagine how they could be such idiots?" And they'll laugh, and buy each other drinks and chocolate, and sit in the sunshine enjoying a few minutes of hilarity over the morons who were still alive and well in the 21st century thinking that such ideas were even valid - before they get on with creating their new opera about real people, genuine emotion and universal questions.

For the time being, we can only do what we can each do, and I know how much it would have meant to my parents to see a black Don Giovanni singing 'Là ci darem' to a white Zerlina and a mixed company of singers all together for Miriam Makeba's wonderful party-piece Click Song. It wouldn't have been possible in the days when they left and refused to go back. I'm proud of them. Now I'm also pleased to be going back myself: I'll be there again in January and hope to visit Cape Town Opera on location, all being well. We can only do what we can do, but if we can do something, we should. Together, we can click.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Watch Rattle's Stravinsky Ballets Livestream

I'm not certain this is going to work, but I thought you'd want to see Simon Rattle's Three Stravinsky Ballets concert live from the Barbican at 6pm UK time tonight, after all the superlatives the first performances have sparked here and in Paris, so I'm attempting to embed it on site. If it doesn't work, please go to either the LSO's Youtube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAqA29NB42g or Classic FM: http://www.classicfm.com/artists/sir-simon-rattle/stravinsky-firebird-petrushka-rite-spring/ - and at the Classic FM site you can also download the concert programme and read an exclusive interview with Sir S. The concert will then be available on Youtube to watch later. Enjoy!

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Rattle's return: a young composer's view

Culture shouldn't be just a feather in the country's cap - it's the cap itself, says Jack Pepper, 18-year-old composer and writer, in this guest post on the return of Simon Rattle and what this means for his generation. Go, Jack! 
JD



Upping the Tempo
Jack Pepper

Portrait of Rattle by Sheila Rock (licensed to Warner Classics)

Say what you will about the PR drive surrounding Sir Simon Rattle’s return to London. We need classical musicians who can grab the headlines and capture the imagination of the public. Let’s just hope we ride the crest of this wave

Exhibitions of “photos and memorabilia covering Sir Simon Rattle’s musical life to date”. A “large-scale projected artwork” that reduces his form “to a series of animated dots”. And even a screening of Henry V, with the score performed by the maestro himself. If you were an alien landing in London today, you might wonder whether you were encountering the propaganda of some vast autocratic state, or perhaps be fooled into thinking that classical music had produced its own A-List Hollywood movie. But even with eyes that are so myopic they won’t allow me to see my feet from where I stand, I can see that the London Symphony Orchestra is making the most of its new Music Director. And why not?

Rarely has the classical music world seemed so feverishly excited in my 18 years on the planet. As a young teenager tentatively exploring classical music for myself, everything seemed just a tad sterile. Serious, even. Perhaps it would be going too far to say that everyone seemed bored, but to a ten-year-old the classical world appeared, well, indifferent. In reality, classical musicians and music-lovers are never indifferent, but appearances count for a lot when it comes to engaging new audiences. Despite numerous scandals and intriguing personalities, the public rarely hear of classical musicians from the mainstream news. This contributes to an image of sterility, of distance, even if it is far from true.

Whilst my friends would be hyper at the release of a new iPhone, ecstatic at the thought of a new Bond, and positively overwhelmed by the prospect of a wireless speaker, I looked at the classical world and found that its own most publicised stirrings consisted of an elderly female pianist pirating old records and the frequently acerbic response of audiences to the latest opera production that happened to show a nude singer. Whilst a 1920s silent movie would never have shown such exposure, it would be hard to avoid it in the latest Bond release; yet classical audiences seem consistently irritated by similar things. 

Of course, the news hadn’t made me aware of Darmstadt, or of any of the other seismic revolutions that rocked classical music as a force for change. Old habits seemed to die hard, and with its penchant for tradition – constantly wearing dinner jackets and sure to hiss the latest opera production - the classical world on the surface seemed rather glued to routine.  

But it is true that some constants have damaged classical music for too long. If horror at the pettiest of nude ‘outrages’ was regular, genuine excitement seemed equally regularly hard to come by at first glance. I would watch the latest BBC coverage of the Proms to find the presenter insisting that they were all having “a great party”, whilst looking more like they were at a wake. Dig deep and you find huge excitement in classical circles, but this was not regularly communicated on the surface level that any new audience would first see. To a newcomer, didn’t it all seem just a tad rigid? We seemed so busy insisting that we were excited by a new piece that we forgot to appear genuinely excited. To a young person surrounded by glaring digital billboards advertising the latest Tom Cruise blockbuster, the classical music world seemed – to judge by its sparse mainstream coverage alone – decidedly fixed in its ways.

Rattle could not have come at a better time. Not only can he change public perceptions of classical music, nor can he only change the way seasoned music-lovers view their art form, but he can also tackle political indifference. It is disturbing that the arts seem so often to be a mere feather in a national cap, and not the cap itself; for too long, we have been reading articles crying despair at British cuts to arts funding, seen images of the latest American orchestra to close, and (most likely didn’t) read how most UK political parties entirely overlooked the arts in their manifestos in the 2017 General Election. When so many public personalities – faces we see every day on the news, and who influence everything from arts funding to public perceptions – seem so adamantly against the arts, we need a cultural figurehead who can take a stand. If politics are indifferent to music, then music must never appear indifferent to itself. It must never just ‘accept’. Classical music needs a politician, but if it can’t have one in politics, why can’t it have one in music?

The problem is clear. The world of classical music seemed indifferent to itself when I first started exploring its treasures not because it genuinely was ambivalent, but because its public image was stuffy, traditional and old-fashioned. Of course it has its peculiarities, like an audience’s strange aversion to sniffing, sneezing and any other sign of human life at a concert. We should be willing to admit this. But the classical music world is not stuffy. It was only my subsequent experience of meeting musicians, going backstage and getting involved that showed me nothing could be further from the truth. But we need someone out there saying it.

With Simon Rattle, we have a fantastic opportunity to present a rejuvenated image of classical music to new audiences who, like I was as a young child, may be intrigued by the wonders of this genre but hesitant to go further simply because it seems so daunting. If politicians and the mainstream media seem indifferent to the arts, the arts world must redouble its efforts to demonstrate the passion that it undoubtedly has. Rattle should be a kick up not just our own classical derrières, encouraging us to spread our passion to all, but also up the political rear as a reminder that this genre does have its own powerful figureheads. Yes, Rattle’s return has been coupled with a strangely omnipresent and marketing-speak PR campaign, but if it gets people talking about classical music, then consider it a job well done.

Our passion and our determination to open the arts to all must never be restricted to purely musical circles, where we are at risk of preaching solely to the converted. Someone like Sir Simon Rattle can remind us all why we adore this genre, and bring our love of classical music to everyone. That’s worth a PR campaign.
Jack Pepper



Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Ten up to a dynamic engine for change

Young Professionals in the Arts - YPIA - is ten years old today and celebrating with a special launch this evening at The Koppel Project in London. The organisation has grown in a decade to become a significant driver of change in the arts field, encouraging the leaders of tomorrow - who sometimes turn out to be, in fact, the leaders of today. 

Katya Kazakevich, one of YPIA's three directors, has written a guest blog to tell its story from the inside. And if you're a young pro in the arts, eager for opportunities and ready to change our part of the world for the better, YPIA is for you. Joining details are in the article. Over to Katya...
JD



YPIA in a Creative Cities workshop at the Royal Festival Hall

The world of work can be daunting for most fresh-faced music graduates. It’s not just the un(der)paid internships, during which you wonder how you’ll make next month’s rent, but the first proper job hunt can be a real struggle. Even when you're "in", it isn't always a bed of roses  junior roles often consist of uninspiring admin (believe me, I've been there), and when your senior colleagues leave the office for networking dos, you’re asked to stay behind to man the phones...

A YPIA session at the Foundling Museum, London

It was exactly this sort of problem that Nicki Wenham, Andreas Flohr and Lis Lomas wanted to tackle when they founded Young People in the Arts ten years ago: to give young arts professionals the chance to communicate face-to-face with their peers, and to access opportunities for career development in ways they just couldn’t do at work. The three music graduates founded YPIA right at the start of the economic crisis, when the need to raise and discuss relevant issues was of the essence. Events soon began to include panel discussions as well as the all-important social element, and the network grew. 

I attended my first YPIA event when I was a trainee in the Concerts Department at Philharmonia Orchestra. It was a ceilidh-come-networking drinks, and as a newcomer to the profession I was excited by the prospect of talking to people from different organisations in a relaxed environment, with a view to finding out more about the industry and exploring different career paths. I felt that there was a real support network present, and it was the social aspect that propelled me to obtain membership. 

Katya Kazakevich and Stella Toonen, two of YPIA's directors
Photo: Rhian Hughes
Soon I joined YPIA's Executive Committee of volunteers and I remember with fondness the first event that I project-managed – a panel discussion on classical music in the media and the changing ways in which audiences consume classical music beyond the concert platform. After what turned out to be rather a heated debate (at the very end, one of the panel members rather shockingly suggested that the compact disc was “dead”!) it was fascinating to hear people’s opinions on what had been discussed, and needless to say there were a few who heartily disagreed with the statement above…!

As an organisation, we fully appreciate the importance of peer-to-peer dialogue and the sharing of inter-generational know-how for inspiration and professional development. When Stella Toonen, Imogen Morris and I took over as directors three years ago, we were adamant that we would continue in the same inclusive, informal spirit as the founding directors. More than ever now, our discussions venture beyond music to encompass other art forms (including visual arts, museums and film), and cover pertinent topics such as leadership, the art of fundraising, diversity, access, the social impact of the arts and most recently, of course, the projected outcome of Brexit.

For instance, we held a sold-out event focusing on Diversity last season. As one of the most important issues of our age, it is vital to keep talking about concrete steps we can take to ensure a more diverse and therefore representative workforce. Heavily referencing Arts Council England’s Creative Case for Diversity, the speakers (including Chi-chi Nwanoku, founder of Chineke! Foundation, Mwila Mulenshi from Creative Access and Milica Robson, Senior Relationship Manager for Diversity at ACE) engaged in a lively conversation about what we need to do more of to embed better practice in reaching under-represented individuals, and encouraged continuous dialogue with the floor throughout the discussion. 

Audience members included junior colleagues from the Africa Centre, Arts Council, Royal Opera House, Whitechapel Gallery and English Heritage, to name but a few. At the drinks afterwards, I gauged some of our members’ reactions to what had been expressed and, encouragingly, the majority said that they would write up notes from the talk and disseminate these amongst their more senior colleagues. There’s much to be said for younger members of staff taking a leading role in driving the conversation, and in some cases demonstrable developments within organisations.

YPIA has become a leading platform for those who want to reflect on the issues in the current arts climate, and effectuate change  giving young voices more prominence in discussions about the future of the sector remains at the forefront of our yearly events programme. We have proactively approached new venues and speakers, and received support and invitations to partner with various organisations, including the Southbank Centre and National Theatre on some of their (young people’s) programmes. 

Chi-Chi Nwanoku speaks at a YPIA session at Diversity Works, Soho

I think our success is also evident in the number of initiatives we as an organisation have been asked to put our name to – for instance, we contributed to Ed Vaizey’s Culture White Paper back in 2015; we were asked to be a signatory on the Cultural Learning Alliance’s recent publication “ImagineNation”, which delineates the value and impact of cultural learning on the lives of children and young people; we've also provided representatives to speak about the importance of our existence at the Women of the World Festival and the AntiUniversity Festival, and informed an enquiry into the civic role of arts organisations last year, put together by What Next? and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. 

We now have nearly 120 events to our name, including over 200 participating speakers, often featuring leading industry figures such as Sir Nicholas Serota, Jude Kelly, Darren Henley, Tony Hall and Alex Beard. We’ve expanded beyond the confines of the M25: last year, initial networking drinks took place in Cardiff, Glasgow, Birmingham, Nottingham and Cambridge. Our ambition is to make regional hubs in the UK a permanent fixture (to provide outlets for the huge and growing number of arts institutions outside of London), and to eventually export YPIA’s model and expand its reach into Europe and further afield (of course, the latter is a long-term goal!) 

Today, 20 September 2017, we'll be opening our 10th anniversary season with a season launch at the Koppel Project in London. There’s never been a better time to join the movement – to carry on learning about the context of your industry, to be re-enthused about your work and think about how you can make a difference to the ecology.


For more information about the upcoming season, check out our website or follow hashtag #YPIA10 on FacebookTwitter and Instagram
Katya Kazakevich

Katya Kazakevich read English at the University of Cambridge, graduating in 2011. Following a traineeship in the Concerts Department at Philharmonia Orchestra and an internship at Askonas Holt, she spent three years as Music Co-ordinator and PA to the Music Director at English National Opera before becoming the Artistic Planning Manager at the National Opera Studio. Other positions have included ushering at Wigmore Hall, copy-writing the latest 'e-edition' of The Opera Guide (compiled by Amanda Holden) and administrating for London-based groups the Cantus Ensemble and the Paradisal Players. As Director of YPIA, Katya leads the Advisory Board, project-manages YPIA's regional networking events and works to maintain and develop YPIA's external relations. 


Monday, September 18, 2017

Local heroes come home... to Hull

Xander Parish in Ballet 101 (photo from the Yorkshire Post)

Maybe it's something in the Humber's water, but an inordinate number of superb British ballet dancers have come out of the pleasing historic town of Hull, which is often termed - most unfairly - 'the armpit of England'. Those dancers include Kevin O'Hare, director of the Royal Ballet, and Xander Parish, the first British dancer in the Mariinsky, so it's worth celebrating - and that's exactly what Hull, currently the UK City of Culture, did on Saturday.

Having refurbished and built new sections for its New Theatre, it was an inspired idea to call in the Royal Ballet for a reopening gala - the company's first visit to the town in 30 years. Hull's home-grown stars were out in force. Parish put in an appearance out of Russia; alongside him were his sister Demelza Parish, a Royal Ballet first artist; Joseph Caley, now a principal with English National Ballet; Elizabeth Harrod, an RB soloist, aka Mrs Steven McRae; and the local ballet school that can really take the credit for laying the foundations of their success, the Skelton Hooper School of Dance and Theatre, brought their current youngsters to strut their stuff alongside.

(photo: Yorkshire Post)
The theatre is an art deco gem, full of 1920s Egyptian-reference detail, done up in style even down to the fonts on the signage. For the evening it was packed with all ages, newcomers, seasoned balletomanes and everything in between: elderly or disabled ballet fans in wheelchairs, schoolchildren guzzling crisps and sweets throughout and cheering to the rafters as soon as the music stopped, little girls turning cartwheels in the shiny new foyers. Outside, another 5,000 people braved the chilly night air to watch a relay to the big screen in the park. In the afternoon, a hundred local children had participated in Take Flight, an outdoor performance led by the brilliant young Australian dancer and choreographer Calvin Richardson, inspired by Swan Lake. Richardson himself proved one of the gala's highlights, performing a stunningly-shaped contemporary Dying Swan solo to Saint-Saëns, with amazing freeze-frame arms.

But then, almost everything in this generous programme was a highlight. William Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude - that Schubert finale for three girls and two boys that leaves you  breathless just from watching  - was a tremendous opener, with Marianela Nuñez, Beatriz Stix-Brunnell, Akane Takada, James Hay and Valentino Zucchetti (though the lime green and magenta sets the teeth on edge a bit). A warm introduction from O'Hare paid tribute to his own Hull background, then introduced Parish for a star turn in Ballet 101 by Eric Gauthier - a dazzling array of ballet poses interacting with narration and showing off Parish's steely technique. Parish (whom I interviewed for The Independent a few years back) had set off for St Petersburg after feeling he'd had to carry one spear too many; now the Russian company has moulded him into a magnificently princely principal, his mile-long limbs and super-wide wingspan enhanced by the open-hearted Mariinsky style. Fortunately Ballet 101 showed off that he's far more than a mere gentlemanly presence - though he can do that too, as evinced by the Sylvia pas de deux, serenely performed with the enchanting Yasmin Naghdi.

The star turns thrilled from start to finish: Natalia Osipova and Matthew Ball in the balcony scene (minus balcony) from Romeo and Juliet was my personal number one: Osipova, one-of-a-kind volatile, vivacious and scarcely touching the stage, offset finely by Ball - a beautifully classic dancer in the English tradition, poetic and very gentlemanly indeed, with the special quality of never looking rushed, no matter how fast he spins. Edward Watson and Melissa Hamilton (who's home from Dresden and on sizzling form with fine-tuned, sinewy strength and presence) brought a very grown-up Wayne McGregor pas de deux, Qualia, in which they do plenty of things that one didn't think a human body could possibly do. At the other end of the spectrum, Steven McRae and violinist Robert Gibbs took the stage together for a rip-roaring tap version of Monti's Czardas, choreographed by McRae. This list could carry on - it's only a taste of the wonders on offer.

Here's Steven performing Czardas on World Ballet Day, with violinist Vasko Vassiliev:



Parish's fellow Hull dancers pulled a special weight, and that of others. Demelza Parish shone in the world premiere of Heart's Furies, a trio by Andrew McNicol set (rather startlingly) to the first movement of Janáček's Piano Sonata and capturing its turbulence and anguish. Joseph Caley turned a different kind of anguish - Hamlet's, no less - into the dazzling jazzy solo from David Bintley's The Shakespeare Suite, and later joined Takada for the Le Corsaire pas de deux to close the performance. Harrod and McRae finished the first half with a beautiful, heartbreaking account of the last pas de deux from The Two Pigeons, complete with supremely well-behaved birds. A colleague who's seen the work innumerable times assured me that they sometimes aren't, and that once one of them fluttered off into the gods and eluded capture for several hours thereafter.

The ballet school gave an apposite piece of their own called A Dancer's Story, simple yet very effective: children in a Hull backstreet gaze through a dance studio's windows, then are transformed into its pupils, watching and learning from the older students.

And if there's one a "takeaway" thought from the evening, it was this. Part of ballet's mystique, its mythology, its self-narrative, is the image of the child drawn to dance by seeing her/his peer group dancing and longing to join in. Partly it's the Nutcracker story: the child transformed into the woman she longs to become. Partly, it's something within all of us, the atmosphere of those long-lost formative years recaptured in the unique language of dance and recreated for new generation after new generation. But in classical music, are we missing this type of narrative?

It can happen if you join a youth orchestra: the youngsters at the back of the second fiddles can be inspired by the older leaders, an example that spurs them on to work hard and follow their dream (that's how my OH started out: in the Cheshire Youth Orchestra, whose leader at the time happened to be the teenage Peter Manning, now the Royal Opera House's own concertmaster). But to reach that point, the smallest children have already had to start playing, to have been inspired to start and work their way to a halfway decent level of ability. You don't often get to press your nose to the glass of a music school's window and long to join in, and the only way to do this via the TV is usually the BBC Young Musician of the Year, which happens only every two years and now mostly on a non-mainstream channel with limited actual performances. In ballet, though, we wouldn't even question the notion that that's how it begins, that you have to start training very young, and that that's how most kids get interested: through the example of their peer groups. Is there some way we can make this story a bigger part of music as well?

Photo: Danny Lawson/PA
Meanwhile, I doff my hat off to pianists Kate Shipway and Robert Clark, who stormed Gottschalk's Tarantella while Francesca Hayward and Alexander Campbell charmed and fizzed through Balanchine's high-jinks choreography. The pianists, violinist Gibbs and cellist David Cohen deserve medals of their own, especially as the whole thing had to be considerably amplified because of the big-screen outdoor simulcast.

Huge congratulations, then, to this year's City of Culture and wishing Hull the best of the best for the rest of it.


Please help support JDCMB's Year of Development on GoFundMe, here.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Rattle's big night

Rattle and the LSO.
Photo: Doug Peters/PA

THIS IS RATTLE. The posters greet you at the main entrance, on the programme cover, everywhere around the Barbican. And the first sound that meets your ears is of children singing. The foyer is crammed with opening-night concert-goers gazing up at a choir of primary-school kids on the balcony showing off their musical skills to the manner born. It's a great way to start the big night that marks the opening of Sir Simon Rattle's long-awaited return to Britain as music director (yes, music director, not chief conductor) of the London Symphony Orchestra. Explore their website to read about the plans for innovative digital work, outreach, British music focuses, streaming, filming and even some rather fine concerts. These are going to be exciting times, or so one might hope.

"This is music, this is what we believe.
Music is for everybody, music is a right.
It's the air we breathe, the water we drink." 
--- Sir Simon Rattle

Rattle has been on the TV, on the airwaves, in the newspapers. He only has to sneeze for it to make the headlines, it seems. Having a household name at the head of the LSO can only be a good thing for musical life here. And his chosen opening night programme was something that probably no other conductor could get away with and end up still speaking to the management: a musical marathon of five works by British composers, four of them alive and kicking hard, two of them present to take their bows, and among them names of the type that in other settings sometimes strike fear and paralysis into the hearts of potential attendees. Not so here: the crowd, if occasionally bemused and unquestionably challenged, at worst read its programmes and at best positively lapped up the craggy music by Helen Grime, Thomas Adès, Harrison Birtwistle and Oliver Knussen before relaxing into the sunlit garden of Elgar's Enigma Variations. If there was champagne for the musical soul of London, food for thought was never far away.

The first half could scarcely have been better chosen. First was a new work commissioned by the Barbican for the LSO, a five-minute piece by Grime named 'Fanfare' - but 'Overture' might have been better, since it seems to contain the seeds of much more than its moniker suggests. Vivid string syncopations and starbursts of percussion made celebratory noises, but the wide-ranging imagination in terms of forces mingling - whether punchy musical motifs or glitter-rich orchestration - suggested there is plenty to build on and possibly expand.

The young Simon Rattle, portrait by Norman Perryman
Adès's Asyla is 20 years old: a tried and tested piece of diamond-hewn musical ammunition, premiered by Rattle in Birmingham back in the day, and since then played all over the world. That probably gives it 'modern classic' status, but it only becomes more startling on repeated hearing. Its swirling dreamscapes, its visionary, passacaglia-like slow movement, the simultaneous unfolding of extraordinary ideas one on top of another, the adopting of club music techniques (the programme includes a story from Adès about how writing this passage landed him in hospital with a suspected heart attack) - all of this sounds more original, fresher and more bizarre every time around. The piece can sparkle a little bit more than it did last night, perhaps - I've heard tenser, tauter accounts - but placing it centre stage was absolutely the right thing to do.

Christian Tetzlaff was the soloist for Birtwistle's Violin Concerto of 2009-10, which shows the doyen of British composers in relatively mellow mode. While the orchestration has a dark, cave-like spaciousness and resonance, or sometimes moves like a leviathan in the deep (the tuba writing helps), Tetzlaff was caramel-toned over the top, a poet amid a mass that sometimes comprehends, other times discusses, and often serves to offset the eloquent tenderness of his thoughts. It's a collaborative concerto, essentially: wind players emerge from the ranks to set up solo spots alongside the violinist one at a time, and Tetzlaff did all he could to spur them into playful musical discussion. The octogenarian composer, who today somewhat resembles a comfortable, shuffly polar bear, took his bow to a respectful ovation.

Oliver Knussen's Symphony No.3 is a short three-movement work of sensitive, moody, atonal architecture, begun when the composer was all of 21 in the early 1970s, and completed in 1979. Rattle tackled it with enormous affection, shaping and pacing it splendidly. If it proved one big chew too many for a single evening, probably few would have admitted it yesterday; we could reflect, instead, on why it is that when there are so many fine pieces of modern British music in existence, we can wait years for them to return, then get three at once (London buses, etc...).

It's also intriguing to think that while the idiom of this music was fully current by 1973, that was almost a half-century ago - yet the basic style of what's thought of today as mainstream British modern music has not changed much. The finest voices within it are individual and distinctive, and produce occasional masterpieces. But now, one could reasonably contend, isn't it time to move on?

Settling into Elgar's Enigma Variations after all of this was like stepping out of a deep lake onto dry land. The sense of gravity is transformed. Your breathing changes. You know where your feet are. Rattle's account of the variations homed in on the affection of the composer for his "friends pictured within" - and he coaxed the LSO strings into some Seidel-esque marvels on the G string in "RPA", a hush to end all hushes at the start of "Nimrod", an elusive, butterflyish, cherishable delicacy in "Dorabella" and a moment of anguish for "***" on her long sea voyage - for everybody, there must be one that got away. The finale was a giant musical bear-hug. The orchestra, playing its many socks off for its new boss, blossomed and shone; and the hall, too, was full of friends - friends of music and art and joy. If anything represents hope in Brexit Island today, it's the return of Rattle.

And there's that elephant stalking the corners of the room. The ambition expressed in the Barbican last night is vast: new initiative will follow new initiative and even the new hall was spoken of as a budding reality - though a lot of money still has to be found through donors and sponsorship to make it happen. Nobody said what many of us are thinking: how on earth are we going to manage any of this after Brexit?

What will happen to the LSO's large contingent of European players? What will happen to international touring if we end up with visas, customs and tariffs even to travel a couple of hours to Paris or Amsterdam? How can we continue to attract the world's greatest soloists if the pound plummets still further and our fees can't remain even slightly competitive on the world stage? Would Sir Simon have come back at all if he'd known Brexit was going to happen? (They asked him this on the TV news. He said it would have "given me pause".) It's possible, of course, that our civil servants, working behind the scenes, can avert a worst-case, crash-out Brexit, but there's scant sign of competence, understanding or realism among the front-bench politicians who seem hell-bent on driving us smack into the cliff-face, determined to sacrifice everything of the public good to a public opinion formed on the basis of proven lies.

Welcome home, Sir Simon.


If you enjoy JDCMB, please help to fund its year of development at GoFundMe. I'm trying to raise £5000 by next June.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Out now: Zimerman's first solo album since 1994


It's out. And it was worth the wait. Pianophiles have hung on for a new album from Krystian Zimerman since 1994, when his Debussy Preludes won a Gramophone award. Concertos, yes; a rather wonderful piano sonata by Grazyna Bacewicz along with her piano quintets, yes; but all alone, no. Finally here it is: Schubert's A major Sonata D959 and B flat major Sonata D960.

These are unlike any other interpretations of these works that I've heard: he makes them entirely his own, and they scrub up like buried treasure after a bath. Yet with such eloquent phrasing, you feel Schubert himself is speaking to you directly, with something urgent, profound and life-affirming to communicate. If you only listen to one thing this week, make sure it's this. Incidentally, if you're a vinyl nut, this album will soon be available on LP as well.

Here's one Spotify extract...this is the Andante from the B flat major Sonata.



Back in May, into my in-box popped a message from DG: could I go and see Krystian, interview him and write the booklet notes? ("Er, let me have a think and get back to you..." said I, or not exactly...). Here are two little tasters of the resulting text, in which he talks about his view of the sonatas and the genesis of this project. Lots more inside the CD booklet. 

JD: How would you characterise these sonatas?

KrZ: I think they contribute significantly to our view of Schubert’s greatness. He switches into a different gear, daring radically new ideas in harmony and polyphony. Compared to his earlier sonatas, they could almost be by another composer.

The slow movements of the D959 and D960 sonatas are maybe the saddest music I know: the major keys are even sadder than the minor, because this is complete resignation, complete acceptance, perhaps thinking of leaving this planet and ending life. The middle of the A major’s slow movement is revolutionary. It’s a milestone in music: a tremendous tempest where all hell breaks loose. You feel it almost foreshadows Wagner, because it looks incredibly into the future. Yet both sonatas have scherzos that are full of humour, and gorgeous last movements in which Schubert integrates so beautifully the singing character of the cantilena.

I find the repeats absolutely necessary. In D960 the low trill in the left hand occurs fortissimo only at the end of the exposition, in the first-time bars, and it’s completely different from the other three times we hear it. But also, when you return to the beginning it sounds transformed after you’ve heard the whole exposition. The movement is long, but I have tried to choose a tempo that is always fluid, with plenty of breathing.
...

JD: The recording venue was the Kashiwazaki City Performing Arts Centre, Japan. Kashiwazaki is the location of a gigantic nuclear power station. After a terrible earthquake there in 2007, you gave a fundraising recital for the town – and to thank you they later offered you a week’s use of this hall?

KrZ: Yes, I am extremely grateful to the town of Kashiwazaki and its mayor, Mr Hiroshi Aida. The hall was built after the original Performing Arts Centre was destroyed in the earthquake, and is designed by a student of the great acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota. I thought it was among the best acoustics I had encountered and I thought I would love to record there. In Toyota’s halls, every note is clear, yet each is in a cushion of warm surroundings. For example, playing in Suntory Hall feels like flying – the piano opens up and you can do incredible things because you are so inspired by this acoustic.

...We arrived to record the Schubert… in three metres of snow. The staff were unbelievably generous, providing heating, food and four people to run everything smoothly, even when we worked until 2am. I am also very grateful to my excellent sound engineer, Rainer Maillard, who agreed to continue working that late. We recorded everything using 32-bit technology, perhaps for the first time on Deutsche Grammophon.

The snow was so deep that one night we had to shovel our way out. But inside, it was another world and I was able to spend five days completely immersed in Schubert.


If you enjoy reading JDCMB, please help to fund its Year of Development by making a donation here.