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.


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.