Friday, December 30, 2005
1. Haydn: The Creation. If you want to smile, this should do the trick. I've had some trouble finding a recording I like, though: the choice seems to be Old, Earnest, Stately But Beautiful or New, Period-Instrument, Sparky But Train-Chasing. In the end I stick with the old Karajan recording on DG because the tenor is the unmatchable Fritz Wunderlich.
2. Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe. Not only the dawn episode, but the whole score oozes Mediterranean azure. You can almost hear the sun sparkling on the sea. I am extremely fond of the Pierre Boulez recording with the NY Philharmonic. It was given to me years ago by a friend who knows what to recommend, and I've not found one I like better.
3. Schubert: Trout Quintet. There aren't many Schubert works that are pure sunshine but for a few leafy shadows - this, however, breaks the mould. I haven't yet heard this recording by the Hagen Quartet with James Levine, but the cover looks summery. Smell the country air, see the fish playing in the stream, then eat them in the open air with parsley, lemon and lots of butter...
4. Mozart: String Quintet in C major, K515. Mozart feeling spacious, relaxed and generous. Hear the opening and feel the clouds clear away. Alban Berg Quartett with Markus Wolf is a good option.
5. Dvorak: Violin Concerto. Dvorak is generally one of the most cheerful, sunny fellows in the catalogue - try keeping your feet still to the last movement of the violin concerto, among his loveliest 'Furiant' compositions. There are some super recordings, of which just two are Tasmin Little, Royal Liverpool PO/Vernon Handley (Classics for Pleasure) and Philippe Graffin, Johannesburg PO/Michael Hankinson (Avie).
6. Mendelssohn: Symphony No.4, 'Italian'. Felix kicks in with something that vaguely resembles a tarantella but goes much further in evoking the total thrill of arriving in Italy, soaking up the atmosphere and hitting the Chianti. Two minutes and you're basking in joy. Barbirolli conducts the Halle Orchestra in a classic.
7. Bizet: Carmen. Tragic the story may be, but if you want to feel the heat in Seville without getting on a plane, this is the best possible way. Try Cotrubas & Domingo with Abbado conducting and don't forget to sing along with the Toreador's Song.
8. Album 'Una furtiva lagrima' - Juan Diego Florez. Genuine Italian sunshine with Bellini and Donizetti, but the voice alone is enough to make you melt. Isn't he a dreamboat?
9. Manuel de Falla: The Three-Cornered Hat (with Albeniz Iberia, orchestral excerpts). If Carmen is just too, well, French, then go for the real Spanish McCoya. Falla stomps and sparkles his way through his irresistible ballet score, and the Albeniz makes this recommendation a neat two-in-one job. Find it here.
10. Abba Gold. Oh yes. It starts with Dancing Queen which brings out the sunshine like there's no tomorrow, if only because it makes me think I'm 13 again. (What am I doing? I hated being 13. Making up for lost time? Or mid-life crisis??...nah. I just like Abba.)
Thursday, December 29, 2005
Monday, December 26, 2005
And I'm tagging Evelio, Helen and Jeremy.
Four jobs you've had (not in chronological order)
1. Piano magazine editor
2. Strad magazine assistant editor
3. Holiday assistant, school library
4. Proof-reading scale books
Four movies you could watch over and over
1. Annie Hall
2. Singin' in the Rain
Four places you've lived
Four TV shows you love to watch
Four places you've been on vacation
3. New York
Four websites you visit daily
1. The Independent
2. The Guardian
3. BBC Weather Forecast for Rio de Janeiro
4. Amazon.co.uk (to see what number my still-awaiting-publication book is on the sales register)
Four of your favourite foods
2. Fresh fruit, preferably tropical
3. Mixed Turkish mezze
Four places you'd rather be
1. Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Islands, Australia
2. Above Murren in the Bernese Oberland, looking across at the Jungfrau, Eiger & Monch
3. Listening to a recital by Krystian Zimerman
4. Le Gavroche, Mayfair.
Saturday, December 24, 2005
So I logged on to R3's invaluable Listen Again, for the 9am Bach Christmas slot. Unfortunately you can't fast forward - at least, I can't on my antiquated browser - so I found myself listening to the Suzuki brigade from Japan playing a Brandenburg Concerto or version thereof.
Is there something wrong with me? I couldn't STAND it. This ensemble is becoming vastly celebrated, the recordings get rave reviews everywhere, it's supposed to be the Big Hot Japanese Early Music Experts. Everyone seems to love it...except me.
The first movement was so breathlessly fast that I felt I was trapped in the rush-hour in the Tokyo metro. The second movement was so self-consciously expressive that I felt I was being lectured ("THIS is SOOOOOO SAAAAAD and SOOO expRESSSIve in a PURELY 18th CENTURY WAY and WE WERE THERE, YOU KNOWWWW, SO WE DO IT RIIIIGHT..."). I turned down the sound to sit it out until words of wisdom from Jonathan Freeman Atwood, for whom I have huge respect, would come on; followed, I hoped, by these two giant violinists who between them knew more about the spirit of music than all the rest put together. Then my antiquated browser crashed.
The Suzuki brigade is certainly Bach for the 21st century. It's so in touch with the spirit of our age that it almost doesn't bear thinking about. 'Big Brother' for Bach lovers...
In the car the other day, Tom and I switched on the Bok and heard a recording of the Chaconne which seemed to have been made in the 1930s. The intonation was a little wild, but there was so much fire, passion, intelligent structuring and total identification with the deepest spirit of this meaty work that we were transfixed. Nor was it a violin 'voice' we recognised - not Heifetz, Menuhin or Thibaud. At the end we discovered the soloist's identity: George Enescu in his sixties. WOW. THAT was incredible musicianship.
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
Icon of the year: Daniel Barenboim, for his inspirational work with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. And his Bach playing on the piano.
Pianist of the year: Grigory Sokolov and Krystian Zimerman, who have to share this for two glorious London recitals between which I cannot choose.
String player of the year: violinist Philippe Graffin, for a phenomenal recital at Conway Hall, glorious Faure at the Wigmore Hall with the Razumovsky Ensemble, the beautiful CD 'In the Shade of Forests', and, of course, the Coleridge-Taylor Concerto at the Proms.
Singer of the year: Cecilia Bartoli. I will never forget that performance in Rome as long as I live.
Young artist of the year: pianist Simon Trpceski, who I am sure will be one of the 'greats' by the time he's 40. I can't do the accents in my browser.
Conductor of the year: Vladimir Jurowski. There's no hotter property on the podium.
Lifetime Achievement Award: Franz Schubert. This is cyberspace, so anything can happen.
Take a bow, everybody...Thank you. Thank you for your moving, uplifting, inspiring, life-enhancing music-making. You're wonderful. We love you.
And now a few personal highlights of 2005:
Proudest moment: Signing my book deal.
Next-proudest moment: Being The Times's Blog of the Week.
Another very proud moment: hearing from my editor at the Indy that Pete Townshend liked my article about The Who.
Most affecting moment: a friend playing a wonderful concerto in our front room a few days after the London bombings. A truly beautiful evening that I'll always remember with a hefty lump in my throat.
Most unfortunate moment: runthrough at Stephen Kovacevich's, when Tom fainted.
Biggest sigh of relief moment: the Elgar Birthplace Museum Concert, which we got through unscathed and with which we were pleased.
Memorable though questionable moment: when Solti brought in a live mouse during a dinner party and deposited it with pride and gratitude at the feet of Hodder & Stoughton's fiction publishing director.
Personality of the year: my nephew, Luca (current age 15 months).
Feline of the year: Sir Georg 'Ginger Stripes' Solti, who would never let me get away with voting for any other cat.
Man of the year: Tom.
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
I've quickly discovered several crucial things about these pieces.
1. They're not boring. They're absolutely astonishing. No.1, which I'd thought was nothing more than a sweet, jolly little number, is full of genius. Mozart's chromaticism, especially, is simply incredible. There's warmth, wit, flow, perfection. At least, there should be if one isn't sightreading... Which leads me on to:
2. They are Bloody Difficult. No.3 in D major, or part of it, has recently been orchestrated - Dan Hope and Sebastian Knauer recorded it with Norrington as a concerto for violin and piano - and having just bashed through the A major concerto K488, to see whether I could, I can vouch for the fact that this violin sonata's piano part is much harder to play!
3. The ensemble between violin and piano is much more intricate, demanding and subtle than that required in Franck & co. Numerous passages involving playing runs together in thirds or in unison; occasional written out trills in unison; all kinds of tricks in which Wolfi just wants to have fun trapping you!
4. The only reason one sometimes expects Mozart violin sonatas to be 'boring' is that a lot of violinists play them as if they ought to be - without enough spirit. There's so much by way of detail, humour and sheer 'temperament' in them that to approach them with undue reverence, or with the aim simply of getting 'authentic' articulation 'right', will not satisfactorily convey what they're about. A great many players today either lack the imagination or are too intimidated by scholarship and correctness, political or otherwise, to let themselves go, apply heart as well as brain and get to the core of the music. Mozart without heart isn't Mozart.
Today we'll be having a go at No.4 in E minor.
ADDENDUM, 21 December: Have just discovered an alternative viewpoint on Mozart by Norman Lebrecht, who I suspect has been having fun by being excessively provocative. I have just three things to say in response: 1. I LIKE Mozart and I don't WANT to listen to the Leningrad Symphony instead just because it's "historically important". We don't listen to music because it's historically important. We listen because we love it. 2. You wouldn't write a thing like this if you were a musician yourself and knew the music and its inner complexities from the inside. The inimitable Norman is a news journalist. 3. Slag off the Mozart industry, by all means. But please don't slag off Mozart.
Saturday, December 17, 2005
Everyone is reviewing the year at the moment and I'm having a good think about this too, but haven't put any thoughts together since I can't quite believe it's over already. Time goes faster and faster as you get older. In case you hadn't noticed. More soon.
Friday, December 16, 2005
Originally uploaded by Duchenj.
Apologies for lack of blog posts this week...it took a little time to recover from this particular birthday, never mind the associated hangover.
Having introduced one of the finest young pianists on the planet a few posts back, I'd now like to introduce one of the great sopranos of the century ahead. Sally Matthews sang Mahler 4 with the LPO yesterday (and is doing so again even as I write). She's been through some of the finest Young Artists schemes in the UK, including the Royal Opera House's, and was a huge hit in Gianni Schicchi at Glyndebourne last year. She tends to receive rave reviews wherever she goes and I think she's not yet out of her twenties. Last night was a prime example of why she is already so celebrated and why I reckon she will be even more so in ten years' time.
The voice is dark for a soprano - the richest vanilla ice cream swirled with dessert wine - and the clarity of the enunciation is exceptional. My German isn't brilliant, but I could hear the text and comprehend it quite well without even glancing at the words in the programme (I don't know this exquisite symphony intimately enough). Most magical of all, although her tone can be bright, large and glorious, were the soft passages: for a singer to create such absolute magic at PP level, while retaining all that beauty of tone and clarity of diction, is something special, unusual and marvellous. Given Sally's range and the richly romantic hue of her tone, I suspect that in a decade, or maybe sooner depending on her stamina and inclination, she might be Korngold's ideal Marietta...
The photo above is downloaded from her website.
It was just as well that Sally sang last night...Tom has threatened to have me assassinated if I say what I really thought about the conductor and the first half's piano soloist. Suffice it to say that there's a very, very kind review here, at Classical Souce.com.
Sunday, December 11, 2005
Huge explosions early this morning at an oil refinery at Hemel Hempstead, north of London, that supplies Heathrow Airport et al. We live probably 40 miles away, but there's smoke in the sky. They're saying it's "an accident". Not sure anybody believes it.
Friday, December 09, 2005
Briefly, BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting the complete works of J S Bach across all day every day from 16 to 25 December. This is what the website says:
BBC Radio 3 will be celebrating Christmas 2005 by broadcasting continuously over ten days the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach.
The composer's entire surviving body of work will be performed by some of the world's greatest musicians including specially recorded performances by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Angela Hewitt, Philippe Herreweghe and Ton Koopman.
The Rt Revd Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, Terry Waite, Andrew Motion, Wynton Marsalis and Ian McEwan are among the many voices who will share their personal reflections on Bach and his music. Elvis Costello, Fiona Shaw, Baroness Julia Neuberger, Nitin Sawhney, Andrew Marr, Simon Russell Beale, Alan Rusbridger, Steve Reich, Nicholas Hytner, Jacques Loussier, Anthony Minghella, Alain de Botton, Siobhan Davies, Christopher Frayling, Professor Steve Jones, Armando Iannucci, William Orbit, Guy Chambers and Mark Morris will also share their thoughts on the composer.
There will be legendary historic recordings and modern day classic interpretations as well as a series of BBC chamber concerts from across the country given by leading interpreters of Bach's music from Britain, France, Germany, Holland, Ireland, Italy and Russia. Musicians who will guide listeners through Bach's works include Emma Kirkby, Sigiswald Kuijken, Gustav Leonhardt, Andreas Scholl, Gillian Weir, Andrew Manze, András Schiff, Christopher Hogwood, Masaaki Suzuki, Sir Roger Norrington, Daniel Barenboim, Joanna McGregor and Ian Bostridge. They are joined by regular Radio 3 presenters including Sandy Burnett, Catherine Bott, Lucie Skeaping, Sean Rafferty, Petroc Trelawny and Rob Cowan.
If you go to their Bach website you can download the full schedule and find out lots more besides.
I think this is great. It should raise good old JSB's profile considerably and enrich a lot of lives. As a student, I was obliged to spend hours, days, weeks, listening to Bach cantatas for a compulsory 1st-year course on the Master - works that otherwise I might never have heard - and, whatever my views on that course/university generally, I remain deeply grateful for that opportunity. There is no greater Aladdin's cave in the history of music than the vast output of this glorious man. In the light of which, they should, really should, pronounce him right...but they can't. So what the heck, just listen to the music.
UPDATE, 6.50pm: Would everyone who has written in to tell me I'm a snob please note the following:
1. I know.
2. I don't care.
3. This blog no longer accepts anonymous comments, or those from people claiming to be 19th-century authors, composers etc, unless we have a good idea who they are really from.
Wednesday, December 07, 2005
AUDUBON QUARTET Members About to Lose Instruments. If you follow chamber music, you probably know of the Audubon Quartet, founded 30 years ago, it was the first US string quartet to win international competitions. In the year 2000, though, three of the quartet's members fired the first violinist for behavior incompatible with the concept of a closely knit ensemble -- he had told the others that he'd initiated two lawsuits agains the cellist (and original founder) Tom Shaw.Upon being fired, though, David Ehrlich filed a series of lawsuits against the three and against the quartet as a corporation. One was thrown out, but somehow, he won a judgement against the other three, and now, more than five years later, they are about to lose their instruments and other worldly possessions. It is a grim story. The quartet was in residence at Virginia Tech in 2000. After the lawsuits, the university let their contracts expire (but has since re-hired the violinist). Now members of the community in Blacksburg are trying to get the university to step in and make Ehrlich cease his actions against the others. You can read all about this at www.enditnow.org , the website created by community members. There is also a petition you can sign there.I think this is a matter of interest to all of us who love classical music and especially to the community of players in ensembles small and large.
Nick sent this originally as a comment on a previous post, but it merits a section to itself. I'm afraid I have not heard about this before and I don't know the ins and outs of the background and history, but please explore the link. Litigation culture run mad? Or classic string quartet acrimony meets the 21st century? Oh yes, classic. If you think orchestral life is stressful, just try being in a string quartet. Stories from the orchestras can be 'hair-raising', but with quartets, 'blood-curdling' doesn't begin to describe it.
Monday, December 05, 2005
Originally uploaded by Duchenj.
If you haven't already. Simon is one of the greatest young pianistic talents I've ever heard. He's 26 and hails from Skopje, Macedonia. About five years ago he shot to fame - like so many others - by NOT getting first prize in a piano competition (London) where most people thought he should have. Since then his reputation has been more than consolidated by such things as inclusion in the BBC Radio 3/Wigmore Hall New Generations programme and performances and recordings that receive rave reviews. He'd blown my socks off a couple of times - I think he plays Pletnev's transcription of The Nutcracker better than Pletnev - and when I interviewed him for PIANIST Magazine's latest issue I discovered he was also one of the most charming, engaging, warm, natural and unpretentious musicians I'd come across.
Sounds excessive? Then just hear him play. Yesterday at the Queen Elizabeth Hall he gave a recital of works that he'd told me were all new to his repertoire - Brahms Op.117 and one piece from Op.118, Scriabin's Second Sonata and both books of Debussy's Images. The Brahms was very slow but hypnotically beautiful, with exquisite tonal control and a powerful inwardness that you don't expect from an otherwise extrovert youngster. The Scriabin drew on the music's gentler, Chopinesque aspects, with perfect clarity and power that didn't make sensitivity concede - and proved that you don't have to go nuts with Scriabin as so many do. The Debussy was to die for: I can't imagine it played more beautifully (and I've played Book II myself so tend to pick holes in it whenever possible!). Meanwhile, he'd played Shostakovich's First Piano Concerto with the LPO on Friday evening and is doing so again on Wednesday - fab ensemble with Vladimir Jurowski and an atmosphere as if everyone was having tremendous fun. That's what orchestral concerts should be about but unfortunately often aren't. If you can get to the QEH on Wednesday 7th, GET THERE.
The photo above is by Jillian Edelstein and is printed with my article in PIANIST.
UPDATE, Tuesday 1pm: Here's Robert Maycock's review of the LPO/Jurowski/Trpceski concert from today's Independent.
Thursday, December 01, 2005
My fuzziest-ever encounter was with a koala in Cairns, Queensland, about five years ago. They let you hold him for about five seconds, just long enough to take your photo with him, before whisking him away to the next besotted tourist. Koalas don't much like being loved, so he's rationed to about half an hour in the morning and the same in the late afternoon and he didn't half look fed up by the time we reached him. I think he was doped up on gum leaves too. But he was definitely the softest animal I've ever met and I wanted to abduct him. Not sure he'd like the climate here, though. And even if we put a eucalyptus tree in the conservatory, I understand there could be a problem with koala pong.
The lesson to learn is this: the most desirable creatures, whether charismatic, exotic or fuzzy, are not necessarily the ones that are good for us or that we could live with successfully. I fear the same is true of human beings.
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
Monday, November 28, 2005
Sunday, November 27, 2005
Evelio writes about the laser surgery he's had on his eyes this week, and the sensation of finally being able to see properly. Words like 'congratulations' just aren't enough.
Cathy Fuller writes about some metaphysical musical shivers, most notably about Schubert's A major sonata, with tremendous sensitivity and beauty. And I'd have loved to hear Renaud Capucon play the Korngold Violin Concerto!
Speaking of Korngold, Andrea has just discovered Die tote Stadt. Weird coincidence or fate knocking, she asks, pleading for my help. Fate, Andrea. Definitely Fate. With Korngold, it always is.
Plus - not blog-related - Roy Howat's performance with the Panocha Quartet at the Wigmore Hall this morning finally lifted the lid off the Faure First Piano Quintet. It's a much maligned piece and Roy's new edition attributes this, basically, to the fact that someone seems to have slapped the wrong metronome marks onto it at some juncture. It was FAST. Very fast. But fabulous: out came the Faurean elan that is so often missing from interpretations that decide it should be as esoteric as esoteric can be. The last movement worked for me for the first time ever. The performance really moved. In every way.
I don't understand why the Wigmore Hall still calls its coffee concerts Coffee Concerts. You get a free coffee, orange juice or sherry after the performance upon production of your ticket. Everyone makes straight for the sherry.
Saturday, November 26, 2005
Friday, November 25, 2005
[UPDATE, 3 DECEMBER: Finally, they've done it! Voila!]
The magazine's celebratory articles include a section in which they've asked musical bigwigs to contribute short pieces about why classical music matters (unfortunately heralded with a picture of an audience giving a standing ovation in a plush hall dressed in penguin suits - not the most encouragingly egalitarian approach and not a regular sight anywhere in the UK except Glyndebourne!) Some are succinct and moving on the reasons why we can't live without music, others fully representative of the dense academicism that puts so many people off the stuff altogether. Here are two. Anyone want to guess who wrote each of them?
1. Classical music is unique, in that its grammar, syntax and formal construction present an abstract discourse in time roughly equivalent to that of the most ambitious architecture in space, in which thematic material of contrasting functions is subjected to variation, development and transformation in organically consistent ways, with the tonic of the home key providing a sense of direction over large spans of time - not least harmonically - making multi-dimensionality possible in time, with an ever-changing focus between foreground, middle-ground and background, which as a vanishing point enables this to happen in space. This has no equivalent throughout civilisation.
2. Think of a world without the joys of Rossini, the consolations of Schubert, the ambiguities of Mozart, the austerities of Stravinsky, the complexities of Birtwistle, the diversions of Ligeti. No, don't; it would be too awful to endure. For at least 1000 years, from medieval plainchant to Renaissance polyphony, though two Viennese schools and on to contemporary minimalism, 'classical music' has demonstrated a continuing ability to adapt, form and reform itself, and divert into new codes, discipline and shapes. Throughout this time, 'classical music' has remained universal in its language, extending its reach globally in a remarkable way. If it wasn't also about exhilaration, exultation, anguish, despair and pathos, it would not have survived or deserved to.
Elsewhere in the magazine, critics are asked to a) select any musician of their choice to give them a Command Performance; b) choose their greatest disc ever. It's refreshing to find Jed Distler choosing Barbra Streisand for his Command artist - and volunteering to accompany her! But the fact remains that the vast majority of musicians chosen by critics in both categories are DEAD. Is there any other field in which young creative artists have to struggle quite so hard to hold their own in the present day against the reputations of their forerunners? At least in literature, the reputations of Tolstoy or Jane Austen don't actually prevent new books from doing well. But any young pianist on CD has to battle the recorded legacy of Rachmaninov and Horowitz, while violinists are up against that of Heifetz and cellists Casals or du Pre.
I'd agree with many of these critics, of course - I'd love to have heard Heifetz, Rachmaninov or Cortot live, and I'm certainly with Rob Cowan on longing to hear Fritz Kreisler play the Elgar Violin Concerto. Still, I've also heard a lot of great stuff right here and now. As I don't write for Gramophone, here is my request for a Command Performance:
DEAREST KRYSTIAN, PLEASE PLAY ME SOME CHOPIN?
Thursday, November 24, 2005
The tone blew me off my chair in seconds. Oh, those strings. To die for... Brahms 2, in the second half, was a chance for a serious wallow: those violas! Those cellos! Oh yes, yes, YES! But the first piece in the programme was a highlight in itself. The Suite from Prokofiev's Cinderella doesn't hit the concert hall often enough - I've only heard it live before at the ballet (admittedly, the Ugly Sisters bits aren't the same without Frederick Ashton) - and it has some glorious moments. The best, for me, is the striking of midnight: it's as if you are inside the mechanism of a great grotesque clock with the cogs and wheels grinding and clonking around your ears. And the greatest magic is the moment of silence when it's over and you have to surrender to the big tune that signals all is lost and pumpkindom regained.
So to our young pianist, Denis Matsuev, who was the soloist for the Rachmaninov Paganini Rhapsody. Apparently he's 30, but he looks like a 14-year-old teddy bear in a penguin suit who wants, when he grows up, to be Sokolov. I swung both ways, listening. Some of it I loved; some I admired; some had my eyes and ears on stalks; some I hated. His tone in the quieter parts is truly beautiful: loving phrasing for the famous tune, the clearest, most gleaming sound and beautifully limpid phrasing for the fast solo variation that I've come across; but he's not above thumping the hell out of the piano at the top end of the spectrum (Sokolov's tone, please note, remains rich and glorious even at FFFFF). Sometimes he let things run away with him: the excitement becomes too extreme, he overheats and the sound, and concept, become less controlled and more questionable than they should. But my attention was absolutely with him the whole way, which is more than I can say about Lugansky's performance of the same piece last year (=bored silly). I'm convinced, too, that there was a sense of striving for something beyond the ordinary, a visceral excitement, hints of a far-seeing beauty that one hopes he'll develop over the years. His encore was breathtaking: a virtuoso fantasy on The Barber of Seville, dizzyingly fast, light as a feather, spot-on timing, the whole thing assured as a mountaineer at the summit of Everest. The hall went bananas. The friend I was with, incidentally, absolutely hated his playing - "He's slick, he plays fast, so what?!"
But I feel this was more than just another teddy bear's picnic - though Matsuev will probably be dining out on his success with the audience for years to come. The place was full of music-biz bigwigs cheering him to the rafters. Like him, loathe him or both, I think he'll be back.
UPDATE, FRIDAY 25TH NOV: Here's Richard Morrison's review from The Times. Seems like he doesn't share my taste for yummy string tone. He's right about the fluffed horns and missing flute phrase in the Brahms, but frankly I didn't think it was worth mentioning those because a) find me a horn section these days that DOESN'T fluff anything, b) the band was probably in the midst of tour-funk knackeredness. His comments about Matsuev are pretty interesting.
MORE, TUESDAY 29TH NOV: Here's Erica Jeal's review from The Guardian.
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
The Wigmore Hall is enjoying a plethora of Faure. Tomorrow (Wendes) and Thursday, the fabulous Leopold String Trio and the delectable pianist Pascal Roge (his website is sensational!) are giving programmes that include the two Piano Quartets, one per night. On Sunday morning at 11.30 the ever-popular Coffee Concerts feature the Panocha Quartet from the Czech Republic with pianist and Faure editor Roy Howat, offering the first London performance of Roy's new edition of the Piano Quintet No.1. We could be in for some surprises there, as Roy has reached the end of a long battle with a French musicologist who was so outraged by his discoveries about the work's tempo indications (and, we expect, much more too) that he attempted to censor the entire effort out of existence...More details of Wigmore gigs here.
Wednesday is clearly the big day. While Pascal and the Leopolds are in full flight at the Wigmore, Tom's band, the LPO, is performing Mozart Symphony No.40 and the Rossini Stabat Mater at the Queen Elizabeth Hall - details and last few available seats here - and on Thursday they're off to Rome to do the same programme in the San Giovanni Cathedral.
Meanwhile, I shall be sloping off to the Barbican to hear the St Petersburg Philharmonic and Yuri Temirkanov who are currently touring the UK - Prokofiev Cinderella Suite, Rachmaninov Paganini Rhapsody and Brahms Second Symphony. The soloist in the Rachmaninov is a rather interesting youngster, Denis Matsuev, who is 30 and a Tchaikovsky Competition Winner (incidentally, a former pupil of the same legendary professor who taught Nikolai Lugansky pre-Tchaik Comp win). Will be intrigued to see if I enjoy his performance more than Lugansky's a year ago.
On Saturday at Cadogan Hall there's the final of the Pianist Magazine/Yamaha Piano Competition for Amateurs. Inspired by the success of the Van Cliburn similar set-up, an acolyte contest to the main competition, this one seems to have caught everyone's imagination and seven competitiors, including a piano tuner in his seventies and a financial manager from the City are going to battle it out on the Chelsea stage in front of 600 people plus Pianist editor Erica Worth and a jury including Martin Roscoe, Kathryn Stott and Jamie Cullum! Blimey. I don't know why they put themselves through it. I had quite enough trouble in front of Stephen Kovacevich and ten friends in his front room. Go, guys, go!!! Chase that dream! Read more about it here.
Out of town, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and our very dear friend Marc-Andre Hamelin are touring Poole, Exeter and Southampton tomorrow, Thursday and Friday, playing - you guessed it - Faure! The Ballade, namely, which Marc is augmenting with the Falla 'Nights in the Gardens of Spain'. Full details here.What is it about Faure? Nothing for months and then everyone is at it at once.
That, in case you were wondering, is why Faure is like the No.28 bus, on which I used to rely too much when I lived in West Hampstead.
Friday, November 18, 2005
One of its most valuable fixtures is Richard Morrison's Comment page, which this time presents the most sensible writing I've yet seen about the crazy crisis now facing our poor UK orchestras, who are usually tackling one crisis or another but had recently been lulled into a false sense of security by the government's 'Stabilisation Programme'. This time, absurd Inland Revenue bureaucracy appears to be to blame - though not solely.
There's plenty of stuff about it in the press, so I won't restate the detail. Briefly, if the Revenue gets its way and stings them all for National Insurance arrears, the results will bankrupt 4 out of 5 British orchestras.
If that included the LPO - and I'm afraid it would - Tom and I would have to sell our house; a budding novelist would find herself back at the subs desk; and Tom says he'd like to be a train driver if he grows up. Worse, where would our souls be without our music?
"What all this adds up to, I believe, is a national crisis. Do we want a viable orchestral profession in Britain or not? The question is as stark as that. Of course musicians cannot be exempt from the tax laws. But it does seem mad for the Culture Department to invest £35m in 'stabilising' our orchestras, only for almost exactly that sum to be snatched away by the Inland Revenue."
Furthermore, he points out that if all those orchestras went to the wall and their musicians were denied a livelihood, the Revenue certainly wouldn't get its desired £33m.
Also in the magazine there's a fascinating article about the music boom in China, which points out that an entire generation of potential music-lovers was lost because of the policies of Mao. Obviously things are less extreme in the UK, but Richard remarks that he's observed hundreds of empty seats at fantastic concerts in Birmingham, Manchester and Scotland: What we are reaping now, I fear, is the withered harvest of a national music curriculum that has left two generations of school-leavers unequipped to understand symphonic music. Expecting the orchestras to remedy that with 'outreach' projects is a bit like asking cancer patients to heal themselves with aspirin." (Crikey, why has it taken 10 years for someone to admit the truth about 'outreach'?!)
Were Thatcher and Major the British cultural equivalent of Mao? The following will seem harsh, but in China, Chinese traditional culture was supposed to replace Western. Here, Western culture was being elbowed out in favour of...nothing but mindless, soulless consumerism.
That's quite enough ranting... I shall stop panicking, take another Kalms tablet and get back to work on the next novel.
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
I regret to say I'm a football ignoramus. I sometimes get involved in the last 15 minutes when things grow more exciting, but generally the sound of the crowd, ebbing and flowing like the waves of the sea, lulls me gently to sleep on the sofa of a Saturday afternoon... Last time I actually watched a football match was France vs Greece in Euro 2004 - yes, LAST YEAR - sitting in an big-screened, open-air courtyard in Vilnius with Philippe Graffin, who was glumly observing his national team making a pig's ear of the match far exceeding the Fried Pigs Ears on the Lithuanian bar snacks menu. I didn't have my specs with me, so kept having to ask 'which team did you say was France?' Philippe is an Arsenal fan, of course - they're as French as any British football team gets - so I guess that's good enough for a music journalist with Francophiliac leanings too (though my local team would have been Wimbledon if they hadn't moved to Milton Keynes). Bonjour, Arsenal!
To close, answers to some interesting questions on Google searches that have resulted in hits here:
1. Grigory Sokolov will be giving a recital at the Barbican Centre on 16 May 2006.
2. Krystian Zimerman's birthday is 5 December.
3. Classical music doesn't make you eat less.
4. Classical music can make you cry. I'd recommend almost anything by Schubert for this purpose.
5. I am NOT Jessica Simpson.
6. No Danish blondes here. Sorry.
Tuesday, November 15, 2005
Meanwhile, a more familiar voice in the shape of Cecilia Bartoli: my article following my trip to interview her in Rome, Sweet Rome (see September 05 archives) is in The Independent today. Read it here.
UPDATE, 4pm: I've also been overhauling the index to include a range of stuff I've been meaning to add for a while, but never got round to before. There's not much rhyme or reason to the order of the links, but please have fun exploring them!
Monday, November 14, 2005
Apologies over the delay in your comments appearing recently, by the way. I've introduced Comments Moderation but have just discovered that it wasn't working because my browser is deeply incompatible with Blogger and I have to work that elaborate system via Tom's computer when he's not looking. A few guidelines: I will be REJECTING any comments that are anonymous, abusive, advertising-oriented or otherwise iffy. Now that we've been Blog of the Week, we've got standards to maintain!
Sunday, November 13, 2005
Marc-Andre Hamelin's new disc of Schumann (Hyperion), featuring Papillons, the Fantasiestucke Op.12 and Carnaval. There's so much fantasy, warmth, tenderness and sheer 'oomph' about Marc's playing here that for the first time I'm willing to relegate my previous Carnaval favourite, Youri Egourov, to the back-burner shelf.
Double Dream (EMI), a bizarre but oddly successful programme of improvisations on some well-known piano pieces on two pianos, played by Mikhail Rudy and Misha Alperin. I approached this with some caution, but found it amazingly compelling: the two Mishas choose works including Schumann's 'Prophet Bird', Janacek's 'On an Overgrown Path', and works by Chopin, Prokofiev and Bach besides Alperin's original compositions, and take them meditatively to places you'd never have dreamed they could go.
The Florestan Trio plays Mendelssohn (Hyperion). This is WONDERFUL. Mendelssohn needs a very special soundworld, driven with elan and fire yet full of air and lightness and subtlety. The Florestans give him the lot. Not many CDs make it straight onto my iTunes (that's on the computer, not an iPod, which I don't have...), but this one did and I play it every time I need cheering up.
The Wanderer: Luiza Borac plays Schubert and Liszt (Avie). Dynamic, glittering, galvanising and sensitive playing from this wonderful young Romanian, following the Wanderer Fantasy with a smashing selection of Italian-themed Liszt from the Annees de Pelerinage.
Vytautas Barkauskas's Duo Concertante and more (Avie), recorded live in Vilnius last year by Philippe Graffin, Nobuko Imai and the Vilnius Festival Orchestra under Robertas Servenikas. I was THERE when they recorded it (see Archives, June 2004) and it sounds every bit as good on CD as it did on the day. The piece is fabulous, full of colour and imagination, with the two characterful soloists on top form. On the disc Philippe also plays Barkauskas's Violin Concerto, Jeux, which he commissioned and recorded the previous year - again, playful, quirky, intriguing music that lives in a special imaginative world of its own.
Friday, November 11, 2005
Sample line: "A French philosopher once wrote down 300 ways of committing suicide. He left one out: fall in love with an Artist..."
Tuesday, November 08, 2005
ORCHESTRAL LIFE: WHAT IT'S REALLY LIKE
My husband, Tom Eisner, doesn't have a job. He has a vocation. He spends his working life making a noise on a wooden contraption in the London Philharmonic Orchestra's first violin section. In a week when it has been revealed that the government's planned changes to National Insurance payments could bankrupt most of the UK's orchestras, Tom, like his vastly talented colleagues, is determined to keep on making that wonderful noise, come what may.
Orchestral players have greeted this development with a certain ennui. British orchestras are political footballs: falling down the crack between the floorboards of European subsidy and American, tax-broken sponsorship, they benefit a little from both yet substantially from neither. Many have breathed a sigh of relief since the Stabilisation Programme moved them on to an apparently secure footing for the first time in over a decade; the possibility of that progress being wiped out in one swoop is deeply depressing. Still, they're accustomed to lurching from crisis to cock-up.
They're as subject to the latest government whim as nurses or teachers; they're underpaid and undervalued, given the extensive training and expertise demanded by their jobs; worst, they are often misunderstood by a public who sometimes ask them, "What's your real job?" But the focus, the excitement, the team spirit and the thrill of making music with up to 99 other people in front of an audience can prove utterly addictive. "Playing in an orchestra is a vocation," stresses the LPO second violinist Fiona Higham. "If you thought of it simply as a job, you wouldn't do it."
Given lousy pay, antisocial hours, extremely hard work, huge stress (performance nerves reduces some to beta-blocker dependence), it's not surprising if they find peculiar ways to let off steam. My first taste of an orchestra's combination of closeness, mutual pocket-dwelling and nutty humour arrived the Christmas I was engaged to Tom. The band gave me a calendar bearing a photograph of my intended, rather the worse for wear in a pub, rising to a challenge of unzipping some crucial pieces of clothing and exposing what lay below. Everyone had signed the back of the calendar with comments like: "Where is it?" That was before I knew that the same practical joker who'd planned this had also initiated an orchestra-wide sweepstake about how long our relationship would last. He's since left.
It's far from easy to get into an orchestra. British orchestras have a unique system for appointing new members. In continental Europe and the US, the candidate who plays best on the day of the auditions gets the job. Here, after auditioning, several prospective appointees are taken 'on trial' for a few concerts, sometimes many. The process can take a year or more. While the LPO's co-leader, the South African violinist Pieter Schoemann, was on 'trial', he lodged in our loft for an excruciating seven months of vacillating decision-making, comfort-eating Singapore noodles to the eternal refrain, "You've almost got the job..." Luckily for everyone's sanity, he did get the job. "I'm sure the noodles helped," declares Pieter. He was lucky. The No.3 position has not been filled in eight years.
Still, most musicians are convinced that this system works. Annie Oakley, principal percussionist of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, points out, "I'm always astonished that other jobs, like teaching, can be filled after only a spoken interview, which doesn't tell you anything about how someone will do a job. Ours is a nerve-racking system, but very fair."
Once a player is in, the pressure is on. The French violinist Philippe Honore recently joined the Philharmonia as principal second violin, a half-time post in that orchestra. A long-time member of the Vellinger Quartet, he hasn't been in a symphony orchestra before. "I'd never thought I would enjoy being part of such a big noise so much," he laughs. "I'm enjoying the social aspect and the repertoire. But we have very little rehearsal for a demanding schedule and difficult programmes. British orchestras work two or three times faster than any in continental Europe - and the amazing thing is they are better, too! Working under such pressure gives the concerts a real 'edge'; the downside is that there isn't time to explore the music in more depth."
That's the musical side, but life outside is equally pressured. Orchestral players are finding it increasingly hard to make ends meet. A "rank-and-file" (in orchestral slang, "wank-and-smile") player can earn up to £40,000 per annum in the London Symphony Orchestra, but the equivalent post in the London Philharmonic and Philharmonia orchestras is unlikely to bring in more than £30,000, while in the north it's more like £25,000. Musicians in the self-governing orchestras are on Schedule D: there's plenty of flexibility, but if they don't work, they don't earn. These orchestras offer their members no pension schemes, no health insurance beyond in-house benevolent funds and, in some cases, no fixed retirement age either. Players in salaried organisations like the CBSO, Halle and BBC Orchestras have increased stability, but less flexibility and less ready cash. Money was more plentiful in the 1980s - today there are fewer recording sessions, less sponsorship, more competition for commercial work such as film scores and advertising.
With house prices impossibly high and instrument prices soaring too (a fine Italian violin can cost the same as a flat) players are increasingly turning to alternative sources of income: teaching, property development, massage and more. Bringing up a family becomes a logistical nightmare. One LPO violinist, a father of two, found an orchestral job in Germany, where life is duller but more practical. Another dad has departed in favour of installing bathrooms.
Some couples go as far as deciding not to have children at all. Miranda Davis, a freelance orchestral viola player, is among them: "I couldn't think how I could do it," she says. "You can only earn enough money if you work extremely hard; if you don't, the money isn't enough to support a family. Besides, kids can feel absolutely bereaved if their mother just vanishes on tour for several weeks." Orchestral work places enough strain on a marriage to begin with: "When my husband was teaching in a school, he had to be up by 8.30 and crashed out at 9.30pm, but I often wasn't home until nearly midnight," Miranda says. "And if you go away on tour constantly, the danger is that you may start leading separate lives." Add to that the pressures of a musician practising in a flat while their spouse watches TV, and love's young dream could quickly sour.
That is, if love's young dream can be found. Daniel Meyer, now a second violin in the BBC Symphony Orchestra, started his career in the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. "I remember being shocked at how impossible it was to meet anyone outside the orchestra. We worked so many evenings that social life didn't exist. I remember several of us going to a disco in Boscombe out of sheer desperation. We met some Catholic nurses."
Daniel, now a father of two (he married an orchestra librarian), is also bothered by the lack of career structure: "At the equivalent professional level, if I was a doctor I'd be a consultant, and if I was a lawyer I might be a QC. But the rewards don't match up in terms of career building or status." Or, of course, income. "Most of my colleagues now do something else as well. There's nothing wrong with that, but the trouble is that people aren't doing it from choice. It's wonderful to play in an orchestra and do what you love doing, but you often find yourself effectively subsidising your own job."
Performance stress, stage fright, sheer nerves, can take a tremendous toll, especially for a principal player whose personal sound is constantly exposed. Annie, about to retire after 40 years with her orchestra, exclaims, "It can be terrifying. We had ten years of difficult 20th-century repertoire under Simon Rattle, which was hard for the percussion - and you're on your own at the top of the orchestra!" That's one reason healthy living plays a bigger part in orchestral life than it used to. The old drinking culture, "the group of players in the pub by 11am," as Tom describes it, has vanished, while the number of players jogging or going to the gym has risen. Increased competition for jobs in orchestras and jobs for orchestras means that nobody can afford to rest on their laurels.
Wild parties on tour also aren't what they used to be. Tom remembers a 'towel party' in a hotel room in Italy in 1986 to which the police was summoned by the businessman in the room next door. "These just don't happen any more," he says. "People have grown up a bit; they no longer think the world owes them a job."
That doesn't mean there's no fun on tour. Sue Thomas, the LPO's second flute, says, "If you're in a gorgeous place and you've done a wonderful concert where everyone feels electrified, you can't imagine that everyone will just go to sleep - that's when we wake up!" Electrification was the order of the day when Wynton Marsalis and his Lincoln Center Jazz Band recently joined forces with the LPO for a UK tour. Fiona was one of a group "following the jazzers around to the jazz clubs after the concerts while they let their hair down, improvising for half the night!"
Tom, during a stressful German tour, once livened things up by playing a trick on his friend Robert Pool, another violinist. He phoned his hotel room at 3am and announced, "The coaches are leaving in ten minutes!" Robert leapt out of bed and grabbed a glass of water from his table, draining it in one go. Unfortunately, the water contained his contact lenses. He got his revenge the next night: Tom returned after dinner to find that all his possessions had been cleared out of his room.
"The concert hangs over you all day," says Tom, "and afterwards, you feel as if you've been released from prison! When it goes well, you feel fantastic; when it doesn't, you're really pissed off. The old saying that 'you're only as good as your last concert' is still true." Tony Byrne, LPO co-principal viola, adds, "What annoys me the most is the press! When you've done a concert that you know was fantastic and then you read an indifferent review, you think, 'was this guy actually there?'"
The most unpopular face tends to be the one facing the band from the podium. Tony recounts, "When I first joined the orchestra, an old-timer took me to one side and said, 'Laddy, one thing you have to learn: the conductor is your natural enemy,' as if it was a blood sport!". The cliche of the autocratic maestro, stamping and screaming at his cowering band, is sadly based on fact. I witnessed a rehearsal when an eminence gris yelled "Terrible!" at a tired-out touring band after just a few bars, and a moment later added that the few lines they'd just played "smelled". Several years earlier, I saw a conductor unnerve a fine soprano to such an extent during a rehearsal that in the concert she suffered a memory lapse.
How do players cope with such bile? "I shut my eyes and look the other way," exclaims Fiona. "Fortunately there aren't many of them left: nobody will tolerate it any more." Sue says, "I find it quite amusing. One conductor sang along out loud with a soprano in a concert and the people in the front row must have thought they were getting two for the price of one!"
"We want to do what the conductor wants," says Daniel. "But sometimes they're so bad at conveying what they want that we end up having to guess. My worst experience was with the late Gunther Wand. He stopped us and said, 'Don't play so "muurr" - play more "muurr". We had no idea what he was getting at. We tried again and he still wasn't pleased. Eventually he said, "Yes, that’s better!" - but to me it sounded the same and I had no idea how to reproduce this supposed effect. That was deeply frustrating. But people still talk about him as if he's God."
A top-notch conductor makes the world of difference: "It's been incredible to have the chance to play with people like Wolfgang Sawallisch, Daniel Barenboim and Klaus Tennstedt," says Fiona, "and now I think that our principal guest conductor, Vladimir Jurowski, is something special. I think he has the potential to become as great as anybody."
So much for conductors - what about soloists? The ones who join the fun are always the most popular and the younger orchestral players sometimes go out clubbing after a concert with young soloists like Sarah Chang. Less welcome are stars who send a thank-you card afterwards addressed to the section principals by name, ignoring the existence of rank-and-file players. For a soloist, touring with an orchestra can produce some surprises, as the pianist Lucy Parham discovered in America with the BBC Concert Orchestra: "I didn't know the orchestra's conventions, so had no idea when I first got on the tour bus that the seat I chose would be mine for the next 30 days! We played sweepstakes on the coach - everyone put in $5, the person who won would buy all the drink for the coach the next day and we dreamed up some zany things for people to guess. I had to guess someone's favourite flavour of condom. Because I made the effort to fit in, I quickly felt as if I'd been taken 'to the bosom of their family'."
Nothing cheers up an orchestra more than the words FILM SESSIONS. The LSO landed Harry Potter, while the LPO was employed for Lord of the Rings. Film sessions are good news, but a potential roller-coaster. Matthew Gibson, a double bass player with the LSO, explains: "A week of film sessions can add £2000 to your income. But a director can suddenly postpone the sessions by two weeks, which means that it doesn't fit into the orchestra's schedule any longer." That can be taken as a huge disappointment at best, a near-insult at worst - players cancel family holidays for such events, only to find them, and the pay, snatched away at the last moment. "We depend very much on their whims," says Matthew. "But that's the commercial world."
In the end, the words 'kitchen', 'heat' and 'out' come to mind. Miranda left a full-time orchestral job after seven years, "feeling I was almost on the verge of a breakdown. The life was too 'fast' for me. I was physically exhausted, my playing was deteriorating and I desperately needed to see some different faces. I wanted to give up altogether." But she didn't. "I love playing my instrument and you can't give it up easily when you've invested most of your life in it. Besides, what could be better than giving people pleasure? Classical music is one of the most positive and beautiful creations of mankind. And when I've worked, everyone claps! How many people have that appreciation at work?"
Maybe that's also why, despite the politics, the gossiping, the practical jokes, the financial vacillations, the long absences and the constant sound of the violin in the front room, I've never regretted marrying an orchestral musician. I will only be worried the day he stops whistling the tunes on his way home.
Second violin, London Philharmonic Orchestra
I grew up in London and studied at the Royal Academy of Music, but was launched into the profession accidentally, when I was offered work touring with an excellent chamber orchestra. The Academy wouldn't let me go, so I left, knowing this wasn't a chance I should pass up. I freelanced in London for ten years, mostly with chamber orchestras. But when I had my first taste of playing with a symphony orchestra, there was no turning back: I landed some 'extra' work with the LPO, playing Mahler and Strauss, and fell completely under its spell.
For the past 13 years I've been a single mother to two daughters. This is a hard profession even if you have a spouse who can cover the antisocial hours when you're working; my children have been with au pairs most of the time. They've been virtually orchestra mascots! Their father used to be a leader of the orchestra, they've toured with me and they know everybody in the orchestra. They both play instruments, but they don't want to become musicians, because they can see the hours I work and the way I've been struggling financially in the past few years.
One huge reason why orchestras struggle is because conductors' fees are so high - I think people often don't realise that a conductor can earn up to £15,000 for one concert, while we're paid around £100. As a rank-and-file player it's difficult to earn more than around £30,000 per annum. The only way I've survived is by doing some fairly astute property deals, which have effectively subsidised my life as a musician. Generally I'm very happy in the orchestra, though. I've had some amazing experiences playing with the world's greatest conductors and soloists. I think we're all very fulfilled people.
Sub-principal oboe, BBC Philharmonic
I come from Gloucestershire and I've been playing the oboe since I was nine. By the time I was 15 I hoped I might be able to play in an orchestra, but it seemed like a distant dream! I studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, graduated in 1995, then freelanced for six years before joining the BBC Philharmonic as sub-principal oboe. My favourite concerts are the Proms: I love the wonderful hall and the enthuasiasm of the audience.
My twin boys are just over a year old now. I took a year off when I had them, the maximum time that I could, to get some sanity back into my life. It's tricky to manage the schedule, but we're incredibly lucky to have a flexible part-time nanny - without her, we'd struggle, because two nursery places would cost more than my salary. I don't tour at the moment as I can't travel with the boys; the orchestra allows me unpaid leave. Fortunately my partner is an accountant and is very understanding and supportive. It would be much more difficult if we were both musicians.
I do feel secure in my job in terms of the warmth and emotional support among my colleagues, but with any orchestra in the current climate you can't be certain where it's going to go in the future - with all the movement and rethinking in the BBC, you're never sure what's going to happen next. The whole orchestral scene is like that: we love it, but sometime other people don't see the necessity for it.
As I'm a sub-principal, often playing first oboe, some concerts are more stressful than others. But I enjoy that. If you're mentally with it, you take a deep breath, give a good blow and go for it!
Double bass, London Symphony Orchestra
I've been playing with the LSO since 1990 and have been a full member since 1992. I studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and originally I came from Shropshire. I started the cello aged eight and was so bad at it that my teacher said I should try the double bass! There were very few bassists in Shropshire, so I soon found I was in demand for all kinds of gigs. Once I started playing in groups with other people, I caught the bug. After music college, playing in an orchestra was the natural thing to do.
One of my most memorable moments was when our education and rehearsal centre at St Luke's opened - it took years of planning, fundraising and setbacks, but now it's a wonderful, atmospheric space. I'm involved in the LSO's education programme, Discovery, which is very wide-ranging; 60-70 per cent of the orchestra participates in it in one way or another. I think orchestras have become much more flexible in what we can offer the community - it justifies our existence and I think we have to do that.
I feel proudest when we've played really well, during that moment between the end of the music and the start of the applause, when you can feel the emotion hitting home. The sheer talent of all the musicians, hearing what we can do together on a daily basis - that's very inspiring. If you're on a rough tour, but then you sit down and play something like Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony and you hear the sounds and the ability around you - audiences sometimes think that it happens of its own accord, but everyone's effort and dedication and concentration is amazing. Everyone wants to do their best all the time, for the sake of the orchestra.
Second violin, Halle Orchestra
I'm a northerner from Lancashire, I studied at the Royal Northern College from 1974 to 1978 and I've been in the Halle ever since. Manchester is a fantastic city at the moment - we're resident orchestra at the Bridgewater Hall, which is wonderful, and the city has changed tremendously over the past ten years or so. New buildings, new people - it's a very exciting place.
Mark Elder is our principal conductor: I'm very happy that he's here. I think that Mark and the Halle came together at the optimum moment for both parties. We work hard, we do a huge range of music and we always seem to do it well, which I find very satisfying. A few years ago we had a financial 'wobble', which wasn't easy - but having been here such a long time, I've seen definite progress over that time as a whole, which is heartening. Today we're reaping the rewards of all the hard work.
I've been very involved in our educational programme since its inauguration. It's quite an international undertaking; I once went to Indonesia for two weeks as part of it and the Gamelan players I visited then came to Manchester to do workshops. We've done educational projects in places as diverse as Buenos Aires and Brussels.
We do have a lot of fun generally - it's a warm, friendly band. In 1996 when we had a residency at the Salzburg Festival, our football team took on the Vienna Philharmonic's team and beat them. They didn't like that! One less positive experience was the time we did Malcolm Arnold's A Grand, Grand Overture, scored for orchestra with three Hoovers and a floor polisher, and just as we were about to bring on three volunteers from the audience, one of the Hoovers blew up!
Friday, November 04, 2005
Next, if you were thinking of coming to BELOVED CLARA in Islington on Sunday, please note that the actor will now be Malcolm Sinclair, not Charles Dance (who I believe had a film come in at the last minute). Malcolm has been our stalwart actor since the beginning, however, and it's wonderful that he's on board, so do please turn up if you can. Sunday 6th November, 5pm, St Peter's Church, De Beauvoir Road, London N1.
Thursday, November 03, 2005
The second leading role is that of Alma Rose, Mahler's niece and the daughter of Arnold Rose, the quartet leader. Richard Newman and Karen Kirtley's biography of her, "Alma Rose: Vienna to Auschwitz", paints her as a far more multi-dimensional person than Miller, perhaps, credits her with being. She was not only a tough, non-compromising musician, but a vulnerable woman whose men (especially her husband Vasa Prihoda, violin virtuoso) treated her less than well, and a woman of tremendous inner resources and immense moral fibre. As both a human being, a musician and someone whose surreal, appalling fate was simply unimaginable, she holds a vast fascination for me. I'm glad to have been able to write about this play, which presents deep emotional truths even if some of its facts are not accurate, and to pay tribute in some small way to this terrible story.
The German song I posted yesterday was one that Alma and her Auschwitz musicians performed frequently. I found it in Newman & Kirtley's book (published by Amadeus Press), which is amazing.
Wednesday, November 02, 2005
In mir klingt ein Lied,
ein schones Lied,
und durch die Seele mir erinnern zieht.
Mein Herz war still.
Nun erklingen wieder zarte Tone,
ruft in mir alles auf.
Leben war fern,
Und Wunsche fremd.
Mein Herz! Wie ruhig warst Du lange Zeit.
Doch nun kam nah
All mein Gluck und mein Verlangen,
Tiefstes Sehnen, schlaflos Bangen.
Alles, alles lebt jetzt wieder auf.
Ich will doch nur
Frieden fur mein Herz,
Ruhe will ich nur,
nicht denken wieder (mehr)
An ein schones Lied.
Monday, October 31, 2005
Saturday, October 29, 2005
Great concert too - another first was hearing Tchaikovsky's Third Symphony live in a concert hall. A work I've always loved from recordings but one that never normally gets played, except for the New York City Ballet performing Balanchine's 'Jewels'. Tchaikovsky in a good mood is such a rarity that it's surprising nobody makes the most of it when it happens, as it undoubtedly does here. The nickname 'Polish' makes me laugh, though, because - except for the Polonaise in the last movement - this music is so terrifically, unmistakeably Russian...
The evening was only marred a little by the Dvorak Cello Concerto, played passably - I use this word with reason, as you'll see in a mo - by the LPO's quasi-resident soloist, Pieter Wispelwey. He's a handsome Dutch fellow (peculiarly resembling a leading British politician) who is very good at Bach in period style. No reason, I guess, why he should have a grander concept of the Dvorak, given that his natural bent is clearly not for romanticism. But hear that famous recording of Slava playing his guts out, and one wonders why anything less would ever do. Playing aside, Wispelwey's facial expressions - ranging from apparent surprise to intense frustration to incipient apoplexy - conjured up for me startlingly marvellous images of Tony Blair in need of prunes.
UPDATE: SUNDAY MORNING - Here's Anna Picard's review of the concert from The Independent - she has less time than me for the QEH acoustics, and more for Wispelwey's playing, but her impression of his face is even more extreme than mine...!
Friday, October 28, 2005
The Royal Ballet at Covent Garden has startled me by programming not one but two ballets to Faure this season. I had to go and see at least one of them (I may give the Requiem ballet a miss, as that piece makes me cry, not an advantage if you're trying to watch a ballet). Last night's triple bill opened with 'La fete etrange', which, I'm reliably informed, the company nicknames 'Strange Feet'. The very slight story is based - very slightly - on part of Le Grand Meulnes by Alain-Fournier - one of my all-time favourite books - and Faure is the perfect choice to accompany it. Darcey Bussell danced the leading role of the ultimately abandoned Bride. She is incredibly wonderful to watch, with such openness and lyricism in her long limbs that she radiates light by simply walking on stage. The choreography has its moments, but on the whole wasn't particularly memorable; as for the music, seven piano pieces and two songs by Monsieur Gabriel, orchestrated by Lennox Berkeley - well, all I can say is there's a reason why Faure used a piano. Disappointing over all - yet Darcey Bussell's performance was the best part of the evening.
Second up was Pierrot Lunaire - a Glen Tetley masterpiece, danced for a long time by Rambert but currently in the Royal's repertoire for the first time. This choreography is absolutely stunning and a humungous tour de force for the dancers, especially Pierrot (in this case the gorgeous Federico Bonelli). The ensemble in the pit managed the score superbly, which was a relief since the Faure had sounded dreadful. But even today most people in the audience absolutely can't stand this music. That also goes for professional violinists being dragged along by their balletomane wives. It's phenomenal to think that Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire will soon be a hundred years old. Nobody has ever LIKED it. Nobody is EVER GOING to LIKE it. However much we admire it, however much we're forced to study it at school, however 'important' it's supposed to be - was it really? was it not rather a path into an unusually blind alley? is it not desperately dated today? - the miserable fact remains: this stuff SOUNDS ghastly. Bluster away, ye purists: it's true. There were people in Covent Garden last night who walked out, despite the astonishing things that were taking place on stage.
And finally to Marguerite and Armand - the Frederick Ashton classic created for Fonteyn and Nureyev and not revived after their demise for many years, since it was deemed that nobody else could carry it off. Last night we saw Sylvie Guillem and an Italian hunk - excellent dancers, yet the Italian lacked all sense of charisma and Guillem lacked all sense of tenderness. As the ballet depends heavily on both - a lot of it consists, to put it bluntly, of snogging - this was a major disappointment. The Liszt B minor Sonata, transformed into a concerto and slowed down to accommodate dancers' needs, has also heard better days, though it's incredible to see the way the story fits it so perfectly - there's even a built-in cough motif. Guillem's fan club was out in force, but in the Bussell - Guillem rivalry stakes, Tom and I back Darcey all the way. She moved me more in the insubstantial role she took in La Fete Etrange than Guillem did at any point in the wildly dramatic Marguerite.
A rare surprise, however: Anthony Dowell put in an appearance as Armand's father. Dowell was my great pin-up when I was 13. Seriously, when I had a ticket to see him dance I used to count the days until the show! I lived from performance to performance (tickets were a lot cheaper then, incidentally) and the agony was only relieved when I found a musician whose concerts provided the same thrill and the same need to count days - KZ, of course. I'd never expected to see the glorious Sir Anthony on that stage again, as we are none of us as young as we used to be, and this therefore brought a gentle lump to the throat.
Another nice surprise the previous night at the LPO's first gig at the Queen Elizabeth Hall...but more of that another time.
Wednesday, October 26, 2005
Tuesday, October 25, 2005
What I love about writing for the Indy is that it's a constant challenge. The learning curves move rapidly and are sometimes steep (this certainly was), but always stretch my brain in one way or another. The complete opposite is writing the novels, poring for days on end over whether I really ought to have a particular phrase on the first page...although that's the biggest stretch of all.
For the moment, I've discovered rock 'n' roll. And I love it.
Sunday, October 23, 2005
I used to enjoy watching piano competitions. I even went to Leeds once (about 7 years ago, if I've counted right) to cheer on some friends who were participating, and I heard some wonderful playing...by people who didn't make it past the second round or, sometimes, even the first. The winner, I thought later, was also terrific. I went to a concert he gave at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and loved every minute of it. I believe he moved to the States. It's so long now since I heard of him giving a concert in the UK that I can't even remember his name. Was he that much better than those I went to cheer on? They, in some cases, are struggling to keep their heads above water. Some of them are struggling to have enough to eat. And frankly, the differential wasn't huge. I'm not sure it existed.
At Leeds I was able hear for the first time a marvellous young Romanian pianistLuiza Borac, who played Liszt sounding like a young Argerich. She's recording for the redoubtable Avie now and is starting to get the recognition she deserves. Did she get into the finals? No, of course not...How do they decide these things?!? All too often the wrong people get the prizes, and the right ones are left out in the cold. No wonder things in the music world need a shake up.
I'll only say this once: CORRUPTION KILLS ART. And piano competitions are full of it.
Friday, October 21, 2005
Q: What's the definition of a major second?
A: Two baroque oboists playing in unison.
Plenty more where that came from.
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
Monday, October 17, 2005
By the way, the Amazon blurb has nothing to do with me, and, frankly, not all that much to do with my book. RITES may not exactly be Ian McEwan, but it's a little more serious than it sounds in their paragraph. Anorexia ain't funny and the girl in the story is in a life-threatening situation. Before you ask, I've never had anorexia. Given the amount of it in the school I attended, that seems little short of miraculous, but I always liked my food far too much. Especially chocolate.
HELLO!!! - ANY US PUBLISHERS OUT THERE WANT TO HAVE A LOOK AT MY BOOK????
Saturday, October 15, 2005
If you're new to the wonders of Palestrina, try this CD.
Meanwhile, to wake you up, here are a few responses to Google searches that have led to some readers finding this blog:
The Octobass is huge and magnificent and lives in the Musical Instrument Museum in the Cite de la Musique in Paris.
I don't think Nikolai Znaider is married, but I may be wrong.
I don't know who Leif Ove Andsnes's girlfriend is.
Marc-Anthony Turnage is NOT 'awful'. He's a great guy and writes fantastic music.
Tuesday, October 11, 2005
All I can add is that I wouldn't mind paying to hear this lady if I could stand what she does musically. But I can't. Her Korngold recording, to be fair, is OK, but the Tchaikovsky that's paired with it is cringe-worthy...as for the Mozart, well, we'll see.
Monday, October 10, 2005
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind,
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too -
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.