Saturday, April 29, 2017

Transformative women in music initiative secures €200k from Creative Europe


Absolutely stunning news today from the PRS Foundation that the Keychange initiative has been awarded a grant of €200,000 by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union. The money will enable a new network of female artists and innovators to collaborate and showcase their work at partner festivals from Estonia to Canada. (You can see the participating organisations in the poster above.)

An effort stemming from and building upon the PRS Foundation's experience of running the highly successful Women Make Music fund in the UK, Keychange's far-reaching aim is "to transform Europe's music industry for current and future generations by accelerating recognition of women's artistic and economic value and empowering them to work together across European and international borders".

This talent development initiative will directly benefit 35 music creators and 30 innovative industry professionals, while a digital platform will facilitate the involvement of hundreds more. Participants will be selected through a nomination process and joint selection at the Reeperbahn Festival in Germany in September. The partners plan to present a joint manifesto for change to the European Parliament in 2019.

Vanessa Reed, Chief Executive of PRS Foundation said: “I’m delighted that we’ve succeeded as lead partner in our application to Creative Europe in spite of uncertainties posed by the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. European and international collaboration is essential to the creative and business development of individual artists and the industry as a whole. Keychange’s focus on giving talented women access to international networks and new markets at critical stages in their career will help them realise their potential as future leaders of an industry that is ready for change. I’m proud to be working with such an impressive line-up of festivals and music organisations to realise this ambitious European project which is based on shared values and a joint commitment to shifting the status quo.

Read more about it here.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A nuclear bomb in the Barbican



How do you set an atomic bomb to music? To attempt it, you have to think big. Over the centuries, the greatest composers have arguably stood or fallen by their willingness to tackle the giant topics of their time, sometimes those of all time. Bach set the Crucifixion. Beethoven tackled liberty and fraternity. Wagner portrayed the end of the world and its rebirth. In Dr Atomic, John Adams has depicted a night that changed history forever, building up to the test of a nuclear bomb at Los Alamos and, at the last moment, fusing this event with the use of the "gadget" (as some of the characters call it) a few weeks later on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Adams, currently circumnavigating the world for his 70th birthday celebrations, has been in London this week recording the opera with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, finishing with a sort-of-semi-staged concert last night at the Barbican. Although the work was done at ENO when brand new, it isn't performed live often and the chance to be fully immersed in its terrifying world and boundary-crunching approach is not to be missed.

It's a dark, desperate piece that, in exploring an incident that changed humankind into a species capable of destroying its own world, plunges deep into the impulses of the soul - and manipulates our sense of time while doing so. We become intensely aware of the beauty and wonder of the world, the sensuality of it heightened by the poetry selected by Peter Sellars for the libretto, while intensifying the consciousness of horrifying imminent destruction.

John Adams. Photo: Vern Evans
The drama is in many ways inward, as Oppenheimer - at first seemingly transfixed by scientific data and the prospect of a "brilliant luminescence" - then becomes increasingly tortured and implicitly terrified by what he has created. In concert, the effect is in some ways more that of an oratorio than an opera: the settings of poems by John Donne, Charles Baudelaire, Muriel Rukeyser and others offer moments of reflection on love, death, sensuality and beauty, set to music that ebbs and flows in waves of shimmering, multifaceted, orchestral gorgeousness, the voices often soaring across the top in widespread extended phrases that reach both stratospheres and profundities of range, often in quick succession.

The personal interactions could be seen as the equivalent of recitatives and are mostly discussions between the men: General Groves bullies Frank Hubbard to predict good weather for the test even though dangerous storms are taking place, and engages in a lighter-hearted exchange with Oppenheimer about diet [dang! I thought Roxanna and I were the first team to put chocolate brownies into an opera, but no...]. Ensembles are few, though mesmerising when they occur - Wilson's dream of falling from the bomb tower is a case in point. Choruses are illustrative, sometimes devastating - the vision of Vishnu in particular - and the chorus's role is to contextualise, comment and evoke, but not especially to be a human presence.

The overarching time-drama of the whole edifice, though, is not so much Bachian as Wagnerian. The entire three-or-so hours of music is a build-up of tension to the final event. In short, we are waiting for a nuclear bomb to explode. At the end, it does.

Along the way, we sense the shifting of history's tectonic plates - keening violins, shuddering double-basses, the inimitable threat from the bass clarinet, visionary swirls of harp, flashes of lightening from piccolo or trumpet, an extraordinary episode early in act II, brass-led, that builds upwards and outwards, transforming its harmonies continually like a passage Wagner forgot to write. And like the fall of Valhalla, like the death of Stravinsky's Chosen Maiden, the release of tension in the final cataclysm is a form of catharsis. In music, after all, these violent ends sometimes presage a renewal of hope. (Having so said, this opera is probably the scariest musical experience I've encountered since first hearing The Rite of Spring.)

Conducted by the composer himself, the BBC Symphony Orchestra played like people possessed, fully matched by the BBC Singers, sounding like an ensemble twice the actual size (they also put believable American twists into their diction). The soloists were pure gold: Gerald Finley, Adams's original, the powerful and vocally luminous Oppenheimer; Julia Bullock radiant and expressive as Kitty, relishing the sensual poetry of "fierce peace"; Jennifer Johnston a dark, aching Pasqualita. The subsidiary male roles were all characterful and persuasive: Brindley Sherratt a fine Teller, Andrew Staples touching as Wilson, Aubrey Allicock a General Groves one wouldn't want to come up against if one was a weather-forecaster, Marcus Farnsworth and Samuel Sakker excellent as Hubbard and Captain James Nolan.

Staging, handled sensitively by Kenneth Richardson, was necessarily limited as the orchestra is absolutely vast, with a heavy-duty, space-eating plethora of percussion; there's not much room to move, so most of the effect was achieved by costumes and lighting. But there's much that can be done with that: a blaze of red light as the explosion begins, the ensemble cover their eyes - then darkness. As the final recorded voice intones Japanese pleas for help, for water for the children, the orchestra switch off their lights one by one until nothing is left but a ground zero in the pitch-black soul of humanity itself.

One might have expected the standing ovation to continue for longer, but the impression was that much of the audience was seriously shaken up by the experience and probably wanted air, which was in short supply. But one overriding image? The bomb explodes; and the composer stands, measuring out the bars with his baton. Humanity can create the horrors of the atomic bomb. Humanity can also create the wonder of great music about giant topics. Adams has done so.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Staring into the sun

Sunset over the Atlantic

We've been roots-finding in South Africa these past two weeks. It was 21 years ago that I was last there, having quality time with my terminally-ill father. My parents left in the 1950s and my father had always refused to go back until apartheid fell. After Mandela came to power, Dad spent his last several winters in Cape Town; it was only when I saw him there, in 1996, happy and smiling despite his illness, that I realised he had missed it all his life. Since then I'd had no wish to return, given the painful nature of the associated memories. This time, though, we had incentive as my husband has discovered family to visit too.

Another South African cousin...of Ricki and Cosi.
The place has changed enormously in those two decades. The problems of today are all too evident, in forms including destitution, smog and anxiety about the future. But in 1996 the end of apartheid was relatively recent and evidence of change was slow.

Moving forward...in Addo Elephant Park
Today, though, you can walk around the seaside Garden Route towns of Knysna and Hermanus, explore the Addo Elephant Park, eat out in Port Elizabeth or Cape Town and sense a basic openness and contentment with the multicultural society that has emerged.

As a tourist it's hard to know how deep this goes, but the feeling that everyone is out enjoying the sunshine, the local fruit and seafood and the beauty of the landscapes side by side is something new to me in that country - immeasurably so, compared to my early experiences on childhood visits to family there, which shocked me profoundly when I was a six-year-old in a car passing Soweto.

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Cape Town
Today a whole generation has grown up without apartheid. And even if my positive impressions are still perhaps more superficial than we starry-eyed visitors would like it to be, even if the future remains uncertain, the politics in upheaval and the dangers no doubt present, it has changed for the better in so many ways that I felt this trip offered a heartening note.

We remember, seeing South Africa, that countries can change for the better. Many others are changing for the worse at the moment, and it's easy to succumb to despair. We shouldn't. Transformation, a positive opening out, is possible, given will, action and enough time.

Melkbosstrand, north of Cape Town
As for the matter of never taking pictures into the sun, I don't buy that. Why not? Why do things the same way all the time? Let's flood the place with light.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Happy Easter, Pesach and spring everything

I'm off on holiday for a bit, doing some interesting things a long way south. See you soon. Until then, here's a clue...




and another, just because I love this one so much too...



"This is the story of how we begin to remember..."

Saturday, April 08, 2017

How to create fiction from reality

(...as opposed to creating reality from fiction, which seems to be going on a lot...)

Seriously, though, this is going to be a fun evening. Among Ghost Variations' sibling books at Unbound is Jennie Ensor's brilliant psychological thriller Blind Side, set at the time of the 7/7 London tube bombings. Both books are based around real events, as well as sharing a theme of the "outsider" in London, so we've got together to do some joint talks and discussions.

On 4 May at 6.30pm we'll be at The Sheen Bookshop, 375 Upper Richmond Road, London SW14, to talk about the hows and whys of crafting fiction out of reality. There'll be wine, discussions, readings, questions etc, and your modest £2 entrance fee is redeemable against the price of one of our books (though of course we hope you'll buy both!). Do join us if you can.

You can book in advance at Eventbrite here, or phone/email the shop to reserve a place: 020 8876 1717 or sheen@hewsonbooks.co.uk .

Friday, April 07, 2017

Gifted at Whitgift

Scholarships can change lives. I feel lucky to be on a panel that gives enviable opportunities to youngsters on the basis of their musical talent. But my goodness, it's a tricky task.

In these weird times, there's nothing more inspiring and encouraging than encountering gifted young musicians, because they give us hope for the future. These teenagers, born in the 21st century, possess the same communicative, expressive instinct and passion that has always driven music-making through the centuries, through different vogues, epochs and lands. The thread continues. It's very much with us. And it's not going away.

Krystof Kohout, our violinist first prizewinner
Over the past few years I've been privileged to be on the jury panel for a biennial international music competition at Whitgift School in Croydon. The Whitgift International Music Competition is open to potential students from all over the world and the winners get a cash prize and/or a full scholarship to the school (perhaps the sole drawback is that it's a school and competition only for boys). Past winners, including some remarkable young violinists from Moldova, have gone on to study at various London music colleges and they are now reaching the stage at which I'm going to start looking out for them in much bigger competitions and concert halls. Until this year, the focus was on strings, but this time we opened it up to wind and brass - with inspiring results.

It's been an intense week. With so many gifted teenagers, how on earth do you "rank" them? Occasionally you do find someone who steps on to a stage and simply belongs there, connects with the listeners and knows how to make music from the heart and gut. Step forward, clarinettist Marian Bozhidarov from Bulgaria, and trumpeter Albert Baciu, from Moldova: two splendid young musicians with incipient star quality whose progress I'm looking forward enormously to following. They won joint first prize in the senior wind and brass category. 

Our string players were more difficult to choose from, because each was so superb, yet in a totally individual way. Sometimes a performance is almost note-perfect, yet doesn't entirely connect with the listener on a musical level; other times there are insecurities and slips, yet you can be moved almost to tears by the most beautiful, natural and heartfelt phrasing, and you suspect that with further study and polish that person has extraordinary potential; and in other cases you suspect that the candidate's choice of repertoire doesn't necessarily show their strengths to best effect, yet that's all there is to go on. It's particularly complex when you know your jury's choices will change someone's life, especially if they choose to take up the scholarship they are offered from the other side of Europe or, in some cases, the world. 

Our first prize in the senior strings went to the 17-year-old violinist Krystof Kohout from the Czech Republic, second to Chiu Chun John Lui from Hong Kong and third to Joel David Munday from Exeter (also both violinists). In the junior section, the winner was the violist Junyi Li, with splendid performances from Mark Reinski of London (playing the almost impossible Concerto Pathétique by Ernst) taking second prize and Iohan Coman from Romania in third place. But everyone gave performances that were gorgeous in their own ways - for instance, I won't forget in a hurry the Bartók Romanian Dances as played by Arsim Gashi of Kosovo. It was an absolute joy to listen to them. 

In the end, I suspect some of these boys will make it no matter what happens, prize or none, because they have the sheer fire in the belly to do so. Technique can be taught; discipline can be taught to some; but there's that something else that has to be present from the start and can't be imparted... 

Here's a video from 2012 about Whitgift's first Moldovan scholarship winner, Grig Cuciuc, who five years on is now finishing his stint at the Royal College of Music. It shows some of the challenges, chances and ambitions that scholarships such as Whitgift's and subsequently the one he won from Edelweiss can support.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Quick reminder...

In case you were wondering: yesterday's post was indeed an April Fool's joke. That doesn't mean, though, that there are not some extremely serious concerns about the effects of Brexit on the British musical scene, which is international through and through. Many thanks to the extraordinary number of people who logged on to read about the London Hamburger Orchestra!

Saturday, April 01, 2017

SHOCK: Top London orchestra will relocate to Germany

New home: the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg

The London Philharmonic Orchestra has allegedly accepted a remarkable offer from the City of Hamburg to move to Germany after Brexit, adopting a new home base at the magnificent Elbphilharmonie. The UK orchestra is thought to be planning its migration for the year 2021, allowing time for Brexit negotiations to end and the 120-odd families involved to make relocation plans.

The deal is thought to include a substantial pay rise as well as improved working conditions that are standard amongst orchestras in Germany. The musicians can also expect to enjoy the facilities of the splendid new hall, which opened in January this year.

A Hamburg city representative declared: "Just as centres such as Frankfurt and Paris can't wait to get their hands on the business of British banks wishing to escape the effects of a hard Brexit, so we also are eager to welcome the finest arts organisations whose business operations will be made much easier if they can continue within the single market of the EU."

Asked about the expense to the city of supporting a British orchestra in addition to its own, the representative gave a shrug and a smile, saying: "This is a prosperous place with its feet on the ground and an enlightened approach to long-term thinking. We invest in the arts as a vital contributor to a proud and prosperous future for all people in our country. We value music as a symbol of humanity, unity and cultural enrichment. Musicians here are artists, and top-level, highly respected professionals besides. We like to treat them accordingly and show them how much they are valued."

The orchestra will continue to perform the concerts of its residency at Southbank Centre, but expects to find the exchange rate with the plunging pound favourable when paid in Euros.

While some members of the ensemble are said to be worried about the language, a spokesperson for the orchestra said: "Music is a universal language and will continue to unite us as it always has."

Asked what they would miss about London, some musicians remarked sarcastically: "The ruinously expensive hour-and-a-half commute to work on unreliable trains. And the cost of living was already ridiculous here even without the inflation Brexit is bringing." Others, however, praised the diversity, open-mindedness and enthusiasm of British audiences.

Although the deal reportedly divided opinion among the players at first, the clinching factor is reported to be a practice already known in Cologne, where every member of the orchestra is handed a glass of lager as they step off stage at the end of the concert. The Londoners on the Elbe are to receive a mug each of the excellent local Bergdorferbier after every performance.

The orchestra's name will be changed to reflect its new binational status. It will henceforth be known as the London Hamburger Orchestra.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Soulmates?

Hamelin & Andsnes
Image: www.goldstar.com
The morning after, my head is still the worse for wear after encountering the juggernaut that is The Rite of Spring at nearly close enough quarters to cut its toenails. Stripped of its orchestral colour, performed on two pianos by a pair worthy of the label Two of Today's Greatest Living Pianists, Stravinsky's ballet comes over in x-ray clarity: the bones, muscles and sinews are as vivid as a dancer's, the workings of those shattering and shattered rhythms and the cruel, elemental crashes and crunches of multi harmonies steaming around you and boiling your blood, to say nothing of your eardrums. My God, it's a brutal, hideous thing, this vision of a tribe killing its pure and innocent young one. It's almost as if Stravinsky might have gone into a trance and predicted, unconsciously, the decades that were to follow.

The pianists responsible last night were Marc-André Hamelin and Leif Ove Andsnes, who took to the Wigmore Hall platform for a gritty programme - mostly Stravinsky, a bit of Debussy, plus Mozart as an opening amuse-bouche. I hear they first got together when Marc played in Leif Ove's festival, but however well you know their playing - and lots of piano fans know them both extremely well - you might not have guessed that they could turn out to be musical soulmates.

There are two basic ways to approach playing two-piano music, as with most chamber music. You can remain two individuals, exchanging and sparkling and making individual noises that point up the differences between you: this can work beautifully as a fun exchange, a conversation in which the performers are together yet still themselves. The other approach, which is much more difficult, is to fuse. To become one great machine with two keyboards, twenty fingers and two brains working as one. Hearing either of these two musicians alone, you might appreciate Andsnes's deep-velvet sound and forensic clarity of vision, or Hamelin's lyrical turns of phrase and super-cool supremacy over any technical challenge; yesterday, all were present, yet I doubt anyone would have been able to guess which was which from sound alone. They have much in common: a laid-back presence, a vaguely Nordic cool (Andsnes is from Norway, Hamelin from Canada) and a solid artistry that you can rely on with total confidence. 

They opened with Mozart's Larghetto and Allegro in E flat, in the version completed by Paul Badura-Skoda - a lively, lyrical, often sublime miniature with challenges aplenty, through which they brought lyricism to the fore: calm rather than excitability prevailed. Stravinsky's Concerto for Two Pianos, written in the 1930s for the composer to perform with his son, Soulima, is more of a rarity and probably with good reason: it's a chunky creation to chew on, sometimes evoking the hewn-out blocks and soaring lines of art deco, or presenting heavy-duty fugal writing derived from late Beethoven (yes, really). Debussy's En blanc et noir is an often enigmatic creation, its abstract explorations of colour and timbre punctuated by a central movement that is a searing portrait of World War I emotional life complete with bugle calls, a heavy-footed Lutheran chorale and hints of distant gunfire - all of it conveyed with detailed brushstrokes and subtle, seamless blending by the two pianists, these veritable painters of sound. 

And then, after the interval, the Rite. It was first heard on the piano when Stravinsky and Debussy played it through together. The critic Louis Laloy was there:


“Stravinsky asked if he could take his collar off. His sight was not improved by his glasses, and pointing his nose to the keyboard and sometimes humming a part that had been omitted from the arrangement, he led into a welter of sound the supple, agile hands of his friend. Debussy followed without a hitch and seemed to make light of the difficulty. When they had finished there was no question of embracing, nor even of compliments. We were dumbfounded, overwhelmed by this hurricane which had come from the depths of the ages and which had taken life by the roots.”

104 years later: yes, exactly.

Two Stravinsky encores - a tango and the Circus Polka - lightened the mood if not the language. I think that's quite enough Stravinsky for a little while.




Thursday, March 30, 2017

Philharmonia doubles up

The Philharmonia has today announced the appointment of their new principal guest conductor. And their other principal guest conductor too. The lucky maestri are Jakub Hruša from the Czech Republic and Santtu-Matias Rouvali from Finland. They will take up their shared role at the start of the 2017-18 season and will be the first conductors to hold the post since the death of Sir Charles Mackerras in 2010. You can see them both in London next month: Hruša conducts the Philharmonia on 6 April and Rouvali on 23rd at the Royal Festival Hall.

Here are two introductions to them:






We look forward to getting to know them!

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Buried treasure found in Cadogan Hall

Every now and then someone unearths a piece by Delius and holds its opaline gorgeousness up to the light to glimmer for a moment before it is shoved back into hiding. The rarity of his music is our loss, and it speaks volumes about the prejudices of the musical herd-mentality over the decades. A Village Romeo and Juliet may be an imperfect treasure, but it’s a treasure nonetheless, and when it is well performed (as it was at the Wexford Festival a few years ago) one can be left a tad furious that it is so rarely given a chance...

My review of last night's performance by New Sussex Opera of Delius's gorgeous tragic opera A Village Romeo and Juliet is up now at The Critics' Circle. It was a treat to hear it again, even in the not-very-operatic Cadogan Hall with a semi-pro company, reduced orchestra and some seemingly flat-packed planks. And I hope that clarinettist might twist his father's arm...

All is revealed here. 


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

As easy as do-re-me...

An article in The Guardian yesterday appears to have declared that music education is elitist because the notation is unintelligible unless you're privately educated, and therefore notation ought to be dropped. Oh dear.

At least, that's how it has been interpreted. Actually, there's a bit more to it than that.

Let's start at the very beginning. There's nothing elitist about reading music and if you learn it early on, it's easy as pie. A number of friends have responded that they managed to learn music notation in a day or two at their state primary schools. I vaguely remember learning it aged about 5, when my mum gave me some piano basics from this book (yes, I am that old...):



You know, of course, that kids learn anything and everything much faster than adults, especially if they are brought up with it from the start. My littler nephews, half Italian, were bilingual from the beginning, because if you're taught two languages as something normal, it just is normal to you. (That's also why kids can fix your computer problems...) Music is a language of sorts, and suggesting that notation shouldn't be taught is like saying that learning a language can be accomplished without knowing any vocabulary. If all children were to be taught to read music as young as possible, preferably before they are 7, they would have it as a skill and an asset for the rest of their lives.

What's so difficult about reading music anyway? It's incredibly straightforward and logical. The pitches go up and down, so you show them going up or down on the stave. There are only 12 notes, so when you finish the 12th you just start over again. The different clefs indicate which note is where, and they're designed to make it easier for you according to the pitch of your voice or the instrument you play. You can modify the notes with sharps or flats (OK, sometimes double sharps or double flats if you're Fauré trying to do something very clever, but never mind that for the moment).

You show the duration of the notes with clear, basic symbols. They're not so hard to remember, according to our teacher at school, when we were 11. She'd draw one bar of music on the blackboard with white chalk. One big round plain note was a semibreve and it went TAAAA. Two smaller ones taking up the same amount of time were minims and went TAA TAA. Four crotchets to the semibreve, going TA TA TA TA. Then you could fit two quavers with their funny black tails into each crotchet, going TA-TE-TA-TE-TA-TE-TA-TE. And then semiquavers, worth half a quaver each, going TAFFA-TEFFY-TAFFA-TEFFY.... (I'm not sure what we'd do with demisemiquavers, but maybe TAFFA-TEFFY-TIFFY-TOFFY?) OK, now you have the basics.

There are other teaching systems aplenty. My cello-playing nephew used to go to a very good Saturday morning music school and learned another way altogether. Creative teachers who really connect with youngsters can and do come up with all manner of interesting methods.

Still, one vital point in the original article is really worth a second look. It's the art of playing by ear. It would be enormously, immeasurably, phenomenally valuable if more of us learned to play by ear as early as possible. The solfège system is a great mystery to UK kids being put through the grade-exam mill and has never been part of our music education system (such as it is). In France and various other places it is absolutely standard. It is, in basic concept, as simple as The Sound of Music tells us, and once learned it helps you to know, as second nature, the relation of one note to another. That doesn't mean you won't find it a headache en route from time to time, but, like learning notation, it's an investment for your future. Over to Maria and the Von Trapp children:



While there is nothing inherently academic about notation, any more than there is something inherently academic about learning to read and write, we often remain too tied to the page. Playing by ear can free you up in all manner of ways. This is because it's not essentially the notes that hamstring us: it's authority.

It's your dad saying: "Stop mucking about and practise properly". It's your teacher saying: "No, you can't just make it up as you go along". It's the examiner at the desk following the score to make sure you're observing the right kind of crescendo in the right place, and you won't get a distinction if you don't (and then your grandmother will be terribly upset, because she's convinced you're the next Martha Argerich even though you're 10 years old and doing Grade 3, so you have to feel guilty too).

I would love to be able to play by ear, but was actively discouraged from trying. As a kid I used to seek hours of harmless fun by working out how to play tunes from my favourite records, then sticking basic accompaniments onto them. This probably caused cacophony at home; I was ordered to stop mucking about and practise properly. That was the end of it. Incidentally, I'm a useless sight-reader to this day.

Sight-reading ability, contrary to the Guardian piece, doesn't go only with being able to read. It goes with having the courage to try. To trust yourself to attempt something you haven't first taken to bits and worked out very, very slowly.

The few times I've found myself able to sight-read have been the occasions on which I've known by ear how the piece goes (this is assuming we're talking about something technically straightforward, not the Franck Violin Sonata). You look at the page, you hear it in your head and you know what to do with it. If you can't hear it in your inner ear first, it will be much harder to play. That's one reason the sight-reading tests in grade exams used to be so difficult, because they were designed, I used to feel, to catch you out, almost as if to make sure you probably couldn't hear it in your head first. They weren't actual pieces of music. Talk about putting kids off. I think, though, that this has now been tackled and reformed.

The signal that somewhere along the line British musical education really is too academic comes into focus with the divide between music college and university. I sincerely hope it's changed since my day. I graduated 30 years ago this summer, after three years of beating my head against every brick wall in town looking for somewhere to practise. The performance element in that course counted for an optional one-seventh of the third year, so during the first two years you weren't really allowed to practise because it wasn't part of your course until the third year, and then you didn't have to do it and if you didn't feel confident after having not been allowed to practise for two years you could choose a different option instead and stop worrying. The fact that most music students do play music and need to practise consistently tended to pass the colleges by - the college academics, most of them not musical at all, had no clue that becoming a musician requires regular, daily training as much as becoming an Olympic rower does. In the official view, music was an admirable pastime for an amateur but a dreadful profession, one to be looked down upon, condemning you to use the tradesmen's entrance forever. Institutional arrogance can close minds, ears and eyes. I lost count of the number of times I heard the words: "We are not a conservatoire".

After that, I tried to go to a music college, only to be faced with aural tests of sub-O-level standard, and then the words "Well, we're not a bloody university, you know, you can't just pick and choose". Caught between snobbery and inverted snobbery, I left. This divide seemed bad at the time, but the extraordinary thing is that I still feel angry about it now and it happened three decades ago.

In better news, a lot of fine musicians came out of both institutions. At that university the early music specialists had masses of support; the singers found ample opportunity to test their wings in chapels and university opera; and good student orchestras were two a penny and would-be conductors could form them and learn their craft on the job. As for pianists, a few things to kick against can work wonders for your motivation. Learning resilience has a value all its own and is not included in any curriculum, anywhere, ever.

Since then, I think the situation has changed incrementally: for instance, there are now plenty of joint courses between universities and music colleges, and more practical aspects of music-making are wound into school options if and where they exist. These old divides, though, would not suddenly have kicked in at tertiary level, from nowhere. Such matters tend to be rooted deeply in societal attitudes that have persisted for decades, sometimes centuries, and can prove hard to eradicate. I believe that our finest universities and colleges have been working hard to make those changes and if they have succeeded, then that is wonderful. But it has to work from the bottom up. Therefore starter music education must not be "elitist" and divided into artificially incompatible academic and practical strands - and I hope that in most places it already is not.

And the only egalitarian way to ensure that music education is not "elitist" is to provide it free, with a grounding in an instrument, in singing and in notation, in every school, for every child, from the very beginning. So there you go.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

SILVER BIRCH: Come to Garsington and see our opera!


Booking is now open for SILVER BIRCH, the new 'People's Opera' by composer Roxanna Panufnik, with a libretto by muggins. It's not only the fulfilment of a dream; this creative process, deeply collaborative at every level, has been entirely new to me, and it's one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences I've been lucky enough to encounter.

Performances are on 28, 29 and 30 July at Garsington Opera, Wormsley, near High Wycombe. You can book online here. 

The theme is the impact of war on soldiers and their families, tying together Siegfried Sassoon's World War I poetry and the experiences of those serving in modern warfare. It's designed to appeal to opera regulars and newbies alike and of all ages. It's fast paced and action packed, emotions run high and Rox has written some incredibly beautiful music, as well as letting her hair down a bit in the battle scene...
Inspired by the timeless themes of war and relationships affected by it, the opera draws upon Siegfried Sassoon's poems and the testimony of a British soldier, who served recently in Iraq, to illustrate the human tragedies of conflicts past and present. Jack joins the army to silence his father's taunts for his love of poetry. Joined by his brother Davey, their devastating experiences turn the whole family's world upside down. Supported by the power of their mother's love as she tries to hold the family together they, like Sassoon himself, seek to help those whose suffering they share. 
Jack 
Sam Furness
Anna
Victoria Simmonds
Simon
Darren Jeffery
Siegfried Sassoon
Bradley Travis
Mrs Morrell
Sarah Redgwick
Davey
James Way
Conductor
Douglas Boyd
Director
Karen Gillingham
Designer
Rhiannon Newman Brown
Composer
Roxanna Panufnik
Librettist
Jessica Duchen
Movement Director
Natasha Khamjani

We have:

A cast to die for (see above)
Some wonderful child soloists
Garsington's adult community chorus, which happens to include Siegfried Sassoon's great-nephew
A large choir of local children
Youth dance
Foley artists from Shepperton film studios
Digital animation by VJ Mischa Giancovich
Members of the Armed Forces

Book soon because there are only 3 performances and space is limited!

Friday, March 24, 2017

Viola goes for a run, joking aside...

Alistair in training...
There must be something in the water at Birmingham Conservatoire. As if an all-night piano marathon wasn't enough, complete with overnight cycle ride from London, their violist Alistair Rutherford is running a half-marathon for charity - dressed as a viola. It's all in a good cause, for Soweto string students. Do support him.

Birmingham Conservatoire tells us:

Donning a custom-made viola costume, Alistair Rutherford will be running the Liverpool Half Marathon on Sunday 2 April. Created by Merseyside-based designer Brian D Hanlon, the outfit is made from lightweight Plastazote foam. 

Alistair hopes to raise funds for the collaborative UK-South African project, Cape Gate MIAGI Centre for Music & Birmingham Conservatoire – or ARCO. This project has seen 24 strings students aged between eight and 16 in South Africa selected to participate in weekly instrumental Skype lessons, given by academics, current students and alumni of Birmingham Conservatoire, part of Birmingham City University.

ARCO aims to provide the benefits and life-changing inspiration of music to children in the most deprived of circumstances. Conservatoire staff and students – including Alistair – have been acting as role models for vulnerable youngsters living in Soweto, a Johannesburg township deeply affected by poverty and crime.
Running the Liverpool Half Marathon is just one of several fundraising events Alistair has organised in aid of ARCO. Last year, he ran the equivalent distance of the length of South Africa’s coastline, clocking up 1,739 miles (2798 kilometres) by the time he flew out to Johannesburg for the first ARCO Festival. Meanwhile, last month, he organised an evening of chamber music at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery.

21-year-old Alistair, from Allerton in Liverpool, said:

“After running the distance of the South African coastline during my third year of study at Birmingham Conservatoire, and previously running a marathon when I was 17, I was struggling for fundraising ideas. One evening whilst in our local pub myself and fellow ARCO teacher Matt Johnstone joked about a Guinness World Record involving both the things I love: running and the viola.

“12 weeks later my application was accepted by Guinness World Records to attempt the record for the fastest half marathon dressed as a musical instrument at the Liverpool Half Marathon! Training has been going well and I am aiming to beat the record that currently stands at one hour, 26 minutes and 57 seconds." The current record was set by Rakshith Shetty in Karnataka, India on 5 December 2015. The Indian runner ran the SBI Bengaluru Midnight Marathon while dressed as a guitar.

Louise Lansdown, Head of Strings at Birmingham Conservatoire, initiated the ARCO project in 2015. She said:

“Birmingham Conservatoire is full of admiration for Alistair’s adventurous and rather ‘off centre’ project. We are currently enjoying daily updates, including photos and videos of Alistair’s training sessions with his brand new enlarged viola! Alistair and his viola can be seen running around Edgbaston Reservoir most mornings around 7am – a sight not to be missed..."

Louise will be running a festival in Soweto as part of the ARCO Project at the same time Alistair endures his half marathon. Alistair's journey will be streamed live to the ARCO youngsters, so they  can cheer him on from the other side of the world. Alistair’s childhood friend James Sharples will be cycling the route alongside him and broadcasting the race over Facebook Live. 

You can support Alistair’s world record attempt via his JustGiving page. You can also watch a video of Alistair training in his costume, while his progress in the Liverpool Half Marathon can be watched on Facebook Live from 9am on Sunday 2 April.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

"Westminster" (Meditation)


I'm a Londoner. I was born in Whitechapel, grew up in north London and now live south west near the end of the District Line. Tried to leave a few times, but always boomeranged straight back. It's a resilient place, full of hard-headed and capable people and the day after 7/7, the Tube bombings, a lot of us got straight back aboard to go wherever we needed to (in my case, the Wigmore Hall), knowing that was the best way to cock the proverbial snook at those who would threaten us. You don't let them. I was a child during the 1970s. The airwaves were full of stories of IRA terrorism and I was scared. My parents used to tell me not to be afraid, because that was what the terrorists wanted. If you refused to be terrorised, they couldn't win.

Times change and today London is a mass of paradoxes. It's richer and poorer all at once, home to both an unconscionable number of billionaires and also too many with nothing at all, sleeping rough in Strand doorways and Hyde Park Corner subways. It's a flourishing cosmopolitan melting pot that now risks crazy damage to itself through xenophobia. A futuristic hub of progress and technology sold on the legend of a misapprehended past. A home of some of the world's finest literature, theatre and music that often seems determined not to celebrate its own achievements. But it's still London, it's still home and we will always find ways to make the very best of it, despite anything.

After a hideous attack that has left four people dead and many injured, finding suitable music for contemplation can feel like a tall order. The LPO concert last night at the Royal Festival Hall was cancelled, apparently due to a police directive. My resident violinist was downhearted, having been psyched up to play Bruckner 9 and regarding "keeping calm and carrying on" as the best response. Several times during the evening we considered Dame Myra Hess and the National Gallery Lunchtime Concerts during the Blitz, not that the situation was comparable. Yet this too is about music as assertion of a shared humanity that is greater and stronger than any threats against it.

Here's what I've found for today, then: Eric Coates's beautiful meditation on Westminster itself.

ERIC COATES: "WESTMINSTER" (MEDITATION) from LONDON SUITE










Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Bach's birthday: a voice of hope

It's springtime, the magnolias are out, it's Johann Sebastian Bach's birthday - no.332 - and it's time to look for hope for the future (this being in slightly short supply in other areas of life). One of the most heartening things about the music world right now is the startling number of interesting, individual and devoted young pianists in their twenties, who have been bounding onto the scene bringing audible love for their art and a profound, highly developed understanding of its necessary craft. 

This is an age in which the industry tends to exploit and squander its stars. I expect most JDCMB readers can think of plenty of instances in which glorious raw talents have been overstressed, seduced by non-artistic aims, twisted, hideously distorted and ultimately spat out (well, some have been - others are still busy with the distortions). That's why the genuineness of these young performers is to be cherished and preserved. Among them are established stars like Igor Levit, Daniil Trifonov and Benjamin Grosvenor, but more recently it has been an absolute joy to encounter Beatrice Rana and George Li, both artists of whom we'll be hearing a lot more soon. And there are others besides, but I won't attempt to list them all for fear of forgetting some...

My plea to them all for Bach's birthday: you've got what it takes, and as long as you keep your integrity you could be blessed with long, splendid and happy lives making music at the highest level. Please, don't ever sell out. 

For Bach's birthday, have a listen to Beatrice playing the Goldberg Variations. This recent release has been top of the classical charts and for a very good reason. 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

In full sail: Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie is a demanding marvel



This is it: the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg's already renowned new hall, which opened in January after a long, long wait involving years of delay and hundreds of millions of Euros. I popped over for a couple of days to hear and interview the young American pianist George Li - more about him when the article is out, but suffice it to say that he is the real deal. He performed the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and it was a privilege to be there.

Sunset by the sea. Elbphilharmonie on the right
The Elbphilharmonie rises out of the shoreline like a great ship: that was, indeed, the idea of the design, complete with sail-dips and prow. It reminds me of John Adams's story of the inspiration behind his Harmonielehre: a dream in which he saw a giant tanker lift up from the sea and fly. The place has perhaps the finest setting of any concert hall since the Sydney Opera House, looking across the waters into the sunset. Hamburg has acquired a landmark to be proud of, and a venue to compete with the best in the world.

There's just one problem. The design priority certainly involves impressiveness, memorability, magnificence - and a fabulous acoustic. Yet it does not appear to have the wellbeing of its audience quite as much at heart.

It is vast. Not all of what you see in the picture above is hall, though: there are other bits and bobs inside the brick section, not least a luxury hotel, while the venue itself is up at the top. Perhaps it is not until you reach the entrance that you realise what a big deal this is. Because you have to get to your seat in time for the concert and it can take a while.

Walk through the electronic gates (your ticket serves as boarding pass) and you are faced with the most inventive format of escalator I've encountered since Charles de Gaulle airport, involving several shifts of gradient and a long, high ride. Once you've done two escalators, there are stairs, stairs and more stairs. They are sleek and modern, involving interesting angles and twists. They smell wonderfully of new wood. A few lifts exist as well, which is lucky because the clientele for the Hamburg Philharmonic's Monday concert were not all sprightly on their feet. Benefitting from a health app on my phone that counts my steps every day and awards points if I do enough, I wondered if a partnership arrangement might be feasible for those who choose to climb.


Inside, the design is in the round, with stalls plus four tiers of seating above. The nautical theme continues: the balconies undulate like waves or a shoreline and the wall around the orchestra is studded as if with stones from a beach. The place is enormous, yet feels intimate as the division of the tiers makes you feel that you are not surrounded by thousands of people, everyone has enough space and wherever you sit you are relatively close to the performers. A giant acoustic mushroom hangs from the ceiling (in the photo you can just see the curve of it at the top, studded with lights). 

The sound is clear as a mountain river and as fulsome as the sea itself: an excellent balance of colour and timbre levels and a substantial bloom to blend them. At times it erred on the boomy, certainly in the Tchaikovsky Symphony No.5 which ended the programme, but George's wonderful, singing piano tone was flattered and enhanced, with a chance to appreciate the nuancing of phrases and the depth of legato in a way that is often not possible in certain other venues one could mention. 

Unfortunately our conductor for the night seemed to think the Tchaikovsky Fifth was a sacred space requiring dubious extremes of exaggerated tempi, and he waited on the podium, motionless while his orchestra tried not to twiddle their thumbs, for absolute pin-drop silence from the audience before beginning the first, second and third movements. Quite a challenge in an acoustic so clear you can hear someone burp on the other side of the auditorium.

But...oh dear...you would think, would you not, that after spending hundreds of millions of Euros on this building, they could put in enough ladies' loos? Could they hell. On level 15 I and most of my fellow audience members spent the whole interval queuing up, to discover upon entry that there were only two (2) stalls inside that door. What the heck were they thinking?!? 

Verdict. Architecture: inspirational magnificence reinvented. Acoustic: mostly splendid. Creature comforts: inside auditorium, yes; in entrance, foyers and facilities: nnnooooo... 


Hamburg itself has much to offer the musical traveller. I spent a wonderful morning in the so-called Composers' Quarter (above). Brahms's birthplace having been destroyed in WW2, along with much of the city, a charitable foundation has created a block in traditional Hamburgian style in the area where Brahms's family once lived; it houses a Brahms museum (the stone portal on the right of the photo) and a Baroque museum for Telemann, CPE Bach and Hasse. It will soon be home to a Mendelssohn museum as well - the staff told me it should be opening next year. 

The Baroque centre is full of fascinating bits and pieces, notably the delightful information that Handel and Telemann were great friends and shared an enthusiasm for horticulture; it seems they used to post one another rare flower bulbs across the Channel. There's a model of a baroque opera house, complete with deus ex machina, a modern clavichord and a beautiful spinet of c1730 akin to one that Telemann might have used. Best of all, if you're a musician you will be encouraged to play the instruments. At the Brahms museum (one of the wardens of which is named Frau Joachim, though she says she is no relation) historical displays with facsimiles and photos aplenty trace the outline of his life, his relationships with the Schumanns and Joachim, and there's a "table piano" that belonged to him, on which he used to give lessons. They let you play that, too... It's not easy to control the evenness of tone, but the sound is almost surprisingly rich and responsive and as you make awkward progress through Op.117 No.1 you might try to absorb the notion that Brahms's fingers touched these keys, and that the pupil who sat at this keyboard striving to make music would look up at his/her teacher for response and see that thoughtful broad forehead, those frank blue eyes...

For another startling spiritual hit, go to St Michael's Church (the Hauptkirche Sankt Michaelis, or "Michel"). The interior, recently painted, is bright and white, filled with clear Nordic light from tall windows and spaces that billow around you like those oft-referred ship sails. If you're lucky (and I was) someone might be playing Bach on the organ. On one side of the entrance is a plaque to Mendelssohn, on the other side one to Mahler, who held a music director post in Hamburg and wrote his Symphony No.2 here. In the crypt is the grave of CPE Bach. At the font, Brahms was baptised. The place has an intense charge, an atmosphere of peace and meditation that pulls you in and demands that you stay there a while to breathe in its peace and breathe out your stress before retackling the outside world. That is true sacred space. No pulled-around tempi needed.