Tuesday, February 28, 2017

None shall sleep!

An all-night Pianothon at Birmingham Town Hall is set to keep every true pianophile awake into the wee hours and beyond on Friday 3 March. Crazy idea? Perhaps - but my goodness, the Birmingham Conservatoire's piano movers and shakes have lined up some wonderful stuff to enjoy. And isn't there's something extraordinarily romantic about being out with your pals at 3am, listening to Messiaen and late Beethoven together?

I asked Birmingham Conservatoire's head of keyboard, John Thwaites, how it came about, and our old friend Anthony Hewitt, aka "The Olympianist" (he once cycled from Land's End to John O'Groats, giving a recital every night), who is on the faculty, what made him decide to cycle from London overnight, performing Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit on arrival around dawn...

JD: Why a Pianothon at all?

John Thwaites
John Thwaites: For the first time - and because we are currently under demolition! - the Keyboard Department was gifted a Town Hall Showcase by Birmingham Conservatoire. I gave serious consideration to an All Day event, but finally concluded that this was fairly standard fare. Wouldn't it be much more sexy to pull off an All-Nighter?  I thought a little: kids like "sleepovers" and staying up as late as possible -- so this is a Sleepover with Music, where no-one insists it's time for bed, and we head off for a Champagne Breakfast next morning. 

Anthony Hewitt: It’s inspired by the all-night Jazz concerts at Town Hall in the 50s and 60s. John Thwaites is a great enthusiast and has put on many festivals at the Conservatoire focusing around composers or themes. This is in the same vein, but certainly unique and daring. We hope some the celebrity names appearing before mid-night will be a draw for audiences who like their beauty sleep, and that the hard-core pianophiles will stay the distance. There may be some ‘early birds’ too in the wee hours. As for the students, they are being tempted with a dazzling array of repertoire and unmissable performers, plus of course an all-night bar (musical bars as well as refreshment!). I’m going to make it compulsory attendance for my class!

Peter Donohoe plays Messiaen in the middle of the night
JT: And we now have another mystery guest: a jazz piano phenomenon who is inspired by the gig, and has offered his services for the Champagne Breafast... and people are buying in!

JD: Who's going to turn up for it?

JT: We are inviting students of EPTA members, of specialist and other schools -- there will be a youthful element to all this, including hundreds of the Conservatoire's own students.  
Also important: people can come to the first two hours! They will already have a great concert -- and we'll see when they can tear themselves away... Balcony Tickets are £1 for everyone and anyone -- no-one is prohibited by cost -- it's all part of a gift to Birmingham and the wider world, a Piano Gift.

JD: What's in it?

JT: Ingredients? Nocturnes!! The complete ones by Chopin -- I've heard Gergely Bogányi play Nocturnes in the middle of the night on my summer course, Cadenza International Summer Music Course. I remember sitting there and thinking "It doesn't get any better than this. This is completely satisfying, and one wants for nothing"....so this is then more of the same... Also nocturnes by Fauré and Debussy.

Simon Callow recites Enoch Arden
It's sort of a Piano Education in a single night! There's the last three Beethoven sonatas, to be played by a mystery guest -- and great also to have the last great Schubert B flat, played by a student (Domonkos Csabay). And if it's very difficult to accommodate as many students as I would like to, then, counter-intuitively, it's wonderful to give one this enormous Sonata...another Schumann F Sharp Minor Sonata (on a Wilhelm Wieck Piano from the 1850's), another of the "De Profundis"...

We'll have Melodramas, two of them at the mid-way point of 12 hours of piano. It'll be nice to hear a human voice..especially as one is Simon Callow, in Strauss's Enoch Arden -- I'm playing Piano for this and the rehearsal was great! But then into Speaker Pianist, and the Birmingham premiere of the Rzewski De Profundis...

Stars in their chosen firmament? Peter Donohoe is playing Messiaen and Mark Bebbington is playing Ireland - one of the greatest British solo piano works, Sarnia.

Anthony Hewitt: piano cycles
JD: Tony, you're cycling up from London and playing Gaspard on arrival. Why on earth...?

AH: It really came about because of a casual conversation with John Thwaites in the pub. Worryingly, no alcohol had been consumed...

For an all-night concert and night-ride, Gaspard has obvious connotations with images of the night, which are so masterfully conjured up by both Ravel and Bertrand’s evocative poems. It’s particularly relevant in 'Scarbo', (I hope on Friday the moon will be ‘glittering like a silver shield…'), and where the goblin vanishes and reappears, once seen no longer seen. I love the word ‘pirouetting’, although hope we cyclists will be doing none of that! The use of imagery is such an important part of playing (and teaching), and particularly in a lot of music of this era. If we can get out of our comfort zones and look at, or visualise, things which we’ve never seen, then the effect on our imaginations can only stimulate the musical experience. 

As part of my training I’ve been out cycling at night alone through narrow lanes lined with lonely trees (very spooky) and wondered what lurked beyond. I am fairly certain I’ve seen a Scarbo or two in the Surrey Hills! 

JD: Is this a pilot for more events in the future?

JT: For me, everything goes into Friday March 3rd, and that's it for this lifetime!

But I do want to launch some ongoing campaigns and opportunities... a Petition "Every School deserves a Real Piano"  and a community piano school at the Conservatoire, "Birmingham Piano Academy".

More about the programme from John Thwaites:

The Greatest Show on Earth: something shocking in its audacity, youthful in its exuberance. In its totality I believe it offers the best night of piano playing anywhere on the planet this year.
Anna Scott plays Brahms
as he might have heard it
Piano-playing means Chopin, All-Nighters need Nocturnes. The Complete Chopin Nocturnes are played in three groups, B flat minor opening proceedings, by Gergely Bogányi, one of the most exceptional pianists of our times. Gergely won the 1996 Franz Liszt Competition in Budapest. In 2002 he was awarded the Cross of Merit of the White Rose of Finland by the President of the Finnish Republic, and in 2004 he received the highest artistic award of Hungary, the Kossuth Prize. Rubinstein used to say that when he played Chopin he felt as though he spoke directly to people’s hearts—no-one today does that better than Gergely Bogányi.
On 1st March 1977 Peter Donohoe gave the British Premiere of Messiaen’s “La Fauvette des Jardins”, having studied it first with the composer and his wife in their apartment in Montmartre. The panoramic  “day in the life” of a garden warbler seemed fitting for this event, and Peter is joined by his wife Elaine, who he met for the first time at that first performance.
Margaret Fingerhut joins the starry line-up
I confidently expect that we’ll all be knocked sideways as our Mystery Guest walks on stage to play Beethoven’s last three Sonatas. My inspiration was the moment that Ali lit the Olympic Flame in Atlanta.
The inspiration for an All-Nighter comes from the Swinging Sixties, when Birmingham Town Hall regularly hosted All-Night Jazz Festival gigs, pictures of which still adorn the lower bar. Richard Hawley of THSH has been keeping that flame alive ever since, and we include Kapustin by way of tribute.
Our Prize-winning students are showcased throughout, presenting some of the greatest masterpieces for the instrument.  Domonkos Csabay, who won the 2016 Amy Brant International Piano Competition, plays Schubert’s last great Sonata in B flat D960. Lauren Zhang, a Birmingham Juniors student who won the 2016 Ettlingen International Competition for Young Pianists, plays a Transcendental Study by Lyapunov, and Róza Bene, who was joint winner of the 2016 Anthony Lewis Memorial Competition plays Couperin.
In the early hours we add poetry to the mix. We are delighted to welcome Simon Callow in a recitation of the Victorian Melodrama “Enoch Arden”by Tennyson/Strauss. This is followed by the Birmingham Premiere of Rzewski’s “De Profundis” (after Oscar Wilde) for speaking pianist.
Alistair McGowan performs Satie & Grieg
Birmingham is increasingly a centre for Historically Informed Performance Practice. In this context Dr. Anna Scott will be performing late Brahms as Brahms himself might have heard Adelina de Lara or Ilona Eibenschütz playing to him. It's more than a little thought-provoking, so prepare to be scandalised, and to further enjoy the playing of Gyorgy Hodozso, a Weingarten Scholar in Birmingham and Dr. Scott's latest prodigy.
An evening of international ambition, but hosted in Central England. A privilege, then, to hear Mark Bebbington play "Sarnia" by John Ireland, the British composer who has left the single greatest body of solo piano music (not to mention the Concerto and Chamber Music piano parts).
Finally we welcome Alistair McGowan, to play Satie and Grieg, and to introduce his good friend, “Olympianist” Anthony Hewitt, who will cycle through the night from his London home to play Ravel’s masterpiece of nocturnal  virtuoso pianism “Gaspard de la Nuit”. After that, only the magnificent organ of the Town Hall can provide a fitting close: Messiaen’s “Dieu Parmi Nous”...

John Thwaites
Head of the Department of Keyboard Studies
Birmingham Conservatoire

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Conducting: a dialogue with the unknown

As a farewell tribute to the great Polish conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, who has died at the age of 93, I'd like to post this fascinating interview filmed in 2012, in which he talks at length about the arts of conducting and composing. Also, here is his obituary from Classical Music Magazine.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A bit like Valentine's Day...

An addendum to yesterday's info about the Moscow Virtuosi concert on 8 March.

A spokesperson for the Barbican assures me that it's a hall hire and nothing to do with their own in-house artistic planning.

She says: "This concert is a rental of the Barbican Hall with the marketing of the event undertaken by an outside promoter, and while the concert does fall on International Women’s Day it was not programmed to mark this event. The Barbican had not been sent or approved this version of the advert and had not been made aware that the promoter intended to market it in this way. We recognise that it is entirely inappropriate to claim any link between the concert and International Women’s Day and have instructed the concert promoter to remove all mention of this from any future advertising copy.

"Having spoken to the promoter since this advert was brought to our attention, it appears that the promoter and orchestra had misunderstood the focus of International Women’s Day on celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women. They informed us that they included the mention in the advert as the focus and ways of celebrating International Women’s Day are different in former Soviet Union countries. This in no way excuses the advert making this link, I just wanted to give you some context to try to explain how this error has occurred!

"...We absolutely agree that it was entirely inappropriate for the promoter to make this link between the concert and International Women’s Day the way it is understood in the UK/more internationally."

Apparently in Russia International Women's Day is a bit like Valentine's Day, with flowers and pretty stuff, etc. - so a celebration of traditional femininity rather than of women's achievements. Very different from London.

Laurence Equilbey.
Photo from Alechetron.com
Next year the Barbican has scheduled an actual IWD concert on 8 March, featuring the Insula Orchestra with Laurence Equilbey (conductor - pictured above), Alexandra Corunova (violin), Natalie Clein (cello) and Alice Sara Ott (piano) and they will be playing some works by Louise Farrenc - whose music is so fine that really it ought to be standard repertoire by now. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

How to mark International Women's Day. Not.

What do you notice about this programme?

• It's taking place on 8 March and the poster says it's a special concert "From Haydn to Piazzolla, to mark International Women's Day..."
• It consists of music entirely by men.
• It is led by a male violinist/conductor.
• The orchestra is all-male, unless there are some players whose names aren't listed here, since on the website picture I can see maybe two or three amid the massed players.
• The music includes "Hymn to Beauty" and some sexy tangos. [Just what we always wanted, yes?]

Beggars belief, really. Anyway, I'll be at the Southbank for the Women of the World Festival, in which events include Strength in Song - Women in Opera, a lively exploration of the power of the female singing voice, with some of ENO's brightest young singers...

UPDATE: The Barbican explains that it's a hall hire with external marketing. More here.

Friday, February 17, 2017

"The tragedies of thousands of years ago are the tragedies of today"

The splendid composer Nicola LeFanu introduces her major new piece The Crimson Bird, which will have its world premiere tonight at the Barbican, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov and soprano Rachel Nicholls as soloist. The work was commissioned under the Royal Philharmonic Society's Elgar Bursary. It's on BBC Radio 3 and the iPlayer thereafter - don't miss it! You can listen to Nicola's introduction here. The concert kickstarts the celebrations of her 70th birthday, which will continue through 2017.

The Crimson Bird sees LeFanu collaborate with poet John Fuller, who also wrote the libretto for the composer's 2011 chamber opera Dream Hunter. Fuller's work also forms the basis of The Crimson Bird's libretto, whose text has been adapted from his poem 'Siege'. 'Siege' examines the bond between mother and son as it is tested within an environment of war and terror - 'When death is the work of hands, Anyone may be a murderer or a hero. Which is it that you claim?' In The Crimson Bird, LeFanu brings Fuller's text to life by making use of her extensive experience of writing for the voice in the eight operas she has composed.
Speaking on The Crimson Bird, LeFanu said,
"In its exploration of love, fear and death, 'Siege' has a universal scope that speaks to human experience throughout time. Coverage from conflict zones under siege fill our TV screens every day. A mother sees her son caught up in the conflicts raging around her country. Is he a hero or a murderer? Composing for the BBCSO and the dramatic soprano Rachel Nicholls, I had a marvellous opportunity to explore these perennial issues."

Valentine for a favourite film

Having not previously experienced one of the talkies-with-live-music events that have become so popular since digital technology enabled them to exist, I went to see Brief Encounter with real-time Rachmaninoff at the Royal Festival Hall the other night. Digital transformation involves the careful stripping out of the music while leaving the voices in place; it's so detailed that 60 seconds takes a day to do. Striking the balance in the hall between the volume of the soundtrack and the live music isn't easy either, but the effect is so absorbing and compelling that we can forgive the occasional "what did she say?" for the gorgeous horn-playing or clarinet solo that might mask a couple of seconds.

Alexandra Dariescu with a creation of her own.
Photo: BBC Music Magazine
And jolly lovely it was, y'know... First we had the complete Piano Concerto No.2 with soloist Alexandra Dariescu making her debut at the hall and with the LPO. She offered a near-ideal balance of heart and head, with plenty of excitement and lyricism matched by beautiful tone, intelligent voicing and excellent musical narrative even without that of Noel Coward. And as Eileen Joyce, the legendary Australian pianist for the original film, used to do, she even changed her dress in the interval. Dirk Brossé conducted with reasonable attentiveness. It's no small feat to play the whole concerto in a "real" interpretation and follow it immediately with bleeding chunks, timing determined by (I guess) a click-track, and everyone rose to the task magnificently.

Celia Johnson's daughter, the actress Lucy Fleming, introduced the evening, telling us about her mother's memories of the filming: the cold early mornings at the station pervaded by the smell of the fish train from Aberdeen; the enormous challenge of playing a role that involves large tracts of silence with a narration over the top; and Noel Coward's absolute insistence, when others tried to demur from using that concerto, that nothing could happen without the Rachmaninoff - that Laura's character is circumscribed by the facts that "she changes her library book at Boots, she eats at the Kardomah and she listens to Rachmaninoff"...

Of course! Where would we be without Rachmaninoff? The music creates perhaps 85 per cent of the film's emotional world. The little town it shows us, otherwise, is cold, small, mean. Everything is based in deadened routine: putting on the wireless, picking up the embroidery or the Times Crossword, the Thursday ritual of going into Milford, chatting to acquaintances you can't stand and who haven't an interesting thought in their heads, going to the cinema no matter what's on, laughing at the Mighty Wurlitzer, and then the cup of tea at the station where the staff never say hello even though they see you every single Thursday and try to make life a little bit harder for you because it's their job (Beryl swings her keys at Laura with such relish). The one sign of passion is Alec's devotion to his work in preventive medicine; as he describes it Laura falls for him, perhaps because she has never seen anyone express such aliveness before.

We never really know Alec, though, or Laura either: only the tip of the iceberg, plus their eyes. Laura is Celia Johnson's eyes and Rachmaninoff. Everything in the movie happens at a tangent - the shadows of Alec and Laura in the station underpass, the chilly stone bridges, the snide and hypocritical "friends", and even Laura's impossibly cute kids are filmed from off-beat angles. ("My birthday's in June and there aren't any pantomimes in June," says little Margaret in expert plummy tones. Apparently the little girl was actually Celia Johnson's niece.)

Only the Rachmaninoff is direct. And we love it and we weep because there is so much love in there, being squashed to extinction by that ghastly, two-faced provincialism and hypocrisy that Coward captures to perfection. Remember, Coward was gay and homosexuality was illegal. The whole thing is an analogy of illicit love, with its truth spark buried deep.

Odd to think that that world-in-black-and-white represents to some the sort of nostalgia that's sparked the ludicrous prospect of Brexit. Love will go away from us forever on the 5.43pm train and we will never get it back because we're worried about what other people will think if we try. What could be more British than that?

Dated? Not necessarily. Quite a few people, not least in the orchestra, were seeing that film for the first time and it won a lot of new friends.