Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music and writing in London, UK.
1928 Entries
I'm off for a bit, but may post some sunny pictures if time and technology allow. In the meantime, dear readers, you might enjoy reading Ghost Variations, if you haven't already, and I'd love it if you'd take a peek at my next novel, a 21st-century Christmas fairytale provisionally entitled Meeting Odette, which is currently about half way towards its funding target at the brilliant Unbound. The basic pledges start at £10 for the ebook, but higher levels include a musical or literary consultation with me about your work, a Swan Lake-themed lunch party, and various other goodies along the way. All patrons will be listed in every edition of the book and, naturally, you also earn my undying and eternal gratitude.

By the way, you may think subscriptions are a novel way to publish books, but the system is in fact pretty old. I am currently ploughing through Jan Swafford's magnificent 1000+-page biography of Beethoven and only last night I was reading about how the composer funded the publication of his Missa Solemnis by seeking subscriptions from wealthy patrons, which today would be regarded as a classic act of crowdfunding. In return for what we'd call their "pledge" they would receive a "reward" of a signed copy of the score. The technology has changed, but the principle hasn't (plus, of course, I'm not Beethoven, but I don't mind his endorsement for the method). Huge, huge, HUGE thanks to everyone who has so kindly supported the book thus far!

Happy reading and see you soon.
14 days ago |
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Long read ahead. Get a cuppa.

The other day I went to Pembrokeshire to do a Ghost Variations concert with Viv and Dave, and came back to discover that an intriguing Twitter discussion had been taking place about what's now known as 'the canon': aka standard concert repertoire. I'd missed the chat, so have been mulling over some of the points involving the music we hear in our concert halls, the notion of greatness, the value judgments on what is worth hearing and what is not, the judgments people pass on one another over having the "wrong" personal taste in music, and how we can change these matters effectively to make the concert world more inclusive.

One of the nicer things about reaching middle age is that one can develop a healthy perspective on change. It may look as if "we" worship great composers as deities (I'm not convinced we do, actually), that great music that is performed a lot is an immovable mountain range. As if nothing can invade those mountains if it is not perceived to be as good as the 'Hammerklavier' et al, and as if it's got that way because people in charge are determined to keep out anyone who is not a dead white male. But it ain't necessarily so. It's not immovable. It's not impossible to change things. It's quite doable, actually - we just have to wake up and do it.

If I look back on the musical world of my teens and student days, the "canon" has changed - sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse - and it is all to do with changing attitudes, outlooks that morph into different states according to the world around us. Here are a few things that were definitely going on in the early 1980s when I was a teenage piano student and heading for Cambridge.

At the piano we faced paradoxes. Anything that was not "pure" was out. Transcriptions? Heaven help us! The only person I remember getting away with a Liszt transcription at the Royal Festival Hall was Daniel Barenboim, who played the 'Liebestod' as an encore sometime in the late 1970s. I tried to be suitably aghast that a great artist had devoted time to practising such a horror, until my piano teacher, who knew him, gently told me that probably he hadn't: being Barenboim, he could just look at it and know it. The point here was that I was about 13 and what the heck did I know? Nothing. I was just parroting attitudes I'd been absorbing by osmosis from people around me and, probably, Radio 3, which was on in the house from morning til night. Yet remove transcriptions, remove Liszt except the B minor Sonata which was a Serious Work In Sonata Form, and you lose a great biteful of the 19th century.

Meanwhile, learning Bach was vital. Bach holds the core of the technique a pianist needs - physical and mental - to play anything. But back then you weren't allowed to perform it. If you did, you were playing it on the Wrong Instrument. The "authenticists" would string you up by your guts if you weren't careful.

As for contemporary music - a few doughty souls played some, but thereby hung a whole sackful of problems. You could tackle Boulez, but it might take you ten years to learn the Second Sonata, or there was Stockhausen and Cage, but they were a little bit scary too, and chances were that your teachers wouldn't know what to do with them, let alone put stones and stuff inside the piano to "prepare" it, so they probably wouldn't set them; or you could play the Messiaen Vingt Regards or the bird pieces, but they just weren't enormously trendy. I learned one of the Vingt Regards, as it happens, for my BMus recital - we had to prepare a full-length programme and the examiners would ask for half of it about a week before. From my list they chose Beethoven, Chopin and Debussy. Leaving behind Bach (of course), Schumann, Fauré and the most challenging thing I'd ever learned in my life, the Messiaen 'Premier communion de la Vierge'. Ligeti hadn't yet written his Etudes, not Philip Glass his, and I had a friend who wanted to do her thesis on Steve Reich and had to fight the faculty for the right to do so. It's so long ago that I can't remember whether or not she won.

Those were the days in which the arrogant public-schoolboy first-years would stride around the faculty declaring "Prokofiev's rubbish" before photocopying their nether equipment (this was before mobile phones), and if you dared to think Rachmaninoff was any good you'd be laughed out of town (another problem back in the piano studio in London). You'd also be laughed out of town if you preferred Pablo Casals to Nikolaus Harnoncourt, or if you were a woman and you wanted to compose music. Oh yes indeed.

And historical inevitability determined that if you did want to compose music, you could only write serialism - or, once again, you'd be laughed out of town. Historical inevitability had a lot to answer for.

What everyone forgot about historical inevitability was that time moves forward. It only ever moves forward. It does not and cannot move backwards, however much certain groups would like it to, and neither does it stand still. The historical inevitability of historical inevitability is that historical inevitability as a concept was bound to become obsolete.

Things change. But they only change when we change them.

One thing that changed because people changed it was the nature of orchestral programming - and not always for the better. A large swathe of music that used to appear regularly in concert programmes has vanished. When did you last hear Mozart's Symphony No.29 in an orchestral concert? Haydn's No.102? Schumann's Second, Beethoven's First, Schubert's Third, a Bach Suite? There is a vast wealth of repertoire that is assumed to be in the "canon" - being by dead white men - that is of sterling quality but is hardly ever played because thinking has changed. Somehow the notion has got a grip on us that this music has to be played by only period-instrument specialists. It's one way to hear them, sure. But how did it ever become the only way?

It's become a problem, because it's pushed that repertoire into a ghetto, where it's in danger of gradually disappearing from view altogether. Now it needs to be brought out and given a good scrub-down for the 21st century. It may take Simon Rattle himself to change this and bring these fabulous pieces back into the concert hall where they belong. I once asked for a piano score of The Magic Flute for my birthday so that I could play it myself - I'd given up hope of ever hearing a performance of it again that was listenable. But I recently watched on the Digital Concert Hall Rattle's concert of the last three Mozart symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic and it was heaven. Now hope springs eternal.

There's nothing wrong with playing Mozart, Haydn, Schubert etc on original instruments, of course. It's an admirable thing to do, fascinating and educational at best. But it should never have happened at the expense of playing them on anything else. Why not? Because the audience misses out. Because the larger audiences plod dutifully to yet more Mahler, yet more Shostakovich, another anniversary of X, Y or Z, and they no longer know Schubert 3. Authenticity, as I recently commented in my 'Hammerklavier' piece, is in the soul. No amount of original instruments will help you if that isn't the case. And if it is, then the instrument doesn't really matter.

Today playing Bach's Goldberg Variations is a badge of honour for any pianist. Rachmaninoff is adored the world over, as he always was, but he is also appreciated as a composer of splendid technique. Liszt transcriptions pop up regularly. And nobody I run into these days could possibly consider Prokofiev rubbish, because it patently isn't. How had people ended up thinking that way? They'd been taught to. They're trying to please parents, teachers, peer groups, etc, often by trotting out opinion that they don't even realise is "received".

Change happens because people make it happen. Musicians make it happen, by having the courage of their convictions. In the case of the period-instrument movement, and the Women Can't Compose people, this did, I'm afraid, involve in the 1980s a certain amount of bullying, which is what I consider was done to me and my friends in the Cambridge music faculty in one way or another. But out in the wider world, it wasn't necessarily so. A small handful of pianists went right on playing Bach on the piano and simply ignored the critics and the handwringing. They have won. The beneficiaries are the audience and the next generation. If you've missed Beatrice Rana playing the Goldberg Variations, don't miss it any longer - you're denying yourself a whopper of a treat.

More changes. When I did my dissertation in 1987 almost nobody had heard of Korngold except my supervisor, Dr Puffett, who had a brain the size of both the Americas, and the person who introduced me to Korngold's music, Eric Wen, who did too. Today Die tote Stadt is becoming standard opera repertoire almost everywhere except Britain. And the Violin Concerto is much played because violinists hear it, love it and want to play it.

Likewise, nobody had heard of Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, Hans Gál, Miklos Rozsa, Mieczyslaw Weinberg and many more. A whole generation of composers that was murdered or driven into exile by the Nazis. Devoted musicians and researchers have thrown their energy and resources into resuscitating this music and those voices are now starting to be heard in earnest. Recognising that some who turned to film music did so not out of choice but necessity, to save their own and their families' lives, has been an important part of this, because having escaped racial persecution, those exiles soon found their work buried alive because they were writing The Wrong Things. Film music? Gasp! Insupportable!! Oh please. Otherwise they'd be dead. Did anybody bother to notice?

The current wave of composers-buried-alive to emerge are women. Not only those writing today, but those appearing out of history. Francesca Caccini. Fanny Mendelssohn. Pauline Viardot. Lili Boulanger. Rebecca Clarke. Louise Farrenc - and these are the better-known names. Indeed, just the other day, I heard someone talking about Farrenc with the remark "Of course, she's known...", which was a startling but fantastic piece of news to me. But how many of us have heard the music of Grace Williams? How much do you know by Elizabeth Maconchy? Get out and hear some - it is simply wonderful. Just think about it: why should we have to go to Mahler 2 yet again, listening through the angst for new nuances, when we could be discovering all of this? People are making change happen - people like the Southbank Centre, like Radio 3, like Bangor University (the conference in September was terrific and full of all-but-unknown musical marvels). And the music will win through because it is good. And it will stay with us, with people wondering "Where has this been all my life?"

What about the issue of racial diversity? There is nothing, but nothing, to stop great violinists from learning the concerto by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the African-British composer who worked himself into an early grave in Croydon in 1912. It's an absolute beauty. Philippe Graffin recorded it ten years ago, in Johannesburg. Tasmin Little has recorded it. Others have too. It needn't be a rarity. If you don't think it's as good as the Bruch, fine, but so what? That doesn't mean we wouldn't enjoy it. And you might get a surprise. You might find that actually it is as good as the Bruch. You just didn't expect it to be.

Meanwhile, heard anything by the Chevalier de Saint-Georges? Tremendous stuff. Influenced Mozart. Today Errollyn Wallen is one of the finest composers in Britain and her music should be totally mainstream. These are just the three most obvious names - imagine the amount of music out there waiting to be played, heard and enjoyed. And this, too, is starting to change - but only because people woke up and did something about it. Chi-chi Nwanoku has created the Chineke! orchestra and Chineke for Change foundation. The Kanneh-Mason family has captured the hearts of British music-lovers - don't miss cellist Sheku's debut album, which is coming out this month.

And perhaps the thing to question is not the "greatness" of the music of "dead white men" - nobody is going to take Beethoven away from me, thanks very much - but to remember to look at things in context, with healthy perspective, with curiosity and an open mind, without blinkers. And not to remove that music, but to add to it. Not to say "No, but..." but "Yes, and...". Not to regard long-established "greatness" as a prerequisite for exploring music - I mean, Beethoven's early piano sonatas are great music, but they're almost never played in concert because people assume the late ones are greater (when did you last hear Op.31 No.3? It's amazing!).

The whole issue of expectation, of music competitions, of ambitious teachers, of commercial power, all these things have a big role to play in what becomes standard repertoire, what promoters think they can sell. That needs a piece to itself. Everything is connected, though - every level of what makes the musical world turn has a profound effect on every other level...

So the "canon" is not an immovable feast. But it does take some effort to shift it. Things can and do change, when there's the will for it. What happens now will be change for our own time. In 20 years things may look very different, and they'll be changing again, assuming humanity still exists.

Thanks very much and have a nice weekend.

Enjoy reading JDCMB? Please support it here.

17 days ago |
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The difference - at least to begin with - is this astonishing performance of Schulz-Evler's 'Arabesques on the Beautiful Blue Danube' from Marc-André Hamelin. The year ahead no doubt will contain fireworks of one sort or another. Here's hoping that musical ones in the best sense will be prime among them.

I usually start the JDCMB new year with a sort of factory-reset post about this blog and what it's for (assuming it's for anything at all, which it may not be).

A very warm welcome, then, to all readers, new and older. JDCMB is Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog - because I didn't know, when I set it up in 2004, that people were going to give blogs catchy and poetic names. JDCMB nevertheless continues to do what it says on the tin. It's a relatively random and chiefly spontaneous collection of content involving words with, for or about music. A lot of bloggers are admirably organised and systematic. I'm afraid I'm not.

I'm a Londoner and I'm a writer with a musical training. I did music at Cambridge and piano with the wonderful Joan Havill, then had to decide aged 23 which route to take. I ended up getting "proper jobs", first in music publishing, then on a succession of music magazines (including spearheading the creation of the UK's first independent piano magazine), which carried me through to my thirties. Later I was with The Independent for 12 years. I write novels, librettos, journalism, programme notes and pre-concert talks. I also often present narrated concerts based on my novels. JDCMB has come to serve as a kind of glue that holds these different boxes together.

The industries of music and writing alike have changed beyond recognition since I started out. Back then, there were paid posts for several critics on each national paper, and people could make a perfectly decent living out of writing novels. All of these possibilities have reduced or vanished since 2008, if not earlier. Therefore variety has to be the spice of life. Still, I enjoy the range and diversity of these different activities as it keeps me on my toes, or at least my fingertips.

Last summer I started a GoFundMe page called A Year for JDCMB in which those who enjoy the site can, if they wish, support it with a small subscription (or a large one if you prefer).

JDCMB has:
• News, reviews, interviews, guest posts, think-pieces, personal experiences/memories/chronicles.
• Values about music, art, quality, equality, passion. I believe everybody deserves to have great music, art and creativity in their lives.
• A feminist slant. I think people are people and should be equal and there's too much skewed against women in the industry. Therefore I do what I can to combat this.
• English English. I'm in London, UK, so please don't tell me to use American spellings, because it's not going to happen.
• An internationalist outlook. Music is an international art and depends on its internationalism for its very existence.
• A personal slant.
• Irony and occasional sarcasm, so please be prepared.

JDCMB doesn't have:
• Sexism, racism or other prejudices.
• Porn.
• Comments boxes. If you want to discuss the posts, please come over to Facebook - I put all the links on my author page and we have some lively chats, but you do have to say who you are.
• Pro-Brexit writing.
• Conspiracy theories.
• Personal attacks.

If you want coverage on JDCMB:
• I receive a lot of requests and even with the best will in the world, I can't do it all.
• Please remember you're asking me to spend my free time giving you free publicity.
• You might like to buy an advert and/or contribute to the GoFundMe page.
• Try not to start your emails by saying "My name is..." because nine times out of ten I'll already know that's your name because it's in your email address.

So there we go. Thank you for reading the site and we look forward to seeing you in 2018!

Enjoy JDCMB? Support it here!

22 days ago |
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It's been a roller-coaster year, to say the least, and my most-read posts reflect many of the ups and downs we've been riding together. Here goes.

1. April Fool's Day - "SHOCK: Top London Orchestra will Relocate to Germany"
Honest to goodness, this little quip on Brexit and Hamburg's fab new hall is JDCMB's highest-scoring post ever. I'm still finding people who believed it, London Hamburger Orchestra and all... perhaps this is some statement about our gullibility and the power of fake news. But I did think that 1 April was the one day of the year on which people would actually trouble to evaluate the truth or otherwise of what they were reading. Hmm.

2. The Cello Hurricane
Of all musical icons, Jacqueline du Pré is the one who never loses her power. My memories of the October she died plus the Q&A with the film-maker Christopher Nupen about his latest documentary about her won a great many readers.

3. Soulmates?
The soulmates in question are Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin, whose two-piano concert at the Wigmore Hall was a big highlight of the year. Delighted that my review of a thoroughly pianophiliac evening proved so popular.

4. Hotello 
I'm afraid I pinched that title from another critic via Twitter - and I was using it simply because poor old Jonas Kaufmann had to give his role debut as Otello on the climatically hottest night of the year. Extreme heat in central London is not much fun - humid, polluted, draining - and I don't know how anybody managed to sing anything at all. Still, it was a memorable performance.

5. 'Quick Reminder'
This was where I explained that No.1 was an April Fool's joke, in case people didn't get it, as it seemed they didn't. Though it was my fifth most popular post, only a small proportion of those who read No.1 also read this, so maybe there are still people wandering around believing in the imminent creation of the London Hamburger Orchestra.

6. Farewell Hvorostovsky
One of the tragic losses to the musical world this year: the great baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky passed away aged only 55.

7. Meaty Hamlet
Brett Dean's new opera based on Hamlet was a massive hit and justifiably so. I reviewed it here.

8. The Mind Behind the Cough
My hideous experience in the middle of a celestial concert made, at least, for a good read.

9. Westminster (Meditation)
The attack on Westminster Bridge was a terrible and deeply troubling event. This was a small tribute to its victims and to my home city and all its paradoxes, aided and abetted by Eric Coates.

10. Rattle's Big Night
Last but by no means least, another landmark concert: Sir Simon Rattle's first night as music director of the LSO, featuring four major pieces of British contemporary music plus the Enigma Variations.

Thank you, dear readers, for your attention and enthusiasm. Let's seize fate by the throat in 2018!

A massive thank you to all the patrons who have so kindly supported JDCMB's GoFundMe campaign, in which I am attempting to build up JDCMB and increase the "content", which means spending more time on it. Blogging is, of course, unpaid and it is only through your generosity that I can continue writing JDCMB to the level that I would like. I promised in the GoFundMe manifesto to present a list of patrons at the end of this year. Here it is.

JDCMB PATRONS 2017Liz BreretonKate BuchananLalita Carlton-JonesEllen DahrendorfFiona FraserChris GlynnBarbara JappHanjem KemuBeth LevinHugh MatherGillian NewmanTomo SawadoSue ShorterKathy StottBeverly Usherand Anonymous x 7

There is still time to join the list of patrons at the GoFundMe page here!
23 days ago |
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It's sometimes crossed my mind that if we took even half the energy and resources that went on researching offbeat baroque repertoire and "authentic" presentation and put it into new music instead, some rather exciting, up-to-the-minute music-making might result. And at last, here comes something that mingles the two: Baroque on the Edge, which takes place at LSO St Luke's in early January, under the direction of Lindsay Kemp and Lucy Bending. Lindsay, formerly artistic director of the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music and the London Festival of Baroque Music, has written a thought-provoking guest post for us about what they're attempting, and how, and why. Enjoy! JD


Lindsay Kemp wonders if there has to be 

only one way to programme baroque music 

Is baroque music about composers or performers? Is what counts the notes as written down or what an inspired musician can make of them? And is it about context – by which I mean  historical context – or about 200-300-year-old music serving as raw material for anyone to play with and make contemporary, as if it were a folk song or a jazz standard?
Well of course there are no rules in this matter, though you could be forgiven for thinking so from the way some people talk. But while all of the above are certainly valid, I think it’s fair to say that most festivals that set out to devote themselves to baroque music tend to start out from the composers/written notes/historical point of view. I know that’s true of the ones I’ve been involved in over the years, principally the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music and its successor the London Festival of Baroque Music, in which for ten years I had enormous fun building around themes which, however widely they might have ranged and however virtuosic and/or imaginative the musicians I found to realise them, emerged in the first instance from a historical understanding of the music they contained.
Joanna MacGregor
Photo: baroqueattheedge.co.uk
Nothing wrong with that. Few would deny that it is the ‘historically informed’ approach to baroque music that has brought so much of it back into the light with such vitality and understanding over the last fifty years. But as I was preparing to step down from LFBM last May, I got to wondering how it would be if one were to plan a baroque music festival from the other direction, as it were. What if instead of concentrating on being historically aware and obsessing on when a piece of music was written, or who or what it was written for, I could find a way of celebrating what it actually is, what its inner lights are, shining unfiltered through the centuries to illuminate any musician of talent and imagination? What if we were to have a ‘no-rules’ baroque music festival? Thus was Baroque at the Edge born.
If it sounds like a dismissal of everything the early music movement stands for, it certainly isn’t intended to be. I’ve been a ‘believer’ in it ever since my teens, and my own experience of the kind of performer who tends to be drawn to it has taught me that there are plenty of them with the open minds, requisite skills in improvisation and flair for intimate communication with an audience that make them natural and free interpreters of baroque music. I’ve invited some of them to the inaugural Baroque at the Edge: Paolo Pandolfo, the gamba genius who can compel you to silence with a piece of Marais but also deliver an entire programme of gripping improvisations that effortlessly blend the baroque with the whatever else comes into his head, be it jazz or The Beatles; Thomas Dunford, who plays Dowland with heart-melting beauty while also merging minds and styles with Persian percussion-master Keyvan Chemirani; and violinist Bjarte Eike, who can play a Biber Sonata with the best of them and yet channel his upbringing in rural Norway into folk-fiddling mixes and atmospheric contemporary creations in the company of jazz pianist and composer Jon Balke.  

'Breaking the Rules', Gerald Kyd (centre) as Gersualdo with the Marian Consort
Photo: Robin Mitchell for the Lammermuir Festival

In addition, however, I wanted to find a context for baroque masterpieces among the music of our own time, which is why the festival opens with a recital by one of the most adventurous of all today’s pianists, Joanna MacGregor, who will set pieces by Rameau, Daquin, Couperin, Pachelbel, Byrd and Purcell among works by Messiaen, Birtwistle, Gubaidulina and Glass. Another concert will see young recorder virtuoso Tabea Debus and lute-player Alex MacCartney putting music by Telemann alongside companion pieces specially commissioned from Colin Matthews, Laura Bowler and Fumiko Miyachi. And finally, the festival seemed a perfect setting for the London premiere of Clare Norburn’s highly acclaimed concert-drama Breaking the Rules, which visits Carlo Gesualdo (played by actor Gerald Kyd) on the last dark night of his life, with music from The Marian Consort ramping up the tension.
I think Baroque at the Edge may well be the first festival to set out specifically to explore this approach, and my hope is that it will appeal to people who know their baroque music and admire many of these artists already, as well as attract a new audience of curious-minded listeners for whom genres and conventions are less important than the way the music actually sounds, and how it can feed the act of musical creation in front of their eyes. That’s got to be worth a go hasn’t it?  
‘Baroque at the Edge’ runs from 5-7 January 2018 at LSO St Luke’s in London.
24 days ago |
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Two less than Christmassy pieces of news in music journalism have arrived within a matter of weeks. One is that the Ham & High - more than just a local paper for Hampstead & Highgate - is dropping classical music coverage. The other is that the Birmingham Post would be too, except that its critic of 48 years, the highly respected Christopher Morley, has agreed to keep writing for it without payment.

I don't need to tell you that this is sad. You know that. You also know, because it's plain logic, that if a newspaper pays some of its writers, then it should pay them all. A national newspaper well known to me stopped paying its critics too for a bit (someday I'll fill you in on that over a drink) and although we hear it has since rethought, it probably won't be the last.

If publicity is oxygen, classical music is allowed less and less of it - for reasons best known to higher-up editors whose eyes are most likely trained on clickbait and advertising revenue. This is boring for readers, bad for musicians and hopeless for an art that has been largely wiped from mainstream exposure and discussion - except when a conductor is misconducting himself or everyone is counting the women in the Vienna Philharmonic New Year's Concert.

Evidently diversification is needed. In the absence of paying sites, a good few unpaid ones have sprung up - most of them founded for idealistic reasons, namely to keep providing that oxygen for the arts and the high-quality reading ("content" schmontent) that music-lovers want and need. Does that mean that a newspaper with wealthy owners, read by many thousands, is justified in not paying its writers? Of course it doesn't. The two things are not even comparable.

But I fear it might be used as an excuse. I hate to say it, since obviously I write this blog, but possibly those of us who provide free reading matter are part of the problem. This isn't a comfortable thought.

Most of us started blogging because we're writers, and writers like to write and find audiences, and blogging is the easiest way there has ever been to do that. Some of us started the moment this medium was invented and quickly got "high" on its possibilities. Now I suspect that with the reducing of professional outlets, audiences are following us to our own sites (when I last checked the stats for JDCMB, they'd more than trebled since summer 2016). 
In some ways this makes the field "democratic". The audience becomes the editor. If you don't like a blog, for whatever reason, then you don't read it. If you don't like below-the-line comments, you don't read those either, and music blogs are equally prone to that brand of hideousness (which is why I got rid of the comment facility from JDCMB - we still have non-anonymous discussions, on Facebook). But people still have to make a living, so eventually the most active blogs will end up being written by those who have independent means or pensions, or who are lucky enough not to need more than four hours sleep a night. 
Many of us, JDCMB included, have therefore started a "support this blog" facility on crowdfunding sites such as GoFundMe, Patreon and elsewhere. If you like a blog, then please don't just read it: support it. Perhaps the central blogging host sites will eventually provide a way to put up a paywall. Until then, crowdfunding will have to do. 
And meanwhile, newspapers that pay some of their writers should pay all their writers, and pay them properly.

Enjoy JDCMB? Please support it at GoFundMe
26 days ago |
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Dear readers,
Wishing you all joy and peace for Christmas 2017
Lots of love from JD & the crew
30 days ago |
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Ludwig van Beethoven: the dragon wakes
If you've been following my Twitter or Facebook posts this autumn you'll know that for a while my life was taken over by Beethoven. BBC Music Magazine asked me to do a 'Building a Library' feature about the 'Hammerklavier' Sonata and I discovered there were more than 50 to hear, recorded over a period of some 70 years, and these including only recordings that are currently in print and available in the catalogue. Before long it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to be listening to one of the greatest piano works ever written seven times a day.

It's been an extraordinarily instructive experience and if you've never tried doing anything like this, whether professionally or just for fun, I recommend it (it's also a lot easier to do it now if you subscribe to a well-stocked streaming service). I've done plenty in the past, but this was different. This was Beethoven's biggest and most ambitious sonata and everyone will read something different into it, none of it insignificant. The question is, how do those performing and recording it view it and what do they do to bring it to us?

Two major problems were crystallising by the end of Day 2. First of all, have you ever heard someone say of the 'Hammerklavier' "I admire it, of course, but I don't love it...". I've heard this so many times that I've come to the conclusion it's just something that people think they're meant to say about the piece. What's not to love? Love it? I adore it!

What's not to love, possibly, is that it is so bloody difficult to play. There's that first movement metronome mark, minim=138. Can you imagine how many excuses people come up with to justify not even attempting it? Blimey, guv - let's trust and revere Beethoven, but not if it doesn't suit us... Have a think about the background harmonic rhythm in the first movement, then wonder why it soon seems draggy if it doesn't go at at least a good lickety-split. Czerny said that it simply takes "assiduous practice". But even harder is to sustain the tension in the long adagio, and then have enough energy left to whirl your way up the mountain of the nearest thing Beethoven wrote to a grosse Fuge for piano.

The second problem is that all too often I felt we weren't listening to Beethoven. We were listening to our attitude to Beethoven. Playing that is reverential, or that wraps every note in cotton wool because it's sacrosanct, or that just plays faithfully what's on the page without presuming to add one jot of personality. Playing that is terribly, terribly nice. The 'Hammerklavier' is many things, but nice it ain't. I can forgive anyone for being intimidated by it, but not for bowing and scraping to it as they play. By the end of Day 4 I wanted nothing more or less than a recording that would make me feel I was listening to Beethoven himself at the piano, the dragon awaking.

I found one.

BBC Music Magazine asks for the format of a) background to the work, b) one overall winner, c) three runners-up, d) one to avoid. I expected it to be much more difficult to chose the top recording, but it was startlingly easy. The runners-up were much harder, as the number of recordings that are really excellent, by pianists alive or dead, is enormous. The list of "ones to avoid" could also, sadly, have been huge, so I decided to pick a recording by someone who is safely dead and can't be upset.

Really, though, I do have to do a bit of bowing and scraping too: I absolutely take off my hat to anybody who can play the 'Hammerklavier' at all, let alone plumb its depths and bring it to life.

So who's the winner? You'll have to buy the January issue of BBC Music Magazine to read the full article, but I can give you a few hammerklaviclues:

-- He is American and very much alive
-- He is not playing a modern piano
-- His dad would have been extremely proud.

You can get the magazine here. Enjoy.

It's Christmas! Please feel free to support JDCMB with a donation here...
31 days ago |
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Charles Dutoit conducting the NHK Orchestra in Japan, 2001.
Photo: bbc.co.uk
Yesterday afternoon I switched on my computer camera to record some thoughts about the unmasking of sexual predators in the classical music world. I began by reflecting that allegations are extremely difficult to prove unless you were under the bed or hiding in the cupboard at the time; and if people don't speak up about their experiences on the record, unmasking can only be hearsay - this, apparently, was why an otherwise hard-hitting news piece on BBC TV the other day focused on the pop world, but did not include any classical musicians. But I never posted the video because just then the news broke that four women have come forward alleging misconduct by another conductor, this time the veteran maestro Charles Dutoit.

This particularly matters here in London, because Dutoit is principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

According to the Telegraph, the RPO has responded thus:
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra confirmed it would be speaking to Dutoit whenever possible but said it had received no complaints or claims of inappropriate behaviour relating to his work with the Orchestra.
It said: “Based on the information available to us, these allegations were issued without reaction from Mr Dutoit and, to the best of our knowledge, the claimants have initiated no formal legal proceedings.
“Nonetheless, we take this matter very seriously and we will be monitoring the situation closely.” It added: "As a leading international ensemble, the RPO is committed to the highest standards of ethical behaviour, which it expects from everyone that works with the Orchestra.  The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra takes very seriously its responsibility to maintain a safe working environment." 

The orchestra has since released another statement including the information that "Following media allegations...the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) and Dutoit have jointly agreed to release him from his forthcoming concert obligations with the orchestra in the immediate future". It adds: "...the RPO believes that the truth of the matter should be determined by the legal process. The immediate action taken by the RPO and Charles Dutoit allows time for a clear picture to be established. Charles Dutoit needs to be given a fair opportunity to seek legal advice and contest these accusations."

But meanwhile, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra has dropped him outright, several American orchestras with which Dutoit is associated have said he will not be making his scheduled appearances in the months ahead and now more musicians have added allegations of their own.

This obviously puts the RPO in a very difficult position. And the trouble is that the RPO is used to being in awkward positions; it seems deeply unfortunate that it should now have to deal with this as well.

I love the RPO very much. It was the first orchestra I ever heard as a child, the one largely responsible for turning me on to music in the first place - I well remember my first visit to the RFH, aged 7, to hear the RPO under Rudolf Kempe. I've followed its fortunes with interest and though one might often been saddened at the way it's been sidelined in terms of public subsidy, I've also been thoroughly impressed by how it has handled the challenges of our changing times.

Over the years this orchestra, founded by Sir Thomas Beecham, has turned its financial disadvantage into a special niche, reliant upon on its own flexibility, creativity and entrepreneurship. It has numerous residencies in parts of the country to which the other big orchestras rarely go, and its community and education department, RPO Resound, is truly inspiring. Witness, for instance, its Strokestra programme in which the musicians work with patients recovering from strokes.

The orchestra balances all this with extensive commercial activities, playing for video games, 'classical extravaganza' concerts and so forth. Even so, there's often some sense of struggle, not least because the local authorities' arts funding on which the RPO residencies depend have been slashed too in recent years. Through all of this they maintain playing inherently as fine as any of the better-funded organisations. The end results are naturally affected by who's on the podium, how much rehearsal time there is and how knackered the players are, but all the London orchestras are equally full of fabulous musicians.

One can appreciate that the last thing the RPO would want now is a scandal, the upheaval of possibly losing its principal conductor, and the associated issues that would then surround scheduling, costs, PR and more. They have a long-standing relationship with Dutoit and he has brought much to them in terms of artistry, not least Martha Argerich (the RPO birthday concert last year with Argerich and Zukerman was just wonderful). And these accusations don't involve the RPO itself at all. But no British orchestra can afford to have its brand tainted for long and for the sake of the audience, which in the RPO's case is especially wide and diverse, it's important that they do the right thing. They have the trust of a big public. They need to keep that trust.

And that's why the whole unmasking matters in general: because of the audience.

On my non-posted video I wanted to say that music belongs to all of us equally. Music makes no distinctions: it can bypass every division to go straight to the heart. Its force is primarily emotional and that's why it's so vital, so cathartic, so profoundly communicative. The better it is performed, the better this works, and that's why we need the best performers to be out there playing it. Music-lovers deserve the best and in order for the best musicians to come through, their abilities need to be judged solely on their merits. This is precisely why we have to fight racism, sexism, sexual manipulation, greed and inequality of opportunity: in order to reach a real meritocracy, one that rests on nothing but musical results that are not skewed by prejudice, predators or power-hunger. We'll end up with better music-making.

What once went no longer goes. The Canadian music journalist Natasha Gauthier wrote about Dutoit making a move on her 22 years ago and it seems that nobody batted an eyelid. But Kate Maltby - the journalist whose testimony has just brought down the deputy prime minister - put it well in a TV interview yesterday in which she declared that she spoke up about Damian Green because she wants to change the culture in which sexual misconduct has been tolerated. We shouldn't have to put up with it. She's right. 

1 month ago |
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Greetings, dear friends! Welcome to the good old cyberposhplace. First, please open your bags for a security check...[BLEEP] thanks...and please give your name to my assistant over at the table, who'll put your details into the system and issue you with a pass, and...

Just kidding. This is cyberspace and it's cyberxmas at JDCMB. Come on in, have a virtualcocktail and let's party!

Those of you who've hung around the blog for a while will know by now that every year on the winter solstice, 21 December, we have a virtualbash to say thank you to everyone who has been part of our lives in music over the past twelvemonth. A selection of award-winners, chosen simply by me with the aid of my furry friends Ricki and Cosi, receive a special shout-out and a purr. This year the party will soon be swinging to big-band music, including some from Bernstein's musicals - we're looking forward to this particular centenary with unusual enthusiasm - and under the rainbow glitterball you'll spot great musicians dancing the night away (yes, in cyberspace all those classical musicians who say they can't dance might let their hair down for once).

The Ginger Stripe Awards, conceived under the reign of the late and much-missed Solti (who was of course ginger), has been transformed into the Chocolate Silver Awards since our two beautiful silver and chocolate-silver Somali cats Ricki and Cosi padded in three years ago. There've been ups and downs, naturally, since the inaugural awards in 2005. One year we were in exile in Denmark. Last year my mother-in-law had just died and we sat in the lounge with cocoa. This year, though, I think we all deserve a treat.

Brexit-schmexit notwithstanding, 2017 has been, incredibly, my best year ever. Not one, not two, but three of the creative projects I've loved the most have come to fruition; all of them have been beyond my wildest dreams in one way or another. Silver Birch in particular was a highlight not just of 2017 but of - if it doesn't sound too pretentious - my life...

Quiet, please! We're ready. First, let's have a huge round of applause for each and every musician who has touched the hearts of his/her audience this year. You're wonderful. You help make life worth living. We love you. Thank you, thank you, thank you for all your inspirational artistry.

Now, would the following winners please approach the dais where Ricki and Cosi - who have been amply plied with fish to discourage them from charging off round the room chasing each other's tails - are ensconced on their silken cushions. They will let you stroke their wonderful fur (they specially like behind-the-ears and under-the-chin rubs) and will give you a special prize purr.


Photo: Sheila Rock/Warner Classics
Mostly Icons of the Year are dead. This one is alive, kicking and rattling. Please welcome Sir Simon, who's arrived in London at long last and is simply lighting things up.

He walks on stage and the sun comes out and everyone smiles. He programmes an entire evening of difficult British contemporary music, everyone plays like a dream and the hall is (almost) full. He does Bernstein's Wonderful Town and gets the whole LSO second violin section doing the conga and finishes with much of the audience dancing in the aisles. The brass section raises the roof. The violins go nuts on the G string. I've not had as much fun in a concert hall in half a century. The fresh air comes whooshing into the Barbican (no mean feat amid the concrete) and the bleary-eyed ghost of under-rehearsed Russian monoliths past is forever exorcised. And if anyone can get a fine new hall built, even if we'd really prefer it in a different location, it's him. A big hug, Sir Simon, and please stick around for years and years and years.


Dariescu (real) + animation (digital projection) = magic.
Photo: (c) Mark Allen
Alexandra Dariescu has made her mark this year in numerous ways. This charismatic Romanian pianist has stood out for not only playing the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2, but following it in the same concert by playing the solo for Brief Encounter on the big screen with live music; for not only playing Dinu Lipatti's exquisite and terribly demanding Concertino, but playing the Grieg Concerto in the same concert. And for not only playing the most hair-raising transcriptions of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker (Grainger, Pletnev, many more), but performing them with a ballerina in live interaction with digital animation, aiming to attract new audiences and inspire children to think big and follow their dreams. Indeed her The Nutcracker and I reinvents the whole performance experience. She has imagination and vision, but also the drive and determination to turn those visions into reality and the musicianship and pianism to make that reality convincing. I was thrilled when she asked me to write the Nutcracker-Pianist story for her accompanying CD, on which the daredevil TV presenter Lindsey Russell reads the script, but frankly after that premiere, plus that amazing Lipatti the other week, she'd have got the prize anyway.


Kaufmann as Otello.
Photo: (c) ROH, Catherine Ashmore
I'll own up: Otello is an opera I admire, but don't like very much. I don't like the distortion of Shakespeare into an Italian religious frenzy, I don't like Desdemona's mimsy lack of personality and I don't like the way Otello just succumbs to Iago's ministrations, going nuts almost at once - as he often does. But at the Royal Opera House, for once it all made sense. Keith Warner's direction and Jonas Kaufmann's careful pacing made the character convincing, and the singing, not being molto con belto, drew one in to the psychological drama. I'll reiterate my genuine, considered and honest account of a performance I appreciated: this was the most complex and satisfying interpretation of the role that I've personally yet seen, and to the gentleman who sniped that that was a "drool", I'll just say: bollocks. Our Singer of the Year is Jonas Kaufmann, so there.


One of the nicest things about getting older is that you realise you've been hearing Gloom, Doom and Despair for decades, yet you're seeing fabulous young musicians of a new generation coming forward with talent by the gazillions, with creativity, initiative, understanding, musicality and all the rest, and you realise there is hope for the future. Therefore this is the most important 'award category' of all.

If you came to our concert at Burgh House a few weeks ago, you met the two winners of this year's Youthful Artists award. Please welcome:

Jack Pepper. Jack, 18, is a composer, writer, songwriter and would-be broadcaster. He sent me an article on spec earlier this year and it was so good that I whizzed it onto JDCMB. Since then he's contributed more articles, lucidly argued and beautifully written. I was hoping he might become our youth correspondent - but it seems I'm not the only one eager to snap him up into the music industry. We'll be hearing a lot more of him soon - watch that space!

Gabriella Teychenné. Gabriella, 24, is a conductor and in the past few months she has been serving as assistant to Vladimir Jurowski for several projects at the RFH and to Barbara Hannigan on tour with Berg's Lulu Suite and more. She seems to have been making some waves around Europe in the process and her terrific intelligence, clarity, musicality and focus promise much for her future activities.

Bravi both and thank you!


Photo: Hiromichi Yamamoto/DGG
That joyous moment when your inbox goes PING and there's a message from DG asking you to do the booklet notes for Krystian Zimerman's first solo recording in a quarter of a century, which means spending a whole afternoon asking him questions about Schubert. We grabbed a morning as well to talk about Bernstein and Rattle, an interview which appeared in BBC Music Magazine in the December issue to trail the LSO concert the other day (where in the event, he managed to give a sensational performance of 'The Age of Anxiety' despite suffering a cough so severe he should probably have been in hospital). I don't need to tell you why Zimerman is a peerless glory at the piano: you can hear the evidence any time you like. If you haven't yet encountered the CD of the Schubert sonatas D959 and D960, do yourself a favour and hear it.


I haven't seen any real disasters this year, thank goodness, so this particular award goes instead to a gentleman who's been described to me as "world famous in Bavaria", who had always been warm and friendly before. He invited us to stay a night at his house - then disinvited us at one day's notice when we mentioned a dietary issue relating to a medical condition. That was fun.

And some personal highlights:


Roxanna Panufnik and muggins at the second night of our opera Silver Birch. Rain didn't stop play...
The world premiere of Silver Birch at Garsington Opera is not just the proudest moment of the year for me, but my proudest of any to date. Thank you for making it real, dear Garsington, Roxanna, Karen, Dougie, the whole cast - all 180 of you - and of course, Jay Wheeler.

I've also been overjoyed by the Ghost Variations concerts and my work with David Le Page and Viv McLean. Indeed, I've discovered that my "happy place" is...on stage with them. Thank you, my dearest colleagues - we've had a ball! Next concert is 2 January at Lampeter House, near Narberth, Wales.

More pride: seeing Alexandra Dariescu's The Nutcracker and I come to life the other day. See above, but having written the story for the CD is an enormous joy.


There've been a few - there always are. Most 2017 weirdnesses involve daft social media misunderstandings on a Comedy of Errors level, the unmasking of a supposed pal as a Brexit bot, the polarising of old friends into impossible political directions (if you voted to strip us of our right to live and work in 27 other countries, you can't seriously expect anyone to forgive that), and the blank uncertainty caused by the idiocy of Brexit which makes it impossible for anybody to plan ahead - in an industry that depends on forward planning.

On a lighter note, a very weird moment was the JDCMB April Fool's Day post about how after Brexit the LPO would move to the Elbphilharmonie and change its name to the London Hamburger Orchestra. This was a joke. J-O-K-E. I'd thought it was obviously a joke - 1 April, Hamburger, oh come on, guys... But it had the highest readership of any post here, like, evahh, and I'm still coming across people who believed it. Oy.

'Weird' is perhaps not the best word to describe the unmasking of serial sexual abusers in the music industry. James Levine was the first, but it's likely there will be more. If 'hearing rumours forever' amounts to 'knowing', then several are just waiting to go up in smoke. Of course it doesn't amount to 'knowing', but I wonder what next year will bring. There's nastiness, for sure. But I hope that the end result will be that people will be able to develop their artistry and their careers without fear of sexual manipulation, that those with power will learn to resist the temptation to be ruled by that power, and that we'll have a music industry with less exploitation, greater integrity, greater respect, greater diversity and greater openness and positivity. An atmosphere of fear, intimidation and aggression benefits nobody - and the listeners least of all.

Have a fantastic Christmas/Festive Season, everyone, and thank you for being part of JDCMB! And now, "before the fiddlers have fled, before they ask us to pay the bill, while we still have the chance, let's face the music and dance...".

1 month ago |
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