Friday, May 19, 2017

Meet Glyndebourne's new Violetta

Kristina Mkhitaryan
Photo: Emil Mateev
This summer at Glyndebourne is dominated by Tom Cairns' production of Verdi's La Traviata, which gets not one run but two, the second in August, the first starting this Sunday. The first of their Violettas is the Russian soprano Kristina Mkhitaryan. I was fortunate enough to attend the dress rehearsal yesterday, but One Does Not Write About Things Until They Open, so for the moment let's just say that you might like to hear her.

She is from Novorossyisk and is 30 this year. Above, she sings Gilda's aria 'Caro nome' from Rigoletto, fabulously airborne at the Bolshoi. Here's a little more about her.

A graduate of the Galina Vishnevskaya Theatre Studio, Moscow, Kristina went on to join the Young Artist Programme at the Bolshoi Theatre where she remains a studio artist. She has most recently won first prize at the Queen Sonja International Competition in Oslo (2013), 3rd prize at the Neue Stimmen Competition (2013) and the Viotti Competition in Vercelli (2014).

And more here from the Bolshoi.


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Top artists' manager speaks out against Brexit

It seems that the person who could have done best at running the STAY IN THE EU campaign is actually running the leading artists' management company Harrison Parrott. I've seen few words so eloquent and hard-hitting on the topic as those posted in this essay by the executive chairman Jasper Parrott himself, currently released on the company's website. We should all rally together with him.

UK Arts and Culture are a European legacy worth fighting for, he declares.
...We should remember that the wealth and power of the Great Britain that Brexiteers would so delusionally like to bring back was based substantially on wealth accumulated through slavery and the slave trade, exploitative colonialism, the cruel oppression of the poor and of children in the satanic mills of the Industrial Revolution, countless broken promises and a history of appalling leadership at many critical points of history including the lead into the two world wars and many other conflicts before and since in which we have been involved. 
To me however, our UK has been at its greatest as a major partner in the European project which has brought previously unimagined levels of freedom and prosperity to hundreds of millions of people since the Second World War, as the successful creator of a citizenship and homeland of rich cultural diversity and mutual tolerance, a haven of peace and opportunity, and a society where the arts, sciences, education and every aspect of culture can thrive as it has so successfully done, over the last 40 years. 
And how much greater our UK could have been if our leaders had wholeheartedly engaged with the challenges of leadership and reform from within the EU rather than using our power to carp, diminish, undermine and opt out...
Read the whole thing here.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

If you build it, they will come

It's not dead. The City of London Corporation has stumped up money to continue the creation of a business plan for the mooted Centre for Music. They are now looking for the right architects, engineers and acousticians to design the great concert hall that London doesn't have. This report in The Guardian explains the latest developments, which include a revising down of the estimated cost to around £200-250m.

Frankly, they could do worse than call in the team that built the auditorium of the NOSPR in Katowice, which opened in 2014. Photo gallery here. Friends in the LSO came back absolutely raving about it (as did Bachtrack's reporter, here). Katowice is a smallish mining town in southern Poland, part of a larger metropolitan area of Silesia that extends to a population of about 5.3m, and it has a hall, home to the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, that many performers consider acoustically superior to any orchestral venue in the UK's capital.

The firm to call is the Japanese acoustical engineering company Nagata Acoustics.

NOSPR, Katowice
Photo: Daniel Rumiancew

Nagata Acoustics has also created the auditoriums in the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, the Paris Philharmonie, the Helsinki Music Centre, Shanghai Symphony Hall, the New World Center Concert Hall Miami, the Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall in St Petersburg, the Danish Radio Concert Hall Copenhagen, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and halls all over Japan... Full list and more info here. 

I've had mixed feelings about the super-hall idea. First I loved it: why should London not have a great concert hall to match the finest in the world? Our musical life is still among the planet's best and we deserve a venue that fits the bill. Then I got worried. How will it be run? In particular, how will it be funded? What knock-on effect will it have on the capital's musical life in an environment already threadbare on the funding front (and likely to get worse if the companies whose incumbents provide sponsorship have to move abroad post Brexit)? Would it risk leaching the funding, public and private alike, away from its competition? And can the organisation of it be trusted not to get it totally wrong yet again?

And yet, and yet...get it right and...and the possibilities are endless. The magnificent Hamburg Elbphilharmonie is sold out right through this season, despite hefty ticket prices. It's now announced its 17-18 season of delectable musical delights and seems likely to sell out again. While one hopes that the London hall won't end up costing quite the same eye-watering sums, and that it can be designed so that you can get out at the end to catch your train in under 15 minutes seat-to-door, there's still a lesson here: if you build it, they will come. If the place is good enough, if the experience of being inside it to listen to great music is attractive enough, it will fill up with people and they will love it. And they will love what they hear if it sounds lovable. If we're proud of our music, if we celebrate it and promote it and encourage children to come in and experience it, perhaps the regeneration it brings the spirit can spread.

Detractors say that the sums of money involved would be better spent on music education - and they would indeed, but the fact remains that they won't be, not by the government currently in charge, and the hall's money would come from different budgets, and probably different organisations, in any case. And perhaps it would benefit music education directly if a place like this were to set a high-profile example and lead from the front.

We've had decades of multi-purpose, hall-plus-conference-centre design - but one size does not fit all. Flexible acoustics seem something of a technological miracle and of course it's good to be able to adjust the sound according to different music's different needs. Yet now we would all love a hall that is made for music and its audience, and that has the additional facilities to accommodate rehearsal, community projects, education work and a decent cafe or several. A hall that is designed to celebrate the great art it holds, a hall that is a joy to spend time in inside and out, a hall that welcomes everybody, a hall that draws the crowds and the artists and that doesn't send you home with a headache - that would be worth the wait. At least, it could be, if it's done well enough. (Oh, and it would be nice if there were enough ladies' loos. The Elbphilharmonie in that respect is disgraceful!)

So please, City, if you're going ahead with this, get it right. And if you haven't already done so, please put in a call to Nagata.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Fauré on eternal love

Painting of Fauré by John Singer Sargent (photo from

It's Gabriel Fauré's birthday today: 172. This means, happily, that in three years' time he will be 175, which is a good excuse for a few celebrations. Start planning now, chaps.

For today's anniversary, here are three of his songs, or mélodies. The first, 'Notre Amour', a particular favourite of mine as it is about eternal love, yet as many light years away from Tristan und Isolde as it's possible to be. It is followed by 'Le Secret', its sibling in Fauré's Op.23, and 'En Sourdine', a Verlaine setting from the Cinq mélodies de Venise. The singer is Elly Ameling with pianist Dalton Baldwin, recorded back in 1974. (The Seventies had certain things going for them, incidentally.)

Incidentally, the second volume in a brand-new, splendid, intimate, varied and warm-hearted recording of all the Fauré songs has just been released on Signum Records, spearheaded by pianist Malcolm Martineau. More about that here.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Right Royal Philharmonic Awards Celebration

The stupendous Finnish soprano Karita Mattila with her prize
Tuesday night: the lights are low and the music's high on the agenda. The Royal Philharmonic Society Music Awards are the annual UK jamboree that celebrates the best and brightest of music-making here on Brexit Island. Last night's was filled with warm welcomes, joyous encounters and plenty of good food and wine at The Brewery, round the corner from the Barbican. Andrew MacGregor and Sarah Walker of BBC Radio 3 served as hosts, there were enthusiastic words from RPS chairman John Gilhooly ("Live music is...priceless; live music is...sparkling...") and winners received their silver lyres from no less distinguished hands than Stephen Hough's.

In the bad old days when there was plenty of (or at least a bit more) money in the industry, we used to sit at this celebration through long speeches that would say how dreadful everything was and what a scandal it was that there wasn't more music on TV, and so forth. Now that the whole business is in mortal peril with the prospect of the economic and practical disruption likely to result from Brexit, paradoxically an atmosphere of celebration prevailed, with Stephen Hough declaring in his speech that we should embrace challenging music, stop apologising, not expect classical music to be for absolutely everybody, stop patronising the young ("we offer them Primrose Hill when they're ready to climb Ben Nevis") and appreciate the upside of the museums model which is, as I've often remarked too, not something to be disparaged on autopilot, but actually encourages great care, good display and creative communication with the audience. I hope he'll publish this speech somewhere.

A video message was also beamed in from the great Thomas Quasthoff, remarking that we have enjoyed 70 years of peace in Europe thanks in large part to the existence of the EU and that he would like there to be a similarly bright future for his 18-year-old stepdaughter's generation. Many of us cheered - not that there's much we can do about it, faced with a government apparently determined to drive our economy and our society alike over the Brexit cliff no matter how much damage it will do, and an opposition that seemingly won't oppose.

And the awards? It was quite a crop. Honorary membership of the RPS was presented to filmmaker Barrie Gavin, who has documented splendid quantities of 20th-century composers from Korngold to Boulez. The ceremony cited "the care and attention to detail which he invests in each and every subject, and his ability to demonstrate insightful authority and profound understanding".

The shortlisted conductors: Richard Farnes, Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla and Donald Runnicles.
Photo montage from
Along the way there were treats aplenty: the news that Classic FM is commissioning new pieces from seven young composers; an award for the Lammermuir Music Festival - which is a relatively new organisation, having only launched in 2010; and the rare treat of seeing the only-two-ever Takács Quartet leaders together, the violinist-turned-conductor Gabor Takács-Nagy collecting the well-deserved prize for the Manchester Camerata, which he's leading to brilliant things, and Edward Dusinberre modestly accepting the Creative Communication prize for his wonderful book about playing the Beethoven Quartets, Beethoven for a Later Age (published by Faber & Faber). The Manchester Camerata's award was essentially for its Hacienda Classical strand, with which apparently it's going to open Glastonbury this year. But I don't think it hurt that they also played Beethoven with Martha Argerich.

The Learning and Participation award was won by the UK's first disabled-led youth orchestra, the South-West Open Youth Orchestra, their achievements attested to by a moving video. The Young Artist award went to pianist and Lieder specialist Joseph Middleton, the two composition awards went respectively to Rebecca Saunders for Skin and Philip Venables for 4.48 Psychosis, and the Audience Engagement prize to the East Neuk Festival - it was indeed a good night for Scottish festivals. Fretwork won Chamber Music and Song, violinist James Ehnes was awarded the Instrumentalist prize and Karita Mattila swept to victory in the Singer award.

It was probably Richard Farnes's night first and foremost, though. The British maestro scooped the Conductor award for his Ring cycle with Opera North, and the company and that production also won the Opera award outright. You can see the whole thing on the BBC iPlayer, and please do take a look/listen, because it is simply a knockout. Priceless. Sparkling. And more.

I managed to squeeze into a dress I haven't worn for two years, hug four former interviewees, catch up with the whole Garsington team (they were shortlisted for Idomeneo), apologise for a non-attendance at something to entirely the wrong PR person, and win the best dessert of the evening as my annoying dietary condition meant that instead of whatever everyone else ate, I was given some utterly glorious chocolate goo. A fine time was had by one and all.