Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Heading south

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.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Roar of the cannon

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.

Monday, January 01, 2018



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!

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Top Ten Posts of 2017 on JDCMB, and thank you to JDCMB's Patrons

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.


Liz Brereton
Kate Buchanan
Lalita Carlton-Jones
Ellen Dahrendorf
Fiona Fraser
Chris Glynn
Barbara Japp
Hanjem Kemu
Beth Levin
Hugh Mather
Gillian Newman
Tomo Sawado
Sue Shorter
Kathy Stott
Beverly Usher

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Baroque and roll: a guest post by Lindsay Kemp

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.