Ian Page, China’s first International Music Competition, and Saffron Hall

I may not have attended an actual concert yet this year, but I have recorded a podcast about one on 29 January, received a couple of new releases for review (Peter Donohoe’s Mozart collection, plus Emma Johnson and Friends, both on SOMM for release later in January). And I feel as though I’m keeping a closer eye on incoming press releases. In short, I feel like I’m a little more across things than I have been in the past. This is a good thing.

Part of this is to do with finding a way of talking about classical music announcements in a way that fits the mild shift in direction the Thoroughly Good Blog has taken in the past month or so.

PRs have a tough job

For all our pissing and moaning about some PRs efforts, I do think on the face of it they have a phenomenally difficult job. They’re issuing announcements about a comparatively niche art-form for inclusion on a limited number of platforms. They have to ensure that their language satisfies the intellectual aspirations of the recipient, and maximises exposure for the ultimate audience – the ticket buyer. They’re also (largely) having to enthuse about one-off events that the majority of people won’t attend. It’s a tough sell.

I see lots of people regurgitate press releases. I find this frustrating. I browse through some websites reluctantly because I feel I ought to be, if not reading then certainly seeing what everyone else is writing. When I see a blog post with the same structure as the press release I have in my inbox on the same subject, I gasp a little. Where’s the joy for the writer? Copying and pasting might help keep the wheels in motion, but it starves the self-publishing process of any creativity. Given that there’s little or no money in digital content, you’ve got to cling on to the creative opportunities however small whenever you can, it strikes me.

So I see myself responding to press releases now on an instinctive level, this signalled by the recent Aldeburgh announcement which was so well-timed that it took me by surprise and increased my heart rate slightly as a result. Similarly the SCO announcement a couple of days ago. Both of these rays of sunlight in what feels a grey part of the year.

Yesterday’s news

And yesterday, a string of announcements and releases which raise the eyebrows and get the creative juices flowing.

First, those SOMM recordings from Peter Donohoe and Emma Johnson.

Then, news that Saffron Hall (which I still haven’t visited even once yet) is running a series of dance events including names I’m wholly unfamiliar but at the same time demonstrate how the arts venue under the auspices of chief exec Angela Dixon is continuing to grow in confidence artistically. I do also think they have a beautifully simple website too. Pleasingly unfussy.

And after that, the big news of the day: China and its first international music festival in May later this year. This discovery came after the podcast record yesterday (more on that in a bit) which meant I was focusing more on the podcasting opportunities. As stories go I find it fascinating, especially if we are to assume the unlikely that Theresa May’s Brexit Homework does get a reluctant B- from MPs and our attention as a country starts to shift more beyond European shores. I make no apology for the fact that this is *straightens tie* something I’d love to feature on the podcast. I mean … just imagine .. a classical music competition in Beijing. What would that be like?

Recording a podcast with Mozartists artistic director Ian Page

Which brings me to the other thing that happened yesterday. The podcast recording with Ian Page from the Mozartists/Classical Opera talking about his 27 year project documenting the good and the unknown of Mozart’s entire canon plus some of those works that were in his orbit. Their next event is on 29 January at Southbank Centre.

“Have you been on the radio?” asked Ian before we started. “Have I heard you on In Tune?”

“I’ve been on In Tune once,” I replied, “to promote an Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment gig years ago. I always wanted to be on the radio … ” I explained (and what I said next was the thing which really surprised me) ” … but never really got my foot in the door at Radio 3. I do sometimes wonder whether those who recruit probably have a good idea that someone who wants to be on the radio probably isn’t the kind of person they want on a production team.”

It was the first time in maybe 12 years I’d reconciled myself about the radio thing in such a calm, collected and grown-up way.

Ian is a fun contributor for a podcast which feels as though its found its feet now. Chat is the order the day. Easy exploration of shared passions. Allowing the contributor to introduce their subject using enthusiasm. Letting rapport lead the way means that the knowledge and expertise never slaps people across the face. Some surprising connections made in our conversation and I can’t wait for it to come out (although obviously I will have to).

What is it that you do?

When we finished the recording and I headed up to Barbican to speak to Jo Johnson from LSO about the Find Your Way leadership development scheme for the ABO conference podcast, one thought did strike me – a personal challenge I tussle with from time to time. It hung around when I was heading home to SE6 too.

At the risk of sounding like a show-off, work (paid and unpaid) involves a range of different activities, this underlined during my last engagement of the day – a visit to the dentist – which began with the question from the hygienist preparing me for the injection:

“What do you do for a living?”

I listed the things I find myself doing at the moment: “I shoot video, write about classical music, produce podcasts, coach people, and design and build websites.”

The hygienist looked at me with a blank expression. I took this to mean she wished she hadn’t asked.

The reality is that I love the variety that my work provides. But summing it all up in a way that makes it all sound enticing (and generates more of it) is tough.

BBC Proms Diary 2018: Mozart and the Alpine Symphony

If you ask to do something for someone they won’t pay. Or maybe they can’t. Or maybe I just left it too late. Or maybe I should take the foot off the gas a bit. There’s assertive. There’s being a pain in the butt. Sometimes it’s easy to confuse the two. I’ve spent a long time wanting to change the system when everyone else around me recognised long ago that the system needs to be navigated around.

Elsewhere a school associate has cancer, has lost her hair and had part of her bowel removed at the weekend. In Chicago, a talented pal is playing with a band to big crowds and loving it. In Battersea another pal is recovering from a stupidly demanding bike ride and in training for it has gone through enviably dramatic weight loss.

I’m not saying one thing is tougher than the other, nor that one thing is better than the other. Just that we’re all trying our best and it’s often incredibly hard.

Mozart’s Notturno played by multiple ensembles scattered across the Royal Albert Hall came across well on the radio. All caressing and soothing as though I was walking through a dream filled with billowy white-curtains and freshly-plumped sofas. I realised I hadn’t heard any Mozart in ages – music that cuts across the gloopy everydayness we all unwittingly carry around with us. This was a musical lay-by after a frenetic, manic and sometimes terrifying day full of repetitive tasks, disappointing exchanges, failed bids and escalating ruminations. 

I skipped the Haas, finishing off a couple of emails before heading out for a skoot around nearby Mountsfield Park listening to the Alpine Symphony in the second half. Memories of cable car trips from Verbier town came flooding back.

Strauss music like the most intense and unrelenting kind of mild-altering experience – something that imposes, consumes, and commands. There’s no easy place to stop. If you begin you need to end it. But it was a little too close to the edge for me, accessing emotions and thoughts that brought tears close to the surface, succeeding in perpetuating the rumination which had been present for most of the day.

Such occasions demand the triggers are dampened, so that the surroundings can seep into the void. The view over South East London towards the horizon where Crystal Palace tower pierces the sky brought it all home: freelance life isn’t easy by any means; resilience is often demanded; there’s a grumbling fear that there will come a point in time when the crushing truth that no-one will want to work with me will be impossible to deny any longer; and the reserves will finally disappear. 

A university friend of 25 years who lives nearby provided a gentle pat on the shoulder via a What’s App message, reminding me that this was something I had chosen to do (meaning I must have believed then I could make this work and what new information led me to believe that original assertion was wrong now) and, importantly, that she had every faith. It was the first time in twenty years I had been quite so honest with her (not since I ‘came out’ to her twenty one years before).

I walked back down the hill and the road to home a little calmer compared to when I had set out.

Q&A: Pianist Jean-Paul Gasparian

Jean-Paul Gasparian played at the Monte-Carlo festival a couple of months back. His next concert is a mid-morning concert in the Elgar Room at the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday 27 May including works by Chopin, Mozart and Debussy. 

Hello. How are you?

I’m fine. I just came back from Germany from Ingolstadt where I had to replace Till Fellner for a recital. Now I have a few days in Paris before going to London. Ingolstadt was great – it’s a great venue. I knew two weeks before. So I played my current programme with Chopin Four Ballades and the Brahms Fantasies.

How much time do you get to get familiar with the piano you’re about to play, before a concert?

Well usually, nowadays, in most of the concert venues across the world, the organisers use D-Steinway piano just as I have at home. Hence there are no big surprises for me if there’s a Steinway.

Of course in some places the piano is different. That’s not a bad thing. A different piano will create a different sound. I’ve tried Bechstein, Fazioli (as in St James) or even a new Yahama. As for the Royal Albert Hall I understand it will be a Yahama – and I think it’s the red one that belongs to Elton John.

I have seen pictures of it and it is very red ..

Ah, so its true. I know that I’ll have an hour before the concert on Sunday. That will be enough time for me to work out how to manage the sound with the acoustics.

What adjustments – what are you listening out for – are you making in this hour before?

Well, of course, I’m not changing my vision of the work or the interpretation of the work, but if the acoustic is generous I can use less pedal or if its dry I can use a little more pedal to apply a little more resonance in places. Also, I can pay more attention to the bass and the treble. Or maybe I need to make adjustments in order to make the piano sing or make sequences legato.

When you explain all of those things – as an audience member I’m reminded that we take a lot of these things for granted. Is that preparation time a pressured experience or a relaxed one?

When I know that the piano will be a little bit different than those I’m used to then its good to know that I have time to get used to it. It so happens that just recently I was playing a concert in a place called Senlis near Paris. The day before I had been in Florence, the flight back was cancelled and by the time I made it to the church in Senlis I didn’t have much time to try the piano. When you’re in that situation that doesn’t necessarily mean the concert will be bad. In this case it turned out to be very good indeed because I didn’t have time to ask questions of myself. Sometimes playing with this spontaneous energy is really good. Sometimes its good not to ask too many questions.

So you’re a risk taker? You like that pressure?

Not especially. But for me, the piano and the concert hall – I can’t remember exactly who said this – is your destiny. You have no choice. There’s no point about questioning the quality of the piano or of the acoustic. You have to adapt.

As a pianist , you have an unusual relationship with the instrument you play because you don’t bring it with you like other musicians do. You don’t feel accustomed to that instrument like other musicians do with theirs. You have to establish your connection with your instrument very quickly.

Absolutely. Some pianists from the past used to bring their own pianos with them all around the world. There are also pianists who have special relationships with a piano tuner and they travel around with the pianist too. That’s useful in some respects because it means that the pianist can make requests to have special adjustments made.

Tell me about the programme you’re playing on Sunday at the Royal Albert Hall. What prompted you to put those works together?

First of all, the Chopin pieces is part of the repertoire I’m concentrating on this year. I released my first recording dedicated to Russian music earlier this year, including Rachmaninov and Scriabin and Prokofiev.

As I have an agreement for three recordings, I’ve suggested that the next one be dedicated to Chopin – this year I wanted to complete Chopin’s four ballades, so including them in a concert made good sense. 

The concert will also include the Mozart sonata – that’s a recent piece I learned that this year. There will also be Debussy’s Estampes – that’s an homage-come-tribute to Debussy in his centenary year. These three pieces I like very much. It’s not the typical or modern Debussy. This is ‘hedonist Debussy’. A lot of sensuality. It’s a very warm work for the audience.

If you’re playing these a lot, how do you go about making sure you don’t get bored of them?

That’s a really important part of practising a work. I do sometimes leave a work for one or two months or one or two years. I’ll play them and then I’ll leave them. That gap is always important. One of my former teachers said that when you leave a work, the work is still practising itself. Even if I’m not playing it myself, its being practised in my sub-conscious. In that way, when I return to the work I experience new ideas when I play it.

Have you found yourself in a situation where your enthusiasm for a work has changed?

Oh. You mean in a bad sense? I can’t find exact examples – that’s a good sign I think. But, if you’re playing a piece a lot, you can get a little bit tired. That’s precisely the point where you have to be careful about not falling into a routine. You musn’t let it stay the same. You need to look for new ideas. And sometimes that’s done by listening to other recordings – not to imitate, but to seek inspiration.

Jean-Paul Gasparian plays Debussy, Mozart, and Chopin at the Elgar Room in the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday 27 May at 11.00am. Tickets are £12.50 and include coffee and pastries.

Edinburgh Festival 2017: Mitsuko Uchida plays Mozart, Schumann, and Widmann

There are performances that are so transfixing that to review them seems churlish. If the performer succeeds in transporting you, there’s little else to do but put your pen down and submit.

Mitsuko Uchida is one of a handful of musicians who has achieved that for me and, save for the occasional choking, coughing, and general spluttering, for most others in the Usher Hall too.

Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C Major K545

Uchida’s jaw-dropping technical mastery brought the playful innocence and joyful naivety in Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C Major K545 to the fore. In a matter of moments it felt as though everyone in the hall was hanging off every note she played. A remarkable achievement.

Robert Schumann’s Kreisleriana

She continued to demonstrate her masterful control of the piano in Schumann’s eight-movement homage to author ETA Hoffmann.

In this work in particular we didn’t just marvel at the sound Uchida produces, but the relationship she forms with every single note the piano sounds. Each one is given its moment before she has to part company with it and move on to the next.

Here too she created epic drama with dazzling dynamic, tonal, and textural contrast.

Robert Widmann’s Sonatina facile

Premiered in Hamburg in January 2017, Jorg Widmann’s Sonatina facile paid homage to the Mozart piano sonata we heard in the first half. Widmann’s harmonic language has a wilfulness and playfulness, that part-ridicules, part-celebrates.

There are moments in the work when the harmonic language not only honours the original creation, but highlights the absurdities and contradictions of modern-day life too. A fun and entertaining piece. Loved it.

Robert Schumann’s Fantasy in C Major Op. 17

Uchida concluded her recital with a performance of Schumann’s C Major Fantasy that tantalised. Heartbreaking slow movements, contrasted with fiery dexterity, and deft pedal work. A performance that brought tears to the eyes.

Don Giovanni / Opera Holland Park

A gripping performance of one of Mozart’s darker comic operas, pitching a serial philanderer on a 1920s cruise liner – all very Agatha Christie.

The production succeeded in rooting the plot in amongst our present-day preoccupations showing us an abusive man devoid of little or no personal responsibility.

Don Giovanni is more dark than comic. Violent and abusive, the oily Giovanni (Ashley Riches) was fuelled by a rampant sense of entitlement and a devishly seductive voice.

Donna Elvira (Victoria Simmonds) portrayed a complex character burning with conflicting emotions that at times verged on something desperate. Determined to reveal her lover’s duplicity, Simmonds’ deft depiction saw Elvira move from comedy to pity. By the conclusion of the production the woman looked shattered. Little wonder.

Exquisite duets from Zerlina (Ellie Laugharne) and Masetto (Ian Beadle) in both acts – a pairing who’s counterpoint was beautifully woven with the orchestra’s rich score, offered much-needed hope.

Leporello (John Savournin)  was the stand out star of the production. Giovanni’s sidekick is a demanding role, but Savournin skipped nimbly from feeble obsequiousness to shameful collusion, from one scene to the other.

That Giovanni is the one who gets his come-uppance at the end doesn’t quite ring true in this day and age. Leporello enabled, empowered and apologised for his master’s behaviour. Shouldn’t he have suffered too? One wonders how the man sleeps at night.

Great ensemble from the City of London Sinfonia too, though given that we had a lute play live, I would have thought a harpsichord would have sounded more authentic than the comparatively unconvincing piano during some of the recits.

The set and costume design was polished. The setting too was inspired, making Don Giovanni’s eventual demise plausible and the dead Don Pedro brought back to life an almost forgivable plot point.