Showing posts with label LSO. Show all posts
Showing posts with label LSO. Show all posts

Saturday, December 16, 2017

"Will you play this with me when I'm 100?"

Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No.2, 'The Age of Anxiety', isn't so much a symphony as a piano concerto-stroke-tone-poem. Based on WH Auden's poem of the same title, exploring the overnight musings of a group of strangers in a New York bar, it includes a set of vivid variations, a jazzy movement 'The Masque' in which piano and percussion interact with intricate bedazzlement and a final, glorious sunrise in which you can almost see the dawn light glinting off the Empire State Building.

The real puzzle is why this piece is done so infrequently. Glad to say that that is changing tonight, as Krystian Zimerman and Sir Simon Rattle present it in an all-Bernstein concert with the LSO, alongside Wonderful Town.

In case you missed my interview with Zimerman in the December edition of BBC Music Magazine, here's a taster of what he said about this piece and why he's playing it.

....Touring the Brahms Second Concerto [with Leonard Bernstein], Zimerman recalls: “We were having lunch one day and he asked me about his own music. When I told him I had played his Symphony No.2, he was amazed and said, ‘How come I didn’t know?’. I said, ‘You never asked!’” 
 Naturally, numerous performances followed: “Each time was completely different. That was a special feature of his music making: he was always totally honest, so the smallest thing that changed his emotional construction immediately found its way into his interpretations. So there was not really a Bernstein interpretation – it was done ad hoc in the performance, to the extent that it was impossible to rehearse! He could make dramatic changes on stage. That’s something I have never experienced with any other conductor, this degree of courage and daring.” Scary, perhaps? Zimerman smiles: “Maximum adrenaline!”
 Returning to the symphony this year fulfills a promise he made to Bernstein: “He asked me: ‘Will you play this piece with me when I’m 100?’. And that’s why I’m playing it now, because I realised two years ago that he’d be 100. It’s a great piece. It’s so much fun. And it’s so much like him, with all the freshness and flexibility and craziness of his character.”

Last time Zimerman played this piece in London, with Bernstein himself, it was 1986 (see video above). But now an Age of Anxiety is upon us in earnest - whether it's 52, 2017, or anything else of the totally unreasonable and largely unhinged world of today. I'd love to see what Auden and Bernstein would make of things now. 

Friday, September 15, 2017

Rattle's big night

Rattle and the LSO.
Photo: Doug Peters/PA

THIS IS RATTLE. The posters greet you at the main entrance, on the programme cover, everywhere around the Barbican. And the first sound that meets your ears is of children singing. The foyer is crammed with opening-night concert-goers gazing up at a choir of primary-school kids on the balcony showing off their musical skills to the manner born. It's a great way to start the big night that marks the opening of Sir Simon Rattle's long-awaited return to Britain as music director (yes, music director, not chief conductor) of the London Symphony Orchestra. Explore their website to read about the plans for innovative digital work, outreach, British music focuses, streaming, filming and even some rather fine concerts. These are going to be exciting times, or so one might hope.

"This is music, this is what we believe.
Music is for everybody, music is a right.
It's the air we breathe, the water we drink." 
--- Sir Simon Rattle

Rattle has been on the TV, on the airwaves, in the newspapers. He only has to sneeze for it to make the headlines, it seems. Having a household name at the head of the LSO can only be a good thing for musical life here. And his chosen opening night programme was something that probably no other conductor could get away with and end up still speaking to the management: a musical marathon of five works by British composers, four of them alive and kicking hard, two of them present to take their bows, and among them names of the type that in other settings sometimes strike fear and paralysis into the hearts of potential attendees. Not so here: the crowd, if occasionally bemused and unquestionably challenged, at worst read its programmes and at best positively lapped up the craggy music by Helen Grime, Thomas Adès, Harrison Birtwistle and Oliver Knussen before relaxing into the sunlit garden of Elgar's Enigma Variations. If there was champagne for the musical soul of London, food for thought was never far away.

The first half could scarcely have been better chosen. First was a new work commissioned by the Barbican for the LSO, a five-minute piece by Grime named 'Fanfare' - but 'Overture' might have been better, since it seems to contain the seeds of much more than its moniker suggests. Vivid string syncopations and starbursts of percussion made celebratory noises, but the wide-ranging imagination in terms of forces mingling - whether punchy musical motifs or glitter-rich orchestration - suggested there is plenty to build on and possibly expand.

The young Simon Rattle, portrait by Norman Perryman
Adès's Asyla is 20 years old: a tried and tested piece of diamond-hewn musical ammunition, premiered by Rattle in Birmingham back in the day, and since then played all over the world. That probably gives it 'modern classic' status, but it only becomes more startling on repeated hearing. Its swirling dreamscapes, its visionary, passacaglia-like slow movement, the simultaneous unfolding of extraordinary ideas one on top of another, the adopting of club music techniques (the programme includes a story from Adès about how writing this passage landed him in hospital with a suspected heart attack) - all of this sounds more original, fresher and more bizarre every time around. The piece can sparkle a little bit more than it did last night, perhaps - I've heard tenser, tauter accounts - but placing it centre stage was absolutely the right thing to do.

Christian Tetzlaff was the soloist for Birtwistle's Violin Concerto of 2009-10, which shows the doyen of British composers in relatively mellow mode. While the orchestration has a dark, cave-like spaciousness and resonance, or sometimes moves like a leviathan in the deep (the tuba writing helps), Tetzlaff was caramel-toned over the top, a poet amid a mass that sometimes comprehends, other times discusses, and often serves to offset the eloquent tenderness of his thoughts. It's a collaborative concerto, essentially: wind players emerge from the ranks to set up solo spots alongside the violinist one at a time, and Tetzlaff did all he could to spur them into playful musical discussion. The octogenarian composer, who today somewhat resembles a comfortable, shuffly polar bear, took his bow to a respectful ovation.

Oliver Knussen's Symphony No.3 is a short three-movement work of sensitive, moody, atonal architecture, begun when the composer was all of 21 in the early 1970s, and completed in 1979. Rattle tackled it with enormous affection, shaping and pacing it splendidly. If it proved one big chew too many for a single evening, probably few would have admitted it yesterday; we could reflect, instead, on why it is that when there are so many fine pieces of modern British music in existence, we can wait years for them to return, then get three at once (London buses, etc...).

It's also intriguing to think that while the idiom of this music was fully current by 1973, that was almost a half-century ago - yet the basic style of what's thought of today as mainstream British modern music has not changed much. The finest voices within it are individual and distinctive, and produce occasional masterpieces. But now, one could reasonably contend, isn't it time to move on?

Settling into Elgar's Enigma Variations after all of this was like stepping out of a deep lake onto dry land. The sense of gravity is transformed. Your breathing changes. You know where your feet are. Rattle's account of the variations homed in on the affection of the composer for his "friends pictured within" - and he coaxed the LSO strings into some Seidel-esque marvels on the G string in "RPA", a hush to end all hushes at the start of "Nimrod", an elusive, butterflyish, cherishable delicacy in "Dorabella" and a moment of anguish for "***" on her long sea voyage - for everybody, there must be one that got away. The finale was a giant musical bear-hug. The orchestra, playing its many socks off for its new boss, blossomed and shone; and the hall, too, was full of friends - friends of music and art and joy. If anything represents hope in Brexit Island today, it's the return of Rattle.

And there's that elephant stalking the corners of the room. The ambition expressed in the Barbican last night is vast: new initiative will follow new initiative and even the new hall was spoken of as a budding reality - though a lot of money still has to be found through donors and sponsorship to make it happen. Nobody said what many of us are thinking: how on earth are we going to manage any of this after Brexit?

What will happen to the LSO's large contingent of European players? What will happen to international touring if we end up with visas, customs and tariffs even to travel a couple of hours to Paris or Amsterdam? How can we continue to attract the world's greatest soloists if the pound plummets still further and our fees can't remain even slightly competitive on the world stage? Would Sir Simon have come back at all if he'd known Brexit was going to happen? (They asked him this on the TV news. He said it would have "given me pause".) It's possible, of course, that our civil servants, working behind the scenes, can avert a worst-case, crash-out Brexit, but there's scant sign of competence, understanding or realism among the front-bench politicians who seem hell-bent on driving us smack into the cliff-face, determined to sacrifice everything of the public good to a public opinion formed on the basis of proven lies.

Welcome home, Sir Simon.

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Thursday, February 09, 2017

The Wagner Evening #kaufmannresidency

Jonas Kaufmann in recital the other night. Photo: Alastair Muir/Barbican

State of being in the Discount Tent EC1 last night post-Walküre Act I: shaking a bit, hyperventilating slightly and maybe in need of a little lie-down, toast and a nice cup of camomile tea. But even the most soothing of brews doesn't cleanse that music from your system. Nothing new about saying Wagner is like a drug, but you can feel it physically in your bloodstream. It's a substance that burns you up from within via myriad points of white heat and you sense it endowing you with superhuman powers such as flight, or at least the ability to walk upside down on the ceiling. Coming down again is the difficult part.

We'll go back to that later, but first you probably want to know what the performance was like.

After opening with the Tristan und Isolde prelude, with Wagner's own concert ending (he tacks on the end of the Liebestod), Tony Pappano kept a tight rein and concentrated atmospheres in the orchestra for the Wesendonck Lieder, which Jonas Kaufmann - as far as we know, the only tenor singing them in this day and age - approached with every iota of the expertise he brought to his recital the other night. Colour, character, control, sophisticated phrasing, poised emotional content: this was a mesmerisingly beautiful interpretation, and one in which he somehow created the illusion, especially in the closing 'Träume', that he became the poetry - as if he had turned into Mathilde Wesendonck. Watching him return to his own self as the applause began was like witnessing some strange metamorphosis controlled by an invisible, internal Tarnhelm.

You'd think this demanding song cycle was enough for a singer who's recently returned after months off sick, but the second half was of course devoted to the whole of Act I of Die Walküre. A few things to consider at this point. First, Kaufmann's voice has always been about quality, not volume: never the biggest voice in the world, but simply the most beautiful and intelligent one. Also, when Bayreuth was designed for the Ring cycle, Wagner's idea was to keep the orchestra level down, with a sunken pit, so that the singers wouldn't have to yell to be heard. Last night, our Siegmund was flanked by two giant voices: as Sieglinde, Karita Mattila and as Hunding Erik Halfvarson. They stood where singers stand in concert performances: beside the conductor, at one with the orchestra. In that context Kaufmann's voice sounded like a gleaming gemstone within the entire diadem of sound-colours. But Mattila and Halfvarson (who of course hadn't sung the whole of the Wesendonck Lieder beforehand) put on the tiara and went surfing over the soundwaves.

Mattila, her tone full of complex, honeyed herbiness in the lower registers and rays of blinding sunlight at the top, seemed ecstatic, losing herself in the music and the role. Kaufmann's Siegmund was a bitter fighter on the run, filled with character and contained power, gradually regaining his passion for life and love and unleashing the full glory at full tilt when it was needed. Halfvarson proved a Hunding in whose house you'd be very afraid to stay, his towering stage presence and magnificent bass galvanising more acting contact than there had been hitherto. Pappano conducted like a man possessed, pacing the energy up to and beyond fever pitch; and one special hero is the LSO itself, but perhaps especially the cello section and its principal, Tim Hugh, who made incandescent gorgeousness out of his solos. The whole thing left even slightly-anxious-about-it people like me longing desperately for Rattle Hall to be built and give them a world-class acoustic with real shine and bloom... And yet the total effect, give or take these quibbles, was mind-blowing.

Heading back to the Tent I bumped into a friend and we said: "Great, so what time does Act II start?"

I'll never forget the first time I heard Die Walküre. I was 25 and working as assistant editor at Classical Music Magazine. Covent Garden was staging the Ring cycle and when my boss discovered I'd never seen it he said I must join him on his press tickets. I went with some trepidation; I had never even heard Act I of Die Walküre before, because I wasn't allowed Wagner, because HITLER. I remember coming out of the opera house in exactly the state above. Twenty-five years later and I know the piece really well, yet it still does that to me. Just imagine the first-timer impact.

So look. I have faced the Wagner-and-Hitler question again and again, and thought it through ad infinitum. The issue is difficult, it's painful, it's complex and for years I felt that avoiding this music was totally justified on historical grounds. Yet it has got to the point now where I could almost feel I was swindled. I was denied, then denied myself, this consciousness-altering musical marvel, this view from the summit of summits, because of Hitler. But that lets Hitler win. Now we must reclaim the music. The greatest music in the world - and this is some of it - should belong to us all. Nobody should be denied the experience of any form of great art because someone, somewhere, is telling them "this isn't for you".

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Honeymoon music-making, and a story about Brahms

Rattle (left), Zimerman (centre) and the LSO: a night to remember. Photo: Amy T. Zielinksi

The honeymoon is underway over at the Barbican: Sir Simon Rattle is here for his first concerts with the LSO since The Announcement a few months back. On Thursday night he kicked off this stint with his orchestra-to-be, offering a high-octane programme of Brahms and Dvorak.

The LSO, let's face it, needs him. We need him, too. He offers a taste of the genuine passion that should be at the heart of musical experience, yet all too often isn't as others let its precedence falter under the competing weight, variously, of intellect (necessary, but in balance), power (less necessary), greed (not at all) and ego-building pretension (aagh...). Rattle is, for music, pioneer, evangelist and born leader; and while raising such high expectations for his forthcoming tenure at the LSO is obviously dangerous, it's hard not to notice that everyone is hoping he'll be the best thing that's happened to us in a good while.

The fact that he was able to bring Krystian Zimerman with him to play the Brahms D minor Concerto says much about his persuasive nature, since this titan of a pianist is, sadly, now among several greats who no longer willingly subject themselves on a regular basis to the many and varied iniquities of London.

Rattle in action. Photo: Creative Commons
Rattle conducts like a man in love with music and with life; and the orchestra responded to him like a purring cat experiencing sunshine and tuna fish. One almost expected it to roll on its collective back and let him stroke its tummy. The sheer sensual gorgeousness of sound he draws from them is light years away from Gergiev's heavy-duty ferocity; no less visceral, but with different intent, different texture - speaking to the heart as much as to the gut.

A second half of Dvorak tone-poems and a joyous, high-stepping Slavonic dance as encore was a surprising but refreshing choice of repertoire - something else we need from the LSO and Rattle is a healthy injection of unusual pieces - and when delivered with such narrative charm and all-giving warmth (y'know, Mrs Rattle is Czech), it convinces, lingering in the mind. And Zimerman's Brahms found conductor and soloist in more than exceptional accord.

When I interviewed Zimerman for the first time back in c1990, I quizzed him about that special intensity that seems to drive his playing. He commented that he likes to play on the very edge of what's possible. Sometimes it seems he goes beyond it. This Brahms was one such occasion - and how excellent to hear, once more, that white-hot quality that so compelled in the young pianist, and that remains intact and alight in his late fifties.

Brahms's Piano Concerto No.1 is the creation of a very young composer; the first sketches date from 1854, when he was all of 21 and was considering writing a symphony, soon after Schumann's attempted suicide and incarceration in the Endenich mental hospital. Several permutations later, the drafts evolved into the D minor Concerto. Brahms once wrote to Clara Schumann that the Adagio was a "gentle portrait" of her - and the theme apparently sets the unheard words "Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domine", from the Requiem mass, in tribute to Schumann, who by then had died.

So far, so beautiful - but what about that last movement? Some approach it as an austere, Bachian-Beethovenian counterpoint exercise. Zimerman brought us a Hungarian dance. When have we ever heard it sound quite so alive and aflame?

It makes sense, too. Think about it. Variation 14 of the Brahms 'Handel Variations' is extremely similar to this movement's main theme in certain ways: a lively, staccato, syncopated number with strongly marked rhythms, trills flying around and a running semiquaver bassline; and it follows from the sultry variation 13, verbunkos style. The two variations make up a lassù and friss. You can almost feel Joseph Joachim, Brahms's close friend and Hungarian violinist par excellence, peering over his shoulder and picking up the tribute with a brusque nod of thanks. Perhaps it's not only youthfully exuberant; perhaps, complete with that pernickety fugue episode, it's a portrait of Joachim to complement the portrait of Clara? It would not have been the first such piece Brahms created, and it certainly wasn't the last.

Who does that leave for movement no.1? It's been said before that the opening plunges, with Schumann, into the Rhine. This music feels like a soul in existential crisis. As Zimerman and Rattle bounced ideas off each other, plumbing the extremities of the score, the anguish and struggle behind Brahms's conception shone out as vividly as if they'd poured descaler over its furred-up contours and brought it to life new-minted. Zimerman's moments of pianissimo playing at times seemed almost to shock the orchestra into matching him. The balance never faltered; Rattle's support let him fly up to the sun on wings that can take the heat.

Is this a sign of things we can look forward to when Rattle arrives in earnest? Bring it on.

Next summer Zimerman is scheduled to come back with him, too, this time for a spot of Beethoven.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015


Today a dream has come true for the LSO.  They just confirmed that Sir Simon Rattle is to take over as music director in 2017. Congratulations, guys. Brava, managing director Kathryn McDowell, with her well-placed butterfly net. And good luck with everything this may bring to London at long last.

Wondering what this means for the rest of the orchestral scene in London, meanwhile.

Rattle said of his appointment:

“During my work with the LSO over the last years, I noticed that despite the Orchestra’s long and illustrious history, they almost never refer to it. Instead, refreshingly, they talk about the future, what can they make anew, what can they improve, how can they reach further into the community. In terms of musical excellence, it is clear that the sky's the limit, but equally important, in terms of philosophy, they constantly strive to be a twenty-first century orchestra. We share a dream in which performing, teaching and learning are indivisible, with wider dissemination of our art at its centre. I cannot imagine a better or more inspiring way to spend my next years, and feel immensely fortunate to have the LSO as my musical family and co-conspirators.”

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Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Fanfare for the uncommon woman conducting competition winner

Elim Chan
Photo: Clive Totman/LSO

The Donatella Flick Conducting Competition was won last night by Elim Chan, a 28-year-old conductor from Hong Kong. It's the first time the contest has ever chosen a woman as its winner. Chan will receive £15,000 towards her studies and concert engagements, a one-year post as assistant conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra (under whose auspices the contest takes place) and a chance to take part in the orchestra's learning and participation activities. Runners-up were Jirí Rožen (Czech Republic) and Mihhail Gerts (Estonia).

Here is Elim's biography from the University of Michigan, where she's currently studying for a doctorate.

Born in Hong Kong, Elim Chan is the Music Director of the Michigan Pops Orchestra and the University of Michigan Campus Philharmonia Orchestra. Trained early in piano and voice, she gave her first public concert at age nine singing "Tomorrow" from Annie with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. Elim was awarded the prestigious Harriet Dey Barnum Memorial Prize and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Music with high honors from Smith College. In 2011, she completed her Masters degree in Orchestral Conducting at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance studying with Kenneth Kiesler. Elim has also studied with renowned conducting pedagogues Gustav Meier, Colin Metters and with Marin Alsop at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music.

Passionate about advocating new music, Elim has premiered and promoted numerous works composed by her UM colleagues- Michael-Thomas Foumai Roger Zare, David Biedenbender, Donia Jarrar. An active orchestral conductor, she received invitations to conduct the Hong Kong Children's Symphony Orchestra in 2011, and her work led to reengagements in 2012.

Internationally, this June Elim was one of the five fellows invited by Pinchas Zukerman to conduct the renowned National Arts Centre Orchestra in Canada. Recently, Elim also completed her July-August residency in Chile conducting the Bicentennial Youth Orchestra of Curanilahue in Chile, whose founding was to inspire and bring together poor but talented youth of the region through music. She also conducted the University of Talca's Symphony Orchestra with the invitation from Maestro Américo Giusti Muñoz. This fall, Elim is returning to the University of Michigan to pursue her doctoral studies in Orchestral Conducting.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013


Some music critics and bloggers are calling for a boycott of Gergiev over his support of Putin, with regard to the anti-gay laws in Russia. Following a pre-concert solitary protest in the hall the other night, we understand that tomorrow evening (Thursday) activist Peter Tatchell is inviting anybody who's concerned about gay rights in Russia to join him and friends outside the Barbican for a peaceful demo, complete with sparklers. "Putin represses, we sparkle!" his website declares. Details here.

The LSO has handled the furore by distancing itself. It put out a tweet saying simply: "The LSO believes in equal rights for all. Gergiev’s personal views are his own, and not of LSO." Some will consider the response not robust enough - but having seen other organisations behave like ostriches, jam-jar fleas and headless chickens on certain tricky occasions, my view is that this is the most sensible thing it could do under the circumstances.

Music and politics: you can't separate them. Unless you're kidding yourself.

And meanwhile...the saga of leadership at the Vaganova Academy continues. Ismene Brown's blog is the place to find in-depth explorations of Russian sources - highly recommended. [JD note to self: in next life, learn more Russian than the alphabet and how to say "Я люблю тебя".]. In Russia, a leading ballet columnist has allegedly received threats for covering the story.

A few key points: a petition is being gathered to protest about the appointment of the former Bolshoi dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze as rector of the Vaganova Academy. There are also major concerns about Gergiev's grand plan to unite the great St Petersburg arts institutions into one organisation, under his direction, a plan that awaits approval by Putin but is apparently on his desk. Further reports in The Guardian, here.

Moreover, Ismene links to a Russian blogger who suggests that the force behind Tsiskaridze's bid for the appointment is actually the wife of an oligarch (Gergiev is said not to be in favour of the dancer getting the job). Big money calling the shots, for reasons best known to itself. This syndrome is not solely a Russian phenomenon. Watch for it a little closer to home as the years roll by.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Whither Gergiev?

Woke up to reports flying around Twitter that Gergiev's concert with the LSO at the Barbican last night had a surprise speaker in the form of Peter Tatchell, who made his way on to the stage before the performance to protest about Gergiev's support for Putin, with regard to recently introduced anti-gay laws in Russia. (More on the background here.) Tatchell was swiftly removed, but the blog The Last Ditch suggests that a member of the orchestra also gave him a shove (not the world's greatest idea, chaps).

More concerning still is this report from ballet journalist and Arts Desk founder Ismene Brown re the situation in Russia vis-a-vis the Mariinsky and the leadership of the Vaganova Ballet Academy. A number of insiders there are placing blame on Gergiev's leadership for what they see as the financial marginalisation of ballet within the centre's artistic activities. Please read.

I have one concern to add. A recent CD I heard from LSO Live - the first of the Szymanowski series - sounded, essentially, as if Britain's top orchestra was under-rehearsed, a major problem in something as complex and gorgeous as Szymanowski's Symphony No.2. I found the disc disappointing, especially when listened to alongside Ed Gardner's account on Chandos. The next LSO/Gergiev album, of the symphonies nos. 3 and 4, fortunately seemed more successful - but standards, especially at this level, need to be consistent.

Some of us were much in favour of Gergiev's appointment to the LSO when it first happened. He would, we thought, raise the already fine international profile of the orchestra and of London with it; he would fill houses, compel audiences, produce unparalleled excitement in performance. All this has indeed happened. I've met musicians who adore him and who feel he pushes other conductors into the shade; some, indeed, who don't like playing for anyone else. And yet...things can (nearly) fall apart nonetheless. Upon that initial appointment, those who opposed it questioned his likely commitment to our orchestra compared to his Mariinsky.

My personal impression, from interviewing him a number of times over the years, is that for Gergiev - despite his protestations of admiration and affection for the LSO - the Mariinsky is the light of his life and he will do pretty much anything for it; and that it was to this end - ie, the ongoing development of and funding for his vision for the Mariinsky - that he has always found it prudent to talk directly to Putin.

The question is, as the TV presenter said to the tattoo artist: where do you draw the line?

A catch-up on this week's intense patch of other activities may have to wait (and I have to go to the dentist).

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Some breaking news that's Rattling around...

A report in today's Times [£] suggests that Sir Simon Rattle "is understood to have accepted the job of principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra".

[UPDATE, 11:30: The LSO has responded on Twitter: "Morning all; thanks for all the tweets. We're delighted to have strong artistic projects with Sir Simon Rattle in forthcoming seasons …but as the article says, we have no further comment to make on the speculation that appeared in today's Times!"

So nothing is actually official. But no categoric denials per se... ]

If it is all true, it would be the following:

* Brilliant news for the LSO. Gergiev's name is a draw that would be difficult to follow;

* Brilliant news for London and the UK. Rattle is the most famous British conductor in the world, but has not previously held a London post. For the UK's top orchestra (which the LSO is - sorry, rest of you) to snaffle the UK's top conductor is a major snooker achievement. This sphere is often about timing, contracts, forward planning and, sometimes, a stroke of good fortune.

* Brilliant news for Rattle, we hope. He is much in tune with the British arts scene's pioneering activities in pushing the boundaries of repertoire, outreach, community and education alike, and the LSO, with its beautiful facilities at St Luke's, is perfectly set up for that. One senses that his innovations in Berlin may have been a bit of an uphill struggle at times.

* He has a fine track record of persuading people to do things, including the building of very good concert halls. See Birmingham. Guess what we need in London?

* If it is true, and mentions in The Times and BBC Radio 4 are normally pretty serious, it is much as I predicted in January. Everyone was asking why he was leaving and who the BP might appoint next; I wondered where Rattle could go from there (we didn't yet know that Gergiev was going to step down from the LSO); and by process of elimination.... =>

Meanwhile, on a much more modest scale...

If you like JDCMB, come to my concert! TOMORROW afternoon we are at the Musical Museum near Kew Bridge, west London.

You could view the museum's collection of musical curiosities, have lunch overlooking the river, then go on to enjoy the show in the Concert Hall. With your concert ticket you can get discounted entry (£3) to the museum, with a guided tour at 1pm. The  museum and cafe are open from 11 a.m.

HUNGARIAN DANCES: the concert of the novel

The HUNGARIAN DANCES concert is great fun and is stuffed full of wonderful Hungarian and Gypsy-influenced repertoire, including Ravel's Tzigane, Bartok's Romanian Dances, gorgeous pieces by Vecsey, Dohnanyi and Kreisler, and much more. And the storytelling aspect of the performance means it's 500% accessible for first-time concert-goers.

* Tickets : BOX OFFICE:  020 8560 8108/HOUBENS BOOKSHOP: 020 8560 8108
or from Yvonne Evans 07889 399 862.

Next up: PenFro Book Festival, Rhosygilwen, Wales, on Thursday 12 September (with David Le Page, violin, & Anthony Hewitt, piano); and Bournemouth Arts Festival, Shelley Theatre, 26 September (with Jack Maguire, violin, and Barbara Henvest, piano). 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Dear Valery, please bring us back the spring...

On the day the LSO and Valery Gergiev played in Trafalgar Square last spring, the rain stopped and the sun came out. Mostly it rained for four months solid, so this was quite an achievement. Now we've all had enough of the freezing, grey, endless winter that's been engulfing the UK (fyi, it's thought that as 80% of the Arctic ice has melted, it's shifted the Gulf Stream, which used to stop this from happening, so we're stuck with it. Climate change in question? The climate has already changed...).

So we need Gergiev to do something about this, please. Or maybe we need to make a sacrifice PDQ to propitiate Yarilo the sun god (a member of the cabinet would do nicely). For the time being, here is Gergiev with the Mariinsky Ballet in a complete performance of The Rite of Spring, with the original choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky and designs by Nicholas Roerich. It'll warm up your computer, if nothing else.

Meanwhile, I am confined to my Sarah Lund sweater. Hope they don't mind if I wear it to the Coliseum tonight to see Osipova and Vasiliev dance Giselle.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

And he's off...

So Valery Gergiev is going. According to Norman, he'll finish with the LSO in 2016 and is strongly tipped to be heading for the well-moneyed Munich Philharmonic.  [UPDATE, WEDNESDAY 23 JAN, 5PM: it's confirmed. Munich Phil has got VG, with a five-year contract: 2015-20.]

Do you have any idea how much public subsidy that city puts into its arts? It's enough to make Keynes weep. The opera house alone gets well over E100m every year. The orchestra of the Bayerische Rundfunk is one of the finest I have ever heard in all my years of hanging out with orchestras, easily as good as Berlin, possibly better than Vienna. The townsfolk of Munich love their culture and regard classical music and opera as an accepted part of daily life, which is where it should be. The Munich Philharmonic can afford the best - and it makes sure it gets the best. Oh, and Germany just increased its arts budget. If the biggest musical stars in the world head for where the money is, we shouldn't be remotely surprised.

As for the LSO - well, looks like this timing won't work for Rattle, so a range of other brilliant and probably younger maestri will be lining up for the UK's top job. I can think of three or four seriously good candidates without trying too hard, of whom two are Russian, one is English and one is - ah, but that would give it away. (Meanwhile Solti is now waiting for two phone calls. He says there's no reason that he couldn't do both Berlin and London, being that sort of cat.)

The person at the top of my wish-list is a little different. I don't know if he'd be in the running, since I'm not sure he's conducted the LSO before. But we can dream, can't we, and I urge anyone who has the chance to get to the Manchester Camerata, the Verbier Chamber Orchestra or the Budapest Festival Orchestra (where he's Ivan Fischer's second-in-command) to grab a concert with this amazing, inspirational man.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Singing for their supper picnic...

May? It'll soon be Glyndebourne.

I had a nose about the new season that left me wondering - given the nature of their poster - who the black sheep of the Glynditz family could possibly be. Well, blow me down - it's Ravel? Seems that people don't want to eat something that they can't pronounce. I asked general manager David Pickard how it's all going in these hard times, and also had a chat with Melly Still about her new production of The Cunning Little Vixen - you remember, she was the director of Glyndebourne's utterly magical Rusalka a couple of years ago. Read all about it in my piece for today's Independent.

Meanwhile, Glyndebourne is currently offering a free streaming on its website of On Such a Night. It's a wonderfully 1950s film directed by Anthony Asquith, designed to introduce audiences, and Americans in particular, to the delights of English country house opera. Catch it here.

And if you're heading to Trafalgar Square this evening to hear the LSO, guess what? The sun is out. Is there nothing that Valery Gergiev can't fix?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Friday catch-up and Friday historical...

Busy patch. Here are some highlights of days past and the weekend ahead.

>> I was on BBC Radio 4's Front Row the other day, in discussion with Klaus Heymann, founder of Naxos Records, about the way the record industry has changed since the company launched 25 years ago. If you missed it, you can catch it on the BBC iPlayer until Tuesday:

>> Pianist Anthony Hewitt, "The Olympianist", has set off on his big ride from Land's End to John O'Groats and was lucky enough to encounter a strong west tail wind to get things started. He made it from kick-off to Truro in three hours, with his trusty BeethoVan close behind. Follow his progress via his website here. He's already raised more than £4000 for his seven musical and sporting charities.

>> The Royal Philharmonic Society Awards ceremony was held on Tuesday night at the Dorchester. Highlights included a gold medal for Mitsuko Uchida, whose speech was as vivid and genuine as her playing. So was Gareth Malone's - as keynote speaker he was gloriously positive. We are representing the best music in the world, so let's celebrate that! He stopped short of getting us all to sing, though. Maurizio Pollini was Instrumentalist of the Year and Claudio Abbado scooped the Conductor prize. Cellist Olly Coates was selected as Young Artist, heading off extraordinary competition from a shortlist that also included Benjamin Grosvenor and Sophie Bevan. It was an extremely good night for ENO, which won the Opera award for its Eugene Onegin. With them was Toby Spence, who won Singer of the Year, a prize that incidentally was decided upon well before the distressing news reached anybody that he has been having treatment for thyroid cancer. He tells me he is on the mend, supported by a superb team of doctors and vocal coaches. And he was wearing some spectacular leopard-print shoes. A fine time was had by one and all. Full list of winners here. A Radio 3 broadcast is coming up on

>> I've just attended a special screening of John Bridcut's new documentary about Delius. It's fabulous. Exquisitely shot, full of insights and containing one or two considerable surprises - not least, some unfamiliar music that has no business being as neglected as it is. A few familiar faces on board, too (hello, Aarhus!). Don't miss it. It will be on BBC4 on 25 May.

>> My latest piece for The Spectator Arts Blog is about the unstoppable rise of the modern counter-tenor. I asked Iestyn Davies to explain to us how That Voice works. Read the whole thing here.

>> Tomorrow the LSO is giving a free concert in Trafalgar Square, complete with Valery Gergiev on the podium. Expect lots of Stravinsky, big screens and a London backdrop second to none. And the weather forecast says that, for once, it is NOT going to rain. Even Prince Charles will tell you so. Apparently he's always wanted to be a weatherman. Now his guest appearance on BBC Scotland has gone viral...

>> On Sunday Roxanna Panufnik has the world premiere of her new choral piece Love Endureth at Westminster Cathedral, during Vespers, 3.30pm. You don't have to be Catholic to go in. Here's an interview with her about this multi-faith project that I wrote a few weeks back - for the JC.

>> Apparently Roman Polanski is making a film about the Dreyfus Case. In the Guardian he comments: "one can show its absolute relevance to what is happening in today's world – the age-old spectacle of the witch hunt on a minority group, security paranoia, secret military tribunals, out-of-control intelligence agencies, governmental cover-ups and a rabid press." (Quite.)

And so to Friday Historical. Tomorrow is Gabriel Fauré's birthday. Here is Samson François playing the Nocturne No.6 in D flat.

Friday, March 23, 2012

When JD met Sir Colin Davis...

...he had a real go at the early music brigade. Blimey, guv. The results of this are in today's Independent. Still, you don't talk to a man like Sir Colin Davis for twenty minutes if you can talk to him for an hour instead, so after the video you will find something meaty on a great many more topics than that - including what Stravinsky told him about metronome marks and why it's great that young conductors are so sought-after now. You won't need to add mustard; there's plenty already. Meanwhile, if you want to hear Sir Colin speak at the ISM conference on 12 April, booking details are here.


It’s slightly disconcerting to interview a great conductor while sitting beside a skeleton. It hangs in a corner of Sir Colin Davis’s Georgian music room, the skull decorated by pieces of shiny paper, like a Christmas tree. “It’s a reminder,” Davis glowers.

Perhaps it is no wonder if Davis feels himself haunted and his time limited. He celebrates his 85th birthday later this year. His wife, Shamsi, who was a leading advocate and teacher of the Alexander Technique, died in 2010 in a north London hospice while he was conducting a performance at Covent Garden; the loss has been a heavy blow to him. But he shows no sign of abandoning his musical vocation: this spring, besides giving a concert performance of Weber’s operatic masterpiece Der Freischütz with the LSO, of which he is President, he is due to appear at the Incorporated Society of Musicians conference in an April event dedicated to his life and work. 

“I don’t have the energy I used to,” he insists. “Performing a big piece really takes it out of me now – afterwards one feels one ought to be put out to grass, like an old donkey. I’ve given myself the task of reading the whole of Shakespeare once again. I did it before because I thought I might die. But I’m quite sure I’m going to this time, so I’d better hurry up.” 

Yet behind this somewhat doom-laden facade, he’s lost little of his sparkle and none of his ferocious devotion to music. I’ve arrived at his doorstep armed with a plethora of questions about how he sees the future of classical music, but it is the state of the present that really works him up, especially the domination of the music world by those who, in his opinion, misunderstand what music is all about, or don’t understand it at all. And, naturally, the future depends on the present.

Reports of the death of classical music and the decline of audiences are very much exaggerated, in his view. “All I know is that the orchestra I work with is very much alive,” he declares. “It has good audiences, interesting performers, soloists and conductors, and it seems to be all right. But things are not usually what they seem, so one wonders. There have been, in my lifetime, three or four suggestions that we only need two point seven orchestras in London, or something utterly ridiculous like that – rather like having three point five babies. Statistics are stupid; they sometimes have no foundation in fact. We shouldn’t start really worrying about that unless people don’t want to hear music any more, and I don’t think that’s the case. A mass of people have never been interested in music anyway, and those that are are stubbornly in favour of it. It’s such an interesting invention that it’s always going to attract the more curious and the more emotional individuals. 

“The youth orchestras have never been so well attended,” he adds, “nor have they ever played so well. That goes for the symphony orchestras, too – the standard is incredibly high now and it won’t be because of that that things fail. The promise of new musicians and people perpetually coming into the profession keeps the standard up and the accusation that only old people go in for it is absolute nonsense.” 

But then we come to something that for a conductor whose fans adore his Mozart (he recently did Così fan tutte at Covent Garden) can’t help but be a major issue: the domination of 18th century repertoire by period-instrument  ensembles and specialists in “historically informed performance” which has had the unfortunate side-effect of scaring symphony orchestras away from classical music’s ultimate core repertoire of Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart - and often beyond. 

Davis, of course, has refused to be intimidated. It’s intriguing to find that one of the finest musicians of our day has no time whatsoever for this dominant trend. 

“I think they just hijacked that repertory to give themselves something to do and something new to do with it,” he insists. “The way they play Baroque music is unspeakable. It’s entirely theoretical. Most of them don’t play it because it’s deeply moving – they play it to grind out their theories about bows and gut strings and old instruments, and about how you have to phrase it this way or that way. Music isn’t like that, is it? At least, I don’t think it is. A great composer, especially someone like Mozart, does not fit into that. We’re not alive then - what music means to us now is probably different, in a limited way.” 

Focusing on academic correctness in minute details of phrasing and articulation, he adds, means that too often the deeper meaning of the music is ignored. “The articulation comes from the line you happen to be expressing. Of course it’s about expressing. When you get married you don’t go to the public library to look up what’s going to happen! It’s so stupid – especially in music which is so alive, such a living thing when people play it.”

“There’s Roger Norrington, who plays Berlioz’s Requiem without any vibrato – it must be a foretaste of purgatory. And John Eliot Gardiner can be very horribly theoretical about things. People may say ‘well, they didn’t play it with vibrato’. Perhaps not – but perhaps if they had, they would have preferred it! 

"Playing without vibrato is one of the musical colours available in romantic music – if you play something without vibrato sometimes it can give something a most unnerving effect. But to set out to play all these vocal melodies without vibrato – it doesn’t accord with so much of what was written.  Geminiani [Francesco Geminiani, composer and violinist, 1687-1762] wrote that you should play the violin as if it was the most beautiful voice you’ve ever heard. I’ve never heard a voice sing in squeegee phrasing, with no vibrato. I’ve been to performances where the instrumentalists played like that, but of course nobody sang like that – because you can’t! So it doesn’t make any sense.I suspect some of these musicians are emotionally retarded. They’re afraid to let go.

His own mentors included Sir Thomas Beecham, who invited him to work at Glyndebourne with him on Mozart, something that helped to establish the young Davis as a leading Mozartian. He was much influenced, too, by musicians such as the Amadeus String Quartet – “We had a great number of Jewish refugees, particularly from Vienna, and they taught us a very great deal. They had tremendous discipline. But it was also an emotional matter. I’ve heard Beethoven quartets played sort of a la baroque, very fast – it’s utterly meaningless. What’s the point of that music? If you go too fast you can’t understand it anyway. It’s barmy. But people forget that when I was a young man, there was this early music thing, but it didn’t have the hold on things that it does now. 

“People like Robert Donington, Thurston Dart and George Malcolm played old instruments when they felt like it, but it wasn’t obligatory. I don’t know what it is that seduces human beings in such a way. It’s arid, in the end. I’ve heard Bach especially mangled, as though he has no emotional content, as though his harmonies aren’t the most weird things. And it’s all just swept through. It’s no good at all.They don't listen to the music.

“That’s another wretched business: the metronome marks. The academic freaks treat them as holy numbers. That was brought home to me by Stravinsky. We did Oedipus Rex when I was a young man, at Sadler’s Wells, and he came to a performance. He said to me, “Why did you go so slowly in Jocasta’s aria?” and I said, “Mr Stravinsky, I was just trying to do the metronome mark”. He responded: “ My dear boy, the metronome mark is only a beginning!” A lot of great music doesn’t have any metronome marks, so people are afraid of playing it – they’ll have to sit and puzzle over what they think it should sound like. I don’t find any problem with that. If you listen to the music it will tell you how it wants to go. But if you impose on it from the beginning, the poor thing’s in a straitjacket – you’re not discovering anything about it, you’re just saying ‘do that’. That’s daft – because music is one of the few things left where we have any freedom.”

How, then, can we ensure a strong future for classical music? “There are some relatively simple things – for instance, making sure every child is musically literate,” says Davis, “as the Hungarians used to. It’s a fantastic thing – and it could be done, if anybody had any imagination . These dull, dismal politicians who are encased in Plaster of Paris - they don’t listen to anybody, they don’t really entertain new ideas. They just juggle the old ones. And the famous Lady Thatcher took away money from schools for employing peripatetic music teachers because she didn’t think music was very useful. She was just a materialist, and that’s what they all are. But the LSO do what they can, and so do the other London orchestras, taking their instruments round to the schools, trying to get the kids interested. It’s a lovely job.” 

What does he think of El Sistema, the now fabled music education system from Venezuela that has transformed many deprived children’s lives with instrumental lessons? “It’s nothing new,” he insists. “We’ve always said that the way to keep difficult youngsters out of mischief is to give them enough to do. And music is one of the most wonderful ways of doing that.”

“The other thing that irritates me is ‘elitism’ accusations against classical music. Most of those wonderful composers came out of nowhere. Dvorak was a butcher as well as a viola player – they go very well together, don’t they?” (Viola players are, as ever, the butt of most orchestral jokes.) “Martinu was a wheelwright. Elgar and Berlioz were both largely self-taught. Mozart was the son of an indifferent court fiddler. Beethoven came from a drunken family. Look at them. None of them were from the aristocracy – except Gesualdo. And he got into trouble for running through his wife and her lover with a sword.”

 “I think the most important thing is that people just get back to playing musical instruments. On the great days of the calendar my family turns up and we play chamber music. That’s great.” He has five children: two are professional musicians and all of them play instruments. “Of course the best pieces of chamber music are extremely difficult, so we’re still struggling with them. But that’s where freedom really begins. Take a violin soloist like Nikolai Znaider – he can play the violin and he doesn’t have to worry about technique, so he can think about the music. The same with orchestras: when they’re very good, they’re not disturbed by technical problems. They just need an hour or two. When we started to play those Nielsen symphonies – I’ve never seen anything so difficult in all my life! The LSO’s eyes popped out when they saw it. But they sat down together and practised it.” 

You might imagine that a senior conductor who took a slow, steady path towards the top of his profession might be sceptical about the speed with which young conductors today become established – but Davis applauds the new generation with enthusiasm. “I think it’s great,” he insists. Doesn’t he think they do too much, too young? “If they do, they’ll find out later,” he quips. “The one I know best is Robin Ticciati. He’s coming over to dinner and we’re going to cook spaghetti – then we’ll find out what he’s really like! It’s important to do human things, to take time away from music.” 

That is his main advice to young conductors: “Some conductors, it’s true, fly from place to place, but they don’t give them time to think about anything and I don’t think that develops a person very much. It’s much better to take three weeks off, get a pile of books and read them. Things used to be like that – it wasn’t any better, but it was a little livelier.” There’s no need for conductors to be in such a hurry in career terms: “Fill your mind as much as you possibly can with anything else. Where are you going to get new ideas from if you don’t read? Music doesn’t feed itself.”

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Hung up on the hang?

I had a fascinating chat the other day with Manu Delago, composer, percussionist and champion in chief of an astonishing newish instrument that looks like a cross between a UFO and a wok. It's called the hang - and he's got the hang of it so well that Bjork became a fan and invited him to tour with her. He's performing soon at LSO St Luke's, with a new Concertino Grosso of his own. Here's the short interview from yesterday's Independent, and below is an example so beguiling that it's had more than 3m Youtube hits.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Debussy's bustin' out all over

Here we's the Debussy anniversary! A grand 150 years since the birth of (almost) everyone's favourite French composer, a figure without whom the entire face of 20th-century music would have been utterly different. I've written two relevant pieces which are both out today.

First, here's my interview with Michael Tilson Thomas from this week's JC. The American conductor is presiding over the LSO's Debussy series which starts next week. His family background is truly fascinating, though: the American Yiddish theatre proved a rich and radical field for artistic development of many kinds, including his.

And here, from The Independent, is an interview with the lovely Noriko Ogawa, who is doing a Debussy festival in Manchester with the BBC Philharmonic, opening tonight. The influence of Japanese culture - 'Japanoiserie', at any rate - on Debussy was vital; and in return, his music has made a major impact on the Japanese composers of today. The piece has been somewhat chopped, though, so below is the director's cut. Plus a video interview with Noriko from Cardiff, recorded last summer.

Jessica Duchen

In 1862 Claude Debussy was born in Paris: the biggest musical celebrations of 2012 will mark his 150th anniversary. ‘Reflections on Debussy’, a major new festival based at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, promises to be one of the most unusual takes on this seminal French composer and his legacy. It unites past and present, Europe and Asia, and a pianist and orchestra who, having been caught up in Japan’s devastating earthquake, are lucky to be here at all.

On 11 March 2011 the Japanese pianist Noriko Ogawa was waiting for a train in Tokyo when the platform began to shake under her feet. At the same moment, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, on tour in Japan, was travelling in a bus, which was crossing a bridge. Miraculously, they all escaped unscathed. Now they are working together, exploring the links between Debussy and Japanese culture.

The links are more serendipitous than one might imagine. “It was in the year of Debussy’s birth, 1862, that a group of 30-40 Japanese diplomats came to Europe for the first time,” Ogawa points out. “They would have been wearing full traditional regalia, complete with swords, and they must have looked incredibly exotic to the populations of Paris and London.” In those days, Japan was still “closed”, mysterious to the outside world, more distant even than India and China. And as the century progressed, a vogue for Japanese culture swept through France, carrying Debussy with it.

Ogawa suggests that Debussy had a natural affinity with deep underlying qualities in Japanese art, especially the ukiyo-e “Floating World” woodblock prints by artists such as Hokusai and Hiroshige. They likewise made a profound impact on western artists of successive generations – first Manet and Monet, later Gauguin, Lautrec and Matisse.

“Japanese art then used a very deformed perspective,” Ogawa points out. “Artists picked out the aspects they wanted to emphasise. For instance, if a man is looking furious in one Floating World picture, his face is much bigger than the rest of his body – just to reinforce the sense that he is angry.” It is not a vast step from there to the fantastical perspectives of Symbolism, a movement absorbed in subjective, dreamlike and suggestive atmospheres rather than literal images. Debussy associated himself with this artistic movement more than any other.

The cover picture on the first printed copies of his orchestral work La Mer – effectively a kind of sea symphony – is Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanegawa. “It brings out the strength of the sea, exaggerating this rather than being perfect like a photograph,” says Ogawa. “That deliberate deformation of perspective creates a stronger impression. Debussy does this, too, in his music. He broke all the rules!”
Other pieces by Debussy seem to share the formality, restraint and concision of Japanese art. 

“You need a strong sense of control on the keyboard to play Debussy,” says Ogawa. “You can’t be overemotional or drown yourself in it; you have to be objective and keep searching for the right quality and beauty of sound. It’s the opposite of Brahms and Beethoven’s rock-solid Germanic music. After the incredibly emotional Romantic era, Debussy opens the window to let the fresh air in.” 

The most Japanese of his works, she suggests, is ‘Poissons d’or’, the final piano piece from Images, Book II – directly inspired by exquisitely wrought images on a Japanese lacquer cabinet depicting koi carp.

Debussy’s fondness for Japanese culture was first sparked at the Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair) in Paris in 1889; there, too, he encountered the music of the Indonesian gamelan, which also made a deep impression on him. He never travelled to the Far East, but his entire personality predisposed him to the absorption of influences rich and strange. Debussy, whom some considered Bohemian and non-conformist and whose personal life encompassed some very public scandals, was sensitive to a remarkable degree. His unceasingly enquiring mind allowed him to draw on innumerable sources for his music: everything was fair game, from the poems of Baudelaire to the novels of Dickens, from the drawings of Arthur Rackham to circus performances by acrobats. Perhaps his affinity for Japanese art was innate, or perhaps there was even more to it: “It’s almost as if he was able to tune in to its wavelength, like a radio,” says Ogawa.

Highlights she has devised for ‘Reflections on Debussy’ include a traditional Japanese tea ceremony before she performs the composer’s Etudes for piano, and a flower ceremony before the Préludes; and the series also features works by the late Toru Takemitsu and a younger Japanese composer, Yoshihiro Kanno, who were both profoundly influenced by Debussy’s musical language.

Ogawa has commissioned a set of three piano pieces from Kanno, each of which involves a different traditional Japanese percussion instrument. For instance, A Particle of Water employs Myochin Hibashi chopsticks: these are manufactured by a craftsman from the 54th generation of a family that once made swords for Samurai warriors and are constructed from the same metal as those legendary weapons. Ogawa couldn’t resist adding Chopsticks itself to the programme, though.  

Joking aside, though, the festival is part of her post-earthquake therapy. Born and brought up in Japan, she thought she was used to earthquakes, but this one was different: “The horizontal movement told us that this was something much stronger,” she recalls. “It went on for 90 seconds, which is really long. After that the electricity went off, everything shut down and in the north of the country the tsunami arrived very quickly. People there lost everything – homes, businesses, livelihoods – in just half an hour.”

Dazed, confused, and convinced that Japan was facing apocalypse, she lost interest in playing the piano until she decided to go to America and give a fundraising concert to help the victims. So far, she has raised more than £21,000 for the British Red Cross’s aid to Japan; and additionally she has organised the design of some greeting cards – involving black cats, pianos and Debussy, who used to frequent a club named Le Chat Noir – which she sells at her concerts to benefit the Japan Society.

“There are still aftershocks even now,” she says. “But I don’t want to talk about disastrous things too much, because people are trying to be positive. I’d just like to offer something that people will enjoy, feeling at the same time they’re doing something to help.”

The intuitive Debussy could well have approved.

Reflections on Debussy begins on 20 January at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester. Box Office: 0161 907 9000