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    Saturday, September 28, 2013

    Reflections on the Bieito 'Fidelio'

    A fascinating business, this: coming back from that very Beethoveny trip to Bonn and landing bang in the middle of Calixto Bieito's production of Fidelio at ENO.

    This staging seems to have left audiences not so much divided as ranged round a spectrum of 360-odd viewpoints. Predictably, many hated it - and yes, there was some booing of the production team on opening night, though it was counterbalanced by cheering elsewhere in the house. Here are two contrasting reviews to demonstrate that range: Andrew Clements in The Guardian and Tully Potter in the Mail. (Production pics by Tristram Kenton.)

    Bieito's concept, you'll have gathered, is that the prison is our mind, and each character, with the possible exception of Leonore, is trapped within a type of living rabbit-hutch of his/her own making. It is art that sets us free, not least because temporal authority - Don Fernando, whose shock appearance at the end said much about our lack of trust in leaders today - can't be relied on. Don Fernando in the original Munich version of this production resembled not the 18th-century fop who graces the ENO stage, but the Joker from Batman. He is more than an unreliable leader: he is the cruelty, capriciousness and vile irony of fate itself (at least, if you share Bieito's dark view of life).

    The other day I stood in front of Beethoven's Heiligenstadt Testament: the document in which he wrote to his brothers of the agonising recognition that he, a musician, was losing his hearing; and declares that he had come close to suicide, but did not want to leave the world before he had accomplished all he felt he had come here to do. (Full text here.) That prison was not of Beethoven's own making, but remained an anguish-inducing fetter nonetheless; yet without that, would he have composed the same music that has reached us today, in the form of the greatest of his symphonies, the late quartets, the Diabelli Variations, and this opera too? Art may not have set him free from that ailment, but his music has lived on to prove what glories a human being can create, given the necessary courage and strength, and that there is beauty and truth in art even when we can find little of it anywhere else. He brings us (as Andras said the other day) courage. That's a liberation in itself.

    As Bieto floats the brave Heath Quartet above the reunited Florestan and Leonore, the first violin and cello each in an individual cage, the second violin and viola together in a third, drifting overhead but somehow able to play the (truncated) Heilige Dankgesang of Beethoven's Op.132 quartet despite their boxes wandering in draughts from side to side, the point is proven. (More here...)

    This is not in the original Fidelio. But it works. Bieito may not be bringing us a Fidelio that we recognise, or a literal one that could have been seen in the 1950s, but instead a personal vision of the work that speaks volumes about our world today and the enduring power of Beethoven within it.

    The musical performance, by the way, was red-hot under Ed Gardner's direction, with the glory that is Stuart Skelton as Florestan and the central force of Emma Bell's idealistic and beautifully sung Leonore. And the chorus was magnificent.

    So why the vitriol? A case of chacun a son gout, of course. But my own little problem with all of this is not about Bieito's concept. It's about the language. I have no objection to Bieito's choice of using quotes from Jose Luis Borges, the Argentinian-born magical realist (pictured below), whose image of the labyrinth seems to underpin the elaborate contraption that forms the set, and whose words take the place of the usual dialogue. But is something being lost in translation?

    Here are a few Borges poems, translated. And here are some more, in Spanish. Now, my Spanish is, er, a bit rusty. But read them aloud, to the best of one's limited abilities, and you can still feel the music in the syllables.

    A translation can bring us the literal message; but without the music inherent in the words the poet created, half the real meaning may be gone. I remember, many years ago, my Russian then-boyfriend discovered that I wasn't familiar with the poetry of Osip Mandelstam and disapproved of this major gap in my cultural education. I bought a volume in translation - only to suffer bitter disappointment at the pedestrian nature of what I was reading. My friend took one look, chucked the book over a shoulder, and recited one of the poems by heart, in the original. I understood not one literal word - yet it remained one of the most beautiful things I had ever heard.

    Translating is difficult enough. Translating well is harder still. And translating singably is an art all its own. I've had a shot at it myself recently: earlier this year I prepared an English version of Roxanna Panufnik's Tallinn Mass: Dance of Life for a recording that has just been made. Faced with literal translations of 19 poems by two of Estonia's leading poets, and Rox's painstaking and extraordinarily beautiful settings of the original Estonian, I had to make the new English words fit her existing music: you need open syllables on the longer, higher notes, you need the right emotional inflection on the appropriate harmony, and so forth. Some of them had to rhyme; all of them had to make rhythmic sense. And in literal translation, the poems might well have lost the essence of their poetry; a few liberties had to be taken, paradoxically, in order to restore some of that to the concepts. The poets, fortunately, are alive and kicking and able to approve the texts, which they have done. But talk about a learning curve...

    Many people in the regular ENO audience love opera in English. That is the company's raison d'etre and normally, these days, it goes unquestioned. Opera-goers frequently troop into the Coli only too pleased to hear a performance in our own language, while despairing over the avant-garde concepts and experimental outlooks that are being fostered there. I realise now that I do the opposite. I am happy that in ENO today we have a thoroughly modern European opera house that's engaging directors to preside over a great deal more than crowd-control and park-and-bark productions and that enters partnerships with houses like Munich and the Met to make greater ambitions reality. But I'm trying to remember the last time I rejoiced in principle at hearing an opera in English that is not originally in English and I can't think of one single occasion. I have enjoyed individual translations at ENO by Jeremy Sams, whose sparkling versions of La Boheme and The Magic Flute, for example, do work wonders. He, though, seems to be the exception.

    We don't have that issue with Peter Grimes (come and hear it tonight at the RFH, incidentally). It's not about the language itself; English is perfectly singable - Britten, Delius, Tippett, Vaughan Williams, Thomas Ades, George Benjamin and many others prove it every day. But composers set words according not only to their meaning, but according to the music they feel inside the language the poet has used.

    A translation is, essentially, bound to be a compromise. Some succeed better than others, but I'm unconvinced that opera in translation can ever be entirely successful. I'd love to try doing one myself, of course, even if I know the cause may ultimately be lost. But for me that was the single biggest problem with the Bieito Fidelio: the translation, whether of the libretto or the Borges poems. Now that there are surtitles at ENO, is it not time to reopen the whole debate?

    It remains only to wonder how on earth Stuart Skelton is managing, this week, to alternate Florestan and Grimes, often on consecutive evenings, and also preside over a charity gala. Perhaps that's what Heldentenors are truly about: heroism.

    Friday, September 27, 2013

    Beethovenfest Bonn 2: Ludwig Lives!

    Bonn is roughly the size of Cardiff in terms of population (about 350,000). Yet the musical riches within this pleasant and manageable Rhineland city have to be seen to be believed. 

    The day before my pilgrimage to the house where Schumann died, I visited the one where Beethoven was born, only a short pootle away in the town centre. Here you can see two of Beethoven's pianos, his viola (yes, Beethoven was a viola player - get used to it...), his ear trumpets, his conversation books, his spectacles, his magnificent walnut-veneered writing desk - which Stefan Zweig later owned for a while - and the Heiligenstadt Testament, among many other exhibits; and I can thoroughly recommend the detailed audioguide. 

    But the Bonn Beethovenhaus is much more than a shrine to the great Ludwig. It's a vital centre for musicological research, on the one hand, and a fine location for concerts, on the other; and it owns a raft of terrifically important manuscripts, notably that of the Diabelli Variations, acquired from a private collection after numerous fundraising concerts by the likes of Andras Schiff and others; there's a magnificent digital archive of huge value to scholars, yet also online resources to help introduce children to Ludwig's world. Do go onto the site and have a good old explore.

    All of this was possible because I had to go and interview Andras, who has a big birthday coming up and needs writing about, but isn't in London again until well after my deadlines have passed. He is currently in the middle of a series of Beethoven sonata recitals in the Bonn Beethovenfest; I was fortunate enough to arrive in time for the programme that involves the Op.31s and the 'Waldstein'.

    Listening to Andras play Bach or Schubert has often seemed the aural equivalent of swimming in Walchensee: you're immersed in cool, soothing, pure waters that run very deep indeed. Yet over the past decade his Beethoven journey has opened up new pianistic vistas: a different variety of deep heat, if you like, with a phosphorescent edge that makes the soundworlds of Op.31 No.2 in D minor or the mighty 'Waldstein' shimmer in a visionary way, while Op.31 Nos 1 and 3 bounced and swung with humour and clarity. Bonn's Beethovenhalle - a sizeable Rhineside creation from the 1950s - was packed to the nines and provided a standing ovation. The next morning we talked for two hours (pic above) about matters musical, technical and Beethovenian. Beethoven, Andras says, has given him new courage. More of this in the official outlets in the months ahead.

    Huge thanks to the Beethovenfest for making this remarkable 36-hour trip possible. Really have bought the t-shirt - a purple one with a Beethoven portrait and the words LUDWIG LIVES, in which you might someday spot me jogging around Richmond Park. Prost!

    Wednesday, September 25, 2013

    TOMORROW: 'Hungarian Dances' goes to Bournemouth

    Our very old friend Jack Maguire was for many years co-leader of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, is now musician-in-residence for the Bournemouth Arts Festival and has a passion for Gypsy music and the folksongs of eastern Europe. He's had some training in the style from the Hungarian Gypsy violinist Josef Szegely. And he took a liking to the idea of doing a Hungarian Dances concert-of-the-novel with me. I'm heading south west tomorrow to meet him and pianist Barbara Henvest for a special performance in the Mary Shelley Theatre, Boscombe Manor. Full details and booking here.

    We are adapting the programme in several ways: Kodaly and Faure both put in an appearance, there's to be some bonus Brahms at the beginning, and we are promised a certain authenticity of approach in Monti's Csardas.... There's also a special appearance in the interval by the Hungarian cellist Josef Koos, also ex-BSO, whom I will interview about his experiences escaping Hungary during the revolution in 1956. While I was researching the novel I spent a very happy day visiting Jo for a lengthy discussion. Anyone who has read the book will find certain aspects of him ever so slightly familiar.

    This theatre was built for Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein and wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, in the 1840s. It fell into semi-dereliction (as pictured), but a community project began work on a loving restoration earlier this year, which has included the arrival of 220 seats from the demolished Bournemouth IMAX. Developers have now bought it. A news story from the BBC here.

    Best of all: the weather forecast for tomorrow is really not bad, and apparently this place is 200m from the beach.

    Do come along if you're in the area!

    Tuesday, September 24, 2013

    Beethovenfest Bonn 1: The Death of Schumann

    Yesterday I stood in the room where Schumann died. 

    It's a little room on the top floor, at the end of a long, old building in Endenich - a rather out-of-the-way and very leafy suburb of Bonn. This house was, in its time, a mental hospital; here Schumann spent the last two-and-a-half years of his life. He had one of the better chambers, with windows on two sides. Today only two rooms of the building form the Schumannhaus museum; downstairs is home to the town's music library and much of the upper floor, before you reach the Schumann space, is taken up by a largish area, bookshelf-lined, that hosts concerts.

    In Schumann's room now stands a small piano that was once played by Liszt. Schumann was not allowed a piano there; one feels this instrument's presence is perhaps a rectification of rather an injustice. Atop it is a coverlet that belonged to Schumann's friend Joseph Joachim, the great violinist, embroidered by a number of Berlin ladies with his initials JJ and some musical motifs from his compositions. Photos of Schumann, Clara, Joachim and Brahms adorn the walls, while some of their letters and a copy of the manuscript of the Geistervariationen are on display in glass cases. Among them is Schumann's last (?) letter to Clara, dated about a year before he died. He saw Clara again - and for the last time - only when he was on his deathbed.

    Schumann's last illness was pneumonia, brought on by starvation. The info in the museum says that he refused to eat, believing that (as a number of inmates apparently thought) the food was poisoned. I have read opinions elsewhere that suggested he may have been deliberately starving himself - a slow suicide over the fact that there was no way out. The writer Bettina von Arnim, who visited him earlier, had apparently found him in good health and longing to go home. Mental illness at that time was a terrible stigma. Perhaps, effectively, he was being "buried alive".

    Here is an extract from the museum's information sheet:
    Q: What type of therapy was administered at that time?
    A: In those days, medications such as mood brighteners or drugs able to alter or enhance one's mental state did not exist. Dr Richarz advocated a treatment of non-restraint in opposition to coercive torture-like methods practiced in the public "crazy houses" of that time. Some of the therapies which patients were subjected to in good fait, and today seem nonsensical, were the dousing of patients with cold water and the boring of holes in the skull to allow the escape of "bad fluids" - similar to blood-letting. Richarz could not completely do without some of the extreme methods when dealing with severely ill patients (eg strapping patients to their beds). Alcohol was administered as a medication.

    Brahms, with Clara and Joachim, hurried to Schumann's bedside when news came to Düsseldorf from the doctors that they must hurry if they wished to see him again. He wrote:

    "At first he lay for a long time with eyes closed, and she knelt before him, more calmly than one would believe possible. But after a while he recognised her. Once he plainly desired to embrace her, flung one arm wide around her. Of course he had been unable to speak for some time already. One could understand (or perhaps imagine one did) only some disconnected words. Even that must have made her happy. He often refused the wine that was offered him, but from her finger he sometimes sucked it up eagerly, at such length and so passionately that one knew with certainty that he recognised the finger...

    Tuesday noon, we came half an hour after his passing. He had passed away very gently, so that it was scarcely noticed. His body looked peaceful then; how comforting it all was. A wife could not have stood it any longer..."

    The room is light and peaceful; the chestnut tree beyond the window may or may not have been there then. The scene is almost unimaginable, but we imagine it anyway, as best we can.

    I've just been to Bonn for the Beethovenfest. Packed an extraordinary number of amazing experiences into barely two days. Stand by for Beethovenfest post 2 - which might even be about Beethoven...

    Saturday, September 21, 2013

    JD meets... CALIXTO BIEITO

    In which the Bad Boy of Opera turns out to be a pussycat. I went to see him to preview his Fidelio, which opens at ENO this week. Some of the interview is in today's Independent, here, but I am putting the director's cut (ie, long version) below. First, the beginning of his Don Giovanni...

    You might expect Calixto Bieito to resemble a cross between Count Dracula and Quentin Tarantino. The Spanish director, often called “the bad boy of opera”, has become notorious for extreme productions that often feature explicit sex and violence, their concepts including a cannibalistic post-nuclear Parsifal and a present-day Don Giovanni that involved vicious scenes of rape, drug overdose and murder. Audiences at his shows are no strangers to sights that have variously included toilet activities, nudity and a great deal of blood. Now, in a co-production with the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, Bieito is bringing his staging of Beethoven’s Fidelio to ENO and traditionalists are quaking in their boots.
    Yet when he emerges from rehearsals in east London, clad in his trademark black, it turns out that Bieito is a pussycat. He’s a soft-spoken family man with a social conscience and anxieties about threats to democracy and free speech; and he acknowledges that he often takes a bleak view of life. “I have to be careful,” he says, “because I sometimes suffer from melancholia, and this is why my work can become quite dark.”
    Nevertheless, he seems mystified by the degree of hostility that’s been expressed against his work. One critic referred to his Don Giovanni as “the most reviled opera production in the recent history of British theatre”; others believe he is out to shock. He insists not. “I promise I have never tried to shock people in that way,” he protests quietly. “I don’t think that doing a show to shock people is the right way to approach it. The direction must come naturally from inside you. It’s as if you find the hidden meaning of dreams emerging.”
    Such dreams can be fairly horrifying. That Don Giovanni, he says, illustrated “what happens every Friday night” among young people across Europe, “though with a very sad ending”. The arrival of the Commendatore to threaten the Don with hell became a drug-induced hallucination, reducing Giovanni to a helpless wreck; the other characters then murder him. “I have strong emotional responses, and for me this Don Giovanni was sad because there was a sense of no hope,” Bieito comments. “There is no hope in young people killing another young man – and it was based on a real incident. I was completely surprised at the reaction.” But it’s worth remembering that other critics responded to the production with words like “stunned admiration”, and I, for one, found its raw and desperate humanity extraordinarily powerful.
    British reactions to Bieito have generally been more prurient than those in Germany, where modern, provocative productions are de rigeur. But if Britain’s tastes are conservative, those of the US are even more so. Bieito is soon to work with New York’s Metropolitan Opera, in another co-production with ENO, but the details of what, when and how are closely guarded – possibly due to the likely degree of resulting fuss.
    Bieito was first drawn towards directing while a pupil in a Jesuit school, where he says music and theatre were crucial parts of education. He left drama college after one year, “because it was too posh for me”. Music has been central to his life since childhood; his mother insisted on piano practice, his father had a passion for Italian opera and his brother became a professional musician. Despite his father’s influence, Italian bel canto is apparently Bieito’s blind spot: “I enjoy watching it, but here I feel I have nothing to say. I can’t direct an opera if I don’t love the music.”
    Despite managerial belt-tightening in opera houses around the world, Bieito is essentially optimistic about the future of the artform. “Opera is an art of the future – it brings together so many elements – and I hope that we will survive together, with some brave intendants,” he says. He recognises that in difficult financial times decision-makers might become risk averse, but feels this is not necessarily a sensible path: “I did my Carmen 13 years ago and now it is being taken up everywhere,” he points out. “That means something is changing. Even if the intendants start to be more conservative, it’s not possible to stop the new feelings of the people.
    “It’s a completely wrong thing when people say ‘this opera has to be done like this’ – usually it only means that the costumes look a little bit old,” he adds. “You cannot reproduce the atmosphere of the first opening of a Mozart or Verdi opera. They were very modern in their time, very involved with people. Verdi was known in all of society.” That is the kind of immediacy he is after.

    His Fidelio could prove chewy. In Beethoven’s opera, the heroine Leonora’s husband, Florestan, is a political prisoner; she disguises herself as a man named Fidelio to infiltrate the prison and rescue him. Bieito’s staging, unlike his hyper-realistic Carmen and Don Giovanni, is complex and symbolic, set in a labyrinth that some reviewers of its Munich performances compared to The Matrix. “All the characters are lost in the labyrinth, imprisoned,” he says. “Sometimes our minds are our prison. I find Fidelio’s story quite weak if it is approached realistically, but if you take the philosophical side more seriously, then you can say much more about human beings today: what freedom means for us, or love, or loyalty, or justice. That is very important to our democracy.”
    Above all, Beethoven’s idealistic humanism in Fidelio strikes a special chord with him. “I think we need a new humanism in Europe in the very open, cultural sense, and Fidelio gives me the opportunity to talk about this,” he says. But his characters do not live happily ever after: “It is very hard to believe in the possibility of justice,” he says – melancholic again, thanks to his cynical view of politics in Spain.
     “There are people who’ll say ‘I don’t like Calixto Bieito, I don’t like anything he does’,” he comments. “I don’t know how to convince them. You cannot go to an exhibition thinking it’s going to be crap and you can’t go into a restaurant thinking ‘Oh, the food will be terrible’. This I cannot change. But I’m talking about these topics: justice, love, liberty, loyalty, freedom. We have to value these issues and we have to protect our democracies very strongly from corruption. I think, when it’s not just commercial, art is a way to freedom.”
    Fidelio, English National Opera, from 25 September. Box office: 020 7845 9300

    Look who I'm off to see tomorrow

    OK, it's not much to do with Schubert, the trip tomorrow. It's the Beethovenfest in Bonn and Andras will be playing a programme of sonatas including the D minor Op.31 No.2 and the 'Waldstein'. I haven't been to Bonn before and am a little excited at the prospect of seeing Beethoven's birthplace and also - unexpectedly, as I didn't know until yesterday that it existed - a Schumannhaus museum at the former asylum in Endenich (a suburb of Bonn), which is where our unlucky and much-loved Robert died in 1856. With Andras I'll be talking Beethoven, Bach, Bartok and big birthdays.

    Meanwhile, enjoy his beautiful film about Schubert.

    Thursday, September 19, 2013

    A quick explanation of the Flattr button

    You'll have noticed a new little green button at the top of the sidebar and beneath each JDCMB post. Flattr is a nice invention for us "content creators": it facilitates "microdonations", by which you can give a few cents or whatever as a sign of your appreciation of something you have read online. You set up an account, send it a small budget of your choice, and when you see something that seems to merit a few pennies, you can click on its Flattr button to donate some. Proceeds from Flattr on JDCMB all go towards JD's blogging expenses, including train tickets, gluten-free porridge and, of course, Solti's cat food. More about Flattr from its site here. And also more about how it works, here.

    Wednesday, September 18, 2013

    A good night at the Gramophones...

    A wee bit disorientating to find the Gramophone Awards shifted a) to mid September, b) to LSO St Luke's. But a fine venue it proved, hipper and airier than the good old Dorchester, snazzy in the pink spotlights which illuminated the heat-haze of some 115 candles.

    Gone were the sexist comments of yesteryear, ditched in favour of fine words about the power of music to enhance lives and bring people together, and dedications of awards to a variety of parents, teachers and young music-lovers around the world. Gone, too, the all-male line-up of last time: Artist of the Year went to Alison Balsom, Record of the Year to Patricia Kopatchinskaja's disc of Hungarian violin concertos. Guitarist Xuefei Yang was there to perform some Britten songs with Ian Bostridge and Hungarian violinist Katalin Kokas played Bartok duos with her husband, Barnabas Kelemen. Not all good on the sexism front, though, as Decca's little film (they were record of the year) had to be started off by a simpering dollybird of a soprano who is perfectly good, but. No sign of Kaufmann or Calleja having to be anything but their good selves in the later images.

    Many much-loved figures among the great and good were present, notably Julian Bream who received the Lifetime Achievement Award and thanked the industry, with sparkles intact, for recognising that he was not a bad guitarist.

    It was a particular good night for Bartok, whose Violin Concerto No.2 played by Patricia K was Record of the Year and whose music for violin and piano played by Barnabas Kelemen and Zoltan Kocsis won the Chamber award. Wonderful to see Barnabas pulling in at the top - regular JDCMB readers will know that I've been shouting out about him for quite a while. He is not only a magnificent player technically, but the most thorough and exacting of all-round musicians in that fabulous tradition that Hungary's Franz Liszt Academy has long championed: pure, penetrating, powerful. The Gramophone Awards are a fine way indeed to be put firmly on the map, and with luck megastardom should await. Hear Barnabas, Katalin and their string quartet at the Wigmore on Sunday morning and get his recording here. I am hoping to go and see them in Budapest later in the year. (Above, Barnabas is interviewed by Classic FM's Jamie Crick.)

    A fine night, too, for pianists. We had a performance from Benjamin Grosvenor, whose next album is due out in February - exact content still under wraps, but to judge from his glinting, whimsical Albeniz and Shostakovich transcriptions, there'll be some intriguing Golden-Age-style stuff on it. He handed over the Young Artist of the Year title to 18-year-old Jan Lisiecki, who played Bach's Partita No.1 exquisitely. Steven Osborne was Instrumentalist of the Year and treated us to a short extract from his winning disc, Musorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.

    No pics by me this time because my phone was out of juice (as was I) after a lengthy day going to Bristol and back for, er, the BBC Music Magazine Awards jury panel meeting. I've been ploughing through a very, very, very large pile of discs for that. A topic for another time.

    UPDATE, 4.15pm: One spotted James Rhodes leaving early. Perhaps this was why: http://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2013/sep/18/james-rhodes-classical-music-needs-an-enema-not-awards?CMP=twt_gu
    It didn't help, I might add, that they took 2 hrs to present 6 awards, and no food materialised til 10pm.

    Sunday, September 15, 2013

    Guest post: Frances Wilson introduces the South London Concert Series

    A little way round the South Circular from my neck of the woods, pianist, teacher and blogger Frances Wilson - whose blog The Cross-Eyed Pianist has become a must-read for the keyboard-inclined - has been busy organising a brand-new series of very social concerts involving both professional and amateur pianists. Here she is to introduce it. JD

    Music for Friends: the South London Concert Series
    By Frances Wilson

    The South London Concert Series is a unique new concert concept, created and curated by myself and fellow pianist, harpsichordist and piano teacher Lorraine Liyanage, in which we offer professional and amateur pianists the opportunity to perform in the same formal concert setting.

    The series developed out of the London Piano Meetup Group, which we took over hosting in May 2013. The group, run via Meetup, a social networking platform which allows people with shared interests to plan events and get together, had been rather dormant up to this point, but it has now been transformed into a lively and friendly “club” for amateur pianists, with monthly performance platforms, masterclasses and workshops with visiting teachers and professional pianists, concerts and courses, and social events in and around London.

    Lorraine and I met in September 2011 on a weekend course hosted by my teacher, Penelope Roskell. We hit it off almost immediately, not least because we were both working for diplomas and had the same two pieces by Liszt and Messiaen in our programmes. Talking during the coffee and lunch breaks on the course, we discovered a mutual love of all things piano, in particular a desire to support and inspire amateur pianists to perform, share repertoire and meet other like-minded people.

    ‘We both enjoy performing and we love meeting other pianists!’ says Lorraine, who is very active in her local community in south-east London, running the busy and successful SE22 Piano School and Dulwich Music Festival (now entering its third year). ‘We set up the London Piano Meetup Group because we felt amateur pianists lack opportunities to perform, particularly on a really fine piano and before an audience.’

    In many ways, I have Lorraine to thank for encouraging me to start performing regularly again (something I had not done since school in the 1980s), and the opportunities she gave me – at her student concerts, and via the London Piano Salon (the precursor to the London Piano Meetup Group) – undoubtedly helped me gain confidence and an ability to communicate with an audience which led to success in both of my performance Diplomas. I understand the value of being able to put repertoire before a non-critical audience, whether in advance of an exam, festival or concert, or simply to share music.

    I come across many amateur pianists who are extremely talented, who play at what can be considered a “professional” standard in terms of repertoire, technique and artistic flare, but who have chosen a career path other than music. Many of these pianists lack performance opportunities: our Meetup group provides regular performance experience in a central London location, enabling pianists of all levels to put repertoire before an informal and friendly audience in a supportive and encouraging environment (most events are held at Peregrine’s Pianos). Our events are nearly always sold out almost as soon as they are advertised, and the feedback afterwards is incredibly positive. We enjoy a varied range of repertoire, from Baroque to contemporary classical and jazz, and we often extend the meeting into the pub afterwards, where the “piano chat” can continue over a glass or two of wine.

    The South London Concert Series is our latest initiative. The idea grew out of the London Piano Meetup Group's launch event in May 2013, at which Emmanuel Vass, a prize-winning recent graduate from the Royal Northern College of Music, gave a short recital, including his stunning Lisztian ‘James Bond Concert Étude’ (his own “mash up” of three iconic themes from the James Bond films, complete with sparkling cadenzas and vertiginous virtuoso passages). It was so popular with members, especially the opportunity to meet and talk to Emmanuel afterwards, that we decided to extend the format. 

    Keen to support young and emerging musicians, and pianists focusing on lesser-known and rarely-played repertoire, we hope the series will provide a unique way of presenting classical and contemporary music in an intimate venue. My many conversations with professional pianists reveal, by and large, a great willingness to support and inspire amateurs, for we are all quite humble when we sit at the keyboard. Lorraine and I hope that by bringing together professional and amateur pianists in the same concert setting we can provide opportunities for young musicians (students in conservatoire or people who are just embarking on a professional career) while also offering inspiration and encouragement to amateur pianists.

    The concert format is quite simple: an hour of music, including a recital by a guest artist of around 30 minutes, followed by socialising and a chance for everyone to meet the performers. The venue, the beautiful 1901 Arts Club near Waterloo Station, is ideal for this: it recreates a nineteenth-century salon in its décor and ambiance, and boasts a fine Steinway C grand piano. We hope the atmosphere will be very much one of “music for friends and amongst friends”.

    The South London Concert Series launches on Friday 29th November 2013 at the 1901 Arts Club with a recital by Helen Burford, featuring works by Satoh, Magi, Butler and Rakowski, and guest performances by Susan Pickerill, Daniel Roberts, Emma Heseltine and Mark Zarb-Adami. Future concerts will include performances by pianists Emmanuel Vass and Angelo Villani.

    Tickets cost £15 and are by application only: please contact southlondonconcerts@gmail.comto apply for tickets. The 1901 Arts Club's exclusive bar and lounge will be open for the enjoyment of ticketholders after the concert.

    South London Concert Series


    London Piano Meetup Group


    Frances Wilson is a pianist, piano teacher, concert reviewer and blogger on music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. Twitter @CrossEyedPiano

    Saturday, September 14, 2013

    Memories of Theresienstadt

    This is a trailer for a film about Theresienstadt and the musicians who were incarcerated there, including Alice Sommer Herz and Coco Schumann. The associated CD by Daniel Hope, Anne Sofie von Otter and friends was released several years ago, and it is very good to see that they've now turned it into a documentary. DVD due out soon. Please watch and listen.

    Wednesday, September 11, 2013

    TOMORROW in Wales!

    Going to Pembrokeshire tomorrow for a Hungarian Dances Concert-of-the-Novel at PenFro Book Festival in the gorgeous setting of Rhosygilwen Mansion. David Le Page on violin, Anthony Hewitt on piano, me on words. Full details here. Do join us if you are anywhere nearby!

    We are expecting a slightly adventurous journey. Wish us luck.

    Siddheswari Devi (1908-1976) - Light Classical Vocal - From the archives of All India Radio - LP published in India in 1985

    Side 1:
    Thumri - Misra Tilang

    Side 2:
    1. Tappa - Bhairavi
    2. Dadra - Gara

    Smt. Siddheswari Devi

    Smt. Siddheswari Devi
    With the passing away of Siddheswari Devi on March 18 1977, the last of the four great pillars of Hindustani light classical music is gone. First went Begum Akhtar in 1974 at the age of 60, and then her older contemporaries, Rasoolan Bai, Badi Moti Bai and Siddheswari Devi. All four of them were inheritors of great traditions of music from a glorious era of the past when music dominated the lives of musicians from childhood to death. They were musical `stars' who shone brilliantly in the courtly era; but when the `darbari' era ended they did not hesitate to step out into the glare of public acclaim. 
    Thumris were once sung with abhinaya. When classicists began to frown down on this type of music with abhinaya, the singers took to the Bol-Banav-ki Thumri in which the emotional contents of songs are effectively brought out through vocal expressiveness only, that is, beauty of notes, voice modulations swara-combinations, and a specially emotion-charged style of singing. Bhaiya Ganpatrao, Moizuddin, and Shyamlal Khatri were some of the trail-blazers who gave this modern orientation to Thumri. Among those who have kept up these traditions till now in full glory, the outstanding names of this century have been Siddheswari Devi, Rasoolan Bai, Badi Moti Bai, Begum Akhtar, Mahadev Prasad Misra, and Girija Devi. Girija Devi is far younger than the others, and is of a different generation.
    Born into a famous musical family in Varanasi in 1903, Siddheswari traced her musical lineage to her maternal grandmother Maina Devi, a reputed singer of Kashi of nearly a century ago. She was the inheritor of great musical traditions from a family which produced several famous singers like Maina Devi, Vidyadhari Devi, Rajeswari Devi and Kamaleswari Devi. As Siddheswari lost her mother when she was barely 18 months old, she was brought up by her maternal aunt, Rajeswari, who was a famed disciple of Maina Devi, Mithailal, and of the great Moizuddin himself. Brought up in this musical atmosphere, Siddheswari absorbed a great deal of the art right from her infancy. Her childhood was an unhappy one as she lost her father also very soon. About this period of her life, she once said : "We did not have luxuries like the gramophone. But our neighbours had one. I used to go to them to listen to the records of popular singers like Janaki Bai, Gauharbai and several others. How their music used to captivate me!".
    Noticing the talent and eagerness of the young girl, Siyaji Maharaj began to teach her. Siyaji's father Shyamacharan Misra, and uncle Ramcharan Misra had been good musicians. About her guru, Siddheswari used to say : "No one could possibly get a more generous and affectionate guru. Having no children of his own, he treated me like his own daughter. He taught me all the basic ragas and a large number of Khayals, Tappas, and Taranas. He taught me with all his heart, and I practised my music with intense concentration and devotion. Nowadays, alas! the students are all in a hurry to acquire a diploma or a degree; they have no lagan."
    After the death of Siyaji Maharaj, she learnt for a while from Ustads Rajab Ali Khan of Dewas, and Inayat Khan of Lahore. However, her greatest guru, the one to whom she attributes most of her musical training was none other than Bade Ramdasji of Varanasi. Her face glowed with pride and veneration whenever she spoke about this generous guru who taught the eager disciple magnanimously. Nostalgically recalling those times of close guru-shishya bonds, Siddheswari once remarked to me : "The age of such great and generous gurus seems to have gone. No longer does one come across the really devoted type of pupils either. Today they are all in such a hurry----"
    Later on in life, when she joined the Bharatiya Kala Kendra in Delhi as a professor, she earned the reputation for being a sincere and conscientious teacher. When I mentioned this to her, she simply remarked : "Why not, Beti? Let something of my treasures remain with others after l am gone".
    Siddheswari made her unforgettable debut at a Calcutta conference many many decades ago. Young Siddheswari's name was billed along with those of many of the veterans of the time, such as Pt. Omkarnath Thakur, Pt. Dilip Chandra Vedi, Ustad Faiyaz Khan and others. Her khayals in Malhar and Suha-Sughrai, and her thumris, elicited high praise and medals galore from Pt. Omkarnathji and Ustad Faiyaz Khan. Another glorious performance of her's was in the All India. Music Conference in Bombay in which Ustads Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Faiyaz Khan also were to sing. Siddheswari concluded her superb recital with such an intensely emotional rendering of the Bhairavi-Thumri (Kaahe Ko daari re gulal Brajlal Kanhayi) that the Aftab-e-Mausiqui refused to sing after her! He said to her : "After such music there is no room for any more. After Gauhar Malika, the crown of the Thumri rests on your head". Such was the grand magnanimity of the musical giants of the past!
    After her first concert appearance at the age of 18, she began to receive invitations for performances in Rampur, Jodhpur, Lahore, Mysore and various other states which used to patronise classical music during that time. In the next 4 or 5 decades, she sang in many royal durbars, music conferences national programmes, radio concerts and so on until she became "an institution by herself in view of her enormous repertory and heritage of a rich musical tradition." In recognition of her valuable contributions to the enrichment and perpetuation of the Banaras (Poorab) ang of light classical music, Siddheswari was honoured with the Presidential Award in 1966, the Padmasri in 1967 the D. Litt from Rabindra Bharati University, Calcutta, and the title of "Desikottama" from the Viswa Bharati University. When we felicitated her on the Award, her humble and philosophical reply was : "It's all very well; but I shall continue to deserve these, only as long as I can go on singing well enough to please you all". In spite of all the fame that she earned, she remained simple, unassuming and homely till the end. Among contemporary musicians, Kesarbai Kerkar and M.S. Subbalakshmi were the artistes she admired most.
    Few musicians in recent times had such a vast repertoire as Siddheswari had. Her rich storehouse included a large number of Khayals, Thumris, Dadras, Tappas, Kajaris, Chaitis and Bhajans. "A feeling heart, a fecund mind, and an expressive voice" are the prime requisites for a good light classical singer. Even when her voice had become "temperamental and thick" in old age, she could make up for it by a rare emotional fervour, and she could hold her audiences by her mood of intense absorption and her ability to bring out the emotional contents of the romantic or devotional themes. Siddheswari's music brought out all the salient features of the Banaras style, such as simple charm, intensity of feeling, and effective expression of emotions through sheer purity of notes, "meends" and voice modulations. She said to me once : "Although my thumri is fully of the Banaras ang, I incorporate elements of the Khayal into it. You may say that my thumri- singing is Khayal angapradhan". She added spice and charm by sprinkling short, swift tappa-like taans and trills. In her early days, she was deeply impressed by the singing of Gauharjan, Zohrabai, and Malikajan. As a member of cultural delegations, Siddheswari gave recitals in Rome, Kabul, and Kathmandu.
    Siddheswari cherished not only the songs galore that she had learnt from her revered guru Bade Ramdasji, but also the lofty principles that he impressed on his disciples. He used to advise her: "Music is the medium for pleasing and attaining God. You should never feel proud of any success. Always remain humble. The day your tears flow during your sangeetsadhana, your music will have attained mellowness and maturity".
    No wonder she always believed that both "Siddhi" and "Ishwar" can be attained through devoted sangeet-sadhana. Her deeply religious temperament had a great impact on her singing. In the last years of her life, the Pukaars in her Thumris and Bhajans were like cries from an anguished devotee's heart. With eyes closed, mind absorbed, and left hand cupping her left ear (to receive the full drone of the Tanpura), she used to pour her heart out through her music. Siddheswari remained a most warm-hearted, simple, and loveable person, "an extraordinary amalgam" of innocence, courage, humour, generosity, youthful zest for life, and a rare dignity. Her life was, by no means, a happy or smooth one. She had an unhappy childhood and "an emotionally tumultuous" youth, and she had to undergo many bitter experiences in life. But all of these seem to have added to her natural dignity, strength and wisdom. One of her admirers described her as "a vast reservoir of warmth, an unfailing fountainhead of inspiration, a manifestation of humanity at its most compelling and earthy.... and yet a being full of sparks and sudden vertical ascents to the mystic regions where inspiration has its divine origins". She did not have the facilities to devote herself to sadhana; living like a recluse. She practised her music all the time, while she was cooking, washing clothes, or doing any of the ordinary household chores. Music was her very Iife.
    The death of Siddheswari Devi has left a big void in the world of light classical music. Shanta Devi, her elder daughter whom she had trained up to follow her footsteps has remained in obscurity owing to poor health. Surprisingly, it is her younger daughter Savita Devi who has zoomed into the limelight as a delightful and popular singer, and it is Savita who shows every sign of taking her illustrious mother's place. Versatile and attractive Savita is not only a graduate (an M.A, and Sangeetalankar) and a good Sitariya, but she has also shaped into a confident and popular vocalist with a wide repertoire of Khayals, and light classical varieties. Gifted with an appealing, melodious voice covering 3 octaves or more, she has undergone years of training in khayals under Pt. Moni Prasad of the Kirana gharana. She has a natural flair for the light classical varieties in which she was extensively trained by her mother whom she used to accompany as a supporting singer in many concerts. While working as Head of the Department of Music in Daulatram College (University of Delhi), she is continuing her own music riyaz tirelessly.
    Many years before her death, Siddheswari had once told me : "My greatest ambition is to die while singing a perfect taan. I feel closest to God when I am lost in my music." Begum Akhtar also had expressed an almost identical wish which was fulfilled because she died in the peak of her glory, giving a memorable performance before the dropping of the final curtain.
    But Siddheswari who lived till her seventies, had no such luck. She had been helplessly bed-ridden for many months prior to the sad end. In a TV interview prior to her last illness, she had confessed with dignity:- "There was a time when I used to sing for the public. Now I sing to please my God. My soul craves to go back to its original abode".
    Malini Menon, one of Siddheswari's pet-pupils who had become more like a daughter to her, writes:- "Maa remained a student all her life. . .She had a child-like thirst for knowledge and she was ever so generous as she could not bear to see anybody in want... Maa was turbulent as the waves, and yet calm like the distant sea. She was at peace with herself and had prepared for the journey of the soul to eternity. When the moment came, she accepted it with grace."
    Siddheswari Devi's last brilliant recital was in the Radio Sangeet Sammelan (a couple of years before her end) in which she sang with a bubbling, youthful zest, accompanied on the Sarangi by Pt. Gopal Misra (who is no more), and on the Tabla by Ramji Misra. Eyes twinkling, the solitary diamond in her big nose ring flashing points of light, a warm smile on her paan-reddened lips, Maa's homely figure emerges in one's memory. But as soon as she sat on the stage for a recital, one realised that she belonged to an entirely different world, and that her life had known "no horizons other than music". As I recall that last inspiring recital of hers in the Radio Sangeet Sammelan, memories of several other great past concerts of this music-devotee come to my mind, and her plaintive Jogiya echoes in my memory:"O Jogi ! Constantly uttering the name of Rama, you have become one with Him, leaving your little hut so empty---".
    Posted on RMIC by Rajan Parrikar as part of Great Masters Series.
    From: "Great Masters of Hindustani Music" by Susheela Misra.