rain starts play

The best thing about playing a musical instrument is that it gives you something to do when it’s raining. I’m sort of joking because on an unseasonal day like it is where I am today – non-stop rain and unbroken grey skies forecast for 24 hours – I do feel somehow in some tiny instinctive way as if playing the viola will alleviate the gloom and provide some welcome shelter and warmth.

It never does, though. I guess the viola is just too temperamentally melancholy, or I am. And in the circumstances, I can never think of what to play and end up standing there uselessly, viola drooping under my ear like a waterlogged branch.

So it occurs to me that what I would like is a book of pieces, specially written to be played in the event of rain. Although I am no composer, I imagine they would be little ruminations, incantations, exercises and other whatnots, some intended to ward the bad weather off but others with the more achievable aim of guiding me to a state of patience and acceptance. Perhaps there would be a gentle ritual element involved. Or perhaps they would just be something to do while it’s raining.

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jazz classic

Last week at Rhinegold Live, the rush hour concert series at Conway Hall hosted by Rhinegold Publishing, Andrew Litton paid homage to pianist Oscar Peterson. At the end of the hour-long set – transcriptions that he has also recently recorded of Peterson solo performances – he talked about his devotion for the Canadian jazz virtuoso that dates back to the epiphanic moment one birthday in his late teens when Litton was first smitten.

He went on to reveal that, as a conductor, he likes to see orchestras adopt something of a jazz spirit in their playing. That doesn’t mean improvising as a jazz musician does (Litton admitted it’s a skill he does not have), but has something to do with adopting a liberated stance, giving the moment its share as well as the pre-rehearsed.

Of course, it’s a mistake to see jazz as merely anything goes (whether by Cole Porter or not). But it is easy to see how an artist such as Oscar Peterson might be a figurehead for the jazz-curious classical performer. Above all, there’s the phenomenal technique of the sort that classical musicians are supposed to aim to acquire and that some would claim distinguishes classical musicians from those working in other styles. And although this won’t have been what attracted the young Litton, there’s also the refined presentation, his use of fine concert pianos in concerts promoted in the same concert halls frequented by his classical counterparts.

In Peterson’s playing, that technical mastery is very much at the heart of his musicianship. But that’s not the case with every jazz musician. That means that classical musicians need to look further into jazz than the obvious role models like Peterson to find that jazz spirit, or sensibility or call it what you like. How, for instance, can we classical musicians translate the spirit and approach of a Thelonious Monk into our music? Not by emulating his sound or idiosyncrasies necessarily, but in order to discover a classical musicianship that stands in relation to the orthodox in the way that Monk does to Peterson?

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lunchtime concerts: the holy grail

For those in daily work, the lunchtime concert offers itself, or is presented, as a pleasing occasional rite: a 30-40 minute midday interlude when another kind of sustenance than the alimentary may be taken in. It’s a pause in the day, a period of contemplation, a walk in the garden that revives the soul in preparation for the return to the afternoon’s duties.

And I suppose as a societal function, that’s fine. But honestly, I dream of playing a recital that turns out to be more than an interlude: a listener decides to take a different path in life, and resolves to go back and hand in their notice, or simply not to go back at all.

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and so it goes on

The day after I attended the final session of the new series of conducting workshops for young women at Morley College, I learn that Jorma Panula, one of the world’s leading conducting teachers, has been talking about women conductors.

The course, and the rationale for it, came under modest attack from one or two commentators. Panula’s words should perhaps give them cause to rethink.

A report of his comments can be found here. It’s in Finnish, which I don’t speak, but here’s a translation I’ve been given of part of it. If it’s incorrect in any way, let me know.

Q: Do you think it is good that women enter the profession and become conductors?

JP: No! What the hell, we have men already. It is such a limited profession… They can try, but it is a completely different deal. I can’t comment on media or public opinion. But women… Of course they are trying! Some of them are making faces, sweating and fussing, but it is not getting any better – only worse! They can come [to my masterclasses] and try. It’s not a problem – if they choose the right pieces. If they take more feminine music. Bruckner or Stravinsky will not do, but Debussy is OK. This is a purely biological question.’

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first lady

My prediction for 2014? There will be a new Master of the Queen’s Music. Granted, that’s not such a hard prediction to make, given that the tenure of the incumbent, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, comes to an end in the spring. Or had you forgotten that his appointment was the first since the post was established in 1625, to be made for a fixed, ten-year, term, rather than for life?

But I will predict that the next Master of the Queen’s Music will, for the first time, be a woman. I’ll stick my neck on the block (gulp!) and tell you who in a moment.

Like its sister post, the Poet Laureate, the job comes without a specific job description. It is not even specifically intended for a composer, although there is an expectation that the MQM will produce music for royal occasions and national events, as he or she sees fit, and advise the monarch when required. I daresay there’s also an assumption that he or she will be an advocate for music in the wider public sphere and not merely its representative at the courts of the aristocracy.

You would expect, then, that the post is for composers of a certain standing, combining experience and achievement (Elgar, Bax and Bliss are among the 20th century MQMs, although the 19th century was, faute de mieux, a bit of a washout). You would expect that the post would, nowadays, go to someone with an ability to communicate with Her Majesty’s subjects, just as you would expect with the Poet Laureate. And of course, provided it is not done cynically, an eye-catching appointment that gets people talking can be a good thing.

Should the Queen decide to name a woman as her next composer-in-residence, it would certainly be eye-catching. Dare I say, even rather progressive. Needless to say, there hasn’t been one before. And there does still appear to be a reluctance to give them due prominence – or at least, a tendency to slip back into old habits – as the British Association of Songwriters, Composers and Authors found to their chagrin at a key awards ceremony in 2013.

But it’s not like there would be a shortage of possible appointees. The postwar years (the period I’d argue is most likely to supply the next MQM) produced something of a golden generation of women composers, among them Nicola LeFanu, Diana Burrell, Cecilia McDowall, Judith Bingham and Errolyn Wallen.

Of course there are some very strong candidates among the  men: Oliver Knussen, George Benjamin, Michael Berkeley, the two Matthews (no not Stanley and Bernard – brothers David and Colin) all come into the frame. Alternatively, of course, there’s Howard Goodall, Bob Chilcott and Karl Jenkins (oh god can you imagine!?) 

But for me, two names stand out as being enticing choices, composers I can easily imagine responding to the appointment with relish. My own preference, probably because she’s a viola player, is Sally Beamish. Her compellingly direct music, which seems to flow effortlessly from her imagination, often takes non-musical elements as a starting point, be it a landscape or poem and frequently incorporates traditional, folk or old styles and instruments.

The other is Judith Weir, about whom you could say much the same kind of thing: highly prolific in the amount she has written (her publisher’s catalogue shows her approaching her ton), open to music and stories from all over the place and a taste for enchanting sounds. More to the point, she was the third recipient, in 2007, of the annual Queen’s Medal for Music, a prize recognising the recipient’s influence in musical life that Maxwell Davies helped establish and which the MQM plays a part in awarding. 2013’s medallist hasn’t yet been announced, but for now she’s the only composer among the laureates to date.

When I contacted the press office of the Royal Household to ask about the new appointment, I was told that the process is not yet under way and as yet there was no information they could give me. But if I had any, my money would go on Weir. Whether or not I’m right, you read it here first.

In the meantime, that just gives me a ten years to write why the Master of the Queen’s Music in 2024 should be… Courtney Pine.

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more orchestras now! or soon, anyway!

If you, like me, don’t believe that the orchestra has had its day by a long chalk, shouldn’t we aim to foster an environment where many more groups can thrive? Loads of them, all over the place?

By thrive, I mean performing regularly: 20, 30, 40 times a year. And by group, I mean an orchestra with a reasonably consistent line-up of players and whose audience will thus take to their hearts. One happy to craft away, making the things it makes best and trying to make more of them.

(Footnote: yes, I know this is the aspiration for most start-up orchestras, and yes I know why it invariably ends up unfulfilled. In part, it’s due to the way the freelance musical economy, which is not an entirely balanced and healthy one, works. But let’s stick with our aims for now and then make a start on that.)

It seems to me that rather than perennially fretting about concert dress and yacking on about social media, we could more usefully spend our time figuring out how to make this scenario happen. Because I think this could be planned. We could get together a little project committee that would sit down, figure out where the need is, do some modelling in each case to develop the outline of an orchestra to fit that need, do some sums, use all that to convince the right musicians to buy in. That kind of thing.

We could, of course, rely on individual examples of enterprise but that’s a bit haphazard. I mean, how many orchestras have, over the past few years, really established themselves out of nothing to the extent I’m setting out here: Orchestra of the Swan, Aurora, Oxford Philomusica, who else? Other than the slightly older Britten Sinfonia, exemplary in this regard.

But I’m not talking three or four orchestras, I’m talking a dozen, two dozen. Others may have dipped a toe into the water and found it too financially scary, and that’s obviously the biggest hurdle. But there is money in classical music, there bloody well is, if only it were not washed up in a relatively small number of prominent organisations with the wherewithal to devote to future fundraising. And certainly enough to act as seed funding or as some kind of collateral protecting small organisations from ruin because of a failure or two.

(Footnote: yes, I know it’s hardly surprising that big cultural organisations act this way, nor am I saying they do no good. One only has to look at the scale of LSO Discovery’s activities, to take one example I know a little about, to see that. But the fact remains that an orchestra with relatively modest aspirations to prominence but with high expectations artistically is going to find it terrifically hard to take root.)

Ultimately, what I have in mind would leave the UK covered in a patchwork of orchestras, of different sizes and artistic aims – I’m certainly not I saying, I don’t think, that it should all be micromanaged centrally by some wise eminence – I have other things to do thank you. But enough to keep the ecology nice and diverse.  Nor am I suggesting we devise a kind of off-the-shelf module to be wedged into an inevitably unsatisfactory slot.

Quite the contrary, one of the keys to success is that orchestras would be allowed to evolve in context,  in response to local ripples and currents, propelled by the breeze and the skill of the navigator and not some dirty old motor. Of course, some of them may already be out there, doing their handful of concerts and playing for choral societies, just waiting for the right catalyst to take it to another level.

In the meantime, here’s one idea, to get you thinking: the Orchestra of the English Channel, performing in France and Belgium as well as England. And it wouldn’t take much to come up with some thoughtful things to do. I’m serious! Anyone fancy a dip?


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il catalogo orchestral

Seriously? Could it really be that I’ve played only one orchestral piece by a woman composer?

I had the idea to put together a list of all the orchestral music I’ve played over the years, thinking it must add up to rather a lot. I didn’t do this idly – it wasn’t just out of curiosity, still less as some kind of Perecquian exercise in exhaustion/saturation. To put it bluntly, I want it to be known that I damn well know my repertoire and, what’s more, that I know it damn well. (Sometimes – sometimes! – you do wonder what impression people have of you.)

Have a look on this blog under ‘Orchestral’ if you want to see what I’ve come up with. Maybe it isn’t or maybe it is a lot, I don’t know. Of course it’s not going to be absolutely exhaustive. There will be some pieces I’ve overlooked, some that I couldn’t be bothered to put up and one or two that I refuse to. But I’d say it’s a pretty fair representation of everything I’ve performed properly in orchestras since I’ve been a grown up viola player. Including choral music too, god knows I play it often enough.

I hope I get to play many of them again (and to really get under the skin of them, too) as well as filling in some of the annoying gaps: it would be nice to knock off the two Mahler symphonies and the one Sibelius, for instance, that get me those sets. I suppose I could even draw up a wishlist: Bartok violin and piano concertos and lots more Sibelius are what spring immediately to mind. And, you know, I’m not sure I’ve really done Schubert justice yet.

Now, to what extent is any of that in my hands? I’m not really sure what I can do to improve the shamingly low number of pieces by women on the list, either. Play with more orchestras, or play more often in orchestras, I guess. And in the meantime, more practice.



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