Friday, February 17, 2017

"The tragedies of thousands of years ago are the tragedies of today"


The splendid composer Nicola LeFanu introduces her major new piece The Crimson Bird, which will have its world premiere tonight at the Barbican, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov and soprano Rachel Nicholls as soloist. The work was commissioned under the Royal Philharmonic Society's Elgar Bursary. It's on BBC Radio 3 and the iPlayer thereafter - don't miss it! You can listen to Nicola's introduction here. The concert kickstarts the celebrations of her 70th birthday, which will continue through 2017.


The Crimson Bird sees LeFanu collaborate with poet John Fuller, who also wrote the libretto for the composer's 2011 chamber opera Dream Hunter. Fuller's work also forms the basis of The Crimson Bird's libretto, whose text has been adapted from his poem 'Siege'. 'Siege' examines the bond between mother and son as it is tested within an environment of war and terror - 'When death is the work of hands, Anyone may be a murderer or a hero. Which is it that you claim?' In The Crimson Bird, LeFanu brings Fuller's text to life by making use of her extensive experience of writing for the voice in the eight operas she has composed.
Speaking on The Crimson Bird, LeFanu said,
"In its exploration of love, fear and death, 'Siege' has a universal scope that speaks to human experience throughout time. Coverage from conflict zones under siege fill our TV screens every day. A mother sees her son caught up in the conflicts raging around her country. Is he a hero or a murderer? Composing for the BBCSO and the dramatic soprano Rachel Nicholls, I had a marvellous opportunity to explore these perennial issues."
 

Valentine for a favourite film


Having not previously experienced one of the talkies-with-live-music events that have become so popular since digital technology enabled them to exist, I went to see Brief Encounter with real-time Rachmaninoff at the Royal Festival Hall the other night. Digital transformation involves the careful stripping out of the music while leaving the voices in place; it's so detailed that 60 seconds takes a day to do. Striking the balance in the hall between the volume of the soundtrack and the live music isn't easy either, but the effect is so absorbing and compelling that we can forgive the occasional "what did she say?" for the gorgeous horn-playing or clarinet solo that might mask a couple of seconds.

Alexandra Dariescu with a creation of her own.
Photo: BBC Music Magazine
And jolly lovely it was, y'know... First we had the complete Piano Concerto No.2 with soloist Alexandra Dariescu making her debut at the hall and with the LPO. She offered a near-ideal balance of heart and head, with plenty of excitement and lyricism matched by beautiful tone, intelligent voicing and excellent musical narrative even without that of Noel Coward. And as Eileen Joyce, the legendary Australian pianist for the original film, used to do, she even changed her dress in the interval. Dirk Brossé conducted with reasonable attentiveness. It's no small feat to play the whole concerto in a "real" interpretation and follow it immediately with bleeding chunks, timing determined by (I guess) a click-track, and everyone rose to the task magnificently.

Celia Johnson's daughter, the actress Lucy Fleming, introduced the evening, telling us about her mother's memories of the filming: the cold early mornings at the station pervaded by the smell of the fish train from Aberdeen; the enormous challenge of playing a role that involves large tracts of silence with a narration over the top; and Noel Coward's absolute insistence, when others tried to demur from using that concerto, that nothing could happen without the Rachmaninoff - that Laura's character is circumscribed by the facts that "she changes her library book at Boots, she eats at the Kardomah and she listens to Rachmaninoff"...

Of course! Where would we be without Rachmaninoff? The music creates perhaps 85 per cent of the film's emotional world. The little town it shows us, otherwise, is cold, small, mean. Everything is based in deadened routine: putting on the wireless, picking up the embroidery or the Times Crossword, the Thursday ritual of going into Milford, chatting to acquaintances you can't stand and who haven't an interesting thought in their heads, going to the cinema no matter what's on, laughing at the Mighty Wurlitzer, and then the cup of tea at the station where the staff never say hello even though they see you every single Thursday and try to make life a little bit harder for you because it's their job (Beryl swings her keys at Laura with such relish). The one sign of passion is Alec's devotion to his work in preventive medicine; as he describes it Laura falls for him, perhaps because she has never seen anyone express such aliveness before.

We never really know Alec, though, or Laura either: only the tip of the iceberg, plus their eyes. Laura is Celia Johnson's eyes and Rachmaninoff. Everything in the movie happens at a tangent - the shadows of Alec and Laura in the station underpass, the chilly stone bridges, the snide and hypocritical "friends", and even Laura's impossibly cute kids are filmed from off-beat angles. ("My birthday's in June and there aren't any pantomimes in June," says little Margaret in expert plummy tones. Apparently the little girl was actually Celia Johnson's niece.)

Only the Rachmaninoff is direct. And we love it and we weep because there is so much love in there, being squashed to extinction by that ghastly, two-faced provincialism and hypocrisy that Coward captures to perfection. Remember, Coward was gay and homosexuality was illegal. The whole thing is an analogy of illicit love, with its truth spark buried deep.

Odd to think that that world-in-black-and-white represents to some the sort of nostalgia that's sparked the ludicrous prospect of Brexit. Love will go away from us forever on the 5.43pm train and we will never get it back because we're worried about what other people will think if we try. What could be more British than that?

Dated? Not necessarily. Quite a few people, not least in the orchestra, were seeing that film for the first time and it won a lot of new friends.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

79 years ago today...

Jelly d'Arányi, portrait by Charles Geoffroy-Dechaume

...On 16 February 1938, Jelly d'Arányi gave the UK premiere of the Schumann Violin Concerto at the Queen's Hall, London. That event is the climax of Ghost Variations - so for the occasion, here for a reblog is my piece for the Women Writers, Women's Books website the other day, not so much about why I started writing that novel, but why I finished it, which was another matter altogether...


Finding the Pearl: Why I wrote Ghost Variations

Why do you start to write a book? Perhaps more than that, why do you finish it? There are enough books in the world already: why do you need to add yours?

The reason I started Ghost Variations is not the same reason I finished it. I can’t count the number of times I nearly gave up, or rewrote bleeding chunks, or chucked them out, or how often issues outside nearly scuppered the whole thing.

Its initial impulse was several-fold. I wanted to try writing a historical novel, as my former ones were mostly contemporary. Besides, it seemed a good idea at the time…

When I first came across the story of Jelly (pronounced “Yély”) d’Arányi and her discovery of the Schumann Violin Concerto in the 1930s, it seemed impossibly far-fetched. A few years ago, researching my third novel, Hungarian Dances, which centred on a musical family from Budapest, I’d got hold of an out-of-print biography of this revered Hungarian violinist and her musician sisters. I found more than I’d expected. Namely, a chapter entitled “The Truth About the Schumann Concerto”. I read it with increasing incredulity.

The Schumann is the least known and most mysterious of German romantic violin concertos. It was the composer’s last orchestral work: soon after its completion he suffered a nervous breakdown, attempted suicide, then spent the last two years of his life in an asylum. After his death, his widow, Clara, decided the concerto betrayed signs of his illness and left it unpublished. Joseph Joachim, the violinist for whom it was written, kept the manuscript; his heirs deposited it in the Prussian State Library, embargoed for 100 years.

Then in 1933 Joachim’s great-niece – Jelly d’Arányi – claimed to have received a message through a Ouija board ostensibly from the spirit of Schumann, asking her to find the concerto and perform it. Her enquiries alerted others to the fact that there was something interesting lurking in that library. Schumann’s daughter was furious and insisted the concerto must never be performed. Nobody could override her directive…except people who cared nothing for niceties. The Nazis’ Department for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, run by Goebbels, found a use for it: having banned music by Jewish composers, including the popular Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, they decided to take the Schumann themselves and launch it as a symbol: a great Aryan concerto by a great German Aryan composer.

Complicating things further, the work’s new publishers sent a photostat to the young American virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin, asking his opinion. He fell in love with it and wanted to give the premiere himself. The unfortunate d’Arányi found herself in a three-way race to perform the work, while Europe was hurtling towards war.

It seemed a good story, but it needed to be more than that to make its telling worthwhile. And I felt that it was indeed more than that. The confluence between the situations of the heroine, her target and her world coalesced into a single key image: a tipping point, poised on the cliff edge, reaching for a last chance of redemption. Jelly d’Arányi, for whom composers including Bartók, Ravel and Vaughan Williams had created masterpieces, could feel her glory days slipping away; the concerto was written when Schumann was descending into madness; and when the work came to light, the world was sliding into fascism and the vortex towards cataclysmic war and the Holocaust.

I started the first draft in 2011. My mother-in-law, who escaped Nazi Germany aged 13 on the Kindertransport and never saw her parents and brother again, asked what I was writing. A historical novel, I told her. She asked when it was set. When I said the 1930s, she laughed. To her, that wasn’t historical at all.

Three years earlier we’d experienced a kind of modern-day 1929: the financial crash of 2008. Structures and certainties were crumbling. Witch-hunts were on the rise. People were frightened and insecure, taking out their alarm on those less powerful than themselves whom they considered had fallen out of line. After half the first draft was done, a period of intense stress rendered me unable to write a word for six months. I’ll spare you the gory details, and of course the outcome could have been worse, but it has caused a long-term health issue.

I kept trying to get back to the book, but it progressed only in fits and starts. I’d set about it without a contract as I didn’t want deadlines or directives, but this meant no advance, nor any certainty of publication. With my immune system apparently AWOL I then lost half of 2014 too, this time to something that turned out to be whooping cough.

Yet to give up, to shove the manuscript into the bottom drawer and forget about it, was unthinkable: you’re not beaten unless you allow yourself to be. I hunkered down and got on with it as best I could.

And one day in summer 2015, tired of the continual hold-ups, I decided to send the draft to Unbound, a new-look publisher that works via crowdfunding. It came highly recommended by several journalist colleagues. Once they agree to take you on, you pitch your project to potential readers. If you reach the crowdfunding target, they publish the book.

A few months later, having all but forgotten about the submission, I received a message saying they would take Ghost Variations. We launched the crowdfunding in January 2016. To my astonishment it made target in 12 days. Maybe the story rang some bells, because it wasn’t only people I knew who were jumping on board.

Soon I was working round the clock to chisel the novel into publishable shape. My editor gently pointed out that I’d paid plenty of attention to the rise of fascism in Germany, but not said much about what was happening in England, where our heroine Jelly d’Arányi lived. Indeed, the sporadic way in which I’d written the book had left a black hole of grand proportions, waiting for Oswald Mosley to fill it.

I looked up 1930s Daily Mail headlines and articles by Lord Rothermere. This was the country in which my parents-in-law had arrived as teenaged Jewish refugees with German names and accents. Because of that press-stirred hysteria about “floods” of such refugees, my mother-in-law’s parents and brother were refused visas, meaning they were trapped in Berlin, and were murdered in a concentration camp.

Meanwhile our television screens were filled with images of boatloads of people from today’s conflict zones sinking and drowning in the Mediterranean while our own western governments slammed the doors shut upon them. In June Britain voted to leave the EU. Nobody absorbed in research on the 1930s could view this as anything but a calamity of historic proportions. Over the Atlantic, the notion of Donald Trump as potential US president was derided, yet I’d been reading that Hitler himself was at first regarded as a joke by many who believed that an unstable, deluded fantasist could never take power.

When I first began Ghost Variations I had no idea it would be as relevant as it has turned out. Its delays were frustrating. But perhaps 2016 was its moment after all, because this year brought us our own tipping point. We’re no longer on the cliff edge: we’ve tipped and we’re falling.

I’ve learned a lot through writing Ghost Variations, so here are my lessons in a nutshell. First, if you want to write about the inconvenient truths of today, sometimes it’s better not to hold up a direct mirror. Instead, refract the light you want to shed. Shine it through a prism of a past parallel, or a sci-fi or fantasy world. Good historical fiction doesn’t only concern the past.

Next, that question publishers and agents always ask – “But what’s it about?” – is slightly misphrased. It means: “What are you really trying to say?” A “good story” isn’t enough. There has to be a pearl in your oyster, something special for the reader to extrapolate. Writing a book takes a lot of work, and the financial rewards are not huge even if you are successful. At some point you might need to reassure yourself you have a good reason for doing it at all. Your clinching point is that reason, so make sure it’s there.

I think – or hope – that Ghost Variations holds a positive message despite the times it portrays. I hope it shows there were, and there will be, people who see through lies, moral corruption and mortal danger and stand by higher principles. We’ve come through times of turmoil before; and despite huge, tragic sacrifices and horrors beyond comprehension, still people keep trying to do the right thing. There will be heroes and heroines, there will be life and there will be love. And maybe there is even a chance that in some unsuspected dimension love can last forever. Maybe that’s why I wrote this book.





Ghost Variations at Unbound: https://unbound.com/books/ghost-variations

Beethoven to bike to




On Valentine's Day, Alexander Panfilov, winner of the 2015 Hastings International Piano Competition, switched images with the regular inhabitants of The Source, the local skateboard and biker park, which happens to be the largest underground skate part in the world. He provided a spot of music for them to work out to, wearing a hoodie. The bikers wore bow ties. And it was daredevil energy all round. The piano had also been on location all day, with everyone encouraged to come and play it. Above, a taste of the action - and the cool-as-cucumber pianist seems unfazed by the apparent likelihood that a biker might land inside the piano at any moment.

HIPCC director Frank Wibaut said: “I once organised a similar event in Australia, where classical musicians came together with young athletes and while both groups came from completely different spheres they were able to understand the dedication and hours of practice that each put into their particular discipline. I think we’ll see a similar understanding in Hastings.” (More here.)

The Hastings International Piano Competition 2017 takes place next week, starting on 23 February, with finals on 3 and 4 March accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Follow the action here.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Less cheering...


Eric Halfvarson, Karita Mattila, Jonas Kaufmann, Tony Pappano & the LSO
take a bow the other night. Now it's curtains...

Oh dear. The Kaufmann Residency has come to an untimely end. Jonas has bronchitis and the concert including the 'Four Last Songs' tonight has been cancelled. Or at least postponed - the Barbican says it will be rescheduled in due course.

So there we are. That's it from London's Kaufmann Central. The discount tent has been packed away, the thermos of tea drained and the last sarnies will presumably keep a day or two in the fridge. We were very lucky to hear that glorious recital last week and the delirious thrill of Die Walküre Act I, so probably we shouldn't be greedy.

We wish Jonas the speediest of recoveries. The offer of chicken soup still stands.