Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Luiza Borac recalls meeting Alice Herz-Sommer - the Lady in Number 6

Musicians, as we know, are extraordinary people. Some are more extra-ordinary than others perhaps, having lived lives that have put them at great personal risk, yet still the desire to play music burns strong. It's almost a mark of defiance, of the human spirit's willingness and need to survive in the face of great opposition.

Few people embody this quite like pianist and Holocaust survivor Alice Herz-Sommer, who at the age of 109 is the subject of a new documentary, "The Lady in Number 6". A promo for it is here: http://bit.ly/1bbAfnV

Having never had the pleasure of meeting Alice myself, I invited the pianist Luiza Borac to offer her recollections of when she met Alice around three years ago. The happy meeting is captured below - Alice was then at the age of 106 and obviously in fine form. Luiza's words bring both the personality and the occasion to movingly and vividly life. Thank you for your willingness to share, Luiza!








" 'You must meet Alice' said the newly met friends to me during an award ceremony, and the stories about her which followed were like nothing I have ever heard before. It was not just the facts they were reporting about and which were both gruesome because of the war atrocities and also enlightening because of her music; but the way those incredible stories were told, the expression and the emotion in their voices. It made me book a flight to London as soon as I could and as I finally reached London Hampstead I knew I was about to meet somebody very special. But whatever I thought it might be expecting me after ringing the doorbell was surpassed in a second by what followed after that. As I stepped very nervously into the corridor looking for Alice's door I suddenly heard a loud manly voice speaking german in a strange tone. At the end of the corridor the door was opened and it looked like the Number 6, the right one. The voice was clearer now, it sounded somehow narratory and it became obvious that it came from Alice's flat. 'Another guest' I thought. Then Alice came at the door, smiled at me like we knew each other already for a long time than she said: 'Stefan Zweig'!



She showed me in her flat and there we sat down, with her cassette-player turned quite loud in front of us, listening to a recording of the book 'The World of Yesterday' by Stefan Zweig, read onto tape by my friend who mentioned Alice to me for the first time. It was like I suddenly stepped into a dream or into another world. There I was seated next to the most famous pianist in the world listening to the deeply moving words of Stefan Zweig, only 1 minute after meeting her … 


It must have been for quite a long time, my nervousness was long gone, and so was my feeling of time and space. We listened to the entire tape, after which Alice said to me : 'Isn't he great? He is the greatest!' Then we talked for a while, Alice was pointing very often to the big painting on the wall of her son, Raphael, whom she loved and missed so much. The whole meeting was floating among words, glances, smiles and laughters light and wonderful like a dance of essences. I was a pianist who came to meet a pianist, still none of the words we exchanged referred directly to piano playing. Alice told me about her busy schedule. With her 106 years old she was attending the University classes every day. On Monday we have Literature, Tuesday History Wednesday Art and so on. Her eyes were sparkling with joy and enthusiasm, she was loving to learn, 'there is still so much to learn' she said. Alice is a fragile appearance but what a strength and wonder in her. So small in her height, she seemed to me like a huge fairy who was flying high above and I was one of her reign creatures trying to comprehend her greatness, beauty and love. As I left her warm presence I knew that I just had the greatest lesson on piano-playing, on music, on life."

Photo: courtesy of Luiza Borac

Friday, 4 October 2013

Interview: Pianist Sanja Stefanovic talks about her Mobile Balkan project

Evan: What is MOBA project?
Sanja: MOBA Project is MObile BAlkan Project. The Mobile Balkan Project is an initiative to bring together artists, individuals, academia, organisations, institutions and media from the Balkan countries to contribute towards a joint objective to present and promote the unique traditional ethnic heritage and cultural legacy of the Balkan people. The rich and original art and creativeness formed specific sounds and colours recognisable as traditional Balkan’s, though individually identifiable. Together they would make a blend of cultural extravaganza, spectacular performances, different and original in their character.

 

Evan: Why MOBA, and why now?
Sanja: To understand this, we need to take a look at the definition of MOBILE. Mobile by definition characterises and permits movement and progress from one social group to another. It responds quickly to impulses, emotions, mind and it makes easy to change expressions, mood and purpose. So, Mobile Balkan means that shared cultural events between the nations would be moving from one country to another across Europe, our common inherited territory, and to the wider world. In days like these on the Balkan, this fact is more then important. Through the mobility we will make an active cultural exchange that will bring the people together, not to divide them.

Evan: What are its aims?
Sanja: The background concept is that people generally, across Europe and from other countries and regions, do not know much about the specific and ancient historic scenery in which the Balkan people developed, experienced and shared their destinies.
This project aims to bring cultural heritage of the Balkans closer to other people of Europe but also to the Balkan’s cultural identity keepers, in their countries and elsewhere, so that understanding and vision of the Balkan would be promoted, positively changed and full of joint events presenting its distinctive European inheritance. It aims to be a platform for promotion of young people’s talents, established and well known artists, intellectuals and other personalities, whose contribution would be a valuable addition to better understanding of the cultural milieu of the Balkan nations.

Evan: For those that haven't encountered Balkan cultures before, how would you describe or define them?
Sanja: Balkan is a cradle of many different cultures, but they all have the same roots in ancient cultures such as Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman, the two biggest influences in this part of the world. The Roman Empire was the biggest Empire at the time, including different cultures from Orient and Occident, the both are playing the important role in Balkan cultures, especially in the music.


Evan: What are the distinctive features?
Sanja: The music is very rhythmic, improvisational and this is kept in the classical music too, which brings an enormous virtuosity to the music pieces. The poetry is very epic, written decasyllabic, and all about the victories in passed wars. The dance is like the music, very rhythmic which brings the virtuosity in performance.

Evan: Music features heavily -which composers/pieces are you featuring?
Sanja: There are many composers, most of whom need to be better known than they are, including

 Kornelije Stankovic (1831-1865)
 Robert Trollinger (1859 - 1911)
 Isidor Bajic (1878-1915)
 Stanislav Binicki (1872-1942)
 Petar Konjovic (1883-1970)
 Stevan Hristic (1885-1958)
 Miloje Milojevic (1884-1946)
 Grigorash Dinicu (1889-1945/6)
 Konstantin Babic (1927)   

All the composers are Serbian composers, only Dinicu is Romanian. But his composition "Sky Larc" on the  ethno theme is very popular in Serbia: the famous Serbian piper Bora Dugic became very famous by interpreting this
music piece. And Robert Trollinger was born in Prague, but he left for South Austrian - Hungarian ,after the Empire moved from Prague to Vienna, to find his place under the sky. He became "our Czech" as Serbian used to call him, and he became Serbian composer. The music is vocal, it is a Serbian "Lied", on the poems of great Serbian poets and some great poets from West Europe like Verlaine or Guérin or Végas. It is all about love, because most of these Arias are romantic arias.
 

Evan: What other arts does the project feature?
Sanja: Beside the music, we will feature photography this time, with the exhibition at Royal Geographical Society in London.

Evan: Who are you working with?
Sanja: With artists such as the tenor Darko Djordjevic, violinist Orpheus Papafilippou, pianist Rimantas Vingras and myself, of course! The photographer is Dragoljub Zamurovic.

Evan: When and where are the events taking place?
Sanja: The  first MOBA concert -BISER- is on October 25th, 2013, at 7.00pm at the University Women´s Club, 2 Audley Squere, W1K 1DB London www.universitywomensclub.com

The exhibition starts on October 28th, 2013 ends on November 2nd, 2013, open every day, also weekends, from 10.00am to 5.00pm

The second MOBA concert - BISER- is on December 6th, 2013, the event place will be soon announced. But here, we will have an improvisational moment in the music, because improvisation is the heart of the Balkan music.

Evan: How can people support project?
Sanja: You can come to the concerts and exhibition. It's important to say that MOBA Project is on Kickstarter. Kickstarter is a crowdfunding, where you don´t actually help or support, you back up the project, you get the reward and you are forever the part of the project.

Evan: Thank you, Sanja!

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Andrejs Osokins piano recital at Senate House, 15 May 2013


Andrejs Osokins is the latest rising star to give a free lunchtime recital in Chancellor’s Hall at Senate House, University of London.

His programme was of wide-ranging repertoire, and opened with a stylish account of Haydn’s sonata in E minor. The opening Presto was crisp, lyrical and possessed natural warmth of tone, which contrasted well with the soaring cantabile and vocalise he found within the theme of the middle movement Adagio. Throughout it was acutely shaded yet maintained a rather deliberate tempo. The closing Molto vivace combined precision along with an obvious delight in Haydn’s inventive and wit-infused writing.



Schumann’s Romance, op.28 no.2, possessed a richness of tone that was immediately attractive but allowed for nuanced playing within Andrejs’ ever thoughtful approach to the music. Particularly noteworthy was the contribution of his left hand, at first unassuming yet increasingly telling in the dramatic development of the piece, which ultimately scaled sown to leave a lingering and introspective sentiment in the work’s final bars.
Transcriptions can present a challenge to any pianist as the task at hand is both to be faithful to the original whilst exploring its reinterpretation in the imagination of another composer. Liszt’s vision of Schumann’s Widmung found Osokins able to traverse the more intimate world of Schumann and the exuberant excesses that Liszt loaded upon it through the vibrancy of his tonal palette. Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s ‘Liebestod’ from Tristan und Isolde necessitated a vivid imagination but impressed as much through its precise yet wholly Romantic evocation of the vocal line, which was integrated into the grand schema, itself built up with passion and feeling. In the end the performance did not quite reach the transcending heights of the “höchste Lust” that the wider forces of a full orchestra can achieve, but this does not adversely affect reflection on Andrejs’ accomplished realization which was enlivened still further, as throughout the whole programme, by judicious and timely pedaling.

The opening movement of Prokofiev’s seventh sonata fizzed to life under Andrejs’ keen fingers, with the music’s jocular edge preceding its more jaunty, even brutal face. References back to a Haydnesque classical sensibility met with a sense of unrest and seething disquiet that was portentous of the gathering storm that the movement eventually embodied, complete with ironic grumblings of a uniquely Prokofievian vein. The second movement was stately yet intentionally uneasy in its progress, with an imperiousness of tone found in the near obsessive repetition of notes, before returning with near nostalgia to earlier thematic material. The closing movement found Osokins able to bring out the quasi-demonic anger in Prokofiev’s writing in his relentless percussive attack of the keyboard, which proved all-consuming in its self-possession.

The next Senate House lunchtime concert features the Isis Trio, (Karim Said, piano; Charlotte Bonneton, violin; Jessie Ann Richardson, cello) playing Beethoven and Mendelssohn on Wednesday 19 June 2013, 1-2pm.

Photo credit: Philip Butler

Monday, 24 October 2011

Grace Francis at Hungarian Cultural Centre, 24 October 2011

After several months of not writing about music, attending this free hour-long recital at the Hungarian Cultural Centre in London provoked such strong reactions within me that I feel the need to record them, if only to try and work out exactly why I came away from it feeling as I do.


First, let's state things as they were: the rectangular first-floor salon of the Hungarian Cultural Centre in London is about ample enough a size for a piano recital, though with a couple of rows of seats removed it would have been rather more comfortable. The acoustic was dry and rather brittle. The piano, a John Broadwood baby grand, looked in more than decent condition, and having once owned a Broadwood dating from c. 1880 I know well the nuances of timbre that the instruments can produce and hoped for much on this occasion. Finally, the pianist, Grace Francis, possesses a decent track record if her biography is to be believed: Yehudi Menuhin School, winner of the Chappell Gold Medal at the Royal College of Music, competition prize winner, recitals at Wigmore Hall, South Bank Centre, etc., broadcast on BBC Radio 3,  and a CD of Liszt's piano music already released. 




The concert's programme was largely Liszt too: Sposalizio (from Années de Pèlerinage, Deuxième Année), Sonata in B Minor and Mephisto Waltz no 1. A selection of movements from Prokofiev's Visions Fugitives completed the programme.


The reading of Sposalizio foretold much of what was to follow: extreme emphasis of dynamics at the fortissimo end that was at times almost unbearable in the dry and rather boxy acoustic of the room, quieter passages often seemed an afterthought amongst the volleys of fireworks on display. The sonata showed that Grace Francis is capable of interesting shaded playing on occasions, though far too infrequently. Far more serious though was the lack of sense of form in her playing, the sonata seeming little more than a sequence of episodes strung together at will. To be fair, her efforts throughout the concert were significantly hampered by a major voicing issue in the instrument's treble register - whether this was the result of mis-tuning the instrument or over-exertion in rehearsal prior to the concert is a matter for conjecture. My guess would be mis-tuning though, and the Cultural Centre would do well to look at this, since the instrument itself is of a higher quality than commonly found in comparable venues. Alas, it was exactly into this register that the more delicate moments selected from Prokofiev's Visions Fugitives fell, much to their detriment.


As the first notes of Liszt's Mephisto Waltz no 1 sounded, I was not particularly looking forward to what could follow. But as it progressed, I reflected on the undoubted technical prowess and physical power that Grace Francis brought to the performance. Whilst the performance did not provide comfortable listening throughout, was she perhaps a victim of the instrument and the acoustic? To an extent, almost certainly. Her conception of Liszt required the sonority of a full concert grand and decent acoustic to properly accommodate it. A fortissimo played in the Royal Festival Hall is not the same as one played in a salon, so why play it as if it is? And still I wonder why some musicians actually seem unaware of the quality of tone they produce! Liszt and Prokofiev require of any pianist not just technical facility to produce the big stuff but delicacy, imagination and insight of interpretation to fully meet the challenges they throw down. Without that their music is cheapened. Grace Francis is undoubtedly on her way as a performer, but she still has some distance to travel.  On balance then, there were some hints of positivity as well as room for improvement all round. 


photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Yakov Kreizberg (1959-2011): an appreciation

Amongst my circle of friends it is typical that over dinner conversation should turn to matters musical. After a substantial debate around the merits of György Kurtág's music, I found myself faced with the question, “Which conductor do you wish you'd heard more often in concert?”
My immediate reply: “Yakov Kreizberg”.
My dinner companions nodded thoughtfully or looked perplexed, but my questioner refused to let it rest at that and pressed me for further elaboration.



I heard Yakov Kreizberg conduct on two occasions: Der Rosenkavalier at English National Opera and in concert at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw with the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra in Schumann's second symphony and Brahms' violin concerto. The soloist was his long-time collaborator Julia Fischer.

Der Rosenkavalier, I recall, was conducted rather at arm's length. I did not feel that Kreizberg was fully connected with the drama and passion that is – for me at least – so much part of the opera's fabric. The playing was perfectly correct, everything was in its appropriate place, yet whilst listening to it I remained unmoved.

My thoughts on the 2006 Schumann and Brahms concert were published at the time. Re-reading the review, I am conscious of the fact that my attention is more on Julia Fisher's solo contribution than Yakov Kreizberg's conducting in the concerto. Schumann, however, allowed Kreizberg to really grab my attention. Going back to the notes I made in the concert programme, I commented on the 'definite sense of purpose' and 'clear technique and astute ear for layering the orchestral sections […] building sonorities from the bass range upwards'. It is a shame that Kreizberg never made it into the recording studio with Schumann.

Afterwards, I headed to the Concertgebouw café to bide my time before heading back upstairs to hear Radu Lupu play Beethoven. Much to my surprise, Yakov Kreizberg took a seat opposite me shortly afterwards. Evidently still feeling the afterglow of Schumann's great passions – as was I – he sat and we conversed fulsomely whilst he consumed first a soup then chocolate cake at an alarming rate. The lasting impression was one of courtesy, utter professionalism of course, but that he treated my remarks with respect, even though it was momentarily obvious that our views differed regarding the dynamic impetus required for the first movement. (He laughed upon seeing my comment “too laboured ???”, thought a moment, and nodded slightly with a broad smile). It was easy for me to see that if he took this kind of approach with orchestras and soloists just why his colleagues have been so quick to offer fulsome praise in the wake of his untimely death following illness at the age of 51.

A varied legacy is left on CD and DVD, with several of the orchestras Kreizberg headed as chief conductor or music director represented. Early encounters on CD for Decca included two recordings of Berthold Goldschmidt's music, including the clarinet concerto. Not surprisingly his collaboration with Julia Fischer and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra features strongly on the Pentatone label. Practically every release – including of the Brahms solo and double concertos – received favourable reviews upon release. Their Mozart concertos and notable for their scale, cleanliness and unassuming style. Dvořák symphonies impress for their pliant sensitivity as much as his Shostakovich reflects the ability he had to bring out inevitability of form in the composer's writing. His only recording of a Bruckner symphony (no. 7 with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra) was deservedly a contender for the 2006 Grammy Best Orchestral Performance award. Kreizberg's most recent artistic relationship was with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo. They released in January this year a 3 CD set of the Stravinsky ballets on the orchestra’s own label, featuring the rising star mezzo-soprano Renata Pokupic. The latest recording with Julia Fischer is due out on Decca next month, featuring Suk, Respighi, Chausson and Vaughan Williams. One wonders what else might have been forthcoming in time from Monte-Carlo under Kreizberg's baton. Only his opera repertoire is significantly under-represented, with a Don Giovanni filmed at Glyndebourne.

Returning to Yakov's interpretation of Der Rosenkavalier once more I am tempted to think that actually he got it right. Richard Strauss' music can be played coolly and largely free of traditional Viennese excess, even when it is at its most overtly romantic. Surely a key defining characteristic in any musician of stature is their ability to persuade that another interpretation is not only technically possible, but that it also makes musical sense. For that reason alone Yakov Kreizberg surely still had much to offer orchestras, soloists and audiences, making his loss all the harder to bear.


Coincidentally, if I were to be asked the question again as to which conductor I want hear more of, I would go for Yakov's older brother, Semyon Bychkov.

Image credit: Marco Borggreve

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Ayckbourn's "Drowning on Dry Land", Jermyn Street Theatre

Ayckbourn first attacked the vacuity of celebrity in his significant 1988 play Man of the Moment, throughout which he held back few punches. By comparison the writing and structure of Drowning on Dry Land can seem just as many misses as direct hits, for all that though it contains its share of entertainment value which this production directed by Guy Retallack does its level best to exploit.



Charlie Conrad has it all – the wife, vast house, endorsement deals, TV appearances, children – as a result of his ability to be a failure at everything he tries, from middle-distance running to a contestant on the latest game show. He just freezes, but the public love him for it. Life is going swimmingly well until he is caught in a compromising position with a starstruck and sexually confident children's entertainer, Marsha Bates, aka Mr Chortles the clown. From that moment Conrad's world unravels before our very eyes. His manager tries damage limitation, but cannot avert the threat of legal action and an immediate suit for divorce. In losing everything of material concern, Conrad is left with his most valuable attribute: nothing.

Christopher Coghill's portrayal of Conrad is intentionally a blank, someone you would instantly forget – surely the opposite of a celebrity, or is it? Ayckbourn never really answers the question, along with a few others: is Marsha / Mr Chortles exploited or does she exploit to further her own ends; and, in the end, is celebrity something that we (the audience) can no longer live without, try as we might to play down our guilty pleasure? The Jermyn Street Theatre's intimate space is ideally suited to confronting these questions. Still trying to decide at what point a woman who wears male undergarments becomes a man in legal terms though...! The argument, along with the comedy bloomers, deserves to be inadmissible in court.

Helen Mortimer's Marsha plays well against Emma Swain's Linzi, Conrad's wife, just as Russell Bentley's portrayal of hotshot lawyer Simeon Diggs wins the argument hands down against his counterpart. Though each has at some point a comment to make on Charlie Conrad's situation, arguably none has more to say than his agent Jason Ratcliffe. In playing Ratcliffe, Les Dennis must surely have reflected long and hard on the fickle nature of the fame game, though mixing understatement in his portrayal with oily managerial charm.

Other critics in the regular press might have carped more about the real worth of the play, but on exiting the theatre my survey said that it proved a hit with the audience. The production runs until 19 March 2011.


Image credit: Ferdaus Shamim

FeMusa String Ensemble play Amirov and Zeynalli, 28 February 2011

The FeMusa String Ensemble gave an hour-long concert at Westminster Central Hall under the auspices of The European Azerbaijan Society to mark the nineteenth anniversary of the Khojaly massacre in Azerbaijan. Under the direction of their founder/leader Nazrin Rashidova, they played two works by Azerbaijani composers: the Nizami Symphony by Fikret Amirov (1922-1984) and Mugham Sayagi by Asaf Zeynalli (1909-1932).


Zeynalli's short piece encapsulated the essence of mugham, the complex Azeri musical form that weds classical poetry and improvisation through the utilisation of a modal system; a certain intensity of expression is often associated with the rising musical pitch of the music as well. Originally scored for violin and piano, the robust arrangement for string orchestra – largely playing in unison, all sections producing balanced and adequately rich tone – had a stately feeling at the adopted largo tempo. An appropriately sombre touch, in-keeping with the occasion, was lent by top and tailing the score with brief but atmospheric use of tubular bells. Across the ensuing texture Nazrin Rashidova spun a solo violin line that was contemplative, its melancholic poetic voice firmly to the fore. 

No less a composer than Shostakovich commented that “Amirov is a composer with a rich, melodic ability. The melody is the spirit of his creativity.” If the symphony, which dates from 1947 and celebrates the twelfth century poet Nizami Ganjavi, is anything to go by then his personal voice thrives on deliberate juxtapositions of material, both within and across its movements, though thankfully for a work of this period the impact of any realist aesthetic on his musical thinking is limited. The first movement opened with a unison burst in the upper register across the orchestra, cellos becoming inward-looking, violas more characterful in their expression, emphasising the searching thoughtfulness at work behind the notes. Only when playing at forte in high register did the music slightly lack finesse in execution. The second movement was outwardly more joyful in character, lengthy lines woven and wilfully contrasted with adroitly judged changes in tempo. The third movement appeared in the guise of a nocturne, its fulsome unison steadily built, against which Rashidova’s solo violin broke free in a passionate downward sweep before drawing the ensemble towards a neat pianissimo. The closing movement, Allegro con brio, tightly constructed from thematic material drawn from the previous movements, was played with obvious panache and assurity, giving the work as a whole much needed cohesion.

Three extracts from other works filled out the programme: the Larghetto from Elgar’s Serenade for Strings was played at an appropriately judged tempo with well upholstered tone. The Sentimental Sarabande from Britten’s Simple Symphony highlighted the brilliant assurance of his youthful writing through the clearly sustained instrumental parts, benefitting particularly from tender cello line held against the other pizzicato strings. Grieg’s The First Meeting effectively sustained its over-riding character of vocalise in the upper strings against a slow and sombre backdrop.