Sunday, April 20, 2014

Bechstein bunnies, dressing for Easterjet and Scriabanoffiev Pie

In an increasingly off-the-wall Easter, we have here a fantastic greeting from Bechstein Pianos:



Meanwhile stunning soprano Sarah Gabriel - who was our premiere production Vicky in my Wagner play Sins of the Fathers - found her concert dress falling foul of Easyjet's carry-on baggage regulations the other day and in the resulting carry on, worthy of the eponymous films, she came up with a fine sartorial solution, which made it into the national papers.


Don't miss Sarah at the Purcell Room on 29 April, when she will be singing KORNGOLD - a special new arrangement of the Shakespeare Songs, by conductor Ben Palmer, who wields the baton of the Orchestra of St Paul's for the occasion. Booking here.

And finally, here is a recipe for something very Easteryjet dreamed up for our piano soloist the other night, who as his recording approaches says he is going a bit Scriabinanas: 

SCRIABANOFFIEV PIE:

Biscuit base: 
100g butter (unsalted)
300g digestive biscuits (gluten-free if necessary)

Caramel:
175g butter
85g white sugar and 85g brown sugar (but if you really love Scriabin, use only darkest brown sugar for a truly demonic twist) 
A tin of condensed milk

4 bananas
Carton of double cream, whipped
High cocoa-solids plain chocolate to shave over the top (pref 80+%)
A shot of plain Russian vodka

Mix together melted 100g butter and the crushed biscuits in a saucepan and press into 19cm loose-bottomed cake base. Chill in the fridge. Make caramel by stirring butter & sugar together in saucepan over low heat until dissolved, then add the condensed milk and mix until boiling and golden (or very dark golden if using the all-brown sugar version). Pour over the biscuit base, spread evenly & chill. When set, chop the bananas and arrange on the top. Mix the vodka into the whipped cream and spread across the bananas. Sprinkle liberally with shavings of black chocolate. Serve with a show of coloured light and prepare for either a poem of ecstasy or a vision fugitive from your guests. 

Disclaimer: JDCMB cannot be held responsible if this pie turns out to be a complete disaster. Just make sure you don't burn the sugar and keep your paws well clear of the mixture while it's hot.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A great playwright's daughter speaks

The Silver Tassie, Sean O'Casey's great anti-war drama of 1928, is about to open at the National Theatre and I was delighted to have the chance to talk to the playwright's daughter, Shivaun O'Casey, about life with her father. The piece is in the Observations section of today's Independent, and here is the director's cut, so to speak. (I don't often do theatre features, but adore it.)


Dear mother, this helpless thing is still your son. Harry Heegan, me, who, on the football field, could crash a twelve-stone flyer off his feet.

Sean O’Casey’s anti-war drama The Silver Tassie, which is about to open in a new production by Howard Davies at the National Theatre, represents the great Irish playwright at the height of his iconoclastic powers. Showing the devastating impact of World War I on an Irish footballer and his friends, it features a surreal battleground scene, as shocking today as it must have been when in 1928 O’Casey first unleashed the text upon the unsuspecting WB Yeats, a director of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre.

Although he had defended O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, which shot to riot-sparking notoriety there, Yeats rejected the new play out of hand. O’Casey, he declared, should not write about the trenches because he had not experienced them; and he objected to his sundering of conventional dramatic unities. O’Casey’s riposte? “Aristotle is all balls.”

O’Casey can easily sound like a fighter and a firebrand; and his socialist standpoint was distinctly at odds with establishmentarian mainstream theatre. His daughter, Shivaun, herself a theatre director before her retirement, nevertheless casts a different perspective on his nature.

“He hated fighting,” she declares, “but he couldn’t let things lie when he saw injustices. He had to say what he really thought. In fact he was the kindest person I have ever known.” His socialism sprang more from compassion than from communist convictions, she adds: “He was never a member of the party – he couldn’t ever be a member of anything, because he couldn’t toe any line. He was a free thinker. I think a lot of people don’t quite understand that.”

Born in Dublin in 1880, O’Casey started to write plays in his forties while working as a manual labourer. Shivaun relates that he occupied a small room in an overcrowded house on Dublin’s North Circular Road where, on returning from work, he would write by candlelight far into the night.

Coming to London to accept the Hawthornden Prize for Literature for Juno and the Paycock, O’Casey discovered a more congenial atmosphere than Dublin provided – he later remarked that “in Ireland they wore the fig-leaves on their mouths”. Here he met and married the actress Eileen Carey Reynolds in 1928. Shivaun, the youngest of their three children, feels that her father’s lessons in warmth, caring and honesty have never left her: “He would quote Polonius’s speech from Hamlet, ‘To thine own self be true,’” she remembers.

The family settled in Devon, yet Ireland stayed strongly in O’Casey’s consciousness. “It was inside him and he brought it with him,” Shivaun suggests. “He continued to create Irish characters all his life.” One such character in the play Red Roses for Me, she says, was based on a local from Totnes market who asked him repeatedly whether the banks were safe. (Totnes was their chosen home after George Bernard Shaw advised that Shivaun's two elder brothers should attend the progressive school at nearby Dartington: "That's the only school for the O'Casey children," he declared, according to Shivaun.)

Despite his prolific output, O’Casey made little money from his writing. “He wasn’t what you might term a popular playwright,” says Shivaun. “Yeats’s dismissal of The Silver Tassie didn’t help him, and neither did his politics. He was always fighting for equality, so he wasn’t an easy writer to put on if you wanted to be safe.”

There is certainly nothing safe about The Silver Tassie. Today, Shivaun adds, its message is as relevant as ever: “It’s a stark reminder of what war really is, and of its terrible waste of young life.”


The Silver Tassie, Lyttleton Theatre, currently previewing, opens 23 April. Box office: 020 742 3000

Friday, April 18, 2014

"Mache dich..."

Pick an occasion - any occasion - in the history of music at which you'd have liked to be present... Today I'll choose the Bach St Matthew Passion as conducted in 1829 by the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn. The performance was organised by the young composer and his actor friend Eduard Devrient and the work enjoyed probably its first outing since the death of Bach himself, some 80 years earlier.

Apparently they only used about half of it, and Mendelssohn made plenty of changes to the harmonies, orchestration and vocal lines - but it still had the required effect. Goethe, hearing of the occasion, sensed its significance, saying: "It's as if I heard the roaring of the sea from afar."

Mendelssohn's aunt, a friend of CPE Bach's wife, a pupil of WF Bach and hostess of one of Berlin's finest artistic salons, had a number of Bach's manuscripts in her possession, including the St Matthew Passion. She presented it to her gifted nephew when he was 16 and consequently changed the course of history. Imagine a new world hearing it - even half of it - for the first time. "To think that it took an actor and a Jew's son to revive the greatest Christian music for the world!" Mendelssohn remarked.

Mendelssohn, born into a Jewish family, raised as a Lutheran after his parents' conversion, and a practising Christian for the rest of his life, saw no need for a conflict between his background and his faith. He achieved a unique point of balance that allowed him to embrace both - despite the widespread atmosphere of low-level anti-Semitism around him (I'm sorry to see that even Clara Schumann made snide remarks behind his back). In the bicentenary year, 2009, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies once remarked that he regarded Mendelssohn as "the prophet of light". I'm with him on that.

As for Bach, he takes us into another world. The St Matthew Passion makes us live the story and its processes as if from the inside. It offers music that cleanses the soul; even if you approach it as drama rather than religion, it doesn't seem to mind and will still work its wonders. It offers, too, an oasis of calm, reflection and redemption, along with a massive dramatic catharsis that might be felt especially keenly by anyone who has lived through the loss of a loved one. When my mother died, 20 years ago, I could listen to nothing else for months.

Here is the last aria of the St Matthew Passion, "Mache dich mien Herze rein". It's a marvel in its own right, heard alone; but at the end of the whole it arrives as a purifying sunrise after three hours (or so) of anguish, soul-searching and tragedy. It's sung here by the great baritone Thomas Quasthoff. Have a good Easter, all.






Thursday, April 17, 2014

How to hold a house concert

Want to hold a musical soirée? Here is everything you need to know, in one easy blogpost.


Your pianist pal wants to try out some repertoire and has been eyeing your Bechstein hopefully. Sure, come over and play it through, you say. We'll invite some friends and have a few drinks and it'll be lovely...

Check how many you can seat. Be realistic. A piano can be loud in a smallish room; you don't want people actually sitting underneath it. See how many chairs fit in at a safe distance, and consider the ratio of sofa width to guests' average behinds. Don't forget to ask your performer if s/he wants to bring anyone. Chances are, if it's midweek, you'll end up with an audience of mingled neighbours and arty types or similar - which works well, provided (achtung!) that they are on speaking terms with one another.

People need to eat, so plan your menu and take everyone's dietary requirements into account (veggie, GF, etc...). Recommended: easy protein - cold meats/cheeses/smoked fish - plus non-dairy dips, bread/crackers/rice cakes, prepared salad, crisps, nuts & raisins. You will need soft drinks, plus wine of at least two colours. Balance your green credentials and decide whether to use disposable paper plates, or crockery that needs washing, but isn't wasteful of trees. And make sure there's something to feed your pianist upon arrival; the sooner you offer him/her that cup of tea, the better.

Check whether your piano needs tuning. (The answer in 99% of cases will be 'yes'.) Make sure you book the tuner at least three weeks in advance, preferably longer, because these guys seem to be really busy these days. If it proves impossible to get your piano tuned, but it sounds OK-ish, then you may get away with it, but do dust it so that it at least looks decent. Clean behind and under it, too, especially if you don't very often and you have a cat...you never quite know what's going to turn up...

On the day, do your shopping early so that the supermarket hasn't run out of the necessaries. Fix what time your pianist wants to arrive, because s/he will need at least an hour to get used to your piano and then might want to rest/refuel before the audience arrives. Set up the room earlyish, too; you don't want to be clonking about, carting chairs, when pianist is practising the trickiest bit.

In an average-sized living room, it is probably best if you don't put the piano lid fully up, unless everybody has brought ear protectors. Many modern grand pianos have a selection of stick lengths for the lid; a fine pianist playing colourful repertoire will be best served by a fuller sound than if the lid is kept resolutely down, but it can be most sensible to choose the shortest.

Arrange your buffet on the table before people arrive so that you're not unwrapping smelly cheeses while you welcome them, but don't forget to cat-proof everything with copious quantities of cling-film. If your spouse has scarpered at the idea of this event, or is busy elsewhere, so you're organising the whole thing alone, encourage people to help themselves to drinks, especially if they all pitch up at once.

Try not to start much later than the time your performer has requested, because he/she may get nervous if things are protracted, and the whole point is to put him/her at ease. Remember to give pianist a five-or-ten-minute warning before you're ready to start. Once everyone is settling with a drink, encourage them into the piano room.

You might wish to confine pets to another room while the concert takes place. Sensible animals keep their distance from live music, but some importunate ones march in and demand very vocally that all this noise must cease forthwith, and with immediate effect. No prizes for guessing who I'm thinking of.

Interval, or not? Be guided by your musician: if s/he wants a short break in the middle, agree. You don't know what his/her innards do. One pianist I know used to compare concert-giving to colonic irrigation.

If someone is late, you can do one of several things. You could leave the door on the latch and encourage latecomers (by text) to sneak in during an appropriate break. If you don't want to do that, then tell them to text you when they arrive, keep your phone open but SILENT and make sure you take a chair near the door so you can slide out and let them in.

After your pianist has finished, make a fuss of him/her. A house concert may be in a house, but it is still a concert and any musician worth his/her salt will feel obliged to deliver the full goods, whether it's for 800, 80 or 8 people. Frankly, the least you can do is give him/her an Easter bunny.

Next, zip out to the kitchen and take the cling film off the buffet dishes, keeping the cat clear. Furnish people with drinks and plates and encourage them to tuck in. If there's anything left over when everyone goes home, offer your pianist a doggy bag. If everyone is having a good time, it's a great feeling because you and your musician have given them a lovely evening to remember. But make sure they don't miss the last train.

Finally, wash up. By now it's gone midnight and you're probably wishing you'd used the paper plates after all.

The next day, try to have a lie-in. Then thank your musician (though best not to ring too early). It may be hard work hosting a house-concert, but it's not half as hard as doing the playing.

Last, but by no means least: huge thanks to our own pianist pal Anthony Hewitt and our old friend Alexander Ivanovich Scriabin for a stunning evening of magical preludes yesterday!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Day of the Trifonov

I spent a fascinating hour yesterday afternoon interviewing Daniil Trifonov - it's a cover feature for PIANIST magazine and will be out in a few months' time. Backstage at the Barbican before his concert with the LSO, I had, in close up, the same impression that occurred when listening to him at the Southbank a little over a year ago: there's something in this 23-year-old Russian that seems lit from within. He talks about (among other things) total focus, composing - he is about to premiere his own half-hour piano concerto in Cleveland - and cause and effect, quasi-storytelling, in music. Watch this space for an alert to the feature as soon as it's out.

But all this, nonetheless, still wasn't half as astonishing as what he told us through Chopin's Second Piano Concerto in the concert. He makes it imperative that you listen to every note: each becomes as essential a part of the whole as every word is in, for instance, a Chekhov play. When phrases are repeated - e.g., that wonderful bouncy mazurka-like episode in the last movement - he never plays them the same way twice. The spiderweb delicacy of the second movement arabesques stopped the heart with their beauty, but there's power aplenty when he needs it - one senses no limits to this range - and his tone is an Aladdin's cave of glowing, kaleidoscopic colour. He sounds like nobody else; yet leaves you wondering why not everyone else plays like this. At the end the lady next to me turned round and remarked, "Maybe there really is a God."

He'll give his first Royal Festival Hall recital on 30 September and the programme will feature Bach - exactly which Bach he hasn't yet decided - followed by Beethoven's Sonata Op.111 and the small matter of the 12 Liszt Transcendental Etudes in the second half. Book here. 

In the meantime, here is a fascinating interview with him that pitched up on Youtube - it's from Zsolt Bognár's series Living the Classical Life. Stand by for...why it's a good idea to practise underwater.