Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Breakthrough: First female conductor wins titled post in a BBC orchestra

Xian Zhang. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega
Here's a gentle crack in the glass overhead: Xian Zhang has been named principal guest conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. This is the first time ever that a conductor who happens to be female has been given a titled post with one of the BBC's five orchestras. Note the date: December 2015.

Zhang, 42, has also recently been appointed music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and has served as music director of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi since 2009. Her debut performance in her new BBCNOW post will be on 27 September 2016.

She is interviewed by Tom Service in The Guardian today.

I talked to her last year for Classical Music Magazine's 'Meet the Maestro' series. Here are a few choice quotes:
Zhang, 40, has been at the helm of the [Milan] orchestra – which is known at home as simply La Verdi – for five years, the first woman ever appointed music director of an Italian symphony orchestra. She says that has witnessed a sea-change in attitudes. “In the beginning it was like no-man’s land – or no-woman’s land!” she laughs. “People here had never seen a woman conductor before. Of course I arrived without realising that. It was probably better that way, because otherwise I would have been way too intimidated.”...
....As for what she wryly terms “the woman conductor question”, Zhang suggests: “It’s a matter of time. I think the public is in general very open, but orchestras and people who work in this environment have to be perhaps less self-protective – this is stopping more progress from happening earlier. They don’t necessarily have to be positive about it, but at least to be neutral and see if people are gifted before considering if they are a woman or a man.” In Milan, though, she has spotted a surprise advantage. “A quintessential point in Italian culture is that people greatly respect a mother figure,” she says. “Maybe that helped me to be accepted as conductor of an orchestra. It makes sense! When I first arrived I was seven months pregnant with my first son, so that was how people saw me for the first time. At my first concert after my second son was born, some of the audience gave me presents for the baby. I was so touched.”
Read the whole interview here...

Monday, November 30, 2015

Dear JDCMB readers, please get to know this piece

This is the Geistervariationen - literally, 'Ghost Variations' - by Robert Schumann, written at the end of his compositional life just before his incarceration in the asylum at Endenich. Please familiarise yourselves with it. If you read JDCMB regularly, you're going to be hearing a lot more about it in 2016.

The heavenly performance above is by Grigory Sokolov.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sibelian surprises

So, review from Friday night continued: Susanna Mälkki conducted Sibelius 1 in the second half (after Beatrice Rana's glorious playing in the Prokofiev Second Piano Concerto in the first).

Susanna Mälkki. Photo: Simon Fowler
About halfway through I opened my programme to check something. I was wondering if it might be a different version of this symphony - an early draft, or perhaps an unknown revision? - because I was hearing things that I'd simply never noticed before. But no, it was Sibelius 1 through and through; it's just that Mälkki (who is herself Finnish, was principal cello in the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra for several years, and studied conducting with Jorma Panula) took an approach that was light years away from the heavy-duty baked sponge pudding that we so often chew through in this work. All manner of detail became audible; the tempi didn't hang about, because they don't need to; and the pacing of the energy worked a small miracle in the finale.

Sibelius's First Symphony is often, very often, compared to Tchaikovsky - and certainly there are similarities. But Tchaikovsky, well performed, can pay tribute to that composer's passion for Mozart; and here, too, one became aware of the music's classical-era roots: the taut organisation of the four movements, the light-footedness of the lightning bolts near the start, or the timpani-led scherzo. I can't remember how many times I've heard the slow(ish) movement played as a dirge dragging its way through snowy darkness as if it's got frostbite, or the said scherzo thundering along like a herd of elephants. Not necessary; and not so for Mälkki.

The rhythms danced through that scherzo, the energy let the music fly rather than sticking its soles to the ice, and in general the up-tempo approach kept everyone on their toes - while some details that in other hands are blurred emerged sparklingly clear with spot-on ensemble from the good ol' LPO. The finale's big tune is so often milked for every last shred of intensity from its first appearance; instead, it came out warm, strong and dignified, but didn't let rip until the music had built convincingly up to its ultimate appearance third time around, when Mälkki let it go straight for the jugular. This made absolute sense, as well as a superb shape.

But above all, one could hear the layers of texture that make the symphony shimmer from within: the throbbing cross-rhythms at the bottom of the orchestra, destabilising anything that might even consider becoming four-square; the florid harp details lending unexpected glimmers in different cross-rhythms against that Big Tune.

This wasn't a Deeply Tragic View of Life or a Violently Romantic Vision Plunging Into Permafrost Gloom. This was a thrilling first step into the symphonic world by a composer who was going to break extraordinary new ground and was already well on his way. Brava, Mälkki: it was like hearing the piece for the first time.

She has recently been appointed principal conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic and starts there in the 16/17 season. They're on to a very, very good thing. Meanwhile, here's hoping she comes back soon.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and you can hear it on the iPlayer for another 28 days, here.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Beatrice Rana: A Star is Born

Meet the 23-year-old pianist from Puglia who is sweeping to stardom. She's on the latest cover of PIANIST magazine (my interview with her is inside) and last night she took the RFH by storm in her concerto debut there, playing Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No.2 - one of the darkest and most emotionally daunting in the repertoire.

Beatrice met its challenges with seemingly effortless virtuosity. She caught an ideal mix of intense expression and mercurial modernism, rising cool-headed to the challenges of the giant cadenzas and the perpetuum mobile scherzo. Fine rhythm, grace, elegance and huge reserves of fire all had their place in this performance, which brought the house down and sparked a vivacious Bach encore (the Gigue from the B flat major Partita).

I was amazed, talking to her for the interview, that she was so young. She's mature beyond her years, ferociously intelligent and mentally well organised. She went to a high school in her native Lecce, Puglia, that specialised in science. Question: if you weren't a pianist, what would you be? Answer: Space Woman! I'd love to be an astronaut or an astrophysicist. Her parents are both pianists, her sister a cellist and her grandparents makers of that fabulous strong south Italian red wine that she remarks is "not for aperetif!" And she says her dog tends to leave the room if she's not playing well.

Last year she entered the Van Cliburn Competition because she wanted to see if she could "upgrade" her career. She duly downloaded silver medal and the audiences' hearts and now she has recorded the Prokofiev, along with Tchaikovsky 1, with Tony Pappano conducting, for Warner Classics. It's a stunner. After last night, I can only urge you to go and catch her if she comes to a hall near you.

Last night's concert was conducted by Susanna Mälkki, of whom more later on...

Thursday, November 26, 2015

How do you get to Symphony Hall?

Practise, practise, practise, of course. But in the meantime, just follow the cello... You'll find it on the CBSO's Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/TheCBSO/?fref=nf
If you're heading to our concerts soon, you might want to know there's now a different route from the train stations to Symphony Hall. We made a little video to lead the way - follow the cello! Find out more at cbso.co.uk/symphonyhall
Posted by City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on Thursday, 26 November 2015