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Nicky Spence, opera, tenor, singer, vocal, voice, music, Royal Opera, Scottish

Nicky Spence: Opera is “About How People Correspond With One Another”

London audiences will finally get to see a new Jenůfa. Restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic halted the Claus Guth-directed production in March 2020, but the show, as they say, must go on, and indeed it will; the opera is set to open at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden on September 28th. The artistic team remains somewhat intact from its first iteration, with originals Asmik Grigorian in the lead (a role debut), and Karita Mattila as Kostelnička Buryjovka (reprising a role for which she has won much acclaim); new cast members include tenors Saimir Pirgu as Števa Buryja and Nicky Spence as Laca Klemeň; they’ll all be under the baton of conductor Henrik Nánási. That the Scottish-born Spence is making a role debut in an opera he knows well and has frequently appeared in in the past (as Števa) is a point not lost on the tenor, who was chatty and excited when we spoke recently, just between Jenůfa rehearsals and on the cusp of fresh ones for English National Opera (ENO)’s The Valkyrie, in which he’ll be making another role debut, as Siegmund, in Richard Jones’ new production of the Wagner Ring work, set to grace the stage of The Met in 2025.

There are many tales of many artists coming from small communities and making it big in the big opera centres of London, New York, Berlin, Vienna, Paris and Moscow. Those tales tend to follow a predictable path, and indeed Spence’s tale falls into this mould: all-night buses and anxious auditions and moving from hard-scrabble Dumfries youth to London music school, and onwards, of helping relatives and settling into a house with partner and dog when success did arrive. It’s the stuff of cliché, but sometimes the cliché is simply too correct to dismiss, and besides, the brand of success Spence is now enjoying was hard-won, because it wasn’t the sort that initially came knocking. In 2004, during his final year of school at Guildhall School of Music And Drama, Spence accepted a five-record contract with Universal Classics (Decca). He went on to make his first album with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, toured with Shirley Bassey and Katherine Jenkins, and was nominated for a Classical Brit Award (as Young British Classical Performer Of The Year). During this time Universal/Decca had promoted him as “The Scottish Tenor”; Spence was in his early 20s at the time. When it came time to record his second album, Spence declined; back to Guildhall he went, for more intensive study of his craft. In 2009 Spence won a place at the National Opera Studio, and a year later joined ENO, as one of their inaugural Harewood Artists, where he did an equal mix of so-called “classic” opera (David in Die Meistersinger, The Novice in Billy Budd, Steva in Jenůfa) and contemporary: Spence created the role of Brian in Two Boys, Nico Muhly’s 2011 opera about the tragic intertwining of technology and passion based on a true story, which was subsequently staged at The Met.

Spence clearly wants to be a star, but that drive is in no way at odds with his keen musicality and theatrical instincts. An awareness of timing, texture, and technique, both vocally and physically, is evident, but Spence is smart enough not to show the gears turning – not without very good (read: theatrical) reason. Experiencing him with so-called “darker” material (which encompasses much of his core repertoire) is not so much a shock as it is a clue into an artististry still unfolding. Spence is still young, not quite 40; he’s performed on the stages of the Royal Opera, the Met, La Monnaie, Opéra national de Paris, and Glyndebourne and has worked with a range of conductors, including Sir Mark Elder, Andris Nelsons, Philippe Jordan, Donald Runnicles, Carlo Rizzi, Alejo Perez, Alain Altinoglu,  Mark Wigglesworth, and composer/conductor Thomas Adès, to name a few. He returns to working with Martyn Brabbins on The Valkyrie at ENO later this year; it seemed clear from our conversation he was both daunted and thrilled by the chance to tackle Siegmund, a role that mixes dark and light, shade and nuance, in vocal writing as much as theatrical expression. So, to simply state that the tenor specializes in “darker” repertoire is to rather miss the mark, as much as for Spence as for the music; composers like Britten, Berg, Dvořák, Martinů, Zimmerman, Stravinsky, Schönberg, Wagner. Strauss, and (especially) Janáček hold an appeal for the socio-religious, spiritually chewy, stained and earthy (sometimes dirty, ugly) elements which exist as much in their scores as in the texts and characters within their works, seen and unseen. This doesn’t diminish the work of other composers like Mozart, Rossini, Berlioz, or Beethoven (whose works can be every bit as chewy – Spence has performed them also), much less the work of contemporary composers, which Spence has admitted he would like to perform more often.  Taste, talent, vocation, freedom, and the infusion of personal meaning and fulfillment are rare matches in the arts world; such an integration has implications for culture and its expression in the post-pandemic landscape (if we are even there yet). In Errata: An Examined Life (Yale University Press, 1997), George Steiner ponders this equation of rare and special matches, positing its greater relevance within ever-shifting perceptions of freedom, a notion to which many culture-lovers might find their own meaning, particularly as the opera world enters (and perhaps redefines) a new normal:

Any attempt at serious thought, be it mathematical, scientific, metaphysical or formal, in the widest creative-poetic vein, is a vocation. It comes to possess one like an unbidden, often unwelcome summons. Even the teacher, the expositor, the critic who lacks creative genius but who devotes his existence to the presentment and perpetuation of the real thing, is a being infected (krank an Gott). Pure thought, the analytic compulsion, the libido sciendi which drive consciousness and reflection towards abstraction, towards aloneness and heresy, are cancers of the spirit. They grow, they may devour the tissues of normalcy in their path. But cancers are non-negotiable. This is the point.

I have no leg to stand on if I try to apologize for the social cost of, say, grand opera in a context of slums and destitute hospitals. I can never prove that Archimedes was right to sacrifice his life to a problem in the geometry of conic sections. It happens to be blindingly obvious to me that study, theological-philosophic argument, classical music, poetry, art, all that is “difficult because it is excellent’” (Spinoza, patron saint of the possessed) are the excuse for life. I am convinced that one is infinitely privileged to be even a secondary attendant, commentator, instructor, or custodian in some reach of these high places. I cannot, I must not negotiate this passion. Such negotiation, of which “political correctness” is an infantile, deeply mendacious tactic, is the treason of the cleric. It is, as in the unreason of love, a lie.

There is no aspect of untruth to any of what Spence brings to his work. His 2019 recording of Janáček’s disturbing, highly theatrical song cycle The Diary Of Who One Disappeared (Hyperion; recorded with pianist Julius Drake, mezzo Václava Housková, and clarinetist Victoria Samek, and including other Moravian folk songs) demonstrates a range of both expressivity and flexibility, balanced by a highly intelligent technical approach that in no way robs the music (or its troubling text) of its power. As he told Presto Music‘s Katherine Cooper at the album’s release, “once you’ve mastered the few sounds which don’t exist in spoken English, the Czech language is ideal for the voice as it sits forward in the resonance and feels legato in nature, with so much potential for expression in the language. As a keen exponent of his music, I feel a duty to try and commit to the Czech language like a native.” That committed approach won Spence rightful acclaim; he was the recipient of the Solo Vocal Award, Gramophone Classical Music Awards 2020 (“He sings with sensitivity and intelligence, projects the words with consistent clarity and covers this wonderful cycle’s broad emotional range movingly and convincingly,” wrote music journalist Hugo Shirley) and the BBC Music Magazine Vocal Award 2020 (Spence “combines passionate declamation with moments of exquisite delicacy,” wrote Jan Smaczny). His experience with the music of Leoš Janáček (1854-1928), whether in recital, production, livestream, or recording, has been considerable through the years, with repertoire in Káťa Kabanová and From the House of the Dead (Z mrtvého domu) alongside Jenůfa and the Songs, but there’s more yet to come; in February 2022 Spence makes his debut at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin) as Gregor in Věc Makropulos (alongside soprano Marlis Petersen as Emilia Marty and Bo Skovhus as Jaroslav Prus) in a new production, again directed by Claus Guth, and conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. He’s also set to be Samson to Elīna Garanča’s Delilah at the Royal Opera House next spring, under the baton of Sir Antonio Pappano.

Complementing the hectic scheduling of an opera world that seems to be returning a semblance of normality (or new-post-corona normality) is Spence’s bubbly style. In his conversation with stage director Nina Brazier on her podcast, The Opera Pod, recently, he says, “I found this gift, I guess, it was like a superpower, really.” No longer The Scottish Tenor; now, perhaps, Super-Siegmund-Tenor, Spence’s past life filters into his present one: the pauses as much as the tones, the phrasing choices, the dynamic choices; the smell of hay, grass, and sea; the fumes of black cabs, the perennial buzzing of St. Martin’s Lane; everything informs Spence’s sound. Such authenticity makes his performances special, and memorable, events.

Nicky Spence, tenor, classical, singer, voice, vocal, sing, stage, performer, culture, Scottish, Royal Opera

Photo: Ryan Buchanan

How are Jenůfa rehearsals going?

Hugely well – we’re heating up here onstage; my knife is sharpened, my stick is whittled, and I’m ready to go for it!

What’s it been like to step into the machinery of a production that was already largely done?

It’s been exciting. They’re such a generous group of colleagues! Although I was a newbie I felt very much welcomed into the family. I’ve never seen a video of what it was like before, so I could really put my own stamp on things. I love Claus Guth – we’re working together a lot this season; his instinct is so beautiful as a director, he really explores the grey area, which is what Janáček’s work seems to be all about.

I spoke with (tenor) Allan Clayton when he was preparing this in 2020, and again when it was cancelled; he observed that Laca has “the chippiest of chips” on his shoulder. Your characterization will be different of course, but how did singing Števa prepare you for this, or did it?

I don’t think so, really – but it did offer me the ticket into Janáček’s world and this opera, so I feel the music in my bones. Laca is such a different character, and in a way it’s much more fulfilling; the character arc is much deeper from where it starts, with, as Allan said, him carrying the chippiest of chips. Laca has so many issues in terms of abandonment and not feeling loved and not really knowing where he fits into this hierarchy – he feels like he’s at the bottom – and slowly, as he develops more of a connection with Jenůfa, during this horrendous act of slashing her face, whether it’s accidental or not, they become a lot closer. And this imperfect perfection is something I find so moving, much more moving than any Hollywood ending, the fact that everything’s gone to shit and they still decide to give it a go.

They’re both outsiders.

Absolutely, they’re misfits and they’re stuck within this mill of abuse – a generational abuse and utter emotional incapacity.

… and the social milieu, of judgement, and fitting in, or not-fitting-in, are elements sewn straight into the quality of Janáček’s music. When you first got into singing, what attracted you to it? And what keeps you fascinated now?

I think it’s his honesty, and the truth of his writing – there’s such a sense of truth to it all. I’m not sure if it’s because he had this illicit relationship, which was unconsummated, with Kamilla Stösslová, who was so very much his junior, and they were both married to other people too – but it feels as if his operas are infused, as a soundscape, with what he couldn’t have in real life. He had so much of what he would’ve loved to have happened within the writing, but the music is not quite cathartic, and what is there, well, there isn’t ever any kind of relief in that catharsis; everything is a little bit crap in the end. There’s no real goodies or baddies throughout his work; everybody is very confused, and he explores that grey area of the human condition, which I find so interesting as an actor and artist.

His writing is dramatic, and also very dense – the text together with the musical language – how do you find your way in? Through all the recitals, operas, and song cycles, has your approach to his work changed through the years?

I really enjoy the contrasts (between those forms). I try to think of something like The Diary Of One Who Disappeared as a play set to music – so it’s not just difficult rhythms but lots of other things. For instance, there’s so much folk in that work, it’s something we hear in all his music. He was a fan of Moravian folk music and you can hear it in so many things – and I’m Scottish as well, so I guess we resonate through that folk idiom. Also I love the fact that vocally (his music) does have some challenges but those challenges are so totally married to the drama. You do your work in the studio, and hopefully by the time you are onstage you can enjoy the ride.

So how did doing something like Diary inform how you do things live onstage now? Or is it the other way around – does your opera work inform your approach to song cycles? Or are they all totally blank slates for you creatively?

The songs are just like mini-operas, really, you just have less time to set out your stall in terms of your journey and the drama, but certainly something like Diary is between something of an opera and a song cycle. I very much feel it’s an operatic display, I guess, it has all of the elements in there, just the structure is slightly more like the song, but that’s the way when it comes to Janáček’s writing: it’s so through-composed that it doesn’t feel very formulaic, at all. And that’s his genius, really. I adore these darker, murkier depths of his, qualities which are quite far away from my personality. It’s fun to get down and dirty…

What’s the attraction to that, to the “down and dirty”?

I guess not being myself… and I guess, I get to explore this kind of thing without messing other people up…

… so it’s a form of escapism that’s safe?

Yes, it’s playing with those things, and when, for instance, you’re with people like Karita (Mattila) and Asmik (Grigorian), it feels very primal in a way, which is exciting as an artist.

Part of that is the notion of connecting, too.

That’s true!

You said in an exchange with The Guardian in 2016 that the most important thing at a concert was that there be “any element of human connection.” I thought of that with relation to your online activities through the pandemic, and I am curious if that idea has changed because of the pandemic experience.

For myself, as for everybody, there was a natural reordering of things. When your time is entirely consumed with learning operas, your life is one way, and I was so pleased to learn through everything that there was more than a husk of a human being behind my singing. Some people lost a lot of their their work and thus their identity through this time, but I was really thrilled to not be doing so much singing – we got a clichéd Covid-dog, and, me and my partner were just about to get married, and we had to delay that, which was annoying, but I was thrilled to be able to have some creative moments and introspection. So going forwards now I want to encourage a better work-life balance. Yes, I led masterclasses, and even though I wanted to get back onstage and go back to work, doing that was such a great way of meeting people and of having a levolor. It was important to connect with people on a universal level, but also a human one.

Your classes really reveal how much you have that human touch.

Well it’s important to be real.

Yes, especially since there’s a lot of people who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk…

There’s a lot of old bullshit in opera, a lot of the time – and in the end it comes down to personal relations. It’s about people, and about how people correspond with one another. Especially when I’m talking to young people I encourage them to get back to their roots – it’s so easy to lose that connection amidst everything.

In terms of connection, you are going to be singing Siegmund at the ENO; it’s easy to lose the idea of connection amidst the epic nature of Wagner’s writing…

… yes it is…

… so what sorts of things do you keep in mind now as you enter the world of Wagner?

Well my mind is entirely open! Although they have quite a fantastical grand feeling – they are epic tales! – The Ring operas are still very human. I know Richard Jones, our director, says these characters have super-powers, they can do things, but he also says they are real people at the end of the day, and that (notion) gives me solace. So the production will be grounded in truth. (The music) is like a long bath which Wagner draws for you, and as a singer it feels that real. I love Wagner but I mean, with Janáček, these dramatic changes (in the music) happen quite quickly, while in Wagner, they don’t turn quickly – they turn like a truck! The music is like a truck turning a corner – and that’s really lovely musically, because as a singer you have more time to change gears, and vocally it feels like a nice thing for me, so… yes, I’m really excited for this production.

What new things are you learning about your voice through the experience of singing the music of Janáček and Wagner simultaneously then?

I’m always learning new things, gosh, every bloody day! I wish singing was a bit easier! You are always opening new fields, understanding the more you know and don’t know about signing, which is really humbling. And with this sort of singing, you are waking up with a new instrument every day – and with Wagner, because it’s quite low, I’ve been lucky to have that vocal release. It’s been nothing like the Janáček (to sing) – (Janáček’s vocal writing) is quite high, it’s where I am used to sitting, really. The writing is quite tightly wound and it sits high, so the character sits quite easily. But (with Wagner) I am finding the extra release in the lower range. I normally make quite a bit of noise… and I am aware Wagner normally demands a lot of noise, so yes, I am looking forward to making some noise in The Valkyrie.

That’s a noise you modulate through your recordings – you have a few coming out soon, yes?

Yes, I’m singing Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge with (pianist) Julius (Drake) – that’s out in February; there’s also my first Schubert, Die schöne Müllerin, with (pianist) Christopher Glynn, releasing the month after … and, La Clemenza di Tito with the orchestra of the Opéra de Rouen Normandie. We recorded that in lockdown. I did quite a lot of Mozart in my early career but I’ve not done any recently. It was fun to delve back into that music.

Luca Pisaroni once told me he finds Mozart is like a massage for the voice.

Yes it is, and there’s also nowhere to hide when you do it. You can’t make it up – it’s like a singing lesson. Whatever you think you can sing, and however you think you can do it, you pick up some Mozart or Bach and you go, “Oh hell, I need to learn how to do this all over again!”

So it’s a good balance to what you’re doing now?

It’s a perfect balance.

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Jan Lisiecki, music, piano, pianist, Dorn, culture, classical

Jan Lisiecki: “Live Art Is Live”

Jan Lisiecki has had a busy summer. Performances at a number of celebrated summer festivals, including Schleswig-Holstein Musik-Festival (SHMF), the Rheingau Musik Festival, Klavier Festival Ruhr, and Musikfest Kreuth left the pianist little time to prepare for his release of a long-planned project, Frederic Chopin: Complete Nocturnes (Deutsche Grammophon) but in speaking recently from his home base in Calgary, Lisiecki is chatty and energetic, a keen conversationalist who clearly revels in the reciprocal exchange of artistic ideas.

It’s an approach that colors his latest release, one which, as he explains, had been in his mind to do for many years. Hardly his first foray into playing or recording the much-loved music of the Polish composer (he’s released recordings in 2013 and 2017, respectively), his approach to the nocturnes conveys a delicate musical sensibility and a keen artistic maturity which belie Lisiecki’s own relative youth (he is not yet 30 years of age) and, even amidst pandemic, kept him in a creatively aware state which greatly aided in the realized recording. Lisiecki’s fame as a sort of wunderkind of the keyboard through the last decade-plus served to intensify such fastidiousness. At the age of 18, he became the youngest ever recipient of both the Leonard Bernstein Award (established by SHMF and named after one of the festival’s founders) and Gramophone‘s prestigious Young Artist Award (other recipients include countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński and soprano Natalya Romaniw). Having worked with a range of celebrated conductors (Claudio Abbado, Daniel Harding, Antonio Pappano, among many others) and orchestras (Staatskapelle Dresden, Bavarian Radio Symphony, London Symphony Orchestra, to name a few), his playing has been described as “pristine, lyrical and intelligent” by The New York Times. This month sees him playing Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 with Marin Alsop and DR Symfoni Orkestret in Denmark, before a series of dates in the U.S., both solo recitals and appearances with the Pittsburgh Symphony conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado. In November Lisiecki tours Europe, performing Schumann’s Piano Concerto with the London Philharmonic under its new Principal Conductor, Edward Gardner.

Amidst his busy live calendar (which, like many artists, extends years into the future) Lisiecki had long planned for a recording of Chopin’s nocturnes. Recorded in Berlin in October 2020 and released in August 2021, the work shows a distinctively thoughtful approach to the famous, widely beloved pieces. Chopin wrote the series of works between 1827 and 1846, expanding on a form developed by Irish composer John Field (1782-1837). Unlike other piano forms (sonatas, for instance), nocturnes do not  possess a sort of programmatic narrative or formal structure, but mainly utilize a ternary form (ABA) which emphasizes a main theme and its related contrasts and embellishments. With a song-like right hand melody and the use of rhythmic, broken chords in the left hand, Chopin, in writing his own set, also utilized pedal effects and counterpoint in his composition to underline sonic tension and drama. There are a number of scholarly papers and debates around the tempos and role of rubato in the nocturnes, and the influence of such choices in relation to interpretative fidelity and style. In her 1988 book Performance Practises in Classic Piano Music: Their Principles and Applications (Indiana University Press, 1988), Sandra P. Rosenblum writes that “choice of tempo is a fundamental yet elusive aspect of performance practice. Tempo affects virtually every other aspect of interpretation: dynamics, touch, articulation, pedalling, realization of ornaments” and also observes that a pianist’s choice of tempo will certainly affect “what the listener perceives, hence it bears directly on the effectiveness of the interpretation.” Lisiecki has notably chosen to take a much slower tempo in his recording than many of his famous forebears, an aspect which has been questioned by some since the album’s release. If I may inject a personal view here, Lisiecki’s choice of tempi allow, to my own (admittedly non-conservatory-attending/music-degree-holding) self, a very thoughtful and lovely listening experience, one that skillfully combines intellect and imagination in ways that highlight the rhythmic nature of the writing (for both hands, equally) and the thought-to-word-like manifestation of clear creative articulation; such willful (nay, conscious) turning of the gears well reflect the sort of late-night contemplations to which the nocturnes directly refer. Don’t we all muse thusly in the middle of the night? This may not a so-called “traditional” reading, but, it doesn’t have to be – not for whatever perceived musical validity is deemed important by the classical world, let alone for one’s personal enjoyment. As musicologist Richard Taruskin argues in Text and Act: Essays in Music and Performance (Oxford University Press, 1995), traditions “modify what they transmit” via what he terms as “active intervention of the critical faculty, but also by what we might call interference.” Such traditions, he writes ( and most particularly within “a musical culture as variegated as the Western fine art of music has become”) are open to what he views as “outside influence.” It is this act, of combining inner critical faculty with various forms of external influence, combined with understandings of tonality, structure, and dynamics, that lends Lisiecki’s interpretations such innate power. Taking this course with such well-known works only serves to underline the pianist’s powerful blend of intellectual and musical instincts, and only makes one more keen to hear how he might re-adjust them for a live and considerably larger setting.

Despite, or more accurately owing to, the realities of the current pandemic era, Lisiecki was provided the an atmosphere conducive to the personal. The combination of simplicity (a room with a piano), proximity (or lack thereof, in relation to engineers), and the natural light in which Lisiecki recorded at Meistersaal (in Berlin) last autumn was, as he noted recently, good for encouraging a sort of natural approach, one which is so easily perceived on this, his eighth release with Deutsche Grammophon.

Jan Lisiecki, music, piano, pianist, Deutsche Grammophon, culture, classical

Photo © Christoph Köstlin / Deutsche Grammophon

What struck me about your album is how you personalize everything, but without sitting and steeping in a so-called sentimental sound. Your tempo choices, for instance, are well considered.

Well, I might not agree in ten years about them, but at the moment I did them it felt right, because, to be honest with you, those tempos choices were completely natural in the sense that I had no knowledge of them being that much slower. I’ve played the nocturnes a lot, in concerts and otherwise, and I know how I feel about them, some in the studio just ended up being like that. Listening in the booth and going back and forth, it never felt unnatural. I’m happy with it; I think it’s a good reflection of how I connected with (Chopin’s) music.

You didn’t consciously say, “I want this one to be this specific tempo” or do any sort of preplanning then?

No, definitely there was no, ‘Everybody’s playing these too fast; I’ll be much slower!” – I was recording the material at the tempo in, I guess, the way it felt right.

To me it makes them seem almost like speech if that makes sense…

Yes!

… it very much has the sound of somebody musing in the middle of the night on something; as a writer I like that.

Aw thank you Cate, I appreciate it.

But you recorded this in Berlin, in a space with natural light, during the day; did that make a difference energetically?

Let’s say, first of all I’m an artist and musician who plays concerts in the evening but I like working in the day; I’m not an evening practiser. I finish my work day of practise by 2 or 3pm, if I can, so to me recording during the day is when I feel most comfortable. What I like about natural light is feeling I’m connected to the day and not in a studio, especially since it was late October. During the day, the mood in Berlin, if you know Europe during the winter, is grey and bleak, so it’s nice to have those few hours of sunlight inside and you don’t feel like you’re missing out, and also then you can find your own space within that environment. It’s a beautiful hall, a rectangular room with high ceilings, and it’s rather ornate, not excessively so, but has some ornate elements, and feels nice to be in, the piano in one corner, the microphone in another area; it felt very natural.

It seemed like an environment where you weren’t completely in a bubble, cut off from everything, but just separated enough to be with your thoughts.

Exactly, and I’d had enough experiences of concert halls with no audience during the pandemic; it was nice to have not have yet-another-empty-concert-hall, but a studio with a piano, it almost felt like you were in your own studio practising for yourself, or working just for yourself.

That’s how it sounds.

Yes, and another sort of relevant fact, in terms of the sound, is that the booth where the recording engineer was sitting is quite a distance away from the (room with the piano), it’s down two flights of stairs and then across a hall, so it takes a fair bit of time to get from the room to the booth, and as a result, first of all, you’re more focused on doing something, it was a complete thought whenever you did sit down, and second of all, you have that crazy walk back and forth to get you out and into the mood accordingly.

And nobody behind a pane of glass staring at you and evaluating.

Right.

Now, recording in a space in these times, there is something unique about doing these extremely well-known works, and in this particular pandemic environment; how much were you able to pull down the blinds, or did you not want to? Was the act of recording amidst a worldwide pandemic an essential part of the creative process, or did you block it out?

It was definitely part of my process,and that’s part of the reason that I was able to record during the pandemic. I’d been thinking or dreaming about recording the nocturnes for a long time; it was a long-term project, not something that just came up, it was something which was a very conscious thought for years, and so it involved years of preparation, and those years of preparation are connected to wanting to experience (the works) in a concert hall – they are very personal as you said, but you run the risk while playing them of going too far in that direction, of going too far into your comfort zone, which is not where it feels the best when you are onstage, when you feel you’re losing the audience’s attention, when you can feel their attention wandering away. I can hear when that happens.

So to play and program 21 nocturnes onstage took many many many years, it’s something that I was preparing for, and happened to reach a culmination point this past year, and at the beginning of the pandemic, in March, Deutsche Grammophon said, “Oh, you’ll have fewer concerts, so let’s record this in August!” and as it got closer, I saw that things were very uncertain and people were antsy still, and I was supposed to have a few concerts but they were much more stressful than usual because there were so many external layers involved. I didn’t know how they’d look and be, and I would not have been in the right frame of mind at all. And then from March to October I did have things to do, I had things beyond music I was enjoying, and had the opportunity to do – like work in the garden or go camping with my dad, or not do anything for a whole day, which was very nice – but I could also work on the nocturnes in a much more relaxed sphere of mind, it wasn’t forced like I had a fixed deadline to prepare for and get to a certain point with. I could prepare and think through each one of them. That time right before the recording, to be honest, I was quite busy, I had something like ten concerts with Manfred Honeck and I was playing the Shostakovich First Piano Concerto in Dresden, it wasn’t like, “Oh sigh, I’m at home!” but some of the (moments leading to recording) felt calm, everything was calm, and I had to make peace with the pandemic and with the uncertainty it brought. Because of that, I could simply focus on what I was doing.

Living day-by-day has always been my motto; I’ve always lived in the present, but the pandemic has really heightened that. I like looking forward, I like to think “Well, I’m playing this concerto two years down the road” and “In two weeks I have to prepare this piece” – but all that went out the window. So it was, “Okay, what am I doing right now? What can I enjoy right now?” In this case, what with recording, it allowed me to focus, and to enjoy the moment.

Jan Lisiecki, music, piano, pianist, Deutsche Grammophon, culture, classical, Chopin, nocturnes, coverThat’s palpable in the recording, and I hear something different every time. Listening to the left hand can really bring something alive that one thought one knew well.

If the music is only a sum of its parts, if you don’t pay a close enough attention, then you can risk the music becoming too comfortable, and being too happy with the gorgeous melodies; you just completely tune out everything else because it’s easy, it’s just, “Oh, the left hand, sure, whatever, put it away!” and the right hand, “Yes, let’s enjoy that, it’s so lovely!” But it doesn’t work musically. That (balance) has always been something important to me in playing Chopin. Of course there’s a principal theme and an idea and the harmonizing in the left hand, but sometimes the interplay between right and left creates completely new concepts and I do like finding those.

To me you can hear it in other things of his, or things written around the same time, but I find it takes the right interpretation to find those connections.

That’s right.

Obviously you know the other recordings; did any stick in your mind as you prepared?

I tend not to listen to other interpreters when I’m actively playing something unless it’s a concerto and I want to hear the orchestra, which of course includes a pianist, but in the case of the nocturnes I didn’t hear any interpretations for at least a year before recording them. Perhaps it wasn’t conscious – it was not a forced effort – but I just had no need to, because I’m living and experiencing these pieces on my own, and that’s a huge privilege. I know the audience listening to these works who come to the concert hall don’t have that same privilege for the most part, to simply play something for themselves, so they have a different appreciation of what it means to listen. When I’m listening to a recording, I find it very hard to get into the right mood to enjoy it as opposed to analyze it, so I tend not to, especially with regards to pieces which I’m actively playing.

Of course, that being said, I do respect other interpretations, and the ones that accompanied me through my childhood and longer, into my life, are those by (Anton) Rubinstein. He recorded all of the nocturnes, and there’s a sophistication about his playing; it’s always so elegant, so poised, it’s hard to find any fault with them… it’s just beautifully done.

Yes, I have that set! I wanted to ask you with relation to others and individual identity, some have said, “Oh it’s a Polish pianist playing Polish music!” I’m not sure if that kind of a reduction is good or bad for art, but I wonder what you make of such an assumed connection.

I think Poland, of course, likes to claim Chopin as their own, and they have a complete right to do that, but he lived most of his life beyond Poland, his composing and adult life, so undeniably that (experience of living abroad) did shape his writing, and likewise, while I was born in Canada, I do have Polish roots, and without a doubt they must also shape how I approach Chopin, although I never had a Polish teacher and I never really liked the so-called “Polish sound” in playing Chopin, which has a lot of rubato, it’s very rich, quite swingy, and not at all my taste. Now, this is a sort of stereotypical description, and there are exceptions – I love how Zimerman plays Chopin, for instance – and so that’s a rather unfair stereotype perhaps, but it’s an easy thing just as much to say or assume, “Oh you have special affinity for him then, being Polish yourself?” It’s hard for me to say, because I am who I am, and I don’t know how I’d be if I wasn’t – if I was born in Poland, or if I didn’t have those roots, but I appreciate his music as a person and an artist. I just like it , and I feel very comfortable playing his music. I can sit in front of a score I’ve never seen before and feel, “Ah yes!” – I have a vague understanding of what I want to do, and how I will play it, which cannot be said for every composer. I will get to a point, eventually, that isn’t that straight-forward, but (the inherent understanding) speaks to how he wrote for the piano; his musical language is very familiar to me, and he wrote so beautifully for the instrument. It doesn’t feel to me like I’m ever struggling to find a way to solve any problem (within the work).

Do you find you approach other musical things differently now, having had this time with Chopin and especially, this time with Chopin during a pandemic?

Again, sort of like the Polish question, I don’t know how it would’ve been if I didn’t record during this time, but I do feel everything has an impact and shapes the way one approaches music broadly. I think the sort of calmness that has pervaded, or became constant during the pandemic… for me, I will certainly take it with me into the future, though I can see and am hopeful of course it all turns out, and that life is getting back to normal in the some parts of the musical world. Some countries are getting back to normal, so the natural thing is to feel like, “Oh I’m going to get back to my old self now – at last!”… but it’s not quite like that. The pandemic has changed our values and understanding, in the same way it’s changed the approach to the nocturnes, and I’m glad I had that chance of recording them amidst all of this.

What’s it been like for you to go back to live performance then?

There have been many stages, because last summer I played one of the first concerts live, if not the first in Germany, in June 2020. So if you think of the situation in Canada then, like… wow, just nothing… and it was the same in some parts of Europe in many regards, except where they were starting to experiment, and those experiments kept going and going, and there was a palpable excitement with each one. And after each lockdown this excitement kept building in the performing arts world – I experienced it so many times, and everyone had different concepts of how long they’d be locked down, so even though I had been playing live a while, everybody was so excited, and asking me “How does it feel to be back?” And I’d say, “Well last week I was playing a live concert in Spain!”

I was always happy to play live, but the difference for me is, I’m not a fan, at all, of streams. I prefer not to play if I have to do a stream, for the most part. It doesn’t have any aspect of what I cherish in music. Live art is live, and it should stay with those who are there, those who have shared that experience and felt its power. Recording is high quality: you prepare, you put a lot of thought into it; you have the best environment; you have the studio, the piano, the technician, the sound engineer. But streaming is somewhere in-between these things; it’s not live for an audience, it’s not the same high-quality sound you expect – in fact, it’s usually poor-quality sound. It was interesting to see orchestras doing streams, and it was good to see that musicians were playing, that they had the chance to play – but just me playing solo, no way, no – I’m not doing that, at all.

So you need the feedback?

Yes. And you know, people say with these streams, “Well of course live art will die now” – no it won’t. Many people will be happy to go back to the concert hall the moment they can. But until then, to be honest, we have such a rich array of performances, both live recordings from pre-pandemic times and things recorded in a studio, and we haven’t had time to listen to those during normal our lives – why don’t we go back to those amazingly high-quality things and listen to them? Instead of choosing to watch something live, just because…? Others will disagree but I’m happy to argue with them.

There’s a tremendous drive on the part of marketing departments everywhere to get people of your generation interested in classical music through streaming…

… but that’s not the strength of our genre. The strength of our genre is in the concert hall. It’s about this extraordinary experience you will sometimes have… sometimes. I play hundreds of concerts a year and not every single one will be magical, either it’s me or the piano, it’s something in the hall, or the day, or the circumstances outside – whatever. You will have those extraordinary experiences a small percentage of the time, and everybody remembers them. Many who’ve never been to a hall happen to chance on those magical concerts and they’re suddenly a huge fan of classical because they had that experience of intimacy which provided a foray into the musical world of live performance.

And you think that epic and imitate combo only happens in a live environment?

Exactly, yes.

Jessica Duchen on Beethoven: “He’s Very Difficult To Capture”

Beethoven, classical, composer, music, German, portrait, Stieler

Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820.

Beethoven was one of the first composers whose works I was determined to play on the piano. His works were  butterflies I aimed to net, stare at, make my own, and release anew, knowing they were never wholly mine to keep. He asked all of me as a young player. When I felt I couldn’t give anymore, he kept asking, nay, barking, anyway, for more, ever more, to push past my perceptions of limitation. Some days I felt defeated, other days, prodded, needled, poked, as if this long-dead, stern-looking German man was wielding a little stick aimed straight at my pride, those two opening notes of his Third Symphony like sharp jabs at the ribs urging, “Weiter gehen!” (“Go further!”). It was a sentiment voiced loudly by my mother, who didn’t take kindly to sighing silences or creative keyboard noodling.

“Back to Beethoven,” she would say, as another moan of desperation rose from the Baldwin grand. “Back to your work.”

“I can’t do it!”

“You can so; work it out. Do it. You’re not finished.”

I sit at a different kind of keyboard now, still alternating between silence and silliness. The act of pushing against perceived limitations is a feature of any creative life, the act of “return” rendered a million different ways; such recognition, and the change borne from it, matters as much as the act itself. Get back to Beethoven; you’re not finished. And so I did return, investing in a Bärenreiter edition of Beethoven’s symphony scores last year, edited by Jonathan Del Mar. The music of Beethoven has been with me for so long (one of the first orchestral performances I remember attending was his Sixth Symphony), so owning them seemed like a logical step. However, the act of going through them initially kicked open doors to questions which heretofore hadn’t been so stark, so bug-eyed, so snitty and snotty and snide: what could I, sans music degree, sans formal Conservatory education, sans musicological knowledge or direct orchestra-playing experience, possibly have to say, write, or contribute? What was I hoping to prove?

Vienna, Beethoven, history, classical, music, museum, Pasqualtihaus, Austria

The plaque outside Pasqualatihaus in Vienna marking it as one of Beethoven’s residences. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Yes, I’ve been to the Pasqualatihaus, and yes, I know so many works by heart, as it turns out; they are not monoliths to me but shards of someone’s soul – questioning, conflicted, difficult, a flickering wall of stained glass, some of it cracked – but what do I know? What value does my voice have, if any? Whose validation am I seeking, and why? Was (Is) my mother’s energy making itself felt across the decades? Studying Beethoven’s symphonies has meant wrestling with demons; like sitting at the piano years ago, some days are better than others, and some days the voices are louder, or softer, depending on just how much I choose to dampen that pedal, open that door, stick to the task at hand. Consistency has been a good way to exercise curiosity, to push against the limitations I feel so often hampered by and judged over. Perhaps I should pay more attention to the softer voice at that cracked stained-glass window whispering that even without knowing the technical names for certain aspects, I can still intuit the larger things they hope to express – and there is value in that. The language may be lacking, but the components that both anchor and surpass that language (curiosity, commitment, compassion) are not.

Vienna, Beethoven, history, classical, music, museum, Pasqualtihaus, Austria

Pasqualatihaus. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Months of studying scores has also highlighted, however inadvertently, the extent to which Beethoven is largely misunderstood and misrepresented in popular culture. One’s perceptions of any artist will understandably alter throughout time, experience, maturation; I once thought of the composer as a true and admirable revolutionary (indeed a youthful projection), whereas I think of him lately as largely shaped and informed by a deeply religious  and conservative faith, an aspect composer James MacMillan explored in a chat for The Spectator. This specific spiritual side of the composer isn’t as widely explored as perhaps it ought to be, which is a pity; it goes against the rebel-image of course, but understanding the immense role of religion greatly expands one’s appreciation – of Fidelio, some symphonies, and various choral works like Missa Solemnis, to say nothing of the many subsequent works inspired by them, MacMillan’s oeuvre included. Again, the religious Beethoven doesn’t gel with (and perhaps isn’t as easy a sell as) the Frowning Rebel Genius, which is of course so tied to the trend of ‘cancelling’ him. The clichéd version of Beethoven which tends to live in the popular imagination is one based not on knowing scores or history, but on programmatic oversaturation tied to the realities of contemporary box office sales, a reality which so rarely (if sadly) actualizes any real responsibility to intelligently and challengingly link needed contextualization with performance and modern repertoire in any enlightening way. There’s something frightening to many contemporary programmers about intelligence, about asking audiences to read, learn, grow, to be surprised and yes, to be challenged and forced to contemplate, as if such activities are a collective form of elitism; rather interestingly, that is one thing not evident (at least to this student) in Beethoven’s actual output. What with Beethoven’s 250th birthday celebrations largely called off because of COVID in 2020, perhaps his 251st will be marked by brighter pathways to more adventurous programming tying context, music, and history more closely together in a spirit of creativity, curiosity, and pushing those limitations. One can hope.

Writer Jessica Duchen is very skilled at linking such things, and doing so in ways that beguile and delight. Her latest novel, Immortal (Unbound), uses the famous “Immortal Beloved” story involving Beethoven as a jump-off to more fully explore the man, his times, his loves, and his music. Released in late 2020, the novel treats aspects of the (highly romantic) story, the world it unfolded, and Beethoven himself, with utmost care and respect, and features illuminating details as well as a sharp ear for dialogue. Jessica is known  for her novels which blend music, history, character, and gripping narrative so seamlessly; her 2008 novel Hungarian Dances (Hodder & Stoughton) is one I find particularly affecting, wonderfully connecting the visceral experience of violin-playing across the ages with the search for identity, family, home, culture, contentment, love. Jessica is also a highly accomplished journalist and was classical music correspondent for The Independent from 2004 to 2016; her work has been published at The Observer, The Guardian, BBC Music Magazine, as well as The Sunday Times. In addition to five works of music-history fiction, she has authored biographies of composers Erich Wolfgang Korngold (Phaidon, 1996) and Gabriel Fauré (Phaidon, 2000). She has also worked with composer Roxanna Panufnik on libretti for choral works and operas, including Silver Birch, a work commissioned by Garsington Opera and, in 2018,  shortlisted for an International Opera Award. Garsington’s Youth Company also commissioned two Oscar Wilde-related works from Jessica: The Happy Princess in 2019, with composer Paul Fincham; and The Selfish Giant with John Barber; it has been postponed to 2021.

Jessica and I spoke late last month, about the pangs of editing, the joys of crowdfunding, the beauty of simplicity, and just what her beloved “Luigi” might think about our COVID era.

Beethoven, classical, bust, music, decor, composer

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

2020 was supposed to have been the Beethoven year.

It was!

It still was, wasn’t it? His work is so much about compassion, or its absence.

Exactly, and if we had to have a big composer anniversary I’m glad it was him; he gives so much in his music.

You reflect much of that intensity of feeling through your work. How did this particular book come about?

It felt different partly because I was writing in the first person, it’s something I’ve not managed to do successfully before; I’ve tried with other novels those are the ones sitting at the bottom of the cupboard with no hope of completion, this is the first time it’s worked, which has made a difference. As for the research, the wonderful thing is that so many have done so much research already – there is an awful lot to read! And you can find something about whatever aspect of his life and world you want to know about; you don’t need to sift through and decipher every handwritten letter, it’s all been done.

The “Immortal Beloved” story is fairly well-known in classical circles; how daunting was it to tackle as the subject of a whole novel?

It really is a case of, hold your nose and jump, and from a great height! It was about seven years or so ago I was asked to do a talk about Beethoven and women, and I didn’t know that much about it all then, and I started reading and researching, and thought, bloody hell, amazing stuff; it gets under your skin, and I can see how people get obsessed with these stories and with different theories. I started following some of the trails where some of this stuff came from, and why certain things have been pushed and others hampered, for one reason or another, and I discovered it’s not to do with the stories but the people who have been pushing them or otherwise, in many cases; the fact that the Beethoven-Haus Bonn is very much behind the Josephine scenario made me think they probably knew something, because if anyone knows, they do! It was a Canadian musicologist, Rita Steblin, whose work was the most useful; she’d written articles about this, getting other sides to the story. Tragically she died last year; I’d been trying to find and write to her, to get in touch and ask her some things, and I couldn’t find her anywhere, then I met the director of the Beethoven Haus in January in London, and he told me she had died a few months prior. I was horrified. Anyway she’s an absolute heroine, and she was Canadian. She wrote a ton of articles about Beethoven and Schubert and lived in Vienna.

Integrating research, without it being too granular, with storytelling, is must have entailed some tough creative choices.

Any historical novelist or biographer will tell you that you use about 10% of the actual work, the groundwork, that you’ve done, and the thing is to not get so bogged down in detail that you close the thread of the narrative. I had to cut a huge amount out of the book, and it’s more than 400 pages still – it would’ve been more than 500 without those cuts. Sometimes there will be an editor who will say, “Right, get rid of this” and other times you have to be absolutely ruthless, I had one chapter, a digression about the birth of romanticism and all sorts of literary and slightly tangential things that were going on that touched on Beethoven, and Tom (my husband) read it and said “That’s great, I love this!” – and my editor went, whoosh, out with the red pen, and I thought, “Oh nooooo!!” But I can see she had a point; it was bogging down the narrative. If you go on too long (in such tangents), you’ll lose people.

… as well as the momentum of the narrative.

Yes. I’ve had comments saying, “This is a long book but it has a pace of its own.” I tried to pick up the pace as it goes along, so you squelch yourself into that world with a lot of detail and character near the beginning, and then the plot starts, but if you think about it, most really serious books about Beethoven are over 1000 pages long, and there is reason for that: he needs that much. He’s very difficult to capture.

Studying the scores underlined, for me, the role of changeability in Beethoven’s creative endeavors and life overall; what did you find as you wrote this?

Absolutely – to me the heart of Beethoven is his passion for variation, and in a way, he’s always writing variations – nothing stays the same, everything is in motion, every time a theme comes back, it’s a little bit different. Yet there is this motif which is very attached and some people think that has something to do Josephine – it may or may not be the case – but his motifs are not exactly the same. They are always a little bit different when they come back.

I’m curious what you make of the Beethoven you encountered in your research and writing, and the criticism of his work and seeming dominance of the classical music canon. 

The first thing that really comes to mind is that I am all for performing a wider range of repertoire; I think it’s absolutely essential that we diversify the music being played and recognized. We have to hear more women composers, particularly because there is still this attitude that they somehow aren’t as good – we have to hear more music by them, and composers of color; I’d much rather go to a concert of music that I don’t know than music that I do know, because it’s more interesting. When you’ve been going to concerts as long as I have and sometimes reviewing them too, you get really tired of some of the stuff out there, especially the big Late Romantic symphonies. You think, “Come on, something else now!”

On the other hand, I don’t see why hearing more music by other composers means we have to kick out, wholesale, the great figures of the past. I mean, there is this attitude in some quarters of, “Clara Schumann is great and Robert Schumann is crap” – no he wasn’t, he was incredible, but they are two different artists doing two different things, who are important for two different reasons. Both need recognition, and I don’t see what’s the matter with that.

I think Beethoven would whole-heartily support contemporary composers being programmed alongside with his work, and he very much understood the pressures of market forces and money woes.

Oh, I think he was quite canny.

I think he had to be…

This is very true.

Might we , when we come out of COVID, have a more contextualized Beethoven? Or do you see a move toward entrenchment of The Hits?

I really don’t know. I have very little sense of how things will unravel or ravel-up again, and I don’t know how long this whole thing is going to take to pass, I don’t know what will happen politically. In the UK we crashed out of the EU, and the entire music scene will be badly affected; the realities of many simply haven’t been taken into account. I really have no idea; we have fantastic musical life, and we have people who are throwing it out the window, so when things get thrown out the window it tends to be the case you get an entrenchment of the surefire sellers because people are anxious and they’re desperate, and they are scared of taking risks – that’s when there’s a pulling back of the boundaries rather than a pushing out of them. So … I don’t know. I think Beethoven’s been picked on because it was his anniversary so he was the highest-profile composer around, thus he’s an easy target.

I recently watched an old performance of the Leonore overture, and I wondered if such criticisms aren’t as much related to pedestrian performance practises as to decontextualized programming… 

I had to listen to a recent CD recording of Beethoven 5, related to something I was involved in weeks ago, and I could not bear this one particular recording; I thought it was brutal. Honestly, I found it unlistenable. And I was quite shocked, because there are many others who think it’s wonderful.

Do you think there’s value in having that intense a reaction and that extent of divergent thought, though? I wonder if that’s the point.

It could be, but it’s a pity it’s necessary. Here’s where we come back to the need to diversify repertoire: if we heard Beethoven 5 slightly less often there would be no need for people to tear it to pieces and trample it underfoot to make a point. I don’t think trampling Beethoven 5 underfoot has anything to do with what it’s about.

That goes back to programming. We haven’t been able to attend many things and a lot has been forcibly reprogrammed as a result; what stage were you at with the book?

I was in the middle of editing when COVID struck, in March 2020.

Did that experience change your process?

I don’t think it changed it but it made it more meaningful. It was my way of escape. It means when it was locked down it was fine, I don’t have to phone people up and say, “Sorry, I can’t make it; I have to work” – I could just… work. There were a few bits where I accentuated and honed in on certain things and did them slightly differently, for instance there’s a  bit where Therese is going to stay in Vienna to hear Fidelio although Napoleon’s army is marching in; she’s pig-headed and she is not leaving town until she’s heard Fidelio! There are some descriptions of the atmosphere around Vienna at that time, about how she felt in the face of this tremendous change, when everyone else is leaving town and the place is empty and she’s on her own and doesn’t know what’s going on. There were bits like that that got in at a late stage because of what happened through 2020.

The crowdsourcing for this novel seems like a smart way to go about a creative project; do you think it points the way to a future for creative output, especially for writers? Doing it in normal times is one thing but doing it now is quite another.

It’s tricky to say. It’s the third book I’ve done with Unbound, the other two that I did first were finished before I took it to them; Ghost Variations (2016) was with them, for instance. I’d hit a rocky patch because after the financial crash in 2008, a lot of authors, if they weren’t Dan Brown or Salman Rushdie, found themselves turfed on their tails; there were a lot of us writing pretty good books but we were in the middle ranks, and we got kicked out (of publishers). I’d been taking around Ghost Variations and I was very fed up with the sort of responses I was getting to it; I knew it was a good story and I knew it was topical. Eventually I found Unbound – I filled in a form on their website and they came back and said, “We’d like to have this as one of the founding books on our list” and that was my first go on crowdsourcing; I got the money together in 12 days. I surprised everyone! I love the people, the design, the editorial standards, everything is really good; Unbound is a traditional publisher but it crowdfunds.

The Beethoven book was a little bit different, as I hadn’t written it yet, and I knew I would have to do it damn fast to get it out in time for the Beethoven anniversary. I had a drink with the guy who was my editor at the time and said, “I’ve got this amazing story, I really want to write it” and he said, “Well if you can do it by about this time next year then we can probably.” He told me what they needed, and I thought it was just about doable; I’d done all the research, I just hadn’t sat down and put anything together, I hadn’t really had the guts to take the plunge on writing a book. I thought I could do with some talks and didn’t see myself doing a whole novel, but I thought, “It’s the anniversary year and I’m going to kick myself if I don’t do this, it’s now or never” so I jumped. The crowdfunding was quick, it all came together in three months – quite fast. For something else it might take a few years.

book, novel, Beethoven, history, music, fiction, Unbound, Jessica Duchen, immortal beloved, classical So how much do you see crowdfunding being a model for creative endeavours in 2021 and beyond then?

I know quite a number of really interesting music projects being funded this way, so I think in a way it’s books who are the ones late to the party; musicians have been doing this for a while! I think it’s a little bit difficult – that’s probably an understatement because of the pandemic situation. There’s an awful lot of people who have no work and their finances are very stretched; people are extremely worried and won’t know if they’ll get their work back, and there are others who get government support or don’t get government support, here it’s a very capricious system and it doesn’t make an awful lot of sense.

On the other hand, there are a lot of people who have full-time jobs, they are professional people who’ve been furloughed and are still getting paid and they have nothing to spend money on; they can’t go abroad, they can’t go on holiday, they can’t go to the theatre or concerts, there’s no point going shopping since we’re all living in our jogging pants and are getting far fewer haircuts. That means people will have some cash sitting around and might have time to support books and music… so if you can target the right market, there might be something to be had through crowdfunding I don’t think of crowdfunding as ideal, and I don’t think it would become the way to do things – but it’s an alternative, and it’s quite fun. You are building a whole community around your project as you are creating it, which is something I really enjoy.

Building community is very tied to the equalizing effect of the internet; some roll their eyes at the digital world but others (like me) wouldn’t have a career without it, and the related efforts of building and engaging a virtual community… 

Absolutely – and it is real work.

… although as you mentioned, it’s difficult to know what to say about online performances because they are not visceral…

It’s not the same as being there. It can’t be.

… and I am not sure of the value of doing fancy filming of performances for online broadcasts. I like the Wigmore Hall concerts because they’re simple; I can focus on the sound itself.

They are elegant and so simple, the way those are done! I suppose it’s easy to do in the Wigmore though.

Beethoven, classical, bust, music, decor, composer

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

There’s something to be said for simplicity in 2020 going into 2021! What do you think he would make of our current times?

That’s a very good question, because if you think about the world he lived in, the life expectancy was something like 45, and he did well to get to 56. Loss and death were a huge part of everyday life for people in the 19th century in a way they are not today, when everything tends to be very sanitized, so (hygienic practise) would be something he would be surprised to see. Also he had the Napoleonic Wars to deal with; that was a really eye-opening side of the research I did, because for some reason, my history studies at school and university in music courses, did not touch on Napoleon at all – somehow we studied Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven (at Cambridge) but not what was going on at the time. And millions of people died because of Napoleon.

And that’s such an important thing to know when approaching Beethoven’s work…

It really is! Quite honestly, if I think about it, Beethoven in our times would say, “Get over yourselves! Do the sensible thing! Wear a mask! Do the hands-face-space thing, and be glad you have these hygienic and technical things to keep you alive and connected – you’ve got so many advantages!” And he’d say “Come on, make the most of what you can; you’ve got all of this stuff now that I didn’t have… pull yourselves together! Get on with it and be productive!” That’s what I think he’d say, but I could be wrong.

Personal Essay: Watching, Listening, Writing – Alone & Together

Bayerische Staatsoper corona virus Igor Levit classical music performance series empty hall

Pianist Igor Levit performs on March 16, 2020 as part of the Bayerische Staatoper’s weekly Monday broadcast series. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

The damage the corona virus has wrought in the cultural world is beyond imagining. There is no way to classify or quantify the losses, ones that will be felt for decades, maybe even centuries, to come. Galleries, museums, studios, open spaces, cinemas, opera houses and concert halls are shuttered, with long-planned, eagerly anticipated events and seasons cancelled; one agency has shut down so far. The harsh peals of the force majeure clause contained in many contracts echo through every vast, empty space where people should be. The global pandemic has  laid bare the extreme fragility of arts organizations and those who depend on them.

Along with extensive virtual tours, online streaming has, over roughly the past two weeks, become a way of keeping the cultural flames alive. The charming nature of many of the broadcasts affords a peek into the home life of artists, places which are, in normal times, rarely seen by many of the artists themselves. The livestreams also provide a reassuring familiarity, a reminder that the tired, anxious faces are exact mirrors of your own tired, anxious self. Artists: they’re just like us. In better times it is sometimes easy (too easy) to be fooled by the loud cheers, the five-star reviews, the breathless worship, even when we think we may know better. What’s left when there’s no audience? These videos are providing answers and some degree of comfort. It’s heartening to see Sir Antonio Pappano sitting at his very own piano, his eyes tender, his voice and halting words reflecting the shock and sadness of the times. Moments like these are so real, so human, and so needed. They are a panacea to the soul. The arts, for anyone who needs to hear it, is for everyone, anyone, for all times but especially for these times. Pappano’s genuine warmth offers a soft and reassuring embrace against harsh uncertainty.

Equally as buoying have been the multiple together-yet-apart performances by numerous orchestras, including Bamberger Symphoniker’s recent presentation of a section of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. There are so many examples of this type of fellowship which have sprung up, and they are all worth watching. One of my personal favourites is a solo performance from violist Marco Misciagna, who is currently volunteering with the military corps of the Italian Red Cross (CRI). Misciagna performs outside the Southern Mobilization Centre, mask firmly in place, leaning into tonalities and, one can almost hear, breathing in and through his instrument’s strings. As an opinion piece in The Guardian noted, “When people look back on the pandemic of 2020, they will remember many things. One of them ought to be the speed with which human beings, their freedom to associate constrained, turned towards music in what may almost be described as a global prisoners’ chorus.”

Some may also perceive the recent flurry of online activity as savvy marketing, and there’s little wrong with that; they — we (if I can say that) — need every bit of arm-waving possible. Performing for a captive audience in need of inspiration, hope, distraction, diversion, and entertainment fulfill a deep-seated need for community. Choosing where and how to direct our attention, as audience members, is no easy thing (although, to be frank, my own efforts to filter out the hard-posing ingenue/influencer types have become increasingly more concentrated). To be faced with such a sweet and succulent buffet whilst facing the sometimes sour and glum realities of ever-worsening news is no small thing. Shall it be a weekly livestream from Bayerische Staatsoper or one of Waldemar Januszczak’s wonderful art documentaries? Perhaps a modern opera work from the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre, or a Jessica Duchen reading her great novel Ghost Variations? Maybe a dip into the Berlin Philharmonic’s vast online archive or piano sounds with Boris Giltburg and then Igor Levit? Perhaps it’s time to mop the floor and clean out the humidifiers? Maybe time to tackle that terribly overdue filing? Shall I check Twitter yet again for the latest? Dare I dip into Facebook? is it time to update both groups of students? What words of comfort and encouragement should I choose as their teacher/mentor? Is it time to check in with my many lovely senior contacts – maybe a phone call? When the hell am I going to finish (/start) that immense novel that’s been sitting on the table acting as a defacto placemat?! Cultural options (physical media collection included) have to compete with less-than-glamorous ones, but, orchestrated  in careful harmony, work to keep one’s mental, emotional, and spiritual selves humming along, and offer a reminder that the myth of individualized isolation is just that – a myth.

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Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in a program of music by Bartók and Berio on March 12, 2020. The Philharmonie Berlin is closed until April 19th but the orchestra is offering free access to online archives at its Digital Concert Hall. Photo © Stephan Rabold

Professional duties remind us of the fallacy of isolation, underscoring them with various technological notifications in bleep-bloop polyphony. Obligation can’t (and doesn’t) stop amidst pandemic, especially for those in the freelance world. Writers, like all artists working in and around the arts ecosystem, are finding themselves grappling with a sickly mixture of restlessness and terror as the fang-lined jaws of financial ruin grow ever-wider. Since January I’ve been part of a mentoring program run through the Canadian Opera Company (COC) and Opera Canada magazine. This scheme, a partnership with a variety of Toronto-based arts organizations, allows emerging arts writers currently enrolled in journalism school the opportunity to see and review opera. Along with opera, students also write about productions at the National Ballet of Canada, concerts at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, presentations at Soulpepper Theatre Company. Some indeed come with theatre and dance backgrounds (or equivalencies in written coverage), a great help when covering the sprawling, integrative art form that is opera. For many, this isn’t merely a first outing in writing about the art form; it’s their very first opera experience, period. Next up (we hope) are the COC’s spring productions of Die fliegende Holländer and Aida. Lately I’ve been crossing fingers and toes at their arts (and arts writing) passion continuing; each writer I have mentored thus far has possessed very individual talents and voices. I am praying they, and their colleagues, are using at least some of these stressful days to exercise cultural curiosity and gain as much richness of exposure as the online world now affords. It’s not purely practical; surely on some level it is also medicinal. 

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Soprano Hanna-Elisabeth Müller and baritoneMichael Nagy rehearse ahead of their March 23, 2020 performance at Bayerische Staatsoper as part of the house’s weekly Monday broadcast series. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

What happens to those voices now, of writers new and old? What happens to their potential readers, to audiences, to new fans, to old fans? Will they (we) get an opportunity to be part of the ecosystem? Will there even be one left to write about? Similar anxieties have surfaced for my radio documentary students. Tell your own stories! I constantly advise, This is a writing class with sound elements! When today’s first online class drew to a close, it seemed clear no one wanted to leave; there was something so reassuring about being able to see (most) everyone’s faces, hear their voices, share stories, anxieties, fears. I have to agree with historian Mary Beard’s assessment in The Times today, that “I am all in favour of exploiting online resources in teaching, but no one is going to tell me that face-to-face teaching has no advantage over the remote version. Lecturing and teaching is made special by real-time interaction.Sharing stories is more crucial than ever, whether through words, music, or body, or a skillful combination of them all. As director Kiril Serebrennikov (who knows a thing or two about isolation) wisely advises, keep a diary. I started doing just that recently, reasoning that writing (like sound and movement) is elemental to my human makeup ; whether or not anyone reads it doesn’t matter. Exercises in narcissism seem pointless and energetically wasteful, now more than ever. The act of writing – drawing, painting, cooking, baking (all things I do, more than ever) –  allow an experience, however tangential, of community, that thing we all need and crave so much right now. We’re all in the same boat, as Pappano’s expression so poignantly expressed.  It’s something many artists and organizations understand well; community is foundational to their being. 

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Photo: mine. Please do not use without permission.

The ever-changing waves of my own freelance life are largely made up of the elements of writing and sound, with community and isolation being their alternating sun and moon. Quarantine means facing the uncomfortable aspects of ourselves: our choices, our behaviours, our treatment of others, our home lives, our approach to our art, and how we have been fitting (or not) these multiple worlds together. Noting the particularly inspiring German response around support for freelancers has made my continentally-divided self all the more conscious of divisions within perceptions of the value and role of culture, but it’s also forced some overdue considerations of just where a writer working so plainly between worlds might fit. Maybe it is naive and arrogant to be questioning these things at such a time in history, and publicly at that – yet many artists seem to be doing similar, if social media is anything to go on. There seems to be a veritable waterfall of honesty lately, with rivulets shaded around questions of sustainability, feasibility, identity, and authenticity,  just where and how and why these things can and might (or cannot, now) spiral and spin around in viscous unity. I shrink from the title of “journalist” (I don’t consider myself one, at least not in the strictest sense), but whence the alternatives? One can’t live in the world of negative space, of “I am not”s (there is no sense trying to pitch a flag in a black hole), nor derive any sense of comfort in such non-labelled ideas, much as current conditions seem to demand as much. (The “I will not go out; I will not socialize” needs to be replaced with, “I will stay in; I will be content,” methinks.) Now there is only the promise of stability through habits new and old, and on this one must attempt nourishment. The desire to learn is ever-expanding, like warm dough in a dimly-lit oven, eventually inching beyond the tidy rim of the bowl, into a whole new space of experience, familiar and yet not.

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Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Where is the place, I wonder, as fists pound and knuckles grind and the dough that will eventually be loaves of oatmeal molasses bread squeaks and sighs, where is the place for writers in this vast arts ecosystem that is now being so violently clearcut? What will be left? The immediate heat of the oven feels oddly reassuring as I ask myself such things, a warmth that brushes eyelashes and brings to mind the wall of strings in the fourth movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. We are all being forced into a new structure,  and we cannot ask why. There is only the experience of the present, something the best art has, and will always embrace, express, and ask of us. As Buddhist nun and author Pema Chödrön writes:

All of us derive security and comfort from the imaginary world of memories and fantasies and plans. We really don’t want to stay with the nakedness of our present experience. It goes against the grain to stay present. There are the times when only gentleness and a sense of humor can give us the strength to settle down.

The pith instruction is, Stay. . . stay. . . just stay.

What is there now but the present? I think of the many artists so affected at this time, and I thank them all; their authenticity, courage, and commitment to their craft are more needed and appreciate than can be fathomed. There is a place for them; it is here, it is now, and it is our community, a grand joining of sound and soul and presence. Let’s tune in, together.

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