Build it!

mccaldinarts_sem05Today we held our new seminar, Building Your Online Presence designed to offer practical help and advice to anyone wanting to be more in control of their information on the web.

I firmly believe that a website is no longer optional if we want to be taken seriously as music professionals, whether teachers or performers. A website is critical as a source of up-to-the-minute information about us when so much online data remains in perpetuity to be discovered by search engines even if it is long out of date. As an extension to this, social media platforms provide us with easy ways to integrate our communications and reach a range of different audiences. In this way we can support marketing activities carried out by organisations we work with and generate an independent following for other kinds of self-generated and collaborative projects.

It’s now pretty straightforward to create and maintain a high-quality site using no-cost tools available online. As we showed this afternoon, the site-building technology has been transformed in the last few years (perhaps in response to ‘intuitive’ software developed as apps for smartphones) and is really accessible to anyone with a couple of hours to devote to it.

Happy attendees all went home smiling – and with a website. Job done.

TS Eliot and Vivienne in 2015

On the eve of this new year I have paused to consider that 2015 is the 100th anniversary year of TS Eliot’s marriage to his first wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood – and the 50th anniversary of the poet’s death.

Vivienne’s life and relationship with Eliot were the subject of my successful staged cycle of songs in 2013, called Vivienne. I was subsequently invited to perform the cycle of Stephen McNeff’s settings of Andy Rashleigh’s lyrics at the 9th TS Eliot Society Festival in Little Gidding. (McNeff and Rashleigh already have form working on TS Eliot, having written a musical version of The Wasteland for the Donmar in 1994.)

I intend to give a performance of the piece around the time of the anniversary of Tom and Vivienne’s wedding on 26 June 2015. Plans are also well advanced for a recording of the cycle with pianist Libby Burgess, in a programme I have chosen around related themes. More news on this in the next few weeks.

The BBC is to mark the anniversary of TS Eliot’s death on 4th January with a programme of readings and music on Radio 3 from 5.30pm. Eliot is among the three most quoted poets in the English language and I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing other peoples’ artistic responses to his work throughout 2015.

A London plaque for Joseph Haydn

plaqueFINALThis autumn I have been fronting the campaign to put up a plaque in London to the composer Joseph Haydn. Despite his enormous contribution to London’s musical life and two long visits to the city at the end of the eighteenth century, there is no permanent memorial to him here.

As there is no original building that can support a plaque (and thus qualify for English Heritage consideration), a small team from the Haydn Society of Great Britain has worked to obtain the required permissions relating to the building that now stands at 18 Great Pulteney St. This is the site where Haydn lived when he first arrived in London in January 1791, as recorded in a letter he wrote to Maria Anna von Genzinger.

We have exceeded our crowdfunding target for the costs of the plaque’s manufacture and installation and, in the process of fundraising, we have also opened a wonderful dialogue with Haydn fans across the world. We have talked to people from as far afield as the USA and Japan about their favourite works by Haydn and why they feel he is still not as popular as his contemporaries Mozart and Beethoven. This highly unscientific survey will be summarised next year in an article for the Haydn Society.

The exact date of the plaque unveiling has yet to be confirmed. The hope is that the plaque will be in place in Spring 2015 and London will finally have its first memorial to a composer who was such an important part of its cultural heritage.

For more information about the campaign and research into the plaque’s position, go to The Haydn Society of Great Britain and Kickstarter.

Haydn better than paracetamol – it’s official!

imagesThis week Radio 3’s breakfast show quoted a recent poll of 1,000 people, in which nearly 90% of respondents agreed that listening to music can make them “feel perkier when they are sick or faced with hard times”. Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody was the winner in the original poll, which makes a certain amount of sense. However Radio 3 listeners called in with their own classical suggestions and I was delighted to find that Haydn is cited by many as their favourite musical ‘pick-me-up’.

It’s hardly surprising, considering the energy of so many of his symphonies and string quartets, as well as the sheer joyfulness of his music. But, in the week that the Haydn Society of Great Britain launches a fundraising campaign to put up a plaque to Haydn in London, it’s reassuring to be reminded that his music is still cherished by music-lovers across the country.

It’s something of a surprise that there isn’t already a plaque, given the extent of Haydn’s celebrity when he was here in the 1790s and the quality of the music specifically written for the London audience. Charles Burney, the great critic of the day, recorded the excitement surrounding composer’s first public appearance:

“Haydn himself presided at the piano-forte; and the sight of that renowned composer so electrified the audience, as to excite an attention and a pleasure superior to any that had ever been caused by instrumental music in England.”

How can such a man not deserve to be commemorated?

Haydn Plaque gif

If you want to get involved with the Haydn Society’s plaque campaign or donate online, click here

More information about the campaign is available on the Haydn Society’s website.

Can you feel the force?

A friend was telling me about a performance she had recently attended at Shakespeare’s Globe. She was a guest of one of the actors. It was mid-week during a very busy time and, while she wanted to be there, she was also half-wishing for a quiet evening at home. The play was Titus Andronicus – pretty uncompromising stuff, particularly in Lucy Bailey’s production. By the interval, she had realised that she needed to find a way of engaging with the performance, or simply go home. She decided to stay.

16 watch audience reactions web readyShe met her actor friend in the bar afterwards. He told her that immediately he had entered the stage he had spotted her leaning wearily on her husband and had directed his entire performance specifically in her direction. She was astonished to realise that not only was she identifiable at such a distance but that his assertion – “if I could get you [onside], I would also have got everyone else in the theatre” – had been borne out by her own experience and the crowd’s reaction at the end.

My friend understands about live performance. She is aware that performers can sense the energy of the audience but had no idea of what that meant in practice. She was surprised, too, to discover the extent to which a performer might sometimes be in a position to affect it in such a specific way.

A Concert.This is arguably more difficult to do mid-opera than mid-play. I’ve often looked at the backstage monitor at the Royal Opera to see who is sitting in the stalls directly behind the conductor. It’s generally very keen people, pleasingly electrified by their proximity to the action. Occasionally there is someone who drank too much wine with dinner and who is having a snooze, unaware that he (usually) is visible to the entire stage. It’s quite funny, and no doubt he would be mortified to realise he was being so closely observed. But consider what it does to the energy of the show if every time anyone onstage looks in the direction of the conductor, they see that person who has lost the will to stay awake. If someone is unconscious there’s not a lot that any of us can do, but in the case of my friend watching Titus, energy directed towards her arguably influenced her choice to stay to the end. Who hasn’t arrived at a show feeling wrung out, only to be caught up in the performance and leave feeling revived, wondering what happened?

This energy is, of course, hard to see but its ebb and flow is the powerful stuff of live performance, for good or ill. A mobile phone going off can kill a performer’s and audience’s concentration, and crash the energy of a carefully crafted scene. An actor forgetting his lines creates anxiety for everyone, but a brilliant ad lib or ‘rescue’ can generate excitement that has us all leaning in to see what’s coming next.

A last-minute cover thrown into an established cast can be like an energetic hand-grenade if there hasn’t been much rehearsal. This happens more frequently in opera than in theatre, particularly if a production has been revived regularly – it’s a case of taking whomever is available among the singers who have done the show in the past. The in-the-moment negotiations that take place under the nose of the audience may not be directly visible, but the sense of something going on adds a frisson that even live recordings can’t capture.

I recently heard a doom-laden prediction that in a couple of decades’ time, actors on film could all be digital and there may be no need for the real thing. Let’s hope that the invigorating magic of live performance remains more difficult to conjure electronically.

Do Androids dream of electric pianos?

In what is threatening to become a series on the subject, I have felt moved to write some more about the work of the classical accompanist. Specifically, about playing an electric piano, which I am sure is a pleasure many pianists have endured at some point, but which I guess most would prefer to avoid.

Few classical singers would choose to be accompanied by synthetic sound, any more than a classical pianist would choose to play an electric piano (untuned pub upright notwithstanding). However, if a venue doesn’t have a piano of its own and is unable to afford hire costs, an electric piano is often the only alternative. It can allow us to take a performance to audiences in new or unusual venues, which is surely a good thing. The instruments are improving in quality and touch, but if the piano usually spends its life in a school hall, the chances are it isn’t from the upper end of the quality scale. It’s often impossible to double-guess this in advance, so it’s a case of turning up and doing battle with whatever is there.

5265543390_b83d8c5570_zWhat does it mean for a professional pianist to try to make music with an electric instrument? If it’s for a rehearsal it doesn’t matter too much, but it’s not so much fun if it’s a song recital. I’ll tell you about a concert I did recently, in which most of the things that can hamper a pianist were in evidence.

We narrowly missed having no electricity supply at all (due to admin confusion) which would have killed off the concert there and then; the sustain pedal (usually a good sign in an electric piano) refused to work at all for the first half hour, then perked up intermittently and inconsistently; the aforementioned pedal didn’t want to stay in one place on a shiny, stone floor, and slowly migrated away from the pianist, who had to stop between songs to retrieve it.

Most challengingly, the piano had no touch sensitivity, so we could equalise the balance of sound between top and bottom of the keyboard, but not the volume of the sound. As it turned out, this was controlled by a slider, obliging my pianist to grow a third hand at critical moments, in order to control the dynamics. And of course, constructing a seat of the appropriate height out of uncomfortable, stacking bucket chairs is an art that has to be honed over many years.

It was not anyone’s fault that it was not a great piano, but it fell to my pianist to perform some kind of magic trick. Of course I was absolutely aware of every phrase and adjustment that she was making (and am still filled with admiration at her creativity) but there’s only so much you can do with no sustain function at all.

imagesMy good taste in accompanists is evidenced by the fact that I have only ever worked with people who, despite deserving Steinways, are game for an electric piano anyway. As I described in my previous piano-related blog-post, it can be pretty stressful for singer and pianist when the instrument has to be tamed under the nose of the audience, but our job requires us to conceal that fact. The reassuring truth is that the performance won’t have been significantly diminished for many of the audience members on account of the piano being electric. Indeed it shouldn’t be about us, but about whether the audience has had a good experience. We aspire to a high and consistent standard, but there are many factors beside the piano that can compromise the result and thankfully, sometimes, the audience doesn’t know the half of it.

So, once again, I raise a grateful toast to my accompanist. Thank you, Libby Burgess.

TS Eliot’s Margate

Yesterday I took a trip down to the coast of northern Kent to visit Margate. The town is on the cusp of a remarkable regeneration. There is a great deal of wonderful heritage both clearly extant and being gradually re-discovered. A new art gallery, Turner Contemporary, bears the name of one sometime resident and frequent visitor, JMW Turner. This and the recently introduced HighSpeed rail link to St Pancras International offer the possibility of fresh prospects.

TS Eliot shelter MargateThis may well have been the same sort of Margate that the convalescent TS Eliot and his first wife Vivienne visited in 1921. Alone at first, Eliot stayed at a hotel on one side of the old town (Cliftonville) and took a daily tram to the other where he would sit in a Victorian shelter and write. This regimen was to midwife part three of The Waste Land, subtitled The Fire Sermon. The shelter still stands. Indeed it has recently been awarded Grade II listed status although it bears no notice of this. Rather it remains a stoic, practical edifice at the central point of the town, halfway between the station and the beach, next to a bunker of a public convenience (“TOILETS” a single word shouts at both road and sea). Cheap hotels or abandoned amusements stand at a self-consciously dissociated distance either side along the promenade.

‘On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken fingernails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect
Nothing.’

wrote Eliot in the poem, neatly surmising the Margate of nearly a century later, with the strong brine air the pungent equivalent of the conversations held by happy street drinkers on promenade and street alike. The anonymity of this proud but unrevered shelter is another ‘nothing’ for passing locals or tourists.

mandolineIn a letter dated 4 November 1921, Eliot wrote

I have written only some fifty lines, and have read nothing, literally – I sketch the people, after a fashion, and practice scales on the mandoline.

Margate seems always to have been a place for cure or entertainment. Eliot tried to displace his own concerns with a mandolin(e) that Vivienne gave him (the photo above a serendipitously discovered study volume in one of Margate’s many ‘Vintage’ shops). The dominant pleasure palace of Margate’s contemporary seafront is closed, the bathos of an art-deco structure with a tower that bears its name, ‘Dreamland’. You can see Dreamland in the background of the image of the shelter above. As one of the articles covering the shelter’s listing in 2009 notes, ‘Dreamland currently resembles Eliot’s “heap of broken images”‘. This line from the first part of The Waste Land has itself recently been co-opted as the title for a new exhibition of paintings by Bartholomew Beal, in which the artist has taken lines from the poem to inspire canvases, often featuring figures lost in their own tasks and certainly – suspended in abstracted backgrounds – decontextualised from the immediate world.

‘My people humble people
who expect nothing.’

Dickens HouseOn the evening of my visit I visited the neighbouring town of Broadstairs. A cosy, rather more gentrified place than Margate, Broadstairs has embraced the legacy of its own literary visitor, Charles Dickens. I ate at a restaurant next to Dickens House – itself next to Charles Dickens Hotel (with its bar ‘Copperfields’!) – and looking out across the bay towards Bleak House. I was reminded that the working title for The Waste Land was in fact ‘He Do The Police In Different Voices’, a comment from the admiring Betty Higden in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. Betty is drawn as a warm but vulnerable working class woman who is caught in the miserable social cul-de-sac of the workhouse. Another humble person expecting nothing.

imageFor all that I’m drawing a rather pale impression of Margate, I had a really enjoyable visit. The bay on which the town sits is a vast, beautiful sweep of proper sand on which dogs and families were happily playing. The town’s many historic firsts include the Royal Sea Bathing Hospital (opened 1791, now desirable flats) and first seaside town to get a theatre (Theatre Royal, still in use) and the old part of the town centre contains many attractive Georgian buildings, so there is plenty to see.

Both in passing and in conversation I found the town full of characters self-possessed and making their own way. This is the population that TS Eliot looked out on as he sat in the Nayland Rock shelter, jotting down what Stephen Moss perfectly reasonably referred to as ‘the greatest poem of the 20th century’. Of course, from my perspective as the producer of a work concerning his wife, I like TS Eliot’s comment in that letter of 4 November, that he ‘must wait for Vivien’s opinion as to whether it is printable.

Spare a thought for the pianist

photoLast weekend I was at the English Haydn Festival, held annually in and around Bridgnorth in Shropshire. I was giving a performance of Haydn’s London Ladies, accompanied by a pianist with whom I work regularly, Paul Turner. Any chamber musician understands that, despite the pleasures of working with new colleagues and exploring new approaches, there are gigs where one is very pleased to be working with a trusted friend. In this case, it was simply a case of not wanting to deal with anything unexpected in the middle of a very busy period of activity, and we were looking forward to a gentle afternoon performance of some old favourites.

Paul mostly performs these days on modern pianos but we knew that for this concert he would be playing a fortepiano, which he was looking forward to. Most musicians have the luxury of an intimate relationship with their specific instrument, but pianists have to negotiate terms with every new piano they meet. That’s why top-flight soloists often have a preferred instrument or model from a certain maker, which they demand for their performances, in order that they know what they are getting. With a modern piano there is also a level of standardisation that one can generally take for granted – an octave has the same span on ‘standard’ pianos, there are an agreed number of octaves etc. On the whole it is a question of touch rather than scale that distinguishes instruments.

photoNot so on a fortepiano, which is closer to the size of a harpsichord. To me, more used to seeing Paul (who is tall) at a modern grand, it looked as if he was playing a toy. No pedals, of course, but sustain and dampers worked by levers operated with the knees on the underside of the keyboard. Not easy to practice this at home if you don’t have a fortepiano of your own and even then, decisions about whether and when to use these changes of register depends on the sound of the individual instrument, only discoverable on the day. More challenging was the fact that the keys were each a little narrower than a modern piano, so the span of an octave was significantly smaller and the potential for catching the edge of an unwanted note on the way past, greatly increased. Finally, to spice things up still further, the white notes were black and vice versa, so a sneaky downward glance at the keys (lit by an angle poise precariously balanced on an adjacent table) didn’t offer many clues.

This is the point at which I unleash my unbounded admiration for any pianist who can take all these factors on board and remain unruffled by a splashy quarter hour of fact-finding, when the clock is ticking and there is a man lurking at the back of the church, eager to re-tune his beloved fortepiano, which is shifting pitch due to the cool atmosphere. The human brain is truly remarkable and never more clearly demonstrated than on a day like this where I could hear Paul adjusting mid-phrase to the physical dimensions of the instrument and the specific qualities of its sound. I simply had to sing the right notes, remember my words and not trip over the uneven floor tiles, but I could hear Paul exploring even to the last note of the final song. He would say that this is all in a day’s work for any professional pianist but it is easy to overlook how much work is required under such circumstances and how impressive it really is.

As we chewed things over on the drive back, Paul observed that he had studied the harpsichord seriously for some time at the Royal Academy, played the organ a bit (though never as a primary interest) and had done a few rounds with a harmonium. Taken together, these various keyboard experiences had given him resources to draw on when dealing with the challenges of the fortepiano.

The moral of the story, we decided, was to say yes to any opportunity to acquire a new skill because you never know when it will come in handy. A good rule of thumb for life generally, I think.

Congratulations to Champs Hill

The Royal Philharmonic Society Awards were presented this week and the popular winner of the Chamber Music and Song award was Champs Hill, the venue in Sussex created and run by David and Mary Bowerman. The purpose-built concert hall has hosted many established and emerging artists over the years and, more recently, has become the main recording venue for the Champs Hill Records label. Having recorded my CD, Madrigali dell’Estate, at Champs Hill and experienced Mary and David’s great care and hospitality at first hand, I can only say that they are very deserving winners!

Read the full RPS statement here

To Steeple Gidding

IMG_1847The second church I visited for my Vivienne recce was in the village of Steeple Gidding. The church is now deconsecrated, but a beautiful and well-kept venue, if a still a bit chilly in May. Just along the ridge from Little Gidding, this church also looks out over ravishing countryside and extensive earthworks – signs of much earlier inhabitants in the area – now grazed by sheep and cattle. The night before we perform Vivienne, Ruth Padel will be reading some of her poetry here, interleaved with the movements of Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross.

IMG_1846Alas, not all venues in which I get to sing are equipped with a Steinway, and we will be using an electric piano. That seems heretical at one level, but it would be a pity not to perform a piece like Vivienne in such a pertinent setting solely on account of the keyboard. I don’t know any professional pianist who enjoys playing an electric piano but the better ones are a godsend in venues with draughts, variable temperature and an uneven floor, and often much better than a ‘real’ piano that has not been cared for. I am always impressed by my various accompanists who, over the years, have conjured beauty, volume and expression from the most unpromising-looking instruments. Fortunately, I will have Libby “Liberace” Burgess with me on this occasion.