A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.


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MaximtchaikenBrahmserov

Louder. Faster. Higher: with superior instruments, highly-refined technique and an audience avid for pyrotechnics, nineteenth-century composers were liable to be sucked into an arms race of virtuosity when writing concertos. Brahms certainly did his best. Apparently Wieniawski thought it was unplayable. Joachim, the dedicatee, coped.

maxresdefaultSo did Maxim Vengerov last night. More than coped. Owned it. But, interestingly, the most ear-catching moments for me were not the flawless cascades of notes, the thrilling sprays of double stopping, but the way he found the shape and sense of the melodies. Like in the final movement, where he tuned into his inner gypsy, snatching a microsecond of air at the top of the phrase, and inspiring the orchestra to imitate him. Or riffing on a mystery where-was-that-from phrase in his first movement cadenza. Or graciously picking up the melody offered, for consideration, by the oboe in the second movement. Making the unplayable make sense.

9-sso-in-concertThe Brahms was paired with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5; a real wham bam of a season opener. Except that it was more like w-whamba, wham, baba bam. No, that’s being cruel. But, after a month’s holiday, the orchestra did sound like it had, well, been on holiday. Nothing wrong with individual lines: the strings were sweet and lush, the wind soloists immaculate and the trombones rasped tunefully…  But put it all together and things got fuzzy at times. Robertson’s tempi – sometimes daring, but not unreasonable – often took a while to take. And about those trombones. I like a trombone as much as the next person, but their tuneful rasp just felt like it was dominating the orchestral texture.

Don’t get me wrong. This was a great concert by a great orchestra. I thoroughly enjoyed it. But in the age of louder, faster, higher we are promised earth-shattering spectacularity, night after night and, honestly, last night it wasn’t quite there.

Which is great, because I know I have much more to look forward to in their 2017 program.

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Read and write

This is the first of an occasional series of interviews with fellow writers. Not necessarily about music, not necessarily about the yarts, but always about Art.

For the last two years, after more than a decade of writing reviews (350 words or less) and marketing copy (25 words is my forte) I’ve been trying to crack longform. You may well have heard about my book on Dartington Summer School – goodness knows, I’ve gone on about it! — but you probably don’t know about my fiction addiction. I’m still to crack New York Times bestseller list — you have to get published first, apparently — but I’m working  on it.

img_20160313_132359Which brings me to Shona Kinsella and her first novel, Ashael Risingwhich has just been published with Unbound. I met Shona via the Unbound Social Club, an essential online gathering space for fellow Unbounders. If you’ve ever crowd-funded anything you’ll know how agonising a process it is, but the camaraderie and idea-bouncing has been an unanticipated delight. Which is why I’m delighted to share with you a q and a with Shona about writing, getting published and, one of my all-time favourite pastimes, telling stories.

First, about you. How long have you been writing? 

I wrote short stories and (bad) poetry when I was young but I’ve only really been writing seriously since around May 2014. I did everything backwards and accidentally. I basically stumbled into it all. I’ve always wanted to write a novel; it’s been on my bucket list ever since I saw the film Bucket List when I was about 15. I didn’t actually do anything about it though. Then in May 2014, I was approved to take a career break to care for my children and my husband and I were joking about what I would do with all of my ‘free time’ and he said I could write a book. The idea stuck with me so I read a few books about writing and then sat down at my laptop one day to give it a try. Needless to say, it worked!

How did you come across Unbound? How are they different from, say, a trad publisher or, for that matter, a self-publisher?

I first learned about Unbound when Scott Pack, one of the editors, wrote a piece about them for The Guardian. I was really intrigued by their approach. The company was set up by three writers who felt that publishing was getting too closed – increasingly celebrity writers and TV tie-ins are crowding the market and trad publishers are reluctant to take a chance on new writers or even established writers trying something new. By crowd-funding the books, Unbound establishes that there is a readership for the book before it gets published. It lets them take risks that the big houses are unwilling to take.

Some people equate Unbound with self-publishing but it’s not that at all – although the author does the crowdfunding, you submit your manuscript for editorial assessment before being offered a contract, just like with a trad publisher, and Unbound’s standards are high.

 

Tell me a bit about Ashael Rising. Is this a story that has been in your head for a long time?

ashael-rising-coverAshael Rising is the story of an apprentice medicine woman in a hunter-gatherer society. Her people are at risk from the Zanthar – invaders from another world who extend their own lives by stealing the life-force from others. Ashael must discover who she really is to protect her people and ultimately her world.

The seed that grew into the book was an image from a dream I had many years ago, that ended with a warrior fairy flying over a desolate, war-torn land. There are no fairies in this book, but the image formed the basic idea. I’m what is sometimes referred to as a ‘discovery writer’ which means that I discover the story as I write it. I had only the vaguest notion of what it would be when I started.

Ashael has a lot of me in her but also a touch of the warrior fairy from the dream! Again, I discovered her character as I wrote, sometimes being surprised by her actions!

How did you go about building a world for her and your other characters?

This was more discovery writing. I know that some authors (especially fantasy authors) build a massive world and have maps and files and history before they even think about starting to write – I’m just about the opposite of that. It’s a bit like walking through a tunnel (the world) with a torch(the story) – I can see as much of the world as the story lights up and a little bit around the edges of that. Which is basically the long way of saying that I make it up as I go along!

 

What do you do when you’re not writing? And what are your favourite books?

I have three young children so when I’m not writing I’m usually doing something with them. Or laundry. They create a lot of laundry!

My favourite books are The Dark Tower series by Stephen King. I’ve read the whole series several times and I know I’ll go back to them many more, I just love them.

 

Finally, what are your writing plans ongoing? Is Ashael Rising the start of an epic series? And is it officially released now? Have you had a launch party? (If not, why not!?)

I have my next three projects lined up. I’m contributing to and editing an anthology of stories by Unbound authors. All of the stories will have some connection to a library. I’m really excited to work on this. Next, I’ll be finishing a novella that I started in November, called The Longest Night. It’s about a tribe living in their equivalent to the arctic when the sun fails to rise after mid-winter. Finally, I’ll be starting on the sequel to Ashael Rising. Just now I’m planning a trilogy but because of the way that I write, it’s possible that I’ll discover more story and it’ll turn out to be a longer series!

Ashael Rising has been officially released now and can be purchased here: http://bit.ly/ashaelrising

As for a launch party, I’ve had a small family celebration with a nice meal and some Cava but not a full party – mostly because I have an 8-week-old baby so I’m too tired to party right now!

You can connect with me at:

Blog: www.shonakinsella.com

Twitter: @shona_kinsella

Instagram: shona.kinsella

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ashaelrising/

Many thanks to Shona for taking time out from writing and laundry – I am in awe of someone who can string a sentence together while having young children — and can’t wait to read more!

 

 


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Flashback Friday

Here’s another feature in my occasional flashback series, from ten years ago, when the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs presented Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. 

It was the perfect disguise. Discreetly homosexual, an animal-loving pacifist and, doubtless, on first name terms with the vicar, England’s most famous composer inhabited a world of tweed jackets and tennis, cucumber sandwiches and cream teas. But, says Australian conductor and Britten scholar Paul Kildea, he believes Benjamin Britten to be one of the most subversive artists of the twentieth-century.

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Benjamin Britten (l) and Peter Pears at Dartington in 1959 (photo: Catherine Scudamore, Summer School Archive)

“It was almost as though he was an undercover agent,” says Kildea. “He wasn’t a spy. But in effect he was an agent for left-wing thinking, an agent for anti-war. He did all these things behind the most perfect disguise, one of those middle-class English gentlemen who has tea with the Queen. He pulled it off amazingly. That’s where I think his radicalism is.”

Britten’s profound radicalism will fill the Sydney Opera House when Kildea conducts the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Australian Youth Orchestra and Gondwana Voices in his epic choral work, the War Requiem.

The War Requiem was commissioned to celebrate the consecration of St Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry (UK) in 1962, the year of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and the construction of the Berlin Wall. The new cathedral was built to replace a fourteenth-century church destroyed by German firebombs during the Battle of Britain.

Britten’s Requiem, like Mozart’s and Verdi’s before, follows the Catholic mass for the dead, and even echoes their stirring choruses, but Britten, who was a pacifist from boyhood and conscientious objector during the Second World War, intersperses the Latin text with poems by Wilfred Owen, writing from the battlefields of the First World War. Therein, says Kildea, lies the key to the work, and to Britten’s attitude to war.

“He lures us in by using the great nineteenth-century traditional requiem with God in the clouds, an all-powerful man with a beard,” says Kildea, “and then, once people are there he brings in these deeply, deeply nihilistic poems that criticise a Christian society that can allow war to happen, that can send young soldiers off to their death…”

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A young Simon Rattle conducting the War Requiem at Dartington in 1976 (Photo: Charles Davis, Summer School Archive)

Kildea hopes to add another edge to the pathos by his choice of performers. The work is sometimes considered the territory of the ‘grand old men’ of English music, but Canberra-born Kildea, who spent several years as head of music at Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival, plans to take it to a new generation. Sydney Philharmonia’s performance will feature the acclaimed Irish soprano Orla Boylan, tenor Allan Clayton and baritone Ronan Collett, soloists who are all more or less the age that Wilfred Owen was at the time he was writing his poetry. The men will stand before the Australian Youth Orchestra like the two soldiers, one German and one English, in Owen’s Strange Meeting, to sing:

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.

I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned

Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.

I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.

Let us sleep now…”

It is a moment almost guaranteed to send shivers up and down the spine.

 

But can art change things?

“It has to, and ultimately I think it does,” says Kildea. “But only because it prompts people to think. Everytime I’ve done [the War Requiem] there’s been this extraordinary stunned silence. It would be far better if no-one applauded, if everyone just crept out with their own thoughts. Conventions dictate that people must applaud, but that minute of silence before anyone makes a noise or moves seems to indicate that people are left with their own thoughts about love and war and destruction.”

The photos I’ve used here will be part of a book I’m currently working on called ‘Sanctuary’. It’s crowdfunding right now at Unbound, and I’d love you to take a look. 

 

 

 


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Haydn Seek

Sorry. I couldn’t resist it. Silly Season. It’s just that every time I go to see an Australian Haydn Ensemble concert — and it’s getting more regular as I get more hooked on their particular brand of bounce — my husband comes up with a new ‘Haydn/hiding’ dad joke. There. I’ve done it now. Out of my system.

Anyway, back to the Utzon Room and the last concert of the year for the afore-mentioned AHE, with guest director and soloist Erin Helyard. A big turn out, and a (relatively) big orchestra taking on the Sturm und Drang of the late eighteenth-century. Helyard describes the sturmunddrangers as the angry young men of their time, artists intent on shaking things up, scaring the horses.

440px-cpeb_by_lc3b6hrLooking at his stolid, white-wigged portrait, it’s hard to imagine CPE Bach as a renegade, but listening to his Harpsichord Concerto in F major, written in 1772, you get a whole new view. Especially when it’s played with the raw energy and punchy attitude of this ensemble. That’s not to say it’s at all lacking in polish: AHE have pulled their intonation and sound quality together dramatically over the last 18 months. Yesterday was the best I’ve heard them. The rawness was all deliberate, all in the performance. Led by Helyard at the keyboard, the ensemble gave us CPE’s concerto in all its edgy, obstinate difference. No, let’s not finish that phrase, even though a hundred years of harmony is begging for it. Yes, let’s hang onto that note for a bit longer. Even longer. Even though it’s sticking out like a sore thumb. As anyone who’s tried to un-learn a habit can confirm, it’s quite hard to play in a deliberately angular manner, without phrasing off, without vibrato to give that note a final polish. To do it consistently, and as an ensemble, is even harder, but the ensemble brought out all the delicious oddness. Meanwhile, Helyard added lashings of spidery virtuosity at a fearless but never rushed pace.

Before that, CPE’s Flute concert Wq. 22 in D minor, an earlier work, and less torrid but, in the hands of soloist Melissa Farrow, no less compelling. Farrow has a way of making the end of her phrases hang in the air, ready to connect with the next idea, ready to build into one splendid arc, like a brilliantly written novel that you can’t put down. It also helps that  the sound coming from ‘Blondie’, her natural boxwood flute, a Martin Wenner copy of an August Grenser original, is unfailingly lovely.

Book-ending the concert, two ‘sinfonia’, one from CPE and one from Papa Haydn.  La passione, as Haydn’s Symphony No. 49 is known, brought everything good about the performance so far together: the sustained, mind-spanning phrases, the mercurial mood swings and the impressively consistent quality of sound. Even through the intensity of the first movement there was a wiry tension, a momentum and once they hit the allegro spirituoso the motor rhythm powered on through with an invigorating vitality. One of those moments when you think 2016’s not all bad.

Many thanks to the Australian Haydn Ensemble for inviting me. If you like my blog, please support my book, crowdfunding now at unbound.com/books/sanctuary! A pledge would be wonderful. I also accept social media shares, spreading the news by word-of-mouth, best wishes and chocolate.


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And then it’s over

hallI got the Summer School blues on Wednesday, the day when you realise the week is going faster that seems possible. Then I got the Wall on Thursday, when you give in to the temptation to skip the second half and seek enlightenment in a glass of red. Then on Friday, I got my mojo back when I got to play the Bach Double with a bunch of all-comers headed up by the Skampa Quartet. That was it. Fixed grin for the rest of the day.

Now, the other side of a six-hour meditation on the living hell that is the A303 on a Saturday in August, and I’m back in the real world, reflecting on a week well-spent with my father, doing the thing we both love so much.

The concerts at the end of the week passed by in a bit of a blur. The ‘Made for Dartington’ production of The Pirates of Penzance was a triumph – another canny piece of theatre-making by Richard Williams, adapting a work which was, at the time of writing, a cutting rejoinder to the theatre industry, into a fond, gigglesome piss-take of this whole silly business. My father retreated to the bar, fiddling with his hearing aid and muttering, “It’s not that I don’t like Gilbert and Sullivan, it’s that I can’t hear the dialogue…” I laughed and bought him a beer. It’s wonderful to see G & S at Summer School, just as it’s wonderful to see a program that variously offends, irritates, delights and wows people in equal measures.

The final night concerChoirt was, as always, for the Big Choir, and a stirring performance of Haydn’s Nelson Mass, with impressive top notes from the sopranos and the tenors hanging on for grim death in those fugues. Before that, Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with Joseph Havlat as soloist. Havlat is a rehearsal pianist and repetiteur for the conducting course, one of those unassuming but essential characters who float around at these events, like the mild-mannered janitor with hidden powers. It was great to see him transform into a superhero in this nutty, spiky, soulful work, and great to hear the Dartington Festival Orchestra’s principal trumpet out the front of the stage too.

A final observation. This week I played chamber music most days. It was a mixed bag — I’m not sure the “Adequate Quartet” is a going to work, marketing wise, as a name — but it was always fun and often thrilling. I particularly enjoyed meeting two instrumental music teachers from Bristol, string players on the frontline of music education. Their day job is giving 20 minute lessons to a room full of 10 eight-year-old beginner fiddle players. They came on a teacher bursary, which is a new scheme from the Summer School Foundation, a fully-funded busman’s holiday where they can refresh their skills and remind themselves why they do this bloody thing. It’s an inspired idea. The two teachers were completely blown away by the experience. Hearing new things, seeing great artists and great teachers in action, playing new repertoire, pushing themselves beyond anything they thought possible. They’ll take that energy with them back to the classroom and the kids they teach will be the better for it.

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From the very first prospectus, for Bryanston 1948 (courtesy Summer School Archive)

Job well done, Dartington.


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Words about music

I’m reading Nicholas Cook’s excellent Music: a very short introduction. It’s a great counterpoint to the mad whirl of music-making, -talking, -listening to and -not listening to that is Dartington International Summer School. In it he talks about music and words and metaphor and the ongoing debates about how and why we even try to describe music in words. Which in turn leads him to contemplate what we are actually trying to describe…

Alfred Brendel was not stressed about metaphor in his magisterial lecture on Beethoven’s late sonatas. The piano virtuoso and polymath did acknowledge options for talking about the works — in terms of physical, psychological, historical, musicological etc. — before indulging his preference, poetical.

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This is definitely Alfred Brendel at Dartington in 1970. Sadly, it’s not Adrian Brendel-ssohn who wasn’t due to be born for another six years. Photo: Charles Davis (DISS Archive)

It wasn’t all fine words (although there were plenty of those). He speculated on and dismissed the fanciful ruminations of various musicologists (to remain unnamed here…) Most interesting, though, was how he traced melody fragments through the sonatas, both in terms of melody shape and pitch. Something that, no doubt, leaps out at you after years and years of performing them. I can’t say I ‘get’ the sonatas now, but it was a treat to hear him talk with such authority and such love.

 

The 7.45pm concert was a festival of Tango Nuevo from the DISS16 all-stars, including Joanna MacGregor, Antonia Kesel, Adrian Brendel and accordionista fabulosa Martynas Levickis. Exuberant, splashy, sexy. Completing the line-up was Brazilian percussion guy Adriano Adewale, who not only gave us dance rhythms, but also two solo breaks, first on assorted ocarinari, and second on tambourine. Yes. A tambourine solo. It was one of those new music moments where you see what’s coming up, raise your eyebrows and suspend disbelief more because of good manners than any real expectation of enlightenment. And ten minutes later you’re sitting there, mouth open, eyes wide, ears alive with delight. Who knew a tambourine could make such a range of sounds? Brilliant.

tango2The all-stars were a hard act to follow. After some quick first-aid from the piano technician, the long-suffering Steinway was wheeled back centre stage for its third performance of the evening. Florian Mitrea gave a generous and energetic performance of Beethoven’s Waldstein, followed by Sonata No. 111, which I heard from outside, in the  velvety fug of a South Devon summer night.

 


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A date with eternity

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William Blake gets it, two centuries before the mindfulness takes the publishing industry by storm.

I’m just posting this picture today because words about yesterday’s concert have failed me. It’s a slate plaque in Dorothy’s garden, at the end of a stone walkway which runs along the end of the Tiltyard. It’s easy to miss. If it’s cloudy the words sink back into the moss, and if it’s clear the outline gets broken up by light and shade from the sun through leaves. I can’t remember when I first discovered them — it’s not as if they’re secret, or hidden from view. You just have to look.

I normally head into the gardens at Dartington as soon as possible after I arrive but this time I got swept up into stuff, so yesterday was the first time I’d taken a stroll. The soundtrack this time was an accordion flecked with bird song. Very Il Postino.

The concert I’m not going to review: the Skampa Quartet, playing late Haydn, late Beethoven and Shostakovich. Beethoven’s Op 132.  Shostakovich Quartet No. 3. I cannot imagine a better performance. Deeply moved. No words. Just music and silence and infinity in the palm of your hand.