Festival Music review: Joshua Bell, Steven Isserlis and Dénes Várjon, Queen’s Hall

EXPECTATIONS were high for the coming together of three top performers – violinist Joshua Bell, cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Dénes Várjon – and they certainly did not disappoint. Isserlis’s treatment of Schumann’s wistful melodies in his Three Romances was spot on. He took the first at restrained pace, striking a more reflective than overly emotional tone. Such an approach may have meant that the stormy central section of the second Romance could have been more aggressive, but his refusal to let melodrama reign worked astonishingly well in the third.

Read the full review on The Herald.

Selling Mahler’s Second Symphony

On November 29th, the auction house Sotheby’s will be offering the complete manuscript of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony (the “Resurrection”) at auction from their London saleroom. Sotheby’s predict it will sell in excess of £3.5 million, the highest ever estimation for a musical manuscript offered at auction.



Late in August, I met Simon Maguire, Sotheby’s Senior Specialist in Books and Manuscripts, at the New Bond Street auction house in London’s fancy Mayfair district. The building is suited to its fancy clientele, but even those (such as myself) who are obviously not prospective buyers feel welcome to look around the art on display. Though we met at 10 a.m., there was no sign of early morning sluggishness about Maguire. Read the full article on Van.


When artists deny, disavow or reject their work

After a bizarre authenticity court case, a Chicago court has ruled that a 40-year-old landscape painting is not by the Scottish-born artist Peter Doig. Retired corrections officer Robert Fletcher brought the lawsuit against the artist in 2013, claiming that Doig had sold the picture to him in the 1970s, and that Doig’s subsequent denials of his account were false. The artist’s lawyers argued that the painting was the creation of another man, Pete Doige, who had been incarcerated at the Thunder Bay correctional centre where Fletcher worked over the period in question. Doige died in 2012, but his family testified in court that the work was his. Read the full article on Apollo.

Lucian Freud on BBC's 'Fake or Fortune' Courtesy BBC

Lucian Freud on BBC’s ‘Fake or Fortune’ Courtesy BBC

Artists opening galleries is not just a recent trend

Opening galleries has become rather fashionable for artists of late. Not long after the launch of Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery in East London last October, the artist duo Gilbert & George announced their plans to open a non-profit foundation for contemporary art in Spitalfields. But this trend for artists opening museums is not a new one, as the founding stories behind these institutions reveal.


Read the full article on Apollo.

Roman Britain when you least expect it

When Luke Irwin decided to convert an old barn on his Wiltshire property, he was not exactly aiming to make an important archaeological discovery. But when the electricians he hired to lay some underground electricity cables started drilling, they struck a hard layer 18 inches beneath the surface, which turned out to be the remains of an ornate Roman mosaic.

Cupid on a Dolphin mosaic at Fishbourne Roman Palace. Courtesy of Fishbourne Roman Palace / Sussex Archaeological Society

Cupid on a Dolphin mosaic at Fishbourne Roman Palace. Courtesy of Fishbourne Roman Palace / Sussex Archaeological Society

Read the full article on Apollo.

The long tradition of hating Henry Moore

Henry Moore may be regarded as one of the greatest British artists of the 20th century, but a group of Columbia University students have nevertheless rejected his work as ‘hideous’. The announcement that that his Reclining Figure (1969–70) will be installed in front of the school’s Butler Library caused a stir recently, with some 1,200 students protesting against the installation of this ‘lumpy hulk of metal’.

This opposition to an artist who famously wanted his art to speak to a wider public may come as a surprise. Yet this is not the first time that Moore’s work has been on the receiving end of hostility…

Draped Seated Woman (1957–58), Henry Moore.

Draped Seated Woman (1957–58), Henry Moore.

Read the full article here.

The Mongol Rally: Embracing The Unexpected

If you’re hoping to raise money for a good cause, you might think about organizing a bake sale, undertaking a sponsored silence, or even signing up for a marathon. How about driving 10,0000 miles across Europe and Asia, over mountains and through deserts, in a tiny car and without any kind of backup or a preplanned route? If you’re looking for an adventure, then the Mongol Rally certainly promises that.

There are three basic rules: 1) The teams must drive a small car, with an engine of one liter or less; 2) Each team is completely on their own: there is no backup if you get lost or your car breaks down; 3) Each team must raise £1,000 for charity, half of which should go to Cool Earth, and the other to a charity of their choice. The Rally starts in the UK and finishes in the Russian city of Ulan Ude, but where the teams go in between is entirely up to them. The event organizers, the Adventurists, recommend that teams avoid spending too much time planning but instead embrace the unexpected. Previously, teams have gone as far south as Iran and Pakistan, while others have passed through the Arctic Circle.

James Cockshull and Aaron Lewis undertook this great motoring challenge over the summer of 2015. Read the full interview here.

Young Euro Classic Festival: United by Youth

Youth orchestras might not be able to match the experience of professional orchestras, but they are certainly not lacking in status. The most renowned orchestras – the likes of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra and the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra – are frequently invited to perform at the world’s most prestigious concert venues and classical music festivals. Young Euro Classic is dedicated to showcasing the world’s top youth orchestras. And it is this, according to General Director Gabriele Minz, which gives the festival its unique atmosphere.

Young Euro Classic | © Kai Bienert

Young Euro Classic | © Kai Bienert

Young Euro Classic is now in its 16th year. How has it developed over that time?

The most noticeable thing is that the level of musical quality has increased significantly. Youth orchestras have developed considerably over the past 15 years. It is now considered an essential part of music education to have participated in a youth orchestra – the more renowned, the better! Young Euro Classic provides such validation for the orchestras. An invitation to perform here is a mark of distinction. Thus, the international attention and number of applications from orchestras have increased accordingly over the years.

This year, our programme focuses particularly on the great European tradition of orchestral playing. During these politically difficult times, it is important to emphasize that orchestral music is a cultural treasure that must be maintained and passed on to the younger generation, players and audiences alike.

How is Young Euro Classic different from other festivals?
To my knowledge there is no other comparable youth orchestra festival in the world. Young Euro Classic is marked by a great openness to other traditions. The orchestras present a major repertoire work, but they then also add pieces from their home countries, which are rarely heard here in Germany – and often prove to be real discoveries! How often does one hear a program of all-Czech music, or music from the nations bordering the Baltic Sea? The orchestras occasionally present original, folkloric music from their homeland. For example, the presentation of Chinese or Turkish traditional music is always a hit and resonates with the audience. These musical “flavours”, which can be quite exotic, give the Young Euro Classic program its special colour.

What do you think youth orchestras can bring to a performance that professional orchestras cannot?
Youth orchestras bring a very special enthusiasm to their playing. What they may lack in experience, they make up for in sheer verve and joyfulness. Like any young creature, they might sometimes lose their sense of proportion or simply run with the music for the sake of it. But experienced conductors know how to channel this, and their energy and joy are transmitted to the audience.

How is this festival important for the development of young musicians?

Our motto is “tomorrow’s musicians today”. Young musicians need support for their talent, to grow as musicians and also as personalities. Young Euro Classic offers a platform for personal and professional growth. Some of the orchestras performing here have never stood on a stage like the Konzerthaus, and it can be an awe-inspiring, transformational experience for them.

Some of the youth orchestras bring together players from various different countries. Does coming from different cultures means that the instrumentalists play differently?
Of course there are certain traditions in music education that can be heard. Sometimes there are even different instruments that are used – think of German and French clarinets. But mainly it is the style of teaching and playing that differs. A Russian string player sounds completely different from a Scandinavian one, and a Scandinavian differs in sound from her German colleagues. The challenge of the international youth orchestras is to blend all these individual traditions into one sound, without stifling the individual’s voice.

Bi- and international youth orchestras are instances of musical diplomacy, enabling cooperation and understanding. They act as a counterbalance to prejudice by providing direct encounters between different countries and cultures. Audiences sometimes fail to realise that Young Euro Classic has a great tradition of founding such bi- or multi-national orchestras, often in response to current political events. That background is immediately obvious when you consider the South-Eastern European orchestra who performed in 2010, the Turkish-Armenian orchestra in 2012, or this year’s “Peace Orchestra” uniting Ukrainian, Russian, Armenian and German musicians. All these came into being from the festival’s own initiatives. Young Euro Classic organises the rehearsal period, and then presents the results of this “crash-course in musical diplomacy” in concert.

Why is it important to have bi- and multi-national youth orchestras?
We notice in our ticket sales and audience reactions that the bi- and multi-national projects are very popular, and the media interest is consistently high. We believe that this reflects the wish that life could be like an orchestra. It is perceived as a model for society, people sharing one goal and doing their bit for the optimal result. People are also curious to hear the outcome of such experiments. And they are rarely disappointed!

Young Philharmonic Orchestra Jerusalem Weimar, Dirigent: Michael Sanderling | © Kai Bienert

Young Philharmonic Orchestra Jerusalem Weimar, Dirigent: Michael Sanderling | © Kai Bienert

How important is new music to the festival?
New music plays an essential role at Young Euro Classic. From the very beginning, we have encouraged all the orchestras to include a world premiere or German premiere in their concerts. In this manner, the festival has presented about 200 world premieres and German premieres, with nine more coming up this August.

Young Euro Classic also commissions pieces from young composers. This year, the young composer Sinem Altan, a resident of Berlin with Turkish roots, has been asked to write a piece which the National Youth Philharmonic of Turkey will premiere on August 16. We believe that young musicians have a more natural approach to new music. They have fewer preconceived notions and come to it as a matter of course, guided by their curiosity. Today’s music education is also designed to accommodate new music, so the young players regard it with greater ease and confidence.

Are there any particular performances that you are looking forward to?

As every year, it is very hard to pinpoint a specific concert, as I am intensely curious about so many of them! However, a project very close to my heart is the “Peace Orchestra” performing at our final concert. Here, young musicians from the Ukraine, Russia, Germany and Armenia have been invited to live and work together for one intensive week, and finally to perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony under the baton of Enoch zu Guttenberg. This is an initiative of musical diplomacy, which is quintessential to Young Euro Classic. It is incredibly important to create spaces and forums where people can communicate directly and realize goals together, treading where official diplomacy may be unable to go. And what could be more symbolic than Beethoven’s Ninth?

This year’s programme describes Young Euro Classic’s ‘legendary festival atmosphere’. What is it about the festival that gives it this special atmosphere?

It is the feeling of direct, genuine contact between the audience and the young musicians that creates a special feeling. As for the rest, you simply have to have stood on Gendarmenmarkt on a balmy summer night when the audience leaves the hall, occasionally accompanied by the strains of a Spanish brass band or a South African ensemble of musicians who simply won’t stop playing to understand what makes this festival unique!

In bringing together musicians from around the world, Young Euro Classic involves itself with larger political issues. Are there risks in giving the festival a larger political message? Why should the festival have aims other than to showcase the world’s best youth orchestras?

Youth orchestras do not exist in an apolitical void. They are part of society and they need to play a part in civil society. If you consider the historical development of orchestral music after the French Revolution, suddenly music was not for the select, noble few, but was written for a much broader range of citizens. Orchestral music has a lot to say to society. Its continued existence depends on social and thus political issues and decisions. As a festival, Young Euro Classic is not primarily political, but it does pay close attention to world events. It tries to take a stand and make a point where it is necessary.

‘Young Euro Classic’ takes place at the Konzerthaus Berlin from 6 to 23 August. Tickets: 16-25€

Published originally in Berlin Logs.

Berlin’s Latest Cultural Import

The building of the Humboldt Forum on the grounds of the former Berlin City Palace on Unter den Linden should be an exciting prospect. Scheduled to open in 2019, its organisers – the Humboldt Forum Foundation – have described it as the century’s most important cultural project in Germany. The Humboldt Forum aims to become a unique centre of art, culture and science that will inspire debate and analysis on issues of global significance. But this €590 million project is ambitiously far-reaching, prompting criticisms that its underlying concept is vague and confused.

Photo: Jason Bell

Yet the appointment of Neil MacGregor, the outgoing director of London’s British Museum, as foundational artistic director of the Humboldt Forum has encouraged critics to rethink their stance. From October 2015, the 68-year-old museum director will chair its Advisory Board, making recommendations on how to shape the new cultural institution. MacGregor’s appointment has been unanimously met with enthusiasm. State broadcaster ARD has described MacGregor as a “polyglot world spirit” who will make the Humboldt Forum “a stage on which the cultures of the world will present themselves”. For art expert and chairman of the Society of Friends of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, Peter Raube, MacGregor was “born for this role” and choosing him was “a stroke of genius”.

Why, then, has MacGregor’s appointment provoked such excitement? For a start, he has an excellent track record of leading big cultural institutions, having been director of both London’s National Gallery and the British Museum. His tenure at the British Museum was particularly successful. When MacGregor was appointed in 2002, the museum had a deficit of £5 million. Not only did he wipe out its debt, but the number of visitors rose from 4.6 to 6.7 million per year, making it second only to the Louvre as the world’s most visited museum.

MacGregor’s achievements should not only be measured in numbers, however. The museum director is desperately academic. He studied French and German at Oxford, Law at Edinburgh University, Philosophy and the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris and he specialised in Renaissance art at London’s Courtauld Institute. But most impressive is his ability to maintain intellectual rigour whilst still attracting large audiences. His forays into broadcast media particularly illustrate this. His two BBC radio series, “A History of the World in 100 Objects” and “Germany: Memories of a Nation” were popular for being incredibly informative but also comprehendible to the non-expert.

There will be little doubts surrounding the appointment of a foreigner either. MacGregor has an acute understanding of German culture and history. Horst Bredekamp, art historian of Humboldt University believes MacGregor “knows, in a certain sense, Germany sometimes better than Germans.” Indeed, his 2014 BBC radio series and exhibition at the British Museum that ran alongside it, “Germany: Memories of a Nation” gave a considered and highly knowledgeable presentation of the country’s history.

MacGregor is enthused by the new possibilities that the Humboldt Forum’s rich collection offers. He wants to use its objects “to address the big questions of human existence and culture” and engage not just the Berlin public but the whole world. The aims of this ambitious cultural institution have not become any less vague or far-reaching with MacGregor’s appointment. But given his unrivalled expertise in museum curation, Berliners have much to be excited about.

The Romantic Modernist

My article for The Economist on the Staatsoper’s Berg Festival:


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