Thursday 21 November 2013

Pitch-perfect protest

I'll admit I was wary of joining a demonstration after so long; even years ago I only ever went on Pride marches, which I stopped attending when the whistles got too much and a BBC producer told me how he'd got tinnitus from an ex blowing one in his ear. J thinks I was on the Section 28 protest when they shut us in a garden, but I have no memory of that.

Anyway, the reason I went this time was simple. After three months of silence, having been targeted for lending his name to Putin's re-election campaign and failing to make any sort of comment on the murderous  new anti-gay laws in Russia, Valery Gergiev had finally produced a statement to prove he was gay-friendly. It was amusingly summarised in a tweet by Philip Hensher: 'Some of my best friends are gay. I don't support institutional homophobia. I leave that up to my friend Putin.'

Weak or not, the statement would have been enough for me had he not, in the time between the Met, Carnegie Hall and San Francisco Opera protests and this one, gone and put his foot in it about the anti-gay laws in Russia, which anyone who cares about human rights must abhor. He was quoted in the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant as saying 'In Russia we protect our children. These laws are not about homosexuality, they concern paedophilia'.

Now if he misunderstood, or was misquoted, he's had plenty of time to put the record straight. But he hasn't. And having reeled at a casually-muttered remark about 'child molesting' by an older relative of my now-godson when I was bouncing the baby A on my knee, I have a personal reason for seeing red at such equations.

So, in spite of having had so many amiable and fascinating meetings with Gergiev over the years, I still went along to the Silk Street entrance of the Barbican before his second performance of Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust (I was speeding off at 7, the time the concert was due to start, to the first night of the dismal Magic Flute at ENO). I'd feared they might get it wrong: it would have been totally misleading to have banners saying Gergiev was homophobic, because I don't believe for a minute that he is.

As it turned out, what needed to be said was said. The orchestrator was the slightly scary but admirable Peter Tatchell, and he'd pitched it, I think, just right. It was peaceful and - as this very fair Guardian report points out*- 'civilised' but 'loud' as the African contingent, aptly there to protest similarly appalling human rights records in Uganda inter alia, backed up Tatchell in chanting 'Gergiev! Stop supporting Putin!' - some coaching occasionally needed on pronunciation - and the stress-curious 'SOME people ARE gay! GET over IT!'.

Chanting isn't really my thing, so I joined in a little less than lustily. But I was happy to accede to Peter's request to hand out leaflets, which again were correctly worded, and it rekindled memories of what it's like to be rejected, in this case by a fair few haughty concertgoers.

Anyway, the sparklers and the huge diversity of the protesters (the three above in a photo from the Tatchell Foundation) added to the festive, non-aggressive air. Unfortunately the whole thing was grievously misreported by Melanie McDonagh in a feeble Spectator blog as being inside the hall where she could barely make out cries of 'shame' (the hall event had taken place a week earlier, when Tatchell courageously held the platform for a minute before, not during or after, the concert). The pretence of being there, which she has not retracted?  Journalists lose their jobs for less. But I'm not even going to link to her invective; that would only help to give the right-wing rag the clicks it so badly needs.

As for my own 'open letter' to Gergiev's response on The Arts Desk, it felt strange and initially rather lonely. None of my musical colleagues was willing to lend support, with two against - the usual argument, 'why this and not x' - and three not wanting to go public; not a single contributor showed any solidarity. But then, as I could see from the bottom right column of the main page, there were plenty of supportive tweets from the likes of Jessica Duchen, Petroc Trelawny, Richard Bratby and - proudest of this - a lovely short eulogy from my oboist hero Nicholas Daniel. So it was clearly the right thing to have done. I don't blame the silent majority, but 'Halldor', commenting on the TAD latest, put it all rather beautifully. I select a few choice sentences:

The all-smiles, "you were marvellous" culture of the classical music world is deeply ingrained in all of us. And so many well-meaning, liberal people are deeply invested in Gergiev's prestige. So responses to real stand-up-and-be-counted moments like this are awkward, embarrassed; people wish it'd just go away, they lose patience, and don't think matters through.

Curiously but unsurprisingly even as I was turning the article's screw on what the consequences of the 'anti-paedophilia' law had been, Queer Nation New York reported the latest hate crime from Moscow with appropriately angry artwork.

Will this specific issue go away? Not until our conductor retracts or qualifies that awful statement. No-one's asking him to renounce Putin; that's just not possible in the present climate. But as to one PR's frenzied declaration that Tatchell is trying to ruin Gergiev's career, no chance, and that's not what any of us wants.

Rather more productive relations with musical Russians came thick and fast in the weeks around the protest. I loved interviewing Michail Jurowski, Vlad's dad, before what I think must go down for me as the most extraordinary concert of the year so far. I hope the LPO releases the recording of our talk, because he was fascinating about the distinguished visitors to the  intellectual household in which he grew up - Vladimir Senior was a respected Soviet composer - and on how as a teenager he played piano duets with Shostakovich. Michail Vladimirovich's wife took this photo in his dressing room, where he nearly talked himself out before the half-hour under the public eye. It gives some idea of how many staves the score of Schnittke's First Symphony often has to encompass.

As for the work in action, what a jaw-dropping masterpiece. I knew as I listened to Rozhdestvensky's outlandish recording with the score that morning that, unless the performance were to go badly wrong, there'd be an instant standing ovation, as there had been from the young in VJ's LPO performance of the Third Symphony.  And there was. Read about it on the Arts Desk review.

I was trembling with emotion even before we heard it: in the interval my companion for the evening Roger Neill introduced me to the vivacious, brilliant and hugely talented Alissa Firsova, and she introduced me in turn to her mother, Elena and the great Dmitri Smirnov. Elena was at both the world premiere of Schnittke's First in the 'closed' city of Gorky (Nizhny Novgorod, sadly in the news again recently owing to the awful plane crash there) and then, after the work's 12-year ban was lifted, at its second performance in Moscow - not nearly as good, she thought. Dmitri enlightened me as to why, though we found it extraordinary, the performance of Lutoslawski's Cello Concerto wasn't quite right in the light of Rostropovich's premiere performance (I heard Slava play it with the LSO; neither then nor in Truls Mork's interpretation earlier this did it have anything like the impact we got from Johannes Moser's piece of music-theatre). Here are all three in the foyer.

After  my Wigmore Hall talk in the Bechstein Room on quartets by Haydn, Britten and Shostakovich to be played by the dazzling Belcea Quartet, I realised that I'd been standing in front of the anniversary hero whose First String Quartet knocked me for six, so I got one of the punters to take a snap. Afraid I asked him to cut out Elliott Carter, not an idol of mine..

Fourth talk in a row was an introduction to Sakari Oramo's first official concert as new chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra: part setting-up of Shostakovich's First Piano Concerto and Mahler's First Symphony, with good links between the popular ditties in both, part conversation with Tristan Murail, whose two new pieces going under the collective title Reflections/Reflets were being given their world premiere. I was slightly apprehensive of talking to a composer with whom I wasn't sure I'd be in total sympathy, but the deep sound the minute the work began in rehearsal that morning captivated me. In our chat TM soon relaxed and became surprisingly bonhomous dealing with an charming old gent in the front row who asked about tunes. Murail's the one to look apprehensive in this picture, and I set  myself up as a candidate for another episode in 'great British dentistry' by the webtroll I've been ignoring, but it's the only one, so it will have to do.

The DDS trail has continued with two talks to the Friends of the Jerusalem Quartet (photo below by Marco Borggreve) around that amazing foursome's Shostakovich cycle. I only managed to hear the third concert in the first series, of quartets 4, 5 and 6, but from the very first bars it was obvious that these are the natural successors to the old Borodin Quartet in the powerful reserves they can draw on and their unique flexibility and tonal quick-changes. Five was, of course, the stunner, and the Sixth brought the redemption of romance just as I'd anticipated.

I have to say that cellist Kyril Zlotnikov's my favourite, not just for his handsome profile but also for the infinitely cultured sound he makes and the aristocratic, readable expressions which match the mood of the music in question.

And on the Friday I got to talk to the wonderful Boris Giltburg the morning after his stunning Queen Elizabeth Hall recital. He's a real Renaissance man, currently translating Rilke into Hebrew, and his command of English was astounding in his ability to articulate complex thoughts on space and silence in the previous evening's performance of Prokofiev Eighth Sonata. More on that anon. Here's Boris in the lobby of the St Pancras Hotel, which I also need to eulogise in due course.

One concert I wasn't sorry to miss was the five-hour epic of the Philip Glass Ensemble. A very treasured new student of mine who did go knows what I think of Glass, and drew this image of how he imagined I'd have been at the event. I've taken the liberty of setting it on the computer alongside a photo of the composer from that concert.

Only six days to go now before I hand in the script for the Radio 3 Building a Library on Parsifal, which explains why I've done so little blogging over the past couple of weeks.  That and visiting my poor old mum in hospital: she broke her hip en route to tests for a heart operation which should have taken place last week. Came out on Tuesday night, was in appalling pain at home and is now back in St Helier, which is where I'm heading now before further doses of Parsifal and Kundry.  And still loving every minute of this infinitely fascinating work - 'the greatest opera by the greatest composer' declares Mark Wigglesworth, who comes to talk to my City Lit opera class on Monday. Rich times indeed. And something to celebrate - many of Greenpeace's Arctic 30 who've spent far too long in jail in Murmansk and St Petersburg already, were released on (exorbitant) bail. Here's Ana Paula Alminhana Maciel from Brazil at the time of her liberation yesterday.

Yet fellow activist Australian Colin Russell is being held captive at least until February. Why him? No-knows. And like he says,

Sign Greenpeace's latest petition to keep the pressure up on urging Colin's release and the abolition of charges here.

29/11 update: Colin was released on bail today. The regular Greenpeace bulletin showed a joyous picture of him outside the St Petersburg prison embracing fellow activist Faiza Ouhlasen.

The 30's troubles are far from over, though. They've still only been bailed and could yet be sentenced. Remember the fate of their fellow 'hooligans', the girls of Pussy Riot. I'm sure, though, that the pressure will be maintained on Russia from the rest of the world.

*'One well-dressed man apologised for leaving early because he had to get to The Magic Flute across town at the Coliseum.' Guess who? I was wearing the same psychedelic flowery tie which always comes out on special occasions, like our civil partnership party, because it was the nearest thing I own to anything rainbowy. I also wore it last Friday to Dame Edna's gala launch at the London Palladium. Gladdie pix pending; in the meantime you'll have to read my Arts Desk review, possums.


Roger Neill said...

Good onya, David.

David said...

Thanks, Roger. That reminds me to link above to your blogpiece about Alissa's multitasking concert (scroll down the October entries which pop up on a click, dear readers). I now feel all the more sorry I wasn't there. Plenty more chances in future, I hope.

Susan Scheid said...

Your description of the protest is incredibly moving. Your comment that "it rekindled memories of what it's like to be rejected, in this case by a fair few haughty concertgoers" struck a chord. We should be past all of this, but no.

As to the rest, "rich times indeed" multiplied a thousand fold, I'd say. I do hope, with you, that the LPO will make the talk with M. Jurowski available. I would love to hear it. To think he played piano side-by-side with Shostakovich as a teenager. He must have so many great stories to tell.

The editing out of the Carter photograph made me laugh, as did your student's drawing of an imagined you had you sat through 5 hours of Glass.

And how I'd love to be able to have heard your talks on the Shostakovich Quartets. Well, all the more reason to look forward to your Bulding a Library on Parsifal.

I am sorry to hear about your Mum's troubles, and hope that by now she's feeling better and will soon be on the mend.

David said...

Thanks, Sue, and happy Britten centenary/St Cecilia's Day to all. I hope celebrations are to be found everywhere.

Your suggestions of MOOC, or whatever it is, were backed up by an audience member at the second of the Shostakovich quartet talks, who said he hoped I'd recorded it and would be putting it online. I hadn't but maybe this is an idea for the future.

And an idea which must have crossed your mind - once you've worked your diligent way through the fifteen Shostakovich symphonies, the next odyssey has to be the quartets. They're even more fascinating on close examination than I used to think.

Susan Scheid said...

I do very much want to revisit the quartets, which is why I now second your audience member on at least recording audio of the talks, as I know you are offering valuable insights per second. (On the symphonies, I seem to be stuck at the 8th, not because it's not great, but because it is. Perhaps after the first of the year I'll try again.)

David said...

The great and - as I already knew - very friendly and sincere Mark Wigglesworth came to visit the class today, and we had a wonderful time. I'll just leave you with one nugget, Sue,which I found especially striking: he didn't think I'd like it but I did since there's a general truth about it. He said he prefers Shostakovich to Prokofiev because DDS tends to be 'below middle C', and he as a conductor loves the darker colours, while Prokofiev is 'above middle C'. Of course there are exceptions but I bow to the brilliance of that observation.

As for the Building a Library on Parsifal, the end is in sight as regards the script and I think I know what/whom I want. But still a few Act Threes to go.

Susan Scheid said...

David: What a wonderful nugget, and it does make sense! I was just thinking of Wigglesworth--and quoting you--over on Facebook, as I am giddy from last night's Juilliard Orchestra concert with V. Jurowski conducting. (The other brilliant JO I attended was with M. Wigglesworth conducting.) I cannot thank you enough for the introduction to both these conductors.

So you don't have to look over someone's shoulder for the FB post, here it is (sans links, crediting, for one, your quote from the TAD review last year):

Last night, Jurowski and the Juilliard Orchestra turned in a spectacular performance of Shostakovich's brilliant First Symphony and two rarities: selections from his film score for New Babylon and the orchestral suite from Hypothetically Murdered, a "light-music' entertainment.

David Nice wrote last year of Jurowski, "quite apart from the immaculate preparation and the most elegant conducting style in the business, Jurowski programmes with an imagination matched by none of London’s other principal conductors." Bruce Hodges tweeted that the Juilliard Orchestra, under Jurowski's superb direction, "played ferociously." Jeff Tompkins replied "Distance between heavy and "lite" Shost narrowing all the time, I'll argue."

I agree. Shostakovich was in the room last night, vibrantly and mischievously and exuberantly alive.

David said...

How pleased I am to hear that, Sue, and it doesn't surprise me that two of my favourite conductors should have worked with the young players of the Juilliard as it's part of their agenda. Both also have the integrity to want to be present at the first rehearsals of a new opera production - not many do that.

I'd love to have seen VJ synch the score of Noviy Babylon in London with the film, which is a satirical masterpiece (made by the great Kozintsev, who ended his career with the superlative Russian Hamlet and King Lear, and Trauberg). Looks like a fun programme (though from your tweeter, sounds serious too).